Sunday, February 28, 2010

A Long Time Coming

I've been seeing trailers for Martin Scorsese's latest film, Shutter Island, for more than half a year. Originally scheduled for release last October, it just kept getting pushed back again and again. The longer it took to get here, the less sure I was that I'd want to actually see it when it finally arrived. I was getting the distinct impression that with each new, re-cut trailer, I was getting closer to actually seeing everything about the movie before it was ever released. I guess this is part of why I didn't rush out to go see it last weekend, when the movie was finally released. But it also seemed like people were saying mostly good things about it, so this weekend I decided to take a chance.

It turns out that almost everything I didn't actually see already in a trailer, I could pretty much guess within the first two minutes. This movie is following an incredibly predictable path. Maybe one or two of the details along the way are surprising, but anyone who's seen a few of these kinds of movies is going to know exactly what the mystery of Shutter Island long before the answers arrive.

That said, the movie isn't without merit. It may have a mostly pedestrian, predictable script, but aside from that, the movie is very expertly made. I've never been one to worship at the altar of Scorsese, but he really displays his move making prowess here. He has a perfect sense of every detail -- framing, pacing, editing, staging, atmosphere, performance -- and how they all assemble to make a compelling whole. While you could make the case that some films are better with the artistry and craftsmanship is invisible, this isn't such a movie. It's all on display, and can really be admired. The acting is also very good. Leonardo DiCaprio carries the movie well enough, but it's the other actors -- particularly Ben Kingsley and Mark Ruffalo -- that add much needed nuance.

And while that final act is exactly what you expect it to be, I should note that the movie does have a "coda" of sorts, one final scene, that actually is... well, I don't know if the word is "surprising," exactly, but it does add a strong dramatic, emotional punch just before the credits roll.

In all, it might be a movie to catch as a rental somewhere down the line, but definitely not one to rush out to the theater for. I rate it a C+.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

There Is Another Sky

I said of last week's Caprica episode that I hoped they'd keep still keep improving, taking more steps toward realizing the great potential within the show. Much to my enjoyment, I think they did. Better than any episode so far, I think this episode really put a lot of the characters in some rough situations. No easy answers. In some cases, not even a tough decision to make -- just "here's how it is; deal with it."

Imagine having to rip your own arm off. You know that it won't "hurt," practically speaking, and yet every instinct you have is fighting your will.

Imagine feeling all the pain and suffering of a lethal gunshot wound, and yet not dying. Multiple times. You just have to endure the torture until it ends.

Imagine going through hell to escape a prison, only to find out there is no escape.

Imagine being consumed by grief over your wife and daughter, spending a month trying somehow to get over it... then finally coming to terms with it, only to learn almost at that very moment that your daughter is still alive.

Now we're getting into the good stuff.

I think perhaps Caprica has been trying to push too many plot threads along every week. They were able to focus things better this week and score some of these strong dramatic moments by sitting a few of their plots on the bench. (Clarice and her STO students; the cops investigating the train bombing; Lacy's quest on behalf of Zoe; even Zoe herself and her story, as she only appeared in one minor scene.) And there were even a couple of nice scenes besides, such as Amanda's story of Daniel's first big break, and Sam's verbal jab at Joseph over "losing" his son.

Still, the hour didn't always fly by. For example, while the major dramatic moments within the Tamara storyline were effective, the story itself dragged a bit at times. The "trappings" of the story, of a "rundown virtual Caprica city," a group of thugs from which something has to be stolen, a double-crossing gangster-type who promises something that can't be delivered... we've seen these elements many places before, and this episode of Caprica didn't really offer any new details to spice things up. But such things were indeed just window dressing; the key moments did work.

So in all, I'd say Caprica continues to take strides in the right direction. I'll be looking forward to next week.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Start the Presses

For a while now, Netflix has been telling me that I would probably like this movie from a few years back, Shattered Glass. I'd been ignoring/putting it off for a while, but then recently I read an article praising the top 10 film performances of this recently completed decade. There on the list was Peter Sarsgaard, for his work in this movie. I was just talking about what a great performance I thought he'd given in An Education, so I decided to give the movie a chance.

Shattered Glass is the true story of young journalist Stephen Glass (get it?), who wrote for a prestigious magazine in the late 1990s. When another news organization starts digging into the facts surrounding one of his published articles, it begins to appear that some of the things he wrote about might have been embellished... or even fabricated entirely.

This young journalist is played by Hayden Christensen, and if thoughts of wooden acting immediately fill your head at that name, Star Wars fans, let me reassure you that you won't find any here. Here -- as in Life as a House, he shows that as a director, George Lucas can make anyone look bad. (Assuming you didn't already know that from Natalie Portman, Ewan McGregor, and Liam Neeson, among others.) He's not giving a riveting performance, but it is a credible one, as you watch a young man's carefully constructed work life begin to crumble around him.

Peter Sarsgaard plays the editor of the magazine, who must dig deeper into Glass' entire career at the magazine. To be honest, I'm not quite sure what about this performance prompted anyone to rank it as one of the decade's 10 best. It's not a flashy role by any stretch of the imagination. Still, he does a good job with it. In any other movie like this, his character would likely be the protagonist of the tale; here he's almost an antagonist to Glass' slightly heroic character, but he walks the line in a careful enough way to balance the story. Ultimately, there's no one to "root for" or to outright hate in this movie, and that's as it should be.

Some other people you'll likely recognize show up in the film, though all of them are in smaller parts: Chloƫ Sevigny, Rosario Dawson, Hank Azaria, and Steve Zahn. The story really boils down to a clash between Christensen and Sarsgaard's characters, so the rest of them mainly just serve to shepherd the plot along.

Ultimately, the movie is fairly entertaining, but also fairly predictable. It's also more of an intellectual ride than an emotional ride. As I mentioned, there's not really anyone to root for in a tale like this, so there's also not any person or people to get caught up with. Still, most movies based on real life events -- particularly movies made so soon after the events they chronicle -- rarely have this much entertainment value. I guess Netflix was right; I did mostly like this movie. I rate it a B-.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Run Away

I've been occasionally trying to catch up on the "classics" when I watch movies. That covers not just the award-winning greats, but on this occasion, a sci-fi pinnacle: Logan's Run. It turns out that it simultaneously represents both the best and the worst of science fiction.

