Saturday, February 28, 2009

A Star Performance

Recently, I had the chance to see the movie Changeling. Of the two movies Clint Eastwood directed last year, this was the one he did not star in. Instead, Angelina Jolie stars in a role for which she was nominated for an Academy Award, and John Malkovich appears as a supporting character.

Set around the early 1930s, the movie tells the story of a single mother whose son goes missing one day while she's gone at work. Months later, the Los Angeles police contact her with the happy news they've recovered the 10-year-old boy. But at the reunion, the woman is shocked to find the child is not actually her son at all. And no one, least of all the seemingly corrupt police force, seems to believe her.

You may have become accustomed to seeing Angelina Jolie in lightweight action fare such as Mr. and Mrs. Smith or Wanted, but not so long ago, she won an Oscar for "Girl, Interrupted." This movie was a reminder that hey, she can actually act. And she really does here. On the page, this film would rest entirely on her character, succeeding or failing with the quality of the actress' performance. Angelina Jolie rises to the challenge. It's a deeply emotional performance with many peaks and valleys, and very compelling to watch.

Clint Eastwood directs a completely authentic period piece here, and captures good performances from the other actors in his cast, too. There's clever staging and framing, neat use of themes -- many marks of a well-thought out movie.

The script was written by J. Michael Straczynski -- that's the creator of Babylon 5, as I probably don't need to remind the geeks out there. And if you watched Babylon 5, then you probably know that as a writer, "JMS" can be very hit and miss. He can be capable of some of the most transcedent highs of storytelling, and almost within the same scene, can deliver the most tin-eared dialogue you'll find this side of a Sci-Fi Channel Original Movie. Fortunately, he's more in the mode of the former this time. Admittedly, the writing is not the strongest suit of this movie, but it is good nevertheless.

There are a couple flaws here and there, though. The pacing is a bit off at times. The story, by necessity, is spread out across a period of time, and the jumps in time are occasionally lacking in continuity. Different times sometimes come with themes almost different enough to feel like they come from different movies.

And then there's, frankly, the wasting of John Malkovich. He plays his part well, but it's a part that an actor of his skills perhaps ought not to be playing. He has very little screen time, and isn't given much to do with what he has other than play a "white knight" for the main character.

Still, it is that main character (and the performance of Angelina Jolie) that is really what this movie is all about, and the reason to see it. And it should be seen. I rate it an A-. It's a very well done piece.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Someone to Watch Over Me

It took tonight's Battlestar Galactica 45 broadcast minutes to get to a great 15 minutes at the conclusion of the episode.

The plot thread of Kara Thrace trying to come to grips with seeing her own dead body could have been interesting, except that it didn't really lead to any meaningful revelation or emotional payoff this week. Anyone who didn't see the reemergence of All Along the Watchtower by episode's end really hasn't been paying attention to the show this season; that hardly counts as revelation.

It seemed like the Boomer/Tyrol thread wasn't really going anywhere, either. There were a few nice beats in remembering back to their relationship back in the first season, but nothing too extraordinary. It kind of seemed like this week would be a total wash.

But then there was the final act, where some serious drama started playing out. There were a lot of horrifying notions. Helo, a husband unable to tell that the woman he was making love to was not his wife. Boomer, coldly exploiting a past relationship with Tyrol, a man she actually did have feelings for at the time. A small child being abducted from her parents. Regardless of the mythological significance of Hera, or what her abduction means for the plot, these were all just some terrible events to behold and contemplate. And there, once again, is what Galactica seems to do best -- portray awful events, and deal truthfully with the emotional aftermath.

I wish the pacing had been better leading up to that conclusion, but I do think it redeemed what would have been another less powerful episode in this final run of 10.

Three to go...

What Alcohol Can Make You Do

Those of you who keep tabs on the weekly downloadable songs for Rock Band may already be aware that next week, the long-ago announced Stevie Ray Vaughan album, Texas Flood, is being released in its entirety.

From a gameplay perspective, the album is notable for having three instrumental tracks. Several months back, the Rush album Moving Pictures brought the first instrumental song to the game, YYZ. There's no part for the vocalist, not even microphone-tapping tamborine. You can't play with a singer in your band.

That did not stop this guy from trying to find a way around that, playing the Guitar Hero II version:

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Life and Death of Jeremy Bentham

Tonight's was a compelling episode of Lost, covering the time between Locke's turn of the "Frozen Donkey Wheel" and the events of his death.

For me, the highlights were the many great character moments sprinkled along the way. That first moment when Abaddon takes out a wheelchair for Locke to use; the moments of confrontation with the Oceanix Six (particularly Kate and Jack); arriving at Helen's grave. And of course, most powerful of all, Locke's moment of complete loss. His total and self-doubt, and readiness to commit suicide, was as powerful a moment for the character since we first learned of his disability back in the first season. (And was a dramatic mirror for Jack's sudden conversion to faith.)

More mysteries mounted, and mostly of the character sort. It is now murkier just what went down between Ben and Widmore to put them at odds. At the same time, it seems more clear than ever that neither one is either all "good" or all "evil," but each is spouting so many lies that it's impossible to find the truth beneath it all. The true pasts and motivations of these two men are to me perhaps the most compelling mystery of the show right now.

