Friday, July 31, 2009

Here Goes Anything

Though it's a fairly iconic film of the 1980s, and became a template for many teen romantic comedies to follow, I'd never seen Say Anything until just recently. But I've now crossed Cameron Crowe's directorial debut off the list.

It's a rather enjoyable movie, but that's mostly due to the excellent acting across the board. John Cusack once again proves why he was the go-to guy for "quirky but likeable" for so many movies; he's fun and relatable, and does everything effortlessly. Ione Skye is strong as the object of his affection; she takes the shy bookworm character that was too cliché in other films like this, and is very believable. John Mahoney and Lili Taylor (who would later be better known for Frasier and Six Feet Under, respectively) each make a lot out of their secondary characters.

But the script does feel a bit lightweight at times. The emotions never feel that deep. There's a reliance on a few gimmicks, such as a too-cute little boy (that would figure more prominently in Crowe's subsequent Jerry Maguire) and moments of sentiment bordering on saccharine (in my mind, the movie poster ghetto blaster moment).

Ultimately, there's more to like here than not, but I still wouldn't regard the film as highly as I think many do. I'd rate it a B-.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

A Frank(enstein) Discussion

I recently watched the movie Gods and Monsters. I knew very little going into it, other than a hint of its subject matter, and that it had been widely praised for the acting of stars Ian McKellen, Brendan Fraser, and Lynn Redgrave.

The story, it turned out, is a somewhat fictionalized account of James Whale (played by McKellen), the gay director who made the classic horror films Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. He's long since retired as the film begins, and has recently suffered a stroke that has set him on a slow and dehumanizing loss of his faculties. The movie revolves around the relationship he strikes up with a new gardener in his employ (Fraser).

As promised, the acting is phenomenal. Ian McKellen gives a deeply touching performance full of subtlety. It's the sort of role that would stand up well to repeat viewings; there's another meaning to what he's doing that isn't completely clear until the final act. Lynn Redgrave is excellent in a small role as the director's housekeeper. She's given only a scene or two in which to really shine, but she does so. And then there's Brendan Fraser. He might have a "popcorn film" reputation, but he's not at all outclassed here by the other talent involved.

For the most part, the story is interesting, but not anything exceptional. It seemed like a fairly stereotypical showcase for acting for the bulk of the film. But then things did take an interesting turn in the final act. I don't really want to bill it as a "twist," but it does turn out that the motivations of one of the characters aren't really what one might have expected. This script did win the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. I don't know what the competition was, so that might be going a bit far; nevertheless, I was surprised and moved by the final destination.

If you have the patience for what is certainly a quiet (though never dull) film, I'd certainly recommend this one. I give Gods and Monsters a B.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Horror... The Horror

Time to cross another one of the "big ones" off my list -- I recently watched Apocalyspse Now. (The original, not the lengthier "Redux" that Francis Ford Coppola recut in 2001.) I found the Vietnam movie to be a real mixed bag, with things to like and things to... well, be bored silly by.

It starts with the very premise of the film. A soldier played by Martin Sheen is ordered to travel up a river into forbidden territory to locate and kill an officer (played by Marlon Brando) who has gone crazy. Inherent in that concept is the idea of a steadily building tension as the soldier travels toward his destiny, as he has "side adventures" and grows more dreadful of what he'll find when he gets there -- and that's great. The problem is, some of those adventures along the way are too grand in and of themselves, such that after two hours' run time, nothing can possibly live up to all that set up.

Marlon Brando is interesting enough when you finally do get to him in the movie. But plenty of other things in the film have been far better up to that point. Chief on the list is Robert Duvall as a commanding officer far nuttier, in my opinion, than Brando's Colonel Kurtz ends up being. (Oddly, the film even briefly comments on this.) It's Duvall's character that wants to help two of his men catch some surfing in a hot battle zone, who delivers the famous ode to napalm speech that became an iconic bit of pop culture, who brings us the indelible merger of Wagnerian opera and fiery war that nearly everyone recognizes whether they know it came from this film or not. The energetic high point of the film has passed just 45 minutes into the film, when Duvall passes out of the movie; nothing afterward measures up.

Other episodes about the insanity and horrors of war land much stronger emotional punches than anything we see in the final act. Part of that is thanks to an interesting cast of characters on that boat, including one played by a very young Laurence Fishburne, at least a decade before anyone would know him by name. There's a scene about the abuse of their power as they search a local fishing boat, and another scene about an ambush that leaves them with casualties. Both are more effective that anything from the sequences in the last half hour, surrounding Kurtz and the crazy photo-journalist accompanying him (played by Dennis Hopper). It further deepens the feeling of a "top-loaded" movie.

Martin Sheen is effective in the main role, largely due to his narration. His voice-over is constant, and of a chillingly different tone than the speaking voice of his character when we actually talks to other characters -- it's pitched much lower, raspier, and unsettling. But as with everything else in the film, it eventually becomes too much, and it's not ultimately leading anywhere that great.

Whatever good things there are in the film are ultimately just spaced too far apart, thanks to the two-and-a-half hour length. (I can't imagine what it would have been like to watch the even longer "Redux." The film would have been improved if it had been edited shorter, not longer.) Perhaps I'd feel differently if I'd had any war experience, but thankfully I have not. But then, in such a case, I'd probably not then think of war movies as entertainment.

I average it all out to a middle-of-the-road C grade. It's a seven-layer dip of a movie, where some of the layers are delicious, but inseparable from some that aren't.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Bigger, Not Better

In my attempt to play all the board games I own this calendar year, I think I've fallen out of "like" with Carcassonne. (I probably didn't ever really "love" it, though I did enjoy it.)

It's not that I like the basic game any less. It's still probably the ultimately "gateway" game to move people from the sorts of games they'll find at Target to the kind that come from Germany, or from American companies making games of that style. It still offers a satisfying enough number of decisions to be interesting, while not so many as to take more than 45 minutes or so to play.

But it's those damn expansions. I think the game has over 10 now, plus variants like Hunters and Gatherers, The Discovery, The City, and so on, and on. And on. And I was snatching these things up for a while; I don't have all of them, but I do have most. And so I've been playing them all (not all at once, thankfully) throughout the year.

The first couple expansions for Carcassonne weren't bad. "The Expansion," which later came to be known as Inns and Catherdrals, added a few simple rules, and a handful of interesting tiles. Traders and Builders added a few complications probably not worth their while (the pig, trade goods), and one very interesting element (the "double turn" taking with the builder piece), but that was pushing it.

And since then, an avalanche of expansions. And as I've played through them all, I've felt they run a disappointing spectrum from not adding anything too fantastic to the game (Count of Carcasonne, The Tower) to actively making the game worse (The Princess and The Dragon).

