Tuesday, February 02, 2016

'Freeheld'

The good news about Freeheld is that the true-life situation it depicts—lesbian police detective Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore), dying from cancer, unable to pass her pension along to Stacie (Ellen Page), her longtime domestic partner—should no longer be a concern thanks to the legalization of gay marriage. The bad news is that Laurel and Stacie’s legacy is being honored with such flat, uninspired drama, a movie-of-the-week-level narrative that does little service to the difficult fight they fought. Moore and Page (also one of the film’s producers) stumble awkwardly through Laurel and Stacie’s early courtship, and the movie also clumsily introduces Laurel’s law-enforcement skills with a barely developed subplot about a murder investigation.

Director Peter Sollett and screenwriter Ron Nyswaner move things along briskly, so that Laurel goes from having a pain in her side to a doctor’s visit to late-stage cancer within a handful of scenes. Moore and Page bring out the heartfelt emotions in the story, but the movie frustratingly loses focus on them in the second half, as both Laurel’s police-force partner (Michael Shannon) and a flamboyant gay-rights activist (Steve Carell) spend time arguing with the local government (known as freeholders) on her behalf. A story about a lesbian couple fighting for their rights shifts to a story about various men deciding their fate. Both the movie and the men in Laurel’s life are well-intentioned, but both seem to be ultimately missing what’s important about her struggle.

Available on DVD/Blu-ray today.

Monday, January 25, 2016

'Recovery Road'

ABC Family may have changed its name to Freeform, but the new drama Recovery Road represents the same old approach for the channel that has built its success around earnest teen-focused dramas. While that has produced some unexpected gems (Bunheads and 10 Things I Hate About You among them), it's also produced plenty of unremarkable cheese like Recovery Road, a very Afterschool Special-level drama about a reckless teenager forced to face up to her addictions when she's put in a sober living house. The drinking and partying that Maddie (Jessica Sula) engages in is pretty mild even by basic-cable standards, but it's enough to get her expelled from school (it's not clear whether this is private or public school) if she doesn't agree to spend 90 days sobering up.

Cue the motley crew of recovering addicts, all adults since the teenage Maddie has been allowed to move to an adult facility. Of course Maddie has a chip on her shoulder and is in complete denial about her problems when she first moves to the house, and of course over time she will come to realize that these annoying, overbearing people really have her best interests at heart. It's an evolution that might be tolerable over the course of a 90-minute movie (or a single novel, like the series' source material), but drawn out over an entire TV season (or more), it's going to get repetitive, and the 90-day time frame gives the concept a limited shelf life. Already Maddie goes through essentially the same emotional arc in each of the first two episodes, handled with the absolute minimum of subtlety.

There's no genuine darkness in the show's portrayal of addiction, and its portrayal of teen life is similarly toothless. Sula is appealing as Maddie, bringing more shades to the character than the writing provides her, and there are some solid veterans in the supporting cast, including Sharon Leal, Kyla Pratt and Looking's Daniel Franzese. But the overall vibe is clunky and out of touch, not the kind of launch that a channel looking to rebrand as adventurous and youthful should be starting out with.

Premieres tonight at 9 p.m. on Freeform (fka ABC Family).

Sunday, January 24, 2016

'The Magicians'

I haven't read Lev Grossman's trilogy of fantasy novels that inspired the new Syfy series The Magicians, which may be why I was less disappointed in the show than many critics seem to have been. To me, it's not a failed adaptation of a beloved book series, but simply a mediocre fantasy show with hints of promise, reusing a lot of familiar elements from other pop-culture fantasy franchises. The novel was touted by many media outlets as an adult version of Harry Potter, and indeed it follows the general outline of the Potter series, taking place at a secret school for wizards (or magicians, as they're called here), where an apparently important young man (in this case a twentysomething, not a kid) is chosen to attend after being plucked from his previously mundane life. The students take classes in spells and potions, all while a mysterious evil menace lurks in the background.

But The Magicians owes at least as much to C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia, since one of its central plot points deals with a series of books about a group of English children who travel to a fantasy world via a magical piece of household furniture. The show's protagonist, Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph), is an avid fan of a series of books about a world called Fillory, and part of the show's mythology is the revelation that Fillory is a real place, one that's not quite as charming as Narnia. Grossman's books were acclaimed for their ability to take concepts familiar from series like Harry Potter and Narnia and put a darker, adult spin on them, but the show's version of that comes off mostly like a self-conscious effort to seem dark and edgy, with sex scenes and drinking and basic-cable swearing.

