Friday, January 23, 2015

Oscar Watch: Animated Features

The Oscar for Best Animated Feature has only been awarded this century, so we don't have a long history to build up a decent feel for what makes a winning contender in this category.  Still, the thirteen awards thus far do exhibit certain common themes.

First, a nominee should have been widely seen.  Critical darlings like The Triplets of Belleville and Persepolis could not beat out their competition.  The legendary Hayao Miyazaki has only one statuette to his name, for Spirited Away, arguably his widest release.  Aside from Spirited Away, every winner in this category has come from a major US distributor (even Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, which was distributed by DreamWorks) and received wide release in US theaters.  My theory for this is that the larger populace that votes for the eventual winner does not do the same level of homework that it might do for the bigger awards like Best Picture, so to have a real shot, a contender has to be one the voters already know something about.  As a result, I think neither Song of the Sea nor The Tale of the Princess Kaguya stand a serious chance to win, making this year a de facto three movie race.

Also, innovation helps, to some extent.  Shrek famously pushed forward several elements of computer-generated animation and won in the category's first year.  Rango was noteworthy for doing its voice recording as the actors, in costume, acted out the scenes in a full dress rehearsal.  Up, along with fellow nominee Coraline, made excellent use of emerging 3D techniques.

Finally, the winner is often the nominee that, if shot as live action (with any necessary special effects) it would still have significant merit as a film.  The first ten minutes of Up is often described as the best film to come out in 2009.  WALL-E, The Incredibles, Brave, and Frozen all had the strongest emotional core of any of the nominees their year.

With that, let's take a quick look at each of the three wide releases nominated this year.

How to Train Your Dragon 2

This is easily the weakest of the three nominees being considered here.  While it's largely an entertaining film with a decent, if very simple, emotional throughline, it's the most "cartoony" of the nominees in terms of both visual design and character depth.  Every human in the cast takes the form of a 3D animated caricature, with the fat extremely fat, the thin extremely skinny, etc.  The voice acting can be very hammy as well.  Some of the dragons are designed such that they could almost be Muppets.  I don't see this as a serious contender at all, and if I were the makers of The Lego Movie, quite frankly I'd be wondering why my movie lost out in getting a nomination to this.
It does have a few absolutely gorgeous moments, though.

The Boxtrolls

Adapted from the book Here Be Monsters! and filmed gorgeously in stop-motion animation, Boxtrolls owes a bit to The Jungle Book as well as (in a very odd way) Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere.  But I think it owes the most to that part of human nature that allows us to so easily believe the worst in those different from us and to those who attempt to take advantage of that trait for their own selfish, destructive purposes.  Given the current ongoing backlashes against immigrants and Muslims both in America and Europe, this is a fairy tale with decidedly modern applicability.  

The stop-motion techniques are used so flawlessly that when I watched this the first time, I thought it was computer animated with an aim to simulate stop-motion.  The epilogue, in which two characters have a conversation in real-time while the camera pulls back to reveal the godlike animator blurring in and out of the shot to make the characters move, is worth the price of admission alone.

Couple with an eccentric script, eclectic set design, and stellar voice acting, the film comes off as a Terry Gilliam production that was accidentally captured in animation rather than live action.  There is an extended, unnecessary plot line in which the main villain wanders about in drag that is neither entertaining nor terribly flattering to trans community, but otherwise this is a worthy film. 
When I say gorgeously filmed, I mean it.  Change the proportions a bit on these characters and they'd look real.

Big Hero 6

Big Hero 6 is this year's nearly perfect animated film.  It has incredible emotional depth, with main character Hiro undergoing multiple vectors of growth throughout.  His partner Baymax, a healthcare companion bot turned battle droid, is a breakout character in the mold of Groot.  Unlike its competitors, even Big Hero 6's main antagonist has significant depth, with a past that provides rationale to the villain's actions.  

The world Big Hero 6 inhabits is complex and feels real.  The setting of San Fransokyo is fully realized and gorgeously shot, populating a near-future that's advanced in ways that don't seem out of place.  While a couple of the characters at times fall into cartoony movement or dialogue delivery (I'm looking at you, Fred), for the most part, the characters act and think much like in an equivalent live action film.

And technically the animation is soundly done.  The lighting in the film is carefully shot, rendering scenes that simply feel real.  Daylight scenes have consistent lighting and shadowing, while nighttime scenes remain clear, even if the color palette is muted.  The diversity of the people and even plants in the background of shots adds to that feeling of the movie resting in physical reality.  And the movie uses techniques that animate thousands of very small moving constructs very effectively, adding to that illusion. 

Flying at sunset has never looked so beautiful.
Low light scenes that are not muddy just make me want to hug the animator.
With masterful animation, a strong script and voice acting, and a story fit for a live action film, Big Hero 6 is the obvious choice for this year's Animated Feature Oscar.  And it would be the clear choice even if the nomination process hadn't tripped up and left The Lego Movie out.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Why You Should See Spare Parts

Oscar's dream is to join the US Army and serve the country -- his bedroom is filled with recruiting posters, his ROTC uniform kept pristine, his haircut and his demeanor regulation at all times.  He is driven, responsible, and a natural leader.

