Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Abort Mission!!!

I thought I might want to see this weekend's new release, The Last Airbender. I like M. Night Shyamalan's films. (Well, okay -- maybe not so much The Happening, but yes, I did actually like The Lady in the Water.) I'd been kind of thinking that maybe tackling a movie that was not from an original idea he conceived might be a good change of pace. Creatively stimulating for him, hopefully.

Then this happened. 6% at Rotten Tomatoes (at the time of this posting), and the critical blurbs range from "orgy of exposition" on the kind side to "I believe M. Night can ruin the world" on the savage side.

Yikes. Forget it.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Going Down

For a while now, Netflix has been suggesting that I should watch a 2004 movie called Downfall. Actually, it's called "Der Untergang," as it's originally a German movie. It chronicles the last few days in Adolf Hitler's bunker, from his last birthday to his death.

It's also the source of a notorious internet meme. You've probably seen a few of the seeming thousands of "Hitler throws a hissyfit" videos, where subtitles have him ranting about everything from vuvuzelas at the World Cup, to the breaking of his Rock Band drum pedal, to his own appearance in all these Downfall parody videos. Needless to say, some of these videos are better than others.

I decided to take the plunge and watch the movie, not sure what to expect. I suppose I did expect that the infamous rant scene would be rendered too comical to appreciate, but I was wrong on that count. Context matters, and the quality of the performance is enough to overcome the specter of a thousand parody videos.

About that actor. The man is Bruno Ganz, and he gives a really great performance. Besides capturing Hitler's speech patterns, accent, and mannerisms, he actually brings a depth to the role. I don't want to say he makes him sympathetic in any way, because the dialogue (some of which is said to be factual) and indeed history itself assures this is impossible. But it's not a caricature. There are nuances and textures in the role. I've also read that this was the first time an actor ever played Hitler in a German movie; cultural taboos basically forbid that all these years, so any representation of Hitler was through actual footage of the man himself.

But while it may be a hell of a performance, it's not much of a movie. There aren't any surprises here, of course. And while the film supposes to focus more on the secretaries that worked for Hitler, the film doesn't really stay true this concept, showing us too many scenes where those characters aren't involved at all. It also proves a repetitive film, as one Nazi after another commits suicide in a dramatically stagnant procession.

I imagine that history buffs will like this movie better than I did. I approached it simply as a dramatic film, and found it mostly unsatisfying. I'd rate it a C-.

Monday, June 28, 2010

A Pleasant Rain

I've never cared much about John Grisham one way or the other, either in his original novels, or in the countless film adaptations of them. But a friend recommended The Rainmaker to me, so I decided to give the film a shot.

The Rainmaker is the story of a young man finishing up law school, trying to start his career with a major case against a health insurance provider. Along the way, he's forced to learn about how the practice of law isn't really about the merits of law... all that sort of "you're in the deep end now, kid" stuff. I can try dress it up a little and make it sound snappy, but the simple fact is that plot isn't the strong suit of this tale. I'm not even sure Grisham himself would make that claim. There isn't anything going on here that hasn't happened in other films, TV legal dramas, books, you name it.

Fortunately, there is more going on here than the simple story. There are a few interesting characters to watch, and a lot of very fine actors portraying them. Matt Damon stars as the new young lawyer, and does a good job of mixing "aw shucks" with "driven up and comer." Danny DeVito is really well cast as the slimy "fixer" (of a sort) that does the leg work for the case, and shows the new kid the ropes. Jon Voight is a good, smarmy adversary as the head lawyer representing the insurance company. Plus, there are good smaller turns from Claire Danes, Mickey Rourke, Virginia Madsen, Dean Stockwell, Roy Scheider, and more.

Plus, though I didn't know it until the end credits started rolling, the film was directed by Francis Ford Coppola. I'm gonna commit some cinematic sacrilege here and admit (if you didn't already know it) that I didn't care for any of the Godfather films much... but I nevertheless respect Coppola as a director. The man knows how to get a good performance from an actor, whether that means helping the actor or getting out of the way, whether that means letting one take breathe or stitching together the best moments in the editing room. And he knows how to frame a great shot that works on you subconsciously to tell the story.

In short, I felt like there was really more talent involved in this movie than it probably deserved on paper. But because so many great people bring their top game, it becomes a movie that's actually worth seeing. The weak, cliché script keeps it only a B- overall in my book, but I found enough to enjoy even though I felt like I'd "seen it before."

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Creepy Crawlies

Friday morning/afternoon, I noticed this nasty array of bug bites on my left side -- three on my arm, and seven on my calf. I assumed it was from being out playing disc golf the night before, but I had no memory of stumbling into any kind of angry hornets' nest or such.

By Saturday, they had flared up into some truly angry red marks, especially the ones on my leg. Seriously, they look like burn marks. My friends posited another theory: they looked more like spider bites than stings, and being all on one side, perhaps it had happened in my sleep.

Okay, I don't want to admit that sounds right, because I freaking hate spiders. It makes my skin crawl (not just break out in a rash) to think that as I slumbered away, some spider -- or spiders! ack! -- took TEN bites out of me. Needless to say, I washed those sheets immediately, but I still checked the bed thoroughly before I fell asleep last night.

Today, the bites look to have improved a little tiny bit, but only if you knew how ghastly they looked before. It's taking my full attention and willpower most of the day not to scratch them raw. But they seriously look like I already have been. I have never seen anything like it.

I'm waiting for my superpowers to manifest now.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

A Revolting Development

I missed it in the theater earlier this year, but I had some curiosity about the movie Youth in Revolt. It's the latest to star Michael Cera, Hollywood's go-to "gawky teen," but has a plot that (from the sound of it) was going to require him to stretch a little.

After meeting a soul mate who lives a long distance from the house where he lives with his mother, a teenage boy must rebel enough to get kicked out to go live with his father so that the two can be together. To accomplish this goal, he imagines up an alter ego -- a snooty, smoking Frenchman with a bad boy streak.

