Monday, August 22, 2016

The Darkness Among Us

Taking a break from late-summer movies to re-visit a classic in this post - Fritz Lang's M. That's right, just one letter - M. Originally released in 1931 (and quickly banned by the Nazis once they took power in 1933), M is often hailed as both the first police procedural film and the first "serial killer" film. (So, for everyone who thinks old films have to be dusty and boring - you have just revealed yourself as someone who hasn't seen M. Go take care of that, won't you?) It's the film that made Peter Lorre, who until M was known as a comic actor, an overnight global star, albeit one associated with snivelling weasels of characters. Yes, it's in black-and-white and the dialogue is in German, so you have to read subtitles. Rise to the challenge - you won't regret it.

Fritz Lang's story of the hunt for a sadistic child killer is both less graphic and more creepy than many horror films made today. In 1931, filmmakers were still figuring out what film could do and in this, Lang's first "talkie," Lang uses sound to great effect. While only about two-thirds of the film has sound, that absence makes the other one-third otherworldly as we move abruptly from sound to silence. The identity of the murderer is never really in doubt - M is all about the fear engendered by a seemingly-ordinary fellow who has some sort of evil inside him that compels him to kill the most innocent among us. Stand-up citizens become hyper-alert, forming an impromptu mob when an elderly man is seen talking with a young girl on the street. The exhausted police force is willing to strong-arm citizens (both stand-up and otherwise) to uncover the monster preying on Berlin's children. The criminal underworld is outraged that they are being lumped in with an inhuman killing machine. Only the killer goes about his day, cheerfully whistling "In the Hall of the Mountain King" from Grieg's Peer Gynt. (By the way, the "stunt whistling" is done by Lang himself and this marked the first time a musical theme was used to identify a particular character - a trick used by opera for years.) M also asks two questions that have been around at least since Euripides' Medea - are those who kill children evil, or merely sick? And, in any event, what's to be done with them?

M is genuinely astonishing. Small details carry so much visual weight - the empty place set at the kitchen table, the detritus of the criminals' hasty scurrying-away from the office building in which the murderer has sought shelter, the dark shadows that hide the criminals' kangaroo court, The similarities between the police and the criminal underground as made obvious, both in common camera set-ups used by both and by shared character traits. (And smoking. Lots and lots of smoking.) Oh, and there actually was a sort of Beggars' Guild in Berlin at the time.

Part of what makes M such a standout film is the fact that it doesn't let us off the hook. Parents know there's a murderer on the loose, yet many children still wander around alone. Then parents are willing to rip an innocent man limb from limb without any sort of police presence. At its heart, M's lesson is that we're all responsible for each other - a lesson the Nazis rising to power in the waning days of the Weimar Republic, roundly ignored.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Summer Barrels Onward!

 Continuing the summer movies-as-escape season, DC's latest, Suicide Squad, has been released. I admit, I had high hopes for this one and it certainly is a fine way to get out of the oppressive Carolina heat-&-humidity for two hours, but aside from that, I fear it has little to recommend it. The movie was plagued by rumors of a bad case of "too many cooks in the kitchen" - after the phenomenal success of Deadpool, cast members were rushed back to film some additional scenes to "make it funnier" since, after the less-than-stellar audience reaction to Batman v Superman, DC was desperate to avoid a third straight critical flop.

The film had a big opening weekend, but I predict it fades faster than a firework. The movie's a mess and I'm not sure who to blame. The tone is all over the place, character development is limited to each character getting one pick from the toybox of "tragic character backstories," and could Harley Quinn please wear shoes that are a little more practical for what she's doing? (The booty shorts are altogether another issue - Margot Robbie deserves better and she's going to have a tough, tough time being treated as a "serious" actress while she's taking roles like this. Harley, as I recall her, has considerably more agency and moxie than this lovesick psychopath.) The soundtrack is fantastic, but the way the songs are used makes the movie feel more like a video - there's flash and dash, but there's no there there. And yes, Jared Leto does a nice Joker, but (spoiler!) he's in the film for about ten minutes. It was just disappointing and it could have been so much more.