It all gets away from Carcassonne having been the great and simple game it was originally. And it now seems to me that if ever I'm in the mood to play some of the latter expansions, then I'm probably really in the mood for a more sophisticated game.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Political Drama

Not long ago, the HBO mini-series John Adams swept every Emmy category in which it was nominated, and was widely praised by critics. I recently decided to see if the seven-episode historical drama was worthy of the hype.

For the most part, it is. It's an expansive and interesting account of a large portion of the man's life. It begins in the early 1770s, as Adams the lawyer defends the British soldiers charged in the Boston Massacre. (There's a bit of history I didn't know!) Each new part advances to another stage of his life, moving through the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, his ambassadorship to France, the vice-presidency, presidency, and ultimately a long 25 year retirement after he failed to win re-election.

It's a really impressive performance by Paul Giamatti, absolutely worthy of the awards he won. In his hands, John Adams is a very human and relatable person all throughout the 50 year period in which we see him.

He's not the only performer delivery top notch work, though. Laury Linney is perhaps even more exceptional as Abigail Adams, and the story gives her plenty of great moments to show the role of a woman and mother in the time period. Stephen Dillane plays Thomas Jefferson, David Morse appears as George Washington, and Tom Wilkinson makes a great Benjamin Franklin. All deliver strong performances, though lots of fine work comes from lesser-known actors filling out the lesser-known historical figures involved in the story.

The production values in this mini-series are startling. It must have cost a fortune to make this, and every cent of it appears on screen. Lavish sets and costumes mix with seamless CG visuals to make the late 1700s (and later, early 1800s) appear as absolutely real as if someone had just found them preserved somewhere and started filming.

But story-wise, the mini-series is on a sort of inverted bell curve. While fascinating and intellectually stimulating from beginning to end, the most emotionally moving material bookends the mini-series. The first episode, before Adams has taken up politics, and the last chapter, after he has been forced to retire from them, are far and away the most powerful episodes in the whole. The second episode, that follows all the backroom dealings and social wranglings needed to sign the Declaration of Independence, is also very dramatic. Yet John Adams' time with status and in power comes off a less compelling story. Oh, we feel the frustration of a man who is ultimately unhappy with the duties before him (in large part thanks to Giamatti's performance), but it isn't as gripping as the stories told about him when he is just a "citizen" in early America.

Regardless of this, the mini-series is still very much worth watching, and a real must-see for anyone who enjoys history and historical entertainment. It's hard to do any better than this without taking more liberties with the facts (as, say, a show like Deadwood did). I'd rate the series overall a B+, though some episodes in it would certainly get an A from me.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Guest Again

Having recently enjoyed the Christopher Guest-directed "mockumentary" A Mighty Wind, I decided to check out another of his films, Waiting for Guffman. I thought there was a reasonable chance I might actually like this movie better, given the subject matter -- it follows a group of small town players trying to put on a piece of community theater. I've both seen and performed in bad theater, and really knew it was an environment full of comic potential.

On the plus side, the film really does nail that aspect. It walks the perfect line of a lack of self-awareness on the part of the characters, without the play-within-the-movie ever getting so bad that it's no longer believable that they wouldn't know how bad it is. The movie hits on plenty of amateur theater clichés, which I suppose is the thing I was really looking for.

And yet, the movie is neither as funny nor as heartfelt as A Mighty Wind. The laugh out loud moments are rather sparse, and you're never really made to empathize with any of the characters. This movie seems much more at a distance, like it doesn't really have anything more to say than the simple premise, "boy, doesn't community theater usually stink?"

The typical "Guest players" (that is, the regulars in Christopher Guest movies, not the ones who only appeared in this movie) do good work, as always. Eugene Levy, Fred Willard, Catherine O'Hara, Parker Posey, and Christopher Guest himself... they all make "clueless" believable. They each have their moments to shine.

Perhaps I'd have thought better of this movie had I not seen A Mighty Wind. Or more to the point, had I not just seen it -- the formula of building up to a big performance does feel awfully similar here. Some space between the two might have helped. Even though this movie was the one actually made first, I think it's a formula that was nailed much better the next time around.

I rate Waiting for Guffman a B-. It's not bad at all, but wouldn't be first on my list of Christopher Guest movies.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Half Moon

Last night, I went to see the new science-fiction film Moon. It's the directorial debut of Duncan Jones, son of David Bowie, and a tale definitely in the mold of cerebral science-fiction, rather than the whiz-bang kind mostly served up on film these days.

In a not-too-distant future, a corporation has been able to solve the world's energy crisis by means of a harvesting operation on the moon. Though largely automated, the outpost requires the presence of a single human, who signs up for a three-year contract that places him in complete isolation. Due to faulty communications equipment, no live contact with anyone from Earth is possible; the occupant must settle for sending recorded messages back and forth.

Sam Rockwell plays this lonely worker, as he's nearing the end of his contract. Aside from his robotic companion and "caretaker" (voiced by Kevin Spacey), and brief appearances by other actors (mostly on recordings), he is the only actor in the movie. And it's a truly amazing performance.

To say more, I must divulge a plot point that doesn't come to light until about 20 minutes into the film. Many would not regard a first act revelation as a spoiler, but on the off chance you might, here's your chance to bail on the rest of this review; you can just take away that I'd mostly recommend seeing this movie.

Still here? Alright, then. It turns out that this station worker is actually a clone. An accident causes a new incarnation of him to be awakened from stasis, but as the former version was not actually killed, there are now two copies of the man living on the station together, trying to get to the bottom of what's really going on.

Armed with that knowledge, you can now understand what an extraordinary performance Sam Rockwell gives in this movie. Virtually every scene is him playing off himself. He deals with the technical requirements of this seamlessly -- no doubt guided by a director who doesn't in any way hint this is his first movie. But the real accomplishment here is in the emotional precision of the performance. The two versions of the character are both clearly recognizable as the same man, and yet both clearly different by their life experiences. One has just been awakened from stasis, while the other is near the end of a three-year stretch in which he hasn't interacted in person with another living soul -- an experience which has definitely changed him. Each character is compelling, and completely believable.

Unfortunately, the script lets the movie down a bit. The writing is clearly aware of the themes in play here -- Mankind's capacity to be cruel to the individuals within it, one particular man's conflict with himself (manifested literally), and more. But too often, the movie only brushes up against these themes without embracing them.

The reaction of each man, upon discovering he is really a clone, is rather sedate. It's not the shocking moment I'd expect, but more of a "next step" in the plot. And as the movie marches on, it comes oh-so-close, but misses, opportunities to explore other questions. What sort of man would agree to let himself be cloned and used like this? Did he give any thought to the consequences for these incaranations of himself? What was he told or offered by the corporation to make this arrangement palatable? What morality is at play here? A "good of the many" over the "good of the one?" What rights does a clone even have? At least twice in the film, a scene actually begins in which these issues might be addressed, only for things to be abruptly cut short.

