Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy New Year, Everyone!

I've missed a few days blogging here and there over the past week. If you're a regular reader, don't fear a demise of the blog. Just understand there's a... distraction right now. I received the newest Elder Scrolls game, Skyrim, for Christmas. And it has a way of devouring a person whole. My formal review of the game will be coming at a later date, but for now, I have dragons to slay. In any case, during the past week: movies watched? Zero. Books read? Not even a chapter. And sorry, I just don't have the seemingly inexhaustible stream of Facebook awesomeness on tap that George Takei serves up.

So I'll just leave with a modestly deep thought. 2011 comes to a close here with a number of people in my life actually having a rather choppy ride in the last couple weeks -- to put it mildly. "Out with the old, in with the new" is a popular expression on New Year's Eve, and I'm feeling that sentiment a bit more keenly than usual this year. Here's hoping for good things for all my loved ones, friends and family, in 2012.

Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Get Lost, Lost

I was recently asked whatever happened to my series of "re-reviews" of the TV series Lost, which I last left half a year ago, barely into the second season. I've always intended to get back to the (not-so-)little project, but haven't found the time.

But I did want to veer back toward Lost for a moment to mention the video game, which I only recently picked up cheap. Titled "Lost: Via Domus," the game follows the story of a new crash survivor (you) with amnesia about his past -- a convenience that enables the player to experience flashbacks about the character's past, exactly in the style of the early episodes of the series.

I wasn't expecting the game to reveal any sort of valuable piece of the Lost narrative. Now that the show is over, we know more than ever that everything was centered on the central characters; no auxiliary narrative like this could ever be that meaningful to the whole. But I was expecting to be at least a little entertained.

Sadly, I can't even really report that. The game is stupidly simple, boring, and straight-forward. It's built in the model of an "immersive world" story-telling game, but is built so on the rails that there's really nothing to ever figure out, and no real opportunities to steer off a single, straight-arrow narrative. Perhaps the game developers assumed that a vast non-gamer audience would be brought to their title by its Lost subject matter? In any case, their degree of difficulty and complexity falls far short of what is even average for the genre.

Add to that some really spotty voice acting. A few of the actors from the show do contribute the voices for their own characters, but the vast majority of the people you interact with most are played by sound-alikes -- though to call them sound-alikes is being quite generous. Kate is close-but-just-off, Jack is only sort-of-in-the-ballpark, I don't know who Locke is supposed to sound like, and Charlie neither looks nor sounds right -- he's like some new character in a green striped shirt.

Still, I was working my way quickly through the game... until Christmas came along. I received several more promising and exciting games as gifts, and the shoddy Lost game got kicked straight to the curb. Will I ever get around to finishing it? Maybe. It certainly wouldn't take much more effort. But still, is it even worth that? Probably not.

In short, even the Lost fans should stay away from this poor effort.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

More Christmas Tunes

Scrooged was not the only limited release soundtrack I received for Christmas. Not even the only Christmas-themed movie soundtrack, actually. I also received La La Land Records' new 2-disc soundtrack for Gremlins.

Jerry Goldsmith has always been one of my favorite composers. Perhaps my favorite, actually, because he never really got the award love he deserved, winning his only Oscar for The Omen, despite over a dozen nominations and a career that spanned decades and a heap of great movies.

Gremlins is an interesting fusion in his catalog. Indeed, the movie itself is an odd fusion, a surprisingly dark and violent movie masquerading as family Christmas fare. The music is definitely evocative of some of the scores Goldsmith wrote for other, more conventionally tense or horrific movies -- Alien and Outland in particular. But it also comes in the middle of the 190s, in a period where many composers had decided to try incorporating what those crazy new synthesizers could do.

Consequently, Gremlins is a soundtrack with one foot firmly in orchestral and the other dipping perhaps a bit too far in the synthesized. I say a bit too far only because of the inherent limitations of the technology at the time; it all sounds a bit goofy. (Much like the soundtrack for the original The Terminator -- released the same year as Gremlins -- sounds when compared to the also-synthesizer Terminator 2 released early in the 1990s.)

Still, the score itself is solid. Much of what I praised in Danny Elfman's Scrooged work is true here for Jerry Golsdmith. There are rousing action pieces for Stripe and the other Gremlins, soft and emotional pieces for Gizmo, and a sprinkling of Christmas standards over the whole. It's kind of interesting to compare and contrast the two scores, to see how two different composers handled movies that in some ways incorporated many of the same ingredients.

People who don't love Jerry Goldsmith as much as I do might not be quite so gung ho about the Gremlins release. And even I have to question the release of a 2-disc set, whose second disc recreates the sad original soundtrack released decades ago and featuring mainly pop tunes from the film. In short -- this one won't be for everybody, even among the film score nuts. But if you like Goldsmith, it's one you shouldn't skip.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Christmas Elfman

I've blogged before about how I often watch the movie Scrooged in the run-up to Christmas. This year, my taste of Scrooged came from a different angle, as I received a new limited edition soundtrack of the film as a Christmas gift.

Scrooged was scored by Danny Elfman, and could be argued as the point where he finally broke out of just being "Tim Burton's composer" (though, of course, the two still do work together extensively) and became a respected film composer in his own right. And deservedly so, because Scrooged is quite the accomplishment in his career.

Though Scrooged is without question a comedy film, it has more than a fair dose of dramatic moments. (None more notable than the 10-minute impassioned monologue Bill Murray delivers at the conclusion.) Elfman's score stands out for being just as flexible as the film itself.

It has all-out action cues, such as the opening sequence in which "psychos seize Santa's Workshop" in the fictitious movie "The Night the Reindeer Died." It has playfully comedic cues, particularly those for Bobcat Goldthwait's much put-upon character. And it has poignant and somber cues for moments like the aforementioned monologue, and the romance between Bill Murray and Karen Allen. All laced with some fun musical phrases peppered in from a handful of famous Christmas carols.

I don't know that I'd go so far as to say this is Danny Elfman's best score, but it's certainly a good one. I've enjoyed listening to this new, complete soundtrack. If you're a film music enthusiast, it's one to add to your collection.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Girl Movie

On Christmas Eve, I went to see the new U.S. version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. I had not seen the original Swedish film nor read the original book. One or both of those had long been on my to-do list, but just never bubbled to the top. So it happened that because of my interest in seeing director David Fincher's newest effort, this is the "Tattoo" experience that got there first.

This is a long movie, clocking in at two hours and forty minutes -- and feeling every minute of that length. That's not to say it's a boring movie, but the pacing of the story isn't sufficiently taut to fly by.

The opening unspools slowly, taking the audience through a longer-than-usual-for-a-mainstream-movie series of character introduction beats for the two main characters, investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist and troubled hacker Lisbeth Salander. You get a crystal clear picture of who both people are, and yet the two don't truly intersect with one another for what feels like too long a chunk of the movie.

Once they do, the film careens down an intriguing and suspenseful path as the two investigate a decades-old murder at the behest of a wealthy benefactor. The search is a satisfying mix of high and low tech, both characters are given strong material, and the revelations are exciting. The movie is firing on all cylinders at this point.

But then the mystery wraps up. And the movie soldiers on through what feels like two epilogues. See, the journalist's back story, as set up in the opening of the film, really demands a payoff for the tale to be complete. And yet, none of it feels as compelling as the mystery that's just come to a close. It's hard to argue with it being part of the film; it's just not as entertaining. (And does it really have to take another 30 minutes?)

Still, overall, the film does deliver what I was looking for. Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara are both fantastic as the main characters. Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgård, Robin Wright, and Joely Richardson are highlights in the supporting cast. The movie does indeed make you sit up on the edge of your seat at times, and recoil to the back of it in other uncomfortable moments. David Fincher's careful style plays in every second, and another fantastic score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross heightens it all.

I'd say it all works out to around a B. Some judicious editing in the opening and closing 30 minutes might have yielded a better film in my eyes, but what's there is still pretty good.

Friday, December 23, 2011

A Marginal Movie

I just watched a new movie that was buzzed about a fair bit during its limited theatrical run earlier this year. Margin Call is a new entry in the growing list of movies about the banking collapse a few years back. Unlike Too Big to Fail (dramatized non-fiction) or Inside Job (a documentary), Margin Call goes the route of fiction. It's still very clearly grounded in reality, but unfolds at a fictitious company and concerns fictitious characters.

