Monday, January 31, 2011

Skin Flick

Not long ago, I wrote about This Film Is Not Yet Rated, a documentary looking at film ratings, particularly the dreaded NC-17 that basically ensures no one will ever see your movie. In the course of watching the documentary, I found out about a handful of films that seemed like they could be interesting; wouldn't you know it, the NC-17 rating had indeed made certain that I'd never heard of them.

One such film was Mysterious Skin, an usual movie that might sound almost like an off-kilter comedy on paper, but deals with decidedly serious subject matter. The film revolves around two teenage boys, each with a profound, life-altering experience in their childhoods. One is a promiscuous gay teen, who experienced his first sexual awakening at an uncomfortably young age when he watched a couple from his bedroom window. (You can imagine that gave the MPAA ratings board a conniption.) The other is a repressed and straight-laced kid who experienced several hours of missing time, and comes to believe he was abducted by aliens.

See? Sex and alien abduction could easily make for a comedy, right? But no, the film instead revolves around how each kid is uniquely scarred today by the events of their past, and how one's quest for answers leads him to the other.

Starring as these two teens are an actor you've likely not heard of, and one you almost certainly have: Brady Corbet and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Both are strong in their respective roles, and are the main reason to watch the movie. The supporting cast has some bright spots in too, including Michelle Trachtenberg, Elisabeth Shue, and Mary Lynn Rajskub (balancing the serious and the funny as she did so well on 24).

The writing is more of a mixed bag, though. It has some profound points to make, and there are several tense scenes. But it's also an incredibly predictable story. You'll know exactly where the movie's headed in the first 20 minutes or less. And to me it feels like the writer thought this would be a big secret or surprise; otherwise the script could have focused less on the destination and more on the journey.

Overall, I'd rate the movie a B. It's an uncomfortable squirmy kind of film that most people would not be interested in watching. But if you like powerful acting (particularly from Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who is quite different here than anything else in which he has appeared), you might want to give it a shot.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Before the Beatles

On the whole, I'd say that I've disliked more "biopic" movies than I've liked, and yet every now and then I feel interested enough to check one out. So it was with last year's Nowhere Boy, a tale of John Lennon's adolescence before the Beatles came together and changed music history.

This movie shared the same flaws that most biopics have, and the reason why I tend to dislike them -- there isn't really anywhere for the story to go. In this case, however, the movie runs up against that problem in rather a different way. Typically, a biographical tale runs the spread of the subject's entire life, and can leave the audience a bit bored when it already knows all the most critical events. This movie avoids that problem by focusing on just on the teenage years, yet steps into another problem by electing to tell a story that doesn't quite have a full story structure. The "main dramatic question" of what young John will make of his life may be known to we the viewers, but isn't answered in the context of a story with a beginning, middle, and end. Indeed, the end feels very artificial, in that the storyteller decides to just stop more than it feels he reached a natural conclusion.

Despite the structural problems, though, the writing isn't all bad. The movie does manage to find a handful of moments that pack a fair emotional punch. Other times, you laugh at the wit, or identify with the sense of young rebellion. Only on a couple of occasions does it wink at you by trading on the Beatles future, and I think it's a better movie for not repeatedly going to that well.

But the greatest strength of the film is the acting. Aaron Johnson stars as John Lennon, and if you (like me) have only seen him otherwise in Kick-Ass, prepare to be surprised. He's nearly unrecognizable; in mannerisms, accent, personality, and even physical appearance, he's quite different in this film. He also manages to convey the "sense" of John Lennon without doing anything that feels like an impersonation.

Similarly strong is Thomas Brodie Sangster as Paul McCartney. I spent a bit of time wondering "where do I recognize him from?", but the quality of the performance soon made me forget about that particular conundrum. (The answer, by the way, is that he was the young stepson of Liam Neeson's character in Love Actually.) And a particular "hats off" here -- though he is right-handed himself, he learned to play guitar left-handed for the role.

The real meat of the tale is how John is caught between his aunt and mother. And those strong emotional scenes I mentioned earlier only really land because of the strength of the two women in those roles: Kristin Scott Thomas and Anne-Marie Duff. I'm not very familiar with other films featuring either of them, but they're perfectly cast here.

