Saturday, October 31, 2009

Happy Halloween!

In celebration of Halloween, I'm just gonna go light on myself today and kick you all over to Kotaku to peruse their pretty cool collection of carved pumpkins. (Four posts' worth!)

(I like #8 in the fourth batch -- the Tetris pumpkin.)

Friday, October 30, 2009

Grin and Ferret

Here's another one of those news stories from the web with a high laugh factor for its short word count: Jacksonville Beach shoplifter stuffs ferret down his pants.

Right in the first sentence, the journalist says this "may be a first" for Jacksonville Beach. I wouldn't think the research on "shoplifter with ferret in pants" would be that hard. Just go out on a limb and say it's a first! Even if you're wrong, then you get a fun letter to the editor later on: "I take exception to Caren Burmeister's article on October 28th. I too have stuffed a ferret in my pants..."

"Supermarket" is misspelled "Supermarkert." Spell checking doesn't rate any higher than fact checking.

"...the man shoved the ferret in the teen's face squeezing it." Punctuation rates no better than spell or fact checking.

The culprit was charged with "battery using a special weapon." Crazed ferret is a special weapon indeed. My next RPG character must have one!

And then the last sentence: "The ferret, which sells for $129, was not injured." Is it important that we know what the ferret costs? What a random closer!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Back to Vietnam

I guess I've been on a little bit of a kick these past few months, watching some of the classic "war movies" that I've never seen before, films like The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now. The kick continued this week with Platoon, Oliver Stone's Vietnam War entry.

It's a bit of a "like father, like son" thing, as Charlie Sheen takes a central role and acts as narrator for Platoon, as his father Martin did for Apocalypse Now. While we're loosely following the tale of a new soldier as he takes his one year tour of duty, Platoon is much more about showing that "war is hell."

Well, more accurately, it's out to show that some of the hell of war is brought there by the soldiers themselves; not all soldiers are heroes. Sheen's character finds himself in the midst of a group of maniacs out for blood -- sometimes even each other's. Platoon is a different film in that the most horrible acts in the film are committed not by the enemy, but by the main characters themselves.

It takes quite a cast to carry off unlikeble characters, so director Oliver Stone assembled a good one. Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe take the other most prominent roles, while minor characters are filled by Forest Whitaker, Kevin Dillon, John C. McGinley, and (briefly) Johnny Depp. In the most complimentary sense, the cast makes the film tough to watch at times.

Oliver Stone has the tendency to run on longer than necessary with his films, but doesn't fall into that trap here. Platoon clocks in under two hours. Yet that still doesn't keep the film from feeling like it meanders at times.

And I guess that's why, though I recognize there's some good craft here, I still didn't like the film much overall. Like Apocalypse Now, it's a film that places tone more importantly than story. There honestly isn't much of a plot here. There is progression as characters develop, but you can't really say that Platoon is "about" anything without speaking in philosophical, not narrative, terms.

I personally only rate Platoon a C+. But at least in this case, unlike some other classics I've watched lately, I could see why someone might like this movie more and hold it in high regard. I could even see why it won Best Picture at the time. Hell, I'm generally a "character is more important than plot" kind of person myself; I just thought the balance was tipped too sharply here.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A Pleasant Wait

I recently watched Waitress, a small independent film from a few years back that made some news at the time for a most unfortunate reason: Adrienne Shelly, the writer and director of the film (and co-star) was murdered before the film picked up a distributor and a wide release.

Though I was aware of the related tragedy, my interest in the film was more conventional than morbid -- there are a lot of actors that appear in the film that I've liked in other things. It stars Keri Russell, Nathan Fillion, Cheryl Hines, Jeremy Sisto, and Andy Griffith. And it's a very character-driven piece, so each gets their chance to shine.

Keri Russell is (you guessed it) a waitress, one with a real gift for baking delicious pies. But she's cursed with an abusive husband (Jeremy Sisto), and as the film opens, finds herself pregnant with an unwanted child. The film follows her over the course of her pregnancy as she deals with the anxiety of her situation, and as a relationship develops with her doctor (Nathan Fillion).

It sounds like deeply serious stuff, and at times it is, but mostly the movie uses a soft touch. It's meant to be touching, at times bittersweet but not overly dramatic. It perhaps unintentionally crosses that line once or twice, thanks to the powerful performances by the actors -- Jeremy Sisto plays a real jerk of a husband, honestly scary in moments, and Keri Russell instantly makes you sympathize with her character. Add Cheryl Hines bringing the funny, Andy Griffith the soul, and top with Nathan Fillion's patented brand of charm, and it's a good recipe.

But the film never really goes quite far enough to be truly great. Like pie, it's a treat at the time, but a dessert more than a main course, and doesn't stay with you for too long. Not that the director's murder need be any more tragic, but I for one got the sense that this, though a good movie, would probably have been followed by better. I give Waitress a B-.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Plan Falls Apart

Battlestar Galactica may be over, but strangely, that doesn't mean that there's no more Galactica left. No, I'm not talking about Caprica, the spin-off prequel series that starts airing in January. No, I'm referring to another Galactica "initiative" that's appearing first on DVD before it airs on television, the movie called The Plan.

Directed by Adama himself, Edward James Olmos, this two hour movie is billed as the story of Battlestar Galactica "through the eyes of the Cylons." Most of the principle cast doesn't even appear in the movie (well.... let me come back to this issue); instead, the actors who play the show's Cylon characters take center stage (well.... let me come back to this issue too).

I think it relatively spoiler free (assuming you've seen the show through at least season two) to say that the film predominately focuses on incarnations of the Dean Stockwell Cylon, "John," "Cavil," or simply One, if you prefer. But if you're hoping for insight on exactly why he's the cold-hearted bastard he is, you're going to be disappointed. Hell, if you're looking for any more knowledge about just what the nature of "The Plan" is (as in... the Cylons "have a plan"), you're also going to be disappointed. This movie doesn't really give us anything that wasn't covered already by the show.

And that's the real problem here. Honestly, the thing doesn't even really play like a movie. It comes across like two hours' worth of deleted scenes that were plucked off the cutting room floor from a dozen or so different episodes (spanning seasons one and two), and stitched together. There really isn't a plot to speak of. Instead, it's sort of a Galactica scavenger hunt for fans to try to place each individual scene in its proper continuity. (Oh, this is during "33." And this is during "The Farm." And so on.)

In fact, more than a little of the footage really is lifted from other episodes. And this is where I can touch on that issue of missing cast members. Katee Sackhoff, Jamie Bamber, James Callis, and several others weren't actually brought in to film any new footage. But all of them appear -- you might even say rather extensively -- in The Plan, so much so that it got me wondering just how much of the 1:52 run time was actually new material. It seemed like at least 10 minutes' worth was lifted straight and uncut from actual episodes.

Seeing so many pieces stitched together this way, particularly under the umbrella "The Plan," actually makes the viewer more aware of the one real weakness of the series -- the fact that the writers didn't actually have a plan when they wrote the show. I'm all for leaving room for things to shift mid-stream, but watching Cylons hang out in secret in the fleet for over half a year and accomplishing nothing really makes you question their competence. Seeing Adama read that note again from the end of the mini-series: "There are only 12 Cylon models" makes you remember, "hey, we never did find out who actually wrote that, did we?" And who the hell would have that actually knew that??!

