Category: Film and TV
Posted by: Therem
When the new Star Wars movie came out, I was a bit taken aback at how it now seems to be the conventional wisdom that the first Star Wars movie (I won't call it "A New Hope"; to me, it's just "Star Wars", which was the name of the movie when it came out in 1977) was a true classic, and that everything with the new movie would be OK if it could capture some of that original magic. I get that a lot of people truly deplored the prequel films and wanted something to remove the tarnish they had brought to the franchise. But as someone who finds ALL of the Star Wars movies to be pretty silly, I was confused at how even normally cynical critics were talking about the original films (well, mostly "Star Wars" and "The Empire Strikes Back", not "Return of the Jedi") as if they were exemplars of a golden era of film-making. Didn't people used to disagree about this? I found myself thinking.

I decided to go looking for the evidence to prove that I wasn't crazy. Below is the result of my research. Obviously, Star Wars was released before the internet was a thing, so most of these came from archives of various kinds: books of essays, scanned items that I found in image search, etc. Where they did come from the ‘net, I’ve included links. There are some really trenchant and interesting criticisms here. I was particularly struck by Joanna Russ’s thoughts on "addictive culture" and Pauline Kael’s comments on video-game tie-ins and merchandising. So much that is bad about modern big-budget movies -- the crash-bang hollow spectacle, the sequel-itis, the absence of real characterization or decent dialogue –- can be traced back directly to this film. Sheesh.

» Continue reading this entry...

02/24/16: Recent TV Round-Up

Category: Film and TV
Posted by: Therem
I've seen some pretty interesting and good genre television in the past couple of months. Here's the list! As always, beware of potential spoilers.

The Expanse

The Expanse -- Someone said recently that they were missing a good outer space show – something with hard vacuum, stars and planets, the big black. Something along the lines of Battlestar Galactica or Firefly. And I realized I felt the same. So I checked out this show (which I had already heard good things about) and found that it fed the hunger.

This is Game of Thrones-style storytelling, showing how very different people who are quite physically distant from one are another are nevertheless connected by vast economic and political systems that benefit a select few, while leaving the rest to barely scrape by, suffer, and die. Over the course of the first season, characters on Earth; a station on Ceres; and the survivors of an attack on an ice mining space ship all investigate a central mystery from different angles, none knowing (until the end) what is happening with the others. In the process, we learn a lot about this future solar system, which seems to be divided roughly between Earth and Mars, with a rebel group of “belters” agitating for rights and political freedom. Info dumps are kept to a minimum, and the details feel organic to the story. Sometimes this leaves you wondering what’s going on (what is the deal with the med tech?? it seems able to cure practically anything! And who exactly *are* the OPA? What are they trying to do?), but that is all to the good when there are several more seasons to go.

As far as characters go, I found it to be kind of a bummer that there was such a focus on the white guys. The dude who plays Holden is OK, but doesn’t seem convincing as a leader. I would have preferred Naomi in that role. And failing that, it would have been good to see more development of her character. Instead, she seems to devolve over the course of the season, becoming more meek and indecisive. Miller: kind of a film noir stereotype, but still effective. Jared Harris as Dawes is great! Avasarala is pretty thinly written; generally, the political (as distinct from cultural or economic) elements of the show are the least convincing and nuanced.

Regardless of any weak spots, I am hooked. The end of the first season really turned up the intensity in a shocking way, and I am certainly on board for season 2. And I just bought the first book in the series, too.

Colony -- Another alien invasion story? Do we really need this? The show quickly distinguishes itself by focusing not on the aliens (as of episode 6, we still haven’t seen any), but on the divisions between the humans who have been trapped inside the walled “bloc” of Los Angeles. The story centers on a couple, Will and Katie Bowman, whose son Charlie was separated from them in “the Arrival”, the alien incursion that occurred less than a year before the show’s beginning. At first, it seems as if the central conflict of the show will be their struggle against the oppressive police state (operated by other humans, for the most part) which refuses to reunite them with their son. But in short order, we find out that the larger division between resistance and collaborators is replicated within their own family, and a very tense story about Katie hiding her involvement with the Resistance from her husband – and actually pumping him for information that she then passes along to her cell mates – takes center stage. It’s hard to know who to root for in this scenario, as both the resistance and the proxy government have atrocities to account for, and both Will and Katie have reasons to act as they do. Katie’s willingness to bald-facedly lie to her husband (whom she seems to genuinely love) is more than a bit off-putting, but that is counterbalanced by the thrill of seeing her repeatedly manage this tricky act with skill and improvisatory daring. This sort of intimate thriller plot can only last so long before it becomes ridiculously implausible or exhausted, so it’s good that the show has left itself a lot of room to explore once that story element has run its course. What is up with those aliens, anyway? What do they even look like? And why is everything on the other side of the giant wall so eery and deserted? I’m invested and want to know!

Agent Carter, season 2 -- I appreciated the first season’s focus on institutional sexism, but I found that it –- and the preoccupation with Peggy’s sense of loneliness -- became wearing at a certain point. So it’s a relief that this second season focuses much more on our protagonist doing her job in an environment of (sometimes grudging) respect at the SSR. Everyone knows to take her seriously, even if they don’t like her and try to sideline her for various reasons. As a result of said sidelining, in the first episode she ends up in bright, sunny Los Angeles and is reunited with Jarvis and Agent Sousa (whose west coast branch of the SSR is humorously disguised as a Hollywood talent agency). Hijinks ensue.

A big draw near the beginning is the madcap humor (a scene of Jarvis practicing his martial arts and being roundly beaten by Peggy is especially hilarious), but eventually things become more serious, the season’s main villain is revealed, and surprise! She’s a woman. Not only is she a bitter, beautiful genius, but she’s found something called “zero matter” which bears a striking resemblance to the weird monolith liquid from Agents of SHIELD. *And* she’s been somehow infected with it. Creepy! And she wants more more more! Scary!

She’s not the only woman to be reckoned with this season, either. Soviet agent Dottie Underwood is back, and Jarvis’s wife Ana is introduced and turns out to be open-minded & funny – a true sport! In fact, I think it’s safe to say that the women are the ones who mostly move the story along this season, which is really quite refreshing.