So in all, I'd call the movie likable, but far from perfect. I rate it a B-. I am uncertain, though, just who to recommend it to. Non-Beatles fans might have no interest in it; Beatles fans might be put off by what I'm sure are a few flights of fancy taken with the history. I suppose you're the "target audience" if you like good acting, because that's what drives the film.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Sorkin Things Out

Even though I didn't love The Social Network with the same enthusiasm I felt for some of writer Aaron Sorkin's past work (particularly Sports Night and The West Wing), the film did not in any way diminish my eager interest in seeing his next project. For nearly a year now, there's been a rumor that he's been putting together another TV series, and I've been waiting impatiently for word to break.

Now it has. And "it's not TV, it's HBO." HBO has ordered a pilot episode of this new series. They're very choosy about such things, so unless the pilot were to somehow turn out atrocious, you can bet the show will get a one season order.

If the cunning HBO programming department evenly spaces Sorkin's new show, Game of Thrones, Treme, and True Blood, they'll probably get me to maintain a year-round subscription to the network. (Right now, I do what so many others do and order the pay channel for the 10-13 weeks it takes to watch a season of whatever-it-is, before promptly canceling.)

Oh, and the show will apparently be about a cable news pundit show, as inspired by Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews. But like that matters. I'd tune in for Aaron Sorkin's new "people reading the phone book (very quickly, while they walk)" show.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Where Were You When...?

Today marks 25 years since the loss of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986. I've seen quite a few friends post about it on Facebook today. Someone noted that this was the first "remember where you were" moment of their life, a comment that got me thinking.

First, it was indeed a "remember where you were" moment for me. I was home sick from school that day. I have no idea whether the live satellite feed into schools was something that had been set up at mine; I was at home watching Superman (recorded on VHS off of a television broadcast) and fighting not to throw up. My father called from work to give us the news, and I spent the next several hours watching coverage unfold. (Not that anyone would really come to understand what had happened any time soon.)

But on a deeper level, after recalling my "where were you?" story, I got to thinking about other "where were you?" moments in my life. And it seems to me that all such moments in my lifetime have been negative ones. Where were you on the day of the Challenger disaster? On September 11th, 2001? My parents have "where were you when Neil Armstrong first walked on the moon?" But I can't think of a positive "generational moment" in my lifetime -- not really any at all, never mind one that could come close to comparing with walking on the moon.

Have I overlooked something obvious? The fall of the Berlin Wall, maybe? Except that I can't remember where I was for that. Is an Eeyore-like side of my personality showing here?

Thursday, January 27, 2011

A? Not Even Close!

I still clearly recall the sickest I've been in the last decade. This hurricane of disease had me laid out on the couch for days. This was pre-Netflix (and Instant Queue), so laying there watching TV meant actually watching TV. I was too exhausted to do anything but watch whatever was on.

What was on was a back-to-back-to-back showing of three 80s TV shows I absolutely loved when they originally ran: Knight Rider, Airwolf, and The A-Team. And when the "marathon" was over, I felt even more awful than I had before. It turned out that each of these shows actually kind of sucked. My memory of them was pristine, but the reality was that they were the schlockiest of schlocky 80s television.

Needless to say, this memory kept any interest I had in going to see last year's big screen film remake of The A-Team in theaters. It should have kept me from seeing it, period. But after being pleasantly surprised by Liam Neeson's performance in the shouldn't-have-been-as-good-as-it-was Taken, I decided that maybe his take on Hannibal Smith would make The A-Team worthwhile.

But as smart a movie as Taken managed to be at times, The A-Team was equally dumb more times. Liam Neeson, Bradley Cooper, Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, and Sharlto Copley all really have fun and ham it up in their roles (as does Jessica Biel), but they have surprisingly little rapport with one another. The dialogue is a low-grade Madlib where every other blank is filled with "ranger." The evil plot is a benign and boring mismatch to preposterously over the top action sequences (such as trying to steer a tank that fell out of a plane by using its cannon). The visual effects seem rough and unfinished for a big budget summer movie, particularly in the climax set in a shipyard where enormous shipping containers appear plastic-like and seem to have no weight at all.