Cristian is a stereotypical nerd, his days spent writing software and dodging (usually unsuccessfully) his personal bully.  His is a gifted mind, even if, after a brief encounter with near electrocution, he admits he is a theorist at heart.  (Note: I may have had a similar experience and realization some years in the past myself.)

Lorenzo has talented hands and a mind that can compose parts into an elegant whole, whether he's cooking a meal with fresh ingredients or fixing a car.  The elder son, he is constantly vexed by the challenge of keeping his hotheaded little brother out of trouble.

Luis is a quiet giant.  Kindhearted, he tries to help those who are in trouble, including protecting the bullied from the bullies.  But he can only be in one place at a time, and he's not the fastest draw when it comes to thinking things through.

Spare Parts is the (based on a) true story of how these four high school students banded together to build a remotely-operated unmanned underwater vehicle with what materials they could scrounge and entered it into an annual competition against teams from some of the top engineering universities (that's right, I said universities) in the country under the watchful eye of their club sponsor, Dr. Fredi Cameron (one of the liberties taken in the film adaptation of the story was the merging to two different teachers, one Iranian and one Caucasian, into George Lopez).  Because of the ethnicity of the characters involved, it is frequently being compared to Stand and Deliver, which is not terribly apt.  Instead, I would suggest it's Stand and Deliver crossed with Race the Sun but made by the folks who brought you Disney's Remember the Titans.

Also starring TWO TIME OSCAR-WINNER Marisa Tomei.  Nope, that never gets old. 
From that perspective, Spare Parts delivers the mail, bringing to the screen an entertaining feel-good film of can-do spirit and comedic moments among a group of individuals who genuinely come to care for each other while working toward their common goal for their own reasons.  It manages to make the competition engaging, even though the results are well-known, widely published, and frequently spoiled even by the film's own press material.  It's certainly resonated with the small audience it's brought in, currently sitting at 94% audience approval on Rotten Tomatoes.  However, it's received only a lukewarm reception from critics, and that's because of its missed opportunity, because Spare Parts could have been a very important film if its makers had wanted to go that route.

Important movies typically don't have their casts make that face.
You see, Oscar, Cristian, Lorenzo, and Luis are all undocumented youths.  Brought to America at a very young age, they now struggle to figure out how to achieve the futures they'd otherwise be fully capable of in a country that's the only one they really know but that doesn't want them at the same time.  While the film doesn't shy away from that fact (Oscar leads off the movie attempting to enlist under the mistaken belief that the pressures of fighting two simultaneous actions has led the Army to allow undocumented residents to join, triggering a series of events that causes him to abandon his home and sleep on the streets to avoid deportation; Lorenzo struggles to keep his sibling out of trouble because his brother, the only actual U.S. citizen in the family, must keep his record clean to ensure he can support the family if it comes to it; Cristian, though dreaming of college, sleeps in a hovel kept warm by a portable heater), it surrounds these story elements with lighthearted fare that makes you look to see if this is a Disney film.

The movie also stops at the convenient family-friendly point in the team's story, and the struggles of the four as they entered adulthood are glossed over by the obligatory "where are they now" end notes.  In particular, it fails to capture Oscar's post-high school life,which deserves an entire movie itself.  A short on-screen blurb can't accurately portray that Oscar did make it into college, paying his way with construction jobs, and earned an engineering degree, got married, and had a child.  That he then self-deported so that he could go to the consulate in his home country and apply for entry by the book.  That at that point he was told that since he'd entered the country illegally as a child, he'd have to wait a decade to apply for legal entry as punishment.  That, as he toiled away as a day laborer in Mexico, Senator Dick Durbin took notice of his story and asked INS to reconsider, then used Oscar's story as ammunition when he stumped for the Dream Act in Congress.  That Oscar became a citizen and did join the Army Airborne, including serving a tour in Afghanistan.

Though he was never a member of Big Time Rush.
I can see the critics' point that a story like this merits a more important movie.  But I think that is a little unfair.  After all, it does capture in an engaging, fairly family-oriented PG-13 movie a very important truth: that the undocumented immigrants of America are not all the hardened criminals demonized by a portion of the media and political elite.  Instead, that population possesses the same diversity of actions, of personality, of dreams as that of legal immigrants.  I recommend seeing it, but seeing it with the right expectations in mind.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Oscar Watch: Into the Woods

I'm not much of a Sondheim fan, so I have to confess going into Into the Woods with very little advanced knowledge.  I knew it was a musical, had an all-star cast, and dealt with fairy tales in some way.  What I found was a story that was at times delightful and at others exasperating.  In particular, I was shocked at how sexist the whole thing is.

