Category: Film and TV
Posted by: Therem
20190417-star-trek-discovery-opening-sequence-sm.jpg

To be clear before I start, I am a huge science fiction nerd, in all media forms -- books, TV, movies, comics, games... everything. But I am not what I would call a fan of Star Trek. Have I watched a lot of it? Absolutely. For long stretches of time, Star Trek (in various incarnations) was the only SF on television, and for much of my life it has been a wonderful bonding experience to watch it with friends and joke/argue about the plausibility and morality of each episode. It is a huge part of our cultural fabric -- especially in SF fandom -- and I would never dismiss the importance of that. But speaking personally, it has never really appealed to me. The reasons for this are complex and not completely clear after all this time, but I can come up with a few explanations:

1) The focus on Star Fleet and a military hierarchy. I am politically and psychologically an anarchist (in the Kropotkin style), and all the top-down orders and drama around plucky protagonists choosing to ignore orders every other episode just seems like wasted space to me. Why can't people just be equal actors in society? Wouldn't that be more in the spirit of Roddenberry's supposedly utopian thinking?

2) The acting has often been very bad, and the characters are more like caricatures. Psychological realism is something this show has very rarely touched, and the few occasions it has have been hallmarks to me. (For example, the episode in which Picard was tortured and later admitted he was about to tell his torturer that he saw five lights just before he was rescued. And, to be fair, a lot of Deep Space Nine.)

3) Though it purports to be science-based (compared to what? Star Wars?), the technobabble is completely ridiculous and very rarely conveys anything resembling scientific reality.

All that being said, I finally decided to give Star Trek: Discovery a try after several friends recommended it, and after I realized I could activate a free trial of CBS All Access. Here are my thoughts after watching season 1 of the show.

Spoilers below...

» Continue reading this entry...

01/23/19: Best of 2018

Category: Film and TV
Posted by: Therem
Best of 2018 - Collage

As always, I remain fairly indifferent to spoilers, so continue at your own risk.

MOVIES

Faces Places (2017)
A documentary about a road trip around rural France that is also a documentary about itself and the growing friendship between the directors, New Wave legend Agnčs Varda and “photograffeur” JR. There’s a free-wheeling openness to experience and the people they meet as well as a touching exploration of the duo’s growing bond as the film progresses. The result is a film that is conscious of its own artifice while being no less genuine and heartwarming for it. An awareness of mortality and the passage of time permeates, not least because Varda is 55 years older than JR and suffering some ailments of old age, but both of them are so full of curiosity and creative energy that it is never depressing. By the end, I felt as if I’d learned to see with new – and old – eyes.

Related: Agnčs Varda and JR Talk Aging, Faces Places, and Road Trips Over Afternoon Tea

Call Me by Your Name (2017)
A love story about two very specific people (young, queer, Jewish) in a very specific place (Italy) and time (1983), this film gets at something timeless about love and loss. Timothée Chalamet is a revelation in the role of Elio. He’s precise, but also vital and deeply emotional. How rare it is to see an actor show unguarded, genuine openness on screen! Yes, it’s part of the job to try, but… it’s very hard to do convincingly. In the happier scenes of this film, the emotion comes shining out of Chalamet’s face like sunlight as he gazes adoringly at his lover. And in the final scene, we see the flip side of it as he suffers terribly from the loss. The film has many other things going for it, too – the setting, the script, the music, the other performances are all wonderful, and the use of multiple languages is fascinating – but Chalamet elevates it all to another level.

Related: 'Call Me By Your Name': Love, Their Way (my favorite review of the movie, by Glen Weldon)

Boy (2010)
The 1980s in rural New Zealand. A young Michael Jackson-obsessed boy is excited when his dad returns after years away. His dad is the coolest! Or so he assumes. Then reality comes into screeching collision with the heroic image he’s constructed of his father. Writer-director-star Waititi sketches out the disordered family dynamics, the economic troubles of the town, the way children have to fend for themselves, while making light of it all with jokey dialogue and cartoonish elements like the field full of holes where Alamein Sr. is searching for the stolen money he hid years earlier. And then the end turns up the intensity just the right amount, making it clear how magical thinking and jerky bravado can both have their source in grief. It’s a perfect balance of light and heavy.

Related: Thriller Haka to Poi E From Taika Waititi's "Boy" (this plays during the end credits of the movie and is absolute genius!)

