Thursday, January 26, 2017

Before I Die #594: The Eagle (1925)

This is the 594th film I've now seen out of the 1,187 movies on the "Before You Die" List that I'm gradually working my way through.

Director: Clarence Brown

Not a bad little silent film hybrid of elements from classic tales like The Count of Monte Cristo and Robin Hood. While still smacking of several dated tropes, it provides just enough narrative fun to still have some entertainment value 90 years later.

The story is based on a classic Alexander Pushkin story, focusing on Vladimir Doubrovsky, a Russian lieutenant who incurs the wrath of the Czarina by rejecting her unwanted advances. No sooner does he do this than he discovers that his family estate has been wrongfully usurped by Kyrilla, a greedy and treacherous bully. Dubrovsky becomes an outlaw, dons a mask, and dubs himself "The Black Eagle." As the Eagle, he harasses and steals from Kyrilla's followers and hangers-on, giving his takings to the local poor. His grand scheme is to kill Kyrilla himself, when the time is right. The chance presents itself when Vladimir is able to adopt the role of a French tutor for Kyrilla's daughter, Kuschka. Although Vladimir does get his chance to kill Kyrilla, his newfound love for Kuschka stays his hand. He ends up being captured and sent to the Czarina, who orders his execution. Vladimir is quietly set free, however, by a sympathetic general, and the former Black Eagle goes off with Kuschka to be with his true love.

It's a fun little adventure tale with brisk pace and enough plot turns to be engaging throughout its sub-90 minute running time. It is a tale which borrows its tone from the great adventure tales of Alexander Dumas and lesser imitators. There are deceptions, intrigues, wronged innocents, a romance, and the emergence of a "hero of the people." No, it doesn't really add anything new to the genre, but it's a fun distraction that was done well for a 1920s silent film.

This is actually the very first movie that I've ever watched starring the first great cinema heartthrob, Rudolph Valentino. Being a silent film, it's impossible to comment much on the man's acting ability, but he certainly held the screen well and does fine in the title role of the noble and clever Vladimir. Although  not as broadly charismatic as Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. in The Thief of Baghdad, it's not difficult to see why Valentino became the object of obsession of female viewers all over the world.

I don't know that I'd ever feel the need to watch this one again, although it is a fun example of the fairly lighthearted adventure tales of the silent era.

That's 594 movies down. Only 503 to go before I can die.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Idiot Boxing: Supernatural, season 12 Winter (2016); Insecure (2016)

This season doesn't waste any time getting intense, with Sam
getting abducted and tortured by a rather sadistic member of
the British Men of Letters.
Supernatural, season 12 Winter

This review covers the first 8 episodes of the season, which comprise the Winter portion.

So far, pretty damn good. After a few seasons that were decent but slightly paler shadows of the best seasons between 2006 and 2010, season 11 was a very solid return to form. Thus far, season 12 is mostly continuing that trend.

The previous season ended with Sam and Dean saving the world from being obliterated by The Darkness, an entity that was revealed as God's unknown but equally powerful sister. An added bonus is that God returned Sam and Dean's mother back to the land of living for them. The downside is that Lucifer was remained free and at large. This is bad enough, but on top of this large-scale issue is that Sam is taken captive by agents of the British chapter of the Men of Letters, which is a segment of the society with some rather extreme views on the way that "sloppy" American hunters go about their business.

This first part of the season has been pretty solid. The threat level is fairly high, with Lucifer hopping from body to body, seeking out one which will offer him enough power to cause the greatest amount of chaos and destruction. While I think the premise is strong and has been used to decent effect, it doesn't cover up the fact that Lucifer has already been the arch enemy in this series, many years ago. And back then, we had the benefit of the slow build up to his menace. Now, it does feel a little bit like a retread villain but without any particularly new or clever ideas. I like the notion that, without God as the focus of his rage, Lucifer is left as an unhinged mess of a being, but I'd like to see if the writers can do a little more to expand or explore the show's mythology from a different angle.

