Thursday, April 30, 2009

Choppy River

I recently saw the 2003 movie Mystic River. Having just seen director Clint Eastwood's excellent Changeling, and expecting great things from Sean Penn, Kevin Bacon, and Tim Robbins, I was really looking forward to it.

Mystic River was not a bad movie. But it was a movie in no hurry to get anywhere interesting. It runs over two hours and fifteen minutes, but only about the last twenty of those minutes felt very dramatic to me.

The movie opens with a scene of three childhood friends, decades ago, enduring a trauma that affects them in different ways. It serves to inform the audience about the characters as the movie then unfolds on their modern, adult lives -- but in my view it fails to reflect on the actual narrative of the modern story. That story tracks the murder of the daughter of one of those three friends; the second is a detective investigating the crime; the third may know more about what really happened than he is revealing.

The story is arranged in such a way to give meaty acting moments to various performers. Sean Penn gets to have a spectacular breakdown upon the discovery of his daughter's body. Tim Robbins has a haunted sequence in which his wife (Marcia Gay Harden) catches him coming home in the dead of night with blood all over him. But while you can look at any of the sequences and think, "wow, they're really bringing it," they failed to pull me into the story. Just when it seemed like the momentum was starting, along would come a dull and distant scene to slow things back down.

Ultimately, the entire movie hangs on one of the three friends, Kevin Bacon's detective character, being oafishly bad at his job. He and investigative partner Laurence Fishburne ultimately crack the case and solve the mystery in about four minutes of screen time... but they don't do it until the end, when they happen to go back and look at a clue that we the audience were given about 30 minutes into the film. You have to accept that they were just too busy with other things to pay attention to this crucial bit, and to accept that, you have to accept that they're both exceptionally bad at their jobs. It's just a necessity of the plot to ensure that the mystery won't be solved until Sean Penn has a chance to confront Tim Robbins (the holdout).

Of course, that plot point is the entire movie. And it is part of those last 20 minutes I alluded to that actually does deliver. But it really sets up a Catch-22 situation. You have to watch the whole movie for the last act to land emotionally, but the whole movie is boring. But the whole movie almost has to be structured the way it is for it to arrive at this good last act in the way it does.

This film is based on a book, and I couldn't help but wonder if all this was somehow handled better on the page than on the screen. But unfortunately, the movie left me with such a poor taste that I don't want to pick up the book to find out.

A good ending attached to a movie somehow less than the sum of its parts? I can only rate it a C.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Variable

Tonight was a rather twisty, turny episode of Lost that followed one of the big conventions it seems the show has set up for its characters -- if the episode centers around your flashbacks, there's a fair chance you'll be dead by the end of it.

Daniel Faraday's backstory was painted in more tonight, but the episode was really even more revealing for his mother. It takes a really cold woman, or a woman really dedicated to fate and/or the Island, or some combination of all these things, for her to raise her son from childhood to fulfill the destiny of being killed by her hand. It certainly paints an older episode in a new light, the one in which she educated Desmond (time hopping for the first time) about the rules of destiny when a person's death has been pre-ordained.

Speaking of pre-ordained death, did it strike anyone else as a rather ominous bit of editing when Daniel told Jack "any one of us can die," then followed by a long, lingering shot of Kate?

For the big mystery lovers, we're now leading up to "the incident" refered to on that footage from the hatch's videotape (from clear back in season two), that was edited out and spliced back in by our intrepid heroes. It seems likely this will catapult the time travelers back into their own time somehow.

But as usual with good episodes of Lost, the character bits shone over it all. It was an interesting story for Sawyer, who has finally found stability and a place where he belongs, now going to lose it all. Desmond keeping his promise not to leave Penny again was a touching scene. The flashbacks of a swiss-cheese-brained Daniel victimized by his self-experimentation were sad, even knowing as we did that his mental health would be restored by The Island. Daniel's last (and futile) plea to a young Charlotte to try and save her life was also bittersweet.

Things are racing toward the finish for this season now.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

It's a Trap!

It seems that Michael Caine has enjoyed twisty psychological movies all throughout his career. A few months ago, I mentioned Sleuth, in both its film incarnations. Now, I've seen another play-adapted-into-a-movie starring Caine, 1982's Deathtrap. In another connection, the film was directed by "play adaptation specialist" Sidney Lumet, with Equus and 12 Angry Men among his dozens upon dozens of credits.

Deathtrap is the story of a once-great writer of murder-suspense plays now on a long string of creative and critical flops. A former student with a draft of his own play contacts him for advice. The new work, a genius play guaranteed to be hit, turns the washed-out playwright's thoughts to murder. In truth, there's a good deal more to the plot, but it would be impossible to say more without detracting from the pleasure of seeing it.

For that is the greatest strength of this movie -- the writing. It's a brilliantly self-aware piece full of sly references to the genre of suspense, the structure of theater, and the task of writing itself. It all would surely play even more ironically on the stage, but it still very effective on film.

Michael Caine is wonderful in the movie, as is Christopher Reeve as the young former student. Both characters could come off thoroughly unbelievable, even cartoonish, and while each flirts with that line once or twice, they both manage to keep their performances grounded and tense.

Less thrilling, to put it mildly, is Dyan Cannon in the role of the playwright's highstrung wife. She's a bit flawed on the page, admittedly, perhaps the one weak spot in the writing. She provides most of the movie's comic relief, but while a laugh or two is good to cut the tension of this kind of tale, the character's hysterics go over the line. What's more, Cannon's outrageous, outlandish, out-everything performance generates more than a few laughs of the unintentional kind. It's the sort of performance that seems pitched to play to the back row of a huge Broadway theater, in the space of the local dinner playhouse.

But crazy though she is, she can't bring down what is mostly a thoroughly enjoyable movie. Each turn in the plot pulled me a little farther in. Little, telegraphed hints of what was still to come had me probing to try and guess exactly where it would all end up.

I rate the movie a B+. Look past a few flaws, and I think you'll be very entertained.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Day 7, 3:00-4:00 AM

How did that FBI doctor get there so quick from all the way across town? And is she the only doctor working for them?

Attention all "perimeter" teams. (Drink!)

Okay, Jack didn't "lose" the last med pack, Doc.

There's talk about getting behind the "perimeter." (Drink!)

Jack stares distantly at David Fury's credit.

Tony made it past the "perimeter." (Drink! Oh crap, is it going to be another one of those episodes?)

Widen the "perimeter." (Drink!)

The suspect escaped beyond the "perimeter." (Drink!)

Galvez learned how to hide things by watching Dexter.

Is it true the FBI "perimeter" was breached? (Drink!)

Can the President "ground" the Chief of Staff?

Why is everyone on this conference call disguising their voice except for the woman organizing it all?

Notice that Cisco is not in such a hurry to sponsor evil teleconferences.

Of course, a lawyer who looked just like this woman died about an hour ago. So naturally, she and Tony would be an item. They both have "looking like people that are supposed to be dead" in common.

When Jack makes the proverbial "3 AM phone call" involving the White House, he wants Chloe O'Brian on the other end.

"CTU Lite?" Maybe "Diet CTU" at best.

Janis, if you don't want to be Chloe, then we'll get someone who... oh.

The Tony that Chloe knew doesn't exist anymore. Yeah, he died, in fact.

