Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Staff Recommendation

Every August brings a new novel from fantasy author Terry Brooks. This year is no exception, with the release of Bearers of the Black Staff, the first of a two-book story following up his "Genesis of Shannara" trilogy.

Picking up 500 years after the close of that trilogy, the protective magic keeping the survivors of the apocalypse safe inside their valley is failing, and all sorts of mutated horrors from the outside world threaten to intrude. The story primarily revolves around a young pair of Trackers who are the first to discover the breach, and around the mysterious man who has inherited the magic staff of the "Knights of the Word" after all these years.

To be honest, I was over 100 pages into the book (and it's only a relatively sleight 350 pages long) before I really started to get into it. The set-up of this tale felt like a patchwork of many of Terry Brooks' earlier books. It felt like he was going to stock characters, stock relationships, stock situations that he's explored thoroughly in other fine books.

But then as the book moved into the middle act, things started to pick up. The book got into a few topics that I don't recall Terry Brooks ever exploring before, at least not to this degree: marital infidelity, spies masquerading as friends, religious dogma, and political ambition.

Then came the final act, which I found compelling enough to power through in one sitting. A key relationship that had been set up in the first part of the book, one of the things that seemed "stock Brooks," had an interesting complication develop. The book had an interesting conclusion that, while still a cliffhanger to build anticipation for the concluding volume next year, still had a satisfying emotional resonance to it all on its own.

All told, I suppose my only major "complaint" would be to ask why this is two books instead of one in the first place. (Besides the obvious financial considerations.) Earlier in his career, Brooks' books were easily as long as this collected two volume set will be when complete (if this first book is any indication of the page count of the forthcoming one). I suppose I'll have to wait for book two to see if the story was really best served by splitting it in half this way.

For now, though, I'd give Bearers of the Black Staff a B+. The wait for next August begins...

Monday, August 30, 2010

Taking on the World

I'm lagging quite a bit behind the crowd on this one, but I finally got around to seeing Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. As the weeks rolled by, there was an impossible hype building up on this movie from some (though not all) of the people I knew who had seen it. In short, it was clear that this movie had struck a chord with a lot of people.

It's easy to see why. This movie taps into the childhood of people my age. It's a real "video game movie," even though it isn't actually based on one particular video game like some failed efforts of recent years. The film is loaded with references to classics like The Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Bros, plus more modern games like Rock Band. And of course, fighting games like Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter. But the movie almost never bothers to actually name check any of these things -- you just have to know them. So there's definitely a level of being "inside the tent" if you "get" this movie, and I think that explains the intense positive reaction from some people.

Not that I disliked it. Actually, I had a goofy smile plastered on my face for most of the film. This despite the fact that it hews very closely to its manga roots and comes across very much like a comic -- rapid fire editing, split screen cameras, varying sizes of letterbox framing, and on-screen text for sound effects. It all felt vital to the story, and since it was all played for comedy, I didn't find it jarring.

But I did sort of feel like the gimmicks wore out a bit before the movie reached its conclusion. Scott Pilgrim has to fight seven "evil exes" of his new girlfriend in the course of the film, but I was honestly feeling by the end of it that maybe five or so would have been enough. The movie does a pretty good job of making each confrontation feel different, but it also peaks a bit early with the hilarious fight against super-Vegan-powered Ex #3.

The cast is pretty good. Michael Cera shows another dimension in his acting -- not in the actual performance (as his character is once again another version of George Michael Bluth from Arrested Development), but in his display of fight choreography. It's not all stunt doubling. But the real scene stealers of the film are Brandon Routh as the aforementioned Ex #3, and Kieran Culkin as the hero's lecherous gay roommate.

I'd rate the movie a B overall, basically on par with another fun comic adaptation from this year, Kick-Ass.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

And the Emmy Snark Goes To...

I love that Glee is the subject of the big opening sketch. And it features people from Dancing with the Stars, Lost, and Mad Men... because nothing on NBC has half the heat on it that any of those other shows have.

I'm surprised it actually took 8 whole minutes for Jimmy Fallon to make the Conan O'Brien joke.

Suddenly I want a giant moving video wall.

I truly love Modern Family. And I'm pleasantly surprised that the cast didn't divide the Emmy vote too much to keep one of its brilliant actors from winning Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy.

Love love love John Hodgman.

The writing intro is hysterically funny.

Looks like the Modern Family domination has begun.

Something on Saturday Night Live in the last 10 years was deemed award nomination worthy? Good for you, Kristen Wiig.

George Clooney rocks the Modern Family bit.

Did somebody get the license plate number on that speeding Jim Parsons?

I haven't seen Nurse Jackie, but I haven't heard the greatest things about it. Seems to me that Edie Falco just won the "we loved you in The Sopranos" award.

The undefeated Emmy streak of The Amazing Race is over.

The drama montage has the music mixed WAY louder than the dialogue. And why do they feel it's necessary to put the titles of the shows on these clips when they didn't for the earlier categories?

Uh... spoiler alert if you haven't kept current with these shows!

Damn, they aren't screwing around with playing people off who run over time in their speeches!

I would have been happy to see Michael Emerson or Terry O'Quinn win Supporting Actor for Lost, but Aaron Paul was truly incredible in the just completed season of Breaking Bad. He deserved it.

Cut the Tweets bits. Now.

Wow... didn't see the Supporting Actress going to Archie Panjabi. I don't know that she was really the best of that group of actresses, but I will agree she's one of the best things about The Good Wife.

In my opinion, the Best Actor Drama category is the toughest one of the night. But Bryan Cranston gets the three-peat, and I can't argue with the choice. But I also respect him honoring the other nominees with what seemed like genuine appreciation.

I love that the Emmy clock shows us how long they're running.

I love John Lithgow, and loved him in Dexter, but guest actor is preposterous.

Another tough category in Drama Writing. Hard to fault any winner there; I'll go along with giving it to Dexter.

The songs in the "shows we lost" bit aren't that funny, but the quick changes are awesome.

Kyra Sedgwick is spazzing a bit here. (Not that I wouldn't.)

Really? You're gonna try to claim the Olympic opening ceremony as though you had anything to do with it?

Ricky Gervais tears into Mel Gibson. Deservedly. And then passes out beer. Perfect.

"Bucky Gunts!"

I thought for sure that The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien would win the "screw you" award, but the voters were a little too stuffy for that. (Not that The Daily Show wasn't awesome this season.)

If Trinity from The Matrix ever wore an evening gown, I think it would look like the one on Julianna Margulies.

January Jones' dress looks like it's trying to escape from her.

And so does Julie Ormand's.

Why does Claire Danes get a string quartet? That's random.

No clear single winner in the morbid "death montage applause" competition. Actually, the audience seemed strangely unwilling to applaud most of them.

This could be the most clothing the True Blood cast has ever worn.

You can keep the music going until the Temple Grandin director actually reaches the microphone.

I don't know if Al Pacino really deserved the award over Dennis Quaid (who was brilliant in The Special Relationship)... but he was probably the least "Al Pacino" he's ever been in any performance he's given. That's something.

Really? There are only two mini-series nominees? They can do that?

Tom Selleck looks like he's rubbed shoe polish through his eyebrows and mustache.

I would have picked Breaking Bad over Mad Men, but they're both good shows.

Way to go to Matthew Weiner for picking up his speech exactly where he got cut off.

It's Ted Danson's mirror universe evil twin!

I've often called Modern Family the "new Arrested Development." I hope it doesn't follow that show in winning an Emmy the first year, only to have no one watch it and be unceremoniously canceled too soon.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Last, But Not Least

Today, I went to see the new film The Last Exorcism. The short explanation would be to say it's like a cross between The Exorcism of Emily Rose and The Blair Witch Project. But quality-wise, I'd put it somewhere in between the two.

The film is a fake documentary about a southern preacher who performs exorcisms. I hesitate to mention this next plot point, but it is revealed in the first minutes of the film. Still, skip the rest of this paragraph if you're avoiding spoilers. The truth is he's a charlatan, a phony who has decided to expose exorcisms as fake, and has agreed to be followed by a documentary crew for the purpose of doing just that. He's going to perform one last exorcism and let the cameras in on exactly what tricks he's employing.

The real strength of the film, to me, is how it carefully walks the line between supernatural and realism. If you want to give yourself over to the notion of demonic possession to be entertained, you can go that route. If you want to explore the psychological problems in a deeply troubled family that might lead a young teenage girl to think she's possessed, you can go that route too.

In fact, the whole documentary aspect of the film is actually very interesting. It seems a gimmick at first, following in the footsteps of the Blair Witch, Quarantine, and Cloverfield. But the preacher turns out to be a textured, interesting character. The family has drama bubbling beneath the surface. Even the two documentary filmmaker characters become interesting personalities in the film. I could imagine actually watching this on some TV channel, and being quite enthralled.

