2015 Movie Highlights

I mostly wrote this early in 2016 and never got around to finishing it. Now that we’re almost into 2017, I feel comfortable saying that any trace of late-in-the-year bias must have been eradicated by now, so I can safely evaluate and reveal my movie and TV highlights for 2015. As usual these are not necessarily new, but merely new to me.

Sidenotes

First, a couple items not on the “new for 2015” list—one in a good way, one bad.

X-Files

One small mention, not a new highlight, is that I once more watched through the X-Files oeuvre. It remains excellent. My favorite episode continues to be S7E17: “all things.” It’s arguably hippy-dippy and soft compared to the vast majority of other episodes, relatively uneventful on the surface, and mostly revolves around a previous relationship of Scully’s and so-called “feelings” that I guess people have while not fighting aliens and monsters. But I really like how it perfectly slips in the reveal that Mulder and Scully are together now, instantly normalizing what’s effectively the culmination of the series, the emotional payoff for the whole thing. It also cements the series as being decisively about Scully, no matter how much more Fox paid Duchovny. Notably, this episode was the first and only directed by Anderson herself.

Scully and Mulder Netflix-and-chill between alien invasions.

Scully and Mulder Netflix-and-chill between alien invasions.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Another sidenote, notably missing from my highlights is Stars Wars: The Force Awakens. The first third or so of the movie I thought was good, interesting and engaging with a lot of neat worldbuilding in the background. Then most of that got thrown away in favor of replaying Episode IV. The first time I saw the movie I thought it was incredibly boring and was literally looking at my watch to see how much more there was. My expectations having been re-calibrated, the next go in theaters was better. But still, I rate it on my scale somewhere between an 8, “Definitely a good movie, but maybe not quite engaging enough or a little flat.” and a 7, “An ok movie; watchable, entertaining, not something to really come back to.” I am though excited about the prominent and even action-oriented roles for several female characters.

Honorable Mentions

A couple movies all got credit for being great, quiet character studies in 2015:

  • The Station Agent. A surprisingly compelling, essentially plot-free view of a bunch of quirky people forming a small community surrounding an abandoned railway station.
  • Robot and Frank. A good exploration of aging and robotic personalities as the titular Frank “befriends” Robot and brings the latter into his life of crime.
  • All Is Lost. Notable for having only one on-screen character, essentially no dialog, and basically a single set, this is a really good disaster movie of Robert Redford lost in a sea of both water and regrets.

Another honorable mention is Attack on Titan. The series is really goofy at times. Repeatedly in the early going I came super close to turning it off due to all the cliched anime screaming and posturing. Later episodes pull some punches too on a couple characters that weakens it a bit. But the overall story is novel and intriguing and the show manages at times to capture a strongly emotive take on young people caught and dying in a bleak, losing war.

Nope, not a good day.

Nope, not a good day.

Highlights

Moving on now to the top TV and movie highlights of 2015.

Automata

At first I was somewhat conflicted on Automata. My initial review:

8/10. I had big hopes for this, and it has a lot of promise at the start and in the plot overall, but it doesn’t quite work. It’s almost a sketch, with a lot of ends not quite connected and the movie counting on their basic familiarity to carry them through in the viewer’s mind. In places it just doesn’t make a ton of sense either, e.g., why the enabled robots don’t take more actions to defend themselves. The visuals though are really good, the robots look great, and the movie starts off with a lot of promise, basically a sci-fi noir with Spanish actors, made in Bulgaria? After about halfway through though it loses steam. It just doesn’t really quite motivate things enough. Maybe? I’m super torn. The opening is really good though. Not the initial boilerplate about the solar flares, but the police officer’s interaction with the robot and then the black & white montage. Definitely problems and shortcomings, but the more I watch it the more I like it.

Unfortunately it shows that this is a foreign production. It just moves with a different sense of connectedness and necessary context, as if something is lost in translation though I don’t think anything literally is. However, the movie grew on me quite a bit. The effects and scenery are luscious and many of the small details like the rain jackets are great touches. The ennui of the protagonist and really especially his wife is very affecting, and a good frame and foil for the larger plot. That larger plot though is very good, an exploration of our future selves. It’s a great looking sci-fi movie and the themes really stuck with me. I think of it from time to time after not having seen it for some time, so ultimately I give Automata very high marks.

