Monday, November 30, 2009

Turn On the Heat

When I sat down to watch the film Body Heat recently, I didn't realize just how many films were directly inspired by it. I mean, I've heard about the film here and there before -- that's basically what made me decide to watch it. But I'd never really heard it talked about as an influential film.

But there it was, a movie that just as many subsequent films tried to imitate as any conventionally praised classic. You could almost call it the Citizen Kane of "sexy thrillers." I could recognize elements later used in Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct, and countless others, all appearing earlier in this film from 1981.

Not that Body Heat was a masterpiece or anything. A lot of the dialogue was ham-fisted, awkward, or just plain silly. The plot was predictable every step of the way (perhaps in part due to how oft-imitated it's been). Some of the performances from actors in secondary roles -- such as Ted Danson's horny prosecuting attorney -- are too outrageous to be believable.

But a lot of the movie does work. There's something very authentically film noir about the entire piece; and that being a genre I've typically not much enjoyed, the fact that I found anything to like here should be taken as high praise. That predictable plot I mentioned manages also to be engaging. And the lead performances from William Hurt and Kathleen Turner really are excellent. They have an undeniable chemistry together, and each also presents an interesting individual character.

Some call this movie one of the "sexiest ever made." I'm not sure I'd go that far, though I'll admit the first act is borderline porno (certainly for a mass market movie of the time), just with more plot and less explicit photography. But it settles into something deeper as it goes on to tell a story of intrigue and conspiracy that did keep me entertained. I rate it a B-.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Bigger is Better?

I saw this ad in a magazine I was reading. It's for Stephen King's newest book, Under the Dome.

I found it curious that the selling point they chose to go with was "His biggest book since The Stand." As though "it's really long" is going to be a big attraction to most people. Could they not find any reviewer to offer a quote that it was maybe his best book since The Stand? Now that might be something to talk about. (Maybe. The end of The Stand really sucked.)

Come, read this new book! And afterward, you can sit your toddler on it to eat at the grown-ups' table!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Children and Animals

Generally speaking, nobody does animated movies as well as Pixar. But I'd heard that Bolt (whose development began before Disney officially purchased Pixar) came about as close as it can. And given that I was a little muted in my enthusiasm for Pixar's Cars, I'd say that yes, it's true -- Bolt is a movie that does just manage to get as good as at least the worst Pixar film, anyway.

Damning with faint praise, I know, but that was the basic feeling I had watching the movie. It wasn't bad. It was entertaining at times. But there were also little flaws strewn about here and there that as a sum subtracted from the whole.

Some of the animation was fantastic; other times it was a bit statue-like and stilted. The backgrounds often felt a little weak -- it's still hard for CG to replicate a real environment that one knows well, and for example, the scenes set in New York and Las Vegas were too real to be stylized, but too fake to be credible.

There's great voice work in the movie from Susie Essman, Malcolm McDowell, Greg Germann, Diedrich Bader, and animator Mark Walton (voicing the hamster Rhino). But they're mostly secondary roles. The movie is carried by John Travolta and Miley Cyrus, who are both merely alright.

The story feels a bit dumbed down somehow, playing to an audience of children in a way I feel Pixar films never do. And yet, it's not like it's a dull or uninteresting story. It's just too light to really pack much of a punch. But there are more than a few decent laughs, and overall the movie does hit all the beats it should, even if you'd wish it to sometimes do so more effectively.

I'd rate Bolt a B-. It's not a bad way to spend 90 minutes, but I'm also glad I don't have a child who wants to watch it twelve times a week.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Artistic Differences

I have never cared one bit for modern artist Jackson Pollock. (A sample of the style he is best known for is displayed there at the right, which you can click to enlarge if you choose.) But I am a fan of Ed Harris, both as an actor and a director. Having liked his only other directorial effort, Appaloosa, I decided to try his earlier film, Pollock, despite my dislike of the subject matter.

I would never have thought it possible, but seeing the movie made me like Jackson Pollock even less. The movie wants to paint the picture (pun not intended) of the man as some sort of tortured genius, but convinced me no more of his genius than I (dis)believed before, and seemed to show that most of the torture was of his own making.

Jackson Pollock did struggle somewhat to get going, but it's not like he was unappreciated in his time. He hit it big and enjoyed many years both wealthy and famous. He didn't have to fight in World War II. He met and married a woman who completely supported him in all his artistic efforts, and was a painter herself and could understand and appreciate the man's work.

And, of course, he became famous when he decided to start hanging his drop cloths on the wall. (A discovery which the film doesn't really praise for being any more than the accident it surely was.) So while he was poor for a few years -- at a time when many people were -- he lived a relatively charmed life.

But he was still a morose and unhappy drunkard who whined about being unappreciated, bemoaned having any other artists other than himself held in any critical esteem, and was a generally unlikeable fellow.

So, on the one hand, I suppose you can praise Ed Harris the director for leading Ed Harris the actor in a warts-and-all performance that doesn't really make the character very sympathetic. But it doesn't make it understandable either, and there is the first of many faults I lay with the script.

The script really just made me ask, what's the point? If you're interesting in art history, you could read a biography of Jackson Pollock. I didn't find this story to present anything worthy of dramatizing it. Really, it doesn't actually dramatize it at all. It's a rather dry biography of events over a 15 year period of the man's life, and doesn't seem to take any point of view on it at all that I could discern. It was just a narrator and a few inserted still photographs shy of being a documentary; it was certainly as dry as a bad one.