Speaking of Ben's motivations, we were treated to a most cryptic scene tonight. Ben pleaded in earnest to save Locke's life, but the moment he learned that Locke knew of Eloise, it was time to murder instead. I suppose it remains to be seen whether Ben actually knew that Locke would be resurrected; just how much of Eloise's plan to return the group to the Island did he actually know? Or did Ben really think he was doing away with Locke? And if so, why did he want to? Very interesting stuff for the weeks ahead.

As far as mysteries of a more technical level, it appears the entire plane ridden by the group on their return trip did crash on the Island after all. Strangely, it seems, intact. And some of "our people" were snatched up in the "time hopping" flashes of light. But not Ben, not Lapidus, and (surprisingly?) not Locke. Instead, they all appear to be in the present with a fresh batch of Island arrivals. How much will the series have to show us about these people? Are there fresh back stories waiting that might be as compelling as some of that great season one material? Can the writers juggle it well with the tales of the characters we really care about, the ones who have been with us all this time?

I'm getting into it now.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

It's On Like... Well, You Know

Tonight, I watched the documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. It follows two men, one an established competitive gamer with a three decade pedigree, another a down-on-his-luck family man, each competing for the record high score at Donkey Kong.

In its short 80 minutes, this documentary covers a lot of ground, and is a surprisingly emotional experience.

In the first segment, you get a look at the world of competitive gaming, old school style. People competing for record scores on coin-op arcade machines of the early 80s. Some might find it a little odd. Others might find it hitting close to home. For myself, I found it fascinating just how similarly these people who take this so seriously are to people who take sports seriously -- yet mainstream society finds the sports "fetish" completely socially acceptable, and puts people like this on the fringe.

In this opening segment, the film really makes you understand how freaking hard the game Donkey Kong really is. Of course, if you're the sort of person inclined to read my blog, you've probably played it a few times yourself, and don't need me to tell you that. It's silly-hard for a simple arcade game, and this documentary does a credible job of putting it at the absolute pinnacle of 80s arcade skill tests.

Then, enter the challenger, a man who tries to beat the record score that's held for 25 years. He's doing it just cause he thinks he can, and doesn't have much else going for him that he feels he can "prove himself" with. Unfortunately for him, the man who buys his machine to practice on in his garage happens to be someone with a long standing feud with the existing record holder, and is "staking" this unknown to stick it to his arch-rival.

And then things take a really unsettling turn.

The documentary becomes a real underdog story, as the established champion and his buddies who have control over the authentication of video game records act deplorably. They become a sort of despotic evil empire bent on self-preservation, holding the little turf they staked out. It comes off every bit as wicked as any governmental or corporate corruption you've read about, as unjust as any "little guy taking on big industry" court case you've heard of.

And just as surely as any carefully-crafted piece of good fiction gets you all but on your feet cheering for the protagonist, I found myself absolutely on the edge of my seat, screaming at my television for this underdog to pull through and stick it to this bunch of bullies.

Now, you might argue that this a manipulation of the documentary, presenting a one-sided case. To that, I have two responses. First, watch the film. Watch the way everyone acts. I have no reason to think the editors are withholding footage that might make this little cabal more likeable than they appear. And secondly, so what if it is a manipulation? A documentary film is still a film, and as such I think it still has a duty to the audience to entertain. "You'll laugh, you'll cry." Fiction is acceptably manipulative in achieving such ends, why shouldn't a documentary be?

Quite simply, I loved this movie. About the only mark I could make against it is in regards to its ending. I'll try and be as cirumspect about this as I possibly can, because I don't want to blow it for any of you. I hope it vague enough to say that the film doesn't quite offer closure. Of course, that's not always possible when your story is one of real life events. But as a piece of entertainment, it is a small "deduction" from the overall score.

Still, I'd rate The King of Kong an A-. I was thoroughly entertained, and I think you would be too.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Day 7, 5:00-6:00 PM

It's an affair and it's treason. My, they are naughty.

Sean's gonna do a "bounce tap." That sounds naughty, too.

Apparently, terrorists drive Jeeps.

The car chase is on! Cue the rock music!

You know, I once owned a Taurus. So did my friend Roland Deschain. We both agree, Tauruses cannot do that kind of stuff.

Well, it used to be a Zippy Taxi.

Mere product placement isn't enough for Cisco. They're doing a commercial advertising their product placement.

They "don't know who in the government can be trusted." Isn't that pretty much a normal day in Washington?

Now Jack's threatening the paramedics with a gun.

And he goes digging in some strange terrorist's guts without putting on gloves. You don't know where he's been, Jack!

Dubaku apparently gets his ideas on where to keep things safe from watching The Fifth Element.

Erika gets so hot when Sean starts talking about reconfiguring motherboards.

I'm damn glad Chloe was able to recover the deleted files. Because you can buy software at Best Buy that recovers deleted files.

I don't want to work at a place where I have to go back to work and type up a report right after I get shot in the arm.

Wait, the sisters are named Marika and Marisa? Lazy parents in that family.

The First Daughter arrives at the White House. Sadly, no Aaron Pierce.

The President doesn't want to go down this road with her daughter. Not today. Maybe next season, then.

Tony shows up, bragging of a great adventure he's had over the last few hours. But not one so great that it would have been worth actually showing us.

Ah, it's the classic "finish one bad guy, bring in another" formula that 24 uses every season. Not that we'd be surprised anyway. We know from Redemption that we still have the Candyman and Lara Croft's dad to get through.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Annual Oscar Snark

Interesting, the band gets to be on stage this year instead of down in a hole like usual.

Gotta love Robert Downey Jr. clapping for himself.