The episodes which don't focus on Lucifer have actually been the stronger ones, in my opinion. They have featured a several intriguing hunters, as well as some of the darkest monster-of-the-week episodes that I've seen in a while. The dialogue has remained pretty sharp, and they haven't been overusing Castiel or Crowley. For me, these strengths have made up for any lack of creativity in terms of the Lucifer storyline. I'm also hopeful that the British chapter of the Men of Letters will make a return appearance and become some part of the season's arc, as that looked like an element that has a certain amount of potential. We've been introduced to the sociopathic, stone-cold assassin Mr. Ketch and his high-tech monster-slaying tools, which was pretty awesome. More of that would certainly be welcome.

So it's off to a solid start, and I'll certainly be tuning in when the show kicks off again later in January.

Issa stands in front of a classroom of underprivileged kids.
Her discomfort is almost always present, and it provides much
of the humor of the show.
Insecure, season 1 (2016)

A debut season that started off brilliantly, but by season's end had started to shift its tone and focus in ways that I wasn't crazy about.

My wife had first heard about this show right around the time it came out. I also heard an interview with creator and star Issa Rae, and was also intrigued. The first season of the show was comprised of 10 thirty-minute episodes focused on Issa, an African-American woman in her late twenties, as she tries to navigate her somewhat rocky relationship with her boyfriend, her job as a social worker where she doesn't completely fit in with her coworkers, and relationships with other friends and associates in the Los Angeles area.

After the first episode, my wife and I loved it. The show was hilarious, well-written, and featured more than a few excellent comedic performances, not the least of which is the star Issa. The next couple of episodes were very similar, although a tad more personal drama started to creep into the narrative. Around the fourth and fifth episodes, the drama started to come far stronger, and it stayed until the very end of the season. It was this greater attention given to the personal drama that tempered my wife's and my enthusiasm a bit. Not that the drama isn't done well enough, but much of it hinges on relatively younger people (I'm 41 years old) making some rather immature, poor choices and dealing with the predictably harmful consequences of them. My wife explained to me that it bore a few shades of another hit HBO show - Girls - on which she gave up after only about one and half seasons due to an inability to watch people behave so horribly and irresponsibly. I completely understand why people of that age might gravitate towards such drama, but it's not for me. Fortunately, Insecure still had a solid amount of quality humor, even in the more emotionally raw episodes.

I'll certainly tune in for the second season, but I'll be on my guard for an emphasis on relationships and dating woes, infidelity, and dramatic blowups between the characters. A dash of it can set up some good humor, but if it becomes a drama with some comedy sprinkled in, I may just give up on the show. 

Monday, January 16, 2017

New(ish) Release: Suicide Squad (2016) and DCEU v MCU scorecard

Suicide Squad (2016)

Director: David Ayer

Three films into their mad dash to catch up to Marvel's Cinematic Universe, and DC and Warner Brothers are still stumbling along. Suicide Squad is another occasionally entertaining but ultimately uneven effort that doesn't stack up to far better superpeople flicks.

The tale is The Dirty Dozen with super villains. In the wake of events covered in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, a shadowy government agency puts together a crew of super-powered but viciously dangerous and unstable criminals to act as a response team to potential large-scale, supernatural threats. The team includes expert marksman and assassin Deadshot (Will Smith), incredibly strong but ultra-violent reptilian Killer Croc, expert fighter and acrobat but unhinged madwoman Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), and several other oddball lunatics and killers. Their services are extorted from them through various promises and leverage enacted by government hardass Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), and they are sent into a city under siege from an unknown, catastrophe-level force of destruction. Hopping around in the chaos is The Joker, Quinn's lover and object of mutual obsession, who is hell-bent on freeing his lady love from bondage.

The movie is mostly a mess that relies on talented, big-name actors, flashy visuals, and a soundtrack featuring well-established hard rock classics. Even I'll admit that there are a few moments when these elements blend in just the rights ways to result in entertaining scenes and sequences. Top-flight actors like Smith, Davis, and Robbie are sometimes able to take a very tepid script and make it work in spots, but most of the dialogue fails to stand out in any way.