If The Plan was destined to be so short and fragmented on plot, then you'd at least hope that it makes up for it in character. It takes a few steps in this regard, but doesn't quite get the job done. There is a sub-plot that attempt to flesh out one version of Cavil (while demonizing another version of him), and another sub-plot that tries to round out the Simon Cylon. But Sharon and Six are little more than window-dressing, and D'Anna? Well, out of 12 Cylons, she's the ONE to not actually show up. Lucy Lawless was unavailable or too expensive, I guess. She's awkwardly present in a two second long bit of found footage, and otherwise is MIA.

I don't suppose I should have expected too much from The Plan, but I was hoping it would feel like more than the afterthought it most assuredly seems to have been. It's not a completely lost cause, because Dean Stockwell takes center stage and gives a fine performance. (Several performances, really.) But beyond that, only the ultimate Galactica completist should watch it. For the rest, this would probably only detract from the memory of the series proper.

I'm sorry to have to say that.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Before I Serve You, Mr. Bond...

My friends' wedding may have been in Vegas a week ago, but yesterday they had a "local" reception for more people to be able to attend. ("Local" being relative -- it was two hours south of Denver, in Pueblo.)

This was much more the typical wedding experience, complete with dinner catered by an interesting company. Here's the top of their business card:

Maybe the friends I went with to the reception were humoring me, but they all agreed that it looks very much like this guy is pointing a gun rather than holding a serving tray.

Interesting services they offer...

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Vegas Photo Roundup

So, I have a few other odds and ends about the Las Vegas trip worth mentioning, in the form of this handful of pictures I took while I was there.

First, there was this cheapo souvenir stand on Fremont Street:

I wonder how long that place has been there with the word "Legends" misspelled. I wonder how many people even notice. Or maybe the phrase "Rock & Roll Legends" is actually trademarked by someone, and the misspelling is deliberate?

Actually, Fremont Street was prime turf for strange signage. One of the casinos was running a promotion where you had a chance to be randomly selected to attempt to crack open a safe full of money. But I think their slogan was a little off:

But the image that gave us the most consistent laughs on the trip was this:

Magician Lance Burton has been playing at the Monte Carlo for a while now. This sign advertising it was everywhere -- in front of the casino we saw every day, on a billboard on the walk between hotels that two of my friends had to make to meet us. And to us, it kind of looked like Lance Burton was about to do that stupid old uncle trick of "watch me pull off the tip of my thumb!"

Okay, maybe you had to be there, but we got a lot of laughs going... "ooooooo" as we "pulled off our thumbs" and bragged about how we could headline at the Monte Carlo.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Need for Speed

Another fun non-gambling activity my group enjoyed in Las Vegas was a trip to Pole Position Raceway, an indoor electric go kart race track:

The cost is a little up there, but you do get a full experience for your money. We raced two 12-lap races. They outfit you with spiffy racing helmets (complete with headsocks) and strap you into super-low-to-the-ground racers that you can push as high as 45 MPH.

They also intimidate you a little bit with a rather serious-sounding safety video you have to watch before your first race. Six of us chose to drive, and by the end of the three minute video, you could kind of see on our faces... well, not "hesitation" exactly, but a touch of "man, can I remember all that?"

I drew the pole position by luck of the draw in our first race, and after maybe a lap of driving conservatively, getting used to the car, I started gunning it. In my mind, I was having this absolutely incredible race. About halfway through the race, I lapped the last place car. After a few more laps, I passed another car. No one ever passed me. I thought, "man, I just crushed that."

Then the race was over and they hand us our race report sheets. Fourth place. Wait, huh? I'm thinking... no, wait, I lapped fifth and sixth place! I wasn't actually fourth place.

Well, it turns out we were all so focused on all that safety stuff in the video that we all missed an important detail -- how you win. The race was scored by time on your single fastest lap. My best lap was about half a second behind first, with two other racers sliding in even in front of that. A little extra salt in the wound was that my average lap time was the best in the field (though admittedly, only by a few hundredths of a second).

Oh! Okay! Well, we had one more race to go. And now we all get it. Just drive your best time.

You could tell we all got more aggressive once we fully understood our goal. I started in second position, and within a few laps ran around first so I could get a nice open stretch of track to run a good time on. And I thought I was doing it, too, until Sangediver pulled a masterful pass on me during lap 10 and left me in his wake.

This time the stats came back -- third for me. But at least the winner was Sange, with that crazy lap in which he flew by me. (Though I almost wish he'd passed me sooner. I noticed on my stat sheet that I got a lot faster on those last three laps when I was "chasing him" as opposed to the laps where I was "comfortably" leading.) In any case, the entire group improved dramatically in race two. The slowest time among the six of us in the second race was faster than the best time among us in race one.

A good time was had by all. We talked about wishing we didn't have to go all the way to Vegas to do this sort of thing. It turns out there's outdoor gas-powered go karts held at local speedway during the summer... but that hardly does any of us any good now.

But maybe it's something to look forward to.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Art Imitates Art

I had some light reading with me for the plane flight to and from Las Vegas. Very light reading. Perhaps you watch the television series Castle, a sort of "Murder, He Wrote" about a cocky novelist who shadows a female New York detective to draw inspiration for his new novel. If you do, then you'll know that they make constant references on the show to that novel, Heat Wave.

Well, it turns out that Heat Wave is a real thing. It was ghost written (by whom, it has not been revealed) and published with the character, Richard Castle, as the author. The book cover even looks exactly as it does on the TV show, right down to actor Nathan Fillion's smiling face adorning the back. I don't know if I had enough curiosity to buy the book myself, but I did have just enough curiosity to read it when my book-store-employee friend offered to loan me the copy she'd picked up.

My reluctance starts with this: I don't actually like the TV show Castle very much. It's a really rote cop mystery show, when you get down to it. The cases are rarely exceptional. The procedures aren't very interesting. When I'm done watching at episode, I find my memory of the plot as ephemeral as my average experience watching Psych.

But like Psych, the show is watchable because of the actors, and the phenomenal chemistry between them. I've already mentioned that Nathan Fillion plays the title character, and it goes without saying that he's fantastic. Stana Katic plays the detective, and while she's not as widely she known, she's also wonderful in her character. And together, the two of them are perfect; the interplay between them makes the show. Even the side characters on the series, particularly Castle's mother and teenage daughter, provide good fuel.

You may think I've drifted a bit off the subject of the book, Heat Wave. But the thing is, reading it is a lot like watching an episode of Castle. The characters in it are all ringers for characters on the show -- "author" Castle even puts himself in there as a journalist named (haha!) Jameson Rook. The way they all act, the way their dialogue comes across -- it all feels not just like an episode of the TV show, but it often feels specifically like a version of an episode as it would be interpreted by the Castle character. I mean, you really could imagine this is the sort of book Castle would write, were he a real person.

But the similarity to the TV show is a bad thing too. As I said, the thing that really keeps the show from being easily dismissed is the interplay between the actors. In the books, you get a distilled version of that because of the authenticity of the characters, but you're not seeing what the very skilled actors would bring to it, were this an actual episode. In short, the best thing about Castle isn't really present in this book. On the flip side, the plot is a little more clever and intricate than the average episode of Castle. I guess call those trade-offs.

The book is an incredibly brisk read, under 200 pages. If it were any longer, it wouldn't be worth anyone's consideration. As is is, I'm not exactly recommending it -- it's really no better than a TV show I'm not entirely sure I like. But then again, if you like Castle (perhaps more than I), you might want to check out this fun little tie-in.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Scares Before the Big Scare

It had never specifically occured to me that Halloween would be a special holiday in Las Vegas, but in retrospect, in makes total sense. The city would make a big deal out of anything that could be a special occasion in Las Vegas, right?