Starring: The Doctor's flatmate as The Baker and Sergeant Rita Vrataski as his wandering wife.
At its foundation, the idea of blending several classic tales together into one "here's how it really happened" narrative is a sound one.  In this case, having a baker and his wife attempt to mollify their witchy next door neighbor by going on a quest that causes them to stumble into the stories of Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Rapunzel is inspired and works well throughout the first act.  Though the action drags occasionally, the interconnections of the subplots allows for the film to move slowly forward, and the musical numbers are light enough not to get in the way.  When everything has worked out and (almost) everyone has gotten their happy ending, it presents a nice finale to a harmless, light musical.
Also starring: Beca Mitchell as Shania Twain.
Then we hit "Once Upon a Time...Later," and Act II begins.  Oh, son of a bitch! Wasn't that enough?

Also starring: Gavroche as Jack.
 Act II is really where Into the Woods falls apart and the sexism in the story shines through.  While everyone was acting within the original fairy tales during Act I, it was easy to miss, but throughout the novel action of Act II, it quickly becomes apparent that the authors believe women can take on one or more roles including Mother, Villain, Lover, and Victim.  But never Hero.  Oh no, that's reserved for the men.

The many women in this cast will throw themselves at the men.  Certainly Cinderella's stepsisters fit that description.  And the Baker's wife falls to the wiles of Prince Charming rather quickly, later thinking maybe she needs that in her life.  But even Cinderella and Rapunzel are for the most part passive love interests: Cinderella runs away from her prince and waits for him to come for her, while Rapunzel remains in her tower (and later in her swamp) waiting for her prince to come for her.

The women will care for the children.  Obviously the Baker's wife cares for her child, but later in the action, it's good old Cinderella who is continuously handed the baby.  Jack's mother constantly worries about her adventurous son and is killed almost immediately after taking her first action to actually try to protect him.

The women will be rescued or cause trouble.  Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother are sitting passively being digested by the wolf when rescued by the Baker.  The witch, driver of so much of the action, cannot touch any of the important items herself.  When the giantess shows up, she runs away and is then killed when trying to save just herself.

But not a single one will do the rescuing -- that's left for Jack, the Baker, and the various Princes.  The most direct action taken by a female character in a heroic mode is Cinderella, who asks her bird friends to help the menfolk defeat the giantess threatening them.  And that's a real shame considering how much star power there is among the female cast.

Also starring: Miranda Priestly as herself.
By the end, it didn't much matter to me who died and who survived, I was just ready for it to be over.  The film's messages of acknowledging that everyone must go "into the woods" at some point and the importance of remembering stories are fairly weak in the face of its implicit message that women are mostly just trouble until you have a child that needs caring for.  It's hardly the kind of thinking I would encourage introducing to kids.

Also starring: Captain Kirk as William Shatner.
Still, there are performances worth noting.  Meryl Streep is nominated for an Oscar for essentially playing a stock Meryl Streep character (though one that sings this time), and it will be interesting to see how she stacks up against the competition.  We all know Anna Kendrick can sing up a storm, and she lives up to expectations as Cinderella.  James Corden is delightfully put upon as the Baker, and he should really be given more high profile projects to do by Hollywood.

But probably the most entertaining of the bunch is Chris Pine, who plays his Prince Charming so consistently, excellently hammy that he steals every scene he is in.  The shit-eating grin that he wears while chewing the scenery indicates that he had a blast making this film, and it shows through nicely.  If they had somehow gotten him to play Galavant, that show might be more entertaining than it is.

Into the Woods is also nominated for two craft Oscars in Production Design and Costume Design.  Both nominations are warranted, though they're competing with some stellar nominees, including The Grand Budapest Hotel in both categories.

Overall, I can't recommend spending the money to sit in the theater for Into the Woods, but if you can stand getting past the bad messaging, it's worth a rental to have a light entertainment with some great performances at home some evening.

Oscar Watch: Foxcatcher

Foxcatcher was a bit of a puzzle to me when the Oscar nominations were announced.  Nominations for best director, screenplay (adapted), actor, and supporting actor, as well as makeup and hair, but none for Best Picture.  If the script, direction, and acting were all top notch, how could this not get a nod for the overall film?  The answer, as it turns out, is that Foxcatcher is a bit of a mess as a movie.

The problem is that the film doesn't really know what it wants to be.  Instead, the film meanders from one throughline to another, never establishing a clear path that fully embodies a particular theme.  And that muddies things considerably.

Based almost solely on the autobiography of wrestler Mark Schultz, Foxcatcher is mostly the story of a moody, slightly imbalanced Olympic wrestler who grew up in a broken home and was overshadowed throughout his career by his older brother Dave, who was also a championship wrestler as well as a highly effective wrestling coach.  Unfortunately, there's not much payoff to Mark's story, so we're mostly treated to extended scenes of Mark staring moodily at things in his surroundings or walking around with his head down.  Channing Tatum is not a good enough actor to make this interesting on the screen, so much of Mark's extensive solo screen time comes off as filler.