In addition, there is an important person of color! The first season got a lot of flak for whitewashing in the name of bogus “period authenticity”, and they’ve corrected that a bit this season with the character of Wilkes, who is both a genius *and* a romantic interest! And the racism he has to deal with is not swept under the rug. It’s not given its due, exactly, but it is at least acknowledged on multiple occasions, which is progress.

Really interested to see what is revealed in next week’s season finale. Let’s hope the poor ratings don’t mean this is the last we’ll see of Peggy and friends.

The X-Files, season 10 -- A bizarre mixed bag of episodes. Some dire (eps 1 & 6), some interesting and/or emotional, but flawed (eps. 2, 4 & 5), and one outright classic (ep. 3). The show was always willing to take risks and disgust or offend people, and this short series demonstrates the inconsistent results of that approach. But for me, just seeing Mulder and Scully together again was the main draw, and that’s been great.

Mulder Asks About Daggoo.jpg
Category: Film and TV
Posted by: Therem
I did not hate most of these -- some had quite a bit going for them! -- but none quite made the cut for inclusion in the "best of 2015" list.

MOVIES

Avengers: Age of Ultron -- An empty spectacle. It seemed like it was almost about something -- Tony's hubris, maybe? -- but in the end... nope. I mostly blamed Marvel Studios and their tie-in requirements for other MCU films, but I was also disappointed in Joss Whedon as director. Seems like he could have done at least a little bit better. One thing I don't blame him for, though, is the whole controversy about Black Widow and infertility which stormed through the internet after the film's release. This seems to have been fueled largely by people mis-hearing dialogue and/or condensing it in a misleading way (as in this piece on io9.com), getting hopping mad about it, and posting about it on social media. Whedon claimed the vitriol that was dumped on him as a result was not the reason he suddenly quit Twitter, but I don't fully believe him. One more reason to regret this movie.

Ex Machina -- A lot of people were impressed by its "brainy" approach to the subject matter, but as someone who has a lot of familiarity with SF, I could see the plot twists coming a mile away, and my respect for the main characters' smarts was damaged by their inability to do the same. I mean, what are the odds that this alternate universe that contains Alan Turing, Robert Oppenheimer, and even Star Trek (!) is devoid of cautionary tales about artificial intelligence? I did appreciate Oscar Isaac as an alcoholic mad genius (who really knows how to bust a move), but since he was also a complete asshole, my favorite thing about this film ended up being the cinematography... which seems weird.

Mad Max: Fury Road -- George Miller turned it up to 12 in this installment of the franchise, which gave me some amusement -- and I really dug the Many Mothers biker gang! But I was maybe the only person to find Furiosa a bit of a limp noodle -- as played by Charlize Theron, she just didn't seem bad-ass to me, and I wondered how she could possibly have become the only female in Immortan Joe's army. It may seem unfair to criticize a film like this on the basis of realism, but believing in the main character (and no question, Furiosa is the main character, not Max) is kind of important in a tale of righteous rebellion, IMO.

Crimson Peak -- This could have been great if del Toro had just juiced it up a little. More secrets, more ghosts, more sex... something. At the very least, someone should have been dumped into one of those vats of bubbling red goo in the basement! Instead it ended up being merely OK.

Mockingjay: Part 2 -- Something just felt badly edited and off about this film. It tried to cover too many plot points in too little time and the result was a bunch of boxes checked off rather than a truly engaging experience. In retrospect, I think the only film in the series that was really good -- as a piece of cinema -- was the second, "Catching Fire". Too bad, because I really loved the books.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens -- I appreciated the relatively diverse casting, but the lack of any originality and the numerous plot holes left me feeling... meh. I suspect you have to be a) someone who loved the original Star Wars or b) completely new to it to really enjoy this. On the plus side, I quite liked some of the related materials and commentary that came out afterward.

TELEVISION

Agent Carter & Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. -- To some extent, I enjoyed both of these, but neither is original or meaningful enough to really stick with me. And it was frankly annoying that a crucial piece of Black Widow’s back story (an exploration of the Red Room) was buried in an episode of a prequel television series.

Game of Thrones, season 5 -- The Dorne plot: even more pointless than in the books. And then Myrcella! And Sansa! And Shireen! Argh!!

Elementary, season 3 -- Season 3 began very well (“Bella” might be the best Elementary episode ever), but once the Kitty Winter arc ended halfway through, the show just marked time until the end of the season. Disappointing, and season 4 hasn't been wowing me so far either.

Daredevil & Jessica Jones -- Daredevil was decent at first, and I enjoyed Vincent D’Onofrio’s portrayal of Wilson Fisk a great deal. But the end was underwhelming, and my most lasting feeling about the show was that its approach to violence was hypocritical. If it’s so important to Matt Murdock that he not resort to killing, he should maybe take more care with his crime fighting methods instead of whacking everyone six ways from Sunday – in a very graphic & thrilling fashion – then leaving their broken, unconscious bodies behind.

Jessica Jones did not have this problem, and overall felt like a more mature piece of storytelling. The theme of sexual trauma and the perpetrators who so often don’t seem to understand what the big deal is has relevance to a lot of people’s lived experience, and feels urgent and meaningful. However, this show also had some big pacing problems in its latter half that kept it off my “best” list. Maybe Marvel should consider shorter seasons?

BOOKS

The Magicians Trilogy -- Quite entertaining in a cynical, smart-ass way (it made me laugh out loud a few times), it ended up being a pretty self-involved white boy’s fantasy. The author’s foray into another perspective with Julia’s story in the second book was actually quite interesting and effective… until the end, which concluded with what I will describe only as an overly familiar character-defining moment for a woman in fiction, which was both highly disturbing and disappointing. The third book was inoffensive in comparison and had some cool surreal imagery, but the end felt like more of a reset than a transformative experience.

01/06/16: Best of 2015

Category: Film and TV
Posted by: Therem
Wow, it's been a while since the ole blog has seen any action! Consider this LONG post covering my favorite artistic creations of the past year a partial remedy. It's broken up into sections by medium, but is otherwise fairly disordered -- no rankings, and no rules about dates of release or publication. They are all things I experienced for the first time in 2015, though.

