Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Rugby Really Brought the Room Together

Yesterday, I went to see Clint Eastwood's latest directorial effort, Invictus. It's the real life story of Nelson Mandela, in the early part of his momentous presidency in South Africa, and how he encouraged and used the nation's rugby team as a means of addressing post-apartheid racial tensions in his country.

I was a bit on the fence about seeing the movie. In the plus column, I find I've enjoyed most of Clint Eastwood's other films. I really like actor Morgan Freeman, and it seemed like he'd be the perfect man to play Mandela. I also like Matt Damon, and he'd been receiving some acclaim (and award nominations) for his role in the movie.

There was really only one thing in the minus column, but it was kind of a big one. This looked like a "sports movie." I don't care much for any professional sports in real life, and it's a rare film that dramatizes them in any way I find engaging. But in the end, this minus lost out, and I went to check out the film.

In turns out, perhaps not surprisingly, that this is really two movies in one. For the first hour, I found it excellent. It's a fantastic look and Mandela as a man, and an even better look at a savvy politician who understands the "game" of not only politics, but appealing to people and making his message understood. It reminded me of the best episodes of The West Wing, where you happily slip into the dream of a world where people in politics truly act for the public good, behave with nobility, and get things done. And of course, it's all the greater knowing that this wasn't fiction; though perhaps dressed up a bit for the screen, this is a true story.

Then, for the last half, Invictus became a sports movie, filled with all the boring clichés that send me running from such films. Well, maybe all but one; I don't believe there was a "training montage," as such. But this was the most conventional underdog movie, of the sort we've all seen a hundred times before, made no more interesting by the fact that the sport in question here is one less than familiar to most Americans. (You could even argue that a lack of familiarity with rugby makes it even less interesting.)

The first half of the movie was inspirational, uplifting, and engaging. Morgan Freeman is excellent in a quiet performance that pulls you in. The second half of the movie was dull, slow-paced, and rote. It wasn't even a good sports movie. Matt Damon isn't bad, but isn't really given anything meaty to do. Would you have nominated... oh, I don't know... Ralph Macchio from The Karate Kid for award consideration?

All told, I'd still rate the movie a B-. It's just that I was ready for the end credits long before the predictable final act. And I really wished that the movie had instead been a Nelson Mandela biopic all the way, giving that extra hour of rugby to something else -- perhaps a look at his time in prison before becoming leader of South Africa.

I suppose my "cut" of the movie would be a bit strange.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Thermodynamics of Sci-Fi TV

So, last night was a rather momentous one for fans of so-called "genre television." (As if all TV shows weren't part of some genre.) On FOX, we had the final episode of Dollhouse; over on Syfy (perhaps even at the same time, depending on your time zone) we had the first "real" episode of Caprica, following last week's airing of the pilot episode that you could have seen on DVD months ago.

First, Dollhouse. It's been a while since I last mentioned the show, but the bottom line is this: in its second season, it really became something. While I would still put it as the least distinguished of Joss Whedon's four television series to date, that's now no longer a reflection on the lackluster first season of Dollhouse -- it's a testament to the quality of the other three shows.

But really, it kind of had to be this way. FOX had to get out of the way and stop interfering with their desire for a "ho of the week" series before the show could start to display a glimpse of what it would be; further, it took the knowledge that the show was ending for the story to really start unspooling at an exciting pace.

When you really get down to it, the second season was pretty great. The first two or three episodes (sadly, including the episodes to feature Jamie Bamber and Michael Hogan, from Battlestar Galactica) were average at best, but then came the brilliant episode that filled in the audience on the backstory of Sierra. And it was all pretty much fantastic from there.

The finale itself, from last night, was not the best episode of the show, but it was a very good ending. It went beautifully with the DVD-only episode released with Season One (and I can only imagine that watching it if you haven't seen that would have been kind of a mess), brought the characters to appropriate ends of their respective journeys, and was just a generally feel-good experience... for those who appreciate a well-crafted story. (In true Joss Whedon fashion, it is not all rainbows and puppies for the characters in the end.)

So while on the one hand I'm sorry to see I show I'd grown to like go, I know that it would not have been a show I'd grow to like if it hadn't known it was on the way out already. Instead, I'm happy for this sort-of-novel realized on television, and glad for its fitting conclusion.

Speaking of novels on television, that was the definite feeling I got after watching the first regular episode of Caprica. If you go back to the first post-mini-series episode of Battlestar Galactica (the frakkin' great "33"), you'll recall that while it did pick up the story very soon after where it had left off, the episode itself was... well, episodic. There was a clear theme to the hour, a story of its own with a beginning, middle, and end. (Well, maybe just a middle and an end -- that was part of what made the episode so cool, just being thrown right into it.)

Caprica felt much more to me like curling up with a book and reading one more chapter. The episode was by no means boring, but it really wasn't "about" any particular story. We learned a lot more about the characters (particularly Clarice Willow and Sam Adama). Some of the characters even learned more about each other (for example, in the powerful story of Amanda Graystone realizing how little she actually knew her daughter Zoe).

But at the same time, there wasn't really a thematic throughline, no particular dilemma being faced and resolved this week, nothing to make this stand on its own as a single hour of television. Yes, by the end, Battlestar Galactica was like this too, but it did not start this way.

That's fine; I for one was interested. But if this is an accurate reflection of the show to come, then Caprica looks to be a soap opera, perhaps minus the hokey melodrama. That makes it a very different kind of sci-fi show than we've really had before. Even the highly serialized Babylon 5, with some of its very well-rounded characters, was not really a TV show about the characters. Perhaps Firefly comes closest to the apparent Caprica model, where the "story" of any episode was only half about the circumstances, and half about how the nine characters on Serenity reacted to them.

I suppose that's an appropriate connection for this occasion where one sci-fi show comes to an end as another starts up. Caprica at least seems to be on a stronger narrative footing than the show it's "replacing"; hopefully it can build to be as good as Dollhouse became (or better). I'll be tuning in.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Training Day

Some will tell you it's a modern classic; it all depends on who you ask. Either way, I decided I wanted to check out Trainspotting, the film about basically being poor and addicted to heroin in Scotland. It's the movie that put Ewan McGregor on the map, and also features Robert Carlyle, Jonny Lee Miller, and Kevin McKidd.

It's also just flat-out difficult to watch, and intentionally so. There is nothing glamorous or cool about the world of Trainspotting. Though the film does at times adopt a flashy, non-literal style, it always does so in the name of making drug addiction look absolutely terrible.

But that's really all the film has to say. There's a loose but rather unimportant plot that almost even feels like a distraction. There's no deeper message here than "drugs are bad," and no real emotion evoked other than revulsion.

So what you think of the film will ultimately depend even more on personal taste than the average movie. This is a one-note piece, but the note is played extremely proficiently. There are at least a half dozen moments that will make you cringe in your seat in discomfort. But if you're looking for a full-course film meal here, you won't find it.

I give credit where it's due for actors, script, and cast all working in such a unified way. But I personally want a more rounded film, and so I only would rate Trainspotting a C+. I wouldn't think you'd have to be into some drug scene to like the movie (in fact, I would think such a person wouldn't actually like a movie that held up the mirror so starkly), but I'm not quite sure exactly what sort of person would like this movie more than I.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Deathly Unserious

Some time in the last month or so, while seeing one of the many movies I've gone to the theater for, I caught a trailer for an upcoming movie, Death at a Funeral. But I was feeling a sense of familiarity about the whole thing as the trailer rolled. Finally, the friend who went with me leans over and asks, "is this a remake?" Sure enough, when the title finally appeared, we knew.

I'd been vaguely aware of the 2007 British film; my friend had actually seen it and even had it on DVD. I was pledged then and there to borrow the DVD and watch it.

Directed by Frank Oz and starring a raft of recognizable British actors (plus American Alan Tudyk), the movie is a farcical black comedy surrounding a series of calamities that occur as a couple tries to hold a funeral in their home for the man's departed father. Startling revelations, unintentionally consumed drugs, and other hilarity ensues.