You have to give a few points for the level of commitment at which the actors embrace the stupid. And then a few more points for the post-credits cameos of Dirk Benedict and Dwight Schultz (not to mention the several in-jokes made in reference to the original cast throughout the movie). Still, even those points can only bring this loud disappointment up to a D+. Utter waste of time.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Show Piece

I have no particular enthusiasm or distaste for Joan Rivers. I'm certainly aware of her pioneering role for women in stand-up comedy, though I haven't really seen much of her stand-up. I'm not really sure who the target audience was for a documentary about her, but I at least suspect I wasn't it.

But last year's film, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, got some rather crazy critical praise. I mean, you rarely hear talk about documentaries at all, and I kept seeing blurbs about this one pop up on all kinds of entertainment web sites I check out regularly. Then it was released on DVD, and Netflix kicked it my way too. Alright, I decided, let's see what all the hubbub is about.

I wouldn't say the film is half as extraordinary as the buzz I'd been seeing. But there are several things about it to commend, and I think I can at least understand where some of the enthusiasm has been coming from.

Foremost, I'm not sure I've ever seen a more "warts and all" depiction of a living person in a documentary. The very first shot of the film is a ghoulishly tight close-up on the face of Joan Rivers, before her morning application of her signature makeup. And that nothing held back tone goes far more than skin deep, and lasts the entire film. You see every facet of her personality, see that she's a workaholic, shameless, and come to understand why.

I also found that I didn't really know as much about Joan Rivers' role in the history of comedy as I thought. The modern generation really only knows her as a red carpet gadfly, Celebrity Apprentice contestant, and plastic surgery punch line. I was aware -- but didn't really have much memory of -- her appearances and guest hosting gigs on Johnny Carson's The Tonight Show. But basically, when it comes to female stand-up comics, there was Phyllis Diller, and then her. Everyone else to follow did so in their footsteps. Joan Rivers blazed the trail where it was okay for a woman to be as vulgar (and make no mistake -- funny, not just vulgar for the sake of vulgarity). There are countless examples of male stand-ups in this mold, many mentioned in this documentary, and a sadly small number of women.

But while I found the movie very informative, I found it less entertaining. I was impressed but not moved, appreciative but not thrilled. The critics had almost made this movie out to be a "you'll laugh; you'll cry" affair, and that's only half right. Well, maybe more than half. It did make me think. But ultimately, it's not a catharsis, just a well-made biography. I rate it a B-.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

And the Nominees Are...

This year's Oscar nominees were announced this morning, and it was for the most part the films and people that the critics were telling us to expect.

There were a few surprises, though. Christopher Nolan was snubbed for Best Director on Inception. While I characterized the film as "good, not great," and would place it in the lower echelons of Nolan's work, I still can't understand the rationale here. If you're going to nominate the film for Best Picture, don't you have to acknowledge that it could only be as good as it was because of the director?

Of the 10 films up for Best Picture, I've seen six already. The other four fall into, maybe-maybe-not territory, though that's better than past years, where there have been films in the running I absolutely have not wanted to see. Not sure if I'll get past my general disinterest in boxing movies to take in the said-to-be-fantastic acting in The Fighter. Not sure if my dislike of Darren Aronofsky films will give way to the same praise of Black Swan. Not sure if, having just seen Buried and being unimpressed, if I want to see 127 Hours, which sounds like "Buried Under a Rock." And just plain not sure if Winter's Bone will ever pass out of "Very Long Wait" in my Netflix queue now that it's a nominated film.

Of those six Best Picture contenders I have seen, four made my personal top 10 list as well (with another just edged out). I believe this might be the greatest overlap there has ever been between my personal film tastes and those of the Academy voters. Still, I don't expect my personal favorite, Toy Story 3, to win anything but Best Animated Feature. Pixar is stuck at the kids' table again.

We'll see how it all turns out soon enough.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Found a Winner

One of my newer board games came (as is often the case) by way of a recommendation from FKL. It's called Founding Fathers, and the subject matter is exactly what you'd expect. In fact, the game is stuffed to bursting with flavor, which prompted two of my friends to say (each without knowing the other had said it): "Am I going to learn something when I play this?"

Well, yes! The deck of 55 cards depicts as many men who helped to shape the original constitution, and is filled with interesting paragraphs that explain their roles in real history, while providing context for the functions they have in the game. What's more, the game also centers on 12 particular articles from the Constitution, and posits an alternate version of history in which any or all of those articles could have been drafted by different factions to read very differently from the way they ended up.