Michael Cera does play both roles, and I honestly can't decide if it's a brilliant performance, or if it underscores just how limited his range as an actor really is. This bad boy character he plays doesn't really come off as truly dangerous (even for the given context of a comedy film). He seems more like a really geeky kid's idea of what a bad boy would be like. And of course, that's exactly what the character is. So, like I said, I can't decide if this is wonderfully subtle acting from Michael Cera, or the limits of how "different" he can actually appear on screen.

What I am sure of is that there are a lot of other brilliant comic actors in the film. I had no idea just how deep the bench went until the opening credits were rolling. There's Jean Smart, Zach Galifianakis, Steve Buscemi, Fred Willard, Ray Liotta, and Justin Long. And not only do all of them bring the funny in their scenes, but the newcomer who plays the love interest, Portia Doubleday, is very funny and likable as well.

It's not a tears-streaming-down-your-face laugh riot, but I did like it. I rate it a B.

Friday, June 25, 2010

180 Degrees

I'm having more mildly annoying moments with locks.

Early last week, I lost the key to my mailbox. Just a stupid fluke of a thing... I'm almost sure of where I dropped it outside, but of course I didn't notice it at the time. By the time I got home from work to check the area, it was gone. Carried away to some critter's home, chewed up in a lawnmower, or whatever, who knows? Point is, it was gone, and I had to pay (bummer) to get the lock on my mailbox changed.

It used to be that I had to insert my key into my mailbox with the "mountains" pointing left. But when they installed the new lock, it got reversed so that they have to point right. So it's a tiny fraction of a second of annoyance each time I go to check my mail now... "wha-- dammit! (flip)."

Or maybe I'm being too easily annoyed by minor things right now.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

First, But Not Best

I'm a pretty big fan of the 2001 remake of Ocean's Eleven. But I knew very little about the original, aside from the fact that the plot bore only passing resemblance to the updated version, and that it famously boasted the Rat Pack in its cast. I must say honestly that I wasn't expecting too much, but my curiosity got the better of me.

I've watched a fair number of older movies, but I'm hard pressed to think of one that shows its age more than this one. First, there are all the characteristics that usually mark older films -- overly forced acting, cardboard phony sets, languid pacing. Then you add in the shots of the mostly desert wasteland that was Las Vegas at the time. Toss in dated dialogue, such as an explanation for why no one has yet pulled off this perfect heist: "Same reason nobody's gone to the moon yet -- no equipment." Sprinkle throughout with what amount to advertisements for five casinos, most of which were torn down years ago.

Then move pass the superficial and look at the way the plot itself is dated. Pulling off a heist on a casino (multiple casinos) sounds exciting and all, but when you consider the level of security and technology of 1960, and combine it with the way a movie of the time is going to dumb things down to make it easier on the heroes, this "elaborate heist" comes off like nothing at all. A bomb to knock down a power transformer, a luminol-type paint, and that's it -- just walk in and walk out with your money.

It's almost as though they knew at the time that the heist itself wasn't really very exciting, as the film devotes surprisingly little time to it. Half the movie is rounding up the team. You'd think this similar to the remake, except that here, most of them seem reluctant and doubtful. The lack of eager enthusiasm spreads to the audience. Then, after the heist, the last half hour of the movie deals with trying to sneak the money out of town. (The remake more smartly understood that once the dramatic high point has been reached, you'd best make it to the credits in 10 minutes or less.)

I suppose that ultimately, this movie was really the perfect candidate for a remake. Whether it was good in its time or not (and I have a hard time seeing how it was), time had left it behind. Actually, it makes me think that in another 30 years or so, perhaps someone will remake Ocean's Eleven again. After all, by then, technology will have advanced far enough to make the heist of the 2001 version seem ludicrous, and there will be a whole new crop of A-list stars we don't yet know today that will line up for a "star-studded" caper film.

But as for this original... I can say nothing positive other than it did inspire the remake. I almost couldn't get through it, and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone. I rate it an F.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

New and Most Certainly Not Improved

For many years, one of my favorite games in my collection has been a little card game called Sleuth, first introduced to me by FKL. It's an easy one to explain to someone only familiar with more mainstream games, because it's in the "Clue genre" of game -- players must deduce the identity of a card taken from the deck.

The idea is that a jewel has been stolen. It has three characteristics: it's either red, yellow, green, or blue; it's a diamond, pearl, or opal; and it is set as a solitaire, pair, or cluster. Because this matrix of characteristics overlaps, the deduction is a good deal more sophisticated than Clue. And no fickle dice either. (Though there is a small random element introduced by way of a second deck of cards, which constrains the questions you are allowed to ask about the gems in other players' hands.)

This game is several decades old, and mine came from eBay. I didn't force it out to play very often, as I was under the mistaken notion that my friends didn't like it very much. It turns out that Sangediver at least likes it a great deal. But I wasn't wrong that I was picking up on some frustration on the rare occasions we played the game.

See, that sophisticated deduction matrix requires an equally sophisticated method of actually tracking the information you're gathering on your little answer sheet. You can easily spend the majority of your first game working out how to do that, and by that point, you may have made a mistake or omission that hurts your chances in the game. And if you don't play the game but once a year? Well, then you basically have to devise your system all over again from scratch.

Sangediver came up with a most elegant solution to this dilemma. He bought his own copy of the game, so that he could bring it out more regularly on game nights at his place -- frequently enough to perfect and remember a note taking system.

There's one problem, though. He picked up a new printing of the game (the one pictured at the top of this entry). At first I was enthused to hear the game was back in print. But then we all saw how the art department at the publishers completely ruined the playability of the game.