Along with Ed Harris' emotional performance, Marcia Gay Harden does strong work as Pollock's wife. Several other recognizable actors pop up for very minor roles, including Jennifer Connelly, Val Kilmer, Amy Madigan, and Jeffrey Tambor. But while I believe from the intensity of their performances (and often, the volume of their yelling) that they are really feeling something, they didn't make me feel anything but boredom. Again, that awful dry script just wasn't giving them anything to work with.

I find it peculiar that Ed Harris chose this of all things to be his directorial debut. And I wonder if that had anything to do with the eight years that passed before he'd direct another film. This was just a text book case of many talented people working tirelessly to try and squeeze blood from a stone. I rate it a D-.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving to my American readers. Among the things I'm thankful for is that this didn't happen to me: a Belgian man spent 23 years unable to move, misdiagnosed as being in a comatose, vegetative state. In actuality, he was aware of everything going on around him for the entire time.

Perhaps it's a lack of imagination on my part, but I can't imagine much worse than this. In fact, isn't this the premise of some horror short story or something? I think I remember some Stephen King something-or-other about a paralyzed man being autopsied while he was still alive. Okay, so no one started cutting on this poor Belgian man, but still... conscious for 23 years and completely unable to interact with the world? Yeah, that's hell right there.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

This Movie Stinks

At work recently, a friend with whom I frequently discuss movies says to me, "I've got something for you to check out -- it's called Perfume." (He went on to clarify that of the multiple movies titled Perfume, he meant the one subtitled "The Story of a Murderer.") But he was a bit cagey about the recommendation. "I don't really want to tell you what it's about, you should just see it."

Well, that friend has had a bit of a checkered past recommending movies to me, but lately he's been on a bit of a hot streak, so I decided to take the plunge with no further information.

I'm not sure it was necessary to be that vague about the subject of the movie, but similarly, I don't want to reveal to much to you, if you're inclined after reading this to check the movie out yourself. I'll simply say that it's a story set in France several hundred years ago, following a strange man born with a supernaturally acute sense of smell. And he ends up embarking on a dark and twisted journey in an effort to learn how to permanently capture and preserve a scent.

The star of the movie is an actor named Ben Whishaw, whom you probably don't know. But the movie is sprinkled with a few familiar faces you surely will, including Dustin Hoffman and Alan Rickman. While there is definitely a specific plot to the film, the emphasis is really more on drawing sharp, defined characters -- even if most of them (all of them?) aren't really likable or even relatable.

It's directed by Tom Tykwer, most famous for making Run, Lola, Run. Here he takes on a unique challenge in trying to give a powerful portrayal to one of the five senses that is not literally captured on film -- smell. The results aren't always completely successful, but there are some inspired moments of dreamscape-like environments, and others of unusual camera techniques, designed to convey the powerful sensations that can be aroused by smell.

While the plot is interesting, the film does tend to linger a bit too long in each "chapter" of the story. A somewhat tighter pacing might have helped keep the audience from anticipating the story. Still, I found it a very enjoyable piece overall. I rate it a B. If you don't mind some truly dark material in your entertainment, you'd probably find it worth your time.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Birthd-eye

Happy birthday to me! Guess what I got for my birthday this year?

Astigmatism!

I don't go to the doctor too much. I'm a complete wuss about medical stuff. Throw all the fake movie gore on the screen you want, but it doesn't take much in real life to get me all dizzy and light-headed. It has nothing to do with the actual doctor or fear of the profession; I just can't take medical procedure. Even the basic stuff. I once got light-headed when someone took my blood pressure.

Anyway, in the last couple of months or so, I'd really begun to notice that my vision at far distances just didn't seem to be what it used to. Last time I'd been checked (an embarassingly long time ago), I had better than average vision, so I was really feeling a bit disoriented at the sense of image "ghosting" I was feeling at distances -- particularly at night.

So I started poking around with some friends, asking if they'd recommend their eye doctor. It was a little bit of a hard sell in a few cases, trying to convince people that I really thought there might be something wrong with my eyes when I was complaining about not being able to read things at distances that had them saying things like "I just got my prescription filled two weeks ago, and I can't read that." But I finally decided to go with Shocho's recommendation, and got checked out yesterday.

It was a little touch and go there for a bit. Even though the doctor was really great, wasn't doing anything serious, and I completely understood that 100% on an intellectual level, my strange reaction kicked in and we had to have a couple moments of "I need to just lie down for a minute." But when we were all done, the verdict was in: I'm slightly near-sighted, and have a slight astigmatism.

So my one-day-early birthday present to myself was my first pair of glasses. The theory is they're not "all the time" glasses, but then the doctor said I'm meant to use them for things like nighttime driving and going to the movies, and if he knew me as well as some of you here do, he'd know that could well be most of the time. (grin)

Those of you who have had glasses for a while may not be able to recall or appreciate what a truly surreal experience it is buying your first pair of glasses. How do you even begin to know what you like? I must have tried on a hundred pairs and drove the nice woman at the doctor's office completely batty.

The extra funny bit of it was that I ended up going with the very first pair I tried on. When I came back from the exam room, this woman tells me that she likes to think ahead about what sorts of glasses might look on people, "just in case," and that she was thinking about this one for me. And she was right on the money, because though I put on virtually every set of glasses in the place, each one was worse than the last.

Of course, with Thanksgiving chewing up half the week here, I have to wait a little extra time before I actually get my new glasses. And it's funny how that's already having a subtle little impact on the way I'm thinking about things. I was driving home late last night, and thinking that somehow things at a distance were looking even a little less crisp that just the day before. I'd been thinking about going to see a movie this weekend, but now a little part of me is going... "meh, maybe I'll just stay home and watch a DVD instead."

