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Thursday, January 29, 2015

My Top 10 Films of 2014

            It’s that time of the year again folks!   Having finally gotten through *most* of the major Oscar contenders (or at least, all the ones that stood a shot at making this list), it is time to finalize my list of my 10 favorite movies that I saw this year (awards and Oscar picks will follow next month). 

            Between the previous Oscar ceremony and now, I have officially seen 50 new movies from the past year (30 of which I reviewed for this site).  If this is the first Top 10 you have read, please note my rules regarding eligibility for this list; in order for a film to be “new,” it has to have received either a film festival release and/or a limited/general theatrical release in either the United States or Germany (where I currently live) sometime within 2014, regardless of whether or not it came out in another country at an earlier date (see most of the Japanese films I have on these).  And as always, there will be no accompanying “Worst 10,” since I try to avoid bad movies like the plague.  Most of the films I saw this year were pretty darn good, so any list like that would merely besmirch the names of decent pieces well-worth checking out.  And as always, this is list is purely my own subjective opinion.  I am in no way attempting to directly compare everything I saw to list the “absolute” best films.  These are simply the movie that stuck with and spoke to me personally the most, the movies I am most likely to buy and rewatch in the future, and the reasons for each vary greatly.  With that said, let us begin. 

            First, as always, the honorable mentions:

            And now, the main event! 

10.  Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance  (Alejandro González Iñárritu)

            I am not quite as high on this movie as a lot of critics (and awards voters) were, but it is an undeniable blast to watch.  At first one might be tempted to think that the entire movie is just a running gag of “Look, Michael Keaton playing a guy who is only famous for playing a superhero, how clever tee-hee,” but one soon finds that the film is about much more than that, attempting to include diatribes on the nature of film, live theater, artistic criticism, and good ‘ol 21st-century nihilism.  The camerawork (done to make it seem as if the film was a single, unbroken take) is truly excellent, and I found the use of free-form drumming as the soundtrack to be powerfully effective in creating the sort of hectic, anything-can-happen mindset that gives the film its energy. 

            However, and I am surprising no one by saying this, it’s the performers that make this one sing.  Michael Keaton reminds everyone how great he can be, Ed Norton is fantastically absurd as the epitome of the actors-are-only-real-on-stage stereotype, and this might be my favorite performance yet by Emma Stone.  Zach Galifianakis is here in a serious role as well, and I sincerely hope we get more from him.  There’s not much overall thematic depth per say, but the clever visuals, excellent screenplay, and Grade A acting make it a genuine experience film everyone should have at least once. 

9.  Life Itself (Steve James)

            Sadly, it was only following his death last Spring that Roger Ebert started to become one of my biggest inspirations as a writer and as a film critic.  That alone, however, would not have been enough to merit this film a spot on my Top 10 list.  What did was how deftly Steve James mixes going through the life and events of Roger Ebert (sticking largely to the structure in Ebert’s own autobiography of the same title) with his final years and the string of complications that led to his death, combining narrative sections of the books with footage and recordings of his career, interviews, and even personal family videos to take the wonderful passages written by Ebert himself and giving them moving cinematic life.  There is also no shying away from the physical agonies, frustrations, and what many would consider awful indignities of his deteriorating condition towards the end (the squeamish will need to turn away for two particular scenes).  Unlike several of the more romantic, “big-ticket” tributes to great 20th century minds (I’m looking at you, The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything), there is no attempt to whitewash the more controversial, abrasive, and even less-than-noble aspects of Roger Ebert’s character.  We see him as he was- a witty, life-loving, sometimes brilliant, sometimes aggravating, and always human, individual. 

8.  The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)

            It’s rather odd seeing this film be the one that finally garners heaps of award nominations (and thus far, more than a few wins) for Wes Anderson, since I actually think this one falls short of matching his previous work, Moonrise Kingdom (which, if you recall, came in 3rd in my Top 10 List for 2012).  Comparisons aside though, like in 2012, this is one of the best films of the year, hilariously absurd with its characters, yet haunted by a fatalism and pessimism that seems impossible to overcome within the world he constructs.  And yet, Gustav and Zero still try their hardest to do just that, even when they admit their efforts may be futile.  Despite its broad comedic strokes, we see the cracks around the edges of the world the characters struggle so hard to maintain.  Ralph Fiennes, giving one the year’s most underappreciated performances, symbolizes the razor-thin edge we all tread separating civility and savagery.  It is a wonderful work, one that has cemented Wes Anderson as one of my favorite directors in the business today (note to self, make a 10 Favorite Director’s List asap). 

7.  The Wind Rises (Hayao Miyazaki)

            In Miyazaki’s apparent swan song, we are told the story of the young engineer, Jiro Horikoshi, who designed the Japanese Zero fighter planes that wreaked havoc on American and British forces over the course of the war, a choice of subject matter that set off a firestorm of debates and critiques long after the film debuted, both within Japan and internationally.  Few other films that I saw this year had me thinking so long and hard afterwards about what I liked and didn’t like, what I thought worked and didn’t work, and wondering how I felt about the controversies raging over the decision to romanticize a figure like Jiro (some critics praised it, others did not, with one critic referred to it as “disgraceful” and “repellant”).  And even though it is not his best work, I gave it a 4-star rating and chose to select it for this list precisely because of that- because of how long and hard it made me think and question my own biases and predispositions in regards to filmmaking.  For that, ultimately, is the reason why I watch movies- I want to be made to think.  I want to be challenged.  I want something that will grab me by the scruff of my neck and hurl me across the room.  The Wind Rises succeeded at that more than almost every other film I saw this year. 

6.  Selma (Ava DuVernay)

            Anyone prepared to dismiss this film as another obligatory white guilt-trip Oscar bait snorefest ala The Butler, don’t.  Because it isn’t.  Like 12 Years A Slave last year, Selma is powerful, effective, and brutally relevant filmmaking reminding us of how fragile any progress in human affairs is.  Following an awful bombing of a black church in Alabama, Martin Luther King Jr. and his civil rights allies gather to organize a massive march to force the federal government to pass a law outlawing voting restriction used to restrict the black vote.  As MLK (a brilliant David Oyelowo) reminds both LBJ and us in the audience, complacency when innocents are dying is never an option, the difficulties of the struggle never an excuse.  It is a tragedy that it will join wonderful and daring works like Cloud Atlas and Inside Llewyn Davis among the ranks of masterpieces that did not get their due at the time of their release, but that in no way lessens the heights it achieves as a work of art and a statement of political purpose. 

