Thursday, October 2, 2014

2014 Blind Spots Series: Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain

What makes a film worthy to win Best Picture? It’s a silly question and essentially meaningless given the politics, but it comes to mind when thinking about Brokeback Mountain. The 2006 awards season pointed to an Oscar win for the Ang Lee film, and it was stunning to watch Crash bring home the prize. Given all the votes involved in choosing the winner, it’s problematic to read too much into the Academy’s choice. Regardless, their pick has not aged well and frequently appears on lists of the worst Best Picture winners. That may not be fair to Paul Haggis’ film, but it’s no stretch to say that nominees like Good Night, and Good Luck and Brokeback Mountain have had longer staying power. The fact that the latter was chosen for my Blind Spots series gives a clear indication of where it stands.

Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal star as cowboys that meet in 1963 and strike up a romance. Ennis and Jack are the stoic men of a different era and wouldn’t seem out of place in the Old West. They’re living in a modern culture that forces them to scrounge for odd jobs to make ends meet, however. Mainstream society isn’t ready to accept them as a couple. It’s a culture of fear where discovery can lead to more than ridicule. Being different can lead to a brutal death, and there’s little these guys can do. Ennis recognizes the situation and pulls so far within himself that he barely exists. His words come out as quiet grumbles, and there’s little joy to experience. Jack is more up front and willing to take chances, but that creates its own set of problems. Across the decades, they get married and have families. Daily life is misery, and only the short “fishing trips” give them the respite to keep living.

Michelle Williams as Alma in Brokeback Mountain

Lee’s film focuses on the absence of happiness and how it damages these men. They try to live a normal life by society’s standards, but memories of the brief meetings aren’t enough. Ennis marries Alma (Michelle Williams) and has two beautiful daughters, but the joys are few and far between. Instead of providing comfort, the kids are screaming obstacles. We don’t see the happy moments for the girls, and things only get worse once Alma discovers his secret. It’s frustrating to watch them try to confine to social norms because it just creates stress and anger. Ennis drinks too much and walks meekly through his home, and his demeanor only changes when Jack arrives. It’s a rough experience for him but just as bad for Alma, who quietly endures his lack of interest. Williams does a brilliant job showing the sadness that keeps growing until their inevitable divorce.

There’s less time spent with Jack and his wife Lureen (Anne Hathaway), but there are subtle hints of their downward spiral. Lureen is a force of nature in her first appearance as a rodeo rider and has one of those giant personalities that can’t be contained. There’s less excitement from her after they marry, and she’s reduced to sitting behind an adding machine and watching their money dwindle. It’s a sour life that isn’t in the same condition as Ennis’ marriage but is hardly thrilling. Adapted from a short story by Annie Proulx, the screenplay from Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana shows the negative impact on more than Jack and Ennis. They’re forced to try and adapt, and it just leads to pain for everyone.

Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain, directed by Ang Lee

Brokeback Mountain was filmed in Wyoming and Alberta, and the incredible scenery creates a classic feel. Ennis and Jack can be themselves in these isolated spots, though staying there forever is a fading dream. These shots contrast sharply with the constrictive moments at home. We feel trapped inside the houses right along with the characters. The camera moves closer and gives the impression that the walls are closing in around them. The final scene at Ennis’ trailer makes it feel like he’s living inside a small box. The wide-open spaces of nature may be right outside, but he remains within the cramped home. The Oscar-winning score from Gustavo Santaolalla (Babel) plays in the background as Ennis recalls happier times. The promise of freedom is still there, but it’s been lost along with his friend.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Reconsidering Stargate Universe: "Water" and "Earth"

Stargate Universe's season one episode "Water"

One deep breath and you’re dead.” - Young

Although it uses a serialized format, SGU separates its early episodes with a new problem to solve each time. There’s a different challenge in “Water”, but it feels like a direct sequel to “Air, Part 3”. The obvious reason is the return of the dust bugs, but there’s also a structure that appears a bit too similar to the earlier episode. Destiny is losing water at an alarming rate, which forces Young and Scott to make a daring mission onto a dangerous planet for more. Time is running out for the duo, and unexpected challenges put Scott’s life in jeopardy. Despite a familiar pattern, there’s still forward movement for the characters and interesting moments to consider. They’re figuring out how to work together and stumbling along the way, yet there’s a growing confidence from the mismatched group.