The movie isn't a riot throughout, but it does provide a few good laughs in its brisk 90 minutes. The cast is quite good and manages to mine a little extra out of the script. While I suppose there is room for improvement in the forthcoming American adaptation, there isn't anything particularly "British" about the humor (at least, not in my estimation), so I'm not sure a remake is really necessary -- particularly so soon after the original.

In any case, I'd give this film a B-. If you like your comedy on the lowbrow end of highbrow, it's probably one for you to check out.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


So today was the big day! Did your world change? I mean, it was supposed to, because Apple officially announced their new gadget, the iPad.

I'd heard this occasion jokingly referred to as "Pad-mas"; I once referred to it myself as "Pad-nukkah" in an attempt to be more inclusive.

But everyone seems to be pretty underwhelmed. In a nutshell, most people don't seem to be convinced that the one nagging problem that was keeping their iPhone from being perfect was its pesky ability to fit in your pocket.

PCWorld wrote a pretty good article summing up reasons to be underwhelmed by the iPad, but they capped it off in brilliant comic fashion by suggesting the optional accessory that would fix everything:


I guess I'm saying that while I may have recently bought an iPod, I'm not yet ready to drink the iKool-Aid.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

It's Alive

I recently checked out the movie Alive -- the film portraying the true story of the Uruguayan rugby team's charter plane crashing in the Andes and fighting for survival after search efforts are abandoned. (I was momentarily perplexed by the DVD referring to itself as the "30th anniversary edition," until I realized that it was referring not to the anniversary of the movie's release in 1993, but of the crash itself in 1972.)

I've heard good things about the movie over the years. And while it's not bad, I found on viewing it that the audience has to do most of the work; the movie itself doesn't always manage it.

There are moments throughout that do give a hint of how horrible and dire a predicament these people were in. The crash itself is depicted in rather startling terms (hindered only a bit by now nearly 20 year old visual effects). Certain sequences peppered throughout the film -- an avalanche, reaching the summit of what appears to be the tallest mountain only to reach a view of an even taller one -- do make a strong impact.

But the day-to-day sense of living under these conditions never really lands. You never truly appreciate the bitter cold of the mountains, for example. The lengths to which the survivors must go never really seem that extreme -- though clearly they were. This is where the audience has to jump in and help where the film itself falls short. When you intellectualize the story and really think about what it would mean to survive nearly two-and-a-half months under these conditions, the mind buckles.

The cast features a number of good young actors, including Ethan Hawke. At times, the script doesn't feel like it helps enough in differentiating all the characters, but the actors do a good job of bridging the gap.

Perhaps it's beyond the scope of any two hour movie to capture the reality of such a situation. I suppose it's enough that this movie does at least make you stop and think about it, and then your own imagination can pick up from there. I'd just barely edge Alive in at a B-.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Day 8, 8:00-9:00 PM

Renee says she's doing okay now. But if this is "okay," then I'd hate to think what that "rough patch" might have been like.

Arlo was sick the day CTU's H.R. department covered sexual harassment conduct.

President Hassan is supposed to arrive back at the U.N. in 10 minutes; it turns out to be the fastest 10 minutes ever on 24.

Hassan must have hair-wranglers than check him every moment he's not on screen.

These two Russian brothers have curiously conflicting accents.

"Dammit, Renee!" (Drink!)

I understand it's good for the plot for Vladimir's goon to be suspicious of Renee. Still, his argument is that when Renee showed up, 16 months later, they got shut down. That's like 475 seasons or so.

Dirtbags multiply in Dana/Jen's apartment.

They're gonna kill Renee. "Dammit!" (Drink!)

Hastings made a decision on the spot, without regard to covering his ass, and accepting Jack's recommendation? What the hell happened to him during the first 50 minutes of this episode that we didn't get to see?

"Dammit!" (Drink!)

Well, it was a three drink week, and at least the Walker/Bauer storyline has enough juice to make up for the other stuff that isn't quite clicking yet. We'll see what's in store next week (hour).

Sunday, January 24, 2010

A Lovely Mess

Today, I caught the new movie The Lovely Bones, the story of a 14-year old girl stuck "in between" after her murder, watching those she left behind trying to find a way to move on. It's the newest from Peter Jackson -- directed by him, and adapted into a screenplay by him and the two screenwriting partners that worked with him on The Lord of the Rings... and the far less triumphant King Kong. Unfortunately, this movie comes more from the second camp.

In the plus column, it's a visual feast. There are, of course, the striking images of the afterlife that have been plastered all over the trailers and ads for the film. They're sweeping, creative, colorful, and engaging. But that's only part of the whole. The movie is a period piece set in the early 70's, and even the more conventional images of "real life" are quite a sight to behold. The decade is captured with great fidelity, from the sets to the costumes to every fine detail you might not even be consciously aware of. And it's all filmed in very expressive ways.

Also in the plus column is actor Stanley Tucci, who plays the man who murders the little girl. In a wash of mixed-at-best press about this movie, he's the one element that's been receiving universal praise and award nominations, and it's not hard to see why. He's a truly creepy presence on screen, and alters everything from his mannerisms to his voice as he embodies this villain.

But part of the reason he has to work so damn hard is a muddy script. Without spoiling too much (I think), it's revealed in the course of the film that this is not the first time he's murdered a young girl. And from what the audience learns, his behavior in this case seems to be totally inconsistent with how he acted all the previous times. You're left to wonder how a man so careful not to get caught for more than a decade could suddenly make all the mistakes he makes in this movie. And the more your mind fills in about the man's past, the less it lines up with what you're seeing in this movie. Stanley Tucci's achievement in this film is thus all the more great when you think that he found any cohesion or realism in this unbelievable and scattershot character.

The script flaws only start there. Though the trailers try to make this film look to be about a quest for justice, it's really only about a quest for closure. And while the movie makes it very clear this is the intended thematic focus, the narrative doesn't help in this at all. The surviving family reach their emotional endings without us seeing the final key steps on the journey. And all along the way, we the audience are shown more information than the characters, all adding up in such a way that we can't reach any closure at all. There are just too many unanswered questions, too many inconsistencies, and too great a lack of satisfaction by the time the final credits arrive.

And outside of Tucci, the script is not helped by the cast. Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz are the parents of the murdered girl, and while they go through the motions of grieving, it seems beyond them to actually feel it, or make us feel it. Susan Sarandon appears as the grandmother, but her role is a small one used entirely for comic relief; we know she has a considerable array of acting skills, but isn't given anyplace to use them.

Then there's the little girl, Saoirse Ronan. She does a decent job, but is asked to carry more weight in the film than possibly any young actor could manage. Her character narrates the entire movie. Good narration is a rare art; I can count on my fingers the number of movies that have had truly excellent character narration, and we're talking about some majorly gifted actors who were able to pull it off -- Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption, Edward Norton in Fight Club, that level of talent. This young girl, though she may have a compelling look, and comes off well in her scenes on camera, gives a flat and uninteresting narration for the spine of this movie.

For the remarkable visuals and the even more remarkable Stanley Tucci, I can see my way to rating this film a C+. Nevertheless, it is ultimately a very beautiful mess that I can't really recommend.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Uncertain Terms

I recently decided to roll the dice on another revered Oscar-winning Best Picture from the past, 1983's Terms of Endearment. It's predominately a quirky little comedy, but notoriously well known for its tear-jerking ending -- that wasn't going to come as a surprise to me.

What did surprise me is that I didn't find it tear-jerking at all; for most of the film, I didn't even find it particularly funny.