5.  Citizenfour (Laura Poitras)

            And speaking of statements of political purpose! 

            This documentary effectively functions as a litmus test of whether or not you feel that the US government has massively over-expanded its security apparatus since 9/11.  Consisting mostly of the direct, real-time footage Poitras took of the first fateful meetings of Edward Snowden with journalists in a Hong Kong hotel room, each individual viewer will most likely see in Snowden that which they have already decided to see.  Is he a traitor, or a hero?  Were his actions inexcusably destructive, or an essential check on the power of large governments and organizations, a much-needed shock to a system plagued by moral inertia?  Regardless of where along the spectrum you fall, there is no denying the fascinating pull Poitras manages to exert on us, drawing us into a web of conspiracies with the cinematic techniques and subtle dexterity of a classic Cold War thriller, sending a chill down your spine at the very end.  This movie, along with Selma, is one of the most important must-see works of the year. 

4. The Lego Movie (Phil Lord and Christopher Miller)

            Although it is not nearly as emotionally heavy as some of the Oscar-contenders listed above, The Lego Movie is in no way less intelligent or clever in its endless subversions of every storytelling trope currently crushing most mainstream, big-budget action movies.  In case anyone reading this has not seen it yet, I will refrain from spoilers, but a certain turn towards the end provides one of the quickest and quietest backslaps to studio screenwriters I have seen in years.  Flawlessly animated, gripping in its action scenes, endlessly hilarious, and shamelessly ignored by the Academy, The Lego Movie was the summer blockbuster to beat in 2014.  And nothing did.  Nope, not even that.  Because this movie was awesome. 

3.  Tamako in Moratorium (Nobuhiro Yamashita)

*sadly, there was no trailer I could find on Youtube with subtitles.  So here is a picture instead*

            The more I thought about it, the more I found myself thinking about how still a movie Tamako in Moratorium is.  There is no heavy drama, no fights, and no thrills- just quiet depiction of a young woman struggling to deal with the vast uncertainties and grayness of an adult world.  Tamako might be the best on-screen realization of many of the hopes, fears, and worries facing my generation I’ve yet seen (although the next movie on this list is up there as well).  It is also a celebration of the many small things that make life good, and worth living.  Especially food.  Which may also be a big reason I loved it so much. 

2.  Boyhood (Richard Linklater)

            This is the one I will be rooting for all night come February 22ndBoyhood is one of the most interesting, daring, innovative, and fascinating film projects to come out in years.  Filmed in bits and pieces over 12 years, it succeeds in presenting one of the most comprehensive stories of a person growing up ever created.  Mason is a very specific child facing very specific circumstances, but in deliberately crafting him and his family that way, Linklater is also able to capture so many of the universal aspects of life that everyone experiences sooner or later.  It is not just a compelling story in its own right, it allows us to tap into an understanding of the commonalities of struggling to exist that can truly unite us all.  It is also fascinating glimpse into the world of American masculinity itself, and how it can take forms both damaging and enlightened, all depending on how one allows life to change them.    

            For all the work that clearly went into it, it is astonishing how natural the lives we see come are, and how relevant they are to our own.  The awkwardness of a first date, the frustration with being forced to get a haircut, the agonized uncertainty of a new school, and many other moments are scenes not just shown to us- we’ve all been there, regardless of our nation/skin color/religion/culture/etc.  Linklater also goes the extra mile by always including bits of whatever in the real world was going on at the time of the filming, enhancing the central story with enough bits of reality that we instinctively think back to our own memories of those times- the release of the Harry Potter books, the Iraq War, the 2008 election, the breakout of Lady Gaga, and more are there to jump out at you when you least expect it, taking you on a nostalgic trip back through your own childhood. 

1.  The Tale of Princess Kaguya (Isao Takahata)

            Once again, as with each of the past few years, my top spot on this list came down to an agonizing choice between two beautiful films, works equally worthy of recognition.  And this year, as much as I loved Boyhood, for the second year in a row an animated Japanese work has edged out all other competition to take the #1 spot on my list.  My favorite film of 2014 is the gorgeous, uplifting, and at times heartbreaking masterpiece by Isao Takahata, The Tale of Princess Kaguya

            Based on a thousand-year-old Japanese legend, it is the tale of a poor bamboo farmer who happens across a fairy child in the woods.  Although he and his wife are at first content to raise her with them in their mountain village, his overwhelming desire to provide everything he can for the Princess leads him to the decision to leave the simple life they have known, so that they can raise her in the traditional fashion in the capital.  All for her own good of course, or so the father thinks. 

            It is hard to compress into words the range of emotions this movie is capable of inspiring.  Where is the line between familial love and over-obedience?  Is parental direction better or worse than eternally leaving children to their own devices?  So many questions one can ask by the end, and there is ample evidence for both sides packed into this epic legend of a tale.  I was struck hard by this movie, and left feeling the sort of indescribable depth and expanse of emotion that very, very few films are able to inspire in me.  The Tale of Princess Kaguya is not only one of the best films of recent years, but it also one of the best films ever released by Studio Ghibli, and will be remembered as such in time. 

            And that is that!  My favorite movies of 2014.  Check back soon for my Oscar picks and a few other look-back posts about 2014, all of which I hope to get up within the next 3 weeks.  Wish me luck! 

-Noah Franc 

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Review: Selma

Selma (2014): Written by Paul Webb and Ava DuVernay, directed by Ava DuVernay.  Starring: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo, Andre Holland, Tessa Thompson, Giovanni Ribisi, Lorraine Toussant, Stephan James, Wendell Pierce, Selssandro Nivola, Keith Stanfield, Common, Cuba Gooding Jr., Dylan Baker, Tim Roth, and Oprah Winfrey.  Running Time: 127 minutes. 