But unfortunately, the film isn't quite able to cross the finish line. The careful balance of "is she possessed or not?" is blown apart in the last five minutes, and a sudden and odd "Hollywood" vibe intrudes as though from some other movie entirely. It no longer feels like a credible documentary; it feels like the fake documentary it is. What's more, there's at least one gaping hole in the logic of how everything wraps up that sort of undermines the entire tale. I do think that one could craft a movie leading to this ending, but this movie wasn't it. Furthermore, I was quite liking the movie leading up to it, and would rather have seen some other ending more appropriate to it.

In any case, credit a fine cast of unknowns for doing such great work. Of particular note is the lead, Patrick Fabian. He's a working actor of many, many years who has appeared as a guest star on more television shows than I could count. Nice to see him finally get a lead role in something here, and he does an excellent job with it.

Overall, I'd call the movie a B-. It's definitely worth seeing if you're into the horror/suspense genre, even if it doesn't end as well as it begins.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Re-Oriented

It was not so long ago that I reviewed the film Murder on the Orient Express. But I was recently intrigued enough to revisit the story again. Not that same 1974 film, nor the original book on which it is based. Rather, the new film made this year as part of the "Poirot" TV movie series.

Actor David Suchet has been playing the role of Agatha Christie's detective Hercule Poirot on this ongoing series for over 20 years. He aims to complete Christie's entire collected writings on the character before he's through. I was curious to see how a more modern (though, of course, not modernized) take on the same story might come across.

Aside from Suchet himself, the only other actor in this production you're likely to know is Barbara Hershey. (Though if you watch Stargate: Universe, you'll recognize that show's Brian J. Smith.) It's not a star-driven affair like the original film. But I actually found the acting to be stronger here, by and large. Part of that is the change of styles in acting over time, with a move toward more subtle and natural acting even since the mid-1970s. But some of it is also a more finely tuned script.

Once again, I'll try to tiptoe around the solution to the murder mystery in this story, on the off chance that (famous though it is) you haven't heard it. This new adaptation does a much better job of making the pieces lead up to that ending in an organic way. Specific lines of dialogue, certain behaviors of characters, and exchanged glances here and there, all play better than the 1974 film, in which the ending felt like it came more unearned. Here, knowledge of the ending actually lent another level of enjoyment to the proceedings; I found I could watch it and spot dozens of little moments along the way that very clearly "tracked" with the destination.

I noted that the original film dragged a bit in its first act, taking an uncomfortably long time to even begin the journey by train. Here, the movie gets right to it -- while still making time for a little vignette of invented material at the beginning in which we see a woman stoned on the street by an unruly mob. (A thematically important scene that, while not from the mind of Agatha Christie, adds a nice texture to the piece.)

Poirot is a far more eccentric character here than he was in the 1974 film. He speaks of himself by name (a crime-solving Elmo, if you will), has unusual tics, and is generally much more disdainful of people. I suppose this sort of characterization wouldn't have flown in a one-off film, but is much more appropriate to an ongoing series. It's more interesting, for sure, and David Suchet plays it well.

But where the 1974 film started slow and eventually built up steam, this adaptation starts strong, and then slows down. The story itself has an unfortunately necessary bit of exposition about why the victim is murdered. It slows down the action, but there's no real way around having to tell it. The 1974 film did this up front; this film places it in the middle. It's no surprise that both movies drag when this element of the plot bubbles up.

Also, while this film takes more liberties in the beginning and very end of the tales (making more of a moral dilemma about Poirot's solving of the case), the middle chunk is a pretty slavish mirroring of the 1974 film. (And, one assumes, the book.) Here, the movie suffers a bit if you know where it's going, as opposed to that fun opening act that tantalizes viewers in the know. You can't have it both ways the whole time, I suppose.

In the end, I'd call this version on par with the first film. Both have strengths and weaknesses, and both work out to about a B- in my book. I'm not sure I'd suggest you do as I did and watch both. If you've seen neither, I'd probably recommend this one, but if you've seen the other, there's probably no need to catch it... unless you, like me, have some interest in comparing and contrasting.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

To Boldly Go... in a Different Direction

Here's a fun little posting I found today from the days when Paramount executives were first casting Star Trek: The Next Generation. It's an executive memo that lists several candidates for the main characters, and talks about some of the "front-runners" at the time -- not all of whom were the ones to originally get the part. It's a fun little look at what might have been.

Patrick Bauchau is a great character actor you might know from Carnivàle or a few other places. Probably would have made a fine Picard, but of course, Patrick Stewart was perfect. (Yaphet Kotto, huh? That would have been different.)

I don't recognize any of the other names for "Ryker," but it's interesting to note that Jonathan Frakes wasn't the front-runner in this exec's eye.

I'd heard before that Denise Crosby and Marina Sirtis read for each other's roles before being cast as Yar and Troi, respectively. Interesting to see it here, though. I think it speaks to how weird a role Troi was that they had only one candidate for it on the list. Having to just gush spontaneously about other people's emotions is just weird.

Lots of Yars on the list, including Rosalind Chao, who would wind up playing Keiko O'Brien. She didn't get Yar, obviously, despite being a "favorite."

Each name on that list for Geordi seems stranger than the next. Reggie Jackson, baseball player turned pseudo-actor? (In what, The Naked Gun, I guess?) Tim Russ, who would play Tuvok on Voyager? (Patience is a virtue, man.) Wesley Snipes? (Depriving us one day of Passenger 57, I suppose.) And Kevin Peter Hall, the 7 foot tall man who wore the creature costumes in Alien, Predator, and Harry and the Hendersons? Huh.

Of course, it goes without saying that had they not eventually found Wil Wheaton for Wesley, the internet would have been deprived of one of its greatest heroes. Or maybe we'd all be loving jdroth.net?

When it comes to Data, there's Kevin Peter Hall again for no reason I can comprehend -- unless they were trying to conjure memories of the Ruk android from the original series. A better fit might have been Eric Menyuk, who wound up playing The Traveler in a few episodes. Brent Spiner? Nowhere to be seen here.

And "Cheryl McFadden" was Gates McFadden's name before she took her professional moniker. One favorite finally earns the role.

No Worf listed here. When the pilot episode was being worked on, he wasn't being considered as a main character, but just a possible recurring guest star (or maybe even a one-off) to show "look how far we've come! We're at peace with the Klingons!"

Hard to imagine any other show besides the one we got. And though it wasn't fantastic in that first season, it did wind up being pretty special.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Sold!

Here's a simple little 15 minute game that's seen some play in my group since someone picked it up last Christmas in a gift exchange. It's called For Sale. (And I'll tell you right now, searching for "For Sale board game" on Google isn't very helpful.)

The game is divided into two stages. In stage one, you have a limited amount of money to spend at auctions for property cards valued 1 through 30. Each round begins with one property card flipped over for each player. On your turn, you must "pass" and take the lowest valued property available, or bid higher than the previous player to remain in the auction. If you "pass" the next time it comes back to you, you take the lowest valued property at that time, but also get back half the money you've bid so far that round. The last player gets the best property available, but loses all the money he bid.

In round two, you're now armed with the properties of various values that you won in round one. Now, sale cards with values of currency up to $15,000 are flipped over -- again, one for each player. Each player simultaneously chooses one property card from his hand and reveals it. The player offering the worst property gets the lowest valued money card, and so on up to the best property receiving the most money. Repeat this process until everyone has sold all their properties. The most money (including any leftover from round one's auctioning) wins the game. Simple as that.

There is a surprising amount of strategy at play here. The bidding mechanic of round one poses interesting questions of what's worth settling for, and when to push the bid a little or a lot. The second round puts you into a series of interesting evaluations. When can you get a lot of money for a low valued property? When are a bunch of people going to waste their high valued properties, meaning you should go with a low- or mid-value choice?

And as I mentioned at the beginning, the whole thing plays in about 15 minutes. If that. So while it's certainly not a game to while the night away, it's great filler when you're waiting for other gamers in your group to arrive... or when it's late but you want to play "just one more quick one." If you're the host in your gaming group, it's a good one to have in the collection.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Go for a Soak

I skipped Hot Tub Time Machine in theaters earlier this year. It looked a little too stupid to be enjoyable. But three things made me reconsider. First, there were the somehow lower standards to meet when watching a film through Netflix. Second, the surprisingly good remarks I heard from several people -- none praising it enthusiastically, but calling it worthwhile. And of course three, me relinquishing the higher ground for a while after seeing Piranha 3D.

I won't bother with a plot synopsis; it's right there in the title, with a dash of "I Love the 80s" thrown in for good measure. The film would cast itself as a crazy romp in the mold of The Hangover, or maybe even as a "gross-out comedy," but the truth is that those elements of the film are actually among the weakest.

What works are some choice retro jokes ("Kid 'n Play is two guys, man!") and jokes that don't call so much attention to themselves (a recreation of the final scene in Sixteen Candles, for example.) What works even better is the likable cast. John Cusack is ever the charmer, even though he's taken roles in more "base" films of late. Craig Robinson (of The Office) lands some of the best jokes of the film. Rob Corddry (formerly of The Daily Show) plays a jerk to perfection. And Chevy Chase gets laughs in a small role as maybe-wise-sage, maybe-senile-nutjob.

