Blu-ray: The Grey

There seems to be an experiment going on, where filmmakers are taking Liam Neeson and putting him in progressively more stripped down movies to see just how much more is needed to be added to make an incredible movie.  If The Grey is any indication, it’s almost nothing.

Neeson plays John Ottway, a man with only a basic sketch of a past, clearly suffering from the absence of his wife, who appears in recurring flashbacks.  He provides protection to oil workers in Alaska, hiding out in the woods and shooting wolves before they can attack the workers.  After a plane crash coming back from the job, he and seven others end up stranded in the arctic circle and must band together under Ottway’s guidance to survive.  Naturally, the group is in conflict with each other, and must find a way to overcome their skepticism in Ottway’s experience as well as the packs of wolves that are hunting them.

The movie is fairly simple overall, featuring a cast listing that is less than two dozen people.  The plane crash happens early, and the film ends at a point that makes it clear that it’s completely about Neeson’s character and his persistence in survival despite everything going against him.

Despite the abundance of winter wear and near persistence of snowy weather, Neeson stands out in this film.  His lack of any formal history allows his acting to paint the whole picture and you get a fairly decent understanding of the type of person he is and what he’s struggling with, even without any dialog in the brief flashbacks he experiences.  We never even learn his wife’s name.

The only real unfortunate thing about this story is that it ends up being more of a vignette than a full story proper.  As a character piece, we are only seeing a slice of Ottway’s life and how he deals with an emotional crisis colliding with a external one.  The movie is engaging, but treads a little lightly as far as actual progress is concerned.  This is a ‘serious film’ after all, so the sort of fun banter you see on buddy survival pics like Flight of the Phoenix, or the Baldin/Hopkins film The Edge that this one takes obvious clues from, doesn’t apply.  This is one man’s story that happens to have others that walk beside him.

And for what it is, it works, and I recommend it.  But if you’re looking for something beyond a character piece, I urge you to look elsewhere.

Netflix: Transformers: Dark of the Moon

It’s hard to come into the Transformers movies without an opinion anymore.  It’s a film series that has much publically emphasized constant action over any discernible story.  This is never more apparent in Transformers: Dark of the Moon.  Robots duel. Soldiers run around shooting at things.  Shia LaBeof is made to look like a fool for 95% of the movie and then a hero in the last 5%.  And women are objectified.  There is no sense to it anymore.  These things happen randomly and frequently without explanation.  There aren’t even any characters in this film anymore, just props that move around, and that applies equally to the human actors as it does the Transformers themselves.

Let’s try to break this down.  Way back during the Cybertronian civil war, the “Ark” was sent out into space and presumed to be destroyed.  What actually happened is that it crashed on the moon in 1961.  It was detected and launched the space race on Earth.  Once enough of it had been harvested and brought back to Earth, we buried the evidence and promptly forgot about it.  (This movie features a pointless cameo by Buzz Aldrin, who tarnishes his own name by appearing.)  Now, however, the Decepticons are aware of it and Optimus Prime wants to get it before his enemies do.

BUT!  The Ark is a decoy – as we are almost IMMEDIATELY informed of by Megatron – so we know it’ll eventually turn out to be trouble. Except, specifically how it’s a decoy, isn’t quite clear.  Also, why it took so long for Megatron to start this scam isn’t quite clear, as several years have passed since Transformers 2 where the necessary MacGuffin  was acquired to start the Ark.

Also, apparently Megatron – or Starscream actually — has been hiding an army on the Moon laying in dormancy for when the Ark could be started.  Why this army wasn’t called during Transformers 1 and 2 when it was… you know, REALLY ESSENTIAL, isn’t clear at all.

Neither, actually, is it ever clear which Transformer we’re actually looking at in a given shot.  I could spot Optimus (most of the time) and Bumblebee (almost all the time)  but every other Transformer, including all the villains, were indecipherable to me.  They’re just a jumble of jagged grey metal most of the time and they move so fast that it’s impossible to track the action until the robots break apart and we see who is “bleeding” (which all the Transformers do for no clear reason… several even drool and spit, for gods sake).

Finally, the human props are no less indecipherable.  Shia’s character, Sam Witwicky, has apparently been shut out of the US government run program that … I dunno, I guess “owns” the Autobots right now, and he’s kinda tacked off about it.  His girlfriend from the previous two movies – Megan Fox – has dumped him and he’s picked up a new leggy British girlfriend that is in the film for ONLY TWO REASONS: to persistently look “sexy” (bleh) and to be a hostage for Sam to rescue.  In fact, there are only three female characters in the whole film, one of which is Sam’s insane mother who is laughably out of touch, and the other is the chairman of the security council whose only job is to be comically stern with everyone and screw over the main characters.  There are NO positive female characters in this film!  At all!

I cannot understand how this film series persists.  There is nothing redeemable about it.  Very not recommended.