Rating: 4/4

            When looking at the struggles of our world today, one might be tempted to speak of the “scars” of history, the events, crimes, and tragedies of the past that have directly led to the present.  But I have come to realize that “scars” is the wrong word.  A scar only appears when a wound has healed, the bleeding has stopped, and new skin has grown in, binding together the scraps of the old.  And as the events of Ferguson, New York City, and elsewhere showed us this past year, the wounds of slavery and racism in America are far from healed.  Indeed, they are still open and weeping. 

            Ferguson was, of course, no shock to anyone with a full understanding of the legacy of slavery and how long the arc of history truly is.  However, as disappointing as I find this to be, it must be admitted that historical perspective is hardly the forte of the human race.  This has made the timing of two movies released this year especially poignant, even though the makers and distributors of said films could not have possibly known any of this would happen beforehand.  The first is an indie comedy about the microaggressions of racism amongst young adults in an elite university, set in the present, called Dear White People.  The other, set almost exactly 50 years in the past and yet never so viscerally relevant to our society as it is now, is Selma

            Right from the start, director Ava DuVernay fully immerses us in the violently open racism that reigned during that time; one of the first scenes of the movie is the Birmingham bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, which killed 4 innocent girls who were doing nothing more than trotting down the steps to attend Sunday School.  We all know (or should know) what the scene is as soon as it starts.  We know what will happen.  And yet, when it does, we still recoil in terrified shock.  It still hurts so much.  It is one of many powerful moments in the film, but its importance in coming first cannot be overstated. 

            The rest of the film focuses on the events following the bombing, specifically the campaign for voting rights organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which by this time had already been led by Martin Luther King Jr. for 8 years (here played by David Oyelowo).  He is not alone though- he travels with an army of supporters and retainers, mostly other preachers of the Association but a few students as well- and by this time they have perfected a formidable array of public disobedience tactics guaranteed to simultaneously provoke-without-provoking the violent sensitivities of the worst local officials and win over public sympathy, especially white public sympathy, with which he hopes to push a recalcitrant Lyndon Banes Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) into pushing a Voting Rights Acts through Congress to end systematic abuse throughout the South designed to prevent more than a fraction of black citizens from voting.  The result was the famous march from Selma to Birmingham, which included the Bloody Sunday incident on March 7th, 1965, at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where a squadron of armed officers charged and viciously beat back the first wave of marchers, after which they had to try twice more before they were allowed to pass unmolested along the way to the capital.  There the film concludes with a truly stirring speech by Dr. King on the steps of Governor Wallace’s mansion, as his devoted followers look on. 

            Due to continued legal strife between Dr. King’s children, DuVarney was not able to directly quote any of King’s actual speeches in the film, forcing her and the screenwriters to use extensive paraphrasing instead.  While some may view this as a weakness, I actually view it as a strange bit of fortune on the film’s part.  The words of Dr. King have been repeated so often and so ad nauseam that, like with many other oft-quoted historical figures like Lincoln or Ghandi, they have ceased to carry any real meaning for people.  Repetition has made the words hollow, made us forget to listen to them, and not just hear them.  It has dulled us to their power, meaning, and importance.  If his final speech in the Alabama capital had been the actual speech, we would simply have looked to pick our own favorite quotes, and the message would once again have been lost.  But because there is no “Best Of” quotes list to be heard, we hear the intent and the purpose of King's words once again becoming clear.  We don’t just hear, we listen, because we must, and we remember- everything we’ve seen in 2014 has happened before.  And the human spirit continues to yearn for something better regardless of the short-term outcome. 

            It helps, of course, that Oyelowo brings to the table a perfect simulation of King’s powerful cadences and the melodious ring of his voice when he was at his most impassioned.  But that is not what makes his performance one of the best of the year, and one of the worst award-season snubs of 2014.  What elevates his performance above simple imitation is, like with Daniel-Day Lewis in Lincoln, and acute understanding of both the personal strengths and the personal weaknesses of Dr. King.  Another of the film’s best moments is nothing connected to a speech or the events of Bloody Sunday- it is when, after playing a recording of King having sex with one of his lovers sent to her by the FBI (one of many aspects of the man most people prefer to not think about), Coretta King (an equally effective performance by Carmen Ejogo, and another inexcusable Oscar snub) asks him directly- does he love any of the others?  If Oyelowo’s speech scenes are elevating, this one is downright chilling.  But it is necessary, just as necessary as the depictions of actual violent acts perpetrated by white supremacists on the other side of the conflict.  The flaws found in the best men and women humanity has produced over the millennia do not diminish their achievements.  If anything, they make the good in them- in us- all the more wonderful, miraculous, and inspiring.  Selma reminds of this just as it reminds us of the tenuous hold of hatred on our hearts, and on the slippery nature of real progress. 

            Many of you are, no doubt, aware of the layers of controversy surrounding the film, including its near-absence from the roster of Oscar nominees (which is heinous), but particularly in regards to its historical inaccuracies, especially those regarding the character of LBJ.  Tom Wilkinson’s LBJ is cold, almost Nixonian in his political calculations, someone who seems to genuinely not care way or the other about the Civil Rights movement, and is in fact irritated and angered by King’s refusal to stop marching and protesting.  This is indeed one of the film’s few significant departures from historical record; while Johnson was certainly cautious in his push for Civil Rights reform, there is ample evidence that, by the time he occupied the Oval Office, he was firmly in support of equal rights and determined to pass them as soon as he felt it was doable.  He was not nearly as antagonistic towards King as Wilkinson portrays him in the film, and I do find it to be one of the film’s few flaws, an unnecessary addition of another white villain when there were far more than enough in the Deep South that needed no embellishment whatsoever. 

