Tuesday, November 30, 2010

49 and Counting

I have reached the end of my journey -- so far -- with The Up Series. 49 Up was made in 2005, and so until 2012 rolls around, it is the last in the series. Certainly, there will be a 56 Up when the time comes, though I would think the series appropriately "complete" if that never happened. The narrator of the original Seven Up documentary all those years ago said that by looking at those children of age seven, you could get a glimpse of Britain in "the year 2000." As 49 Up stands several years past that point, it could well be seen as the culmination of the documentary project.

In any case, let's see what has become of those children of the early 1960s.

Tony and his wife are still together, even after the affair revealed in 42 Up. They're both still cab drivers, and they have taken out a second mortgage on their home in order to buy a holiday home in Spain. And they're talking of moving there permanently, possibly to start a sports bar. In any case, Tony feels that the economy will bust in less than five years under Tony Blair's government, and that is spurring on his desire to leave the country. (I can't say how much Blair had to do with it, but the general prediction wasn't off the mark.)

His oldest son Nick is still in the furniture business. Jody, his middle daughter, is recovering from a broken relationship. And his youngest daughter Perry is a postal worker. He has three grandchildren now. Watching him and his wife Debbie interact in the interview, you see steady -- but usually playful -- bickering. But more than that, you see they really are similar.

On to the trio of Jackie, Lynn, and Sue.

Jackie is raising her three sons, getting by with a disability benefit from her rheumatoid arthritis, and help from the grandmother of her younger two boys. Her oldest, Charlie, wants to leave school early to apprentice as a car mechanic, and she's trying to steer him aware from that. Her second, James, has an interest in making his own computer games. Lee, the youngest, is adventurous, and Jackie sees a lot of her own best traits in him.

But more interesting than the facts of Jackie's life in this particular film is the argument she gets into with the interviewer. Jackie has always had a bit of a short temper when it comes to these films (and we're shown a brief montage of past highlights), but she really takes filmmaker Michael Apted to task on this occasion. She says that he always edits the films to make his own point, and hopes that 49 Up might finally be the first time the documentary is truly about "us" and not about how "you (Apted) see us."

Apted probes further into what she means, and she says that the previous film was less about what she was doing with her life and more about what she might not be able to do now in light of her condition. It was playing on sympathy. She also says that she's more intelligent today that he (the interviewer) thought she would be at age 7. "I enjoy being me, and I don't think you expected me to turn out the way that I have." And she says she cringes when she watches the films, not just for herself, but for the others too. Take that, Apted!

Sue is far less fiery a subject. She works for a college in London as an administrator for the legal program. She's together now with Glenn, the man she was just getting to know as of 42 Up. She's very committed to him, but they are not married. She basically says that she's done the marriage thing (implying that she will not ever again). Her son William works in computers, having passed on the chance to go to university. Her daughter Catherine is still finishing school, but is incredibly similar to Sue herself, she thinks. Sue has moved out of the East End, and is asked if it feels to her like she's reached "the upper class." Perhaps it does, she agrees.

Lynn is still working at the same library, but fears that job may be in jeopardy to still further cutbacks in education. "They" say that a specialist such as herself is not required to do her job. There is no change in her health; her brain condition is not going away, but neither is it a problem. She is still happily married, but her husband still refuses to take part in the films. She says he sees them as an intrusion, and she respects that view. Her two daughters, Sarah and Emma, are grown. Neither went to university, by their choice, and Lynn does not find that a disappointment. "It's their lives. You can only guide and be there for them." One of the two has a son of her own.

Bruce still teaches, but has changed schools again. (Though he's still with a school affiliated with a church.) He has left behind the teaching of less privileged children, work which he still says is very important, but that was wearing him down more than he was affecting the lives of his students. He and his wife, newlyweds as of 42 Up, now have two boys, Henry and George. They will not be sending their boys to boarding school, as Bruce was. He says he looks at himself at 7 and feels that boy doesn't even look familiar. "He looks lost and sad."

Paul has sought professional help in getting through a bout of depression. Though he's doing well now, he talks about concern that it was a strain on his marriage. (Though his wife seems surprised to hear him say so in the interview.) When he's asked if he has any ambitions, he says simply no. He notes that he's worked in the same job for 10 years and never asked for a raise; that's just the kind of guy he is. Their daughter Katie excelled in school, and is now an archaeologist that goes out on digs all over the world. Their son Robert is still battling his reading disability, but has become a car mechanic, husband, and father.

Suzy makes a rather brief appearance in the film. She says that now is maybe the first time in her life that she's ever been completely comfortable with herself, and that appearing in these films always dredges up things she'd compartmentalized and moved on from. Either she's never spoken of the issues she's concerned about, or she's referring to her general depression after her parents' divorce, from around age 14 to 21. To my eye, she seems to have done quite well for herself, but she says the films have not been a good experience for her, and that this is probably the last time she'll participate in them. She also speaks wistfully of her three grown children beginning to move away from home, of a chapter in her life coming to a close.

Nick's life has seen many changes, but he's still doing well. Because the technology simply didn't exist to continue his research on fusion, he's been forced to abandon it. But he still teaches undergraduates, and sees sparking their interest as a way to keep his dream alive. He has divorced his wife, apparently fulfilling the predictions of many Up Series viewers who thought the marriage doomed. But according to Nick, it wasn't his decision. She went to England to visit a dying father, and came back a completely different person. The two quickly drifted apart. Perhaps because she's no longer around to protest it, their son Adam (now age 16) appears in one of the documentaries for the first time.

Nick has remarried, to another professor. But the two teach at different campuses in different parts of the state, and must commute on weekends to see one another. "Absence makes the heart grow fonder," he muses. It is perhaps an unconventional marriage, but the two seem very happy together. She has a young boy herself from a previous marriage. She's also concerned that doing these films is a wrenching experience for Nick. He does them because he feels they're important, and sees how they've been important for other people... yet it's difficult to have such a vivid scrapbook of one's life, she thinks.

Symon is still happy with his second wife, and still working at the freight job. (A job he only took originally to be close to his son's school.) He now has two grandchildren, but his five kids from his first marriage had stopped seeing him for a stretch. He's only recently back in touch with most of them. He says he sometimes wishes he'd pushed himself harder, and for better, but still, he believes one should "work to live, not live to work." He talks of things he once wanted to be -- a boxer, an actor -- but then admits he never really wanted those things. He just wanted to be liked.

Because Symon and Paul were originally in the same school at age 7, they're brought together for a reunion in this film. But mostly, the film focuses on their wives' reaction to this. Both women agree the men are family oriented, thoughtful, and not impulsive. And both "married noisy women." Closing his segment, Symon talks of the documentaries themselves. He says he loves watching everyone else, but hates doing it himself. He also says that by the end of making each film, he usually hates filmmaker Michael Apted. (Who is taking a bit of a beating this time out!)

We turn now to John, Andrew, and Charles. Well, not to Charles, who remains consistent as he has since 21, refusing to participate any more in the documentaries. This time, we don't even get the brief narration explaining what has happened to him in the past seven years.

Andrew has left the law firm he worked at for decades to go to an industrial gas company. He felt the other job was no longer challenging, and he wanted something that stretched him. (Personally, I wonder if this was a bit of rebellion after living 40 years of a quite regimented life?) His sons Alexander and Timothy are at university and boarding school, respectively. And he and his wife Jane live both in London and a country home they've been converting slowly over time. Andrew says that life is now tougher and more competitive for his children than it was for him. He sees his age 7 version reciting the map of his entire education, and says you could never get a child that age to do that today.

John continues his cycle. Present for the film at 21, out at 28, back at 35, out at 42, and now back again. And again, as with 35, it seems to be because he has an agenda to push. He's contemplating an entrance into politics, as the current government as a whole is doing great damage to the country's constitution. He's still running a charity for Bulgaria with his wife -- an endeavor he acknowledges was quite helped by 35 Up. But it seems as though his main purpose in returning to the films is to speak out against them. He likens the Up Series to a reality television show, acknowledging the voyeuristic appeal, but questioning whether they have any real value.

Lastly, as usual, comes Neil. He's left London, but remains in politics, now part of a local city council in northwest England, and planning a run for a seat at the county level. He says he moved because he no longer felt satisfied in the city, and found the country less stressful. Consequently, his friendship with Bruce has more or less ended. (Bruce says on the subject that this happens in life, that people sometimes drift apart.)

Neil's father died five years ago, but he thinks that relationship had deteriorated long ago, and that perhaps the death brought him slightly closer to his mother. He's become ordained as a minister, continuing to find relief in religion -- though he says he has no aspirations for priesthood. He remains unmarried, and says that is a great regret in his life, never having found someone. He concludes his segment, and the film, by telling a story of a butterfly once catching his eye with its beauty, and wondering if that is really all there is to life: being who you are.

