Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Real Good

I recently watched Lars and the Real Girl. Having heard good things about it, I had pretty high hopes. Sometimes, raised expectations are a recipe for failure.

This was not one of those times. Like Half Nelson, this movie featured a wonderful performance from Ryan Gosling, but this time surrounded by an equally good cast, and in service of a great story. It's about a painfully introverted young man who orders a "Real Doll" from the internet and, when it arrives, believes that it is a flesh-and-blood woman. His brother and sister-in-law are instructed by the small town physician to go along with the delusion rather than fight it, and much drama, sweetness, humor, and emotion ensues.

As I mentioned, the performances are just incredible. "Painfully" introverted really is the way I'd describe the title character of Lars, because it's actually uncomfortable to watch Ryan Gosling in the opening act of the movie. Emily Mortimer is wonderful as the nice-to-a-fault sister-in-law who just wants more than anything for the two brothers to be a part of each other's lives. And Patricia Clarkson is excellent as the doctor trying to treat Lars under the guise of treating the doll. The scenes in which she uncovers the root of Lars' delusion are among the most powerful in the movie.

The writing is excellent. It starts out awkward, and then drifts into funny, always stopping short of the line of actually ridiculing the main character. And then the story takes its most remarkable turn -- the entire town bands together to play along with the delusion. And it's completely believable. Before you know it, this doll really is a character in this movie, and you're caught up in how she is impacting the lives of all the other characters.

The movie gets deeper as it goes on, and never hits a sour note. Now, in retrospect, I think this movie has a fair amount in common with Edward Scissorhands, in that it tells an emotional story about a small group of neighbors. But this movie presents a more honest reality, rather than the heightened gothic-meets-department-store-catalog of Tim Burton's film.

In either case, the result is the same: a movie I rate an A. I definitely recommend Lars and the Real Girl.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Minor Tremors

Oh so many movies get compared to Tremors. But while I had a pretty good idea of what the comparison meant, I'd never actually seen the real thing until recently. I can now see why the comparison comes up a lot -- quite a few movies get made in the "B movie" style, while trying to embrace the camp to go for laughs. But I have to say I didn't think Tremors was a masterpiece against which these others necessarily should be measured.

There's nothing particularly wrong with this movie, but I didn't find it very engaging either. First, there's the comedy element of the film. Most of those laughs come at the expense of the characters, a variety of cliché country hicks with limited intelligence and a love of firearms. "Isn't it funny how stupid they are?" takes a soft touch to pull off well. This movie falls somewhere between the "yes, it is" of a Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure and the "no, it certainly is not" of a Jim Carrey movie. Not a failure, but not a great triumph either.

The suspense aspects of the movie don't work at all. There's never a moment of jeopardy that pulls you to the edge of your seat. Perhaps it's that the characters just aren't worth caring about. Perhaps it's that the monster's tentacles look too fake to present a credible menace.

The acting is good, at least. Michael Gross is particularly funny in a role that cuts completely against his well established type of the time, father Steven Keaton on Family Ties. Kevin Bacon is fun to watch, as usual, and Fred Ward is a good sidekick to him. (Though really, each is the sidekick to the other at different times.)

I know the movie has some fans, but for me it only merits a C+. I wouldn't recommend it, but it at least wouldn't be a total head-scratcher to me if someone has a soft spot for it.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

What Happened in Vegas

I've returned from Las Vegas, completely exhausted. And sadly, without any particularly good tales to tell. I had a great time. The work-related aspects of the trip actually brought their share of fun as well. Plus, I found some time for some poker, and going to see Mystère once again (still fantastic). But I've only gathered a small collection of moments worth mentioning:

I hit four of a kind twice while playing poker this trip. It was delicious.

I played at a table with, hands down, the worst poker player I've ever personally sat with. He came in and lost something like $150 in the span of 15 minutes. Needless to say, everyone in the table swooped in for the dead money after we all saw the hand where he cold-called a raise and re-raise before the flop with an unsuited Q-5. And cold-called a raise after the flop having hit absolutely nothing.

And finally, a humorous little blackjack experience this morning, that I picked up in my hour before I had to leave for the airport -- the only time I played anything but poker all weekend. Someone came up to sit on my right and throws his "basic strategy" mini-pamphlet right there on the table in front of him, to which both the dealer and pit boss smiled and wished him that it would help. Five minutes later, a completely different player (who didn't know the first) came up to sit on my left, and pulls out the exact same mini-pamphlet.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

High Wire Act

I recently watched last year's documentary Man on Wire, about Frenchman Phililppe Petit, who in 1974 walked on a tightrope suspended between the two towers of the World Trade Center in New York. I found it interesting that a documentary was crafted out of events that took place nearly 35 years earlier. Doing so presented some definite challenges for the filmmakers.

Early on in the film, I found myself wondering how effective a piece it could really be. Interview subjects were reflecting on events from decades earlier. With such distance in time to grow distant in emotion, how compelling would their stories seem? It didn't take long for that concern to be dispelled. Everyone spoke with an uncanny earnestness, even an immediacy. More than one person is moved to tears as they tell their parts in the tale, and the audience really feels some of that emotion too.

Supplementing the interviews are a good number of re-enactments. Actors have been cast to play key roles, as the young Petit and his team of accomplices plan their big event like a heist. There is no getting permission for this grand stunt. They must somehow sneak into the buildings with all the elaborate and heavy equipment they need, then set up overnight without being discovered by security guards. Here again, the movie surprised me. I expected these bits of fiction to detract from the film. (Well, not fiction, but not truth filmed as it happened, as you'd expect in most documentaries.) Instead, they provide a surprising degree of tension and suspense. Even though you know how it turns out, you do get caught up in the caper.

Less effective are the handful of actual home movies taken as the group practices in the months leading up to the big day. And it has nothing to do with the content of those films, but rather how they are presented. Rather than presenting the footage in its true aspect ratio, it's stretched horizontally to fill the widescreen frame. This is an especially odd choice, since footage of the World Trade Center's construction in the early minutes of the film are presented in true ratio, with black bars on the sides of the frame. One of Petit's personal movies from 1974 runs a full five minutes, but my brain was hurting throughout every second of it, seeing everyone stretched unnaturally.

The ultimate climax is both less and more than what I thought it would be. There's almost no actual footage of Petit's 45 minutes on the tightrope between the buildings, a disappointment after an earlier stunt in the opening act of the film (a tightrope walk between the pylons of a bridge in Sydney, Australia) is shown to us in film taken on the date. The movie's "big moment" is presented mostly in a series of still photos. But at the same time, they are effective photos. The sense of vertigo is made horrifyingly clear in this sequence, and really, all throughout the film. Rarely has a movie evoked so physical a reaction in me.

I've noticed that some reviewers have questioned why there's no mention made in the film of the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001. And frankly, I'm surprised why anyone would wonder about this directorial/editorial decision. This is a film of triumph and exhiliration, and about the past. This is a tale of 1974, and subsequent events have absolutely nothing to do with it.