Jack brings up David Palmer, remembering better times.

Tony tells his hostage not another word, or he'll be killed. But then asks, "do you understand," to which the poor guy actually verbally responds. I think that gets a bullet.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

A Baffling Game

This weekend was the first time in several years that I played the board game Wallenstein. It's oddly war-like for a German board game, but with a very peculiar combat system at the heart of it.

The game comes with a small cardboard tower with strange baffles inside. When a conflict between players occurs, you scoop up the small wooden cubes that represent the armies involved, and drop them into the top of the tower. Most of the pieces will tend to fall all the way through the tower and emerge at the bottom. But a few might get caught inside, skewing the outcome of the fight, as you only compare the strengths of the armies that make it all the way through.

I like and dislike the game at the same time. It can be both fun and frustrating. The way you plan your moves is clever, and forces you to make tough choices, but it's very time consuming -- you play what essentially amounts to just six rounds before determining the winner, but this can easily take over two hours. My game this weekend took three, for four players. Is it good for that long?

Well, honestly, not really. But it sure is different. I can't see ever playing the game frequently, but I couldn't bring myself to get rid of it. The game does seem to have fans, though, and was recently re-themed from Germany to Japan and released as Shogun.

I guess I just wish that it could somehow clock in at 90 minutes or less, since it does seem to have that problem Settlers of Catan can often have, where one player can get beat down so hard so early, that he's little more than a spectator for the rest of the game. That might be okay for a quicker game, but for a two to three hour affair?

In any case, I like the game worlds better than designer Dirk Henn's most successful and awarded effort, the fundamentally flawed Alhambra.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

A Slow Boat to China

It's hard to find someone who has seen the movie Chinatown to talk bad about it. Everyone says it's classic, a masterpiece, a triumph of the film noir genre.

Well, I'll be the guy to take the contrary opinion. I watched the movie not long ago, and it was all I could do to not fall asleep. For a plot involving death, mystery, and conspiracy, the story is amazingly languid and uninteresting.

The acting does little to help matters. Jack Nicholson plays himself, as he essentially always does, in the form of a 1930s gumshoe trying to crack the case as he cracks wise. Faye Dunaway, as the femme fatale, has left our planet far behind with heaving, gasping, noisy acting that has no connection at all to realism.

Roman Polanski's direction manages to pack only one or two scenes with any tension of any measureable level; the two-plus hours pass like time in line at the DMV.

I can really only say one complementary thing about the movie, is that it is a very effective period piece. Made 35 years ago, the movie is actually set around 35 years earlier still, and all the 1930s trappings are superb and authentic.

But a triumph of noir? Why you'd look here when The Maltese Falcon exists is beyond me. Chinatown numbed me so thoroughly, I'm hard-pressed to even recall much of what I saw, to put words to why I was so bored by it. I rate it a D-.

Friday, April 24, 2009


I think maybe the luster Prison Break once had is now long gone. Sure, for a time, I was enjoying season four; it wasn't a return to those glory days of the first season, but it ably washed away the bad taste of that drab third season. But now I think I'm just ready for the show to end.

I'm not sure I can even explain it. Tonight's episode did have many of the elements that have made for great Prison Break episodes of the past -- scenes of actions, mysteries to be solved, moments of tension between characters (Sara's pregnancy secret, Michael and Linc at odds with one another, and so forth). Yet it somehow just seemed so boring.

I mean, I love T-Bag getting a showcase moment, but distracting the guards as an "elephant rights activist?" And the General and the brothers' Mom in a sort of villainous Cliché Off as we watched them both order lackeys around?

Did this new "V.S." character know that his cell phone had been taken? How else could he have expected to get away with lying to "Lincoln's Four" about knowing Mom when all manner of incriminating information was right there on the phone?

Why is Mom so stupid as to leave that note behind?

Does Self bring anything of value to this team?

Will this series get good again before it's all over?

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Horse Tale

Not long ago, I watched the movie Equus, adapted in the 1970s by Peter Shaffer from his own stage play. I've known that play for some time, first reading it in high school and having since seen a few productions of it. It has a bit more notoriety these days for the current revival on Broadway featuring Daniel Radcliffe (of Harry Potter fame).

The truth is, it was somehow only recently that I even learned a movie version of it had ever been made. And not really a small, overlooked one either -- directed by the famous Sidney Lumet, it earned Oscar nominations for Shaffer's writing, and for stars Peter Firth (as a troubled teenager who inexplicably blinded six horses with a pick at the stable where he worked) and Richard Burton (as the psychiatrist trying to learn why and heal the boy). Plus, those two actors won Golden Globes that year for their performances.

And in my opinion, it is a very good adaptation of the play. Interestingly, it preserves a lot more of the "theatricality" of the piece than most stage-to-film adaptations do. Long sequences are presented without cuts in the film. There are monologues by the psychiatrist, speaking directly into the camera, and often in a shadowy background of nothingness. In a flashback to the boy at age six, the same actor portrays the "young child."

The film does seem to play more languidly than the play has when I've seen it, but it is punctuated with some very strong scenes. The sequence in which we observe the boy secretly riding a horse -- naked -- at night as part of a religious ritual is extremely unsettling. It feels very much like a violation that we're watching it, and even watching it alone at home, I couldn't help but feel a bit uncomfortable. Nearly as powerful is the blinding of the horses itself, which somehow still manages to pack a dramatic punch despite obviously fake 1970s-era horse head dummies and odd, Psycho-esque choices of camera angles.

But the film does stumble a bit in the same place as the play, in my opinion. Despite the story of the boy, Equus is really about the psychiatrist, about his doubts in his profession and whether or not what he does is the "right thing." I've yet to see a version of the piece in which I truly believe that character's moral dilemma. He questions whether it's right to excise a part of the psyche that is capable of true ecstasy when that part can be responsible for reprehensible acts. That's a tough sell, in my book. Open to debate, perhaps, but I've never quite seen the play credibly present that other side of the argument, and in my opinion, the movie doesn't get there either. (It's a similar question to the one posed by A Clockwork Orange -- and I never quite bought it there either, in book or movie form.)

Nevertheless, this film still very good overall, if you're in the mood for something challenging to watch. It's not nearly as brilliant as the film version of Amadeus, another (far better) Peter Shaffer play, but I still rate it a solid B.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Well Founded Anger

I'm pleased to report that I've found another classic movie that actually lives up to the reputation it has in critics' circles, 12 Angry Men. Starring Henry Fonda, this is the well-known story of a jury deliberating a murder verdict. One man stands alone in favor of acquittal, and must slowly persuade the rest of the jury of his opinion.

One of the most striking things to me about the movie is how well it holds up now, more than 50 years later. The acting seemed to me of a caliber far above most other films of the era I've seen, quite grounded in realism. Though some characters are defined much more strongly than others, each has a juicy moment or two, and the cast makes the most of what they're given.

It's a bit hard to judge the writing, as this formula has been imitated in more television shows and subsequent movies than I could possibly mention. We all know exactly where the plot is going, whether we've actually heard the story or not. But the journey is more compelling than the destination, and pulls you in. It's interesting to see how each juror is turned around. And it's a very effective choice not to identify the characters by name; their actions are far more telling than any bricks of exposition that might have loaded down the first act.