Black Panther (2018)
The importance of this film can’t be overstated. Its exuberant embrace of Afrofuturism, fabulous majority-black cast, and outstanding box office performance – both domestic and international – were game-changing for superhero movies and Hollywood in general. Studio execs simply can’t say with straight faces any more that movies like this don’t sell. Did I have some problems with the plot? Yes. (I am really not into monarchy as a form of government. Or trial by combat as a way of selecting new leaders.) But so much else in this movie is imaginative and groundbreaking that my reservations seem minor in comparison.

Related: 2018 belonged to Black Panther. And it could change Marvel’s future.

TELEVISION

Atlanta, seasons 1 & 2
A series of short tales about an up-and-coming rapper in Atlanta, his cousin/manager, and the small group of people they mix with. Very weird, very smart, very black, and quite beautiful to look at (director Hiro Murai is amazing). Creator and star Donald Glover is a mysterious and alienated human being, and I'm not sure if he's trying to convey something specific with the show – it doesn’t have a clear storyline or tone and often feels like an anthology series that happens to use the same cast across episodes. But the impression one gets is of the absurdity and myriad contradictions of American life for black people, especially in the south. It’s billed as a comedy, and it certainly has its funny moments, but it’s also diagnosing something serious and often disturbing about our country.

Related: Donald Glover Can't Save You & Childish Gambino: This Is America

Killing Eve
An agent working for MI5 in the UK becomes fascinated by an international assassin, who soon starts to reciprocate the fascination. Who is hunting whom? And what do each of them *really* want? The two leads (Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer) have such fun in this show that it feels fresh and giddy, despite all the bloodshed. The script is clever and unexpected, the supporting cast is great, and the cinematography is wonderful. A delight for those who can tolerate all the murders.

Related: ‘It’s anarchic’: the cast of Killing Eve on Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s killer thriller

The Good Place, season 3
This show keeps going new and unexpected places with great energy and weirdness – and exploring ethics quite enjoyably as it does so. You can see the actors (and by extension, the characters) developing real affection for and intimacy with each other as time goes on, and it’s a joy to behold. Special props for the excellent show-related podcast hosted by Mark Evan Jackson (who plays Shawn the demon) that airs throughout the season and features showrunner Mike Schur, the actors, and various people involved in production.

Related: The Good Place - The Podcast

WRITING

We Were Eight Years in Power (2017)
This collection of essays is drawn from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s writing for The Atlantic during the eight years of Obama’s presidency. The earlier essays are worthwhile but slight in comparison to the later, heavily researched works. “The Case for Reparations” and “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration” are absolutely essential reading for anyone seeking to understand American history, the profound influence slavery and racism have had on it, and the reality that the problems are very far from resolved. The fact that the title – a post-Reconstruction quote from the 1890s – is still so resonant today is a telling detail.

Related: Ta-Nehisi Coates and the fear of a black writer

Wake (2013)
The residents of a small New Zealand town are infected with deadly madness, then sealed off from the outside world with a mysterious force field. A few survivors are trapped inside, unable to escape or communicate with anyone outside the "No-Go" barrier. And that's just the setup. I've read and loved several other books by Elizabeth Knox, but this one breaks new ground in an exhilarating way. I was both sickened and thoroughly gripped by its opening pages and finished the book a day later – something that rarely happens to me these days.

Related: Why Horror? (Knox's thoughts on writing Wake)

Two stories by Ursula K. Le Guin: “Pity & Shame”, “Firelight
Ursula Le Guin was one of my very favorite writers and made an enormous impact on my life. She died in January of last year, and I felt such a need for closure that I flew out to her hometown of Portland, Oregon in June to attend a ceremony honoring her life. While I was there, I picked up two literary magazines containing these stories, both of which were published after her death. While the stories are quite different in length, tone, and genre, I was struck by their common focus on human frailty and mortality, and the loving presence of female caretakers. They are both beautifully crafted, and “Firelight” -- almost certainly the last tale of Earthsea -- made me silently cry in the middle seat of the airplane on the return trip. Go with dragons, Ged. And you, Ursula.

Related: Write, Critique, Revise, Repeat: On Le Guin and Asking the Hard Questions of Ourselves, by Mary Anne Mohanraj

01/10/18: Best of 2017

Category: Film and TV
Posted by: Therem
Best of 2017 Collage

I had some really great media experiences in 2017, though as usual some of the works I list below were released in earlier years. My comments are mostly spoiler-free, but since I don't really care about spoilers, I might not have noticed if I revealed anything important. If you are a spoiler-phobe, tread lightly...