Okay, the opening number was great. The whole "made in my garage" motif was hysterical. (Particularly the Benjamin Button segment.)

Is Tilda Swinton wearing a toga?

Penelope Cruz breaks into Spanish, and the guy on the "tape delay censorship" button doesn't know what to do.

Tina Fey and Steve Martin are awesome. But I'm not supposed to fall in love with him.

The winners of the writing awards always (as expected) have the best speeches. The writer of Milk is no exception this year.

And the Slumdog Millionaire locomotive leaves the station...

In the animated short category, a French film by Asian filmmakers? Interesting.

I'm so tired of seeing the Twilight couple. Buffy stakes Edward. The end.

Ben Stiller's riff on Joaquin Phoenix was awesome. But Philip Seymour Hoffman, in his weird stalker beanie, looks almost as weird.

As one of my friends noted, the Slumdog Millionaire cinematographer has "douche hair."

Another toga on Jessica Biel.

Another song and dance number? It seems this year's strategy is that the awards will be just as long as ever, but they'll be "doing more" during them.

They got Cuba Gooding Jr. to present. Cause he wasn't doing anything. (Other than flushing his career down the toilet.)

Check out the comically large ring on Angelina Jolie's finger.

What's with the Cro-Magnon teeth on that one documentary filmmaker?

The "Action movie" montage is a showcase of motion blur.

Are these the "Craig's List Dancers" again during the Best Original Song segment? Because they're not at all in synch with each other. Hugh Jackman asks, "How great were they?" Answer: not so much.

Clearly an upset in the Foreign Film category, since it seems like it takes the cameramen several seconds to even figure out where the winners are sitting.

Charlton Heston clearly loses in the "Memoriam Applause Contest."

Reese Witherspoon's eye makeup makes her look like a raccoon.

Danny Boyle thanks everyone in Mumbai that didn't help make the film too? Geez.

Every time they put one of the nominees in the little window, the Kung Fu Panda is very distractingly placed right below them.

Sophia Loren reminds me of the movie Brazil.

What's with Adrian Brody's hair? Is he playing Jesus in some movie right now?

At least Sean Penn realizes he's an asshole.

Truest statement of the night comes from the producer accepting Best Picture for Slumdog Millionaire. The screenplay inspired "mad love." I would certainly use the word "mad."

From the montage over the end credits, apparently there are two movies with Amelia Earhart coming this year. Spoiler alert: she dies.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Return to the Dollhouse

What can I say about week two of Dollhouse? Well, I did think it was a pretty significant improvement over the premiere last week. The storyline was more compelling, there were more moments of character development, and a sprinkle more of the pithy dialogue I like to see in a Joss Whedon show. But it still wasn't "great."

Moreover, the ratings were down -- and they weren't all that high to begin with last week. So I already find myself wondering if Dollhouse will even get the chance to keep growing creatively, as it seems it will. I hope so. But if it doesn't, I suppose there's some consolation in knowing it won't be the devastating loss that Firefly was.

But if I should soon find myself lacking in quality Joss Whedon television, I can try to console myself by watching this, all of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in just over three minutes.

Friday, February 20, 2009


Tonight's episode of Battlestar Galactica wasn't quite "bad," but I did find it disappointing, and certainly the weakest of this last batch so far. It didn't have many of the good character moments and drama that made the bulk of those shows great, nor did it pack all the answers that last week's installment did.

There were a few good moments, mostly piled in at the end. Tigh's breakdown in Adama's arms, for example, was a powerful moment, affirming that the two's friendship is as strong as ever despite the realization of Tigh as a Cylon. Very well acted by both.

But just as I never really thought Ellen Tigh did much for the show in the early days, I didn't find her doing much here. She was supposed to stir the pot, I suppose, but there have been conflicts among the Final Five already, and Ellen didn't really bring much to it, I thought.

Indeed, I was mostly just frustrated with Ellen's appearance this week, since all she did was cause Caprica Six to miscarry, sweeping a plot under the rug in a way I didn't even find as interesting as the realization that Hotdog was the true father of the Chief's baby. Did the writers always have planned for Six and Tigh's baby to miscarry from the moment they began the plot, or was this a sudden change of course to prepare for the upcoming ending? I suppose it's consistent with the tone of the show at its best -- bad things happening to people. But it just felt like the jettisoning of a story they'd decided wasn't going anywhere.

I was perplexed by Roslin's scene with Six, in which the president says she hadn't considered there might be something "special" about the Cylon child. First of all, nothing seemed unusual to her about two Cylons producing a biological offspring? Has she not been watching the show? And secondly, why is she suddenly at all invested in "miracles" once again? On the subject of religion, we last saw her burning out the pages of her holy book. If she's having another spiritual reawakening now, before the end, it didn't seem earned to me before this odd scene this week.

I suppose the reemergence of Baltar's "Head Six" was an important moment for his character, just as the arming of his "harem," on the way to a possible revolution, is an important moment for the plot. But how interesting both seem sort of remains to be seen until we see where things are going.

Four to go...

Thursday, February 19, 2009

My New Addiction

After a long, long time spent circling it (months... years, even), I finally picked up the television series Dexter recently. This is the Showtime series starring Michael C. Hall (previously of Six Feet Under fame) as a serial killer who preys on murderers. I had long heard good things about the show. I'd been curious about it myself regardless. I just hadn't gotten around to it until about two weeks ago.

In that time, I've now completely devoured the first two seasons (all that's available on DVD to this point), and am now eager to get my hands on the recently completed season 3.