At least, not with the narrative itself. The fact is, you really can't watch this movie and not think on occasion of how the buildings no longer exist today. Sweeping shots of the buildings, meant to give a sense of scope to events, also reminded me of tourists trips to New York back in the 1990s, when I stood in roughly the same place and saw the things with my own eyes. I think it an effective choice, and the only choice, to leave this sort of thing as subtext in this movie.

I rate Man on Wire a B-. It's a shame there wasn't more material available to make the film, but the filmmakers did a very effective job with what they had.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Murder Much Foul

At the prompting of a friend, I recently decided to check out the movie Murder by Death. This was something she remembered being rather funny when she was younger, but hadn't seen in a while. Let's make a movie night of it!

As she told me going in, this 1976 movie was really a progenitor of 1985's Clue. Both are silly-spirited comedies featuring a "trapped in a mansion" murder mystery. If you ask me, Clue perfected the formula this movie first set in place.

On paper, this should have been the better movie. Literally, in fact, as its screenplay was written by Neil Simon. He certainly started from a headier place. Rather than trying to make a movie loosely based on a board game, Simon wrote a massive literary sendup. The story features several detectives coming to the creepy mansion, each a pastiche of a famous sleuth from books: Charlie Chan, Nick and Nora Charles, Hercule Poirot, Sam Spade, and Miss Marple. If you're well read in the genre, there might well be a lot of humor in there for you to enjoy. For me? Well, I was at least able to recognize who most of these people were supposed to be.

The cast is so extensive, it's almost impossible to believe. It includes Peter Falk, Alec Guinness, David Niven, Peter Sellers, and Maggie Smith. Eileen Brennan (who later played Mrs. Peacock in Clue) is there. The author Truman Capote appears as his usual, unusual self. (Philip Seymour Hoffman's portrayal was right on the mark.) James Cromwell is there, making his first ever film appearance. How often does a cast like that get assembled today?

But sadly, they're all there in service of a script that's not terribly funny. Oh there are certainly some laugh out loud moments here and there, but they come after long dry spells. Worse, a good amount of the humor is actually racist, or offensive in other ways. Peter Sellers is playing the Charlie Chan character, with disrespectful makeup and accent, leaving you at times to wonder how something like this continued to be socially acceptable so long after blackface was known to be improper.

As hit-and-miss as the humor is, the writing itself does no better. The pacing is terrible. It takes almost literally half the film's run time for all the characters to arrive at the mansion. The mystery that ought to be at the heart of it all doesn't even develop until there's barely half an hour to go. And it's all polished off with an absolutely non-sensical ending worthy of Scooby Doo.

But I did laugh at times. And much of the acting is oddly quite strong. Alec Guinness, for example, is pretty great in his role of the blind butler named... well, I won't say, since the name itself is one of the funnier jokes of the movie.

If this really did pave the way for Clue, one of my favorite movies (and way funnier than you'd ever expect it to be), then I'm glad Murder by Death does exist. But I'd hardly recommend it to anyone. I rate it a C+.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Raise the Stakes

I'm off to hopefully mix business with pleasure. I'm on a work trip to Las Vegas. I have a fairly time-consuming array of job obligations, but hopefully I'll also find some free time for Vegas-type fun before my return on Sunday. The blog will keep on "maneuvering without Heimlich" every day, however. I just won't be here to answer any questions or respond to any pithy comments for the next couple days.

In the meantime, enjoy this video of what would happen if Buffy the Vampire Slayer ever met that doofus from Twilight.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

F is for Family

As I mentioned briefly not long ago, my recent review of The Birds got me involved in a conversation with some friends, about "giving up" on a movie or book before the end. I've always had a hard time doing it. Once started, I kind of have to finish it. But I was telling my friends that I wish it was something I could do more easily.

I can now report that I wasn't just talk. I recently gave up on the movie My Family (or Mi Familia) after 50 long minutes. I didn't start watching it for a particularly good reason. While in a discussion with a friend and co-worker about the Galactica spin-off Caprica, he mentioned that he had this decent movie on DVD that was an odd curiosity in that it had both Esai Morales and Edward James Olmos in it. There, they were brothers, where the Galactica universe had ultimately set up one as the father of the other.

I've got to start being more discrimating. It turns out that My Family is an attempt at a generational epic. Narrated by Edward James Olmos (who occasionally appears on screen), we follow the story of his family over sixty years, from when his father first came to the U.S. from Mexico. And the film failed to grab me on any level.

This really is just "the story of my family." There's nothing of particular note to merit why this particular story is being told, as opposed to any other immigrant family in America who I'm sure might have a family history just as interesting. To them. There are a few hardships, challenges, and losses that might serve as grist for the drama mill here, but before any of them gain any traction, the story just moves on. There's no continuing plot of any kind; the movie just hops from sub-story to sub-story every 20 minutes or so.

Though I abandoned the film before all the cast had even put in an appearance (including first-billed star Jimmy Smits), I hadn't come across any good acting among those I'd seen. In fact, Edward James Olmos was pretty terrible in his narration. He recounts the tale in the condescending sing-song of a grandparent reading a storybook to a young child. Authentic, perhaps. But most people's grandparents haven't won an Emmy or been nominated for an Oscar. I expect better here. Deliberately awkward is a stylistic choice, I suppose, but not one I'm interested in watching.

There's nothing to see here. I don't know if it's fair to rate a movie I didn't finish, but I think the fact I didn't want to says it all. If I can rate it, it gets an F.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Dinner Theater

My exploration of classic films recently brought me to Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, the 1967 film that tackled the subject of interracial marriage. Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn play the parents of a young woman (Katharine Houghton) who has fallen in love just days ago with Sidney Poitier. The couple seeks the blessing of both sets of parents for their wedding.

The acting is the real standout of this movie. Hepburn and Poitier are both fantastic. Tracy plays at nearly the same level. Young Houghton is simply outclassed, but to her credit hangs in there well even though she's never able to really command the screen in their company. Joined by a cast of other skilled actors, they bring a number of memorable scenes.

Less exemplary is the spotty writing. First, there's a rather implausible time pressure put on the entire affair. The couple simply must get married in a few weeks, out of the country, and so the families must give their lessing that very night, or the whole thing is off. What?

Dodgier still, despite this artificial clock, it takes nearly half of the movie's 1:50 run time before any real conflict emerges. Both the mother and, initially, the father of the bride-to-be react to the surprise of their daughter's choice relatively well, considering the time period. A good friend of the family's shows up and pronounces and even more enthusiastic blessing. For a long time, you're left to wonder just when the drama in this drama is really going to arrive.

But just when I was about to write off the movie for being "visionary" in its time only by way of being impossibly optimistic for that time, things started to get more interesting. The father's parents come into the mix and get some more interesting discussions going. The craft of the writing picks up too. Characters weave in and out of rooms at this awkward dinner party, and nearly every possible pairing is given a compelling two-hand scene to play: mother with daughter, father with son, the two fathers, the two mothers, father of the bride and his long time friend, mother of the groom and father of the bride... every last bit of juice is squeezed out of the premise, and rather effectively.

Alas, it trips up again at the end, as Spencer Tracy is saddled with a five minute monologue to wrap up the film. It's a largely expository thing, like an essay being read in front of a class, repeating everything we've just watched. It's "previously, on Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," before we can get to the final resolution of the film.

