Wednesday, May 27, 2015

A Better Tomorrow

OK, I'm beginning to notice an actual trend and it's a shocking one - girls are saving the world! As a delicious counterpoint to the undeniable game-changer that is Mad Max: Fury Road (click here for my post about that film, although there's muchmuchmuch more to write about it!), I recommend Tomorrowland. Reception for this film has been rather meh, which is a shame, so go see it.

Without giving too much away (and the film isn't perfect), Tomorrowland is the bookend to Mad Max in just about every way. It's also crammed full of Easter eggs, since it's a Disney film and Disney owns both Marvel and Star Wars. Look around the "Blast from the Past" store and you'll catch a lot, including toys from director Brad Bird's magnificent Iron Giant film and John Williams' unmistakable triumphant score from Star Wars. George Clooney is disillusioned, Hugh Laurie is chewing the scenery, and newcomers Britt Robertson and Raffey Cassidy shine. Plus - jet packs!

Tomorrowland is all about hope in the here and now, not in some desolate dystopian wasteland. That doesn't have to be our future; we can change it if we only have the will. Yes, it's a film with a moral and that moral is telegraphed and underlined. Yes, some sequences feel like they really should have been animated (ask and ye shall receive - Pixar created an animated sequence for the film, but Bird thought it hurt the pacing of the overall movie, so it was cut. But the Internet saves everything.) But for me, it works. I read some commentary on the film after I watched it, and one line in particular stood out - "When did it become cool to not care?" Tomorrowland asks us to dream bigger and to do better, and even if it's corny, I just don't think that's such a bad idea these days.

This blog is taking a brief vacation break, but I'll be back mid-June with news and thoughts about all sorts of summer movies at that point. And be sure to keep up with Meet Me at the Movies through the new streaming service! Click here for the latest! And if that link doesn't work for you, go to the Cleveland Community College website at clevelandcc.edu and click on the C19TV link at the top, then pick Meet Me at the Movies from the available options!


Wednesday, May 20, 2015

It's a Girl's World!

Funny, but the last three movies I've seen have all prominently featured women and not a single one of the films has been a romantic comedy. The times, they truly are a-changin', my friends. Not everyone is happy about this (particularly a small, extremely vocal group of menfolk who find a female lead character in an action movie some sort of estrogen encroachment), but you just can't get through this world without offending some numbskull or another.

 So - the first (and admittedly weakest) of the three was the "buddy road movie" Hot Pursuit. Starring Reese Witherspoon as a by-the-book cop and the cantilevered Sofia Vergara as a mob moll on the run, this film is just fine. It's a silly, light popcorn movie that's heavy on jokes about the differences between the two women - both in appearance and in temperament. No great shakes, but worth a rental when the time rolls around.

Then there was the science fiction thriller Ex Machina. 2015 seems poised to be the year of the AI movie and Ex Machina is a fine addition to the genre. The title itself is a little bit of a play on words (I'll just leave it at that - go look it up and then ponder a moment) and the movie toys with your perceptions and your allegiances. At what point does a machine become intelligent? At that point, does the machine stop being an "it" and have rights and agency or is it just a fancy word processor? And who's being played? Ex Machina has a great deal of brilliance going on, but it's a quiet, thoughtful film which may cause it to be overlooked in the summer blockbuster season. That would be a shame as Ex Machina is the best artificial intelligence-themed film I've seen in ages.

On the entirely other end of the spectrum is the loud, in-your-face noisefest Mad Max: Fury Road. Directed by George Miller, who directed the first three Mad Max films, thereby giving the world both Mel Gibson and the Thunderdome, this film is a celebration of all things that go *boom*. The violence level means it's not for the kiddies, but if you like your entertainment apocalyptic and over-the-top nuts, this film's for you. Much of the fuss is directed at the role of women in the film, who (shockingly enough) are not portrayed as victims and/or sex kittens. Instead we get young, hard women willing to do hard things to survive, along with biker grandmas who just might save the world. Miller doesn't have to show us sexual violence to have it be an undercurrent of the film and we understand why these women are willing to chuck the security of their bank vault to live on something more like their own terms. Light on dialogue, but hey - you get a blind guitarist strapped to a bank of amps with a bungee cord and that's not CGI! Go and enjoy and seriously - it's a surprisingly balanced film in terms of gender roles.