To my mind, though, there is an inherent flaw in the set-up. These are jurors. They personally have nothing at stake in the outcome of the trial. In fact, one of the character states this fact point blank during the movie, much to the drama's detriment. Sure, these men may have arguments that will engage us for these 90 minutes, but when it's all done, no matter what happens, it's not their lives on the line. If the protagonist doesn't persuade anyone else to change his vote, so what? He goes back to his life. The end. This is not to say the movie is without drama; it has its share. But there's a built-in limit to how high the dramatic stakes can get because none of the characters has anything to lose.

It's a flaw in the very recipe itself, yet I don't think a story on this subject could have been crafted any better, and this telling of it remains effective to this day. I rate the movie a B+. If you haven't seen it, and have any interest in films, it's one to put on your list.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The New Adventures on Old Caprica

Battlestar Galactica has barely been off the air for a month, but the time has come already to sample the next chapter, spin-off series Caprica. Though it isn't set to debut on television until 2010, the 90-minute pilot episode was released on DVD today. And I wasted no time picking it up and giving it a look.

I'll say right off, this premiere did not leave me thrilled in the way the Battlestar Galactica mini-series did. That original mini-series immediately struck me as one of the best things I'd seen on television in a long time, and it was a long one-year wait for a full season to begin. Caprica can't manage to clear a bar set so high.

That said, it is quite good. Set 58 years "before the fall," Caprica is a very different show in terms of subject matter. It's not about the military, nor about space travel. It's the story of a brilliant computer scientist who, in the wake of a horrible personal tragedy, is driven to a major breakthrough in his field. But to realize his new vision, he must enlist the help of another man who suffered a similar loss, a lawyer with ties to corrupt and criminal elements.

The story and setting has a lot to say about morality, terrorism, and racism. All dark subject matter, as you'd expect from a show in any way associated with the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica. While this premiere didn't pack quite the emotional punch of its predecessor, it did have many strongly dramatic elements, and all the pieces for something great seemed to be there. And it certainly promises to raise a lot of intellectual questions even if when it falls short of Galactica's emotional heights.

The acting is strong, particularly Eric Stoltz's obsessed cyberneticist, and Paula Malcomson as his wife. Visual effects are used perhaps more sparingly than in Battlestar Galactica, but when they appear they are equally impressive. Bear McCreary is back with another outstanding score that actually manages to very briefly reference one of his major Galactica motifs in an appropriate moment. And sets, camera work, and so forth... all fantastic.

I've read that a full season of 20 episodes (two of them being this movie, minus some nudity and particularly graphic violence reserved just for the DVD version) has been committed to, so we will get to chance to see if Caprica can expand on the promise of this beginning. I certainly plan to be there.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Day 7, 2:00-3:00 AM

Jonas' lawyer can get there "within a half hour." So, do we all take half a drink?

They've set up a four block "perimeter." (Drink!)

The FBI has the "perimeter" locked down. (Oh crap, it's gonna be one of those episodes.)

Kim didn't want to cause Jack more pain. Speaking of causing more pain, phone call for Agent Walker...

They have to maintain the "perimeter." (That's three.)

Now they're deploying a hazmat team to "perimeter" line. (Four!)

Jack is stuck in a room dictating episode recaps.

Galvez is trapped in the "perimeter." (Five!)

Is Larry in command of the "perimeter?" (Six!)

They're gonna have the "perimeter" locked down. (Seven! And this is just act one. Anyone playing the 24 drinking game is gonna need a fresh bottle.)

Jack's tired of being a subplot. He's getting on that helicopter.

Notice how the president is never in act one of the show these days? A pretty good indication that all the most important stuff in the plot isn't happening at the White House.

"Subpoena-moving goon squad" would make a terrible band name.

Are any bio-weapons made for personal use?

The evil doppleganger wants Jonas to leave the Matrix.

Galvez is in an apartment building shy of the north "perimeter" line. (Eight!)

Jack says he's worked pretty much alone for 10 years. I guess he didn't think very highly of Chase.

It seems things with C. Thomas Howell didn't work out for Kim.

Jack's the most badass grandpa anywhere.

Jack quotes Hill Street Blues to Agent Walker.

Not a single one of these highly trained FBI agents notices the bright red LEDs flashing in a pitch black abandoned building?

All "perimeter" teams move in! (Nine!)

Don't leave a hole in that "perimeter!" (Ten! Man, this has got to be a record.)

Jack is determined to have the first perimeter in the history of 24 that actually contains a suspect.

Galvez causes a bloodbath, then takes a bloodbath.

The "perimeter" is secure! (Eleven!)

Why is it taking Kim so long to get to the airport at three in the morning? I guess it's that patented Kim Bauer bad luck, finding the worst cab driver in all of DC.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Play's No Great Thing

This weekend, I caught the new "thriller" State of Play. I must use the word "thriller" in quotes, because I didn't find it all that thrilling.

It's a plot we've seen in many other movies, the tale of an investigative journalist in pursuit of a major conspiracy story. The only new thing this movie brings to the party is the reality of the present day -- several times, it name checks the fact the newspapers are in decline in this age of the internet, in real financial trouble. Other than that, the movie plays rather like the current season of 24, minus most of the action.

It's possible the relative lack of interesting drama and suspense is the result of adaptation from the source material. I didn't know it going into the theater, but learned later that State of Play is based on a 6-episode BBC television series of the same name. (Starring John Simm, of Life on Mars fame, no less!) Perhaps paradoxically, this movie has only a third of the total running time, but feels just as long at times. The machinations of the conspiracy simply couldn't be distilled, so a fair amount of what remains is tedious exposition that isn't particularly entertaining or easy to track.

But what is commendable about the film is an all-star cast. I don't tend to think much of Russell Crowe, but he does fine enough here. (As a fellow Crowe-hater said to me, "I didn't want to punch him in the face." High praise, considering, which I generally echo myself.) Ben Affleck makes an unlikeable congressman sympathetic. Robin Wright Penn does a lot with the tiny role of his wife. Rachel McAdams plays a young and eager journalist with deft skill. Helen Mirren is actually very, very funny as the editor of the newspaper. And Jason Bateman rocks in a brief, 10-minute role.

Ultimately, it is those performances that make this rather paint-by-numbers movie possibly worth seeing. But then again, you probably aren't missing much if you don't. I rate it a C+.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Worth Remembering

After a mostly mild winter here in Denver, Mother Nature has decided to balance the scales with a run of blizzards over the last month. Snowed in during one of them, I watched Forgetting Sarah Marshall, a comedy from last year I'd meant to see, but that somehow slipped from my "schedule."

It turned out to be a solid movie with plenty of good jokes and a very likeable cast. Jason Segel has mostly played slight nuances of the same general type so far in his career, but this movie got put him back in a particular sub-category we've not seen since Freaks and Geeks, the lovesick goober. Likewise, people aren't throwing a variety of roles Kristen Bell's way, but I loved her in Veronica Mars, so I'm happy to have her show up pretty much anywhere else.

I have to admit, though, I was actually surprised by Mila Kunis. Really only knowing her from That 70s Show and Family Guy, both of which get a lot of mileage out of her abrasive voice, I was expecting her to be a love interest only slightly more credible that Fran Drescher. But she was actually completely endearing in this movie, and it was really easy to start rooting for her character.