And thus concludes my trip through The Up Series. I'd say it's a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Many of the individual films, particularly early on, are a bit tedious, but there's something that really captivates overall. Perhaps it's just the voyeuristic appeal John described, but perhaps it's the greater meaning and importance that Nick spoke of.

In either case, I'll certainly be checking in two years' time for the next installment.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Outlandish, Part 2

Last week, I wrote of my enthusiasm for Jerry Goldsmith's score for the movie Outland. It prompted me to revisit the film itself, though this turned out to be a less than thrilling experience.

A rumor began circulating last year that someone was trying to direct a remake of this film. In my opinion, this is exactly the sort of film that should be remade. (Assuming one doesn't have an original idea to do instead, anyway.) Outland wasn't so good that the original deserves to be left alone, nor was it so bad that you can't understand what someone thinks might be salvaged there.

Of course, Outland is sort of a remake already, in that it's quite similar to the Western film High Noon. At least, so I've heard. I've never seen that film. But I can absolutely believe in the connection, watching Outland. I don't think you'd even have to be aware of the Western ties beforehand to pick up on it; from the first time someone calls this remote station on Io a "mining town," you start to view everything through that lens. And then you realize, the marshal actually was a marshall, the incoming shuttle was an arriving train, and so on.

I actually find it a very clever adaptation, if a little on the nose at times. But the concept is regrettably far better than the execution. First of all, it comes off very dated. This is 1981's version of the future, and sometimes looks pretty laughable nearly 30 years later. Secondly, the film doesn't seem to have much of its own vision of what it should look like; instead, it steals everything wholesale from the blockbuster film made two years before, Alien. They steal non-sensical things, like spacesuits with rope lights lining the insides of the helmets. They even steal the opening credits style, with the title slowly coalescing in the background as names run in the foreground.

Thirdly, you occasionally get the impression that even at the time, some of this was a little hokey. For example, every major death in the film occurs as the result of decompression, exposure to the vacuum of space. The first time or two, it's sort of novel. Near the end, when the hero destroys a hallway to kill the baddie inside, it's getting old. When another baddie, a supposedly crack sniper, just shoots a hole through the wall of the greenhouse he's standing in? Now the character is just being stupid, and the writer uncreative.

Fortunately, other characters are as interesting as this villain is dumb. The "old country doctor" is a highlight of the film, made all the more interesting in that it's a woman rather than a man. Frances Sternhagen is richly entertaining in the role, and her interactions with hero Sean Connery are really the best thing about the movie.

Peter Boyle plays the administrator of the "mining town," and is another strong presence in the film. He and the hero only get into a physical conflict in the very last moments of the film; for the bulk of the story, he is an intellectual heavy who tries first to reason, then to threaten. In the Western model, he'd be in the fancy suit, maybe even casually sitting at a poker table while others do his bidding. It's a bit of a throwback to have a villain who isn't a physical foil for the hero, and some might say that also dates the film. But I welcome this particular difference.

Still, a story that struggles to be compelling can only be so good, even with an interesting concept and good casting. So overall, I'd rate Outland a C+. (The "plus" might just be for that incredible musical score.) If you're way into sci-fi films and have somehow missed it, it might be one for you to check out. The rest of you will probably want to just skip it.

Sunday, November 28, 2010


What I enjoyed about tonight's episode of The Walking Dead was the way it put the question of "what is necessary for survival" front and center. Several characters had an emotional need to do things this week that weren't fulfilling the strictest survival needs. On the more benign end of the spectrum, Glenn needed to see his fallen comrades buried rather than burned. In decidedly more dangerous territory, Andrea needed to hold a vigil over her sister, and ultimately deliver the kill shot herself.

Behind all of this is that unspoken question of what is truly necessary to survive in this particular apocalypse. Some would argue that just seeing to basic needs is all that's important. Others would argue that if you suppress emotional concerns, and let too much of civilization go, that you aren't really surviving. I appreciated that all this was on the table this episode without the writers needing to call direct attention to it.

There were other intriguingly messed up moments this week too, like watching a battered wife take an axe to the head of her dead husband. Or abandoning a man at the road side to endure an excruciatingly slow and painful death by disease, because that's what he asked for. Or Shane actually putting Rick in his gun sight for a moment... and being caught doing it by Dale.

This brief run of six episodes will conclude next Sunday, but it's been a hell of a ride for the short while it's lasted. What will happen inside the CDC? Will we see Merle or Morgan again? What other thrills await us in the final hour of this first season?

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Allen Wrench

Having rather liked Match Point, though not other Woody Allen films I'd sampled, I decided to test whether it was the man himself as an actor that put me off of his movies. Perhaps another film which he made, but did not star in, would be more to my liking?

So it was that I came to his more recent film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona. It's a tangled love story of two women who go on a trip to Spain and become involved with the same man, complicated by the fiance of one of the women, and the crazy ex-wife of the man himself.

The movie seemed to prove Match Point the exception for me in Woody Allen's career. As a filmmaker, he seems far more concerned with character than plot, and this film seems to take that to an extreme. I don't think this movie has any real point of view to express, nor any story to tell. It's simply five characters tangled up in a romantic morass, ninety minutes of people it's hard to care for trying to figure out what they want. A sing-songy, cloying, and unnecessary narrator tries to build this up as a story worth listening to.

If you are moved by performances as much as content, however, this movie does have many good ones. Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson are the two characters of the title, Javier Bardem their Spanish love interest. Penélope Cruz is the crazy ex-wife. All exhibit a charisma strong enough that you can at least believe the characters would be interested in one another, if you at least aren't terribly interested in them.

Actually, I shouldn't level such faint praise on the acting, because ultimately, I'd probably rate the film a C+. And as I've made it quite clear how little I cared for the story, that should tell you just how compelling the performances are. So if you're interested in some nuanced and intriguing acting, you might want to check it out. I just wish it were all in service of something with more substance, and less like a soap opera.

Friday, November 26, 2010

42 Up

Time to check in on the children of Seven Up in the year 1998, at age 42. More than any film yet, this one shows the subjects being incredibly introspective about both their own lives and their participation in this documentary series. Undoubtedly, this is in part due to 40 being commonly considered the "mid-life" point. Whether the people themselves were just naturally thinking along these lines, or the interviewer pointed his questions to this theme is not entirely clear, but the content certainly reflects this shift in tone.

Tony, the London cab driver, was always in the series as an example of a child from a lower-class (though not impoverished) background. He seems to have bucked the thesis and moved into the middle class, objectively speaking. He and his wife are still married. They've moved into a new home in a better neighborhood, which they are remodeling, though they have taken on considerable debt to do it. (See, the middle class "dream.") Tony had hoped his oldest son would also become a cabbie, but his interest is in working with furniture. Meanwhile, their youngest daughter is, in his wife's words, "just not interested in school -- like Tony was."

But the bigger development in Tony's life surrounds his marriage, not his home. He had an affair with another woman, and was caught by his wife. Despite it being "touch and go" for a while, they've stayed together. She says she forgave him because she still felt something between them, and for the sake of their three kids. Tony does get defensive in discussing it, but interestingly, his concern centers around the possible perception that he cheated because of his class. He wants to make it clear to the documentary viewers that anyone in any standing of society could have cheated. So right away, here's a piece of that "hyper-awareness" of the documentary itself that permeates this installment.

Suzy is still very happily married. She has been a stay at home mother for her three children, a decision she made because she did not want to send her children to boarding school the way she was as a child. But she has taken part time work as a grief counselor, inspired in large part by the loss of her own parents. She's also beginning to think about what she might do when her children have all moved out; the oldest is leaving for university within a few years. Generally, she looks to the future and dwells little on the past.

Symon is back after being absent from 35 Up. That absence was due to his being in the process of divorcing his wife at the time. He is now remarried to a woman with a teenage daughter from an earlier marriage. That child, plus one they've had together, plus the five from his first marriage, means there are a staggering seven children in his family. (Though it seems as though his ex-wife has custody of those earlier children, as they don't really appear in this documentary.) He has continued to bounce from low-paying job to low-paying job, as the class-structure thesis of the films had always forecast; he's now a fork lift drive at an air freight company.

Bruce has returned from Bangladesh, and is still teaching -- now at a Roman Catholic girls' school in London. He says he took that position for the promotion, to become the head of the "maths faculty," but in the process he met a fellow teacher whom he married just last year. He says he has no aspirations to become a "deputy head teacher," because that position tends to pull you out of the classroom. He also says he feels "middle age contentment."

Then there's the trio of Jackie, Lynn, and Sue.