And be sure to keep up with Meet Me at the Movies through the new streaming service! Click here for the latest! And if that link doesn't work for you, go to the Cleveland Community College website at clevelandcc.edu and click on the C19TV link at the top, then pick Meet Me at the Movies from the available options!

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Whedon's Cantata in B: Age of Ultron

With the national release of Avengers: Age of Ultron, the summer blockbuster season has begun. Much is riding on Ultron for Disney, which owns Marvel and hence, the characters featured in those carefully-planned-for-release-lo-unto-the-next-generation films. Also, Joss Whedon, who directed the first Avengers film, is at the helm again for Ultron, which promised moreMoreMORE! and he's got a lot riding on this one as well. Known for being both a "Marvel boy" who grew up loving these titles and characters and also known for his deft handling of true ensemble casts (Firefly leaps immediately to mind), Whedon brought over $1.5 billion into the Mouse's coffers and there is a great deal of pressure for him to catch that lightning in a bottle again.

He almost does.

Early in Ultron, we see Bruce Banner sitting off to himself after a battle in which his alter-ego, the Hulk, played a pivotal (and highly destructive) part. He's wearing headphones, concentrating not on the banter of his teammates, but rather on the "Casta Diva" aria from Bellini's opera Norma. It's no secret that Whedon likes music - he's a noted Sondheim fan and he crafted both the Buffy episode "Once More with Feeling" and Dr. Horrible. Norma is the story of a powerful Druid priestess who is betrayed first by her love for the enemy and ultimately by her own tribe. The "Casta Diva" aria is a prayer for peace - Norma is trying to protect her lover by cooling the flames of war.

Interesting choice for Banner/Hulk, yes?

I mention this because I think Whedon was trying to write his own version of an opera - or at least a cantata, which is a musical form that has evolved over the years to encompass many different configurations. But I think he forgot that most operas - including Norma - don't really have plots that are all that complicated (ridiculous, maybe, but not complicated). Whedon is notably for his smooth incorporation of large ensemble casts and multiple storylines, so who better to hand Ultron over to? After all, Ultron is setting up Phase 3 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so elements from the past films need to be present here, this story needs to advance and hints need to be dropped for events yet to come. He's got plenty to work with, including a huge cast - not only the core group of Avengers (Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Hulk, Black Widow, and Hawkeye), he's also folding in Ultron, Vision, Scarlet Witch, and Quicksilver, with small parts for everyone from Fury and Maria Hill to Falcon and War Machine.

Whew! I'm tired just from typing the list!

The fact is, Ultron's a good flick. Buy your popcorn and enjoy yourself. There are cool fight scenes, the Hulkbuster suit, a bit of character development, and Vision and Scarlet Witch are just fantastic. (I'm also in favor of about anything that lets Andy Serkis act without motion capture.) But it's not without flaws. He's working with some interesting ideas - security v. freedom, creator v. created, family v. team, and the nature of monstrosity, all with a healthy dose of man's hubris thrown in for good measure. That's a lot of horse to ride.

I keep hearing, "well, Whedon had to do what the studio said, so this isn't really him" and "at least 30 minutes was edited out." All well and good, but Whedon's name is on this, so he owns it - he doesn't just get to claim the quips and the 360-degree heroes' circle. As readers of this blog know, I admire the bejeezus out of Whedon's work, but that in no way means that I think he's above criticism. (I'm looking at you in particular, Dollhouse!) And Ultron is not a perfect movie.

