Thursday, December 31, 2009

The First 9

This afternoon, I watched the last movie I'll see this year. (Not that this is actually that big a deal; I'll probably watch another tomorrow.) It was 9 -- not the musical currently in theaters, but the animated feature from a few months back. It's set in a post-apocalyptic future where machines have ravaged the world and turned it into a barren wasteland. The heroes of the tale are a series of animated (in the other sense of the word) dolls trying to avoid the mechanical beasts still roving the landscape.

I found myself reacting to the movie in a very similar way as I did to Avatar. Specifically, it looks absolutely incredible. The visual design of every element of the film is breathtaking, from the backgrounds to the characters, and every little detail in between. Visually, this movie might even be a greater triumph than any of Pixar's films, including Up; at the least, it works at the same level of quality.

But unfortunately, it falls short in other areas. Though the characters look fantastic, they aren't developed or real enough to really pull the audience into the emotions of the story. And that story is pretty standard fare, never surprising and moving simply through the paces we all expect from this kind of film. It's only unusual in that it is an animated movie that is utterly unsuitable for children; 9 earns its PG-13 rating, and is far too scary for any young child I know.

There's a good voice cast assembled here, featuring Christopher Plummer, Martin Landau, John C. Reilly, Jennifer Connelly, and Elijah Wood. But the words are just a little too flat on the page for them to do much in lifting them off.

It may not sound overall like I'd give it a rating as high as B-, but that's where I'm placing it. The movie isn't bad by any stretch, but its visuals are the main draw. If creativity on that level captures you, then you'll want to see this movie. If you've got a Blu-ray player, you'll probably want to see this movie. Otherwise... you might want to pass.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Babel On

So the other new board game I received for Christmas is Tower of Babel, one of Reiner Knizia's many efforts. I've had a chance to play it twice now -- so it's perhaps a little too early to form solid opinion, but here are my impressions so far.

As with all of Knizia's games, the theme seems very loosely draped over a mechanical skeleton. In theory, you're helping to build eight different wonders of the world -- though at least one of them will not be completed by the end of the game. (Somehow, this game is supposed to be the story of why there were only seven built. But yeah, back to that whole "the theme barely fits" thing.)

Each of the eight potential wonders is represented by three chips on the board. The 24 total chips are divided into four colors, with values from 3 to 6 printed on them. On your turn, you send your worker out to one of the chips, determining the color (suit) to be played that round. Then all the players simultaneously and secretly prepare "offers" to help you build the chip you've chosen. You have to come up with a total exactly equal to the value of the chip you're working on.

One the offers are settled, they're revealed, and you have to choose which to accept and which to reject. There are a few wrinkles in this, but the simple version of it is that each offer you reject immediately earns that player one victory point for every card you're rejecting. Each accepted offer allows that player to place a "house" on the wonder indicating his help; when the wonder eventually is completed, the players in first and second place on houses for that wonder will score a hefty point benefit of their own (that increases throughout the game as more wonders are built). You get to make up the difference with cards of your own (and earn houses yourself in the process), but you must build a chip exactly. You can't go over its difficulty value, and you can't accept only part of an opponent's offer. You also claim the chip you were working on, with sets of chips in the same color being worth bonus points at the end of the game.

After two plays, I really like the game. The lack of real fit to the theme doesn't really bother me; that's not what you play a Reiner Knizia game for. What I like is that the game has very simple rules and plays rather quickly, but actually has a lot of strategic nuance in it. Some of that nuance comes from a few special rules I didn't detail here, but let me simply say that by the time you get a few turns into it, you find yourself thinking, "wow, there are more important decisions to make here than I would have guessed."

I had some bad luck in card draws kill my chances in one of the two games I've played so far (though I still placed second), but I still liked the game both times. In particular, I liked how the strategies became more twisted with four players compared to three (and I hope soon to play with the full complement of five). At this point, the game would get my recommendation.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Hail to the King

I just caught up with the most recent season of The Tudors on DVD. Then, sitting down to post a few quick thoughts on it here, I realized I'd never really commented on the show as a whole (other than to mention it in passing while talking about the movie Elizabeth).

As you probably know, the series follows the reign of King Henry VIII, with a particular focus on his many marriages. It's a show full of politics, backstabbing, and sex; it's often played a sort of modern soap opera, albeit set in medieval times. It stars Jonathan Rhys Meyers as King Henry, and a variety of other actors, some well-known and some less so. But it can be a bit of a revolving door of a cast; the show may occasionally play with a few historical details, but overall hews closely to the facts, and thus many significant characters meet an untimely demise and exit the show.

To be frank, the show took a while to get going. The pace of the first season is very slow. Performances and production values were enough to keep my interest, but the writing was not particularly strong. At least there was one episode near the end of the season, revolving around the spread of a plague through England, that was the highlight of the run and reason enough to pull me along for another season.

In the second season, things picked up considerably. The story dealt more briskly with the rise and fall of Henry's second wife, Anne Boleyn, and managed to much more effectively pull me in. I still wouldn't call it one of the best shows around right now, but I was now liking it enough to want to keep watching more episodes.

Season three represents another shift. The show has neither gotten better or worse, but you can sense outside, real world forces exerting pressure on it. The season is trimmed from the 10 episodes of the first two years to just 8 episodes. What's more, the season doesn't focus chiefly on the time of one of Henry's wives, but covers the next two. In addition, the upcoming fourth season has already been announced as the series' last.

So it appears that while the show's network, Showtime, has not lost faith enough to cancel The Tudors outright, they are perhaps finding the show too costly to carry it through to what might have been its creator's intended end. Season three did at times benefit from the faster pace, but at other times it reminded me a bit of the fourth season of Babylon 5, where the story was being artificially compressed for fear of cancellation before wrapping it all up.

I suppose that season three of The Tudors ultimately leaves my opinion unaltered; if you have the patience to get through that first, sometimes tedious, season, it is a rather entertaining piece of work. It does a good job of making drama out of the raw facts, and the cast does a great job of making full characters out of these historical figures.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Fractured Holmes

I know that both Shocho and FKL were rather taken with the new Sherlock Holmes movie. (The praise of the latter, him being the biggest fan of the original stories I know, seemed a particularly good sign.)

Unfortunately, when I went to see the movie for myself, I was not as impressed. I didn't think it necessarily a bad film, but it certainly felt to me like a film in which the good elements weren't given proper space to breathe, smothered by lackluster action sequences and other unnecessary elements.

For example, one good -- well, great -- element is the two lead actors. As Holmes and Watson, Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law both put their own good spin on their characters, and have a good rapport with one another. But the film doesn't make enough use of their interplay for my tastes. For what should be a "buddy" movie, the two spend an odd amount of time separated in the film. Many sequences feature Holmes only, and gifted as Downey is, in this movie its only in scenes with Law where he really crackles.

Instead, Dr. Watson gets shoved to the sideline somewhat regularly to make room for Irene Adler, played by Rachel McAdams. Her character feels forced into the movie just for the Hollywood need to include a significant female character for the "draw" that will have on the audience. As the only female, her character twists implausibly from one scene to the next to serve the needs of a Hollywood script; in one scene she's villainous, in the next virtuous; sometimes she's Holmes' intellectual equal, in others she's a mere damsel in distress. The inconsistency keeps her interactions from having the same spark as the Holmes/Watson relationship, so every moment spent on her and Holmes feels like wasted time where we're being robbed of a relationship that does work.

The mystery itself is rather cleverly put together, and in a way very true to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's style. Without spoiling specifics, it has technological underpinnings disguised as the supernatural, and is well set in the time period. When Holmes unravels it all, the mystical becomes mundane, much in the style of the short stories.

But the mystery itself often gets crowded out by mindless action. Of course, I acknowledge this movie's core concept is to turn the often-portrayed-as-stuffy Holmes into a more modern action hero. And let me say, not all of the action beats come off bad in my view. The various scenes of boxing and fisticuffs are generally quite entertaining; refreshingly, there's less of the martial arts we're used to seeing in movies and more brute force. Other sequences, however, bring in CG assistance, and are too outrageous (and the CG too unrealistic) to keep you in the moment. The threat of giant bits of shrapnel flying around, or of falling from a great height, just isn't credible when the environments look painted and the objects in them don't seem to have the proper weight, motion, or shadow.