Lynn no longer works in a mobile library, as budget cutbacks closed that program. But she's still a librarian, at a school. And she's still happily married to the man she married at 19. (And her fellow subjects Jackie and Sue speak of envying her for succeeding at marriage where they failed.) Her two daughters are now teenagers, one very similar to her, she thinks. Her brain condition, revealed in the previous film, is unchanged, but the doctors have said the chances of a hemorrhage are minimal, and so she doesn't dwell on it. This topic seems to be the gateway for the interviewer to inquire about her spirituality, but she flatly refuses to discuss that topic as being private.

Sue is much the same as we saw her last. She's still a single parent, though she acknowledges how much help her parents have provided to her. She's been working since both her kids went into school. She's now seeing someone, but "it's still early days yet," and so the film doesn't give any more time to the matter.

Jackie, who went from unlikely to ever have kids, to blessed and thrilled with the one boy she had as of 35 Up, now has two more boys. The father of these two was from Scotland, and she moved with him there, only for the couple to then split up. She's also been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, but says that while she's "down and depressed about my illness," she's "certainly not down and depressed about my life." She's found help from her would-be mother-in-law, who helps her with the three boys. Of raising them, she notes that around the time of 35 Up, her own father said to her "the one thing I should have done is push you harder," and she says she's trying to apply that to her own children.

Nick, the farmboy turned physicist, is another case where the films' premise seems to have completely missed the mark. He's now a full professor at his university, and has published two books about semi-conductors. He's still married to the woman we met in 28 Up (whose portrayal there led her to decline to participate in the films ever since). They're still raising their one son, saying that with their crazy jobs, there's really no time for any more. In the absence of major new developments in Nick's life, the film takes the opportunity to follow him on a trip back to his family farm in England, which is closing up. His father is too old to work it, and Nick's two brothers have pursued other careers. So all the livestock has been sold, and the "family business" is coming to an end.

Paul, the lower-class example who moved to Australia as a child is still happily married and now installs signs for an industrial plastics company. A few years ago, he took a run at going back to school, in the hopes of building his skills to become a carpenter. He gave it up upon learning that there were simply too many skilled carpenters already to really find much work. The couple has moved to a new home, and the two both work to pay for it. Their son, whose education they were concerned about in the previous film, is now enrolled in an alternative school program.

As for the other trio of John, Andrew, and Charles, there's little to say. Charles, who has declined to participate since age 21, does not appear now. We're told he now edits science documentaries at Channel Four. John, who missed a film, then returned for 35 Up to highlight his concerns for Bulgaria, again seems to feel that he's made his point, and declines to appear. Andrew is the only one of the three to return, but very little seems to have changed in his life. He remains married and very successful. His oldest son is soon to be a teenager, and about to leave for the very boarding school Andrew himself attended at that age.

Lastly, there's Neil, the care-free boy turned homeless, borderline suicide case. 42 Up brings more twists in his unusual life. He's gone into politics, saying that he grew tired of seeing others who knew less than he did making all the decisions. Though the position pays nothing (he lives off the state), he has become a Liberal Democrat member of council of the London borough of Hackney.

Also of interest, we learn that Neil has forged a strong friendship with another one of the documentary subjects, Bruce. Bruce provided Neil a place to stay for a while after Neil relocated to London. Neil spoke at Bruce's wedding. It seems only natural that connections might have formed among this small group of people sharing the same odd connection, but until now, the only people to have been grouped together were the two trios that were interviewed that way from the very first film.

One final extra bit in 42 Up, different from the prior films, is that it concludes with a montage of answers from all the participants on a few specific subjects. First, the interviewer asks them if England is indeed a class-driven society.

Tony: Yes, some people have to push hard to get into a position, where others can just be given it because Daddy is a member of the right club.

Andrew: I know people of all social classes, and would hire regardless of that.

Sue: Do you even want to be part of another circle?

Nick: The classes police themselves, and the people around you point out if you try to step out of line.

Symon: Young people are starting to burst forward today; it's better than it was.

Jackie: Money is an advantage, but I don't know that it's "class" as such.

Neil: The only excuse for class is ignorance.

Suzy: It does exist to a certain extent. I'd love it to change, but what can really be done? But then, look at how messed up some of the upper class is. I wouldn't swap out for that.

Bruce: Opportunities are limited by your background. I hope education is one way out.

Paul: Yes, definitely.

Lynn: There's the advantaged and disadvantaged.

And the interviewer closes by asking about the subject that bubbled to the top of this particular film -- has there been an effect on your life, being in these films?

Sue: Every seven years, you scramble, wondering what you can say that has changed in your life.

Nick: I wish I could say I'm more famous for doing my science than for being in this film, but unfortunately that's not going to happen.

Neil: I've met interesting people all over the world, and close friendships have come from the program.

Jackie: I enjoy it, because I don't think I would have kept a record of my life otherwise.

Andrew: "If you came to ask to do this to my children, I wouldn't be enthusiastic."

Symon: It has restricted me, pulling me back into line, knowing people would be watching me. (Interesting unintended double meaning of "restricted" there?)

Suzy: I find it hard to deal with, but I try to put it away for seven year periods.

Bruce: It's just a periodic little intrusion.

Tony: Instead of picking up the celebrity in your cab, it turns you into one on occasion.

Paul: I think it's a little exciting when it comes around, I'll admit.

Lynn: We're linked; that can never go away.

And there you have it. There's only one more film left in this series before I'll be waiting in "real time" for another seven years to pass.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Anger Rising

I'm slacking off on the blog for my birthday. But so as not to leave you completely dangling, here's some awesome Angry Birds related humor as a precursor to the bird-related holiday:

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


My recent acquisition of The Ron Jones Project has led me into a dangerously expensive area. I've always been a film score junkie. But now, from finding that box set, I've learned of several web sites that put together limited print runs of more obscure soundtracks. And far too many of them have been "must purchase"s for me.

One recent example was a 2-disc set of the full original score Jerry Goldsmith wrote for the film Outland. This was an early 80s sci-fi film that was essentially a futuristic remake of the western High Noon, starring Sean Connery. (In fact, locating the soundtrack sparked my interest in seeing the movie again, which I hadn't viewed in... I might have to say decades. Plural. Yikes. But I'll discuss the movie itself in another, later post.)

Jerry Goldsmith is quite possibly my favorite composer to ever work on films. He's not as widely known as say John Williams, nor did he create quite as many hummable and memorable melodies. He didn't even receive as many awards or accolades, winning only one Oscar in a career spanning forty years. But the man was truly gifted.

If you're reading my blog, then the work of his you'll probably know best is his theme for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, later appropriated as the theme for Star Trek: The Next Generation. (He also did the theme for Star Trek: Voyager.) But he also contributed the awesome "Satanic liturgical" music for The Omen, wrote sultry and insinuating scores for Malice and Basic Instinct, was the best part of L.A. Confidential, and much, much more.

His score for Outland came just a couple years after his amazing score for Alien, which is undoubtedly the main reason he was sought for this film. But the score here is not a mere copy of Alien, nor simply a precursor for Total Recall, which he'd do several years later. (Though you can detect the "common ancestry" in all three works.)

Goldsmith's Outland score has moments of creeping suspense, sequences of pulse-pounding action, and even a piece of tender sweetness (though this last was cut from the finished film, to be restored only here on the all-inclusive version of the soundtrack). It may not be his career best, but you get a very broad sampling of material very much like his career best. I've been listening to the soundtrack quite a lot since picking it up, and will continue to do so for some time.

The music is way better than the movie from which it comes.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Deathly Serious

Yes, my money was among the $125 million and then some that went toward the newest Harry Potter movie this past weekend. Before I get into discussing the film itself, I'd like to weigh in on the way book seven has been divided into two movies. Many have groused about this, saying it's nothing but a way to make more money. And there's no question that Warner Brothers is going to earn a lot doing it this way.

But I think this was probably the right thing to do for the story as well. Book seven was mammoth. And unlike the other books, which had fun side plots and character moments to entertain the reader, very little of book seven was superfluous. It was long, yes, but I felt it was also distilled down to the essentials. I don't think a single two-and-a-half hour film could have been made of the book without cutting a great deal of vital material.

This one film ran that long by itself, and while I would agree that perhaps you could find as much as 30 minutes to cut from it without doing tremendous harm, you would have to cut between 60 and 90 minutes before things would slim enough to pair with a similarly abridged Part 2 to create a single movie. I do not see that happening. In any case, I certainly would not have wanted to see that.

Others have also suggested that it still could have been one movie -- just a crazy-long one like The Return of the King special edition. Really, you should dream for something more realistic, like winning the lottery or world peace. Despite the most daring, line-overstepping content in these films yet, Deathly Hallows is essentially a kids' movie(s). Or at least, they're adult movies made with the full knowledge that a large number of kids will see them. No studio would ever make a film over three hours for such an audience, never mind one that would come closer to four.