Indeed, it's no cinematic masterpiece. But indeed, it was better than I'd originally suspected. I'd rate it a B-.

Monday, August 23, 2010

A Strange Tale

So, that epic long book that I started reading on my Indiana trip? Well, I was finally able to finish all 782 pages of it, and now I can bring you the full breakdown.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is an "historical fiction" novel set in early 1800s England. The two title characters are the only magicians in the entire country, first comrades, then rivals. One seeks to horde all existing books of magic and keep tight control over the spread of magic; the other wants to fully explore forgotten magics and hopefully return practice of the art into common usage. Along the way, the book treats you (liberally) to a lavish and elaborate back story of magic in England over the last several centuries, puts one of the characters into the Duke of Wellington's fight against Napoleon, and hops between the real world and a strange faerie reality.

I'd once heard this book described as "Harry Potter for adults," but was rather skeptical of such a claim -- I think the Harry Potter series itself does a fine job of not being "just for kids." No, I'd say Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is for the extraordinarily patient, or extraordinarily English, if indeed it is for anyone at all.

Certainly, it is one of the most difficult reads I've ever completed. Had it not been THE book I had with me on the trip, I doubt very much that I would have continued past the first quarter of it. (Another argument in favor of an e-reader, I suppose. I could easily have switched to a different book.) Only because I'd returned to Denver being halfway done did I really feel the momentum to get to the end.

The book defies "readability" at almost every turn. The plot meanders at a snail's pace, interrupted regularly by the flights of fancy of an author in love with language more than storytelling. The flights of fancy are in turn interrupted by a flock of footnotes meant to lend historical authenticity to the made-up magical history, some of which are nearly mini-chapters unto themselves. Odd misspellings are used repeatedly throughout the book -- whether authentic English usage of the period, or an affectation assumed by the author, I could not say. In short, the book comes across deeply in love with itself, and not much interested in whether you love it.

Another flaw to my American sensibilities is that a major theme of the novel is "Englishness." Characters are often faced with what the proper English thing to do would be, whether one is being English enough, and so on. It doesn't come off as national pride -- no, that I think I would understand, as certainly my own country has more than a healthy portion of that. It's more a pervasive concern that manners are more important than... well, anything else. Including, in my view, telling an interesting story. Trim about 300 pages worth of fluff out of the book, and it does at times have an interesting plot. But even this culminates in a too-fast, too-easy letdown of an ending.

I've heard enthusiastic praise for this book in literary circles, but I suppose I am outside any such circle. I'd rate the book a D.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

A Film in Need of a Ghost Writer

I recently watched director Roman Polanski's latest film, the thriller The Ghost Writer. It stars Ewan McGregor as a writer hired to polish an autobiography by a former British Prime Minister, played by Pierce Brosnan. Also in the cast are Kim Cattrall, Timothy Hutton, Tom Wilkinson, and the quite talented Olivia Williams (who the geeks will recognize from Dollhouse, and some others might remember from An Education).

The movie is meant to evoke a "ripped from the headlines" quality, though it doesn't so much follow any one given true story as it lifts liberally from all sorts of recent events. The Prime Minister in question is criticized as giving into the whims of a military-minded American President; a very Halliburton-esque company plays into the film's conspiracy plot; and so on. Frankly, I found this melange to be rather muddy most of the time, and far too predictable the rest of the time. Plot was not the strong suit of this movie.

No, that would be the directing for one. Because while the script rather slavishly moves through various tropes of the genre, the movie does manage to inject some life into them. There's a moderately suspenseful sequence that is somehow built around following a GPS system to an unknown location. A "being followed by a strange car" sequence manages to avoid invoking the feel of any particular one of the countless earlier movies in which you've seen such a thing. Polanski knows how best to service the material.

The actors inject more life into it still. Ewan McGregor is a likable lead. Again, the script is a bit of a letdown, saddling him with a writer-as-detective character that doesn't really seem all that smart, but he makes a number of scenes work that would have flopped without him. Pierce Brosnan's character almost amounts to an extended cameo, but even in just a few scenes, he does a great job of showing the public and private faces of a politician. And Olivia Williams, as his wife, gives perhaps the best performance of all in the film.

Ultimately, I wish the group of people had been assembled in service of a better script. Despite their efforts, the movie sometimes bogs down in slow pacing and only intermittently entertains. I'd rate it a C+ overall. If you like your thrillers "bookish," then this might be for you.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Something Fishy

I hadn't really been planning to see the new movie Piranha 3D, but then -- amazingly -- it started to actually get a notable number of good reviews. I still probably wouldn't have gone, but a friend called me out of the blue today and suggested we give it a shot.

There's a lot about this movie that's really hard to believe. And I'm not even talking about the plot conceit of a million-year-old underground lake being exposed in an earthquake and giving rise to prehistoric killer piranhas. No, it starts with the cast itself.

How did Elizabeth Shue, an Oscar nominee, end up in a silly movie like this? How about Christopher Lloyd? Or how did they get Richard Dreyfuss -- an actual Oscar winner -- to come in and sort-of send up his famous character from Jaws to open the film?

Or the biggest question of all: is there anything they wouldn't put on film?

The movie is gratuitous on every level. The gore is so far over the top, you can't even see the top. The nudity is even more outrageous, and strategically used in ways that... uh... let's say embrace the 3D. And the movie seems completely self-conscious, totally unashamed of being this way. Every crazy scene that comes along seems to subtextually say: "what's your problem; you knew what you were coming to see."

In case you don't know, let's be clear here: this is not truly a horror movie. It's not scary, and I don't think it means to be. It means to be funny, in the so preposterous you have to laugh way.

So how do you rate a movie like this? I mean, objectively, it's pretty terrible. The characters are shallow, the plot is stupid. But if you can let all that go for even a few moments at a time, it delivers on a visceral level -- exactly what it promises, in masterful style.

I guess I'm going to call it a C+. If you like schlock, you'll love it. The rest of you probably didn't need me to tell you that you wouldn't like it.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Tuning Up

I've already been excited for Rock Band 3 for a while now, and there's still two months to go before it's released. But my excitement was kicked up another notch today when the complete list of songs in the game was revealed:

1. Amy Winehouse – Rehab
2. Anthrax – Caught In A Mosh
3. At the Drive-In – One Armed Scissor
4. Avenged Sevenfold – Beast and the Harlot
5. B-52′s – Rock Lobster
6. The Beach Boys – Good Vibrations (Live)
7. Big Country – In a Big Country
8. Blondie – Heart of Glass
9. Bob Marley & The Wailers – Get Up, Stand Up
10. The Bronx – False Alarm
11. Chicago – 25 or 6 to 4
12. The Cure – Just Like Heaven
13. David Bowie – Space Oddity
14. Deep Purple – Smoke on the Water
15. Def Leppard – Foolin’
16. Devo – Whip It
17. Dio – Rainbow in the Dark
18. Dire Straits – Walk of Life
19. Doobie Brothers – China Grove
20. The Doors – Break On Through
21. Dover – King George
22. Echo and the Bunnymen – Killing Moon
23. Elton John – Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting)
24. Faith No More – Midlife Crisis
25. Filter – Hey Man, Nice Shot
26. Flaming Lips – Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Pt. 1
27. Foreigner – Cold as Ice
28. Golden Earring – Radar Love
29. HIM – Killing Loneliness
30. Huey Lewis and the News – The Power of Love
31. Hypernova – Viva La Resistance
32. Ida Maria – Oh My God
33. INXS – Need You Tonight
34. J. Geils Band – Centerfold
35. James Brown – I Got You (I Feel Good)
36. Jane’s Addiction – Been Caught Stealing
37. Jimi Hendrix – Crosstown Traffic
38. Joan Jett – I Love Rock and Roll
39. John Lennon – Imagine
40. Juanes – Me Enamora
41. Lynyrd Skynyrd – Free Bird
42. Maná – Oye Mi Amor
43. Marilyn Manson – The Beautiful People
44. Metric – Combat Baby
45. The Muffs – Outer Space
46. Night Ranger – Sister Christian
47. Ozzy Osbourne – Crazy Train
48. Paramore – Misery Business
49. Phish – Llama
50. Phoenix – Lasso
51. The Police – Don’t Stand So Close To Me
52. Poni Hoax – Antibodies
53. Pretty Girls Make Graves – Something Bigger, Something Brighter
54. Primus – Jerry Was a Race Car Driver
55. Queen – Bohemian Rhapsody
56. Queens Of The Stone Age – No One Knows
57. Rammstein – Du Hast
58. The Ramones – I Wanna Be Sedated
59. Raveonettes – Last Dance
60. Rilo Kiley – Portions of Foxes
61. Riverboat Gamblers – Don’t Bury Me… I’m Still Not Dead
62. Roxette – The Look
63. Slipknot – Before I Forget
64. Smash Mouth – Walkin’ on the Sun
65. The Smiths – Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before
66. The Sounds – Living in America
67. Spacehog – In the Meantime
68. Steve Miller Band – Fly Like An Eagle
69. Stone Temple Pilots – Plush
70. Swingin’ Utters – This Bastard’s Life
71. T.Rex – 20th Century Boy
72. Tears for Fears – Everybody Wants to Rule the World
73. Tegan and Sara – The Con
74. Them Crooked Vultures – Dead End Friends
75. Tokio Hotel – Humanoid
76. Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers – I Need To Know
77. The Vines – Get Free
78. War – Low Rider
79. Warren Zevon – Werewolves Of London
80. The White Stripes – The Hardest Button to Button
81. Whitesnake – Here I Go Again
82. The Who – I Can See For Miles
83. Yes – Roundabout

There are plenty of fantastic 80s tunes in there that are right up my alley: Centerfold, Everybody Wants to Rule the World (doesn't it make you want popcorn?), Here I Go Again, Just Like Heaven, The Look, Need You Tonight, and Whip It.