Fortunately, the flavor of the game did not come at the expense of interesting gameplay. While I have thus far only played with three players (and thus can't judge whether it really does account for five as well as it claims), I can say that it is a pretty fun game for three.

Players use delegates to pass votes on behalf of the original colonies. When enough colonies side for or against an issue, it passes (or fails). Meanwhile, you're trying to manipulate your own personal level of influence in four different political factions -- federalist, antifederalist, small state, and large state. The more measures that pass whose alignments match your personal strengths, the better you'll score at the end of the game.

Founding Fathers does bring about those fun decision making dilemmas of the best German board games -- the desire to take many different actions, but the ability to do only one at a time. You have to prioritize, and make the best of the few turns you have. In fact, I wonder if five players would in fact be too many for the game to be as fun; I think too many opponents causing chaos between each of your turns might remove some of the strategy from the game and throw it into a less satisfying randomness.

Also worth mentioning are the solid production values of the game. The material of the cards themselves aren't quite ideal, but the board looks wonderful, and all the other supporting bits are good.

So if you don't mind "learning something," I'd suggest Founding Fathers as a good game if you're up for a refreshingly different twist on the old "worker placement" motif.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

True Evil

It seems that if you watch one documentary, the Netflix Recommendation Overmind decides to ply you with other documentary options. So it was that I came to watch a film called Deliver Us From Evil. It's a documentary about pedophilia in the Catholic Church, and fortunately I knew that going in. It's material one has to be properly prepared to take in.

The film focuses primarily on one particular priest who got bounced from parish to parish in California during the 1970s and 1980s. And it was even more difficult to watch than I'd imagined. Interviews with victims and parents of victims are interspersed with nauseatingly frank and almost wholly unapologetic interviews with the priest himself. In the back of my mind, I was dimly wondering where all this footage had been obtained, how it was this man was apparently free on the streets; in the course of the film, you learn that he served an unsatisfactorily light sentence, then was deported back to his native Ireland where he lives free and clear today.

As I said, the film focuses primarily on this one man (though sadly, far from one case), but uses that as a launching pad to attack the Church. It delicately walks a line where it never attacks the religion, but the organization surrounding it -- the institutional oligarchy that the film makes a great case exists not to do any spiritual good in the world, but only to perpetuate itself.

Furthering its measured tone and approach, the film also follows a man in the Church working on behalf of the victims, trying to get an acknowledgment from the echelons of the organization, an apology, a pledge to do better, something for the victims. The movie does not to seek to tar the entire Catholic Church, everyone in it, and everyone who believes in the religion, with a single brush.

But as I said, it's just plain difficult to watch. There's no happy ending, no release for the feelings the movie evokes, no real course of action the viewer can take (even less if one isn't a practicing Catholic). Obviously, reality can't be wrapped up in a tidy bow, however much one might wish it in a situation like this. But purely as a piece of film, that leaves the viewer unresolved, unsatisfied, and hollowed out.

I suppose even if this weren't the case, it would be hard to "recommend" a film like this, on a subject like this. So I'll simply say that forced to put some review on it, I'd call it a B, and then leave it to you to decide whether you want to watch it.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Skilled Chefs

After hearing very mixed reviews on last year's film Dinner for Schmucks, I decided it was the sort of thing I'd wait to catch later on DVD, rather than paying full theater prices. Having now seen the movie, I can understand the mixed reviews.

The script is really just this side of terrible. The characters are weak, poorly developed caricatures. The circumstances are preposterous. The key premise is set up within the first five minutes, and the title leads you to think the entire movie will revolve around it... but then it doesn't actually deliver until the last twenty minutes. A lot of the humor is base and childish, when it's not maybe even a little insulting. On paper, this is a "how did this movie get made?" movie.

But the cast is absolutely incredible. Steve Carell has made a living of playing buffoons, and he brings his A game here. Paul Rudd is a perfect foil for him; he not only plays "straight man" to Carell's wilder schtick, but finds plenty of moments to be funny himself.

The supporting cast is bursting with talent. Some show up only for a scene or two, a handful of lines, and walk off convincing you the movie could have and should have been all about their character. Zach Galifianakis, Larry Wilmore, and Kristen Schaal (the last two contributors on The Daily Show) all made me laugh out loud. Bruce Greenwood and Ron Livingston were capable heavies. And a couple of women that I was not familiar with, Stephanie Szostak and Lucy Punch, also make an impression. The former is a likeable love interest, the latter an unhinged loon.