Now don't get me wrong... the first edition of the game wasn't much to look at. Identities of gems, and characteristics of questions, were written in plain blocky text on an otherwise simple white background. We're talking maybe one cut above "do it yourself." The new edition tries to "pretty things up" by showing artwork of the gems in an actual setting of some kind. The problem is, here's what they look like:

Note the confusing frame around each gem, which shows all three gem types. And worse, note that the pearls look almost exactly like the diamonds! They're both small, round, white dots. Our first game was shot to hell with this set of cards. Despite everyone's efforts to be extra careful, at least two players misidentified gems during the game... and of course in a game like this, that scuttles the whole thing. Worse, you don't even find out that things have gone wrong until much later down the road. Immediately following this game, my friend took out a Sharpie and wrote the "suits" of each gem on every card in his set.

So, my message is this. Sleuth is an awesome game. If you like logic problems, you will love this game. But if you buy it, look for a used copy somewhere. Avoid this new printing like the steaming mess it is.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Charlie on YouTube

No, not "Charlie bit me" Charlie. This Charlie sings with himself:

It might not really work (depending on your monitor width) with the way the blog automatically crops my posts, so perhaps it's best to follow this link.

Monday, June 21, 2010


For quite some time now, I'd been hearing wonderful things about the HBO series The Wire. Just about every television critic says it was the best thing on TV last decade. Some say it's the best thing that's been on television ever. A few talk about it like it might be the single greatest narrative achievement in the history of humankind.

A few months back, while at a friend's house, the subject of The Wire came up. My friend and his wife had recently watched the entire series. I told them I'd been thinking about checking it out for a while. They all but kicked me out of their house right there, telling me, "you need to get out of here and go home and start watching The Wire now."

I hope it doesn't come as a shock to you that nothing could possibly live up to this sort of hype. I've just tonight completed the fourth of five seasons of the show. Since I've made it that far, it must be clear that I don't think the show is "bad" by any stretch. It's at least good enough to keep pulling me through new episodes, and most of the time better than that. But I honestly do not see whatever it is about this show that made everyone go so nuts for it.

The series is about drug crime in Baltimore. Character from politicians to police to dealers go about their business, most doing right by themselves more than doing right. Oftentimes, the story isn't half as important as the behavior of the characters themselves. It's very much like creator David Simon's newest series, Treme, in this regard -- but I have found Treme to be a much superior show. Perhaps it has to do with my reaction to the characters. I find it virtually impossible to identify with most of the characters on The Wire, most being drug dealers, self-interested politicians, and statistics-minded police. You want to see these characters "get what's coming to them" more than you want to see how they'll "get by." The Treme characters, by contrast, I find very sympathetic and engaging.

I suppose this greater level of realism is what drew so many people to The Wire. It's a take on police work that's quite different from most cop dramas on TV, certainly the most popular ones (in terms of viewers) such as CSI, or Law & Order. (Any incarnation of either.) And I acknowledge that it all feels very "real." But it can be very off-putting at times.

In each of the four seasons I've watched thus far, the pace begins at a frustratingly slow level. After about six episodes (half a season), I always found myself at a point thinking, "you know, maybe I'm not going to keep watching this show." But then things would start to pick up, culminating in a particularly strong last couple of episodes. I expect the fifth season to do the same.

...but I do intend to watch the fifth season. I mean, after all, I'd probably give the series a B, overall. It's very well acted. The dialogue is very sharp, and effectively presents different ways of speaking among different classes of characters. There's plenty to like. But I've long since accepted that I'm not ever going to see whatever it is that made so many others fall in such love for this show. It's worth watching, but I doubt it would even make my top 10 list from last decade.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Third Time's a Charm

Pixar has done it again. Toy Story 3 is another outstanding film, continuing the particularly hot streak I think the studio has had going with Up and WALL-E.

The most clever thing about this newest sequel is that, while they could have chosen to simply freeze this computer-generated world in time and rejoin it right where things last left off, they chose to acknowledge the passage of time in the real world by having the story pick up after more than a decade has gone by. Just as the kids who saw the first two Toy Story films have grown up, so has Andy, the owner of Woody, Buzz, and the rest of the gang. He's heading off to college, and our heroes have to come to terms with a possible life in storage in the attic, or being given away, or maybe just being thrown in the garbage. It's really serious subject matter for what you might expect to be such a light film, and never once does it feel like the movie shies away from presenting the tale with complete emotional truth, even knowing there will be plenty of young kids in the audience.

Of course, just because things get occasionally dark doesn't mean the movie doesn't bring the funny too. There are plenty of smart jokes in the film, and loads of nostalgia too, by way of the new toys that appear. After the movie was over, my friends and I were swapping stories... "my family had a phone just like that!" ... "my sister totally had a creepy fat baby like that!" Not to mention the most jaw-dropping and inspired use of the "Barrel of Monkeys" I could possibly imagine.

The voice work is top notch. Along with all the returning cast from the earlier movies, Ned Beatty does great work as the main villain of the piece, and Michael Keaton is fantastic as Ken (of "Barbie and..." fame). And in a sweet bit of continuity, the now-going-to-college Andy is voiced by the same person who, as a boy, provided Andy's voice in the first two films.

The animation in this film is really the best yet in any Pixar film. There are several amazing sequences with more action on the screen than the eye can possibly take in all at once. The humans are far less stylized than they were in previous films, and yet still completely credible. In particular, the work on one of the young children (Bonnie) is outstanding; she feels like a real kid.

The conclusion of the film packs a powerful emotional punch. I'd say it doesn't quite measure up to that amazing opening of Up, but it's still strong enough to easily place this film as the best of the Toy Story series, in my opinion. I rate it an A.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

A Spanish Film

Time for another recommendation from Netflix, a thriller/mystery called The Spanish Prisoner. A smalller, apparently independent film from back in 1998, I had never heard of it before. But it was written and directed by David Mamet, which got my interest up enough to check it out.