But the movie is so steeped in reality, in fact, that it's actually too thin on exposition. That's not a criticism I thought I'd ever level at a movie, but the truth is, the story is a bit hard to follow at times. At least one of those other two movies I mentioned earlier feels like prerequisite viewing for this film. It's not really enough to know "the banks almost collapsed" to really understand what's going on in this movie; you have to actually know some background details about the "why" of it. There's a scene or two in Margin Call that rapidly pays lip service to this information, but they're brisk and dense. The script doesn't want to shirk reality by having characters too carefully explain information to each other that they would already know, just for the benefit of the audience.

Another troubling aspect of the narrative is that that its hard to be sympathetic to any of the characters. There are a few Cassandra-type soothsayers who predicted the problem, but essentially we're watching people who caused the problem. Or certainly helped accelerate it, in any case. There's really not a single person to root for here, nor is anyone built up as an anti-hero you could enjoy in another sense.

But the movie does have a lot going for it, in the form of a tremendous cast. The list of great actors in here seems impossibly long, and each is better than the one before. Stanley Tucci, Simon Baker, Paul Bettany, Zachary Quinto, Mary McDonnell, Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons. Even actors I wouldn't normally associate with greatness -- Penn Badgley and Demi Moore -- are lifted to a higher standard by being in such elite company. And the truly amazing thing about the cast as a whole is that there's very little scenery chewing, shouting, histrionics. The vocal landscape of the film is tight and soft -- almost British in sensibility -- but the emotions and stakes still come through crystal clear. Truly excellent work all around.

If you're a fan of the craft of acting, you owe it to yourself to check this film out. If performances aren't what make a movie for you, well, then I'd advise more caution. The movie overall is good but not great. I'd rate it a B-.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Surprisingly Good

So, this post is in no way timely, but my iPod spat out a song on random shuffle today and I realized that while I've had the album for years now, I've never mentioned Has Been on my blog.

Has Been is an album by William Shatner. And if you're at all familiar with his ridiculous vocal stylings on 70s hits like Rocket Man, you're sure to be cringing at the thought that I own a William Shatner for any reason other than kitsch. But hear me out. Hear it out. Has Been is actually a collaboration with Ben Folds. Working with some of Shatner's prose poetry, Folds composed the musical accompaniment. And Folds is a skillful enough songwriter to be able to work with the bizarre, pause-laiden delivery he knew Shatner would bring to the recording process. (Talking, not singing, of course.)

The result is a totally enjoyable album, with almost every track a winner. Toss in a cover of a lesser known song ("Common People"), and some guest appearances from other artists (including Henry Rollins and Brad Paisley), and the result is a shockingly good effort. Sometimes, Shatner's performance style is used as a joke he's in on. Sometimes it's serious... and works. It all works. No other two people could have produced an album like this. While I don't really think any of the tracks are as thought-provoking as Shatner probably hoped they'd be, they are quite fun to listen to.

I have no idea if the album is even available anymore, though in the digital age there really doesn't have to be such a thing as out of print. So if you're a fan of Ben Folds, I definitely recommend picking up Has Been. Unbelievably, it's probably one of my favorite albums. In fact, if it weren't for the dreary and awkward poem "What Have You Done," (a track that's all Shatner and no music), I'd probably rate it an A. It's an A- at least, for sure. Check it out.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Penguin Party

My sister got back from a trip to Disney World last month, and brought back a fun birthday present for me. There's a series of Disney-themed Muppet figures, different characters styled up with Mickey ears. Two series, actually, and this newer second series gets into some fun secondary characters like the band members of the Electric Mayhem.

Anyway, she brought me back two figures from the series. But there was a catch. Each 12-figure series is sold at random. You don't know which figure you're going to get until you open it. And as luck would have it, I got the same figure twice:


The Muppet penguins do make appearances here and there, but unfortunately were the only unnamed characters in the series of 12. Not the one you'd hope to get in duplicate, but there you have it. Poetic justice for guy that has made a living selling randomized booster packs of trading cards to people, I suppose.

Well, my sister felt bad about my luck, and so she got online and ordered me one more figure. I didn't know she'd done it until I saw her recently, and she hopefully presented me with another Muppet figure to open. We joked about the possibility of it being another penguin.

The joke's on me. Her. Us. It was a third penguin. The odds of a figure trifecta, assuming equal distribution of these figures, is 1 in 144. Maybe not odds either one of us would have chosen to beat, but I have to say, the gift is still kind of fun. Before, I had kept one penguin at home and one on my desk at work. But now, I've brought the one from work home, in order to form a bowling-pin-like triangle of penguins on my shelf. They're pretty fun to look at.

And they made a good story. (Well, I think so, anyway.)

Monday, December 19, 2011

A Christmas Carol, Featuring Tiny Twins

For years now, I've lived in an apartment and condo that doesn't really have a lot of floor space to spare. So I never went out and got a full-sized Christmas tree; there was nowhere to put it.

My mom helped me a while back with a possible solution -- she gave me a cute, tiny little fake tree, barely more than a foot tall, that could fit on a shelf or fireplace mantle. And for a few years, I set it up for the holiday.

A couple years ago, I fell out of the habit. It was time to put up the tree, and I decided that the tiny little tree that seemed cute at first in fact seemed a little sad to me now. It was like the Charlie Brown Christmas Special in reverse. To avoid looking forlornly at the tiny tree, the new "tradition" became not putting up anything at all.

This year, I had some encouragement from my boyfriend to turn the tradition around once again. And it came with the contribution of a second tiny tree, a little larger than the first. Still small enough for me to have space for it, but now Christmas x 2.

I set it up last night, but had a bump in the road. The Christmas lights that had gone unused for a few years no longer worked. But I made a stop on the way home from work tonight, and now the problem is solved. And when I plugged in my twin trees? Well, I felt a nice, warm feeling. I hadn't felt particularly Grinchy before, but I feel decidedly less so now.


Thank you to my "Christmas benefactor."

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Killer Finale

Dexter's sixth season wrapped up tonight, and my feelings about it are decidedly mixed. I'm certain that it was the worst season of the series... but that's largely because I felt the bar had been set so high in the past. Even rocky Dexter was better than most of the rest of television.

The problem in my mind was that the show tried to be too cute with plot twists this season. In the past, Dexter has traditionally rocketed along at a whirlwind pace. Any "stunning revelations" in the plot were set up at best an episode or two ahead of time. This wasn't poor planning; on the contrary, the show had so much story to convey that it didn't need to labor on plot twists for any length of time to satisfy.

This season, on the other hand, had a couple of big reveals planned. And it tipped its hand way too early on them. I always watch Dexter with the same group of friends every week. By the end of the second episode of the season, someone in the group had figured out the season's major twist -- that Professor Gellar was in fact a figment of Travis' imagination (just as Harry is to Dexter). Had that been a secret paid off quickly, that could have been a fun springboard for something else. Instead, the writers tried to play games with this fact until the end of episode ten, all the while using increasingly strained ways to play with the truth about Gellar.

And then the writers did it all over again with the big reveal at the end of tonight's season finale. Ever since Deb started going to a therapist five or so episodes back, the talk of how important Dexter was to her was layered on just a little too thick. The references to secrets were not carefully veiled enough. It was obvious they were building toward Deb finally learning about Dexter's true nature.

This, I was more willing to forgive, because it's a moment basically six years in the making, and clearly something so monumental that of course they'd be saving it for the season finale. But my forgiveness was tested by the plot twist I didn't see coming, that they decided to make Deb confess true love for her non-biological brother. Creepy, weird stuff, I have to say. I just don't see how those extra stakes were really needed to punctuate the reveal. It would have been big enough already.

But despite the sometimes sloppy writing of the plot, I still enjoyed the season of Dexter overall because the writing of the characters was still as spot on as ever. The witty banter of Dexter's voice-overs. Deb's filthy (and funny) mouth. LaGuerta's icy calculation. And so on. The story may have slipped in places, but the characters were as enjoyable as ever.