The greater issue is the story itself. Firstly, there are simply far too many previously-unknown characters introduced to allow the film to build any real interest in any one of them in particular. The movie tries, especially in the cases of Deadshot and Quinn, but the attempts to make them compelling feel rather clumsy and cliche. When you add in attempts to offer half-baked emotional backstories for third-tier villains like Diablo, Katana, Rick Flag, and others, then they all just water each other down so that none become particularly interesting. This greatens the shame of having so many good actors play the roles, as they do their best with what they're given. They just weren't given enough, including screen time. It's as if the filmmakers assumed that everyone coming to see the movie was already familiar with the characters. This means that a Batman comic fan is likely to appreciate this movie far more than an average movie fan looking to get some new, engaging super-characters to entertain them.

Seven of the eight members of the "Squad." Only about three
of them are allowed any real time to become interesting. The
others just take up space and muddle up the proceedings.
Then there's the larger story. Nevermind that it just rehashes one of the all-time great war movies. I'm willing to look past that, since the added element of super-powered whack-jobs does introduce enough spice to liven up an unoriginal concept. No, the major crime is that the tale itself is incredibly sloppy. Through multiple flashbacks and a convoluted narrative, we learn that the team has been assembled to stop the menace of...a member of their team. And the only reason that this member becomes a threat is because she was sent out by Amanda Waller, who created the team. Now that is just stupid. And the arch villain here - the ultra-powerful mystic figure The Enchantress - has a motivation that is as generic as it gets: she wants to take over the world with her dark, mystic power. Just what she wants to do with the world when she controls it is never made clear in any way. Even now, after several days to digest and consider the movie, I don't know that I could give an accurate synopsis of all of the relevant plot points. It's one thing if a movie has a complexity of layers that can be analyzed and uncovered over time. It's another when someone can't even tell you exactly how certain actions led to others.

Then there's the Joker - as iconic a villain as has ever come from the world of comic books, or even American popular culture, for that matter. More than a few writers have shown that the Joker can be made an immensely strong, magnetic, and even disturbing character. Yet somehow, the rendition of him in Suicide Squad is just as messy as the rest of the movie. Extremely talented actor Jared Leto seemed to be drawing a bit from Heath Ledger's legendary performance in The Dark Knight, while attempting to add his own touches to it through an annoying, hushed voice. Combine this with an overall shallow character design (the Joker seems to live only to look flashy, act crazy, and love Harley Quinn), and he was surprisingly boring.

So the movie unfortunately fails in a great number of ways. I do think that it is better than Batman v Superman, which had far greater and far more unforgivable weaknesses. At least Suicide Squad tried something a bit different, and it does contain a few amusing sequences and decent one-liners. It gets a major nod over the previous, humorless DCEU entry just for bringing some fun back into the proceedings. Still, I can't imagine that I'll be watching this one again.

DC Extended Universe vs Marvel Cinematic Universe - the first 3 films

Now that the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) is officially three films into its franchise, I find myself considering just how it stacks up to where the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) was back when it was still in its earliest stages.

Movie #1: Man of Steel (2013) vs. Iron Man (2008)

In terms of pure dollars, Man of Steel actually outperformed Iron Man by about $100 million. But both were massive commercial successes. Money aside, though, Iron Man is a clearly superior movie. It's easy to forget now, with the MCU a full-fledged herd of cash cows, that Iron Man was far from a sure thing back when it came out. But Jon Favreau and the creative team brought us a wonderfully entertaining movie that still holds up. The only gripe I have about it is that the final battle is a bit dull, but everything else about it is great.

Man of Steel had the benefit of coming out after the MCU had well and truly turned the superhero movie genre into the insanely profitable entertainment form it is now. Even ignoring that significant advantage, it is a far weaker film than Iron Man. Marvel's flagship film knew how to have fun with its comic book character, while imbuing him with enough character and drama to make it engaging. Man of Steel made an attempt to imbue DC's flagship character with a somber seriousness that robbed him of any fun. For me, this was a critical flaw that is still rearing its head.

Winner: Iron Man, in very convincing fashion.