To sum up, I found the core concept worthy, but not well-executed. Perhaps I can hope for better from the inevitable sequel -- given the huge amounts of money this has made already, and the obvious set up for the villain in the next film. This movie, I rate a C+.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

What's Up

Today, I went to see one of the movies that's been picking up some "award buzz" lately, Up in the Air. It's the latest from director Jason Reitman, who a couple years back did Juno, one of my favorites from that year. To hear the way many critics were talking about this new movie, it was every bit as good -- maybe better.

I didn't think quite as highly of it. The comparisons between the two really can't be that direct, but both movies do try to blend lots of emotional textures. Up in the Air has moments of sweetness, humor, drama, and more.

I suspect some measure of the great reaction this movie has had is due to the personal history that many audience members will bring with them into the theater. The story of this movie revolves around a character who spends 320 days out of the year on the road, working for a company that's contracted by other companies to come in and fire or lay off employees -- to perform the actual sitting in the room, delivering the bad news to the victims.

Thus, the movie can land close to home on at least two levels. Some people know too well the life of constantly being on the road for work. Many more can relate to having lost a job. Even years after being laid off myself, there were moments in this film that made me think, "oh yeah, I've been there." There were still other moments that made me think that certain friends of mine might best not see this movie right now, given things going on in their lives.

In any case, I did feel the movie did a pretty good job of mixing things up in an entertaining way. But I also found that it did so in a somewhat muted way. The laughs are never that great, the highs not that high, the lows not that low. It's good, but not as great (in my view) as many critics are saying.

The cast is pretty good, though. George Clooney isn't really called on to do much more than charm as he's done in countless other films, but there are a lot of gems in the rest of the cast. His character's young "apprentice," played by Anna Kendrick, and unlikely love interest, played by Vera Farmiga, are the more compelling characters in the film. Jason Bateman and Danny McBride are good in smaller roles. And a few others show up for just a single scene and make a big impact, such as Zach Galifianakis and Sam Elliott. The best of these "one scene roles" though, is J.K. Simmons. He shows up as one of the poor workers being fired, and it's one of the best scenes of the movie.

Up in the Air far from being one of my favorites of 2009, but it's arguably not an unworthy contender for award recognition. My own rating would be a B-.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Archaeological Find

So, I received a couple of new board games for Christmas this year. Fortunately, they didn't throw the whole "play all my board games" thing into too much chaos -- I got to play both of them tonight. One of the two was specifically recommended to me by friend, blog frequenter, and game enthusiast, FKL: Thebes.

The game is about going on archaeological expeditions. You must first spend time in Europe going from city to city, gathering research on the five possible dig sites you can excavate. The more knowledge you acquire, the more chances you will have at pulling chips from a bag when you get to the dig site. Think of that "Three Strikes" game on The Price is Right; the bag starts out with about a 50/50 ratio of chips worth victory points and worthless debris. After you pull, you keep your point chips, but throw the debris back in the bag, which thus gets progressively worse as the game goes on.

The rather clever system about the game, though, is its use of time as a resource. This in particular was the thing FKL recommended to me. The track around the outside of the game board does not represent points, but the number of weeks in a year. Every action you can take in the game takes up a variable number of "weeks" to complete it. When it's your turn, you move your marker up the number of weeks appropriate to your action, and then you sit back and wait for your next turn. The player who has advanced the least on the year-long track always goes next. If you take little actions that consume few weeks, you might find yourself taking several turns in close proximity -- or even consecutively. More costly actions take more weeks; you might be able to do something big to net a bunch of victory points, but then you'll find yourself not taking another turn for a little while. It's a very clever system, and provides the real meat in the game.

There is a bit of a drawback, but FKL warned me of this one too. Luck can play a factor in the game, partly in the order that cards come off the deck, but also in how you pull from the excavation bags. Not only might you come up with worthless debris, but different point chips are worth different values. I know it's not at all fair to judge the game on the single play I've now had, but my impression of that one play is that the "luck factor" is perhaps comparable to Settlers of Catan.

In any four-player Settlers game I've ever taken part in, one of the four players just gets shafted by die rolls early on, and can never really recover. He finishes the game with half a winning total of points (or less), and is generally a miserable prop for the other players to wield on their own way to victory. In our three-player game of Thebes, I won with 81 points. Second place was very much in the running with 75. Third place, shafted by bad bag pulls, had barely over 50.

But I will say that I enjoyed the game more than I enjoy a game of Settlers these days. Thebes seems to have a swift enough pace that if luck implodes your game (and it's not necessarily true that it must always hurt some player in every game), you aren't suffering for long. And the fun you seem to have if that doesn't happen more than makes up for it. The clever take on turn sequence, and using "time" as a game resource, is enough to put it over the top for me.

I wouldn't call Thebes a top favorite or anything, but I am looking forward to trying it again. It was definitely a solid recommendation, and I in turn will pass it on to you.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Happy Holidays

I hope everyone has had a pleasant day, whether observing Christmas or otherwise. I spent most of the day at my parents' house, where amazingly, we were actually able to get all the children, their spouses/significant others, and kids all to be there at the same time (juggling other sides of families) long enough to celebrate.

Now I'm off to watched Scrooged. Bill Murray still makes me laugh.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Stolen Time

Last night, I sat down to watch one of Terry Gilliam's earlier films, Time Bandits. No sense in me being coy about it; I hated it.

Actually "no sense" sums it all up for me in a nutshell. The last time I found a movie this incoherent was Buckaroo Banzai (yes, I've abbreviated the full title of that one there). Time Bandits has only the barest thread of a plot, in which a group of thieves uses a map stolen from God that lets them travel through time and space on a crime spree. Caught up in their shenanigans is a young boy pulled from his bedroom one night.

Really, it's all just an excuse to hop into a new movie every 15 minutes or so. There's a chunk about Napolean, quickly supplanted by a bit about Robin Hood, soon tossed away for something with Agamemnon, almost immediately abandoned for a scene on the Titanic, then forgotten in favor of something involving an ogre on a ship at sea that's really a hat on a giant's head.

And some other stuff.

The film is crammed full of visual ideas, but none is connected to the one before or after it. The film is also crammed with some talented actors, A-list, Monty Python regulars, and recognizable faces -- including John Cleese, Sean Connery, Shelley Duvall, David Warner, Katherine Helmond, Ian Holm, and Michael Palin. And none really stands out, since none gets more than 10 minutes of screen time.

Talking briefly about this film with Shocho, I came to realize that I probably just don't like Terry Gilliam movies as much as I thought after all. I've given him the benefit of the doubt for a long, long time, because the first film of his I ever saw was 12 Monkeys, which remains one of my favorite movies to this day; I thought it brilliant on every level.

But since then, I've been bored by Brazil, underwhelmed by The Brothers Grimm, mostly disappointed by The Fisher King, and more. I think 12 Monkeys was an exception to the rule. As a director, Gilliam seems to value presentation and style foremost; character comes a distant second, and plot an even more distant third. Perhaps the original French source material for 12 Monkeys, or its clever adaptation, is what made the difference there.

All I know is, I haven't given a Gilliam film a passing grade since then. And this one rates lower than most for me. It gets a "do not see this" D-. Time Bandits did indeed steal time from me, and I wish I had it back.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Cinematic Revolution

Today, I finally got around to seeing James Cameron's new film, Avatar. In a nutshell, I can understand why he spent 12 years since Titanic preparing to make this movie, pushing for the development of technology to create a film "unlike anything ever seen before."

Because it's actually a movie that's almost exactly like several things we have seen before.

If you strip away all the technological window dressing of Avatar, the movie itself is an incredibly familiar tale of an advanced people threatening a more primitive culture for its own gain. Our Hero is a character who bridges the gap between the two worlds, learning to identify with the natives and being forever changed by the experience.

James Cameron's take on this story is told capably enough, but not exceptionally. Only a few of the characters in this film pop with the crystal clarity of the people of Aliens, The Abyss, or other Cameron films. The dialogue is at times a bit stilted and false. The allegories are heavy-handed and thrust in the audience's collective face.

Fortunately, then, the film does have its technological achievements to steal the focus away from all this. And make no mistake, the movie is an absolute triumph on that front. What's going on in Avatar cannot rightly be called "motion capture"; it truly is performance capture. The aliens of Avatar look absolutely real; there's never even one moment where they don't seem like completely credible.

