Monday, August 31, 2009

Passing Judgment

I recently crossed a Best Picture winning movie off my list when I sat down and watched Kramer vs. Kramer. I wasn't too sure if I was going to like it, as so much of the praise for the movie seems to surround the fact that it was dealing with the subject of divorce -- a subject that an audience today has had three decades to become more jaded about. (And oh, we sure have.)

I was thus pleasantly surprised when I enjoyed the movie a great deal. It's less about divorce than it is about a workaholic father learning how to truly be a parent to his young son. Indeed, the custody battle of the film's title only comes about in the film's final act, after we've watched a really engaging hour-plus journey of a man changing himself and his life to do right by his kid.

It all works thanks to some powerful acting. Dustin Hoffman plays the father in one of his most honest and simple performances (though it's just one jewel in a stellar career). And Justin Henry is an incredibly natural child actor that has perfect chemistry with him. It's easy to believe they're father and son, and their interactions are authentic at every stage of their growing relationship.

Meryl Streep plays what amounts to a minor role in the film, and she is also strong -- as you'd expect. But, through no fault of her own I think, she's also the weak element of the movie. She plays the mother who simply snaps in the opening of the film and walks out on her husband and child with no real explanation. When she finally re-enters the movie near its end, the script never really puts any believable motivation to her behavior.

Perhaps the movie intentionally wants the audience to sympathize with the father, but I personally would have like a more even-handed presentation. You can tell from the conviction of Streep's acting that she painted in the necessary justification to understand her character; the script just doesn't do that for us. And while it can sometimes be an interesting choice for a film to leave elements for the audience to fill in, here I think it plays false. The rest of the film finds drama in being honest, but the mother is made out to be too much of a "villain," in my view.

Still, it's a minor quibble with a very good film that still holds up today. I rate it a B+.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Quality Brew

Witches' Brew, the fifth installment of Terry Brooks' Magic Kingdom of Landover series, is perhaps the darkest of them all. It's a straight-up plot for revenge being carried out by the Kingdom's evil witch, Nightshade, against the king, Ben Holiday (for retribution of events that took place in book four). The witch seeks to use Ben's own young daughter as an instrument against him, and her vengeance won't be satisfied until he's dead.

As with all the Magic Kingdom books save the first, there's a subplot running in this book too, this one concerning a magic that sends Ben's loyal friends Questor Thews and Abernathy to Earth. More startling, it has restored Abernathy from his dog form to his original human state. The two must unravel the means by which they were exiled from Landover in order to return home.

On this subplot first, it actually occupies only a few chapters in the book as a whole -- and that's probably for the best. The characters aren't really in any true jeopardy, and we the readers are actually ahead of the characters when it comes to knowing how they were sent to Earth. And if you're a modestly clever reader, you probably know how this subplot is going to end as well. This diversion in the book is interesting at times, as it gives a chance for a reunion with a minor character from book three, Wizard at Large, but it isn't all that engrossing overall.

The main storyline of the book is far more interesting, however. Even though we know Nightshade is to blame for Ben's troubles quite some time before he does, the book does manage to serve up a few interesting plot twists along the way. There are several compelling confrontations in the book, as part of Nightshade's plot involves sending a series of powerful "monsters" to do battle with Ben's champion, the Paladin.

But this time out, a couple of fairly significant secondary characters aren't here for the ride. A pair of trouble-making Gnomes, Fillip and Sot, had appeared in every Magic Kingdom book up until now, a sort of Abbott and Costello. (Though perhaps more like a Costello and Costello.) While there is a new Gnome character of the same race and a similar personality in this book, it's not the comedic duo Brooks has brought us before, and I for one found it a bit of a loss.

Still, the story is entertaining and pulls you along. In fact, I found this a more quick and compelling read than any of the other books in the series, a real page turner. Overall, I'd say the Magic Kingdom series remained consistent with this book; I rate it a B+.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Becoming a Kid Again... Again

I'm not really completely sure why, but I recently decided to watch the movie 17 Again. Actually, I think maybe I have a small idea why -- between Friends and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, I'm a fan of Matthew Perry. I was kind of curious to see this latest movie he did.

When you think about that for even half a second, it really makes no sense at all. First of all, Matthew Perry is hardly in it. He plays an unhappy man going through a divorce who wishes he could go back to his high school days. A bit of magic and POOF! He's Zac Efron! So the idea of watching this movie for the perhaps 12 minutes Matthew Perry is in it is ridiculous.

Secondly, Matthew Perry may have done some outstanding work on television, but I really can't think of any decent films he's made. A couple of them have been downright stinkers. So if on any level I was thinking something like, "well, I've seen about a thousand of these body swap films before, but there must have been something cool and different here if Matthew Perry decided to be in it," well, then what was I thinking?

It turns out that the movie wasn't terrible. But neither is there anything especially good about it to recommend it over any of those 999 other body swap / instant (de)aging movies.

On the plus side, the story is cute enough. It hits all the expected bits, including behavior of "kids today," going to school in the 1980s, and so forth. It brings a smile to your face a few times. Some of the actors filling out secondary characters make their scenes fun to watch, such The Office's Melora Hardin as the school principal, Leslie Mann as the main character's wife, and Sterling Knight and Michelle Trachtenberg as his two kids.

On the down side, one character almost single-handedly brings down the film. The main character has a "best friend since high school" who has grown up into a 30-something self-made millionaire techno nerd. Actually, he hasn't grown up at all. Nor is he anything like a real techno nerd. He's every stereotype Hollywood writers have for nerds, disappointing, cliché, insulting, and even borderline offensive. And actor Thomas Lennon (of Reno 911) imbues this caricature with a manic energy that makes you want to fast-forward the movie any time he's on screen.

But you can't fast forward through Zac Efron. Oh, it's not that he's bad in the movie. Actually, his character is charming and sympathetic and likeable. He's also nothing like Matthew Perry. Any time a movie has to pull this "old version / young version" thing, or put a character into another actor's body, it's all about the performers' ability to sell themselves together as a single person. There's absolutely nothing in the movie to make you believe Zac Efron is Matthew Perry, or vice versa. It doesn't seem to me like this would have required too much homework -- I think anybody in America who owns a television could probably give you a passable impression of... well, "Chandler Bing," at the very least.

As a whole, the movie's not really bad -- it's a light little piece of fluff. But that's really all it is, and probably not worth your time. I rate it a C.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Flawed Diamond

I recently decided to take a chance on a newer, somewhat critically acclaimed movie, despite the fact that no one I know had seen it (that I know of) to give a more personal recommendation. The movie was Blood Diamond, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Djimon Hounsou, and Jennifer Connelly -- a story set against the backdrop of the 1990s civil war in Sierra Leone.

The plot surrounds a captured local man (Hounsou) forced to work in gathering diamonds for a brutal regime. He escapes with both his life and the knowledge of where to find an incredibly large and valuable stone, which others (including DiCaprio) are trying to claim for themselves. Together they enlist the help of a journalist (Connelly) to get back to the place the diamond is buried.

This movie makes no bones about it -- it's trying to be Important with a capital I. The plot is all just furnishings around what seems to really matter to the filmmakers, telling the story of horrible atrocities committed in parts of Africa. And while they certainly teach some lessons here, they don't make a particularly entertaining movie, in my opinion. It all comes off dry and heavy-handed. When 24 did their stand-alone movie, Redemption, that was set in Africa and touched on similar issues... well, cheesy though 24 can be at times, they had a far more compelling action-adventure to tell with just the right touch of moral preaching.

The acting in Blood Diamond is very good. In particular, Djimon Hounsou is great with some very difficult material full of family anguish and life-and-death situations. But it's not enough to sustain a very slow-paced tale over a very long two-plus hours. I rate the movie a C-. There are some truths here that arguably everyone should be aware of, but there's nothing here to make the medicine go down any better than a well-written op-ed article you might check out somewhere else.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Tangled Up

Terry Brooks' fourth book in the Magic Kingdom of Landover series was The Tangle Box. He wrote it after spending several years on a four-book Shannara series after book three, and I think that time away shows. In this book, he comes back to Landover with an arguably more serious plot line than that of the original "trilogy."