Movie #2: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) vs. The Incredible Hulk (2008)

The Incredible Hulk has been, for much of the MCU's life, the red-headed step child of the Universe. Until the recent Civil War, there was virtually no acknowledgement of the events or supporting characters depicted in the film. It's not terribly hard to see why. In my opinion, this is still the weakest MCU film to date. While it's not bad, it suffers from a few too many tepid scenes. There's a lack of particularly funny dialogue, and the final battle is a merely average slugfest between large monsters. Even in terms of cinematic world-building, it's clear that the MCU was still an iffy prospect, at best, when The Incredible Hulk was made. It was a possibility, but only a slight one, as evidenced by a near-complete lack of anything connected to other MCU films, whether Iron Man or later movies. The only hint is a brief mid-credit scene with Tony Stark, but this was far from a firm promise at the time. All of this might lead to you think that the DCEU could easily outdo the MCU's second film. And yet...

Batman v Superman was a shiny, flashy mess. I've done two different posts on it, once when it first came out and another when I recently looked at a few recent DC movies. Perhaps the only way it compares favorably to the mediocre Incredible Hulk is that it serves as a clearer connector between other DCEU films. Even there, though, the movie was extremely ham-fisted with how it crammed those connections down our throats. This is actually something that one could accuse the MCU's next movie of doing, though Batman v Superman was brutally less deft at it.

Winner: Incredible Hulk, in a close one. It might be a bit dull, but to me that's better than being annoyingly and inexcusably sloppy and pretentious, which is what Batman v Superman is.

Movie #3: Suicide Squad (2016) vs. Iron Man 2 (2010)

A curious matchup, as they are such different movies, especially in the grander scheme of their film universes.

Iron Man 2 was the movie that first really and truly put the "Universe" in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It was the first film that was made with its creators having a vision for a much larger, shared movie universe which would soon include Thor, Captain America, and culminate in The Avengers. With this grand plan in mind, Iron Man 2 was forced to include certain elements which weren't necessarily key to the overall plot with Tony Stark at its center. The introduction of eventual key players like Black Widow and Phil Coulson can feel a bit forced, but not terribly so. Aside from this, the movie is merely so-so, with two of the weaker/incoherent villians in MCU history, but also including some solid action sequences and humor.

When compared to Suicide Squad, Iron Man 2 edges it out. The weaknesses of Suicide Squad are more numerous and egregious, while those in Iron Man 2 don't offend nearly as much.

Winner: Iron Man 2

So DC still has a lot of ground to make up, in my view. However, the movie studios are unlikely to see it that way. When one looks at the box office returns for the first three films in each franchise, the DCEU actually blows away the MCU. However, this is not exactly a fair comparison, given the fact that it was the MCU that truly stoked the public's appetite for blockbuster superhero flicks into a raging inferno that the DCEU is using to keep itself very warm.

The only hope I have that the DCEU will actually make a few decent movies is that they have different writers and directors for their various films (expcept for the Justice League movies, which Zack Snyder will head up). My hope is that one or more of the new directors is able to create better movies for the mythic characters from DC lore that so many of us know and love. At this point, though, I'll take even the worst MCU movie over the best DCEU one. 

Saturday, January 14, 2017

New Release! Star Wars: Rogue One (2016) [Spoiler-Free!]

Director: Gareth Edwards

Spoiler-Free Review! Have no fear!!

Though it's not without its flaws, I found Rogue One to be excellent in many ways. Enough ways, in fact, to count it among the best two or three Star Wars movies in the entire series.

In an interesting move, the powers that be decided to greenlight this story which, until this point, has been a micro-font footnote in the greater Star Wars narrative. In the original 1977 film Star Wars: A New Hope, we learn that the plans for the Death Star's fatal weakness were obtained "at great cost." Rogue One tells the story of that cost, and it does a rather fine job of it.

The tale focuses on Jyn Erso, a young fighter who is highly capable but seems to be without clear purpose. Jyn's father is the chief engineer in charge of constructing the Death Star, something which makes her very valuable to the rebel movement that is desperately struggling against the Empire. Jyn gets caught up in the rebellion, as they make a desperate attempt to discover Jyn's connection to everything before the Death Star becomes fully operational and can lay waste to entire planets as it continues its march of domination across the galaxy.

The movie is strong enough that I can comfortably place it among the two or three best movies in the entire Star Wars series. In keeping with J.J. Abrams approach with last year's The Force Awakens, director Gareth Edwards made sure to stick with the classic aesthetic of the original trilogy, with a some deft updates thanks to modern CGI technology. Also present is the fun sense of swashbuckling adventure, with plenty of narrow escapes, tense standoffs, and various forms of combat. This is actually an area where Rogue One stands out from other movies in the series, in that many of the action scenes are bit more creative for a Star Wars movie.