And the nuances of each actor come through perfectly. The technique is most apparent when watching Sigourney Weaver's performance. We have 30 years of history watching her in films to have a good sense of how she acts; we also see scenes of the actual Weaver performing in this movie. And when the CG-rendered version of her takes over, it's seamless. When you see her CG character perform, it's her, as real as life, and far better than any six-hour makeup application could have achieved.

In fact, so authentic are the performances captured and rendered by this new technology, that you can easily separate the good actors from the not so good. Along with Sigourney Weaver, you get great turns by Zoe Saldana, CCH Pounder, and others; the rather stiff Sam Worthington often seems outclassed.

But I come back to the same place in the end. The movie looks like a million bucks -- well, hundreds of millions -- because it has to. It truly is a revolution for filmmaking techniques; it offers absolutely nothing new as a piece of storytelling.

My senses are overwhelmed enough that ultimately, I still rate this movie a B+, and give it my recommendation. Really, you must go see this in the theater if you plan to see it at all; to see it at home later will only minimize the impact of the major reason to see it.

But I do get the feeling that the movie will not hold up well in the future. I often feel when I watch a classic movie from decades past that the film doesn't hold up to its esteemed reputation. It was inspiring in its time, but others came along to do better later. I think that in a few decades from now, when other movies have followed in Avatar's footsteps -- its glowing, iridescent footsteps -- Avatar will seem to future generations as over-praised.

Though I do look forward to seeing what might be done with this new advancement next.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Fashion Vision

Still getting used to the new glasses. Actually, the thing I can't get used to is that having even the tiniest little bit of anything on the lenses drives me absolutely frakking insane. As I was sitting watching TV the other night, I think I spent about 20 minutes wiping this probably imagined spot off one of the lenses.

And now I find out that apparently, monocles are back in fashion in the UK.

Um... r-iiiiight.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Foxy

No, I have not yet seen Avatar; it is on the "to do" list, though. This past weekend, rather than fight the crowds to see James Cameron's new movie, I took the opportunity to catch up on a recent film that would not be drawing droves of people. I saw director Wes Anderson's new stop motion animated feature, Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Wes Anderson is the man who directed many "slightly off center" movies such as The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Royal Tenenbaums, and Rushmore. Despite the switch away from live action, this film is very much part of the same family as those others. It's just not quite normal.

Based on the book by Roald Dahl, it tells the story of a cunning fox who lives for poaching animals from farms. But when he and his wife get into a tight spot, he promises to change his ways and "go straight." And yet now, years later (that's fox-years), he feels the itch to pull off one last big heist, hitting three area farms controlled by a wicked trio of farmers.

If it sounds a little Ocean's Eleven-esque, that's surely intentional. The movie taps into that sort of breezy, fun vibe at times. And so who else to get to provide the voice of the Fox but George Clooney? He's joined by Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, and Michael Gambon, in a really grand cast. I've heard that the actors improvised a fair amount of their dialogue based around the scene content provided for them, and it does show in the finished product -- in a good way. The characters are all characters, in the sense that they're heightened and a bit larger than life, but they also feel very natural and correct for this world.

But it is a bit of a strange world. The quirky stop motion techniques used in the movie prove a bit distracting at times. All the animal models have very fine, real hair on their faces and bodies. When moved in successive frames to create the animation, it was simply impossible to not disturb the hairs while moving the figures into new poses. As a result, the hairs are flying all over the place in every shot, and do so most distractingly in any close-ups. I'm sure this was intentional, and that some might praise the artistic choice, but I found it a constant barrier to accepting the world of the film as a total reality; the artificiality was too overpowering.

The story is fun, though, if not revolutionary. Though the previews before the movie were a non-stop parade of children's movies, Fantastic Mr. Fox itself did not ever pander down to children. It was a movie made for any age to enjoy. I rate it a B-. Since it's likely on the tail end of its theatrical run anyway, it might not be one to rush out and see. But I would recommend checking it out at the least when it hits DVD.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Not Very Taken

Catching up on movies from earlier this year, I recently watched Taking Woodstock. Directed by Ang Lee, it's a sort of "behind the scenes" look at the lives of the local townsfolk at the site where the Woodstock concert was held.

One of the things that got me interested in seeing the film was its unlikely choice of star: Demetri Martin. Like most people (who've heard of him at all), I first saw him in his occasional appearances on The Daily Show, doing his "Trendspotting" segments. Both there, and in his stand-up comedy special ("Demetri Martin. Person."), I thought he was quite funny. Oddly enough, in his television series, Important Things with Demetri Martin, I found him incredibly unfunny. Hoping to see more of the former than the latter, I was curious to see how he'd be in his first major film role.

Of course, the film isn't really an all-out comedy. There's a current of humor running throughout, but the movie is mostly just trying to create the vibes of the time. So perhaps not surprisingly, the Demetri Martin of this movie was between the two extremes -- he does alright in the film without ever really being exceptional; he elicits an occasional smile, but never an out loud laugh.

There are some other recognizable faces scattered throughout the film, including Imelda Staunton, Emile Hirsch, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Liev Schreiber, and the always-making-a-movie Eugene Levy. None is really exceptional, but all feed into the authenticity of the picture being painted.

But the movie really runs out of having anything to say by about the halfway point. The preparations for Woodstock make for an entertaining plot as the main character slowly comes out of his shell. But when the concert arrives, there's not much left but to see in action things you all already knew went on at Woodstock. (Spoiler! People played in mud and did lots of drugs!) You sense that the filmmakers have affection for the event, but they don't really manage to make you feel it yourself.

So in the end, I give Taking Woodstock a C+. It wasn't quite a disappointment, but it wasn't really anything to recommend either.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Not Bad at All

For a while now, I've heard fantastic things about the TV series Breaking Bad. I like the lead actor in it, Bryan Cranston. I liked Mad Men, another show on the same network.

In case you haven't heard the hype, here's the premise. A high school chemistry teacher is diagnosed with an advanced, terminal lung cancer. Faced with mounting medical bills and concern over leaving his family destitute after his death (with a pinch of "nothing matters anymore anyway"), he connects with a former washed-out student of his and starts cooking crystal meth to earn money. The show is a sharp drama and darkly comedic; it's also a venue where the writers can weave in some social commentary about medical insurance practices, drug culture, and dealing with terminal illness.

And it is a good show. But, in it's first season at least (which is all I've been able to see so far), it doesn't quite measure out to the probably unrealistic expectations I had going into it. While I'd call every one of the seven episodes in the short first season "pretty good," there was really only one that I thought took me on a real emotional ride that matched the intellectual ride of the rest.

I am planning to check out the second season when I can, and I would still recommend the show if you're willing to embrace some tough material. But at the same time, don't let me further add to any hype you may have heard about the show; I don't want to build it up any further. Overall, I'd give season one a B+.

Friday, December 18, 2009

I Want Names!

So, you have to ignore the fact that Jack Bauer changes clothes every other camera angle, but otherwise, this is a funny bit of editing:

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Chess Fever

So, I have to throw some praise in the direction of my friend (and frequent commenter here), FKL. One of the last games I had to play to complete my "play all my board games this year" challenge was one he designed, Proteus.

Nominally, it's a chess variant. In reality, it's really a strategy game with very different elements at play; it just happens to use the movements of chess pieces as an easy access point for the gameplay. You do play on a chess board; each side has 8 pieces instead of 16. Your pieces are six-sided dice with a different chess piece on each side (though a unique piece, "pyramid," is substituted for the king).

You begin with eight pawns. Pieces move as they do in chess. When it's your turn, you must move one die, then rotate a different die to show a new chess piece -- moving it either up one rank or down one rank in value. When you capture your opponent's pieces, you score points according to the value of the piece at that time. (Pyramids can't be captured.)

I really wish I had more occasion to play two-player games, because this one would definitely make it into regular rotation for me if it did. It just has really clever strategy at play. Sudden threats to your pieces can materialize instantly, not only by the standard chess moves you might be used to, but by a sudden morphing of one die into a piece that moves differently.