In the "best" column, it uses the medium as it should be used -- to propose an alternate existence as a vehicle for telling a story with social relevance that can't be told in a modern, real world setting. In this case, as most of you will probably know, the world is a distant future in which people are executed on their 30th birthday as a means of population control inside their domed city. Not that the movie much explores the social ramifications of this, to be honest, but the building blocks are there.

In the "worst" column, the movie is relentlessly hokey and cheap. I hate it when sci-fi books and films use made up words for things all over the place just to remind you that it's sci-fi. In Logan's Run, you get "protein of the sea" for fish, "Red-6" for 26 years old, and dozens of more examples of preposterous terminology. And even though a fortune must have been spent in 1976 dollars to make this film, it looks terrible; the models for wide establishing shots look like models (water doesn't miniaturize, people!), the costumes look like children's Halloween stuff, every layer of each effects composite is painfully obvious.

The acting is terrible to match. Michael York stars, and is really the best of the lot. Still, when he speaks in disbelief, there's an undercurrent more that he can't believe he's saying this crap more than actually reacting in the moment. The cast is a staircase descent from there, a very steep one with Farrah Fawcett at the bottom, who delivers every line as if reading off a cue card. (At a landing somewhere in the middle, you'll find Peter Ustinov, going on for a full minute of screen time about naming cats.)

The movie seems to ape several classic Star Trek episodes -- and not the good stuff. The hero spends half the movie in a slashed and tattered uniform. People give stilted speeches contrasting one society to another. Fight sequences look phony and robotic.

In short, a good setup at the core is the only thing this movie has going for it. I've heard a fair amount of the original book was changed in the creation of the screenplay. Perhaps that original work is more worthy. This film barely scrapes by with a D-.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Die Another Day

I recently watched a small, independent horror film called The Deaths of Ian Stone. What little fame the film enjoys is thanks to it being showcased a few years ago as one of the films in the After Dark Horrorfest. In a nutshell, it's a one weekend film festival that plays in several cities around the world, running around eight low-budget horror films for people to take in.

Traditionally, six or seven of these are terrible. At least, so I've heard. I've never attended any of the films this way, but I have a couple of horror movie junkie friends who try to see them all every year, and even they, who will give almost any film a break, say most of the Horrorfest films have not found wide distribution for reason.

But The Deaths of Ian Stone was supposed to be one of the good ones. For what it's worth, it does have a minor amount of star power attached to it. Well, okay, not star power, but recognition factor. Stars Mike Vogel and Jaime Murray will be recognizable to anyone who saw Cloverfield and season two of Dexter, respectively.

I can't tell you exactly what the film is about without revealing my opinion that the script is the weakest part of the thing, a horror-themed knock-off of the brilliant Dark City. The title character is being stalked by shadowy phantoms of an unknown nature, who kill him in violent and varied ways, only to wake up immediately in a new life to repeat the process again. The same people surround him, but everyone is in a new role, unaware of anything that has gone before. Poor Ian Stone must figure out what the hell is going on and break the cycle. Like I said, the script is the weak point. The movie gets decreasingly sensical, and increasingly like Dark City, the farther it goes along.

But the film has other merits. The acting is pretty solid. In particular, Jaime Murray brings a delicious but different brand of twisted and wicked from the character she played on Dexter.

The real triumph, though, is the visual element of the film. For being made on such a small budget, the movie looks pretty fantastic. The shadowy creatures have a really effective and sinister look to them, and evoke a good amount of tension whenever they appear... at least, until the movie starts to demystify them in the final act. Directors and behind-the-scenes people who can produce stuff like this for next-to-no money are the sorts of people who deserve the sort of ridiculous budget that hundreds of less skilled directors get from major studios to churn out mass market crap.

Overall, though, The Deaths of Ian Stone might not quite be worth my recommendation. If you like independent films, or are really into horror movies, then you -- like me -- will probably find more to like here than dislike. Still, it's not going to jump to the top of your favorite movies list. I rate it a C+.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010


This week's installment of Lost didn't quite pack the punch of last week's powerful Locke-centric hour, but still delivered its share of good moments.

The "sideways" version of Jack was revealed this week to be rather significantly different from the "main" version, much more so than any of the other sideways characters we've seen so far. Divorced in any reality, but a father in this one? The "father trying not to be like his father" story is one that's been told many times, but it can be an effective one when you're invested in the character enough. And even though this is a different Jack, we still bring five seasons of history with us to watch this story -- so I think that qualifies.

On the Island, I found the Claire storyline to be the most interesting one this week. She came on very Danielle Rousseau-like, and I think that's entirely intentional. In fact, skipping ahead for a moment, we saw Rousseau's name crossed out on the lighthouse compass at the end of the episode; whether it's the truth or not, we are clearly meant to consider the possibility that whatever happened to her is what has happened to Claire. (And, if the Temple Dwellers are to be believed, what will happen to Sayid.)

We played all the same beats with Claire that we've seen with Danielle in the past. She was crazed over losing her child to the Others. She was leaving traps all over the jungle. She had no problems torturing (and killing) someone that she captured.

And now we know, from the final moment of the episode, that she's allied herself with Smokey. If this too is what happened to Rousseau, it certainly paints everything involving her from the first few seasons in a new light. (Though it does explain how she lived with we saw the smoke monster kill nearly everyone else she landed with.)

Props to Jin for figuring out what kind of crazy he was dealing with, and trying to maneuver himself back to safety by tricking Claire back to the temple. Too bad UnLocke showed up in time to stop him.

The Hurley/Jack storyline was a mixed bag. The best moments were the hints of connection to the Sideways Jack storyline -- talk of what kind of father he'd be, and of the death of his father. And a few clever lines from Hurley always brings a smile to your face. Whether the other elements of the storyline were worthwhile may require us to look back from a few episodes down the road; for now, it doesn't seem worth the time to mention Shannon again, or the two dead bodies they found in the cave back in season one. (Their identity and/or explanation was never anything I was honestly dying to know until the writers went and brought it up again. So hopefully, this was a calculated move on their parts.)

Of course, it all culminated with the discovery of the lighthouse. I liked the couple lines devoted to explaining how our heroes could have missed it. (Jacob's cabin also couldn't be found unless you were looking for it, so why not this?) What were we really seeing in that mirror? The past? The Sideways reality? I was curious, but less so than in anything else about the episode, since you knew from the moment that Jack starting flipping out that Jacob's plan was for Jack to flip out.

