Stream Police 01: Jack Reacher

In an effort to remain a contributing member to Mildly Pleased, I and my fellow film friend-o Michael Sevigny have decided to put together a ‘lil podcast. “Stream Police” is a movie review podcast with a bit of a twist. The twist being that our movie choices will be completely in the cold calculating hands of the Netflix Randomizer. Every episode we will click the randomizer three times and have to pick one of the films Netflix recommends for us.

On the inaugural episode of “Stream Police”, Michael and I will be reviewing the 2012 Tom Cruise vanity project Jack Reacher. We will also briefly discuss the latest “song” from former alt-rock heroes Weezer. I’d like to thank Mildly Pleased for allowing us to put this up here. Maybe other Mildly Pleasers will show up on future episodes? Who know! Stay tuned for more streamy goodness, Otteni out.

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Boy N’ Da Hood

Boyhood

These days, movies are for the most part very, very derivative.  Even the really good films from the last few years have usually had some sort of precedent, or are in some way an homage to some well-established style or subgenre.  This is not a terribly profound insight by any stretch of the imagination, but I think it helps to put in perspective why Boyhood is such a special little film.  I use the word “little” because despite being an ambitious 12-year year production, in which director Richard Linklater would shoot more scenes with his cast with each passing year, it is nonetheless a small-scale story.  And yet, because Linklater decides to focus on the smaller details of growing up while combining it with this experimental approach, he’s ended up with something that feels entirely unique and singular.  And yes, I’ll admit that I probably couldn’t have come up with a dumber title for a review of such an undeniably great movie.

As I said, director Richard Linklater decided to shoot this film over the course of 12 years, which thus gave him the ability to capture the formative years of actor Ellar Coltrane and his character Mason.  Of course, this doesn’t really explain what Boyhood is about, and that’s not an easy question to answer, since it’s kind of like asking “what is childhood about?”  But on a surface level, the movie is about Mason’s travails from ages 5 to 18, as we see the way different events and different people come and go while shaping Mason into the person he eventually becomes.  Unsurprisingly, the boy’s mother (played by Patricia Arquette) and dad (Ethan Hawke) play the most prominent role of any of the adults in Mason’s life, while Mason’s sister (played by Linklater’s daughter Lorelei) spends a lot of time hanging out with Mason early on in life, and then kind of drifts away as the years go by, as is the case with most siblings.

Perhaps this is as good a time as any for me to explain why I said earlier that Boyhood feels like a film without precident.  Well, the best example I can give happens early on when we see Ethan Hawke explaining to his young son why the Iraq War is bullshit and George W. Bush sucks.  Watching this scene, I had the reaction of thinking “Oh, yeah.  I guess that’s a timely reference.”  And then I instantly realized, “Holy shit!  I’m not watching a period piece.  They filmed that scene in the exact time period it’s taking place.”  Which is something I kept having to remind myself of, as we see many references to things that were going on in the culture at the time the movie was being filmed, despite the fact that the film doesn’t have the luxury of hindsight.  So instead of ever feeling nostalgic, the movie is simply able to just exist within it’s own time period, and in turn gives the story this whole other layer of reality.

Then there’s also the obvious fact that we get to see each character grow older as the actors also grow older with them.  Having known about Boyhood‘s production for a while, I was a little surprised at how the film progresses in a very non-pandering way, without a single “one year later” thrown in to let us know how much time has passed.  Instead we’re sort of forced to recognize what year it is with each childhood or cultural milestone that greets Mason, as well as how much his appearance has changed.  And having been a fairly young person during the time period Boyhood takes place, it was hard for me not to constantly compare Mason’s childhood against my own, since I did live through a lot of these years with the same sense of youthful naiveté and helplessness.

Still, despite all these organic elements, Boyhood is a work of fiction, and I think it’s completely valid to question whether it works on a dramatic level, though I’d say it completely does.  It’s hard to tell exactly how much of the story Linklater had mapped out in advance, but I’d probably guess about half of it.  There are definitely some storylines where it seems like there was a natural arc in mind, while other parts of the story seem like they would’ve been dependent on how the actors matured, as well as what would’ve been going on in the country (and the film’s Texas setting) at the time.  Also, because Boyhood seemingly aims to capture so many different aspects of childhood, I really responded to the way the film would quickly change tones from light and funny to raw and painful within an instant.  Because sure, being a kid can be a fun and uninhibited time in one’s life, but even the best parents in the world can’t keep the proverbial monsters away forever.