I swear this movie is not funny, not even a little, on paper, but this group of actors elevates it -- and by no small amount. They really shouldn't have to work this hard, but they do, extraordinarily, and managed to pull a stinker of a movie all the way up to a B- in my book. That shouldn't even be possible.

So I suppose I'm saying that if you're a fan of any actor I just mentioned, you should check out this movie if you haven't already. They're all at the top of their game here. If not, then there are certainly no other merits on which to recommend the movie, and you should avoid it.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Smells Like Torture

Huh-what?

A company has released a new cologne branded with the 24 logo:



When you want to make a statement, and that statement is "DAMMIT!"

I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall when that person who works in the licensing department at Fox got the phone call. "Who's on the phone? They want to talk about... 24?"

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Fatal Turn

You've undoubtedly heard the phrase "jump the shark" used to describe the episode after which a television series begins a steady decline from greatness. I've seen a few bitter Indiana Jones fans try to coin a similar phrase for the moment at which a long-running movie franchise falls from grace: "nuke the fridge." But what about the moment when a single movie -- not part of a series -- that was proceeding well enough sabotages its own progress and slips into lunacy? After seeing Buried, I'd posit that phrase could be "burn the snake."

Buried is an unabashed gimmick of a film. It takes place entirely inside a coffin. A supply driver in Iraq, a man who is not actually in the military, awakens in pitch blackness, remembering an ambush in which he was knocked out. He now finds he's been buried alive in a coffin with only a few items, including a cell phone, and must fight off panic as he seeks an escape.

"Buried alive" is a gimmick that's been seen before in a variety of places. Quentin Tarantino has done it twice -- once as a plot point in Kill Bill, and at greater length in the episode of CSI he wrote and directed. We've seen Buffy the Vampire Slayer awaken in this fashion. What sets this film apart from those other stories is that the entirety of the 90-minute film takes place inside that coffin. We never cut to the world outside, only hear the voices of other characters coming through on the cell phone.

So naturally, to make this concept have any chance of working, you need a truly strong actor in that role. Writer-director Rodrigo Cort├ęs got one in Ryan Reynolds. Sure, Reynolds' film choices haven't always been the best, and his sex symbol status has threatened to compromise his reputation as an actor... but the talent is still there. He's been the best thing in a number of average-at-best movies, and he's pretty phenomenal here. This is an almost impossible part on the page, with no "valleys" to balance the amped "peak" of the circumstances, and no other actor on screen with whom to interact or to share focus. Ryan Reynolds is exceptional.

But the part really is impossible to play on the page, because the character starts behaving stupidly around the halfway point of the film. Now I will grant you that to whatever degree I might imagine myself in that dark, claustrophobic situation, I most assuredly would be non-functioning. I wouldn't be in my right mind at all. But the character holds it together for long enough that you come to expect better from him. And I'd like to think I wouldn't be this stupid.

The moment comes when the character discovers a snake (maybe poisonous? it's unclear) crawling inside his clothes, that somehow slipped into the coffin at some point. The snake slithers out his pant leg and coils up at his feet. The man is wearing heavy boots. It's risky, but one has to do something, right? Time to start stomping?

Nope. Our hero decides to splash alcohol on the snake from his small flask, then switch on his lighter to burn the snake. He tries this even though the risk of an out of control fire is obvious, and even though the movie has already established that he knows that even just the tiny flame of the lighter is consuming his precious and limited oxygen.

It's all downhill from there. He wastes time on a phone call there's no logical reason for him to continue. When a possible opportunity for a desperate escape attempt presents itself, he ignores it. He "burned the snake," and the movie is relentlessly stupid from that point on.

But there were even other subtle flaws before that point. At times, the movie does an excellent job of making you feel the tight, enclosed space of the coffin. But at two points in the movie, the camera does a long, slow pullback into an impossible void, showing our hero from a great distance. In any other movie, this technique would effectively convey a sense of isolation and hopelessness for the character. In this movie, it totally lets the audience off the hook. For just a moment, the space defined on screen is no longer a box 7 feet by 3 feet by 2 feet, and all the built-up tension is let out and has to start building again.