He does get my respect for maintaining the same exact dead-faced expression for the entirety of the film.
Of much more interest is the character of John E. du Pont, the eccentric/crazed heir to the du Pont fortune who sponsors Mark (and, eventually, brother Dave) in hopes of covering himself in the glory of being an Olympic champion's "coach" and pleasing his mother, who thinks anything related to wrestling is beneath a du Pont.  Du Pont's story is one of someone savaged psychologically by his birthright -- someone with no responsibilities yet impossible expectation, a dilettante with very common interests, who has immense power due to his wealth and influence but who has little authority over anyone he can't simply buy.  Steve Carell is amazingly deft at sinking himself into du Pont's very ill-at-ease persona, and his Best Actor nomination is well earned.  A more effective film would have put the focus squarely on du Pont and his foibles that led him to committing the murder that made the Foxcatcher name notorious.  After all, this was a man who consulted routinely with local police and with the military, yet who found himself a common fugitive from the law.  Du Pont, as played by Carell, has considerable depth worth exploring fully.  Unfortunately, the filmmakers decided to tell the story from Mark's perspective, so du Pont is forced into the background often throughout the movie.

John E. du Pont, world's richest towel boy.
And that pushing into the scenery robs the climactic murder of some of its power.  The relationship between du Pont and eventual victim Dave Schultz (played quietly by Mark Ruffalo) needed more exploration.  Was du Pont upset because Schultz put his family time over his relationship with his benefactor?  Was it because he didn't like how Dave portrayed du Pont's role as "coach" of Team Foxcatcher, eating into the facade du Pont so desperately wanted to build?  Was it because Dave acted as if he considered himself du Pont's equal in their interactions, grabbing him by the shoulder in an attempt to comfort him during a time of loss, something no one else outside of the family would dare?  None of these triggers are explored, so when the shooting does occur, it has the shocking inexplicability of a random drive-by rather than the logical cap to a character arc.  Had du Pont and his relationship with Dave Schultz been given more room to develop, Foxcatcher would have been a much more noteworthy film.  Instead, by making Mark the viewpoint character, much of the most interesting aspects of the overall story remain opaque to us.

This didn't happen nearly enough in the film.
As a result, Foxcatcher does not live up to its accolades in the end, and I don't expect it to make much of a splash at the Oscars.  Its issues could have been addressed with a more expansive script and by different choices in direction, so I question whether the spots taken up by the film's nominations in those categories couldn't have gone to more deserving recipients.  While ably acted by Ruffalo, the role of Dave Schultz is not very meaty, so I can't imagine Ruffalo having much of a shot against some of the more dynamic performances nominated in the supporting category.  Similarly, the makeup and hair on the film is well done, but one has to question how well putting a fake nose on Steve Carell will do against the historic glitz of The Grand Budapest Hotel and the alien populace of Guardians of the Galaxy.

Carell's situation is much more interesting.  Carell's performance is outstanding, but he is up against some very strong competition.  I have to wonder if he wouldn't have been a lock for an Oscar if the producers had taken the defensible stance that his was a supporting role, letting him battle it out with J.K. Simmons and company instead.

Overall, I would recommend watching Foxcatcher for Carell's performance.  Just be prepared to mourn the movie it could have been.

Carell's performance and nose, actually.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Oscar Watch: Boyhood

Boyhood is that film: that one in every batch of Best Picture nominations that's really difficult to describe with any accuracy to someone not already familiar with it.  That's not necessarily bad or good: Tree of Life was a godawful, boring, indescribable mess, while Nebraska was a charming comedy that was surprisingly impossible to explain in a manner that would do it justice.  Boyhood is a great movie, one that captures the ins and outs of life, of growing up, of growing old, of maturing, of making decisions and living with their consequences, of making and breaking connections, of creating families and living with the family you've got, all while nothing of any real note occurs on the screen.  See?  It's a difficult one to capture.

Normally, I try not to watch Best Picture-nominated films at home because if I haven't seen them in the theater, I inevitably will at AMC's Best Picture Showcase.  Besides, great cinema should be viewed from a row of seats on a large screen.  However, I'd already become curious about this film pre-nominations and had picked it up on PPV, though I hadn't taken the time to watch it until now.  And I'm kind of glad I did: Boyhood, with its very intimate scope, actually works pretty well playing in your living room.

Boyhood sprang from the same locus of experimentation in Richard Linklater's brain that brought us Waking Life in 2001.  In case you don't remember it, Waking Life used animation overlaying actual filmed dialogue of people discussing dreams to give the entire movie a very dreamlike quality.  This time, Linklater wanted to make a movie about childhood, found he couldn't decide which part of childhood to cover, opted to do all of it, and twelve years later finished the film.

The movie is largely carried by the quiet charisma of Ellar Coltrane, who fortunately turned out to be quite a good screen presence after originally being cast in this at age 8.  He's joined in his twelve year journey to adulthood by hard-working mom Patricia Arquette, who has a tendency to chew scenery when her character's not busy making poor life choices; roguish dad Ethan Hawke, who somehow turns out to be the stable, responsible one; and sister Lorelei Linklater (Richard's daughter), who is unfortunately to this movie what Sofia Coppola was to Godfather III.