TV: The Newsroom

I can’t watch the news anymore.  I haven’t been able to in a long time, really.  It’s not that I want to be ignorant, it’s just so obnoxiously … empty, that I get angry and think about hurting myself.  CNN gleefully reports on the love lives of the Kardashians. Fox News turns every single story into an Obama hate-fest.  MSNBC rides fickle on whether it wants to deliver every story sarcastically or line up for White House love bus.  Headline News gives neither of the things its name advertises.  And the network TV news shows refuse to take a position on anything, delivering each byline with dead-eyed monotony.

Shockingly, though, they’re all reporting on the exact same things.  There’s no diversity of topics, it’s all the same news, delivered through a filter of pro-left, pro-right, obnoxiously arrogant, or blissfully uncaring.  At least if a single station delivered a variety of filters, they might for a single moment seem credible, but no, it’s always the same story every time.

Recently, Aaron Sorkin’s “The Newsroom” debuted on HBO.  I’ve been watching it, and it’s just as disgusting at times.  It comes across as the exaggeratedly heroic life story of a nightly news anchor whose only real risk taking is that he might be unemployed and forced to live on the millions of dollars wealth he’s acquired.  The show wants to make a big deal about every little thing he does but refuses to acknowledge the reality that cable news just isn’t relevant. He’s not changing the world, he’s just providing a new filter.  If people don’t like it, they change channels and they can get the filter that aligns with their preconceptions.

This is a huge shame, however, because behind the monolithic, chest thumping statue of Will McAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels) lies a compelling story about a very not-rich production staff that are torn between their desires to remain employed while believing that there should be another option in news reporting.  Or… rather, that’s how it should be.  Instead it’s about how they are all fawning over each other in all consuming crushes in a heteronormative manner.

The first episode made a good go at how these people should be acting – rushing around pursuing leads on stories and trying to get the truth before bureaucracy shuts down all avenues and begins delivering the company line.  Unfortunately, since then, it’s been about rushing around behind the scenes and being neurotic about each other on-screen.  This turns out to be necessary because they’re reporting on news stories that we already know about.

The show is unapologetically set in 2010, and presents news stories that we remember from 2010, because they were insanely high profile and saturated the news for months.  The show’s line is that those stories would have been reported “right” if only we had a news program that focused on truth instead of sensationalism.  Instead, it comes across like a person from 2012 received a time machine and thought that the best way to improve upon the world would be to go back in time and tell journalists which stories were going to be big before anyone realized.

There is a reason why police procedurals do “ripped from the headlines” and not “copied down from yesterday’s news”.  It’s because when you actually do replicate what happened in real life, it comes across heavily as Monday morning quarterbacking.  Hindsight gives these characters WAY more perspective than could have been available at the time the crisis happened and it feels ‘smug’ the way they do what everyone wishes they had done if they could have done it over again.

The show lacks the pride that Sorkin showed in The West Wing where he took original – but similar – events and let them play out in an organic manner.  Instead, The Newsroom is almost like awful Self-Insertion fanfiction, where the author’s avatar gets to parade around being an asshole but nobody calls him on it because he’s always right in the end.

Yes, there are token challenges for the characters to face, but they all just seem so superficial in the end.  There is an ongoing storyline about how the show is threatened with cancellation for the way it’s attacking deep-pocketed Republicans, but really, how much risk of that is there?  There is a much greater risk that The Newsroom will be cancelled than the fictional show IN the Newsroom getting cancelled.

I really want to enjoy this show, but I’m having a hard time looking past its flaws.  For the sake of West Wing, and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip – both of which were excellent shows in my opinion – I will continue watching.  But things need to improve or even loyalty won’t be enough for me to keep returning week after week.

Erica Friedman on Digital Media

Erica Freidman, of Yuri blog ‘Ozaku‘ (and, for those of us older folk: anime fanfiction in the 1990‘s) fame, posted an incredible article on the move from physical media to digital media.  It is in the context of the currently floundering move from paper manga to digital manga, but she broadens the discussion to become universal.  It’s absolutely worth a read, especially for people like me, who share her vision of the future of media consumption.

She presents her vision with an example that I have many, many times spoken of similarly, and is quoted below:

Here’s my futurist fairytale – I have a device that supports all standard formats. On that device I can access any of my digital content, regardless of where I am, or whether I am connected to the Internet. I can share that content with friends AND still have it for myself, as I cannot with a physical container, because the content is no longer bound (literally or figuratively) to the container. My content is available in translation and in the original, so I can read it in whichever language suits me. I can switch devices and still access my content.

I no longer need to buy the containers for content, when I can access that content anywhere, any time.

I don’t own the content, but then, I never did. I just owned the containers and my thoughts about the content…and the two things that the content conferred upon me – portability and ability to share – are replicated by this new system.

Because content containers are no longer de rigeur, they have become less typical. They will, like LPs now, be collector’s items and works of art, like the swords I collect. Books are not objects of every day use, but efforts of craftsmanship and beauty. I have space on my shelves for these, because I can access the content I want anytime, so I can surround myself with the most beautiful physical objects.

