I guess this was the year I got tired of Robot Chicken. This season won't finish airing until early next year, but the whole thing is already on DVD, and I rented it on Netflix so I know what's up. And yeah... I was watching it, and waiting for it to make me laugh, and it just didn't really happen. There's a few things about the show that have always been abrasive, and gotten in the way of what works about it. It relies on violence an awful lot, and that seemed particularly true this year, with many sketches lacking any real punchlines at all, resorting to just going through various action/thriller/horror cliches with out of place characters in hopes that the novelty would be enough. But it's not really novel anymore. There have been 100 episodes of this, and I'm not even counting the Star Wars specials. A lot of the other humor is just unusual swearing that never seems particularly memorable, or typical gross-out stuff. In the past the show has been clever when the writers really tried, but I'm not really seeing that effort anymore. And the frat mentality is there more than ever. One thing I did like was the season finale, which actually turned the intro featuring a cyborg chicken and his malevolent creator into a story, but even that couldn't avoid certain issues. Seriously, if I have to hear one more "my one weakness!" joke any time soon, I'm gonna flip out. I don't know if they plan on bringing the show back, but if they do, I don't think I'll be making sure to catch it every time a new episode's on.
I'm at a crossroads with South Park, as I am with a number of other shows. It used to be I could just pick a show I'm interested in and watch every single episode, but now that I'm working full time it's harder to justify that. There has to be something more to keep me watching, or else I might have to stop watching a show before it actually ends its run on television. I've already done it a few times, and I'm sure I'll do it again. It doesn't take a lot for a show to stay in my rotation - all it has to do is be consistently very entertaining, or compel me to stay interested in its plot or characters. South Park does very little in the way of ongoing character development or story elements, so it has to rely on the former, and I'm not sure South Park does that. With the news that the show will continue to keep running through at least 2016, should I keep watching, or should I stop while I'm ahead and be glad to have gotten 15 mostly enjoyable years out of it?
The problem with the show now is that in its heyday, South Park was special because it was shocking and original. Both of which are hard to maintain after being on the air for over a decade. It's not that the show is afraid to tackle delicate current events, now - it was pretty much expected for them to react to the Penn State scandal, and they did so last night with a character who constantly cracked inappropriate jokes about it. It's just we're so used to their lampooning of pop culture what's in the news that it's not really fresh anymore. It eventually falls to our affection for the characters to keep us watching, and they're still an entertaining group, and there were actually a few episodes that teased at doing something different with them, like the cliffhanger where Stan's parents separate (again) or the one where Cartman has to move on from his doll collection. But while I enjoyed most of this season's episodes, I'm not sure if I still care enough to keep watching, especially when I know there definitely isn't any sort of end goal in sight. It's not like it's a terrible sacrifice to give up a half hour on fourteen Wednesday nights every year though, so I guess we'll see how I feel later on.
Another year goes by, and Squidbillies trucks along as strong as ever. It's hard to really compare different seasons of the show, because the division is meaningless. A new season just means another batch of episodes, and each episode is pretty much the same concept. Early will be an asshole, the people around him will be hurt because of it, and there will be some slight satire of certain cultural or political concepts involving the south. It's a basic formula, and it works because it's consistently funny and that's all it has to be. I'm coming to appreciate how good of a character Early is - he's possibly the most despicable television protagonist there is, hateful and ignorant and moronic and violent. And yet he's just so damn amusing that you love him anyway. It's partly the writing, which always finds new twists on some combination of those characteristics, and it's partly Unknown Hinson's consistently brilliant voice acting. I don't think there's a sentence in the English language he couldn't at least make partly amusing if he wanted to.
This was also a good season for the sheriff, although most of them probably are, because he tends to get the most good material besides Early and maybe Rusty. Granny definitely gets a lot more jokes, but they're usually pretty easy ones based on stuff we already know about her, while the sheriff's always optimistic take on things seems fresher for some reason. There's nothing much I particularly want to point out, other than this Sunday's season finale about transporting illicit cargo with high speed truck chases might have made me laugh out loud more than any other episode of the show, which I find consistently entertaining but rarely elicits actual chuckles for me. Mostly I just smile at the wordplay and cleverly deployed violence. For what it's worth, Squidbillies has been the better of the two shows that David Willis works on for a couple years now. It's a similar situation to Seth MacFarlane's Family Guy and American Dad! - the former is more popular with America and is maybe saddled with certain expectations, while the latter is able to do its own thing and is much more consistently funny for it. Squidbillies is not anything close to a world changing show, but it's a really enjoyable one, and that can be enough.
Well, here we are again.
The Castle of Cagliostro
Hayao Miyazaki's first film as a director, before Studio Ghibli was a thing, is based on the Lupin III television series he worked on, which was based on a manga created by Monkey Punch, which was inspired by the Arsène Lupin character created by Maurice LeBlanc. The film's plot is also based on one of the original Lupin stories. So yeah, there's a lot of adapting going on here. Cagliostro is a lighthearted action adventure about Lupin and his buddies stumbling on the world's biggest counterfeit currency operation in one of its smallest countries, and trying to both thwart their plans and rescue a princess at the same time. I've only seen a bit of the show, but it doesn't take much of that to get familiar with the principal characters, and they all show up here and have fun little parts to play. It's a simple movie, but there's a nice energy to it, a reasonable amount of excitement in the twists and turns, and like all works by Miyazaki there's a nice feeling to the animation, which isn't the most fluid ever but does what's required to set the right tone. It's kind of a standard adventure movie, but it's a well executed one.
