Thursday, April 16, 2015

On Loving the World-Building a Franchise, or Video Game, Creates

Currently sitting on my games shelf is "The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim," and it has been there since the game first came out something like four years ago. Normally, I'm not that way about titles. I beat a game and then I hide it away, never to be seen again. Not "Skyrim," and in no small part because, as I may have said previously, I simply do not want to beat it.

Every time I see the game, it gets me thinking about what lies beyond what I have accomplished in it. How much more is there that I could do? Sure, I may have put in more than 100 hours (well more), but there are moments when I feel I have barely scratched the surface. There are few games I love like that, "Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag" being the most recent of them (what a let down "Unity" was after that).

Now, I don't actually come here to talk about games today, but rather about, broadly, getting immersed in a world. Yesterday I wrote about how I don't mind film sequels, and hopefully you already know that I love serialized television, and that all ties together, even if a particular game isn't a part of a larger universe. The more time you spend somewhere, even a fictionalized somewhere spread out over many a movie, the better you get to know it, and if it intrigued you initially you're more likely to let some issues slide.

There is a new "Terminator" coming out this summer, "Terminator: Genisys," and I can tell you that I'm incredibly excited to watch it. Maybe I shouldn't be, maybe "Terminator: Salvation" should have convinced me that there should be no more "Terminator" movies, but it didn't and I am. I don't base any of this off my visit to the set of the film (you can read that report elsewhere), it's the simple notion of revisiting a franchise which I love and I feel the same way about the upcoming "Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation" as well.

Even when you hit a lesser entry in a movie franchise ("Salvation") or a worse season of a television show (I'm looking at you final season of "HIMYM) or game series, there is some sort of comfort in tuning in on a weekly basis and revisiting this world to which you have become so accustomed. I wouldn't quite call it nostalgia, but maybe that's not far off.

Certainly for a series like "The Goldbergs," I'm instantly drawn in by the nostalgia factor, the "Hey, I never noticed that Adam had a Gobo Fraggle before, who doesn't love the Fraggles" bit. But I keep coming back week after week because I want to spend time with his whackadoo family, and now, a season and a half in, I look forward to those weekly visits and even if the show slumps in seasons three and four, odds are that I'll still be there if there's a season five (wouldn't it be something if this '80s based show could go more than 10 years and be forced to do something in the '90s?).

"The Goldbergs" doesn't have it, but the immersion in a new and different world is really a huge sell of many a series, and certainly virtually all science fiction. You want to see and know more about the post Judgment Day future (as long as it's always night during it and the majority of the film doesn't take place there). I still don't have a great handle on just how the IMF operates, but you can bet that every time there's a new film I'm looking for clues, that's the mission I choose to accept. There may not be a lot of information offered in any single film (because I refuse to accept "Salvation" as canon), but you can build the pieces over time.

As for the games side of it, and a title not needing to be a part of a franchise to still can one involved in a world, the amount of time you (or really I) will spend in a good game can be tremendous (see above with "Skyrim"), far more than you spend even with a long-running television series or movie franchise. I have spent more time playing "Skyrim" than it takes to watch all the James Bond movies four or five or six times.

What game will pull me in next? I don't know. Will "Genisys" and "Rogue Nation" live up to my personal expectations? I don't know, but I'm definitely excited to find out.

photo credit: Melinda Sue Gordon/Paramount Pictures

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

"Monsters: Dark Continent" is Better Left Unknown

The film industry is regularly slammed for producing too many sequels and not enough fare based on new, original, ideas. But, how can you blame them? Why would you not want to try and repeat/build-on your successes?

Let us say you made a movie ostensibly about monsters (aliens, really), but much more about a guy on a journey. The movie asks interesting questions, does solid work on a small budget, and shows that you can make a monster movie without showing all that many monsters. The director of the movie, his first big screen film by the way, does well enough that he is next handed the keys to the biggest monster of all time.

Why would you not want to take another trip to that well?

The obvious answer, of course, is that you no longer have Gareth Edwards at the helm, but rather as an executive producer. Nor returning cast, nor much in the way of story that would really cause this to need to be a sequel (although I think this last thing may be beneficial, but I will get there later).