Along the way were great walk-ons from members of the "Apatow Rep," and it was all in service of a decent story. More than just a collection of jokes, the movie actually had a pretty sweet romantic tale to tell.

But while completely enjoyable throughout, there wasn't really much that was exceptional in the movie. No huge belly laughs, no deeply emotional scenes. It was a good blend of ingredients, but all in the sort of moderation one expects from a major Hollywood romantic comedy -- even one with the occasion streak of "frat boy." I do recommend the movie though, and rate it a B.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Mother Lode

Tonight brought the first new Prison Break episode in nearly four months, and the beginning of the end for the seires. Unforunately, it felt to me like the show had lost a lot of momentum since its last installment. This really wasn't the best place to have paused the story for such a long time.

For starters, it now seems to me like the cleaner break, from a narrative perspective, would have been to stop the season just as Linc and his gang were going to work for General Kranz. A new, final chapter could then have begun tonight, "working for the bad guys." But instead, we got one episode into that model, then had four months to forget all the particulars of it.

What's more, we didn't really come back to anything particularly interesting. Much of the episode was spent catching characters up on knowledge the audience already had, making sure everyone in the gang knows that Mama Burrows/Scofield is alive and well.

Another too-large part of the episode was spent on stereotypical villain patter. You know, conversations where bad guy and some forgettable henchman exchange phrases from the Villain Manual like "we have to keep on schedule," "I think his usefulness has come to an end," and so forth. It's unfortunately not any more interesting that the bad "guy" in this case happens to be female, and for my money, even less interesting that it's Mom (who we've known little about, so are not invested in). Right now, I think the contrivance is outweighing the drama. Hopefully, the few episodes left are enough to get over the "oh, come on" factor of the not dead Mom to tell an interesting story.

The attempt to kill General Kranz did provide one of the few surprises of the hour, but even that felt weirdly sudden and abrupt. After one previous appearance in an earlier "get his keycard" episode, some unimportant character turns out to have some vendetta against Kranz, enough to want to go along with killing him? Hell, we don't ever even get to hear what issue he had the made him go along with "Mama's Gang."

But I suppose this last brick of episodes won't likely have lots of merits as single hours of television -- they're really just setting up for the grand finale of the series. If it's a good one, once we get there, then perhaps a fairly drab episode like this will be worth it in retrospect.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

French Made

Not long ago, I saw the French film Amélie. (At least, that's the significantly abbreviated title by which "Le Fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain" is known in the U.S.) The narrative is a bit hard to encapsulate; the movie is almost more about a way of telling a story. But it essentially follows a young woman who tries to "do good" for people in the most playful ways possible.

Though the movie doesn't rise to any tremendous dramatic heights, it has an undeniable and infectious sense of joy about it. It's not anything that makes you think too deeply, but you have fun watching it, and a smile on your face when it ends. There's something oddly retro about the movie. It's childish in its spirit, plays like a bedtime storybook, and is the most chaste love story I've seen in years.

As the title character, Audrey Tautou makes the movie. For the love of cinema, if the only thing you've seen her in was the humdrum The Da Vinci Code (in which she was cast as a token French performer in a cast of Hollywood stars), see Amélie as soon as you possibly can. She makes you buy into fantasy of the film.

Ultimately, though, a movie this "cute" can probably only rate so high in my estimation. There's craftsmanship I can appreciate here, but nothing to make me say "wow" -- only to politely smile and say, "well, that sure was nice." Maybe my inner child just died a little more. All I know is, I found the movie very good, though not fantastic. I do rate it a B though, and give it my recommendation.

Having now dispensed with the grade, I do want to remark on one more negative aspect of the film that can't be held against it -- the translation.

My French is terrible. I had a sprinkling of it in junior high, and then three semesters in college (over a decade ago now... damn). I've had virtually no opportunities to use it since. I probably couldn't form a complete sentence of my own in French if I needed to. But listening to French, I still have the ability to pick out maybe every fifth word from a slowly-spoken sentence.

I give all this background so that you know how bad the translation of this film must have been for me to take any notice at all. Oh, the essence of every line was there, but it felt to me like as much as half the specific content was gone. In every scene, I'd hear words I'd recognize jumping out at my laboring brain, and not see them in the subtitles. It was as though text was expensive, and they'd decided to only pay for so much. I found it frustrating, as it seemed like some big piece of the flavor of the film, the particular patter and nuance of the dialogue, was being lost.

My opinion of the movie was not reduced by the translation, but I do have to wonder if I would have had a higher opinion of it had I been able to understand it in the original French. It also gave me pause regarding translations of foreign films in general. This is not the first time I've noticed less-than-accurate translation in a French film (Les Pacte des Loups, aka Brotherhood of the Wolf comes to mind). Are all films being translated from all languages with a similar lack of fidelity? What a disservice to a lot of great movies, if so.

In any case, that digression is over. Let me end with a brief restatement of the real point here. Amélie is a brisk and whimsical movie you should take a look at if you haven't already.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Some Like It Hoth

Tonight brought another strong episode of Lost. It's been a long time since we had a traditional flashback episode, that paints in details of a character's background we didn't know. This story centered on Miles was all the more potent because until tonight, you may well have assumed you knew all the important things there were to know about the man -- he can talk to dead people. What more is there?

It turns out that his history is deeply connected to The Island. But unlike Charlotte, who took the freighter mission knowing what it meant, Miles went purely for the money. And in the process, he found his father, the multi-aliased doctor of the Dharma videos.

The real highlights of the episode were the interactions between Hurley and Miles. Strangely, until tonight, it simply hadn't occured to me that they both "talk to dead people." It was a neat basis for them to finally begin a better relationship, and all their conversations, on everything from Hurley's father to even Hurley's goofy attempt to polish The Empire Strikes Back script, were really entertaining.

For those into the mysteries, there was an interesting little connection casually tossed in tonight as well. The leader of the group who took Miles into their van in his flashback and tried to persuade Miles not to work for Widmore -- that man is in the present, one of the people who crashed on Hydra Island with Ben, Locke, Sun, and the rest. So it's no more an accident that he's there than it was for any of Our Heroes to be there. And it appears it's not just Ben vs. Widmore in the "grand story of Lost." This is second episode in a row to hint at "what lies in the shadow of the statue." It's starting to look like these "Statue Cultists," for lack of a term, are a third faction in play.

At long last, after nearly half a season away, Farraday returns. And literally, as it appears he actually left The Island at some point. No doubt we'll get the scoop on that the next time the show focuses on the 1970s storyline (whether that be next week or some time after that).

Good stuff.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

First Down

So now we come to the movie I thought I was seeing when Murder at 1600 mistakenly arrived in my mailbox. A few weeks later, I received what I'd actually intended, Murder in the First. I didn't know much about the movie, other than that it was supposed to feature one of Kevin Bacon's better performances. And the fantastic Gary Oldman was in it too. The credits rolled... oh, William H. Macy and Brad Dourif too! This was going to be pretty good, right?

Not so much.

So what this movie really is is a "based on true events" story of a small time criminal (Kevin Bacon) who winds up in Alcatraz prison in the late 30s. After failing in an escape attempt, the warden (Gary Oldman) punishes him with a variety of tortures including three years in solitary confinement in brutally dungeon-like conditions. When finally released, the convict has transformed into a neal-feral animal, and soon kills another inmate. His young, upstart defense attorney (Christian Slater) decides to put the prison on trial, blaming the torture and not the man himself.