            That being said, let me make one thing very clear; as inaccurate as this part of the film is, it is absurd to claim that it makes the movie less important, less powerful a work of art, and less necessary as a social commentary.  It is cruel to use it as a justification to withhold well-deserved awards recognition, especially when other historical works, each with inaccuracies just as grave or unnecessary, have received lavish attention from various end-of-the-year ceremonies.  The Imitation Game, one of the most-nominated Oscar films of this year, will leave the uninformed viewer with the impression that Turing really did withhold the identity of a Soviet spy out of fear he would expose his homosexuality, which would have made him very much guilty of treason.  This, too, is a complete fabrication on the film’s part, also there merely to create artificial tension.  Is implicating one of the fathers of the modern age as treasonous somehow less offensive than tainting the memory of a President whose record was already anything less than spotless?  One of the real-life figures depicted in another multiple-nominee, Foxcatcher, has blasted the film for containing a wide raft on inaccuracies, including stating that his still-living parents were dead.  And, if you are a truly brave soul, google “American Sniper Controversy” to get an idea of the many less-than-savory aspects of Chris Kyle’s character either altered or left out entirely of the Clint Eastwood film. 

            The intent behind the changes, in this case, seems clear- DuVarney did not want another movie about a crucial moment in African-American history to include a white savior to allow white audiences to let themselves off the hook.  She sacrificed a certain amount of historical accuracy in order to highlight and focus on the crucial importance of driven, organized, and creative local leadership in bringing about genuine change in their lives.  This is, by the way, not without precedent.  Another major film about an oft-forgotten aspect of American history, Steven Spielberg’s Amistad, while still well-made and well-worth a watch, also makes an unnecessarily villain out of the abolitionist Lewis Tappan, when in fact his creativity, passion, and support for the captives was decisive in securing their acquittal in court and their ultimate return to Africa.  But that does not and should not detract from the higher message that film aims at, and neither should that be the case here. 

            I am ultimately not worried about this controversy sticking though, because it won’t, but this movie’s powerful to captivate, inform and inspire will.  Selma is one of the best movies of the year, one of the best movies we’ve ever gotten about the Civil Rights movement, and is the continuation of an increasing focus within the world of film on the less savory aspects of American history and culture that, though late in coming, is more than welcome now.  This is a must-see, no matter who, or what color, you are. 

-Noah Franc 

Monday, January 19, 2015

Review: Inherent Vice

Inherent Vice (2014): Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.  Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio del Toro, Jena Malone, and Joanna Newsom.  Running Time: 148 minutes.  Based on the novel of the same name by Thomas Pynchon. 

Rating: 4/4

            The one and only mistake you can make when watching Inherent Vice is to attach any sort of significance to the contours of the plot, because the movie certainly doesn’t, although the characters certainly do in their more sober moments, and trying to hold the many threads and conspiracies and betrayals in place is a dangerously slippery proposition.  Like trying to hold several bars of lathery slope while running alongside the pool.  Nominally, the movie is about Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) trying to help his ex-girl (Katherine Waterston) prevent a scheme by the wife of her current boyfriend, a famous real estate mogul named Mickey Wolfmann, to have Wolfmann tossed into a looney bin so she can get her hands on his money.  But even that initial setup is only recalled occasionally at first, and is dismissed halfway through when….well, that would be spoiling, and that’s not Doc’s way.  

            There are sideplots and sidetracks aplenty, including a search for a possibly dead, or maybe not, musician named Coy (Owen Wilson), a drug heist, and a run-in with a pair of gang thugs (Peter McRobbie and Keith Jardine).  Every step of the way, Doc is alternately helped and antagonized by his contact in the LAPD, officer Bjornsen, aka “Bigfoot” (a perfect-as-always Josh Brolin).  Like I said though, the side details are irrelevant.  This is a film about watching people be their strange, altered-state-of-mind selves in the post-hippy setting of the 1970’s, and is merely content to flit from scenario to scenario, all of it observed through Doc’s unfazed, and often unfocused eyes. 

            Is the movie about something?  It could be, although like with any film by Paul Thomas Anderson, it’s hard to say, and one can never escape the feeling that even to ask such a question is to get something fundamentally wrong.  For all its setup as a grimy thriller, the movie just never seems to care all that much about itself.  Just consider Doc’s notebook- he scribbles into it furiously whenever he picks up on a possible lead or gets a piece of valuable information, but on the few times we see what he actually does write, it’s either gibberish, or a nonsensical code that only translates to something inside his own fevered mind.  When told a Spanish saying offering a clue as to the whereabouts of the Wolfmann, he merely writes, “Something Spanish.” 

            Joaquin Phoenix has spent the past few years coming back in style after his absence from the film world, giving us one compulsively watchable performance after another in The Master, The Immigrant, and Her, but it might be this performance of his that offers the biggest clues as to what makes him such a great actor for these sorts of strange, oddball roles- his face can be so inscrutable at times, but in the small spaces between lines he can shift expression in ways both large and small that can perfectly carry the emotion of a scene.  Doc often repeats himself, so the meaning behind the words comes more often than not from whatever expression Phoenix is holding on his face during the scene, and it’s fantastic to watch. 

            While everyone on-screen is a blast, the other brightest light is Josh Brolin’s Bigfoot, a hulking, grunting, scowling, mountain of everything people then and now would associate with the powers that be.  He openly derides anything smacking of hippy culture, doing his darnedest to be a true Man’s Man, while also consuming reams of popsicles and chocolate-covered bananas in a manner that any frequenter of porn sites would be most familiar with.  He and Doc are perfect foils for each other, and at a deep, unspoken level, they seem to know that, and they look out for each other even when one is trying to screw over the other.  A final scene between the two of them is perhaps the one part of the entire film that breaks through the veneer of cool, hip, stoned detachment that covers everything else like a thick sheet.  I am rarely one for sequels, but I would gladly welcome a spinoff consisting of nothing more than these two characters playing off each other for two hours straight. 

            In fact, that seems to be a recurring theme in P.T.A.’s last three movies, the particulars of story/setting/time period notwithstanding- the interplay between two people so diametrically opposed to each other in terms of their personalities, life circumstances, and goals, that they can’t help being drawn to each other.  The results are brutal and violent in the case of Daniel Plainview and Eli Sunday in There Will Be Blood, a curiously adoring relationship between Freddie Quell and Lancaster Dodd in The Master, and a partnership in this movie that is antagonistic on the surface, but also may mean something more to Doc and Bigfoot than they would ever let on.  The similarities and differences between these different pairs is a topic that, on all its own, could have reams written about it, and it’s the surest sign in Inherent Vice that we are indeed seeing a work from Anderson’s strange, strange mind. 