In this book, a sort of magician/con man comes into possession of a magical artifact that functions as a prison -- the Tangle Box of the book's title. He unleashes the evil demon living inside it, and it soon forces him to take part in a plan to seize control of the Kingdom. Step one is getting rid of King Ben Holiday so he can't interfere; he is banished into the Tangle Box himself, along with two other powerful beings in the realm (rivals of Ben's) who might be strong enough to thwart the plan. Inside the Box, all three are afflicted with a sort of amnesia, unable to remember who they really are or how they came to be trapped -- all serious obstacles to their efforts at escape.

Meanwhile, the fairy creature who has become Ben's wife, Willow, announces she is pregnant with their child. But as a magical child of multiple worlds, the delivery will not be simple. Willow must embark on a quest of her own to ensure the child will be born safely.

For the first time, Terry Brooks isn't quite able to weave in all the major and minor characters from previous Landover books into his new tale. Ben's old law partner from our world, who appeared briefly in each of the earlier three books, isn't around this time -- though he's honestly not especially missed. The plot still manages to work in a short trip back to Earth, keeping the notion alive that Landover is an Oz-like reality somewhere near our own.

The Willow subplot is really the strongest thing going in the book. What she has to do is simple enough, but still makes for a compelling read. The publishers knew this, I suppose, since the cover illustration is a reference to that storyline, rather than The Tangle Box itself. Also interesting are chapters focusing on Ben's remaining friends at court trying to deal with the con man who started the whole mess, and being magically taken in.

The dilemma of Ben being trapped inside the Box with no knowledge of his real identity is a compelling idea, but it's not quite as interesting in execution. We the readers know more than the characters, so every chapter devoted to that plot is just a wait for them to realize the truth and find their way out. It's not that it's boring; it's just that you know where it must inevitably lead.

I'd say that after the especially good installment that was Wizard at Large, The Tangle Box was a return to form for the Landover series -- a really enjoyable book overall, but still not quite "top shelf" Terry Brooks. I rate it a B+.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A Fresh Second Look

I've sometimes heard people say of a movie or book, "oh, I wish I could see that again for the first time." Of course, they usually say this of something they love dearly. I recently had the closest thing to this experience I think one could actually have short of some sort of amnesia, when I sat down to watch the movie In the Line of Fire.

This is the movie starring Clint Eastwood as a Secret Service Agent trying to protect the current president, even as he broods over his past mistakes at JFK's assassination. John Malkovich is the killer after the Commander in Chief, and Rene Russo and Dylan McDermott appear as other agents working with our hero.

I was convinced I'd never seen this movie before. And it took until nearly the halfway point of the movie for me to finally have a moment of doubt... "hey, have I seen this before?" Only at the final climactic scene, set in the glass elevator of a fancy hotel, did the fog to finally lift -- "dammit, I have seen this movie before!"

Possibly this is a sign of me losing my mind or something. Instead, I choose to think that it's the fault of this being a thoroughly average movie. Oh, it's not bad; with this cast, how could it be? But it's an absolutely paint by numbers thriller. The killer taunts his hunter over the phone. He leaves cryptic clues. The hero is hot on his trail, but can't convince his co-workers to believe him. There's not a moment in this film that you haven't seen in several other films. In fact, it's all a bit more awkward here than it's been in other films. The motivations of the assassin are never remotely addressed. The closest we ever seem to get is that he's doing it because he's smart and capable enough to pull it off.

There's a completely unnecessary subplot in which Rene Russo plays the love interest for Clint Eastwood. It's handled in a sloppy way that makes you yearn to get back to the action, and on top of that it's a bit uncomfortable at times, thanks to the 24 year age difference between the two actors.

Any cat and mouse game that has John Malkovich as one of the players ought to be the height of excitement, but the material never really pops. It's never boring, but I for one was hoping for more.

Ultimately, I can see why the movie left so little an impression on me years ago that I ended up watching it again thinking it was for the first time. I'd rate it a C+. If you've never seen it before (or think you haven't), it's probably not worth your time.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


I recently watched one of those "showcase for acting" movies, Notes on a Scandal. The acting in this case is by Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett (with a significant supporting role played by Bill Nighy).

Jumping to the end, I'm going to end up recommending this movie. I also think it's one of those movies where the less you know about it, the better; so I'd rather not add anything to what you might already know, particularly not just what the "scandal" in question is. Let's just say it's a contemporary tale in which Judi Dench plays a character who insinuates herself as a confidante for Blanchett's character when a moment of crisis befalls her.

It's a very quiet and carefully written piece. What's especially compelling about it is that Dench's character has some very particular motivations of her own in this story, and even though she is the narrator, those motivations aren't made clear until some time into the drama. When finally the truth is revealed, it unifies quite nicely with the plot -- this entire movie is a study in what happens when people attempt to satisfy personal desires in deeply unhealthy ways.

The acting is great, across the board. It is the nature of these characters that none can come off particularly sympathetic. (Well, perhaps Bill Nighy's.) Frankly, they could come off as something close to monstrous if not handled deftly by Dench and Blanchett. You may not identify with their actions, but you do identify with the feelings.

But because you can't really empathize, the movie isn't all that moving on an emotional level. I found that I could recognize the truth of the film, and certainly appreciate its craft (particularly on an acting and writing level), but it's not the sort of movie that gets you caught up.

I'd still recommend Notes on a Scandal. It's not a "you'll laugh, you'll cry" kind of movie, but you will think. I rate it a B.

Monday, August 24, 2009

A Large Book

Next in the Magic Kingdom of Landover marathon was book three, Wizard at Large. The story starts when court magician, Questor Thews, approaches King Ben Holiday with exciting news: he believes he's discovered a magic to transform court scribe Abernathy to his original human self. (A spell cast decades before the start of the books has left him as a dog who walks upright and who retains the power of speech.) But the "reversal spell" misfires and transports Abernathy to Earth, specifically to a castle where the evil, de-throned king of Landover (who sold his kingdom to Ben) resides.

At the same time, the spell has transported one of the deposed king's magical possessions into Landover, a sort of evil genie-in-a-bottle known as a Darkling. When the bottle goes missing, the characters have two problems to solve -- retrieving the bottle and recovering Abernathy.

Of the original three Magic Kingdom books Terry Brooks wrote, I think this one is the best. It starts right in with the action immediately, with Abernathy "exiled" to Earth by the end of chapter one. In fact, I think this is the fastest onset of "the main problem" in any of Terry Brooks' novels, in any series, and it is quite effective.

The Darkling subplot is also very strong. As the characters track the evil bottle, it passes through the hands of all sorts of different characters; it becomes a device by which, once again, all the side characters that appeared in previous books can be brought into the tale again. And it feels very natural. You look forward to the return of each character, because it doesn't take long to realize that's what's coming.

The ultimate resolution to the tale is perhaps a bit easily won, but then that might just be part and parcel of this being more whimsical fare than Brooks' usual "high fantasy." Nevertheless, it's still a great book I rate an A-.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

You Basterds

This afternoon, I went to check out Quentin Tarantino's latest, Inglourious Basterds. It's a fantastical World War II story about a plot to assassinate several Nazi leaders as they attend the premiere of a propaganda film in occupied France.

It's also thoroughly classic Tarantino, so if you like his sort of film, you'll want to get out immediately and see this (if you haven't already). If, like me, you're less enthusiastic about his work, then... well, to make a long story short, this is still probably one worth seeing.

But I do mean "make a long story short." This is a long, long story, clocking in at two-and-a-half hours. And it's not long for any particularly good reason. Like Kill Bill, this is a pretty straight vengeance story that shouldn't take so damn much film to tell. And like Kill Bill, Tarantino seems to be too much in love with the sound of his own voice -- as it issues from the mouths of his characters -- to let it be that simple.