So in the end, you have a smartly directed, brilliantly acted film with a very provocative story... that ultimately chickens out on actually provoking, in favor of simply entertaining. And it does do that, to a degree where I'd ultimately recommend the movie. But I'm still disappointed to think about how much greater this movie could have been. I rate Moon a B-.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Slip In the Shadows

It's time for an update the Night Angel trilogy, whose first book I mentioned a couple weeks back. I recently finished the second book, Shadow's Edge. It was another mostly enjoyable book that still showed a lot of the same good qualities I liked in the first installment.

I'm still interested in most of the characters. In addition, one or two new faces arrived on the scene, and were generally written well. Also, author Brent Weeks continues to put his prose together in interesting ways, with potent images that convey a strong sense of place.

But his plotting became really erratic in this middle volume. The majority of the first 200 pages in this 650 book were a rather ineffectively realized attempt at a love story. Our anti-hero, the assassin of the first book, tries to give up that life to be with a woman he loves, and all momentum in the story stalls. Weeks is far less effective in writing of a domestic life than he is writing about the horrors of war and death. And the woman that is the object of the protagonist's affections is arguably the weakest character in the book.

Finally, though, things do pick up again, and then continue to accelerate to a rather unbelievable pace. And then you learn the rather odd reason why -- nearly all of the events that you might expect to conclude the entire trilogy actually come at the end of this second book. I found myself thinking about the final season of Babylon 5, a disappointing epilogue to a story that had really peaked in the fourth season.

I really wonder just what can really be in the third book. Oh, there are a few minor threads still unresolved or hinted at in the final chapters of book two, but nothing that seems like it couldn't be resolved in a fairly short space of time (and chapters). The truly major dramatic questions of the story feel already answered for me at this point.

But between a rough beginning and an unexpected and perhaps somewhat confusing ending were several hundred pages I ultimately enjoyed just as much as the first book of the series. It's just a slight dip overall, and I'd accordingly rate this middle volume a B-. That's certainly good enough to keep me reading -- especially fueled by my curiosity to see just what's left that could not only fill another book, but what by spine thickness appears to actually be the biggest book of the three.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Taken with Taken

I recently saw the surprise success movie from earlier this year, Taken. It's an action thriller starring Liam Neeson as a retired "badass" operative who must spring back into action to rescue his abducted daughter.

When you get right down to it, this is a movie that is better than the sum of its parts. The script is nothing exceptional, but it is very tight. The film runs barely 90 minutes, but it hits all the expected beats in energetic ways that don't feel workman-like as many paint-by-numbers action films these days do. The directing is sharp and keeps you engaged in the action.

But where the movie really works is in the casting of Liam Neeson. He's just not the man you'd expect Hollywood to go to for this kind of movie. Even for a "retired badass," you'd expect to see dozens of other actors in this sort of role before him. But the movie is better than it would be precisely because they got someone who can act. It's very much like the casting of Matt Damon in the Bourne movies, or Daniel Craig as the newest James Bond -- you can get a real actor to act like a badass much more easily than you can get a skilled asskicker to actually act. And so as Neeson's character pursues his vendetta in this movie, you really feel every bit of it, and completely believe it. He comes off as one scary guy.

Also effective in the movie is Famke Janssen in a book-end role as the mother of the missing girl. That girl herself is played by Maggie Grace in a bit of casting that both works and doesn't. Her performance is strong when the tricky material could easily have made it bad, but she just looks too old to be playing a 17-year old girl. (That's two-thirds her actual age, by the way.)

Still, the movie is an undeniably fun ride, and far better than most movies of its type. I rate it a B.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

You're Fired

I recently watched Backdraft for the first time, and was unfortunately rather disappointed. Sometimes, when Ron Howard sets out to deliberately make a "blockbuster" movie, the results are mixed. (The Da Vinci Code.) But when he sets out to make a more intimate film in which the acting is the focus, the results are always good. (Frost/Nixon.) Backdraft sits firmly in the former category.

Don't get me wrong -- the movie is an amazing spectacle. Every time you think you've seen the most visually elaborate display of fire that could be put to film, the movie one ups itself. It's all awesome pyrotechnics and crazy stunts. And yet, while all of it conjures an intellectual appreciation, not much of it engages on a visceral level. The elaborate sequences don't really bring tension or suspense to the film, they just look cool.

Of course, the script doesn't help things much. It's a story stuffed with the worst kind of melodrama. There's a mystery at the heart of the tale, but a very predictable one makes the movie seem over-long for how far ahead of the storytelling the audience gets.

The characters are all fairly cardboard. Kurt Russell and William Baldwin play brothers who never have really gotten along, but it all feels superficial. Even Robert DeNiro doesn't really bring much to his role as a march-to-the-beat-of-his-own-drummer arson investigator. Really, the only character and performance that leaves much of lasting impression is Donald Sutherland's imprisoned arsonist, who captures attention in two extended scenes. (Though even then, he feels a little bit Hannibal Lecter meets One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.)

Backdraft isn't a "Big Dumb Movie," but it's not all that smart either. I rate it a C+, largely on the basis of the impressive look of the film. It it weren't such a visual feast, I think it would rate much lower in my book.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Another Teen Movie

Not that it came up often, but it seemed like whenever somebody mentioned the movie Can't Hardly Wait, they'd say it was pretty good, and gently encourage me to see it. It finally came up one time too many (or one time "just enough"), and at last I went for it.

This is a prime example of something being greater than the sum of its parts. As a script, the movie could only be a bigger cliché if it were actually a parody, in the style of Not Another Teen Movie. It's a movie about a giant teenage party populated with all the archetypes you remember from your own school... and have seen turned into caricature in other bad teen movies. You have the popular girls, the tech geeks, the jocks, the pining sensitive guy, the wannabe musicians, the posers, and more -- all illogically crammed into one party for the sake of a hearty movie broth.

The plot is a paint-by-numbers anthology of kids "learning to see other people for who they really are." You know, turf that lots of these movies have thoroughly covered. (Most notably, The Breakfast Club.)

And yet... it works. And the credit for that can go entirely to the cast. They're a really talented group of young (though not quite as young today) actors that, each and every one of them, pulls more from the material than is actually there. The more significant roles are played by Jennifer Love Hewitt, Ethan Embry, Lauren Ambrose, Peter Facinelli, and Seth Green, who all have appeared in better films and television shows since then, but still gave just as much effort here.