The movie starts out fairly strong, defining a cast of interesting characters with rough edges. Shirley MacLaine plays a near-lunatic mother, a role for which she won an Oscar herself. Debra Winger is her forgiving daughter, a role for which she lost the Oscar to her co-star. Jack Nicholson also won an Oscar here, for playing basically an only-slightly fictionalized version of himself -- this guy's an astronaut; Nicholson in real life only seems like he's from outer space. John Lithgow appears in a role for which he lost the Oscar to his co-star (but given his limited and ill-developed role in the movie, I can't really see why he got nominated, as much as I do like him). Jeff Daniels is here too, overlooked for any award recognition in spite of the fact he gives the best performance among the men in the film.

But after about 30 rather pleasant minutes of smiles, the movie starts to get tedious. There simply isn't much of a story or a message here. Guess what, mothers and daughter have strange relationships! And here's one! After another hour of no content to justify why this story is being told about this particular family, in soars a cancer storyline from out of the blue to sucker punch the audience.

Was the notion that a rather light-hearted movie could suddenly turn on a dime really so revolutionary in 1983? I can't see awarding this film an Oscar for any other reason. It started nice enough, and had fine acting throughout, but I found myself uncomfortable (that is, bored -- not uncomfortable in any intended way) long before the end credits rolled.

I give Terms of Endearment a C-, adding it to the list of critically-lauded movies that I found unimpressive.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Systems Failure

Wanna watch a movie go from Alien to Event Horizon in just under two hours? Pandorum is the movie for you!

This atmospheric and moody horror-thriller-scifi movie caught my attention when it ran in theaters a few months back; not enough to get me to go at the time, but enough for me to take note and throw it in my Netflix queue for when it was eventually released on DVD. Starring Dennis Quaid and Ben Foster, it follows an interstellar "Noah's Ark" from Earth around 150 years in the future, when the enormous population of Earth has used up every last resource on the planet. The people of this ship -- all kept in stasis except for a skeleton flight crew that wakes up in rotations to monitor the ship -- are all that's left, and bound for the one extra-solar planet that humans have discovered that's Earth-like enough to sustain a new beginning.

But something has gone horribly wrong. The movie opens with the two main characters awakening from hypersleep -- near total amnesia being an unfortunate side effect. Warnings are going off about the imminent failure of the ship's reactor, and there's no sign anywhere of the crew these two were meant to relieve, nor of anyone else in their flight crew.

The opening 20 minutes of this movie are just plain awesome. The look of the ship, the claustrophobic mood, the uncertainty of what's happening and even who these people are, and the grisly discoveries they soon make. Well, like I said, it conjured in my mind thoughts of the original movie Alien. This was the set-up for a masterful psychological suspense film.

But then things begin a sad and steady journey off the rails. At the risk of spoiling things, it turns out the ship is infested with cannibalistic mutants that are killing off the handful of people on the ship who awaken from their hypersleep pods. This concept is decidedly lame compared to the fantastic set-up, and gets more boring the more the movie exposes of the truth.

Before long, the tense drama between the only two people who might be awake on the entire ship picks up an oddball and unnecessary array of sidekicks that deflate the suspense and turn the movie into a sub-par action flick. A few events trying to pass themselves as plot twists (but that you'll see coming from a lightyear away) step in along the way, but ultimately the movie ends up as lame and laughable as Event Horizon -- and an equal waste of a fine premise and good pair of starring actors.

I have no idea where I'd have taken the movie, were I writing it... all I know is that I wish something wholly different was attached to that fantastic opening 20 minutes. I was so entertained at the outset, in fact, that I'd average the film overall at a C-. Still... I'm basically telling you: don't see this movie.

Unless perhaps you're a budding screen writer who wants a great lesson in how a good script can go bad.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Siren Call

My cell phone is a piece of crap. For those with extra-good memories, this is not the phone I smashed against a table a while back; this is what I later got to replace that phone. And it's crap. Places where I used to get a good signal on the earlier phone now can be spotty on this thing (even though I'm with the same carrier). And even though it has neither bells nor whistles, and I'm not using it for anything other than making phone calls -- which doesn't even happen every day -- I often can't get to the end of a regular day without it squawking to have the battery charged.

I'm still about 10 months away from being able to do the "full upgrade" thing. But on February 1st, I'm eligible for a lesser upgrade that will get me some savings on a new phone. And I am counting down the days.

So, I've been thinking about moving into "smart phone" land. All the cool kids I know seem to have one. And while at times it seems extraneous and unnecessary, there are other times when it just seems like a handy and practical thing to have.

The piece-of-crap phone has kind of helped paved the way in this regard, too. I've never actually paid for a cell phone before, in the sense that I've always just signed a subscriber agreement and then taken a phone with a purchase price completely covered by signing that contract. This time, my upgrade is only going to be partial anyway -- I'll be paying something for a new phone, regardless of what I get. So why not pay a little extra to get something flashy and cool and handy and not garbage like my current phone?

With this in mind, I've been doing a little research and window shopping lately, trying to zero in on what it is I probably want to get, so that come February 1st, I can just walk straight into the store and say "give me that." The list quickly narrowed down to two or three contenders, but the one that eventually rose to the top of that short list was the HTC Hero.

Having already almost decided on that, a couple days later, I was thumbing through my newest Entertainment Weekly magazine. I'm flipping past an ad, but then stop as I happen to notice it's for the new season of 24 that at the time was just about to begin. Except then I actually look, and realize it's really an ad for a cell phone -- the HTC Hero.

Basically, what this ad is saying is: this is Jack Bauer's cell phone.

Well, dammit (ha!), I have to get one now, don't I?

The clock is ticking. And you all know what it sounds like.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


I recently went to see the new movie It's Complicated. It's a romantic comedy starring Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin as a long-divorced couple suddenly rekindling a romance between them as their youngest child graduates college. Further confounding the works is Steve Martin, as a new potential love interest.

If you are a parent who would not need to pay for a babysitter to go out to the movie theater, then this movie is for you. (That is, your kids are either out of the house, old enough to take care of themselves, or the oldest is old enough to watch the others.) That's the demographic this movie is aimed at, and from what I could tell, it was hitting it like the bullseye on a target. The audience around me at the theater decidedly favored an over-50 crowd, and they were practically rolling in the aisles from beginning to end.

That said, it's not like the film was empty for someone like me. It is cute and fun, if conventional and predictable. The script might not be much of a revelation, but as you would expect, the acting is exceptional and creates an atmosphere well worth seeing. Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin make a really outstanding couple, romantically and comedically. Steve Martin hasn't been this charming in a role since Roxanne. It all feels very true and... well, just all-around pleasant. John Krasinksi of The Office also plays a significant role, and serves up his share of great moments too. (He plays the kind of character that gets the "spit take" type moments.)

There is one extended sequence in the film that's good for some out-loud laughs, falling almost exactly halfway through the film. Hopefully without revealing too much, it's a vehicle where the main characters all really let loose and do some wacky comedy. The whole movie could not have really been this way and felt in any way authentic; nevertheless, it is the best 20 minutes of the movie.

There have been better romantic comedies, but also many far worse. You won't be blown away, but you won't be sorry you gave your time to such a great group of actors. I rate It's Complicated a B-. And if the crowd I saw it with is any indication, you can add another "half-grade" on top of that for every 5 years you are older than me. (That is, up it to a B if you're over 40, a B+ for over 45, and so on.)

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Step into the Imaginarium

It was not long ago that I was saying I just don't care much for Terry Gilliam movies. And yet, somehow, I found myself going to see his latest anyway. There was an element of curiosity that won out there; some might call it morbid, but it won all the same.

The film is The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, and the element that pushed me to the theater is that this is the last film made by Heath Ledger before his death. This is what he was filming at the time, and there was still a bit of work yet to be done. To deal with the loss of the film's star, the writers (Charles McKeown or Terry Gilliam, or both) concocted an interesting solution: the remaining scenes involving Ledger would use not one, but three actors to fill in.

But first, a brief explanation of the plot, so you might see how this would be possible. Mind you, the film isn't entirely coherent (as you should expect from Terry Gilliam; but I'll come back to this), but in a nutshell, a traveling performer who is ancient well beyond his appearance has entered into a bet with the Devil. Whoever can capture/redeem five souls first wins. The performer, the titular Doctor Parnassus, has not only a small team working with him, but has the aid of a magic mirror to use in cleansing souls; people who pass through it enter a magical dreamscape inside his imagination, but sculpted in large measure by the one to step inside.