Not Stanley Kubrick's first feature film, but the first that's readily available for public consumption. It's also his weakest that I've seen. There's nothing very bad about the movie, but there's just not much to it. A boxer meets up with a dancing girl, and they try to leave the city and start a life somewhere, but her crook of a boss isn't a fan of the idea. It's a pretty bare-bones noir story, with the only thing that really makes it work being Kubrick's great photography. There's lots of great little shots that stick out as distinct for the era, including use of reflections, some stuff with shadows that I haven't really seen before, and a memorable conclusion in an unusual setting. There's not much to the characters though, and the tacked-on ending doesn't really work. Its only real use is to show the potential Kubrick had for his work later on.
The very next year Kubrick made this, his first really good movie. It actually feels a bit less distinctly his than Kiss, but it's certainly a lot more fun to watch, and might actually be the most purely enjoyable movie he ever made. In one of the few instances I can think of of him using an actor more than once, he has Sterling Hayden as the main character, a criminal trying to pull off one last job, robbing the take at a horse track, with a complicated scheme that involves multiple people both inside and outside the place. It's a pretty good plan, though there's also a lot of moving parts, and of course things get screwed up and the situation eventually gets pretty hairy. There's a lot of build up, and the pay off when it all starts falling into place is pretty great. Stylistically, there's not much in the movie that wouldn't be in another noir movie from the period. But it's also just a really good example of the genre, and sometimes that's all you need to be successful.
The Tree of Life
This is a film about life, and growing up, and pretty much everything that entails. I said before that I imagine a film by Terrence Malick entirely in his reflective/observing-nature's-beauty mode might get tedious, and that's somewhat true here, but the film is so beautiful and poignant that it's hard to be really bothered by the slow bits. The film isn't exactly in chronological order, but what it's basically about is Sean Penn remembering his youth growing up with his parents and two brothers, and also experiencing some sort of vision of the birth of the universe and what possibly lies beyond it. It's a staggeringly gorgeous movie at times, especially in the scenes showing the early moments of existence, with visuals that avoid computer animation in favor of more natural means. The more normal stuff looks great too, though it's mostly just people walking through houses or the woods. Brad Pitt plays his father, and does a really great job making him into a terrible dad that should really be feared and despised without being over the top about it. Just the way he touches his sons on the neck is enough to establish that loving parenting doesn't come naturally to him. I don't think the movie needed a name like Penn to play the adult version of the main character though - he doesn't really do much acting besides walking around and looking at things. The Tree of Life is a bit ponderous and in love with itself at times, but what it does right is memorable and unique enough to make the film worth watching, especially if you're a fan of film as a visually artistic medium.
These are some pretty runty-ass movies! They weren't bad, though.
The Good German
I've only seen two films by Steven Soderbergh, which both happened to be very populist and not terribly original. But he's known as a very experimental filmmaker, at least by Hollywood standards, and even if you don't like The Good German very much, you have to admit it's ambitious. I ended up enjoying its modern day take on lots of old noir tropes, but more interesting than the film itself is the way it is dedicated to the style of the period. It's in black and white, and more than that the way it was filmed is very much the traditional old way, with old cutting and old blocking and everything. It doesn't really actually look like it was made in the 40s, because of the lighting, and because of the weird disconnect with the very modern standards of sex, violence, and language. I don't understand the point of going this far with replicating a look without replicating a tone as well. But you can't say the whole thing isn't interesting. And I think George Clooney and Cate Blanchett make a good pair on-screen, anyway.
The Red Badge of Courage
A war film by John Huston, based on a book about a soldier in the Civil War who fears death and yet yearns to earn his own war wounds and be looked well upon by others. It's an odd movie for a couple of reasons, most notably the incredibly on-the-nose narration, which not only directly quotes the original novel but also addresses the audience in a weird, hitting-you-over-the-head kind of way. It definitely wasn't surprising that this was added by the studio against Huston's wishes, and that they also cut the film down to its scant 70 minute running time, which is hardly enough time to develop themes, especially when so much of that time is just Huston's (admittedly well shot) war scenes. There's the potential for a great 50s war movie in here, but it was lost between filming and release.
Francis Ford Coppola's post-70s career is frustrating, showing little evidence that a man who could create a film as perfect as The Godfather still knows what he is doing. Tetro is interesting though, a more personal project than most of his other work, about a couple of estranged brothers who reunite in Spain. It's shown in black and white except for flashbacks, and shows the devastating effect certain actions can have on family ties. It's not exactly the most entertaining movie ever, but there's definitely some stuff going on here that you don't really see in most other movies. It's also really nice to look at, with some stylistic experiments and just really good cinematography throughout. Definitely the best thing I've seen by him that was released in the last 30 years.
Thor: Tales of Asgard
That cover is misleading; it shows a grown up Thor, but the film takes place in his more formative years, before Loki was evil, and before Odin even allowed him to venture out of Asgard. At least they didn't extend the lie far enough to show him holding the hammer. Tales of Asgard isn't much different from the other Marvel movies, being competently animated and telling a pretty standard story, although being Thor, it's less a typical sci-fi action plot and more a typical fantasy one. Thor goes on a journey with Loki, hangs with the warriors three, gets help from Sif, and accidentally gets into some bad shit with the frost giants. As a supplement to the live action film... it's fine. There's nothing terribly exciting about it, but it doesn't really mess up anywhere either. It's a way to pass 70 minutes if you like comic books, I guess.