What's more, the extended cast is stuffed full of people who, though mostly unknown at the time, have gone on to appear in all sorts of things. There's Jenna Elfman, Jason Segel, Breckin Meyer, Donald Faison, Freddy Rodriguez, Jaime Pressly, Clea DuVall, Eric Balfour, Selma Blair, Sara Rue, Amber Benson, Jerry O'Connell... this was the veritable JFK of 90s teen actors. And each takes a few minutes -- or even a few seconds -- of screen time and scores a laugh.

So ultimately, it is a movie worth watching, even if it isn't really anything that fantastic. I rate it a B-.

Monday, July 20, 2009

40 Years Later

My generation does have its share of "you remember exactly where you were when it happened" events. But it makes me a little sad that there hasn't been anything in my lifetime half as cool as this:

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Egypt Me

There are a lot of board games in my collection by designer Reiner Knizia, but not all of them are in heavy rotation for one reason or another. One, Amun-Re, had actually not been touched in years. I picked it up shortly before moving back to Colorado a few years back, and several moves just relegated it to the bottom of the heap until this year's "try to play every game I own" challenge.

It turns out it's a pretty good game, and has now popped up a few times in the last couple of weeks. It's another Egyptian-themed game from Knizia, this one with perhaps slightly better use of the theme than many of his efforts. In Amun-Re, players take turns bidding against each other to acquire different provinces in ancient Egypt. They then spend to develop the provinces they acquire by bringing in farmers, building pyramids, and taking actions leading to two point scoring intervals in the game.

The twist comes at "half time," after the game's first scoring interval. All the ownership markers denoting who controls which province are wiped away... but the developments players have put in place are not. In the second half of the game, auctions begin anew, with players acquiring provinces a second time. They might not gain control of the same places they had in the first half. But they may instead take control of more richly developed territory that was built up first by a rival.

The turn sequence is pretty smooth. The game isn't too deeply demanding in strategy, but does offer a good amount of depth for its simplicity and fairly short run time. It does lack in paths to victory. There really aren't that many ways to score points, so one game (in my admittedly limited experience) doesn't play out so very differently from the next.

Still, it seems to offer some good fun in a "middle of the game night" sort of way -- for those times when no one is looking for a long and involved option, but neither are they ready to pull out something truly brainless. You might find it worth a look.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

A Princely Tale

Today, I caught the latest film installment of the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. I remembered really liking the book on which this one is based, both the first time around, and the second time I read it, just days before the release of the final book. But the more I started to think about how it would adapt to film, the more I began to wonder how it would really come off.

To be blunt, not a lot happens in Half-Blood Prince. Oh, sure, there's the Big Event that caps the story, the spoiler everyone tried to avoid before finishing the book, a shocker at the time and a truly powerful piece of writing. But when you really get at the plot of this story, there's not much there. Dumbledore is going on an historical fact-finding mission through memories related to Voldemort, and tasks Harry with securing a key memory from the new Hogwarts professor. That's it. The goal is to gather exposition. No mysterious attacks at the school, no death threats from escaped criminals, no wizard tournament... basically nothing to truly drive the action.

When you get down to it, though Half-Blood Prince was an expertly written character piece (assuming you were actually attached to the characters by that point; I know I was), it has classic "middle chapter" syndrome. The last three Harry Potter novels really are a dark little trilogy of their own, kicked off and wrapped up in exciting fashion with lots of action and adventure. And for the middle book that is book six? Laying tracks for the next book.

And so it is that Half-Blood Prince makes for an occasionally boring movie. The screen writer seems keenly aware of the issue. Almost every time there's a long stretch where you're just about to check your watch, some whiz-bang moment comes along to jolt your interest... though they do sometimes feel a bit artificial.

But that said, when the movie is working, it does so exceptionally well. The acting in these films remains superb, as it always has been. There are several key scenes that really pack a powerful emotional punch in this story, and they really do as presented on film. Emma Watson is particularly good as Hermione in this film, playing a teenage love story with great skill and empathy. (And to think, she's considering giving up acting after her Harry Potter run is concluded!)

And of course, that final revelation -- the one that at least one person I know somehow is still blissfully unware of to this day (and I can't wait to hear his reaction to the movie) -- is perfect. The entire cast makes you feel the weight of it.

David Yates, the director who so capably handled the last installment, Order of the Phoenix does another brilliant job here. Beyond his obviously great work in capturing such good performances, there's a great style to the visuals. At several points, there's a brilliant use of depth and levels, for both humor and drama. There are plenty of striking visuals that have nothing to do with with the computer effects (though they are, once again, strong).

Overall, I'd rate this movie a B. There's a lot of really great work here, and the faults are really just the problems of having a book that couldn't really be adapted well for the screen.

Speaking of which... we'll see in a while how an adaptation challenge of an entirely different kind is tackled, when Deathly Hallows arrives in Kill Bill-esque, two-volume fashion.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Bugging Me

Anyone who reads here often knows I'm a pretty big fan of Pixar's films. But in talking about their films with a friend after seeing the studio's latest, Up, I realized that one had somehow slid through the cracks. I'd never actually seen A Bug's Life. So I bumped that up to the top of the list and decided to correct the oversight.

It's another piece of quality work from Pixar, but I'd have to put it on the lower end of their spectrum, just above my least favorite of theirs, the still mostly good Cars. It certainly looks fantastic, even after the advances in computer animation in the last 10 years.

But it doesn't quite have the heart of the truly touching films Pixar has made -- the aforementioned Up, Finding Nemo, Wall-E, or even Toy Story 2. It isn't quite as fun as Ratatouille, The Incredibles, or the first Toy Story. It has plenty of good moments, but they just don't seem as full as the studio's other releases.

Still, it does have one of the more impressive ensemble casts of any of the Pixar movies. Dave Foley strikes the right balance for an unlikely hero you want to root for. Kevin Spacey is a slick villain. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is the strongest dramatic presence in the cast, perhaps surprising if you just think of her for her clear comedic talent. Phyllis Diller, David Hyde Pierce, and Denis Leary are all well cast for moments of comic relief.

It's still a movie I'd rate a B and, overall, recommend. But if one Pixar film was to have slipped by me all this time, it probably wasn't so bad that it was this one.

The New Old West

I'm not really sure what made me decide to see 3:10 to Yuma, since I'm rather indifferent on Westerns and don't particularly like Russell Crowe. But I'd heard some good things, and I'm glad I listened, because I really did enjoy the movie.

Not that Russell Crowe is actually doing so for my personal benefit, but he does seem to be trying to reverse my opinion of him, one movie at a time. Perhaps I just find him more credible as "the bad guy" rather than the hero he's more often cast as. For whatever the reason, he's pretty effective here.