Without giving away any more particulars, you can probably guess how Ledger's role could be completed without him. As it happened, the shooting schedule of the movie placed all the "real world" sequences first, with the more elaborate, visual effects driven material of the dream worlds to be filmed later. Heath Ledger completed the former, and not the latter. Since it was all a matter of "imagination" anyway, Ledger's character was thus played in different sequences of the film by Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell.

Let me say that the film is a real triumph in the acting department. Heath Ledger gives another great performance, and the three men brought in to finish his work are all excellent. In mannerisms, appearance, and behavior, each of the three really makes you believe in the continuity of the character. You could easily imagine that the movie could have worked this way all along; there is plenty that is bizarre and jarring in the film -- that's Gilliam at work -- but this actor switch-a-roo isn't one such thing.

Visually, the film is a feast. The dreamscapes are all breathtaking, each with very different images and tones. Even the "real world" material is heightened and specific; it's a major achievement for every department from set design to costume design, makeup to cinematography. It looks fantastic.

But it remains a Terry Gilliam film, full of all the flaws I felt in works like Time Bandits and The Brothers Grimm. The story doesn't make much sense. Characters have shifting levels of knowledge, things sometimes happen for no logical reason grown from character (but of a need to progress the story), events don't always flow naturally from A to B, narrative conceits work in some contexts and fail in others, and so on. It's kind of a mess.

A very beautiful mess with some fine acting, but a mess nonetheless.

And yet not unenjoyable.

In fact, overall, I'd rate The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus a B-. But I think my love of how movies get made, of behind the scenes interest, is perhaps artificially inflating that opinion. I can't wait to see DVD features that will hopefully shed even more light on how the pieces of this film were shifted to account for the loss of its star, how the production team made the striking visuals come to life, and more.

Though I probably still won't plan on seeing any more Terry Gilliam movies any time soon.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Day 8, 6:00-8:00 PM

The NYPD is at the "perimeter." (Drink!)

The evil man says he doesn't want to hurt Jim or Maggie, ignoring the fact that it's already too late for Maggie.

Poor Jim doesn't realize he's on 24, and therefore is going to die whether he does what he's told or not.

Security is at "perimeter" gate 9. (Drink!)

It should come as no surprise that Dana Walsh was able to set up a false identity and still pass a background check to get a job at CTU... how do you think all the moles get in there?

They have to push the traffic "perimeter." (Drink!)

President Host of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire does an honorable thing by confessing his illicit affair.

Hastings thinks Jack's cell phone might have died. As if.

President Millionaire Host will be dead "before the hour is out." Is that close enough to "within the hour" for a drink?

Mr. Clean's partner has had enough.

Jack gives a barely audible, under the breath "dammit." (Under the breath drink!)

The cop tells Jack his bag is in the back seat. "And by the way, it weighs a ton -- what the hell is in there?" "I don't know, we'll find out later!"

Ortiz is okay. He might need a change of underwear, though.

Why does Hastings walk like a Cro-Magnon?

Jack and Ortiz shares a goodbye. At hour four, we're sure that'll take.

If Chloe thinks a situation has become uncomfortable, then you know it's true.

Hassan has a "million" reasons to deny the affair? (grin)

Hassan and his honey must be hating that all the walls in CTU are glass right now.

Jack still hasn't learned it's not pronounced "nuke-YOU-lar."

Before Hassan's brother negotiates with the Russians, they're going to share this dance.

Walker can "get this off, guaranteed." Wait... are we talking about the bracelet.

If Jack says you've gone too far... well, it's like when Chloe says it's uncomfortable.

Jack leaves us a parting "dammit!" (Drink!)

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Day 8, 4:00-6:00 PM

And so another day in the life of Jack Bauer begins!

There is no way anyone could hotwire a car that new.

Does "later this hour" count close enough to "within the hour" that we have to take a drink?

Jack is talking about going to the airport and leaving with Kim for L.A. But we all know this isn't going to happen, because 9 episodes of passing through airport security and travel from coast to coast would make for the worst 24 ever.

We welcome Freddie Prinze Jr. and Katee Sackhoff to 24 by giving each of them a "perimeter" within their first couple lines of dialogue. That's TWO drinks!

Is so much of the new CTU made of glass so that we can smash it dramatically later in the season?

Cole Ortiz is distributing new patrol "perimeters." Drink! (Unless the fact that he's distributing multiple perimeters means we should drink twice.)

Arlo asks "who's Jack Bauer" and immediately gets the stink eye from half a dozen people who think he should go pick up the first seven seasons on DVD.

We're getting lots of "look! it's New York!" camera angles in this first hour, because it's going to be too expensive to actually film much in New York later in the season.

Victor falls down to loss of blood. "Dammit!" Drink!

This has got to be the slowest paced season opener of 24 ever.

Though the gunfire almost covers it up, I distinctly here Jack shout "dammit!" Another drink!

Jack Bauer goes Jack Torrance when he whips out that axe!

Wait, you mean there's an assassination plot in the works, and the victim has a mole close to him?! On 24?! Get out!

When CTU is describing the reporter Reed to the security guys, do you think they might want to mention the fact that she's the only woman in the place with blonde hair?

Even though Jack and Chloe have been on the show longer that anyone, this is probably one of the few times they've actually been in the same room at the same time.

We're in President Hassan's room, with a lovely view of the skyscrapers next door. Seems to me an assassin who wanted to get to him could just set up there with a rifle, you know?

Looks like Jack's gonna push his flight to around 4:00 AM.

What's with the crazy doors to the interrogation chamber?

Ooo... this is a bad man. He'll squeeze his body through the air ducts to get to you, I saw it on The X-Files!

Horray! Thigh shooting makes its triumphant return to 24!

2010 Golden Globes Snark

And now, some random quips and observations about the Golden Globes, recorded as a group of friends watched the ceremony with me.

It took about four minutes for Ricky Gervais to take a slam at NBC. I would have predicted about half that.

I swear, every other word I'm hearing coming out of Nicole Kidman's mouth is "nipples."

My friend called Sofía Vergara's dress a "giant fish tail of ugly."

Paul McCartney looks a kinda like an old woman now. He gives great intro, though.

Kate Hudson seems to have stuffed a swan in her cleavage.

In case you've forgotten what award show you're watching, we put the name on the bottom of the trophies.

Cher can't enunciate through the botox.

After all these years, Kevin Bacon still looks kinda like a stoned teenager.

After the ceremony, Drew Barrymore will put that thing on her shoulder back in the aquarium.

Maggie Gyllenhaal is wearing paper mache.

I guess Kristen Bell is wearing Bed, Bath and Beyond.

Quentin Tarantino looks like the man in the moon.

Ricky Gervais gives Mel Gibson the best introduction EVAR.

James Cameron is flipping everyone the finger with his right hand throughout his entire speech. Freudian slip?

What IS it with James Cameron that he has to quote his own movies whenever he accepts an award??!

Just when I think I've heard the weirdest thing in Arnold Schwarzengger's accent, I learn how he pronounced "AAAAAHvaTAAAAAAH."

Robert Downey Jr. gives the best speech of the night.

The people in the booth are not going to cut off Jeff Bridges.

So, the price of Glee winning (yeah!) is that Avatar won too (boo!). I don't know if that was a worthwhile trade.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Put the Hurt On

This week, the movie The Hurt Locker arrived on DVD, and I decided I ought to check it out. It's nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Drama. It's also widely expected to receive an Oscar nomination -- and with 10 nominees for Best Picture this year, I figure I'd better start watching now if I'm even going to come close to seeing all of them.

It's a drama about the current Iraq War, following an army E.O.D. team -- that's soldiers who disable explosive devices. And it's also portrayed in a very stark and realistic way, just this side of documentary.