There are many good sequences throughout the film, both action beats and quieter moments. But just when the momentum gets going, along comes a languid sort of "one-act play" in which characters just sit around and talk... and talk... about nothing in particular. Fine exercises for an actor or a writer, they don't make for good entertainment or storytelling, because they neither advance the plot nor illuminate a character we're actually going to spend time with. For example, at one point the film spends over 20 minutes in a room with 10 secondary characters (most of which have never been seen before) who all end up dead when the scene finally ends. There just doesn't seem much point to it.

But the film isn't a lost cause. While it does take its sweet time getting to where it's going, that "where" is a wildly entertaining riot when it finally does. The last 15 minutes is an insane cathartic festival of gore that makes you laugh, cringe, cheer, gasp -- the whole gamut. I still wish the movie had been about 40 minutes shorter, but the finale is great enough to make me mostly forgive it.

There's some great acting in the movie. Brad Pitt is really funny in his role -- though it's not truly the lead part, when you actually look at how much screen time he has. Christoph Waltz is a wonderful villain, and a number of French and German actors that we in the States wouldn't likely know give great performances that transcend the language barrier and keep you from having to slavishly read the subtitles every moment. (A really good thing, since there are a lot of them.)

In all, it's a fairly good movie, though it comes across like an Extended Director's Cut that I for one wish had been saved for the DVD. Still, I give it a B.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Show Must Go On

I'd recently sampled two of Christopher Guest's "mockumentaries," A Mighty Wind and Waiting for Guffman, and after squeezing in a few different movies since, I decided it was time to go back for another helping. This time, I checked out Best in Show, a film built around a dog show and the owners competing in it.

This was another enjoyable movie. It would be hard for it not to be, involving much of the same team. The script was once again a collaboration between Guest and Eugene Levy. It featured most of the actors from this sort-of "rep company": Catherine O'Hara, Eugene Levy, Parker Posey, Michael McKean, John Michael Higgins, Jennifer Coolidge, Jane Lynch, Fred Willard, and of course, Guest himself.

I actually felt like this movie came on even stronger than the others I'd seen. The introductions of all the characters and explorations of who they are was funny, funny stuff. Nearly everyone was paired off in some kind of couple, and watching the pairs interact with each other was sometimes zany, sometimes painfully awkward, but always amusing. I found myself laughing out loud on a regular basis for 45 straight minutes.

But then the movie actually arrives at the all-important event, the dog show itself. And then it unfortunately turns uncomfortably like watching an actual dog show... or at least, what I imagine one would be like if I'd ever decided to watch one on television -- which I don't think I ever would, expecting complete boredom. The movie comes way too close to delivering exactly that. For whatever reason, the characters all just stop being funny, as though some switch were thrown, and the movie becomes overly concerned with progressing a plot and building suspense over who will win. (As if that's important!)

The thing that saves the movie from coming completely off the rails at this point is the other-worldly performance of Fred Willard as an idiotic TV personality giving color commentary on the event. I know now that this film is exactly what the makers of Dodgeball were thinking of when they brought in Gary Cole and Jason Bateman to deliver the funniest material of that already-funny movie. I wouldn't say Willard brings the biggest laughs here of the entire film, but he is the one who keeps any laughs going during this oddly serious stretch of the film.

Ultimately, the feeling I felt of drifting away from the comedy didn't last too long. It's only a 90-minute film overall, and the last 10 minutes are a series of "wrap-ups" for the characters that does put the emphasis back on the humor. My only disappointment, really, is in the feeling that I was heading for a grade A movie by the halfway point in the film. It is nevertheless a mostly funny movie definitely worth seeing. I rate it a B.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Should Have Stayed Dead

What would happen if a bunch of very talented people got together and somehow made a very bad movie? The result would be something like Dead Again, a vaguely supernatural mystery-thriller from 1991.

Just a couple years after his critically lauded film interpretation of Henry V, Kenneth Branagh decided to do something completely different. This is the story of a private investigator who agrees to take in a woman who has lost both her memory and (initially) her ability to speak. He seeks out any help to try and learn her true identity, including a hypotist whose efforts to unlock her memory end up instead tapping into a past life of hers, in which she remembers a brutal murder.

The plot actually sounds pretty cool on paper. The cast makes it sound even better. Branagh himself plays the investigator (and, in the memory/flashbacks, a man accused of murdering his wife). Emma Thompson is the mystery amnesiac (and, in the flashbacks, the murder victim). Derek Jacobi is the strange hypnotist exploring the past life. Along the way, Andy Garcia, Robin Williams, and Wayne Knight all appear in supporting roles.

But the movie is disappointingly less than the sum of its parts. The dialogue feels ripped from a bad soap opera, and these otherwise fine actors deliver melodramatic performances only worthy of that material. The film manages a few cheap "make you jump" scares, but never anything more suspenseful than a Boy Scout "there on the car door handle was THE HOOK!" campfire story. It's all just plain hokey.

The only thing that saves the movie from being a total bust is that in the final 20 minutes or so, the crafting of the story suddenly shows some surprising intelligence. Oh, the dialogue doesn't improve, and if anything, that actual staging of everything for the camera gets worse. But the plot does suddenly unveil some revelations and make a few clever connections that buy back some of the preceding hour-and-a-half of crap.

But more than anything, it makes you wish that some other screen writer had taken this story concept and written a better version of it. With a cast like this, I have to believe that somehow, somewhere, a grade A movie is buried deep in this mess. Instead, what results is a D+ at best. It's to be watched only if you have a morbid curiosity to see how so many good ingredients could blend to make something so bad.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Black Marks

Next up in my re-reading of the Magic Kingdom of Landover books was The Black Unicorn. Published one year after the first book, it picks up one year later in the world of the story as well.

The man who originally sold main character Ben Holiday the Magic Kingdom is actually a corrupt wizard who'd been banking on his failure. Since that didn't happen, he's now out for revenge, and secures it in this book by means of a magic that makes everyone thing he is actually the king. At the same time, no one is able to recognize Ben, and he is cast out of his own castle to roam Landover in search of a way to undo the deceptive magic.

Unlike book one, which was told entirely from Ben's perspective, this book has some pieces told from those of other characters. This happens mainly in reference to a second plot: a strange black unicorn, a sort of myth even by the standards of a fantasy land, has been seen throughout Landover, and is a bad omen. But one of the characters is having visions of it and feels drawn to seek it out. Will it be a good or bad thing for her?

I found this book to be mostly good, but a little bit of a mixed bag. Though the plot about the black unicorn is what gives the book its title, it definitely plays like a subplot. It's far less interesting too. The character seeking out the unicorn, Willow, is a fairy creature, and at times Terry Brooks sort of uses that as a crutch. He doesn't really make her motivations too clear or believable, because she's a "fairy creature" and just listens to her impulses. And in the end, this thread of the plot reaches a rather predictable conclusion. (Though perhaps, since I've read it before, it only seemed that way to me.)

Fortunately, the "identity theft" subplot is much stronger. It's more developed, presented better, and is very interesting. It's also an interesting plot device to lead Ben to go back around the kingdom and revisit all the minor characters from the first book. Then, he was trying to secure their pledge of support for his new rule; now, he's trying for any help to reclaim that throne. It comes together as a great way of "re-living" the adventure of the first book, while not being a simple re-hash.

All told, I'd rate this book the same as its predecessor -- I give it a B+.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


I don't check out every movie Netflix thinks I might like, though I've rated enough things that it's getting fairly good at guessing what my opinions will be. On a separate note, I wouldn't call myself a huge fan of the various Stargate television series, but the work I did for about a year on a game based on the show did get me to enjoying it, and occasionally taking an interest in other projects that the people associated with the show have taken on.

These two seemingly unrelated things converged when Netflix recommended a movie to me that I'd actually heard of thanks to an interview with Martin Gero, one of the writer-directors who worked on Stargate: Atlantis. In the U.S., the film received a limited release under the title Y.P.F. In native Canada, the film had another name.

I'm not sure how family friendly this blog tries to be, but let's say the movie was called "Young People Fornicating." Look at the poster there on the right and figure it out for yourself.