The first season, in my opinion, was very good, but not great. I certainly enjoyed the story, thought the acting was tremendous, and it kept pulling me along. But I did find things rather predictable overall. It didn't necessarily make me like the show less that I was able to guess all the major plot twists ahead of time, but it did keep me from completely falling in love with the show.

But then came season two. Man, did the show step up in year two. It was a compelling story full of great character moments and riveting tension. And now I'm completely in love with the show.

Dexter gets a lot of attention because it's a show about a "bad guy," and makes you sympathetic for him. And yes, it does a good job of that, but there's more to it than that. There was a time when a show about a villain was revolutionary, but that was a while ago now. No, Dexter is more than that because it understands good drama -- you care about many of the characters, not just Dexter himself. The characters have real relationships with each other that change over time. And the storylines always introduce new ways to shake up the character mix.

I'd rate that first season of the show a B+... well worth the time. But season two is an A. If you haven't watched Dexter, I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009


I really liked tonight's Lost episode. I wasn't so sure after the first few minutes, though.

As I've said before, I'm getting kinda sick of the whole "XX Hours Earlier" thing that all the TV shows seem to be doing now. I was willing to forgive it a bit in this case, since it set up the opening to be an exact mirror of the original first episode with Jack waking up in the jungle. Still, I wasn't so sure at the time.

Then there was the first act, a giant brick of exposition about The Island and the "Lamppost." Probably a necessary evil, like the most recent exposition-heavy Battlestar Galactica episode, but I was starting to adjust my expectations for a not-so-compelling hour of Lost.

But then everything changed. The rest of the episode was a great look at how much Jack has changed over the series. He was always the "man of science" to Locke's "man of faith," yet now he'd opened his mind to other possibilities -- if not completely, then enough. The scene with his grandfather was a nice little touch, and I thought Jack's story to Kate, about not wanting to waste "nice shoes" on his dead father, hit a strong emotional chord.

Even better, the episode opened up a number of other mysteries. I'm normally intrigued but nervous when Lost opens up a bunch of new mysteries, because they usually involve Island MacGuffins. But tonight reminded me very much of the "who are the Oceanic Six?" mysteries that opened last season so strongly, in that all tonight's question were grounded not in the Island, but in the characters.

How did Sayid come to be on the plane? It appears perhaps he was becoming a "proxy" for Kate in the original crash, a fugitive being taken in by a marshal or some such.

How did Hurley get out of prison, and what changed his mind about going? Given the presence of the guitar, I'm thinking perhaps a "spectral Charlie" had something to do with it.

What happened to Ben between the time he left the church and his phone call to Jack the next morning? We last saw him saying something about an "old friend," and then see him bloody. Penny may have been in town with Desmond... did Ben make good on his threat to kill Charles Widmore's daughter? Or did he try and fail?

What happened to Aaron that Kate refuses to talk about? We know Claire's mother is in town? Did something happen to make Kate give Aaron away? Or something else?

How did Locke come to realize that his suicide was necessary to return everyone to the Island? (One thing that's really not a mystery about his story is his eventual resurrection. If he's the "proxy" of Jack's father, it seems inevitable that his fate will be the same.)

In short, it seems as though we're now set up for a bunch of "flashback" episodes, centering on each of those characters, and telling the tale of their missing hours before the depature of flight 316.

Not to mention the questions... did Lapidis also transport back to the Island? And who was that other guy in the cabin with them that spoke to Jack in the ticket line? On any other show, it would probably be unimportant, but it all seemed a little too prominent here to mean nothing.

Tons of new stories to tell, all with the promise of good drama. Now I feel like Lost is sailing in the right direction this season.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Pearls Before Breakfast

It's very long, and not light reading, but it's pretty fascinating. FKL sent me this tale of a renowned concert violinist who decided to participate in an interesting little social experiment -- if he just played on the street, "begging for money," would anyone take note?

Monday, February 16, 2009

Day 7, 4:00-5:00 PM

Of course, we get to see Jack's badass "ask around" moment from last week in the recap.

Yes, for the love of Pete, let the President leave the White House for an episode or two. The President never gets to go anywhere fun during a season of 24.

Dubaku wants Marika to leave the country? Before lasgana?

It's love, Sangala Style.

Renee applies a little bad-guy-blood rouge.

I guess making threatening phone calls wears Marika's sister out. 25 minutes later and she's asleep in front of the TV.

I'm sorry, but any child of Chloe and Morris is probably destined to grow up really messed up.

Suddenly I really want a Hyundai Genesis.

And Mac OS X.

By the way, with all the skipped years in between seasons, it's several years into the future on 24. And the FBI is stuck with Mac OS X? Yeah, no wonder Chloe's pissed.

Chloe is a celebrity in intelligence circles, it seems.

Alright, Jack and Renee's entrance into Marika's apartment was pretty sweet.

That's quite a nurse who will tell the President no.

Jack says to Marika, "we can't make you do this." I really, really doubt that.

Janis is feeling some geek jealousy.

Hey, there's David Fury talking with the President's daughter. One of the benefits of being a 24 writer is you can write yourself a cool little cameo like that.

Yeah, Aaron Pierce! (Okay, so I saw the actor's name in the credits and wasn't surprised, but still --- yeah, Aaron Pierce!)

Any one who is even slightly surprised by the revelation of the identity of the mole working inside the FBI, please lineup for your slap.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

A "Then and Now" Review

This past week, I saw both the original 1980 Friday the 13th (for the first time, believe it or not) and the new 2009 model.