This week’s planet is “the Hoth System” (as Eli cleverly paints it), and it’s the first use of the ancient space suits. Young and Scott are clad in the heavy dark suits, and they’re hardly designed for easy movement. Unlike most worlds in SG-1, these planets aren’t the best for human survival. It’s another way that SGU moves closer to reality yet still presents an outer-space environment. There are difficulties at every turn in the quest for ice, and Scott’s dire situation feels inevitable. This planet offers valuable resources but isn’t the type of place you can stomp around without some obstacles. The down-to-earth problem of getting water in a poisonous world fits with the show’s less flashy approach. It’s a challenge to keep this style from becoming too dry for even the most engaged viewers, however.

Alaina Huffman as TJ in Stargate Universe's "Water"

The most interesting aspect is the leadership role for T.J., who showed those skills versus Telford immediately after they arrived. She’s willing to make the tough choices to battle the dust bugs, even when the search kills one of their own. Gorman’s death is startling given the lack of violence thus far. We’ve seen little blood despite the dangers facing them, and watching him get engulfed by aliens that were initially considered harmless is quite a shock. T.J. connects with Greer and has enough military knowledge to earn his respect. She’s down to earth and tells him the truth, and that’s all it takes with a guy with little patience for chicanery. Instead of sitting around hoping that Scott and Young make it back, T.J. and Greer take charge and solve the situation on the Destiny before time expires.

Unlike its predecessor, “Earth” takes a different approach and focuses on the situation at home. Eli, Chloe, and Young meet up with family and friends out of their past life. It shows how much they’ve changed since they left, especially with Chloe. Her shallow friends come off as ridiculous, uncaring idiots more concerned with status than people. Telford and his young scientists are trying a daring move to get everyone home from the Destiny, but that’s secondary to the story on Earth. The script from Martin Gero relies on the fact that we’re interested enough in the characters to stick with them away from the ship. Gero is an SGA veteran who penned many of its trademark episodes, but his writing fits just fine in this universe. He injects light moments that focus less on the big issues.

Richard Dean Anderson as Jack O'Neill in SGU's "Earth"

Richard Dean Anderson returns again as Jack O’Neill, and his conversation with Young puts an interesting take on the heroic moves in SG-1. A guy who once disregarded orders to do the right thing can do little but watch Telford jeopardize them all with a foolish plan. There’s much left unsaid by O’Neill that reminds us of the guy we once knew. He might seem out of place in this complex world, but it’s possible the character has adjusted because of the official position. O’Neill struggled with staying at home in SG-1’s eighth season, and it doesn’t get any easier the further way he gets from the action. Young’s admiration for O’Neill and move to stand by his people is no surprise and shows his disregard for career advancement. This connects to Young’s reconciliation with his wife during this trip. Despite being in Telford’s body, he showed enough honesty and remorse to win her back. Of course, their reunion is fleeting because of the obvious fact that he’s millions of light years away.

The communications stones offer an opportunity but also create new challenges for several reasons. First of all, there’s no guarantee the person won’t do something indiscreet while inhabiting that body. Young has sex with his wife but is using Telford’s body, and some glitches put Telford back inside his body at a highly inopportune time. It’s the type of scene that could bring laughs, but the final shot of Telford visiting Young’s wife shows that it isn’t a joke for him. Chloe and Eli go to a Janelle Monae concert on Earth, and she gets very drunk and kisses him in the other body. It doesn’t go anywhere and reinforces their status as just friends, but it’s interesting how the different bodies affect them. Eli dances with an attractive girl and loves it, though it happens because of his handsome exterior.