So I support this decision to divide Deathly Hallows into two films, preserving more of the story in the process. Note that I support a two films approach in this instance. The notion that The Hobbit could or should somehow be stretched into two films is ludicrous to me.

But enough speaking in general terms; to the movie itself. This may be the best Potter film yet. Yes, there is a bit of slow moving dead weight in it -- that maybe-as-much-as-30-minutes-that-you-could-maybe-cut that I alluded to earlier. Some scenes in the film seem like they exist only so that a particular actor (Alan Rickman, for example) will get screen time when they otherwise would be absent completely until Part 2.

Then there's the dramatic paradox of the lengthy tent camping sequences. In both book and film, in his argument with Ron, Harry perfectly articulates the necessity for this: did you really think that they'd just be finding a Horcrux every other day and having a grand old adventure? This trio is on a long, difficult quest, with little knowledge of how they're actually supposed to fulfill that quest. It has to really be hard, and the struggle to even know where to begin the struggle is a big part of that.

Much of the camping material contains moving character content as well -- the jealousy brought about by the corrupting influence of the Horcrux, Ron's near-fatal accident, Harry visiting his parents' graves, and more. But it's an unfortunate conundrum that in bringing to life tedium and frustration on the screen and making the audience really feel that... that you really make them feel that they wish the movie would get on with it.

But really, that's about the only bad thing I can say about the entire affair. Because when the emotional moments in Deathly Hallows Part 1 do come -- and they come in dozens -- they land more powerfully than anything we've seen in six prior films. (Hey! Spoilers in the next paragraph -- of just this film and not the rest of the book, if you haven't read it.)

It begins in the very first scene of the film, when Hermione tearfully erases her parents' memories of her. (A moment powerfully echoed later when she has to cast the same spell on an enemy.) It ends with you somehow, against all odds, being moved by the death of Dobby, the Jar Jar Binks of the Harry Potter series. And in between, you feel everything from lows like the maiming of George Weasley and the departure of Ron from the trio, to highs like the tense heist to break into the Ministry of Magic, and Ron's moving speech upon his return to the trio. (I for one believed in the Ron-Hermione relationship more from this performance than I ever did reading the books.)

All together, it shows just how impossibly lucky the filmmakers got when they cast these three kids nearly a decade ago to embody Harry, Hermione, and Ron. The odds that at least one would turn out to be a tabloid-baiting flake? Or grow up to be incapable of the dramatic depth required in the later books (which hadn't even been written yet, so they couldn't even try to plan)? That all three would be here at the end, and so skilled in their roles, is next-to-impossible. But it makes the movie even richer for it, that it's been them all along and we're that invested.

I can really only scrounge around grasping at straws to find one other bad thing to say about the film, and that's my disappointment that they had to go to another composer, Alexandre Desplat, to provide the score. He's the fourth composer to work on Harry Potter, and while the themes John Williams provided originally do crop up as a token nod to constancy, it's still not what I ultimately would have hoped for.

The director of Deathly Hallows, David Yates, also directed the previous two installments, and he has had a long working relationship with composer Nicholas Hooper (whose Order of the Phoenix score I thought the best of the series). I'm not sure why he's absent for these final films, but I was looking forward to his return -- or failing that, the return of John Williams, who started it all. Desplat provides a good enough score, I suppose (I've not had a chance yet to really listen to it on its own), but I simply wouldn't choose to bring another new cook into the kitchen at this point.

Still, any quibbles I have with Deathly Hallows Part 1 are minor -- including the fact that it is ultimately incomplete (an obviously unavoidable consequence of breaking one narrative into two pieces). I rate the film an A-. It's sure to end up on my 10-best-of-2010 list in a month's time.

Sunday, November 21, 2010


There was plenty of great zombie awesomeness/nastiness in tonight's The Walking Dead, but I think my favorite moment had nothing to do with any of that.

Well... okay... to be honest, my favorite moment was probably that fantastic jawless zombie from the first act.

But aside from that, I actually loved the quiet scene that opened the episode, of the two sisters in the boat tearfully sharing memories of fishing with their father. I really love the way this show indulges in the quieter -- and completely character-driven -- moments like this.

The main plot was also decidedly not zombie-centric, as poor Glenn was abducted by another group looking out for their own survival. At least, so it seemed. The sweet granny that led to the revelation of what was really going on was another great character, leading to a more interesting situation than a standoff over guns. Showing a surviving group of humanitarians was a welcome and different texture to the show.

Of course, the zombie apocalypse won't be put on hold for long. And the final act wrapped up with a massive attack on our heroes' base camp. (Set up by a vengeful Merle, we're led to think?) It's a small detail, but I actually liked that they didn't show the dead sister springing back to life at the end. First of all, our assumption that she would was tension enough in that moment. And second, to not show it kept the focus on the drama, the human element -- a woman had just lost her sister right in her arms.

So once again, I'm very satisfied with the blend of the human and the horror on this show. Too bad there are only two more episodes to savor (for now).

Saturday, November 20, 2010

35 Up

I'm still working my way through the Up Series, and have made it to 35 Up, the installment filmed in 1991. This didn't occur to me until after I'd watched the movie, but I'm about to turn 35 myself in less than a week here. Thinking about the movie after the fact, and about what I was going to write here, made me reflect on my own life a little bit. What if I were in an experiment like this, and some documentary crew were about to check in on me after four prior installments? I'll be honest... making no judgments about any successes or failures in my own life, it certainly seems like something extremely personal that I'm glad not to be sharing for all the world to see!

Overall, I was perhaps a little bit disappointed in this film compared to the previous age 28 installment. I had mentioned last time a curiosity about the new generation now being born to these original subjects. By and large, these new children were still under age 10 at the time of this installment, and didn't receive all that much screen time. In short, it's too early to tell much there.

I'm not sure these films really have much more to offer in support of the original mission statement, that a child of seven will display every thing of him-/herself that will be present in the adult. But the documentaries have morphed into something else. Put simply, the audience cares about most of them simply as people now, not as test subjects. I'm now watching these movies out of pure interest to see how their lives have changed, independent of the "message."

To that end, it's been a rough seven years for most of them. See, I had had births on my mind during the last installment, an interest in seeing how their children would develop. What I really hadn't considered much were deaths. By the time of this fifth film in the series, a startling number of the subjects had lost one or both parents. The losses weighed on the people in a variety of ways, and provided a sad theme of sorts to this installment.

35 Up starts with Tony, the would-be jockey turned cab driver. His wife is now a cab driver too, and the two seem happy with their three children. Still, they seem a little too ready with comments such as "you never know, we could be broken up 10 years from now," and both acknowledge that he does nothing around the house. There seems to be a little stress there.

Both his parents have died, and he still seems especially raw about the loss of his mother. Even Tony's wife says she was more a friend than a mother-in-law, and it's clear from the way he acts with his own children that he wants a friendship with his kids as much as (or more than) he wants to be an authority figure.

He's given two more of his dreams (mentioned in a previous film) a shot. First is to be the owner of a pub. He had a very short run of that before parting ways with his co-owner over some kind of conflict. The second is to be an actor. He's worked occasionally as an extra in TV and films, but has never had a significant part. He claims rather proudly that he's tried everything he ever wanted to do. But the interviewer hits him hard with an alternative interpretation: that he's a failure at everything he ever wanted to do. "Better to be a has-been than a never-was," Tony says in closing.

Suzy is still happily married, and also has three kids. The oldest is off to prep school, and the middle is "volatile" in her words, suffering from learning disabilities and maybe dyslexia. She says she doesn't relate to him as well as she would hope. There are many juxtaposed clips of past interviews, contrasted with her current state. For example, she has moved with her family to the country, although a clip from a previous film shows her saying she could never imagine living in the country.

She too has lost her father, and her mother is in the hospital undergoing treatment for an aggressive cancer. She's also wistful about her involvement in these films. She gets recognized a fair bit in life, and says that while most are nice about it, a few are quite rude. "They're lucky they didn't have to have it done to them." As I noted earlier, I have to agree.

Bruce is still a teacher, and remains concerned with poverty and racism. Taking a term away from his normal school, he is currently teaching in Bangladesh. He is unmarried, which he chalks up to his being a bit "shy and awkward." He too has lost his father, though he says they'd drifted apart long before that. "I'd like to have been able to miss him," he says.

Then there are the three women who have always been dealt with as a group, Jackie, Lynn, and Sue.