I can say this: as advertised, Kevin Bacon throws his all into this part. I've quite honestly been more impressed with him in other movies, but this must surely have been the most demanding performance of his career. He goes through hell in this movie.

Which is one of its earliest flaws. The first half hour of the movie is a borderline snuff film where we see his character abused in a variety of horrifying ways. Yes, it's meant to set us up to appreciate just how bad the conditions of Alcatraz's "dungeons" were, but it goes on far longer than is really necessary to convey the point.

...Particularly when it turns out the movie isn't even really about him. The writer had an interesting subject, but he chose to package it as a too-typical legal drama about a brash young attorney trying to make a name for himself by taking on the system. Christian Slater's character is definitely the protagonist once things finally start rolling, but he doesn't even appear on screen until the lengthy "torture prologue" is done with. The writer seems to recognize the inherent problem in keeping the protagonist off screen for the first quarter of the movie, but doesn't solve it well -- he instead writes a series of awkward narrations, of the not-yet-introduced lawyer talking about what he's doing over the years we're watching the convict suffer. As if it matters.

Stranger still, once lawyer and convict unite and the real plot (as this movie sees it) begins, we still are occasionally shown flashbacks to the torture in the prison. Now here, my complaint is not that the movie continues to dwell on the subject even after serving us half an hour of it. Rather, my complaint is that the solution to the entire mess is right there if only the writer, director, someone had seen clearly enough to realize it.

The entire movie should have been built in this flashback structure. It should have started with Bacon's character stabbing the inmate, and immediate;y introduced Slater's lawyer character. Both he and us, the audience, would begin wondering what had driven a man to this state. And then, as the two slowly built a relationship, and testimony came out in court, we could see new pieces of torture in the prison. It would have made things more narratively interesting, and it would have broken up the off-putting opening act. With, say, five or six flashbacks, the movie could have played much better. Instead, we get two -- strange scenes left orphaned in the middle of the piece.

Yes, a lot of the acting is good. (Not so much Christian Slater, who may not be capable of playing more than one person. As the recently canceled TV series "My Own Worst Enemy" proved.) But all that merely salvages a little something from an absolute mess. It hardly makes the movie worth seeing. I rate it a C+. It may indeed be one of Kevin Bacon's performances, but the man has a substantial filmography. (He has a game, for crying out loud.) Your time would be better spent elsewhere in it.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Day 7, 1:00-2:00 AM

It's time to pull out the "perimeter" teams. (Drink!)

And to move on the southwest "perimeter." (Drink!)

The word of the day is "exfiltrate."

Hodges compliments his lackey on putting his lift on the line. He'll "never forget that." For as long as the lackey lives.

Time for the bad guys to do another "perimeter" check. (Drink!) Holy crap, it's gonna be one of those episodes.

Don't those grates Tony's trying to reach through lift up? Isn't that what a crack in a grate is for, to give you a place to lift them up?

Would that be the last missile to Clarksville?

Hodges says "don't think this ends with me." Of course not, there are still six hours to go.

He then threatens that he's just a cog in a bigger wheel. So, to recap... this season we started with Evil Tony, who was really trying to get close to The Bad, who was really just working for the Bigger Bad, who when he got into trouble at the White House, needed to phone-a-friend to the Even Bigger Bad, who is now threatening there's still a Really Effin' Huge Bad still out there.

Memory loss is one of the symptoms. As is memory loss.

Tony blew up the missile storage, but the doors still open and close just fine.

Kim dismisses her entire prior time on the show as "stupid and immature."

Meanwhile, some guy we've never seen shoots some other guy we've never seen, but is caught by a third guy we've never seen.

Alert the "perimeter" units! (Drink!)

Check the major roads along the "perimeter." (Oh brother... here we go.)

Somehow the operative got past the "perimeter." (ggggaaaaahhhhrrrsssss)

In the beginning, Tony was a hero, except that maybe he was a mole. But he wasn't a mole, he really was a hero. But then he was disgraced, but came back to be a hero. Then he was dead. But then he wasn't dead. Except now he was evil. But he wasn't really evil. (Though he was still definitely not dead.) Only now he actually is evil. Guiding Light fans, I think there's another show you can come watch now that yours is being cancelled.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

A Knight Not to Remember

I want to like the Settlers of Catan expansion, Cities and Knights of Catan. I really do. But I hardly ever play it, and when I do, I'm reminded that there are some key problems baked into it.

First of all, truth be told, despite the general revered status of the original Settlers of Catan among those in the German game know, my opinion of the game has slowly but steadily eroded since I was first exposed to the game many years ago. For one, it has the one player gets screwed early problem that I've mentioned before. And though the game certainly makes room for strategy, I've increasingly come to feel that the luck component is a little high. I've personally won a game of Settlers in 20 minutes -- including setup time -- because I decided to be crazy and start the game on only four numbers. When those numbers came up with miraculous regularity (the second longest good dice streak of my life, perhaps), I destroyed the other players.

Given that a game I used to think was amazing isn't all that to me anymore, you can maybe understand why I'd be pulling for the Cities and Knights expansion. It adds some more elements to the game... considerably more, actually... giving it a city infrastructure element that appeals to the Civilization PC Game fan in me, I think.

But it takes a simple little game and draws it out. For whatever flaws Settlers may have, it plays rather quickly. Even among a slow group, if everyone has played before, you can finish a game in an hour or less. In my experience, Cities and Knights can easily double that time. And sadly, what you get doesn't really justify the extra time. It certainly doesn't bring double the fun.

I played last night for the first time in years, and got to see all the flaws come rushing back. One player's starting city was pillaged by barbarians in the first few turns. The winning player was drawing one amazing card after another from the deck, while anybody else earning bonus cards seemed to get the not-so-great options. And despite the fact it was virtually a runaway victory, the game still took an hour and a half.

I like the idea of Cities and Knights of Catan, but the reality of it just doesn't deliver. Here's a case where more isn't better.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Vertigo Hold

My recent viewings of Rear Window and Psycho had at least one of you readers wondering which Alfred Hitchcock classic I'd check out next. The answer is Vertigo. Unfortunately, this broke the chain for me -- I didn't like the movie one bit.

In turned out that Vertigo was not a suspense movie or thriller at all; it's a love story. The meat of the plot is James Stewart's retired police character falling in love with a woman he's hired to shadow. Okay, I can respect a director wanting to shake things up and not be pigeonholed into making one kind of movie. If Hitchcock wanted to make a love story, I have no issue there.

But he didn't make a good love story. The first act starts out on another path, as though we are indeed watching a thriller or mystery. There's even a thread of the possible supernatural in it; is the woman actually being possessed by a ghost and walked around town like a puppet? But all that soon gives way to an incredibly slow-paced courtship. We get long walks, marveling at tree rings, all manner of boredom before finally, something of substance happens again...

Spoiler alert if you've not seen it... skip the next paragraph.

...the woman dies. Then the mystery aspect of the film tries to reassert itself. Except that it's been gone too long, all the momentum is lost. And worse, the tension is released again almost immediately when it's revealed to the audience that the death was staged, and the woman James Stewart fell in love with is still alive, pretending to be someone else. Now we're going to spend the rest of the movie waiting (more waiting?!) for his character to catch up with us.