David Blue and Elyse Levesque watch Janelle Monae in SGU's "Earth"

The other barrier with the stones is the opportunity they give people like Telford to reach the Destiny and  gain control. He doesn’t understand the situation and believes the mess is caused by poor management. Young has faced dire situations and just recorded a video for a dead crew member, and it’s a miracle they’ve survived. “Earth” gives the clear sense that the officials at home don’t believe the Destiny is a great discovery. Instead, they treat it like a nuisance that must go away to avoid bad PR. The worst is the IOC representative Carl Strom (Carlo Rota), who only cares for the political opportunities. He uses Wray to make their plans happen, but it’s a hollow offer to gain control. Despite the chance to visit family, this episode makes a strong case that the stones cause more problems than they solve.

The first batch of SGU episodes focuses on just trying to fulfill basic needs aboard the Destiny. Titles like “Air” and “Water” are clear indicators of the situation. The next phase begins with “Earth”, which digs further into the characters and sets up the ship as their long-term home. Rush creates a show to stop an awful plan, but it does more than save their lives. It also separates them further from Earth and eliminates the idea that rescue is imminent. The next step is finding a way to live together and overcome their differences, and that won’t be easy. Spencer, Franklin, and others are ready to revolt, and even Rush isn’t entirely trustworthy. Young’s choice to have Eli look into Rush’s findings (and spy on others) says plenty about their current environment. They’ve overcome huge obstacles and have plenty more ahead, but the greatest danger remains within their ranks.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Blockbusters Marathon: The Amazing Spider-man 2 (2014)

Spider-man floats towards New York in The Amazing Spider-man 2.

The first weekend in May has become the signal to audiences that the summer movie season has truly begun. We’re seeing recent changes that push this timing even earlier, but prominent releases still arrive in early May. It’s been the spot where all three Iron Man films earned huge box office returns and Sam Raimi’s Spider-man 3 blew away the competition in 2007. Sony introduced plenty of head-scratching when they decided to reboot the Spider-man franchise only five years later in 2012. They dropped the new version in early July, and it drew solid reviews and crowds. This set the stage for a much larger push for a sequel with a lot more at stake. The marketing push for The Amazing Spider-man 2 started rolling last summer and continued ferociously throughout the winter. It was easy to lose interest in the sequel months before its release because of the vigilant campaign. Following the gargantuan success of The Avengers, the stakes had reached a new high for every superhero franchise.

Did Sony over reach with its marketing? The constant news and small reveals wore down my interest and made skipping it an easy choice. It promised a lot more than it could possibly deliver in terms of villains and story. They kept the title on everyone’s minds throughout the spring, but that isn’t always a good thing. There’s a fine line between making people aware of a release and overwhelming them. An image that hints at Dr. Octopus or The Vulture is a nice touch in the movie, but selling us on greater involvement is misleading. These moves shouldn’t impact our assessment of a film, yet it does play a role. If you’re entering a movie with skepticism before the first image appears, it takes a lot to change those perceptions. Even those viewers that try avoid trailers and news could not escape this push.

There’s a danger when a film has goals beyond delivering an effective and entertaining story. Before The Amazing Spider-man 2 was even released, Sony made it clear this was a first step in a series of spin-offs. It’s clear throughout this film that those considerations muted a possibly interesting look at the challenges of being a superhero. The chemistry between real-life couple Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield was a key reason the 2012 film worked. They’re pushed too far to the background this time behind multiple villains and Peter’s search for information about his father. I’m a fan of complicated mythologies in certain cases, but it’s hard to care when the emotional connection is lost. The third-act surprise lacks the same impact because of the messiness in front of it. What should be a tragic moment feels cheap because it’s lost within a flimsy structure. The scene is done well but can only do so much by that point.

Jamie Foxx as Electro in The Amazing Spider-man 2.