The game I played (with Sangediver) had a lot of back and forth, with each of us having moments of apparently having a dominating upper hand. Each of us made moves that had the other (and our small crowd of spectators) stopping to say, "wow, that was an impressive move." The game just lends itself to these strategic realizations.

So, thanks for the fun, FKL! Perhaps not coincidentally, it's also the last game I have left to play that I expect to actually enjoy. (Of the few games remaining, it can only be said that I most certainly did not save the best for last.)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A Very Pretty, Dirty Movie

So, what was the inaugural movie on the new TV? Well, it wasn't planned this way, but the movie I happened to have from Netflix at the time (on Blu-ray, even) was Dirty Harry.

It turned out, to my surprise, that this was actually an awesome movie for Blu-ray. Say anything else you want about the movie (and of course, I will in a moment), but it really looks gorgeous. The movie sets out to show off the city of San Francisco, and boy does it accomplish that goal. There are huge panoramas, helicopter shots, crane shots, rooftop shots, epic pullbacks, sweeping city vistas... the works. And on the new TV, I dare say it's about as close as I can imagine to actually being in San Francisco. (Though that is something I'd like to do some day.)

The movie itself didn't really thrill me nearly as much as the visuals, though. I realize that the "sorts of characters" Clint Eastwood is now known for playing is a legacy that actually began here. It doesn't change the fact that watching the film today, Harry Callahan comes off as much caricature as character. I wish I could put myself in the place where "well do ya, punk?" wasn't the worst kind of cliché, but unfortunately it just is.

I'd like to think I could still find a way to forgive all that, though, if the story wasn't so choppy. Principally, the film is supposed to be about the pursuit of a serial sniper, Scorpio (deliberately modeled after the then chillingly recent Zodiac Killer). But for the first half of the movie or so, it plays more like bite-sized nuggets of a Dirty Harry television series. See Harry in a shoot-out on the street. See Harry try to break in a new partner. See Harry talk a jumper off a ledge. Each of these mini-episodes takes five to ten minutes; each feels like it could have been the plot of a TV episode.

The Scorpio aspect really doesn't come front and center until the last half of the movie. It does mostly work, largely thanks to the performance of Andrew Robinson (whom modern Trek fans will know as plain, simple Garak of Deep Space Nine). It's a bit over the top, but somehow believably so. It's all rather predictable, but you can make some allowances for the fact that it's predictable because so many other things since 1971 were copying this.

It's not a bad movie by any stretch, but I find it's basically been outdated. It's coming up on 40 years old soon, and many others have lovingly followed in this movie's footsteps, and upping the ante in doing so. I rate Dirty Harry a C-.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Whole New Kind of Garage Band

It seems like every year, somebody's crazy Christmas light spectacular makes a viral splash on the internet. This year is no different.

Behold! Christmas Light Hero!



For more details on the creation of this display, you can check out this article. But the detail I'm most interested in isn't there: how many different songs does it play? I mean, I'm a fan of Cliffs of Dover. Great song. But if my next door neighbor was blasting it repeatedly for hours on end every night throughout the month of December, I think I'd be ready to jump off the Cliffs of Dover.

Monday, December 14, 2009

New Toy

Tonight came the purpose for which I borrowed the Super Stud Finder in the first place -- I mounted a new LCD television on my living room wall.

It was a somewhat long process, though not especially difficult. In any case, it was a two person job, and fortunately I had a willing victi-- er, assistant.

It involved measuring the stuff out about a hundred times to make absolutely sure we were drilling into the center of the stud, doing it at the right height from the ground, doing it level, etc.

And then the fun really began. First, there was the process of mounting the front speakers to the wall -- they used to just sit on top of the TV.

Then there was an unexpected adjustment of components, due to one measurement I'd not thought to take into account -- the length of one of my sets of cables. It turned out that the super-cables I've been using to pass all my high def signals through was a little too short to make it from the inputs on the TV to the bottom shelf on my meager little entertainment rack, where the audio receiver sat.

And of course, there are about 147 different wires plugged that receiver, which I could figure out how to plug in again correctly, but I really didn't want to. So then began the tedious process of unplugging cables one at a time, passing them through the back of the shelves reconnecting them so that the receiver could sit on top and have enough slack.

The good news is, once all the work was done, the thing worked like a charm, and looks incredible.

But then, technically, the work isn't quite done. I now have an exposed rat's nest of cables on the ground that used to be completely hidden by my old TV. They're now begging for some kind of way to contain them.

There's reprogramming the universal remote to run everything correctly again.

And then there are the head games. Like getting use to walking into my living room from my back hallway and not having that split-second moment of "where did the TV go?" Or quieting that tiny but persistent voice in my head that thinks I might wake up in the middle of the night to the sound of my new TV crashing off the wall and landing on top of all my other components in a Gadgetgeddon. Or getting used to the fact that this thing must be straight on the wall because the level said so, even though it looks like it might be just a tiny bit cocked to the left.

But for a picture that looks like I could climb inside it, I'm sure I'll quickly learn to get over all that stuff.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

A Rude Interruption

I recently watched the movie Girl, Interrupted. It wasn't really that I'd heard great things about the film, but I knew it featured a real powerhouse cast -- including Angelina Jolie, in a role that won her an Academy Award. Besides her, there's Winona Ryder, Clea DuVall, Brittany Murphy, Elisabeth Moss, Jared Leto, Jeffrey Tambor, Vanessa Redgrave, and Whoopi Goldberg. It's a "deep bench."

Unfortunately, they aren't in the service of much. You can see why the film would attract a number of good actors; there are a lot of histrionics, meaty scenes to emote over. Characters have strange quirks and mannerisms that are the sort of challenge that many actors love to try and pull off convincingly. And for the most part, they do.

It's just that there's really nothing to the story here. In the late 60s, Winona Ryder's character is a young woman diagnosed with a vague mental disorder and convinced by her parents to check herself temporarily into a psychiatric hospital. But her temporary stay rolls on for a year as she moves from questioning if she belongs there to truly believing she does.

It's a sort of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest for women, minus the villainous Nurse Ratched. (Whoopi Goldberg's nurse is quite the opposite kind of character.) People bounce off the walls and holler, but the script doesn't set up many truly deep situations, doesn't say anything profound, and doesn't make you feel much of anything.

If you like carefully tuned performances, you might find the film worthwhile. But by the same token, every one of these actors has done superior work in some other film. It'll take you longer to watch all those others, but you'll find it more satisfying in the end. This movie, I rate only a D+.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Risky Business

As I've mentioned a few times, I've been trying to play all the board games I own at least once this calendar year. And as was probably inevitable, it's mostly some real clunkers that have been saved for last.

One of them was Risk, a silly wargame that somehow rides the line between being brainlessly mass market and strangely epic (the damn thing can take three or four hours to play). I'm not sure exactly why, but I bought a copy of Risk several years back.

Well, I have a hunch why. This was a special 40th Anniversary edition of Risk, loaded with hundreds of cast pewter figures to use in your global conquest. I suppose I either thought the miniatures might be good for some other gaming purpose, or that I could possibly turn around and sell the thing at some point. Except that now, it having been in my gaming collection at the time I set this challenge to myself, I was now required to play it.

However I'd never taken it out of the original shrink wrap, and now I kinda didn't want to open it. I mean, it's not worth a small fortune or anything, but a quick check of eBay seems to imply that I probably could cash it in for two or three "real" games if I wanted to go to the trouble.

Fortunately, there was an out. I decided early on in this year-long gaming challenge that I didn't necessarily have to play my copy of every board game I own. I mean, just about everybody I know has a copy of Puerto Rico -- why drag mine over to someone's house when we could just as easily play theirs?

So then came Shocho to my rescue, loaning me his copy of Risk so that I wouldn't have to open mine. If you're wondering why I didn't just play it with him, he'd already sacrificed enough a few weeks back, playing the Lord of the Rings variant of Risk with me. (If you must play Risk, that's the one to go for, in my opinion.)

But I had a plan, another loophole in the challenge to exploit. The goal was for me to play every game in my collection, to its completion. In Risk, players get eliminated along the way. I figured that as soon as I was eliminated, I'd met the "terms" of playing Risk -- if everyone else in the game wanted to bail on it at that point, it made no difference to me.

So, I sat down with four friends last night, the five of us with the goal to play the fastest game of Risk the world has ever seen. Everybody knew the plan: attack me exclusively and mercilessly, and eliminate me from the game as quickly as possible. After that, we could pack up and move on to something actually fun.