For instance, it's downright clumsy to have everyone in the imaginary town/country (the movie is a bit muddy on that point) of Sokovia speak English with a heavy, vaguely Russian, accent. One element of Marvel's comics that I always enjoyed is the snippets of foreign languages that are then translated at the bottom of the panel - it shows the international focus of the teams and missions - and it feels like Whedon doesn't trust the audience to glance at a few subtitles. Also, while Black Widow still kicks tail and takes names, she's also relegated to "taming the beast" status with a subplot involving the Hulk that just clunks. (Plus, I've seen the "safe word" thing before with Simon and River, so this felt recycled to me.) And really - Tony Stark has gone from being a smartass to just an ass. (By the way, the events of Iron Man 3 apparently didn't happen, based on Tony's "wheee! Lookit me, flying around, perfectly comfortable in my iron skin!" attitude. Then again, I loathed that movie, so . . . )

I get that Ultron is a large-scale set-up for future movies. I just wish I'd been so excited when I saw this one that I squeed! in Marvel-girl delight more.

Whedon's cantata is also his swan song for this franchise - the Russo brothers (of Captain America: Winter Soldier and the upcoming Civil War) take over from here.

Well, at least Hawkeye got some good lines this time.




Sunday, April 26, 2015

Gold Standard

I've fallen a bit behind here with UnfetteredBrilliance and I apologize. However, that doesn't mean I haven't been busy with blog-stuff, so let me update you on the latest!

First - and probably most exciting- Meet Me at the Movies, the weekly movie show I do with Ensley, is finally available as a streamed broadcast! There are several ways to access the show - you can click on the C19 TV link on the home page of Cleveland Community College and then choose Meet Me at the Movies from the available shows, you can just click here, or you can subscribe to the Livestream channel on your Roku device and search for the show through that channel. I've embedding the most recent show (a preview of summer 2015 movies) here in this post and please - spread the word!

In other news, we've seen three movies since I've last posted here. One of them, the recent horror release Unfriended, is a solid "C" and I don't mean that badly. Unfriended does something fresh with the horror genre by having everything take place through screens. The premise is as old as Carrie (and probably goes back further than that) - a high school girl is humiliated and seeks revenge on her tormentors. In Unfriended, the humiliation comes through an embarrassing video that was posted and went viral. The girl at the center of the video kills herself and, on the anniversary of her suicide, takes over her old social media accounts (oh, the product placement!) to torment confessions out of her so-called friends and drive them to suicide. The R rating is mostly for language - the violence is generally seen in very quick smash cuts and is brief. It's more "jump scare" than gore. Interesting for its comments about how much of our lives we live online and how online mistakes can live forever. (By the way, the ABC show Modern Family had an episode ["Connection Lost"] in February that took place entirely through Claire's laptop screen - maybe this is the new thing.)

We also saw It Follows, which is garnering reviews calling it groundbreaking, fresh, and original. I think these critics saw a different movie from the one I saw. I'm not sure exactly *what* "it follows," but it sure isn't any generally-accepted-as-effective guideline for storytelling. Seriously - It Follows doesn't know when it takes place, what time of year it takes place, and isn't too sure about how its own "Big Bad" is supposed to operate. The film's pacing is best described as "lumbering," the cliches are knee-deep, and the score isn't retro as much as it's "we can afford a guy with a synthesizer." Just. Awful. The three-first-named director has a deal to develop a spooky TV show and maybe he'll do better there.

But the bright spot - Woman in Gold. Please, please, please go see this movie! Not only are Dame Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds dazzling in their roles, it's a true story that needs to be told. For you see, the Nazis were art collectors and they certainly weren't going to care about such legal niceties as ownership. The full count of the artwork that was stolen over the course of WW2 will never by known - many pieces were destroyed outright as being "degenerate," while other pieces were carefully transported to private homes of Nazi elites and their lapdogs. In the late 1990s, in an effort to reform its world image after electing Kurt Waldheim (a man with a Nazi past who was implicated in the mass deportation of Jews) to lead the country, Austria changed its laws to make art reparations easier.

Easier. Not easy.