No one will ask you to destroy your comics or manga collection, but I bet in 40 years it will be mostly gone. It made sense to replace your LPs with CDs and your CDs with MP3s, each one of which made your music more portable and sharable. It made sense to replace movie reels with VHS, and then DVDs and now on-demand video. It will likewise one day be quite sensible to get rid of all those old manga volumes, because you’ll have different ways to access your content.

As a futurist I believe that, since change is inevitable, embracing change leads to fewer heartaches. And if this next format fails, it’s really no big deal because there will be a newer, more flexible, more universal format right after that.

 

Check out the whole article at Okazu!

VOD: Downton Abbey (Series 1 & 2)

Review:

I’ve reviewed British dramas before, notably Life on Mars and Doctor Who, who have always worn their Britishness casually.  They’re set in contemporary Britain, but the stories they told could have been set in almost any location.  Downton Abbey, however, is a story of a British Earl’s estate and the lives of the people who reside there, both the Earl of Grantham and his family, as well as the dozens of servants who live there as well.  This story could not have been told anywhere.  This is an intrinsically British tale.

It also was inducted into the Guinness Book of World Records in 2011 for being the highest critically acclaimed English-language drama yet.  A feat demonstrated by its Metacritic score of 92 out of 100.  For those of you who know Metacritic, this is an insanely high number.

And it deserves it.

Much like how Americans obsess over the British princes and princesses much more than the residents of Great Britain do, there is something strangely charming about a story that involves a cabal of butlers and maids in the service to an honorable Lord.  And to his great credit, the centerpiece of this story, Lord Crawley the Earl of Grantham, is a very honorable man who stands up for both his family and his servants when he feels they have been besmirched.

I have spoken before about what it is I look for a good drama, and it typically comes back to the same thing: I want to see people striving to be better.  Not just better than their normal, but better than their peers.  There is nothing greater, in my mind, to see the story of how a character does something so honorable, and moral, and right that it flabbergasts everyone around them.  And if that action can inspire others to take up more altruistic aims, then so much the better.

Now, perhaps the characters of Downton Abbey do not reach such lofty heights on a regular basis, but there are plenty of occasions where characters do the right thing when they had no encouragement to do so.  And over the course of the two seasons, we see more and more of the cast get onto the bandwagon of becoming better people through the examples of the most honorly among them.  Even characters you are trained to expect the worse from early on, eventually evolve over time to become greater people.

So what it is actually about?  It’s about the titular Downton Abbey, a house/castle/estate in fictional Downton, owned by the Earl of Grantham, Robert Crawley.  As per succession laws in Britain at the time, the Earl is required to pass his lands onto a male heir when he passes. The issue for Lord Crawley, however, is that he has three daughters, and no sons.  So at the start of the film, he intends to pass his title onto his close nephew Peter.  Unfortunately, Peter decides to take a trip to New York on the inaugural voyage of a very well regarded ship: Titanic.

Things go as well as you might expect.

Thus, the main plot of the story is set in motion by the arrival of Matthew Crawley, a 2nd cousin once removed to the Earl of  Grantham, and one who is not at all used to being a Lord, having being raised in slightly less extravagant environs as a lawyer in London.  Of course, there is also the issue about the Earl’s daughters, who will inherit nothing, and their quest to find suitable husbands of wealth of stature that will care for them (as was the norm at the time).

Meanwhile, downstairs, the Abbey’s large staff of servants have stories of their own as they dutifully work (most of them anyway) and try to reconcile the rapidly changing landscape ‘upstairs’ whilst managing their own personal dramas.

It’s all very compelling, on both sides of the line of privilege.  There are also many signs – as was happening at the time in Britain – that the division between upstairs and downstairs was starting to blur, and the consequences for those on either side who try to cross the line too early.

There are also many instances of mundane heroism, which I adore to no end.  Yes, the Earl was born into privilege, but he intends to act with honor towards anyone regardless of their position.  He protects and helps his staff, even when they are trying to find ways of rising themselves up above the line.  Meanwhile, his generally charming daughters make his life difficult at every turn because they are at the forefront of a changing tide of woman’s suffrage.

Both currently available seasons of this show are quite good, though the second season is slightly less amazing than the first due to its attempt to cram all of World War I into its storyline with all the expected tragedies that go along with it.  I watched the show thanks to Amazon Video On Demand – which is rapidly becoming my go-to store for video purchases – but it’s also available on iTunes.  The first season is also on Netflix streaming as well, for those of you invested in that plan.

Downton Abbey is one of those remarkable confluences of writing, filmmaking, acting, and editing where everyone is doing their best at the same time and we receive the joy of getting to watch them do it.  I heartedly recommend the show for anyone who enjoys a good character drama and isn’t timid about learning more about British customs in the early 1900’s.  It’s funny, intelligent, and appropriately emotional, and I can’t wait to see what it’s third series has in store for us come Fall.

Highly Recommended.