All over what I'm sure many of you would think was barely noticeable. What can I say... you just get used to seeing things a particular way. And I'd like it back, thank you.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Rating Places

Figuring that I would need something lighter after In the Valley of Elah, I decided to check out Trading Places -- an 80s comedy that had somehow slid through the cracks. As one of my friends put it, it's a movie from back in the days when "those two guys were funny."

The guys in question, of course, being stars Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy. They star as a pampered rich brat and struggling homeless man who become the object of a bet by two old, stingy curmudgeons who want to determine if financial success is a result of breeding and genetics, or of simple circumstance and social advantage. They contrive to do exactly what the title suggests, ruining the life of Aykroyd's character and elevating Murphy's into high status.

It is a funny movie at times, but it rarely produces any laugh out loud moments. Still, that's more a weakness of the script that the actors, I think. This sort of "I know more than you" pompous ass is what Dan Aykroyd did best at this point in time, and Eddie Murphy's brand of comedy (in my opinion) works a lot better when he's sharing the movie with someone else -- all Eddie all the time wears you down pretty quickly.

There's also the always funny character actor Denholm Elliott as a put-upon butler, Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche as the two gambling with people's lives, and Jamie Lee Curtis as a self-enterprising prostitute who becomes an ally of Aykroyd's character. They bring more to the film than is there on the page... which frankly isn't much on its own.

Indeed, the "swapped places" gimmick is exhausted almost immediately, and the movie even resolves it by the end of the second act. The final act is an elaborate revenge scheme full of strange diversions both boggling (what's with the whole gorilla subplot?) and crass (was society still accepting of blackface in 1983 in any context other than historical portrayal or "this is not okay"?). The conclusion throws away logic in favor of a feel-good resolution, and erodes a good deal of what made the movie enjoyable for the first hour and change.

It's not a total bust, but neither would I call it a high point of either Aykroyd or Murphy's career, as I've sometimes heard. I'd rate it a C+.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Elah Review

I've had In the Valley of Elah on my "Netflix stack" for over a week now, but I've been putting off watching it until I was in the right mood. I was warned by a friend that after seeing it, "you'll need a hug." It took until today for me to decide to embrace a movie that was that much of a downer.

It turns out it's probably not that grim -- but it's certainly a long way from anything nice. It's the story of the father of a soldier who has come back from a tour of duty in Iraq and has gone missing from his army base. The father, played by Tommy Lee Jones, was a soldier himself many years ago, and sets out on a parental crusade to find out what happened to his son.

More than the specifics of the plot, the movie is really an anti-war movie, in that it shows the psychological toll on soldiers after they return from the battlefield. But to the detriment of the film, I think it really only "bookends" the two hours with this message. The movie starts strong, and ends very strong with the points it wants to make.

In the middle, however, it sort of loses its way -- at least, thematically. The lion's share of the movie is really just a version of a TV crime procedural drama, a mostly plot-driven affair that follows the father as he investigates the fate of his son. The message usually gets set aside in favor of a straight-up telling of the tale.

But it is at least interesting the whole time, and that's thanks largely to the quality cast. Charlize Theron and Jason Patric play key roles; Susan Sarandon appears as the missing soldier's mother; James Franco and Josh Brolin appear in what amount to cameo roles -- but both are effective. They're all led by director Paul Haggis, who helped the characters of the labyrinthine movie Crash pop, and he does the same here. They're sometimes just relegated to walking us through the evidence, but they do have personalities.

Ultimately, the movie does get to a good place, and is worth seeing overall. But I would have wished for it to be a little more even throughout. I rate it a B-.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Eggo Maniacal

Have you heard about the nationwide shortage of Eggo frozen waffles? Basically, a perfect storm of calamities has made it so that Eggo's are expected to be in short supply until well into 2010.

To me, the goofiest thing about this is how hearing this news has made me actually have a small but growing craving for the things. I mean, I have a waffle iron. Making them is not that much trouble at all. And Eggo's really don't taste all that phenomenal. But I'm suddenly going, "man, I could really go for an Eggo right now."

You could almost think it's some kind of conspiracy on the part of Kellogg's to get free publicity... except of course that they don't earn anything off the $50 a box Eggo auctions that people are trying to run on eBay now.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Game of Political Chicken

Don't you just hate it when a giant chicken crashes your City Council meeting? Well, actually, the City Council in Durango, Colorado thought it was kind of funny.

The choice sentence in this article that makes it all come together for me: "Several minutes later, the chicken left -- without being identified -- after laying an egg on the floor." It's this perfect blend of treating the guy like an actual chicken (saying it actually laid an egg) and like a man in a chicken suit (suggesting that it even could be identified).

But the real subtle joke here is even though this happened here in Colorado, the TV news station that posted this on their web site is in Tampa Bay, Florida. So, how little must there be going on in Tampa Bay that they have to import their "lighter side" stories?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Giving New Meaning to a Large Straight

I didn't get what I was expecting from the article titled "Pittsburgh Police Want To See Junk In Your Trunk."

Fortunately, "'Strip Yahtzee' game leads to Muncie woman's arrest" delivered. Though we may need a ruling from the judges on whether Yahtzee (of the regular or strip variety) counts as a board game, given its lack of a board.

Or, some might argue, a game.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

For the Love of Bacon

First, there was Baconnaise. (As Jon Stewart said on The Daily Show, you'll feel like your "tongue just took a shit.")

Now the same minds are bringing you Mmmvelopes. Lick the envelope, get the taste of bacon.