Sue is now divorced and raising two kids as a single parent. In her words, the divorce "was probably easier to do than it should have been." Oddly, she acknowledges having the second child even after suspecting her marriage would end. She was an only child herself, and always jealous of people with brothers and sisters. Furthermore, she feels that it's important for brothers and sisters to share both parents and not simply be half-siblings. Thus, she had her second child even while beginning to contemplate divorce.

Me, I give the crook-eye to this notion -- it all seems more self-serving that serving the interest of a child. Mind you, I'm not a "stay in a bad marriage for the sake of children" type (as I don't think that's helping the children). I just don't see the logic of having another child in a marriage on the rocks.

Lynn is still married and has two daughters, but seems strangely more bitter in this installment, making negative remarks about the government of the past decade, and of the inability of "the system" to provide for children. The reasons for her darker world view are perhaps revealed in a one-two punch toward the end of her segment. First, we learn she has lost her mother -- her parents being a specific "stability" in her life that she considered an "advantage" over some of the other people in the documentary. Secondly, she had been experiencing blackouts, and ultimately learned she had inoperable tumors in her brain.

Jackie, who seemed on the tail end of her marriage in the previous film, is indeed divorced now. But she had also indicated in the previous film that she'd likely never have children, and is now raising a young boy as a single parent. ("I never would have believed I would have enjoyed it as much as I do.") She mentions one of the other women in the documentaries, Suzy, saying she wishes she could give her son as much in life, but still thinks she's doing alright.

On to Nick, the farmboy-turned-physicist. He's now an associate professor at the U.S. university where he was doing research in the previous film. Most of his time is spent talking about the sort of fallout from the previous film, in which his wife came off perhaps a bit cold. Apparently, most of the people to see the film thought so too, even writing them about it, and remarking that the marriage seemed doomed to failure. Yikes. More reason to be glad it's not your life on film!

Understandably then, she has declined to appear in this new film. And the two together have decided not to allow their one-year-old son to appear in the movie either. "The sins of the father shouldn't be visited on the son," says Nick. But for whatever damage the films may have done, Nick still finds truth in them. He thinks there's a great deal of truth in the "look at a child of seven" concept.

Next are John, Andrew, and Charles, two of whom opted out of 28 Up. Charles has again declined to participate, though we're told he still works at the BBS, is now a producer, and recently married.

However John, the young man who challenged the documentaries as dismissive of his hard work in school, has decided to return for this film. But he has an ulterior motive. He's become a barrister, but his real passion is for the country of Bulgaria. His mother was from there, and he has married the daughter of a former ambassador to that country. He's especially concerned with improving health care there, and says point blank that his appearance in 35 Up is only in the hopes of bringing more attention to the conditions there.

Of the films themselves, his opinion hasn't changed. He says he "bitterly regrets" the day his headmaster pushed him forward at the age of seven, and says that every seven years that comes around, these films are a little "pill of poison" he has to swallow. I think it's more evidence in support of the unintended thesis of this particular installment in the series -- that it sucks to be a subject in this series. (Even if your life has by most objective standards "gone well.")

His old schoolmate Andrew has no such complaints. He doesn't think the films have affected him at all, though he does try not to talk of them. He's become a partner at the same law firm where he was at 28. He has married and has two children. Continuing the trend of the subjects speaking more of their political inclinations, he talks of taxes, saying they should be higher to put more money into fostering society and academics.

Paul is the subject I've probably spoken of the least in my past Up reviews. He moved to Australia while still young, and became a bricklayer there. As of 28, he'd been trying to become an independent contractor and own his own company, but now by 35, that has failed and he's back to working for others. Still, he seems happy enough with his wife and two kids. He's taking the family on a trip to England at the time of the films, to show them where he's from. His daughter is doing fine, but he says he fears a bit for his son, who isn't doing so well in school.

Then there's Neil, who had been homeless at both 21 and 28. He's finally stabilized a bit and settled in the Shetland Islands. But he lives in a trailer, still struggles for money, and gets by on Social Security. His face is scarred visibly from his hard life. He does a little community theater (after having confessed to an interest in theater at 28), and is trying both to publish a play and organize a professional touring theater company. Neither endeavor has been fruitful as of yet.

The oddest thing about his interview comes when they discuss public reaction from the previous films. Lots of people wrote of him as somehow being a success story, that he was free to be completely himself, unburdened by anyone else's expectations. Personally, I don't see that at all, though whether it's me or other people, judging the man favorably or unfavorable, the point is that once again, people are judging him because of his appearance in these films. It's John's "pill of poison."

Neil is unmarried, and when the interviewer asks if he's given up on that, he says "all but." He has sought no treatment for his mental instability, though when asked if he thinks he's going mad, he answers "I don't think it, I know it. But I think it's a mad world." He thinks it's still possible that by the time of the next film, he'll be wandering around homeless in London. I, for one, hope he's wrong.

Two interview subjects have gone MIA in 35 Up, without even any mention being made that they were ever part of the program. My curiosity high, I had to do a little research on the internet to find out what happened. Symon, the one racial minority in the project, apparently returns in subsequent films, so I'll not spoil what I learned about him.

But Peter is out of the series for good, apparently as fallout from what happened in 28 Up. In his interview there, he spoke very critically of the government, alluding in particular to his disagreement with the policies of Margaret Thatcher. Apparently, this coupled with his job as a school teacher was reason enough for a tabloid press campaign against him. He lost his job as a result, and then declined any further involvement in the films. So here it is again: parents, if someone asks to put your seven-year-old child into a lifelong documentary film series, say no.

And yet, I can't look away. And I expect to be watching 42 Up in the near future.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Lost Re-view: ...In Translation

It's been a while since my last Lost Re-view, but I am still making my way through the series. The next episode is the Jin-centric "half" of the earlier episode, House of the Rising Sun. This episode was written by Javier Grillo-Marxuach and Leonard Dick, two staff writers who both left after season 2. It was directed by Tucker Gates, who helmed only around half a dozen episodes -- split almost entirely between the first and last seasons.

It opens in the expected fashion, with a close-up on Jin's eye, followed by a calming ocean vista. But Jin isn't doesn't stay tranquil for long, because here comes his wife, unthinkably parading around in a bikini for all to see. The scene he causes has nearly everyone watching, and Michael steps in to threaten Jin and try to put a stop to it. Sun slaps Michael soundly in the face for this.

A short while later, as Michael works on his raft (which is coming along nicely), Sun comes to him and we learn the reason behind her behavior. She says Jin is a dangerous man -- that she slapped Michael to protect him from what Jin might do.

And then, some time after this scene, but before nightfall, falls an installment of the "Lost: Missing Pieces" mobisodes. I believe it's the first one to be placed during an actual episode of the show (rather than before or after one), and its content actually casts quite a different light on the story.

The mobisode is called "Buried Secrets," and shows Sun sneaking out into the jungle to bury the fake ID she'd obtained for her planned escape to America. But Michael shows up and catches her in the act. He tries to smooth things over, telling her she doesn't have to explain, but she wants to anyway. She confides in Michael that she was going to leave Jin, but changed her mind at the airport. And now, being trapped on the Island must be her punishment -- she's stuck with him. With the raft nearly complete, Michael tells her things could still change. He does his best to comfort her...

And the two come this close to kissing, before timely dog Vincent comes through and breaks up the moment.

This really changes some things. In this very episode of Lost (the regular one, not the mobisode), Jin is questioning whether something is going on between Michael and Sun. And without this mobisode, the answer is "absolutely not." They are friends, and Michael feels sympathy for Sun, but that's it. But with this mobisode, the answer is now "well... yes, there might have been!" What might have happened if Vincent hadn't shown up right then?

Now, in the context of just the first season or two of Lost, this puts an exciting spin on things, I think. It ups the emotional stakes for all three characters, and puts a potentially far more explosive love triangle on the table than Jack-Kate-Sawyer. In short, I like this idea.

BUT... in the context of all of Lost, it's probably a bad thing. Because having seen all six seasons of the show, we know Jin and Sun really are soul mates. Even though Sun and Michael don't actually step across the line here, the mere insinuation that they might have is possibly damaging to Sun's character. I'm not saying it's not emotionally truthful in that moment, considering where Sun is at, and how raw and beaten she is. (Almost literally.)

So I think this mobisode is really a judgment call for the individual viewer to make. There's no question it adds something to Lost. You just might not like what it adds.

Alright, detour over. Back to the main episode. As mentioned earlier, Michael's raft is near completion. So much so, in fact, that Jack is curious who is going to go with him on the trip. We learn that Sawyer has already "bought" a seat by offering up material needed for the construction.

Not so fast, gang, because come nightfall, the raft goes up in flames! And immediately, Michael is leading a charge (with quite a lot of people in support) suspecting Jin as the guilty party. Jack tries to stop some mob justice from going down.