So now, when next season rolls around, we'll be heading into truly new territory for the show. That's reason to hope they'll pull out of their story slump and get back to form. Either way, I'll still happily show up next fall for more of the great characterization and fine acting.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Fear Itself

I'm not in a particularly creative mood today, so I'm going to link to this fun article on the "Nine Greatest Nerd Fears Today."

I will editorialize with these two comments:

1) These feel more like "geek" fears to me than "nerd" fears. I think if it's in pop culture, it is by definition not nerdy. Nerd fears would be more akin to finding out that the new game you were excited about was coded in a programming language you don't like or something like that.

2) For my money, their list would be considerably closer to accurate if it were in the reverse order. I know my #1 is the one that starts off this list, anyway.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Going Crazy

Crazy, Stupid, Love. (as it is officially titled, complete with commas and period) recently hit DVD. It also recently garnered co-star Ryan Gosling a Golden Glob nomination. I missed it in theaters earlier this year, but recently found the time to catch up and check it out.

Steve Carell plays a schlub of a guy whose wife (Julianne Moore) has just asked him for a divorce. As he wallows in self-pity day after day in a local bar, he meets an oh-so-smooth lady killer played by Ryan Gosling, who decides to rehabilitate his image and self esteem. Things are going great, until Gosling's character meets Emma Stone as an intriguing woman who might get him to change his new-girl-every-night ways.

I can see how Ryan Gosling got attention for this movie. In every other film I've ever seen him in, he's deathly serious. Christian Bale serious. And while his character here is still fairly dramatic in nature, this is really the first time I can think of where he really gets to be funny. Neither he nor Carell take on the predominately straight role in the comedy; each takes turns throughout the film being the other's comic foil. The give and take between them is a solid core of the movie.

The rest of the cast is strong too. Julianne Moore's character is inherently unlikeable, given the film's premise, but she's still very fun to watch. Emma Stone plays a young woman far less secure than she usually plays, and is very appealing. Marisa Tomei is great in a small supporting role, and the cast is peppered with other fun recognizable faces, including the ubiquitous Kevin Bacon.

But what doesn't work quite as well for me is the sudden shift in tone two-thirds of the way through the movie. I'm not one to look down on dramatic elements mixed into a comedy (or vice versa). But there is a way to blend that concoction skillfully. This movie is essentially front-loaded. It's not a laugh-a-minute riot, but is essentially all out funny for over an hour. And then, crossing into the third act, the movie essentially goes rather serious. Not "someone gets a terminal disease" serious, but decidedly unfunny, compared to the bulk of the movie. I respect the desire to do something with more substance, but the transition between what feels like two different films left me with whiplash.

Overall, I'd give the movie a B-. It's probably worth your while now that you can watch it at home, cheaply and comfortably. But it also doesn't really feel like a career highlight for anyone involved -- despite everyone giving it their best.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Holiday Favorites

Watching last night's episode of Glee sparked a short but impassioned conversation between me and my friends. It was Glee's performance of "My Favorite Things" that touched it off.

Specifically, we all want to know: how the hell did this get to be a Christmas song?

I mean, don't get me wrong. I've seen this song featured on several other Christmas albums. Glee isn't blazing a weird trail here; they're drawing from a well plenty of others have already used. But who went there in the first place, and what insanity spurred anyone else to follow?

The song came from the musical The Sound of Music. Where it has no Christmas-themed presentation whatsoever. In fact, while Maria sings it to the kids in the movie, she performs it in the monastery in the original stage production -- a decidedly non-festive setting. There's no mention of the holidays anywhere in the lyrics. So unless "brown paper packages tied up with string" makes everyone think Christmas, I don't get it. (Me, I think "groceries.")

Am I missing something here?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Extraordinary Merry Christmas

Well, that was a fairly disposable episode of Glee. I'm not sure that's all too surprising, given that the competition episode last week felt like the real halfway point of the season, and this week had an agenda to push some Christmas album sales.

But I do wish it hadn't been quite so transparent in that agenda. There was almost nothing in the way of plot this week; instead, we got nine(!) songs. (A Glee record?) What little plot there was seemed forced. Rachel was suddenly extra-selfish after several tame weeks, just to set up the Christmas moral. Sue was just the opposite, suddenly extra-nice for similar reasons. It all seemed stretched to fit an array of Christmas songs picked out months ahead of time to allow time to produce an album... which it probably was.

The only real highlight was Artie's Christmas special itself -- though even that wore out its welcome after two solid acts of black-and-white, deliberately over-acted weirdness. (Well, the real highlight was Mercedes' deadpan delivery of "I think these are the end times.") And Glee was asking for even more suspension of disbelief than usual to imagine that could all be produced on anything close to Artie's supposed $800 budget.

So, at the risk of being branded a Scrooge, I'm going to dismiss this episode as a D. There simply wasn't much to see here. Sorry, Chewbacca.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Love, Baby! That's Where It's At!

Last night, I got to see The B-52s in concert here in Denver. I know they're a somewhat divisive band for some people -- and that seems mainly to do with whether you like the strange vocal stylings of Fred Schneider. I love the band and was particularly excited to see them, since their new(ish) album -- Funplex -- has some of my favorite songs they've produced, and I assumed their set list would pull heavily from it.

Not only did they perform about half of Funplex in their 90 minute set (and the better half, at that), but they rocked through most of their greatest hits. For the first time in a long time, I knew every single song being played at a concert. From the catchy new "Pump" to the party favorite "Love Shack," and of course an encore of the newly re-popular "Rock Lobster," it was a fun and bouncy group of songs.

The band really rocked them too. Only one of the four core members plays instruments extensively, so they were backed by a somewhat younger trio on drums, keyboards, and bass. But those four "oldsters" brought just as much energy. They might be the most shamelessly geeky band I've ever seen, dancing in a wildly unhip surf rock style, having fun, and making no apologies. Fred Schneider can still go from laid back to deranged in half a bar of music. Vocalists Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson can still sing amazingly well; they can sing notes higher -- and stranger -- than anyone else in pop music. Guitarist Keith Strickland bounces around, interacting with the rest of the band, the crowd, anyone and everyone.

Really, the only dark spot on the night was the opening act, a band called Sauna. This very young group actually had a lot of musical talent, but were saddled with a horrible lead singer. She was just close enough to on-key that you could imagine them not having the "you're holding the band back" conversation, but enough off-key that they really should have that conversation. But I'd pretty much forgotten all about them by the time I was grooving to "Mesopotamia" and "Hot Corner."

If you're old enough now to have fond memories of The B-52s in the 70s or 80s, you should definitely go see them if they tour near you. For a couple hours, you'll feel that young again.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

People -- Get Ready

Another stab at a biopic? I probably shouldn't, but okay. How about The People vs. Larry Flynt?

It turned out that this was pretty strong for a biography movie. And that's because there was a spine to the narrative to connect the movie together. Ultimately, the theme of the movie is about free speech and the First Amendment. So rather than take random episodes from the life of Larry Flynt, the movie picked from episodes relevant to that theme.

Well, mostly. The first 20 minutes or so are a little bit rocky. A prologue showing Flynt as a young child selling moonshine has no real relevance to the narrative. And the early segments in which he meets the woman he would ultimately marry are a bit slow paced. Necessary, probably, as the fate of his wife in the final act puts him in a fighting mood that ultimately leads to his Supreme Court challenge. Still, it takes some time for the movie to find its way on to the proper path.

Fortunately, Woody Harrelson is a fine actor to guide the film through those rough patches and then carry it on once it picks up. His Flynt is a likeable rogue, entertaining one moment and infuriating the next. Edward Norton makes an unflashy appearance as Flynt's lawyer; he's a great actor, but doesn't really have any great scenes here. And then there's Courtney Love as Flynt's wife. It's hard to know what to make of her performance, because one imagines that in portraying such a shattered mess of a woman, she might be rather close to her actual personality. (Or at least, the one she seems to project; you could perhaps argue it's full time "acting," but I wouldn't try to.) In any case, it's a raw performance that serves the movie well.

All told, I'd say the movie pulls together at about a B-. Better than most without being exceptional, though a pleasant surprise for the genre.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Nausea

The makers of the Vagisoft blanket are at it again with this new item:


What's more awesome? The fact that somebody thinks the world needed horrible pants to go with all those horrible holiday sweaters? Or the fact that they flat out call them "Nauseating Holiday Pants?"