There was a little hiccup in the plan, as one of the players had never played Risk before, requiring a quick explanation of the rules. Even as I'm explaining how one turns in sets of three cards to get reinforcement armies, I'm saying, "but if we actually get to this point, something has gone horribly, horribly wrong."

The player to my right went first; I was second. Player one attacked me in all the places he could on his turn, but only bordered me on about one-third of my countries. So then came my turn. ATTACK!!!!!

Regrettably, I did roll well enough on the dice to actually conquer a country or two. But I continued attacking as much as the rules allowed, until I had only one army in all my remaining countries. I tried to get everybody in on this bizarre experience, attacking every one of my opponents at least once so everyone could have a turn at the dice, and a hand in my defeat.

It took until player four's turn, but they took me down. Not counting the time to explain the rules, count out 25 armies for each player, and claim starting countries, I believe the game took less than five minutes.

And then we played something else.

Oddly enough, though our intent was to move onto something "fun," we actually were laughing a lot and had a great time during our quick 15 minute Risk experience. I guarantee that would not have been the case had we been having a more traditional, three-hour-plus Risk experience, but hey... it wasn't so bad after all.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Winter Thaw

Today in Denver, for the first time all week, the temperature finally made it above freezing.

It's been crazy cold here for six days now. One of my co-workers, coming into work early on a morning this week, walked in and found it so cold, he just had to look online at notoriously cold places to see how they compared to Denver that morning. He found that the 7:00 AM temperature of -9 Fahrenheit was at that moment actually lower than the temperature at the North Pole. Damn.

This was also the first day all week that everything in my car worked right. The CD player stops working basically below freezing. Pop in a disc, it'll spin it for a while, give you an error message, and eject it back out at you. I suppose I should finally spring for that new stereo I've sometimes thought about... my MP3 player would not care about such things when I plug it in.

Somewhat more annoying, the washer fluid hasn't sprayed since Monday. I don't think it froze in the tank, but I suspect it froze in the feeder tubes, or perhaps just in the tiny, syringe-size metal openings where it's supposed to come out. Angelic choirs sang tonight as I began my drive home without having to bring a wet paper towel along with my car keys.

Overall though, I'm not complaining. My car actually started every morning this week, even though I park it outside. And it only struggled to start just once, and then only for a moment. Impressive, considering the car's a "California native," having passed from its former owner (FKL!) to me back when I was living in Virginia, a place that would never have to concern itself with this kind of cold. "Bianca," as FKL named the car (and I still occasionally call her), has performed admirably.

But I still say something's off when "at freezing" outside feels nice and warm for a change.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Bird is the Wor---What the Hell Is That?!

The following link contains disturbing imagery and may not be appropriate for all readers...

Behold Oscar, the Bald Parrot, in all his terrifyingly ugliness. Okay, maybe not as horrifying as that famous ugly dog, but still enough to haunt your nightmares.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

A Studly Tale

For reasons not really important to this story, I needed to make use of a stud finder. I don't actually own a stud finder, since I've never had the need to hang anything on my wall that's heavy enough to require a stud.

So first, I asked my theatrical set building friend to borrow a stud finder. She brings one over one night, and we try it on my wall. The thing thinks my entire wall is a stud. A continuous tone beeps from the moment it touches the wall, and stays on no matter where I slide the thing across my wall.

Next, I try my friend who has been doing extensive remodeling of his house over the last several years. Actually... he tells me he doesn't own a stud finder. I suppose that makes sense; when you're actually tearing out walls and/or putting them up, you don't really need to find studs -- you're putting them there in the first place.

BUT... he's some sort of stud whisperer, and can find my studs no problem, he says. So he starts to do that "testing the Trojan Horse" tapping on the wall thing. Tap-tap-tap-tap-taaaAAAP-TAP-TAP. "There's one stud." Yes, I can clear hear that. So how far over to the next one?

Tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap.... uh... tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap... uh... tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap.... No luck.

Suspecting that my wall is neither one continuous stud, nor a big hollow space with only one brace dead center, I ask another friend (Sangediver) to borrow a stud finder.

When the robot uprising occurs, this thing is going to play a crucial role.

First of all, it has a selector switch on the front for studs, metal, or electrical current. It has a digital display that shows you a rough graphic of the stud as you're passing over it, and has text that pops up on screen indicating the "EDGE" or "CENTER" of the stud. And when you do find the stud, a red laser light shines, and a beep sounds clearly.

But wait, it gets better! There's a button on the front that says "Mark." So I pull down on that, and out pops this pencil tip like some kind of bee stinger and pffft! It puts a pencil line on the wall for me.

Stud finder? Nay, I think this thing is the stud.

Anyway... thanks, Sangediver!

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The Lost Same-bull

Last night, I finished reading The Lost Symbol, the newest book from Dan Brown. Just in case the author's plain enough name has slipped your man, this is the follow-up to his megahit, The Da Vinci Code, six years in the making.

Dan Brown has always had a formula. Even though he didn't achieve superstardom with his first three books, they had a certain style to them that was still present even before his breakout book. He writes like an episode of 24, fused with an undergraduate lecture. That is, he writes short, staccato chapters rarely more than four pages long and often less, all engineered to end on a cliffhanger to pull you into the next chapter. (That's the 24 part.) But he also breaks narrative momentum a lot within a chapter to toss away a sometimes-relevant-but-often-not bit of trivia that fascinated him when it came up in his research. (That's the lecture part.)

There's no denying that there's something compulsively readable about the style, and yet his shallow characters and crude prose don't always make for a good book. Despite the popularity of The Da Vinci Code, for instance, his prior book, Angels and Demons, was far better.

But on to The Lost Symbol. That Dan Brown formula I've been writing about? Well, he follows it even more precisely in this book. This book is a virtual carbon copy of The Da Vinci Code, clearly crafted to try and re-capture the lightning in a bottle that was that book. You could almost imagine that Dan Brown died some time in the last couple years, and that some other writer was brought in to finish this book based off his notes -- a writer determined to slavishly, faithfully reproduce a book that Dan Brown would have written.

There's a brutal killer with an usual physical appearance. (The Albino of The Da Vinci Code.) There's another smart woman meant to be the intellectual equal of the main character, Robert Langdon. There's another authority figure trying to chase down Langdon while he tries to unravel the mystery.

And of course, the ever-present encryptions, puzzles, and symbols -- each designed to be first misunderstood one way before Langdon comes in to reinterpret them correctly.

For a while, you can forgive the repetition... there's something initially enjoyable about reading something familiar. But then, somewhere around the halfway point, the book begins a slow but determined journey off the rails. The concepts at play in the book try too hard to court the controversy of The Da Vinci Code, and really aren't that profound. One of the big reveals meant for the climax is blatantly tipped a couple hundred pages in advance. The "it's this; no it's that!" game begins to wear thin.

And perhaps the weirdest thing of all, the climax of the book comes off as almost some sort of strange apology to all the religious folks Dan Brown upset with The Da Vinci Code. Without going into any great detail that might ruin the book for those who want to read it, I think I can safely say that the final resolution of the book paints religion -- particularly Christianity -- in an incredibly favorable light. And yet it's a real backhanded apology, laced with a not at all subtle "you all take things too damn literally."

So all told, I'd have to say I would not recommend reading this book unless you're a major Dan Brown fan. But of course, if you are, you've probably already done so anyway. I'd call it a D+.

Monday, December 07, 2009

The Almighty Tetris

Behold, the truth of what's going on behind the scenes of a game of Tetris.

"How dare you question his methods?!"

"He is punishing this mortal for his hubris!"

"LINE PIECE!"

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Take Amy

I've seen most of Kevin Smith's movies, but one I hadn't watched until recently was Chasing Amy. It was something of a turning point for him, often cited by critics as the first time he reached above simple juvenile humor for something a little more emotional.

That said, he still of course stuffs the movie with his signature patter and vulgarity.

For those who haven't seen it, the movie follows Ben Affleck as his character falls in love with a woman who can't love him back -- she's a lesbian. But his efforts to "just be friends" with her serve only to frustrate himself and his roommate-and-co-worker, played by Jason Lee.