Mad Max: Fury Road

My initial reviews for Mad Max: Fury Road just say “Goddamn.” Each time I saw it.

I’d argue it’s as close to a perfect action movie as you can get: Taut action, inventive world building, a good dose of progressive politics, and incredible technical competency. Cinematography, coloring, editing, effects, in every single aspect of filmmaking it’s a cut above. The action is more understandable, more suspenseful, more meaningful, and more fun than every other such movie of late. The plot is simple, but that’s fine, it merely sets the stage for everything else. And forefront on that stage are very feminist themes. The movie is overt and unapologetic about that, but also doesn’t fall to becoming preachy on the topic. The women just kick ass.

Beyond the movie itself being so good to watch though, I also just greatly enjoyed that fact itself: It was good. Forget being a sequel, this is one after a 30 year hiatus that came storming back in rare form at the top of the game. Competence is so rare in our world that a huge part of what I enjoyed about this movie was just that, its visible, obvious excellence. Every part of Fury Road showed the hand of masters at work, and that alone was worth the price of admission.

Person of Interest

This last bit I’m finally writing in late 2016, so I can say with confidence that the most consequential film new to me in 2015 was a relatively unheralded TV show: Person of Interest. Fury Road was the “best” in terms of production and so on. It didn’t lack in meaning either. There’s really something to small scenes like Furiosa taking the rifle from Max. But Person of Interest is nearest and dearest to my heart.

I had barely heard of it when I started watching, prompted to do so by some Netflix recommendation. I couldn’t believe what I’d been missing. Granted, it gets a little goofy at times. Surely there would be a more serious response to the sudden massive epidemic of kneecappings in New York. By midway through season two John’s brain must be turning to mush from all the head injuries. But the show balances action and investigating, has appealing characters with their own moments of depth that you want to see develop, women feature prominently in protagonist and antagonist roles, and the overall plot is great. By and large it starts off as a solid pop culture exploration of the surveillance state. Halfway through the seasons it’s also riffing really well on artificial intelligence and the big question of what comes next, what is the next age. The show is fun to watch, compelling to keep watching more, and I think incorporates some interesting ideas along the way.

Notably, I think the tech is also circumspect and realistic for a TV show. As a sidenote, in a number of scenes you can see there’s “real” code flying by on the screens and so on. It’s all toy code and meaningless of course, but it is actually related: Finch is actually doing trivial database manipulation and so on related to whatever’s going on in the scene, etc.. It’s a nice touch and says something about the advisors behind the show. But, bigger picture, I think the show overall is in a sense fairly realistic. Obviously Finch manages to hack into all sorts of things at impossible speeds, many devices are connected that I would not expect to be in the current day, and so on. But the broad strokes are reasonable. Pervasive networked surveillance is already here. Facial detection and voice recognition is already very useful and getting stronger and more nuanced all the time. The algorithmic learning roots of The Machine seem feasible even from where we stand today. If anything, I don’t think the show goes far enough. For example, there’s only a few uses of drones throughout the entire run, but they’re quite likely to be ubiquitous in the not so distant future.

Long story short, Person of Interest is a rare find that has really stuck with me.

 

TV Review: Warehouse 13

Recently I watched the first three seasons of the Syfy Channel’s Warehouse 13.  The upshot is that it’s fun and entertaining, but not necessarily something that will age very well or be particularly remembered.

There are two obvious shows to reference against: Bones and, of course, The X-Files.  In general the show seems aimed at a slightly younger audience than both.  It’s not nearly as dark and serious as X-Files mostly was.  With the exception of a few weird jokes late in the third season that stick out quite a bit, Warehouse also generally doesn’t have the occasional adult humor and mainstreamed stylish sexyness Bones tries to peddle at times.