If the pattern continues, next week we'll be back on the Locke-ness Monster and his ever-growing back of recruits, running tandem with Ben, Sun, and Ilana on their own way to the temple. This seems like it might be getting very close to finally reuniting some characters who haven't shared a scene together in more than a season now... something I'm actually really looking forward to.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Day 8, 12:00-1:00 AM

We're 1/3 of the way through the season, so that means if we're following the typical 24 season arc, this is going to be the episode where we start to have role reversals on our new characters.

It starts with our Presidents, Taylor and Hassan reversing their roles into "not appearing this week."

And now we're bringing in a lawyer to "be the bigger jerk than the boss," perhaps the first move in attempting to soften Hastings? (How hunched over will someone else have to walk to look like more of a thug than Hastings?)

Jack says Renee did nothing wrong. Nothing? Not even the thumb severing and Jack stabbing?

Cole will back at CTU "within the hour." (Drink!)

"The Americans are not stupid." Of course, they haven't been watching these two idiots involved in Dana Walsh's subplot.

It's taking these guys like 15 minutes and a fork lift to unload the rods from the van. Josef apparently moved them all by himself last episode in like 60 seconds.

Now Farhad gets his role reversal, trying to talk to CTU.

Hastings gives his word to Hassan... in the same scene where Jack was confronting him about not keeping his word.

Between Farhad's double hooker escapade a few weeks ago and Dumb and Dumber's van buddies, this might be the most hooker-heavy 24 season ever.

To run this new operation, Hastings gets the youngest boy in CTU since that baby Kim had to watch back in season three.

The writers are tired of making up new reasons for Jack to stay on the case, hence the "deal" with Hastings.

Cole was totally wrong about being back at CTU by now.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Sounds Good

I recently watched a quirky little movie from last year called Cold Souls. Paul Giamatti plays "himself," struggling with his performance in a theatrical production; he's getting too connected with the role. Help comes when he learns of a service that will extract your soul and place it in storage, freeing one up from the burdens of day to day life. He undergoes the procedure only to find himself even more unhappy with his soulless performance. But restoring his own soul becomes complicated when he gets mixed up with an illegal underground Russian soul trade.

If this all sounds rather Being John Malkovich to you... well, it is. Or at least, it wants very much to be that. The movie makes stabs at bizarre humor, emotional pathos, black comedy, and existential philosophy. The trouble is, it all sounds much better on paper than it actually ends up being in practice.

There's just something that feels more "forced" than "odd" about the humor. The points the story tries to make about the human soul are rather superficial and uninteresting. The characters are more strange than deep. The whole is considerably less than the sum of the parts.

But the movie isn't a complete loss. Paul Giamatti's performance is really excellent. He mines humor ably from the lunacy of the situations, but his real triumph here is playing a struggling actor. At various point in the movie, we get to see him perform excerpts from the play he's starring in. We get him sadly conflicted about the role; later we see him comically disconnected from it after the extraction of his soul; finally we see a heart-breaking performance as he totally connects with the material. Each version is skilled and nuanced, and completely effective even without any of the rest of the actual play there to provide context. It may not seem like a compliment, given that he's playing "himself," but this is one of Paul Giamatti's best performances.

But unfortunately, it's for a movie that sounds much more clever than it actually is. I was disappointed overall, and would only rate Cold Souls a C-.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

False Prophecy

On a bit of a lark, I decided to watch the movie The Prophecy not long ago. Not the 1979 Prophecy about a giant killer bear-monster-thing, but the 1995 film in which Christopher Walken plays a vengeful angel.

In fact, Walken is pretty much the reason I wanted to see the film. I find him pretty much awesome in everything. And yet, you can plainly see that the man has no taste. Or maybe it's no shame. Point being, he likes to work, and he doesn't seem too particular about what he's working in. He's made some great movies in his long career, and he's signed on for utter crap.

Sadly, I found Prophecy to be more in the latter camp. The plot of the movie is supposed to be about a "war" involving the angels, some of whom are rebelling out of jealousy for the freedom bestowed on man by God. But this is the talkiest war with the smallest number of confrontations that has ever been put on film. Really, you just watch a couple drive around from place to place with this young kid who's "important," occasionally pursued by Walken's angel, Gabriel.

I'll give Walken credit -- he chews some scenery and makes it enjoyable. That's exactly what I wanted from this movie. And he's not the only one, either. Viggo Mortensen also shows up as Lucifer, and in a top notch performance, he delivers the killer line of the movie: "Your war is arrogance. That makes it evil. That's mine."

But the rest of the movie is a worthless mess. Hokey and boring even at the time it was made, I think it's been rendered even more obsolete by the awesome couple of seasons the TV series Supernatural has been having (dealing in a much more powerful and cooler way with not-nice angels). Even the Walken factor just isn't enough to make The Prophecy worth seeing. I give it a D-.

Friday, February 19, 2010


When the last episode of Caprica ran two weeks ago, I didn't offer up any thoughts about it. Then -- and now -- I'm still trying to suss out just what I feel about the series. I'm still trying to find narrative footing in this show that doesn't really come in hour-long installments with their own beginnings, middles, and ends.

I was just discussing the first book of A Song of Ice and Fire, A Game of Thrones, with a friend today over lunch, and suddenly I see a similarity to the start of that (still ongoing) epic fantasy series. It took about 250 pages into that book before I really started "liking" it; it took that long to really get a handle on who all the characters were, what the story was really going to be "about," and so forth.

So I'm feeling with Caprica. Every new hour, I feel like I'm getting one more piece of the puzzle, but I still haven't seen the picture it's supposed to be. It's not that I have anything against a highly serialized television show; I watch several right now. But to make a comparison to, say, Lost -- this is a show that's trying to unspool character and story in equal measure right now. Lost, by contrast, opened up with a much more heavy emphasis on character. Before we had any idea about "the hatch" or "the Others," we had a spectacular and powerful episode in which we learned Locke was confined to a wheelchair before the crash. We learned that Kate was a fugitive being escorted back into custody.

Caprica hasn't delivered these kinds of emotional feasts for the characters yet. Nor has it delivered the heightened tension of early Battlestar Galactica episodes like 33. But I think it is improving.