It's a movie about an inventor working under contract for a corporation, a man who has just stumbled on to "something big." (In true MacGuffin tradition, we're never really told exactly what it is.) The man soon finds himself entangled in a world of espionage, first corporate, and then possibly more, as his employers, and then his acquaintances, try to wrest the secret from him. That may be a bit vague, but it's hard to say too much about the story without wrecking some of the fun of it, should you ever watch it yourself.

Ultimately, it's a topsy-turvy sort of movie, where you have to question everyone's truthfulness and motivation. And David Mamet is a really good writer to do justice to such an idea. It's a very carefully plotted story where nearly every moment serves some specific and important purpose in the greater whole. Unfortunately, Mamet is not so strong a director. Perhaps because his background is in theater, he never uses the camera in any interesting or informative ways.

The acting is a mixed bag. David Mamet has always liked using Ricky Jay and Rebecca Pidgeon in his work, and I find them both terrible actors. Mamet's dialogue is always full of unfinished thoughts, overlapping characters, interruptions, and repetition. When handled by good actors, it's a wonderful style I quite enjoy. These two come off robotic -- stilted and unnatural. I don't know what to make of the fact that Mamet himself clearly likes it this way, since he keeps casting these two in almost all his stuff... but there it is.

Fortunately, both are in small roles. The main character is Campbell Scott (who just played a major part in the most recent season of Damages). Also appearing are Steve Martin (surprisingly adept at the Mamet style), Felicity Huffman (great as usual, but in a rather different part than usual here), and in a small cameo, Ed O'Neill. These people manage to smooth away the awkwardness of the others.

The movie is pretty good overall, but perhaps a touch too clever for its own good. Early plot twists are engaging, and there's a nice balance of things you're meant to see coming with things you don't. But I think in the last 15 minutes or so, it sort of goes farther than it has to in trying to seem clever and surprising. It's still worth seeing, but isn't Mamet's strongest work. I rate it a B-.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Time Travel Problems

Here's an article on Cracked that takes a look at a seldom-explored aspect of time travel. Even if you assume it's possible, there then exists all kinds of problems with actually making any journeys anywhere. Here are six.

I smiled the whole time. I actually laughed out loud at the "bottled monkey farts."

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Chicago Redux

I really enjoyed the movie version of Chicago from a few years back. So I was naturally curious about last year's film rendition of the musical Nine, helmed by the same director, Rob Marshall. The musical was itself an adaptation, of Federico Fellini's semi-autobiographical 8½ -- the story of a film director going throughout a mid-life crisis. He struggles with his new film, weighed down by his own early successes, and unable to find inspiration.

Daniel Day-Lewis stars, but he honestly seems like a mismatch for the role. He's so dour and harsh that he seems to sap a lot of the fun from the movie -- he actually seems closer to his character from There Will Be Blood than the sort of character that's normally the lead in a musical.

In a sort of good news/bad news thing, there's a long list of talented women in the film as well, and each of them seems to be having a much more genuinely good time. Marion Cotillard, Penélope Cruz, Sophia Loren, Nicole Kidman, Judi Dench, and Kate Hudson all have fun with a variety of roles, though unfortunately, no one part gets a great deal of screen time.

The movie looks lavish. The lighting in particular is outstanding and evocative. You could grab stills from nearly any camera cut in the film and get a suitable-for-framing photograph. I'm not always one to go for the spectacle of film, but it's notable here.

But unfortunately, the movie also looks and feels like a clone of Rob Marshall's earlier version of Chicago. The conceit is exactly the same -- no one in the film "actually" sings. Instead, each song takes places in the head of the main character, and "real" action intercuts with scenes on a theatrical stage where the song is performed. I have to say, though it was a gimmick that really worked (and that I really liked) in Chicago, here it feels stale. It leaves me wondering why Rob Marshall would want to make essentially the same movie twice. (And make it not as well as he did the first time, either.)

Overall, the disappointing things about the film overpower the better elements, working out to a C- in my book. It's not a horrible film, but there's no reason I can think of to watch it when you could see Chicago instead.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Beat Drums! BEAT DRUMS!!! HahahahahahAAAAA!!!!

A friend sent me this video of a drummer "clearly in the wrong band":

And I agree. But something else struck me more strongly. Regular drumming can be quite a workout. In fact, here's a short report on a study that suggests it can demand as much stamina and burn as many calories as a professional athlete playing his sport. Simple observation seems to bear this out -- if you look at the drummers in all those crazy fast punk bands (like Travis Barker of Blink-182), they tend to be lean, wiry guys.

Now, this drummer is turning a really simple song on drums into something that takes way more energy than would otherwise be required. And he's like this in every single song this band plays. So he has to be getting even more of a workout. And while he's not morbidly obese or anything, he's not exactly a thin guy.

So what the hell? Is he on some kind of Michael-Phelps-in-competition-like diet? Does his entire life consist of eating and playing drums? He really IS Animal from the Muppets!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Only Somewhat Special

Michael Sheen either has a genuine affection for playing Tony Blair, or HBO made him an offer he couldn't refuse. Following his appearance in The Queen (and, I hear, an earlier movie in which he also appeared as Blair), Sheen once again took the role of the former Prime Minister in the HBO movie, The Special Relationship.

The film also stars Dennis Quaid and Hope Davis as Bill and Hillary Clinton, and covers the period from Blair's rise to his office, until President Clinton's departure from his. As the title would suggest (and as it is invoked several times in the dialogue), the movie deals with the relationship between the two countries, but also with the friendship and alliance specific to the two men.

It's really an excellent set of performances from all three of them, each hewing closely enough to impersonation that they honor what everyone in the audience will know, but then setting off just enough to portray real characters and not caricatures. The acting is really the strongest thing about the film.