There's a direct cinema feel to Boyhood, albeit not in the cinematography, which is often gorgeous.  Much of the movie has Ellar's Mason and his family dealing with relatively mundane things, such as moving, making friends at school, entering and exiting relationships, and spending time with each other.  Individually, these scenes are not edge-of-your-seat excitement.  The beauty of Boyhood as filmcraft is how each of these annual check-ins with Mason and family coalesce into a discernible arc for each character, just as the dots on a Google Maps display collectively form a navigation route.  At each point, you can look back and see clearly how the characters got there, and you have a decent idea of what's coming next.

Yet that doesn't make the film predictable, because it's not the plot that's important -- it's what the characters think and feel and say that makes the movie.  At different times, Linklater's characters discuss the meaning of life, the purpose of their experiences, and what it means to be happy (and whether one can truly be happy).  There are not the great western philosophers espousing wisdom from on high here -- in fact, the movie would suffer greatly if Linklater attempted that.  These are the words and thoughts of very believable everyday people, creating a cinema experience that invites the viewer to take part in the philosophical discourse as well.  And I think that was part of Linklater's aim, crafting a philosophical response on life and aging on the part of the audience in much the same way Waking Life evoked thoughts on the fabric of reality.

Boyhood received several well-deserved nominations.  Clearly it deserves to be in the mix for Best Picture as a successful experiment in the form and process of film making.  However, I have to question whether it will merit the top spot because, while it's certainly innovative and groundbreaking, I'm not sure it feels important, which is often where I look in selecting Best Picture.  Ethan Hawke did a fabulous job as Mason Sr., earning him a supporting nod, though he's up against stiff competition.  Arquette received a nomination for supporting actress, but I'm very lukewarm to that nod -- in a film packed to the gills with understated, natural performances, her over the top moments seemed jarring.  Linklater's nominations for directing and screenplay were clearly well-earned, though I'll wait to see how both stack up to the well-reviewed competition before making a call.  Sandra Adair's nomination for editing is not only well-deserved, she's my early favorite for the Oscar.

There were no original songs in Boyhood, but it has a stellar soundtrack stretching across the years it was shot, capped by the appropriately named Family of the Year's "Hero".  And that's not even counting Linklater's incredible idea of The Beatles' Black Album, which I now want to own on CD -- someone make it so!  I need to listen to it while I contemplate the meaning of life.  What is this all about?...

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Rapid Reaction: Agent Carter

Given the nearly perfect short film Agent Carter that we were treated to in 2013, the television series Agent Carter had a lot to live up to.  Did it?  Not quite.  But it didn't miss to the extent that the series can't be enjoyable.

I think it was a poor choice on the part of the Marvel/ABC/Disney conglomerate to make the series be a prequel to the short.  In the film, Peggy has been working for some time at SSR and has been passed over for assignment right and left, itching to get in on the action.  She's kept out of the action by her male superior and peers because none of them can fathom a woman being capable as a field agent.  To force her way into their missions would be insubordinate and potentially end her career at SSR.  As such, she has to sneak in a little action on the side.  The short builds around that point.

And that's the challenge that setting the series prior to the short presents: to be in the same continuity as the short, the Peggy of the series has to somehow never prove her competence to her peers and superiors.  To do otherwise creates a situation in which the agents of SSR see Peggy's competence and yet still reject it.

That may seem a small difference, but it's critical.  In the one case, Peggy traverses the hero's journey of having to prove herself worthy against deeply ingrained societal beliefs.  In the other, Peggy has to deal with the fact that her fellow agents are willful idiots, a veritable secret service of Barney Fifes.  In terms of the show, it's the difference between Agent Carter being an action-adventure-thriller with a feminist viewpoint and a sitcom.

Fortunately, tonight's episodes mostly keep Carter separated from her coworkers, though it does not avoid becoming a bit heavy handed with the anti-sexism message, which permeated both episodes tonight to the point of nearly drowning the plot at times.  At work, Peggy has to deal with the fact most of her colleagues think of her as more or less Captain America's fluffer and demand that she do secretarial work.  At home, her roommate has lost a job because the men have returned from war and need their jobs.  Her best friend (such as it is) is a waitress who's simultaneously verbally degraded and groped by her customer.  Ubiquitous on the radio is The Adventures of Captain America, with Cap's plucky girlfriend always in need of a rescue by her brawny hero.  Peggy's new landlady is concerned with Peggy's potentially lose morals and tsks at Peggy being employed (Thank God it's only until she's married).  Almost every man Carter encounters in the first two hours either severely underestimates her or makes advances of some kind to her (though curiously not the villains of the episodes -- could secret terrorist organizations be more enlightened than the good old US of A in the Marvel Universe?).

None of this happens in the background, which would be fine to build and maintain a feeling of a mountain that Peggy must climb to reach the series' (and the short's) triumphant resolution.  But instead, each instance is dragged center stage, requiring overt response by the cast (Peggy in particular).  Throughout, the show takes great pains to show how unique Peggy is in this male-dominated world, from the opening shot of her walking down the street, a woman in a bright red hat surrounded by men of vaguely similar appearance, all dressed in black and sporting black fedoras (though only for that opening shot, as the next shot, from farther away, shows that everyone on the street is dressed differently and is more gender-mixed).  Head, meet hammer.  This repeated trotting out of what should have been subtext disrupts the flow of the plot, compared to the brilliant pacing of the short.