Christian Bale gives another great performance. As in the more recent Public Enemies, he's a man who takes on the task of bringing a criminal to justice. But in this film, he plays a fully dimensional character with flaws and motives that make for compelling drama. Lots of actors don't know how to play stubborn in a way where you can understand why the character is intractable. (Neither do many writers seem to know how to write it.) Such is not the case here.

There's a strong supporting cast in the film as well. Gretchen Mol, Peter Fonda, Alan Tudyk, and young actor Logan Lerman all add to the mosaic of the story in an effective way. Ben Foster is particularly fantastic as the ruthless killer who's second-in-command of the Crowe character's gang of thugs; you do not want to mess with this guy.

The film is mostly solid, but the pace does lag a bit in a few places. Also, the ending felt a just a little off to me. It seems "correct," and yet I'm not sure I can quite believe the way all the characters behave for the climax, given all we've seen before.

I still would recommend the movie overall, though. I give it a B.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Rain on the Parade

Rain Man is one of those movies that has ascended into the pop culture zeitgeist. People who've never seen the movie still recognize the many references to it that seem to pop up all over the place. Until recently, I was one of those people myself. I doubted very much that the movie could live up to the reputation preceding it, but I decided to check it out anyway.

First, the good. Dustin Hoffman is nothing short of incredible in this movie. I've seen plenty of movies he has starred in, yet once again he vanished completely into a character in this movie. It's the sort of performance where only after the movie do you stop to think, "wow, he was really good," because during the movie, you just believe the character without question. I think it's an all the more lofty achievement, 20 years on, now that impressions of him (mostly bad) have shown up everywhere. He just never seems to be putting on a show at any point in the film; he's completely natural.

Tom Cruise, on the other hand, can't possibly keep up. In fact, 20 years' time has probably hurt his performance here, as we now have a greater context in which to wonder, "was he even really acting there?" His mannerisms, his delivery, his brand of wild energy, seems similiar to so many of his other films, and a virtual clone of character in Jerry Maguire. And all of it is uncomfortably close to the real persona he seems to project in interviews. He just seems to be playing his highly-strung self in this movie.

The script is a mixed bag. Story-wise, there's not a lot going on. This is a pretty simple "road trip" movie, unique only in the choice of the characters to headline the movie. It's written deftly enough to serve up a few good dramatic scenes with genuine emotion, but not so deftly that the conclusion is ultimately believable. The Charlie character is simply too big a jerk, and too unlikeable at the outset, for his transformation by the end of the movie to seem credible.

Overall, I'd rate the movie a C+. Dustin Hoffman would pretty much be the reason to see it, if you haven't. Otherwise, you've probably seen enough of the film through homages in other places that you don't really need to.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Stepping Into the Shadows

A short while back, Sangediver kicked a fantasy series my way, The Night Angel Trilogy, written by newly published author Brent Weeks. The last recommendation he'd given me was for the two (so far) Locke Lamora books, which I quite liked. And these books were somewhat similar in tone, he said. That all sounded good. Still, it took me several weeks to find the time to get started.

I'm now one book into the series, and finding it interesting. The passing similarities to Locke Lamora are mostly in subject matter. As that book was centered around a con artist, this trilogy is also built on an "unsavory" character, an assassin. Actually, as the first book begins, he's a young would-be assassin who apprentices under a master. Like the first Locke Lamora book, a sizable chunk of this novel is dedicated to the following the main character as he grows up and learns his trade.

But the similarities don't really run any more deep than this. This trilogy is about a conquering villain who overruns the city in which Our Antihero lives, and seems ultimately pitched to be a showdown between the two. (We'll see after two more books.) Locke Lamora would never throw himself in harm's way to help anyone other than himself.

The writing of this first-time novelist is a bit hit-and-miss. He has a very strong sense of his characters. More than the first third of the rather lengthy book is all what ultimately amounts to backstory, watching the young protagonist grow up, but it's actually just as compelling as anything that follows. The setting of the tale also seems very deeply thought out, with a full landscape of politics, rules of magic, and more.

But at times, he doesn't do such a great job of conveying these things to the reader. He's a smart enough writer to know that showing is better than telling, and keeps his exposition minimal. But sometimes it's a bit too minimal. I found myself occasionally confused about how a few things really work, and sometimes it takes a few chapters before you can really suss out how some new point really fits into the story.

Despite the few flaws, though, the story is engaging, and I most definitely want to continue reading the trilogy. (I'm already a good ways into book two.) I'd rate The Way of Shadows a B, though perhaps the real grade will come once I've read all three books.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Overblown Conspiracy

I've always had some curiosity about the movie JFK. Mostly, it came down to this -- what could have been so phenomenal about it to have attracted such a cast to be in it? The enormous roster of supporting and minor characters is portrayed by Ed Asner, Jack Lemmon, Tommy Lee Jones, Gary Oldman, Kevin Bacon, Sissy Spacek, Laurie Metcalf, Joe Pesci, John Candy, Donald Sutherland, John Larroquette, and Walter Matthau. The opening narration is by Martin Sheen. And you might well also know actors Brian Doyle-Murray, Wayne Knight, Michael Rooker, and Bob Gunton.

But I must confess, now that I've seen it, I fail to see what drew in all the "big fish." This is an indulgent mess. Director Oliver Stone is flinging paint all over an enormous canvas (three-and-a-half hours long, in his "Director's Cut"), just trying to see what, if anything, will stick. The movie plays like some kind of mini-series all cut together in a single, long format. This 40 minutes' worth of it could play as an episode about one conspiracy theory. The next 40 minutes tries to examine possible motivations of one or two characters in greater detail. The next 40 minutes whips over to yet another collection of ideas, untethered to anything that precedes or follows it. And so on. And on. And on. And the longer it goes, the more self-important it gets as it piles on Shakespearean references, unrealistic courtroom grandstanding, and more.

The movie is further hurt by Kevin Costner playing the lead. Once again, as in so many of his movies, he's the weak link, the actor with a narrow-to-non-existent range that simply stands there as a wall for all the other performers to bounce a ball against. No one else gets even close to half the screen time he does, so he must carry the movie. And he's incapable of doing so. He's just too vanilla, too boring, to make his character's story at all engaging. This entire collection of assassination theories would truly have been more engaging if presented simply as a documentary mini-series, without trying to present it as drama.

The only thing that saves the movie from being a total loss is that epic secondary cast I spoke of. It's a real shame none of them gets a lot of screen time, because there's a lot of fine work here. Kevin Bacon was almost "auditioning" here for the darker roles he would soon begin to play -- he proved to be just as good at them as the parts he'd typically played to this point. Tommy Lee Jones avoids pitfalls of caricature to present a rounded character. Gary Oldman manages an enigmatic performance as Lee Harvey Oswald that still seems full. And so on, right down the list. They're all fantastic.