While you can be sure that this title was chosen to be attention-getting, and to show up when you do a Google search (oh, not when you do a Google search, of course), it's not a mislead. That's exactly what this movie is about. It's five interwoven stories involving different characters. The stories never connect except for the common subject matter promised by the title.

Each story is a different sort of relationship drama (or comedy) played out with a different sort of history as the subject. There's a couple of exes getting back together. There's a married couple trying to spice things up. There's a couple at the end of a first date. There's two long time best friends trying out something different. And there's a guy and his girlfriend... and his roommate.

Some of these storylines are more successful than others. One or two manage to make a fair comment on relationships, though none reach any profound statement. In the end, you get a few laughs, and a handful of other good moments, but little more than what that title promised.

When you get down to it, this movie is trying to be a raunchy version of Love Actually. And it's nowhere near as effective. More than a few times, it comes off as what it probably really is: a writer-director frustrated with year after year of family-friendly science-fiction indulging an urge to do something more adult just for the sake of being different. And in a strange way, it comes off just like the average episode of Stargate: entertaining, but not lasting. (Though retract your claws, Stargate fans -- I will grant that there are a handful of really excellent Stargate episodes that do stay with you.)

Actually, I'm not even sure if I'd quite rank this film that highly, as I can only see rating it a C+. If you've never seen Love Actually, go out immediately and rent that. No need to stop and check out Y.P.F. -- under whatever title you choose to call it.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

God Save the Queen

About a month or so ago, I borrowed the first two seasons of The Tudors on DVD from a friend and checked out that show (The short review: it took it while to get going, but by the second season had become fairly compelling.) It sparked a bit more interest in that historical place and time for me, so I decided to check out the movie Elizabeth.

Though I wasn't aware of this going in, the movie was actually written by Michael Hirst, the same man who created and runs that Showtime series. It even has one or two of the same actors in it (though playing different roles). It seems the man has a deep fascination with the time period.

In a way, watching Elizabeth made me appreciate The Tudors even more. It's not that it wasn't good, but rather that the production values of the television series, made just a decade later, appear to be as great as or greater than this feature film. The scenery is equally breathtaking, the sets are just as convincing, and the costumes -- hell, if anything, they're actually superior in the television show. It's all actually quite impressive here in this film, making it even more so in the television series.

But enough digression. To the movie. Elizabeth is the tale of the queen's rise to the throne, and the very early days of her reign. In focusing just on this period of the actual Elizabeth's long time on the throne, the film attempts to tighten into a narrative that makes sense. It's mostly successful in this, though there are still times where the story feels like it's a bit untethered, moving from minor "episode" to "episode."

There are two major threads -- romantic and political. The political material is more what I was interested in seeing when I decided to watch the movie, but it is for good or ill the weaker of the two stories. No intricate webs, no wheels within wheels, just fairly straight-forward plotting not even really worthy of being called "scheming." But the romantic thread is surprisingly stronger. This is an account of the events that ultimately led the real Elizabeth to forswear marriage, and is interesting enough to hold the movie.

But what really sells it all is the acting. Cate Blanchett is extraordinary in the title role. Geoffrey Rush, Christopher Eccleston, Joseph Fiennes, and Richard Attenborough all play important roles, and do it well. John Gielgud plays a brief but strong part as the Pope, and throughout the rest of film, a few "before they were stars" faces pop up to add a little more spice to the proceedings. It's a fine cast.

In the end, there is a lot to like here, but I think that watching The Tudors unfold over multiple episodes (and benefiting from all that extra time in which to tell the story) made me wish for more here. I'd give Elizabeth a B-. It's not required viewing, but I'd suspect that if you think you want to watch it, you'll probably like it.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Return to Landover

I've written several times here on the blog about my love of author Terry Brooks. I've always talked about books in (or related to) his best-known series, the Shannara books, because that's what he's been writing in one form or another for the last 15 years or so.

But he does have another series, The Magic Kingdom of Landover. These are a bit more light-hearted and fanciful in tone, as much fairy tale as high fantasy. They also didn't sell as well as the Shannara books, and I suspect that he may have had some small pressure from his publishers to steer clear of the series. More than a dozen Shannara books since, however, appears to have given him the leeway to return to this other series -- the sixth book, A Princess of Landover, comes out tomorrow in hardcover.

The books in this series each stand alone, complete tales unto themselves, but since it had been a decade-and-a-half since I'd last read any of them, I felt like "preparing" for the new book by catching up on the previous five.

It started with Magic Kingdom For Sale -- Sold! The story is about a lawyer from Chicago who has reached a crossroads in his life. He's profoundly unhappy, and desperate for any sort of change in his routine. He happens across a bizarre ad in a department store catalogue, and though he knows it can't possibly be for real, purchases the kingship of an honest-and-true fantasy land.

Of course, it does turn out to be true -- though not without some unexpected complications. The kingdom is in a poor state, with feuding vassals, rampaging demons, and failing magic. Our Hero must put all of this right and comes to terms with the reality of this fantasy.

Magic Kingdom for Sale -- Sold! is an interesting book in Terry Brooks' career. It's the first one he wrote as a full-time author after leaving his previous profession as... you might have guessed... a lawyer. You can tell in reading it that there are some personal issues being worked out in the writing of it, of abandoning the stability of life to run around in a fantasy world. Some of it is not quite engaging, but it does stay well clear of being self-indulgent, as I think many writers who put a lot of themselves into a work sometimes get.

The writing style is interesting to compare and contrast with some of the books he's written more recently. In some cases, you can see his technique is rather less evolved here -- as you'd expect of a 20-year old book. He sometimes has a tendency of repeating information, sometimes several times a chapter as a character tries to "reason through" a particular puzzle.

But on other occasions, the writing is different in a very good way. When writing Shannara, Terry Brooks must always find ways to describe things completely within the walls of a high fantasy perspective. Here, his main character is a regular guy from our world, and some of the action takes place in it. That frees him up to use other kinds of language, draw other metaphors, reference bits of pop culture (well... mid-80s pop culture), and so forth. It's a writer stretching outside of the area in which he's most comfortable, often succeeding in that, and to be commended for the effort.

Before setting out to re-read this book, I don't think I could have recounted the plot with any great accuracy, but as soon as I was a few chapters in, most of it had come rushing back to me. I suppose that speaks well of it, since it's been so many years. Still, it's not quite as satisfying a ride as some of his other books. I would recommend it, but a bit less enthusiastically than the trilogy he just completed. I give Magic Kingdom a B+.

More books to follow...

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Stop Motion Picture

I recently caught this year's new stop-motion animation film, Coraline. Based on a Neil Gaiman story (though I have no idea how faithfully), it's the story of a little girl who discovers a portal in her house to an alternate reality. The other world has an Other Mom, Other Dad, and versions of all the people and places near her house, but everything there is a little better -- nicer, more exciting, more fun. At least, so it seems, until things take a sinister turn...

The movie is far more beautiful than it is clever. I can't think of a case where stop-motion animation has been presented so impressively, and with such style. Frame after frame of the film is a work of art unto itself. The settings are amazing, the characters look intriguing, and the performances created by the animators are outstanding. You could watch this film just for the visuals and be happy.

You don't have to watch it just for the visuals, but disappointingly that is the best thing going for it. The story isn't nearly so deep. It's brisk and superficial in the way of a children's book, sometimes bouncing from set piece to set piece more than telling a single story. And yet, it soon becomes much too creepy (and at times flat out scary) to feel entirely appropriate for that younger audience either.

Vocal performances, from Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, Jennifer Saunders, and John Hodgman, among others, are all good -- but none of them stand out very strongly to me. Again, the story may be letting them down here. No one really gets the chance to "act" much other than Teri Hatcher, who as the movie progresses, becomes the main source of the creepiness and scariness I mentioned before. (It's a welcome change from talking prat fall after prat fall on Desperate Housewives.)