And yet, while the movie (thankfully) gets more and more dated with each passing year as societal norms progress, I did not find the movie particularly dated in the ways so many decades-old films tend to seem to me. Alright, so there was that 1960s need to have an original song written for your film that gets repeated again and again (and again) in the orchestral score... but the acting, the photography, the way it all came off felt not so different from the way a serious drama would be made today. I'd rate the movie a B-.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Kobayashi Maru

I was recently exposed to the game Space Alert, a newer game by designer Vlaada Chvátil. I was reluctant to try it out on two fronts. First, I'd played his other popular game, Galaxy Trucker, a few times, and liked it a little less each time (to a point of utter frustration the last -- and probably last -- time I played it; sorry Sangediver!). Secondly, it's a cooperative game, everybody vs. "the game." This isn't a dealbreaker, but I've played very few such games that I've actually liked. Such games usually seem to be slow-paced and predictable.

The game surprised my expectations on the second front, and in doing so, surprised them on the first as well. The thing that really makes this cooperative game tick is a time pressure. Players have exactly 10 minutes of real time to plan everything they're going to do to try and beat the scenario thrown at them. When the 10 minutes are up, that's it -- you must all now run through your planned steps in sequence and find out if you've actually worked together well enough to triumph. The execution of everything is also quite short, meaning a game of Space Alert can be played in about 20-30 minutes -- considerably more appealing than the three to four hour epics common in the cooperative genre.

Players represent the personnel aboard a spaceship. (Well, technically, in a spaceship simulator.) You must work to survive a series of threats, both internal and external. This requires players to run about the ship pushing buttons, planning your moves in a somewhat Robo Rally-ish "register programming" method. But the catch is, most actions work best (if at all) when done in tandem with another player in a different section of the ship. Hence the planning and coordination.

The threats are rather chaotic. They actually come very close to the level of uncontrollable chaos that put me off of that other game, Galaxy Trucker. But here, rather than having one player be randomly screwed by events, you all go together if you go. This important difference, combined with that short run time, keeps the game pretty fun even though it's not as deep and strategic as the sort of board game I prefer.

I suppose there's a good chance that if I played it too often, the novelty would wear off. But the small dose I had recently was enjoyable, and I'd certainly be willing to play again another time.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Should Stay Dead

Campy pulp? Or pulpy camp? Whatever you'd call it, I recently decided to watch the modern(ish) cult classic Re-Animator. I did so really for one reason only, star Jeffrey Combs.

If you don't know this actor by name, you should. He is one of the best character actors working today. He's shown up in tons of television series and movies. Geeks like me arguably know him best for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, on which he played the recurring characters of both Brunt and Weyoun. The man just has a gift for playing the outrageous in an absolutely convincing and truthful way. I figured that even if Re-Animator was a bad movie, he'd be good in it, and that would probably make it worth something.

The problem is, he is pretty good in it. He plays it absolutely straight as an arrow, and even though at this earlier point in his career, he doesn't show skills quite as deep as what he would develop, he's very convincing. But no one and nothing else around him is. His appearances in things like The 4400, The Frighteners, and yes, Star Trek, work in part because everyone else around him is also taking it seriously.

Re-Animator is just a farce. It's loaded with laughable amounts of cheaply realized gore, hammy overacting, and insane concepts that can't help but be taken as jokes. Somewhere along the line, I just couldn't take it anymore. Maybe it was watching people try to writhe around with a small lump of black fur as though it were an angry zombified cat. Or maybe it was watching a revived body carry around its own decapitated head, Halloween costume-style (and about that expertly made, too).

Re-Animator isn't a scary movie, it's a comedy. But it doesn't really feel like an intentional comedy, either. There's certainly nothing in it to make you laugh; it only induces the sort of groans you get from a second-rate comedian telling lousy puns.

I can only say in the movie's favor that it is a blissfully short 88 minutes, and that yes, Jeffrey Combs "had it" even then. But there's no reason to watch this when he's done so much better work since then. I rate Re-Animator a D-.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

It Had a Great Fall

I recently reached back for another classic film of the 70s, All the President's Men. Going in, I wondered if I would have a similar reaction as the one I had to Frost/Nixon, namely that the movie's stakes could only appear to be so high, given a lack of "having been there" to live the events as they unfolded.

I can't say conclusively how much this was a factor, but I can say that I didn't find this movie nearly as entertaining as Frost/Nixon, or even State of Play, a modern "investigative journalism" movie to which it can be more directly compared.

In my mind, the biggest flaw of All the President's Men is that it really doesn't explain things very clearly. I believe the movie presumes the audience already has an intimate knowledge of the subject matter. And since it was made just four years after the Watergate break-in (and only two years after Nixon's resignation), this is a reasonable assumption for the time. Is it possible that, say, United 93 assumes knowledge of the September 11th terrorist attacks that someone born in 2003 isn't going to have in detail if they watch the movie in the late 2030s? Yet I say, regardless of whether the presentation of the film made sense in the context of its time, the question of a supposed "classic" movie is whether it stands the test of time. I'm not sure that All the President's Men does.

The film piles on name after name after name, only bothering to actually put faces to maybe one-third of them. The investigation of the two journalists, Woodward and Bernstein, is often lacking in factual "connective tissue." Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman both give energetic and convincing performances. When they get excited over some new breakthrough they've made, I absolutely believe their excitement. But I don't always understand it. Who is this we're talking about? Why is this thing you've just learned important? What does it prove? As often as not, I found the answer to one or more of these questions to be completely unclear.

That enthusiasm from the leads, along with good supporting performances from names like Jason Robards and Hal Holbrook, was enough for me to be caught up the emotion for as much as an hour of film. But as my intellect lagged ever farther and farther behind it, I became more frustrated and bored. As the movie plowed past the two hour mark, I was long past ready for an ending.

But even as the movie felt too long, it paradoxically ended up being too short. With five minutes to go, the movie makes huge leaps in time to pull in final details. In rapid succession, headlines appear to us on a teletype machine, culled from a span of over 18 months, telling us emotionlessly and without drama that so-and-so has been indicted, some-guy has pleaded guilty, Nixon has resigned. And then boom, roll credits. 135 minutes of buildup for no dramatic climax? Just a machine gunning of newspaper headlines and out?

What starts strong and promising ends up flatter than reading the whole thing from a history text book. Quality acting carries the film farther than it would otherwise have gotten, but it still doesn't make it nearly far enough. I rate the movie a C+.

Friday, June 19, 2009


I recently saw The Machinist, a movie I was warned was "tough to watch," but that I nevertheless remained curious about. Though it was not widely seen in its theatrical release five years ago, it gained some notoriety as the movie Christian Bale went all "De Niro" for. That is, he starved himself down to a skeletal 120 pounds to portray a man suffering the mental and physical ill-effects of months of insomnia.

The plot is, expectedly, of a psychological nature. While there is definitely a forward-moving plot, it's littered with lots of non-sensical moments designed to put us in the mind of the main character. What's real, what's not? And just what is the truth that ultimately explains all the odd things we're seeing?