Let's start with the original. I didn't expect much, and was warned to expect even less. I should have expected much, much less. Unlike the first Halloween, a classic which does at least somewhat hold up over time, Friday the 13th just seems like a mess. I suppose it earned some points in its time for being substantially more bloody than other horror films, and for its "twist ending."

But it really is a Halloween wannabe. It tries to set up the same model of a group of (supposed-to-be) teens menaced by an unyielding killer, but it misses some major points about what made Halloween good. To me, the biggest flaw of the movie is that you get two-thirds into it (and two-thirds of the way through the cast) before even one character realizes there's serious jeopardy at Camp Crystal Lake. It's one blindside after another for a full hour.

Halloween successfully builds tension because the characters feel tension. Laurie Strode has several strange run-ins with Michael Myers throughout the day before the blood starts to fly, enough to unsettle her. And Dr. Loomis knows something is horribly wrong from the moment Michael escpaes from the asylum. Their dread feeds the audience's dread. But in Friday the 13th, a half a dozen people are offed with no one the wiser, and there's absolutely no tension in the proceedings as a result.

Then there's that twist. I'm about to spoil it here, so if you've somehow miraculously made it this far without knowing what it is, skip the next two paragraphs -- right after you tell me where the cocoon is where you shut out the outside world.

It's simply impossible to believe that old Mrs. Vorhees could kill all those people. Sure, she surprises Kevin Bacon's character when he's lying in bed, but she bests two other "strapping young men" in situations where they could have and should have put up some struggle. And when we see her in a fight with the last surviving girl at the end of the movie, its rolling around on the lake shore in a fight so laughably cheesy it makes classic Star Trek look like The Matrix. This woman couldn't get the best of a three-year-old.

There is one genuinely good scare at the end of Friday the 13th, when the decaying Jason springs up out of the water to drag down the last survivor. But even this moment, they don't get right. The smart thing would have been to stop and roll credits right there. But instead, we smash cut to the survivor waking up in the hospital, distantly murmuring "he's still out there." It's a flat coda that undermines that big punchy finish.

I rate the original Friday the 13th a D-. It escapes the F solely on the basis of that one good scare, and for clearly being a foundational film in the slasher genre. But it's not like that genre was built on the back of a giant here.

So... the new installment. It's not a remake, as it turns out. It's actually a continuation in modern times, acknowledging that all the events of movie one actually happened. In fact, the final showdown from the original is re-enacted with Nana Visitor --that's Kira Nerys to you DS9 fans -- in a key role. Strange to see, let me tell you. But I absolutely believe she could do some damage.

This movie tries to put a minor wrinkle into Jason's mindless slashing and killing. I won't spoil it here, because it's as much of a plot surprise as a movie like this could aspire to offer. Suffice it to say that this doesn't elevate the movie to any lofty position, but does lift it above most modern horror fare.

The makers of this film fix the pacing problems of the original, and fix that major issue I complained of -- the lack of victims who know they're screwed. There are some blindsides here and there, as these movies must have, but in every major sequence, there's at least one character who knows there's trouble. A few even make it long enough to warn others and spread the panic.

And the movie actually ends the right way, too!

But, the truth is, there's nothing special here. There aren't any really new ideas here for death sequences that haven't been done in these movies before. The characters service the plot, but aren't really too spectacular. The movie gets the job done in a workman like way, without ever transcending the genre as movies like The Ring or The Thing do. (Maybe because it doesn't rhyme?)

I rate the new Friday the 13th a C+. Nothing really worth recommending, but a damn sight better than the original.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Welcome to the Dollhouse

I was, of course, there to see the premiere of Joss Whedon's new TV show last night, Dollhouse. It's hard for me to say if I had any kind of reasonable expectations for it. The truth is, I didn't think Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Angel was fantastic right out of the gate; it was unlucky, short-lived Firefly that held that distinction. (And Dr. Horrible, which was in its brief 40 minutes similarly awesome.)

Dollhouse was, in that frame of mind, a return to form. The first episode didn't blow me away. I did enjoy it, and I certainly see potential in the show. But it didn't immediately grab me or thrill me. (Though again, it's hard for me to say if it was reasonable for me to expect that.)

The persona adopted by Echo for the bulk of this first episode was not much of a stretch for Eliza Dushku. Yes, she had some moments of vulnerability, and she wasn't a "butt kicking" type. Nevertheless, she was a very strong personality and self-assured most of the time -- not entirely different from Faith (on Buffy) ot Tru (on Tru Calling). I'm not asking for her them to do something too wild on the first run out, though I do think the show will be more interesting when we see more situations where Eliza Dushku is playing characters more outside her usual "wheel house."

Also, given that Echo's persona will be different every week (or even multiple times in the same week), I think the good character material in this show will ultimately come from the rest of the cast -- the people who work in the Dollhouse, and the FBI agent trying to expose it. Again, it's unfair to judge too harshly from just one episode, but I do want to see those characters developed more soon. (In Firefly, many of the Serenity crew were already starting to pop in just that first hour.)

Basically, I felt like Dollhouse was a fairly fun and entertaining hour of television, but it didn't have any of the crackling characters or snappy bursts of dialogue that I've come to expect from something with Joss Whedon's name on it. Given the chance, I think it could get there.

Will it have the chance?