As for the plot, while it could use more fleshing out overall, it whetted the appetite for things to hopefully pick of the pace later.  Howard Stark is a wanted man and needs Peggy to help him recover lost and misused technology in a sort of 1950s version of The Armor Wars (sans armor, of course).  She is aided in this by one Edwin Jarvis, one of the few non-sexist men in the series, and who is a bit of an enigma, sometimes more competent at spycraft than a butler should be, sometimes bordering on the verge of bumbling.  The pilot makes it clear that he is hiding something.  I hope the show does not take long in letting us in on what it is.

Hopefully it's more than his ability to ignore the obvious effects of a push-up bra.
The pair find themselves facing off against the villainy of Leviathan, a secret terrorist organization oddly reminiscent of Hydra that comics fans will already be familiar with.  Given Leviathan's comics origin, it should be of interest that one of the characters we're introduced to in the first two hours is Stark's colleague Anton Vanko.

Seriously, this guy sired Mickey Rourke?
There are a couple examples of cool tech, but the show is surprisingly sparse in that regard.  Tonight's macguffin is of course Stark-tech, and Agent Carter wields a couple more examples, but often things were much more mundane.  Peggy uses doctored lipstick at one point, ensuring that cliche would live on another generation.  Even the bad guys did not wield impressive technology -- the teleprinter and vocoder wielded in tonight's episodes were well-engineered examples, but both were invented well before World War II.  For all the early SHIELD gadgets that Agents of SHIELD likes to trot out, I would have expected more.

Given the length of these complaints, one would think I hated the show, but there's also a lot to like.  Despite the heavy handedness of the messaging, enough of the plot comes through to make one interested in seeing what happens next.  The action sequences are largely well-done and entertaining.  And Hayley Atwell is again hypnotic as Peggy, continuing her breakout performance in the first Captain America movie as well as the Agent Carter short.  It's really too bad that she's only being given a seven hour miniseries in which to inhabit the character.  If ABC can't make it work, one of the internet streaming providers should really pick this up as an ongoing.

Despite my concerns, they could have made a much less interesting show.
Overall, I recommend Agent Carter for the few folks who would enjoy a period spy caper and haven't already watched/DVRed it.  We have just five more hours with Agent Carter and her exploits, though I hope we'll see her again.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The 2015 Movies I'm Excited About

Here's a quick look at the movies coming up this year that I'm looking forward to, either because of their predicted quality or because their story is of interest.


They named it Stinky? It's going underwater.
Let me just note that I'm not expecting Spare Parts to be a great movie.  Its director's best work was Soul Surfer, after all.  I fully expect it to play a bit like a Stand and Deliver ripoff where you quickly realize that George Lopez is no Edward James Olmos.  But it's on this list for a reason: there are going to be several robot-related movies put out this year, and this is the only one that stands even a chance to getting it right.  This is based on the true story of a team of high school kids competing in a national unmanned underwater vehicle competition against teams from greater academia.  I hope it's entertaining enough to be inspiring to a new generation of engineers, because we need them.  Spare Parts also stars Jamie Lee Curtis and 2-time Oscar winner Marisa Tomei (I never get tired of typing 2-time Oscar winner Marisa Tomei).

Teenagers in a circle?  Must be trouble!
Again, we're probably not looking at high art here, but c'mon, it's January.  In this case, it's a Chronicle-like flick tracking a group of troublemaking teenagers finding the plans for a DARPA project in time travel hidden one guy's garage (because that's where DARPA keeps secret blueprints), then somehow building it.  Hijinks ensue.  Don't watch it because these kids are going to have incredible non-porn acting careers in their future, watch it because the script appears to be playing fast and loose with the laws of temporal paradox to a degree that dwarfs even Back to the Future 2.


Admit it: Colin Firth as a secret agent just feels right.
Kingsman is based on the Secret Service miniseries written by Mark Millar, which means it took a beloved genre (in this case, James Bond spy capers) and added lots of modern attitude, mostly expressed through loads of cursing, gratuitous nudity, over the top violence, and a "Fuck all" attitude by the main protagonist, a street rat named Gary, who is recruited into Her Majesty's Secret Service by his uncle to try to keep him out of trouble.  But don't get me wrong, it's a lot of fun, and I expect this adaptation to keep that up.  The comic book plot starts when terrorists kidnap Mark Hamill, and lo and behold, the film cast includes one Mark Hamill, so it appears that Matthew Vaughn is trying to hew closely to the source material.  And the chance to see Colin Firth as an ass-kicking 007-clone should be worth the price of admission.


Odd that it doesn't say "From the Director of Elysium".
It's a hard knock life for robots it seems, with Chappie exploring what happens when you take a robot out of the laboratory and into the hood.  It appears that somehow that allows Chappie to develop a level of humanity.  I fully expect to be rolling my eyes at the bad AI concepts all the way through the film, but if there's one thing Neill Blomkamp can do, it's bring the weird, and that's what I'm looking forward to.

