Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014 Movie Releases (In Review)

I'm gonna go ahead and back-date this post for posterity (and so it's easier to find in later years). But by way of explanation, I've been busy, stressed, and even a little bit sick over the holidays, so my year end festivities are running a couple weeks late. Looking back, I saw a lot of new movies in 2013. Here is a list of the new movies I saw in 2014:

In March, I saw Divergent, which is a Hunger Games-like sci-fi dystopia that I rather enjoyed. I'm looking forward to seeing the second part of the trilogy, which I think is coming out this spring.

In June came the release of Maleficent, which I saw more for Elle Fanning's portrayal of a Disney Princess than Angelina Jolie's celebrated performance as the titular villain from Sleeping Beauty. The movie was alright, though I felt that in making Maleficent sympathetic, they really removed her fangs, and destroyed what made her such an iconic character in the first place.

July was the month for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which I went to see after catching up on the first movie, that I had originally missed during its theatrical run. It was very good. I'm excited to see where the story goes in future installments of the series.

I also got to see Snowpiercer, albeit at home, which saw a wide release in this country this year. It was a fantastic sci-fi dystopia movie, more in the vein of 1984 and Brave New World than the "young adult fiction" adaptations (e.g., The Hunger Games, Divergent) that are popular these days. It's tied with Interstellar as my vote for the best new movie I watched this year.

Speaking of which, Interstellar came out in November - an epic, sci-fi tour de force that marks Christopher Nolan's next big project after concluding The Dark Knight trilogy. It stands on the shoulders of Stanley Kubrick's cult classic 2001: A Space Odyssey, and features incredible special effects, and speculative scientific themes involving the manipulation of relativistic spacetime, that this astrophysics geek just loved.

November also saw the release of the first part of the last part of The Hunger Games series, Mockingjay - Part 1. Despite being an adaptation of the first half of a book, meaning that there's less action and no satisfying conclusion (yet), it is on par with the excellent second installment of the saga, Catching Fire, which was so good. The only reason I'm not rating it one of the best movies of the year is because I voted Catching Fire the best movie of last year, and it seems more fair to spread the accolades around. It was still the only movie I saw twice in theaters this year (although I would have seen Interstellar a second time if it weren't so long). I am eagerly anticipating the final conclusion to this series.

Finally, we come to this year's Hobbit movie - The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (Part 1). It's terrible that I saw this movie more out of a sense of duty than any kind of excitement. And I'm more than a little relieved that the series is over now (I was kidding about it being only part 1 :p). The Hobbit never should have been three movies. Even with the added stuff about the Necromancer and Dol Guldur, which largely turned out to be a disappointment (even if the supergroup battle between Elrond, Galadriel, Saruman, and Gandalf versus Sauron in this movie was pretty cool). It's not that The Hobbit is bad - as it shines in its best moments. It's just that it's so long and drawn out, and I feel that the machinery that made The Lord of the Rings a legitimate masterpiece has become so bloated and money-hungry that the material has begun to suffer from excess as a result. There are some good stories yet to be told from The Silmarillion, perhaps, but I think the world needs a cinematic break from Middle-Earth before anyone even considers tackling something like that.

Other newish movies I watched this year, at home, include Transcendence (starring Johnny Depp as a godlike AI), which was so-so; and a few I had missed in previous years, including You're Next, and Insidious: Chapter 2, both of which were pretty good. There was also All The Boys Love Mandy Lane, which came out only recently, despite being filmed all the way back in 2006. Ultimately, it wasn't very good, though.

There were a few movies that came out this past year that looked interesting, but I didn't get to see. I'm not going to bother listing them here. I'll either get around to watching them sometime in the future, or not. I don't really know what's coming out this year, or in the more distant future, except that I'm looking forward to future installments of series I've already begun (namely Divergent, The Hunger Games, and The Planet of the Apes). Oh, and of course there's the new Jurassic Park movie (Jurassic World), and the new Star Wars movie. I don't know when they're coming out, and there's no telling yet if they'll be any good, but I have to admit I'm a little bit excited about their potential. Only time will tell.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Angel (1999-2004)

Angel is the Millenium to Buffy The Vampire Slayer's The X-Files - it's a darker, more mature series with similar themes. In this case, it's not just loosely set in the same universe (remember that Frank Blank got his coda on a post-Millenium episode of The X-Files), but a direct spin-off. Angel (David Boreanaz) - the vampire whose soul was returned to him by a gypsy curse - leaves Sunnydale to seek redemption for the sins of his afterlife by helping innocents in Los Angeles, a city that is overrun with demons, while battling the literally evil law firm Wolfram & Hart, legal defense for all manner of underworld creatures.