So why wasn't it? I think it boils down to DC trying to do in six months what Marvel took six years to do. They're too impatient to do a slow, careful build, so you wind up with a hot mess like this. And not all the Marvel movies have been over-the-back-fence home runs, either, but when you're trying to work with an ensemble, it helps to introduce them and give them traits (plural) instead of cardboard dialogue and one note to play. DC wanted this to be their Guardians of the Galaxy. It isn't.

Meanwhile, I enjoyed Bad Moms more than I expected to. This one's a rental, but a fun one. There's an unexpected streak of sweet running through this admittedly-raunchy comedy about a mom driven too far by the expectations put on her by her kids, other moms, her work, and her (slacker) husband to be all things to all people, all the time. When Amy (Mila Kunis) erupts, it's cathartic. Everyone who's ever felt overworked and underappreciated will see themselves in this film and if you're a mom, it'll take on a poignant level of "oh God, it's funny 'cause it's true!" Certainly not a documentary, Bad Moms has sympathy for those women who keep the world turning, one car-pool at a time. The filmed is helped by a strong cast (Kathryn Hahn is amazing!) and Christina Applegate as the mom who has it all together and heads up the middle school bake sale like a SEAL Black Ops mission, is worth the price of admission. Jada Pinkett-Smith, however, is criminally underused as a mere "yes, boss" character. Be sure to stay through the credits - there are some wonderful, unscripted bits there with the moms of the main cast.

Lastly, if you're not watching Netflix's Stranger Things, start tonight! This eight-episode thriller-mystery is one of the best things I've seen in months and - if you grew up in the 80s, you're going to especially love the nods to your childhood. The events in this movie simply couldn't happen today because no one is going to allow their kids to roam that free anymore. Monsters in the woods aside, that's kind of a shame. (Plus, science teachers just aren't as cool anymore. I blame Walter White. Click here for more information!Stranger Things will make you consider hanging your Christmas lights early this year, then maybe sitting down with a plateful of Eggos. Winona Ryder, please come back - all is forgiven!

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Space, Pets, Giants, and Ghosts

I've been doing a fair amount of plate-spinning lately, so this post will be a bit of a mixed bag. Those who dare, venture onward!

First off, the Babylon 5 project has entered the Crusade phase. We've finished with the movies, some of which are pretty good and a couple of which, well - a couple of which aren't so great, and we've moved into the short-lived spinoff, which certainly has some behind-the-scenes drama. At any rate, we leave for vacation Friday and are under strict orders from our lovely editor to not work on vacation, so my goal is to have all of Crusade annotated before we skedaddle. We got a little behind here since we also needed to prepare our panels for the local Comic Con. Our first panel was on Babylon 5 and we were pleased at the enthusiasm of the audience. Hopefully, that event will happen again and we'll have even more to discuss!

Second, if you enjoyed Breaking Bad (you know I did; Ensley and I wrote a book about it!), check for deep discounts on Amazon and buy yourself Showtime's Ray DonovanCurrently in Season 4, this show about a Irish Southie transplanted to sunny L.A. where he works as a "fixer" to clean up the messes of the rich and famous while his own family's complications pile up is one of the best things I've seen in a while. I'm late to the party on this one, but I expect to enjoy Liev Schreiber and the amazing cast of Ray Donovan for quite a while. (About the cast - it's beyond amazing! When you can get Elliott Gould and James Woods in supporting roles - well, you run with that!) Mind you, it's dark and violent and profane and certainly not for the kiddies, so please keep that in mind.

OK - movie news and thoughts. Sorry these are so short this go-round, but needs must.

The Secret Life of Pets - get there early; there's a short. Much like what Pixar does, Illumination Entertainment put a cartoon (this one features the Minions) in before the movie itself. I saw this in a theater teeming with children who seemed to eat up this adventurous tale of dogs roaming the city while their owners are away. Good vocal talent, and one lovely scene that's a nod to Busby Berkeley 1930s musicals. Plus Kevin Hart as a homicidal bunny and Modern Family's Eric Stonestreet as an extremely unkempt Newfoundland. Fast-paced and funny, but not an automatic classic.