But Jin has snuck back to the caves during all of this, and Sun finds him rifling through the medicine supply for a way to treat a nasty looking burn on his hand. Ba bum BAAAAAAAA! Jin flees from Sun's accusing stare, only to be blindsided in the jungle by a brutal kick from Sawyer. "You messed up my ride, chief."

A cool bit of camera work follows when Jin wakes up, tied up and being taunted by Sawyer. Extreme, drifting close-ups on Sawyer emphasize the fact that Jin can't understand a word of English. In the next scene, when Sawyer presents Jin to Michael for a beating, they play this disorientation even farther, modifying the sound so that even the viewer can't understand anything when we're supposed to be watching from Jin's perspective.

Michael does indeed begin to beat Jin, and Sayid even stops Jack when he tries to intercede. Finally, Sun can take no more. She screams out in English, betraying her secret to everyone, for Michael to stop. Furthermore, she reveals that Jin didn't burn the raft; he burnt his hand trying to stop the fire.

Then Locke steps in with a rousing speech, saying that everyone needs to stop blaming "us" (each other) and start worrying about "them" (the Others). It's a good speech, right up to the point where he asks, why would anybody do anything to sabotage us all getting off the island? The thing is, we who have seen all of Lost know that he has done exactly that himself, when he knocked out Sayid and busted his radio. (I'm still waiting to get to the episode where this is actually revealed to evaluate whether that behavior actually makes sense.) In any case, for the survivors, who know nothing of Locke's treachery, the speech works wonders. Everyone walks away. Including Jin. Sun is left all alone.

Michael, meanwhile, does what he does best: he throws a fit. (Though I'll confess, at least this time he has cause.) He stops short upon seeing Walt's reaction, and resolves to build another raft. And this time, Walt says he's going to help.

For his part, Jin is through with it all. He's returned to the cave to take all of his stuff and go. Sun tries to stop him, then confesses to him (in English) that she was going to leave him, until he made her think there was still love between them. Then (in Korean), a plea: "I want to go back to the beginning. Can't we just start all over?"

"It's too late," is all Jin can say, and walks off. He goes straight to Michael, carrying an armload of building supplies. "Boat." He is ready to get the hell off this island.

Meanwhile, Locke has figured out the truth about the saboteur. (It takes one to know one?) He goes to Walt for a round of backgammon and a question: "Why did you burn the raft, Walt?" Walt says he doesn't want to move anymore, and that he likes it there on the Island. "I like it here too," Locke agrees.

And thus goes the main narrative of the episode. But the real meat, as per usual in these first season episodes, comes in the flashbacks. They begin with a nervous Jin asking Sun's father for his permission to marry. The stern Mr. Paik toys with him for a bit, but agrees on the condition that Jin come work for him.

Skip ahead to the happy wedding day, where Sun wishes that Jin's father had been alive to see it. And also, where the honeymoon is literally ending before it begins, as the couple is postponing their honeymoon so Jin can go straight to work for Mr. Paik.

Jin does, as a "special assistant." And that's when the dark side begins to claim him. Jin is tasked to call on a factory manager and deliver the message that Paik is "very displeased." The man begs Jin not to do anything in front of his daughter (who's sitting right there watching Hurley on TV!), and is so relieved when Jin does nothing that he rips a puppy from his daughter's hands and gives it to Jin as a gift.

Now, I believe this is meant to be a connection to Sun's flashback in House of the Rising Sun, where Jin gives her a puppy as a gift. Except that unfortunately, the timeline doesn't quite fit. In that earlier episode, the puppy was a clever device used to show the passage of years in the couple's deteriorating marriage. The adult dog is there when Jin comes home one night covered in blood. Yet we see the reason for that event here in this episode, and no more than a day or two seems to have passed since Jin received the puppy.

Sun has tried to prepare a romantic dinner for Jin, but her father calls to yell at him. Can't he even deliver a simple message?! Jin is tasked to drive another man to the factory manager's house, someone who will show how you properly deliver a message.

It's clearly a creepy assassin, and Jin knows it. So as soon as they arrive at the poor victim's house, Jin springs through the door and beats the man senseless instead. "I just saved your life," he says, while telling the would-be assassin, "he got the message."

And this is when Jin returns home bloody and distraught. If you ignore that business about the rapidly aging dog, it's actually a wonderful scene that provides a whole new spin on these same events as we saw them from Sun's perspective. Jin does whatever he has to, whatever Mr. Paik tells him to, for the sake of the marriage.

But after a time, Jin recognizes that this is also destroying his marriage. His last flashback has him going to visit his father -- very much alive -- a poor fisherman. Jin falls apart completely, begging for forgiveness and advice. Jin says Sun doesn't know how bad her father is. (Though he may be right, it was clear from Sun's episode that she does at least know he's not a nice man.) "In a good world, she would hate him, not me." He then says the exact same words that Sun says on the Island in the present, that he wishes he could start over.

Jin's father gives this advice -- do the one more job Jin has been asked, to deliver watches to associates in Sydney and Los Angeles, then leave. Escape to America. Save the marriage. It's another brilliant flashback scene that's not only full of emotion, but alters our perception of the Jin-Sun relationship. Both of them were keeping a secret from the other there in the Sydney airport, each with their own vision of how their futures would go. But both to be altered by the fate of Oceanic 815.

Along with the main Island storyline and these potent flashbacks are a number of other secondary plots and side moments that add flavor to the recipe.

The most time is given to progressing the Sayid-Shannon relationship, first with a playful flirtation over her knot-tying abilities. (Hmmm.) But then Sayid missteps by going to Boone, hoping he won't object if Sayid and Shannon become "more than just friends." Boone has nothing but harsh words about his step-sister, warning Sayid that she'll use him to get what she wants, then throw him away. It's her pattern, he says.

I suppose you could briefly speculate if that would have proven true, had she really lived. Boone might be a little bitter about the whole thing, but he does indeed know Shannon fairly well, and has seen her do this many times. But the evidence is strongly stacked to the contrary. For starters, the finale tells us that Sayid and Shannon were destined to be together.

And then within this very episode is an inspirational moment from Locke. He asks Shannon if she likes Sayid, and if so, what that has to do with her brother? "Everyone on this island gets a new life, Shannon. Maybe it's time to start yours." So she does exactly that, going to Sayid, kissing him, and committing fully to the relationship.

Other brief but fun moments include Hurley trying to calm an angry Jin on the golf course, Locke confiding to Walt that his father was "not cool" (as we'd eventually see played out), and the batteries on Hurley's enduring Walkman finally giving out. "Son of a bitch," declares Hurley, channeling Sawyer.

In all, it's a very solid episode, as I often found the Sun/Jin installments to be. I rate it a B+.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Rock Collection

I really like my condo, but if it I could change one thing about it, I'd want more space in the "living room area." Rock Band nights in there are more than a bit congested -- even more so with the recent addition of another instrument. It's so tight in there that I really don't even have enough room for all the chairs and other furniture I might otherwise like to have.

But if I did, I'd probably have to get this:

That's right, some company has decided to manufacture an ottoman designed for holding all your Rock Band instruments. Seems obvious, doesn't it?

Actually, I have a handy friend who built and upholstered his own ottoman. I'm sure he could manage something like this. But back to the whole "I haven't got the space" thing. Oh well.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Time Saver?

Are you one of those people who routinely backs into a space when you’re parking your car? I don’t mean when parallel parking, but just in a regular space in a lot?

I have to say, I have never understood this. Especially upon hearing the justification for it that I received one time when I asked a “butt first parker” acquaintance why he parked his car this way. “When you’re leaving, it’s faster. You just pull out and go.”

First of all, I challenge how difficult it really is to back out of a parking space. You just pull back, crank the wheel hard, back up more, then take it out of reverse and go. I’ve seen some people apparently challenged by this, people who seem to have to back up-pull forward-back up-pull forward-back up-etc an incredible number of times before gaining enough clearance to head out. You got IN there in one “pass,” didn’t you? Why does it take you twelve to get out?

But more importantly, even if you are a person who struggles to back out of a parking space in one attempt, is it really any easier for you to back in to that space? Unless you have supernatural awareness of where the back bumpers of your car fall, aren’t you worried about hitting the car in the space next to you as you back in? Or backing over the edge of the space? (Which in some cases, might be into a wall or barrier or something?) I feel pretty damn sure in this assertion: whatever time you think you’re saving when you leave is far outweighed by the amount of time you spend backing in. I say this from experience, waiting to drive past “butt first parkers” in a lot while they take a metric eternity to get into their space.


I may have found the one instance in which “butt first parking” might actually save me time. My parking space at my condo faces west. Pull into it like a normal person, and the back of the car is facing east. Well, winter has once again come to Colorado, and four times already, I’ve come out to my car in the morning to find an iced-over windshield. (Even though it only actually snowed on two of those mornings.)