Tonight's episode was peppered with a few moments that touched on something deeper. We had that unsettling argument between Daniel and Amanda early in the episode, punctuated with the sucker punch: "We're parents!" "No, we're not."

We got our first real look at just how dark a character Grandma Adama really is; Sam no longer feels like the most dangerous member of the family. Listening to her express her thirst for murder and vengeance so coldly, or give advice to young William about the value of extorting things you want from your enemies... strong stuff.

Less effective was the appearance of the Greystones on the talk show. I can see what the writers were aiming at... a dramatized version of the "public apology and circuit of shame" that seems par for the course for scandals in real life these days. (Hell, we just went through it today with Tiger Woods.) But I somehow didn't feel like the emotions quite resonated, and by episode's end, I felt like the couple was actually getting off rather lightly for the sort of dark and brooding drama I've come to expect from Ron Moore.

But then, maybe that's part of my uncertainty surrounding Caprica too. I very much feel the absense of Ron Moore as a major writing presence on the show. He ran the writer's room at Battlestar Galactica and took a major role in the day to day operations of the show. He has not continued that role on Caprica. Though still a contributor, "show running" duties were handed off to Jane Espenson (for the episodes we're watching now, anyway; about mid-season, as I understand it, they were -- will be? -- handed off again to Kevin Murphy).

Now, I have liked Jane Espenson's work in the past, particularly on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly. But I'm not sure her voice is a strong enough one to be running a series of her own. (I suppose others, possibly including herself, thought so too. Hence the change of the guard?) Regardless, I'm not really here to see a "Galactica prequel," I'm here for "another Ron Moore sci-fi show." And thus far, I'm only seeing hints of that once or twice an episode. I'm not feeling the punch of a Galactica episode.

Hell, Ron Moore doesn't even do the podcasts for Caprica -- at least so far. He's handed that responsibility off to his partner, David Eick.

So while I still think the show has potential, I'm still waiting to see it gel for a full one-hour episode. I want more scenes with weight to them, like Polly Walker as Clarice expressing her frustration over the school locker searches. I want less scenes of ridiculous robot dancing lessons. (By the way, if the robot really was moving the way we saw the Zoe-Avatar move, I would think it hard not to notice something distinctly "feminine" about it.)

Hopefully, we'll take further strides forward next week.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Science Infraction

It seems that Bruce Willis likes science fiction. He'll go along for a stretch taking roles in more "conventional" Hollywood fare, but then every now and then, he'll go and make a movie like 12 Monkeys or The Fifth Element, showing that he really has a soft spot for scifi.

Of course, they can't all be as good as 12 Monkeys or The Fifth Element. Which brings me to last year's Surrogates. The movie is set in a future where robotic technology allows people to transfer their consciousness into a completely lifelike robot. The technology has almost completely saturated the world, and led to a lifestyle where people never really go out in public for real. Instead, they jack into a chair in their homes, transfer into a robot, and go out into the world that way. It allows people to present whatever version of themselves they want to the rest of the world, and take part in any manner of dangerous activities they choose without risk of personal bodily harm. The violent crime rate has dropped to be virtually non-existent -- destroying a robot isn't murder, just a form of vandalism.

It's a kind of intriguing premise. Somewhere in there, an author like Philip K. Dick could probably have probed some fascinating moral and social issues under this umbrella. The whole thing is based on a graphic novel; perhaps the source material did exactly that.

The movie, however, leaves behind the intellectual material almost immediately, opting instead for typically mindless action. Bruce Willis somehow becomes the one man who can stop a group of people from undermining this "paradise" with their efforts to make people see that embracing "robot surrogacy" is wrong -- even though he is conflicted on the subject himself. (See, he's a deep character, folks!) There are foot chases, car chases, helicopter chases, fist fights, gun fights, chases, fights, chases, fights, chases! And all packed into an easily digestible little 90 minute package so your poor wittle attention span doesn't get too strained.

And it's all capped off with a ludicrous climax. You have to either accept that some slobbish computer hacker figures out a one-button fix to a problem in 15 seconds that a revolutionary genius couldn't unravel with years to work on it; or accept that said genius, once a man with dreams of helping all humankind, is now the sort of man eager to kill billions. Either way, it blows.

Of course, even in the good Bruce Willis scifi films, a large part of the appeal is to see him in the big action beats. He's got a gift for it, and it's well on display here. Also, the film is rather well realized visually. If only the scriptwriters had put half the thought into making a coherent universe as the art department clearly did, there might have been something worthy of the grand promise of the film's setup. As it is, it's a C+ effort at best.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Swimming with the Dolphins

For a few months now, I've been hearing good things about the recent documentary The Cove. And then it scored an Oscar nomination a few weeks back, and seems to be considered the "front runner" in the category. I decided to check it out and see for myself.

It's a film that looks at a particular location in a particular town in Japan, a notorious site for the capture and slaughter of dolphins. The film overall is a look at the Japanese whaling and dolphin hunting industry, with a particular lens on this one hidden cove, out of sight from the public, where dolphins are herded in large groups for brutal slaughter. The makers of the film run a sort of guerrilla operation trying to get secret cameras and sound equipment into the cove so that they can prove the existence of the rumored killing field, and reveal that the killings of the dolphins happens in much greater numbers -- and not at all as humanely -- as people might want to believe.

The film turns out to be surprisingly suspenseful, and has a good deal more going on in it than the simple "save the cetaceans"-type message you might expect. It all stems from the "secret mission" vibe. At times, it plays like a sort of real-life (but low budget) episode of Alias or Mission: Impossible or some such, watching this coordinated team trying to sneak in somewhere and plant listening devices of a sort.

It also has compelling "characters." You get to learn about the man who used to train all the dolphins for the television show Flipper, now a staunch crusader against keeping dolphins in captivity. You meet the special effects artists enlisted to create ways of camouflaging cameras and microphones. Even the filmmakers themselves are personalities in their own movie. In short, though the film may be a documentary, the people and plot of it all provides a lot of the entertainment value of a scripted drama.

But where the movie falls down just a bit is in conveying its truly intended message. It doesn't educate as well as it entertains, if you will. I think the filmmakers grew so close to their cause in the making of the piece that they lost a little objectivity. For them, their film's message seems manifestly obvious. And arguably, by the end of the movie, you'll see and feel that too. But getting to that ending? I was less convinced.