At this point, you either think the J & D's is an embodiment of true evil on planet Earth... or true good. I think we're on course for the battle lines in the apocalypse to be drawn over bacon.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Revolutionary Thoughts

Early this year, when the 2008 Oscar nominations were announced, I remarked that I'd actually seen all five Best Picture nominees. Tonight, I watched what might have been number six.

At the time, there was a lot of buzz around Revolutionary Road, a 1950s period piece based on a novel. It's a story of suburban hopelessness, of feeling stifled in the pressure to conform to expected life. I know, it sounds like a movie about "arranging matches." It even looks like that in the trailer. But the movie manages to exceed expectations there.

That has a lot to do with the people making it. It's directed by Sam Mendes (who I recently mentioned in relation to Away We Go), and stars his wife Kate Winslet. The movie was also much-talked about as the "Titanic reunion." Playing Winslet's film husband is Leonardo DiCaprio. Kathy Bates also puts in a supporting appearance.

Together, these people (and the other fine members of the supporting cast) manage to make some of the art house movie clich├ęs more compelling. There are scenes of restrained emotion that pull you forward in your seat, scenes of outburst than make you recoil, and through it all a real sense that you can read the thoughts of the characters even when they won't speak them to each other or even sometimes admit them to themselves.

One of the things that makes the story more interesting is that it's not all misery and frustration throughout. The couple is actually happy at times, but the premise of the film seems to be that of The Godfather Part III, substituting suburbia for the Mafia: "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in."

All that said, the movie isn't quick paced at all times. And its final destination is not really unexpected. The movie is good overall, but not fantastic. It's not perfect in really making the audience feel things emotionally; it's more the sort of movie where you simply admire the craft: well-tuned performances, well-chosen frame composition, carefully positioned bits of writing, and so on.

I'd rate Revolutionary Road a B-. I'd say it's probably worth seeing, but if you're looking for a more effective, emotional take on largely the same kind of material, I'd point you to Season Two of Mad Men first.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Lorenzo von Matterhorn

How I Met Your Mother once again went all 'net on us tonight with Barney's pick-up scheme, the "Lorenzo von Matterhorn." Plenty of small web sites were set up by the show to support Barney's scam, con, hustle, hoodwink, gambit, stratagem, bamboozle, flim-flam.

There's the Balloon Explorer's Club.

The Big Business Journal.

His musical act made up of stray puppies, Dog Stevens.

His article in Extremities Quarterly.

In all, it was the biggest net tie-in yet for the show. There was even a Wikipedia entry for Lorenzo von Matterhorn, in place several weeks before the airing of the episode, but now unfortunately in dispute because the factinistas don't appreciate this sort of thing.

It was, as we expect of Barney Stinson, legend... wait for it...

dary.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Palazzo What

It had been a while since the last time, but this weekend I got to play the game Palazzo again. It's a kind of a "medium-thinky" strategy game from German designer Reiner Knizia (and #2 in Alea games "medium box" series).

In the game, you acquire tiles that represent different floors of multi-story buildings. Each level has one to three windows, and can be made from one of three materials. They also are numbered by which level of the building they are, and as you acquire tiles and construct them, you're allowed to skip numbers, but must still build upward in ascending order. Your goal is to build the best buildings you can; higher points are awarded for being taller, having more windows, and being built of the same material throughout.

It's fairly straight-forward, though the way you acquire tiles gives the game its best dynamics. It's an interesting mix of auction and purchasing that makes you manage money of three different colors. Luck can play a role in it, but there's enough room for interesting strategic maneuvering.

I've enjoyed the game in the past, and this recent play was no exception. Still, at the same time, I think there's a reason it doesn't come to the game table more frequently. I personally just prefer my games to be a little more involved, a little more demanding. Palazzo is clever in places, but ultimately not very deep, nor are there really any different strategies to pursue in re-plays.

It's a good game if you're looking for something quick and not overly deep. In fact, it might well be a decent "gateway" game to bring new people into the whole German board game thing. It's not the best of that Alea "medium box" series, but it's also not the worst. It is overall a pretty good option for a simple...ish half hour game.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Butter Me Up

For a while now, I've been deliberately avoiding the movie The Butterfly Effect. While it sounded possibly interesting on the face of it, it also sounded like it had a lot of potential to be just plain stupid. And with the main star being Ashton Kutcher, the latter scenario just seemed more likely than the former.

Lately, though, a few people (independently of one another) gave me cautious endorsements of the movie and suggested I might want to check it out. The sort of consensus seemed to be "it's not great, but it's better than you probably think it is." And it finally all wore me down enough to give the movie a try.

That group consensus was basically right on the money. The movie is not great, but it was better than I thought it would be. If you don't know the premise, it's the story of a kid who experiences blackouts as he's growing up. Critical moments of his life, he "skips over" and can't remember what happened to him. But he does get past them and ultimately... well, grows up into Ashton Kutcher. At this point, he discovers that he has the ability to send his consciousness back in time to the moments of those childhood blackouts. At first, it just seems a vehicle to recover his lost memories. But soon, he finds out that he can change his present reality by the actions he takes when he travels back to the past. But the changes he tries to make for the better have unexpected and unfortunate consequences.

I spend a lot of time detailing the plot because that's the real meat of this movie. You might argue about how successfully it's executed, but the core idea of this movie is actually pretty cool. Sure, we've all heard the "butterfly flaps its wings halfway around the world" saying before, but this movie has a very interesting way of treating that. The idea of the blackouts as focus points at which to affect major change is solid, and it's often clever to see later in the movie what sorts of actions by the "future protagonist" explain the situations we found "past protagonist" wake up in after his blackouts in the first act.