The movie starts strong, with the opening camera shot showing us the main character rolling up a dead body in a rug. I found myself instantly pulled in and, in the good way, wanting to know what was going on. The narrative soon jumped back in time, but as more strange clues piled on, I still found myself becoming more fascinated in what I was seeing.

But unfortunately, there came a saturation point. About an hour into the film, there was still no sign of any explanation, nothing to make sense of the unexplained. The unusual slowly began to become annoying. The sensation that a carefully hidden secret was being slowly revealed to me transformed into the sensation that the film was just stalling as long as possible before exposing a gimmick that would fail to satisfy any expectations. And as forty more minutes droned on, that new feeling only intensified.

Ultimately, the answer that explains all the madness arrives, minutes before the final credits roll. On the plus side, it does explain everything we've seen. On the down side, it was indeed not half as clever as all the anticipation makes you hope for. I felt vaguely reminded of the movie Stay, in how I was so underwhelmed by the movie's final destination.

Christian Bale is good in the movie, but it's far from his best performance. His acting is not nearly as striking as his physical transformation. A supporting cast, including Jennifer Jason Leigh and Michael Ironside, is similarly "good but not great." I'd give the same assessment of the direction, for a hat trick of "neither exceptional nor mediocre."

Ultimately, the film didn't overstay its welcome so long as to make me dislike it. But I guess it was a disappointment when I consider the tremendous promise with which it began. Overall, I'd rate it a B-.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

No Pot of Gold

I've recently found another board game in my collection that's headed for the "get rid of me" stack. It had been a long while since I'd last played Goldland, since I'd remembered not enjoying it much the last time around. But I'm on a strange quest to play every game I've got at some point in 2009, so that meant this had to have its day.

It's a fine idea for a game. You play an adventurer, trekking through jungle territory in search of treasures from lost civilizations. Along the way, you must uncover paths through the territory, and overcome challenges that block your way.

The game captures that theme through tiles, played in a 7 x 7 grid to represent the territory. But the game begins with only 13 tiles in play -- two edges of the total area. Your goal is to get to the far corner, and once during each of your turns, you can "discover" a new tile adjacent to your adventurer token and journey further in.

Most tiles have one of a half dozen or so "adventure" types on them. They require you to be carrying certain combinations of items in your backpack, and discard them to overcome the challenge -- rifles to deal with wild and dangerous animals; beads to trade with primitive natives; provisions to get your through harsh terrain; and so on. The more you carry, the better prepared you are, but the slower you move each turn.

Where it all seems to come apart is that the game has a heavy component of luck, mixed with a lot of "riding on others' coattails." Let's say you're first to discover a new tile. If you've got what it takes to continue through it, well, lucky you! You're in great shape. But if you don't? Well, you're going to have to backtrack to pick up the gear you need.

There's a point reward in being the player to overcome more of each category of "adventure" than any opponent -- so it isn't good strategy for ALL the players to cluster together and try to use one path toward the goal tile. If you all keep going over the same adventures, then the player who gets there first will be the one rewarded. This encourages you to find your own path. But not completely. You do want to be near another player to seize on any adventures he uncovers but doesn't have the gear to do.

In practice, this seems to pretty well separate the players into two groups, each trying to come from a different border toward the goal tile. And by sheer luck of the draw, one of these paths in can be incredibly easy, while the other proves impossibly hard.

To translate this, when I played recently with four players, two players scored in the low 20s, both working a similar path. The other two players, struck down with bad luck in tile draws, finished with under 10 points. One had 4 points at the end of the game. There's just a futile lack of control here. And it doesn't move quickly enough or generate enough fun to make up for that fatal flaw.

I believe the game is out of print, which might have helped my planned attempt to sell it -- except that my copy is all beat to hell with the box caving in. Still, the real reward will be getting it out of my collection.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Law Review

Before Tom Hanks was making movies with performance demands so low that his hair style became the focus of many reviews, he was known for actually acting. I recently decided to take in a movie from that period that I hadn't seen before, Philadelphia. It was here that he won his first Oscar, portraying a lawyer trying to sue his former firm for firing him upon learning his was a gay man with AIDS.

He and Denzel Washington are indeed both outstanding in this movie. The strength of their performances alone would be enough to make this movie worth seeing, even if nothing else were going for it. But there's plenty of great dramatic material -- much of it focusing around the supportive family of Hanks' character -- that also make the movie well worth the time.

But it's far from perfect. There's a lot of material that comes off very cliché, and most of it has to do with Denzel Washington's character (as written). Does it really lift the proceedings to have him be prejudiced against gays so that he can "learn something" along with the audience? Are our hearts really supposed to soar when we hear a deliberating juror echo the catch phrase we've heard ad nauseum throughout the movie, "explain it to me like I'm a four-year old?"

Then there's the camera work. This movie has been brought to you by the Distractingly Tight Close-up Repertory Company. I really don't care what kind of artistic statement was trying to be be made through these choices, it's just intrusive to be almost constantly right up on top of the actors for the whole movie. What's more, it actually undermines some other stylistic choices made later on. In the final act, some even more unsettling camera work is brought in to represent the spread of AIDS -- strange focus, Dutch angles, direct address to the camera, and more. If this had come at the end of more "normal" cinematography, I think it could have made a very effective artistic statement. As it was, though, it just felt like a dial already at "8" being turned up to "10."

Still, the sentiment in the movie felt true far more often than it felt false. In almost every scene, the performances transcended the hurdles set in the way. And in the end, I'd rate Philadelphia a B.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

An Abundant Gift

A friend and co-worker recently loaned me the movie The Gift. We share a love of good thriller-chiller-supernatural stories, and he thought I'd enjoy this one.

It certainly had a pedigree. Directed by Sam Raimi, and with a star cast including Cate Blanchett, Giovanni Ribisi, Hilary Swank, Greg Kinnear, Keanu Reeves, and Katie Holmes, it seemed like it would be hard not to find something to like here.

Indeed, there were things to like. There was some very strong acting. I'm not talking about Keanu, who fails to be menacing as a wife-abusing husband, or Katie, in a bit role mostly about baring her breasts. But all the others I mentioned are very strong. There are also a number of other great character performances from people like Gary Cole, JK Simmons, and Kim Dickens -- people whose faces you probably know, even if you don't know their names.

The directing is strong, as you'd predict. There's a bit of an over-reliance on "jumpy" scares substituting for genuine suspense, but there's definitely some effective material here. Special props to the sound guys for this creepy, creepy moment with a fiddle player in the swamp that's giving me chills even as I think about it here.

But a lot of marks have to be taken off for the script. Put simply, it's overstuffed. The movie is trying to be way too many things, and track way too many subplots. It's a supernatural thriller, but it's also a romance! It's a whodunnit, but it's also a courtroom drama!

It's the story of a psychic who has visions that might help solve a murder. But it's also the story of a single mother trying to raise three children. With subplots about a two-faced young woman cheating on her fiance. And about another woman being abused by her husband. AND about a tormented young man with psychological traumas stemming from his father.