The movie really seems to just take it as a given that from the first minute, you -- like they -- are 100% on board with the cause of saving the cetaceans. Personally, though the cause might indeed be just, I started with the feeling that it was a little 1980s. And I might even consider myself on the more receptive end of the spectrum. If you're the sort of person to consider this "tree hugger crap," the movie doesn't really make much of an effort to persuade you. Perhaps the filmmakers assume such a person won't watch their movie anyway. Or perhaps they assume that once they obtain this footage they hope to capture, that it will simply speak for itself.

In any case, I did still find the movie rather enjoyable. I'd rate it a B-.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Substitute

I enjoyed tonight's episode of Lost, even though the show is now dancing dangerously close to Star Trek V-like "what does God need with a starhip?" territory. At least, this appears to be what's going on with the Locke-ness Monster -- he's trapped on the Island, and needs someone else to consent to help him escape. Will Sawyer be that dupe? Probably not, in the long run... but tune in next week!

For this week, in the meanwhile, it was a real showcase for actor Terry O'Quinn. First, he tore into his new role as the incarnation of the Man in Black with relish. I especially loved the way he tossed digs in at Jacob's expense that were poking fun at the show itself... "He was really into numbers," for example.

It was also an interesting little twist for Sawyer that he could immediately tell Locke was not Locke, even though Ben -- and the audience -- were fooled for nearly half a season. Even after years living in the Dharma Initiative, he's still a con man at heart, and could see through the con. (And presumably, if his head clears enough, he'll see through the latest con, too.)

Sliding sideways, we got a neat story for the real Locke. He ended up with Helen in this world, but still wasn't ultimately happy until the events of this episode itself. And maybe still not, really... I liked the way this episode ended. If we were never to see this Locke again (but I wouldn't bet on that), you could take the conclusion of this episode either way -- maybe he'll now be happy with Helen, but maybe he won't be happy enough with himself for that to happen. Pepper in some fun appearances from Rose, Hurley, and Ben in this storyline, and the ongoing saga of "what if?" continued to entertain.

For fans of the Island mysteries, freeze frames of the cave wall should provide something to chew on while waiting for the next hour...

Monday, February 15, 2010

Day 8, 11:00 PM-12:00 AM

Dana finally discovers what we all knew several episodes ago -- that the Dopey Duo isn't just going to up and leave after the job's done.

Bazhaev really needs carrots at 11:00 at night. Are they going to torture Jack or serve him vegetable stew?

Josef has buried his brother's body. He re-paved and everything.

Of course, you want to keep the probably radioactive jewelry.

The president wants to know the chances of recovering the nuclear rods within a few hours. This being episode 8 of the season? Zero.

The rods will be arriving "within the hour." (Drink!)

Stabby McThumbslicer is back at CTU.

Jack goes all monkey toes.

I think all that hairspray is killing President Hassan's brain cells.

Jack picks up an inferior cell phone without Sprint product placement on it. Of course it doesn't work.

"Dammit." (I think that's what he said, at least. Just to be safe... drink!)

"Keep your men out of sight, along the perimeter" (Drink! Vodka, because it's the Russian's perimeter.)

For a moment, I thought they were implying that Bazhaev was dead. Which I believed possible, because Jack is badass enough to kill a man without even trying.

NYPD has their "perimeter" locked down. (Drink!)

Doesn't this make you want a Palm Pre?

They talk more about immunity on this show than they do on Survivor.

Did this fresh-faced red shirt guy win a contest or something to get all this camera time?

Did Josef move that big metal case all by himself?

The way all these people are getting so close to these rods and remaining just fine makes you wonder what the hell Bazhaev's dead son was doing to become contaminated. What, did he take them out and lick them?

Sunday, February 14, 2010

You Can't Be Serious

You'd think that so soon after the "Scanners Incident", I'd have at least paced myself before heading into another movie I was almost certain not to like. No such luck. I had A Serious Man sitting here, already received from Netflix.

This is the Coen Brothers' latest film, and that right there should tell you why I expected not to like it. I've seen several of their movies, and never really liked any of them. I only somewhat liked their Oscar winning No Country for Old Men. But there had been a lot of good press about this new movie, and it too has picked up a Best Picture Oscar nomination. Most critics and odd makers think it's not likely to win, though.

I say it had better not. It seems like every year, in the Best Picture category, there's at least one film where I just cannot understand how it ended up nominated. That seemed all the more likely with this year's expanded 10 movie category, and yet having seen 7 of the 10, I hadn't found the one yet. It's not that those seven would all necessarily make my list (indeed, most of them hadn't), but I thought they were at least "pretty good," and I could at least partly grasp the award talk.

A Serious Man, I just don't get. It's a disjointed mess with no real plot and no real point to make. It's simply one hour and 45 minutes of excruciating time in the life of a Jewish father and husband in the 1960s. I say excruciating not just in reference to my personal reaction to the film; on some level, it's supposed to be excruciating. The man is living an awful life, put on by everyone and everything, and wandering adrift without a spine to stick up for what he wants -- that is, if he even knew what that was.

Really, the film is just an opus about "being Jewish." This only real connective tissue in the film provides the only enjoyable scene for me in the entire thing; the pre-credits sequence. It's an extended, eight-minute scene involving a poor Jewish couple living in hard times at some undefined point in the past. It's not even meant to be literal, I think; it plays out like a fairy tale or fable, and is filmed in the 4:3 aspect ratio, unlike the rest of the movie, making it look like an older piece of film somehow restored from somewhere.

It doesn't really have anything to do with the rest of the film, but it is entertaining, as the couple argues over whether a man the husband met on the road is in fact the ghost of someone who died three years before. And then the possible ghost -- dybbuk -- shows up on their doorstep, in the personage of veteran actor Fyvush Finkel. The scene is both fun and a bit unsettling, though like the rest of the movie, it too goes nowhere -- ending without explanation and never again to come up in the rest of the movie. Perhaps this is foreshadowing, though, in that the entire movie itself has an unsatisfying non-ending... it just appears that at some point, the Coen Brothers had the camera taken away from them.