The results here with "Monsters: Dark Continent" are less than good, and assuredly there will be a whole lot of folks coming out of the woodwork to point at it and suggest that the film industry should get out of the sequel business. Or, maybe there would be if this was a larger scale movie.

Directed by Tom Green (not that Tom Green) from a script by Green and Jay Basu, "Monsters: Dark Continent" is, as indicated above, only related to Edwards' "Monsters" in that the same aliens are still on planet Earth. The movie takes place a decade after the original, features a new cast, and has a new location.

This time out, we're in the Middle East. The United States still has human enemies there, and now a whole lot of monsters inhabit the area as well. The tale itself is the story of one group of soldiers caught between a rock and a hard place as the soldiers have to deal with human and alien enemies.

Essentially, you have a team of newbies who don't know what they're doing alongside a couple of seasoned leaders who wonder if they were ever quite so young, and a mission that deteriorates rapidly. It is nothing that everyone in the audience hasn't seen before, Green doesn't tell the tale in a particularly effective manner, and it fails to offer up terribly interesting characters.

If the film industry should be criticized for something, rather than it being sequels, it should be overuse of certain stylistic choices. "Monsters: Dark Continent" uses a significant number of shaky cam shots which, rather than enhancing the reality of the situation, do nothing but pull the viewer out of the action. At this point, rather than the technique adding to the documentary-esque nature of the story it does nothing but annoy and bewilder At times it is difficult to know what's happening, and those tend to be the times when you would most want to be able to sort things out.

The shaky cam combined with the stock characters have the audience rapidly lose any desire to put in the effort to follow along with what's happening. That is hugely unfortunate because the original "Monsters" had something to say about our world and this one might as well, but whatever it's trying to get across is completely lost in the process.

The cynical out there would say that "Monsters: Dark Content" isn't the last we'll see of a franchise that shouldn't exist either. They would say that we are doomed to get ever more degraded looks into the world Edwards first brought to the big screen.

I prefer to see it differently – I would welcome another "Monsters" film. Essentially, they have now established an identity where the stories can be set at a different time, different place, and with different characters than before. The only constant has to be that mankind is dealing with an alien invasion, or that said invasion is happening while mankind deals with something else. There are, assuredly, interesting tales to tell about such a world. After all, so many stories in the vein already exist. "Monsters: Dark Continent" however, isn't that interesting – it needs depth that simply isn't there.

"Monsters: Dark Continent" opens in theaters on April 17th.

photo credit: Radius-TWC

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

"Lass is More" Looks at the Changing Nature of TV

Just a brief introduction this morning before I embed the new minisode...

 One of the most fascinating things for me to watch is how my children interact with television (or movies). They do so in radically different ways than I do… or ever did. The ability to have all the shows they want at their fingertips at any time while they're at home has caused that change.

Go ahead, try to explain to the four-year-old just why he can't watch "Jake and the Never-Land Pirates" wherever he may happen to be at any point. After all, it has appeared on a phone or iPad before, why can't it right now?

Friday, April 10, 2015

Watching Billy Crystal and Josh Gad on "The Comedians"

I sat down last night and watched FX's new series, "The Comedians." After all, how could I not, it stars Josh Gad and Billy Crystal, two terribly funny people (for what it's worth, I was insanely impressed by Gad when I met him – he seemed like a genuinely nice, genuinely concerned about the project in question at that time, person).

For those unaware, the show essentially features Gad and Crystal playing versions of themselves who are filming a sketch comedy series. The two do not like each other but need one another for the series to be on the air and presumably much of the humor is going to revolve around each's distaste for the other.

Or, I think it will. The pilot certainly sets it up that way, but goodness knows what is going to happen in the second episode. It isn't a stretch in any way to say that there have been multiple series that have worked for years on end that focused on the main characters not liking each other. It is a tried and true technique.

The real question is whether or not they are going to be able to find enough funny fake things to hate. Celebrities playing slightly off versions of themselves is also nothing new, see Neil Patrick Harris in the "Harold and Kumar" franchise or James Van Der Beek in "Don't Trust the B---- in Apt. 23." But, those two were also not the focus of the respective projects, they were supporting players and while Seinfeld played a character named Seinfeld on "Seinfeld," he wasn't really a celebrity when the show began.