Well, this recent trip to Vegas found me there in the month of Halloween, and I got to see firsthand what that means. Several casinos were advertising the special acts they have booked for the night before and the night itself. (Convenient that Halloween is a Saturday this year, no?)

Other casinos had set up haunted houses for the occasion. On our night downtown at Fremont Street (just before the real scare that was the incident), my group decided to check out the "Haunted Casino" at Binion's Horseshoe. It turned out to be well worth it.

The haunted house had many of the conventions I've seen at other houses over the years -- a simulated elevator, hanging body bags, actors pretending to be statues so that they can jump out at you when you're unprepared... that sort of stuff. But it also had some original elements I personally hadn't seen before. For example, there was the "suffocation chamber," a walk through two... well, call them inflatable bouncy castle-type walls that pressed in on you from both sides. Very clever; just long enough to be unsettling, not long enough to make real claustrophobia set in.

But even the conventional stuff was really well done. There was an incredibly convincing gargoyle outfit on one performer, who held so still before "coming to life" that everyone in the group went for it. And the zombie-esque elevator operator had a creepy, dead-eye stare through black-light-reflective contacts that stayed fixed on one person in our group for the entire duration of the phony elevator ride.

In any case, it wasn't an activity I expected from my Vegas trip, but it was kind of one of the highlights. Should you ever find yourself in Las Vegas in October, you should check out what haunted houses are up and running. Good times.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Dial Vegas for Murder

Of all the random posts I've made on my blog over the years, one that continues to cause people to find my site during a Google search is my analysis of the annual Las Vegas murder victim count in real life, compared to what is portrayed on the TV show CSI. I remarked at the time that despite the fact that the show portrays Vegas as being much more gruesome overall than the actual city is, the TV show is unlikely to hurt tourism.

In fact, Las Vegas has completely embraced this show that portrays them as a mecca of violence. For years now, you see CSI merchandise in nearly every souvenir show there -- either real or knock-off. I had not been aware, however, of the creation of an actual tourist attraction based around the show until this recent trip.

In the mall at MGM Grand, you'll find "CSI: The Experience." Built a few years ago (before the departure of several cast members from the series), its billed as a chance for you to go in and solve your own murder case. I'm not sure what I was expecting... maybe a sort of "How to Host a Murder" type of puzzle, CSI-style. In any case, enough of my friends were interested in checking it out that we decided to give it a whirl.

Well, it wasn't bad, but I have to say it was a bit of a disappointment. And I honestly should have known my expectations were too high. Obviously, it being a tourist attraction in Vegas, it has to be geared toward the intellectual capacity of a drunkard that thinks 98% payout on slots is an amazing proposition.

You get three different potential "cases" to work through before entering the Experience, and worksheets for each one that start off with an area for you to sketch the crime scene. Capture every detail, a video recording of Gil Grisson warns you!

So in we five go, the most anal group I imagine has ever entered this thing. We spent at least 10 minutes going over every nook and cranny of our little maybe four-foot-by-nine-foot crime scene, sketching everything. Trash that was probably thrown in the exhibit by past patrons. Every-frakkin'-thing.

From there, you round a corner in find yourself in what is essentially a small Children's Museum with a forensics bias. You can bounce from exhibit to exhibit, looking at stuff about fingerprint identification, toxicology, autopsy, and so forth. Depending on which of the three cases you're "working," you might have little work stations in each area asking you to do a short little activity to gather information.

Here's the part where the whole Experience let me down. Was I actually expecting to dust for fingerprints and run them through a computer scanner myself? I don't know... maybe, for the price they charged. ($30.) But I was expecting more that a little sliding panel with five possible fingerprint samples (enlarged to preposterous size) and a "sample" on top I had to match to one of the five by sliding it into the right place and writing down the name it gave me.

Needless to say, it took about 45 seconds and stopping in maybe two of the dozen-or-so stations to have the identity of the murderer thrown obviously in your face.

Now, aspects of the displays were kind of interesting. I mean, even a Children's Museum can be fun for adults if they've done it right. But as far as what I felt I'd been sold, a chance to "solve a crime," I found it completely lacking.

The group consensus seemed to be that since they had three cases set up anyway, they should have orchestrated them by difficulty. Have the "Level 1" case be aimed at the typical Vegas vacationer, and make a "Level 3" case for nuts like us that really wanted to work for it. As it was, it didn't even require the brain power of page 1 of the average beginner's logic puzzles book.

If you're a big CSI fan, you might want to catch this thing anyway if you ever find yourself in Vegas. But lower your expectations. It's not a bad way to spend an hour or so, but not a major thrill either.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Wee Bit o' the Humor

So, as I'd mentioned, the main reason for the Las Vegas trip was to attend a wedding. Friends getting married, friends going on the trip, and a chance to see an actual Las Vegas wedding... seemed like a can't miss opportunity. And indeed, it was a good time.

I didn't know it before heading out there, but it turns out the choice of location was because an earlier generation in the family had been married in the exact same chapel. It's been there since 1940. And its name gave us no shortage of humor for most of the trip.

The chapel is called "Wee Kirk O' the Heather." To be spoken only in a Scottish accent, of course. And you might think the unconventional name might have made it easier to remember, but the unwieldiness won out.

So first, someone called it "Wee Kirk O' the Cameron."

And then there was "Wee Kirk O' the Douglas."

By that point, everybody remembered the real name, but a game had been created. And it grew quickly. Soon we were branching out.

Wee Kirk O' the Captain.

Wee Dirk O' the Benedict.

Wee Dirk O' the Diggler.

Wee Kurt O' the Vonnegut.

Wee Kurt O' the Cobain.

Wee Kurt O' the Russell.

Wee Kate O' the Hepburn.

Wee Kate O' the Capshaw.

By all means, play along here. It's fun! Or, if you don't think so, remember that there's not much else to do while you're sitting in a cab. The humor standards fall accordingly.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Lucky Day

Back from Vegas! And with a few stories to dole out over the next few days or so. (Not everything that happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.) But we'll cut right to the chase for some of you who will surely ask -- did I win money?

Short answer: no. I lost about $90. But there's a longer answer.

Through Friday and Saturday, my trip was a pretty typical Vegas experience for me. I was doing really well at poker overall, but was foolishly giving into enough urges to play blackjack and craps with friends to put me only slightly ahead for the trip.

Then came Sunday night, when I burned up every bit of luck I had left for the trip. And I didn't make a dime. And I didn't mind at all.

A group of us had decided to head down to Fremont Street after the wedding on Sunday. Two of the group had never seen old downtown Las Vegas, and so it's just a thing you sort of have to do. And it's pretty lame, and you can see everything there is to see there in an hour or less, and then you're ready to go. But you still have to see it for yourself to know that, and I was willing to tag along.

Then we hopped in a cab and the driver got on I-15 to take us back to where we were staying on the South Strip. We're driving along at a normal pace in the center lane, when up ahead, we see brake lights coming on in the right two lanes about 1000 feet ahead, and people slowing down for something.

At almost the same moment, an SUV comes whipping by us on the right like an F-1 driver, starting to change lanes and cut in front of us barely before he's crept by. Our driver coolly gives the guy a wide berth.