If only someone had done that before they started filming. I give this film a D-. Even with five extra Best Picture slots to spare, it was a waste spending one on this.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Your Head Asplode

What the hell was I thinking? I knew I wasn't going to like the movie Scanners. I just knew it. But somehow, I got convinced that I kind of needed to see it anyway.

If somehow you don't know this movie, it's David Cronenberg's famous 1981 bit of cult pulp, about a world where individuals with telekinetic powers are employed as weapons.

Well, really, it's the movie that's known for this:

And that's damn near the only thing worthwhile about this movie. The other thing would be actor Michael Ironside. As the 1980s rolled on, he would become very well known for playing over-the-top villains in more schlocky films (mostly sci-fi) than I can count, somehow bringing believability to the patently absurd. And it basically started here.

The script is stupid beyond imagination. The lead actor is robotic. The camera work is arch and obtrusive. The special effects -- aside from that somehow-it-still-kind-of-holds-up head exploding sequence -- are laughably bad. But somehow, Michael Ironside is watchable. As always, he makes evil fun.

But you don't have to sit through this awful mess to watch him do his thing. And if you watched the video above, you've seen the only 10 seconds of the film that stands on its own without his help. Scanners gets a D- from me.

I just knew I wasn't going to like it.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Dear Reader's Digest Cover

Have you ever even seen Mad Men? The show doesn't have a "wholesome" anything.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Back to School

It's considered by many to be director Mike Nichols' greatest film. It put Dustin Hoffman on the map. It's in the top 10 on the AFI's 100 Films list, and in the top 250 over at IMDb. In short, no movie could live up to the hype lavished on The Graduate. But I wasn't prepared for just how far short it fell.

To me, there are two key factors that make The Graduate an underwhelming movie. One is simply the passage of time. Though it may not be the movie's fault, this just shows its age in almost every frame. The very premise of the film is of a college graduate who doesn't know what he wants to do with his life. Alright, so that's a fairly timeless notion. But he falls into a relationship with an older, married woman -- his first relationship with any woman. That right there is where the times feel like they've left this movie far behind.

It's no coincidence that when more recent films have deliberately tried to ape this "Mrs. Robinson" story, they always shave four or five years off the young man's age, turning him into a high school student. The "no direction in life" story still works -- at any age, really -- but the "falling in with someone much older" just doesn't work for a young twenty-something anymore. It's not that unusual, not surprising or shocking... it's just not enough of a hook to build the whole movie around.

The other main flaw in this story is that the young man eventually ends his affair to pursue the woman's age-appropriate daughter. And here's a flaw that was baked into the movie at the time: the girl is just plain boring. Mrs. Robinson, as played by Anne Bancroft, is alluring, compelling, and seductive. You can see why young Benjamin Braddock would be taken in, and stay in the relationship for a long time.

By contrast, daughter Elaine, as played by Katharine Ross, is wooden, unexciting, and flat. Her character is only developed to the point where it seems like her "function" in the plot is to make Benjamin confront the reality of just how much older Mrs. Robinson is -- she has a daughter his age! Then, improbably, this shallow character is meant to be taken as a love interest worthy of competing with this far more interesting character.

In short, it's just impossible to believe that he would leave the mother for the daughter. The only thing she has to commend her is that she's more age-appropriate, and is going to be more difficult to get precisely because of his entanglement with the mother.

And so to me, it makes the ending of the film ultimately a major disappointment. Spoilers, I suppose, if you haven't seen this 40+ year old film, but in the end, Benjamin steals the daughter away from a potential marriage to someone else, and the two run off together, fleeing an irate family. Given how boring she is, given the knowledge that the only real attraction here can be the danger of it all, it seems inevitable what the real conclusion to this tale would be, some time after the final reel rolls. These two end up miserable -- either together, in a never-ending relationship with no thrills, or leaving each other because it just didn't work out.

Do other people see this too when they see this movie? Is that why it's so highly praised -- that it's an unhappy ending disguised as a happy one? I wonder. I can't get over the fact that half the movie seems to be working at odds against the other half, which isn't doing that much to commend itself in the first place.

Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft both give good performances in the film, and that's about the best I can say of it. I rate the Graduate a D+, and rank it among the most disappointing of the "classics" I've ever sat down to watch.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Devil I Say

I check the web site Rotten Tomatoes on a fairly regular basis for movie reviews. A few weeks back, they ran a feature (though sadly, I can't find the link right now) where they ran down top reviewed movies of 2009. It was divided up into several categories -- for example, you could find the top 5 documentaries, top 5 action films...

And top 5 horror films. This is how I came to hear of The House of the Devil. I knew only that it was available on Netflix, was quite well ranked at RT without even making allowances for it being a horror movie, and that it was released in 2009. That was it. And I decided that was enough. Every now and then, it's fun to go into a movie completely blind, with almost no idea what you'll be seeing. So that's how I decided to approach this one.

I don't want to reveal too much here and perhaps spoil you from having the same experience I had. I'll keep it simple and say that the movie is set in the 1980s, and one of the things that makes it really quite clever is that the movie looks like it was made in the 1980s. Director (and writer, but we'll come back to that) Ti West clearly loves films, because he knows a lot about how a film from that period looks and feels.

From camera angles to pacing, the look of everything from the film grain to the opening credits, if you didn't know this movie was released last year, I'd defy you to suspect it wasn't actually a film from the early 1980s. So apart from anything and everything else, it's a pretty effective piece of "period piece" filmmaking.

Then there's the script. Here, I will keep mum about specifics and just say that the film is an incredibly slow burn. For the first half hour, it's really almost too slow, and yet there does come a point where a sense of creeping dread slowly starts to come over you as you watch. And I can honestly say that after that point, the next 45 minutes are among the most tense I've ever seen on film.

And the really remarkable thing about it is that it's really all about suspense. I don't want to say that "nothing" happens, but what your mind is invited to conjure up does most of the work. Every move of the camera, every strange sound effect... I don't know, maybe I was a bit on edge or something. But I watched this movie with a friend, and by the one hour mark, we were both pretty seriously amped up.

In fact, I'd have to say that the suspense was really almost too great. Finally, the movie starts to roll out on-screen horrors, and it's not nearly as effective. At one point, the filmmaker pulls a page from the Hitchcock playbook and shows us, the audience, something that none of the characters gets to see. And oddly, rather than ratcheting up the tension, I actually thought it deflated it considerably. What we're shown is just not equal to all the random things we can imagine by that point in the movie. And while the movie does slowly start to reclaim the suspense again, things sort of come unraveled in the final 15 minutes. It ultimately becomes a more conventional affair; the movie just isn't as good at showing as it is at implying.