I was also a fan of the ending -- but I should specify that I watched the "Director's Cut," which as I understand has a significantly altered ending from the theatrical version. this ending skirts right up against the line of "oh, come on!" But at the same time, it ends the story in the only real way I feel it could end. (I don't really care to see the theatrical ending now.) I really can't explain any more without giving anything away to those who haven't seen it, so I'll just leave it there. Bottom line, this script is a strong piece of writing. There's good craftsmanship there that the writer in me appreciates.

And yet, at the same time, the script is far from perfect. Some of the particular scenes hit the "unexpected consequences" element a little too on the nose. A lot of the dialogue is silly. Many of the characters are pretty cardboard. In short, the same effort that went into crafting the plot was not put into the other aspects of the writing.

The performances, by and large, are neither great not bad -- though if you count Ashton Kutcher as being a good actor for only occasionally coming off like Ashton Kutcher, then I suppose you'd have to say he was pretty good.

I suppose overall, this is movie with a few really fantastic elements... and the rest of which falls far short. It makes me wish that more care had been taken with the movie; I think it maybe had the potential to have been a real modern sci-fi classic, a Dark City or Gattaca or such. As it is, it's a long way from such a masterpiece, but still probably worth seeing. I rate it a B-.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Spiders on a Plane

Some man was trying to make real life sequel to Snakes on a Plane -- a man was arrested this week for attempting to smuggle 1,000 live spiders onto an airplane in his carry-on luggage. (Warning! Ugly spider picture if you click that link!)

I'm fairly sure that being an airport security screener is already a pretty tough job as it is. You've got infrequent travelers who don't know basic stuff about getting through airport security quickly, people impatient because they're running late, people yelling at you for things that aren't up to you. I'm damn sure that's a job that doesn't need "risk of coming into contact with 1,000 live spiders" added to its list of occupational hazards. If I was the one looking on that x-ray screening monitor as those suitcases rolled through, I think I'd have jumped out of my seat screaming.

Hell, I'm not even sure I want to fly myself any time soon after hearing this story. Plane full of spiders and I'm turning into B.A. from The A-Team: "I ain't gettin' on no spider plane!"

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Almost Good

I suppose between Say Anything and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, I've been on a little bit of a Cameron Crowe kick lately. This week, I kept the trend rolling by checking out Almost Famous, his film about a high school student in the 70s who becomes a journalist for Rolling Stone magazine as he follows a fictitious Led Zeppelin-esque band, Stillwater.

It's a semi-autobiographical movie; hell, let's say "mostly" autobiographical movie, as that's exactly what Crowe's first writing job was (and he continues to contribute the occasional article to the magazine today). Because of this, it's also at times a rather self-indulgent movie. The movie doesn't ultimately have much to say, it's really just a presentation of "here's how it was." It's not documentary, but it does feel distant and removed like many documentaries; it doesn't offer any perspective on events, or suggest how the audience should feel about any of it.

The movie does boast a good cast, though. Patrick Fugit plays the young kid, with Frances McDormand as his mother and Zooey Deschanel as his sister. Among the members of the band Stillwater are Billy Crudup and Jason Lee. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Anna Paquin, and Jimmy Fallon show up in minor roles. And then, of course, there's the literal poster girl of the movie, supreme band fan Kate Hudson, in a part for which she received an Oscar nomination.

The performances are pretty good. They do help you engage in the movie. Certainly, the characters are interesting to watch. But for the most part, they really aren't given any material more demanding or profound than "sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll" to portray, so I found myself merely entertained, not moved.

There are moments worth smiling at, and the movie never really drags. Still, I think it all could have benefited from a little more fiction and a little less reality. The wild behavior just doesn't seem that wild by today's standards, and does not in and of itself add up to a story worth telling.

Perhaps someone who was actually around at the time might better appreciate the movie as a love letter to 70s rock. But I think that even then, a better investment of time and money would be for this movie's soundtrack album, which works on a level I think many more of us can appreciate. The movie itself, I grade a C+.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

It Fell Asleep... For More Than a Little While

Well, the news came today that nearly everyone who would care about has suspected was coming for a while now: Joss Whedon's TV series Dollhouse has been canceled by FOX. I must say I'm sort of torn about this in a number of ways.

First, I considered it something of a major miracle that the show even got picked up for a second season after the rather lackluster ratings of the first season. It already felt to me like the show was living on borrowed time as it was -- these extra 13 episodes really were unexpected.

On the other hand, though FOX might have shown a little more patience than usual with the series, it at the same time never really gave it much of a chance. Dollhouse was stuck on Friday night from day one, always paired with a weak lead-in, and seldom promoted. There was never really a good faith effort made to get the show to succeed.

But on my mind more than any of that is this: Dollhouse honestly was not that great a show. Oh, it certainly still had moments of brilliance -- the most recent being the last episode that aired just a few weeks ago before the series was benched for November sweeps. But overall, of Joss' four TV series (Buffy, Angel, Firefly, and Dollhouse), this show was a distant fourth. At its worst, not all bad; at its best, better than many things on television; yet still a shadow of Joss' past works.

Between the lack of surprise here and my lower sense of investment, this just isn't the sucker punch I felt years ago over the loss of Firefly. I'm not going to be hoping that Joss finds a movie studio to let him make a Dollhouse movie two years from now.

In fact, I'm really hoping there will be more upsides here in the long run. This could free Joss Whedon to go on and do other things. Maybe another TV series that's better than Dollhouse. Maybe a TV series on a cable network, where the sorts of rating he pulls would be enough to be successful. Maybe just a sequel to Dr. Horrible. Who knows?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

New Zealand Cheese Heist

Here's another silly-vague news story that caught my attention. This time it was for two words I never would have thought to see together outside of a Wallace & Gromit plot: cheese heist.