But SUV is already cutting back into the right lane, having cut in front of another driver in that lane. And it's immediately and abundantly clear to both our driver and the other cut-offee in the right lane that Mr. SUV does not see the braking just barely up ahead of him.

What followed was the most violent accident I've ever personally witnessed. SUV slams on his brakes with maybe 200 feet to go, and you can see him start to whip the wheel to get off onto the shoulder. Then you see him almost give up that maneuver, because the top-heavy beast was wobbling, sure to roll over if he'd stayed the course.

Instead, he full-on rear-ended a mini-van going at least 40 miles an hour. I didn't get a clear view of the rest of the physics involved, but two more vehicles (one another mini-van) were brought into it all, one practically T-boned on the passenger side after being whipped around by the impact.

The next part played out even slower in my mind than watching the wreck itself, as our driver calmly moved over to the far left lane and drove by slowly. I was in the front passenger seat, and my window was cracked, and I could hear kids crying from car seats in the backs of both mini-vans. Parents were already scrambling to climb back from their front seats in one. I couldn't see any other movement in the second, but drivers from other cards were already running there. The back end of the third vehicle wasn't even recognizable as having been a car.

It only took a few seconds to get by, but it felt like minutes in my mind as I'm thinking, well, should we stop? What could we possibly do if we did? Look at all these people running to help already. Not to mention the cab driver was already calling it in as we were safely through the snare.

We made it safely to our destination. And the cab driver got a fairly crazy tip from us. (Much later, though, I must confess to the morbid curiosity of whether taxi drivers routinely get large tips for avoiding accidents, and if the misfortune of others is therefore a small boon for them.)

In any case, this burned up every bit of luck I had left for the trip. I played some more poker late last night, and today before flying home, but caught cold cards the entire time. It turned my "slightly ahead overall" into a losing trip to Vegas. But I'll take avoiding a massive accident over winning a few bucks at a low-limit table without complaint.

As a footnote, I just searched some web sites for local Las Vegas news stations, and found no mention of the accident. As I did find a story on a recent unrelated accident that yielded a fatality, I'm going to assume that fortunately, everyone involved in the crash we witnessed survived.

So a happy ending to the story? I suppose. Not a story I would have wanted to be telling, though. Extra glad to be home!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

U.S. National Geodetic Survey

Roland Deschain pointed me in the direction of this oddity the other night -- apparently, it was published earlier this year that the "Four Corners Monument," marking the spot where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah meet at right angles, was erected in the wrong place. Reports were claiming it was as much as 2.5 miles off from the true location.

Now, I've never been there myself. But I confess I've thought about it once or twice, if for no other reason than to cross two more states off my "I've set foot in these states -- not counting airports" list. (That would be Arizona and New Mexico, for me.) Hearing this news suddenly had me thinking just how ticked I'd be if I had done it, only to discover... "nope! actually, you haven't!"

Turns out, maybe reports of the demise of the Four Corners Monument were exaggerated. The alleged "misplacement" of the monument is I guess some sort of GPS quibble, as described roughly here. If I understand it right, the argument is that the state lines were incorrectly drawn from where they were supposed to be originally, back in the 1800s. But the U.S. National Geodetic Survey has stepped in defending the surveys, and it appears that regardless of where the lines should have been, they're officially this way now.

So if you've been to this spot to crab-walk in four states simultaneously, your "achievement" of sorts is still intact. Still, I'm off vacationing in an entirely different state right now, so I think any Four Corners trip for me will have to wait a while longer.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

God's in the Driver's Seat

There's a glass business here in Denver...

...that's looking for "God Drivers." Times are so hard now, you have to be God to get a job offer.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Liar, Liar

Just before heading out on my trip, I finally got out to the theater to see The Invention of Lying, the new comedy starring Ricky Gervais. The title is the premise; in a world where everyone speaks the utter truth all the time, Gervais' character is the first man able to tells lies.

It's a premise with a good bit of mileage in it. Early on, it's mined for laughs, as the character explores the power of lying, and the things you can get for yourself by lying for sex, lying for money, lying just generally for personal gain. Then it moves into an area where the character tries to act more altruistically, lying to help make other people happy.

And then the quirky little comedy gets subversive. It turns out that Gervais (also co-writer and co-director of the movie) has some pretty specific message to convey. And if you want to see them for yourself in context, skip the rest of this paragraph. The framework of lying is really a platform to comment first on religion, and perhaps even more profoundly on the way people deny their own happiness to pursue things they think they're supposed to want. It's pretty heady stuff for the average comedy, and it does make you stop and think.

But the thing is, the movie is really only funny early, and really only profound late. In its effort to be both, the film does both "fairly well," but neither excellently. At any given moment, the laughs are king, or the message is. It's not an oil-and-water relationship, overall, but neither it is a chocolate-and-peanut-butter one.

Still, the fact that it's Ricky Gervais -- and that there's a deeper meaning to it all -- means that a lot of prominent actors wanted to come out to play. It seems as though people lined up just to have a line or two in the film. In addition to the major characters played by Jennifer Garner, Jonah Hill, Louis C.K., and Rob Lowe, you can also see Jeffrey Tambor, Tina Fey, John Hodgman, Edward Norton, Jason Bateman, Christopher Guest, and Philip Seymour Hoffman. It's a pretty cool cast.

I think it's definitely worth seeing, though perhaps I found myself wanting ever more, given just how good all the different ingredients were. I rate it a B-. It's probably one to rent later, if you don't catch it in theaters now.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Gambling, Guns, and Marriage

I am headed out on vacation! Friends of mine are getting married in Las Vegas this weekend, so a group of us are headed out for the event, and catch a little fun in Vegas while we're at it.

Yes, Las Vegas. The city where you can see an ad like this in the airport:

Come for the gambling, stay for the blonde that wants you to shoot a machine gun!

While I'm away, the blog will continue daily here on auto-pilot -- I just won't be around to share in any pithy replies people might have until early next week. So until then!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Trip to the Lake

Lake Placid. From everything I'd heard about it, it seemed like your basic piece of crap monster film, perhaps only one notch above the weekly SciFi Channel (oh... excuse me... that's "SyFy" now) movie.

And yet, look at that cast! Bill Pullman, Bridget Fonda, Oliver Platt, Brendan Gleeson... Betty White!?! And the writer! David Kelley? Boston Legal, Ally McBeal, The Practice, Picket Fences, etc, etc David Kelley -- THAT David Kelley? This couldn't possibly be all bad, could it?

Indeed, it's not all bad. But neither does the movie really seem worthy of its pedigree. Or perhaps it's only all those people involved in the making of it that saved it from being one of the worst films made in 1999, I don't know.

I do know that this tale of a giant crocodile causing havoc in a New England lake is stacked to the rafters with all the cliché situations you find in these bad monster movies. And very few of them are twisted in interesting new ways (as, say, Jurassic Park did) -- it just seems to be a case of a lot of talented people deciding they wanted to just turn off their brains to make a mindless piece of crap.

But it's not quite crap, because the dialogue does have a witty pop to it. The actors take their various caricatures and almost turn them into characters. Bill Pullman as the unflappable outdoorsman, Bridget Fonda as the haughty scientist, Oliver Platt as the thrill-seeking adventurer, and Brendan Gleeson as the overwhelmed local sheriff... these are all incredibly stock characters, but they're all brought to life with just enough effort by the actors to make them likeable. And Betty White brings the house down as a batty old widow living in a cabin on the lake.