There are songs I've missed playing since the Harmonix-created Guitar Hero I and II -- the ones that were done right: from the first Guitar Hero song ever (I Love Rock n Roll) to the big finale of the second game (Free Bird).

There are bands I've wanted to see in Rock Band for ages, but assumed it probably wasn't ever going to happen: The Doors, Chicago, The Beach Boys, and Huey Lewis and the News.

Then there are songs that are just going to be crazy-silly-fun at parties with seven players -- including the new keyboard and three singers doing the harmonies: Rock Lobster and, of course, Bohemian Rhapsody.

It's gonna rock!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Spray On

I recently watched the movie Hairspray. Not the 1988 John Waters original, but the 2007 version based on the Broadway musical (in turn based on that original movie). I've actually never seen the original, but I think I might be a little more curious about it now.

Both films are set in Baltimore in the early 1960s, and follow a "pleasantly plump" teenage girl as she tries to get onto a local dance TV show. It's a movie about prejudices, a theme that comes into sharp focus as racial issues take over in the second and third acts of the story.

Knowing what I do about John Waters, I imagine the original may have been a bit more subversive and dark inside the fun veneer. And it's not that the musical version here doesn't have that -- it's just that the overall fun and happiness of this is amped to a crazy degree, and thus the more serious material seems somehow less serious along with that.

But the thing is, it is a lot of fun. The songs are catchy and the staging exciting. It's smile on your face, tapping your feet type entertainment. The cast is clearly having fun too, and they give great performances -- John Travolta, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, Amanda Bynes, James Marsden, Queen Latifah, Brittany Snow, Zac Efron, Allison Janney, and in the main role, newcomer Nikki Blonsky.

It's totally enjoyable and well worth watching. But at the same time, I somehow felt like it had stepped right up to a really interesting line and then not quite crossed over -- I was hoping for a little more "meal" with the "dessert." It's a musical where I'd happily listen to the soundtrack, but might not necessarily rush to watch again. Still, a B overall, and that's not too shabby.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Lost Re-view: The Moth

So here is the Charlie-centric episode I was expecting last time. Having set up Locke as an obstacle of sorts between Charlie and his drugs in the last episode, now it's time to delve deeper into his addiction and his back story.

This is a very meticulously written episode, the most deliberate since Walkabout, full of metaphor, juxtaposition, irony, and careful repetition of patterns -- chiefly the number three. (I'll talk about these things as they come up.) The script came from first-season-only staff writer Jennifer Johnson and an apparent freelancer who never worked on the show again, Paul Dini... I guess an unlikely pair to contribute something that I think ends up being very powerful.

But before getting to the Charlie material, I actually want to start with the other things going on in this episode. In a couple fun trivia tidbits, this is the first time the humorous confusion of Scott and Steve occurs, a running gag about two minor characters that would continue for a long time to come. It's also the first time that two flashbacks at different points in the episode actually occur chronologically one right after another. (Charlie's in a church at the start of the episode, then right outside talking to his brother in the next flashback.)

The prominent side plot of the episode sees Sayid lead an effort to triangulate the source of the French distress signal. He and two other people (there's one of the threes) need to head to specific positions on the Island and act in concert to make his plan work. Sayid recruits Boone and Kate for the job, but neither one is able to see it through to the end because of the cave-in that traps Jack.

First, Boone decides he needs to bound off to help in the rescue. He hands off his signal-triangulation duties to Shannon, a moment that makes all of us in the audience clench and cringe. The obvious assumption is that she will fail in even this basic task, but it's a pleasant surprise that Shannon turns out not to be completely useless. A nice step for her character.

As for Kate, she too heads to Jack's rescue, but several hours after the fact, as Sawyer withholds his predicament from her for his own amusement. Kate and Sawyer are especially adversarial this week, in perhaps the episode's only bit of awkwardness. I mean sure, Kate's a criminal, and we suspect at this point in time that Sawyer is too (and he is -- a con man), so you can expect some "it takes one to know one" friction between them. Still, this episode kind of goes from 0 to 60, with Kate just sailing in out of the blue to belittle Sawyer, and him responding in kind like a bit of a moody teenager.

Of course, we didn't know it the first time around, but Sayid and Kate have quite a bit in common too. Both are people who did bad things, but don't want to give in and think of themselves as bad people. They have some camaraderie between them in this episode, with one or two scenes even making you wonder if maybe the writers were just playing with the notion of putting them together as a couple at some point down the road.

Sayid's efforts are thwarted near the end of the episode when an unseen person clubs him from behind and knocks him out just when he was zeroing in on the location of the distress signal. It's played for mystery, but I find it interesting that if you don't actually remember this plot point, the mystery is deeper the second time around. With all of Lost under our belts, we know that among the Island's inhabitants are the Others, the disciples of Jacob (living in the Temple), and the very object of Sayid's search, Danielle Rousseau. Maybe one of them could have clocked Sayid?

But no, at the time, we only knew about our survivors, and it pretty much can only be Sawyer or Locke that attacks Sayid. Sawyer is deliberately not shown lighting his signal rocket to attempt to create doubt here, but really, Locke seems the only possible culprit in our core group -- and indeed, we later learn that he was the guilty party. (As to his motives? Well, let's talk about that in a future episode.)

Not only does Shannon get a bit of "character rehabilitation" in this episode, but so does Michael. First of all, he's softened a lot in his treatment of Sun and Jin this episode. He even sticks up for them a bit when Hurley (of all people) slams them a little. Clearly, Michael's behavior is more from sympathy for Sun than understanding for Jin, but it's a big step for him.

Michael also takes charge in trying to free Jack from the cave-in, saying that he spent eight years in construction. But then Kate shows up later and basically starts bossing him around. Not to mention that the whole effort is moot anyway, since Jack escapes from the cave-in with Charlie's help instead. So Michael doesn't quite get the boost that Shannon does.

Oh, and briefly, on that cave-in: do you want to make anything of the fact that the cave was stable for thousands of years until Jack and Charlie were arguing in it and it gave way exactly at that moment? Personally, I don't. Dramatic device.

So then, on to the main Charlie storyline. We begin with the revelation that Charlie was the Drive Shaft member initially wary of the excesses of success. Before the band had even hit the big time, the temptation of the women alone had him going to confessional, and he exacts a promise from his brother that if things get too serious, they will give up the band. The ironic twist is that at the end, Liam has has a revelation in his daughter's birth and gives up the band, but it's now Charlie who wants to start again.

What ultimately drives Charlie to drugs is a feeling of uselessness. He's the bass player in a rock band, often the most overlooked member of a group. (The movie That Thing You Do even made a joke of not giving the bass player's character a name.) But he has his moment in the spotlight, as he's the one who sings the chorus on their hit song, "You All Everybody." When his brother Liam takes that away from him one concert, it's more than a simple rock spat, or a quarrel between brothers, it goes right to Charlie's core. And in a later argument, Liam spits it out point blank: "if you're not in this band, what the bloody hell use are you?"

The situation is paralleled on the Island, as Charlie strives to find a way to fit in at camp, trying to find something useful to do. He gets rebuffed at every turn. And with Charlie's "pathology" so specifically mapped, every time he feels useless, he feels the keen need for a fix. Finally, he does find a "use," helping rescue Jack from the cave-in. Jack and Charlie have some interesting scenes, with it first appearing that our dear doctor doesn't recognize the symptoms of Charlie's withdraw. Later, we realize he's known all along, but was trying to help Charlie by not making an issue of it.

Fittingly, Claire doesn't appear in this episode. Knowing the later relationship that she and Charlie would develop, you could imagine that her presence here would have thrown Charlie a possible lifeline which, for dramatic purposes, he can't have.

I speculated a bit last episode about why Locke takes such an interest in Charlie, and this episode makes me wonder about that even more. You almost wonder if Locke battled addiction at some point in his past, a detail we never actually got to see during the series. More likely, Locke just sees a similarity in Charlie's substance abuse and his own obsession with his father, and how that destroyed his life. In any case, keeping with the episodes theme of "threes," Locke tells Charlie that he can ask for the drugs three times, and then he'll stop withholding them.