A bit more muddy is the real purpose of telling the tale. Overall, it comes across as nothing more than a wink at history -- history recent enough that the audience is sure to know it. Clinton and Blair talk about their grand vision for center-left politics, and how they can work together to make that last for a generation. (nudge nudge) The Monica Lewinsky scandal makes for a big piece of the plot. (remember that, folks?!) The violence in Kosovo also figures prominently. (more people probably should remember that)

It's a bit dissatisfying as an overall narrative. The tale seems to be the growth of Blair, from a time when he was taking all his cues from Clinton, to his emergence as a major political player in his own right. But if it is Blair's story, it seems logical to me to continue on from there through his decline; instead, the movie ends as Clinton leaves office. It feels like an incomplete tale.

Still, the film does imagine enough private conversations between these three key figures to spur some thoughts. "Do you suppose it really went down like that?" With this bit of provocativeness, and the skilled acting, I'd rate the film a B-, despite it's sort of half-finished feeling. It's not really worth going out of your way to see, but if you have an HBO subscription already (for say, True Blood; yay!), then maybe you'll want to check it out.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Sun Also Sets

So now, the full truth. I recently wrote about the movie Before Sunrise, but the way I first learned of the movie was through its sequel, Before Sunset. It caught my attention because it was so strange to contemplate the notion that a small, independent movie would even have a sequel made. And this sequel received mostly rave reviews. I was curious to see what the fuss was all about... but only after watching the original.

Before Sunset takes place -- as in real life -- nine years after the original film. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy return to their roles (Jesse and Celine), and Richard Linklater returns to direct. The three together fashioned the screenplay. This time, the story is set in Paris. Jesse has written a book about his incredible one night experience in the first film, and is now on the last stop of a European book tour to promote it. He's scheduled to get on a plane that very night, when Celine shows up at his book signing. It turns out that while the two resolved to meet again six months after the events of the first film, that never happened, and they're now seeing each other for the first time since their one night together.

It's hard to evaluate this movie without comparing it to the first film. Both are intimate character studies stuffed full of provocative dialogue. Both feature very skilled performances from the two main actors, very naturalistic, relaxed, and believable.

This movie is much more interesting from a story-crafting standpoint. This time, the conceit of having a plane to catch compresses things even more tightly than in the original. As a result, this movie actually unfolds in real time, with no interruptions or time lapses in the action. Even more than in the original, you're simply with these characters for the entire duration of the film.

Where I thought the first movie's biggest flaw was that it perhaps somehow didn't seem "big enough" to be a film, this movie is much more successful. The characters move around Paris, leaving the bookstore, stopping in a cafe, doing some sightseeing, riding a boat... and there's some more sophisticated camera work here than in the original too. The story is no less personal or intimate, and it still could work as a one-act play (particularly as this movie runs only 80 minutes), but it somehow feels more "right" that it be a movie.

That said, the dialogue doesn't quite have the same crackle to it as the first film. As one would expect with the characters now being more mature, the subjects they discuss get sometimes more serious. There are moments that occasionally feel a bit forced here, where things flowed more smoothly the first time around. And yet, at the same time, there are more moments of humor this time, and those play very naturally and believably.

Had I known of the original movie first, and then learned of the sequel, I think I would have been very skeptical. The first movie leaves on a wonderful and ambiguous note that leaves you thinking about whatever happened to the characters. The idea that a second movie would come along to tell you exactly what happened sounds like it would cheapen that. That said, if indeed there was to be a sequel, this was the right one. It honors the original, makes you excited to see the characters again, and entertains.

I will say that I thought it was maybe just a touch less good than the first film, but it's still a nice story. I rate Before Sunset a B-.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Fighting the Pesky Do-Gooders

One of the games showing up regularly in my group of late is Dungeon Lords. Up to four players each take on role of an evil overlord, wrangling imps, hiring monsters, deploying traps, and so forth, in an effort to fight off a band of adventurers that comes storming in twice during the game to plunder your dungeon.

This is the latest from designer Vlaada Chvátil, following Space Alert and Galaxy Trucker. I'd call it the most conventionally "Euro game-like" of his games (that I've played), in that you're doing a lot of resource management and planning. But it still has that defining characteristic of his other games, that the game is pitted against you, more than capable of crushing you, and it's not really about "winning" as much as it is "surviving to the best of your ability."

I like this game quite a lot, actually. The main element of interaction with the other players is a really interesting "puzzle" to try to solve. There are eight actions players can take in a turn, and they take three each turn. You must plan all three in advance, before you see what any of your opponents have chosen. Two of the three you took last turn are taken out of contention -- so for each of your opponents, you know he can take only six possible actions.

Each of the eight possible actions has room for only three players to take it, and most of them have different levels of efficiency that tend to improve over time. In short, if you're going to take the same action in a round that one or more of your opponents is choosing, you probably want to be last. But then, if you wait too long, the limited number of slots may fill up, and then you don't get to do anything at all. I find this mechanism a very satisfying combination of asking players to "look ahead," while leaving just enough chaos to make it a challenge.

But after several plays, what is still eluding me how best to work the scoring system. At the end of the game, there's a short list of characteristics about each player and his dungeon (or rather, what's left of his dungeon after the adventurers have trashed it). You score points for each characteristic, some where just "bigger is better" (say, points for each adventurer you've captured), but others in direct competition with your opponents (who has hired the most monsters, for example).

What I've found is that you can try to "play it safe," and craft a smallish, careful dungeon with just the basic things you need to fend off adventurers and not suffer too many penalties from the game. The problem is, if you don't stick your neck out at least a little, then you don't measure up well when it's time to do all that scoring at the end of the game. I've had games where I've weathered the adventurers coming into my dungeon better than every other player, but I've still lost in the scoring.

I don't mean to imply that I feel the scoring is wholly disconnected from the goal of doing well against adventurers. There is overlap... but not complete overlap. To me, this also makes the game interesting to play, because I don't feel it's easily "solved." I'm still searching for the sweet spot between point scoring and adventurer-fighting, and I suspect that even if I find it in one game, getting back to it in a subsequent game won't be easily done.