Streamlining the villains in super hero films is a wise choice but rarely followed. Jamie Foxx’s Electro generates impressive effects but doesn’t work because there’s little sympathy for Max. That understanding is what made Alfred Molina’s Dr. Octopus such an interesting bad guy in Raimi’s Spider-man 2. There are remarkable shots of Electro leaping from spot to spot while Spider-man avoids his attacks. They’re beautiful and probably looked even more amazing in 3D. This film is CGI-heavy yet rarely dull with so much happening with the visuals. The problem is giving us nothing with the enemies. Electro disappears for a long time in the second act, and we barely miss him. There’s an interesting story about him buried somewhere, but it’s lost behind an even less thrilling villain.

Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) is a familiar name from both the comics and the movies. He’s a close friend of Peter and eventually becomes a rival. If you didn’t know that history, the portrayal in this film would be very confusing. Harry is all over the map and shifts between kindness and insanity without warning. It’s hard to know the reasons for this inconsistent guy, but my theory is that much was left on the cutting room floor. Where’s the time for character development when you’re trying to create a franchise? Despite his importance to the climax, Harry seems like a throwaway role that was dropped into the plot to build the other projects. DeHaan is a talented actor who’s delivered strong performances in films like Chronicle and The Place Beyond the Pines. Few could do much with this character, however.

Andrew Garfield stars as Peter Parker in The Amazing Spider-man 2.

It’s easy to spend many paragraphs digging into the strange choices by Director Marc Webb and the multiple writers that penned the script. There’s a point where that becomes tiresome, however. I’m interested in how much the final product succeeded in meeting their goals. Andrew Garfield recently blamed the studio for forcing cuts that ruined the film. His passion is endearing and comes from a place of loving the character. It does feel like there was an interesting film that could have been salvaged. It’s too easy for me to say that cutting 20 minutes would change the result. A running time of 142 minutes feels too long for this material, but that’s more because the story isn’t that engaging. Even a shorter version of this material could deliver a similar result because the tone doesn’t connect like it should.

If there’s a precursor to this film from the Marvel releases, it’s Iron Man 2. We’d seen a few brief appearances from S.H.I.E.L.D. in previous films, but they’d fit smoothly within the story or appeared at the end. This movie introduced multiple villains (including one that disappeared for a while) and crammed in so much plot that didn’t enhance the narrative. The S.H.I.E.L.D. side trip in the third act felt out of place and killed the momentum. It’s a rare example where Marvel picked shootouts over character. Looking at the franchise on the whole, it did help set the stage for The Avengers. This example shows the challenges of trying to construct a massive franchise on par with Marvel. The rewards are huge, but it’s easy to lose sight of the primary goal of delivering a successful movie.

The Amazing Spider-man 2 is bookended by fights between our hero and Aleksei Sytsevich (Paul Giamatti), who becomes the Rhino for the second battle. Having a star of Giamatti’s stature in the opening scene leads us to believe he’ll return for a later moment. Instead, he’s only present to act as a bridge to the Sinister Six. Giamatti uses a ridiculous European accent that’s purposely designed to be outlandish and induce laughs. The problem is that most of the others don’t share the joke. Peter Parker is tormented by his inability to protect everyone, including Gwen Stacy’s father (Denis Leary). As Spider-man, he uses the corny humor that’s common for that character. What’s strange is how awkward it feels when you consider this version of Peter Parker.

The Amazing Spider-man 2, directed by Marc Webb

There’s a striking look to both Spider-man movies from Marc Webb that makes this film work at times. Director of Photography Dan Mindel (Star Trek) creates a world of vivid blues and blacks with a cool smoothness. The dark blue from the Spider-man costume leaps off the screen, and the lighter shades from Electro’s weapons give an interesting palette. These shots are gorgeous when taken out of context, but they’re part of loud action scenes that are often hard to follow. New York City looks striking during the big fights, including the first showdown in Times Square. It’s a movie designed to play on the largest IMAX screens around, and it surely pleased some audiences. Watched at home on a smaller scale, there isn’t enough beyond the chaos to deliver an engaging movie. It’s the worst example of world building at the expense of character, and the future looks murky for the franchise.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Blockbusters Marathon: An Introduction