So while Ryan Reynolds has never been better, and gives an amazing performance, I ultimately cannot recommend the unfortunate film its in service of. Buried comes out in my mind at a below-average (and disappointing) C-.

A good gimmick, but it burned the snake.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Turning to Page One

The first album from the newly solo Steven Page (formerly of the Barenaked Ladies) is entitled Page One. I've actually had the album for several months, but only now realized that I made no mention of it here on the blog. I have spoken about the break-up of the band, and how much I liked Steven Page's work in it; it was only natural that I'd pick up his solo effort.

While All in Good Time, the first album from the Page-less Ladies, is a fine effort with a few really good tracks on it, Page One is better still. It weaves together all my favorite elements of the Barenaked Ladies' best songs -- the clever rhyme play, the light-hearted tone to some tracks, the deeper emotion of others. And of course, Steven Page has always been the powerhouse singer of the group, and this album is his place to shine all on his own.

The album kicks off with a catchy track with great harmonies, A New Shore. And where most albums begin to run out of steam in the back half, some of the best songs on Page One are on "side two": the bouncy She's Trying to Save Me, the pop-infused If You Love Me, and the swingy Leave Her Alone.

Page One is an album I can listen to happily from beginning to end (though track 6, All the Young Monogamists, is perhaps a small hiccup), and one I'm always happy to have come up in the random iPod shuffle. If you're a Barenaked Ladies fan who hasn't yet picked it up, I highly recommend it. I rate it an A-.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Speech! Speech!

The Social Network has been collecting nearly every award there is to hand out at this time of year. But when it comes to acting, the "man of the hour" appeared not in that film, but another. Colin Firth's role as stammering King George VI in The King's Speech has been getting rave reviews. And as a fan of his work in many other films, I knew I'd want to see this one.

The script for the movie does a wonderful job of reconciling many opposing elements. The film manages to be deeply personal and intimate, focusing on the man's speech impediment, and his anguished wife's inability to do anything to help him. But at the same time, the film also has a broader scope thanks to the events swirling in England in the 1930s. The death of George V, scandal surrounding Edward VIII (and the risk it posed to the crown), and Hitler's ever-increasing threat all provide a grand stakes to supplement the drama.

But indeed, it is the performances that stand out more than anything else in this film. Colin Firth is, as promised, extraordinary. His work goes far deeper than believably conveying the stammer; all of the frustrations and concerns that go with it are the real meat, and portrayed beautifully. He's the odds-on favorite to win the Best Actor Oscar next month, and a worthy choice for the honor.

He's not the only one giving a great performance. Geoffrey Rush is a wonderful foil as George's speech therapist, infusing his role with witty humor, honest sympathy, and issues of his own. The film is more about the friendship between his character and the king, rather than just the king himself; together, the two actors make it work. Helena Bonham Carter is strong as Queen Elizabeth, doing some particularly impressive work in moments where she has no dialogue at all. Her looks and gestures say a lot.

While those three actors dominate, there are plenty of other recognizable faces doing a fine job in fleshing out the surrounding roles. Guy Pearce, Michael Gambon, Timothy Spall, and Derek Jacobi have only a few scenes each, but add to the fine tapestry of acting in the film.

Ultimately, however, the film can only take the audience so far. Based on history, and being an "inspirational story," there's little question of the course of the film. A savvy audience knows the specific beats that will play during every act of the journey, and knows exactly where it will end up as the end credits roll. Familiarity does not breed contempt in this case, but neither does it inspire unbridled enthusiasm.

Still, I absolutely do praise the acting, and recommend the film overall -- particularly to those who really enjoy a character-driven display of quality acting. I rate it a B, and would actually slide the film into the #9 slot on my 10 Favorites of 2010.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Green Light

Some of you may be surprised to know that I did go to see The Green Hornet this past weekend. I guess the fact that I think Seth Rogen is pretty funny won out over my general wariness of comic book-ish films. (And technically, The Green Hornet isn't based on a comic book, since it was a radio program first.) Reviews were mixed, and I knew that going in, which I think helped set me up with some lowered expectations.