            There is an odd, neglected beauty in how the film drifts, much like the waves that the camera keeps drawing back to.  In, out, in, out, never really settling in one place.  The lighting and filming style makes it look the film sprang from some decades-old home-movie collection of an age long gone, much like how the hippy movement had long since receded by the time the events we see take place.  And even then, the parts of Los Angeles we see, for all their dangers, seem like a place one could spend an eternity in and pretend that everything is being held in stasis, never changing, always drifting with the waves.    

            Perhaps that explains the very nonchalant way Doc approaches the world.  Only occasionally does something break through.  Something so obviously out of place that he can no longer ignore it.  We get a flashback of a misadventure he had once with Shasta, where they tried using a Ouija Board to locate a drug dealer, and find nothing but an empty lot.  Doc happens across the lot during his search for Wolfmann- or maybe for the not-dead musician, we never really know, if it even matters- except that now the lot is filled by a massive, gleaming, obtuse, and extremely phallic office building of some sort.  He sees it, stops, stares briefly, then continues on his way.  Wouldn’t do much good to look twice. 

-Noah Franc 

Friday, January 16, 2015

Reflections: The End of The Legend of Korra

**spoiler alert for anyone not yet up-to-date on the ending of Legend of Korra.  For my thoughts on Book 1, click here and here.  For Book 2, here.  For Book 3, here**

             “It’s been a bit of a bumpy ride, hasn’t it?” 
            “Yes.  But I’ve come to realize that life is one big, bumpy ride.” 

            The degree to which this exchange between Korra and Tenzin, right at the end of the very last episode of The Legend of Korra, reflects the turbulent and drawn-out events of the show’s creation and public release has me reasonably convinced that it was a deliberate bit of metaphysical, almost humorous reflection on the part of the show’s creators.  They have certainly had to backflip through an uncomfortably large number of flaming hoops to bring us this 4-season extension of the Avatar universe.  Given just how much Nickelodeon succeeded in making every wrong decision possible as far as their handling of this franchise is concerned, I am blown away by how excellent The Legend of Korra, as a whole, ended up being, especially these last two seasons.  This show has been a prime example of how studio mismanagement can directly affect the artistic quality of a final product.  Because of this, I give the Superhero Award of 2014 to Mike Dante DiMartino and Brian Konietzko, who have proven their storytelling chops by taking a franchise that almost seemed to be drowning by the middle of Book 2 and turning things around a full 180 degrees by the end.  Against all odds, they have once again given us something special, a grand tale that rises above the sum of its parts and that, I believe, will be remembered as something truly legendary. 

            I will admit it- I doubted.  After the disappointing ending to Book 1 and the hot mess of a middle act in Book 2, I was not sure that the series would be able to effectively right itself in time.  What a rush of a corrective this year was, with Book 3’s powerhouse of a trailer, the rapid release of Book 3 itself, and the start and conclusion of Book 4 shortly afterward, all taking place within 6 months.  Granted, the circumstances under which the releases happened were terrible, but in a way, that made the superbly high quality of the show’s writing all the more apparent, since it became obvious just how out of their element Nickelodeon was with a show that actually strove to make its viewers think. 

            Central to this turnaround was the fact that, after a bit of regression for some in Book 2, all the major characters started to click at the beginning of Book 3, both on their own and in tandem with each other, and this transformation was most noticeable (and therefore, all the more effective) with Korra herself.  My frustrations with her as a character were probably my biggest issue with the first two seasons.  She started out so cocky and aggressive, such a polar opposite of Aang.  A veritable savant when it came to fighting and bending, she had none of the spiritual or emotional strength needed to act as an effective Avatar.  She was abrasive and sometimes downright unlikable, whereas Aang started off funny and enjoyably childlike, but also already possessing the core of the emotional and moral strength he needed to defeat the Fire Lord and end the war.  Looking at The Last Airbender as a whole, it was fairly clear from the beginning what solution Aang would ultimately seek out to end the war.  All that remained was for him to develop enough bending and fighting ability to match Ozai in combat. 

             With Korra, we have observed the opposite journey.  She always had the sheer physical power needed to be the Avatar.  But at the end of every season, that is never enough for her to win.  As the finale of The Last Airbender showed us, simply winning a fight doesn’t mean you’ve won the war; you need to go deeper than that.  She first has to lose to Amon before she can catch him off-guard and expose him.  Her battle against Unalaq is only won after Jinora is able to find Raava’s spirit and return her to Korra.  Although able to hold off Zaheer at first, the poison continues to weaken her, until she is saved by the intervention of the airbenders.  And the final battle in Republic City against Kuvira’s mecha-suit is easily one of the best team-effort battles I have ever seen, with everyone needed, bender or no, to bring down the beast part by part.  And at the end, after the battle is all but won, only then does Korra go into the Avatar state, to save a life and possibly turn the mind an enemy, instead of simply killing her.  It is a tidy continuation of the final message of The Last Airbender- responding to evil by taking more lives is easy.  Finding ways to live on and build anew is hard. 

            At the end of each of the first 3 seasons Korra loses something, be it temporary or permanent.  Yet it’s through these losses that she learns, and grows, and even though she is still not whole by the end- her connection to the past Avatars is seemingly permanent now- we can see in her eyes and hear in her voice that she has risen above that to become something more.  She's gone from “I’M the Avatar, you gotta DEAL with it!” to “There’s so much more I want to learn and do.”  There are worlds of maturity and intelligence between these two statements.  It is this journey- through loss, through emotional turmoil, and after Book 3, through what is clearly depression and PTSD in all but name- that, more than anything else, raises The Legend of Korra far above most other animation of its kind, allowing it to transcend its flaws and become something very special indeed. 