MOVIES

Selma (2014) -- An account of the historic marches in 1965 that helped pave the way for the passage of the Voting Rights Act. David Oyelowo seems like he is channeling the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. Truly amazing oratory. I love how this story focuses on many people of the civil rights movement, including members of the SCLC and SNCC as well as King and his wife. The Black community is not portrayed as monolithic – there is a true diversity of viewpoints and opinions that makes it clear how important a figure King was: a person who could bring others together at least long enough to get some groundbreaking things done.

The Wind Rises (2013) -- Supposedly Hayao Miyazaki’s last film, this is a fictionalized biographical picture about Jiro Horikoshi, the designer of the Zero, Japan’s most famous and lethal fighter plane in World War II. For a renowned pacifist like Miyazaki, the subject matter is inherently charged: how does one reconcile the creation of something elegant or beautiful in an aesthetic sense with the destruction that it might cause? As far as I can tell, the film leaves this question unanswered, but there are obvious empty spaces that draw attention and really make you think. And the disaster scene in Tokyo (depicting the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake) is genuinely hair-raising!

The Martian (2015) -- After Ridley Scott’s last few misfires, I didn’t think he had any more good movies in him. I was happy to be surprised! A lot of the credit is due to Andy Weir’s very entertaining space-shipwreck novel (on which the screenplay is based), but the movie is given some warmth and nuance by its actors (especially Matt Damon and Chiwetel Ejiofor) that the book doesn’t quite achieve.

Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) -- I was on board from the high concept: Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston as centuries-old vampire lovers. But I was surprised at how stylish and fun this movie turned out to be, especially as it was filmed entirely at night and focused a lot on ennui and world-weariness. Ultimately, its absurdist humor and love of literature and music added up to something quite lovely and life-affirming. Special props to Jeffrey Wright for his small but hilarious role as a doctor Hiddleston’s character clandestinely buys his blood from.

Lilo & Stitch (2002) -- This Disney animated movie came out over 10 years ago, and though I have heard generally positive comments about it, I had never watched it until Christmas Eve, while I was visiting my sister’s family, and we were scanning through Netflix looking for some random entertainment. I was gripped the entire time, and so moved at points that tears dripped down my face. Quite a surprising experience!

A number of things set this film apart from other Disney kids’ fare: a setting (Hawai’i) that is culturally specific, but not stereotyped. Some hard edges. A moving bond between sisters. People of color! Unusual character design – Nani’s legs are enormous! (No Barbie figures here.) A fascinating oddness about the way Stitch moves – he’s like an insect, or a spider, rather than a mammal. And there is a real antic sensibility – the havoc that is wreaked by Stitch and the aliens is not merely “cute”, it’s destructive in a way that makes you cringe even as it amuses. I’m not sure how this odd little film got past the gatekeepers of mass entertainment, but I’m happy it did.

TELEVISION

The Fall, series 2 -- A continuation of the first season’s death dance between a serial killer (Jamie Dornan, who subsequently became famous for the dire 50 Shades of Grey) and the police detective (played by Dana Scully herself, Gillian Anderson) who is pursuing him. The underlying themes of kinship between them are subtly done – there’s no question that Spector is a monster and that Stella wants him apprehended, but the final scenes of this season left me wondering if she was tumbling down into an abyss of dark fascination. I’ll certainly be watching series 3, but I also like ending on a question and would be happy if this were the show’s conclusion.

Mad Men, season 7.5 -- We’ve been waiting 10 show years for Don Draper to clean up his act, and in the end, it’s really not clear if he has. But at least he seems to understand himself better and to have developed some genuine compassion. For a show that often seemed to be about the impossibility of escaping dysfunctional patterns even when you have the best of intentions, it was a surprisingly optimistic ending. And we also got Peggy Olson sauntering down the hall, sunglasses on, cigarette dangling from her lips, and a painting of “an octopus pleasuring a lady” under her arm – finally confident enough to not give a damn. Instant classic.

Halt and Catch Fire, season 2 -- This show about the world of personal computing in the 1980s really comes into its own with this season’s focus on Cameron and Donna’s startup game company, Mutiny. Season 1 leads Gordon and Joe both have interesting storylines, but they are no longer at the center. Instead, we get to see two women with very different personalities and skill sets working together in the world of tech on something truly groundbreaking and exciting. All is not sweetness and light between them, though – their disagreement about the place of “Community” (a multi-room chat feature) is interesting both because it illuminates their characters and because it presages the creation of social networking sites two decades later. Very interesting stuff.

Sense8 -- This Netflix-produced show is co-written by J. Michael Straczynski (of Babylon 5 fame) and the Wachowskis (of The Matrix fame; let’s not talk about the sequels), and has an intriguing premise: eight people in countries around the world suddenly find that they are having each other’s experiences, and seeing the others when they are not physically there. Are they going crazy? Or is something even weirder going on?

It’s fashionable these days for genre fiction to be grim and full of betrayal, antiheroes, and loneliness. Sense8 is the corrective to all that. It dares to posit that true “human nature” (or “sensate nature”?) is not angry vigilantism or existential emptiness, but connection and oneness. The most rapturous scenes in the first season all involve members of the “cluster” (did Straczynski choose this inelegant word just so he could use the term “clusterfuck” later? stay tuned…) spontaneously connecting and sharing an intense experience – a song, some great sex, even recovered memories of birth! The potential is obviously there to focus much more on the sharing of bad experiences, or even psychic rape (the character of Whispers is a nightmarish example of this), but that does not seem to be what the show’s creators are really interested in. A placard held by someone in the credits sequence seems to resonate much more with their message: “Kindness is sexy.” Amen to that. And gorgeous cinematography, a very pretty & diverse cast, and great action scenes don’t hurt.

Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries -- A glamourous and liberated woman in 1920s Melbourne, Australia solves mysteries because she can and damn well wants to. Phryne Fisher does not experience angst. She just does her thing with confidence and style and takes the rest of us along for the ride. (She drives, and drives fast.) True comfort viewing.

The Knick, season 2 -- A continuation of season 1’s story of the (somewhat fictionalized) Knickerbocker Hospital in New York City at the dawn of the 20th century – and the people connected to it, who are variously sympathetic, funny, or low-down dirty mustache-twirling scoundrels. Not quite as electrifying as season 1, but still gripping – and hide-your-eyes grotesque on multiple occasions. This season delves into new historical territory: black consciousness-raising, eugenics, birth control, a medical model of addiction. The ending seems very final in some respects, but there is talk of a possible third season regardless. How will they manage it? I’m interested to find out.