The BFG is getting creamed at the box office and that's a shame. It's a solid picture, with a breakout performance by Ruby Barnhill as Sophie (named for author Roald Dahl's granddaughter). Penelope Wilton (you saw her in Shaun of the Dead and Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, plus she's Harriet Jones in the rebooted Dr. Who) is the Queen of England, complete with corgis and is having a wonderful time. Mark Rylance, fresh off his Oscar win for Spielberg's Bridge of Spies, voices the BFG.

The detail that went into creating this one is astonishing - three differently-sized sets? - and the end result is visually stunning. I think the pace might just be too languid for most audiences, especially if they're expecting the frenetic pace of Dory and Pets. Also, this is not a kids' film that has much in it for adults. (That's the trick Pixar has perfected, you know.) Further, Dahl never had a problem addressing the darker side of things and Disney didn't quite know how to market that. It's a beautiful, sweet movie and everything turns out all right in the end - it deserves a bigger audience than it's getting.

Lastly, let's talk Ghostbusters. It's beyond a pity; it's a crying shame that in 2016, there's a small segment of men who are so scared of women that they deliberately run down a film, hoping to make it tank at the box office. But ever since this reboot was announced, that's been happening. Leslie Jones, who is PHENOMENAL in this film, has been driven off Twitter by racist, hateful squawking from men who have enough trouble with women, but add race into it and I'm surprised their pinheads didn't just 'splode. So let me attempt to be fair here.

It's a good movie. I wasn't sure about a reboot, as I like the original one tremendously. But there are enough original jokes in here, with enough nods to the original, to make it worth your while. You get cameos from all the original Ghostbusters (yes, even Egon), as well as Annie Potts and (yes!) Sigourney Weaver - even the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man shows up. There's a bonus if you stay all the way to the end, so make plans to do that. While Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig are funny, Jones and Kate McKinnon nearly steal the show. The only reason they don't is due to Chris Hemsworth, who plays Kevin, a lovable, brainless lunk whose multiple eccentricities manage to be charming. Did I love all of it? Nope - especially not the re-worked theme song, but there's plenty here to keep you entertained through your popcorn.

OK. That's it until August. Enjoy these dog days of summer and try hard to pass them in a nice, air-conditioned theater!

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

"Based on a True Story"

Recently, I've been up to my chin in Season 5 of Babylon 5 for the upcoming Dreams Given Form project. Season 5 is now drafted and will be off to our intrepid editor in the next day or two - Ensley and I always write, then breathe, and then check each other's drafts before we send the first draft off to our editor. Since Season 5 serves as the denouement in the structure of JMS' television novel, it's quieter in places than earlier seasons (and truth be told, there's one storyline I'm not a gigantic fan of, but I'll grudgingly agree that it's there for a solid reason). But it also contains some gut-punches of episodes. So it's been quite a ride. The movies and Crusade are next for me.

But we've had a little down time, and we used it to (of course!) check out movies for the C19TV show we host Meet Me at the Movies. (We're available through streaming, remember! Click here for details!) On top of spending a few mindless evening devouring Rifftrax on Hulu - with their help, I finally made it all the way through the genuinely godawful Plan 9 from Outer Space and we also caught the extraordinary weird early films Maniac and the so-inaccurate-it's-hilarious Reefer Madness - we also caught two first-run films that seem to have nothing in common and then I realized that they both purport to be based on true stories.

And aside from that, Free State of Jones and The Conjuring 2 have nothing - NOTHING - in common. To begin with, I liked Free State.

Set in Mississippi during the American Civil War and the Reconstruction period, Free State is the story of Newton Knight, a dirt farmer conscripted into serving as a medic for the Confederacy. The problem is that Knight sees the entire conflict as "a rich man's war and a poor man's fight." Like a massive number of Southern soldiers, Knight owns no slaves and doesn't much care for the laws passed by the Confederacy that allowed rich men who did to ride out the war well away from the front lines. He eventually deserts and goes home to his farm, where he discovers that the poor farmers he grew up with are barely scraping by, since most of their crops, hogs, and other livestock are being "requisitioned" by the Confederacy to feed the troops. Few men remain behind, so it's women and thin children being starved and scared. Unable to live quietly - deserters aren't popular with any army - Knight eventually becomes the de facto commander of an army of deserters who might not exactly be Union sympathizers, but they surely hate the Confederacy's high-handedness. That's an attitude that only grows after the war ends and things remain bad, bad, bad.