            Given the success and pervasive love for The Last Airbender, this was a show that took a great deal of chances, and not just with its title character.  Mike and Brian could have gone the safe route, keeping the world in a cryogenic state, with little or no technological or social advancement having occurred since the end of the war, so that everything looked and sounded as much as possible like the original series.  Instead, they made deliberate choices about what advancements they thought could realistically occur over a 70-year period, including radio, cars, modern dress, and flight.  They worked out how the technology would be incorporated into the different storylines, and even thought up ways in which bending techniques themselves would have been developed, including a greater use of lightning and metal.  Even when it came to the music, they worked with Jeremy Zuckerman to find a balance between the traditional instruments present in The Last Airbender and newer instruments (the Book One soundtrack, a fantastic fusion of the original Airbender soundtrack and early 20’s jazz beats, is the best stand-alone example of this).  It was a jarring transition at first, but I value the show all the more for so effectively setting itself apart simply through the use of music and more modern visuals.  It was never what we, the fans, originally expected, meaning it was exactly what we needed. 

            On that note, how Legend of Korra relates itself to its predecessor overall is an accomplishment in and of itself.  As cases like the Star Wars prequels, and in recent years the Hobbit Trilogy show, follow-ups to massively influential, hugely popular movies or series always run the very considerable risk of being so overshadowed by (or over-compared to) what everyone saw years ago and already knows and loves.  In deliberately focusing on a cast of entirely new characters, there was always the possibility that they would either not click as a cast, or would simply not be able to win our affections the same way the original gang did.  Now, whether or not Korra and co. did worm their collective way into one’s heart by the end is, of course, up to individual taste (I hear there is a lot of Mako and Bolin hate floating around the internet), but from the looks of it, more than enough of the fans responded well to the new cast and loved them plenty.  I sure know I did (my personal favorites will follow in a later post). 

            That is not to say that the original series was ignored, which would have been just as ruinous as relying too heavily on the original characters.  Thankfully, Mike and Brian found the perfect balance, alluding to the original tale when needed, and even including Katara, Zuko, and Toph in spot moments, but never allowing them to shift focus from the new faces, stories, and themes they wanted to focus on.  Toph herself summed it up nicely- “At some point, you gotta leave it to the kids.”  I think my personal favorite example of this was the glorious shot we get of a photo of Aang, as a grown man and fully realized Avatar, still doing the same spinning-marble trick and still sporting that big, face-splitting grin. 

            If I had to pick my favorite aspect of the new world Korra inhabits, it’s how politically and militarily powerful women are a complete non-issue.  It is simply accepted, and never questioned or debated.  Avatar was from the start a great franchise for girl characters, but in The Last Airbender we never see any older women in positions of leadership, and we get plenty of episodes highlighting how female roles in many areas of the world were still traditionally restricted.  Here, though, we have, in addition to a female Avatar, the following; a female Fire Lord, a woman heading up the police force in Republic City, her sister presiding over a powerful sub-state nearby, a young woman running one of the most powerful and influential companies in the world, and a queen reigning alone over the Earth Kingdom.  After Book 2, we see that Eska is now jointly ruling the Northern Water Tribe with her brother, and watch as Jinora becomes the first airbending master in a generation, as well as learn of her extremely unusual and potent spiritual powers.  Between Books 3 and 4, with the Earth Kingdom descending into chaos, the first person the leaders of the world turn to is Suyin Beifong, and when she rejects the offer, they turn to another woman, her best lieutenant Kuvira, who as we all know proceeds to not only do the job well, but also develop into arguably the best villain the series has ever had (and now that it occurs to me, it would be pretty kick-ass to see her fight against Azula in her prime). 

            These characters all run the gamut of personality, age, and even body type.  There are several moments that draw attention to Korra’s extremely muscular physique, still something viewed by many in our world as unattractive or even unhealthy.  Lin and her sister are about or at least middle-aged, since they are both sporting gray hair.  Kuvira has all the complexity, determination, and intelligence of an Iago, or any other great, classic villain.  The character that would probably be considered the most “conventionally” beautiful (going by our culture’s standards) is Asami, who is tall, very light-skinned, slender, and curved, with long, flowing hair and full lips.  Yet, nearly every time we see her, she’s decked out in full-body mechanic outfits and workman gloves, and all the praise and attention she gets from others is based on either admiration and/or need for her brilliant engineering mind and business acumen.  This is a show that, even more than The Last Airbender, puts the power, skill, and complexity of its women on full display, not to be debated, but to be celebrated and admired. 

            Actually, there are a lot of topics and ideas that this show succeeded in including and doing justice to, while doing it in a way that never oversimplifies things and never talks down to its audience, but still breaks down and depicts things in a way that both younger AND older audiences can grasp, discuss, and appreciate.  Several articles have already devoted some time to this, so I will not try to list all of them here, but in addition to the truly wonderful variety of women in the story in roles devoid of traditional sexism, I am also a huge fan f how political the show got by the end.  The creators have repeatedly said that they never had a specific agenda in mind, nor do they subscribe to a certain ideology or political philosophy, but there is no denying how many parallels can be drawn between real-world figures, both historical and current, and the likes of Amon, Tarrlok, Zaheer, and Kuvira.  And again, at no point does the series tell the audience what to think- there are several challenging political discussions across the seasons that Korra is never able to fully handle.  We know the villains are wrong in at least some aspects, but since we only sporadically hear the characters themselves explain why, we must inevitably think of reasons ourselves.  And thus, we are brought to think about both the Avatar world and our own a little differently. 

            Alright, alright, now I’ll get to “the moment.”  I realize I have been prevaricating somewhat, but there were a lot of thoughts on the show as a whole I wanted to lay out before turning to Korrasami.  That said, let’s talk about Korrasami. 

            I have read/listened to a lot of views on how this was done, and how it was handled.  Without a doubt, it is a small landmark moment of sorts, and given that my girlfriend and I had started hoping for it during the last two seasons, I am personally really happy that it happened, and that the, as of right now, final Avatar series got to really break through another glass ceiling as far as children’s animation is concerned. 