There are some intriguing concepts here, in particular the contrast between the Hogwarts-style school for magicians and a rogue faction of self-taught rejects (including Quentin's best friend Julia), as well as the creepy villain (called "the Beast") that emerges from Fillory to attack the students and teachers at the college. But they're wrapped around a group of fairly uninteresting characters and a world that feels mostly cheap and limited. Given how successful Syfy's The Expanse has been at world-building, it's disappointing that the effects on The Magicians look so chintzy, and that the characters feel so one-dimensional. With his Dawson Leery-style pout, Quentin is whiny and annoying, and his peers are mostly sidelined in the first two episodes, although Julia gets a strong storyline in the second installment. Fans of Grossman's books may have little patience for a show that fails to capture their unique magic, but on its own, The Magicians is passable fantasy TV. Given Syfy's ambitions to create mature, acclaimed genre fare, though, it clearly could have been much more.

Premieres tomorrow at 9 p.m. on Syfy.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

'Colony'

Serious sci-fi seems to be the in thing on TV these days, both on Syfy (with shows like The Expanse and the upcoming The Magicians) and elsewhere, and USA gets in on the action with the gritty but somewhat generic Colony. A bit like TNT's Falling Skies with all the cool aliens taken out, Colony focuses on both resistors and collaborators after an alien force has invaded Earth, although the aliens themselves are never seen (at least in the three early episodes I watched). Otherwise, this is a familiar story of alien invaders taking over the planet, with a small band of resistance fighters attempting to overthrow the conquerors. Josh Holloway plays the morally conflicted former FBI agent Will Bowman, who is forced to work for the collaborationist government, and Sarah Wayne Callies plays his equally morally conflicted wife Katie, who is also pressured (albeit not as strongly at first) to work for the resistance, feeding them information about her husband's activities.

The show's world-building is a bit inconsistent, but there is a convincing mix of normalcy and post-apocalyptic hardship to its take on occupied Los Angeles. Holloway and Callies, both genre veterans, are a bit less compelling to watch than some of the supporting players (including Carl Weathers, Kathy Baker and Kathleen Rose Perkins, all doing strong work), and Peter Jacobson, as the self-interested but open-minded alien-appointed governor of the territory, steals every moment he's onscreen. The show's relentlessly grim tone is meant to convey the serious moral complexity of Will and Katie's positions, but Jacobson's playful performance is more entertaining and more intriguing.

Still, there's a lot of potential to explore in this world, and not surprisingly for a show co-created by Lost's Carlton Cuse, there are a lot of tantalizing unanswered questions. Whether those answers will come, and more importantly, whether they will be interesting and satisfying once they do, is another matter. But for now this is a show worth keeping an eye on for sci-fi fans, although I doubt it will ascend to the levels of general acclaim of shows like Battlestar Galactica or Orphan Black. It's a decent alien-invasion drama, but it's not much more than that.

Premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on USA.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Little Thirteen' (2012)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

The German film Little Thirteen is an alarmist teen drama in the vein of Kids or previous Triskaidekaphilia entry Thirteen, although its tone is a little less histrionic. Instead, it's often disconcertingly titillating, especially since its main characters are all meant to be underage (although played, presumably, by adult actors). Maybe it's the difference in morality standards between Germany and the U.S., but I was more than a little put off by the explicit sex scenes, which are more leering than sympathetic in depicting the promiscuity of a handful of German teenagers.

Unlike, say, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Little Thirteen isn't about sexuality as an empowering force for 13-year-old Sarah (Muriel Wimmer), her slightly older best friend Charly (Antonia Putiloff) or even the boys they sleep with. Instead sex for them is more like a time-killer, something to fill the void created by neglectful parents and indifferent schooling. Yet the movie isn't really interested in exploring the root causes of its characters' irresponsibility, instead following them aimlessly through various sexual exploits, ticking off boxes of the troubled-teenager genre. In addition to the rampant, unprotected sex, there's casual drug use, shoplifting, drunkenness and even amateur pornography, all of it presented with the same "kids today" shrug.