What few facts there are in the story certainly lend themselves to some kind of grand clay-animated adventure. As the couple fled in their getaway car, they were "throwing blocks of cheese out the window as they went." I get all kinds of awesome visuals of a high-speed chase, blocks of cheese flying, cars narrowly avoiding them!

I know it can't quite be reality, because police said "it was believed passers-by had helped themselves to cheese blocks found by the roadside." I don't think I could just eat some strange cheese I found on the side of the road!

Monday, November 09, 2009

Corpse of Christie's

Can a mystery movie be enjoyable even when you know the "solution" beforehand? That's the question I set out to answer when I popped Murder on the Orient Express into my DVD player.

This is the 1974 adaptation of Agatha Christie's classic novel, featuring her famous detective, Hercule Poirot. The movie carried a similarly elite pedigree. It was directed by Sidney Lumet, and boasted an all-star cast including Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman (who, oddly, won an Oscar for her role here), Jacqueline Bisset, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, and Michael York.

It all seemed to me a worthwhile endeavor, even though the solution to the Orient Express mystery is fairly widely known -- including to me. (If you somehow happen not to know, consider yourself lucky. And keep reading. I won't be revealing anything here.)

It turns out that operating on a higher level than the particulars of the mystery itself were the members of that exceptional cast. It's an incredibly character driven piece, and many of them get their moments to shine. Albert Finney is especially good as the lead detective; if there was one acting Oscar destined to be handed out for this movie, it should have gone to him. It's a grand performance, strangely quirky while somehow simultaneously credible.

But the adaptation felt a little long-winded and awkward at times, particularly in the opening act. A long 20 minutes passes before the train even departs, much of that spent on a long series of bad introductions to the characters. While I appreciate the necessity of setting up the suspects before the movie begins in earnest, little is done to distinguish one character from another; they all march in across a crowded platform as spoiled rich people looking down on the desperate locals. If so many of the characters weren't embodied by recognizable actors, you'd have a hard time telling them apart until Poirot's questioning of them begins in the second act.

But that second act is quite well done. The movie could easily have become bogged down in an hour of one interrogation scene after another, but director Lumet keeps the pace tight. It only lags again at the end, when the group is all assembled for the revelation of the mystery. And perhaps that only seemed to slow down to me because of my knowledge of what that revelation would be. I must confess, the eerie blue lighting used in the scene where we actually see the murder being committed is effective and unsettling.

Overall, I'd take the high and low marks of the film and average them out to a place that just creeps above the line for a B-. Perhaps it would be better still to read the original novel itself, but watching this film adaptation isn't too bad either.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Way In

I missed it when it was in theaters earlier this year, but on DVD I had the chance to catch the movie Away We Go. It's an independent movie about a couple expecting their first child, planning to relocate and sort of "re-start their lives." Over the course of the movie, they survey a number of cities where they have minor connections with distant family or old friends, looking for the right place to resettle. It's one of those comedies with a light touch, and a bit of heart.

The people involved were the main factor in my interest to see the movie. It's directed by Sam Mendes, the man behind American Beauty (which I loved) and Jarhead (which I mostly didn't). As it turns out, he's fairly hands off here. There's nothing showy in the staging or camera work. He gets some good performances from the cast (the mark of the best directors, in my book), but leaves no real stamp that would tell you this was a "Sam Mendes movie."

The movie stars John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph as the couple. The two have a fun relationship on the page, and the actors have a good rapport with one another to bring that to the screen. They're fun to watch, sweet together, and easy to root for. The humor they bring is quiter and more contained than some of the crazy characters they encounter throughout the film, and they keep it well grounded.

As for those crazy characters, they're played by a wide variety of faces both familiar and unfamiliar. A lot of people turned out just for a single scene. It starts with Catherine O'Hara and Jeff Daniels (as John Krasinski's parents), and includes among the friends (in wild and outrageous roles) Allison Janney and Maggie Gyllenhaal. Not every scene in the movie is laugh out loud funny, though there are moments.

But most of them come in the first half of the film. As it rolls on, the movie tries to turn the dial more from funny to sweet. It doesn't "ruin" things, but I did feel as though the balance was correct in the first place and should not have been messed with. The sentiments in the final act don't feel as genuine as the laughs in the first act. The movie gets somewhere "nice," but nowhere really profound.

If you like any of the actors I've mentioned, then you probably will want to check out Away We Go. It is a bit of a mixed bag, but one that tips toward good. I rate it a B-.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Inventive

I found a new (to me) web site great for wasting time: Patently Silly. It's a regular blog of goofy patent applications that the people running the place have dug up.

You can see the USB Drive shaped like a crucifix. Because Jesus saves.

Or the Solo-Operable Seesaw. For children with no friends.

The Incinerating Commode. Use very carefully.

Or, my favorite, the Method and Device for Recognition of a Collision with a Pedestrian. I think people who hit so much stuff while they're driving that they need such a device really ought not to be driving.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Up Stares, Down Stares

This evening, I went to see the new movie The Men Who Stare At Goats. It's a partial adaptation of a book of the same title, about various U.S. military programs that pursued the development of psychic powers in soldiers.

As the movie states in it's opening, "More of this is true than you would believe."

Be that as it may, the movie could have stood to be even more ridiculous... or more serious... or more something. It tries at times to make serious commentary about U.S. military practices. It tries at other times to be purely funny and whimsical. It tries at still other times to be just plain outrageous. And it actually doesn't fail at any of these things.