But even though the first 15 minutes and last 15 minutes don't really live up to the fantastic ride of the bulk of the movie, it's still well worth seeing if you're a fan of the genre. In fact, I'd rate it a B+ overall, which actually slides it into the #8 slot of my "Top 10 of 2009" list, and bumps another low-budget horror film, Paranormal Activity off the bottom.

I was very pleasantly surprised.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

What Kate Does

Another fine episode of Lost tonight to keep this final season rolling. Even more so than in last week's two hour premiere, this installment was full of powerful, emotional moments for the characters.

In the "sideways reality," we got to see a great story involving Kate and Claire. A lot of what worked about it is audience knowledge about how things went down in the original timeline. Young Aaron would eventually become a major bond between them, and here we got an alternate take on seeing that happen. Seeing Claire crushed and set adrift when her planned adoption falls out from under her, and then having Kate there to swoop in and catch her -- it was all strong stuff. And the reminder that Kate is still trying to reconnect with Claire in the main timeline was a great accent on it all.

But the real emotional sucker punch of the hour was Sawyer's story line. His quiet rage at the circumstances that saved Sayid but not Juliet would have been enough, but to see him go back to the ghost town that was the place he lived with her for years -- and then completely break down as we have never seen him break down before -- was a showcase of what I think Lost does best. And made all the more powerful by them doing it with a character who is usually so strong.

Along the way were other fun little grace notes in the episode, like the return of Ethan (extending his ridiculous number of appearances after having been killed), the discussion of whether Sayid is a zombie, and the emergence at the end of the episode of "Jungle Claire" (or, as the Others would have us believe, "Infected" or "Claimed" Claire).

A full meal, to be sure, and yet I still find myself hungrily awaiting the next episode.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Day 8, 10:00-11:00 PM

It's hard for Dana Walsh to be covert in this office with all these glass walls.

These two dumbasses had better touch as many things as possible without actually taking them to leave tons of fingerprints.

What kind of Russian mobster runs out of vodka?

Bazhaev wants his son buried behind the restaurant. They're in New York City. Where the hell are they that there's actually exposed earth behind a building?

I feel like I'm watching Dumb and Dumber: Criminal Intent.

All these cameras in the warehouse... do none of them actually record?

Jack will take the knife he's stabbed with and kill someone with it faster than you can pan the camera.

And now he needs a small band-aid for his bleeding gut wound.

Hastings chastises Dana to pull it together. She should shoot back, "yeah, as soon as you stand up straight."

Renee tells Jack, "I could have killed you." She really is messed up if she thinks that's true.

Jack softly "dammit"s. It's been near two hours of 24 since we've had to drink. Man, I'm thirsty.

How hard is it to reach the sewer conclusion here, CTU people?

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Incredible, Beautiful, Amazing!

The iPad has, overall, has had a lukewarm reception at best from the masses (outside the most hardcore of the Apple fans). I suppose there's a chance that when the real thing arrives, it could change some minds. Perhaps the product really will deliver, and it was just the presentation of it that was bad!

Maybe it was that the presentation was just too long, with too many words. If only they'd focused on the important words, and compressed it all down into, say, three minutes, maybe it would have gone over better.

Say, something like this:

See? I feel like I have to have whatever the hell they're talking about!

Saturday, February 06, 2010

A Learning Experience

So, I didn't mention anything earlier this week about the Oscar nominations coming out but... hey, the Oscar nominations came out. In the super-sized Best Picture category, I had seen six of the ten nominees. (This includes the should win but sadly won't win Up.) As of tonight, that number goes up to seven, because I went to see An Education.

This is considered one of the films that doesn't stand a chance, a movie that only got in because there were five extra nominees this year. And having seen it, I have to agree with that assessment. But it isn't a bad movie.

Set in Britain in the early 1960s, the story surrounds a sixteen-year old girl who falls into a romantic relationship with a charming and cultured older man who shows her a world more fun and exciting than the stuffy books her parents make her study so that she might attend Oxford. The rather straight-forward story takes a turn in the final act that brings the film a cut above standard fare, but the script really isn't the main strength of the movie.

No, that would be the acting. Much praise is being heaped upon the young newcomer who plays the girl, Carey Mulligan, but personally I don't quite see the fuss. She does well enough, but hers is not a very demanding role. She's simply the girl being swept off her feet.

The heavy lifting, in my view, is done by Peter Sarsgaard as the older man. He has to be the most perfectly charming man you've ever seen for this story to work. He has to charm the very intelligent girl. He has to charm the incredibly stern father of the girl. He has to charm the audience enough to never become too conscious of the fact that he's too old for this girl. And he does it all perfectly.

In any case, it's an actors' movie. Whether you choose to applaud Mulligan or Sarsgaard -- or some of the smaller roles played by Alfred Molina (the girl's father), Emma Thompson (principle of her school), or Olivia Williams (her concerned teacher) -- the performances are the backbone of the movie.

I personally wouldn't have considered this worthy of a Best Picture nod. Still, plenty of less-deserving films have received them -- and even won the award itself. I rate An Education a B-.

Friday, February 05, 2010

The Sun Also Sets

I'm entering into potentially treacherous territory here. Sunset Boulevard, besides being a critically lauded classic movie, is Shocho's very favorite movie. (I should add "of all time," just because I know it'll get under his skin.) I almost didn't want to watch it, knowing that even if I liked the film, there was no way I'd enjoy it as much as he does. But what the hell...

Sunset Boulevard is the story of a struggling Hollywood writer who, through a series of random events, happens to find himself in the run-down mansion of a former silent film actress. Loaded with money and loaded even more with self-delusion, she enlists his help in writing the screenplay that will mark her "return" (don't say "comeback") to the silver screen.

Artistically, there's a lot to commend about this movie. It was made in 1950, and though a fair number of films were made in color by that point, this one is shot in black-and-white -- the only appropriate choice for its subject matter. Director Billy Wilder and his cinematographer John F. Seitz make brilliant use of it too, giving us an avalanche of carefully composed images drenched in harsh light and impenetrable shadow. Nearly every frame looks like a work of art.