Still, the good work is probably not so good as to sit through and sift through the rest. Overall, I'd call the movie a C-.

Sunday, July 12, 2009


My money was among the $30 million that went this weekend to Sacha Baron Cohen's new "gotcha-mentary," Bruno. There's probably no way to talk about this film and not compare it to his earlier effort, Borat, so let's just jump right in with that: Bruno is not as good, but still very funny.

This is a more uneven film than Borat. When the laughs come, they are bigger, deeper laughs. But there are also more dead spaces. With its short run time, the dead spaces are never long enough to bring down the movie, but it does occasionally have to build momentum back up that it had already had going.

More lawsuits are sure to result from this film as it did with Borat, because there are an awful lot of people that come off in various degrees of stupid, intolerant, or downright scary. On the harmless end of the spectrum are a bubbly pair of young women who work for a "charity PR firm" that don't seem to actually know anything about any cause other than what's trendy. On the someone-really-ought-to-get-in-there-and-do-something end of the spectrum are a series of parents willing to do anything to their babies to get them a break in show business.

Hat's off to Cohen for once again playing a crazed part to the hilt. A friend I went to see the movie with remarked that he might be our generation's Peter Sellers, and it seems a good comparison -- Cohen occasionally takes a relatively normal part in a movie, but is soon back playing something so far over the top that few other actors could even attempt it.

But the real hero of the movie is a man none of us has ever heard of, Gustaf Hammarsten, in the role of Bruno's assistant('s assistant), Lutz. He must be absolutely real in every single moment as impossible insanity rages around him, and he's just perfect. Pun not intended, but he is the best "straight man" in any comedy I've seen in years.

Overall, I'd rate the movie a B. You probably know already if you'd have the stomach or desire for this movie; know that you'll probably enjoy it if you were planning to go.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Wind Power

Christopher Guest has made a few "mockumentaries" in his time, though until now I'd only actually seen one he didn't actually direct -- This is Spinal Tap. I decided to look at another film about a fake musicians, A Mighty Wind. This time, folk music (rather than hair metal) gets the satirical skewer, as three bands from decades past are brought together to perform in a memorial concert for the recently-deceased executive who ran their record label.

The humor in this movie is considerably more dry than This Is Spinal Tap. For the first chunk of the movie, in fact, it's actually more dry than just about anything you'd find outside of a British sitcom. (The Ricky Gervais kind; not the loud, door-slamming farce kind.) But it is funny.

There's a great cast in this film, and each of them has a moment to bring a smile to your face. It's very hard to guess where the script by Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy ends and the improvisations begin, but that's either a testament to authentic writing or skilled acting. Probably both, at different times.

What's more, everyone in the movie sings their own parts and plays their own instruments. It adds another layer to the whole thing: the music is actually rather good. Tongues are planted firmly in cheeks as the movie serves up songs that feel like they really could have been 60s folk hits, complete with beautiful harmonies and orchestrations that sound familiar.

But the movie is pretty short on laugh out loud moments. There's a big one courtesy of Jennifer Coolidge who, as in American Pie, takes five minutes of screen time and runs with it brilliantly. But besides that, the movie is content simply to put a smile on your face.

It does do that rather effectively, though. I rate A Mighty Wind a B+.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Mad Indeed

I've always been a bit curious about the TV show Mad Men, about New York ad executives working in 1960. It has received a good amount of critical acclaim, but I'm not aware of anyone I know personally having watched it. Anyway, it finally bubbled to the top of the Netflix queue, so I've begun season one. No review-type thoughts yet, since I've only just started.

But the timing was rather odd. The day after I started watching the show, I found out that another friend of mine also finally just started watching the show. And the day after that, I encountered this truly odd collection of "vintage ads" on another blog.

(Shocho, try not to mind the "Creepiest of All Time" label.)

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Snatch of Conversation

After a good experience with Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, I decided to give a later Guy Ritchie film, Snatch, a try. It left me feeling that oddly, Guy Ritchie might be like Cirque du Soleil -- whichever production you see first catches you unprepared for the experience, and even if you like other ones, you won't think as highly of them as the first.

Actually, my take on Snatch was not even that kind. I thought Snatch was a clunky knock-off of LS&2SB, not in the same league. But boy, they certainly were cut from the same cloth. Again, the movie is a jumbled collection of characters, each in their own tiny story. As the film progresses, the stories slowly merge until the climax brings everything together for an over-the-top finish.

LS&2SB really made me feel that that final whole was indeed greater than the sum of the parts. In Snatch, I didn't think it really gelled well at the end. Things sort of came together, but only for the briefest of moments, not for any sustained interplay. It just didn't end in the fun and reckless way of Guy Ritchie's earlier film.

Nor were the parts as entertaining. There's another group of bumbling criminals. There's a pair of "rowdy boys" who need to get a lot of cash together quickly, just like the group in the earlier film. (One's even played by Jason Statham, just like before.) There's the big "boss" to which the separate parties must answer. This second verse is the same as the first, and not nearly as clever.

One element that does stand out, though, is Brad Pitt's performance as a "pikey" with a natural talent for fighting and an incomprehensible accent. His material is by far the funniest in the movie, and he brings still more to it with his performance.

It's not that the movie was bad. I don't think it would be possible to see this and LS&2SB, like one, and hate the other. But everything that's done here is done better in the earlier film. So neither do I feel I can recommend Snatch when a film so similar, but better made, is out there. I rate this movie a C+.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Do North?

After Hitchcock experiences good, bad, and ugly, I decided to give the famous director one more try with North By Northwest. This movie has possibly the simplest premise of any of his films -- an advertising executive is mistaken for a secret agent by a criminal mastermind, and adventure ensues.

Cary Grant plays the lead, and is fairly realistic and thoroughly likable in the role. You can't help but feel that Sean Connery was drawing a lot of inspiration for his "real" secret agent James Bond when he made Dr. No just a few years later. Grant is cool under pressure, and casually tosses off a clever phrase with effortless charm.

The other performers are less effective. Eva Marie Saint is a bit artificial in her delivery, James Mason is every bit of what impressionists rib him for, and Martin Landau is too new to acting at the time (and in too small a role) to command much presence on the screen. No one is bad, but they don't measure up to Grant.

The movie starts out strong, leaping into the plot uncharacteristically fast for an Alfred Hitchcock film. Within five minutes, our hero is being picked up by the villain's goons, and the case of mistaken identity has begun. The first act is tight and compelling, with great scenes, interesting surprises, and plenty of other material good enough to make you overlook a badly dated car chase sequence.