I do think it's possible to make a series in this vein that will work, but the key is going to have to be that nothing is off-limits. If these guys are going to hate each other, they're going to have to hate each other, and if they're going to lampoon Hollywood and the way television shows get made, they're really going to have to be cutting.

It could be brilliant to watch Crystal and Gad go off each week and fight some new and different and wonderful fight about making their show and about what the other one is doing, in their eyes, to ruin it. There certainly is enough to lampoon about each of them and Hollywood to make it work. That show is a series I would absolutely watch on a regular basis.

I did chuckle last night at the pilot, but I also felt some pangs of concern. One example -- why make more than one "1600 Penn" joke? We get it, the show didn't work and was off the air quickly. Why hit that twice in the pilot (maybe come back to it once a week every week for the entire run of the series instead)?

There didn't seem to be a "Frozen" joke last night even if Gad had an Olaf in his dressing room. They also didn't seem to make a "Soap" joke, and presumably one is coming down the line.

But, wow, how depressing is that? Guessing which of their previous projects "The Comedians" is going to crack wise about? The next step is guessing when each of the jokes is going to appear and that really ruins any of the comedy.

I don't know where it's going to be, but to work "The Comedians" is going to have to go (dark) places we don't expect it to go. I am certainly keeping my fingers crossed that it finds the right tone and becomes successful, because Gad and Crystal are two comic geniuses who could really be great together.

photo credit: Ray Mickshaw/FX

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

In Which I Spend 500 Words Deciding to not Talk About "iZombie"

Fine, I'm going to do it. I thought for a long time that I wouldn't, but every week I think the same thing and it's come time for me to say it – "iZombie" reminds me of "Veronica Mars."

Wow, you know, I thought I would feel a lot better getting that off my chest, but I don't. I feel like I'm being reductive and just saying that because the show centers on a young woman fighting crime and offering a snarky voiceover, I equate the two. I don't like that being what I'm saying.

Yes, yes, and Rob Thomas along with Diane Ruggiero-Wright brought this to TV and Ruggiero was a producer on "Mars" which Thomas created. So, naturally some tonal similarities can be expected. That doesn't make it feel like enough either.

Here is the real crux of why I don't want to say what I am saying, I think that simply describing the series by saying that "iZombie" is "like 'Veronica Mars' but with Zombies" doesn't give the new show its due. It makes it feel as though Thomas, Ruggiero-Wright, and company are just repurposing one great character, tossing some en vogue baddies into the mix and letting it spin out from there.

On the other hand, that is, of course, the easiest the way to describe the series. By far. In fact, if I were trying to convince a fan of the earlier show to watch this one, that's exactly how I might describe it, "What if Veronica was a zombie."

Even so, I don't want to have to describe it that way. I want to be able to say more about it, but so much of what I would say would either revolve around zombies or could be repurposed to describe "Veronica Mars." Thus, my bind.

I have talked to other people about the new CW series, and they have offered, unprompted, the "Veronica Mars" comparison as well. So, I am not unique, but not being unique and being fair aren't really the same thing at all. They aren't even close to the same thing.

Here then is what I'm going to do. I am not going to say anymore about "iZombie" right now. I just don't feel as though I would be doing it in anything resembling a fair way. Maybe after the first season is done, I'll revisit "iZombie" and offer some more in detail observations on it, but not now.

I will close by saying that right now, all I know is that I'm liking what I'm watching on a weekly basis. I find the long-term zombie notion interesting and I'm excited to see where it heads. I would love for, one day, Kristen Bell to do a guest spot on "iZombie" or for the series to do an entire episode highlighting the non-zombie differences between it an "Veronica Mars," but that may be a more down the line thing. Perhaps as a show, it too feels like it needs time to further differentiate itself.

Whatever the case may be, I'm going to keep watching and see what happens next.

 photo credit: Cate Cameron/The CW

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

"Ex Machina" -- A Good Movie Which Earned Greatness it did not Achieve

Some films you can watch and then forget about between leaving the theater and arriving home. Others stick with you, they make you think, they make you wonder, and they desperately make you want to see them again.