This new perspective from which to tell a war story is fairly novel, and so I found it more compelling than the average war movie. It focuses on a small number of characters, also more interesting than the average war movie. In particular, the lead is just the kind of crazy you'd expect of someone who enjoys disarming bombs for a living, and it's a good character portrait.

The acting is fantastic in the movie. Jeremy Renner, who few of you will likely know, stars as that crazy-skilled bomb technician I mentioned. The major characters are all lesser-known actors that do very good work, but the film is also peppered with several small performances by more recognizable actors. Ralph Fiennes, David Morse, Guy Pearce, and Evangeline Lilly all make appearances, mostly for just a short scene of a couple minutes each -- but each makes a strong impact in the movie.

What dulls my enthusiasm for The Hurt Locker a bit, though, is that the movie doesn't have much of an overall story to tell. It depicts this life, this environment, in a thorough way. It presents a number of very tense and engaging sequences. But it also plays out almost like an anthology movie. There are about six or seven "episodes" or short stories in the film, connected in that they involve the same characters, but also almost disconnected from each other. They add up to set a tone, but not necessarily to tell a narrative.

So while it's not gonna crack my personal top 10 from last year, I do agree it's one of the better war movies to come around in a while. I rate it a B-.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Peel Away the Layer

I wanted to like Layer Cake. I really did.

This is a movie set in the drug underworld of the U.K., following a just-below-midlevel drug maker. He's trying to stay under the radar and earn enough money to quit, but he's constantly caught up in progressively more attention-grabbing events. I'd heard particularly good things about the characters and the dialogue of the movie.

Then there was the plus of a few of its stars. Daniel Craig is the main character; he made a great, stern James Bond, and I thought it might be interesting to see one of the films that very likely earned him the job. Then there's Colm Meaney from Star Trek (The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine) as a major secondary character; he's hardly ever cast to show great range, but is always able to pull off a likable and relatable character, even a despicable one. And in a significant but smaller role, there's Michael Gambon (who among many, many other film roles, took over as Dumbledore in the Harry Potter film series), who commands the screen despite a soft-spoken demeanor.

Seemed like a good recipe, right?

Well, the problem is, the movie starts fairly strong, but almost instantly starts losing speed, steadily declining into what I found to be a barely watchable state. There's a fascinating opening 10 minutes that really lays out the protagonist, what he does, what he wants -- everything you want to know...

But then it devolves into fairly conventional drugs-and-violence fare. There aren't really any revolutionary sequences to grab attention, and nothing is staged or filmed in a particularly new or exciting way. That interesting main character is forced by the plot to bob around from moment to moment, completely out of control; this is the point of the story, mind you, but isn't what I wanted to see after those opening 10 minutes.

If you like good British patter, there are better films. If you're interested in movies about drugs, there are better films. Basically, whatever you're looking for, there are better films. It's not a total loss, thanks to that compelling opening; I just wish it led into an entirely different film. I rate Layer Cake a D+.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A Small Fire

I recently borrowed a few DVDs from a friend, just to have a "secondary stash" to work through here and there while waiting on new Netflix deliveries or whatever. It was something like five movies I've been interested in seeing for a while. Except that I ended up leaving the friend's house with closer to 10 DVDs, because she kept handing me things... "oh, you should see this" ... "well, this has some good stuff in it" ... and so forth. I don't want to say that borrowing the movies I wanted was contingent on also taking the movies I didn't specifically want, but it kinda-sorta-almost felt like that.

So that's how I came to have last year's teen comedy Fired Up! on my list. (As for why I chose to watch that sooner, rather than some of the other more desired movies in the pile? Well, I had a short window one day, and it's only 90 minutes long.) The poster practically says everything you need to know about the plot of this movie; basically, two horny high school football jocks join the cheerleading squad so they can go to cheerleading camp and have more opportunities to score chicks.

Actually, the movie is surprisingly, amazingly, not completely dumb. But it achieves this unlikely feat only on the strength of its two stars, Nicholas D'Agosto and Eric Christian Olsen. The two of them make a crazy-good on screen pairing. It's a sort of a Ashton Kutcher and Seann William Scott in Dude Where's My Car sort of thing... or a Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson in Zoolander sort of thing. It simply should not be funny. And yet, you can't help but laugh sometimes, because they are really funny.

That said, Fired Up doesn't ever come close to the level of lunatic hilarity of those other movies I mentioned. Dude Where's My Car gets assists in the supporting cast from people like Hal Sparks and Jennifer Garner. Zoolander gets them from Christine Taylor and Milla Jovovich (and yes, even Will Ferrell, who doesn't resort to his typical "naked humor"). Here, the two stars are doing all the work. (John Michael Higgins is in it, but given nothing funny to do.)

So, while the movie surprisingly doesn't suck, it's also hard to recommend it. Mostly, it makes me wish that someone would cast this comic duo you've probably never heard of to be in some other movie that's actually better written. You could waste 90 minutes in worse ways than Fired Up!, but I'd still only rate it a C+.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Beware the Dragon

A friend of mine recently picked up a simple little game called Drakon. Players each take on the role of an adventurer in a dungeon, building the map as they move, trying to steal enough of the dragon Drakon's treasure to win the game. But Drakon himself is also roaming the dungeon and can set you several steps back on your path to victory.

The major fuel to the game is that each tile you play to form a new room of the dungeon has an icon on it that dictates a special power you get to use when you move your adventurer into that room. You try to position useful things near your adventurer and harmful things near your opponent, and generally try to manipulate things to your advantage.

Honestly, there's not all that much to it... but then, there's not intended to be. It's the sort of game meant to take about 20 minutes, and not half bad on those terms. I did play it with nearly the maximum number of players, though, and I think it's one of those games where the more people who participate, the less in control you feel. With, say, three players, I think your chance to act would come around often enough that you might feel some strategic wiggle room. With six, it felt a little too chaotic for my tastes -- though it was a quick and interesting enough bit of chaos to be enjoyable.

But I've left out the most significant "feature" of this game... or at least of my friend's copy of it. The stench! When he cracked open the box, this faint but noticeable odor wafted up. You know how new game bits -- particularly TCG cards -- can have this pleasant aroma from the printing process? Well, these tiles smelled like they'd come from the digestive tract of the titular dragon himself. Worse still, when you touched the tiles, the odor got on to your fingers. It was uncanny, and sent all the players to wash their hands as soon as we'd finished and put the game away.

Perhaps this quirk was not normal for copies of Drakon. Smell notwithstanding, there are some gamers I'd recommend Drakon for. I'd put it roughly in the family of TransAmerica, though perhaps a bit more controlled (with a small number of players). If that floats your boat, you should check it out.

Monday, January 11, 2010

A Force to Be Reckoned With

Whoever came up with this headline might be the most brilliant journalist to have something published in the Washington Post since Woodward and Bernstein.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Give Me a Break

It might be that I have to update my 2009 Top 10 Movies List once again. Well, might, depending on how you parse a technicality here.

This afternoon, I went to see the new movie Daybreakers. Its wide theatrical release didn't take place until just this weekend, but it debuted at film festivals last year, and it's officially listed as a 2009 movie. If you take it that way, then it's claiming a spot on my list.

You might be vampired out at this point in time, but Daybreakers is another story about vampires. But it comes at the subject material from a very interesting point of view. It posits a very near future in which almost the entire world population has become vampires. With the scarcity of humans on which the vampires can feed, the vampires are facing their own extinction if they can't find a way to create a synthetic substitute.

What really makes the movie interesting is the way it explores this premise. It's an action movie with a brain, and it's not afraid to touch on thought-provoking subject matter. It really explores the idea of what a world populated by vampires would be like. It draws metaphors between rape and unwilling conversion to vampirism. It asks lots of social, moral, and even political questions.

But it also delivers the fun action too. The movie is fantastically violent and gory; even if you love those sorts of movies, this film has some scenes in it that will make you cringe. There are car chases, fist fights, swat team assaults, and more. The movie has a strong visceral component to complement the intellectual.