Guardians of the Galaxy, directed by James Gunn

The summer of 2014 was filled with tentpole releases that pummeled the audience into submission. There’s a tipping point where few people have the willingness to keep up with all the big films. These blockbusters start to feel too familiar, and even the more unique movies get lost in the shuffle. Which of these year’s examples will stand the test of time? It’s a tricky question to answer in late September. This was a busy summer beyond the film world, so I wasn’t able to catch most of the studios’ big-budget releases. The benefit is having a wealth of possibilities to explore at home this fall. The reputations of these selections vary widely, so it will be interesting to see which ones surprise me.

Why spend time on blockbusters? Is there anything left to say about them? There are hundreds of reviews on IMDB, and I do wonder if anyone will still care about these films. On the other hand, the extra months bring additional context to the analysis. It allows me to explore why audiences shied away from certain films and adored others. I’ll discuss the themes and form in each choice while taking a different approach to the review. Did the marketing hurt its chances? It will be interesting to watch so many of the year’s major releases within a short period of time. I hope my senses can take all the action.

If you’d like to follow along, here is the marathon schedule for the upcoming weeks:

The Amazing Spider-man 2 (9/29)
Guardians of the Galaxy (10/6)
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (10/13)
Edge of Tomorrow (10/20)

I will try to add others within these weeks like Godzilla and X-Men: Days of Future Past if time allows. One title that won’t make the list is Transformers: Age of Extinction. My interest has limits, even when you’re talking about action-packed blockbusters. I’ll update this page with links as the series progresses. If there’s one major studio film that deserves my attention, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Reconsidering Stargate Universe: “Darkness” and “Light”

SGU's "Light" and amazing visual effects from Jim Menard

I’m telling you, this ship came here for a reason!” – Scott

One of the major decisions that impacted SGU’s early run was splitting the fourth episode “Fire” into two separate hours. The result was “Darkness” and “Light”, and both episodes now had room to breathe. The extra time gives us a chance to learn more about the characters through the Kino interviews. Eli speaks with many of the supporting players to document their experience. The grim situation offers little chance for survival. Everyone handles this prospect differently; some like Rush have nothing to say. It’s a familiar device that recalls McKay’s interviews with the crew in SGA’s “Letters from Pegasus”. Without the split into two parts, most of these scenes would not have made the cut.

The expanded cast is important because it gives the writers a chance to introduce multiple viewpoints across the group. Eli’s pulled into a meeting of hostile folks that includes James and the volatile Spencer (Josh Blacker). They’re essentially describing a mutiny, and Eli’s stunned reaction says it all. This moment sets the stage for ongoing dissension and doesn’t pay off, but it isn’t going away. Watching SGU on DVD makes it easier to consider the show as an ongoing story. With a guy like Spencer, it’s only a matter of time before his anger leads to trouble. He’s one of the less interesting characters on the show because he’s more one-dimensional, but his role is essential for this opening run. You need some wild cards that may not become fan favorites but create conflicts when tough decisions arrive.

Louis Ferreira as Colonel Young in SGU's "Darkness"

Both parts were written by co-creator Brad Wright, and they’re pivotal in setting the stage for upcoming episodes. The pace is slow and focuses on the characters, and doing so builds the foundation for connecting them with us. Each episode introduces a new challenge, and what’s surprising is that the crew is essentially helpless to combat them. Even brilliant minds like Rush and Eli can do little but hope for the best while the Destiny hurtles towards their, for lack of a better word, destiny. Unlike his counterpart, Eli stays laid back about the situation and draws Young’s trust. The colonel must give the bad news to Earth, and Louis Ferreira is sharp as Young tries to reconcile with his wife (Ona Grauer). His face leaves so much unsaid, and the regret about their relationship is right there.