Choice is a recurring theme of the episode. First, the priest in Charlie's flashback tells him that "life is really nothing but a series of choices." Second, Locke echoes this on the Island, specifically referencing the drugs. The third time, at the episode's conclusion, Charlie burns his own stash, choosing to be free of drugs.

The moth of the title appears three times as well, a carefully chosen metaphor for Charlie. The first time, Locke spells out to us that if the moth didn't have to struggle to free itself from its cocoon, it wouldn't be strong enough to survive. The second time, a moth leads Charlie and Jack out of the cave-in. The third time, it appears after Charlie burns his heroin.

The final scene between Locke and Charlie boasts powerful acting from both Terry O'Quinn and Dominic Monaghan. Locke's disappointment when Charlie asks for the drugs the third time is so profound, followed immediately by his pride when Charlie burns them; Charlie's tears at the moment of release are deep and poignant. Until this point in the series, Lost has thrilled and surprised, but I think this is the closest it has come to moving the audience to tears.

In all, The Moth is the best episode since Walkabout, and gets an A- from me.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Slow Boat to Africa

I recently made time for another classic film, the Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn romantic adventure, The African Queen. The movie is now almost 60 years old, but was recently remastered for Blu-ray, and looks pretty fantastic. It probably didn't look this good when it was brand new.

It's easy to see why this movie is held in such high esteem by so many critics and filmmakers -- it is a clear progenitor of more films than I could possibly count. The "romance kindles during a brutal adventure in the wild" has probably been done at least once in a major film every year since this movie was released. Particular versions of it I remember from the 80s include Crocodile Dundee, Romancing the Stone... even the Indiana Jones films.

An important difference of this film that so many of those later films change -- for the worse -- is that here, the two characters in the couple are on essentially even footing from the start. The modern version of this formula inevitably has the woman as a helpless, spoiled city creature that complains and condescends to the brutish man until some mid-film conversion where she learns to love him despite his boorishness. Blech.

In The African Queen, Hepburn's character is living with her brother in 1910s Africa, trying to bring Western religion to the natives. She has already been living in this environment for some time and is quite capable. When Germans invade as part of World War I, and she and Bogart's character make their escape, she doesn't complain. In fact, she's initially the more motivated of the characters. She doesn't know anything about navigating a river on a steam ship, but she brings plenty to the partnership nonetheless.

So my hat's off to The African Queen for not only establishing a formula, but crafting it frankly better than most of the films that followed it. That a movie made in 1951 could be more progressive and less sexist than many movies made today is nothing short of extraordinary.

That being said, I admired that achievement without being particularly entertained by the film itself. The pacing is slow. The story progresses like a shopping list, giving us every sort of danger or complication you could imagine in such a setting, and presenting them in so orderly a way that you're too aware of how meticulously it all unfolds. Bogart and Hepburn play off each other well, and yet it seems a stretch to say that either is really "acting" much -- neither becomes a character so much as their characters become them, the personality that each is famously known for.

Overall, I'd rate the movie a C+. Honestly, I want to like it more. I'd probably even recommend it to more than a few people. But at the same time, I can't see ever really wanting to watch it again myself, and I think that means I can't really rate it any better.

Monday, August 16, 2010

U-Tube

I mentioned in my recent write-up on Match Point that I've been going back to watch movies again that might figure in my "new and revised" top 100 list. When I made the first list years back, one movie that just squeaked into the bottom 10 was U-571 a military action film released in 2000. If I'd placed it accurately the first time around, well then surely I'd seen 10 more worthy films that would kick it off the bottom of the list anyway.

But more to the point... really? U-571? My memory of the film had faded considerably in the decade since I'd first seen it. And it somehow just seemed impossible that a movie starring Matthew McConaughey and directed by Jonathan Mostow (the man who brought us the lame Terminator 3, and really-only-good-in-concept Surrogates) could actually have been that good. So I resolved to check it out again.

I found that surprisingly, my original assessment of it wasn't far off the mark. I mean, it's not high art, but it's a very well-made action film. Set in World War II, it tells the story of a submarine on an urgent covert mission to secure a code machine used by the Nazis. On a more personal level, it tells the story of a first officer (McConaughey) who is unexpectedly thrust into the captain's position and must learn to call the shots.

There are a lot of great action sequences in this movie. People often point to The Hunt for Red October as a great naval thriller, but I found the sub-against-sub and sub-against-destroyer sequences in this movie to be far more engaging. The tactics are more sophisticated, the pacing more taut, and the tension higher.

There's also some good acting in the movie. Besides McConaughey (who is well cast for this role), Bill Paxton plays the captain above him, and Harvey Keitel the wise CPO. Jake Weber, often underused in a thankless role on the TV series Medium, also has a good part as the intelligence officer overseeing the mission.

But there is a mark against the film too, which will certainly bother some people more than others. Though this story is a work of fiction, it is based in the reality of several missions in World War II where Enigma code machines were captured from the Germans. In the bulk of these missions -- including the one in particular that is arguably closest to this movie's fictitious plot -- the naval crews that succeeded were British. In this movie? Yee-haw!!! All American!!!

One more time... this is fiction. And yet it hews closely enough to history that it seems to do injustice to the real people involved to take the credit off of the British sailors and give it to a bunch of Americans. I understand the reality of it being a Hollywood movie, made for American audiences, and yet what would we think of, say, a movie depicting a fictionalized version of the first moon landing in which an Irishman takes that "one small step?" Whether this detracts from the movie is going to vary from person to person. You might not care about the history. Or might be able to just take the movie as a piece of entertainment separate from any of that.

Or hell, you just might not like it as much as I did. But I have to say that for two hours, I feel like this movie delivers all the thrills an action-suspense movie should. I rate it an A-. We'll see, once I've finished putting the new list back together, whether that's good enough for a slot.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Lost Re-view: House of the Rising Sun

When watching Lost the first time around, I remember making the assumption that an early episode was surely going to have flashbacks centered on Charlie. Jack, Kate, and Charlie were the main characters focused on in the pilot. Actor Dominic Monaghan was (besides Matthew Fox) really the only actor on the show that most people would recognize from somewhere else. (The Lord of the Rings trilogy.) And this episode opened up with a "previously on Lost" that spent a whole minute walking us through everything we'd seen so far about Charlie's drug addiction. "Okay, here we go," I thought.

And then what? An episode centered on Sun? Huh? But the thing is, I actually really liked the episode.

From little snippets I've read here and there over the years, I get the impression that most people were indifferent at best to the Sun/Jin storyline on the show. And while I'm not sure I'd go so far as to say I looked forward to Sun/Jin episodes, I found I always enjoyed them when they came along. They just had a really sweet-but-tragic history (and, we now know, a sweet-but-tragic ending to their tale). The heart was always strong in a Sun/Jin episode, and I always found that to make for a satisfying hour of television.

This first Sun episode set the course for that. It was written by Javier Grillo-Marxuach, a writer who was on the show throughout the first two seasons. The director, however, obviously didn't work out as far as the producers were concerned -- it's someone who never worked again on the show. Whatever conflicts may have arisen there, they stayed behind the scenes. I didn't really perceive any departure from the norm while watching this episode again.

It opens with a tight close-up on Sun's eye, of course; the writers had decided they really liked that device, and were perhaps starting to overuse it. (They'd also latched onto the closing musical montage. As in the last episode, Hurley's Walkman concludes the hour.)

The on-Island story focuses on Jin throwing a hissy fit because Michael has found Sun's father's watch in the wreckage and just started wearing it. This may be a vehicle for Sun's flashbacks, but this aspect of the story is actually far more revealing of Jin and Michael's characters.

For his part, Jin makes absolutely no effort to try to communicate with Michael and explain the problem. He just hauls off and football-tackles/sucker-punches Michael while he's hanging out in the surf. (Fantastic stunt, by the way. It looks damn painful.) Knowing his full back story now, we can see that Jin is so conditioned by working for Sun's father that kicking some ass is his first (and only) instinct. And if he's thinking of it consciously at all, he probably figures that doing something manly like that is the way to show Sun he loves her.

Michael isn't much on the high ground either. We don't really need his back story to understand his reaction -- he tells us right in this episode. He assumes it's racially motivated hatred, and starts ranting and raving about that. Only when Walt innocently questions him about what he's been saying does he pull up short. (And strange that it doesn't even occur to Michael that Jin's anger might have something to do with Michael seeing Sun topless just a few episodes earlier!) Not only does this reaction tell us something of Michael's character, but it's just an interesting thread to see on a television show: a story about racism that features two non-Caucasian characters as the focal points.