The cast is solid. Ethan Hawke stars as a doctor (and vampire) struggling to find a synthetic blood substitute. The movie isn't nearly as profound as his earlier film, Gattaca, but it does play on the same field of sci-fi/fantasy with deeper meaning. Willem Dafoe and Sam Neill play significant secondary roles, and the rest of the cast is solid too.

I suppose my complaint is that the movie was so neat in concept that it made me greedy for more. There are a few aspects of vampire society that don't really get mentioned. Can they have children? What would that world be like? Are vampires with a conscience really such an aberration as they appear in this movie? (Hard to believe, since all of them were humans themselves just a decade earlier.)

It's really a shame this movie got relegated to a January release. It's not perfect, but it deserved better. I rate it a B. In my 2009 list, it would slide into the #8 slot, kicking the "wait, I just got here" Julie & Julia off the bottom.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

The Joy of Cooking

I find I must already make a revision to my Top 10 Films of 2009 list, though only a small one. Inglourious Basterds is getting bumped off the number 10 spot in favor of a movie I just watched this week, Julie & Julia.

It's not a movie I really expected to make the time for. It didn't really sound like my type of movie, or look like it when it was in theaters. (Which is why I passed the first time around). But I'd heard a few good things from a friend or two, and then the critics started buzzing about how Meryl Streep was a lock for her 193rd Oscar nomination for this movie. And then there was the fact that I absolutely loved Doubt, and while this movie was of a far different nature, it does star two of the same women from that movie -- not only Meryl Streep, but also Amy Adams. I finally caved.

If you missed the ads, Julie & Julia is a hybrid tale, two stories interwoven together. Decades in the past, famous chef Julia Child finds her love of cooking while living abroad in France, then struggles to write a cookbook and get it published. At the same time, we track a woman in 2002 who is looking for something to light a fire in her rather dreary life; she settles on trying to cook all 524 recipes from Julia Child's cookbook during a single calendar year.

The script, adapted by director Nora Ephron from published books, is also a bit of a hybrid; it's simultaneously a very careful and clever piece of writing, and a somewhat disappointing effort. The structure of it is really excellent. The film is written in a way that really sells the interwoven storylines. It finds commonalities in tone and emotion between both women, and with a skilled, light touch, presents those to the audience.

But while the script is supported by a very strong structure, it ultimately doesn't have anything to say. The peaks and valleys in these stories never seem very high or low. The film never really engages the audience on an emotional level; there's a general "warm fuzziness" to the proceedings, but not even so strong as to call this a "feel good" movie.

Still, the performances are excellent. Meryl Streep's take on Julia Child is not merely a skilled impersonation, but a real embodiment of a person to an extent where it rarely seems like an impersonation. Amy Adams is equally effective in anchoring her half of the film. There are also many bright spots in the supporting cast, including Mary Lynn Rajskub, Jane Lynch, and Stanley Tucci. They really make you want to watch in the hopes that the movie will turn out to be "more," even though it never really is.

So how does this end up being my 10th favorite movie of 2009? Well, because there is just sort of something "fun" about the whole thing. More fun the the cathartic Nazi slaughter of Inglourious Basterds? Well, that's a hard comparison, though I suppose I'll say no. But Julie & Julia know when to quit, where Tarantino's film -- as is his custom -- drones on and on in far too many of its scenes. Julia & Julia may not be profound, but there is a joy to it. And probably, it isn't reasonable to expect "profound" there anyway.

In any case, I give it a B. It might not be everyone's cup of tea, but it's will please a good number of people.

Friday, January 08, 2010

That's Not How You "Mount" a TV

Midwest City man uses buttocks to smash ex's 72-inch TV, Oklahoma City police say

At first, I was thinking "are they really just trying to dress up the fact that some fat guy sat on a TV and busted it?" But no, that's really not what happened.

But it is yet another dumb ass on television. Ha!

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Encyclopedia Symphonica

I've had a Creative MP3 player for several years. At the time I bought it, iPods seemed exorbitantly expensive to me, and not really worth the money relative to their more reasonably priced competitors. But lately, that 30 GB capacity on the Creative has been bothering me.

This is a completely 21st century complaint. "It stinks that I can't carry every song I own with me everywhere I go at all times!" Hell, I didn't even have a CD player in my first (two!) cars, and did just fine with as many cassette tapes as I could cram in the glove compartment, under seats, in the side pockets, behind the sun visors, wherever. (Oh man... this has veered too far into "back in my day, sonny" territory.)

Anyway, there it is. I'm spoiled now. I got tired of deleting songs from my MP3 player just to make room for the new songs I was picking up. So I decided that I wanted to solve the problem "once and for all." (I write that in quotes as a sort of acknowledgement to the way that a few years from now, "all the space I'll ever need" will probably seem as laughable as the 30 GB does now compared to when I bought it.)

I picked up an iPod Classic. The 160GB model -- the biggest storage space they've got. None of that more hip iTouch stuff; those don't go bigger than 64GB right now, and that costs considerably more anyway. So anyway, now I can indeed have all my music with me whenever I want. And I can acquire three times as much music as I have now and still have all my music with me. So there.

It's not a flying car or a hoverboard, but it's pretty damn cool. And anyway, according to Back to the Future Part II, they've still got five more years to bring me those other things anyway.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

An Imperfect Getaway

It was a few months back that the movie A Perfect Getaway was playing in theaters. At first, I thought I had a little interest in seeing it, but then I sort of heard bad reviews about it and let it slide. Well, I could have sworn that since then, I heard one of my friends tell me it was worth checking out.

Only now that I have, none of my friends are confessing to ever having seen it. I have no idea who I think it was that pushed me to this movie. Not that I'm looking for someone to blame (or praise) -- I just can't remember where the recommendation came from.

Anyway, this movie was written and directed by David Twohy, the same man who filled those roles for The Arrival and Pitch Black. I tell you, had I known that ahead of time, I'm not sure anything short of bribery could have got me to watch this movie; I hated both of those other films. But too late, I had it now -- might as well watch it before sending it back.

So, A Perfect Getaway is about a young newlywed couple played by Steve Zahn and Milla Jovovich, honeymooning in Hawaii. They hear about a Bonnie and Clyde, Natural Born Killers type of couple on a murder spree through the islands, just as they happen across two separate couples (on different occasions) that each put out some suspicious vibes. Are they they next target? And if so, who are the killers?

One of the couples is Timothy Olyphant (of Deadwood) and Kiele Sanchez (who had a short run on Lost). The other is Chris Hemsworth (James Kirk's brave father in the newest Star Trek) and Marley Shelton (who, if you know from anywhere, you probably know from Death Proof).

Much to my surprise, the movie actually gets some good mileage in the first act out of the "which couple is it?" game. But as the second act unspools, the movie quickly becomes uninteresting, a descent made faster because the script is altogether too pleased with itself. See, Steve Zahn's character is a screen writer himself, and a great deal of the dialogue revolves around movie writing structure, red herrings, and plot twists. Get it, people?! We're setting up for the final act!!!

And then something even more surprising happened. The final act was actually pretty good. Oh, it's ludicrously over the top, crazy violent, and runs perilously close to cheating the audience... but it is somehow entertaining. I really can't get any more specific than that without compromising half the reason to see this movie, and the half that remained wouldn't be enough to be worth it all on its own.

So all I can say is that if you have some patience for some long, rough patches, and can forgive a writer for thinking himself too clever (because maybe, just maybe, he is), then you'll probably enjoy this movie. I rate it a B- overall.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010


I decided to kick off my movie watching this year with one of the more highly regarded movies of years' past, the 1992 Oscar-winning Best Picture, Unforgiven.