In the final act, the movie's age really starts to show, as the main character indulges in overt chauvinism. He manhandles the new woman in his life, figuratively and sometimes literally, forcing her into a makeover to turn her into someone else, the woman he wants to be with. And she weakly submits in the hopes of continuing a relationship with him. By the end of it all, I found both characters thoroughly distasteful, and wasn't at all moved by the supposedly haunting finale.

But Vertigo is not wholly without redeeming qualities. There are two aspects of it which I feel worthy of note. First is the tremendous music of Bernard Herrmann. It thrills, it sweeps, it stirs. This was not the composer's only genius score, but it was one of his best.

Then there's the famous (and infamous) camera work of Irmin Roberts, the man who invented a technique so distinct and famous, it was named for this movie: the "dolly out, zoom in" or "Vertigo zoom." Today, it's impossible to imagine film without it, that impossible visual distortion of things changing size in the background as the objects (usually characters) in the foreground remain the same size. There have been a lot of hacks over the last half century who have lifted the technique only to sully it into cliche, but it has also been used in iconic moments from Jaws, Apollo 13, oh... more good movies than I could possibly list. And it all started here, with a genius who thought of a technical way to convey on film the emotional state of one's world shifting.

For these two contributions alone, I can grade Vertigo a full mark higher than I otherwise would. But I have to say, I would otherwise put it at the rock bottom. Overall, Vertigo gets a D from me. I still have had more good Hitchcock experiences than bad, so I expect I'll be catching another of his famous films that has slipped by my radar. But this has put the brakes on. I'll probably wait a while longer than I did for these last few.

Friday, April 10, 2009

A Cagey Look

I recently saw the movie The Birdcage for the first time. A multi-star cast of Robin Williams, Nathan Lane, Gene Hackman, Dianne Wiest, Hank Azaria, and (before anyone really knew who she was) Calista Flockhart appear in this comedy about a gay man in committed relationship who agrees to "play it straight" to con the conservative parents of his son's fiancee.

In a nutshell, this is a killer finale with a lengthy prologue. The entire movie is one big buildup to the "big dinner" in which the families meet, and everything preceeding it is just so much filler, wasting time on a too slow burn to get there.

The thing is, once the movie does get there, it proves well worth the wait. The cast brings the funny big time, with one laugh out loud moment after the next. Nathan Lane in particular steals the show, and when you consider that he's stealing it from professional ham Robin Williams, it's a true accomplishment.

But even as the movie seems to have a quiet message to look past prejudice, it engages in more than a few cheap stereotypes along the way. The movie does ultimately satisfy, and yet it's hard not to look it as a 22-minute episode of a really good sitcom stapled on the back of an hour-and-a-half of largely uneventful, unfunny blather. It's an A short film grafted onto the end of a C (or worse) feature length one. Which I suppose averages out to something like a B.

See it expecting less than perhaps I did, and I think you'll probably enjoy it.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Vampire Sucks

I've recently been playing some of the less popular games in my board game collection, bringing back things that haven't been touched in some time. One was the simple card game Vampire, from Reiner Knizia.

If you know anything about German board games, you know that Reiner Knizia is a man that has designed a lot of very clever games. You also know that "theme" isn't usually very high on his list -- for example, one his more well-known games, Ra, was re-skinned and released as Razzia, changing from a game about the monuments of ancient Egypt to a war between rival gangsters. You know, cause those are similar.

But I think none of his games (that I've played, anyway) have as laughably incidental a theme as Vampire. The rules tell you you're a vampire hunter going into six different locations to slay vampires as they gather in numbers there. The way this works is you have a deck of cards in six colors (plus a few wilds). Each card has one or two vampire heads on it. On your turn, you draw two, then either discard one to one of the "vampire gathering areas," or you "go on a vampire hunt," which is supposed to be a flavorful way of saying that you play a set of three or more cards of the same color in front of you.

Some artist was paid to dutifully render appropriately gothic images on these cards, but the entire thing is a sham. Still, as I said, this is not entirely to be unexpected where Knizia is concerned. It's not a dealbreaker. The question is, is there a fun and/or strategic game to enjoy under the flimsy skin? Often, that answer is yes.

But sadly, not so here. The "strategy" consists of not discarding a card that will put three or more cards in any one of the six discard piles. There's an interesting scoring mechanic that should in theory drive strategy -- in final scoring, you count all your "slain vampire heads," but the player with the smallest set in each color doesn't get to count that particular set. There should be a balancing act of playing larger sets for more points versus playing small sets to end the game more quickly. (It ends when one player has played a set of all six colors.)

Nope. In practice, that falls down too. This is a game for 2-5 players, and basically it works like this: the more players you have, the better it works to play small sets as quickly as you can to end the game; the fewer players you have, the better it works to wait and play the largest sets possible, even if you aren't the player who triggers the end of the game. It doesn't even take one game for everyone to learn how to play optimally, and then it just comes down to luck. Who will draw the right color cards, or the cards with two vampire heads instead of one?

I suppose it's unfair to think of this game -- clearly intended to be simple -- as anything but a game to fill 20 minutes, either at the end of a long game night, or at the beginning while waiting for everyone else in your group to arrive. But even on those terms, there are far superior short games to choose from.

Having now played it again, I expect Vampire will vanish back into the game closet for a long time to come.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Dead Is Dead

I really enjoyed tonight's installment of Lost. I was looking for the inevitable Ben-centric installment to paint in his "what happened before the return" story, but we ended up with a lot more to his story even than that.

We learned that Ben's refusal to kill Rousseau, and kidnapping of Alex, was a major point where the relationship between Ben and Widmore began to sour. We learned that Widmore was ultimately expelled by the Others and banished from the Island, (in whole or in part) for fathering Penny out in the rest of the world. And yes, we also learned that indeed Ben tried to kill Penny... but more importantly that he wasn't able to go through with it upon seeing her son Charlie.

So an interesting episode that gave Ben more humanity than he's had lately, or perhaps even ever. It takes a young child to bring it out in him, but he does let down his cold, calculating guard.

Also interesting that even as we were seeing Ben's softer side, we were seeing him in full, manipulative mode too. We're often meant to suspect Ben of lying, but this was a rare episode in which we actually catch him in the lie right then -- he tells John that he knew the Island would bring him back to life, but he not long after tells Sun this was a total surprise and it "scares the hell out of him."

And then, in the final act, there was the tearing down of Ben. Seeing inside the "monster" wasn't such a big moment for it showing us a little more of what the monster's about than we've seen in past confrontations with it. Rather, it was big that we saw it putting Ben through the wringer. And then, just as Eko saw someone from his past in proximity to the monster, so Ben saw Alex.

...who bitch-slapped him around and tore him down another level. Ben is now supposed to do everything Locke says. If he respects that demand, then it will be him at his weakest, finally and totally out of control for the first time we've known him. And if he doesn't -- well, that promises some interesting consequences too. Either way, fantastic stuff for one of the most interesting characters on the show.