It's interesting to pit Jin and Michael against one another, because at this point in the show, they might be the least likable characters on it. (Though Shannon is a strong contender.) Do I root for the neglectful and emotionally abusive husband or the absentee father who has not just chip on his shoulder, but all of Nestle's Toll House? Do I feel sorry for Jin when Sayid handcuffs him to airplane wreckage and leaves him out all day in the scorching sun? (Poor Jin would have that handcuff on his wrist for more than a season after this.) Do I feel bad for Michael that he was attacked for really no provocation at all? It really makes you think. (Although in retrospect, I feel that Michael remains a giant tool for his entire run on the show, where Jin fully redeems himself.) Of course by the end of the season, Michael and Jin will become "raft buddies" and work out their differences.

For more insight on Sun, you have to turn to the flashbacks in this episode. They take us back to when she and Jin were a young couple in love, and it's almost jarring to see it after the episodes so far, in which Jin seems so cold. Sun really loves Jin in the flashbacks, and to see the man he is there, you don't have to ask why.

Then Jin asks Sun's father's permission to marry, and goes to work for the man. You can tell from Sun's reaction that she knows this is a bad idea, even though she doesn't come out and say so. She knows that her father will poison the things she loves about Jin, though I suspect even she didn't realize just how much. The picture was incomplete for us here the first time around. We only get Sun's reaction to go on; we don't even see her father this episode, much less get to really see what a bad man he truly is.

The flashbacks cover a period of several years. (With a very clever writing device of a puppy turning into a dog to tell us this without having to state it in dialogue.) Jin does go "dark side." He even seems to resent Sun more than her father for this turn of events. Is this because she knew and didn't warn him strongly enough? Or does it just seem he resents her more because again, we're not actually meeting the father here?

So Sun plans an escape and learns English. (Incidentally, this is teased well by having a friend refer to her "lessons" in the flashback just prior to revealing it on the Island.) I was surprised the first time around, for sure. Thinking about it in retrospect, I appreciate it even more as a clever bit of story construction. In the long run, after her secret got out, it made Jin dependent on her to get by, where he would have wanted the situation completely reversed. "Fish out of water" is always good narrative turf.

The last flashback has Sun there in the airport in Sydney. (Incidentally, it's set up to be the same flashback we saw of Jack in the previous episode. Last time, we saw only Jin standing in the background. This time, the camera pans to reveal Sun too.) It's the most powerful emotional beat in the episode, where Jin shows his tender and caring side again for just a brief moment. We see he's not beyond redemption, and see why Sun doesn't carry through on her plan to leave him. It's a great story arc.

So why all the set-up with Charlie in the re-cap? Because most of the on-Island drama this episode revolves around him. His addiction is so bad this episode that Jack only has to say the word "drugs" (in reference to medicine that might be found in people's luggage), and he needs to head out for a fix.

This week, Locke catches wise to what's going on with Charlie. I remember the first time around thinking that at some point, Charlie's drugs would run out, and there would be a reckoning. Instead, this episode makes the stronger dramatic choice and has Charlie agree to give what's left of his stash to Locke. Rather than have Charlie's supply simply run out, it's much better to put a character between him and the drugs, and that's where Locke fits in this episode.

Still, the way Locke goes about it is fairly weird. He tells Charlie that the Island itself wants the "sacrifice" of the drugs, to in turn reward Charlie with the return of his guitar. Locke is understandably a big believer in the spiritual nature of the Island, since it restored his ability to walk. And yet to foist all of this stuff on the Island as an entity seems like mumbo-jumbo. The truth, we learn, is that Locke has already located Charlie's guitar in the wreckage, and he plans to reveal it himself just as soon as Charlie hands over the stash. Locke acts like the Monster itself led him out into the jungle and said "look! guitar!", when the truth seems mundane to me. There's plenty of weirdness afoot on the Island without imbuing it with more.

What's interesting is why Locke latches on to Charlie to be his first recruit into the Island mysticism. You'd think he'd have had more of a go at Jack last episode, what with Jack actually seeing things that might not be there. But I think that Jack didn't appear to be as "broken" to Locke. Locke really thinks of the man he was before the Island as another person, and sees himself now as transformed. So he looks for someone in need of a clear transformation to be his first Island convert. That's Charlie, who needs to pull out of addiction.

And maybe there's just a tiny, tiny element of being star-struck too. After all, Locke reveals to us that he actually recognizes Charlie as the bass player from Drive Shaft, and knows both their albums. Man, Locke must be way into music. I know I for one can't think of too many bands where I'd recognize one of the musicians other than the lead singer if I saw the person in a completely different context.

The episode's other big plot line involves Jack trying to convince people to move to the cave he's discovered. Hand in hand with this plot is a lot of pushing Jack and Kate together as a couple -- there's a lot of flirting between them this episode (which Charlie calls "verbally copulating"). Kate asks Jack point blank in one scene if he's checking her out. She asks him about his tattoos. (Did the writers actually have it in their heads to tell a story about those tattoos some day, or were they just trying to acknowledge that they weren't covering up the ones that actor Matthew Fox really has?) There's another scene where Kate and Jack both strip off their clothes gratuitously after being chased by really fake looking CG bees. Even Hurley gets a little high-school-gossip-like and excited over this possible romantic pairing. (A little odd, given that he was so worried about her criminal history a few episodes earlier.)

But of course, the point of pushing Jack and Kate together is so that it lands more dramatically at the end of the episode when Jack relocates to the caves but Kate refuses to go with him. And it's not the only separation between them in the episode either. When Kate asks Jack how he found the caves, he evasively answers "luck" rather than reveal anything of the truth. When Jack comes to Kate at the end of the episode and now wants to know what crime she committed, she brushes him off and says "you had your chance to know."

Jack also clashes with Sayid this episode. Following Jack's experience seeing his father, he's changed. Before, he was all short term, wanting to squander any and all medicine they had on hand to save the dying marshal. Now he wants to dig in for the long term by relocating to the cave.

Sayid, however, want's nothing to do with that. "I'm not going to admit defeat," he says. With full knowledge of the character, we know he's got to be thinking of Nadia. Sayid has a very important reason to get to off the Island, and so he can't even entertain the notion of doing anything other than staying on the beach to keep looking for rescue. He even goes so far as to recruit people to stay on the beach like it's a cause. And you can go one by one through all the characters and consider what it says about them that they choose the beach or the cave. (Well... most of the characters, anyway. This is actually the first episode that doesn't feature the entire cast, with Shannon and Boone having no dialogue, and Claire not appearing at all.)

One more beat is worthy of mention: this is the episode where the skeletons are discovered in the cave. We wouldn't learn who they are until we were about as close to the end of the series as this episode is to the beginning. (In fact, that later episode would include a clip from this one to remind us.) Instead, Locke dubs them the "Adam and Eve" skeletons, introducing some religious imagery to underscore the faith elements that would be so important in the series.

I'm pretty sure the writers didn't know this was Mother and the Man in Black's mortal remains either, or else they probably wouldn't have had Jack talk about them appearing to be at least "40 or 50 years old." (Heh.) But they were clever enough to place the bag there, containing one white bead and one black bead. It connected later on with the story of Jacob and the Man in Black. But even here, just a few episodes in, it was a nice callback to Locke's backgammon speech from the pilot.

I'd actually say that all these scattered on-Island plot threads made for the weakest Island story of any episode so far. But the powerful Sun/Jin flashback story really brought the episode back to higher ground. I'd call it a B+ overall.

Ah, but before I close, I have to take a detour for another one of the "Missing Pieces" mobisodes. (The last one for about half the season.) Taking place during the events of House of the Rising Sun is a scene dubbed "Arzt and Crafts." The self-important teacher Arzt, who we'd meet at the end of season one, inserts himself into the cave vs. beach argument of this episode, going to Hurley, Michael, Sun, and Jin, and trying to encourage them to relocate. He recants comedically at the end, when we hear the noises of the Monster off in the jungle.

There are two problems with the mobisode. One is that it provides nothing new or worthwhile to the Lost narrative. We already know that Arzt is a buffoon. If you really like watching that, then I suppose it's fun to get one more scene showing it. I found it redundant.

Secondly, not to become a continuity tyrant, but when you watch House of the Rising Sun fresh, and then immediately watch Arzt and Crafts, you can't help but notice that the mobisode doesn't fit. In the actual Lost episode, Jin is handcuffed to the wreckage, then Sayid approaches Michael about not going to the cave, then Jin is released. Here in this scene, Michael acts like he hasn't heard anything about the cave, and yet there sits Jin with the handcuff on his wrist.

And why are Jin and Michael sitting so close to each other here anyway? They've just had a massive disagreement and still aren't cooled down about it. Not only does Michael tolerate Jin's presence in this scene, he actually jumps in and defends Jin and Sun when Arzt starts shouting at them (as if that would make them understand English).

Watching this mobisode at the actual point in time it's intended to occur, you realize that the only character it really treats correctly is Arzt. And even then, it only serves to remind the audience one more time, "isn't Arzt such a goober?" This is another mobisode to be skipped.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Cole Play

I recently watched De-Lovely, the biography movie on the life of Cole Porter. As you would expect of a story about the gifted songwriter, the movie is actually a musical compromised of many of his most famous tunes.