Um, maybe we should skip the wedding reception...
This would not normally be my kind of film, with Disney attempting to suck a little bit more from the marrow by commissioning a live action version of yet another of its classic animated films.  But this one is directed by Kenneth Branagh.  With the guy who played Robb Stark as Prince Charming, hoping this love story will have a less bloody ending.  With Cate Blanchett chewing scenery as the Wicked Stepmother.  And with Helena Bonham Carter as the Fairy Godmother.  Let's repeat that: Helena Bonham Carter, who hasn't played a character in decades that didn't seem like she was either on acid or stone dead drunk, is playing the Fairy Godmother.  Oh, the possibilities!

No problem, I fought space whales in the Avengers!
I've seen the trailer for this in the theater, and the whale scenes (and I hope we didn't see all of them), were amazing.  Ron Howard, easily one of my favorite directors, teams with Chris Hemsworth (Rush) again to bring "the incredible true story that inspired Moby Dick".  Yes, Herman Melville is a character in the film.


RIP, Paul.
Paul Walker's final ride.  The introduction of Jason Statham (sadly, not as The Transporter) into the franchise.  And the final merging of all the previous movies with Lucas Black added to the cast.  All that and Kurt Russell appears in an unlisted role.


'Nuff said.

I was surprised by just how entertaining the first Pitch Perfect was, and the trailer for this one doesn't seem to indicate its successor won't hit all the right notes.  Acca-wait!

They're just here for the gasoline.
It's written and directed by George Miller, just like all the other films in this series, so I'm hoping that this is more like Mad Max and Road Warrior than it is Beyond Thunderdome.  And the cast is pretty engaging.  In particular, I think Tom Hardy is getting too much flak for being Bane when folks should be remembering him from Inception and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.  Besides, do you really want to have the shell that once was Mel Gibson on screen?  Charlize Theron has made some poor film choices of late, but she can still bring it on screen, especially in a supporting role.  I'm ready to give this a chance.

"Honey?  I don't think this is where we parked the car."
Hey look!  Another Disney money grab!  I'd make fun of turning an amusement park attraction into a movie, but hey, Pirates of the Caribbean.  I'm a little worried that they let Damon Lindelof touch the script, but it's co-written and directed by Brad Bird, and that has to mean something.  Oh, and it has George Clooney.

I wish all my pilots looked like Emma Stone.
The fact that it's untitled still has me a little worried (it's been reportedly titled Deep Tiki and Volcano Romance at different times, neither of them inspiring titles at all, so maybe waiting is the right thing to do).  Still, it's Cameron Crowe.  And a great cast, including Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams, Bill Murray, Alec Baldwin, Jay Baruchel.  Cooper apparently plays a defense contractor who falls for Air Force officer Stone while on the job in Hawaii.  Since we all know defense contractors go to Hawaii and find romance on the job all the time, I'm expecting this to be a bit of a documentary. (That last sentence was sarcasm in case you missed it.)  Still, the combination of director and cast is hard to pass up.


Wait, the humans ride around in a glorified hamster ball?  Who's really the zoo animal here?
I know I should forsake the Jurassic franchise, but really I kind of enjoyed the third movie.  Plus, this was written and directed by the same team that brought us Safety Not Guaranteed.  If those aren't the folks you want teamed up with Chris Pratt in a major franchise film, I don't know who you'd accept.  The idea of someone actually figuring out most of the technical kinks needed to make the dinosaur equivalent of Sea World work actually appeals to me.  The problem I see here is it ventures into genetic modification topics that I'm sure the film is unprepared to fully explore to the depth really needed.  The question is whether the film will attempt to preach or if it will take a cue from the first Jurassic Park and distract itself from that with lots of action.  I'm hoping for the action side, myself.


My mission for viewing this will be to once and for all figure out which one is Stuart and which one is Kevin.
The secret origin of the Minions.  If you've seen the Despicable Me movies, that's pretty much all you need to know to want to see it.

Wait, this doesn't look very funny.
I have to admit a little concern over Ant-Man.  I wondered a bit when the film was given to Edgar Wright, whose comedies I've truly enjoyed, because I happen to really like the Scott Lang Ant-Man and don't want him to be a joke.  When they fired (er, "parted ways with") Wright to then hire the guy who brought us The Yes-Man, that concern grew.  Still, it's a decent cast with Paul Rudd backed up by Michael Douglas and Evangeline Lilly.  But I'd feel a lot better if Marvel weren't being so cute with its teaser trailers.  Still, unless I'm assured it's an abomination, you'll find me in the theater when it opens, just to find out for myself.


To be a successful spy, you have to learn how to strike a pose that makes you look cool.
This is attempting to make Armie Hammer interesting (and we all know how that worked out for The Lone Ranger).  Still, it's Guy Ritchie directing with Henry Cavill as Napoleon Solo, and somehow Hugh Grant is involved.  That just spells fun.