I'd say this is definitely the best of Vlaada Chvátil's games, and one I'd be willing to play most any time.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Sun Up

Over the years, I'd heard a bit about this little independent love story called Before Sunrise that had been made back in 1995, directed and co-written by Richard Linklater (who made Dazed and Confused). Starring the well-known Ethan Hawke and the lesser-known French actress Julie Delpy, it's a movie about a young couple -- Jesse and Celine -- who meet on a train while traveling across Europe. It's his last night in Europe before flying home to America, so the two of them have just one night together in the city of Vienna to develop their relationship.

There's nothing more to the story than that; this is a 100% character-driven piece, and centered on just two characters at that. It even spells this out in the opening scene, by having one of the characters relate a story that's clearly setting the stage for the movie -- telling the audience that the film aspires to be nothing more than a character study of these two people. As such, this is a movie all about the writing and the acting. If either falls down, so will the movie. Fortunately, neither does.

The two leads are both excellent. Charming, interesting, funny, serious, and many other things in turn, the two almost instantly become a couple you want to root for. The writing is equally nimble. It's full of probing and introspective dialogue as the two characters have many deep conversations about a wide variety of subjects. They cover a lot of ground about relationships and general outlooks on the world throughout the movie.

But then, all this works against the movie just a little bit. Most of the time, it feels like it should all be a play rather than a film. While you do get to see lots of Vienna (including the same ferris wheel famously featured in The Third Man), the movie isn't really about any of that. It's really an intimate two-person play.

Still, it's a very pleasant and well made movie overall. I give it a B.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Getting the Band Back Together

Over the past couple days, the folks at Harmonix have been blowing my mind with the new stuff they've announced for the upcoming Rock Band 3. You can read all about it here, but the highlights are these three major new additions:

First, the Harmony Vocals capability added in The Beatles version of Rock Band (and continued in the recently released Green Day installment) is coming to the main game. This was tons of fun in Beatles, and while they're a great band to take advantage of Harmonies, using them in sophisticated ways, it's still going to be awesome to open that up to more than just two bands.

Second, they're adding a keyboard controller to the game. It's optional, and you can actually just use a guitar controller's five fret buttons as the keys -- if you don't want to buy new plastic instruments for your living room, you can use what you have. More variety of music. More players can play at once now (seven, if the song has all four instruments and three singers with Harmonies!). More new gameplay to master.

Third, they're introducing a "Pro Mode" that is essentially the answer to "why be good at the game and not learn a real instrument?" Now the game will be that bridge to learning the real instrument. The actual keyboard controller has two octaves of keys, and when you play a song on it in pro mode, the notes you have to play will actually be the notes you'd have to play on a real keyboard to play the real song (albeit compressed into a couple of octaves). A full integration of cymbals into the game will bring the same level of authenticity to the drums (all you're missing is a high-hat pedal).

...and the most insane/cool of all, an optional new guitar controller that actually has six strings you strum, and 17 frets up the neck, with buttons for each string at each fret. (That's 102 buttons in all!) Pro Guitar, as you work through its increasing level of difficulties, will actually be guiding you to the proper hand positions on a real guitar required to actually play the song. Perhaps this could push me to pull that guitar of mine back out of the closet and actually working toward playing it again.

Plenty to look forward to.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

12 x 2

Around a year ago, I first saw the original 12 Angry Men -- a movie I was pleased to find worthy of the praise heaped upon it. Not long afterward, I found out about a particular remake that had been done in 1997. The director was William Friedkin, the man behind The Exorcist. And you almost couldn't believe the cast.

In the role made famous by Peter Fonda was Jack Lemmon. Also "sitting on the jury" were George C. Scott, Armin Mueller-Stahl, James Gandolfini, Tony Danza, Hume Cronyn, Edward James Olmos, and William Petersen. Mary McDonnell appears briefly as the judge. And the rest of the jury is filled with folks you might not know by name, but may well recognize -- Courtney B. Vance (from Law & Order: Criminal Intent, and the just-canceled FlashForward), Ossie Davis (from Evening Shade, among dozens of other things), Dorian Harewood (who has guest-starred on almost every TV show a sci-fi fan would love made in the last three decades), and Mykelti Williamson (misused on the final season of 24, but very good in the brilliant-but-short-lived Boomtown).

It sounded like something I'd have to see. But it also sounded like something I'd probably never get to see. It's not available on DVD. And it turns out to have been a made-for-TV movie -- made by Showtime, in fact -- so it's probably unlikely to ever be released on DVD if it hasn't already.

But then I happened to pick up Showtime for a few weeks to watch the final season of The Tudors. (I'd still say that's entertaining, but not outstanding, by the way.) And I happened to catch that they were actually broadcasting the movie on Showtime 2 in the dead of night -- 3:00 one morning. This looks like a job for the DVR!

On the plus side, the acting is as good as you'd imagine looking at the cast list. Jack Lemmon is great (thought Peter Fonda really was too, so I can't really say I liked him "more"), but the real star of the show is George C. Scott. He's the highlight of the film as the final hold-out juror with a barely contained rage. I noted in my review of the original film that I thought the acting surprisingly naturalistic for a movie made at that time. The acting here still manages to top it.

That said, the movie doesn't really bring anything new to the game. Nothing at all. I suppose you can't really do much to change the script of such an acclaimed movie, but this incarnation hardly changes a thing. Even the staging is almost identical, and the camera work too. Perhaps understandable, given the confined space, but it still comes off as virtually a shot-for-shot remake.

In the end, I found it hard for me to distinguish my opinion of this film from the original. Yes, the acting was stronger, yet you couldn't really argue anything had been "improved" upon -- it hadn't. It's still a B+ movie, just dressed up with a new cast. Given that it might be pretty hard to get your hands on this version, don't make it harder on yourself than it has to be. If you haven't see the original, get out and do that as soon as possible, and call it good.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Give It a Wrestle

In retrospect, I probably should not have watched The Wrestler in such close proximity to Crazy Heart. The two are very similar movies. Both tell the story of a has-been celebrity now struggling to get by, and saddled with the troubles of the hard lives they've led. I'm no more a fan of wrestling than I am of country music, so there really wasn't any better chance I'd like this movie better than the other.