It was about a week ago that I saw writer-director Alex Garland's "Ex Machina." If you had asked me upon leaving the theater what I thought, I would have said that it was "okay." I would have explained that there were moments in the movie that didn't work for me, reveals I thought took too long and consequently weren't very big surprises when they were meant to be, and a whole lot of things left unresolved/unanswered/undone.

"Ex Machina" has stuck with me however, and I've thought more and more about. While my qualms with the movie haven't gone away, the more I think about what I saw and how it played out, the more I like it. It isn't by any means perfect, there are some big and important things that I don't think work, but if you ask me what I think now (and as I've pointed out previously, you are asking me as you're reading this), I would say that it is "pretty good."

All that said, what exactly is "Ex Machina?" Good question.

The movie stars Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb, a programmer who "wins" a trip to his reclusive boss's hideaway. This boss, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), is also a programmer, one who has, potentially, come up with a robot (Alicia Vikander) that has the ability to think/grow/learn. Nathan puts it to Caleb to find out whether Ava truly has artificial intelligence or not.

Thus, the games begin. Nathan is a hard-drinking, sort of nasty man with a lot of quirks. Caleb may be good at what he does, but working in Nathan's bunker-like facility isn't doing Caleb any favors, nor is Nathan's general attitude. Plus, there's Ava who is clearly playing games, but neither the audience nor Caleb can figure out exactly why.

The basic setup of the whole thing is brilliant, and Isaac, Gleeson, and Vikander are outstanding. The film looks tremendous and is visually striking. There is such an incredible attention to the feel of the movie that whether or not you buy the rest of it, you are going to be sucked in.

What I have been struggling with for a week is whether or not I buy the rest of it. The test Caleb is performing in the movie is described as Turing Test (or kind of like a Turing Test), but it isn't really because Caleb knows he's talking to a robot, he doesn't have to figure it out. And right there is the first problem I have with "Ex Machina" – it never appropriately works out the background details.

How exactly is Caleb going to make this assessment? Caleb doesn't quite know for a while, which makes complete sense, and then the question—that really important question—disappears into the background without him ever offering up a good answer. He just proceeds because he's under a ludicrous time deadline which Nathan has established because… well, there's no reason why Nathan establishes the deadline, he just does, much as Caleb just keeps plugging away without knowing how he's going come up with an answer.

I really don't want to give away any details of the movie, because a big part of it is you going through it with Caleb, trying to figure it all out just as he does. But, unfortunately, I think that a lot of things either don't have answers or that Caleb arrives at them too slowly. We are meant to be going on the journey with him, he's our surrogate, but as good as Gleeson is (and he's good), the movie never offers up enough about how Caleb is doing his thing with Ava to allow us to travel with him in that most important aspect of the journey.

The other thing that very much troubles me about the movie is the ending (no, I'm not in any way going to say how "Ex Machina" closes, don't worry). The end is absolutely acceptable, but I can imagine at least six different endings for the movie, all of which would work equally well. I don't know why the ending on the movie is the ending. It doesn't feel in any way more valid than some of the other choices, and I very much want it to.

I unquestionably have problems with "Ex Machina," but I still feel like it's smart and that it's well put together. I want the ending to be equally smart and well put together. I want to have the sense watching the final scene that yes, it's not something I saw coming but it's clearly the only way the movie could possibly finish. That isn't the ending offered.

This is where I get back to my thinking it merely okay after I finished watching it last week. My impulse was that it was an okay movie because it should have been better, but what I realized later as I thought about it is that the movie had earned being better. The three main actors are great, it's a fascinating story, and the details in the look (and sounds) of the movie are excellent. There are pieces which fall flat, but they only fall as flat as they do because the other elements work so well. That is to say, the elements that frustrate me only do so because the movie made me expect more and if it made me expect more, well, it clearly did a lot right.

I want to go out and see "Ex Machina" again. I am not sure if I'll feel the same way or differently about it when I'm finished, but I definitely want to see it again. And that means that it did something right.

photo credit: A24

Monday, April 06, 2015

Interviews Revisited and why a 15 Minute Interview is Easier than a Four Minute One

A while back, I wrote a piece on doing on-camera junket interviews, and my experiences with them. Since then, I have done several longer interviews, and consequently I've been comparing the experiences.