The movie reaches its ugly nadir when Sarah's equally promiscuous and irresponsible mother inserts herself into a threesome with her daughter and her daughter's boyfriend, and director Christian Klandt films it with barely any differentiation from a softcore MILF fantasy. Sarah gives a few reluctant looks, but the camera is far more interested in the naked bodies of her and her mother. There's a bit of narration at the beginning and end of the movie from Sarah that's meant to tie all of the exploitation into some deeper longing, but it comes off mostly as an excuse, and neither Sarah nor any of the other characters is portrayed with any kind of complex inner life. They're just fodder for trainwreck drama, and that drama loses its sick fascination rather quickly.

Friday, January 01, 2016

My top 10 comic books of 2015

I skipped making this list last year, because I honestly couldn't think of 10 comic books I wanted to include, but this year I have been making some better reading choices (and/or I just feel more positive about the stuff I've been reading). So when the fine folks at Comic Book Resources asked me to contribute to their Top 100 Comics of 2015, I was happy to participate. The list used several of my write-ups at various points, but in the interest of having them all in one place (plus the ones that didn't make the cut at CBR), here's my full annotated top 10.

1. Saga (Written by Brian K. Vaughan; drawn by Fiona Staples; published by Image Comics)
Vaughan continues to find surprising new directions for his intimate and epic space opera, introducing new characters and new settings that immediately become essential to the ever-changing story. And Staples depicts them all with boundless creativity and stunning expressiveness.

2. Shutter (Written by Joe Keatinge; drawn by Leila del Duca; published by Image Comics)
There seem to be no limits to the always expanding story of explorer Kate Kristopher and her massively messed-up family, with shocking new discoveries in every issue. Keatinge and del Duca constantly come up with crazy new directions, new characters and new worlds to explore, keeping the story grounded in Kate's mix of skepticism, wonder and fury.

3. Astro City (Written by Kurt Busiek; drawn by Brent Anderson and various; published by Vertigo/DC Comics)
Even after 20 years, Busiek is still finding new emotionally rich ways to examine and celebrate the age-old traditional superhero genre, telling deeply human stories with characters who wear silly costumes and fight crime. This year, he's opened up the series to new artists, and while Anderson's work is as solid as ever, it's been a treat to see other talents (including Gary Chaloner, Joe Infurnari and Jesus Merino) take on Busiek's stories.

4. Copperhead (Written by Jay Faerber; drawn by Scott Godlewski; published by Image Comics)
Faerber's best work to date combines his strengths at low-key character-building and meat-and-potatoes genre storytelling with a simple but evocative premise: A sheriff on the rugged frontier -- in space. Faerber and Godlewski seamlessly blend conventions of Westerns and science fiction without either one ever feeling forced, and they've built up a rich cast of complex characters, led by human Sheriff Clara Bronson and her gruff, resourceful alien deputy Budroxifinicus.

5. Ms. Marvel (Written by G. Willow Wilson; drawn by Adrian Alphona and Takeshi Miyazawa; published by Marvel Comics)
Every month, Wilson evokes the wide-eyed magic of classic superhero storytelling while combining it with the equally wide-eyed discoveries of coming-of-age stories. Kamala Khan is both an immensely relatable everyteen and a character tied specifically to her time, place and background, making Ms. Marvel the perfect combination of the universal and the specific. Also, it has a giant teleporting dog.

6. Southern Cross (Written by Becky Cloonan; drawn by Andy Belanger; published by Image Comics)
What started out as a sort of murder mystery in space has developed into something more cosmic and psychedelic, while retaining the emotional core of main character Alex Braith's search for her dead sister. Cloonan builds a convincing future world and populates it with realistically flawed characters, and Belanger brings to life the dingy, low-rent locale of the space freighter that serves as Alex's temporary home and potential final stop.

7. Descender (Written by Jeff Lemire; drawn by Dustin Nguyen; published by Image Comics)
As he did with Trillium, Lemire tells an emotional, humanistic sci-fi story with this worlds-spanning tale about a young android boy, his robot dog and the war they find themselves caught in the middle of. Nguyen uses soft watercolors to give the futuristic world a sense of beauty and timelessness.