In any other episode, the revelation that there seems to be a "cult of the statue" that possesses people and makes them turn on their friends might be more important. (It's likely what happened to the French expedition in between the two times Jin saw them.) Perhaps when that story is pursued farther with the captive Lapedis, it will indeed be more interesting. But here it was only background noise in a great Ben episode.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Mistaken Identity

Have you ever seen the wrong movie? Well, it happened to me when I watched Murder at 1600 not long ago. For some reason, even though the plots are wildly different, I thought I was getting Murder in the First, a movie starring Kevin Bacon as a convict on trial for his life. Oh well, I had the movie there already. I was going to have to wait for Netflix to send me a "replacement" whether I watched it or not. So why not?

So, Murder at 1600 stars Wesley Snipes as a cop and Diane Lane as a federal agent investigating a murder that has taken place in the White House. Alan Alda, Ronny Cox, and of all random people, Dennis Miller, make appearances. So does chronic whisperer (but good actor) Daniel Benzali (whose face I'll bet you'd know even if you don't recognize him by name).

And it's all just dumb beyond comparison. The liberties taken with security in the White House (hell, in federal buildings in general) are so outrageous as to make the current season of 24 look like a documentary. The plot is just a lattice to hold different action pieces; it seemed the writers knew they weren't capable of delivering a good mystery thriller, so they served up a Big Dumb Action Movie instead.

Stupid as it was, though, some of the action sequences did manage to thrill a bit. In short, I didn't hate the movie. But I certainly wouldn't recommend it either. Sometimes, you see a movie blind like this and discover a wonderful treasure. It's happened to me before. This time, I found only a disposal, C+ piece of fluff.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Day 7, 12:00-1:00 AM

Jack begins the episode riding computer jockey. Is he the new Chloe?

Tony's so tough, he jams that comm into his messed up ear.

Tony needs support on the east "perimeter." (Drink!)

The President wants "no more mistakes." With seven more hours to go after this one, I'm sure that'll work out.

Tony needs Reliant's five-digit prefix code.

Of all the reprehensible things this reporter Ken is doing right now, perhaps the worst is making us listen to a brick of exposition about things we already know.

Ken has a very different definition of "wrangling a reporter."

The doctor says it's okay for Jack to give himself injections? To stop uncontrollable shaking?!

Gee, the doctor didn't think it might be worth mentioning a possible experimental treatment last episode?

24 introduces its newest socio-political point of debate. Stem cells can save Jack!

This Weapon of Mass Destruction is brought to you by Sprint. (How do you suppose they feel about that?)

Who keeps ice water inside a globe on their desk?

Ken did what he needed to do to get head.

Jonas Hodges starts video blogging.

Now he wants a conference in person with the President "within the hour." First of all... Drink! Second of all, that's two minutes from now. What, does Starkwood have a transporter too?

Sunday, April 05, 2009

No Sense of Adventure

Yesterday, I went to see the movie Adventureland, a new comedy from the director of Superbad about zaniness at an amusement park.

Except that's not what it's about. You'd think so from the previews, or at least I did, but this movie is actually a story of "young love" exactly in the spirit of last year's Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist. It was such a clone of that earlier movie, in fact, that they found a virtual clone of actor Michael Cera to play the lead role. It seems like Jesse Eisenberg must have had coaching to so perfectly channel the mannerisms of Hollywood's current gawky teen "it" guy.

Unsurprisingly, then, my reaction to the movie was a clone of what I had to Nick and Norah as well. This isn't an unfunny movie. There are some good scenes and good lines peppered throughout the piece (some spoiled in the trailer, some not). There's good acting from a lot of the cast, particularly Ryan Reynolds as the park repairman.

But there's also a lot of down time as the film tracks a love story that never fully engages. There's an over-the-top side character trying too hard to be like a Stiffler from American Pie. There's a lot of material that just feels like padding of the thin premise.

The presence of Martin Starr in the film couldn't help but make me think of the one season brilliant-but-cancelled TV series Freaks and Geeks. And that is in every conceivable way a superior treatment of the same turf this film was trying to cover. Hell, they're even both "retro," both set in the 1980s. I'd recommend checking out that series if you haven't, rather than wasting time on this movie. I rate it a C+.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Too Close to Home

I've seen my share of John Hughes movies, but until recently, Planes, Trains & Automobiles had not been one of them. It being a Thanksgiving movie, perhaps this wasn't the time of year to be watching it, but I felt in need of a comedy to break up some of the more serious and dark stuff I'd been watching.

Unfortunately, I didn't find the movie to be that much of a comedy. Oh, Steve Martin and John Candy are both great. Yeah, so each of them is maybe doing their "schtick" a little more than playing a truly different character, but hell, it's funny "schtick." This is why we liked them in other movies. (Well, why I liked them anyway.) But they weren't making me laugh much during this movie. And by about halfway through the film, I think I zeroed in on why.

Travel difficulty is not an inherently funny premise. Put simply, travel sucks. Even when a trip is normal, you waste an entire day, cram into small spaces with annoying strangers, and suffer tension and or boredom. And when you do have problems on a trip? Well... sadly, this movie isn't all that much of an exaggeration.

Has my car ever burst into flames? No. But I personally know someone that has happened to. She called me on the phone minutes after it happened. I've been bumped from flights. I've had lost luggage. I've had messed up rental car reservations. I've had weather delays. I shared hotel rooms -- even a hotel bed on an occasion or two. And as a result of all this, I found that I couldn't laugh much when I saw this stuff happening to Steve Martin's character. The movie seemed built on the premise that we'd all sit back and laugh at the poor guy, but I too often just saw the poor guy and empathized with him.

And then, even if none of that were a factor, even if I was able to find everything funny, a movie with that premise has nowhere to go, no appropriate ending to reach. It's supposed to be about a neverending, horrible travel experience. But it can't be neverending -- eventually, you have to let him off the hook. And what's more, it's an 80s comedy, so it has to have a happy ending. Worse, a sappy one. Aw shucks, we find out that John Candy's character has nowhere to go for Thanksgiving, so Steve Martin takes him in. Am I supposed to be reaching for a hanky? Why haven't you had any jokes for the last 10 minutes of your comedy movie?

By this point, you're probably expecting me to give a rock bottom grade to this movie. But here's the part where I circle back around to how great John Candy and (particularly) Steve Martin are. They managed to wring a few laughs out of me even in the midst of a movie I wasn't really enjoying. The opening sequence of the competition for a cab is great (not just for the Kevin Bacon cameo). The single scene loaded with a stream of profanities (that earned the movie an R rating when nothing else in it would otherwise warrant more than a PG) is perfectly placed and executed. "You're going the wrong way!" "How do they know where we're going?"

The movie is not utterly devoid of laughs. But there are far better efforts out there for any given person involved, from Hughes to Martin to Candy, to any of the other actors that show up in bit parts. I rate it a C.

If I'm looking for a thematically appropriate movie this Thanksgiving, I'll find something else.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Checking in on the Dollhouse

Dollhouse has aired eight episodes, but I haven't mentioned the show here since the second one. And without Battlestar Galactica to talk about on a Friday night anymore, it seemed like an opportunity to talk about where my opinion of Joss Whedon's newest show stands now.

The show has seemed to get steadily better almost every week, though not by leaps and bounds. When Agent Ballard lost his job a few weeks back, at the same time a secretly-programmed Echo made contact with him for the first time, things definitely took a sharper upswing. Alright, they regressed a bit after that when Dollhouse did the obligatory sci-fi premise of having "all the characters lose their inhibitions and start behaving as though they were drunk/children/stupid." But tonight's installment, with the featured Dolls waking up with awareness of their situation, turned right back around on the road to improvement.