There's a bit of the "white savior" problem in Free State, and Matthew McConaughey's Knight is terribly enlightened for his time. Then again, I've often said, "Don't get your history from movies." You can easily fact-check Free State (try here or here, for example!) So, take it with a grain of salt. But I quite enjoyed it - even the storyline of the 1948 case of Davis Knight that's interspersed in the film kept my interest. Race is a problem in this country and it has been for a long, long time. That doesn't mean it must always be that way, but Free State gives you an inkling of just how high those walls we're trying to tear down were originally built.

The Conjuring 2, on the other hand, claims to be based on the "true story" of Ed and Lorraine Warren ghost-hunting in England. Similar to the first film - and Annabelle, which tells the story of a creepy haunted doll (the real one is a Raggedy Ann doll, which you just can't make scary) - such claims are hogwash. The Warrens are hucksters and flim-flam artists of the first order and the liberties taken with this film continue that trend. Their Website is laughably bad - misspellings and other errors that I would never let a student get by with adorn its pages, which look to have been designed in the mid-90s. While I'll admit to being open to the idea that some places/things are certainly creepy and that "there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy," the Warrens are distilled nonsense. (Plus, there's no actual "conjuring," a problem I had with the first movie as well.)

Whatever, scary movies don't have to be true. What really got me about Conjuring 2 was how well it reinforces the notion that horror movies tend to be incredibly conservative in their messages. Think about it - the girl who enjoys sex usually gets killed first (and often in a way that can be read as a substitute for penetration), and the virgin is usually the one to survive. In this film, so much comes down to "single motherhood is bad." (As is showing skin - Lorraine Warren's nightgowns and other costumes are practically Victorian.) The film has some worthy jump scares, but I'm still unsure why it's rated R. Language isn't terrible, no nudity, and no graphic violence. Plenty scary for young ones, though, so be careful on that front.

To sum up - Babylon 5 continues to impress, Rifftrax will cure what ails ya, Free State of Jones will make you re-think a few assumptions about the Civil War, and Conjuring 2 will make you re-think keeping that chair that came with the house.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Under the Sea

The ever-reliable Pixar has released the follow up to 2003's wildly successful Finding Nemo and I'm glad to announce that it's well worth the overpriced popcorn bucket. Finding Dory has Nemo and his daddy Marlin, but focuses the story on Dory, the blue tang fish with a short-term memory problem. (That element, by the way, is played beautifully. Dory isn't quirky; she's disabled by her condition and she's learned a vast array of coping mechanisms that would be excellent conversation-starters with kids.)

It's Pixar (Disney; doesn't the Mouse own everything yet?), so I don't need to tell you that the film is almost unearthly in its beauty. The underwater world gives the artists so much to play with - color, the play of light on plants and sand, wave and water ripples, shafts of sunlight that cut through the top few feet of water, and animals galore. But what's always set Pixar aside for me is not just the beauty of their work; it's the strength of their stories. While Finding Dory isn't Up, which for me continues to be the high-water mark of Pixar's films, it's a solid movie.

Some of that has to do with the vocal talent. In addition to Ellen DeGeneres reprising her role as Dory, you have Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy as Dory's long-lost parents, Albert Brooks as the long-suffering Marlin and Idris Elba as a quite rude sea lion. Modern Family is well represented with Ty Burrell playing a echolocation-challenged beluga whale and Ed O'Neill nearly steals the show as an octopus who desperately wants to get to Cleveland. Oh, and Sigourney Weaver as herself. Go - you'll understand.

Finding Dory is one of those rare gems - a kids' movie that looks great and has enough going on to keep the interest of the adults in the crowd as well.

You could do far worse for summer!

But please - no matter how much your children like the movie, don't buy a blue tang as a pet. Or a clownfish, for that matter. Leave Nemo and Dory to the salt water they belong in.