Watching this movie was just the weirdest little 80-minute experience. It's really awful, honestly, and yet kind of enjoyable. You feel yourself getting dumber, and yet the occasional line shows some razor sharp wit. I don't want to recommend the movie, and yet it wouldn't be a catastrophe if you found your way to it on your own.

I guess I'd call Lake Placid a C+. Bad shouldn't be this good.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Fear Not

I recently sat down and watched Cape Fear, Martin Scorsese's 1991 remake of the 1962 suspense thriller (which I've also never seen). I'd heard some good things about this version, particularly about Robert De Niro's performance, and thought it was worth a look.

Having now seen the movie, there's a lot about it I just don't understand. I don't get why it's so widely praised. Hell, I'm not even sure why Scorsese bothered to remake it.

Let's start with that last point. I did a little research and read up on the ways in which this remake's script differs from the original. The two versions aren't altogether different, but they're not altogether similar either. On paper, you can probably see "why remake this?", because the tone is a little darker, the "good guy" not so good, and so forth.

But then Scorsese took that script and proceeded to direct an 1960s movie, for all intents and purposes. The style is so brazen and self-aware, it's not hard to imagine you're actually watching some shot-for-shot remake of a classic film. There's arch camera angles, over-the-top music, strange editing choices (including bizarre cross-fades that use stark primary colors), and weird pacing.

And the actors are all coached to give performances to match this aesthetic. Full of outrageous emotion, heaving sighs, and awkward pauses, every actor seems to be using an acting style already three decades out of date when the film was made -- and even more antiquated today. I sort of expect these histrionics from Jessica Lange, and possible even Nick Nolte. But Juliette Lewis and Robert De Niro both got Oscar nominations for this, and I've frankly never seen either of them be worse in a movie.

It's hard to say that, because the former was tackling very harsh and mature subject matter at a very young age, and the latter -- well, he's Robert Freaking De Niro. And beyond his acting, much was made of his rather extreme physical transformation for this film. But both step brazenly across the line into soap opera territory, prompting unintentional laughter in more than one scene.

So, I have to ask, why "update" a film if, stylistically, you aren't really going to update it at all?

There is an interesting story at the core of this. The dialogue doesn't really do it justice, but it's still not boring to watch. It's just not particularly good either, and I almost started to wonder, "hell, it's been almost another 20 years... anyone up for a re-remake?"

I only give Cape Fear a D+. It was a real disappointment.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Palace Planning

Every once in a long while, the board game Maharaja makes its way out of my game closet and gets a run... as it did this past weekend, for example.

It's an interesting little game where players try to build palaces and houses around a board (representing different cities and villages in India). It shares a lot of common game elements with other German fare, but synthesizes them together in an interesting way. For example, all players plan their turns simultaneously, in secret, but then execute them in a fixed order. Consequently, an early player's turn can mess up a late player's plans.

Players also have "jobs," much in the manner of Puerto Rico, Race for the Galaxy, or other such games. But instead of picking a new job by default every turn, your role is persistent from one turn to the next. Until you spend an action to change your job (or another player spends one of his actions to take it from you), you get to keep your role, and the special game power associated with it -- a small but significant twist on the whole job-picking game mechanic.

The game has enough things you can do in a turn to counter-balance turn order. The player who pulls out ahead early isn't necessarily going to win, nor is the player who falls behind early necessarily going to lose.

But unfortunately, the endgame often fizzles -- as it did on this recent play. Your goal is to construct seven palaces to win. Palaces are expensive, so prohibitively so that building more than one per turn isn't realistic. In fact, there are a few turns where you won't be able to build any.

And therein lies the problem. I said that early turns aren't always an indicator of who will win. But every time I've played, it always seems to reach the last turn, where one player -- and only one player -- has built six palaces already, and has enough money in front of him to build the winning seventh on his next turn. His victory is a foregone conclusion, so everybody can just start packing up the game without actually playing that last turn. An oddly anti-climatic ending to a game, particularly when you consider that so many other German board games have some form of epic "final scoring" to throw the standings into a little chaos.

The flaw is not enough to make me dislike the game, but it is enough to keep me from wanting to play it regularly. And so Maharaja will now vanish back to the bottom of the game closet for another several months, perhaps to make its way back out some time next year.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Bright Sun

I've seen quite a lot of Steven Spielberg's movies, but let's face it -- the man has had a long career and made a ton of movies. I doubt many people have seen them all. One that had slipped through the cracks for me was 1987's Empire of the Sun, one of his earlier forays into the "epic war story." This tale follows a British boy living in Shanghai in World War II, who is separated from his parents when the Japanese occupy the city. The movie follows his life throughout the remainder of the war.

Notably, this was the feature film debut of Christian Bale, at age 13. And he gives a really fantastic performance. It's a bit strange to watch, because while it is completely credible at all times, and his character (Jim) is full of enthusiasm and life, you can still get a taste of how deathly serious Bale the actor was even at this young age. Oh, it's not that you could imagine this young teen cussing out people on set between takes; but it does feel like a very meticulously crafted performance, with an attention to detail that is just unusual for a child actor.

Of course, since no one knew who Bale was at the time, top billing goes to other stars in the film, including John Malkovich, Miranda Richardson, and Joe Pantoliano. (Though also appearing before anyone knew who he was is Ben Stiller, as a minor character.) Malkovich is especially good as a cagey survivalist always working an angle, developing relationships purely for their use to him. The story isn't really focused on any of the adults, however, so each only gets a few moments to really show their stuff.

There's an impressive sweep and scope to the way Spielberg directed this movie. There are a number of crazy-huge crowd shots in the movie -- and this being before the time when CG mobs were a render farm away, it gives you pause to think about the monumental task of actually gathering it all to actually film for real. At the same time, he never lets the grandeur take importance away from the individual; the movie is always locked squarely on this young boy and makes you invest in his struggles.

It's a fairly strong script from playwright/screenwriter Tom Stoppard (which he adapted from a novel). There's clever layering in of repeating themes, some interesting side characters, and some moments of brushing against actual history.

But the movie does run two-and-a-half hours, and it doesn't quite keep the pace up for that entire length. The movie never lags for too long at one time, but in a few places scattered throughout, I did find myself wishing to move on to the next "chapter" a bit faster.

One can suppose, though, that this movie was some sort of foundation on which Saving Private Ryan and Schindler's List would later be built. You can even see the hints of that here and there. It's still a strong movie, even if Spielberg would later make stronger. I give it a B-.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Halled Off

Not long ago, I watched Woody Allen's classic movie, Annie Hall. It's considered by most to be his masterpiece; it did win the Best Picture Oscar that year, after all. I can't say I've seen many of his films, but I'm going to say Match Point still stands as his best in my book.

The problem starts with Woody Allen himself as an actor -- and as a writer, when it comes to the character he's written himself. I'm not the first person to say this, but count me on the bandwagon: I think Woody Allen movies are a lot better when he's not in them. His character in this movie, Alvy Singer, is so neurotic as to be unrelatable, unsympathetic, and unbelievable. He's like George Costanza, Larry David (the real version), and Larry David (the Curb Your Enthusiasm version) all rolled up into one and magnified ten times. You just want the guy to shut the hell up by the end of the very first scene of the movie.

But Diane Keaton, as the title character, keeps you from bailing on the film on account of Woody Allen. She's endearing and likeable -- loveable -- and at the top of a pyramid of great actors in the film. Carol Kane, Shelley Duvall, and Christopher Walken all show up in small roles, Paul Simon appears in an extended cameo of sorts, and even Jeff Goldblum puts in a before-anyone-knew-who-he-was appearance.