No Exit

I expected that somewhere before the end of Battlestar Galactica, we'd get an episode like the one tonight. Long on exposition, short on plot and drama. And it's simply a necessity -- there's too much 'splainin to do to have it come out naturally in the time left.

And so it was that, between Anders' "sick bed" realizations and the filling-in of what Ellen has been up to since her execution in early season three, we were stuffed full of info almost like we ourselves were downloading. I wish that the writers could have found a more eloquent way to get all this across, but at least the answers themselves were rather compelling.

So the "Final Five" are actually the First Five, as it turns out, having built all seven of the other Cylon models. No, scratch that, eight of the Cylon models. Not long after it appeared we had the "who's the last Cylon" question answered, we learn there's actually another last Cylon. I don't think this was part of the writer's master plan at all. I think it probably just came about as a way of ret-conning the Sharon model's numbering of Eight. If they'd just named her Seven in the beginning, we wouldn't have this problem, but now there has to be a reason why they skipped number Seven, and here we are.

There were a few good moments for characters sprinkled in with all this exposition, though. Adama's connection to his ship; Starbuck hoping to explain her death and resurrection by imagining herself as the missing number Seven; Ellen's interplay with her wayward son "John." And the strange cameo by John Hodgman.

I guess my feeling was simple: this may have been the most revelatory of this last batch of episodes (so far), but it was also the least exciting to watch. Perhaps you'll disagree if you're in it for the answers, and certainly I didn't think it a bad episode by any means. But I am hoping that with this necessary step out of the way, things get more dramatic from here on to the end.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

A Feverish Rambling of Subjects

I'm on a really sad run right now. After basically not getting sick for years on end, I've had one monster chest cold or head cold after another about every other week for three months now. I guess it just took one to get in there and wear me down, leaving me unable to fight the others.

So I feel like crap tonight, and I thought I'd share something that might make you feel nearly as sick as I do.

I know the people of India revere cows, but now they're talking about making a soft drink out of cow urine. Yikes.

I mean, Joss Whedon is My Master Now, but I don't want to drink his pee. I will watch his new show Dollhouse, though. Starts tomorrow night. Be there.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

This Place is Death

I thought this week's episode of Lost was a step back from last week's, but not a big one. The episode did manage to have moments to tug at the heart while it had puzzles to tease the brain, but I think skewed a bit more toward the latter than the week before.

I was disappointed that the story of Rousseau and the French expedition didn't really seem to amount to much. I don't think we really learned anything about them that we didn't know already, and the whole tale was compressed into just the opening 15 minutes of the show, not giving it enough time to play for better dramatic effect. But I suppose perhaps we haven't seen the last of it?

Charlotte's story also wasn't really satisfying. You could feel what Daniel was going through, and that part of it worked. But she hadn't ever really been that fleshed out as a character, so we the audience don't have much to feel about her death -- we can only empathize via Daniel. Of course, here we know there's more about Charlotte's past yet to come, so perhaps this loss will seem more significant in retrospect.

As I think is always the case with a Sun/Jin storyline, that part of the episode was great. It was great to see them each on their own deep emotional journey, and basically moving in opposite directions. Jin learned that Sun safely got away, and had to sacrifice to keep her there; Sun learned Jin didn't die, and apparently may sacrifice herself and her daughter (leaving Ji Yeon behind) to get back to Jin. Good stuff.

I also liked Ben's outburst about everything he's had to do to try and "get the band back together," as it were. It seems likely we'll get some episode in the not-too-distant future that fills in the time between Locke's departure from The Island and his death; perhaps we'll learn just what Ben is talking about at that time.

So, a mixed bag, in my view. Overall, fairly satisfying, but I'm hoping for more next week.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Battered in Bruges

Over the weekend, I had the chance to see last year's movie In Bruges, starring Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, and Ralph Fiennes. If you caught the trailer for this movie, you might be inclined to think it an action-comedy. But don't be fooled. About 90% of the laughs in the movie are in that trailer.

Not that that's automatically a bad thing. It turns out this movie is a black comedy, heavy on the darkness. Actually, some might call it a dramedy (or a coma... whatever you stupidly call one of them hybrids). It certainly has some very dark subject matter at the heart of it.

The story is of two hitmen who, after a job goes bad, are ordered to a quiet town in Belgium to await further instructions. One likes the medieval-type architecture and sight-seeing, the other thinks he's landed in the worst place on Earth. Hilarity doesn't exactly ensue, but some amusement (laced with moments of drama) do.

But I was left feeling like the movie tried a little too hard to ride those lines. One or two jokes were laugh-out-loud funny. Likewise, one or two moments of drama were very moving. But the bulk of it all was in this strange limbo between the two.

The three main actors are all very good in the film (though Ralph Fiennes really only appears in the back half), but they still can't keep the pace from dragging at times. Perhaps it's a matter of incorrect expectations, but I only rate the movie a C+. I wouldn't really recommend it.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Day 7, 3:00-4:00 PM

Kudos to the editing team for the nifty frozen muzzle flash on Jack Bauer during the "previously on" clips.

The magazine stand on the sidewalk has a jack to plug in for cable TV?

In seven years, this is Jack's first trip to the White House. Kinda cool.

Jack has a reputation. "Ask around." Entertainment web sites. Netflix. You know...

Sean hasn't seen his wife in seven seasons.

Today, it's Jack that "makes us better."

The lasagna subplot returns.

Dubaku's girlfriend's sister is upset they've only known each other four months. But that's like 120 seasons!