Probably the movie's greatest strength is the overall tone and resolution. Anyone who knows the Star Wars story knows how this tale is going to end, basically. It adds a certain weight to the proceedings which is usually not present in the other movies. Even The Empire Strikes Back or Revenge of the Sith, which famously end on down notes, don't reach the level of loss that we get in Rogue One, and the movie is better for it.

Two mild weaknesses and one massive strength: Diego Luna
as Cassian, Felicity Jones as Jyn, and the droid K-2SO,
voiced by the underrated Alan Tudyk.
The movie is not without some flaws, to be sure, but none of them is crippling. One or two characters don't seem completely hashed out or explored. More than this, though, is that I found a few key performances a bit lacking. The always wildcard Forest Whitaker turns in a strange take on his character Saw Gerrera, and chief supporting actor Diego Luna is not always easy to buy as a hard-as-nails renegade Cassian. The most obvious, though, is lead actress Felicity Jones. She's not terrible by any means, but I never bought her as the supposedly uber-tough loner/survivor that she is supposed to be. It's most obvious when she tries to give a rousing speech to other rebels - a speech which I had a hard time buying when looking into her soft, pleading eyes. Daisy Ridley's gritty performance as Rey in The Force Awakens was far more convincing.

Despite these quibbles, there's more than enough to overcome them. Not the least of which is the introduction of K-2SO, the best droid character in the entire Star Wars movie franchise, by a long shot. He (It?) is one of several secondary characters who spice up the movie immensely. When you add a flat-out awesome sequence with Darth Vader at the very end of the film, you get plenty of blockbuster fun.

If this is an indication of what Disney is going to be doing with these one-off Star Wars movies (the Han Solo standalone film comes out in 2018), then we Star Wars fans are in for a treat in the coming years.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Before I Die #593: The Big Parade (1925)

This is the 593rd movie I've watched out of the 1,187 movies on the "Before You Die" lists that I'm gradually working my way through.

Director: King Vidor

For its time, a surprisingly hard look at the horrors of war, though one that would hold up better if not for an overly long and farcical first half.

The movie focuses on James Apperson, a layabout son of a wealthy industrial capitalist based in New York City. After seeing a parade for troops heading to Europe to fight in World War I, Apperson is swept up in patriotic fervor and enlists in the army. In service, he befriends a couple of working class New Yorkers in his platoon- the bartender "Bull" and the riveter "Slim." The platoon is sent to France, but they spend their first several weeks away from the front lines and instead kill time and boredom in a small French village. Apperson takes a fancy to a local French woman, who returns his affection. Soon, however, Apperson's platoon is sent to actually fight. At the front, Apperson's platoon meets strong resistance from German snipers and heavy artillery, which mow down a large number of Apperson's comrades in arms, including Slim. Apperson heroically charges towards the German lines, taking out several soldiers and an artillery setup, but he loses his leg in the process. Upon returning home, Apperson finds that while his parents are proud of him, the horrors of war have left their mark on his psyche as well as his body. To find solace, he returns to France and finds the young lady with whom he fell in love.

The second half of this movie is clearly the standout feature of it, as it is the earliest example of a well-done, hard look at war that I've seen. From the chilling opening moments of the fighting, with Apperson's platoon slowly walking through sniper-infested woods and getting picked off one by one, to the outright chaos of the nighttime artillery bombardment, the terrors of armed warfare are made far clearer than audiences would have seen in motion pictures at the time. There is an appropriate sense of loss and misery conveyed through much of these latter parts of the movie, and I feel that this is what sets it apart and makes it a classic.

The sequence with the snipers in the forest is far quieter than
the later scenes of the nighttime bombings, but I found them
actually more harrowing. It is the actual battle scenes that
keep this movie firmly among the important films in history.
The first half of the film, though, can drag. Far more of it is dedicated to lighthearted sight gags and a dash of slapstick, more in keeping with the free and easy fare of a Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin movie. I think that a small dose of these things would have been fine, but the movie spends over an hour in this tone. It took patience for me to get through this first half, but the payoff of the second half was worth it.