Ultimately, it's a movie than sort of feels like less than the sum of its parts. But one of those parts -- those lush visuals -- is so tremendous as to make the film worth seeing anyway. I'd rate Coraline a B-.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Aliens Among Us

Today, I checked out the new sci-fi/action movie District 9, the relatively inexpensive movie made almost entirely by (and starring) unknowns, that comes off looking just as lavish as summer blockbusters that cost ten times as much to make.

If you've heard anything at all about the movie (and I think it would have been hard not to), then you know that the real hallmark of it is that it's "smart science fiction." It doesn't just use the trappings of aliens or what-not to thrill the senses, it uses them as an allegory to make a point. The story is set deliberately in Johannesburg, South Africa (a place noted for racial tensions), and surrounds a group of aliens stranded on Earth and rounded up into a ghetto to live separate-but-equal from the humans of the city.

Well, actually, the story is about a man whose job it is to relocate the aliens to a new holding area, and an unfortunate mishap that befalls him on the job. That other business is backstory, and for good or bad is actually the most compelling thing about the movie.

The movie itself is sort of a strange brew of The Fly and Enemy Mine that isn't nearly as original as the allegory. It entertains most of the time, but lags in a few places. When you're done thinking about the literal racism in this film and how it reflects on reality, you then start thinking about a handful of plot points in the final act that just don't quite might sense.

The presentation of the film is rather impressive, with great visual effects (aided by motion capture tehcnology). But it's also a bit inconsistent. For the most part, the film tries to be a fake documentary, a sort of Cloverfield or Quarantine that uses all manner of "found footage" from security cameras to a fictional film crew. But it doesn't stay within this perspective. By the second act, things are alternating back and forth between the documentary approach and standard filmmaking, at times because the narrative can no longer be pushed forward as well with the "film crew" conceit, and at times for what appear to be completely arbitrary reasons. By the third act, the documentary approach is abandoned almost entirely.

Still, though I found the execution to be flawed, the core idea here is really strong. And everybody I went to see the film with seemed to like it better than I did, so this seems like a safe recommendation for all of you. I myself rate it a B-.

Friday, August 14, 2009

You Poker, You Brought 'Er

Recognizing that I'd liked or shown interest in a few movies involving poker, the NetFlix gnomes suggested that I might want to check out Maverick. (The 1994 film adaptation of a TV series I'm aware of, but have also never seen.) Sure, why not? I heard it was fun.

It is that. It would be a bit of a stretch to call this movie a Western, because it's ultimately an all-out comedy that just has a particular time and place for its setting. It doesn't have any deep message to convey or emotions to conjure, it's just about having a good time.

On that level, it mostly works. This is pretty much thanks to the cast, which seems to be having genuine fun being in this movie. Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, and James Garner are all entertaining and amusing. Alfred Molina makes a fun over-the-top villain, and James Coburn effectively chews the scenery in his smaller, final act role. It's all cheerful enough to almost make me overlook how bad the actual poker is throughout the film (both strategically and procedurally).

But I couldn't overlook how the plot begins to run out of steam before the finish line. As this is a 15-year old movie, it's probably fair game for me to say that they try to run some plot twists in the final half hour. Good guys turned out to be bad guys... then good guys again! Mostly, these reveals are shocking only in that the writer (the perennial William Goldman) has the guts to actually try to pull off all these double-crosses when most of them don't make any sense. The movie feels like it has three or four endings, and each one is a little less satisfying than the last.

It ultimately left me wishing the film had demonstrated appreciation for the cardinal rule of gambling -- quit while you're ahead. By the final credits, the fun little confection had eroded down to a B- for me. It's still enjoyable enough, but not the sort of movie that'll stay with you for too long afterward.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

3 x 3

I had, on a few occasions, heard of this smaller independent movie made a few years back called The Nines. I'd really only heard the smallest taste of the plot, but it was enough to intrigue me: the movie unfolds as three short stories with minor points of intersection. Three actors feature in all the stories, each playing different roles in each segment.

In retrospect, I now know that I didn't have enough information to make an informed decision about whether to see this movie. What someone should have told me is that this movie has more than a little in common with Donnie Darko. If you liked that movie -- and a lot of people really do -- I wouldn't be surprised if you liked The Nines. If you're like me, and were underwhelmed by Donnie Darko... well, I think you can guess what my reaction was.

The opening act of the movie (that is, the first of the three stories) is actually quite interesting and pulls you in. It's a simple story about a television star who went on a binge and has now been sentenced to house arrest. But there are hints of things not quite right with the world, a taste of a "Twilight Zone"-esque mystery to be unearthed.

Then comes act two, a reality television show that follows around a struggling writer as he tries to get his own TV show on the air. And while we get the occasional connection to the earlier plot of the movie, the supernatural weirdness almost completely vanishes in this segment. What's more, this story, taken on its own, is just a lot less compelling than the first.

Finally comes the third act, and we jump the tracks. This story is actually the plot of the TV series pilot written by the creator we followed in act two, but presented as its own complete reality. And when it gets to where it's going, it's a bizarre explanation that unifies the entire film in a way that -- going back to that "are you a fan of Donnie Darko?" business -- you're either going to think is really cool, or will think, "what the hell?!" Put me in the latter camp.

The three actors that are the constants in this film are all very good: Ryan Reynolds, Melissa McCarthy, and Hope Davis. You'd certainly expect this if you'd seen much of Hope Davis' work; you're unlikely to know Melissa McCarthy from somewhere else; and you might be very surprised to hear it about Ryan Reynolds, given most of the films he's done. They all really display acting chops here. Each character feels like a genuinely different person, and none like a caricature.

Still, the film they're all servicing feels to me like a slow march from something intriguing to something simply weird for the sake of being weird. But at a C+, I suppose I did like it a bit better than Donnie Darko... so one more plug here. If you liked that, you might like this.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Go Mad

A short while back, in passing, I mentioned that I'd started to watch the TV series Mad Men, curious to see if it lived up to the hype I'd been hearing. Well, the new third season begins next week, and I can not only say I'm caught up, but eager to pick up the show at this point.

For those not in the know, Mad Men is an AMC series set in an advertising firm in New York. The "twist," so to speak, is that it's a period piece; season one takes place in 1960, and season two in 1962.

The show gets a great deal of material out of portraying the differences of nearly fifty years ago. Sometimes it's simply for a quick joke, like how no one would appreciate an invention, new at the time, that became part of daily life a short while later. Other times, it's a warm feeling of "difference" about the celebrities or products of the time. Most often, however, it's played for dramatic and emotional content, a major shock to the modern sensibility of what was a cultural norm in the time frame.

It took me a little while to build to the show. I thought it enjoyable right out of the gate, but it wasn't until most of the way through the first season that it really grabbed my attention. This is because the show is, first and foremost, a character drama. As such, you have to reach a point of really caring about the characters before things affect you as an audience.

But they do get there in fine fashion. The very clever writing gives you things to love and hate about all the characters. Someone can be making life a living hell for another character one week, and then the next week can show a soft, dejected side that has you feeling sorry for him instead. Even secondary characters feel like fully realized people that don't merely service the plot -- they often are the plot.

Season two was especially great for Mad Men. It took things down increasingly dark paths, exposing a dark underbelly to the clichéd nuclear family of the 60s. It also, while not exactly ending in a cliffhanger, did set a few major elements into motion that should lend for some exciting new storytelling in the season about to begin.

The costumes and sets look amazing and authentic for the time frame -- and with just the right tough of phoniness that feels right for people that sell phony for a living.

The acting is top notch. The leads are riveting, and every member of the supporting cast steps up for the one or two times a season when an episode turns a greater spotlight onto them. Guest stars are routinely of a caliber that makes one-off appearances into recurring roles.

Mad Men is definitely a show for anyone who likes their dramas to be character first and easy answers never. I'd rate the first season a B+, and the second season an A. And while you probably don't have time to get caught up at this point, you could always TiVo or tape the new episodes to save til you do.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Gimme a Break

Remain seated until the ride comes to a complete stop. For the TV show Prison Break, though, it's hard to tell just when that was. There was the series finale that aired just a few months ago. Or you could reckon by when the show seriously dipped in quality (your opinion may vary, but I'd say it was after season two).

But for the creative team responsible for the show, there was one last chapter to be told, the direct-to-DVD release, The Final Break. Shot as two more episodes and presented as a whole "movie," this is 90 more minutes in the lives of Michael Scofield, Lincoln Burrows, and company. I wasn't really sure I wanted to watch this, given how bad the quality of the show slid in those last half dozen episodes or so. But neither could I commit to avoiding it. Having come this far, I just had to know, you know?

Well, The Final Break is neither fantastic, nor terrible. It does require more acceptance and suspension of disbelief than just about any tale the Prison Break writers have told -- and any fan of the show will know that's saying a lot. Skip over the next two paragraphs if you don't want any SPOILERS about the plot of this story.

It's a few weeks after the exoneration of our heroes. (And long before the "epilogue" presented in the series finale.) Sara Tancredi is arrested in Miami for the murder of Christina, Michael's mom, in the season finale. "Buy #1": It seems there was a security camera in the abandoned building where it happened, and Sara was caught on tape pulling the trigger. So poor Sara is thrown into prison. Yes, prison and not jail. "Buy #2": Due to overcrowding in Florida jails, the prison is taking the overflow from jail, so while Sara is awaiting trial, she's just tossed into the general population with convicted murderers, in a female version of Fox River.

"Buy #3": This women-only prison is just on the other side of a complex where a mens' prison is, and it happens this is the prison where General Kranz and T-Bag are being held following their arrest in the finale. Kranz gets word that Sara's in prsion, and decides that he'll feel better accepting his own fate as long as he can just get some revenge and have Sara killed in prison. Fortunately, he has someone to reach out to... "Buy #4": Gretchen, after her capture near the end of season four, is incarcerated in the prison with Sara. So Michael must figure out a way to break Sara out before she's killed.

If you can somehow swallow all that set-up, this double-length episode does manage to be entertaining at times. There are moments where it touches back on some of the things that made season one so great -- trying to craft an elaborate plan, struggling to keep it a secret from prying eyes, trying to deal with unexpected wrinkles, fighting to survive in an impossible situation, and so on.

Well, it touches on them, at least. The trouble is, we're used to material like this having most or all of a season to breathe on this show, so the compression here into what would amount to just two episodes doesn't always work. Due to the constaints of time, the plans can't get that elaborate, the prying eyes can't pry too closely, there can't be that many wrinkles, and the situations can't become too impossible. I mean, not that I'm really asking for another season of Prison Break... no, no, no, not at this point. I'm only saying that the writers are used to another medium besides the "film-like" format they're using here, and it shows.

But there are some elements of The Final Break that give better closure to the actual finale. A few gaps are painted in and a few characters given better resolution. But at the same time, this is by no means a "can't miss" experience. If you washed your hands of Prison Break after that final season (or even before it), I can't really tell you that there's enough here to bring you back.

Yet if you, like me, "just gotta know?" Well, this isn't terrible. Just make sure your "just go with us on this one" meter is set to "high." (Or "off?" I'm not sure which way that meter works.)

Monday, August 10, 2009

Summer Movie

Last night, when I crossed the 100,000 mile mark in my car, it was on the way to see the new movie (500) Days of Summer. It's a relationship... well, mostly comedy, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel. It covers a 500 day period from the beginning to the end of a relationship between a young man and a woman named Summer.

Two things serve to set this apart from the typical romantic comedy, and to secure its "indie" status in more than just budget. First, this is not a purely rosy relationship between these two, as the movie tells you point blank within the first 60 seconds. Secondly, it's not told in completely chronological order. The movie sometimes jumps around to different days out of "the 500."

This latter element of the movie turns out to be a pretty compelling device at times. Sometimes a time jump is used for stark contrast and comedic effect. Other times it plays in a powerfully dramatic way, as we see how certain habits in the relationship first developed, and how they came to be seen by both people later on down the road. Actually, the time jumping is so effective as to make me wish for more of it. I'm not looking for a labyrinthine, Memento-esque story here, but overall the movie is presented "in order" save for a handful of these great moments. I think I'd have liked it even more if there had been more of that.

Still, note that I said "even more." There's certainly plenty to like in what is there. There are lots of laughs, including a brilliant sequence set on "the morning after" their first night together that is enough all on its own to recommend seeing the movie. There are many tender moments that feel genuine. And the "warts and all" approach to this story is authentic as well. Really, the only false moments in the whole piece are one joke at the end you can hear driving up from halfway down the block, and a too-intermittent use of a narrator that doesn't really add much to the tale. (Either use him more, or don't use him at all, I say.)

But I would definitely recommend the movie. I rate it a B+.

Sunday, August 09, 2009


Big milestone for my car tonight:

I mention it in part because the former owner of my car (the only other owner) is a reader of the blog here.

This is the first car I've taken past 100,000 miles. (I totaled my first one in a rather stupid accident; I got rid of the second one in favor of the current one.) Actually, it somehow seemed like it should have been a bigger deal than it actually was.

But don't get me wrong, I'm happy nothing momentous happened.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

That Mockingbird Don't Sing

After a streak of more recently-made movies, I decided it was time to check out another classic, so I threw To Kill a Mockingbird into the queue. Starring Gregory Peck, based on a famous book, and appearing both in IMDB's top 250 and the AFI's top 100, it seemed likely there was something to all the praise heaped on this movie.

Indeed, there was some great material in this movie. But unfortunately, I found that to be a 40 minute chunk buried deep inside a 2 hour and 10 minute long movie. The chunk in question is a courtroom trial in which Peck's character, a Depression-era lawyer, agrees to defend a black man before a jury of prejudiced, bigoted men. And, as the facts come out, it becomes immediately clear that the defendant could not possibly have committed the crime of which he is accused.

One or two of the witnesses in this long courtroom sequence give some over-the-top performances that don't really stand up as they must have in 1962 when the film was made. But for the most part, this is all strong material that pulls on the emotions and is still provocative and interesting. Brock Peters is excellent as the defendant, and Gregory Peck's character of Atticus Finch anchors down the proceedings in fine fashion.

But this compelling section of the film comes only after endless scenes of a lackadaisical days-in-the-life-of tale focused on Finch's two children. (It feels more like weeks than days.) The child actors have been handed false-sounding dialogue, give stiff and awkward performances, and ultimately don't feel like they're servicing the plot in any way.

I suppose this choice of perspective was meant to provide a deliberate commentary, illustrating how the next generation will be more free of prejudice and hatred than the current one. It makes sense as a framing device, but it just takes so damn long to bring them to the point where they're actually participating in the trial aspect of the plot. Do we really need to spend a full hour watching them push old tires, climb through rickety fences, challenge each other to dares, get in fights at school, peek in neghbors' windows, bait the old lady next door, be threatened by a rabid dog, blah blah blah blah blah?

I'd been lulled nearly to sleep by the time the movie finally got interesting. I had very nearly turned it off, but soldiered on in the hopes that somewhere I'd see why this movie is so highly thought of. And if that first hour were trimmed to perhaps 15 or 20 minutes, I think I would have agreed whole heartedly. As it stands, it's a reason to use the "Chapter Skip" feature on DVDs. Overall, I rate the film a C-.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Crumbling Monument

A few years ago, a new board game was released with an intriguing premise. Stonehenge was a game designed in a deliberately open-ended way -- several interesting but generic pieces, lot of elements on the board such as different positions and colors, a deck of cards with several different traits on them. The idea: this was to be an "anthology" board game. Several different game designers would each take these pieces and make their own game from them.

In the original release, the five designers who contributed their version of Stonehenge were Bruno Faidutti, James Ernest, Mike Selinker, Richard Borg, and Richard Garfield. A mixed group, but with enough highlights in there that you might expect something special.

Well, a game loving friend of mine (FKL, in point of fact) warned me that he'd played Stonehenge in all its incarnations himself, and judged it to be "five games, none of which were good enough to have been sold on their own." The warning came a bit too late; I'd already bought my copy. But now, years later, I've finally gotten around to playing them all myself, and I can confirm his opinion.