Robert Carlyle does excellent work showing Rush’s growing mania because of sleeplessness and the inability to do anything. He’s convinced they’re running out of power, yet no one believes him. The reason they doubt him is because he’s grown unhinged and can’t explain himself clearly. He’s such a fascinating guy because he can be so difficult yet is such a distinctive individual. We’re never sure if he’s trustworthy, yet there are hints of goodness. His joy at their survival in the end of “Light” is genuine, though it only takes a short time before the walls return around him. That episode’s final scenes hint that Rush knew they’d be fine, but that doesn’t seem likely. He won't pal around because making friends isn’t his goal. Learning about the Destiny takes precedence, so Rush wants to keep his distance. Young and the others will just get in the way of his plans to understand the ship.

There’s a throwaway moment near the end of “Darkness” that drew the ire of some viewers during the initial run. Riley (Haig Sutherland) is piloting the Kino and uses the camera to catch a shot of James in her underwear. It’s the type of scene that would probably not have made the cut if the story was just one episode. This isn’t the most forward-thinking moment on the show, but there are some great reaction shots from Eli and Young after Riley gets busted. It’s a character moment that adds a bit of levity to a pretty dreary situation. On the other hand, it also comes across like an excuse to get an attractive actress into less clothing. Given the boys club in the writers’ room, moments like this don’t help with efforts to depict three-dimensional female characters.

Scott and Chloe share a moment in SGU's "Light"

“Light” introduces the start of a romance between Chloe and Scott, which mostly comes out of nowhere but makes sense given their impending deaths. The fiery star in the background during their love scene is striking, and it isn’t a gratuitous sequence. It’s clear that Eli has feelings for Chloe, which turns Scott into the guy who’s messing with a fan favorite. Even so, the love triangle is so understated that it never becomes a clichĂ©. There are sweet moments between Eli and Chloe as they watch the approaching star out the large window. She may still be the hot girl who just wants to be friends with the nice guy, but the actors sidestep most of those conventions. Elyse Levesque plays the type of character who predictably is taking a shower when the lights go out, but she’s believable.

Both episodes provide incredible visual effects during their finales, especially with the ride through the sun in “Light”. It’s easy to take this type of sequence for granted, but these shots look different than the typical space effects. The Destiny is massive, but it feels so small compared to the planets and stars. The sense of scale is what makes SGU different than many sci-fi series that preceded it. Jim Menard and his team deserve serious credit for making the ship and the environment appear real on a TV budget. A key factor in their success is the music from Joel Goldsmith, which brings a grand tone to the big moments.

Chloe, Young, Rush, and others watch the shuttle leave the Destiny in Stargate Universe's "Light"

Another intriguing part of “Light” is the lottery to choose who can board a shuttle for a remote planet. The differing reactions to this decision reveal a lot about the characters. Wray’s forceful push for Young to choose the list makes sense, but he recognizes the personal fear behind her request. The winners include people we’ve never seen and not the stars, and even the supporting players that are picked aren't predictable. Given the challenges of their future, TJ's point that the others are the lucky ones isn’t a stretch. There’s no easy road, and successes lead to new difficulties. It’s refreshing to see a few smiles when fate goes their way, but this is just the first of the obstacles on the horizon.

Monday, September 22, 2014

2014 Documentaries Marathon: To Be Takei

George Takei at an autograph signing in To Be Takei

When the original series of Star Trek premiered in 1966, it was a landmark for diversity. The multi-racial cast explored the galaxy and covered important social issues with more depth than you might expect from a ‘60s TV show. I caught little of these achievements when seeing it as a kid in the ‘80s; the outer-space setting and alien worlds drew my attention. Viewing it today, the series is sillier than I remember but has an added relevance because of the cast and subject matter. One of the key players was George Takei, who piloted the Enterprise through the final frontier as Lieutenant Hikaru Sulu. He remains known for this iconic character, particularly following the success of the Star Trek feature films. There’s a lot more to his story than his time playing Sulu, however.