But past the looks, my appreciation for the film started to drop off. This movie might not feature a hard-boiled detective, but it's a film noir through and through. Knowing Shocho's tastes, this must play a huge part in why he loved the movie so much. If you know my tastes, you'll know that I really don't go for this sort of thing.

This movie is stuffed full of the trappings of film noir, all magnified by the age of the movie and the cinematic conventions of the time. The dialogue is awkward and stilted, the acting alternately dead flat or manically hysterical. The voice-over is a lazy device used to tell the audience things that would better have been shown.

And yet, there's something about the context here that makes me forgive it all a bit. In essence, this plot and these characters are almost perfectly crafted to fit within these stylistic conventions. The main character is a struggling writer, and it's he who gives the film's narration. So if it comes off self-consciously poetic, too considered to ring true, too cumbersome and strange? Well, there you have it, he's not a very good writer.

By the same token, you have aging actress Norma Desmond, a forgotten icon of the silent film era. If in performing her Gloria Swanson seems preposterous, false, positively out of this world? Well, the character is an actress, one decades out of practice, and from a time when you had to gesticulate wildly and contort your face impossibly, because all the films were silent.

So there's a certain logic to it all that I have to applaud. I don't like the conventions of these movies, but they're perfectly utilized here. The pieces all fit; I nevertheless was not very entertained by what they added up to. I'd call it a C+, all told. If you're a fan of the genre, I can see why this is regarded as one of the best, and you should see it if you haven't. If you have a harder time liking films from decades past, you'll probably want to pass on this one too.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Hard to Swallow

Every once in a while, to break up the movie recommendations from friends, top critics lists, and whatever, I like to toss in a suggestion from Netflix. So it was that I came to see Hard Candy, a very disturbing movie from 2005.

It's about a young teenage girl who meets up online with a photographer who may or may not be a pedophile. They arrange to meet in person, and wind up back at his house, where it soon is revealed that he's not the only one who may have a much darker agenda.

The movie has a powerfully provocative script, but it really lives or dies by the acting of the two people in these roles. It is, for all intents and purposes, a "two hander" play -- almost could have actually been a play but for a few tiny elements here and there. To fill the two roles are Patrick Wilson (most recently known for Nite Owl in Watchmen, but who has appeared in a number of other films) and Ellen Page (appearing here a few years before Juno made her more well-known).

These two are both simply phenomenal. They make the movie. In different scenes throughout, they bring genuine humor, chills, and everything else in between. If you like seeing powerful acting, you should watch the movie on the basis of that alone.

That said, it's not a perfect movie. It's as if the script writer and/or director couldn't quite trust that two actors would be capable of carrying the weight alone, and so there are a few random and unnecessary distractions. Most notably, Sandra Oh (of Grey's Anatomy) appears in a single scene that's meant to cause tension in the film. (The nosy neighbor is poking around the house. Will she find out what's going on?) Instead, I found the whole beat a distraction from the far more tense story of what was going on in the house between the two main characters.

There are also moments that perhaps strain credibility a bit thin. The young girl is believably portrayed as smart and wily beyond her years, but there are a few moments where it might go a bit too far. She also just seems more physically capable at times than a small, thin little girl like that could really be.

Still, though these things might mar an otherwise great film, they don't at all spoil it. Hard Candy is difficult to take, most certainly more unsettling than everyone would want to watch. But I found it a B+, and give it a definite recommendation for anyone who can appreciate a really dark film.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

A Dying Art

The steady decline of newspapers is leaving an ever-shrinking pool of places for journalists to find employment. It's a shame, because there actually is some skill in reporting the news well, skill that most of the "video bloggers" enlisted by some of the big new sites are sorely lacking.

Maybe they can't go to journalism school. But they should at least watch this video and learn How to Report the News.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010


And so the end begins, with tonight's premiere of the final season of Lost. It seems (unsurprisingly) that it's going to get "worse" before it gets "better," in terms of tracking what the hell is going on. If you thought last year's past vs. future was a challenge to keep up with, you're probably in for real trouble now. It seems that the new "flashbacks" of this final seasons are going to be glimpses at an alternate reality resulting from last season's detonation.

In my opinion, the best thing about this development is that it tackles some very important character issues head on. In all of Jack's pig-headed struggle last season to re-write (or re-right) history, he never once stopped to consider if things would really be any better for any of them had they never crashed on the Island. And this premiere made it immediately clear that for the most part, no, things really weren't.

From Kate to Locke, Sun and Jin to Jack -- everyone but Hurley seems to be various shades of miserable. You might argue that Boone is better off not dead, but he seemed fairly unhappy. And as for Charlie, might not the heroic death be better to his new fate?

Oh, and a bunch of crazy stuff on the Island too. If that's what floats your boat, then you got the revelation that the Man in Black apparently IS the smoke monster... whatever that means. And you got a world more questions about this crazy tribe of apparently real Others, guarding this what's-this temple and... what, working for Jacob?

Actually, I guess if the mystery sort of stuff is why you watch Lost, then this premiere might have been really frustrating to you. For a character fan like me, it was quite intriguing. I'm a bit skeptical of just how interesting the "other lives" of these people will continue to be, but then again, I don't suppose that story has to run for long -- this is it, folks!

Monday, February 01, 2010

Day 8, 9:00-10:00 PM

I hate it when my drones lag.

So, I guess Renee and Jack think there's no chance that Vlad has bugged his own office?

Josef tries to give "stuck in traffic" as an excuse. This is instantly suspicious since no one ever gets stuck in traffic on 24.

Vlad says that he'd had too much to drink that time with Renee. Maybe they were watching a two-hour season premiere of 24?

The President's involvement in this episode is to watch videos on "YouSpace" or "FaceTube" or some fictional site like that.

CTU actually has an H.R. department? If they also do the background checks, that explains a lot.

That van Kevin's driving won't look at all conspicuous in the CTU parking lot.

Renee takes a shower with her apparently waterproof comm device.

Renee says "I'm going dark." No kidding.

Jack Bauer puts on comically large glasses to assume his undercover identity. He really is Superman.

Bazhaev says that you should never endanger the family. Like by, say, sending one of them to hang out with some weapons grade uranium.

Thus concludes this very sober week of 24.