8. The Fade Out (Written by Ed Brubaker; drawn by Sean Phillips; published by Image Comics)
Given the freedom to tell any kind of story they want, Brubaker and Phillips have synthesized the noir tone of their Criminal series with the grand scope and historical detail of Fatale, along with a deep love for the seedy side of classic Hollywood. The Fade Out is a top-notch murder mystery, a fascinating history lesson and an insightful character study about an industry full of compromised characters.

9. Wild's End (Written by Dan Abnett; drawn by I.N.J. Culbard; published by Boom! Studios)
Like their underrated Vertigo series The New Deadwardians, Abnett and Culbard's Wild's End combines old-fashioned British reserve with genre staples (in this case an H.G. Wells-style alien invasion) to both suspenseful and dryly comic effect. Wild's End has the added benefit of starring anthropomorphic animals in the roles of characters who respond to a potentially world-ending threat with a stiff upper lip.

10. Nutmeg (Written by James F. Wright; drawn by Jackie Crofts; published by Action Lab Comics)
Crofts' bright, thick-lined art provides the perfect counterpoint to this surprisingly dark story about teenage girls peddling addictive brownies, a sort of cross between Mean Girls and GoodFellas. The cute, sunny suburban look gives Wright's story an extra sting when things get serious and dangerous. 

Honorable mentions: 8house (Image), Black Widow (Marvel), Chew (Image), Gotham Academy (DC), Velvet (Image).

Thursday, December 31, 2015

My top 10 non-2015 movies of 2015

It's time to close out the year with one of my favorite traditions, my list of my favorite movies from other years that I saw for the first time this year.

1. In the Heat of the Night (Norman Jewison, 1967) Given Norman Jewison's reputation for making clunky but well-intentioned social dramas, I didn't expect too much out of this movie, even though it won Best Picture and inspired two sequels and a long-running TV series. So I was surprised to find far more than a heavy-handed sermon about race relations; this is a thoroughly engrossing and effective murder mystery with a great performance from Sidney Poitier as the big-city detective stuck in small-town Mississippi. Obviously it deals with issues of racism, but it also takes on abortion and the tension between urban and rural residents, approaching the changing culture of the time in a thoughtful and nuanced way while still delivering a clear message.

2. Circumstance (Maryam Keshavarz, 2011) I'd had the screener for this movie lying in a to-watch pile since it was released locally in 2011, so obviously it was not a high priority for me. But I'm glad I got around to it, since it was not the dreary naturalist drama I was expecting. Writer-director Maryam Keshavarz explores the difficulties of living as a lesbian and a woman in modern-day Iran, but she doesn't wallow in misery. Her characters experience joy and excitement as often as terror and depression, and Keshavarz shoots the movie in lush, vibrant colors, illustrating the inner fire of those characters that even the oppressive patriarchy can't fully extinguish.

3. Too Late for Tears (Byron Haskin, 1949) This wonderfully nasty noir (which I saw at the TCM Classic Film Festival) introduced me to the great Lizabeth Scott, who plays a housewife who turns murderous when she gets her hands on a sack full of dirty money. Scott is fantastic as the femme fatale who's also the protagonist, and her unapologetic embrace of pure evil is refreshing. The movie never apologizes for having an irredeemable main character, and she gets all the juicy lines. The movie totally had me when Scott and her ne'er-do-well partner (Dan Duryea) toast, "Here's to crime! It pays!"

4. Safety Last! (Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor, 1923) I've seen a couple of Harold Lloyd silent comedies with live musical accompaniment at TCM Fest in the past, and this year I got to see one of Lloyd's movies in the historic El Capitan Theater in Hollywood at a different festival -- AFI Fest, which typically has a very small repertory program. Instead of an orchestra or classical ensemble, there was a DJ mixing live, plus another musician on bass, keyboards and samples. It was a different kind of experience that enhanced the movie in a new way. The movie is spectacular on its own, though, with some of Lloyd's best physical comedy, a sweet and melancholy relationship at the center, and the justifiably famous finale, in which Lloyd climbs the side of an office building and ends up at one point hanging from the arms of a giant clock. It's one of the greatest stunts in cinema history, and it's still astonishing nearly 100 years later.