Man, has Dr. Dre aged.  And thank you for not digging up Eazy-E for this photo.
A biopic of NWA (a story I can't wait to hear) brought to us by the guy who directed The Italian Job.  This should leave room for humor and style.  Now if someone can just tell me why a picture like this has the top two cast credits in its IMDB profile given to two white guys (admittedly, Paul Giamatti is probably the biggest named star in the film).


There are serious doubts everyone in this photo survives the movie.
Keira Knightley, Jake Gyllenhall, Robin Wright, Josh Brolin, SamWorthington, Jason Clarke, and a host of other "That Guy" type actors attempt to summit on the deadliest day in Everest history (before 2014 brought a deadlier day).  Directed by the guy who did 2 Guns and Contraband, so it should be stylish.  I'm hoping for some stunning mountain shots.


It's odd to see the Twin Towers, even in retrospect.
I saw the teaser for The Walk in a theater recently, and it made me dizzy.  I have no doubt that it will be emotional seeing the Twin Towers through a two hour movie and then walk back out into a world in which they are gone.  Robert Zemeckis directs, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt playing the tight rope walker who crossed between the two buildings.  I've read that they shot all the green screen footage with Gordon-Levitt tens of feet above the ground so that there would be room to shoot things from below.  I can attest from the teaser that they did well with the above looking down shots as well.

"Wait, I'm not trying to catch Leo anymore?"
Yet another untitled film, though it's being called St. James Place on Wikipedia.  But c'mon, it's Spielberg directing Hanks.  That's a magical combination.  And it's Spielberg doing nonfiction, which is another good combination.  In this one, Hanks plays a lawyer assigned to negotiate the release of captured U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers.


Every time I see this, I keep getting the immediate impression of a horror film.
The next James Bond film!  This time, Spectre's back, and Bond has to face off with Cristoph Waltz as the main baddie.  No word on if he's going to have a cat.

How many flight hours can you put on a Sopwith Camel, anyway?
It was inevitable for Charlie Brown and company to join the 3-D world, and you know, based on the teaser trailer, it doesn't suck.  I prefer my Peanuts on tv rather than schlepping to the theater for them, but if the final product is as gorgeous as advertised, I think I'll have to make the trip.

Still early enough that there are no photos of the film in the press.  So you get the book cover image.
If you're a Facebook friend, then you know how much I enjoyed the book and how excited I was to see Ridley Scott directing an adaptation.  Matt Damon is perfect as Mark Watney, an astronaut who, through a bizarre sequence of events, finds himself marooned on Mars.  The rest of the cast is stellar, including Jessica Chastain as Matt's mission commander; Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, and Michael Pena as fellow crewmates; Sean Bean as the mission's fiery CAPCOM (spoiler alert: since he's sitting on Earth, he doesn't die!); Chiwetal Ejiofor and Jeff Daniels as key NASA decision makers; Kristen Wiig as the NASA communications director who has to explain how a mission to Mars went belly up; and Donald Glover and Mackenzie Davis in small key roles.  This is the film I have the highest anticipation for.


Does John Boyega do anything but fight aliens?
I'm certainly glad they decided to do another movie, otherwise I'm sure everyone would just forget about this franchise.

That's a lot of sausage.  Where's Paula?
After four MI movies, it's pretty easy to predict what we'll get from the plot and Tom Cruise.  The plot will involve some convoluted scheme that will require the heroes to hop around the globe always a step behind their goal until things fall into place.  We are guaranteed to get a scene requiring Tom Cruise to run a distance at high speed, and maybe, just maybe, ride a motorcycle or climb something really high without a net.  But the secret sauce has always been the agents (or double agents) put around Cruise.  The first one worked primarily because of Ving Rhames and Jean Reno.  With Ghost Protocol, they hit a solid combination with Paula Patton, Simon Pegg, and Jeremy Renner.  This time out, they bring Rhames back into the fold, though unfortunately the jury's still out on whether Patton comes back.  If she does, this has the chance to be the most fun entry of the series.

Sadly, there're no reports yet of Jackie Chan returning as Monkey.
Same cast as the first two, same director.  I doubt I really need to go into this one.  No word yet if stairs make a return appearance.

No photos from the film yet, so here's just one of Jennifer Lawrence.
Directed by David O. Russell.  Starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, with Robert De Niro.  Need I say more?  Okay, try this: Jennifer Lawrence plays Joy Mangano, a Long Island housewife who invents the Miracle Mop and falls into riches overnight.  With that cast and Russell directing, you can expect lots of yelling and witty repartee.  And pathos, oh, the pathos.

Again, too early for a photo from the film.  So no, they don't stop at an NBA game on their way to facing off over a blood debt.
It's the 1820s.  Hugh Glass (Leo), a frontiersman, gets mauled by a bear and left for dead by his buddies.  But Hugh survives.  And he vows revenge on those "pals" who abandoned him (hm, maybe he should talk with Matt Damon).  Tom Hardy plays a major role, along with a whole host of "That Guy" kind of actors.  Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarittu, who brought us Birdman this year.