For the on-camera interviews, usually, I have gotten something on the order of four minutes Maybe a little bit more, maybe a little bit less, but that general ballpark. For the longer interviews—either written or for the "Lass is More" podcast—I have gotten closer to 15 minutes.

Paradoxically, those 15 minute interviews are somewhat more easy.

In a four minute interview, first I have to quickly attempt to break the ice before the cameras start rolling and then I have to make each and every one of those questions count. If I get short answers, maybe I can ask five or six questions, if I get long answers, I can ask two or three. Ideally, the brief conversation occurs, flowing from one question to the next. That isn't always possible depending on upon what I'm trying to get at and the sorts of answers I receive, but it's certainly the goal.

Every single question counts in those on-camera interviews – ask one throwaway question and I've punted something around 25% of the interview. I have to quickly get to the heart of the issue and try to remain on topic while still listening to and playing off of the person(s) sitting opposite.

A longer interview can be somewhat more meandering. Odds are that if I have four questions I really want to ask, over the course of 15 minutes I'm going to get to ask them even if I ask other things as well. The ice-breaking/rapport establishment bit can also build a little more slowly. Sure, it would be great to instantly get past that during the introductions, just as with the shorter interviews, but if it takes two or three minutes, then it takes two or three minutes and I still have the vast majority of the interview ahead of me.

All of this strikes me today as I'm preparing to interview Oscar Isaac and Alicia Vikander about "Ex Machina." This piece won't publish until after that interview is in the can, but they're the thoughts I have going into it. I don't imagine that my thoughts will greatly change following the interview, but whether they do or not, I will not be altering the this paragraph nor any of the above ones after the interview.

It now strikes me that this last paragraph should have come at the beginning of the piece, but making that change at this point would break my promise and so it isn't something I will do, even if no one out there would know I had done it.

Oh, and as for that "Any Given Sunday"-Jamie Foxx thing?  Yeah, it still happens.

photo credit: A24

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Is Tuesday Night now the Best TV Night of the Week?

I am always surprised by the ebb and flow of the television schedule. Nights that once overloaded my TiVo now find it vacant and vice versa.

Sure, Sunday nights have been terribly popular for years. Various combinations of "Simpsons," "X-Files," HBO and AMC series, "Apprentice," "Amazing Race," and more have filled my evening. The list of shows that I have watched—and do watch—on Sundays is large and not worth completely recounting.

For a long time, Thursday nights were massive for me – there was way too much to watch. Now, not being a huge fan of the Shonda Rhimes ABC block and with NBC's Must See lineup having gone the way of the dodo, there isn't much there for me. I will absolutely admit to watching "The Odd Couple" and being completely unsure what to think of it and also confess that "The Big Bang Theory" has never made me laugh all that much.

What is really surprising to me at this moment is Tuesday nights. I got home a little after 9pm this past Tuesday and saw that my DVR was recording four different shows at the same time. That was just in the single hour, there were other shows I recorded that night as well. When did Tuesdays get that way? How did Tuesdays get that way? I don't know, but I don't have time to watch all that record on Tuesdays.

What, you may ask, am I recording on Tuesdays (specifically in that 9pm hour)? Very good question, quite fair, and I'm going to tell you.

"New Girl," "iZombie," "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," and "Undateable." So, yes, the number of shows I was recording dropped at 9:30pm from four to two, but I think arguing that misses the point. After all, I also recorded "The Flash" and "Cougar Town" (farewell cul-de-sac crew!) on this past Tuesday. Beyond that, "iZombie" is unquestionably one of my favorite new shows, "S.H.I.E.L.D." has done amazing things this second season, and at some point in the middle of its first season, "The Flash" began being tremendous.

If you had asked me in early December whether I preferred "Gotham" or "The Flash" (you know, because we were both being reductive and tossing them into the same pot as comic book series), I would have said "Gotham;" it wouldn't have even been a question. Now though, I'm saying "The Flash." It could just be that they have been on a roll for the past few weeks and "Gotham" has been off the air for the same period, but man, if you haven't been watching Barry Allen and friends, you've been missing out.