There are a lot of very clever, even funny scenes in the movie. But unfortunately, that's all I found them to be -- scenes. The overall story of the film was rendered disjointed and awkward by this procession of styles. There are scenes in which characters step out to talk to the camera, physically witness flashbacks of their own past, or even step outside their own bodies to watch themselves. Most of these moments are worth a laugh, but they all feel artificial -- only meant to get the laugh, and each more out of place than the last. I felt that if only Woody Allen had stuck to one or two of these gimmicks, he'd have a more coherent movie. Instead, I thought it played like a hit-and-miss improv troupe performing on some sort of theme night.

I've seen worse movies that have been honored as Best Picture. But I've seen a lot better. Annie Hall gets a C-.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Evaporating Television

Friday night is when new episodes of the TV series Psych run. It's an amusing enough show, mostly because of the chemistry between the two main characters, Shaun and Gus (played by James Roday and Dulé Hill). It's not quite a show I look forward to every week, but I always have fun with it. Several people I work with watch it too.

But we almost never talk about the week's new episode come Monday morning. And in part, this is because Psych is also "cotton candy television." You consume it, and it's oh so delicious at the time... but it just dissolves immediately. All of us in the Psych-watching group at work, some of whom profess to be "fans," always seem hard pressed to remember what the newest episode was about after a day or two.

I don't know what it is about this show that Men-in-Black-flashy-things you as the end credits arrive, but I have yet to find someone who watches it who has a clear memory of an episode. Every once in a while, you'll get a great moment like guest star George Takei asking "specifically for Michigan blueberries" or...


Okay, I'm out.

Is it just us? Or do any other Psych watchers out there want to confirm I'm not crazy?

Thursday, October 08, 2009

One on a Million

Having done alright recently with various films directed by Clint Eastwood (well, mostly), I decided to check out the one that took home the Best Picture Oscar: Million Dollar Baby. I know we're not talking about a "what a twist!" movie here, but I was aware beforehand about the direction the plot would take, and how the movie would end. I think I'd put off seeing the movie for a while for exactly that reason, wondering if that knowledge would take the wind from the film's sails.

Well, it didn't. I mean, if somehow you don't know about the complete plot of the movie, don't go and find out before you see it. But if you do already know, then know also that I don't think it harms the experience.

But I get a little ahead of myself. The basic story, no spoilers here, follows Clint Eastwood as a boxing trainer, who reluctantly takes on training a woman (Hilary Swank) after prodding from his friend and employee (Morgan Freeman). But it is a bit of a rough road getting them that far; the story is really about how this woman's determination finally gets through the Eastwood character's emotional armor, and what happens to both of them once that's happened.

So, that development in the plot. I'll say no more here, but suffice it to say that I thought that was when the movie really "arrived." The first chunk, following the establishment of the friendship between the two characters, was fine but not exceptional. Actually, Gran Torino is a very similar take on the same kind of material. But then more compelling drama kicks in, and the movie earns its reputation.

Hilary Swank is really phenomenal in the movie. She gives a really complete and raw performance, emotionally, physically, the works. Morgan Freeman also does stellar work; not only are his appearances on screen superb, but he once again proves that there's no better actor alive to be the narrator for your film. Clint Eastwood as a performer is really sort of the weak link in the cast. He's not bad, and his work in the final act of the film is actually really terrific, but for the bulk of the film it felt like he was just resting on a career's worth of established "tricks," and not rising to the level of the other actors.

Eastwood the director is strong throughout, however. The film brilliantly juggles moments of emotion and drama, sweet moments of humor, and (as it is in part a boxing movie) sequences of visceral violence. Camera work, editing choices, staging... they're all great.

In the end, it's a fantastic film. I mean that... "in the end," because I did find myself wishing around the middle of the film that it would get to the meat of it all a little faster. Nevertheless, it's a movie well worth seeing. I rate it a B+.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Half Wit

I'd long been curious about the movie Witness. Beyond the generally favorable things said of it, I've often heard it talked about as a textbook example of a well-crafted script. Almost literally, actually -- I've heard of film students being made to study this script as a blueprint for good screenwriting.

Having now seen the movie, I must say I don't really see what the fuss is about. It's not that Witness is a bad movie; it's just that I didn't really see anything exceptional here. As a blueprint for screenwriting, I'd offer it only to someone who wants to write a rather cliché screenplay. (But then, perhaps that's the point? To educate would-be screenwriters in what will be more likely to sell to a film studio?)

The one refreshing decision made in the storytelling is the decision to focus the plot around the Amish. It's a culture that most people don't really know that much about. It's seldom portrayed in fiction, and offers opportunities for scenes where the particulars haven't really been presented on film. But the generalities certainly have, and in all these other respects, Witness is a "fish out of water" story mixed with a "protector cop" story, the likes of which are all too familiar.

An Amish woman (Kelly McGillis) travels to with her young son (Lukas Haas) to visit family. While on a layover in "the big city," waiting at the train station, the boy happens to witness a brutal murder. In strides a tough but sensitive cop (Harrison Ford) who must coax a statement from the boy... and then ultimately protect him when it comes to light that this was no random murder he saw.

The first act is loaded up with culture shock moments for the little boy experiencing technology for the first time. Then the second act sees the three of them all on the run, escaping to the Amish community that the woman and son first came from to hide from the perpetrators. Now it's the cop who experiences culture shock, as the beginnings of a romance develop between he and the boy's mother.

Perhaps this is "Screenwriting 101" because you can predict nearly all the scenes of the film before they happen. A smart audience knows that somewhere in a story of this nature, there's going to be "a scene like this," "a scene like that," and so on. And the movie dutifully checks them all off as though from a list. On the one hand, there is a certain level on which this should be praised -- it's a movie that really leaves no stone unturned. On the other hand, there's something a bit lifeless and workmanlike about the way the story is put through its paces.

The acting is at least decent. Harrison Ford is playing a character pretty close to his usual type; it's a bit odd that he received an Oscar nomination for this. Then again, he does it well as usual, and this is the sort of thing people like to see him do. Kelly McGillis is stronger in her role, and I think she brings more of her character's conflict to the film than the script itself does.

Lukas Haas gives a solid performance for a child actor. Danny Glover appears as a villain; like so much about the film, he's a bit stereotypical, but gets the job done. And in a fun little link for film buffs and Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon enthusiasts, Viggo Mortensen appears briefly in his very first feature film role. He has only one line, and it's not even in English. (And German doesn't sound anything like Elvish.)

Again, I'll say that Witness was not a bad movie. Still, it's not a movie to bump to the top of your list, if you haven't seen it. I rate it a C+.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Slow-Roasted Java

There's a trilogy of German board games I call the "Bluuah! Collection." Designed by Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling, they all feature on the box some mask-like face from a dead civilization going "Bluuah!" Case in point, the cover of the middle volume of the series, Java (as seen on the left).

The games have some mechanical similarities beyond the superficial ones. All of them use an "action point" system, where players have a sort of menu of nearly a dozen different actions they can take on their turn, in any combinations and order they like, until they've spent their allotment of points for the turn. They're also all "territory control" games, though with fairly different strategies.

Java is the three-dimensional entry of the series. You stack land tiles on one another, creating village areas and jungle areas, then deploy your pieces out into the terrain you've created in a way to best maximize scoring possibilities. It's very interesting and rather clever.