Whatever cocktail of circumstances brought it to pass, I actually did enjoy myself at the movie. It was a Big Dumb Action Movie that actually managed to keep the Dumb at arm's length for most of its fun-filled two hours. The climax was maybe a bit of an over-the-top let down -- just a bit -- but the road getting there was a lot of fun.

What really makes it all work, in my mind, is that the script focuses well on the relationship between Britt Reid and Cato. The interplay between them is given a lot more space to develop even than either of them as individual characters, and is also often the focus more than any particular action gag. And as actors, Seth Rogen and Jay Chou work well together.

Spicing the mix were appearances from a number of other actors that seemed to be having a lot of fun. Somehow, in my commercial-free existence, I'd managed to miss the fact that Cameron Diaz was in the movie. I was first surprised by her appearance, then just as quickly not surprised, given her Charlie's Angels/There's Something About Mary history, and then just plain entertained by her and her character.

I was expecting Christophe Waltz, the villain of Inglourious Basterds. He's probably typecast for the rest of his career now, but he plays the heavy so well. He dances up to the line of preposterous Batman villain, but still keeps it grounded. And he's not just menace; he's having fun too.

Also appearing in smaller roles are Edward James Olmos, Tom Wilkinson, Edward Furlong, and (uncredited) James Franco. All of them have brought some credibility to sci-fi and/or superhero tales before, and they do it again here.

I did have to drive a bit to find a theater that was showing the film in good ol' 2D, much to my annoyance, but that's nothing to hold against the movie itself. (More just a grumpy old man footnote on the whole thing.)

I'd rate The Green Hornet a B. It's no masterpiece, but it's a good deal better than the average January movie tends to be.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

And the Golden Globes Snark Goes To...

Ricky Gervais starts with a beer right there on the podium. This is why he should host this show forever, but never host the Oscars.

"I warned 'em."

Is Christian Bale playing Jesus in something right now?

Bale is running off the rails with his speech here. But with his reputation, everyone is afraid to run him off.

Clearly they didn't expect Katey Sagal to win. They could only have sat her farther from the stage if they'd put her outside.

Julianne Moore might have told her dresser she wanted to wear a sari, but I think there was some homonym trouble there.

Chris Colfer's reaction to winning is awesome. He's clearly stunned, and the entire cast of his show is gushing.

Michelle Pfeiffer's dress might be on backwards.

Did Helena Bonham Carter come straight from the set of Harry Potter?

Does anybody out there really think Boardwalk Empire was the best drama of the last year? Or even out of those nominees? I watched the first episode after True Blood wrapped up, and didn't even find it to be worth keeping HBO for.

Alec Baldwin seems to be trying to get with Jennifer Lopez.

The Social Network wins for Best Score. I'd have been happy with it or Inception winning Best Score -- both were incredible, and are currently in regular rotation on my iPod.

Toy Story 3 -- Best Movie of the year, period. No need for the "animated" qualifier.

Robert Downey Jr. rocks his intro. And has appropriately lascivious glasses to go with his routine.

Annette Bening is rocking the hair of a Hogwarts professor.

Mark Ruffalo gives a "you can call me 'awesome sperm donor' any time" nod.

Sylvester Stallone looks like one doll's head popped on another's body.

Claire Danes is wearing an interesting bracelet. After her acceptance speech, she'll be flying away in her invisible jet.

Ricky Gervais and Steve Carell always have good interplay. And so do Steve Carell and Tina Fey.

My grandmother used to have a chandelier made out of the same stuff as that weird curtain on stage behind the presenters and winners.

The cameraman doesn't seem to know what Julia Stiles looks like.

With the shoulders on Jane Fonda's dress, I wonder if there's a Barbarella 2 being made that I haven't heard about.

Do they keep cutting away from Melissa Leo during her speech under the assumption that most people don't know who she is?

I love that they put Rocky and Bullwinkle into the Robert De Niro montage.

For the second time, the word "Christ" is not allowed on NBC.

Now you can say "from the Award winning director of Alien 3."

January Jones has found "The Fifth Element" in dress form.

You'd think that Don't Stop Believin' is the only song they ever did on Glee.

Has Natalie Portman been shot in the chest?

I understand that all those other nominees were destined to lose Best Comedy to The Kids Are All Right, but are those really the best four alternatives they could come up with?

The Social Network continues its steamroll through the awards.