The following is probably going to sound a bit pretentious, but it feels like a nice coincidence that I just started reading Anna Karenina (only 700 pages to go!), since the back cover of my copy of Tolstoy’s supposed masterpiece (again, I still got 700 pages to go) has a quote that I think could easily be applied to Boyhood.  The poet Matthew Arnold claimed that Tolstoy’s novel was not so much a work of art as “a piece of life”, and despite being a work of complete fiction, that’s how I’m starting to look at this movie.  Because it doesn’t entirely feel like a narrative film to me, though it’s definitely not a documentary by any means, so it instead exists in this untapped nether region between fact and fiction that I’ve never seen before in a film.  And if that isn’t the kind of shit we go to the movies for, I don’t know what is.

A Life At The Movies

Life Itself

I remember I wrote a fairly lengthy eulogy for Roger Ebert on this very blog when he died back in April of 2012.  At the time it felt like a fitting send-off, but now seems a bit modest when considering the subtle-but-profound influence Ebert had on my life, and the gaping hole he left that I had in no way anticipated.  And I know I’m not the only one.  About a month ago, my colleague Sean Lemme confessed that Ebert’s death had about as much of an impact on him as any recent celebrity death, and I can’t help but feel exactly the same way.  I know there have been many more qualified film critics that have pointed out Ebert’s (and Siskel’s) influence on film criticism since the late Chicagoan’s death, but I think there’s something to be said about Ebert’s influence on people like myself who don’t consider themselves professional critics, and merely love cinema.  I think for us, Ebert was someone that you couldn’t help but feel a connection to, due to him showing up in people’s living rooms every week.  And then for people my age, who didn’t really get to appreciate Ebert until his later years, we got to know him through his heavy online presence and were able to wrestle with what the great man had to say about his favorite subject: the movies.

Perhaps it’s a no brainer that a movie be made about Roger Ebert, and perhaps it’s also a no brainer that this particular movie be directed by one of the many directors Ebert championed, like Hoop Dreams documentarian Steve James.  However, I suppose it’s fairly unique for James to stage this documentary as an adaptation of Ebert’s memoir Life Itself, since it’s hard to think of many non-fiction films adapted from non-fiction novels.  But because this movie was a still a work in progress when Ebert passed away, James’s footage of the late critic was able to surprise me in ways I hadn’t expected.  The hospital scenes — in which James was given access to what would become Ebert’s final days — in particular are hard to watch, but give the film a kind of uncompromising honesty that surely would’ve kept Ebert from giving this movie a scathing review.

As someone who read the book that this film is based on, I was pleased to see the film zero in on what made Life Itself a worthy memoir, even if it was written by a guy who seemed to prefer writing about himself more when it was in the context of a movie review.  Ebert’s somewhat uneventful childhood is glossed over, while his struggles with alcohol are given a fair amount of screentime, even if the movie probably realizes that there are much more insane accounts of great writers with drinking problems than the ones that plagued Ebert’s early adulthood.  But easily the most fascinating part of the memoir — which thankfully has an even more prominent part in the movie — is Ebert’s relationship with Gene Siskel.  The sibling-like rivalry between the two co-hosts of Siskel & Ebert At The Movies is about as deep-rooted and complex as any relationship I’ve ever seen in show business, and seeing the two of them on camera in this film is just a reminder that these two had a kind of intense chemistry that could never truly be replicated.  It just makes me hope that someday Shout Factory will go back through the Siskel & Ebert archives and put out some sort of box set, because those guys truly changed the way we talk about movies.

Still, as much as Life Itself captures what a unique and influential phenomenon Siskel & Ebert were, it’s not afraid to show the oversimplifying effects of the “two thumbs up” system that they coined.  The movie makes a point of bringing up Richard Corliss’ 1990 article that indicted Siskel & Ebert’s approach as dumbing down the state of American film criticism.  There’s also has a brief passage that brings up Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris’ more high-minded approach to film criticism, though the film shows it’s allegiances (perhaps a little too bluntly) when it allows one of its interview subjects to declare “Fuck Pauline Kael!”  However, it nonetheless shines through that Ebert knew the “thumbs up/thumbs down” system wasn’t a foolproof rating system by any means, but simply made for good television.  And perhaps this hints at another one of Ebert’s many charms — that he had the ability to seem like he was always on the right side, even if (as many of his reviews could prove) he wasn’t.

One last thing that I remember responding to about the book was the way in which the final chapters captured the terminally ill Ebert in a state of ease about his place in the universe.  The movie is a bit different, in that it captures a determined work ethic even to the end, but also a desperation to not let the icy hand of death take you until you’ve truly stopped fighting.  Admittedly, it’s some pretty heavy stuff, and it’s probably no accident that Life Itself at one point shows Ebert watching the latest installment of Michael Apted’s Up Series, which similarly features real-life characters dealing with the trajectory of their own lives.  Yet even when death seems to surround so much of this film, more often than not Life Itself feels like a fair and insightful celebration of a life well lived.  And for that, you can probably guess in what direction my thumbs are headed.