When many people think of Star Trek, their minds understandably go to Kirk and Spock. Even so, few actors from that show have developed a following like Takei. He’s gone beyond the typical fan and built an online fan base through Facebook and his frequent appearances on the Howard Stern Show. He’s also become outspoken for social justice and coming out as gay in 2005. The different sides of Takei’s personality are chronicled in Jennifer Kroot’s warm documentary To Be Takei. She presents the actor with his husband Brad, who’s been in a relationship with him for more than 25 years. The film jumps around chronologically to offer an interesting portrait of a man who’s becoming more popular every year.

It seems fitting with Takei’s hectic life that Kroot avoids a straightforward telling of his background. She spends a good deal of time on his childhood experiences at internment camps during World War II. One segment that cuts between many versions of the same speech for various organizations is very effective. Takei has clearly found his niche as a public face for important causes apart from his acting career. His descriptions of growing up in those camps are stunning even to someone with some knowledge about them. Kroot returns to this topic several times, and the jumps to different themes don’t always connect so well. Even so, it’s easy to follow around a guy like Takei wherever the movie takes him.

George and Brad Takei in To Be Takei

What makes this film about more than Takei is the participation from Brad, who doesn’t seem entirely comfortable in front of the camera. The opening scene involves a minor squabble between the couple, who are completely endearing. Brad runs the show at a later autographs signing and is a no-nonsense manager at these events. It’s his persistence that allows the star to be so relaxed for his fans. What’s unfortunate is how long Takei stayed in the closet because of fears that it would hurt his career. It’s a testament to Brad’s love that he was willing to stay behind the scenes for so long. It could not have been easy to watch from the distance and keep their relationship a secret. It’s a telling reminder of our recent progress but shows that our culture still has a long way to go before there’s no stigma.

An interesting subplot is Takei’s strained relationship with William Shatner. We see footage of the roast of Shatner, which includes some vicious swipes that seem to be in good fun. However, there is a slice of truth to everything Takei says about his former co-star. Shatner appears in the film and seems to be joking about their feud, but it becomes clear that animosity is still there. Was Shatner invited to Takei’s wedding? Who’s telling the truth? I expect the reality is somewhere between their stories. I admire both guys yet recognize that some big personalities just don’t mesh. I would have enjoyed more time on this topic within this movie, but I realize the feud wasn’t the focus.

Howard Stern also has a significant presence in this documentary, though he’s supporting Takei. Given the radio host’s reputation, their friendship shows a refreshing meeting of the minds between kindred spirits. They have an easy chemistry that you can’t fake, and Takei has appeared many times on Stern’s show. Clips from their interviews help to reveal why Takei’s built such a following beyond the Star Trek fans. It isn’t easy to move beyond the role of typical genre stars that are locked into certain characters.

An ongoing part of To Be Takei is the attempt to make Allegiance, a musical inspired by his time in the internment. While parts of this passion project remind me of the fictional William Shatner’s attempt to do a musical of Julius Caesar in Free Enterprise, it ends up being a success. Takei may not be a great singer, but it’s easy to make an emotional connection because of his personal history. This engaging film shows how that experience as a kid shaped everything his entire life. It’s a little disjointed and messy, yet that seems appropriate when you consider Takei’s hectic existence. He’s throwing himself into everything, and the late-career renaissance is a testament to this persistence.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The World That I See: Reads and Listens #29

Last Friday night, I ventured to a warehouse-like club and re-ignited my fandom for the Afghan Whigs. Greg Dulli and the guys brought the power and showed they are still as fresh as ever. Their raucous 100-minute set included some old favorites from the ‘90s but a bunch of new songs that went over well. This was hardly a greatest hits performance. I should note that Dulli and John Curley are the only original members that remain in this group. Even so, this wasn’t Bruce Springsteen playing without the E Street Band. This concert got me thinking about what attracts me to the Afghan Whigs. Dulli’s characters are guys that venture into the dark sides of the human psyche. It’s aggressive music that isn’t always my thing, yet I’ve been a consistent listener since Gentlemen arrived in 1993. There’s just something about their mix of soul and intensity that captures my attention.