But again, I suppose my curiosity was piqued by the praise heaped on the lead performer -- again, like Crazy Heart. In this case, the film was lauded as Mickey Rourke's "comeback movie," and again, the lead actor was nominated for an Oscar. (Though unlike Jeff Bridges, Mickey Rourke did not win.)

Again, the lesson I should take away from this is that one celebrated performance should not be enough to get me to watch a movie about a subject that otherwise does not appeal to me. That said, I did find The Wrestler the better film of the two. Where the protagonist of Crazy Heart feels more like he has made his own bed, the man at the heart of The Wrestler is in a rough situation that seems through little fault of his own. He's a man with a passion that others do not understand or share. That passion has destroyed his body, leaving him with serious problems... and essentially makes it all the more impossible for anyone around him to understand why he has to keep at it. Basically, this character is easier to empathize with; while many of us (fortunately) have not had to battle addiction, most of us are familiar with this lesser version of it -- a sort of infatuation that others may or may not share.

Still, the plot is typical sports movie fare. Athlete fights through people telling him he "can't," believing that he "can." Boring stuff, frankly. Mickey Rourke does give a fine performance (as does Marisa Tomei), but it's all in service of a movie that we've essentially seen many times before (though without the trappings of wrestling). I rate it a C-.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

The Monster Mash-up

I wonder if author Seth Grahame-Smith knew what he was starting when he wrote Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Before you knew it, there were all kinds of "classic fiction meets monster movie" blends making the rounds. Now the man himself is back at it again with his latest, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. It tells the tale of how America's famous president waged a secret lifelong war against vampires, seeking to eradicate them from the country.

A friend loaned me this book, knowing that I'd read the epic Lincoln biography, Team of Rivals. I will say that one can have a greater appreciation for this book if you've read that one. It's not so much that you can see more ways this work of fiction connects to real history, but more that you can appreciate the writing style being adopted here.

I heard from this same friend, who read Pride and Prejudice (in both Zombie and non-zombie versions), that Seth Grahame-Smith deserved praise for so uncannily aping Jane Austen's style. Here, he shows a similar nimbleness in adapting his own writing, making it read very much like a biography in general, and Doris Kearns Goodwin's kind of biography in particular.

Unfortunately, things never really transcend the level of "cheap gimmick." Of course, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was a gimmick too, but you can forgive a little-known writer for a stunt to gain readers. (Besides which, I hear the book was pretty good.) This time around, I think he could have written any book in the horror/monster mode, they could have slapped "from the writer of P&P&Z" on it, and it would have sold. I don't think he needed the gimmick here... though I was certainly willing to let him have it, if it was done well.

The thing is, it really wasn't. Despite the effective mimicry, the story itself never really justifies why it's about Abraham Lincoln. It's a rather effective period vampire story with some interesting twists and turns. And while the book does ultimately connect the spread of vampires with slavery, it ultimately feels like it could have been about any person in the mid-19th-century, and would have been a better book standing on its own merits.

I supposed I'd call the book a B-. Not bad, but it left me wishing it had been something other (and more) than it was.

Monday, June 07, 2010

The Same Sad Story

I recently sat down and watched the movie for which Jeff Bridges finally "won his Oscar" just a few months back, Crazy Heart. He stars as a washed-out country singer, once a major success, now playing bars and bowling alleys in the southwest. The film also stars Maggie Gyllenhaal as a struggling journalist seeking to interview him (and then falling into a relationship with him), and features Colin Farrell as a performer who has become even bigger than the main character, his former mentor. (Because who else would you get to play a major country superstar besides the incredibly Irish Colin Farrell?)

All three are actually quite credible in their roles, and the two men perform their own songs. But I have to say that as far as Jeff Bridges is concerned, this is definitely a case where he was awarded a "lifetime achievement award in the form of a Best Actor Oscar." His work is capable, but not exceptional. The script doesn't ask anything of him that transcends work he's done before, nor does it ask anything that countless other actors haven't also portrayed in other movies.

Washed up alcoholic is a character that's shown up in plenty of films, and that's the real problem with this one. In my opinion, there is absolutely nothing going on in Crazy Heart that warrants one more movie like this. The plot is conventional, the characters stock, the pace glacial, the message predictable, and the dialogue mediocre. It was just boring from beginning to end, punctuated only a couple of good song performances from the cast. (Even those I couldn't enjoy much, not really being a fan of country music.)

I give Crazy Heart a D-. It's a movie whose sole purpose is to say to Jeff Bridges, "we're sorry we didn't honor you for The Contender, Starman, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, or The Last Picture Show." That's not remotely reason enough for anyone to see it.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

The Modern Prometheus, or Dr. Splice-enstein

This weekend, the horror.....esque movie Splice opened. Originally, what I had seen of the trailers and such didn't really set my interest afire. It looked liked your pretty conventional Frankenstein tale, though juiced with fancy visual effects. But then reviews started coming over the past week, and the consensus seemed to be that it was actually pretty good. I decided to give it a whirl.

It is indeed a pretty straight up Frankenstein tale, though in this case the "Dr. Frankenstein" is actually a married couple of ambitious bio-engineers. After a series of breakthroughs splicing genes from different animals together to create unique, blob-like creatures, they want to try their technique out on a part-human creation... but must do so in secret, as they do not have the sanction of their corporate bankrollers. Maybe-misunderstood, maybe-dangerous monstrosity ensues.

The work in realizing all the creatures in this film, but especially the part human hybrid known as Dren, is really exceptional. Well, alright, maybe the amorphous blob creatures are a little too bizarre to seem credible, but Dren is really believable, both for the audience and for story purposes. She seems just human enough to be relatable, but just alien enough to be clearly something else.