But the rear window of my car? Squeaky clean. The heat of the morning sun had taken care of “scraping” that window for me.

So it seems like “butt first parking” the night before would save me from scraping off my windshield before I could go anywhere. (Before you comment that it’s probably a good idea to scrape all windows before driving, I’ll inform you that my rear-window defroster works beautifully, almost instantly.)

Nah... I’m probably just falling for the same delusion that makes all the other “butt first parkers” think they’re saving time.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Rusty Gates

I’m a big fan of Uwe Rosenburg’s board game Agricola. (I’m a bit on the fence as to whether the expansion is really a good addition or not, but the core game itself is great.) This year, I’ve been able to try a couple of his other games. I’m sorry to say that one of them, At the Gates of Loyang, was a bit of a disappointment.

The game isn’t a total loss, actually, but there are a number of unfortunate things about it to match the strong plusses. It’s another agriculture-themed game, where players plant and harvest their own vegetables to then turn around and supply to customers for money. Money is used primarily to buy victory points, in a system that is interesting, but makes catching up from behind rather difficult. The score track runs from 1 to 20. Each turn, the first point you buy costs you just 1 dollar. Each additional point you then choose to buy costs the point value you’re moving to on the track. For example: if you start the turn on 6, moving to 7 costs just 1 dollar, but then moving on to 8 costs 8 dollars (for a total of 9), and then on to 9 in the same turn costs 9 more (for a total of 17). If you don’t at a minimum buy your “one cheap point” a turn, you’re unlikely to be in the running to win, which feels like a pretty harsh way to get put out of the game early.

Before each player does his planting, harvesting, and selling, there’s an interesting mechanic for obtaining cards. Each player is dealt a small hand of four, and a few more are turned face up on the center of the table. Things then proceed around the table from player to player. On your turn, you MUST discard face up to the table one of your four cards to “pass” and stay in this phase of the game. Otherwise, you must select exactly one card from the growing choices on the table, and exactly one card from your hand (discarding the rest), playing those two cards for your turn.

There are several great tensions in this mechanic. The longer you can discard cards that are useless to you, the longer you can hang around in the hopes that someone else will discard something useful to you. But the real rub is that you’ll often have more than one card in your hand you’d like to use! And the only way to do that is to discard one, hope no one else snatches it up, and then wait for your turn to come around again so you can take your former discard along with the other card you kept. This can lead to interesting bluffs, where you try to entice other players to leave the auction early.

But in another unfortunate negative about the game, this is basically the whole extent of player interaction. Once this interesting phase of the game is over, players harvest their vegetables, supply their customers, and play their cool actions, in a sequence so long that it sometimes feels like one player is performing for the others. Apparently even the game’s creator recognized this could be a slow and boring part of the game, because the rules tell you that when four players are participating, two of them should just take their turns simultaneously. Each “turn-taker” uses one of the other two players to “police” them and make sure their actions are all legal, then those roles reverse. It’s a bit confusing and unusual, but really needs to exist just to get this game down under 90 minutes. I once played without this rule, and the game took upwards of two-and-a-half hours. Yikes.

I suppose my summary is this: I would play this game every once in a while (with the right people, who could keep it moving). But my real hope is that the interesting “card drafting” mechanic resurfaces in another, better game some day.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Bomb That Started WWII

I’m a fan of Steven Speilberg. Sure, he has occasionally made a boring film (The Terminal) or two (Munich), but nevertheless, I can think of no other major director who is so prolific, and yet maintains a very high level of quality overall.

Over the years, I’d hear a little snippet here and there looking down on one of his earlier efforts, the World War II-themed comedy 1941. And recently, I learned that the screenplay for the film was written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, the men behind my favorite film, Back to the Future. I decided that I had to give it a shot.

What can I say? Sometimes, some very talented people do very bad work.

The script for 1941 is an overpopulated, disjointed mess. Set in Southern California in the days after the Pearl Harbor attack, the film loosely follows a massive cast of characters concerned that they might be the next target. (And they’re not crazy; the film also tracks the screw-up crew of a Japanese submarine that’s trying to find Hollywood so they can attack it.) The script is more concerned with little vignettes about different characters than it is about driving the narrative forward, and thinks it’s far more funny than it is. The film seemed like it was trying to be broadly comical in the style of Airplane! (though that film was made a couple years after this one), but almost none of the jokes are funny.

The cast of the film is truly staggering, both in the long list of recognizable names and faces present, and in the impossibility that none of them manage to generate any laughs. There’s Dan Aykroyd, Ned Beatty, John Belushi, Christopher Lee, Tim Matheson, Robert Stack, Treat Williams, John Candy, and more – and while none of them are “bad,” all are just plain boring. (And perhaps that’s even worse in this context.)

I can really find only two things to recommend about 1941. First, composer John Williams was on the top of his game in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and this film is no exception. He delivers a rousing, adventurous score every bit as worthy as the more well-known work he was doing at the time (and he even briefly references his own Jaws theme at the top of the film).

Secondly, the visual effects are pretty astounding. Not necessarily in terms of convincing quality, because three decades have gone by, and it’s pretty obvious when you’re looking at models. But to think that so many models, and so elaborately detailed, were created (and often destroyed) in the service of a movie like this makes the mind buckle. There looks to be as much money on the screen here as there was in Star Wars or Superman, and it takes on “holy crap!” proportions by the end of the movie. There’s just something about knowing that all this stuff actually existed somewhere that is lost completely in the modern era of computer generated images.

But that’s hardly enough to save what surely must be Steven Spielberg’s worst movie. Yes, worse than A.I. I rate it a D-, in fact, which should appropriately caution you to stay away from this film until you’re trying to complete a quest to see every movie the otherwise very talented man has ever made.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Tell It to the Frogs

The very first episode of The Walking Dead established that the show would be both about gruesome zombie fun and deep character drama. (Indeed, it did so in the juxtaposition of the very first two scenes.) But of course, we can expect that the show will exist on a continuum between those two ideas, and that some episodes will sway more in one direction than the other.

Tonight was the most "zombie light" episode so far, but there were plenty of important dramatic moments to step into the empty space. The reunion of Rick with his family was the powerful moment I expected it to be. (And it came a whole lot earlier in the series than I would have expected if you'd asked me just two weeks ago during the first installment.) In particular, actress Sarah Wayne Callies did an excellent job of showing the many layers of emotion in her character at that moment. And composer Bear McCreary drove it home with his most overtly emotional music in the series so far.

Not only good people are going to survive the apocalypse, and to make a story more dramatic, the more not good people, the better. So this week we also got a wife-beating beating thug, and racist Merle's brother. And however much the former might have deserved the beating he took from Shane near the end of the episode, we all knew that wasn't what the brutality and aggression was all about.

There weren't too many great zombie moments this week, but I didn't mind the breather. The few tastes we got were pretty good, particularly the opening teaser with them trying to break onto the roof. (Though the deer feaster was a nice bit of work from the props and effects departments.)

Unfortunately, we're already half done with the run of episodes we're getting in this short first season. But if the next three hold up as well as the first three, it will be a great little run.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

28 It Up

Seven years more, and The Up Series continues to pick up momentum. In 1985, the children of the original documentary had reached age 28, and it was time to check in on them once more. The result was the most interesting film yet.

For the first time, some of the people declined to participate in the documentary. Specifically, it was two of the three upper class, Oxford-bound boys. John, the one who had in 21 Up dismissed the project as unfair in its lack of recognition for his own hard work in achieving his goals told the documentary maker, Michael Apted, basically: "I said all I have to say last time." But the film informs us that he's continuing to advance in the career path he was always "destined" for.

Charles, the one who'd not managed to get into Oxford, also declined to participate. The film tells us that he's now working for the BBC and is making documentary films of his own. Perhaps he no longer wants to assist "the competition?"

That leaves Andrew alone from that group of three to carry the torch for the upper crust group. He does so, but in a rather simple way. He has indeed become a soliticitor, and his life seems to be exactly what was forecast.

As for the others involved, the "experiment" has advanced to another level. Nearly all of them have married, and several have at least one child of their own. In short, the Up concept is now on its way to beginning anew. None of these second-generation subjects have yet reached the "magic age" of seven, but all the first-generation subjects have a lot to say about how they intend to parent and what they want for their children. I found myself already anticipating the next installment of the documentary, to see just where these kids will be, and see if their lives will have any degree of predestination to them.

Just as fascinating as hearing from the original people themselves is hearing the interviews with their spouses. Some are interviewed separately, some together with their husband or wife, but in every case it's interesting to see what they see in the people that we've "known" now for 21 years.