Gustav's Klimt's portrait of an upper-class woman wearing a diamond choker and wringing her hands, titled Woman in Gold was considered one of Austria's greatest artistic treasures. To Maria Altmann, who had fled her home in Vienna as the Nazis tightened their loathsome grip, it was the portrait of her Aunt Adele that had been taken off the walls of her family home and it was high time Adele was reunited with her true family.

Trust me, this is an exciting, taut drama, drawing on themes of family, sacrifice, identity, moving beyond the past, and the hold the past has on us. Both Mirren and Reynolds do magnificent jobs making their characters true people, complete with sharp edges, rather than two-dimensional saints who have no flaws. Also of note are Tatiana Maslany, who plays the young Maria Altmann (you know Maslany from her incredible work on Orphan Black) and Daniel Bruhl who plays Hubertus Czerin, a resident of current-day Vienna who is an ally of Maria's in her seemingly-impossible quest.

Summer movie madness hits next week - I already have my tickets for Avengers: Age of Ultron. How about you?

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Lagniappe!

I'm still ramping back up to my usual level of go-go-go, but I haven't been totally sloth-like. This column is a lagnaippe for you - a little bonus to go with your usual reading, since this blog has been a little off its feed as I travel through my convalescent stage.  Ensley and I just finished an episode of our weekly movie show "Meet Me at the Movies" (soon to be available through streaming, which has us both excited) that centered on one of the Grand Dames of American cinema, Katharine Hepburn.

So much to discuss there - 4 Oscars, all for Best Leading Actress (Morning Glory [1933], Guess Who's Coming to Dinner [1967, when she tied with Barbra Streisand for Funny Girl], The Lion in Winter [1968, making her one of the rare back-to-back winners], and On Golden Pond [1981]). Her insistence on living by her own lights, even when that got her deemed "box office poison" for her tailored slacks and unvarnished opinions.

And her 25-year love affair with Spencer Tracy, with whom she did nine films, including Adam's Rib (1949) and Pat & Mike (1952) which featured Hepburn's athleticism. Tracy was a good Catholic and he never divorced his wife. Hepburn respected that relationship, and did not attend Tracy's funeral, instead spending the day at a friend's house. The friend protected her privacy and screened Tracy's Oscar-winning film Captains Courageous (1937) for her.

There's also The Philadelphia Story in 1940. She made that one after her lover, Howard Hughes, bought her the film rights as a present. There's The African Queen with Humphrey Bogart in 1951 and there's the film she viewed as her crowning triumph, 1962's adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's shattering Long Day's Journey into Night.

Kate Hepburn - what a dame! Treat yourself to one or a half dozen of her films, won't you? If you're feeling silly, start with Bringing Up Baby - Cary Grant, Kate, a leopard, and hey - a dinosaur!

Also, I picked up my responsibilities with BiffBamPop and put out a column about radiation and bug movies. Seemed like a suitable topic, given the last five months or so. It refers to a truly bad movie called The Killer Shrews which starred a very young James Best, who went out to fame as Roscoe P. Coltrane on The Dukes of Hazzard. Mr. Best was a gentleman of the first order and he took his final bow on this earthly stage a few days ago.

Lastly, I've been breathlessly watching Better Call Saul, which has been renewed for another season. I wasn't sure about this show at first - spinoffs are a tricky business. For every Maude or Frasier, there is an AfterMASH or The Ropers. 


I can report with complete delight that Better Call Saul is a gem. Watching Jimmy McGill try so hard to stay on the straight and narrow and run into wall after wall, you develop a sort of sympathy for him. I don't want to spoil it - really, this is one you should watch - but Bob Odenkirk is a find whose talents go beyond being the outlandish Saul Goodman we saw in Breaking Bad and the supporting cast is likewise fantastic. Both shows have some similarity in themes - both Walter and Jimmy want respect for their efforts and talents - but BCS is no mere copy of BrBa.

There now - I've given you plenty to go explore!  Back soon!