I mention this concert because we spend a lot of time explaining why we liked a movie or TV series. It isn’t always easy to describe why a certain piece of art speaks to us, even if it seems to differ from our mentality on the surface. I’m on the far left side of the political sphere, yet I’m still drawn to the jingoistic “good vs. evil” tone of 24. That side of the show isn’t the real connector for me, yet it’s hard not to at least enjoy part of it to stick with the show. Neflix may use a crazily intricate algorithm, but the recommendations usually seem a little off base. The reason is that few of us fit inside a box of certain likes and dislikes. Sometimes it’s okay just to roll with it and enjoy the ride. If it means singing at the top of my lungs to “Going to Town” or “Fountain and Fairfax”, I can get with that program.

Here are some interesting blogs and videos that are worth your time:

Speaking of Netflix, they’ve found a way to sell the idea of materials at your fingertips while offering pretty limited content. Sam Adams of Criticwire effective presents this concept with his post “The Availability Gap: What We Lose When Netflix Wins”. He pulls an example from Jon Brooks at KQED Arts and uses it to discuss the unfortunate side of the streaming culture. We may have access to certain movies quicker than ever before, yet plenty of others are becoming harder to locate. I have the benefit of several great library systems plus a few video stores in St. Louis, but it isn’t that way in a lot of places.

The snowy vistas of Snowpiercer.

There have been some interesting examples this year of ways that smaller films have bypassed the traditional model. Snowpiercer is the type of film that you’d expect to see in theaters, but it received a very limited run. This was by design and helped The Weinstein Company and Radius to avoid the huge marketing and distribution costs. Dorothy Pomerantz at Forbes describes the importance of the way VOD and worldwide sales helped them to earn profits. Theater owners will not like this trend, and it continues to grow in the future.

I’m a fan of pro football, but it’s been hard not to wonder if the sport has crossed a new threshold in recent weeks. It’s always been a violent sport that rewards brutal players, and the news about Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson puts a spotlight on that fact. There have been plenty of intelligent pieces written about this topic, but I was struck most by a short commentary from Hannah Storm. She’s been in the business for a long time and is finding it hard to sell the sport to her three daughters.

This next item seems a bit less consequential compared to the previous one, but it still means a lot to me. Disney recently announced that they’re replacing the EPCOT attraction Maelstrom with a ride themed to Frozen. Building an attraction centered on such a popular film is a no brainer and totally understandable. However, there has been an uproar among fans because it’s going in the Norway pavilion in World Showcase. The hubbub may feel silly if you’re not a diehard theme park fan, but I’ll admit that it’s really struck a chord with my feelings about the direction of one of my favorite places. This post from the EPCOT Explorer does a great job summarizing the thoughts of many about this announcement.

I’ll close with a fiery piece from Sofia at Film Flare about her anger at shallow criticism. “Film Criticism? Count Me Out, Folks” describes her weariness at much of the process of analyzing a film. I don’t agree with all of Sofia’s points, but it’s still interesting to think about why we spend so much time digging into movies. I still love discussing a film and what worked or didn’t, but I understand that there’s another side to spewing nasty comments to get noticed. I also have little patience for this approach and can sympathize with Sofia on that front. Here’s a brief quote from a piece that you should check out in full:

Discussion is crucial, and film analysis is immensely interesting, even beautiful, but it's also rare: what most commercial and amateur "critics" want is not discussion, they're probably not even ready for it (it may actually be a blessing that they seem to be facing extinction). All they want is to throw the hate in your face and see if it sticks, because more often than not, it does. And that's extremely profitable for them — no such thing as bad publicity, right? Well, for me there is. The minute you do this, you lost me. I'm not coming back.