Apparently, this was the highest grossing movie of all time in the United States, until Gone With the Wind came out 14 years later. It's not hard to see why, as it made an early and profound statement against warfare, during a period when the country was most certainly still dealing with the psychological fallout of losing so many people to its horrors. Fans of historical war movies and silent movies in general will want to see this one, as it was a clear prototype for later war movies like All Quiet on the Western Front, The Best Years of Our Lives, Paths of Glory, and many others.

That's 593 movies down. Only 594 to go before I can die. 

Thursday, January 5, 2017

New(ish) Releases: Everybody Wants Some!! (2016); Anomalisa (2016)

Everybody Wants Some!! (2016)

Director: Richard Linklater

A well-done, amusing coming-of-age movie that is very much what you would expect from the man who brought us Dazed and Confused over two decades ago.

Like that previous movie, director Richard Linklater sticks with what he knows from personal experience. In this case, very personal experience, as the main character is a scholarshiped baseball player who is just starting his first days at a college in Texas in 1980 - just as Linklater did. The character that serves as his proxy here is Jake, who was a star pitcher at his high school but is now one of the freshman on the lowest end of the athletes' totem pole in college. A few days before classes are to begin, he shows up at the house set aside for the baseball team, where he meets his teammates and begins to try and form bonds with them. The team is made up of a somewhat ecclectic group of guys - smart, dumb, hippies. Nearly all are hilarious, intentionally or otherwise, and every single one is highly competitive. Jake is no exception, and he begins to try and find his place among this new group of teammates, roommates, and fellow students.

Anyone familiar with Linklater's movies such as Dazed and Confused, Slacker, or the "Before..." trilogy will be familiar with his very organic style. The characters, events, and dialogue all feel wonderfully natural. In this case, we see a bunch of college guys who are much like what you would expect - they are reveling at the freedom that crackles as they are just starting to become adults, without really having any of the responsibilities of adulthood. Without such responsibilities, they can concentrate on other areas of life such as chasing women, drinking beer, and constantly razzing each other. Basically, anyone who had a chance to hang out with age peers after high school probably knew people an awful like Jake's new teammates: the big brother types who will hector you into tears but teach you more useful things about life than you realize until many years later.

While the movie can certainly be classified as a "dude flick,"
my wife enjoyed it. A scene like this one - with a bunch of
college students sitting around, getting high and debating
the profundity of Pink Floyd, set off fond memories of
her college days.
The authenticity of the characters is film's strongest asset, but it really shows no weaknesses. The dialogue is, as typical of Linklater movies, lively and funny. And when a line itself isn't particularly hilarious, the actors sell it by comletely throwing themselves into their goofy characters. The only one who perhaps overdoes it is Juston Street as Niles, a self-important hot-head from Detroit. Whether it was Linklater's direction or Street's choice, but he played hte Niles character too cartoonishly psychotic for my liking. Otherwise, it's simply fun to follow the team around and see them interact in mostly casual ways. While the primary cast is composed of about a dozen of the baseball team, it all circulates around Jake taking his first steps into adulthood through this group. It actually makes a solid follow-up film to Dazed and Confused. That earlier Linklater movie is a vaster panoramic of 1976 high school kids seen mostly through the eyes of Mitch - high school freshman on his final day of junior high school. As Mitch also plays baseball, it's not hard to make the leap to his being a sort of Jake, four years earlier. These movies are obviously autobiographical, and that personal connection of Linklater's makes them all the better.

Just like Dazed and Confused, Everybody Wants Some!! has the magic of nostalgia working for it. Blessedly, it never leans too heavily on it for its entertainment value. I will say that my wife, who has a very keen ear for authentic dialogue, especially from the early 1980s, gives this one her seal of approval. And yes, there are plenty of short shorts, porno mustaches, and all manner of questionable hairstyles. But they are never overdone, and they never take away from the interactions between the characters. This was a solid movie that any person should enjoy, whether you were part of the times or not. If this movie had come out back in the early '90s, when I was still in high school and playing baseball, it probably would have become an obsession.