            That said, I do also feel that it is an imperfect step.  More could have been done to set the relationship up, and I would love nothing more than a continuation of the story in some form that really explores how the relationship develops.  However, I also feel that the flaws in how this was handled reflect our continuing social hangups regarding homosexuality far more than they do any lack of ability or daring on the part of the writers.  They have now gone on the record as saying that as far back as Book 2, they started tossing this idea around.  However, they sat on it until it was almost too late, figuring that they would never get the green light from Nickelodeon.  And given how hard Nick screwed them towards the end, they had good ground to fear getting canceled entirely if they pushed too hard for more than the studio was willing to allow.  And when they finally did ask, they were given permission, but could not go as far as an actual kiss. 

            In a perfect world, free of the sexual hangups that still infest our society, none of those doubts or uncertainties would have surfaced, and Mike and Brian most likely would have done much more to set up the relationship by the end, or may have even started it sooner.  Hell, they may have planned to do so anyway, until Nick heinously robbed them of an extra episode halfway into the production of the final season.  All major “what ifs,” and sadly we will never know what the show could have done in less frustrating circumstances. 

            Yet, in a way, Korrasami is very much a perfect microcosm of the show as a whole.  It is a daring piece of work, hindered in its results somewhat by a bad mixture of cultural hangups, uncertainty on the part of the writers, and patently awful studio slip-ups, yet something that is still beautiful to behold despite, and in many cases because of, how flawed it is.  I think The Last Airbender comes away as the more solid show as a whole, which is largely a case of it being able to build and develop an overarching story in a perfectly paced manner, whereas Korra, by design, was meant to be a series of smaller, more compact arcs, with only unspoken themes connecting them.  It was another daring move on the part of the creators.  Like many daring artistic moves, it only fully works in some parts and less in others, but like all such creative risks, every minute of it is worth watching.  Thank God for this show. 

            This is by no means the last of my writings on the Avatar universe.  Once the rush of awards season is over and done with, I will be returning to this topic sometime in the Spring to do a series of posts about my favorite characters and moments from both The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra, which will include a bevy of various Top 10 lists, along with my personal thoughts on which is the “superior” series.  Until then, enjoy the coming onslaught of Oscar coverage, last-minute 2014 reviews, and my own various Top 10/end-of-the-year reflections.  Stay tuned.    

-Noah Franc 

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Reflections: The End of Naruto

            It was only a few months ago that I took to this page to vent about the many problems- both long-term and recent- that begun to have a seriously adverse effect on my ability to continue enjoying Naruto, which, up until the war started to get really bogged down, had continued to be one of my all-time favorite manga and animes.  It was already known at the time that Naruto was entering the final stretch, but I was not aware of just how soon the ending would come, and in early November, the series did indeed come to a close with its 700th chapter.  I won’t go back over the issues I discussed then, but given my still very deep feelings for the franchise, it would be remiss of me to not at least try to collect my thoughts about the final chapter. 

            If I had to be as concise as possible, I would probably say that the final chapter was good, but not nearly enough to close the story properly.  Naruto was always at its best when it was able to balance out the storylines and group dynamics of a large variety of the very colorful characters the story brought us, and in a way, that almost guaranteed from the start that the final chapter could never be truly big enough to feel fitting.  This was a grand tale set within a world of unique and fascinating powers and rules, where the history and nature of the ninja world was often as deep and mysterious and fascinating as the individual characters themselves.  One chapter set in the future could never have been enough to give us all the answers we wanted, covering all the characters that so many fans have grown to love. 

            That said, there are some loose ends that really are inexcusable.  The biggest and most problematic one is the completely unmentioned fate of Orochimaru, Karin, Jugo, and Suigetsu.  Both Jugo and Suigetsu had certain aspects of their backstories built up and referenced very consistently after they were introduced, and neither of them are addressed after they free themselves from the samurai.  Not that that’s such a bad thing, since neither had story focus long enough to really stick as parts of the overall narrative.  Karin was an awful character almost from day one, so there is no real loss in not having her brought back.  And none of them were ever powerful enough to pose any real threat to the world, even as a team.  But Orochimaru?  The man who had found so many ways of avoiding death that even some of the strongest characters could not permanently kill him?  It’s been easy to forget in recent years just how large Orochimaru loomed over the series for the first several hundred chapters (and episodes).  Until Tobi/Madara/Obito was shifted to main prominence in the second half of the series, it was Orochimaru whose actions and motivations drove whole reams of the plot, the most important of which was his convincing Sasuke to abandon Naruto, Sakura and the Leaf to go rogue.  And even after he was moved to the background, he still remained one of the creepiest and most identifiable figures of the franchise.  Ignore Hawk, by all means, since no one ever cared, but we friggin’ NEED to know what happened to Orochimaru, if only so that the nightmares of his arm-snakes coming to eat us can end. 

            The refusal to address or even hint at what happened to him is a massive whole in the chapter, but at least it’s the only major character ignored.  There are other, smaller figures like Yamato (always a favorite of mine) that go unseen, but in such cases I can understand leaving them out for the sake of conciseness.  So many minor or side figures were brought in at various points that it was inevitable a great majority would be left by the wayside.  So much, then, for what we don’t get, but what about what we do get? 

            As is typical in a great many stories like this, the vast majority of the final chapter comprises of establishing who married who, what their kids’ names are, and which parents the kids resemble most.  Most of the pairings are as expected, and it was especially healing to see that Naruto finally did return Hinata’s love, even if it did apparently occur off-panel.  I would expound on that, but the Weekly Manga Recap guys have already done a far funnier and more extensive job of that than I ever can, so I will leave that as it is.  I suppose the only surprising one would be Choji and Karui, since there were never really any hints those two knew each other at all while the war was going on, but they were smaller characters of relatively lesser importance, so there relationship was never something that needed expounding on. 

            That said, their marriage, along with that of Shikamaru and Temari, is a great indicator of the new interconnectedness of the world Naruto and his companions fought for- early on in the series we know only of the Leaf village, with the other major ninja nations shrouded in mystery.  It is a world so scarred from past wars that the only real interaction between the ninja worlds is the Chunin exam, which is itself fraught with tensions that turn deadly with sickening ease.  Most ninja would be born, live, and die solely within their respective villages, knowing shinobi and leaders from other villages only through clashing with them on the battlefield.  The sense one gets is that marriages between warriors from rival villages was something either unheard-of, or shunned as traitorous if it did happen. 