In trying to do all these things, tell all these stories, the movie never really handles any of them effectively. That includes the mystery, which is very transparent. What's more, all this ground is covered very effectively in the current television series Medium. Granted, this came several years before Medium, but that doesn't change the fact that five seasons of this formula has seriously diluted the impact of this film.

Still, Cate Blanchett is compelling. Giovanni Ribisi and Hilary Swank each take a separate subplot, either of which you could argue ought to be cut, and deliver powerhouse performances with deeply emotional scenes.

The movie is a mess, but it's not a loss. I rate it a B-.

Monday, June 15, 2009


One of my co-workers is quite the fan of Jean-Claude Van Damme and his special brand of ass-kicking movies. When we heard last year about the movie JCVD, it seemed to have his name all over it, and we talked about going to see it. The trouble was, it being a foreign film, and rather obscure (had you heard of it before just now?), it only ran a week at a local art house theater with incredibly uncomfortable seats. The novelty factor lost out to these other factors.

But now the movie is available on DVD, and I was able to check it out. JCVD is strange comedy/drama with a touch of action, in which Jean-Claude Van Damme plays "himself." Down on his luck after losing his child in a custody battle with his ex-wife, he returns to Brussels to visit his parents, and becomes involved in a bank holdup.

It's a mixed script, both good and bad. There are dramatic moments that actually land, jokes that score solidly, and even a beat or two of action. But the movie is constructed in a unnecessarily winding structure. It's presented in essentially four "acts" (labeled with title cards, no less), which double back on the timeline and sometimes shift perspective -- none of it actually improving the telling of the story, in my opinion.

It also includes some odd stylistic moments. There's an "it could have happened this way, but it really happened this way" jump cut. There's a weird monologue in which JCVD completely breaks the fourth wall and talks to the audience for three minutes.

The directing is also mixed. There are a few long, single takes -- including one to open the movie -- that are put together rather well. But there are other noticably distracting angles. And during that monologue I mentioned, Jean-Claude Van Damme actually rises on a camera dolly out of the set to sit among the stage lights and speak. You could argue it's a fitting choice for a monologue that breaks the narrative of the movie, but it also makes a jarring conceit even more unusual.

But there is an element to the film that pushes it out of average and into something a little better. Amazingly, it's Jean-Claude Van Damme himself. It turns out, he actually can act. You really believe in this down-and-out version of himself, and feel sorry for him. It's an "it's not always great to be famous" story in which you actually do empathize. And going back to that monologue again, the one that's so odd in its writing and directing? Well, in the acting, it's bizarrely incredible. "The Muscles from Brussels" actually goes through a wide range of emotions in the monologue, and seems to truly be feeling it rather than feigning it. I'd have never imagined he had it in him.

Ultimately, this movie probably works best if you've seen a good number of Van Damme's earlier films. I admit, I have not. Still, there are some things to like even if you're coming into it like I did. I rate it a B-.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Ogre Powered

After a too-long break from reading on a regular basis, tonight I finished a book loaned to me by a friend. It's a comedic fantasy called In the Company of Ogres, by A. Lee Martinez. It's a fast read; not too demanding and relatively enjoyable.

It's the story of Never Dead Ned, a member of a large army and unexceptional in every way but one -- he always comes back to life whenever he's killed. In the eyes of the leadership, this makes him uniquely suited to take command of a misfit division of soldiers called Ogre Company. The undisciplined band of ogres, goblins, humans, elves, and more has gone through many commanders recently, and has become too big a drain on the army's budget. It's to be disbanded if Ned can't whip them into shape.

The book tries for the kind of tone of The Princess Bride, or Terry Brooks' Magic Kingdom of Landover series. And while it's whimsical throughout, it's not really so funny as it is just cute. But it also comes close to feeling like two books grafted together. When the full truth behind Ned's repeated resurrections is revealed around the halfway point, it's so far from left field that only the continuity of characters reminds you you're reading the same book.

I have another book by the same author, also a "loaner." But I must confess I'm not going to jump to read it. It will stay on the "to do" list, but by the end of this book, I was feeling at the saturation point of this author's brand of wit. It's entertaining for a while... and he seems to know when enough is enough, keeping his book short and brisk.

I'd rate the book a B-. I would sooner steer someone the Landover books, but In the Company of Ogres wasn't a bad way to spend reading time either.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Hanging In

The critics' reviews on the new movie The Hangover, while mostly positive, seem to be sharply divided. Most are either hailing it as the funniest movie yet this year, while others are declaring its director, Todd Phillips, the "Uwe Boll of comedy." Uncertainty about which group I'd fall in kept me from going last weekend. (Well, that, and a much stronger desire to see Up.) But this weekend, I decided to take a chance.

It turns out, there's a middle ground here. There are some laughs to be had here, but none of the side-splitting, can't breathe variety. The movie takes entirely too long to get rolling, with a full third of the run time gone before the real plot arrives: waking up in a Vegas hotel room, in a mess of weird circumstances, and no memory of what happened the night before.

This kind of movie has been made many times before. It reminded me most of Dude, Where's My Car? -- but without the absolute lunacy that made that movie way more entertaining than it had any right to be. The Hangover, by contrast, does mostly keep a smile on your face once it finally gets going, with only the occasional good belly laugh.

The three leads are decent. Bradley Cooper doesn't really have the right look to pull off the "screw up" character, but his acting is shameless and un-self-conscious enough to mostly bridge the gap. Zach Galifianakis makes an amusing schlub, but he does start to wear thin before the movie ends. Ed Helms is probably the best of the three. He plays a far less dim-witted character than he does on The Office (or did in his Daily Show correspondent persona), and is convincing -- yet also really isn't as funny as he is from week to week on that series.

What I was probably going to rate as a slightly above average movie did get a big shot in the arm right at the end credits. A series of photos is shown, covering the adventures the group had during their "missing time," fleshing out details more starkly than they manage to actually uncover during the film. And here's where the comic gold really is. It's a shame it took so long to get there, but at least it got there.

So overall, I rate The Hangover a B-. It's probably not one to rush out to the theater to see, but may be worth a later look on DVD.

Friday, June 12, 2009

High Society

I recently watched the movie Dead Poets Society for the first time, the story of a group of boys in a late 1950s prep school inspired by an unorthodox teacher to "seize the day" and live life to the fullest. The movie was nomiated for an Oscar, along with Robin Williams for his role as the teacher.

Despite this praise, I have to say that I actually thought Robin Williams was the weak link in this cast. I think that at the time of the movie's release in 1989, it simply caught everyone by surprise that he could play it mostly serious in a fundamentally dramatic role. Since then, we've had many, many examples of this (including Good Will Hunting, for which he finally did win an Oscar). But at the time, this must have really been quite the shock, and I think it's over-credited as a result.

Partly due to the performance and partly due to the writing, I simply never believed that this teacher character could truly be that much of an inspiration to the boys in his charge. Maybe the prep school setting (of which I have no personal experience) and 1950s setting also served to alienate me further from this aspect of the plot. For the sum of whatever the reasons, though, I felt like Robin Williams' character came off more quirky and weird than rebellious and influential.