Friday, December 09, 2011

A Horrible Comedy

I missed it in theaters this summer, but recently caught up with the comedy Horrible Bosses on DVD. The movie was fairly well praised, even as some reviewers acknowledged it was hardly original. Indeed, its "we should murder our bosses" premise is basically Strangers on a Train fused with Nine to Five, with the sensibilities of The Hangover. In any case, it's a blend that totally works. And while some of that is certainly due to a script that's clever, funny, and tight, the lion's share of the credit must go to one of the best large casts assembled for a comedy in the last decade.

It starts with the three men who play the put-on employees with murderous aspirations. Jason Bateman proved the master of the "suffering Everyman" role in Arrested Development, and brings those skills to bear here. Jason Sudeikis is way funnier here than in any Saturday Night Live sketch I've ever seen him in. (And though that could seem like faint praise, I do mean to say he's very funny.) And while I've never watched It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, I certainly liked Charlie Day here too. The trio is well grounded in believable normalcy, but engages in plenty of fun hijinks too.

But stealing the screen are their three bosses. Kevin Spacey plays his best villain since Seven, and is as hilariously unhinged as he was chillingly calculating in that masterful suspense film. Colin Farrell plays against type as a manic drug addict with no charm or skills. And Jennifer Aniston is brilliant, funnier than in any film she's made since the end of Friends. (Again, that could seem like faint praise, but I mean she is riotously funny.)

Now spice that mix with more great secondary roles. Jamie Foxx straddles the comedy/drama line with a thug both intimidating and ridiculous. Ioan Gruffudd makes a memorable appearance as a "wet work" man. Bob Newhart cameos with humor as dry as only he can make it. Wendell Pierce leverages his detective image from The Wire for laughs. And Donald Sutherland also kicks things off with a brief appearance.

The one weakness of the movie is that it perhaps takes a little too long to get to the meat of things, given that the audience knows exactly where the movie is ultimately heading. Still, it delivers the comedic goods, and rates an A- in my book.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Christmas Community

I've never written about the show Community before. (Though it's one of the shows I most look forward to in the week now, it has been consistently awesome since the last half of the first season, and it totally sucks that it's about to get benched for an indeterminate period.) But I couldn't pass up comment on tonight's fantastic Christmas episode.

The thing is, it took one shot after another at a show I do regularly write about, Glee. And it did so spectacularly. Frankly, when next week's actual Christmas-themed Glee episode rolls around, I'm not sure I'm going to be able to take it seriously any more after having seen this.

The details were all hysterical, from the constant talk of "Regionals" to the casting of someone resembling Glee's ever-present pianist, to the a cappella music used for scene buttons. And it was wrapped all up in a brilliant Invasion of the Body Snatchers bow.

The writers of Community have delivered some of the biggest laughs of the TV season, including the over the top "parallel realities" episode to last week's anime-fueled foozball competition. It's a shame that so few people seem to be watching.

In any case, whenever Community does come back, I'll definitely be there.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Hold on to Sixteen

I didn't have the time to re-cap last night's new Glee episode... well... last night. But here it goes now.

Competition episodes are a very mixed bag for Glee. Here, the writers wisely took a page from the past good ones, and had plenty of plot aside from the competition. Those plot developments then informed the song choices when they came around. Good work there.

But actually, if anything, the show had a little too much plot. All the stuff with Sam felt awkwardly shoehorned in. It's not that I'm not glad to have him back on the show. But it was weird to have him back chasing Mercedes when her new boyfriend wasn't even around in the episode. Weirder still to reveal that he was stripping for money, and to not have that be a major dramatic plot point that took an episode to deal with. Weirder still to have his parents on for a minute and a half, and agree to blindly send him off to school in another state with basically no questions asked. It was all too much.

But the other plots worked. Having already committed to going down the hideous road of the Quinn-Puck-Shelby plot over the first part of the season, I think they extricated themselves from it about as well as could be possibly expected. Quinn still probably isn't redeemable in my eyes, but at least she's not going to be a firestorm anymore. And Rachel was the perfect character to pull her off the dark path, because having her deliver the message that an adoptive parent, not a birth parent, is the true parent (when the parent in question is her birth mother) was spot on. In fact, props all around to the use of Rachel in this episode.

And her absence from the performance was so good for other characters. Tina got more to do in this episode than she had in the rest of the series combined. And she proved herself an even better girlfriend than Kurt's dad is a father. She was totally supportive of Mike. She stood up to Mike's father -- and got through. She didn't lash out at Mike when he laid into her from frustration. And she even made sure Mike didn't miss the application deadline. Wow. AND she got to share the lead on one of the songs. I hope Tina now doesn't fade back into the background again for the rest of the season.

The songs were mostly solid. It got off to a truly rocky start with that Toby Keith song. An awful song, and awfully hard to believe the kids would be singing it. Not a good use of Chord Overstreet's pop voice, either. But the competition songs were all great. The return of the Glee Project "Gerber baby" was strong, and the song selection from Evita to twist the knife of Kurt and Rachel was perfect. The "I Will Survive"/"Survivor" mash-up was one that really worked, and the performance was great (if a bit arm wavy). And the "Jackson Medley" performed by New Directions was one of the times you could reasonably believe the crowd reaction in the episode. Good vocal showcases for almost the entire cast, good matching the songs to those voices, and good song selection for plot resonance -- particularly Mike's dad being there for "Man in the Mirror."

There were a few other random false character notes, such as Blaine's objection to selling sex when just last season he was writhing around in a shower of bubbles with the Warblers. And as a complication in the Blaine/Kurt relationship, Sebastian is too big a tool to be believed. But minor quibbles. Overall, I give the episode an A-. Nicely done, Glee.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Poetic Tragedy

I saw another good Facebook ad recently. Not Vagisoft blanket good, but still worth sharing. This time, I had the presence of mind to snap a picture:


Other than being dressed in a Jedi robe, that guy doesn't look a thing like Obi-Wan Kenobi -- Alec Guinness or Ewan McGregor. But then again, this is apparently the "REAL LIFE" Obi-Wan, so I guess this must be about the guy George Lucas based the character on, right?

I'm actually not against the fan-fiction aspect of this. An improvised Star Wars story, eh? That's pretty much what George Lucas was doing too, wasn't it? (Oh!!!)

But "Poetic Tragedy?" To me, that kind of sounds like it's going to be improvised in Shakespearean verse or something. Which would kick it to a comedic level that could be entertaining... but the oh-too-earnest fanboy picture suggests to me that's probably not the case.

I could have clicked the link for more info, of course, but I prefer imagining my own scenarios.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Collapse in Judgment

This weekend, I went to see a new play called Collapse, being performed at the Curious Theater Company here in Denver. The play is making its "world premiere," though this is something of a technicality, as the play has been performed in at least one other city before (and has since undergone some rewrites).

In any case, it's very much a new play, concerning itself with new topics. Playwright Allison Moore has melded the I-35W bridge collapse in Minnesota with the recent economic recession, peppered it with characters whose lives are falling apart in a variety of ways, and presented a one-act play on the theme of "collapse."

The play is fundamentally dramatic, but sweetened with a healthy dose of humor. At the performance I saw, the jokes were landing very well with a laughing, receptive audience. The two secondary characters in this four-character tale were particularly effective at serving up laughs. The dramatic elements of the play felt a little rougher around the edges. The main characters are a married couple dealing with a variety of problems. The woman is a rather one-note, highly strung control freak on a fairly superficial journey to "learn to let go." The man is a survivor of the bridge collapse, suffering from PTSD. The character works on the page, I think, but works toward such an amped up, adrenaline fueled climax that I think it would take a rare actor to truly pull it off.

The cast of this production is pretty good as a unit. The strongest link is Michael Morgan, who plays the sex-addicted Ted. I mentioned that the comedic elements of the script work best, but Morgan elevates them even beyond that, delivering a performance that's both funny and layered.

The set is a neat blend of literal and metaphorical, with a bridge running over the living room of the main characters. The staging within that space, though, was quite distracting to me. No one in this play seemed capable of sitting on a chair or sofa in a normal fashion, and on occasion would even walk on them -- which should have driven the control freak character nuts.