Anomalisa (2016)

Director: Charlie Kaufmann

A highly unique film, to be sure, and one with writer/director Charlie Kaufman's highly creative and delicate sensibilities all over it. I must say, though, that I was expecting to feel a greater impact.

The movie is about Michael Stone, a highly respected and successful writer and lecturer on customer service. Michael goes to a conference in Cincinatti, where he will be giving a lecture to an audience of hundreds of people in the customer service industry. Michael's personal and psychological life is in shambles, though. To him, every adult in the world has exactly the same face and exactly the same voice. Literally. Aside from their clothing and hair styles, Michael does not see any distinguishing features between other people. He feels a deep disconnetion from everyone, including his own wife and son. This changes at his hotel in Cincinatti, where he meets Lisa - a customer service representative from northern Ohio. Lisa seems to be a rather common person, but Michael sees her face and hears her voice as unique among the sea of repetition of other people. Michael seduces and sleeps with Lisa, seemingly falling in love with her and even stating that he will leave his wife and son to be with her. No sooner does he make this pledge, though, than Lisa's face and voice steadily morph into the same visage and sound that he sees and hears from everyone else.

Anomalisa is a very heartfelt and curiously intimate look at a person who is completely fractured, psychologically. Michael Stone has all but completely lost his connection to the rest of humanity and much of his grip on his own sanity. The former is conveyed through the endless fascimiles of faces and voices that he perceives, while the latter is shown through a few bizarre hallucinations, very narcissistic dreams which he has, and a near-complete meltdown on stage while he's delivering his lecture at the conference. Much of this is as awkward as you might imagine, which is something that writer Charlie Kaufman has used to great effect in other films such as Adaptation and Being John Malkovich. But while those other movies maintain a solid line of humor through much of the proceedings, Anomalisa is mostly somber and upsetting. This is as it should be, as this is a far more probing look at a tragically disassociated person.

Michael (left), charming a couple of admirers. Lisa (right)
catches Michael's eye and becomes the sole focus of his
desires for a time.
The use of marionettes might seem like a very odd choice, but it does work for this tale. It allows for certain visuals that would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, with a live cast. Not to mention that it leaves a far more lasting impression, as I can't think of a single other mostly serious drama that has used such an approach.

This is one of those films that is clearly brilliant, though it is one which I doubt I will watch again. It's a unique study of extremely personal and human frailties.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Westworld: modern TV series + original 1973 film

Like millions of other viewers, my wife and I have become faithful viewers of HBO's latest hit show, Westworld. When there were only a couple of episodes left in the season, I also decided to watch the source movie, released in 1973 and written and directed by none other than Michael Crichton.
Yes, they're pretty faces in a pretty setting. But this is exactly
one of the points of the movie, in that the creators of the park
are giving people just what they want. But is it what is best?

TV Series, season 1 (2016)

Creators: Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy

A very solid and creative show that is right up to the standards of the sharp films that Nolan has co-written with with his brother, hyper-successful director Christopher Nolan. So solid, in fact, that I think it may have inadvertently set future seasons up for failure. Maybe.

Based on the 1973 film both written and directed by popular science-fiction writer Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park, Congo), the HBO series takes place in Westworld - a theme park set in an unspecified future (but likely a good century ahead of us here in the early 21st) where people can pay a hefty price to live out fantasies is a realistic, mythical Wild West setting. The landscapes, props, and costumes are authentic enough, but the real attractions are the synthetic but extremely lifelike androids that are fashioned in the likeness of various Wild West archetypical characters. These androids, known as "hosts", are advanced to the point that they are indistinguishable from real humans in nearly every way. This realism allows the guests to fully realize their most noble or depraved desires, whether it be to act the sterling hero or the despicable villain. Hosts are sometimes treated well, but much more often are brutally killed, raped, or otherwise abused for the amusement of the guests as they play out various storylines built into the park and its android denizens. Hosts then have their programmed memories wiped clean, their physical injuries repaired, and are then sent back into the park.