But for whatever shortcomings might be there, the film made up for it with the young actors that were the real subjects of the story. The cast, including Robert Sean Leonard, Ethan Hawke, and Josh Charles, is extraordinary. They manage to make more than a few hokey scenes believable, playing teenagers you can identify with.

After nearly an hour of film, as I neared the point of dismissing the entire movie as trite and false, things suddenly took a major upswing as Robert Sean Leonard's character took center stage. The real meat of the plot arrived at last, as he discovers a love of acting, and pursues it despite the express orders of his unyielding and demanding father (played wonderfully by Kurtwood Smith).

The back half of the movie was then exceptional, with each outstanding scene greater than the last, building to a truly emotional climax. You feel every bit of the pain of a young man who just doesn't know how to talk to his father, how to be understood for who he is.

For the final scene, the movie regresses a touch, with a Hollywood-esque, overly sentimental moment focused back on the Robin Williams character. Still, the film has now soared to heights too great to fall completely. Ultimately, despite any flaws in the film (which, judging from most opinions I've seen, other people don't even notice or agree with), it's still well worth seeing. I rate it a B.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Keep It Confidential

I guess I just don't like "film noir" very much. After crapping out with other praised examples of the genre (including Chinatown), I decided to take a chance on one of the newer "classics," L.A. Confidential.

It had all the ingredients for the stew. Crooked cops, incorruptably good cops, gangs of criminals, a femme fatale. This one even had a plot that could be followed comprehensibly. And it was still incredibly boring. The story unspooled heedless of pacing, a mystery too stalled to engage, suspense too muted to grip. The occasional scene of action would materialize, but drama would soon hibernate again until the final act -- a strange bloodbath that seemed almost out of place compared to the languid dialogue that had gone before.

Some of the acting is pretty good here. James Cromwell is fantastic as the chief of police. Guy Pearce is effective as the "squeaky clean" type of cop at the forefront of investigating the big case. Kevin Spacey is fairly middle of the road, never hitting a false beat, but neither ever hitting a really strong one -- this is far from his best work. Russell Crowe does the least "stretching" of his entire career to play a hothead cop that likes beating on people. And Kim Basinger? Well, she's come 14 years and a long way since her painfully bad performance in Never Say Never Again, but I still fail to see what about this movie allowed her to attached "Academy Award Winner" to the front of her name.

But boring with mostly good acting is still boring. L.A. Confidential waits until far too late to get interesting. I rate it a C-.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Watch Watch

So, I might be losing my mind.

This morning, I woke up, showered, and then went back to the nightstand by my bed to grab my phone and wristwatch as I always do. But my watch wasn't there. Huh? I checked the floor around the nightstand, then under the bed. Nothing.

Okay, maybe I took it off while I was watching a movie the night before. So I went out to my living room and checked the table by my couch. No watch.

Back to the bedroom. I checked all the same places again. Opened the drawers of the nightstand. Checked the bathroom. Checked all the drawers in the bathroom. No watch.

Back to the living room. I dug in the cushions of the couch. Looked under the couch. Went to my computer and checked the desk. No watch.

Back to the bedroom. I check the laundry basket, and dig in the pockets of the clothes I was wearing the day before. I move the table, move the bed. Look under everything. Look in dresser drawers. Absolutely no sign of my watch.

Now I really have to be leaving for work, so the search has to be abandoned. But all the way on the drive to work, I'm thinking, "when am I sure I had it last?" Well, I left a friend's house the night before, having seen the time on my watch. So it has to be in my car, or in my place somewhere.

I check the car when I get to work. I find a half-eaten, six year old single-serving bag of Goldfish crackers -- which I don't eat -- tucked under the driver's side seat. A mystery for another time, perhaps. But no watch.

I try to make it through the day at work without manically looking at my wrist for the time every other minute.

When I finally get home, the search takes a completely illogical course. After coming up dry looking in all the same places again, I branch out to places my watch could not possibly be: the refrigerator, the dishwasher, every single drawer in the kitchen from silverware to pot holders.

And it still hasn't turned up. I can't function long without a watch. I'm just like that. Some would say, "your phone has a clock on it, just use that." I say that's pocketwatch level technology, and they invented wristwatches after those for a reason. I don't wear a chain and a waistcoat, so I'm damn well not digging in my pockets every time I want to know what time it is.

Which is often, I learned today.

So I will have to go out and buy a new watch, stat. Of course, I know that as soon as I do, my missing watch is going to turn up. But I'm telling you, I have exhausted every hiding place I can possibly think of, and the thing has just up and vanished.

What the hell?



Eureka!!! Immediately after writing the above, I went through my normal "get ready for bed" routine, and then I suddenly had a thought of one more place I hadn't looked. I felt around in the sheets of my bed...

...and there it was, on the dead center of the mattress, with all the covers thrown over the top of it. How this happened, I don't know. I was pretty tired last night. Did I go to bed exhausted and forget to take my watch off? Did I somehow then do so during my sleep?

In any case, watch found! Insanity staved off (mostly) for a while longer.

Now, I wonder if I can get to the bottom of where those damn Goldfish came from?

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Horror Classic?

Though I really enjoy horror movies, I've actually never seen a surprising number of the "classics" in the genre. Recently, I crossed one of the list by watching Phantasm. I didn't really know anything about the story, just an eclectic mess of bits I'd heard about the movie.

As it turns out, the movie really just is an eclectic mess of bits. It's a horror movie made by people that seem to grasp the rough idea of "scary," but are completely incapable of executing it.

The list of concepts in the movie is staggering, particularly when you consider its brief 88 minute run time. You've got an unkillable evil figurehead who commands strange little minions. (Shades of Dracula.) Cut off parts of his body, and they keep on living. (Shades of The Thing -- before John Carpenter brilliantly remade it.) He can come and terrorize you in your dreams. (A few years later, A Nightmare On Elm Street would focus on the concept.) He wants to brainwash you and make you his slave. (Shades of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.) He has a very bizarre and distinct weapon for killing you. (Well, alright, this particular incarnation of that is pretty damn original.)

But the way all this is sewn together in the script and presented on film is just terrible. And I'm not just talking about the tiny budget that shows visible wires on flying puppets, limits the "terrifying" henchman to Jawa-like costumes, or forces actors to engage in pantomime unworthy of high school theater.

The dialogue is cheesy. The camera placement and editing is awkward, sometimes leaving you to wonder if every actor in the movie was fighting with every other actor and refusing to be on set together at the same time. The motivations of characters are incomprehensible. Why does everybody want to keep going back to this creepy mausoleum? Alone? Why is the graveyard such a hot spot to have sex? Why did Frank Herbert not sue them silly for stealing the entire "humanity test" concept from his novel Dune?

And what the hell were they thinking with that ridiculous "it was all a dream -- or was it?!!!" ending?

The movie does manage maybe two or three interesting or suspenseful moments, but none of these are really any triumph of filmmaking. They're more the inevitable lucky result of an approach that throws as much at the wall as possible to see what sticks. Really, it's such a jumbled mess, I can't even see how Hollywood (in its current remake happy mentality) could send someone to go salvage a good new version of this film from the mess.

I rate it a D-, and wonder how in the world this ever came to be considered a "horror classic."