Halfway Heroes: Agents of SHIELD

Agents of SHIELD Season 1

I think it was around January of this year that I finished getting through Buffy and Angel for the first time. I enjoyed both of those shows more than I thought I would, and got a much better understanding Joss Whedon’s career and why I like him so much. They also gave me a reason to stick with Agents of SHIELD, as I had just seen how two shows overcame uneven-to-bad first seasons to become truly great.

When Agents of SHIELD started last September, Iron Man 3 had left me somewhat cool and Man of Steel was devastating (to the city of Metropolis as well) – basically it seemed like we had finally gone too far with super hero stuff and the decline had begun. So the idea of a show centering around Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson seemed like an act of pure hubris, and Agents of SHIELD took a while to dissuade me of that notion. Thankfully, just as Thor: The Dark World kept things interesting and Captain America: The Winter Soldier reinvigorated the Marvel Cinematic Universe, they also helped SHIELD find its footing.

The first episodes of this season set up a pretty simple formula: Coulson’s team hangs out on their airplane (called “the Bus”) and solve crimes perpetrated by mostly regular people using magical/high tech stuff. It was a regular case-of-the-week show save for the occasional references to Iron Man or the Hulk or “what happened in New York.” It was almost as if the show was deliberately trying to lean away from everything that made it appealing – super hero excitement and Whedonesque character development – to instead try to lure in viewers from Hawaii Five-O.

Not that there weren’t things that worked early on, Coulson remained a really fun character, May (Ming-Na Wen) quickly established herself as an ass-kicker, and cameo from Samuel L. Jackson was really, really fun. But things didn’t really change until about halfway through the season, when they did their first crossover episodes, a two-parter set in the wake of Thor: The Dark World. A super powered villain made things interesting, but it was especially great to have Sif (Jaimie Alexander) show up and really show how well Agents of SHIELD can enrich the movies.

That put the series on a hot streak that continued until The Winter Soldier came and changed the whole Cinematic Universe, and finally kicked Agents of SHIELD into high gear – and one of my most anticipated shows every week. Suddenly everything was clicking into place – Fitz and Simmons (Iain De Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge) became fun instead of annoying, Skye’s (Chloe Bennet) mystery became interesting, and the show switched to a serialized story. Basically they did exactly what fixed Angel‘s first season, and it really worked. Especially with new recurring roles for James Paxton, Patton Oswalt, and BJ Britt.

Also great: the twist from TWS allowed the writers to transition some heroes into villains. Maybe it wasn’t a surprise to see James Paxton (who seemed like he was having a lot of fun) switch sides, but you had to feel for Mike Peterson (J. August Richards) as he was turned into the cyborg killing machine Dethlok. Plus they took the most boring of all the main characters, Agent Grant Ward (Brett Dalton), the resident handsome tough dude, and turned him into an evil double agent. Suddenly everything that made him boring before made him super creepy. It was like the show had engaged me in a rope-a-dope, wearing me down with bad episodes and then knocking me on my ass with good ones.

With the recent announcement that Lucy Lawless will be showing up in season two and all the positive hype for Guardians of the Galaxy, the skepticism I had for Agents of SHIELD has pretty much entirely melted away. It’s a shame it sucked for a while, but hot damn is it fun now. If you care about this super hero stuff at all, I think you’ll find something to enjoy.

Halfway Heroes: 24 Live Another Day

24: Live Another Day

Jack Bauer, I missed you. Say what you will about Raylan Givens, Walter White, or Rustin Cohle, there’s been a badass hole in television since 24 ended four years ago. This poor man, who has lost everything time and time again while he’s been busy saving the country (and often the world) remains the best action hero of the 21st Century, and Live Another Day reminds us how great Kiefer Sutherland is in the part. And with a short 12 episode order, Live Another Day gives us just enough of him and the world of 24 to leave me wanting more.

If you missed out on Day 8, basically all you need to know about this season is that Renee Walker, the third love of Jack’s life, was murdered and Jack took vicious revenge, leaving him a fugitive from the United States and Russia’s most wanted. This season opens in London, with Jack resurfacing just in time to get tangled up in a web involving old friends and new enemies. Like every season of the show, there are countless twists and turns and the final conflict bears almost no resemblance to the one that started everything (even though its only been a few hours) and going into any detail would spoil some of that fun.