MUSIC

Milky Chance: Sadnecessary -- Relaxing, reggae-inflected folky electronica – made by Germans! A surprise and a pleasure.

Grimes: Art Angels -- Following up on her mostly wordless (or verbally incomprehensible) Visions (also a favorite), Grimes goes for more conventionally structured poppiness here, but still with an off-kilter idiosyncratic approach. Exhibit A: the most catchy, uptempo song on the album, “California”, has some of the most depressing lyrics I have ever heard! Top 40, this is not. But I dig it.

Hamilton: the Musical -- A hip-hop infused musical about the life and times of our most unjustly obscure founding father? Bring it on! No joke: the genius of creator Lin-Manuel Miranda has made me more interested in the early days of my own country than I have ever been before. If history teachers know what’s good for them, they’ll be assigning this in class. Or maybe they should be using the ole reverse psychology trick and forbidding their students to listen to it? Whatever works to get it in their ears will result in far greater understanding of our nation’s founding – and a lot of entertainment to boot.

BOOKS

Ancillary Mercy, by Ann Leckie -- The conclusion of the story that began with the wonderful Ancillary Justice. The highlight is the various ship personalities – especially Sphene, who is a hoot! The end might be more properly considered a version of “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” than a sweeping victory, but that is fine with me. Space opera does not have to be power fantasy.

Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates -- Coates has many hard words for the clueless and privileged in this book – all of which are justified and enormously affecting. The many recent police killings of black people – and the subsequent failures to admit any wrongdoing, let alone punish the perpetrators – have reached such a level of outrage that even those most in denial about racism in the United States must be dimly realizing that something is Not All Right in the present day. But Coates makes clear that it has always been Not All Right, ever since the days of slavery, and that the everyday lives of black people are marked by fear in a way that many white people simply cannot understand. This is a sobering and important testament.

But what struck me even more than this grim reckoning was Coates’s depiction of his own curious and skeptical mind developing over time, and his willingness to point out the mistakes and misunderstandings of his younger self. The book ends up being both a clear-eyed statement of what is, and a somehow hopeful testament to the possibilities of what might be, in the unknown future, beyond the visible horizon.
Category: Film and TV
Posted by: Therem
2013 was an outstanding year for cinema, and I say that having missed quite a few films I wanted to see. Here's a rundown of my favorites of those I did manage to catch -- including a few from previous years that I belatedly saw on Netflix or DVD. A couple of notes: I haven't bothered to rank these in order of preference, though I did like some better than others. They're just alphabetical. Also, I haven't tried very hard to avoid spoilers, so if you care about that kind of thing, BEWARE!

12 Years a Slave - Director Steve McQueen pulls no punches in this depiction of a free black man's capture by slave traders and subsequent years of abject servitude in the Deep South in the mid-1800s. Physical and emotional abuse, hideous overwork, and death by lynching or other means are the everyday realities by which he and his fellow slaves are surrounded, and as the months stretch into years we can see all the hope pressed out of Northup as if he were being slowly crushed in a vise. (Chiwetel Ejiofor is astonishing in this film.) Yet there is complexity to each person's circumstances, and not all slaves are treated the same way. The contrast between Lupita Nyong'o's Patsey and Alfre Woodard's Mistress Shaw is striking -- almost surreally so. This attention to the particulars, as well as the formal beauty of the cinematography and the exceptional acting of the main characters, make the film much more than an evocation of misery and horror. It is a truly great work of art.

Beasts of the Southern Wild - Set in an indeterminate future along the southern coast of Louisiana, this film is a mix of gritty specificity and magical realism that washes over you like a weird dream. I loved the imagery, the main character (a tiny girl who is always the fierce protagonist of her own story), and the music. Hell, I loved the whole thing. A wonderfully original creation. (released in 2012, but first seen by me in 2013)

Catching Fire - As an enormous fan of the Hunger Games books, I can't say I come to the movies with a sense of critical detachment -- for me, it's all about how well they capture the essence of the original works. And this sequel was impressively faithful to the dystopian spirit of the series -- more so than the first film, which softened and confused things a bit with its infamous shaky-cam. Under Francis Lawrence's direction, Catching Fire looks straight at what is happening, and the result is both disturbing and gripping. When it ended, I found myself wondering if there were any other PG-rated franchise films that had ended on such a downbeat note, expecting you to come back for more. So far, I haven't thought of any.

Fish Tank - A naturalistic and stark account of a few weeks in the life of Mia, a British teenager whose father is absent and whose mother acts more like a jealous and immature sibling than a parent. It's easy to see why Mia is overflowing with anger, and it's easy to identify with her as she reaches for the few sources of positivity in her life. That's why her connection with her mother's new boyfriend (played by Michael Fassbender) is so charged and ultimately gut-wrenching. A disturbing but vital film. (released in 2009, but first seen by me in 2013)

Friends with Kids - Two friends (played by Adam Scott and Jennifer Westfeldt) decide to platonically become parents to avoid the conventionality and stagnation that has overtaken their married friends. There is more than a whiff of romantic comedy cliché hovering, but the film defies expectations by taking the characters to some dark places and leading them to endings that are in some cases surprising, but all feel earned. (released in 2011, but first seen by me in 2013)

From Up on Poppy Hill - I was skeptical after Goro Miyazaki's first Studio Ghibli outing, "Tales from Earthsea"ť, really disappointed, but I found this small-scale evocation of Japanese life in the 1960s to be funny, carefully observed, and quite touching. A favorite sequence was the trip several of the young protagonists took to Tokyo to convince an influential member of the school board to stop the demolition of a beloved building on their high school campus. Even though the lone female, Umi, is shy and hardly says anything, her words are carefully chosen and highly persuasive, and the important businessman is swayed. It's a subtle and welcome statement on the power of authenticity and understatement as well as an intriguing depiction of gender roles in 1960s Japan.

Gravity - A film about grief, loneliness and the fragility of life. Sandra Bullock's space-walking scientist is given a slim backstory to illustrate the themes, but the amazing visuals do most of the work. It was very easy to imagine myself floating in that vast sea of black with nothing to hold on to and very little chance of getting back to safety -- at one point, I found myself on the verge of tears. I don't think I was the only one. (Bullock's darkly muttered, "I hate space," roused one of the few laughs from the audience in my theater.) The final scenes -- the only ones to take place on the Earth's surface -- are like a desperately awaited homecoming. I can't think of another movie that has filled me with such a visceral feeling of love for this planet we all live on. Well done, Cuarón.

Moonrise Kingdom - Set in the 1960s on an island off the coast of New England, Wes Anderson's 7th film is a tale of grand romance between two oddball children who run away together and get half the population chasing after them. Early on, it feels like pretty standard fare for Anderson, with its meticulously arranged compositions and eccentric humor, but as it goes on it loosens and expands into a third act climax of wild proportions, both meteorologically and emotionally. It's simultaneously heartwarming and cathartic. (released in 2012, but first seen by me in 2013)

Thor: The Dark World - I may be an outlier on this, but I enjoyed this quite a bit more than the original Thor, which I found to be an awkward mix of Earth-bound romantic comedy and Asgardian bombast. There is a nonsensical and fairly boring villain in this sequel, but I was so entertained by the gonzo multiverse plot and the return of Loki that I didn't really care. My favorite moment: the silent calculating stare between the tortured trickster and a super-powered warrior who has just broken everyone else out of Asgard's prison, but departs without releasing Loki from his cell. Is the enemy of my enemy my friend? Maybe not. Hiddleston continues to do a great job with this charming but completely untrustworthy character; you never know what he's going to do. This might feel arbitrary and annoying eventually, but for now it's still entertaining.

The World's End - A 40-something alcoholic with a bad case of arrested development rounds up his old school buddies to have another go at an epic pub crawl they attempted in their younger days. Once they're back in their hometown, they start to notice some unsettling changes that turn out to be a lot weirder and more otherworldly than any of them could have imagined. This third and last of the "Cornetto Trilogy" of films by Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost, is a darker and more interesting commentary on conventionality vs. individualism than its predecessors. Simon Pegg plays Gary King as an only-occasionally-charming asshole transparently using others to shore up a sense of personal failure; he's really kind of pathetic. Yet his refusal to play by the rules ends up saving the day (sort of). If that makes him a hero, it's of a rather broken and annoying kind. Strange as it might be, I like that ambiguity.

Zero Dark Thirty - A visual marvel (as I've come to expect from Kathryn Bigelow), but also an oddly emotionless depiction of brutal events and morally suspect actions on the part of the C.I.A. in the aftermath of 9/11 that left audiences unsure of how they were supposed to feel about what they had seen. It ended up being a sort of filmic Rorschach blot -- reactions ran the gamut from outrage at the film's perceived advocacy of torture to impassioned defenses of the filmmakers' intentions and the importance of artistic complexity. The ensuing debates in the press and the blogosphere about "the war on terror"ť and what the thirst for revenge has done to American principles were fascinating and urgently needed -- kudos to Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal for sparking them. (released in 2012, but first seen by me in 2013)
Category: Film and TV
Posted by: Therem
Jeremy Renner in 2009Something happened to me this summer after I saw The Bourne Legacy: a fascination with Jeremy Renner took hold and wouldn't let go. I had seen him in other movies (most notably The Hurt Locker) and was intrigued by his intense energy and expressiveness, but something about his starring role in this film pushed the rest of the buttons needed to fully engage my obsessionator. Not sure of all the factors, but I think the most important one was my realization that he could be funny. There is a moment early on when he exclaims in disbelief that the doctor who has been working with him for years doesn't know his name and calls him "the number 5". Something about his body language and vocal intonation in this scene conveyed a humorous level of exasperation in the midst of all the spy thriller seriousness. Not so much as to undercut the proceedings, but enough to expand the frame and loosen things up in a healthy way.

Anyway, I realized I wanted to see more, so after consulting IMDB and some knowledgeable sources (thanks, Ide Cyan!), I put a whole pile of Renner's earlier movies in my queue. Though he's come into the general consciousness only recently, he's been making movies for over 15 years, so there were quite a few to choose from. It took me a couple months to get through them (the ones I wanted to watch, that is; I have no desire to see "National Lampoon's Senior Trip"), and a very interesting couple of months it was.

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Category: Film and TV
Posted by: Therem
S.W.A.T.
2003. Rated PG-13. Director: Clark Johnson. Renner plays Brian Gamble, the former partner of Colin Farrell's character

Gamble hijacks a LearJet

A motley crew of Los Angeles police officers have to make their way through a gauntlet of mercenaries while transporting a dangerous criminal to prison. You can guess what sort of movie this will be from the following facts: their leader is played by Samuel L. Jackson, the team includes a cop played by LL Cool J, and the nefarious criminal is a Frenchman. I'm sorry to say that it is not bad enough to be good. There are various poorly-executed plot elements, but the closest thing to a theme is the good cop/bad cop contrast between Colin Farrell's character and his ex-partner, played by Renner. I guess we're supposed to root for Farrell, but he is so goddamn boring that it is impossible. An attempt to give him some depth with an early breakup scene completely fails because a) he is obviously the one who's lost interest in the relationship, not the girlfriend and b) we never find out why. Some later hints of romance with Michelle Rodriguez's character are also abandoned before anything interesting happens.

Renner is way more entertaining to watch, but his character makes no sense unless you believe that hot-heads who occasionally bend the rules are automatically evil and on their way to perdition. Perhaps my problem with the progression of events is due to all the morally gray protagonists I've seen in movies and on TV in the past few years; S.W.A.T. may reflect the absolutism of an earlier time that just reads as unbelievable now. *shrug* In any case, his badness in the later parts of the movie is over the top and kind of amusing, but it all ends with a bit of whimper.

There are a couple of interesting comments on racial issues in the movie, my favorite being Octavia Spencer's by-stander telling Samuel L. Jackson's character that he ought to have better things to do than arrest other black men. And a couple actors from The Wire make welcome appearances. But alas, the most amusing thing about this film is the fact that there is a song on the soundtrack named "Samuel Jackson". Now that there is some metacommentary!



A Little Trip to Heaven
2005. Rated R. Director: Baltasar Kormákur. Renner plays Fred/Kelvin, a small-time crook attempting life insurance fraud.

Leaving is not allowed

An insurance claims adjuster visits a small town in Minnesota to investigate a deadly car crash and becomes enmeshed in a criminal plot. It's revealed within minutes that Renner's character is a very bad man and Forest Whitaker's purpose in the movie is to get to the bottom of his scheme. So most of the running time is spent watching Whitaker's character bumbling around with inexplicably fogged glasses, questioning Renner's wife (played by Julia Stiles) and various other rustic folk in his efforts to uncover a lot of needlessly complicated and implausible backstory. And he does it in a bizarre high-pitched voice with an accent that veers between Scotland, Minnesota, New York, and Jamaica. As if that weren't enough, the landscape is subtly wrong for the setting; I kept wondering if this was supposed to be some kind of surrealistic psychodrama. But no... it was just filmed in Iceland! Of course! …?!

Renner plays a pretty generic bad guy in this movie and sports some unappealing facial hair for most of it. Even though I was highly amused by him exclaiming near the end, “Well, looks like I'm pretty fucked!” I must advise giving this one a pass unless you feel like lobbing MST3K-style commentary at the screen.
Category: Film and TV
Posted by: Therem
North Country
2005. Rated R. Director: Niki Caro. Renner plays Bobby Sharp, supervisor of "the powder room"ť at the iron mine.

Yellow or red?

A dramatization of the first class action lawsuit filed against a company for sexual discrimination in the workplace (Jenson vs. Eveleth Mines). Renner's character is introduced twenty minutes in, and his first line is, "So Harlan, which one of these girls is going to be my bitch?" Subtlety, thy name is not this movie.

To be fair, the conditions at the mine were egregious and warranted a pretty frank portrayal on film. And the acting by Charlize Theron, Frances McDormand, Sean Bean, and various others (including Renner, who brings some nuance to the role of a vile sexist jerk), is quite decent. This could have been a gripping story. But for some reason, the filmmakers were not satisfied and decided to throw in a traumatic past for the protagonist that had, at best, an implausible connection to the film's present-day events and served only to tip the story over into the maudlin. They also made a couple of really dodgy narrative choices in the process. A film on the topic of sexual discrimination should not have the main character's father sweep in and single-handedly change his sexist co-workers' opinions with one impassioned speech. And it should absolutely not take away her voice just as she is about to describe being raped as a teenager and replace it with a flashback scene of her being brutalized. Really... not good.

It's possible that I wouldn't be so bothered by all this if I hadn't read up on the real story afterward and discovered that a lot of the movie's details were invented to make it more conventionally structured and dramatic. For example: the real-life counterpart of the main character had to talk to not one, but 50 lawyers before one would take up her case; she was not alone in filing suit (the movie makes much of her being the lone troublemaker among a crowd of women afraid to rock the boat); and the lawsuit actually took a full 14 years to come to a conclusion! Imagine the courage and pure cussed persistence it took to keep going over all that time and create a legal precedent for all American women to combat discrimination in the workplace. I would really like to see a well-made movie about the people who did it. Too bad this wasn't it.



28 Weeks Later
2007. Rated R. Director: Juan Carlos Fresnadillo. Renner plays Doyle, an American soldier

Doyle and Andy in the park

The sequel to Danny Boyle's "fast zombie"ť classic, 28 Days Later. The infected have succumbed to starvation, leaving England full of corpses and silence. An American military base is established on London's Isle of Dogs, and the few survivors are cautiously gathered into protective custody. Robert Carlyle plays a man who's made it this far by less than honorable means; he is reunited with his two children at the military base, and some fraught discussion leads to the children heading off on a hunt for their mother that unsurprisingly ends in disaster. It is a zombie movie, after all.

"28 Weeks Later" advances the story of the rage virus apocalypse in some interesting ways, and I appreciated the mercilessly downbeat ending after the first film's oddly happy denouement. Renner also gets to play the most heroic character of his career, as one of the few members of the military to break ranks and help civilians escape from a deadly lockdown. However, it all seems like more of a vignette than a complete narrative. Characters get even less development than in the first movie, so it is difficult to care about their fates, and I couldn't help laughing at how one particular infected kept popping up over and over again, almost like a zombie version of the Terminator. Some might say that the whole genre is over the top enough to be ridiculous, but I really don't think the director was going for laugh out loud funny with this one. Oops.



Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol
2011. Rated PG-13. Director: Brad Bird. Renner plays William Brandt, an IMF "analyst"

Brandt hovering in a cooling shaft

The fourth in a series of action movie spy capers starring Tom Cruise, this film is fluff from beginning to end. Early on, the Kremlin is bombed in a way that falsely implicates the United States, and the "Impossible Missions Force" is disavowed as a result. So the latest incarnation of the team (Cruise, Simon Pegg, Paula Patton, and Renner) have to go it alone in their attempt to save the world from nuclear armageddon. Plenty of fanciful technology is used to move the plot along, and set piece follows set piece to the inevitably triumphant conclusion.

There is some breezy charm here. I enjoyed Simon Pegg's performance as the unexpectedly promoted geek Benjy, and Renner has some humorous moments as Brandt is forced to take part in craziness for which he was not prepared. (The line "Next time I get to seduce the rich guy" was a gift to Renner slash fans everywhere.) But I'm afraid I was underwhelmed by Paula Patton and Cruise himself, and I found the overall plot so clichéd that I could not invest in it emotionally. It's not that I mind light-hearted romps; I just want them to be genuinely funny and/or charming. This film wasn't enough of either for me.
Category: Film and TV
Posted by: Therem
Neo Ned
2005. Not Rated. Director: Van Fischer. Renner plays Ned, a neo-Nazi criminal who has been committed to a mental institution

Ned and Rachael driving

The concept is eyebrow-raising: a white supremacist falls in love with a black woman who claims she's the reincarnation of Adolph Hitler. How can they pull this off without offending the majority of the audience and/or trivializing the subject matter? The answer is... they can't, really. The good news is that the movie is played as a relatively harmless screwball romance rather than a social statement; even if it is in bad taste (I found myself cringing whenever Ned went out in public in his swastika T-shirt -- and he spends half the movie wearing it), it has its moments. Gabrielle Union is engagingly wry and vulnerable and has great chemistry with Renner, whose character is unlike any other I've seen him play. Ned is spastic, easily distracted, overflowing with energy and poorly controlled urges, but surprisingly gentle at heart. (From what I have seen, Ned is the character most like Renner in real life.) It's soon clear that his association with neo-Nazis is a case of an impressionable kid with a bad home life falling in with the wrong crowd, and once he gets to know Rachael (or, as he continues to call her, Adolph), his prejudices easily fall away. Narratively, this probably lets him (and society in general) off the hook too easily, but I can't muster much indignation that Renner avoided another evil sociopath role. And as a major plus, this movie features his hottest sex scene ever. And when I say hot, I mean smoking!



The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
2007. Rated R. Director: Andrew Dominik. Renner plays Wood Hite, cousin of Jesse James and an occasional member of his gang.

Outlaws in the woods

A period piece set in the American midwest of the 1880s, the film chronicles the collapse of a criminal gang from the inside as various associates of the famous outlaw Jesse James turn against each other.

There's some beautiful cinematography and poetic Deadwood-like language, and Casey Affleck is weirdly fascinating in his portrayal of Robert Ford, a pathetic hero worshipper whose obsession turns bitter once he gets to know the real Jesse James. Yet there is a stilted quality to the film. It tries to fit in a lot of characters and events that don't always seem connected to one another. (A particular oddity is the repeated mention of someone named Jim Cummins, who never appears in the film as far as I could tell.) A voiceover helps us to understand what's happening, but it adds to the sense of narrative distance. Also, it's weird how women seem to be entirely unimportant to the filmmakers. Perhaps they are making a point about how these criminal gangs thought of the world? Ummm... actually, I think they just don't care.

Renner's role as Wood Hite is fairly minor, though he does get a chance to sing at a campfire before a train robbery and later takes part in the most puzzlingly inaccurate gun fight I've ever seen on film. An odd highlight of the film is an appearance by Nick Cave in a bar near the end, entertaining the patrons with a song about what a coward Robert Ford is. I was surprised in the moment, but in retrospect, I have to say this is exactly the kind of movie you should expect to find Nick Cave in.



The Unusuals
2009. Unrated. Renner plays Detective Jason Walsh, a police officer in New York City's 2nd Precinct

Walsh and Shraeger pay a visit to a mistress

"The Unusuals" was a late-season introduction on ABC in 2009 that lasted for 10 episodes before being canceled. A blend of buddy comedy, eccentric workplace slice o' life, and crime thriller, it didn't really cohere that well, but some elements of it were very well done. I really loved Adam Goldberg as the cranky detective Eric Delahoy, who's in a state of denial after learning he has a brain tumor and starts acting out strangely. The interplay between him and his neurotic partner (played by Harold Perrineau) is hilarious. Amber Tamblyn is also appealing in her portrayal of a privileged rich girl who is trying to hide her past from her blue-collar fellow detectives so they will take her seriously as a policewoman. On the other hand, an early storyline about another detective's criminal past and the lowlife associate who won't let it go is gratingly horrible. It's over with by episode five, but alas, that isn't soon enough.

Renner's character is middle-of-the-road: appealing, but not developed very well. He owns a hole-in-the-wall restaurant that is open only when he isn't working and feels like cooking, and his menu consists of ghastly improvised items like pork chops drenched in “a Skittles reduction"ť because he ran out of fruit. (People regularly grimace in disgust after tasting his fare.) This, along with his practical jokes in the workplace, lead me to believe that Walsh was conceived as an amusing and eccentric loner we are supposed to find fascinating. I'm sorry to say that it doesn't work. Maybe it's the writing (some early mystery about his character is squandered within a few episodes), maybe it's Renner's performance, but rather than being gripping he's just kind of solid. There are some nice sexy scenes between him and his secret workplace girlfriend, though.



The Town
2010. Rated R. Director: Ben Affleck. Renner plays Jem Coughlin, bank robber and best friend of Ben Affleck's main character.

The crew gets a talking-to from The Florist

Bank robbers in Charlestown are pursued by the FBI in a game of cat and mouse. This movie is somewhat reminiscent of S.W.A.T. in its character dynamics. Renner plays a brutal and unpredictable hothead who is contrasted with a morally upstanding partner, in this case played by Affleck. And once again, the “good guy” turns out to be a bit of a snooze. Affleck is definitely hunky with his understated humor and tattoos, but his energy level is so low that I found it hard to become invested in his fate. His romantic interest (played by Rebecca Hall) has a bit of quirky charm that lightens the material somewhat; you can understand what he sees in her. But his criminal associates don't want to let him go, least of all to shack up with a potential witness against them. Renner plays his best friend Coughlin as a live wire quivering with hostile energy, both electric and deadly. He has none of his friend's qualms about violence; for him, it's a feature, not a bug, and after spending nine years in prison, he's ready to blow off some steam. Though this is one of Renner's more unpleasant roles, his screen presence is undeniable. (It resulted in his second Oscar nomination.) Add in Pete Postlethwaite's flinty crime boss and Jon Hamm's bloodhound of an FBI agent, and the results were guaranteed to involve plenty of gunfire. However, I was left with a sense that it all should have been more meaningful, or at least more thrilling.
Category: Film and TV
Posted by: Therem
12 and Holding
2005. Rated R. Director: Michael Cuesta. Renner plays Gus Maitland, a construction worker who is seeing a therapist.

Gus and Malee have a picnic

Dealing as it does with the aftermath of a child's tragic death, this could easily have been a depressing film. Instead, it takes an eccentric and sometimes humorous approach in its portrayal of the ensuing months in the lives of the dead child's twin brother and his two close friends. Grief and rage are present, but they are mixed with more common disruptive forces of adolescence -- "I hate you, mom!" -- to emerge in different ways for each of the three protagonists, who variously become obsessed with vengeance, romance, and physical fitness. There's an almost cartoonish quality to some of the uncomfortable situations that develop, but others have an authenticity that made me squirm. I had a crush on an older guy when I just about the girl's age, and watching her mooning over someone more than twice her age and engaging in some seriously inappropriate behavior was almost physically painful. The fact that the guy she was crushing on was played by Jeremy Renner made it even worse. I have to respect a movie that kept me gripped but made me leave the room in discomfort, not once but several times. Even if the ending is a bit over the top.