            Now though, it seems clear that more shinobi than ever before are traveling and marrying outside their traditional lands.  In the final shot of the chapter, we see the old village surrounded by tall skyscrapers that take up what used to be a thick forest occupied solely by soldiers defending the village from outsiders, buildings that seem to stretch on endlessly.  This probably means that the old practice of effectively sealing each village off from the outside world, with entrance permitted only through select gates, has been done away with, and that each land is now open to the others, allowing for a boom of prosperity never before seen.  A world of true peace has been established.  It was probably this aspect of the final chapter that affected me the most, the final assurance of the series that the yearning for peace we saw in Naruto himself is something that can be realized.  

            Sadly, while I wholeheartedly enjoyed these various smaller aspects of the final chapter, my feelings are much more mixed concerning the fate of our three main characters, Naruto, Sakura, and Sasuke.  I said in my last post, and will reiterate here, that the greatest failure of Naruto as a story was its inability to develop Sakura and her role on an equal footing with that of Sasuke and Naruto, and my impression of that was only worsened when all we see of Sakura afterwards is her being a housewife.  Not a leading doctor within the village, not someone who, like Tsunade before her, revolutionized battlefield and surgical medicine, just a housewife, dusting the bookcase.  The girl who could literally punch through a mountain, and who was trained just as intensely by one of the Sannin, is dumped into the most stereotypical female role imaginable.  What did she end up doing after the war?  For all we know, jack-all.  This, on top of the fact that she was given absolutely nothing to do story-wise after defeating Sasori at the start of Shippuden, and could not even get equal footing in the fight against the Demonic Lady in White in the big final fight, was the 10-ton ACME weight that shattered the camel’s spine for me. 

            Sad to say, that was not the final insult given to the once-promising doctor- the last and worst offense was the reveal that she did, in fact, marry Sasuke, and had children with him.  This is wrong on a great many levels, but primarily because it means that, ultimately, Sakura failed to grow or develop in any way as a character over the course of a 700-chapter epic.  When the series began, Sakura was a bratty teen obsessed with gaining the attention of a boy.  Sasuke was her be-all-and-end-all.  And, according to her handful of lines in the last chapter, nothing about that really changed by the end.  No real alteration of her goals, or of her self-image as a shinobi, woman, or individual.  No real exploration of her character other than, “Oh dear, how do I reconcile loving Sasuke with the fact that he’s now the most genetically evil person in the world?” 

            Let’s leave aside the fact that he tried to kill her several times, although that in and of itself should be enough to damn this union to eternal Hell.  Even if none of that had happened, and even if Sasuke had not been a terribly written character with no believable development after his fight with Itachi, there is the unavoidable fact that he never showed the slightest romantic interest in her.  There is not a single moment at any point of the series where you could credibly argue Sasuke appears to be developing anything approaching emotional love for Sakura.  For that matter, I don’t recall him showing romantic or even sexual interest in, well…anything.  As soon as he leaves the Leaf, he ceases to function as a human and looks, talks, and acts like a robot.  Nevermind Sakura, ANY pairing of this asshat with someone would have made zero sense.  It is shipping for shipping’s sake, doing the obvious thing just because it will please whatever twisted, demented sector of the population that managed to retain interest in Sasuke as a story presence. 

            Sasuke himself is, of course, the other major issue with the end.  His marrying Sakura is bad enough, but then there’s the fact that, as far as we can see, he never had to face any sort of reckoning whatsoever for his crimes.  This is a terrible betrayal of what had always been one of the series’ strong points- that crimes must and will be accounted for, and that the ninja world was one of death and hard sacrifice, and any use of power came with costs.  He never loses his sight or physical health from overusing the Sharingan.  He was, for some insane reason, actually offered a replacement arm for the one he lost fighting Naruto.  He was apparently never jailed or imprisoned in any manner.  And he never changed.  He never grew, and his parting words to the contrary, we have zero evidence he actually does feel any scrap of sorrow or regret for being a complete, amoral tool. 

            This is all exacerbated by the fact that Sasuke became a terrible character from the moment he finished fighting Naruto.  His motives became so blurred and confused by the end that he literally needed to resurrent Orochimaru and have him resurrect the Hokages so that THEY could tell him what to believe.  I have ranted about this at length before and do not have the strength to do so here.  Suffice it to say that it is the end for Sasuke that comes the closest to breaking the chapter for me. 

            And yet, it doesn’t ruin the chapter, and neither did it ruin the series as a whole for me, and the reason for that is simple; Naruto himself.  Naruto’s ending is the perfect one, the one the series built itself up to the entire time, and seeing it in actuality was enough satisfaction to smooth over nearly all of the flaws of the last few hundred chapters.  Naruto started out the least powerful, most annoying, and least compelling character in his own story, which would in many cases have been the death of it.  And in a way, that has made the growth he has undergone all the more compelling to see.  Even at his silliest, stupidest, most immature moments, there was always an authenticity to him as a character that shone through.  The focal point of the series, at least at first, was about the power of choice to shape destiny, and it was always Naruto’s choices that set him apart from the rest of the cold, brutal, and cynical shinobi world.  It is his choices that allowed him to reach world leaders and the Tailed Beasts in a way no one else could, and that made his progress from an in-over-his-head little kid to a truly powerful fighter not only emotionally satisfying, but believable as well.    

            This long journey of growth , surrounded as it is by outlandish character and villains, superpowered battles, and an endlessly detailed fantasy world, has been a treat to watch, and it really did hit home hard with the last few panels just how much we’ve experience with this story.  Its loop back to the start of the story closes in the proper fashion of a great legend.  For all its flaws, at least our title character got a fitting send-off. 

-Noah Franc  

**Note: I plan to revisit Naruto in a few months to expound on some of my favorite moments of the series as a whole.  I cannot right now, due to the crush of end-of-the-year listings and Oscar viewings I am trying to cram into a small window of time.  Once the busy time dies down, check back for more Naruto.**