I will say that they brought back exactly the right people. Secretary of Defense Heller (William Devane) is now the president, and his staff includes his daughter Audrey (Kim Raver), the only woman who Jack ever loved who is still alive. Any longtime fan of the show knows how exciting it is to have these characters back, and how complex their relationship is with Jack. And for everybody else, well, you get to enjoy the fine, fine work of William Devane. The only other CTU vet to return is Mary Lynn Rajskub as Chloe, because it wouldn’t be this show without her. It’s weird to think she wasn’t in those first two seasons.

Newcomers include Yvonne Strahovski as this day’s agent who is good at stuff, Michelle Fairley as a terrorist, and Stephen Fry as the PM of the UK, so that’s pretty great. I want to give a shoutout to Stanley Townsend for playing a really slimy dude and also having one of the worst beards ever put to film. Just look at this shit:

9x06_Russian_Minister
I have never seen the “hair just around my mouth” look before. It’s almost a goatee, but it’s not.

Like I alluded above, Live Another Day basically gives you everything you’d want out of a season of 24 and not too much else. There’s light political commentary, plenty of shootouts, a few (most torture-free) interrogations, and lots of hard decisions to make. You’ll hear “within the hour” uttered more times than you might like, but hey, it keeps things tense. And the stuff that goes down in the back half of the season is so great I was someone left wanting even more. The show’s over! I should be satisfied! Why do I care so much about Jack Bauer?

Halfway Heroes: Hannibal

Hannibal Season 2

It’s been an unusual year for the blog, we’ve been writing less as we as a group finally fully transitioned away from being students. Well, I guess not totally and completely, since Colin is still taking improv classes, but at this point in time, we all have all the degrees we’re planning on getting. With the demands of adulthood weighing on all of us, it’s hard to justify writing on this tiny, almost forgotten blog. But, just like the podcast, I still love the idea of having this artifact of who we all were and what we were like at this point in time, and so I press on.

Normally I would have reviewed a bunch of things earlier, but I was pretty busy trying to graduate. Then I should have talked about those things on the best of the year so far podcast, except technical difficulties have introduced the possibility that episode might never be released. So I return to the keyboard for a chance to write about some of my favorite things this year, that I might be able to remember them come December. Not that I imagine I’ll have any trouble recalling the second season of Hannibal any time soon.

I caught up with Hannibal just as its second season began, and at the time I was not nearly as diehard a fan as many of the NBC show’s small audience. I enjoyed how artistic the show was, and how it told a story about a manipulated descent into madness, and the promise that there would be less self-contained episodes this time around, but I didn’t come into this season loving the show. As you might guess based on all those stars up there, that changed.

What caused that change? Well, for one, I think watching a show once a week definitely does make me more invested in it than a marathon. It forces me to savor every minute I get and gives me questions to dwell on, since I know the only thing that can answer them is time. It’s what forces me to read AV Club reviews and even check the comments, maybe even go as far as to find the Hannibal subreddit. I’m not saying marathoning is wrong, in fact, some shows (especially Netflix ones) actually really benefit from condensed viewing. But Hannibal might not be one of them.

But really, I think that Bryan Fuller and everyone else involved in Hannibal just stepped up their already great game. The season opens with an amazingly thrilling fight sequence and ends with almost the entire cast on the brink of death. Along the way we see people get sewn together, sliced into vertical sections, and eat their own faces. And that’s just the stuff vague enough to write about, some of the tableaus we’re shown over the course of the season are so original and disturbing I’d hate to spoil them here.

That element spills into every part of the show, as we see Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) try to unravel the situation the first season left him in. As certain we are that Hannibal (Mads Mikkelsen) is always in control, always plotting everything that happens, Will becomes a wildcard, increasingly difficult to read. The season basically unfolds in two halves, but both are unified in the duel between Hannibal and Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) for Will’s soul – and it’s a delight to watch. Other shows have done similar arcs, Dexter and True Detective come to mind, but it’s rare to see an ostensibly good character to completely embrace the dark.

There is a slight diversion in the later stages of this 13-episode run with the introduction of Margot and Mason Verger (Katharine Isabelle and Michael Pitt) that might rub some people the wrong way. Was it a distraction? Yes. But what they did with it was impressive, and it just added more to Dr. Lecter’s character. Really, if any character was underserved this season it was Caroline Dhavernas’ Alana Bloom, who finds herself in a terrifying position but is never given a real chance to shine and comes off as dumb or annoying, which probably wasn’t intended.

Hannibal gets away with more disturbing imagery on basic cable than I’ve seen on the likes of HBO and Showtime. That has to be because everything it attempts is expertly done, a swirling maelstrom of compelling writing, strong performances, and amazing production. To borrow from the voice of our generation, Kanye West, this is a beautiful, dark, twisted fantasy and I’m just glad I get to watch it.