5. It's Such a Beautiful Day (Don Hertzfeldt, 2012) I've caught a few Hertzfeldt shorts at various animation showcases over the years, and I always enjoy his work but have never been quite as wowed as critics were by his recent short World of Tomorrow at Sundance this year (I ended up seeing World of Tomorrow at AFI Fest, and liked it about on the same level as Hertzfeldt's other shorts). Still, this sort of omnibus feature made up of three interconnected Hertzfeldt shorts (without having seen them individually before, it's hard to tell where one ends and another begins) has a pretty powerful cumulative effect, building from his typical deadpan absurdity to something profound and unsettling. The simple animation and voice work (all done by Hertzfeldt himself) allow the film to address some serious existential questions while retaining its unassuming sense of humor and approachability.

6. The Seven Year Itch (Billy Wilder, 1955) Apparently this is considered one of Wilder's lesser films (and Wilder himself later dismissed it), but I was totally charmed by it, and I think that even though Wilder was restrained by production codes from including all of the sexual content in the source material (a stage play by George Axelrod), the movie is plenty salacious, and it accomplishes a lot by inference. Marilyn Monroe effectively uses her limited range to play a ditzy but deceptively sophisticated model/actress, and Tom Ewell expertly walks the line between endearing and sleazy as the married man who lusts after her. Wilder mostly sticks with the stage-friendly single locale, and the result is a smart and funny back-and-forth between two ridiculous but relatable characters.

7. Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh, 2014) Like Leigh's excellent 2004 film Vera Drake, Mr. Turner takes the filmmaker's rigorous character-based improvisational approach and applies it to real-life history, in this case the life of painter J.M.W. Turner. As played by Timothy Spall, Turner is a consummate grump, treating everyone and everything (including his own family) with a sort of bemused disdain. With a minimum of fuss, he creates some of the greatest paintings of all time, but he seems to regard even that with a level of contempt. Unlike most biopics (especially those released during the crowded awards season, as this was), Mr. Turner doesn't lay out all of its subject's motivations and accomplishments in great detail, but in its impressionistic flashes, it ends up painting a clearer picture of Turner as a human being. (More in my Las Vegas Weekly review.)

8. Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2014) I've always been kind of lukewarm on PTA, and I didn't rush to catch up with this movie for awards-voting and list-making at the end of 2014 (obviously). But I was pleasantly surprised when I saw it at the beginning of this year, not expecting a whole lot. I liked it much more than PTA's recent more serious movies (The Master, There Will Be Blood), and instead of being annoyed by its baroque plotting, I was charmed by the way the twists and turns wash over the perpetually bewildered protagonist (played by Joaquin Phoenix). Maybe it's just my love for The Big Lebowski, but I find stoner private detectives inherently entertaining, and I was totally engrossed in this movie's seedy world, pretty much to the end of the overlong running time. (More in my Las Vegas Weekly review.)

9. Stagecoach (John Ford, 1939) It seems like a trend for me on these lists to end up with bona fide timeless classics toward the bottom, which is no doubt a result of high expectations. Anyway, obviously Stagecoach is an important and influential film that has stood the test of time, and while it may not have consistently blown me away, I did really enjoy it, especially the amazing chase sequence toward the end. Like Harold Lloyd's building climb in Safety Last!, it's an astounding feat of stunt work that looks all the more impressive because the filmmakers didn't have access to modern special effects. The rest of the movie is more low-key, and it really comes together around the romance between John Wayne's outlaw and Claire Trevor's prostitute, both outcasts with stronger moral codes than some of the supposedly upstanding characters. Their relationship carries the movie, and helps elevate it from a formulaic Western into something memorable.

10. The Threat (Felix E. Feist, 1949) Here's a random TCM discovery that turned out to be a lot of fun: a quick-and-dirty noir that runs just over an hour and features a completely unrepentant psychopath (played effectively by Charles McGraw) as its main character. McGraw plays a criminal who escapes from prison and embarks on a needlessly cruel revenge scheme, along the way showing complete contempt for the lives of everyone around him, including his associates. A good portion of the movie takes place in a cramped, overheated shack as the criminal gang awaits a getaway, and it perfectly captures the slow-building tension of frustration, fear and plain old meanness.

Honorable mentions: Gun Crazy (Joseph H. Lewis, 1950); Lovely & Amazing (Nicole Holofcener, 2001); My Man Godfrey (Gregory La Cava, 1936); Particle Fever (Mark Levinson, 2013); Prime Cut (Michael Ritchie, 1972)

Previous lists: