Wednesday, September 30, 2009


Tonight I went to go see Kooza, the touring Cirque du Soleil show that's currently here in Denver. Though I've seen nearly all the Cirque productions in permanent residence in Las Vegas (except for the recently opened and widely panned Believe), I've never seen one of the company's touring shows in person. I was eager to see how the experience compared.

First of all, there's an extra technical dimension to the touring productions, operating on a level similar to the crazy-cool stage of Ka. In this case, it's the simple fact that they pack up this thing and transport it all around the country. There really aren't any compromises in the show to make it any easier to move around; it has all the elaborate scenery and fantastic staging of its stationary cousins.

But at the same time, there was a way in which Kooza struck me as being specifically crafted for the touring environment. It seemed to me that sometimes they were picking and choosing set pieces in the style of different Cirque shows I've seen -- almost as though assuming most of the audience won't have seen any of the Vegas shows. There's a comic relief man in the style of Mystère. There's a contortionist act reminiscent of Zumanity. Back to Mystère for a teeter-totter acrobatic act. And so on.

Yet that's not to say that the show was a letdown. In fact, I found it quite the opposite. Oftentimes, I found the particulars of each given act superior to the other shows they reminded me of. And Kooza also brought in a few pieces that were definitely unique to this show, like an amazing balancing act that saw chairs stacked over thirty feet high, or a sort of "dancing" couple in which the man rode a unicycle.

The costumes were outstanding and the music engaging. It was a funnier show, overall, than any of the other Cirque shows I've seen, and that added another dimension to it. Interestingly, though, this was a two-act performance, where all the Vegas shows are built in the in-and-out-in-90-minutes mentality that governs all live performances in the city. And I'm not really sure that the show benefited much from the increased run time. The second act was definitely not as strong as the first, though it certainly did still have its share of impressive and entertaining moments.

I would definitely recommend the show. If Kooza ends up near your town, you might want to check them out. (Though you might not want to buy the seat just left of the center aisle in row J. There's a big surprise in store for you if you do.)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Apt Proponent

I wasn't setting out to watch two Brad Renfro movies in close proximity -- it just worked out that not long after watching Sleepers, the movie Apt Pupil wound up on the top of my queue. It stars the young actor as a bright high school student who discovers that an old German man living nearby (played by Ian McKellen) is actually a Nazi war criminal who has changed his identity. The young man uses threats and extortion to force the man to tell horrible stories of his actions during the war, but unearthing these truths begins to have a dark and powerful effect on both of them.

Oh... and it's all based on a novella written by Stephen King. The movie has King's sensibilities all over it; I mean that in both the good and bad ways. In the plus column, there are lots of great little moments and scenes that leave a lasting impact on the viewer. Sometimes they're gripping visuals (well realized by director Bryan Singer), other times the idea at the core of a scene sure to make you squirm in your seat.

But it also means a meandering story that doesn't seem to always know where it's going. Stephen King doesn't believe in outlining, and consequently most of his stories have both a sort of meandering quality, and an unsatisfying ending. (There are exceptions to the rule, mostly the stories adapted for film by Frank Darabont -- see The Mist and The Shawshank Redemption. No, really -- SEE THEM.)

Apt Pupil is cut from the "mixed bag" cloth. Watching the movie, I got the feeling that it was only as a "cool moment" was finished that the idea came for what the next cool moment should be, and only then that the film would take off in that direction. And by the end of it, you kind of want a trail of bread crumbs to somehow trace the way back to where it all began; it doesn't entirely make sense that this movie's ending somehow flows from its beginning.

But at least there are cool moments along the way. And the acting is really terrific. This is ultimately little more than a "two-hand play," and both Renfro and McKellen are great. They commit fully to the concept of two manipulators trying to outmaneuver each other, and both step deeper and deeper into the darkness with fine precision, making each step of the journey compelling.

I think there could have been a better movie in here somewhere. But the one that is there is still worth seeing overall. I rate it a B-.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Half Considered

Time to check out another film written and directed by Christopher Guest. For Your Consideration is his most recent (following Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, and A Mighty Wind), but is a bit of a departure -- this one is not shot in documentary style. It's the story of a small, independent movie that somehow manages to capture some Oscar buzz during its production, and the crazed effect that has on the actors involved.

I think that of all the Christopher Guest films I've seen, this is the one that it feels like it has the most "story" to it. And it's a fairly interesting subject matter (to me, anyway) -- making movies. But unfortunately, this is also the weakest of all the films I mentioned.

What sounds good on paper ultimately just isn't funny in execution. There are still wild characters, inhabited brilliantly by Guest's staple troupe of actors, but this time the jokes just don't land very often. There are easily recognizable truths in just how shallow people who make movies can be, but truth alone doesn't really lead to "funny" in this case.

As I said, there is arguably more of a story at work here than in past Guest films, but it's a predictable one. It's not hard to see where it's all going. Predictability isn't automatically a bad thing, but without a few unexpected jokes to spice things up in an entirely expected plot, the movie just isn't that interesting.

More fine acting work, if you want to see that, but overall, I'd only rate For Your Consideration a C. If you haven't seen many of Christopher Guest's movies, I'd recommend starting with one of the other ones.

Sunday, September 27, 2009


I was in the mood for a good scare (hopefully), so I sat down and watched the movie The Changeling. (Not to be confused with Changeling, the Clint Eastwood movie starring Angelina Jolie.) Made in the late 1970s and starring George C. Scott, it's the tale of a man who, after losing his wife and daughter in an accident, moves into a house that was witness to a tragedy of its own, and is now haunted.

It bears repeating -- this is a horror movie that was made in the 1970s. As such, it has a really slow pace. People who like the way scary movies are put together these days are going to find it slow, and maybe even boring. In my opinion, though, this is actually one of the things this movie gets right.

It starts off with a bang. The very first scene shows the accident in which Scott's character loses his family, and while some of the camera work is a bit arch (it's just the style of the time), the drama and emotion of it is powerful and gripping. Then things come on with a deliberate slowness that I found rather effective. Overtly horrible things don't start happening right away. There's a creeping dread as minor things -- at first easily dismissed -- slowly build up a fairly effective tension. Basically, I really liked the first half of this movie, and they just don't make them like this anymore.

But then the second half of the movie doesn't really deliver on the set-up. Once the significance of the title is explained, it's a little bit of a head scratcher. And things get muddier from there. The motivations of whatever force is haunting the house get cloudy, characters get introduced for go-nowhere subplots... even the acting starts to get a little hammy.

If you do like movies in this genre, you'll probably want to check this one out -- even though the wheels do come off the figurative wagon a bit towards the conclusion. There are still a lot of good scenes early on, and a particularly cool "seance" sequence. But overall, it's really only about a C+.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Good Sleep

I thought it was time to try another "epic cast" movie, so I watched director Barry Levinson's 1996 movie Sleepers. It tells the story of four young boys in the 1960s who are sentenced to detention in a juvenile facility after a prank goes horribly wrong. There they are abused and tormented by the guards, leaving them all with emotional scarring that lasts into their adulthood.

As I said, it was the cast that really drew my attention to the film. The names just keep coming. The movie features Kevin Bacon, Billy Crudup, Robert De Niro, Minnie Driver, Dustin Hoffman, Jason Patric, Brad Pitt, and Brad Renfro -- and a few other faces here and there, unknown then but more recognized today (like Burn Notice star Jeffrey Donovan). And whether it's a case of a director eliciting good performances, or simply getting out of the way of them, this movie is a real triumph in that department. From top to bottom, every character is crystal clear and interesting.

Because the movie is looking at how childhood trauma shapes adult lives, the movie does end up being a bit long. It feels a bit slow at times, and yet it's hard to know what -- if anything -- should have been cut. Though the movie is really made up of two halves (focusing on the four as young boys, and then as adults), both parts are vital to telling the complete story. Had the movie been made today, I could see the current storytelling trend for "flashbacks" being applied to try to blend the halves together, but I can't really envision that being any more successful.

But the movie definitely works on its audience on a deep emotional level. It's pretty tough to watch at times. Nor does it provide easy answers. The conclusion of the movie is... well, it would be a stretch to even call it bittersweet. Instead, it's just cold and honest.

If you've got the patience for it, and are in a mood where you can take watching a "downer" of a movie, I'd recommend Sleepers. I rate it a B.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Mostly Sunny

So, the other new movie I saw this past weekend was Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. I was curious about the movie for two main reasons.

First was familiarity with the book upon which it is based; it was around the house to read to my littler brothers and sisters when I was younger. I wanted to see how the screenwriters would flesh it out to get an actual movie out of it.

Second was who those writers were. Phil Lord and Chris Miller (who also directed the movie) aren't household names, but they have a key credit on their resume -- they were writers and producers on the TV show How I Met Your Mother during its first season. And I love that show enough for that love to spill over to anything peripherally related to it.

It turns out, this movie had all the same cleverness I was hoping for from people who worked on that clever show. It was full of wry dialogue aimed squarely at the adults attending this kids' film, very much in the spirit of a Pixar film. (In fact, unfortunately for this film, they used one element exactly as it appeared in a Pixar film -- Up -- that of a voice box technology that communicates the thoughts of an animal. It appears that three to four years ago, the same idea was thought up independently at the same time, and Pixar "got there first.")

Visually, it's an impressive film. There's a clear style to all the characters, and at the same time a great realism to all the scenery -- and to all the food raining from the sky. It's a cool blend that keeps the movie fun and engaging. The voice acting is solid, featuring work from (among others) Bill Hader, Anna Faris, James Caan, Andy Samberg, Bruce Campbell, Mr. T, Benjamin Bratt, and Neil Patrick Harris.

But to come back to that Pixar comparison (and to make a rather lame food joke), this movie isn't quite the full meal that most Pixar movies are. On the humor level, it's top notch. But the quieter, more emotional scenes don't always land as solidly. They occasionally feel a bit staged and overly manipulative. Or maybe that's because a fair amount of the more serious content in the film is delivered by Mr. T. It's not exactly his wheelhouse.

In any case, it's still a movie not to be skipped if you want to laugh and have a good time. I give Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs a B+. I think it's one of the five best movies of the year so far.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Fishing Hole

I recently watched the Terry Gilliam-directed movie The Fisher King. And no point being coy about it, I was disappointed. For a man who seems to almost take pride in doing the unconventional (things like 12 Monkeys or Brazil), The Fisher King was a a surprisingly conventional movie.

The story centers around a radio shock jock played by Jeff Bridges, whose off-handed but callous remark on the air spurs a caller to go murder several people in a night club before killing himself. It sends Bridges' character into an emotional nose dive that even his girlfriend (Mercedes Ruehl) can't pull him out of. But then a chance enocunter with a homeless man (Robin Williams) man starts to change things. They turn out to have an important connection, and the former radio man soon comes to feel that helping this homeless man will be the key to getting his own life back on track.

It's all really a bit too neat, if you ask me. For example, in the first few scenes, it seems like the movie is really going to dig into the actual feelings one might have if he felt himself responsible for a horrible tragedy. But then the seriousness fades away in favor of a Hollywood-esque presentation of the "wise-crazy man." It's a rather trite little "they help each other" plot line that you've seen in plenty of other movies.

It's not by any means a total loss. There's an interesting runner about a particular hallucination that Williams' character experiences, and Terry Gilliam presents that with a really artistic flair that just looks cool on film. The performances in the movie are also fairly strong, particularly that of Jeff Bridges, who keeps things grounded as the action (and Robin Williams) sometimes goes broad.

Still, for all the talk I've heard about this movie over the years, I was expecting more. And I'm not really recommending it myself. I rate it a C-.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Aptly Named

It's time for new fall TV. Many new shows rolled out last week, or are premiering this week. But in my opinion, the best of the lot has been already been at it for a while now. That's Glee, a musical-drama-comedy on FOX.

First, the good news. Despite the fact it's on FOX, it appears it won't be destined to be jerked around by the network like so many of their past great shows. Just this week, they announced they've picked up the series for a complete full season order. If you try and like it, you can do so knowing that there will be at least 22 episodes of it.

And I think you'll like it. The show works on a lot of the levels that the brilliant-but-cancelled Freaks and Geeks operated on. It can be tender one moment and witty the next. So far, it's made me laugh out loud and moved me in every episode.

Plus, to season the mix, there are musical numbers every week. The show centers around a high school glee club struggling to come together, and the teacher trying to encourage them. Many pieces of music appear in that context, as numbers being rehearsed by the club. But the show also sometimes functions in the manner of an actual musical, with a character performing a song in a non-realistic setting to convey an emotional point. The show seems to fire on any level it attempts.

So far, we've had great performances including a rousing, largely a cappella rendition of Journey's Don't Stop Believing (in the pilot episode), a choir version of Kanye West's Gold Digger (that aired about four days before his last ass-hattery put him back in pop culture news), a choreographed dance routine involving an on-field football team, and a take on Salt N' Pepa's Push It that a character described as "the most offensive thing I've seen in 20 years of teaching -- and that includes an elementary school production of Hair."

The cast is great, the writing solid, and the musical interpretations typically as good or better than the originals. They're landing solid guest stars almost every week. And if you like the music, they're releasing multiple soundtrack albums throughout the season, and songs from current episodes on iTunes.

I'll haul out the "if you see one" cliché and say this: if you sample only one new show this fall, make it Glee.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Great Scott?

Unlike all the other older movies I've written about here over the last several months, I have actually seen director Ridley Scott's Blade Runner before. But it somehow ballooned into this massive running gag that one of the people I work with hasn't, so the movie keeps coming up all the time. And it recently sank in with me how long it had been since I'd seen it; I barely remembered the film at all. I couldn't even remember if I'd actually seen the original, or one of the numerous alternate versions that have sprang up over the years. So I decided to go back and check it out again -- the original release. (I figured it had to have earned its status as a sci-fi classic on the strength of that version, regardless of what improvements or diminishments might have come later.)

Watching it with mostly fresh eyes, I couldn't entirely see what the fuss was all about. But I first have to acknowledge my likely bias: this movie is a film-noir, through and through, and as I noted not long ago, those movies don't really do it for me. Make no mistake, Blade Runner is a moody, brooding detective story with a "hard-boiled" character at the core that interacts with a femme fatale, an adversary more talked about than seen -- hell, in this original version, he even narrates his adventure. Rather extensively. Yup, this is film-noir, and has the rather slow pace characteristic of one.

The movie does look pretty incredible, though. We're more than 25 years on now, but the visual effects in the movie still hold up today. I found the quality of the design undercut just a bit at times when it seemed to crib from Ridley Scott's other (true, in my book) sci-fi masterpiece, Alien. It's certainly not that way throughout; if nothing else, the near-constant presence of neon changes the tone. But every now and then, a mostly dark scene lit with stark shafts of light comes along, and it looks like it's taking place aboard the Nostromo somewhere.

The acting is a bit hit and miss. Harrison Ford is good on screen as the main character, though I find that narration I mentioned to be overly dry, like it was recorded in a single day, single take, in maybe a 30 minute session. Some movies are made on the strength of great narration, but this isn't one of them, and I can see why Ridley Scott wanted to excise this element from later versions of the film.

Rutger Hauer commands the screen in any scene where he appears, but I find the movie somewhat flawed in the when and where it uses him. With the film on course for a confrontation between his character and Ford's, it seems rather odd to me that his character barely gets fleshed out in the first hour. He has only one major scene until a sudden divergence at the top of act three, at which time he actually takes complete focus in the story, with Ford's character vanishing from screen for 15 minutes. A very odd way to structure a story, if you ask me, as opposed to intercutting between both characters and developing them in tandem along the way.

A number of other good actors appear in roles that do help flesh out the universe, while not really making you take too much notice of them individually: Edward James Olmos, William Sanderson, and Joanna Cassidy. As a love interest, Sean young isn't the most... well... interesting presence in the movie, but does alright. Daryl Hannah basically stinks, as she did in pretty much every movie she made in the 80s; she wasn't finding roles with her acting abilities.

I found Blade Runner slow, but not really ever boring. It was clearly inspirational to other films in many good ways, though I didn't think it a perfect specimen on its own. I can see why others would rank it a top film (it's in both the IMDB Top 250 and the 10th anniversary revised version of the AFI Top 100), but I think those high marks are given by people who value style over content in their movies. Blade Runner is drowning in the former and a bit thin in the latter, in my opinion. I rate Blade Runner a C.

Monday, September 21, 2009


My ongoing efforts to see some of the "classics" has also led me to pursue a few cult classics here and there. Recently, that led me to see for the first time The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. But I must confess, the experience left me utterly confused. Ultimately, I felt a sort of zen-like question at the core of this movie and my opinion of it. If a movie seems specifically crafted to be "bad," isn't it still a bad movie when it succeeds at that?

I ask this because Buckaroo Banzai seemed to me just as campy and ridiculous, as badly produced, shoddily written, and altogether hokey as any of the films you might see in any given episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. So why all the fan love here?

Could it purely be for the joy of the few good one-liners tossed off by skilled actors? I'll grant that the movie does have that going for it at least. You've got Peter Weller, John Lithgow, Ellen Barkin, Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Lloyd, Vincent Schiavelli, and early appearances by Clancy Brown and Carl Lumbly. None of them are giving Oscar-worthy performances, of course... though a certain amount of praise is certainly due for taking lines like "laugh-a while you can-a, monkey boy" and making them indelible parts of geek pop culture.

Could it be simply the novelty of a hero who is an engineer/brain surgeon/rock star/adventurer/comic book character/celebrity? Or the fact that the entire script somehow feels as though it's the sequel to some other film that we never actually got to see? I don't know... to me, these all felt like jokes that wore thin pretty quickly.

I know there are regular readers of the blog here that are probably not going to understand me trashing this movie. But for my part, I honestly just did not understand this movie. I rate it a D-. If someone wants to step in and explain it to me, I'm all ears.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Emmy Goes To...

Random musings on tonight's Emmy broadcast:

Neil Patrick Harris delivers a legendary opening number. As we all knew he would.

Holy crap! Kristen Chenoweth actually won for Pushing Daisies! ABC, you are so dumb cancelling that show.

John Hodgman is providing "color commentary" as award winners walk to the stage. I guess that means I'm actually going to have to watch those parts of the show this year, then.

Sarah Silverman is sporting the most authentic looking fake mustache I've ever seen. And really selling the gag, too.

What's with the womens' dress style this year about bunching a gym towel looking wad of fabric on the shoulder?

Whoever thought of this running gag to introduce presenters by their most obscure/embarassing past acting credit deserves an Emmy of his or her own, because it's solid gold.

Jeff Probst gives a shout-out to Neil Patrick Harris' awesomeness, simultaneously acknowledging how lame a job he (and the other reality show hosts) did at last year's Emmys. And he gives a succinct and relatively inspirational acceptance speech. Suddenly, I like him quite a lot better.

I think Shohreh Aghdashloo has a fantastic voice, but as she accepts her award, she seems like she's hyperventilating.

Hooray for Dr. Horrible! And Captain Hammer! AND Penny and Moist!

Jimmy Fallon can be hit and miss, but this auto-tune gag is fantastic. When you can get Steve Carell to laugh that hard, you know it's good.

In the dead entertainer montage, it appears that TV is "claiming" Paul Newman and Michael Jackson. A bit of a stretch, if you ask me. Though I suppose there would have been angry letters if they'd not been shown.

Tips for would-be award winners. If you want to get nominated for comedy writing, work on 30 Rock. Drama writing, work on Mad Men. Guest actress, Law and Order: SVU. Others need not apply.

Oh, and one more time -- NPH is awesome. And was robbed in his category.

That is all.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Ill Informed

I went to the theater twice today to catch a pair of movies that opened this weekend. But I'm actually going to talk about the second one I saw first, as perhaps a "cautionary tale," a service in the hopes of stopping others from stepping into the trap that caught me.

I'm talking about the new movie The Informant! (The exclamation point is officially part of the title.) It's the latest from director Steven Soderbergh, starring Matt Damon, Scott Bakula, and Joel McHale. From the trailer, it looks like a quirky little comedy about a clueless executive who decides to turn informant on his company to the FBI. Hilarity ensues.

It turns out that the movie is scarcely about the price fixing scheme the FBI is investigating. It's really a study of the character played by Matt Damon, a possibly bipolar, possible pathological man who perpetrates even more crimes of his own. The biggest fraud in the film is that committed against the audience, led to believe this is a comedy. If it is, then it's not a funny one.

The movie gets stranger as it rolls along, peeling back more layers of Damon's character -- stranger, but not necessarily more interesting. Largely that's a matter of my thwarted expectations, but it also stems from the fact that none of the other characters in the film are ever really fleshed out. They're all just talking, walking props for Matt Damon to act with.

The thing is, he does give a good performance. It goes beyond the physical transformation that all the talk shows and entertainment magazines are focused on. (If you haven't heard, he fattened up like a Thanksgiving turkey and gained 30 pounds for the role.) He really does justice to a man who is physiologically incapable of telling the truth. He also does a great job as the film's narrator. Good voice-over work can make or break a film. That might not quite be the case here, as the film was already "broken" in my view, but Matt Damon does inject some life into the film through his narration.

Perhaps another problem I had with the movie is an issue unfair to criticize it for: embezzlement turned out to play a big role in the story. In short, I felt on some level as though I was watching the biography of the man who stole millions of dollars from my former employer. Not entertaining in my book, especially not when I came to the theater expecting to see some kind of unlikely hero.

In any case, I think the only reason to see this movie is that you're a huge Matt Damon fan. Or a fan of "huge Matt Damon." (What I did there is probably funnier than anything actually in the movie.) I rate it a D+ on the strength of that good performance. Otherwise, it's a clunker.

Friday, September 18, 2009

A Very Leisurely Stroll Through the Park

When stand-up comedian Eddie Izzard did his brilliantly funny bit (from the "Dress to Kill" concert") about movies that feature characters "arranging matches," he was talking about movies like Gosford Park. As he said, a "Room with a View with a Staircase and a Pond type movie. Films with very fine acting but the drama is rather subsued - subsumed? A word like that. Sub-something or another. Just sort of folded in." Oh yeah, that's Gosford Park in a nutshell.

I'd heard good things about the movie. It won an Oscar for Best Screenplay, too. But man, oh man, was it tough to watch. It's nearly two-and-a-half hours, and feels longer still. There is actually a plot to the thing, though the film doesn't actually stumble onto it until it's literally more than half over. Instead, it fills most of its time offering a look at the differences in social classes in 1930s England.

I know. Sounds riveting, doesn't it?

The thing is, the cast is simply stellar, and manages to inject some life into the film even when that supposedly award-worthy script does not. You've got Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Stephen Fry, Clive Owen, Helen Mirren, Emily Watson, Kristin Scott Thomas, Jeremy Northam, Bob Balaban, Ryan Phillippe, and on and on. And then there's the director, the respected Robert Altman.

Of course, that right there should be another clue as to what kind of movie this is -- Robert Altman does love an "enormous ensemble cast" movie that isn't so much about a story as it is about a concept. Here, the concept is, look how the rich snobs act, contrasted with their servants slaving away in the quarters below.

The film does have a few interesting things to show within this sort of thesis, but the truly compelling scenes in the film are pretty rare. Most of the time, it just strolls leisurely along, the drama... well... "sub-something or another." I rate Gosford Park a C+. It might be worth it if you want to see a bunch of really good actors all in one place. It's also probably damn useful for making connections while playing Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. But as entertainment, it comes up rather short.

Thursday, September 17, 2009


Several years ago, on a trip to Germany attending the Essen Game Fair, I picked up a number of board games. Not only are they less expensive there (where the good ones are made), but you can get a few that never get translated into English and brought over to the States. So I stuffed my suitcase full of games on the return trip.

...More games than I'd actually get around to playing at the time, in fact. One, called Industria, has been sitting unplayed in my game closet this whole time. In three or four game closets, actually, in all the various places I've lived since that trip. But my quest to play all the board games in my collection this year finally brought it out. And after a couple of plays, it seems a fairly interesting, though rather difficult game.

Oh, it's not difficult from a rules standpoint. The game is pretty simple. You pass through several ages, gathering resources to discover new technology and build factories. These can all score you points during the game. In addition, at game's end, technologies and factories you've gathered during the game can net you additional points if they're closely related to each other. (That is, if they're adjacent in a sort of simplified Sid Meier's Civilization-ish tech tree.)

Where it gets difficult is that resources are very tight. And I know that's often the case in German board games, so let me really say what I mean here: they are really tight. I'm hard pressed to think of another German board game where I've felt so limited in available money and resources to spend on furthering my own agenda. The first time I played it, it seemed as though all the players were flat broke the entire time.

Things got more interesting with the second play, as we began to make more use of an auction mechanic I haven't yet mentioned. Every round, the techologies and factories you might be eligible to build are actually auctioned off by the players. (That's right, you have to bid money just for the chance to spend more money to build things. That's how tight money gets!) And if you're very savvy about it, this is the way you earn money in the game.

When you nominate a tile to be auctioned, the other players participate in a once-around bidding. You then have the auction to ignore the high bid, take the tile for free yourself, and pass the choice of nominating the next tile to another player... or you can accept that bid, taking the money from the high bidder, and then nominate another tile to auction next.

Just one time through the game taught us a lot about the game for our second play. There's considerable brinksmanship in trying to auction things you think will bring you money, while sometimes preserving the option to take something you really want for free. Money went quite a bit farther the second time around, with the winning score of game two being 50% higher than that of game one. Still, you've really got to think about what you want, how badly you want it, how to manipulate your fellow players, and when to let something go.

All told, I found it to be a pretty interesting little game. I'm curious to see if it holds up to more repeated plays, but it does seem like those I've played it with so far have liked it. So I do think Industria will indeed see those repeated plays.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A Gran Old Movie

In my press to see all of last year's "Oscar buzz" films, Clint Eastwood's movie Gran Torino slid through the cracks on my list. That's just what it did for the Oscars themselves; many critics were talking about its potential, yet it received no Oscar nods. Now that I've seen it for myself, I think I know why.

Gran Torino actually isn't a bad movie. In fact, it's a fairly good one. But it is a rather cliché movie. Maybe you've seen another film like this, maybe you haven't, but it feels like you have when you watch it. Eastwood plays a crotchety windower living in a neighborhood that's filled in with "foreigners" and gang violence. But he learns to see past his prejudices when he forms an unlikely friendship with a young man and his sister who move in next door.

It's an interesting paradox of a movie. It feels crafted and manipulative much of the time, and yet it manipulates effectively -- it does generate genuine emotion along the way. There aren't any surprises in it, not as the plot develops, and certainly not with the ending that any movie buff is going to see coming before the end of the second act. And yet it all feels like the "right" way for this story to be told, and so it makes it easy to forgive the obviousness.

Clint Eastwood once again proves himself a strong director. His own performance isn't that exceptional, but he gets great performances from the rest of his cast. He has an eye for interesting frames, and an ear for the rhythm of a scene.

The movie didn't blow me away, and yet for something that was overlooked by the Academy Awards, I liked it better than many of the movies that were nominated last year. I give Gran Torino a B.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

High Marks

I think I've seen nearly all the seminal teen movies of the 1980s, but one that had managed to slide through the cracks is Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

Lots of people made their names on this film. You've got writer Cameron Crowe (before he was big enough to be allowed to direct his own screenplays), basing it on experiences he got as a journalist going undercover at a real high school. There's Sean Penn as surfer dude Spicoli. Jennifer Jason Leigh and Judge Reinhold make one of their earliest appearances on screen. Phoebe Cates became a bit of an icon because of this. Blink and you'll miss Eric Stoltz and Forest Whitaker -- and Nicolas Cage, who I'm not even sure has any dialogue (a plus, in my book). And there's also established veterans (even at the time), Ray Walston and Vincent Schiavelli, in minor roles as teachers in the school.

It's not just the names in the cast that are commendable; they're all quite good in their roles. Some performances are strong for feeling very authentic and real -- Jennifer Jason Leigh and Judge Reinhold in particular. Other performances are strong for being a bit out there, but funny in the process -- Sean Penn and Ray Walston. In any case, this is an interesting and often entertaining batch of characters.

But the thing is, they're all characters in search of a plot. The movie doesn't really have one. You might stretch and say it revolves around the early sexual experiences of Jennifer Jason Leigh's character... but like I said, that's a stretch. The movie gives equal screen time to several different characters, and none of them is really caught up in any significant storyline. Instead, the film is just a collection of comedy sketches.

Actually, I should amend that. "Comedy" really doesn't seem to be the main aim of the film; it more seems to want to be "real, man." It's a mixed stew of slices of life. So in the end, although the characters are mostly interesting to watch, I found myself asking, "yeah, but why am I watching them?" By the end of the short 90 minutes, I was already feeling a bit restless.

Overall, I'd only rate Fast Times at Ridgemont High a C-. I'd give the nod to John Hughes for creating better "80s teen films" than this.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Harsh Trip to Rio

A friend and co-worker of mine has been trying for a while to get me to see a little-known foreign film, City of God. His persistence, coupled with the fact that it's actually ranked #17 over on the IMDB top 250, finally "wore me down" to the point where I decided to give it a shot.

Made in 2002, the movie was described to me as a "more serious" version of Slumdog Millionaire. That's only accurate to a point. This is not a love story, as Slumdog was at its core. But it is a look at a very rough place for a kid to grow up -- a place in which one could easily become trapped.

It's based on a true story of a boy who grows up on the streets of the "City of God," an impoverished slum near Rio de Janiero. He and his friends get involved in crime at an early age, some going on to become drug lords as they come of age. The story follows them over a period of many years, showing the paths their lives take, and how their environment forces most of their decisions.

It is most certainly "more serious" than Slumdog Millionaire. This film doesn't shy away from very difficult material. There are some scenes of real brutality in the movie, difficult to watch and very powerful. And there's very little uplifting content to cut the stark reality.

Those sequences are actually the most effective pieces of the movie. And while I can't really say I wanted to watch more of them, they did ultimately feel like the real meat of the film. Between this handful of unsettling, well-realized scenes, the film was slow and meandering. I almost found the rest of the film harder to watch, as my attention wandered between these moments that forced me to sit up and take notice.

I suppose the question of whether I'd recommend the film comes down to whether or not you're the sort of person who would see a movie on the strength of a few elements. (It also depends very much on whether you like to see "challenging" movies.) Overall, I'd rate City of God only a C+. But it certainly contains within it a handful of grade A scenes. I wouldn't lavish upon it the praise of the IMDB voters, but I would say it's a movie deserving of more attention than I think it has received.

Sunday, September 13, 2009


I've now had several days to play around with the latest Rock Band incarnation, "The Beatles: Rock Band." It's every bit worthy of both names in the title.

Harmonix has made a number of minor interface adjustments that collectively add up to a system much easier to navigate around. Improvements from Rock Band include:
  • You can now see difficulty levels for each instrument on the screen after you've selected a song to play.

  • You can switch between left- and right-handed modes with one button on that same screen.

  • For the new players, Easy difficulty now defaults to "No-Fail Mode."

  • For the veteran score junkies, the Leaderboard standings are now shown on the song selection screen. Your ranking is also reported to you on the Song Completion screen, so you can immediately see how you did.
But the big win is the addition of harmonies to Vocals. Songs now support two or three singers simultaneously, with bonuses for managing to sing every part of the harmony correctly with your talented friends. I was looking forward to this feature more than anything else in this incarnation of Rock Band, and it managed to be even better than I was expecting. It can be a little rough at first, but people do seem to catch on quickly, and whenever you nail a phrase with all the harmonies in place, it just sounds awesome, and you feel like a freakin' rock star. It really, really makes me wish that all Rock Band songs supported harmonies, though it's certainly a reason to switch back and forth between The Beatles and Rock Band 2.

The only bad thing I can really say about the game is to note its relatively limited song selection. Oh, I'm not complaining about the fact that it's all Beatles. They have a diverse enough catalog of songs that playing through the game doesn't necessarily feel like you're playing the music of one band. No, the problem is that it's only 45 songs, and since they were all written in the 1960s, very few of them run longer than about 3 minutes.

What that means is you can run through every song in the game in about 3 hours if you really want to. And in a party setting, it doesn't take long before people start running out of songs you haven't already played. This situation will be helped as downloadable complete albums become available (starting in late October), but for now it's a bit of a restriction. Rock Band 2 has spoiled me in this regard. Between all the on disc dongs from that and the original Rock Band (plus the rather distressing amount I've spent on downloadable songs), I never have to worry about coming upon the same song twice during a game session, no matter how long I let it run.

Regardless, I give the game an enthusiastic recommendation. If you're a fan of Rock Band (or, if you don't know better, Guitar Hero), you should definitely pick it up. And don't let "I don't really know a lot of Beatles songs" be an excuse either. You know more than you think you do, I'd wager. And you're just denying yourself a lot of fun if you pass it up.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Queen for Another Day

Having checked out Elizabeth, and mostly enjoying it, I decided to watch the more recent follow-up, Elizabeth: The Golden Age. Once again, writer Michael Hirst penned the screenplay; this time, the movie was coming right about the time his television series, The Tudors, was gearing up for its premiere.

As with the first Elizabeth, I think the way he chooses to treat this subject matter works better as a television series than as a movie. He's trying to cover a lot of ground in this movie, and I think it would have played better spread over the arc of a television season. Paradoxically, at the same time, the pacing of the movie is a bit slow in places. I think he wants to take his time, and occasionally gives in to that impulse, which makes the movie lag a bit here and there.

This time out, the story revolves around two main elements. First is the build-up to war between Spain and England, and the attempt of the Spanish Armada to attack the English coast. (If you know your history, you know how that turned out.) Second is a romance (of sorts) between Elizabeth and Sir Walter Raleigh. Both are somewhat interesting threads but, as I said before, not given quite enough space to breathe.

Once again, the acting is strong. Cate Blanchett and Geoffrey Rush return to their roles from the original film. Rush actually doesn't have very much to do -- rather a disappointment. But Blanchett is commanding and captivating. She makes Elizabeth's strength look easy, and let's you see how untrue that really is in her more vulnerable moments. She received an Oscar nomination for this, and it was deserved.

Joining them this time around are Clive Owen as Raleigh and Samantha Morton as Mary Stuart (better known as Mary, Queen of Scots). Neither can quite measure up to the towering force of Cate Blanchett's performance, but both do fine work in their roles. The former is an excellent charmer, the latter an entertaining rival.

But overall, the sum of this movie's parts comes out a bit less than the first Elizabeth. If you liked the one, I can't imagine you wouldn't enjoy this one. Still, it's definitely not quite as good, and accordingly I rate it just a notch lower. I give Elizabeth: The Golden Age a C+.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Hunt is Off

Time to cross another "prestige film" off my list. I recently sat down to watch The Deer Hunter, the 1978 Oscar Winner for Best Picture, entry on the AFI top 100, and one of IMDB's top 250. Actually, I should say I carved out the time to watch the film -- it's an epic movie clocking in at three hours. And in my view, it doesn't remotely sustain interest for that long. Frankly, it doesn't even start getting interesting until well over an hour into it.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. For those who might not know, this is a film about the Vietnam era. It follows a group of friends in a small country town who all decide to enlist in the Army together, dreams of adventure and heroism in their minds. The film is a gritty look at the true horror of war, and in particular how soldiers are never the same after coming home from it.

To really set this up well, it is fairly important to spend a little time with the characters before they go off to war. A little time, in my opinion. But The Deer Hunter devotes over an hour to this, and it quickly passes into tedium, and on to numbing. We see one of the men getting married, and I swear we must actually watch half the ceremony and all of the reception -- the movie just keeps crawling on and on and on without getting anywhere. We see them on a hunting trip, joking with each other on the way there, more minutia than I can possibly remember.

And then, before you can blink, we're watching these men captured in Vietnam, forced to play Russian Roulette by their captors. It's a deliberately jarring transition, but by this point I was near comatose; the movie had dug too deep a hole to ever crawl out of.

There are lots of great actors in the film -- Robert De Niro, John Savage, Christopher Walken, and Meryl Streep. And they do at times give great performances. But most of the time they're being called upon to aimlessly screw around. The compelling scenes are just too few and far between.

I think the praise bestowed on this movie stems solely from the point it was making, and the time in which it was making it. It is a valuable point, but I don't think the movie made it well at all. I suppose that decades on, the style of making a "war is hell" movie has radically shifted. In any case, I found The Deer Hunter to be all but unwatchable, especially compared to the great films that have been made more recently. (Saving Private Ryan comes to mind.) I rate the movie a D-. To date, it's the worst "Best Picture" I've ever seen.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

A Tale of the Old West

For someone who's said he's indifferent to Westerns, I certainly have seen my share of them lately. The latest on my list was Appaloosa, last year's film directed (and adapted to screenplay in part) by actor Ed Harris.

It's a pretty quintessential tale for a Western -- or at least, it fits my concept of what that is. A small town is suffering under the thumb of a black-hearted villain; the town leaders enlist a gunfighter and his trusted friend to come in and act as sheriff and deputy to deal with the problem. But what begins as a temporary job becomes more interesting when the new sheriff falls for a woman in the town and starts to think about settling down.

This movie is a fine showcase for acting. Besides starring Harris himself, it has Viggo Mortensen, Renée Zellweger, and Jeremy Irons. You're also likely to recognize Timothy Spall and Lance Henriksen. And every single one of them is great.

Jeremy Irons is a wonderfully effective villain. You enjoy watching him, and rooting against him. Renée Zellweger manages to walk a fine line between being true to the time, and being a sort of "modern woman" that doesn't offend an audience's sensibilities.

But the movie is really made by the interactions between Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen. The characters have a fantastic relationship, and the chemistry between the actors as they bring it to life is really compelling. These two have something somewhat like a marriage between them, a complete understanding and ease with one another, that's too typically reserved for romance in film and not friendship.

As great as it is to watch everyone though, the story doesn't quite manage to go the distance. Things start out interesting, often times tense and usually engaging. And it's not as though the movie has an unusually long run time -- it clocks in under two hours. But in the last thirty minutes, the plot runs out of steam. There's an inevitable conclusion the film must have to get to, but an apparent unwillingness to just get there without first serving up a few extra scenes.

Still, I think there's a lot to like here in this movie. I give Appaloosa a B. It's clearly the work of an "actor's director" (though it's not surprising that such a skilled actor would be one). It has me now more interested to see Ed Harris' one other directorial effort, Pollock, and also has me hoping that it's sooner than another eight years before he steps behind the camera again.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Ode to Greed

The rumors have been swirling this year that production is this close to beginning on a sequel to the 1987 movie Wall Street. And, of course, its subject matter -- a tale of criminal traders letting their greed get the best of them -- is all very topical these days, or so many talking heads have said. It all served as the last little push to get me to check out the original, which I'd never seen before.

Unfortunately, I found the movie to be all sizzle and no substance. The performances are good, chiefly that of Michael Douglas as king sleaze Gordon Gekko. You'd expect that, of course, as he won the Academy Award for this role. I don't know that I'd put the work on quite that level, but it is a slick and greasy performance, and utterly unlike the romantic leads for which he was known at the time. (Kathleen Turner is nowhere in sight!)

Charlie Sheen convincingly portrays a young, eager man who is rapidly corrupted by Gekko's influence, and soon the money itself. Martin Sheen is excellent as his incorruptible, hard-working father. Terence Stamp, John C. McGinley, and Hal Holbrook all make an impression in their relatively small roles.

Alright, Daryl Hannah is pretty bad. You can't have it all.

Apparently, though, "all" in this case includes any really meaningful story. I suppose that on a certain level it's entirely appropriate and accurate that a movie about this subject be simplistic and superficial. Still, for a drama that makes such a play at being important, it doesn't have anything to say, doesn't have any real emotion to convey, and doesn't deliver any surprising turns in plot -- as a script, it is wholly unexceptional.

What little point there might be to whole affair, I think it's safe to say that it isn't actually expressed very well. If you need any more evidence, look to interviews that Michael Douglas and Charlie Sheen have given over the years; both say they're frequently approached by people in the financial district who say they pursued their current careers after being inspired by this film. That might in some small way explain the current state of affairs in the country, but it sure seems like missing the point to me.

In short, good performances are holding up nothing worth seeing. I rate Wall Street a C-. I can't say I'm looking forward to that sequel.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

I've Tried It; I'll Knock It

For a while, I've been curious about the movie Knockaround Guys. I really shouldn't have been; it didn't get particularly good reviews from the critics, and it was released directly to DVD after sitting on a studio shelf for two years after its completion. Not good signs.

But it seemed unlikely it could be a total bust. It was written by the same pair that wrote one of my favorite movies, Rounders. (Directed by them too in this case, though that's neither here nor there.) And it boasts a strong and interesting cast including John Malkovich, Vin Diesel, Barry Pepper, Seth Green, and Dennis Hopper. I kept the movie at bay for a while, but eventually I just had to know.

The story revolves around a young man who's the son of a major New York crime lord. After his efforts to "go straight" have all failed, he appeals to his father to be given a chance at the family business, and is tasked to travel across the country to pick up a large cash payment. Complications arise when one of his dim-witted friends loses the money, and hilarity ensues. Well, not quite hilarity -- the film is certainly not intended as an all-out comedy, but it's also some ways from a serious drama.

It's also a fair distance from the quality you'd expect with all these big names involved. The storyline feels like a rather familiar retread of several other movies, many even in the same genre. The characters never really capture interest; just about every actor is playing a version of a role he's played before. The dialogue doesn't crackle and isn't memorable like so much of Rounders.

And yet, it's also hard to figure out why this movie sat in a studio vault for two years and never got a wide theatrical release. It's not that bad. It's not actually bad at all; it simply doesn't do anything to distinguish itself. The pace slows a bit a times for a 90 minute movie, but it's redeemed a bit by a decent enough ending.

In short, though I wouldn't really recommend it, neither would I warn anyone to avoid it. It's "just another movie," one I rate a C+.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Downfall of a Hero

This week, Harmonix's new game The Beatles: Rock Band arrives at last. I'll be snatching that up with all due haste. Meanwhile, last week, the latest entry in the Guitar Hero franchise, Guitar Hero 5 (not actually the fifth game, if you count all the spin-offs), was release by Activision/Neversoft. I don't plan to ever pick that up.

See, back before MTV bought game designers Harmonix and Activision bought peripheral manufacturers Red Octane, the Guitar Hero franchise was "full of win," as I think the online crowd might say. When the split happened and Harmonix went on to make Rock Band, they kept up the good work. They just "get it." Dozens of little decisions in the Rock Band franchise make it clear that they want the game to be about accessing and interacting with music first, and a game second.

Meanwhile, Activision handed the keys to the Guitar Hero franchise over to the developers at Neversoft, who repeatedly demonstrate that they're making a franchise first (as many releases each year as possible), a game second, and some musicy-thingy a distant third. They just don't "get it," not even a little.

I could go on about this at length, but some very clever fellow put together this totally awesome video that says it all quite perfectly:

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Mike Judge's Newest Flavor

Today, I took in the latest film from Mike Judge, Extract. All the promotion of it tries to prime the audience to expect another "Office Space" from "the man who made Office Space," so it was hard not to approach it with perhaps some unreasonable expectations.

In truth, though, it's not really a "workplace comedy." The story does focus on a character who built and owns a factory that manufactures extract (food flavoring), and does occasionally have scenes built around the idiots who work there. But it's more about the frustrations that character is feeling in his marriage, and the ridiculous scheme he's prompted to undertake at the urging of his drug-pushing bartender friend.

The film has a good cast. The likeable-in-damn-near-anything Jason Bateman plays the lead character. As on Arrested Development, he mostly plays it straight while others around him go more crazy -- but he does it well once again. Ben Affleck is the crazy bartender; it's not a "chameleon role," since he's completely recognizable, but it is a return to a kind of role he hasn't played since his Kevin Smith days.

There are other good performances too, but they're harder to like because the characters are so unlikeable. Mila Kunis is a flirtatious swindler that takes on a temp job in the factory. Kristen Wiig plays Jason Bateman's very unsympathetic wife. J.K. Simmons is a manager at the plant who can't be bothered to actually care about the people he manages. Gene Simmons (yes, that one) plays a low rent bus bench ad attorney. They're all good, though the characters are fairly one-dimensional and meant to be hated.

As for the film itself, it's a bit hit and miss. Again, you have to compare it to Office Space. (Hey, they made us do it!) Extract does have its share of laugh-out-loud funny moments. But they're not flying at you in every scene as with Office Space. The movie is pretty funny, but somehow less fun.

Overall, I would recommend it, though it's probably not one you need to rush out to the theater to catch. I rate Extract a B-.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Cop Out

Time for another "you mean you've never seen..." movie: Beverly Hills Cop. It slid through the cracks because I was too young when it was new to see an Eddie Murphy movie. (Remember when he used to make edgy comedies and not fat suit movies and crappy kids movies? Well, I do, and I think this might make me "old.")

Unfortunately, I came to feel after seeing it that I hadn't missed much other than an awesome soundtrack of great 80s tunes. (And that I did not miss back in 1984.) It's a rather weak script; the movie has barely enough plot for a screwball comedy in the vein of Airplane or Police Academy, and not nearly as high a jokes-per-minute quotient.

It's an interesting performance from Eddie Murphy. He's pretty natural all the way through, and yet you can feel a really strong break between moments where he was sticking close to the script and moments when he took off on an improvisation. Back to that "it's a rather weak script" thing.

There are several other good actors in the film in roles of various sizes, but each seems to be playing really close to the type they're best known for. I suppose some credit should go to this film, since they were all doing their schtick first here, but still... Judge Reinhold is the "straight man" for the crazy guy to play off of, Ronny Cox is a typical stick-in-the-mud adversary, Bronson Pinchot is outrageous and goofy with a funny accent, and so on.

A few decent action-shoot-'em-up scenes pepper the film, enough to stave off boredom, but nothing that really can compare with a true action movie that makes blowing stuff up the centerpiece of the film. I don't know, maybe it's just that some many movies in the 25 years since this have copied off the formula. In any case, I only found this to be a D+.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Newly Discovered Landover

So finally, the "big moment," the arrival at Terry Brooks' new Magic Kingdom of Landover book -- and as it trumpets on the cover, the first in over a decade: A Princess of Landover.

Sadly, it couldn't live up to the hype. Really, it couldn't even live up to the fun I had re-reading the first five books. This new novel isn't "bad" by any stretch, but it's certainly the weakest of them all.

Chalk it up to a bit of "experimentation" Terry Brooks decided to do here, whether it was intentional or not. This book isn't really very plot-driven, it's character-driven. As the title would lead you to believe, it focuses on the king's daughter, Mistaya. She's now an adolescent, and while rather more intelligent and thoughtful than a typical teen, she's still moody and rebellious. The book isn't about any particular crisis facing the kingdom, or Ben, or even her, really. It's just sort of a "look at life from her eyes."

As the book opens, she's being expelled from the school (on Earth) where she's been sent by her parents to study. She returns home to Landover, and now her parents must "figure out what to do with her." But upon delivering their "punishment," Mistaya runs away and sets out on an adventure of her own.

Really, it's not a very "adventurous" adventure. After nearly two-thirds the length of the book, she does finally stumble onto a puzzle to unravel, and the climax of the story does ultimately revolve around her solving a problem. But it's all pretty thin compared to the more engaging material of the earlier Landover books.

It's not a total bust, though. At least in choosing to write a character book, Terry Brooks has made the character fairly interesting. She's not dozens of layers deep or anything, but she's not annoying or unsympathetic as a moody teenager could easily be. And along the way, as usual, nearly all the series' various minor characters show up for a chapter or two (though, like in Witches' Brew, not Fillip and Sot).

Overall, the book isn't as engaging as the other Landover novels, but it is still rather fun, which is really what the series is all about. I rate this new book six a B-. Look to it for any kind of grand culmination or payoff, and you're sure to be disappointed; just approach it as "another Landover novel," and it's alright.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Lasting Impression

I've never seen Wes Craven's original, but I decided to check out this year's remake of his classic The Last House on the Left. It's a very simple and straight-forward plot: it's about two parents who unknowingly take in a group of criminals who has just savagely attacked their daughter and left her for dead. When they learn the truth, vengeance ensues.

I wasn't really expecting much, but the film really set itself up to disappoint, in a strange way. The thing is, for a while it was actually surprisingly good. For more than half of its run time, the movie is shockingly effective. We're forced to witness every moment of the horror these thugs inflict on the poor teenage daughter; it's brutal and very unsettling in how realistic the violence is.

Then the movie moves into the middle section, where the gang arrives at the house-in-the-forest of the poor girl's parents. Even though you know exactly where the movie is heading, it manages to generate a few decent moments of tension and suspense. And by this point, my expectations had been built up rather high because of how much better the movie was turning out to be than my preconceptions.

But then things move into the final act, the "vengeance" part of the story line. And that's when the movie basically throws it all away. The realism that made the first hour so tough to watch (in a good way, if that makes sense) is jettisoned in favor of the over-the-top violence characteristic of modern "torture porn" movies like Saw and Hostel. Every dime of the movie's budget is suddenly poured into ludicrous gore and breakaway furniture. Things go from tense and unsettling to silly and strained.

Soon, you're questioning the priorities of the protagonists. Not long after that, you're almost questioning their sanity; they end up committing murders as brutal as anything the actual criminals have done. (Were this reality, they'd be convicted of murder themselves; you couldn't possibly argue self-defense.)

There is some good acting in the film, including Tony Goldwyn and Monica Potter as the parents-turned-Rambos. A real standout is Garret Dillahunt, who probably isn't a recognizable name for most of you, but he really deserves to be -- he's a brilliant character actor that has done stellar work on the Terminator TV series (Cromartie/John Henry), Deadwood (Jack McCall/Francis Wolcott), and many more. He plays the main baddie, and might almost make the movie worth seeing despite how stupid it gets in the last half hour.

Almost. Really, I could only recommend this to someone who liked the Saw or Hostel movies. Maybe not even to them, as the pace would probably seem frustratingly slow to fans of those movies. I rate The Last House on the Left a C+.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Third Rating

I recently decided to try another one of the "classics," The Third Man. It's the story of a stranger in Vienna trying to get to the bottom of a mysterious car accident that resulted in the death of his friend. It's also a vintage 1949 film-noir in the IMDB top 250, the AFI 100, and loads of other top film lists.

From a visual perspective, it's easy to see why. This movie looks fantastic, in a way that amazingly still holds up today, 60 years later. If someone today tried to make a black-and-white, moody film with visual scope and dramatic lighting, they'd try to make it look like this, and would be lucky to do half as well. It's all the more impressive, knowing that with visual effects being nearly non-existent at the time (by today's standards), nearly all of what you're seeing is actually being captured in camera -- and is somehow framed and lit in a way to accomplish that.

But in every other respect... well, I think this movie told me what I really should have already known -- these sorts of film-noirs aren't for me. I found the movie to have a tedious pace, frustratingly slow for what is at its core a mystery. Things should be tense and suspenseful, but it feels like ages between the moments when "stuff happens."

With the exception of Orson Welles, who manages to impress in his handful of scenes, most of the acting is of the heightened and fakey variety that seems to mark films made before a certain year. They're performances pitched at a level that suggests the actors actually have to punch through the screen to be there in your living room (or movie theater) acting right at you.

To my sensibilities, The Third Man feels much more like a piece of art than a movie -- something that should be appreciated on a purely aesthetic level. And I sometimes think that for these "top film list" makers, that alone is enough. They see "film as art," and if a film has enough artistic merit, that makes it unassailably good. For me it just "looks great, but has a lousy personality." I rate The Third Man a D+.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Bad News

Before Christian Bale was starving himself or growling like an animal for a film role, he did something perhaps even more unconventional -- he sang. This was for the 1992 Disney musical Newsies, about 1890s New York paperboys going on strike.

The movie boasts acting not only from the young Bale, but Robert Duvall, Bill Pullman, and even Ann-Margret. It has a somewhat interesting story that is loosely based on real events. But what it doesn't have -- and this is an absolutely indispensible element for a musical -- is a good score.

I hate to say that, because the songs were written by Alan Menken, of the brilliant Menken/Ashman team that gave us Little Shop of Horrors, The Little Mermaid, and Beauty and the Beast. But therein lies much of the problem, I think. Half the team was missing. At this point in time, Howard Ashman was facing serious complications of the AIDS virus, and had bowed out of all work. A different lyricist, Jack Feldman, was brought in as some kind of pinch hitter, and I don't think the pairing worked at all. I think the Disney executives knew it too, because when Ashman sadly died not long after, they brought in Tim Rice to work with Menken to complete Aladdin. (A much more successful pairing.)

Simply put, there's not one memorable song in the entire score. I mean that literally, as I actually sat down to write this review about a week after seeing the movie, and I really can't remember any of it well. I do remember a dearth of good, character-defining solos; nearly every number is an elaborate chorus production with 30+ people in music-video-esque choreography.

The story is occasionally interesting, though all the characters are a bit more like caricatures -- heroically heroic or villainously villainous. It's not a complete disaster, but there's really not much worth seeing here. I rate it a C-.