MOVIES

Moonlight
This film is a masterpiece, and I do not say that lightly. It is poetic, beautifully acted and shot, and deeply sympathetic to the human condition while also being about specific people in a specific place and time. And it speaks volumes about how identity is both inborn and constantly learned and performed in a hard world where the expectations are full of contradictions and pain for almost everyone, but especially for those who are marked as “different” from a young age -- like Chiron, the poor, gay, black male at the center of this story. Though it is deeply sad at times, the film shows how help or a moment of beauty can come along unexpectedly and transform everything, in the inner world if not necessarily the outer. It’s beautiful – and also hopeful.

Related: From Bittersweet Childhoods to ‘Moonlight’, a biographical piece about Tarell Alvin McCraney (the writer of Moonlight) and Barry Jenkins (the director), who grew up in the same neighborhood in Miami, but never met until they made the movie. Also, see the moving Hollywood Reporter piece by Mahershala Ali that I link to in the "Online Writing" section below.

The Big Sick
This movie does many things, and makes them all look easy. It's a depiction of cultural mixing and the complexities of holding on to one's heritage and family ties while adapting to new circumstances. It's a behind-the-scenes look at the world of stand-up comedy. It's a nuanced portrayal of the stress and weirdness that go along with health emergencies, hospitals, and a parade of doctors and nurses who all seem to have only part of the picture. And, of course, it's a romantic comedy about two smart, funny people who seem like they'd be a delight to know in real life. But what surprised me about this film, and truly elevates it in my eyes, is that the real courtship -- taking more running time than the initial romance -- is the one between Kumail and Emily's parents. Ray Romano and Holly Hunter are great in their roles, and the emotional arc they go on with Kumail while Emily is asleep feels like a real journey, from angry distance to true connection. It's something new I haven't seen in a movie before. Highly recommended.

Related: How A Medically Induced Coma Led To Love, Marriage And 'The Big Sick', a lovely interview with Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, the writers of the mostly-autobiographical movie

Thor: Ragnarok
In contrast to Moonlight or The Big Sick, I don’t feel there is any genius artistry at play in Thor: Ragnarok that breaks new ground or says anything deep about humanity. I just want to watch it over and over again. There’s something about the overflowing enthusiasm and goofiness of the film that I find very entertaining and life-giving, despite all the fight scenes and killing – similar to the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie (though not the second, which I found disturbing). Just thinking about the opening scene -- in which Thor good-naturedly explains to a nearby skeleton how he ended up sharing a hanging prison cage with it – makes me start chuckling, and there are many other moments that do the same. (“He’s a friend from work!” is never going to get old.) I give the credit to director Taika Waititi and actor Chris Hemsworth, who are both very funny and good-natured people in real life, and who know how to translate that onto the screen. And also Marvel, who let it happen.

Related: Some other pretty awesome Waititi movies I saw this year were What We Do in the Shadows, a mockumentary about vampires sharing an apartment in Wellington, NZ; Hunt for the Wilderpeople, a dramedy about a foster kid and his cranky guardian fleeing through the New Zealand bush; and Moana, a Disney animated film about Pacific Islanders that was originally written by Waititi and features his friend and collaborator Jemaine Clement in a prominent role

To Walk Invisible: The Bronte Sisters
I am a huge fan of Charlotte Bronte’s novels Jane Eyre and Villette, and recall enjoying Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights when I read it decades ago, so I was curious what the family life of such gifted writers would be like. The answer is: kind of crazy! But also fascinating. Their brother Branwell takes up more screen time than I would like – especially as he is depicted as a self-involved wastoid who takes advantage of everyone – but the sisters are well-developed and very well-acted, and their relationships with each other are complex and interesting. Finn Atkins as Charlotte is particularly well-realized – she has the mousy appearance, flinty determination and smoldering heart that I always imagined Jane Eyre herself would have – but Chloe Pirrie as Emily and Charlie Murphy as Anne are both wonderful as well. I believed they could have written some of the most celebrated novels of all time, and I was even more saddened that they all died so young when so many more classics might have come from their pens.

TELEVISION

Halt and Catch Fire, season 4
This series began as what seemed like a version of Mad Men in a different industry (computer tech) and a different decade (the 1980s), and suffered in the comparison. But starting with season two, something amazing happened: the show-runners ditched the focus on tortured antihero Joe and turned instead to the relationship between female innovators Cameron and Donna and their startup gaming company Mutiny. The result was a gripping and hugely improved drama about the early days of online gaming and social networking as well as a welcome counterbalance to the male angstiness of prestige television. Season three rebooted yet again, with a relocation from Texas to Silicon Valley that saw big changes for all the characters, and raised the bar even higher.