A lot of what I've read about the movie praised the way it removed all the gloss and glory of Westerns in a revolutionary way. Unfortunately, it's much easier to take this for granted now, nearly 20 years later. (20 years? Holy crap!) There have been a lot of "true" Westerns made since then, most notably in my mind the phenomenal television series Deadwood. In short, if there was a novelty here, that's since worn away.

Man, does this movie start slow. For the first half of the film, it actually plays out like two separate films. One of them features Clint Eastwood as a reformed gunslinger who tells us about 47 times per scene how he "ain't like that no more." I found this film-within-the-film to be plodding, slow, and boring. I think it tried to trade on audience knowledge of Eastwood the actor in the Spaghetti Western roles from earlier in his career. When this movie's anti-hero constantly protests "I ain't like that no more," we're meant to know exactly what "that" is by virtue of having seen it in other movies. This in turn is meant to build suspense and anticipation to see the caged beast unleashed later in the film.

Well, it happens that I haven't seen any of those earlier Eastwood Westerns. So to me, this entire plot felt like the same scene played out multiple times. The only anticipation it built in me was for a return to the other film-within-in-a-film.

Because let me tell you, that movie was terrific. Gene Hackman earns every ounce of the Best Supporting Oscar he won here for his role as bullying, power-mad sheriff Little Bill. His scenes throughout the first half of Unforgiven are the highlight of the entire film. We see a clear portrait of a dangerous tyrant that holds an entire town under his thumb. I found myself simultaneously excited and dreadful over seeing what he would do next.

At long last, the two "movies" finally merge with an hour to go. And fortunately, the Eastwood-centric plot soaks up the vigor of the Hackman plot, rather than dragging it down. The movie goes on to make some potent statements about violence and vengeance, whether a "leopard can change its spots," and leaves hanging the question of just what is justice.

It's just really a shame about that patchy opening act. Or requiring you to do homework on Clint Eastwood's career to be able to appreciate the opening act -- however, you prefer to see it. Overall, I'd say it still works out to a B; in the pool of Westerns, I'd nestle it just between 3:10 to Yuma (better than Unforgiven) and Appaloosa (just a touch worse). It's a film worth seeing.

But of course, I suspect most of you reading this already have.

Monday, January 04, 2010

2009 in Review -- Movies

2009 was a huge movie-watching year for me. I saw 188 movies throughout the year, three times as many as last year, and twice as many as any year since I started keeping track.

It's all due to Netflix. I'd put off subscribing for a long time, I suppose because I wondered if I'd get my money's worth out of it. That seems pretty ridiculous now -- I watched more than four times as many movies at home as I did in the theater. (to say nothing of the TV series I caught up on.)

Of all the movies I watched, just over 40 were released in 2009. There are still a few 2009 movies I intend to catch (mostly the major award contenders), but I've probably seen a wide enough base for me to give my own personal "top 10 list of 2009." (Or, at least, a provisional version.)

1. Up
2. Star Trek
3. Zombieland
4. (500) Days of Summer
5. Avatar
6. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
7. I Love You, Man
8. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
9. Paranormal Activity
10. Inglourious Basterds

It's a list that I'm pretty passionate about for the first three or four movies or so, that starts to taper off pretty quickly -- a list of movies I certainly think are all worth seeing, but that is also literally just the ten best I've yet seen from 2009. I'm hoping that at least one or two of the 2009 films I catch later will claim spots on the list.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

The Final Frontier of 2009 Games

As I briefly mentioned, the last board game I played in 2009 to finish off my "play all games" challenge was Star Trek: The Game. It's a trivia game I've had for something like 15 years without ever taking the shrink wrap off of it. I don't remember if it was a gift from someone who knew I liked Star Trek, or something I bought for myself at some toy store that's probably long out of business; either way, I suppose the thought was in the right place. But really, even though there are plenty of geeks in my circle of friends, few are geeky enough for a Star Trek trivia game.

Bravely, two of my friends sacrificed so I could complete my task. And as proved the case in a surprising number of the other "I can't believe we're playing this" games of 2009, there was some fun to be had in the experience, if not in the game itself.

The game board is a massive hex grid with four planets set on the four corners. You must fly your starship from the center out to each planet. After each die roll, you answer a trivia question to keep your turn. When you land on a planet, you answer a trivia question to score credit for reaching that planet. Once you've tagged all four planets, you return to Starfleet Command in the center of the board to win the game.

There are five different decks of trivia cards. On your way to the first planet, you must answer questions from the "Warp 1" deck. On your second, you go from the "Warp 2" deck, and so on through progressively harder questions in each category.

This is where the humor value came from. The "Warp 1" questions were laughably simple. We're talking "people who've never seen a single episode of Star Trek in their entire lives could probably answer 75% of these questions" simple. I think an actual question was "in the episode 'Elaan of Troyius,' what planet was Elaan from?" Or if not literally that, something of a very similar "who's buried in Grant's tomb?" nature.

Warp 2 wasn't that much tougher. It moved on to the sorts of questions you could take blind stabs at and get maybe 50-50 accuracy, so long as you knew the names of the major characters on Star Trek. Or if you paid attention, some detail in the way a question on one card was asked would help you answer a later question about the same episode on a later card. All the players in the game passed Warp 2.

But then Warp 3 started to get rough. And Warp 4 had me scratching my head a fair amount of the time.

And finally came the "Docking" cards, the ones you had to answer on your way back to the center to win the game. There were multiple questions on each card, and every time, your opponents could choose the question to ask. Now fortunately, we were all trying to end the game as quickly as possible, so my friends were always trying for the easiest question on the card, the one they thought I would have the best shot at knowing.

But even then, the game moved into "tell us a story" territory. A sample question: "At the end of the episode 'The Galileo Seven,' it appears that the shuttlecraft is not going to be able to reach the U.S.S. Enterprise, nor will it be able to land back on the planet. What action does Spock take as a last ditch effort to save them?" And the answer they're looking for? "He jettisons the remaining fuel and ignites it to create a flare, alerting the U.S.S. Enterprise to the shuttle's presence. The action is decidedly emotional, but come to by logical means."

So, I mean, how much of a stickler could you choose to be here? If someone answers, "he jettisons the shuttle fuel and ignites it," could the questioner be all "I'm sorry, your answer is incomplete" if you don't include that "decidedly emotional" nonsense? Again, we were trying to get the game over, so no one ever Trebeked me like that... well, not seriously anyway. We did have a few good laughs over moments like "oh no, I'm sorry, we were looking for 'Kirk fakes his own death, then disguises himself as a Romulan and sneaks back aboard the ship to steal the cloaking device."

In any case, it was good for a few laughs, and thankfully not that long to play in the grand scheme of thing. Still, it's only a game for the most devoted of the devoted Star Trek fans. Meaning I'm putting in the "get rid of me" game pile.

As I fully expected.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

I'm Dying to See You

For many months now, my car has had this peculiar little quirk I hadn't thought much about. It has an alarm system (not factory standard), which I don't really use for alarm purposes -- who the hell even pays any attention to a car alarm going off these days? I simply use it because, as anyone with auto door locks will tell you, locking and unlocking your car at the touch of a button is a handy frakking invention.

Well, the alarm is supposed to beep twice when you lock (arm) it, and once when you unlock (disarm) it. If the alarm has gone off in your absence, it beeps three times. Simple enough. Except that for going on what might be half a year now, it has beeped five times every time I unlock the car. I suppose I could (should?) have dug out the manual, but everything seemed to be just fine, so I didn't think anything of it. One of my friends even commented on the odd personality it gave my car; it clearly "missed me" while I was gone, and chirped its happiness to see me return.

Then, three days ago, I went out to run errands, tried to unlock my car, and nothing happened. The button on the key fob just wouldn't trigger anything. I went back inside my place, got the spare, and unlocked the car. Suspecting that the battery had just gone out in my fob, I went and got a replacement during that round of errands.

And ever since then, the car alarm has beeped just once when I unlock the car. So... it would appear that five beeps might mean "the battery in your fob is dying." A handy warning I suppose, except that as I said, this has been going on for half year, easily. Maybe longer. Has this "almost dead" battery really been functioning all this time? Damn!