Monday, June 08, 2009

It Doesn't Suck

For months, I've figured that I would like the HBO series True Blood. A vampire story loving friend of mine spoke highly of it (having also read the books on which the series is based). Also, it's run by Alan Ball, creator of the brilliant Six Feet Under, and writer of one of my favorite movies, American Beauty. But I'd given up my HBO a long time ago. (About the time Deadwood was cancelled, actually.)

A few weeks ago (in anticipation of the new season about to begin broadcast), the DVD set of season one was released, and I was able to catch up. And while I didn't quite devour it like I did Dexter, I found it very enjoyable, and zipped through the 12 episodes in no time at all.

It's a strongly character-driven show, and that works magnificently because the characters themselves are strong. From the very first hour, people who might appear to be a cliché are revealed to have deeper facets. "Minor" characters are anything but, each given their own arcing plot throughout the season that is just as compelling as (and sometimes more so than) what's going on with the leads.

If you're unfamiliar with the show, there's a brilliant conceit at the heart of it that sets it apart from any other vampire tale I've ever heard of. In the world of True Blood, vampires have just made themselves known publicly in the last couple of years, after centuries of hiding from the population at large. They've done so because some scientists have discovered a way to engineer a beverage that provides all the nutritional needs they receive from real blood. Now many vampires are trying to "mainstream" with humans, but many humans are very resistant to efforts to secure "vampire rights."

Stirred in with this allegory for racism and homophobia are strong metaphors of drug addiction. Because in this world, vampire blood has a powerful narcotic effect on humans, and many people are trying to score a high by any means they can. It's a story full of outstanding social commentary, made all the more impressive by how the messages never dominate the entertainment.

The show is well cast in every role, loaded with strong actors that give amazing performances. Star Anna Paquin has already received a Golden Globe for her role, and in the next few weeks we'll see if the Emmys follow suit and recognize more of the fine work here.

Season two starts up this coming Sunday, and it appears that I will fortunately be able to keep up with it -- that same friend who was singing the praises of the show months ago has HBO, and plans to host regular viewing parties. If you haven't jumped on True Blood yourself yet, I definitely recommend it.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Thumbs Up

This afternoon, I went to see the newest Pixar feature, Up. It has many critics saying "they've done it again," but in my opinion, that's not quite accurate. I think that they've actually never done it as well as this; Up is the studio's best film to date.

Once again, Pixar demonstrates how much they "get it." They've made a great movie, and not just a great animated movie. This is their most emotional story yet. In the first 15 minutes, there's an absolutely perfect montage of the long life of main character Carl. With no dialogue (but an amazing score by Michael Giacchino), it takes us through moments of great joy and sadness, and each emotion is genuine and profound.

The movie never missteps from there. The characters in the small cast are all brilliantly realized. Outstanding vocal performances from Ed Asner, Christopher Plummer, and others blend perfectly with yet another display of powerhouse animation from Pixar. And it just looks beautiful from top to bottom. The use of color is striking, and the way images are framed makes moment after moment a real work of art unto itself. Everything is perfect right down to the end credits, which show photos in a "memories" album, each somehow evocative of the credit being displayed.

I could keep on gushing for a while, but the point is really simple: Up is the best movie of year so far, and probably of the last couple too. I rate it an enthusiastic A, and encourage everyone to see it.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

No Kidding

Time for me to talk about another classic I saw recently for the first time, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I had modest expectations going in, in retrospect perhaps too high. I'd loved the Robert Redford/Paul Newman pairing in The Sting (didn't everyone?) and figured there would be something to like here in this earlier film starring the two.

Unfortunately, the great rapport between the two leads -- though considerable -- is really the only thing this movie has going for it. It starts with a deficient script from William Goldman. Decade before he'd perfect the blending of comedy, action, and drama in The Princess Bride, he messed it all up here. The movie is never funny enough to elicit more than the occasional polite smile, never tense enough to bring a sense of adventure, never serious enough to provoke a genuine emotion.

That poor script is then made poorer with bad direction by George Roy Hill. He and his cinematographer seen more interested in showing us the sweeping plains, craggy rocks, and rolling vistas than presenting an interesting story. They also seem to be getting paid by the montage. This movie is drowning in them, sometimes actually presented in sepia tones because get it people? This is history!

In the midst of it all is a ridiculously out of place score by Burt Bacharach. I somehow had forgotten that the famous song Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head was written for this movie. A fine song, but for a Western? And this is actually among the least misplaced musical choices in the styles employed for the film.

Going back to Newman and Redford, their interactions keep this movie from being a total bust. Still, I can't see a reason to watch this movie when you could watch The Sting instead. I rate this movie a D.

Friday, June 05, 2009

A Desert in the Oasis

I'm going to have to challenge the publishers of Oasis on their rating the game a "10 on a scale of fun." And that's because I'm also going to have to challenge their rating of it as a 4 on a scale of luck.

I don't hate games that have an amount of luck to them, despite what some might think. I recognize that a random element is pretty crucial to what makes most good games tick. And every once in a while, I like a game with a larger amount of luck to it (hi, Mystery of the Abbey!), so long as that amount doesn't go over the edge (hi, Galaxy Trucker!). Basically, the more the game aspires to a large strategic element, and the longer it takes to play, the more that a high luck factor annoys me.

Enter Oasis. The premise of the game is quite simple. There's a constricted board space in which players must deploy tokens (tiles, or wooden camel bits) to carve out terrain for themselves -- in four different types. But at the end of the game, the size of the terrain you've claimed is multiplied by the number of "score markers" corresponding to that terrain type. If you have a large terrain, but no scoring markers (or vice versa), you won't score as much as a player who has balanced the two. And of course, if you manage to get a good number of both, you're well on your way to a sound victory.

But how you acquire these tokens and score markers leaves a good bit to chance. Each player has a personal "deck" of cards; you begin the game with five. Every turn, you must make an offering to your opponents, of one to three cards from your deck. The cards show what one of your opponents will acquire from you. And you actually want them to like your stuff, because the player whose offer gets picked first gets to choose first from all his opponents' offers in the subsequent round. But the catch is, your "deck" only replenishes by making smaller offers. You get two fresh cards for your deck if you offer only one card in a round, or one if you offer two cards. Make a juicy three card offer, and you replenish no cards at all that round.

I've played Oasis a couple times recently, and found each to be a frustrating experience. Making your offering is a bizarre form of Press Your Luck. Turn over a card... is that enough to entice your opponent? No, offer another card... still not enough? The problem is, some cards are just better than others. And some cards are worth more than others in the eyes of the players who pick first, because of the ways their strategies have unfolded.

If your offering isn't good enough, then you're forced to keep offering more cards. You can't pick last for too long, or there will never be anything useful to you left to take. But if you keep offering more cards, then you're not replenishing your own deck! Soon, you only can make one card offers because you have no other cards left. Your bad cards soon become no cards, and you can remain trapped at the back of the pack all game.

Or not! You might suddenly get good cards, and find someone else getting suddenly shafted by the luck of the draw. There feels to me to be very little you can do to control your fate.