I must admit that I was never as excited sitting down to watch an episode of Angel as I was for Buffy, and I may not have been invested in the characters as deeply (although I do like Angel - both his noble-if-at-times-bristly personality, and his quest for redemption), but it's a series that had some really good moments, and is required viewing for anything more than the casual Buffy fan. On the other hand, if you don't go in for the nerdy teen drama aspect of Buffy (though it's a very mature series in its own right), you might still be able to appreciate Angel for its more adult drama and more frequently somber tone.

Following is a more in-depth exploration of each of the series' five seasons. Beware: spoilers abound! I would recommend you not read the following sections until you've seen the corresponding seasons in their entirety.

Season One

Coming on the heels of the first three seasons of Buffy, Angel's first season doesn't feel as raw and unpolished as Buffy's first did, but the show does take its time finding its routine. This isn't helped by the premature departure of Angel's (part) demon sidekick, Doyle (Glenn Quinn), whose telepathic visions of people in danger inspires Angel's quest to help the helpless. Three of the show's main (and original) characters barely even figure into the story until the second or third seasons.

In the beginning, the show does feel kind of like a dumping ground for characters retired from Buffy, with Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) showing up (and eventually inheriting Doyle's visions), and then Wesley (Alexis Denisof) (with all his demonological knowledge), who both become central characters in this series (inhabiting larger roles than they ever had on Buffy). Additionally, you have a number of one-off cross-over episodes with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, featuring characters such as Spike (when he was still evil), Oz, Buffy herself, and Faith (Eliza Dushku). The latter fits in well with this show's darker themes, and eventually follows in Angel's footsteps on the quest for redemption.

Season Two

Season two relocates Angel Investigations to their new offices in the Hyperion Hotel. It also introduces lovable and snarky empath demon Lorne (Andy Hallett) (who can read people's auras when they sing karaoke) - who gradually takes over Doyle's role as demon sidekick - and Charles Gunn (J. August Richards), amateur streetwise vampire slayer who gradually becomes a crucial member of Angel's team. It also wraps up the story arc involving police detective Kate Lockley (Elisabeth Röhm), and her conflicted connection with Angel. I was a little disappointed that she just dropped off the show, because I was hoping she would come work with Angel after she got kicked off the force.

The season's conflict is largely about Wolfram & Hart's resurrection of Darla (Julie Benz) - the vampire who sired Angel - in the first season's finale. Some of Angel's best moments are those that dig back into the history of the character, and the hijinks that he and Darla, Drusilla and Spike engaged in throughout previous centuries. Certainly, it's great seeing Drusilla (Juliet Landau) back in action, even if just briefly, and the same could be said of the flashback involving Buffy season one Big Bad, The Master (Mark Metcalf), who I really liked, and wished we could have seen more of in either of these two series.

But where I thought the season was building up to a huge, Darla-centric climax, it instead segues into an iffy three-parter that takes place in an alternate dimension (Lorne's home world). We do, however, get introduced to hot-to-trot Texas physicist Winifred "Fred" Burkle (Amy Acker), who will subsequently become another one of the main characters on the show. Darla's story arc, meanwhile, will reach its emotional conclusion in the middle of the next season.

Season Three

Season three is all about Angel's son (by way of Darla, via a mystical pregnancy, since vampires can't normally give birth), Connor (Vincent Kartheiser), and also ties in with an old villain, Holtz (Keith Szarabajka) who has been brought to the present by a demon. Holtz is an interesting case - and a brilliant choice for the series - because he was one of the victims of Angelus' sadistic brutality. So on the one hand, he's a good man who deserves his vengeance, but because he doesn't understand that Angel has reformed, Holtz is effectively an antagonist. It really brings out the theme of redemption, and forces Angel to look the repercussions of Angelus' acts square in the face.

Holtz wants Angel to suffer the pain of losing a child (as Angelus once inflicted on Holtz), so he kidnaps the infant Connor and raises him in a demon dimension where time flows much swifter than on Earth, so that Connor soon returns as a brooding (and battle-trained) adolescent, influenced by Holtz to hate his father. This culminates in a shocking season finale (and the most harrowing cliffhanger of the series) which finds Angel sealed in a coffin and dropped into the sea by his own son.