My good friend was the stage manager of the production, which is how it came to my attention, and I once again was glad to enjoy her work. She'll often regale me with stories of rehearsal and backstage drama, no hint of which ever seems to show up on her stage. Pat on the back for you!

Collapse runs one more weekend, if you're here in the Denver area and want to check it out. I think I'd still like to see a few more script revisions in it overall, but it nevertheless is an entertaining play that carries a good message without getting overly pretentious. I'd grade it a B.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Mashed Blog Entry

I didn't really leave myself time to write a proper blog post this evening, so I'm going to just fill with a link to:

Wax Audio.

I think I've said before that I'm generally not a big fan of mash-ups. I don't like it when the two songs don't get used equally -- when it sounds basically like one song with a repeated phrase from a second song annoyingly spliced in. And some of the mash-ups at the above site do fit into that category.

But some of the others you'll find there are pretty damn sweet. I'll leave it to you to explore and find the ones you like. Enjoy, and I'll try to be back with a review of some thing or other tomorrow.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Off Roading

The word from the critics was that Cars 2 was finally the film that snapped Pixar's streak of superlative movies. I didn't find that hard to believe; the original Cars was definitely my least favorite of their films. But the criticisms did move the sequel to my "catch later on DVD" list.

The time has come. And indeed, Pixar has set a new low. Cars 2 isn't a terrible movie; there have certainly been barges full of worse animated movies. But it is markedly worse than any other Pixar film. It's not simply "not great," it's actually "not very good."

It looks dynamite, at least. Pixar one-ups themselves visually every time they make a movie, and this one is no exception. From the opening sequence (set on an ocean oil rig), to sequences in Japan, the Riviera, and more, the modelling of environments and effects in this movie is jaw-droppingly beautiful.

But it's a good thing it looks like a million bucks, because it plays like a lame direct-to-video sequel to the original movie. The plot is quite threadbare. A half-assed moral of "even an idiot can be smart" is sort of crammed in there, but the movie basically lacks the heartfelt message of other Pixar movies.

The annoying character of Mater takes center stage, and crowds everyone else out of the movie so thoroughly that you have to wonder why Owen Wilson, Bonnie Hunt, and other voice actors from the original would even bother to return for this one. It's not at all like the Toy Story sequels, where all the old characters get their due as new characters are brought into the mix. This is a new movie built around Mater and new characters, and all the veterans are left with that used car smell.

There is a fun new cast, at least. Michael Caine is a suave and smooth James-Bond-as-a-car that's the most interesting new addition. Emily Mortimer takes on a vaguely Moneypenny-esque role. Eddie Izzard, Joe Mantegna, and John Turturro all ham it up as new characters too. But it's all in service of a plot that's long on action and short on emotion, and that's simply not what Pixar does best.

I give Cars 2 a C-. I doubt this means that another animation studio will now sail in and be "the new Pixar"; my suspicion is that Pixar itself, which is leaving behind sequels for a new original story with its next film, will reclaim its own crown. Still, it's a disappointing stumble from the champion of the art form.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Dirty Laundry

You know those ads on the right edge of your Facebook stream? (Well, if you check Facebook on your mobile device more than a computer, maybe you don't.) Usually, they're totally forgettable and riddled with spelling errors. But occasionally, one sticks.

For about a week there, Facebook was advertising to me the Vagisoft Blanket. Don't worry, you can click the link; it sounds dirty, but it isn't.

If it just ended with the goofy name, I probably wouldn't have remembered it or mentioned it. But some of the copy in their ad (and on their site) is just too precious.

For example, they claim the blanket is softer than "a freshly laundered bunny." Really, do you "launder" bunnies or "wash" them? (Or perhaps you dry clean them?) If you were to launder a bunny, I would think the inside of the machine would look like a slasher movie afterward; softness doesn't really enter into it.

It's also softer than "the anus of a silkworm." I certainly wouldn't consider that a particularly soft place. I wouldn't want to touch it to check.

But bravo, Betabrand, whoever you are. You got my attention.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Never Again

Not long ago, I decided to re-watch a somewhat recent favorite movie, Finding Neverland. The basic description of the plot is "it's the story of how J.M. Barrie wrote Peter Pan." But that's overly simplistic, even flawed.

First of all, I've heard some criticisms that it's a fairly inaccurate tale. But I actually find this to the film's advantage. Rather than slavishly veer into biopic territory (and I'll come back to that in a moment), the film is only inspired true events. And it's a very appropriate choice, given the real theme of the film: inspiration.

The film has a lot to say about the creative process. Where do ideas come from? How do they develop? But the film doesn't only concern itself with creative inspiration. In the movie, Barrie begins a friendship with a widow and her four children, and the film is equally about how they inspire each other to live richer and more full lives.

It's this theme that allows this film, while still essentially a "true story," to sail clear of biopic territory. Most biopics fall down in my view from lack of a narrative arc. Such movies present a series of "episodes" from a person's life, without it all adding up to anything. Here, the message is crystal clear. There's nothing in the film that doesn't support it, and so a beginning, middle, and end of the story is clearly mapped out.

The acting in the movie is rock solid. Johnny Depp plays Barrie, in what may be his most restrained performance of the past decade. It's a fine demonstration that he doesn't need the wild affectations of Jack Sparrow, Willy Wonka, the Mad Hatter, or anyone else, to serve up a moving performance. Kate Winslet plays the widowed mother, and is excellent as always. Young Freddie Highmore makes his first film appearance, and firmly establishes himself on the very short list of child actors with actual talent; his performance in the film is perhaps the most moving of all. The cast also includes Julie Christie and Dustin Hoffman in supporting roles.

This concoction of perfect elements results in a movie I find particularly... well, given the theme, how appropriate is this? ... inspirational. Finding Neverland definitely has a spot in my top 100 list, and an A grade.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Mocking Review

I recently finished the book Mockingjay, and with it The Hunger Games trilogy. Though I did enjoy the book, it left me with an odd feeling about the series overall. I've read several criticisms of the first book, all saying the premise and plot lift heavily from other sources. And yet, now that I've read the whole trilogy, I definitely feel like that first book was the best of the three.

What to make of that? Is "someone else's idea" the best part of The Hunger Games? Or can author Suzanne Collins be credited for a putting a good new spin on things, even though she didn't conclude her story as well as it began? (How many countless authors have fallen victim to that?)

I compared book two, Catching Fire, to The Empire Strikes Back, in that it went out on a big "middle chapter" cliffhanger. In other ways, I could compare Mockingjay to Return of the Jedi. The book travels a predictable path, in pursuit of a predictable conclusion. The double-edged sword of setting up specific story expectations over a series is that you must then write what you've telegraphed.

Perhaps sensing this issue, Collins pulls up in the last 30 pages and has an entirely different and unexpected ending to her book. And this too is a double-edged sword. It pulls the story off the rails, but isn't really earned. It's not an illogical ending, just an out-of-the-blue one. And it's capped with one more lift from existing work; the book has an epilogue that felt very reminiscent of Harry Potter to me.

All that sounds like I'm pretty down on the book, but that's not really the case. The characterizations remain strong here as they've been all along. A fair amount of what makes the story predictable is that the characters are all so well drawn that you easily anticipate what they'll do next as the plot unfolds. Collins' writing style remains fast-paced and compelling, pulling you through the story swiftly.

All told, I'd rate the book a B. So, while the series certainly doesn't end as strongly as it began, the final volume is definitely at a high enough level that I can recommend the series overall.

We'll see how it all comes together on film, when the first movie adaptation opens next March.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

I Kissed a Girl

Oh, what a mixed reaction I had to tonight's new installment of Glee. There were several great things in it, but some bad things too.

On the great side, the storyline of Santana's coming out continued, and culminated in a scene the show really needed to have -- a rejection from a family member. We've seen the positive side of coming out through Kurt (though he has had to deal with bullying); an equally important story (and message) to present is someone coming out, being rejected by someone close, but still carrying on.

But... this story about Santana was in equal -- perhaps even in larger -- measure about Finn. And I'm pretty conflicted about that. The motivation seemed sincere, that he saw Santana going down a dark road, and wanted to turn her off of it at all costs. But it played out in a rather unsatisfying way. A string of people pour out their support to Santana in words and in song, including Blaine and Kurt, who I think really ought to know better than just about anyone on the show. But it takes Finn to finally get through? Finn, all-American jock? I worry this robbed Santana's character of some strength in her great moment of triumph.