A lot of the movie works. It is funny throughout, and in particular the secondary characters pop, especially "sassy" friend Hooper X. The direct dialogue sets the right mood for uncomfortable laughter; it would have been interesting to watch this one in a theater with an audience.

That said, the lesbian aspect of the plot feels like a gimmick, tossed in there just to A) be controversial; and B) try to inject something unconventional into what is otherwise a very conventional romantic-comedy plot. (He loves her; she doesn't love him.)

It turns out that while this character, Alyssa, seems to be unequivocal about who she is in act one, that starts crumbling in act two and collapses altogether the more the movie advances. Before the movie is done, she no longer feels like a genuine character that's true to herself; she's a device, speaking and acting in ways that feel inauthentic just to progress the plot.

The jokes do keep coming at least. Jay and Silent Bob show up for a one scene cameo, where Kevin Smith gives probably his best performance in any of his movies. There are enough good things about the movie to keep it worthwhile overall, but not enough to cover up the fact that a large chunk of the movie feels false.

I rate it a B-. Not bad, but not Kevin Smith's best.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Kiss the Chef

Tonight was a grand experiment in cooking. If you know me at all, you know that anything resembling cooking is a rarity in my house. I don't like to do it much, and I live alone; cooking for one is a suspect proposition to begin with. I mean, I'm not a frozen dinner sort of person, but I vaguely rotate through a stable of half a dozen things that are all quick and easy to make.

Well, last week when I was seeing my family for Thanksgiving, I saw this cookbook on the counter. Called "Dip Into Something Different," it was a book of fondue recipes from The Melting Pot. My mother and sister told me they'd recently mustered the wherewithal to try a full meal from the book, and it was delicious. And Mom said I could -- should -- borrow the book and give it a shot. Hey, for some reason, I have fondue pot, even though it had only been used once in several years. Why not?

Knowing that I'd have company come over Saturday night, I made plans for the works... a "Zesty Cheddar" dip for breads, a "Teriyaki Marinade" for chicken, and a chocolate dessert fondue for fruit.

This is far and away the most cooking I've ever done in my life. Knowing I wouldn't be at home this afternoon, I had to plan ahead and do some of the prep last night, making the marinade, cubing the chicken and getting that all into the fridge. I was actually peeling garlic, chopping stuff, going through multiple measuring spoons... damn.

Then tonight, for the cheese and chocolate, we're hitting the big time. Every knife in my meager knife block was pressed into use. We're improvising double boilers with my few pots, using multiple small jars of spices I had to buy just for the occasion. Oh yeah, this was cooking.

But man, it was good. Crazy good. If cooking happens to be your thing, then I'd say you should consider checking out this cookbook. The Teriyaki Marinade in particular was one of the best things I've tasted in a long time. (Page 70. I'm sure you could just do kebabs or grill whole fillets if the fondue part of it isn't your thing.)

I can't say the experience made me want to cook again any time soon, but at least it turned out to be worth the effort this time.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Time Out

Earlier this year, I talked about a small, independent movie that was made here in the Denver area, called Ink. (Incidentally, it's now available on DVD. You can even get it from Netflix or watch it instantly on PC or game console or whatever; I'd recommend it.)

Well, before Ink, the same local writer-director made a film called 11:59, which I decided to check out. It's the story of a cameraman for a local "in the field" news reporter who's following the story of a man accused of multiple child murders. Growing ever more jaded even as he's receiving praise for his work, his life is thrown into chaos when he experiences a 24-hour period of missing time and awakens in an empty field a hundred miles outside the city. Soon he finds that even more alarming than his unaccounted-for day are all the horrible things that transpired during that time. And things get still more twisted from there.

This film and Ink seem to form a pattern, in as much as it's clear that as a filmmaker, Jamin Winans is interested in films that try to walk the line between science fiction and drama. Ink skews more toward the former. This film skews more to the latter. The missing time is a narrative device to tell a different story; it's not quite the story itself.

Again, as with Ink, the director knows how to make his limited budget stretch a long, long way. This movie almost never looks like it was made on the cheap. There's extensive location work used to give the film a grand scope, and it's all pretty to look at. (Even if us Denverites can occasionally recognize moments where two camera angles meant to be the same location were actually filmed in two very different places.)

What exposes the small-time truth, unfortunately, is the acting. The lead, Raymond Andrew Bailey, gives it all he's got, and does a great job. But almost every other role in the film feels like it was cast at the local dinner theater. Okay, it's a completely Denver-made film, so some it may literally have been cast at the local dinner theater. But I can say from my experiences attending plays here in the city that there are many gifted actors here. The ones in this film don't represent that cream of the crop. Line deliveries are stilted, emotions feel forced, everyone just feels a little shy of reality.

Add to this that occasionally, the film gets a little too caught up in style. There's a little too much awkward jump cutting as conveyor of disorientation, a handful of scenes that go on too long, and a few slow patches in the pacing.

But the story is interesting, and the main actor does carry it all off well enough that if you like Ink, you might want to check this film out too. Still, this is definitely the lesser of the two. I'd rate it a C+.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Intelligence Terminated

So, I'd been warned (and by people whose opinion I trust) that recent movie Terminator Salvation was bad. It was a strong enough warning that I passed on it while it was in the theater a few months ago.

But this week it arrived on DVD, and when you can just toss it in your Netflix queue... well, I don't know about you, but somehow tossing one bad movie in doesn't seem terrible; it feels like you're getting it for "free" or something.

And I mean, what a cast! Christian Bale, Helena Bonham Carter, Anton Yelchin, Bryce Dallas Howard, Michael Ironside. I've liked all of them -- a lot -- in other movies. This movie couldn't be completely devoid of entertainment value, could it?

Well, it wasn't. But it was devoid of intelligence. This is the biggest, dumbest Terminator movie yet, and while some people might jump in quickly and say, "well what more do you expect from a Terminator movie?" the answer is simply, "more." The franchise did not start out that way. The first two movies were action movies, yes, but smart action movies. There was a logic to character behavior that naturally led from one action sequence to the next. And underlying all that, just a hint of a dramatic message to lend another texture to the proceedings.

Terminator Salvation is just about blowin' stuff up. And make no mistake, it looks pretty. The CG is impeccable. The Terminators are rendered with complete credibility -- that includes one particular Terminator that I knew was going to be in the movie and fully expected to look fake. It honestly didn't.

But no matter how beautiful the action is, it really needs to make sense. And the scenes have to have a connective tissue that makes sense too. The logic of Terminator Salvation gets more tortured the longer the movie goes on. And if you don't want to know any specifics, you might as well skip on to the last paragraph here, because explaining what I mean is going to require revealing chunks of the plot.

What exactly does Skynet know? Given that Kyle Reese is #1 on their hit list, it would seem they must know that he is in fact John Connor's father. So I cannot fathom any reason why they wouldn't kill him five times over, given the chance. So in this movie, Skynet actually catches Reese, and what does it/they do? They hold him prisoner so they can lure John Connor to their base... to kill John. Ummm... do they not realize that they can kill John Connor -- instantly -- by killing Kyle Reese?

Then there's the whole Marcus Wright Terminator subplot. While it paves the way for a bunch of awesome special effects, and actually lends the movie its only scenes of anything like genuine emotion -- it makes no damn sense. We're meant to accept that the only reason Terminator after Terminator has failed to kill John Connor is because all of them knew they were Terminators?

Not that the human motivations in this movie make any more sense. Even if you accept that the Blair Williams character wouldn't empty her clips into Marcus the second she found out he was a Terminator, there's just no possible way to believe that John Connor wouldn't. And yet he does, just to move the plot along.

Yes, the movie looks incredible. And it's stuffed to the rafters with beautiful visuals and thunderous noise... which still doesn't amount to enough to switch off my brain. I'd rate it a C-. And I can't say I wasn't warned.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Flock You

Some folks in Scotland supposedly snapped this picture of a flock of birds flipping the "them":



Even if it's Photoshopped, it's awesome.

No real additional information can be found here.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Some Kind of Wonderful

December has arrived, so the run-up to Christmas is on. (I know, if you're a retail store, you think the run-up began at least a month ago.) I thought it appropriate to kick it off by checking out a Christmas classic that somehow, amazingly, I'd never watched before -- It's a Wonderful Life.