It’s kind of funny to watch some of the forced comparisons with Bones in the first couple episodes.  Pete, the lead male character, comes across an awful lot like an even goofier Booth.  They even look extremely similar.  The tone is similar to Bones but without all the blood and unnecessary gross bits.  However, somewhat counter-intuitively, I actually find Warehouse a lot more coherent.  Bones to me never manages to strike a consistent tone between fantastical goofyness and serious crime drama.  By being rooted in precisely that fantastical goofyness, Warehouse actually works better around the viewers’ suspension of disbelief than Bones and a lot of high faux-science procedurals.

The production pitch is super obvious: Take the last scene from Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark, and build a whole show around it. Dunnnzo!

Cue the Bond theme!

Unfortunately, I would say that Warehouse fairly quickly falls into the same trap that The X-Files continually danced around as it went forward, and eventually more or less fell into: Over-emphasis on long term story arc episodes at the cost of lighter, more fun and comprehensible one-shots.  My impression of Warehouse after the second season was actually fairly high.  Definitely a light show, but fun and going somewhere.  That momentum however really got dragged down in the third season by a steady stream of new characters, unnecessary webs of character relationships and family backgrounds, and an increasingly byzantine overarching story arc—all the same problems of complexity and weight that really plagued X-Files, though admittedly its true strength was the long-term development and complexity of the relationship between Mulder and Scully.  It’s a delicate line.  Warehouse has a good start on building up a bunch of interesting relationships, but I think launched the plot into the deep end a bit early.

On the upside, the show features a good number of solid female characters.  Myka, the female lead, is a bit stereotypical: The organized, controlled and controlling one who’s always just on the edge of emotionally cracking.  Otherwise though they’re pretty good.  Claudia is the most technologically savvy character on the show.  Mrs Frederick is both the consummate boss and fount of wisdom.  H.G. (Helena) Wells is a convincing and interesting super villain, and an interesting spin on a historical science fiction touchstone.  Leena’s new age trippyness I don’t find particularly compelling but the character’s not terrible when not being used for boob jokes.

Ooohmygod, they’ve got cookies! Cookies!

As an interesting design point, through the first season and a quarter or so the show has a somewhat unusual triple plot structure.  Most TV shows, especially those with an hour long format, run an A plot and a B sub-plot.  Until it settles down a bit in the second season, Warehouse often runs an A, B, and C sub-plot, where the A line is about the artifact du jour, the B line about some personal matter or relationship development among Myka and Pete, and the C line some near catastrophe in the warehouse occupying Artie (their boss) and Claudia.  These C plots are actually not too annoying and it’s an interesting way to build up the office and tech oriented Artie and Claudia characters before they become more mobile and active in the main plotlines.

“Look, don’t mess with me, I’m having a bad century.”

For what it’s worth, Warehouse is set in the same Syfy universe as Eureka (which I haven’t seen) and Alphas, which I’ve found pretty decent so far.  The tie-ins with Eureka are overt, with characters, gadgets, and companies appearing in both.  Connections with Alphas are a lot more implicit at the moment.  For example, Warehouse‘s third season character Steve is clearly some kind of Alpha though never explicitly labelled as such, and I would argue Claudia and several other characters show Alpha tendencies as well.  It’s a little fun trying to gauge which of Warehouse or Alphas has more budget.  I would guess Warehouse, given that it has a lot more setting variety, more gizmos, and actually a fair number of recognizable sci-fi actors.  However, I think Alphas is a lot more slick, the relatively more subtle and serious tone of the special effects making them seem more polished.  More importantly, the themes in Alphas seem a good bit more mature and deeper.

“Really? I will destroy you, and not even notice.”

“Listen, just because I was thown in here to compromise between being not-quite jailbait for all the sci-fi dudes, but still young and goofy enough for all the teenage dudettes to relate to, doesn’t mean I can’t kick your ass. Ohmygod, I’m, like, so screwed up, you know?!”

Overall though, Warehouse 13 is a reasonably solid, warmhearted and goofy little science fiction show.  It’s probably a bit light for anyone besides teenagers/young adults to really really dig into, but not so much as to be offputting or especially boring.  It’s also fairly obvious in nature and execution, and thus easy to have on in the background or to pick up off and on.  So, I recommend it for fans of the genre looking for some digested entertainment, just don’t expect too too much.

Finally, Artie, the lead agent, is from Philadelphia… and a curmudgeon.  Bonus points for realism!