The story of Barry's mom's death and father's imprisonment wasn't one that had struck me as terribly interesting until recently, I had seen it as just another story they would tease out forever and which would prove less and less fun the longer it went. The producers, however, have opted to not stretch it out. More or less, we now know what happened even if we don't have the specifics of how it happened. Plus, as we've now gotten to see the backstory from an omniscient point of view, it would be hard for them to walk it back at this point.

Honestly though, that deserves a whole piece analyzing the full season. "S.H.I.E.L.D." does too, or more than that as what we're looking at there is a great course correction that began in season one and followed the events of "Captain America: The Winter Soldier."

As for "iZombie," I think we're only three episodes in at this point but I'm loving the detective/zombie thing it's worked out so far; the show really jumped out of the box with a great tone. The interesting thing will be to see how the overarching mystery of how this all came about gets juxtaposed with the case-of-the-week aspect. If they can manage to make both of those things work, it could be a truly great ride.

Eventually, of course, all this will change. My TiVo will be wholly empty on Tuesday nights once more. Right now though, I'm riding the wave and loving it.

photo credit: ABC/Adam Rose

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

The "Clue" Quote-Along: Super fun or just a Red Herring?

I have long-professed a love of silence at the movies. I have held up my love of sitting by myself in an empty theater watching movies all alone. I stand by this ideal, but yesterday, I did something quite far removed from it – I attended a quote-along event of one of my favorite movies, "Clue."

A theater near me put together the event complete with champagne poppers to be used when guns were shot, flashlights for when the power went out, and a bell for when the doorbell rang. Naturally there were also a number of lines subtitled on the screen, not that many people in that particular audience needed them.

It was a great experience. Mostly.

People using the various props and reading the subtitled lines proved exceptionally fun. Particularly great was trying to get through Mrs. Peacock's entire speech at dinner as she tries to break the ice (the one that ends with "and, oh my, this soup's delicious, isn't it?"). Rather than tossing the whole speech up in a single subtitle, we kept getting a new set of subtitles as her talk went on and on and on. Every new subtitle led to a fresh peal of laughter.

I saw two downsides to the entire event.

First off, one of the lines was incorrectly subtitled. It was an Yvette line that ends with "mon Dieu," but whomever wrote out the subtitle did it "monsieur." They may sound similar, but one made sense in the context of what she was saying and one didn't. That was the smaller of the two issues. A nagging one to be sure, but smaller.

The larger problem was perhaps entirely predictable and related to the reciting of the film's dialogue. The saying of non-subtitled lines was most certainly allowed, and encouraged by the theater, but there was one gentleman who—very impressively mind you—did some scenes nearly in their entirety. The issue was that he was not content with just saying the lines, but rather had to belt them out at a volume where he, a single person, drowned out the on screen actors. It was one thing for a theater with hundreds of people in it to be louder than the folks on screen but quite another for a single person to be talking at such a volume. If he had simply been saying the lines I don't think anyone would have had a problem, but that isn't what took place.

Where then did this leave me and my silence-in-the-theater rule?

In the end, it clarified it all for me. People agree to certain behavior in the theater – whether that's talking along with the movie at a special event or being quiet. The issue arises when someone(s) decide(s) that they are going to go off and do their own thing outside of what everyone else is doing. Movies are a communal event, and people stepping outside the group in ways that detract from everyone's experience are detrimental. You don't talk during a regular movie and you don't yell every line at a quote-along. You consider your actions as they will affect those around you. It really doesn't seem like much to ask.

photo credit: Paramount Pictures

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

"Lass is More" Discusses "Broken Horses" with Vidhu Vinod Chopra

This morning, "Lass is More" is back with a new episode!

In this latest foray into filmmaking, we talk to Vidhu Vinod Chopra, an Indian writer/director/producer.  Chopra, who has been a part of a number of very successful Bollywood films for decades, has made his first movie on this side of the Atlantic, "Broken Horses."  A western, the tale focuses on two brothers, one of whom has fallen in with a less than great crowd.

As Chopra is an international figure working on his first Hollywood, much of our discussion centers around the differences in culture on-set and around making the film in general.  I am not sure that we get to any truly deep understandings, but Chopra does offer up a number of interesting insights.

"Broken Horses" is in theaters on April 10th.