As seems to be the trend in movie musicals of recent years, the film is packaged in a way that acknowledges the artificiality of bursting into song, by having the whole film framed with the device of seeing most of the numbers presented on a stage in a theater. Where it diverges from this convention is why we're in that theater. The movie is set at the moment of Cole Porter's death, as some usher to the afterlife (played by Jonathan Pryce) comes to present on the stage to Porter the highlights of his life.

Kevin Kline stars as Cole Porter, and I'd be hard-pressed to think of a man better for the job. He's a great actor who handles the material with skill. He performs the songs perfectly, striking a great balance between singing the songs well for the sake of the movie, but not too well, because Porter himself was known to be a rather bad singer.

Ashley Judd plays the woman who marries Porter, fully aware that he isn't straight and doesn't love her in the conventional way of husband and wife. She and Kline have an excellent rapport on screen, and really make you believe in a good marriage built on mutual advantage and respect.

But while their acting is quite good, the script itself is rather lacking. As with so many biopics, that movie doesn't really seem to have a point of view, or a particular message in what it's showing you. It's just a general "hey, look at this man's life." I understand that's the "biography" part of the movie, but I feel this approach neglects the movie part of a movie -- telling a dramatic story with a good arc and a satisfying resolution.

There are also some very odd choices in the supporting cast. Several of the songs are performed by musicians that come in for one number. Elvis Costello does a song, then Sheryl Crow and Alanis Morissette show up as well. And it's not that any of them gives a bad rendition of their respective songs, it's just that the movie seems to be trying too hard to make Porter seem "current" by having current musicians perform it.

And the bottom line is, the movie takes a rather long time to get where it's going. Overall, I'd rate it a C-. Good for the main actors, but really not good enough to recommend.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Shakespeare's Fifth

Henry V is the film that put Kenneth Branagh on the map. Originally released in 1989, I first saw it years later, while I was in college -- as part of a class, actually. It had been such a long time, though, that my memory of it had faded almost completely. Because of that, and just to watch the film without any thoughts of a grade riding on it, I recently decided to check it out again.

The play by William Shakespeare mainly surrounds the Battle of Agincourt, during the Hundred Years' War. It's an area of history that I'm not very well-versed in, but it's interesting to view it through the lens of this play. As one would expect of an English playwright, the play trumps up King Henry, showing how noble and heroic his invasion of France is.

Branagh's presentation on film, however, emphasizes another facet. It's hard to say just how much of it is there in the actual text (though make no mistake; not a word is altered), but there's something decidedly ignoble about the whole endeavor. "The horrors of war" is a major theme in this version, and Henry almost comes off like a bully. A charismatic leader, but a bully at the same time.

It's a hell of a cast. Branagh himself plays Henry. Derek Jacobi is the Chorus (a device from the play to explain the rapid scene changes and sweeping battles that could not be presented on the stage). Ian Holm, Emma Thompson, Robbie Coltrane, Judy Dench, and even a very young Christian Bale all show up in various roles. As always, when Shakespeare is in the hands -- and mouths -- of such skilled actors, it isn't difficult to follow.

But nevertheless, I find Henry V far below the quality of Shakespeare's best. First, the play relies on a great deal of historical knowledge and context the audience is expected to have. I suppose you really can't fault Shakespeare for not anticipating that his works would still be performed four centuries later, but it's nevertheless harder to access than his more well-known (and "timeless") tragedies.

Secondly, the film comes at the end of a cycle of plays about Henry IV. Again, Shakespeare probably isn't to blame if somebody decides to read "The Return of the King" first and then whines about the missing context from "The Fellowship of the Ring" and "The Two Towers." But there it is, that without more background, certain moments fail to land, chiefly the few scenes with Falstaff.

Finally, there are bits that feel extraneous, such as a subplot that involves courting a princess of France. Two long scenes, both almost entirely in French, drag on uncomfortably, and do little to inform our understanding of the title character. (I even recognize just enough French to follow the scenes, but still found them a strange diversion.)

So in the end, while this adaptation is as well presented as I think one could be, I'd still call the film only an average one. Well, a bit above average -- a C+.

Will they be coming to revoke my theater lovers' card now?

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Back Home Again From Indiana

I have returned from my week in Indiana. GenCon went well, and the time off with my family better still. Uncles, aunts, cousins, and grandmother all made time to visit; I got to see nearly everybody on the trip.

The weather even cooperated for some of the trip. While the first day and last few days of my trip were scalding hot, dripping wet with humidity, and occasionally marked by a desert-like wind, a stretch of three or four days in the middle was actually quite pleasant. I even got to eat dinner one night outdoors at this awesome crêpes restaurant my cousin knew about. Got to find a place like that in Denver.

Since last time I was in Indiana, they've decided to quit fighting on the whole "we're not doing Daylight Savings Time" issue; they were two hours ahead, just like the rest of the Eastern Zone. I think maybe that makes loony ol' Arizona the only holdout. (Though perhaps on this one issue, I'd rather see the rest of us side with them -- as unlikely as that is to happen.)

But there's one thing I do not get about Indiana -- the whole "soft water" thing. Apparently, the Indiana tap water is widely regarded to be crap. I'm sure this is objectively testable, and I'm suppose if my palate had any ability to distinguish between kinds of water, I might notice it too. In any case, everyone in Indiana seems to think they need a water softener to address this issue. Huge bags of special water softening salt are sold at every single gas station. I'd see them in huge piles in between the pumps.

Yet whatever the supposed benefits of soft water, there is one major detriment in my mind -- showers do not get you clean. This puny soft water is incapable of getting the soapy film off your skin when you try to rinse it off. Between that and the humidity on a particularly bad day, I'd feel no more clean two seconds after stepping out of the shower than I did before getting in.

I miss the family, but I was also very glad to have a regular shower again. It felt as good as returning from a week long camping trip.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Lost Re-view: White Rabbit

Lost's third episode after the pilot focused on Jack's back story. It was written by Christian Taylor, a staff writer who left the show partway through season one. (In fact, this was his only official writing credit on Lost.) The episode broke some new ground for the show in several ways.

This was the first time an episode of the show began in a flashback. (But it did start with yet another close-up on an eye, this time that of a young schoolboy Jack.) I'm not sure there was an intentional statement on character being made in that, but it is a contrast it to the previous episodes about Kate and Locke. It seems to me to say that where those two have already turned over a new leaf, and who they are now is far more important than who they were before the Island, Jack is still rooted very much in the past.

This is also the first time that any character's flashbacks looked not just at the person's adult life, but went back to childhood. In fact, there are just as many flashback scenes featuring "young Jack" as "old Jack." And this makes sense too, because Jack is still carrying the weight of a lifetime of being told he's not good enough by his father, and of being pushed into fixing problems by his mother. (She's the one that sends him to Australia to retrieve his father.) Jack's character would remain true to this upbringing for essentially the entire run of the show, but here in particular it shows why he's so reluctant to accept any mantle of leadership that the other survivors would thrust upon him.

Even Locke is ready to appoint Jack the leader. The two have a meaningful discussion after Locke saves Jack's life (more on that a bit later), and despite Locke's clear skills, he knows that being a leader isn't as much about who knows the most as it is about who inspires others to follow. For his part, Jack repeats the drone that's been beaten into him all his life: "I'll fail. I don't have what it takes." He definitely wants to help, but he doesn't think he's good enough, and certainly doesn't want anyone asking him what to do.

Of course, Jack is even more clearly dogged by the criticisms of his father at this point in time, as it was in this episode that we learned his father had just died. Jack hadn't even been able to have the funeral service before crashing on the Island. As Locke said to Walt just a few episodes earlier: he's "having a bad month."

Which brings up an interesting connection I'd never consciously made before. Walt and Jack are two characters who'd both lost a parent immediately before arriving on the Island. And Walt clearly had no problems befriending an adult -- even by this point in the story, he'd started to bond with Locke, and a bit with Sun (who wasn't even speaking his language). It's interesting to me that the writers never would put Walt and Jack together when the two had such a similar background.

But enough of the past. There was plenty going on in the "present" in this episode too. The episode begins with a previously unknown castaway named Joanna getting caught in a riptide and drowning at sea, despite Boone and Jack's efforts to save her. For Jack, the failure gives him more to beat himself up about, accelerating him down his path of self-doubt, and setting up the episode well for him. Yet it kicks off an interesting subplot for Boone as well.

Boone swims partway out to rescue this Joanna, then ends up needing rescuing himself. He's emasculated right out of the gate, particularly when you recall that in the pilot he said that he was a lifeguard. Other survivors are settling into their "roles," and he doesn't really have one. The role he thinks he should have is being usurped by Jack. And so he steals what's left of the group's water to horde and dispense out as he thinks best.

Boone wasn't around for Jack's "blank slate" speech a few episodes earlier, but it's clear that he sees this situation as a way to start over too. No one in his life has ever really taken him seriously, least of all Shannon, but he wants to start fresh here. And being young and impulsive as he is, it seems he thinks that wanting to lead should be enough of a qualification to make him the leader. A tough day for Boone.