The multiplying scoring is a good idea, in the classic German board gaming style. You want X, but you have to balance it with Y. But toss in this element by which your ability to get X or Y is only barely under your control, and the game just isn't for me. There's a much greater illusion of strategy, in my view, than actual strategy.

I'm planning to get rid of my copy of Oasis.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Island Escapade

I was recently in the mood for a Big Dumb Action Movie, and decided to try out The Island. After all, you can usually rely on director Michael Bay for Big, Dumb, and Action.

Unfortunately, I may have picked the one movie where he was actually trying for something a little more. The Island is a science fiction tale that lifts heavily from a number of predecessors, perhaps most heavily Logan's Run. It aspires to the lofty heights of "real" science fiction, examining a moral question through a futuristic, "it's only imaginary" lens.

That's not what I signed up for. And what's more, Michael Bay isn't really capable of offering that either. The whiz-bang thrills of the movie are there, but they're sometimes separated by long, heady filler. And since it lacks subtlety, just like his crazy action sequences, that part of the film isn't very entertaining.

On the plus side, when the thrills do come, they're pretty slick. The script overall gets perilously close to a "paint by numbers" approach of a car chase, and foot race, a motorcycle chase, one from each of the Action Food Groups. But there manages to be just enough excitement to these set pieces to keep thought at bay. (Thought often being the death of these kinds of movies.)

Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson both manage to make a mountain out of a molehill, giving strong performances with limited material. (In the case of McGregor, it just underscores even more what a hack of a director George Lucas is, that he couldn't get a good performance out of him in the Star Wars prequels.) Sean Bean plays villainous more or less the same as in a plenty of other movies he's made (see: Goldeneye, Don't Say a Word, etc.), but is essentially enjoyable.

One more mark against the movie is its extensive and awkward use of product placement. A half a dozen or more completely illogical products (XBox? Really?) are given conspicuous and obnoxious screen time. Sort of takes the edge off that whole attempt to be serious science fiction.

Overall, I'd give The Island a C+. Could have been worse. Could have been better.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Barrel of Laughs

I recently watched one of writer/director Guy Ritchie's earliest films, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. I had fortunately only heard a few good things about it. After the fact, I learned the movie is ranked #189 in the Top 250 over at IMDB.com. Had I started in expecting a movie that fantastic, I would likely have been disappointed.

I very nearly was anyway. The movie really doesn't get started right away. It's almost like Hot Fuzz, in that the first chunk of the movie is a careful setting into place of all the pieces, all needed for what is to follow. Unlike Hot Fuzz, there's not really enough humor in the setting up, either.

Things seem to be slowly going off the rails as the first act unfolds. There's an out of place narrator chiming in to offer thoroughly unnecessary commentary; he's almost literally just narrating the action on screen. There are showy uses of freeze frames, speed ramps, and slow motion that feel like they'd be more in character for a music video. Sting shows up in a small role (yes, the musician and sometimes actor -- that Sting), way more famous than anyone else in the movie, and so quite a distraction. (Well, alright, Jason Statham is in there too, but consider that nobody knew who the hell he was at the time.)

But then, just when I'm on the brink of writing off the movie, things start to happen. The oddly disparate plots start uniting. The awkward camera tricks go away (mostly). The humor starts to click. It really starts to get interesting. And when it's all over, I find I've quite enjoyed myself.

It's not perfect, but it's quite good for a movie that was clearly made for damn cheap. I rate it a B, and I'll probably be checking out some of Guy Ritchie's other movies. I've heard some people compare him to Quentin Tarantino, but I have to say I enjoyed this movie quite a bit more than any Tarantino films I've seen.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Recovered Art

Though I hadn't played my copy in years, the board game Modern Art has made an appearance a few times in the last month with my regular gaming crowd.

It's an auction game, which doesn't usually seem to go over smoothly with us. The learning curve in auction games can be awkward, as the first question everyone finds themselves asking is, "what are these things worth?" and the answer is usually an unhelpful "they're worth whatever the group seems to think they are." About halfway into a game, players inevitably find they've made ghastly evaluations of things, and then it's a figurative roll of the dice to see whether they feel like embarking on the journey another time with that knowledge.

Modern Art neatly skirts around the issue by having a mechanism that informs the players what things should be worth. The paintings of five different artists can be sold in every round, and the most-purchased three of those will pay dividends to their "investors" when the round ends. There's a fixed price for first, second, and third (that can grow throughout the game, according to past performance), and the knowledge of that price tells players, "expect to get this much, and plan how much you're willing to pay accordingly."

Paintings can be auctioned in a variety of different methods, each having their own strategic advantages and disadvantages. The strategies are overt enough for me to see they're there, but subtle enough that I'm not sure (after just a few recent plays) when to apply what. The theme even works pretty well, which is usually a hit or miss element of a Reiner Knizia game. (Yes, this is another one of his works.)

It turns out this is rather more fun than I remember it being, and I think I'd like to start playing it a little more regularly.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Bond, Part 1b

About a year and a half ago, I wrote about how I'd decided to watch all the James Bond movies in order. At the time, I was asked, what about Never Say Never Again? This was the unofficial Bond film of 1983, the strange result of a lawsuit which ruled that while one studio retained the rights to the Bond franchise, another studio could exploit the rights to make a movie based on the novel Thunderball, previously adapted into film.

I can say that Never Say Never Again did improve slightly upon the original. But since I only rated Thunderball a D, that's not saying anything. In fact, the movie doesn't even manage to be as good as the "real" James Bond movie released the same year, Octopussy. And that movie was a real stinker, so I think you can see where this is going.

Sean Connery is still able to toss around a quip like he is the James Bond, and don't you dare accept any substitute. But in this movie, he doesn't seem capable of much more than words. The fight sequences are truly awful -- not just on his part, but for the entire stunt crew.

The acting is fairly shoddy outside of the leading man. Kim Basinger is an awful waxwork, probably hired only for her ability to dance and do the splits. Klaus Maria Brandauer plays the sociopathic villain Largo with the intensity of a child pretending in the backyard. Barbara Carrera plays an odd female assassin named Fatima Blush that appears to have been a direct inspiration for Famke Janssen's character in Goldeneye -- but she doesn't come close to the joy and abandon of that later performance.

The original Thunderball had huge problems with pacing, which this movie manages to steer clear of for a short while longer, by at first bearing almost no resemblance to Thunderball. It's a full 30 minutes before any plot element I can recognize from the original appears, and such connections remain few and far between for a long time after. But finally, this film does succumb to the same boring, plodding underwater "action" sequences in which no one can really move quickly because they're underwater. You start feeling ready for it to be over right about the time it's only half over.

I could go on and poke at the terrible score (a mix of all kinds of dated styles), the awful "villain challenges Bond to play video games" sequence, the strange appearance of a before-anyone-knew-him Rowan Atkinson, bizarre concepts like "death by constrictor snake thrown into your moving car," and so on, but I think the point is made. Ultimately, this movie's only triumph is in managing to hold on maybe 20 minutes before sliding downhill, where Thunderball began it's decline after the first 10.

I can't imagine what they threw at Connery to get him to do this. I rate it a D+.