Suzy, the chain-smoking product of divorced parents who was so down on marriage seven years prior? She's married herself now, and very happily from the look of it. So is Tony, the would-be jockey turned cabbie, who seemed seven years prior to want to be a free-spirited ladies man for the rest of his life.

The three other girls, all interviewed as a group in the prior films, are more or less the same after seven years. Jackie and Lynn were married at the time of 21 Up; they still are, and Sue has joined them. Lynn still has a librarian job she had in the previous film; the other seem to be bouncing around.

Symon, the only non-white participant in the films, is indeed working in manual labor as the films had always forecast. At age 28, he's married and already has five children.

Nick, the farmboy who dared to dream of being a physicist, has relocated to a university in the United States to do exactly that. He married another British ex-patriot, and the two give a fascinating interview together. They seem like two very similar souls, both deeply thoughtful, scientific types. And they both seem incredibly practical and at odd moments even dispassionate about their relationship. The film seems to be forecasting that these two may be too career-minded to stay settled down together.

Peter, who until this point has been among the less interesting subjects, has become a school teacher, and virtually uses his interviews in the documentary as a political soapbox. He spends most of the time railing (though in a mostly civil, "British" way) against the government of the time. (That would be Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.) It's not quite clear where this agenda came from, but it does seem as though the man is a good enough teacher.

The group produced another teacher in Bruce, the man who was rigorously studying mathematics in 21 Up. As a child, he'd spoke a little of maybe becoming a missionary to "uncivilized countries." He'd said the idea seemed appealing to him, and yet that simultaneously, he felt he wouldn't be good at it. Well, he hasn't gone to a foreign country, but he has taken up teaching in a clearly more impoverished part of England, and seems to really enjoy the work. Moreover, he really seems to be making an impact on his young students.

Neil, the spirited young boy who had somehow reached the brink of contemplating suicide by age 21? I was a bit surprised to see him still alive at age 28, frankly. Particularly because little seems to have changed for him in seven years. He'd moved to Scotland, changing scenery, but has remained unemployed and unhappy. You want to reach through the screen -- and through time -- and do something to push his life back on track.

With each documentary, the Up Series gets more polished and more thought-provoking. I'd been watching it in the hopes of it reaching something profound, and with each new movie, it does indeed take one step closer to getting there. I know I'm in for the duration now.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Jonesing for Good Music

I just figured I'd post an update about The Ron Jones Project CD box set that I mentioned a few months back. I did indeed order one, and have now finally had a chance to listen to all 42 episodes, all alternate takes, and both video game scores.

If you're into scores, it's totally worth the money. Listening to various scores made me a little nostalgic to actually pull out my DVDs and watch some of the episodes again. Just hearing the music was enough in some cases to instantly conjure up memories of the specific scenes in which it played. And the video game scores -- which I hadn't heard before -- were actually some of the best work in the set!

The incredibly detailed liner notes for the set, available online, gave me even more appreciation for the work. It chronicled all the unusual orchestra configurations Ron Jones tried out for different episodes, and the reasons behind his choices. He scored one episode with no violins (turning the lead violist into the concert master in the process), another with no woodwinds, still another with no brass. He blew the doors off with a 50+ player orchestra on one occasion, and saved money on another episode with a more intimate storyline by using less than 20 players. On another occasion, he managed somehow to get the producers to sign off on using a full choir to sing counterpoint to a synthesized second choir part.

Maybe the sad thing is that he kept getting better as the seasons went on. I found many pieces I liked in early episodes, but they became more numerous as I reached the end of the chronological set. It makes me think that had he not been dismissed by Rick Berman, he might have done even better work in the three latter seasons of the show. Or maybe even have gone on to score Deep Space Nine or the other Star Trek series. What a missed opportunity that was.

But now at least I can fully appreciate what he did compose. Again, if scores are your thing, I highly recommend this set.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Getting the Band Back Together... Yet Again

It's been available now for over two weeks, so it's probably well past time that I talk about Rock Band 3. The latest installment of the superior "band simulation" franchise, the game brings a lot of cool new elements to the table.

Harmonies. First introduced last year in The Beatles: Rock Band, the main franchise now also allows up to three singers on songs that have such parts. It's just as much a blast here as it was in Beatles. The average band doesn't tend to have harmonies as sophisticated as those of The Beatles, but the disc has plenty of songs that rise to that level. (Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen, Good Vibrations by The Beach Boys, and more.) Plus, even singing a few choice "ooohs" and "aaaahs" in the right song can be pretty fun. Total win here.

Keys. Harmonix has introduced a new instrument to the mix, the keyboard. They've offered a very-well built two-octave keyboard for the job. (You can put a strap on it and rock it keytar style, but I much prefer using a stand.) In the "basic mode," keyboard parts are collapsed down into notes of five different colors, just like the guitar and bass parts. Actually, too much like the guitar and bass parts, in my opinion. I've played this basic keys mode, and I honestly don't find it a worthy addition to the game. I think it's so similar to playing guitar or bass that it doesn't add much. But fortunately, the approach to keys has another level to it...

Pro Mode. The game now offers a new mode for all instruments that's designed to get you away from "simulating" playing music and closer to actually doing it. This is best broken down by instrument, so...

Pro Keys. In Pro Keys mode, you use all two octaves of the keyboard, and the track of notes coming at you makes you actually play the real notes that are being played in the song. If you can play on Expert, this is a one-for-one transcription of the actual keyboard part of the song (though without any left hand part; there's nothing in here that isn't theoretically possible with just one hand, though I'm sure many people will "cheat" and use two).

Now we're talking. Playing in this mode is not easy, even on the lower difficulty settings. Mostly, it's a whole new language to learn, and it's a slow climb. (I remember when learning five-color-note guitar seemed that way too, though.) But the rewards are instant, even on Easy difficulty. You feel like you're experiencing something vastly different from guitar and bass, and you also feel like you're doing something much more related to actually playing music.

Pro Keys won't be for everybody. To play the few songs I can manage on Expert, I've found that I basically have to actually learn the song. Now personally, I think this is cool -- and they've offered some great training modes to help you do this. But I imagine some people will see this more as a chore and less of a game. If you're like me, you don't, and would count Pro Keys a huge win.

Pro Drums. You can now attach up to three cymbals to the standard drum kit for the game, and it will actually show you round... er... symbols (ha!) that must be correctly hit in place of the pads to keep your score/combo going. Again, this is a one-to-one translation on Expert mode. With the exception of the hi-hat pedal (which you'd find on a real drum kit but not in the game), if you can play a song on Expert Pro Drums, you can actually play the song.

This is powerful stuff right here, because it's immediately accessible. Between years of Rock Band drumming and months of playing on my real drum kit, I found the learning curve to get to Pro Drums very shallow indeed. What's more, every past DLC song you may have bought over the past three years is instantly compatible with this new mode (unlike past songs which might have keyboard or harmonies parts in the original recording; the game does not miraculously add those). Basically, instant drums for over 2,000 potential songs. Awesome.

It will get even more awesome in a couple of weeks, when they release a MIDI adapter that will be able to translate information from an electronic drum kit (like mine) into stuff the game can recognize. You'll be able to use a real drum set to play the game. And I fully intend to do so.

Pro Guitar. There's a similar mode that teaches you actual guitar parts on a beastly 102-button controller... that is not yet available for PS3. That's expected in a few weeks too. So no word yet on how that is. I expect that like Pro Keys, it will be sufficiently difficult to deter some people, but the rewards of actually learning real songs will appeal to folks like me.

Other Stuff. Harmonix made a number of great updates to the interface too, such as a vastly superior song selection and filtering system, a much easier way to instantly add or remove instruments on Rock Band party nights, and more. It's easier than ever to use.

But... lest this seem like too gushing a review, I will say that this is also the buggiest product Harmonix has ever released. There's no single issue that sinks the game entirely, but lots of little things do get in the way. There's an intermittent system freeze that happens sometimes while a specific load animation is being played. There's a random audio squelch that happens every now and then if a PS3 user is playing keyboards, that could really damage your home audio system.

There are also a few unfortunate design decisions that almost seem intentionally subpar just to give them something to improve in Rock Band 4. The "All Instrument Mode" that is supposed to allow three Harmonies singers, guitar, bass, drums, and keyboard all in one band at the same time? It doesn't actually score the singers, or report back any information on how much of a song they sang accurately. Nor does it show more than four characters on screen at once; one of the instrument players goes MIA. Harmonix also removed the online competitive play modes from the game entirely, which doesn't bother me one bit, but has some of the "Worship Me, N00B!" crowd in an uproar.

In all, it's just a few minor blemishes on an otherwise great game. Best Rock Band yet. Still loads of fun, and now there are tons of new ways to play it. Big win!