But in the meantime, spurred on by a dubious but alarming prophecy, Wesley betrays Angel in an attempt to save Connor. Angel doesn't forgive him, and he gets separated from the group, beginning his transformation into a much darker character. I have to say, the transformation suits him well, and though I enjoyed his antics as the goofy comedic relief, he's a much more fully fledged out character as a result of this dark turn.

Season Four

I have mixed feelings about season four. On the one hand, the show is at its most serial, with an involved plot unfolding over the entire season, without much in the way of filler, or "monsters of the week". It involves the coming apocalypse, spurred on by an intimidating demon referred to as The Beast (Vladimir Kulich, in fantastic makeup) (who at one point succeeds in blotting out the sun - at least over Los Angeles). All the main characters are present and the show is really in its groove. We even get to see Angel temporarily lose his soul and become Angelus again - in an excellent set of scenes that demonstrates Angelus' cruel genius, as he is able to sow discord and cause suffering through mere head games alone, while he is trapped within a cell.

But there's a large focus on the love triangle between Angel, Cordelia, and Connor. In the first place, I've always thought the development of feelings between Angel and Cordelia was kind of cheesy. I mean, it's the obvious choice, in terms of TV drama, but come on - Angel and Cordy? Granted, Cordy has evolved a great deal since her Sunnydale days, now half-demon, receiving visions from The Powers That Be. In the last season, it even looked like she was promoted to the level of Angel (the Heaven kind). I thought they were getting rid of her, and I was surprised but happy at this momentous turn of events. But it all turns out to be a trick.

As for Connor, I got sick of him pretty quick. I guess it shows my prejudice, since the moody teen was my favorite character on Buffy - when she was a girl (Dawn) - but here, it's a boy, and I simply find him annoying. Now, usually, I'd go in for the whole semi-incestuous, making-out-with-my-father's-girlfriend setup, but I guess I just don't care for the characters very much, so the heavy focus on Connor and Cordelia's development in this season counts against it.

Plus, The Beast ultimately turns out not to be The Big Bad, but just a lackey. The real head honcho is, puzzlingly, the Goddess Jasmine (Gina Torres), who desires only world peace. Although she wants to get it by way of turning mankind into pacifist slaves. Always with the show's grey areas. Of course, when Angel and the gang end up stopping this goddess, it's a perfect opportunity to emphasize the protagonists' increasingly ambiguous relationship with apocalypse-mongers Wolfram & Hart, which will be the theme of the next season.

Season Five

In the first season, Wolfram & Hart was a legitimate threat to Angel. It employed two excellent characters - rogue attorney Lindsay McDonald (Christian Kane), with ambiguous loyalties, and sly executive Holland Manners (Sam Anderson). But they both left the show in the second season, and their replacements left much to be desired. After the revelation that the "Home Office" is not Hell like you would think, but just Los Angeles - mindfuck as that is - and that Wolfram & Hart actually wants to keep Angel alive (to exploit him for their own plans), the firm pretty much loses its fangs.

Enter the brilliant twist in the final season - Angel and company are invited to take over the law firm. Much as they scoff at this invitation, they ultimately can't turn down the firm's resources, and resolve to try and change the company from within. Meanwhile, the firm, dancing on the strings of the mysterious "Senior Partners" (surely terrible demons, though we never get a satisfying look at them), similarly plans to corrupt Angel and company and wear down their righteous resolve by surrounding them with so much moral ambiguity. Plus, most of the clients and employees of the firm want to kill Angel, so it's a lot like a fly setting up shop in a spider web. Except that the fly is a seasoned exterminator.

It's an ingenious inversion of the show, and the first half of this season contains a number of clever and fun episodes, as the gang (and the audience) gets used to the new setup, before things start to get more tense, and the stakes get raised, in the second half. In addition to the triumphant and welcome return of Lindsay McDonald as a recurring character, this is also the season where Spike (James Marsters) (having been brought back as a ghost after sacrificing his life for the forces of good in the series final of Buffy The Vampire Slayer) joins the show as a regular character. The interplay between him and Angel - both vampires with a soul now, and both Champions for good; also, both former loves of Buffy - proves to be an abundant well of both humor and dramatic tension.

Additionally, I welcomed the return of Harmony (Mercedes McNab) in the role of Angel's secretary in this season. She's a minor character, but I thought she was a lot of fun when she was Spike's girlfriend on Buffy (before Spike turned good), and she kind of takes over the catty role that Cordelia filled, before she turned all "holy roller". Speaking of Cordelia, I welcomed her nearly total absence in this season (as well as that of Connor) - although she was great in the one episode in which she gets the chance to give her character a final send-off. I guess she's just better in small doses, after all. Same can be said of Connor.