Several important character pairings were developed further in this episode. Hurley and Charlie are buddied up again, this time in the simple act of looking to Jack for leadership. Charlie and Claire get a lot closer too, when he takes it upon himself to care for her after she collapses of dehydration on the beach.

Then of course, there's the pairing of Jack and Locke, the two men who would come to define the "science vs. faith" conflict on the show. It's fascinating to see the relationship begin here, because it begins with Locke telling Jack straight out that he's not a man of faith. At least, he says that he was a very practical man before arriving on the Island. Of course, we know of the miraculous healing that has happened to Locke, and it's understandable how that could bring out a sudden "conversion."

Jack confides that he's chasing someone on the Island who can't really be there. (Leaving out who it is.) Locke is willing to believe that this might not be a hallucination at all, and makes the very prophetic supposition: "What if everything that happened here happened for a reason?" Much, much later in the show, when we'd learn about the guiding hand of Jacob that picked out all these people to be here on the Island, we'd see that's exactly the case.

Locke also says he's looked into "the eye of the Island," and that what he saw was "beautiful." One must assume he's referring to his encounter with the Smoke Monster in the previous episode. It's an interesting reaction. Later, we'd learn that assuming Smokey doesn't just kill you outright, you see images from your past inside the smoke. If this is what Locke saw too, then it's clear he viewed this as a purging experience. He has a lot of bad things in his past, from being swindled by his father, put in a wheelchair by him, losing his love Helen, and finding constant frustration and humiliation ever since. To be shown all of that and then to call it "beautiful?" Well, the only interpretation I have for that is that Locke now considers that part of his life over. He's moved on, and Smokey's vision helped him compartmentalize all that and cast it off.

Speaking of Smokey, this is the first time we really see him adopting a dead man's form (for more than a few frames, at a distance). Why the different approach with Jack as opposed to Locke? I think you could interpret it a couple different ways.

One, you could assume that like a siren calling a ship onto the rocks, Smokey was just looking to get Jack killed. We know that the "rules" say he can't do it directly, but indirectly? During the chase "Christian" leads Jack on, Jack takes a running plunge off a cliff, barely catches himself, and would have died if Locke hadn't shown up to save him.

Two, you could draw inferences from the discussion Jacob and the Man in Black have later about a person's nature. (Well, technically, they have the discussion much earlier. Details.) We're basically told late in the series that bringing people to the Island wasn't always about looking for a "candidate" to replace Jacob. It was first part of an ongoing game between the two brothers to examine whether people were fundamentally pure or corruptible. Take a self-doubting man with deep Daddy issues, as Jack is, and run around pretending to be his dead Dad? That could simply be Smokey's idea of "fun," trying to get to Jack and prove his side of the argument. (He doesn't do this to the equally father-tormented Locke because his father is still alive, and Smokey can only take the form of dead people.)

But I think a third scenario the most likely. The Man in Black is playing a very long term game. He knows who all the candidates are, and he knows he has to get them all killed. While they're all still weak and disoriented, one good strategy for that is "divide and conquer." He leads Jack to the cave in the hopes that exactly what does happen will happen -- that the survivors will fight over whether to move to the cave or remain on the beach, and that this will drive a wedge between them.

If you want to get a little more mystical with it -- and Lost is nothing if not mystical -- then you might also consider that there are places of power and significance all over the Island. Not just the Source that Jacob is tasked with protecting, but places like the mostly-destroyed statue in which Jacob resides, the temple with its healing waters, and the lighthouse. Similarly, you could assume that some places on the Island are imbued with strong negative energy, and what place could be darker than the very spot where Smokey killed Mother thousands of years before? If there's any place on the Island where just the bad mojo in the air could work to corrupt a person, I'd believe the cave could be it.

Naturally, this is all stretching backward to make things fit. The simple truth about why the cave was created at this point in the life of the show? The production needed a recurring location where indoor filming could take place, so they wouldn't have to be out on location so much. (I know... how fun is that?)

There are a few other small moments of interest in this episode. Actor John Terry appears as Christian Shephard for the first of 19 episodes. (I'm sure he never imagined when he landed the role here that it would become such a regular gig.) Sawyer is established as a bookworm for the first time, as we see him lounging on the beach reading Watership Down. Claire tells Kate she's interested in astrology. (I think this was laying track to get to her upcoming flashback episode, where we find out she went to a fortune teller for advice about her unborn child.) Michael Giacchino introduces a new musical theme that would often recur to underscore moments about "life and death." Jack caps a speech with a line that would resonate in future episodes, even leading to the title of one: "If we can't live together, we're gonna die alone."

And Charlie says he can't swim. Wait, huh? We later saw that he learned as a child, and he even claims to have won a championship. Not to mention the whole heroic act of swimming down to the Looking Glass station at the end of season three. I guess that means he was lying here. Lying about being able to swim when someone else was drowning in the ocean. Hmmm. Let's say he'd just taken a hit from his heroin stash off-screen two minutes earlier and quietly move along.

In all, I'd call White Rabbit a good episode, though I do feel like the writers were already doing a pretty good job of showing us who Jack was just through his behavior on the Island, even before we got to see these flashbacks. I'd rate the episode a B.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Out of Season

Netflix recently kicked a horror movie recommendation my way, Trick 'r Treat. Made on the cheap a few years back, its distribution deals fell through and the thing finally trickled out directly to DVD. Not a great pedigree, you'll agree. And yet, there are a few interesting faces that pop up in it. Brian Cox and Anna Paquin are featured, along with that fine character actor Dylan Baker (who I'd just seen in Fido). There's even a touch of geek cred in Tahmoh Penikett, of Battlestar Galactica and Dollhouse.

So what is Trick 'r Treat, exactly? Well, it is what it sounds like, a horror movie set on Halloween night. And while yes, the definitive movie with that premise has already been made, there's a quite different approach here. The movie is actually an anthology of five different tales, each with peripheral connections to the others. Each story features at least a passing appearance by the creepy little dude in the poster at the left, "Sam." (That's Samhain, the character of folklore used here as the patron-demon-saint of Halloween.)

In a way, this movie is like watching five episodes of Tales from the Crypt stitched together. And for the most part, they're what I'd consider pretty good episodes. Each tale has a fun flavor to it, good moments of tension, reversals, and general horror movie goodness. One story in particular, about a bunch of kids staging a prank related to a fabled fatal bus crash in local town history, is really damn effective.

But the problem is, none of these stories is even given as much room to breathe as an episode of Tales from the Crypt. The entire movie is less than 90 minutes long, and it seems like some of the storylines get short shrift. Once or twice during the movie, I felt myself going "hey, I was watching that!" when one plot would suddenly be abandoned in favor of another. Sure, not all of these stories could actually have sustained a whole film on their own, but they're all presented with enough art and fun that I wished for more than I got.

Perhaps the whole thing would have landed better if I'd actually watched it "in season," closer to an actual Halloween. I think if you like scary movies, you'd probably want to do exactly that. But overall, the "short attention span" approach of the film brings its score down to a C+ in my book. The whole is less than the sum of the parts.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Tobago-ning

It's been part of my board game collection for a few months now, but I just realized that I've never said anything about the game Tobago. It's a rather quick game where players take on the role of archaeologists, digging up treasure on an island.

There are four possible treasures hidden "somewhere" on the board at any given time. To identify the precise location of a treasure, a player can (on his turn) play a "map piece" card to ever-growing columns of cards representing each of the four treasures. For example, I might play a card on my turn that states the black treasure is "not in the mountains," while you on your turn play one that states "it is within two spaces of a palm tree." Eventually, enough map pieces will accumulate so that there is only one possible space on the game board where a treasure can be buried, and then the race is on!

When a player drives his "ATV" to the location of a treasure, he gets a treasure card with a random value between 2 and 6 from a treasure deck. But also, each player who contributed map pieces in defining the treasure location gets one treasure card for each map piece. And it's not quite so simple as dealing them off a deck. Each player gets to look at the number of treasures he is eligible to receive. But then all the players' cards are shuffled together (along with one extra that no one peeked at). Then cards are revealed one at a time and a sort of "draft" ensues. Players elect one at a time whether they want to take the offered card, or press their luck to wait for a possibly better card later in the stack. (Perhaps it's a better card they know is there, from having glimpsed it earlier.)

There are a few more wrinkles that I won't go into, but suffice it to say that the game does have a bit more of a luck element than I'm usually fond of in my board games. But it's definitely not all about luck. Strategy does matter. And the board is modular in a way that allows plenty of different island configurations to add replay value to the game. I might still bristle a bit at the luck factor, except the game is a brisk 30 minutes -- 45 at the outside, even with players prone to "analysis paralysis" -- and certainly sustains enough fun for that length of time.

This isn't one to recommend to hardcore strategists, but strikes me as another good "bridge" game to get any non-gamers in your life over the water from Monopoly to Puerto Rico.