As for Renner's performance, he's very sympathetic and plays the most normal-seeming guy of his career while still breaking ground in some interesting ways. There is a remarkable scene in which his character suddenly begins sobbing while in the shower that seems utterly authentic and unselfconscious -- quite a feat given that he's not only on camera but stark naked as well.



The Avengers
2012. Rated PG-13. Director: Joss Whedon. Renner plays Clint Barton/Hawkeye, an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. who specializes in archery and possesses superhuman levels of accuracy.

Hawkeye and Black Widow

Starting with Iron Man, Marvel studios began a four-year build-up to this movie that involved the introduction of almost all the main characters either in films of their own (Thor and Captain America, in addition to Iron Man) or as secondary or cameo roles (Nick Fury, Coulson, Black Widow, Hawkeye). They had a lot riding on the success of The Avengers -- it could make or break an entire franchise. Joss Whedon seemed like a risky choice as director, even to people like me who loved his previous work on Buffy, Firefly, etc. His only other big screen directorial effort, Serenity, bombed at the box office. What was Marvel thinking?

As it turned out, they may have made their best decision since casting Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark. Whedon's deep knowledge and love of the comic book characters as well as his knack for writing funny and emotional ensemble material was a perfect match for this film, which needed to pull together very different personalities and preexisting mythologies into one cohesive story. Following most directly from 2010's Thor, the film focuses on a vengeful Loki, who returns to Earth to pave the way for a mysterious otherworldly force to invade New York City (can't that town catch a break?!), and from thence, the world. To combat this menace, Nick Fury decides to put the long-anticipated "Avengers Initiative" into action -- that is, if he can get its temperamental members to play nicely with one another. This proves quite difficult and entertaining. Turns out it's pretty exciting when Thor's hammer meets Captain America's shield...

The plot does have a few holes. Loki's plans make little sense, and the resolution of the big battle is just lazy writing. But the character work is wonderful, and the acting is across-the-board great, with particular props to RDJ as Tony Stark/Iron Man, Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/The Hulk, and Tom Hiddleston as Loki. And quite refreshingly, Scarlett Johansson gets some substantial things to do as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, rather than being sidelined and treated as mere eye candy as women so often are in superhero movies.

As a Renner fan, though, I have to say The Avengers is a bit disappointing. He spends half the running time as a mind-controlled antagonist to the rest of the team, and by the time he is restored to himself, the final battle is about to start. He does have one touching scene with Black Widow in which he describes the experience of having his selfhood taken away, and she sympathizes. But otherwise, as Renner has said, he plays mostly as a sort of vacancy. Reportedly, this wasn't how the role was originally conceived; Whedon threw out most of the original script and rewrote it once he signed on to the project. He says in the director's commentary that he solved a story problem by separating Hawkeye from the rest of the team, but I have a niggling suspicion that part of the difficulty was him not knowing quite what to do with Renner as an actor. Whedon is a big Shakespeare fan, a master of word-craft and genre fiction, and Renner is a Method actor whose best work is visceral and physically expressive more than it is dialogue-driven. The two are not an easy fit, so I'll be very curious to see how the relationship develops in the Whedon-helmed Avengers 2, coming in 2015.



The Bourne Legacy
2012. Rated PG-13. Director: Tony Gilroy. Renner plays Aaron Cross, a chemically enhanced special ops agent or "asset".

Marta examines Aaron in the lab

This film is the fourth in a series, and acts as a "reboot" of sorts. Jason Bourne is nowhere to be found, but the chaos he unleashed in Ultimatum sets events in motion by getting the black ops community scrambling to destroy evidence of their illegal activities before investigators come knocking. "Evidence"ť in this case includes the agents of a "Treadstone upgrade" program called Outcome as well as the scientists who have chemically enhanced them. The cleanup operation doesn't turn out to be as thorough as planned, and a couple clever individuals escape the purge. Cue desperate shooting, fighting, and bonding while on the run.

Writer/director Tony Gilroy clearly wants to maintain continuity with the earlier films while also allowing newcomers to understand what is happening, and takes the unusual approach of inserting footage from Ultimatum into the fresh material to provide context and a timeline of events. He also takes pains to differentiate his new lead character from Jason Bourne. Cross has none of the memory loss or guilty angst of Bourne; he remembers signing up for the Outcome program, and though he clearly wants out now, it is not because he is torn up inside or looking for revenge. He just wants to think for himself and not be a cog in a big death machine. He's also not a fan of being murdered as part of a cover-up operation. And he wants his chems so he doesn't regress back into a dimwit. Who can blame him?

Renner brings a very different energy to this film than Damon did to the others. Where Bourne was silently tormented and withdrawn, Cross instead radiates a prickly yet warm intelligence that borders on playful in a couple of very effective scenes (with Outcome #3 and Marta in the lab) and gives you an idea of why his particular group of "program participants"ť might be difficult to boss around. And though the film has less frenetic action than its predecessors, there are plenty of moments for Renner to show off his athletic abilities. And man, is he good! His earlier performances as soldiers and special ops guys gave some hints of his talents in this area, but this film is a quantum leap in intensity and challenge. He is thoroughly convincing throughout, and I really enjoyed watching him punch and shoot, somersault and jump, and leap up and down the sides of buildings. (A sequence at an isolated house in the woods is particularly rewarding.) I also appreciated his interactions with Rachel Weisz's doctor character, who in the past has treated him as more of a science experiment than a human being and now has to come to grips with her guilt and try to make up for it.

There are some problems. The pacing is off at times, the Manila chase scene is a bit of an Ultimatum retread, and some bothersome questions are not answered. For example: Why does Cross hide his chems at the beginning of the movie and tell the other asset he lost them? Why were the wolves chasing him? And why is he fixated on watches? I want to know! And it is just criminal that they dangle the possibility of the "Flowers for Algernon"ť scenario in front of us but don't ever go there. It's like Chekhov's gun never going off! One thing that did not bother me was the info-dumps as various characters explained the details of the Outcome program. I'm a fan of science fiction, and I was quite interested by the script's scientific ideas, which, though not exactly realistic, were presented in a consistent way and were integral to the story rather than being mere technobabble. Overall, I quite liked the film, and I look forward to the already announced sequel.