But it never really scores any major successes. As commentary, it's never biting enough. As comedy, the jokes are sometimes few and far between. As farce, the movie tries too carefully to walk the line of whether or not the main soldier, played by George Clooney, can actually do any of the things he claims.

It is a pretty good cast, though. In addition to Clooney as head loon, Jeff Bridges appears as the soldier-gone-hippie-gone-soldier that begins the psychic program. Kevin Spacey is a bit underdeveloped as the villain of the piece that envisions more nefarious uses for the program, but is good for a few laughs.

The real standout of the cast is Ewan McGregor as the reporter whose own personal desperation and uncertainty puts him in just the right state to investigate this outrageous subject and find out if there's any truth in it. Still, the movie downplays his personal journey more than it should on the dramatic side. And on the comedy side, it too often uses his presence as a crutch, knowing that because of his career, the audience is going to giggle every time he says the word "Jedi." (Which he does about a hundred times.)

Ultimately, it's not a bad movie, but it is a somewhat unfocused movie that turned out well shy of its potential. I rate it a C+.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Turn Left at the Fork in the Road

I'd be a little more impressed with this if The Muppet Movie hadn't gotten to this joke thirty years earlier.

In other news, The Muppet Movie is over 30 years old. Sniff. That probably means you could show it to the typical 10-or-under child today, and he or she would recognize hardly any of the stars that cameo in it.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Vncertainty

So, last night was the debut of the updated version of the series V. I did watch it, but decided not to comment last night, as I wanted a short time to roll it around in my head to try and develop a more solid opinion of it. Twenty-four hours later, I'm still not sure what I feel about it, so I'm just gonna plow ahead anyway.

It wasn't bad. It wasn't great either, but it wasn't bad. I think maybe I was expecting worse, given the stories of the rather troubled development the series has had behind the scenes. Before the first episode had ever aired, ABC had announced the decision to only run it four weeks before benching it until after the Winter Olympics had come and gone -- hardly a vote of confidence.

Then yesterday, the very day of the premiere, word came that co-creator Scott Peters (one of the writers behind the "hey, I kinda liked that show" The 4400) was no longer in charge of running the show. Whether he quit or was fired was unclear, but head writers rarely leave shows unless either they or the network (or both) are profoundly unhappy with the direction the series is taking.

But then, like I said, it wasn't bad. Still, I'm a bit skeptical. Part of what made the original series tick was the whole journey of discovery that the Visitors were not the benevolent people they pretended to be. In a remake, all that surprise is out the window. And the way the writers chose to address that issue is to just go straight for it. By the end of the first hour, half the main characters know that something sinister is up with the Visitors. It remains to be seen whether this will be a way to deliver suspense in lieu of surprise.

It's also hard to judge the first hour, simply because much of it was just putting pieces into place, positioning versions of characters largely in places also familiar to people who watched the first incarnation of V. Like the updated Battlestar Galactica, a few new characters have some twists (including gender swaps), but most of the raw building blocks are the same. Hard to judge this new series until we see more of what it has to offer that will be different.

But the acting was very good. V is loaded with fine performers from all sorts of other "genre" shows, all doing work here as good as the shows we already know them for. You've got Elizabeth Mitchell from Lost, Joel Gretsch from The 4400, Lourdes Benedicto and Scott Wolf from The Nine, and of course Morena Baccarin and Alan Tudyk from Firefly. Hard to go all wrong with all that talent.

So I have to say that at this point, I do want to see another episode. It's not that I'm hooked, but I'm certainly curious. There does seem to be potential here, and the show could grow to be something good if it overcomes the apparent growing pains it's been going through.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Rock Your Blocks Off

Two console game franchises expanded today with the release of Lego Rock Band. Depending on how you look at it, it's a "family friendly" incarnation of the music game... or a music-oriented entry in the fun and humorous Lego game series.

Though I have played a few of the Lego games, my perspective comes decidedly from the former point of view -- I remain a big Rock Band fan. From that stance, I regard Lego Rock Band as a mixed bag of some pretty major successes and some pretty incomprehensible shortcomings.

In the plus column is the set list. It's only 45 songs (odd, given the 80+ tracks in Rock Band 2), but song-for-song, I found it the best yet. It helps that the metal genre doesn't generally come off as "family friendly," so my least favorite category of music is excluded from the game. The songs skew rather heavily toward the current decade -- not always a plus -- but the game also boasts a lot of fondly remembered songs from when I was younger... and from earlier still.

There's Fire by Jimi Hendrix, Crocodile Rock by Elton John. There are 80s one hit wonders including Walking on Sunshine and Ghostbusters. A couple songs I always thought would be perfect for Rock Band, like Two Princes by The Spin Doctors and In Too Deep by Sum 41. (And indeed, they are fun in the game -- especially the former.)

But the big win is the whole flavor of the thing. The story mode of the game is just fantastic. You begin playing in a train station terminal, but soon build up to a wide variety of crazy challenges. You entertain a construction crew who enlists your help to rock a building down. You play a pirate ship, and then must fend off a giant octopus attack with your musical prowess. Songs are very appropriately matched to venues; you play Dig when you hit an underground area, Rooftops when you play on top of a skyscraper, and so on. And the environments all have lots of interactive elements. It's rather like the "dreamscapes" of The Beatles: Rock Band -- there are more fun things than ever here to just watch even when you're not playing the game.