A large part of the show's intellectual meat comes from its look at artifical intelligence (A.I.), which is a core component of the hosts and their abilities to seem so very human. The original creators and chief programmers of the hosts, Dr. Robert Ford and his partner Arnold, had a true passion for their craft, though they seemed to have different ideas about the potential for their creations. At the heart of their disagreements was the notion that the hosts could and should be allowed to develop a true consciousness on par with what human beings experience. At the beginning of the series, we start to see some of these idea break through, as some of the hosts begin to exhibit signs of thinking and acting outside of the carefully-scripted and monitored loops that their human creators have programmed into them. This taps into the same themes and questions that have made Frankenstein's monster such a fascinating character for over two centuries.

Unsurprisingly, Anthony Hopkins is brilliant as the powerfully
intelligent and eerily aware Ford - one of the park's two main
creators. Ford's exact motivations and machinations are a few
of the show's several intriguing mysteries.
Like the movies Nolan has been a part of, Westworld is a carefully-crafted and multi-layered tale that uses non-linear storytelling and intrigue to great effect. If one really wants to put everything under a microscope, you can find cracks in it, but I am willing to overlook such flaws. I appreciate that the story really tried something bold and heady, and it succeeded in the most important ways. The notions about just what makes up consciousness and how humans might be able to manufacture some artifical form of it are indeed curious and relevant themes. And seeing how they might affect actual androids is a fun way to go about it. The show smartly blends current fascinations with fantasy lives (video games, anyone?) and period dramas with the larger questions about just who is studying human behaviors and why.

The one issue that sticks with me is that I didn't quite feel the level of emotional impact which I suspect the writers were aiming for. While there are some moments that begin to evoke some sympathy and empathy for the ever-more-aware hosts, for much of this first season, we are reminded constantly that they are synthetic products. For me, this robbed certain scenes and situations of the potential emotional connection one might form with certain characters. This void wasn't as pronounced as the show progressed, but it was certainly there for much of the first half of the ten episodes.

Like many of HBO's best shows, this inaugural season ends with a solid bang. There are some powerful, stylish scenes and sequences, several fun revelations, and a blazing closing scene that leaves us wondering just where the show might go next season. It is difficult to imagine successive seasons having quite the same feel and strengths as this first season, given how much it relied on the slow reveal of the various mysteries and puzzles built into the narrative. Not that the major questions have been answered, it is hard to see how the writers would employ the same techniques as the story continues. I'll certainly be tuning to see just how they do it, but I won't expect exactly the same type of storytelling wizardry as we got in this first season.

The Movie (1973)

Director: Michael Crichton

File this one under the same category as so many science-fictin films of the late-1960s through the early 1970s - some great foundational ideas presented through some pretty shoddy film techniques.

My main reason for watching this movie was obviously my interest in the modern TV show. All through the 80s and '90s, I had always noticed the somewhat striking VHS tape case for Westworld on the shelves of video stores. That strange image of Yul Bryner's glowing eyes always stood out, even if I never picked up the movie and watched it.

Well, allow me to save you all the trouble and tell you that it is hardly worth your time. It's not that the movie is especially bad. Rather, it is typical of science fiction films of the day in that is uses a really intriguing premise - that of using androids which go berserk in an amusement park for humans to live out period fantasies - and stuffs it with filler that adds little to the actual film. Nevermind that the pacing and aesthetic has aged horribly.

Just to save you the time: the movie essentially is based on the same idea the HBO series. The curious addition is that Westworld is not the only themed used in the park. There is also a Medieval World and a Roman World for guests to choose from. Guests pick which fantasy setting they would like to play in, and they live out their noble or depraved fantasies according to their desires. Problems arise, however, when one particularly dangerous android, a gunfighter, goes rogue and starts killing guests. When several other malfunctions prevent the park's operators from stepping in and rectifying the situation, it leaves guests to be murdered or scramble for their very lives.

Again, it's not a bad notion and set up at all. The problem is that the dialogue is painfully hokey, the costumes and sets are cheap, and there is nothing particularly clever about most of the scenes or sequences. One of the only remarkable features is how the scenes of the gunfighter stalking one of the guests seems to be an inspiration for James Cameron's Terminator, which would come out nearly a decade later. Aside from that, the science behind this science fiction movie does not hold up well at all, and its warts are just too large and off-putting to ignore.

Blessedly, the movie is short - under 90 minutes - so it's not much of a time committment. Those whose curiosity was piqued by the HBO show may find a small amount of value in seeing the original source, but keep those expectations low.