The touching relationship between Bieste and Cooter hit a too-typical TV manufactured rough patch. And while it did lead to a nice solo for Bieste with some great staging, it did leave the overall taste of a plot done to death on countless other television series.

But not the bad taste of the Puck-Shelby plot. Just when I was praising Shelby for taking the appropriate high road, her daughter falls on a table, so she falls into bed? What?! And no, I can't give points to Puck for telling Quinn what a hot mess she's become, because I'm too creeped out at the shag the teacher storyline right now.

The Rachel plot, at least, seemed solid all the way. The only way I could ever really see her character do something selfless like help Kurt was when, in her mind, it was selfishly to help herself. Her motivation seemed perfect and genuine. And to then have her get caught, and risk her own future? That'll teach her to ever do anything nice. It could be interesting to see where things go for her from here.

So, the music. Set aside the oh-so-bland practice room staging of half the numbers, and the songs themselves were actually pretty strong. Kurt and Blaine's duet worked, Puck's take on Melissa Etheridge was solid (despite the creepiness), and the episode title number "I Kissed a Girl" was a definite highlight. Not sure what to make of the slow version of "Girls Just Want to Have Fun." I do like when Glee rises above karaoke and presents a truly different version of a song, but I'm just not sure the song is that elastic. (And if it is, I'm definitely sure that Cory Monteith just doesn't have to vocal chops to stretch it there.)

Bieste's "Jolene" was a surprisingly strong number. Dot-Marie Jones doesn't have the strongest voice either, but she still poured emotion into the song, and the staging of the number helped amplify that. Meanwhile, the episode conclusion, "Constant Craving," was rather the opposite -- strong vocal performances, but a bit lacking in the emotion.

So... what, I don't know here. Maybe a B on the strength of good song performances? On the strength of the good moments in the plot overpowering the sketchier ones? I might have to digest this one a bit more.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Iron Mayhem

I've written before about how Joss Whedon's role as writer and director of the upcoming movie The Avengers has made it a must-see for me, even though I don't tend to think too highly of comic book movies. (A friend once told me that you could add a full letter grade --at least -- to my review of a comic book movie and get a reasonable guess how the "average" movie-goer would receive it.)

Unfortunately for me (but fortunately for Marvel Studios), a whole suite of movies seems to be a required prerequisite for The Avengers. In some cases, I probably would have seen the movie in question anyway (exhibit: Captain America). In others, I almost certainly would not have (exhibit: Thor).

Somewhere in between falls Iron Man 2. I gave a B- to the first Iron Man movie, which is to say that I liked it overall, but felt it had quite a few flaws. The commercials for Iron Man 2 led me to suspect the sequel would be more of the same, which was enough of a deterrent that I never bothered catching it in the theater. But... required viewing and all.

Reading now what I wrote of the first Iron Man, "more of the same" feels right on the nose to me for describing the sequel. Once again, Robert Downey Jr. is fantastic, effortlessly portraying a smug asshole you ought to hate, but love instead. Gwyneth Paltrow brings fun spark to the always thankless role of the non-super-powered character in the superhero movie. The movie succeeds whenever it focuses on these characters.

Once again, the villain feels too cartoonish in comparison to the tone of the heroes. Sam Rockwell tears into an amped-up egghead with relish, but hits all the same notes he did as the heavy in Charlie's Angels. Mickey Roarke is a better anchor as a dark and brooding villain, but doesn't get enough screen time to really drive the story as much as he should. (Once again, for what must be the hundredth time, I have to ask why movie-makers feel the need to have more than one villain when making a superhero sequel?)

As with the first movie, the big action climax is so stuffed with CG that it starts to feel lifeless. It's better CG than the first film, I'd say, so my fatigue point came later -- but when the fight is literally against an army of robot drones, and your hero is wearing invulnerable armor, it's hard to feel any sense of stakes.

That would probably all average out to a C+ in my book (knocking off points from the first film for the "been there, seen that" nature of the second), but then I have to count one more strike against it. The "required reading" for The Avengers feels far too transparent here. A lot of screen time is devoted to setting up Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, and Samuel Jackson as a Nick Fury who does more than cameo for 40 seconds in other movies. At least one of the two really needed their own movie, in my opinion. (In fact, I feel like the Black Widow movie would have been pretty cool, had they made it. Scarlett Johansson's action scenes are the best action beats in the movie.)

In any case, their collective presence here feels like it's crowding out Tony Stark in this story -- a "hero creep" problem to mirror the "villain creep" problem of superhero sequels. Multi-hero movies can work (such as X-Men: First Class), but I think the movie has to be carefully crafted that way. As The Avengers will be. This movie, trying to serve the "team" master at the same time it's trying to be an Iron Man solo movie, slips in both categories as a result.

So overall, I'd rate Iron Man 2 a C. That puts it squarely in the center of my curve, and in the spectrum of Marvel "prep films" too. Of course, if you believe my friend, you should bump that up to a B to get to what you might think of it.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Maid to Order

There was a lot of critical buzz earlier this year around the comedy Bridesmaids. Some of the talk simply focused on the quality of the film. Others trumpeted it as a sign that, "see? Female-driven comedies can succeed at the box office; the sexist notion of comedy as a man's game should be dispensed with." Well, that second notion is clearly true. But regardless, how is the film itself?

Well, in my opinion, not bad. It's a simple buddy premise, where a woman with her life in relative shambles is asked by her best friend to be the maid of honor at her wedding. As the woman is barely able to hold her own life together, her efforts to plan all the festivities that conventionally lead up to a wedding are predictably chaotic. And rather funny.

Kristen Wiig is the star of the film, and anchors it wonderfully. Her comedy is razor-sharp, and she's a likeable protagonist you want to root for. The supporting cast is just as strong. Maya Rudolph is great as the bride-to-be, and effectively plays a realistic and normal person, quite unlike her Saturday Night Live characters (or her current Oprah parody on Up All Night). Rose Byrne, so great in the drama of the TV show Damages, proves equally skilled here at comedy. Melissa McCarthy, now an Emmy winner for Mike and Molly, is powerful. Ellie Kemper, always a strong supporter on The Office, is just as strong here.

When a good scene hits its stride in this film, it delivers solid belly laughs. You'll laugh, you'll cringe; it's great stuff. But the weakness of the movie is that oftentimes, the scenes take a while to hit that stride. The movie clocks in at 2 hours and 5 minutes. That's a ponderous length for a comedy, really; most top out an an hour and 45 minutes, tops, and there's a good reason for that. Slow pace is the death of comedy.

The director and editor needed to cut around 20 minutes out of the movie. And it's not even that I'd suggest they cut the "non-funny" parts. The movie actually had a nice sweetness to it, and that sentiment is a large part of what makes it work overall. But if they'd just trim a bit off the front (and some off the back) of almost every scene, a tighter film would result.

For example, there's a sequence on an airplane as the bachelorette party flies to Vegas. It does deliver plenty of laughs -- but only after nearly five minutes of relatively unfunny setup. Or take a sequence near the end of the movie, where Kristen Wiig's character is trying to get the attention of her cop boyfriend by committing traffic violations in front of his patrol car. She drives by him perhaps 8 or 9 times, each time with a different joke. We'd have appreciated the scene just fine if they'd just stuck with maybe the three best gags.

But even though the movie does often have to build back up the pace that it itself deflates, it never fails to indeed build that pace back up. Bridesmaids is a keeper overall, and worth catching if you haven't already. I grade it a B.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Sensational, Inspirational, Celebrational...

This afternoon, I went to see the new movie, The Muppets. I'd been looking forward to this one -- probably a little too much -- for most of the year. But in the last few weeks leading up to the release, I read about how Frank Oz had decided to dump all over the script, proclaim it not faithful to the core of what the Muppets are, and decline to participate.

I'm only barely getting used to the idea of a Kermit not voiced by Jim Henson. Now I have to accept a Fozzie and Piggy not voiced by Frank Oz? Needless to say, my enthusiasm for the movie took a hit.