Naturally, though I'd never seen the movie, I was well aware of the plot in advance. It turned out that this made watching it a rather frustrating experience, due to the extremely odd pacing of the story. You might just chalk that up to the cinematic conventions of 60 years past, but I think it runs a little deeper than that.

You all know It's a Wonderful Life, right? A suicidal man is visited by an angel who shows him the impact of his life by whisking him into a world where he was never born.

Actually, not so much. That doesn't actually happen until over 90 minutes of the film have gone by, and barely more than half an hour remains. It's the last act of the movie. The rest of the movie is a glacially paced biography of the man's life, covering everything from childhood to adolescence, early adulthood to family man. It's a span of three or four decades and at times feels every minute of that.

Now, make no mistake, when the "real movie" finally does arrive in act three, it's pretty fantastic -- no allowances for the passing years necessary. The redemption of the protagonist is powerful, emotional, and engaging. And yes, to a large extent, you really do have to know about the man's history for some of this stuff to land appropriately.

And yet, I can't help but wonder if 90 minutes of exposition is strictly necessary, or if this was really the best possible presentation of it. At times in the climax, this format leads to moments where we're told things rather than shown them. Despite the fact that hero George Bailey is interacting with an alternate reality, the biggest revelations are simply told to him by the angel Clarence. He hear how George's brother died as a child without George there to save him; we don't see this. We hear about how the family business imploded years ago; we don't see it.

I wonder if we could have seen most of this long history of George Bailey as it occurred the "second time around," George there to witness firsthand the consequences of him not being there.

Too much like A Christmas Carol, perhaps?

In any case, I found It's a Wonderful Life to be an excellent 30 minute movie tacked at the end of a tedious 90 minute movie. James Stewart is solid throughout, with an acting style much more natural than most of the cast around him. That and the film's sterling reputation was enough to pull me through to the final act; otherwise, I might have bailed before I got to the good part.

Overall, I'd rate the movie a C+. In several senses, I think it could have been a lot better.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Turn On the Heat

When I sat down to watch the film Body Heat recently, I didn't realize just how many films were directly inspired by it. I mean, I've heard about the film here and there before -- that's basically what made me decide to watch it. But I'd never really heard it talked about as an influential film.

But there it was, a movie that just as many subsequent films tried to imitate as any conventionally praised classic. You could almost call it the Citizen Kane of "sexy thrillers." I could recognize elements later used in Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct, and countless others, all appearing earlier in this film from 1981.

Not that Body Heat was a masterpiece or anything. A lot of the dialogue was ham-fisted, awkward, or just plain silly. The plot was predictable every step of the way (perhaps in part due to how oft-imitated it's been). Some of the performances from actors in secondary roles -- such as Ted Danson's horny prosecuting attorney -- are too outrageous to be believable.

But a lot of the movie does work. There's something very authentically film noir about the entire piece; and that being a genre I've typically not much enjoyed, the fact that I found anything to like here should be taken as high praise. That predictable plot I mentioned manages also to be engaging. And the lead performances from William Hurt and Kathleen Turner really are excellent. They have an undeniable chemistry together, and each also presents an interesting individual character.

Some call this movie one of the "sexiest ever made." I'm not sure I'd go that far, though I'll admit the first act is borderline porno (certainly for a mass market movie of the time), just with more plot and less explicit photography. But it settles into something deeper as it goes on to tell a story of intrigue and conspiracy that did keep me entertained. I rate it a B-.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Bigger is Better?

I saw this ad in a magazine I was reading. It's for Stephen King's newest book, Under the Dome.

I found it curious that the selling point they chose to go with was "His biggest book since The Stand." As though "it's really long" is going to be a big attraction to most people. Could they not find any reviewer to offer a quote that it was maybe his best book since The Stand? Now that might be something to talk about. (Maybe. The end of The Stand really sucked.)

Come, read this new book! And afterward, you can sit your toddler on it to eat at the grown-ups' table!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Children and Animals

Generally speaking, nobody does animated movies as well as Pixar. But I'd heard that Bolt (whose development began before Disney officially purchased Pixar) came about as close as it can. And given that I was a little muted in my enthusiasm for Pixar's Cars, I'd say that yes, it's true -- Bolt is a movie that does just manage to get as good as at least the worst Pixar film, anyway.

Damning with faint praise, I know, but that was the basic feeling I had watching the movie. It wasn't bad. It was entertaining at times. But there were also little flaws strewn about here and there that as a sum subtracted from the whole.

Some of the animation was fantastic; other times it was a bit statue-like and stilted. The backgrounds often felt a little weak -- it's still hard for CG to replicate a real environment that one knows well, and for example, the scenes set in New York and Las Vegas were too real to be stylized, but too fake to be credible.

There's great voice work in the movie from Susie Essman, Malcolm McDowell, Greg Germann, Diedrich Bader, and animator Mark Walton (voicing the hamster Rhino). But they're mostly secondary roles. The movie is carried by John Travolta and Miley Cyrus, who are both merely alright.

The story feels a bit dumbed down somehow, playing to an audience of children in a way I feel Pixar films never do. And yet, it's not like it's a dull or uninteresting story. It's just too light to really pack much of a punch. But there are more than a few decent laughs, and overall the movie does hit all the beats it should, even if you'd wish it to sometimes do so more effectively.

I'd rate Bolt a B-. It's not a bad way to spend 90 minutes, but I'm also glad I don't have a child who wants to watch it twelve times a week.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Artistic Differences

I have never cared one bit for modern artist Jackson Pollock. (A sample of the style he is best known for is displayed there at the right, which you can click to enlarge if you choose.) But I am a fan of Ed Harris, both as an actor and a director. Having liked his only other directorial effort, Appaloosa, I decided to try his earlier film, Pollock, despite my dislike of the subject matter.

I would never have thought it possible, but seeing the movie made me like Jackson Pollock even less. The movie wants to paint the picture (pun not intended) of the man as some sort of tortured genius, but convinced me no more of his genius than I (dis)believed before, and seemed to show that most of the torture was of his own making.

Jackson Pollock did struggle somewhat to get going, but it's not like he was unappreciated in his time. He hit it big and enjoyed many years both wealthy and famous. He didn't have to fight in World War II. He met and married a woman who completely supported him in all his artistic efforts, and was a painter herself and could understand and appreciate the man's work.

And, of course, he became famous when he decided to start hanging his drop cloths on the wall. (A discovery which the film doesn't really praise for being any more than the accident it surely was.) So while he was poor for a few years -- at a time when many people were -- he lived a relatively charmed life.

But he was still a morose and unhappy drunkard who whined about being unappreciated, bemoaned having any other artists other than himself held in any critical esteem, and was a generally unlikeable fellow.

So, on the one hand, I suppose you can praise Ed Harris the director for leading Ed Harris the actor in a warts-and-all performance that doesn't really make the character very sympathetic. But it doesn't make it understandable either, and there is the first of many faults I lay with the script.

The script really just made me ask, what's the point? If you're interesting in art history, you could read a biography of Jackson Pollock. I didn't find this story to present anything worthy of dramatizing it. Really, it doesn't actually dramatize it at all. It's a rather dry biography of events over a 15 year period of the man's life, and doesn't seem to take any point of view on it at all that I could discern. It was just a narrator and a few inserted still photographs shy of being a documentary; it was certainly as dry as a bad one.

Along with Ed Harris' emotional performance, Marcia Gay Harden does strong work as Pollock's wife. Several other recognizable actors pop up for very minor roles, including Jennifer Connelly, Val Kilmer, Amy Madigan, and Jeffrey Tambor. But while I believe from the intensity of their performances (and often, the volume of their yelling) that they are really feeling something, they didn't make me feel anything but boredom. Again, that awful dry script just wasn't giving them anything to work with.

I find it peculiar that Ed Harris chose this of all things to be his directorial debut. And I wonder if that had anything to do with the eight years that passed before he'd direct another film. This was just a text book case of many talented people working tirelessly to try and squeeze blood from a stone. I rate it a D-.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving to my American readers. Among the things I'm thankful for is that this didn't happen to me: a Belgian man spent 23 years unable to move, misdiagnosed as being in a comatose, vegetative state. In actuality, he was aware of everything going on around him for the entire time.