As for the series' finale, I had been warned that the show ends prematurely, and my research verified that the creators had intended to keep the show going for at least one more season (if not even more than that). On the other hand, I think that the creators may have known the show would be ending before they filmed the finale, because the sendoff does have a certain welcome finality to it. There's more story to be told, perhaps (Angel never did get the reward for his redemption that we all thought was coming - although one of the themes in this season was that doing good deeds is its own reward, and that that's all there is to it), and while some characters meet their tragic end, others survive through to the bombastic climax.

But the cliffhanger where the show ends off is perfectly calculated - the survivors facing overwhelming odds in an unprecedented show of power by the Senior Partners, infuriated by the critical blow Angel and his friends have managed to strike against them. You could believe that these are the advancing forces of evil that Angel will finally be unable to defeat, and that this is where his story finally ends. But you could just as easily believe that Angel and his companions will find a way to surmount these odds, as they have in every harrowing situation so far. It's not the infuriating cliffhanger I was fearing (imagine if the show had been canceled after the third season's cliffhanger!). It's a fitting end to the series, given the circumstances, that both feels like a loving farewell to the TV series, while leaving the story open to continuation in other media (comics, for example).

Friday, December 5, 2014

Hanna (2011)

Hanna is a stylistic tour de force, with fantastic cinematography. A stunning Saoirse Ronan stars as the titular character - a girl raised by an ex-special operative (Eric Bana) in the Arctic wilderness to be a superhuman assassin. She's been training all her life to get revenge on the government agent that killed her mother (a chilling Cate Blanchett), and her coming of age means stepping out into a world she's a complete stranger to, in order to complete her mission.

The serious tone is tempered with some humorous and endearing scenes of social awkwardness on account of Hanna's upbringing, particularly those involving a likable family of tourists (centered around a hilarious Jessica Barden as a sassy teen). I could stare at the lovely Saoirse Ronan for hours, but the whole movie is filmed in gorgeous stylism, with some beautiful landscapes (from desert to winter wonderland). The plot's pretty straightforward, although there are some mild twists along the way, but this is a movie you watch for the journey, not the destination. It's cinema as art, and it's pure fun to watch.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Transcendence (2014)

On the eve of a breakthrough in research on artificial intelligence, an anti-technology terrorist group executes a fatal attack on scientist Will Caster (Johnny Depp). In an attempt to make the most out of a bad situation, Caster's wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), uploads Will's consciousness to create the first truly sentient AI. But upon connecting to the internet, his limitless power leaves humanity fearful for their fate in the hands of an ostensibly God-like being. Cillian Murphy and Kate Mara play an FBI agent and a terrorist leader (respectively), who team up with two of Will's more skeptical colleagues (Paul Bettany and Morgan Freeman), in a last-ditch attempt to destroy Will before it's too late.

Transcendence is a movie with a lot of interesting ideas, but its execution ultimately feels a bit lackluster. Instead of a more nuanced exploration of how sentient AI could jump start humanity's evolution, we get a fast-track look at the seemingly God-like powers such a sentience might have (although there are some considerable leaps of scientific logic, even allowing for the inconceivable intelligence of a networked AI powered by countless quantum computers), and the all-or-nothing solution mankind comes up with as an alternative to handling too much evolutionary progress at once. Either the movie has a concerning technophobic slant, or else it's fairly misanthropic, as it presents mankind as its own greatest obstacle to reaching the next stage of evolution.

Granted, Will's intentions are ambiguous at best, but his positive contributions to technology are impossible to ignore. The movie refrains from propping him up as a mastermind supervillain (sacrificing its potential as a badass action flick in the process), largely letting the (not too sympathetic) terrorist group's uncountered argument on human independence and hive mind set him up as the antagonist that must be stopped. Yet at the same time, he must remain sympathetic, for all of the intriguing concepts that this movie brings up are placed on the back burner to focus instead on the love story at its center. But this strategy was far more effective in Interstellar (in the hands of a better director), and here just feels disappointing.

I know it's standard to maintain a human element when you go into the realm of science-fiction, but sometimes - and this movie demonstrates this well - our humanity gets in the way of progress. For example, one of the film's most clever insights is that human intelligence is irrational (true), and that certain feelings, like love, involve contradictions that an AI would be too logical to ever reconcile (not necessarily), but the film's foregone conclusion is that the illogical consciousness is inherently the superior one (false). Let me say this as a transhumanist - for a movie about transcending humanity, its most fatal flaw is that it fails to transcend.