It turns out, that might have been just the thing I needed to realign my expectations to something reasonable. To a place where the movie was then able to soar over them.

I think Frank Oz must have just had a chip on his shoulder over someone else from outside "the fold" coming in to write a Muppet movie. Understandable, I suppose, but unfair. This movie was respectful, even reverent of the Muppets. There were plenty of references thrown in for fans who watched their original show and the classic Muppet film trilogy. And aside from a fart joke that felt out of place (written for Fozzie -- so okay, Frank Oz, I'll give you that), it felt pitch perfect for all the characters.

The movie was stuffed full of the humor that made the Muppets great -- from dumb puns to fourth wall breaking commentary to celebrity cameo foolishness and everything in between. There were musical numbers, from fun originals to a touching new performance of the all-time Muppet great, Rainbow Connection. And there was a lot of true and tender sentiment too. If you ever loved the Muppets, you'll get swept up in it.

The human cast is solid too. Jason Segel and Amy Adams anchor the film well, and are particularly funny in their musical numbers. Chris Cooper is a wonderful villain in the tradition of Doc Hopper from the original Muppet Movie. And cameos abound, too many to list, and at least one that should definitely not be spoiled.

I'd say overall, the movie doesn't quite reach the heights of the original Muppet Movie. But it sure comes close, and is a far sight better than any Muppet film has been since the 1980s. I give it an A-, which is high enough to make it officially my favorite movie of the year so far.

Friday, November 25, 2011

One Last Tale of San Francisco

I've reached the final evening of my San Francisco vacation. Well, afternoon and evening. We stopped off at a second winery on the drive back from Napa, the Robert Mondavi Winery. We passed on a second tour to follow our experience at Sterling Vineyards, opting instead for a tasting.

Whatever alchemy was going on earlier wasn't really present in this second tasting. Generally, I found the Mondavi wines to be quite representative of what I usually think of wine, and why I don't drink it often. There was one exception, a Moscato D'Oro dessert wine, though I hesitate to even mention it. It's crazy-sweet, sweeter even than a typical bottle of sparkling cider that serves as a champagne substitute for many social events. It was like drinking soda. So sure, that was great. But it felt like it hardly counts. (Except in the wallet, where it would cost you significantly more than said sparkling cider.)

A good friend of mine had suggested one more stop we should get in on our trip, the Marin Headlands. Just on the north side of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Headlands offers a beautiful view of the city skyline. And you don't even have to hike for it; just park your car, step out, and you're basically there.

We were getting back from wine country at sundown, but decided to stop all the same. A beautiful view at night is still a beautiful view, isn't it? The added bonus of this was that everyone had thoroughly cleared out, and we had the entire place to ourselves.

There was a cold wind blowing, and it was getting really dark, so we chose to stay only for a few minutes. To give you an idea of how fast it was getting dark, here are three pictures I took within a five minute period (blurry for lack of a tripod):




In any case, this place was as advertised by my friend -- an inspiring view. And as close as it is to the city, there's really no excuse for not going if you should visit.

We closed out our evening (and our vacation) with a crab dinner on Fisherman's Wharf, and then headed back to Denver -- exhausted, with aching feet, but happy. It was a fantastic trip.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy T/B-day

It's a double holiday for me -- Thanksgiving and my birthday. (A conjunction that occurs every few years.) I'm taking all that as an excuse to take the day off on the blog today.

To my U.S. readers, enjoy the holiday. To all, I'll be back with more tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A Sterling Experience

I've never been much of a wine drinker. (See, the fact that I said "wine drinker" and not "wine enthusiast" should say a lot.) But one of the things my boyfriend wanted to do on our San Francisco trip was drive up into wine country, Sonoma or Napa Valley. I thought the idea sounded like fun too, so we dedicated the bulk of our last full day to the adventure.

We didn't have a particular destination in mind, but on advice from the hotel concierge, we headed toward Sterling Vineyards. Afterward, an old high school buddy would dub it "Disneyland Napa" -- the words of a true wine enthusiast, I'd imagine. And that may be true. But I have two responses: one, my uncultured taste buds weren't going to know the difference; and two, would you take a vacation to Anaheim and not go to Disneyland?

In any case, it was a great chapter in the vacation saga. Sterling Vineyards is everything the mind would conjure for a sun-drenched, wine paradise. I mean, here's the stereotype you drive through at the gate, for pete's sake:


It just gets better from there. They have an aerial tram that takes you from the valley floor up to their palatial winery...


...where they have a rooftop patio that affords you a view like this:


Insane. I have a whole arsenal of photos of their wine making process, but I'll spare you the photo-shelling. Suffice it to say, it was a fun and interesting tour, and punctuated with samples of seven different wines they make there. Oh yeah, good times. This non-wine-enthusiast was motivated to bring back a couple bottles for a future Flashback to a Great Vacation. (For the moment, they join the Vampire wine I mentioned not long ago. And yes, despite the fact that I now own three bottles of wine more than the average non-wine-drinker owns, I maintain that I'm not a wine drinker. But don't go all Betty Ford on me here.)

Perhaps the best highlight of the Sterling Vineyards tour is that it provided the one photo I have from the entire trip of the two of us together. All along, we'd been taking pictures of each other and everything around us, but a nice old couple saw us going through that routine and kindly helped us out:


So, wine enthusiast or not, I'd definitely recommend the Sterling Vineyards tour, if you're ever within a stone's throw of Napa Valley.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Say Hi to Caesar

Muir Woods is a park close to San Francisco where you can go to see the famous giant Redwood trees of California. It's featured heavily as the place where ape Caesar loved to visit in the recent movie Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Well, at least the idea of it is. What's actually depicted in the movie is more like a fusion of the Muir Woods and the Marin Headlands, and isn't really quite like either. But in any case, you can see some really big, really old trees at the Muir Woods, an environment not quite like any other -- and certainly not like any forest in Colorado. This was high on our list.

At first, it was looking like this visit might be a bit of a disappointment. For a place that's supposed to be nature at its purest, it comes off quite unnatural at first. Actually, it comes off like a Natural History Museum. Sidewalks of asphalt have been paved through the woods, lined with wooden fences on either side, providing a simple and easy path to walk. Signposts -- just out of reach -- explain to visitors the various points of interest. And the light that manages to poke its way down through the hundred-foot trees is so diffuse that the whole place starts to look like a diorama. It was neat... but not what I was expecting.


But it you keep walking along the mile-and-a-half paved loop through the forest, you'll reach a few actual trail heads near the back. Head back on to one of these trails, and you leave behind the sidewalk, the fence, and all the oddly false trappings. Now you're out for real among the ancient, giant forest.

I'd only thought to hike back up a few minutes, get far enough away from the high-traffic sidewalk for some solitude, and sit to enjoy the surroundings. But then we heard from another hiker coming down that an amazing view of the ocean could be had if you hiked 45 minutes up the trail. Well, we had our hiking boots on; we'd come to see some amazing sights; sure!

When you leave the official Muir Woods loop, you almost immediately leave the helpful map provided at the visitor center. And then you start to come to some forks in the trail. We spent maybe three minutes walking the wrong way down the wrong trail before my boyfriend pointed out the obvious: we're trying for an ocean view, the sun is setting in that direction, we should be chasing it.

The thing is, the sun seemed like it was starting to set rather rapidly. It was about 4:15 in the afternoon, and being in the already sun-challenged woods, we figured we really didn't have much time to reach our destination before we'd have to turn back, not being prepared in the slightest for a night hike. Ten more minutes, we resolved, and we'd have to turn back regardless.

In five minutes, we made it to this:


And this:


And this:


Stunning. I could have stayed there for hours. I would have loved to watch the sun set there. Except for the aforementioned issue of the hour return hike at night. So we lingered around ten, maybe fifteen minutes, got tons of pictures, and then started back.

I can't recommend this experience highly enough, if you're ever in San Francisco and up for a hike. Go to the Muir Woods, then follow the Ben Johnson Trail up to where it intersects with the Dipsea Trail. Follow the Dipsea Trail upward for about 10 minutes. If the hike hasn't taken your breath away by that point, the view surely will.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Basic Cable

I have to backtrack in my San Francisco narrative now, because I left out soemthing from Saturday night, that followed our Chinatown visit.