At least it finally gave up the ghost while I was at home, in easy reach of the backup. I can only imagine the headache if, say, I'd been at work and couldn't disarm the damn thing to drive home.

Friday, January 01, 2010

2009 in Review -- Games

Happy New Year!!!

I usually start off a new year with a look back at the board games I played in the previous year. 2009 was a landmark year for this. As I'm sure nearly all of you know by now, I attempted to play every board game in my game collection at least once during the calendar year.

I may never have explained why I set this particular task to myself, though. It wasn't on a dare or a bet or anything like that. I just had reached the point where I felt like half the games in my collection were getting ignored. Now for some of those games, it was for a damn good reason; but I also felt like there were some great gems in there that had never been tried out since I arrived back in Denver, were long forgotten about, or just whatever. I figured if I played everything, we'd discover (or re-discover) some favorites to add into the rotation.

We'd also find a few things to put on the "sell me online" pile. And by the way, I resolved early on in this commitment that I would not escape out of an obligation to play a game by selling it before actually playing in once in 2009. There are a few ways in which some might say I cheated throughout the year, but that wasn't going to be one of them.

So the good news is, I did it. With two hours and forty-five minutes to spare on New Year's Eve, I completed the last game in my collection. It happened at the same house where, at a New Year's Eve Party 12 months earlier, the whole thing began -- a nice full circuit.

Before the rundown, a reminder of "what I count":

* Only board games and such get counted. PC and console games -- even the ones played with other people -- don't.

* Games of my own design that I played in the course of working on that design don't get counted.

2009 marked a big upswing in the number of games I played, as you might expect, given the circumstances. I didn't plan this at all, but as it turned out, I played exactly 365 games during the year, for an average of one a day. (That's not many to a guy like FKL, but is more than double my 2008 total.)

It totaled up to 185 different games I played. That's also higher than the total number of games I played in 2008. Again, you might expect this, given what I was trying to do -- but actually, a fair chunk of these games weren't even mine. 2009 also turned out to be a year where a number of my friends were also picking up more games of their own. Sangediver in particular really threw into the gaming spirit. All together, it really broadened the variety. Here's the list:

1 25 Words or Less
1 Adel Verplichtet
9 Agricola
1 Alhambra
3 Amun-Re
1 Anima
2 Apples to Apples
1 Arcana
1 Arkham Horror
5 Attika
1 Attila
1 Augsburg 1520
1 Ben Hvrt
1 Beyond Balderdash
2 Blackjack
1 Blokus
1 Bohnanza
1 Buffy the Vampire Slayer Board Game
1 Buzztime
6 Carcassonne (sometimes with various expansions)
2 Carcassonne: Hunters and Gatherers
2 Carcassonne: The City
1 Carcassonne: The Discovery
1 Carolus Magnus
1 Cartegena
1 Castle
2 Caylus
1 Chicago Express
2 Cineplexity
1 Citadels
1 Cities and Knights of Catan
1 Clans
1 Clue VCR Mystery Game
7 Code 777
1 Colossal Arena
1 Construction Game
1 Craps
1 Cribbage
1 The Da Vinci Code Board Game
1 Das Kollier
1 Der Untergang von Pompeii
1 Detroit-Cleveland Grand Prix
1 Doge
9 Dominion
1 Dominion: Intrigue
1 Drakon
1 Dvonn
2 Eketorp
1 El Grande
4 Endeavor
1 EuroRails
1 Family Business
1 Fruit Bandits
2 Galaxy Trucker
1 Give Me the Brain
1 Global Chess
1 Goa
1 Goldland
1 Great Dalmuti
1 Guillotine
1 Hey! That's My Fish!
1 High Society
2 In the Year of the Dragon
1 Incan Gold
3 Industria
1 Iron Dragon
1 Java
2 Kingsburg
1 Linie 1
1 La Citta
1 Loaded Questions
1 Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation
7 Loot
2 Lost Cities
1 Lost Cities: The Board Game
2 Louis XIV
1 MageStones
2 Maharaja
1 Masquerade
1 Medieval Merchant
1 Metallurgie
1 Metro
1 Mexica
1 Mission Red Planet
2 Modern Art
1 Monopoly: Star Trek Edition
1 Monopoly: Star Wars Edition
2 Mystery of the Abbey
1 Naval War
1 New England
1 Nightmare
1 No Merci
4 Notre Dame
2 Oasis
2 Oceania
1 Odin's Ravens
1 Once Upon a Time
2 Outburst II
2 Pack & Stack
2 Palazzo
1 Pass the Bomb
1 Pente
1 Perudo
1 The Play's the Thing
21 Poker
1 Power Grid
1 The Princes of Florence
1 Proteus
1 Pueblo
10 Puerto Rico
1 Pyramidis
1 Ra
1 Ra - The Dice Game
19 Race for the Galaxy (with varying expansions)
5 Ricochet Robot
1 Ricochet Robots
1 Risk
1 Risk: Lord of the Rings Edition
1 Robo Rally
1 Rummikub
1 Samurai
1 San Juan
1 San Marco
1 Scattergories
1 Scotland Yard
1 Scrabble
1 Seafarers of Catan
6 Set
2 Settlers of Catan
1 Silverton
2 Sleuth
1 Slide 5
3 Snorta
1 SpaceBeans
8 Space Alert
3 Squint
1 Star Trek Board Game
1 Star Trek: The Next Generation Board Game
2 Steam
1 Stephenson's Rocket
2 Stone Age
5 Stonehenge (once for each of the 5 rules sets it comes with)
1 Taboo
1 Tales of the Arabian Nights
1 Talisman
1 Tamsk
2 Thebes
1 Through the Desert
1 Thurn and Taxis
2 Thurn and Taxis: Power and Glory
1 Ticket to Ride
2 Ticket to Ride: Europe
2 Ticket to Ride: Marklin Edition
1 Ticket to Ride: Mystery Train Expansion
2 Ticket to Ride: Switzerland
2 Ticket to Ride: USA 1910
2 Tigris and Euphrates
1 Tikal
4 Time's Up
4 Time's Up: Title Recall
3 Too Many Cooks
1 Torres
2 Tower of Babel
2 Traders of Genoa
3 TransAmerica
1 Tribbles
1 TriBond
1 Trivial Pursuit: SNL Edition
1 Trivial Pursuit: Star Wars Edition
1 Trivial Pursuit: Warner Bros. Edition
2 Union Pacific
1 Uno
1 Uno: Star Trek Edition
5 Up and Down
1 Vampire
1 Verrater
2 Vikings
1 Wallenstein
1 Werewolf
1 Willow Game
1 Wings of War
4 Witch's Brew
6 Wits and Wagers
1 Wooly Bully
6 Yspahan

So, random observations about the list:

For another consecutive year, poker was my most played game. If you don't count that, Race for the Galaxy takes the prize. Honestly, that's not a top favorite of mine because of the relatively low degree of player interaction. But it is pretty good for being quick, and that short run time means it gets played a lot in my group.

Hooray, Puerto Rico's back! Those of us who love it play it when the weirdos who don't aren't around, or when there are enough people to support two games.

Among the better "finds" in the collection (again, the real point of my challenge) were Amun-Re, Tigris and Euphrates, and San Marco.

For a mass-market, licensed board game, the Buffy the Vampire Slayer Game is surprisingly good.

Carcassonne is really at its best with almost no expansions, I've decided.

The times we played Monopoly and Uno this year didn't completely suck. That said, I don't expect to ever play either one again.

Yes, I played both Ricochet Robot (my copy) and Ricochet RobotS (friend's copy). The latter has the weird angled walls that let some robot colors pass through them.

The first game played of the year? Witches' Brew. The last? The Star Trek board game, a nutty trivia game probably worthy of its own post in the near future.

So, on to gaming in 2010! And no, I'll not be repeating the "must play everything" challenge again. The purpose was served.