There's decent acting in the movie, from Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley. They're both called on to do some pretty preposterous things in the film, but do their best to sell it. They hold off the "now wait a minutes" for longer than other actors might manage.

But they can't hold them off for long. Because there's a lot of "now wait a minutes" in this movie. The film carefully telegraphs where it's going, trying to play fair with the audience and not come up with unearned twists from out of nowhere. But it also creates this strange environment where you know what's going to happen about 30 minutes before it does, and you're thinking the whole time, "they're aren't really going to go there, though, are they?"

They do. And it's preposterous. I'm left to conclude that a lot of film reviewers still see it first as a visual medium and not as a storytelling medium. Yes, the movie looks fantastic, and is deserving of praise on that front. But the story is mostly a knock-off of things that have come before, and the parts that aren't are just impossible to swallow. In my book, Splice is a C-. If you're a real sci-fi thriller fan, you might want to catch it, but even then, I'd suggest waiting for DVD.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Funeral Service

A nice funeral service for my brother-in-law today, the only notable flaw being the unfathomable heat in the chapel area where it was being held. I hope I'm not being too inappropriate here, but when the makeup on the man of the hour is actually melting a little bit, you might want to see about cranking the air conditioning.

To everyone who has sent good thoughts to me and my family in the last week, I appreciate it. It's been wonderful to know how many people care. Thank you.

A lot of people I know have been having a rough couple weeks here of late, with still more bad news arriving just in the last 48 hours. So I'm really hoping in more ways than one that things can really just move on and that we can all just have some good times for a stretch.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Game On

After a family viewing today, the funeral service for my brother-in-law is tomorrow. Losing someone so young has certainly sparked a lot of thinking for me, and tonight it spurred on some conversation among my friends as well -- in particular, talk of the "what are your wishes" variety.

One of my friends mentioned that he'd heard of somebody having his ashes made into frisbees. And I just had to come home and look it up. It's true! In fact, it's no less than the man considered to be the father of disc golf, who made very clear his desire to be made into discs so that he could keep on "playing." In fact, you can actually purchase a set of these discs for yourself -- though at $200, they don't run cheap.

I don't want to own discs made from the ashes of a complete stranger, but if someone I knew wanted to play with discs of me -- and I mean, actually use them, I think that would be rather nice.

But first, before you cremate me and make me into discs, you are required to make sure that I have not fallen victim to a paralytic spider or snake bite (a la Lost Season 3 or Stephen King's "Autopsy Room Four"), or some kind of Haitian voodoo (a la The Serpent and the Rainbow).

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Terminology and Technology

Every once in a while, a sports-related story comes along that gets plastered all over the news to such a degree that even a sports-disinterested person such as myself is forced to take notice. So it was today with the already infamous botched call costing Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga a no-hitter.

First, there's all the kerfuffle about whether instant replay should be expanded into wider use in baseball. I don't really understand the argument. I'm a gamer. Baseball is a game. (It's also a sport, but it's a game.) Games have rules. These rules are meant to be followed. If a tool exists that can ensure a more correct enforcement of those rules, why would you willingly not use it? If you question the rules while you're playing a board game, you go and check the rulebook, or even check online if your question still isn't answered. Arbitration of the rules isn't part of a game; it's completely separate from the game.

No, I found this question completely cut and dried. My question is, if batters can still hit the ball and then be thrown out at base, why the hell do they call that a "no-hitter?" To me, "no-hitter" implies the pitcher single-handedly won the game. (Well, okay, he had to have the catcher there.) Alright, maybe foul balls shouldn't count, but if the ball is hit to another player, who then must take responsibility for getting the batter out? I don't care whether the statisticians mark it in the "H" column or not, it sounds like a hit to me.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Dear Facebook Advertiser

I think you're stressing the "Online" part when you should be stressing the "Nursing School" part. I would think you'd want to show the sort of person you would hope to see as a nurse at a hospital, not the sort of person you'd expect to find stalking you on the internet.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Oh, Really? Exactly What Part of Persia?

Before deciding to sit down on Sunday and watch the very serious movie, The Messenger, I decided I would try to distract myself from everything being thrown at my family by going to see a completely mindless movie instead -- Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. When friends called to ask if I wanted to go, I was torn. I didn't really think I wanted to see it, but then maybe a mindless action movie was just the thing I needed.

The problem was, this movie turned out to be far too mindless. It was very clearly a movie crafted by people who take their audience for drooling idiots, a film that follows the standard essay format of "tell them what you're gonna tell them; tell them; tell them what you told them." Each major story point in the film was introduced with a scene in which two characters ham-fistedly trade exposition setting up what we're about to see and why it's important. (Sometimes even repeating information just given to us by on-screen, location-establishing text.) The action then follows, precisely as narrated in advance (almost as though by Robert Downey Jr's Sherlock Holmes). And then, since the film's story involves the ability to jump backward in time, you'd invariably see moments of the action again to further drive home what was going on.

There's plenty of talent here that's capable of so much more. Jake Gyllenhaal has made several good movies; Alfred Molina has created memorable characters in several fine films; and I shouldn't even have to point out Ben Kingsley's impressive resume. Somebody's got serious dirt on these guys to coerce them into appearing here.

I suppose you are supposed to come to these kinds of movies primarily for the action. I do have to admit, some of the action sequences are fairly exhilarating and well-realized. But even as they entertain, they come off jarringly out of place. You have dart-launching assassins that evoke John Woo films. (There weren't any guns at the time, filmmakers; deal with it and move on!) You have lots of "impossible stunts" that evoke the sense of The Matrix when a more artistic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon feeling would have been more appropriate. It's good action at times, just not good for this movie.

I rate Prince of Persia a D. Big dumb movies simply don't have to be this dumb.