And then there was this, the final season of the show, which might be my favorite season of any TV show, ever. At this point, ten-plus years have passed, and each of the characters has gone on a real journey through success and failure, growth and retreat, and just plain old maturation, and the way those journeys are affected by their individual personalities, their ideals, random events, and the other people they connect with (or have given birth to -- Donna & Gordon’s teenage children become major characters this season) are depicted with insight, sympathy, imagination, and remarkable narrative rigor. The portrayal of the tech world is also fascinating, not just for the historical detail, but also for the commentary on where we are now with personal computing devices, gaming, social networking, and how all of that relates to our desire to express ourselves and connect with others. A wonderful fusion of ideas and character-based drama. I will miss it.

American Gods
A bizarre, occasionally quite violent, and very entertaining drama from Bryan Fuller and Michael Greene, based on a book by Neil Gaiman (which I read after season one of the show ended and didn’t like nearly as much). The concept is that gods exist because people believe in them, and when people emigrate to new places, they bring their gods with them. Thus, in the United States Vikings brought Odin, African slaves brought Anansi, Slavs brought Czernobog and the Zorya sisters, etc. In our present day, these old gods are becoming weak and tired because their believers are dying out and the youth are flocking to the new gods of technology and media. Mr. Wednesday (soon revealed to be Odin) decides something needs to be done and recruits a clueless ex-con named Shadow Moon (really) to be his right hand man. Their road trip is full of incident, side characters, sex, blood, sadness and laughs. And at least one important zombie. It’s crazy and super fun.

The Good Place
A comedy about ethics in the afterlife? A strange idea, but I’m down for it. There is an entire episode of this show devoted to “the trolley problem”, and it is hilarious. It also has an appealing main cast and a surreal satirical quality that one doesn’t often find on network TV. I forking love it!

Related: Dystopia in “The Good Place”, by Emily Nussbaum, one of the very best TV critics

BOOKS

Tremontaine
A prequel to Ellen Kushner’s novel Swordspoint, originally written as a serial by a team of authors (including Kushner herself, who wrote the first and last chapters and was heavily involved with the whole production), then published as a complete novel. There is lots of sword fighting, queer romance, intrigue, and scholarly pursuit, as well as a fresh look into the world of trade in The City. I love Kushner’s Riverside works, so I was a pushover for this. But even so, I think it’s pretty great!

GAMES

Horizon Zero Dawn
An open-world game about a very athletic young woman named Aloy wandering a far-future Earth who seeks understanding of her own parentage and the historical events that have led to the current state of the world, which is similar to the Americas, pre-European-contact – except for the fact that herds of dangerous mechanized beasts roam the countryside. There is lots of sneaking and fighting and resource-gathering involved in the game dynamic, which is better balanced and more intuitive than many other games I’ve played recently. It’s also the most beautiful game I’ve ever experienced; characters look like real people, and the trees, grass, and sky are beautifully animated and free of pixelation and rendering glitches. I haven’t finished it yet, but the story is also becoming quite gripping, with plenty of commentary on short-sighted capitalism and how future generations end up paying for the mistakes of their ancestors. Timely! (But isn’t it always?)

MUSIC

Perfume Genius – No Shape
Croony, emotionally bare, funky, surreal, orchestral – this album has quite a range. Some of it is so beautiful it almost hurts. The unusual synth effects and sonic lushness remind me of early Kate Bush, the percussive bass and funk remind me of Prince, and the frequent falsetto reminds me of both of them! Then there’s the cabaret vibe on several tracks, a bit of trip-hop, and more than a hint of Leonard Cohen. I’m probably missing some influences… but the important thing is that it all comes together into an original and vivid work of art that really moves me.

Related: I love this video for "Wreath" compiled from footage fans sent. So joyful and weird and lovely!



ONLINE WRITING

Two Wonder Woman essays by Jill Lepore:
The Last Amazon
The Surprising Origin Story of Wonder Woman

The Comey Diaries (my name for James B. Comey’s prepared statement to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence dated June 8, 2017)

At His Own Wake, Celebrating Life and the Gift of Death

James Ivory and the Making of a Historic Gay Love Story

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu's Remarkable Speech About Removing Confederate Monuments

This is not a crisis, Republicans say as a large spider slowly devours them

Freshly Remember'd: Kirk Drift

We studied 827 police shootings. Here’s what we found.

'Moonlight' Breakout Mahershala Ali in His Own Words: A Personal Journey From Childhood Upheaval to Spiritual Awakening

Typecast as a terrorist | Riz Ahmed

Pres. Supervillain on Twitter
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 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.

» Continue reading this entry...

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.