One of the things on the SF "to do" list was to ride a cable car. Pretty cliché, I admit, but these are the things you do when you're a tourist. But it seems that time has taken the old notion of the San Francisco cable car and fractured it in two.

On the one hand, you have a number of trolleys that travel around the city. These run on tracks, and get power from an overhead line. But they don't look like the cable cars conjured in your mind when you think of San Francisco. In fact, they deliberately evoke other cities. On the interior of each trolley car is a poster that tells you which U.S. city the car originated from; the exterior is painted up to evoke the mood of that city.

On the other hand, things that look just like "old fashioned cable cars" still run limited routes around the city. But they have no overhead connection to any power cable.

The former mode of "cable car" was what we rode down to the Castro, but that left us still wanting to do the touristy thing we'd set out to do. So Saturday night, we were searching for a place to get a drink. (Actually, we were trying against impossible odds to find a sports bar that might be showing the Avs game. But on college football night, that was an enterprise doomed to failure.) We found a candidate online, and decided that even though it was walking distance, we'd ride the cable car for six blocks or so, so we could cross that off the list.

We didn't realize the protocol for boarding a cable car. Basically, you have to lay down on the tracks in front of the thing, or it is NOT stopping. At least, that's what it felt like. We stood under the sidewalk sign where the car was marked to stop... and it flew right on by us. Some locals then informed us that you have to jump out in front them to get their attention, but we'd already been waiting for ten minutes, and didn't feel like waiting any longer. I mean, we'd already waited longer than it would have taken to walk the distance.

When the bar was a bust (as I mentioned earlier), we decided to try one more time and grab the cable car on the way back. When a cable car finally rolled by, it looked like it might be out of service, but I still dutifully jumped out into the road and flagged it down. In service, it turned out... just empty. The operator and the money taker were aboard, and that was it. I imagine they wondered why we were so lazy to pay for the seven block trip to the end of the line, but they took our money all the same.

The up side was, we got a whole cable car to ourselves for a few brief minutes. A cool experience that perfectly satisfied our original touristy instinct.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Putting in Time at Alcatraz

Sunday morning in San Francisco, we'd booked tickets on the ferry to Alcatraz Island, and went to tour the old prison. Though it was a beautiful, sunny day, the place felt dark and haunted. I can't think of another place I've visited that felt so oppressive and ominous. My boyfriend mentioned his visit to the Anne Frank house. I'm certain a visit to a German concentration camp would rank. In any case, you can easily get a sense for the tone of the place.


I suppose in my mind, I had a picture of the place being larger, even confined on a small island as it is. But the truth is, there just aren't that many rooms needed for a prison. The island has a number of outbuildings that provided housing for some of the prison guards, but the prison itself is straightforward: a basement area for processing and showering prisoners, the cell block above, a library, an office, an exercise yard, a dining hall. That's about it.

I perhaps had a mental image of multiple cell blocks in different wings or something, but all the cells were basically in one large room, stacked three high, divided by three "hallways." More like stacked shipyard crates than anything else -- though there was a separate corridor used for maximum security, and six cells for solitary confinement, in pitch blackness. (Stepping in one of those definitely made my heart speed up.)

Alcatraz is in a beat-up, rundown condition:


One of the reasons it was closed as a prison in the first place was that the cost of maintaining it had grown too high. Intellectually, you know you're looking at 50 years of decay, and that the place surely didn't look like this -- smashed windows, encroaching mold -- in its heyday. And yet, it's probably more appropriate that it does look this way. I imagine that it captures the feel of the place perfectly.

It might not seem like a souvenir of this place would be high on the list, but a unique option presented itself, and I couldn't pass it up. Near the end of the prison's run, surplus naval pea coats were issued to the inmates as cold weather gear for time in the yard -- simple, black wool coats. They didn't really look any different from coats many people have and wear today. The Alcatraz gift shop had these coats for sale. An old photo of the prison is sewn into the inner lining to mark it a souvenir, but when you're wearing it? It just looks like a black pea coat. So I picked it up, a souvenir unique in being completely functional.

That took care of the morning. In the evening, we'd head to Muir Woods -- an excursion I'll pick up next time.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Down to Chinatown

Let me pick up my San Francisco adventure where I left off. That evening, we decided to visit Chinatown. San Francisco is said to have the largest Chinatown district in the U.S., and having been there now, I believe it. It runs at least 10 blocks in one direction and five in the other, and is crammed full with enough stuff that would seem crowded in twice the space. The roads are suddenly narrower, the buildings smaller. On one side of the street, you're in San Francisco; on the other, you're in what feels like another place entirely.

Of course, you have to sample some food when you go to Chinatown, and I was given the recommendation to check out the House of Nanking. It's rated a top 10 area restaurant in many guidebooks, and is known for its sesame chicken. I like sesame chicken. Let's do it! The food was indeed pretty good, though also rather salty. I didn't mind, but your mileage may vary.

If you're a souvenir hound, Chinatown is definitely a place you should visit if you go to San Francisco. Or maybe not; it could be very dangerous for you. I was tempted to pick up a number of things, though none quite said "perfect" enough for me to give in. But whether you collect fountains or bobbleheads, weapons or playing cards, there's something in Chinatown for you.

Walking out of Chinatown, we also came upon what for my money is the strangest street in San Francisco. Now, perhaps you've heard of Lombard Street, which has one block billed as the "crookedest street" in the city. (And we drove that later on in the trip.) But cool as that is, I think it had nothing on this bit of weirdness... and sadly I think only an aerial photo could really do it justice.


This tunnel, maybe two or three blocks long, continues the road on the other side. That road above it? Not perpendicular. It's a dead end of another road on top of this one. Strangest bit of traffic layout I've ever seen.

And with that, we came to the end of a fun, full day. With two more full days to come.

Friday, November 18, 2011

From the Wharf to the Castro

The second full day of my vacation to San Francisco was the first full day actually in San Francisco. When we'd made it to our hotel the night before, we wandered out to find dinner close by, but held on to any real exploration until the morning.

That morning began with Fisherman's Wharf. We walked down to Ghirardelli Square, then out to the bay and back along the water. Chocolate I could get at home held only brief appeal for me, I must say, but the walk from there was pretty cool. The view from Fisherman's Wharf is fantastic, from one iconic bridge to the other, with Alcatraz and other neat sights in between.

A number of old ships are anchored in a sort of museum along the pier, and that is officially part of the Golden Gate National Park system. So once again, it being Veterans' Day weekend, we got to enjoy the attraction for free. We went aboard one of the ships and had a look around:


The San Francisco skyline is just really different to look at. It's not quite like any other city I can think of. Parts of it look almost Asian to my eye, though the whole is too sparsely packed (and too peppered with other influences) to come off like an Asian city. Really neat.

We took a few minutes to enjoy the sea lions that have been sunning for two decades near Pier 39, and then took a train to what turned out to perhaps the one disappointment of the trip, the Castro District.

The Castro is the largest "gay neighborhood" in America. I'm not sure what I was expecting to see there, but I figured there would be things to see there. I did grab this amusing picture...


...but basically, I found the Castro to be surprisingly unextreme. I think if you were to take an average person to both the Castro and to a Star Trek convention, that person would definitely find the Star Trek convention to be the stranger experience. I mean, I don't really know what I was looking for, but my experience in San Francisco's Chinatown (which I'll get to) was much more the "trip to another world" I thought I'd be seeing here.

Maybe you have to be there late at night. Or maybe -- and I think I'll choose to go with this -- gay is gradually becoming mainstream enough that the neighborhood doesn't offer the same culture shock it did in the 1970s.

In any case, that was enough time walking around that we decided to head back to the hotel for a break in the late afternoon. But, oh! One side detail probably worth mentioning: the trip down to the Castro took us by the place where the Occupy Wall Street protesters in San Francisco have set up camp. Literally. That was an interesting thing so see -- a park filled corner to corner with tents, with all manner of protest signs in evidence. Pay toilets rolled up everywhere like an outdoor rock concert was going on. A very laid back vibe for a protest that some news outlets would have you believe is a threat to our very society. Too laid back to bring about any actual change? Food for thought.

I've still got the evening to cover, but I think I've rambled enough for one blog post. So, look for my continuing adventures in San Francisco soon.