It's also really prone to analysis paralysis. If you spend your action points right, you can squeeze out a really good score on your turn. And as I mentioned, you have a lot of options on how to spend those points. So you find yourself wanting to stare at the board for quite a long time, trying out every possible option in your head to see which one will squeeze out that extra point or two. And unfortunately, the other players don't really do anything on your turn, leaving them as a restless audience to your planning and re-planning.

Somehow, by a fluke, this recent time I played the game took only about 90 minutes. But I recall past experiences with the game that took in excess of 3 hours. Back in the time at my old job in Virginia, some co-workers and I set it up in the style of a play by mail game. We used a vacant office to hold the board, along with CCG cards to act as turn markers. If you walked in on your lunch hour and saw your card face up, it was your turn; take all the time you want planning, and just turn the next player's card face up when you're done. Games took several weeks to complete sometimes... but then, if you all actually sat down in person to play the game, it could feel that way anyway.

It's a shame, because I really want to like Java more. I remembered instantly all the things I liked about the game when I played it recently. There's just a lot of clever things at work in it. But you pretty much need to have a "shot clock" to put on the players, or a mutual agreement not to take it too seriously. (The latter is hard to do, because the level of strategy is high, so you can't help but want to take it seriously.)

So even though I do like the mechanics here, I must give the nod to the other two games in the "Bluuah! Collection," Tikal and Mexica.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Z is for Kooky (and it's good enough for me)

Yesterday afternoon, I went to see the new movie Zombieland. It's a fun little slice of humor meets apocalypse, starring Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg (of Adventureland), Emma Stone, and Abigail Breslin (a bit more grown up since Little Miss Sunshine).

Put simply, this is one of the more fun movies I've seen in a while. It never for a moment takes itself seriously, and strikes a perfect tone for this kind of movie. There's campy, over-the-top gore that makes you laugh. There's affectionate skewering of various conventions of the action and horror genres. And lots of great jokes.

The story is really simple, without anything more than is necessary. The characters don't even have real names -- just the U.S. cities to which they're traveling (or from which they're coming). These four survivors of a viral zombie outbreak are just trying to find a place that's been untouched by the infestation of cannibalistic mutations.

What really makes the movie is the central character played by Jesse Eisenberg, and his great narration of the film. Our hero is an anal, compulsive freak whose elaborate system of rules and hang-ups just happened to make him exactly the sort of person able to survive the end of the world. The movie makes brilliant use of on-screen text (incorporated into the scenery, a la Fringe) to highlight his many rules, and just how they apply to the situation unfolding.

No, I take it back... what really makes the movie is a zany performance by Woody Harrelson. Part Die Hard and maybe part Deliverance, his character is just fun to watch as he delights in killing zombies. (Move over, Aldo Raine, your schtick has been one-upped.)

No, no, I take it back one more time. What really makes the movie is the most hysterical and inspired cameo appearance by an actor in any movie I've seen in the last few years. I don't even want to say who shows up, and in what capacity -- it's just better if you haven't heard and remain in the dark until you see it. But the five to ten minutes of screen time that this performer spends on screen are worth the price of admission all themselves. The rest of the movie being great is just gravy.

But it does start to run out of steam a little bit just near the end. The climax of the movie implies that this finale -- and the movie's title -- were dreamt up first, and the entire plot retro-engineered to arrive at that point. It's an elaborate sequence set in an amusement park that stretches credibility even in the patently unrealistic environment the film has set in place. Rides running by themselves, our survivors doing blatantly stupid things just to create some tension. There's still some euphoric fun at play that keeps disappointment at bay, but the ending nevertheless doesn't quite live up to what's come before.

Yet it's really only a small mark against a movie I found otherwise surprisingly entertaining. I give Zombieland an A-. Hit the theaters, learn "the rules," and prepare yourself for the apocalypse.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

The Blair House Project

Last night, I attended a midnight screening of the new indie horror movie, Paranormal Activity. If you haven't heard of it, that's not too surprising, because this film is flaunting its underground status as a badge of honor.

Filmed two years ago in the director's own house, on a budget of just a few tens of thousands of dollars, the movie garnered acclaim in the tiny handful of film festivals where it was screened. But then Steven Spielberg was given a copy to watch, and his endorsement (and suggestion for a new ending, which was reshot) pushed the thing into the spotlight.

Now the film is part of a deliberately Blair Witch Project-esque marketing scheme. It "opened" last weekend in only 10 cities, all "college towns," and expanded to only a handful more this weekend. Boulder was one such location, so I made the trek last night to see this movie that is deliberately only screened at midnight, and only on two nights out of the week.

There's a certain point at which you could argue that people shouldn't make it this hard to give them your money. But was the film worth the hype?

Well, sort of. If you have to drag yourself out at midnight to some city an hour away from you to see this, I'd say wait. But the word is that the success of the screenings so far is getting the movie opened in a more conventional manner within a week or two. And if that comes to pass? Well, if you like horror movies, you're going to find something to like here.

The plot is straightfoward. A paranormal presence comes into the home where a young dating couple have moved in together. The woman has some history of the paranormal, and wants to leave well enough alone, but the man is intrigued and wants to better document everything that's happening. He goes out and buys a video camera to record what's happening in their house, and the film unfolds as the "edited footage" of what the couple shot.

Paranormal Activity is a mix of good and not quite good. Actually, the whole thing is certainly a cut above most fare in the genre these days, but the fact that the movie gets so many things right somehow calls more attention to the handful of things that aren't quite right. You want to get in there and tweak those last few things to make it a masterpiece.

In the plus column, the people involved with this film have a very firm grasp on what is scary. There are a lot of damn creepy ideas in the movie, presented very well. Most of the best sequences in the movie work slowly and generate suspense and tension, not relying on cheap tricks to merely startle the audience. And none of the moments in the film are about evoking revulsion, as the majority of the horror genre seems to be about these days. The big budget movies would do well to watch this movie and learn these lessons.

But on the other hand, they seem to know less about making a movie, in general. The plotting and pacing are a little bit off. There are about a dozen "incidents" in the film, and while they're all pretty good, I don't think they're in the right order. Things escalate a bit too quickly; one or two things that happen early in the film are too great to ignore, dismiss, or downplay. While the film does some quick lip service to explain why "just leaving the haunted house" won't solve their problems, it's hard to believe the couple wouldn't take more dramatic steps more early on, given some of the things that happen in the first act.

The film also doesn't quite have the right mix of characters. The man and woman at the center of it all are well drawn characters, and the actors have a solid rapport with one another. There's also a good side character, a psychic that appears in a couple of scenes to juice appropriate emotions. But then there's a "friend of the woman" character who barely drifts in for a scene or two and adds nothing to the proceedings. At the same time, you sense a lack of any other character in the man's life; some sort of "frat boy"-esque person egging him on to taunt the spirit in his house might have helped to better explain his motivations.

The documentary presentation of the movie both helps and hurts it at different times. There are moments where fantastic use is made of the simplistic presentation. The few special effects we see are all the more potent for not being part of a million dollar production. The performances feel quite real, like authentic home video footage.

But a few of the gags rely on loud noises in the house, and since everything tends to sound tinny and less forceful on a camcorder microphone, these moments don't land so well. Also, you do find yourself wanting to directly compare the film to The Blair Witch Project because of this similar presentation. (The tear-streaming monologue from Blair Witch may seem a cliché now, but it's incredibly potent in the context of the movie, and nothing here is quite so strong.)