Really though, the girlfriend should listen to "sis-dar." It detects evil.

"Dammit!" (Drink!)

That makes two T-bone car wrecks in one season! And still plenty more time for more!

The dirty agent's mistake during the knife fight was stopping to pick up the knife again when the gun was only about three feet farther away from him.

Now Jack is playing Grand Theft Auto. Crash one car, steal another...

The Sengalan prime minister's double looks a little like Tim Meadows for half a second. But then, he does do all kinds of impressions.

Agent Walker will get out "tomorrow." Guess she's not planning on next season?

Stupid sister not only signs her death warrant, but she gives Dobaku a reason not to be there when Jack is about to come storming in.

Add double parking to Jack's list of offenses.

A scene of extreme violence against beer bottles ensues.

Poor Colm Feore. He has virtually no dialogue for three weeks, and now he's shot, so you can bet on no dialogue in the near future either.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Drug Mules

Here's a story that gives a whole new way to smuggle drugs inside your ass. Is there really such a demand for donkey lawn ornaments in the L.A. area that a large shipment of the things could have seemed inconspicuous?

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Push Comes to Shove

A lesson I learned quite some time ago -- good movies don't come out in January and February. If it was a quality dramatic piece, the studio would have released it in December to compete for an Oscar. And if it was a quality action piece, the studio would have saved it until the summer to make a big splash. And yet, this is a lesson I seem to forget... almost every January and February, come to think of it.

I had to relearn it today when I went to go see the new movie, Push. I knew that both Chris Evans and Dakota Fanning were in it, and while neither is an actor whose movies I feel I "must see," both have made some good choices in the science fiction genre before (Evans in Sunshine; Fanning in the mini-series Taken). It also looked to have some fun action in it, from the previews/commercials I'd seen.

I was hoodwinked. I was deceived into seeing a bad comic book movie. I had been led to think this was the story of one telekinetic main character on some grand adventure. It turns out, the filmmakers imagined themselves introducing a new superhero universe, an X-Men or Watchmen or some such, populated with all manner of people with all kinds of different powers. And it wasn't a very interesting or well-constructed universe.

The script was chock full of lousy dialogue that left the actors little to work with. The plot started sketchy, and descended into non-sensical by the third act. (A strange conceit on how one defeats a villain who can see the future comes into play, and while I can imagine it sounding good for half a second to a writer first thinking of it, it absolutely falls apart under even momentary examination.) Characters who begin the movie with limited "superpowers," and who show no real advancement during the movie, are suddenly miles beyond their abilities for the final sequences.

Also among the odd choices in the writing is the creation of a character that even could be played by the likes of Dakota Fanning. It's a bizarre tale to force a 13-year-old girl into. Again, at first exposure, it seems novel, but it immediately starts to unravel.

There were some decent action sequences in the movie, but ultimately almost nothing that hasn't shown up somewhere before. It gets a little adrenaline going here and there, but there are far better ways of doing that than seeing this movie. I rate it a D.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Blood on the Scales

Another outstanding episode of Battlestar Galactica tonight. Even the moments not filled with action were filled with tension, and the hour raced by at blinding speed.

It was a very cool exit for the character of Felix Gaeta. He's been one of the most likable minor characters from a long time back, yet his descent into mutiny over the last handful of episodes was completely credible. You hated to see it happen to him, and yet I for one actually found myself hating him at points in this two-parter. In the end, though, I think you come back to the good man he was, and it certainly pollutes any thrill you might have at seeing Zarek executed at last to have Gaeta right beside him. And that final moment, where Gaeta's leg at last stops itching. Perfect.

But there were many more great moments throughout the hour. At first I was thrilled to see Romo Lampkin return, for love of actor Mark Sheppard's performance. Then for a fraction of a second, I wondered if it was implausible that he show up as though he were only lawyer in the fleet. Then I almost instantly decided, A) it didn't matter, because it was cool to see the character again; and B) you might imagine Gaeta specifically asking for Romo to humiliate, since Gaeta lied on the witness stand to see Baltar convicted, but the "slick lawyer" got him off anyway.

And then, of course, it was all worth it to see Romo (perhaps not as crazy as when last we saw him, but still certainly crazy) whip out the pen to take out his guard, and then almost not help Starbuck in her time of need.

The great little scene where Tyrol and the security guard pine for better times.

The odd scene of self-realization where Baltar discovers another layer to his relationship with his "fan club."

But the tour de force, once again, was Mary McDonnell's performance as Roslin. Every beat on her emotional roller coaster was strong. Her confrontation with the rebel Cylons, the moments where she believes she's lost Adama (and her threats that follow), and the scene where she's reunited with the man she thought dead. It stinks that all the awards are too snooty to honor science fiction -- this is only the latest of many times Mary McDonnell has delivered one of the strongest performances on television.

Can't wait for next week!

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Weak Link

I've owned the board game Augsburg 1520 for a while now -- it's the 3rd of the "Alea medium box" game series, and I've been hooked into collecting them all. But up until recently, it had been a while since I'd played it. And I also noticed that I'd never reviewed the game here.

In Augsburg, you try to acquire "debt certificates" for a group of five different influential nobles. You and the other players bid against each other, to see who is willing to give up the most of their certificates for a given noble (conceptually, your "sway" over them) to achieve a particular action at a particular time. Those actions can net you more certificates to look at, money to procure the cerificates you see, and victory points.