Rather than scoring points, you're amassing "studs," the currency of all Lego games, to take back and spend not only on outfits and instruments for your characters, but a huge number of accessories to outfit the "Rock Den" where they hang out in between sets. You can even dress up your Band Manager and the members of the growing entourage you accumulate. Even though you have far less customizable character choices here than in regular Rock Band, it actually ends up feeling like a lot more because of all these fun side details.

But then come the down sides. First, the game does not support ANY form of online play. If you've made any online friends (and I've got dozens of regular Rock Band buds), you can never play Lego Rock Band together. I can't understand why a feature that works just fine in the other games was stripped out here. Doesn't "Online Interactions Not Rated by the ESRB" cover their asses for any creepy potty-mouths that the kids might find online? You can export the Lego Rock Band tracks to your hard drive to go back to Rock Band 2 and play them online -- but of course you lose the fun and whimsy of it all if you do that. (Not to mention that Harmonix wasn't ready with this export feature for PS3 on launch date. We have to actually wait until next week to do this.)

The other problem is that while Lego Rock Band can work with some DLC songs you may have bought in the past, it throws the "family friendly" blanket over that material too. Now, Lego Rock Band has an online store of its own, and I guess I can understand why it doesn't allow you to buy Sir Psycho Sexy by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. But in my opinion, if you've already bought the song in regular Rock Band and put it on your hard drive, that's a tacit agreement that you're okay having that on the hard drive you might share with any children you have in your house. I say don't let players purchase "non-E rated" content through Lego Rock Band, but if it's already there by other means, let the game access it. My existing DLC library is nearly cut in half when I load up Lego Rock Band.

What I think it all means is that while I'm having a very fun time playing Lego Rock Band now, and think it's a load of laughs while I'm still playing through the story mode and don't know what comes next... I think it's probably going to wear out once that story is complete. Or maybe I'll be a bit of a trophy hound and hang with it until I've unlocked all of those. But after that, I'm not sure I see myself continuing to play it when I can't play online and can't access half the DLC I've spent money on.

So, overall, I think Lego Rock Band is a really great idea that was executed brilliantly from the story and flavor perspective, and badly bungled from the technical perspective. There are enough good songs in it (in my opinion) that I ultimately come down on the side of recommending it, but it's no replacement for Rock Band 2.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Witch Way

Tonight, I finally got around to finishing a book loaned to me some time ago -- A Nameless Witch, by A. Lee Martinez. This was another book from the author of In the Company of Ogres, and I was told, a better one.

In tone, the books were rather similar. Both are whimsical and humorous fantasy stories built around an unusual protagonist. This story follows a witch with literally no name, afflicted by an unusual curse -- startling beauty. It might not seem like a curse, except when you consider that stock in trade for a witch is to be ugly, repulsive, and mysterious. Not to mention the small matter of her being a form of undead creature with a carnivorous appetite for human flesh.

The story begins when her mentor is murdered by minions of some unknown sorcerer, and soon she must set out on a quest for vengeance. She picks up an unusual coterie of allies along the way -- an animated broom, a demonically possessed duck, a troll with detachable body parts, and a virtuous White Knight that might be developing feelings for her (at risk to his own virtue -- and life).

The first half of the book strikes an excellent balance between humor and drama. The plot drives forward in a compelling way, and the characters are interesting. Things do taper off in the back half, though. The actual climax of this quest for vengeance is a bit... well... anti-climactic, rushed and a bit too neat. And then things just sort of end with little real resolution for most of the characters, as though deliberately leaving a door open for some sort of sequel. I say the door would have better been closed; it felt a bit drafty. (Ha ha!)

Still, there's more good than bad, and the book is rather a lot of fun. The witch of the title is a more enjoyable main character than Nearly Dead Ned, of the previous A. Lee Martinez book I'd read. This book feels more genuinely light, not forced to be cute. Still, where the humor gave out in that earlier book, the plot gives out a little bit here. I'd probably rate it right about the same as that other book, a B-.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Iced Over

I'll see a movie for a rather wide variety of reasons, but one that often seems to get me is an "epic cast." When enough people line up to be in one movie, I figure it has to be for some reason, right?

That's how I came to The Ice Storm, the 1997 movie featuring Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Tobey Maguire, Christina Ricci, and Elijah Wood. I didn't even know much of what the movie was really about. I just decided to take the plunge.

It turns out the movie isn't really about much of anything. It's an "arranging matches" movie without even any "arranging." It's more a "look... here we have some matches" movie.

Forced to try and describe what little plot there is, here you go. It's the early 1970s. A married man (Kevin Kline) is cheating on his wife (Joan Allen) with another woman (Sigourney Weaver). Meanwhile, the teenaged children of both couples are interacting as well, exploring their sexuality. Everyone's on a sort of journey of self-discovery, though with a rather dogged refusal to actually face much of anything in themselves. And it all comes to a head on the night of a freak ice storm that roars into town.

That's it. It's a film simply about characters... but a little too simply. None of the characters are especially well drawn, and certainly none are really likeable. They mostly draw their strange motivations from the desire to inject any life into a boring suburban existence, but such a faithful portrayal of boring surburban existence makes for -- obviously -- a boring movie. Aside from some interesting but odd scenes for Elijah Wood's character in the final act, the only real highlights of the movie come from spotting other actors making small appearances before anyone knew who they were. (Hey, it's David Krumholtz from Numb3rs. And Allison Janney from The West Wing. And... what the hell? Is that Katie Holmes?)

There are a few frankly beautiful pictures painted by director Ang Lee with the help of his cinematographer, images of the titular ice storm and its aftermath worthy of framing in still life on your living room wall. But it's not nearly enough to make up for the fact that the movie feels like a still life even while you're watching it. I rate The Ice Storm a D.