Perhaps it's a lack of imagination on my part, but I can't imagine much worse than this. In fact, isn't this the premise of some horror short story or something? I think I remember some Stephen King something-or-other about a paralyzed man being autopsied while he was still alive. Okay, so no one started cutting on this poor Belgian man, but still... conscious for 23 years and completely unable to interact with the world? Yeah, that's hell right there.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

This Movie Stinks

At work recently, a friend with whom I frequently discuss movies says to me, "I've got something for you to check out -- it's called Perfume." (He went on to clarify that of the multiple movies titled Perfume, he meant the one subtitled "The Story of a Murderer.") But he was a bit cagey about the recommendation. "I don't really want to tell you what it's about, you should just see it."

Well, that friend has had a bit of a checkered past recommending movies to me, but lately he's been on a bit of a hot streak, so I decided to take the plunge with no further information.

I'm not sure it was necessary to be that vague about the subject of the movie, but similarly, I don't want to reveal to much to you, if you're inclined after reading this to check the movie out yourself. I'll simply say that it's a story set in France several hundred years ago, following a strange man born with a supernaturally acute sense of smell. And he ends up embarking on a dark and twisted journey in an effort to learn how to permanently capture and preserve a scent.

The star of the movie is an actor named Ben Whishaw, whom you probably don't know. But the movie is sprinkled with a few familiar faces you surely will, including Dustin Hoffman and Alan Rickman. While there is definitely a specific plot to the film, the emphasis is really more on drawing sharp, defined characters -- even if most of them (all of them?) aren't really likable or even relatable.

It's directed by Tom Tykwer, most famous for making Run, Lola, Run. Here he takes on a unique challenge in trying to give a powerful portrayal to one of the five senses that is not literally captured on film -- smell. The results aren't always completely successful, but there are some inspired moments of dreamscape-like environments, and others of unusual camera techniques, designed to convey the powerful sensations that can be aroused by smell.

While the plot is interesting, the film does tend to linger a bit too long in each "chapter" of the story. A somewhat tighter pacing might have helped keep the audience from anticipating the story. Still, I found it a very enjoyable piece overall. I rate it a B. If you don't mind some truly dark material in your entertainment, you'd probably find it worth your time.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Birthd-eye

Happy birthday to me! Guess what I got for my birthday this year?

Astigmatism!

I don't go to the doctor too much. I'm a complete wuss about medical stuff. Throw all the fake movie gore on the screen you want, but it doesn't take much in real life to get me all dizzy and light-headed. It has nothing to do with the actual doctor or fear of the profession; I just can't take medical procedure. Even the basic stuff. I once got light-headed when someone took my blood pressure.

Anyway, in the last couple of months or so, I'd really begun to notice that my vision at far distances just didn't seem to be what it used to. Last time I'd been checked (an embarassingly long time ago), I had better than average vision, so I was really feeling a bit disoriented at the sense of image "ghosting" I was feeling at distances -- particularly at night.

So I started poking around with some friends, asking if they'd recommend their eye doctor. It was a little bit of a hard sell in a few cases, trying to convince people that I really thought there might be something wrong with my eyes when I was complaining about not being able to read things at distances that had them saying things like "I just got my prescription filled two weeks ago, and I can't read that." But I finally decided to go with Shocho's recommendation, and got checked out yesterday.

It was a little touch and go there for a bit. Even though the doctor was really great, wasn't doing anything serious, and I completely understood that 100% on an intellectual level, my strange reaction kicked in and we had to have a couple moments of "I need to just lie down for a minute." But when we were all done, the verdict was in: I'm slightly near-sighted, and have a slight astigmatism.

So my one-day-early birthday present to myself was my first pair of glasses. The theory is they're not "all the time" glasses, but then the doctor said I'm meant to use them for things like nighttime driving and going to the movies, and if he knew me as well as some of you here do, he'd know that could well be most of the time. (grin)

Those of you who have had glasses for a while may not be able to recall or appreciate what a truly surreal experience it is buying your first pair of glasses. How do you even begin to know what you like? I must have tried on a hundred pairs and drove the nice woman at the doctor's office completely batty.

The extra funny bit of it was that I ended up going with the very first pair I tried on. When I came back from the exam room, this woman tells me that she likes to think ahead about what sorts of glasses might look on people, "just in case," and that she was thinking about this one for me. And she was right on the money, because though I put on virtually every set of glasses in the place, each one was worse than the last.

Of course, with Thanksgiving chewing up half the week here, I have to wait a little extra time before I actually get my new glasses. And it's funny how that's already having a subtle little impact on the way I'm thinking about things. I was driving home late last night, and thinking that somehow things at a distance were looking even a little less crisp that just the day before. I'd been thinking about going to see a movie this weekend, but now a little part of me is going... "meh, maybe I'll just stay home and watch a DVD instead."

All over what I'm sure many of you would think was barely noticeable. What can I say... you just get used to seeing things a particular way. And I'd like it back, thank you.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Rating Places

Figuring that I would need something lighter after In the Valley of Elah, I decided to check out Trading Places -- an 80s comedy that had somehow slid through the cracks. As one of my friends put it, it's a movie from back in the days when "those two guys were funny."

The guys in question, of course, being stars Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy. They star as a pampered rich brat and struggling homeless man who become the object of a bet by two old, stingy curmudgeons who want to determine if financial success is a result of breeding and genetics, or of simple circumstance and social advantage. They contrive to do exactly what the title suggests, ruining the life of Aykroyd's character and elevating Murphy's into high status.

It is a funny movie at times, but it rarely produces any laugh out loud moments. Still, that's more a weakness of the script that the actors, I think. This sort of "I know more than you" pompous ass is what Dan Aykroyd did best at this point in time, and Eddie Murphy's brand of comedy (in my opinion) works a lot better when he's sharing the movie with someone else -- all Eddie all the time wears you down pretty quickly.

There's also the always funny character actor Denholm Elliott as a put-upon butler, Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche as the two gambling with people's lives, and Jamie Lee Curtis as a self-enterprising prostitute who becomes an ally of Aykroyd's character. They bring more to the film than is there on the page... which frankly isn't much on its own.

Indeed, the "swapped places" gimmick is exhausted almost immediately, and the movie even resolves it by the end of the second act. The final act is an elaborate revenge scheme full of strange diversions both boggling (what's with the whole gorilla subplot?) and crass (was society still accepting of blackface in 1983 in any context other than historical portrayal or "this is not okay"?). The conclusion throws away logic in favor of a feel-good resolution, and erodes a good deal of what made the movie enjoyable for the first hour and change.

It's not a total bust, but neither would I call it a high point of either Aykroyd or Murphy's career, as I've sometimes heard. I'd rate it a C+.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Elah Review

I've had In the Valley of Elah on my "Netflix stack" for over a week now, but I've been putting off watching it until I was in the right mood. I was warned by a friend that after seeing it, "you'll need a hug." It took until today for me to decide to embrace a movie that was that much of a downer.

It turns out it's probably not that grim -- but it's certainly a long way from anything nice. It's the story of the father of a soldier who has come back from a tour of duty in Iraq and has gone missing from his army base. The father, played by Tommy Lee Jones, was a soldier himself many years ago, and sets out on a parental crusade to find out what happened to his son.

More than the specifics of the plot, the movie is really an anti-war movie, in that it shows the psychological toll on soldiers after they return from the battlefield. But to the detriment of the film, I think it really only "bookends" the two hours with this message. The movie starts strong, and ends very strong with the points it wants to make.

In the middle, however, it sort of loses its way -- at least, thematically. The lion's share of the movie is really just a version of a TV crime procedural drama, a mostly plot-driven affair that follows the father as he investigates the fate of his son. The message usually gets set aside in favor of a straight-up telling of the tale.

But it is at least interesting the whole time, and that's thanks largely to the quality cast. Charlize Theron and Jason Patric play key roles; Susan Sarandon appears as the missing soldier's mother; James Franco and Josh Brolin appear in what amount to cameo roles -- but both are effective. They're all led by director Paul Haggis, who helped the characters of the labyrinthine movie Crash pop, and he does the same here. They're sometimes just relegated to walking us through the evidence, but they do have personalities.

Ultimately, the movie does get to a good place, and is worth seeing overall. But I would have wished for it to be a little more even throughout. I rate it a B-.