Frankly, it's a disappointing game. Of the four now in that series, it's the weakest. If you look to the best games of the "Alea big box" series -- Puerto Rico or Notre Dame, for example -- it's a hallmark of those games that there are multiple viable paths to victory all balanced fairly well against one another.

Augsburg 1520 only really has one way to win -- you may have noticed that of the three things I mentioned earlier that you can get for your actions, only one is victory points. Sure, to keep winning those, you will need those debt certificates and the money to pay for them. But in my experience with the game (a few sessions here and there, spread out over years), the winner always achieves his victory in exactly the same way. It's a deep enough game to require you to think just a bit to realize the key moments to exploit for victory, but once you do, the game offers nothing more to explore. And "stopping" a player from pursuing victory only really takes the form of trying to do the exact same things faster than anyone else can.

I brought the game out recently because I had the notion to try to play every game in my collection at some point during 2009. But now that I've crossed this game off that list, I don't expect it to make another appearance. Hell, I'd probably even consider selling the game.

...Though there is that matter of no longer having the whole "medium box" collection if I did. Curse you, Alea, and your game numbering!

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

The Little Prince

Alright, now things are starting to warm up on Lost, in my opinion. Tonight's installment managed to find much more room amidst the time-hopping hijinks to make room for good character driven story and drama.

We had Sawyer in a more vulnerable state than we've seen him in quite some time, in the brief flash to Kate from season one.

We had Kate's panic at the thought of losing Aaron, and the realization that it was all a ploy by Ben -- presumably to coerce her to going on the run, to make her want to return to The Island?

We had Sun pursuing her quest for vengeance against Ben. It still perhaps isn't completely clear if she's mad enough to go through with killing him, but it does appear that her conversation with Widmore wasn't just talk. Sun has been in the shadow of her father before, but she's never really been the one out doing the bad things, so this is an interesting development for her character, in my book.

And then there was not-dead-after-all Jin. I suppose eventually we'll need an explanation for why he survived when it seems Michael didn't. Unless you simply buy that "The Island was done with Michael." (I know I was.) Or unless Michael also survived. (Dammit.) But with Jin back in the picture, we have a moment of reunion -- or loss all over again -- down the road between him and Sun, which promises more great dramatic material ahead.

The appearance of Young Rousseau and her team of French explorers was, it seemed, supposed to be the big reveal at the end of the episode, but I called it last week as something inevitable by season's end with time travel in the mix. If we ultimately get to see the moment where she either gives up her baby or it's taken from her, there again is the promise of more good drama, so I'm on board.

Basically, the story kept moving forward this week, but this time did it while stopping to give some dramatic heft to the proceedings. And I thought the episode was much, much better for it.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Law Review

This past weekend, I had the chance to see Primal Fear for the first time. I had long been interested in this legal thriller that was Edward Norton's big breakout role, but never really got around to it. Somewhere along the way, the "twist ending" of the film was spoiled for me, pushing it a little further off my radar. But I finally got past all that and saw what I'd been missing.

Edward Norton is indeed incredible in the movie, but he's actually just one stellar actor in a very "deep bench" of high-quality performers -- Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Alfre Woodard, Frances McDormand, Terry O'Quinn, Andre Braugher, and more appear, and all of them really add to the film.

In fact, I think it would be fair to say that what they add to the film is what makes it worth seeing. It's a pretty conventional story. Aside from a good zinger of a line or two, the writing is capable but not outstanding. Really, that twist ending seems put there just so that the film could be distinctive on the page in some way. (I realize the movie was based on a book, which perhaps was stronger than this adaptation. I think I mean that in a pile of adapted legal thriller scripts on some Hollywood executive's desk, I feel like it's only the ending that made it stand out.)

It's hard for me to guess how I might have reacted if I'd seen the film without any knowledge of the story. But as it stands, I can certainly recommend it on the strength of its cast. I'd rate it a B+.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Day 7, 2:00-3:00 PM

Janis asks Sean to open up a "fresh socket." Ah, it's been 21 months since we've had a fresh socket.

Is it legal to "oh snap" the president's Chief of Staff?

Have you ever seen so much green in a computer room?

When you tell a terrorist "I will never do that," you're basically saying "I would like the torture now, please."

The crawl space is glowing bright green. This must be the place.

Janis doesn't need Sean's negativity today. Save it for next season.

Is it a good idea for your stealth camera to beep when you switch it on?

The bad guys have a surveillance camera that delivers pictures from 20 minutes ago? That's useful!

Tony's got a silencer on his gun, but Bill's too cool for that.

So they call up John Billingsley and say, "you remember that episode of 24 you did for us? Well we'd like you to come back again for a small part." Actually, lots of small parts.

With the CIP module destroyed and the guy who built it now dead (hey, why did Dobaku kill him anyway, when he could have forced him to build another one?), we have 15 minutes to come up with a new crisis.

Kidnapping the First Gentleman will do. He tries to slam the door on his next attacker, but it's no good because we all know the key is under the door mat.

Bill doesn't want to let the president in on the scheme. He figures working for the president will make things even more like every other season of 24.

What's the deal with the waitress? Is this a "terrorists are people too" scene?

Dobaku's day planner must look very interesting. Death, death, death, death, lasagna, death, death...

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Playing with Your Food

I couldn't have cared less about "the big game" today. I didn't even really watch most of the Super Bowl commercials. Instead, it was an afternoon-long "game night" among friends. We were more in it for the snacks.

But we didn't take it to this extreme.

Extreme awesomeness, that is.