But I have to say, I think there's still quite of bit of mileage on that road to cover. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was honestly no better in its lackluster first season, but I nevertheless find myself hoping for more out of Dollhouse, since I'm not really expecting at this point to get any more episodes of it after this run of 13.

I think there are two core problems with the show that might be unsolvable. First, it lacks the space in which to effectively place the trademark Joss Whedon humor and pithy dialogue. Now, he has said in interviews that basically, "the Dollhouse isn't a funny place," that this is going to be a darker show on a week-to-week basis than what he has made before. And you know what? I think I could accept that.

The problem is, I don't think he has. Many of the episodes (more, recently) have had quite a few "jokes" in them. But they often feel wedged in, inappropriate for the surroundings. That's because the Dollhouse staff, from Echo's handler Boyd, to Ms. DeWitt, to secondary characters like Dr. Saunders and Dominic, are incredibly serious, almost humorless characters. And the Dolls themselves don't have humor in their natural states either.

That leaves Agent Ballard, who has a trace of humor in an uptight FBI sort of way, and Dollhouse tech guy Topher. Oh, Topher. As basically the only character on the show with a sense of humor, the writers are loading him down with all the jokes. All the wry quips, turns of phrase, and practical jokes that got spread out evenly on Firefly among Mal, Wash, Zoe, Jayne, Kaylee, Book, Inara, and yes, even Simon and River, is all being funneled into this one guy. It might be cool for a person to have, say, the strength of nine people, but the wit of nine people? He just comes off obnoxious, in my opinion.

Joss says he has a dark premise. I think he'd be better off embracing that more.

The second problem is the lack of another hallmark of Whedon's other series. Buffy, Angel, and Firefly were all, amid their fantastical trappings, relationship shows. They were all shows about friends so close that they became a true family despite a lack of blood relation. Not that they always got along; part of having a "family" that close is that the characters could go at each other in ways that only family would.

There's inherently no way for these kinds of relationships to develop in the Dollhouse premise. Oh sure, it's been a running theme in the episodes so far that the Dolls don't get memory wiped as completely clean as you might think. But that's a long way from them developing any real history with one another. The staff tries to keep them all at a dispassionate distance. The staff is nothing but cold and business-like with one another. (Again, except for that "wacky" Topher!) Relationships on this series seem to operate at a roughly CSI: Dollhouse kind of level, and that deprives us of Whedon's greatest strength as a writer.

Now, is it a terrible show? No, not at all. I am generally entertained when I watch it. And like I said, I think that on average, it gets a little better every week. But it still lives in a "better than a fair amount of television" area, when I want it to be really worthy of Joss Whedon. I'm not sure it can get that far in the handful of episodes left to be aired. I'm not even sure I want it to get there, just so that I could be disappointed in the likely event the show won't be renewed for another season.

So that's where I stand. I'm in it until the end, pleased to see it taking steps up in quality, disappointed they're only baby steps.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Let "Let" Be

Is it possible for a movie most people have never heard of to be overhyped? Seems a contradiction, but I recently learned the answer to that is "yes."

Such was my experience with the film Let the Right One In. A movie released last year in Sweden (and already optioned for an American remake, naturally), this movie was pretty much heralded in horror circles as the resurrection of the vampire genre. (You know, because HBO's True Blood and that little movie you might have heard of called Twilight demonstrated how on fumes the genre was until now.) I'd heard so many good things about the movie from so many places that I resolved fairly early on to learn nothing further about the film until I'd seen it. So all I knew was: it was Swedish, it involved vampires, and it was supposed to be really good.

Wrong expectations.

So here's what the movie is really about. It tells the story of an early teenage boy who befriends a strange loner girl who appears to be the same age as he. But in truth, she's an ancient vampire who has just had to sever ties (read: arteries) with the "thrall" she has relied upon to compensate for her small stature in the adult world.

Oh, and for no reason I can discern, it's set in the 1970s.

It does sound like a fairly intriguing premise, but imagine you're me, expecting "the next great vampire movie." You can see my problem -- this movie is a relatively introspective, dramatic piece punctuated with a couple moments of violence. Despite being set up, I still tried to approach the material as objectively as I could. But I still found it lacking.

The script, in both plot and pacing, is a bit lacking in places. The vampire girl's first thrall is shown in the early film, and is so pathetically inept that, while it justifies her need to "trade up," it makes you wonder how the arrangement could ever have been effective. Long stretches of the film pass with very little activity.

You have incredibly cool and subtle makeup and visual effects used sparingly to convey an unsettling otherness about the girl one moment. Then you have the most bizarre and unnecessary bit of nudity I've ever seen in a movie. One moment, there are incredibly cool displays of what happens to vampires who break the rules (exposure to sunlight, entering a house without invitation). The next moment, we're wasting huge chunks of time on poorly established secondary characters.

There's a lot to like in the movie, to be sure, but it's buried amidst a lot that's not likeable. Perhaps this is one case where an American remake of a foreign film might be appropriate and desireable. Maybe the flaws I see in the film are more a case of cultural divide, and an American version -- assuming it can be true to the spirit of the piece, and not just gore it up like Hostel 12/Saw LXVIII -- might be a good thing. But as it is, I can only rate the movie a C+.

If you're an absolute horror junkie, or love foreign films, you might want to check it out. Otherwise, I suggest you pass.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Whatever Happened, Happened

There was more "filling in of the blanks" in tonight's Lost episode, this time centered around Kate. We got not only the full story of what led her to give up Aaron and return to the Island, but also what whispered request Sawyer made of her in last season's finale.

And it was all really good stuff. I'd already assumed what most of these missing pieces had to be, but wasn't too sure how logical it was going to seem for the characters when it actually played out. But having Kate choose to return to find Claire makes perfect sense. It made for a powerful moment in tonight's episode, and should be a powerful motivation for her in the episodes to come.

The saving of Young Ben's life made for even more compelling drama. As the pieces first began to fall into place, it seemed a stretch to imagine anyone would have an attitude other than Jack's -- he puts us through hell as an adult, let him die. But with Kate freshly stung from the wound of giving up Aaron, I can believe the lack of cold logic, and the desire to save this other boy she could help.

Things were even more telling for Sawyer, who showed that he has indeed become a different person in three years. Yet none of it he did to be "good," but simply because it's what Juliet wanted. A great turn for the character, now so far from the self-serving con man of three years earlier.

But arguably the biggest transformation of all was in Jack. We've seen the surgeon threaten lives before, so that wasn't what was new. (In fact, as mentioned in the episode, he threatened to let Ben die in need of surgery once before.) Rather, what we saw was a full solidification of a new man of faith. The old, doubting Jack would never have admitted bald-faced that he came back to the Island "because he was supposed to," and that he doesn't know what purpose he's yet meant to serve. He would never suggest that the Island has ways of "working things out for itself," and that he should probably get out of its way. Jack has now had a complete conversion to Locke's way of thinking. A huge journey for the character.

Of course, Richard Alpert's statement that Ben would not remember these events was an overly convenient explanation to preserve continuity -- but what are you gonna do? Best to look the other way on this, I think, and let the drama be served better for it.

A good episode, and a nice final scene teasing that next week might shift back to the present to follow Sun, Locke, and Ben.