I do think that you can bring more to this movie as a viewer, however, and in doing so get more out of it. I appreciated the things that were good about the film, but I can tell you that a lot of people in the audience were genuinely scared of this movie. There were lots of yelps, choked off gasps, and outright screams -- all throughout the movie. And it's been a long, long time since I've heard a crowd reaction in a theater like the one that accompanied that newly shot ending.

So, again -- if indeed you don't have to work so hard to see this movie a few weeks from now, I'd probably recommend it overall. I give it a B.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Climbing the Ladder

Jacob's Ladder has been swimming around me like an incredibly patient shark for 20 years. Though I had never seen this psychological thriller from director Adrian Lyne, I've been curious about it for a while.

In fact (and confessing this is going to underscore my geekiness -- not that it's a secret), the first time I ever attended a Star Trek convention, one of the buzzed-about attractions there was that they were going to be showing a bunch of footage from this movie, months ahead of its release. (This was back in 1990, where the "standing room only" event -- aside from the appearance of various actors -- was the screening of the brand new Star Trek: The Next Generation fourth season premiere, that would wrap up the epic "Best of Both Worlds" cliffhanger. Yikes.)

Anyway... Jacob's Ladder. It stars Tim Robbins as a Vietnam veteran trying to reassimilate (ha!) to regular life after the war. But he's haunted (literally, nearly) by strange events and terrifying figures that stalk him everywhere he goes. The movie also features a before-they-were-known Jason Alexander, Eriq La Salle, and Ving Rhames, as well as the I-guarantee-you'd-know-his-face (well, his eyes for damn sure) Pruitt Taylor Vince. Oh, and yes, that's Macaulay Culkin as the man's son, though he's not even credited on film.

The movie is more interested in delivering dynamic and even chilling visuals than it is in telling a coherent narrative. The story is deliberately not meant to make sense, and is supposed to lend itself to a guessing game of "this could be what's going on, or it could be that!" The problem is, the guessing game fails for me on two levels. To explain why, I'm going to have to talk a bit about the ending, so if you've never seen this movie and feel any inclination to do so, skip the next two paragraphs.

First, the movie lies to achieve its mystery. In the end, it's revealed that all the events we're witnessing are occuring only in the hero's mind as he's experience a final lucid dream before death. As such, nothing should occur inside the dream that he isn't personally there to witness; if he's not there, then it isn't happening. Instead, there are short scenes sprinkled into the film, mostly of his girlfriend (Elizabeth Peña) on her own. In one such scene, she takes cherished photos to burn them in an incinerator without his knowledge. This is of course completely impossible if it's his dream. This is purely a cheat to mislead the audience away from the true scenario. Shame on the writer for writing this material, and shame on the writer and director for not cutting it once it was filmed. It's not being true to the story.

Secondly, the film opens in Vietnam, and on-screen text actually informs you that we're in Vietnam and tells us the year. This is the only indication of time or place in the movie; even when we're back in the States what must be years later, no helpful on screen text tells us when and where we are now -- the audience is left to gather that contextually. Now, setting aside the fact that I just said this movie lies, the "on screen text" of a movie is always an objective sort of narrator that speaks the truth. And since the only time it appears in this movie is to tell us we're in Vietnam in 1972 -- well, then you know that must be the truth. Basically, I feel that the ending is spoiled in the first five seconds of the movie.

So, with the ending being rocky at best, all you're left with in this movie is the journey. And it's a mixed one. Visually, it's outstanding. Many later films were clearly inspired by different techniques that showed up here. The acting is good throughout, and Tim Robbins shines as he carries the film squarely on his shoulders. But there isn't really a plot. It's just a scrambled arrangement of weirdness that's not meant to be coherent. It's a macabre little picture book with few words.

Overall, I rate Jacob's Ladder a C+. I would guess that most people reading this who would like it have probably already seen it, so there's not really any recommendation for me to make here.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Missed Connection

I recently decided to up my "movie cred" a small notch by watching another film that won the Oscar for Best Picture: The French Connection. (It won in 1971.) But I was hugely disappointed. A lucky few movies hold up well over the years. Many more don't age well, but have a few elements that do still play decades down the road. But in my opinion, this movie is one that can only be praised in the context of the time and climate in which it was originally released.

The French Connection is a crime movie about New York cops (Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider) trying to track down the source of drug shipments coming into the city. It was a highly influential movie, and you can see and feel that long reach as you watch it.

This was the first time that such a gritty look at police work was presented. The real revolution here was that these cops are not good guys. They harass witnesses, beat informants, shoot suspects in the back. Ultimately, they're not much better than the criminals they're trying to catch. And nearly 40 years ago? Yeah, I can imagine that must have been really something to see.

The trouble is, this is all the norm for storytelling today. Revolutionary would be finding an all good cop in a movie or TV show. You could list dozens and dozens of fantastic things since The French Connection that presented this sort of story in amazing fashion. Hell, even a few things that in my opinion weren't all that great (say, movies like Narc or Traffic) still feel to me like they're covering this ground better.

The French Connection is also particularly well-known for a car chase sequence in the final act, where Gene Hackman must run a virtual demolition derby course to beat an elevated train to its next stop. Here again, one can imagine how in 1971, nobody had ever seen anything like this. But by my modern, jaded standards, it just doesn't hold up. For a chase sequence, the pace feels a bit slow. The speeds don't feel very dangerous. There's no exhiliration. And yet, you can see in the choices of certain "gags" during the chase, and in specific camera angles shown, that this movie inspired countless others to follow, including those still made today.

Intellectually, I totally understand why this movie is considered one of the greats. I understand even more why it was honored in its time. But emotionally, as an audience watching it today, I was bored almost from beginning to end. I wanted to like it, but I just plain didn't. I rate The French Connection a D-.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Get Set

On a friend's recommendation, I recently checked ou the movie The TV Set. I have no idea how he found out about the movie; it played at a couple of film festivals a few years ago, received no wide theatrical release, and was unceremoniously dumped on home video a short while later.

But it is a bit of a mystery to me how that could have happened. It has an easily explainable and interesting plot: it's the story of a television writer sturggling to get his series pilot made without compromising his vision. It had the backing of some big names, including as a producer Judd Apatow (whom you could easily imagine lived many of the events in this film).

It also had a few fairly big names in the cast. David Duchovny stars as the writer. Sigourney Weaver is a powerhouse TV executive putting him through hell. And you'll also see Ioan Gruffudd as a BBC Television transplant trying to switch to American television, Judy Greer as the writer's agent, Justine Bateman as the writer's pregnant wife, and Dollhouse's Fran Kranz as an actor cast for the television series.

When you get down to it, it's a pretty good movie. The performances in particular really make it work. David Duchovny deadpans in the manner of the best comedic episodes of The X-Files. Sigourney Weaver is just perfect as a ball-busting exec with her life's priorities completely out of whack, beholden only to what will sell. And Fran Kranz is perhaps the best of all; he shifts effortlessly between good acting and intentionally bad acting in some of the best and funniest scenes in the movie.

Perhaps the movie was considered a little too "insider" for a wide release. There is a lot of "Hollywood" material in it. But ultimately, it's just a look at what happens when "creatives" clash with "executives," and can really apply to a lot of other jobs outside of television. Okay, it's not a fantastic movie, because you can probably imagine most of what there is to say on that subject yourself, but this is a funny movie that deserved better. I rate it a B-.