None of the games in Stonehenge are "bad," necessarily. But they're all various degrees of unsatisfying, in a number of different ways. One is laughably short, with a set-up time as long (or maybe even longer than) the game itself. Another has a pretty major "the rich get richer" problem, where the leading player pulls out far ahead of the rest of the pack. Several have an intriguing premise that's ultimately undermined by a high factor of luck infringing on the strategy.

I understand you can go to a web site where lots of designers (professional and amateur) have contributed hordes of potential Stonehenge rules sets, giving you a vast number of possible games. But I can't say I'm encouraged to go looking. It's weird, but the very notion that this game is really a sort of "tool box" just as much as it is a game gets me to looking at it almost more as an "investment" than a source of entertainment. On that level, I just don't feel I got my money's worth, and I just want it out of my "portfolio."

I expect I'll be off-loading my copy of Stonehenge at some point. Let somebody else figure out what to do with it. Literally.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

The Phantom Movie

Chances are good you've never heard of it, but among certain circles, the small independent movie Fanboys has been a recurring subject now for years. All this despite the fact it was only actually released very late last year; it had a long, rough road getting made. But back to that in a moment.

Fanboys is a "road trip" movie set in 1998, featuring a group of major Star Wars fans. One of them is dying of cancer, and does not expect to live to see next year's release of the first new Star Wars film in 15 years, The Phantom Menace. So the group resolves to break into Skywalker Ranch to view the rough cut of the movie.

The bulk of filming on this movie began in 2006. And although the people making it were, it seems, barely more organized than "hey gang, let's make a movie!", they managed to attract some people you'll actually recognize to their film. Among the cast is Kristen Bell (Veronica Mars herself), Jay Baruchel (star of Undeclared, and one of the secondary characters in Tropic Thunder), and Seth Rogen (just before his string of film successes made him an unlikely force in Hollywood). And then there's a string of cameos they lined up. They're best not spoiled, but suffice it to say they're entertaining.

The aseembled first cut drew enough interest that the team was able to get money for re-shoots to make the finished product look more professional. But it also brought studio interference. The distributors that picked them up wanted changes the creators disagreed with, including the removal of the "downbeat cancer sub-plot" (and thus excising the entire motivation for the caper). Ultimately, another director was brought in to direct the new material. After some bomb test screenings, the original team was brought back and given a few short days to restore the work as they'd intended.

And then the movie was still not ultimately released in any significant way. After a crazy-short run in a tiny number of cities, the film simply dropped on DVD this year, on the 10th anniversary of the release of The Phantom Menace.

So was this movie worth all the struggle? Sort of. It's not phenomenal, but it is very entertaining. At the very least, if you're a Star Wars fan, there's plenty to be entertained by. I'd guess the "unwashed masses" would be mostly stumped. The tale of friendship and mortality is there to in theory be an emotional anchor that anyone could relate to, but it ultimately doesn't play nearly as well as the standard "road trip movie humor" and pop-culture references (mostly about, you guessed it, the Star Wars trilogy).

Mostly, it's just refreshing to see a movie like this about "geeks" that isn't about "Hollywood Geeks" -- that is, mass-market movie makers' apparent idea of what a geek is like. There's an extreme cartoonishness to the social awkwardness of a typical movie geek, that I always find far from reality, if not even a little offensive in some films. We're never meant to laugh with the Hollywood Geek, we're meant to laugh at him. Not so in this movie. These are likeable and believable people, with traits and behavior recognizable and relatable. There are a few over the top moments here and there (mostly surrounding one character in particular), but you can excuse them as attempts to tap into the American Pie genre. Mostly, the actors are doing an amazing amount with what is occasionally an amateur script.

Fanboys is ultimately a quick and fun little movie. I rate it a B. Which is a damn sight better than that Star Wars movie these characters are trying so hard to see.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009


Some of my regular readers I know are familiar with the musical Chess. Many may not be. For the uninitiated, it was a musical conceived in the mid-1980s that surrounded a face-off between a Russian and American champion for the world chess title. The lyrics were written by Tim Rice after the falling out of his long-time partnership with Andrew Lloyd Webber. The music was written by Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, the two "B"s of the group ABBA. A few songs from the musical broke into the mainstream, such as the odd pseudo-rap One Night in Bangkok, and love duet I Know Him So Well.

But the most significant thing about Chess is that it's never really been "finished." Its original incarnation was a "concept album" released to drum up interest from potential producers, and the structure of the musical ultimately went through some changes before actually being staged in London. After a run there, the musical was brought to Broadway, where it went through a large number of additional changes, and subsequently flopped after a very brief run.

From there, various theaters who secured the rights to present the play would cobble together strange blends of the two or three major incarnations of Chess, trying to present "the best of the best." The creators themselves then undertook such an effort a few years back, when Ulvaeus and Andersson translated the entire work into their native Swedish and rearranged it all again.

Now, in the words of Tim Rice, they may finally "be getting it right." Very recently, Chess was rewritten and shuffled up again, and presented in concert form for two nights in London. The performance was recorded for a CD and DVD release, the latter of which I recently watched.

As a longtime fan of the musical (in its various forms), I have to say this latest incarnation -- which they have for the time being at least dubbed "the official version" -- is as good a presentation of Chess as I can imagine. I say this without even making allowances for the fact this was a concert and not a full-fledged production. Chess has basically defied actual staging for nearly 25 years, and this somewhat heightened and non-literal version of it actually seemed to strengthen it in my mind.

"Chess in Concert," as it is called, features one hell of a cast. The sort of "token name" brought in to appeal to the masses is Josh Groban as Anatoly, the Russian champion. But his presence doesn't feel like a concession or compromise in any way; he gives a powerful performance. If you're a Broadway theater nerd, then you'll probably recognize the actors playing Freddie (the American champ) and Florence (his second), Adam Pascal and Idina Menzel, who both starred in the original production of Rent (and reprised their roles for the film version). They and everyone else in the cast are exceptional.

The presentation is not simplistic, despite it being a concert. A large screen above the stage is used to project material related to the action; the stage has multiple levels to it; significant bits of choreography are presented for several numbers. Aside from building actual sets, you probably wouldn't do much more for an actual production.

And indeed, this newest batch of changes improves the flow of the play tremendously. Spoilers here in the rest of this paragraph, I suppose, if you're unfamiliar with the plot, or are and want to see this new incaranation without foreknowledge. The acts have been restored to the original concept of taking place one year apart and in two different cities. A handful of completely new songs have been written, one in particular to solidify the motivations of Molokov, the Russian "puppet master." Many more reprises (and "forecasts") of major thematic material have been added, transfered to other characters; for example, Act II now concludes with a very resonant reprise of Anthem, which has always closed Act I in all incarnations of the musical. Perhaps the most inspired change is the transfer of the song Someone Else's Story from Florence (singing of her situation with Freddie) to Svetlana (wife of Anatoly).

If you are familiar with any incarnation of Chess, you owe it to yourself to check this out. If you like musicals of any kind, you'll also want to see this -- the music and these performances are outstanding. Chess in Concert gets an A from me.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Birth of a Killer

An odd indie movie made its way into my DVD player not long ago, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon. It's part fake documentary, part slasher film; part comedy, part horror. It pre-supposes that Jason, Freddy, and Michael -- the titans of modern slashers -- are all real people, and puts a group of student documentary filmmakers with a young man on his quest to follow in their footsteps and become the newest silent, ruthless mass murderer.

If you're a fan of horror movies, particularly any featuring the charaters I just mentioned, then you're really going to appreciate this movie. It's a very shrewd piece of filmmaking. It's somewhat reminiscent of Scream in the way it lovingly dissects the conventions of slasher movies, though in my opinion, it is far more effective in the way it does so. Scream still tried to be scary, and that was all well and good. This movie goes a different direction, and tries to be clever and funny.