But then things slip off the rails a little bit. Act two begins with a long and awkward scene in which intelligence agents we've not seen before sit in a room and explain what's really happening. It's the worst kind of exposition, where characters speak with one another about information they all already know... you know, just in case someone out there might be watching and confused about everything. The film would have been much better served, in my view, to scrap this scene and just delay the explanations until the start of the final act, when the lead character himself discovers what is happening to him.

The introduction of the leading lady picks things back up for a time, where more revelations and a good chemistry between the actors manage to once again engage. But right around the one hour mark, the film began a slow and inexorable roll downhill for me. The iconic "biplane chase" sequence is oddly cut and very slowly paced for an action sequence. And it's only the first in a procession of scenes much in need of having empty spaces removed from them for better pacing.

The movie never quite gets boring, but it does start to feel long -- every minute of its two hour and fifteen minute running time. It doesn't end badly, but I feel it never really measures up to the promise of the compelling opening act.

Overall, I'd place this movie in the middle of the Hitchcock scale, rating it a C+. It doesn't hold up as well today, in my view, as Psycho or Rear Window, but may still be worth your time if you're interested in classic films.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

House Call

Not long ago, I watched the 2001 movie Life as a House. It's a drama about a man trying to reconnect with his son and ex-wife after learning of a fatal cancer that has left him only a few months to live. Mixed in with the story are other bits of background in the neighborhood, rather like American Beauty -- an older woman starting a relationship with her daughter's teenage boyfriend, the main character's ex-wife just as unhappy in her new marriage, and more.

No doubt there are some who would find this film rather manipulative. And to some extent, it is. The opening act is a bit rough at times as all the pieces get laid in place. The brooding son, angry ex-wife, and loner father begin all just a little too stereotypically; to borrow the metaphor of the film's title, a foundation is being laid for what's to come, and it's not without visible effort.

But things do gel in time, and then become very engaging. Once the characters all start to warm to each other, the emotions become genuine, and the situations relatable. By the final act, each twist in the story -- even if they are predictable -- lands true and powerful.

Whatever flaws may be in the script, the cast transcends them. All the acting in the movie is superb. Yes, that includes Hayden Christensen, who generally has given us no reason to think that his woodenness in the Star Wars prequels was solely George Lucas' fault. Mary Steenburgen, Jena Malone, and Kristin Scott Thomas are all exceptional. They start off a bit caricature-like, in the setting up of the movie, but once things pick up, each shines.

Then there's Kevin Kline in the leading role. Put simply, he makes the movie. He hits every beat with wonderful subtlety, never shoving the message in your face. He made me care completely and absolutely for his character within a matter of minutes, which was critical to the drama to come.

I rate the movie an A-. There are plenty of "bittersweet family dramas" out there, but in my opinion, this is one of the better ones.

Monday, July 06, 2009

The Uncommon Code

Though I've been trying to play various games in my collection that haven't seen the light of a game table in a long time, some entirely new things have made their way into the mix as well. One was brought to the mix by "Snarky Smurf," who had to go to some length to do so.

The game is called Code 777, and it has been out of print for some time. And in the absence of the ability to actually pay a company for publishing it, many net-savvy gamers have offered ways to print the cards online. Consequently, this forgotten gem has a rather loyal following. And for good reason -- it's actually a very fun game.

Code 777 is a deductive puzzle game, along the lines of Sleuth or (the game most everybody is going to be familiar with) Clue. There's a deck of 28 cards, one numbered 1, two 2s, three 3s, and so on up to seven 7s. Cutting across that are possible colors for each number -- four instances of seven different colors. Each player draws three numbers to form his own personal "code," but rather than looking at it himself, he displays the cards with the backs toward him so that everyone else sees his code.

Players then take turns drawing cards from a second deck of questions. When it's your turn, you draw a question, read it aloud, and then answer it based on what you see in the other players' codes. You'll get questions like:

"Do you see more Pink sixes or Green sixes?"

"On how many racks is the sum of the numbers 18 or more?"

"On how many racks is there a same number in different colors?"

And so forth. Every time someone else answers a question for the group, you apply the answer he gives to what you see, and potentially come one step closer to knowing your own code. You score a point whenever you correctly guess your code, but reset your code with every guess (whether correct or not). The first player to three points wins.

It's a fast-paced and fun little game that requires a satisfying degree of thought. After a game or two, I dug deeper and found another level of intuition that could be applied to certain questions. But though I really enjoy the game, I still prefer Sleuth just a bit. Code 777 can have some streaks of randomness, where the "wrong person" gives you an answer to a question and reveals nothing to you; Sleuth seizes on this possibility by adding a strategic element to the game -- you direct your questions at the player of your choice. It's been suggested in my play group that a similar rule might be applied to the question drawing in Code 777 as an optional variant, but we haven't yet attempted it.

It's almost unfortunate that this is a game I would recommend, because as I mentioned, it's out of print. But if you're a bit resourceful, or want to prowl eBay, you might get your hands on a copy. If if you like logic puzzles, I'm sure you'd enjoy it.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Don't Go Public

This afternoon, I went to see the new movie Public Enemies, the biopic about Depression-era bank robber John Dillinger. I was prepared for something a little more sedated than the previews (which tried to depict an action-packed summer thrill ride) led the viewers to expect.

I was not prepared for a veiled remake of director Michael Mann's own movie, Heat. It's the very same plot of a consummate criminal pitted against a consummate criminal-catcher, and plays many of the same beats. Thankfully, Public Enemies boasts neither the unnecessarily long running time nor unnecessarily large cast of the earlier film. But that doesn't mean the movie is that much better.

If it weren't for the big budget and actors like Johnny Depp and Christian Bale, you'd never know this was a Hollywood movie; it is almost completely devoid of drama, and thus packs no more emotional punch than if the material had been treated in true documentary fashion by The History Channel or some such. The film is just a rather lackluster march from event to event in the final stretch of the criminal's life.

You might think that Depp and Bale, both fine actors, might elevate the material from its rather drab arrangement on the page. But sadly, neither is given much to really do. Dillnger seems like he should be a larger than life character, but just doesn't stack up to the wonderful roles Johnny Depp has inhabited. For his part, Christian Bale has glowered threateningly to greater effect in other films. Actually, the acting that really deserves praise is that of Marion Cotillard. What little emotion there is in the film comes thanks to her.

But the pace still plods, the audience is kept at arm's length, and no lasting commentary of any kind is made. It's a marginal improvement over Heat, which I also didn't like, but not enough of one to recommend the film. I rate it a C-.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Oh, Henry

I recently learned that long before Star Trek, Lost, Alias, or even Felicity, one of the first projects J.J. Abrams was ever involved with was the film Regarding Henry. It was one of the first scripts he ever wrote, made back in 1991, when he was still going as "Jeffrey Abrams." Since I've liked-to-loved everything else from him I've seen, I thought it worth a chance to see something from when he was starting out.