Our would-be silent killer is very forthcoming about all the preparation and effort that goes into his work. "You have no idea how much cardio I have to do. It's ridiculous." We learn from a retired veteran who has taken the young man under his wing, we see all the set-up required at the location of the planned massacre, we see all the taunting of the intended heroine in the nights leading up to the Big Event, and we get great psychological dissection of the imagery in these kinds of films. Brilliant stuff, and very often laugh out loud funny.

A cast of very skilled unknowns is juiced with appearances by actors instantly familiar to people who've seen their share of horror movies. There's Scott Wilson from The Exorcist III, Zelda Rubinstein from Poltergeist, and Freddy Krueger himself, Robert Englund, in a great send-up of a character plucked right from the original Halloween.

Still, the movie falls down a bit in the final act, when it switches completely out of documentary mode and follows the victims in the mode of a true slasher movie. Oh, it's all very well done, and at least as effective as the somewhat lackluster stuff that has come from big budget studios in the last few years. But it's not what made this movie special. It's all too familiar to be scary, so it's unfortunate the movie didn't stick with what it was doing so well to that point -- being different, and being funny.

Nevertheless, I found the movie very entertaining. I rate it a B+.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Lots of People

This past weekend brought a movie that presented a real dilemma for me. Funny People was written and directed by Judd Apatow (whose other work I've enjoyed). It has Seth Rogen and Leslie Mann, both very funny actors. And it has Adam Sandler, who in my opinion might be one of the least funny people who inexplicably keeps finding people willing to put him in movies. So what am I to do, see this new film or not?

Well, things ultimately settled on the "see it" side. And I think I am just as divided in my opinion of the movie as I was going in.

Judd Apatow was sort of going back to his Freaks and Geeks roots here in this movie, where laughs are important, but not as important as telling a story with emotional resonance. In his other, more recent work, I've felt the latter has trumped the former. This is the story of a comedian and big-time movie actor who discovers he has a terminal disease. He strikes up a friendship with an aspiring stand-up who starts writing material for him as he goes back out on the stand-up circuit. Hilarity and tenderness ensues.

Let's get the Sandler business out of the way right now. In the more serious moments of the movie, he's actually rather good. In the moments where he's just cracking jokes casually, out of the spotlight, he's actually funny. But there are still significant chunks of the movie where he's playing broad and loud, and it's awful.

The movie does manage to get a little mileage out of it, at least. Sandler is basically playing a version of himself, an actor who has made a career of painful comedies with stupid premises, where he gets "laughs" by shouting as loudly as he can. So there's a sort of "meta" level at play when the character expresses some loathing for himself and his predicament over the type of life he's led.

Seth Rogen is great as the younger stand-up (and Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman are also strong as his roommates). The first half of the movie walks a perfect line between being funny and being serious, and it's largely thanks to Rogen. There are laughs, and they're well earned, and there are pensive moments that are genuine.

But unfortunately, Funny People is really two movies at one. I mean that in every way I can think of, including run time -- the thing lasts a staggering two hours and 20 minutes, and feels longer. And somewhere at about the halfway mark, the "working standup battling disease" plot dries up, and we're then thrown a "rekindled romance" plot involving a woman that Sandler's character drove away years ago, before he was famous.

Leslie Mann plays this woman who is now married to someone else, with two daughters. And she seems just as talented here as she has in other Apatow movies. But this part of the movie just drags on and on. The laughs get very few and far between, the emotional content is less compelling, and time grinds to a halt.

I sort of feel that with a better writing polish and tighter editing, even this back half of the movie could have been salvaged into a moderately entertaining film of its own... but even in that case, it wouldn't have any business being grafted to the first half of the movie. It appears that Judd Apatow may have reached that level of fame where he no longer has people around him to tell him when things aren't going right -- or where he has the clout to ignore anyone who does.

All this might sound like it's leading to a fairly dismal grade from me, but I do have to go back to the fact that the first hour or so of this movie really works. It's sweet, it's funny, and all the more impressively so in my mind for being those things despite the presence of Adam Sandler. But that's only the first of the two movies that is Funny People.

Overall, I'd rate it a B-. That's probably high enough to be worth a recommendation, but I must again warn you if you do go -- you're committing quite a lot of time out of your day.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

The Fall of Shadows

Last night, I finished reading Beyond the Shadows, the final book of the Night Angel Trilogy (following The Way of Shadows and Shadow's Edge). I'd found the first two books pretty good, if not fantastic.

The third book was a wreck.

I mentioned in commenting on book two that it felt like the story had basically concluded at that point, other than a few minor subplots left unresolved. Having now read book three, I feel this even more strongly. After two books, author Brent Weeks suddenly seemed to want to be a George R.R. Martin and write a lengthy book of war and politics. But he doesn't do so with a fraction of the skill.

This final book splits into a number of different narratives, following different kings and religious figures as they each try to amass power for their own purposes. Pages are still devoted to Kylar, the assassin that was the main focus of the first two books, but suddenly the fantasy no longer seems "high," but "personal." A poorly-paced plot of being caught between two women who both love him, every chapter of it feels like some sort of bizarre wish fulfillment for a writer vicariously living a dream to be a badass and satisfy two women at once.

The other plots amble along at no better a clip. There's little sense of anything leading anywhere, and indeed the real plot (as even the publishers chose to define it in their synopsis on the back cover of the book) doesn't materialize until page 550 of of 690-page book. And then, when it finally arrives, it's largely similar to events from the end of book two.

Whether it was a dip in writing quality, or boredom from the aimless plot, I even found myself tiring of all the characters in this final volume. At some point early on, I became hyper-aware of the fact that virtually every major character was some super-powerful figure with magical powers bordering on the godly. Everyone was special, and so no one was special. Hell, even a supposedly dead character from an earlier book came back for a return engagement, because what's death to these people?

A few clever turns of phrase here and there in the writing kept the book from being a total loss, but ultimately the only thing that pulled me through to the end was a desire to finish it as quickly as possible so I could start reading something else. I might have abandoned it entirely, but the first two books had left me feeling that at some point, something of what I'd enjoyed there would have to show up in this final volume. Wouldn't it?

No. I recommend in all seriousness that if you should ever decide to read these books (and the first one, in particular, is worth it), that you simply not read book three. It might sound odd to suggest that people walk away from an incomplete story, but I say that whatever ending you'd imagine for yourself would probably be better than the one it actually has. I rate Beyond the Shadows a D-.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Inside a Conspiracy

It seems a random movie to have heard buzz about, but more than one of my friends had mentioned hearing good things about Conspiracy. It was made for HBO in 2001, starred Kenneth Branagh, Stanley Tucci, and Colin Firth, and was a roughly real time account of the meeting in which a group of high-ranking Nazi officials discussed the "final solution" program to eliminate Jewish people from Europe. I decided to check it out for myself.

As you'd probably expect from the names of those actors, the performances in the movie are top notch. Branagh in particular is strong as an oozing, loathsome figure that discusses mass murder as casually as dinner, and orders everyone around in an oily way that gets under your skin. Firth ends up playing perhaps the closest thing this film has to a "good guy," who tries to take issue with the legality of the proposal and gets roundly shouted down.

In historical fact, a transcript was taken of the actual meeting depicted in this film. All copies were supposed to have been destroyed, but one survived to be the grounds for much study and the basis of the script. I have no idea how faithfully this movie script stays to the actual transcript, but watching the film made me suspect that it is probably quite close to true.

I base this on the fact that the movie isn't really all that successful as a piece of drama. This is partly due to a knowledge of history; we all know exactly what these German leaders would go on to enact, so there's no real tension to be had in the movie. But neither does the movie really bring any dramatic angle to it. The only real perspective being offered here is, "man, weren't these some evil sons of bitches?" And yes, we all knew that. There's no revelation. There's no real range of emotion at play here.

But the film does engender one emotion again and again: disgust. Repeatedly, these skilled actors deliver horrific lines of dialogue with chilling off-handedness. So even though the film really has only this one statement to make, it does it quite effectively. Overall, the movie rates a B- from me. If you have any interest in World War II history, it's a movie you might want to check out.