It turns out, it took him a little time to really get rolling. Regarding Henry is not a bad movie, but I was probably asking to be disappointed, going into it with the expectations I had. The story is crafted well-enough, and it tries very hard to be an emotional piece of drama, but at almost every turn, the movie comes off as though it's only scratching the surface of something much deeper.

It stars Harrison Ford as a workaholic lawyer who by chance is shot in the head during a convenience store robbery. (By John Leguizamo, of all people.) He survives, but loses nearly all his memory, speech, and motor function, and must endure a lengthy recovery. By the time he's up and functioning again, he's beginning to discover that he doesn't like the man he was.

Given the last decade or so, it's hard to remember a time when Harrison Ford actually took roles that had a character arc, weren't cookie cutter, and actually required him to act. But this movie is from that time. He gives a fine performance, as does Annette Bening as his wife. Oddly, the real standout is Bill Nunn in a supporting role as the physical therapist who nurses the title character back to health. He makes quirky believable, and his monologue about the reason he got into his profession is the most compelling scene in the movie -- the one bit that actually lands a good emotional punch.

The film is never boring, but also never deep. Veteran director Mike Nichols doesn't bring anything extra to a script that seems like it might have been whitewashed in the studio process. The Henry at the start of the film isn't portrayed all that badly. It's as though no one wanted to take the chance that the audience might not like Harrison Ford, but it makes the road to change a much shorter one. Wife Sarah is portrayed as a little too stoic and faithful in the face of the tragedy, and it doesn't completely gel with the revelations about her we find late in the film.

It's a fine early effort, but I feel fairly sure that if this film were made today (no doubt with J.J. Abrams directing himself), it would risk more and be more compelling for it. It's a B- movie in my book, that doesn't dare to be any greater.

Friday, July 03, 2009

No Green Thumb

I recently watched Garden State, Zach Braff's "triple threat" opus which he wrote, directed (his debut), and starred in. It's an "indie movie" through and through, with a simple little story. A young man trying to make it in L.A. returns home to New Jersey for his mother's funeral. There, he goes on a journey of self-discovery as he realizes the consequences of a messed-up relationship with his father and a lifetime of sense-dulling medication.

This is a movie in which nothing is really bad, nor is anything really good, either. This sort of story has nothing to do with plot, really; it's all in the characters and succeeds only if the interactions between them spark with genuine emotion. Unfortunately, the movie only goes through the motions. Dry wit and pauses (both awkward and comfortable) abound, but nothing ever really makes you laugh out loud, or shed a tear, or moves you in any way.

As a director, Zach Braff seems most interested in creating works of art. I don't mean this is the often-pretentious "that film is a work of art" sort of way. He seems to want to create moments where still frames could be grabbed and displayed on the wall of an art gallery. There are plenty of cleverly, sometimes beautifully composed shots, but they rarely do much to illuminate any emotional content. Rather, they scream, "hey, look at this!"

There's a fine cast of actors here, including Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, and a small role by Ian Holm. They do as much as they can with the script they're given, but only manage to makes us believe they're feeling things -- never to make the audience feel them along with them.

I suppose on some level, since the main character is coming out a 20 year state of perpetual numbness to the world, that this sort of emotional distance from the audience could be an artistic statement in and of itself. But I look for more from a movie than just a series of pictures -- even if the pictures are often pretty, as admittedly they are here.

Overall, I'd rate Garden State a C+. Perhaps it's a film for those of a slightly younger generation than I.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

The Oscars Go Into Double Jeopardy

This past year was the first time where I'd ever seen all five films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar before the ceremony itself. In fact, I'd seen them all before the nominees were even announced.

I'm sure it's not a conspiracy against me, but it seems unlikely now that I'll actually see all the nominated films this year. That's because the Academy recently announced that next time around, they will be doubling to 10 Best Picture nominees.

It basically comes down to this, if you read between the lines of their press release: the Oscars have recently lost credibility with the "unwashed masses," and the ratings of the televised broadcast itself have gone significantly downhill. The thinking is that with 10 nominees, voters will throw a bone to a film or two with more mass appeal, and this will spur more people to watch the show.

Personally, I think it's a move that only sets up more people to be disappointed on Oscar night when the token multi-million dollar blockbuster doesn't win. Personally, I haven't yet seen the worthy movie this year that I think would fall under that heading. Up was spectacular, but I think the creation of the "animated feature" category has ensured that no animated film will ever again make it in the Best Picture category, no matter how worthy. After that, the best thing I've seen so far this year is Star Trek, and there's not a snowball's chance on Vulcan of that ever getting any non-"technical category" love from any award organization.

I guess we'll see how it all shakes out about half a year from now.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Scattered Showers

It's been called everything from "the best Hollywood musical of all time" to "just about the best Hollywood musical of all time," so it seemed like sooner or later, I should cross Singin' in the Rain off the list. But when I did so, I found my opinion didn't completely match with the effusive praise of those reviewers.

Released in 1952, this movie is stamped strongly with the mark of its time. Acting just wasn't the same then. Everyone exaggerates for the camera, speaks unnecessarily fast, and substitutes inflection for emotion. It's the sort of acting that keeps me from watching many movies from the period.

It's an especially odd experience here, because the movie itself is set in the late 1920s, and its plot revolves around the emergence of "talkies" to replace silent films. The movie gets a lot of mileage out of how ridiculous and dated the acting (and other filmmaking techniques) of that era are some 25 years later, yet it itself looks arguably even more ridiculous after twice that span of time.

The storyline is intriguing enough, a light romance interlaced with the tale of performers trying to save their careers as the film industry transforms. But it's really a rough framework just to get from song to song. None of the songs in this movie were actually written for the movie, and it really shows. Rather than finding songs that truly express the emotional content of a scene, the scene is stretched unnaturally to reach the title of a song -- and rarely gets all the way there.

But for all that the film lacks in these critical areas, it simply excels in the actual presentation of the songs. Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, and Donald O'Connor are nothing short of incredible. Nearly every number is full of "how the hell can they do that?!" choreography, all the more impressive by how effortless they make it look. If the movie "proper" must really be shuffled together with unrelated musical numbers, they couldn't have found better than these.

So I suppose this is what the reviewers must mean when they praise this film as the "greatest Hollywood musical." Understandable, but I say it makes it only a great collection of music videos (made decades before the concept existed). This is only one notch above a revue. A true musical is the entire film and not just the songs, and there, Singin' in the Rain was patchwork in its time, and terribly dated today.

I rate it a C+ overall, though I might still give it a guarded recommendation.