Love Ricky Gervais' parting shot.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

A New Twist on Zombies

The movie is called Dead Snow, a Norwegian film made a few years ago. I heard just two words to describe it, and knew immediately I was going to end up seeing it.

Zombie Nazis.

A group of fun-seeking coeds goes on a trip to a cabin in the woods, an area where a crazed local tells the story of a group of Nazi soldiers who froze to death in the harsh terrain. Now those evil Nazis are back from the dead to terrorize new victims.

So my mistake here was really one of expectations. You would think that "Zombie Nazis" is enough to tell you you're in for a comedic film. And it mostly did. But I think I was expecting to be at least a little serious. Particularly when it started out quite like an "authentic" horror movie, and stayed in that mode for a good half hour.

Right around the time a victim gets attacked in an outhouse, I should have begun shifting my expectations. I think if I had, I wouldn't have been surprised later on when the leader of the Zombie Nazis uses a pair of binoculars to track one of the victims. That's right -- these zombies are fast, they're Nazis, and they can use tools!

The movie displays a self-awareness about the genre, and I think if you're the sort of person who really enjoys a gory schlock-fest, Dead Snow would be right up your alley. I was trying to shift into that mindset on the fly, and ended up finding the movie too ludicrous to truly love. So I rate it a C+, but acknowledge that it does what it does rather well. That C might well stand for "Campy," and if that appeals, you'll want to check it out.

I mean, Zombie Nazis!

Friday, January 14, 2011

It's Got to Be the Shoes

I'm developing this theory that people with similarly sized feet have a similar sense of fashion. At least, that's my first hypothesis. I've been looking for a new pair of shoes lately, but every time I go to a store and find a pair I like, I check the rack and find that my size, along with a full size above and below it, are completely sold out. You can find "wee" and "friggin' huge," but all the other fashionable people with feet my size seem to be getting there before me.

Grumble.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Showroom of Compassion

This week, the rock band Cake released a new album, Showroom of Compassion. It's their first release in a little over six years.

I've found that Cake is a fairly polarizing band. I know a few people that absolutely hate them, and a few that absolutely love them. I myself probably migrated from closer to the first category (when hearing "Never There" overplayed on the radio) to the second (when I heard more of the "deeper cuts" on their albums). They definitely have a distinctive style that invites strong opinions like that.

That style is very much in force on Showcase of Compassion. They haven't altered their formula during their absence. The distinct vocal style is still there, along with the trumpet, the cowbell, and the vibro-slap. There are a couple of new touches, including actual piano on a track or two (rather than synthesizers) -- but the core formula is no different.

Though I'd also say that makes for an album that doesn't feel worth a six-year wait. It's not that I was waiting on pins and needles -- or for that matter, even wondering why Cake hadn't released an album. But when you realize how long it's been, you somehow expect more.

I don't know how much song order on an album even matters in this age of iPod shuffling and singles purchases, but for what it's worth, I think some of my enthusiasm for the new album was dulled right out of the gate by the opening track, "Federal Funding." It's a fine song, but very low-key. It's not a punchy "Short Skirt/Long Jacket" kind of track, but a more quiet "Sheep Go to Heaven"-ish sort of track. My reaction was more "this is okay" than what I was looking for: "I missed this."

Each song from there continues to be good, but the album doesn't seem to want to serve up a truly catchy number to kick things into high gear. For a moment, I thought "Mustache Man (Wasted)" would be that track, until the vocals kicked in. They didn't seem to match the instrumentals. (Speaking of instrumentals, the album has a no-vocals track, "Teenage Pregnancy." Not as catchy as their past effort in this style, "Arco Arena," but again, not bad.)

The song I think I was looking for turned out to be the 7th track on the album: "Sick of You." I didn't know it when I first listened to it, but this is their lead-off single, the one getting radio play off the new album. I'd say it's definitely the best track on the album, and really should have been first in the track listing to kick things off right.

But just in case I seem too down on the album, let me sum up by saying that it's actually a solid collection of songs. There may only be one real "5-star" song in the bunch, but it is an album full of "4-star" songs. Overall, I'd rate it a B. If you're a Cake fan, you'll probably want to pick it up.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Movie Time (Well... Time Movie, Actually)

I recently watched a low-budget film called TiMER (as it is officially styled). Friends of mine had suggested it, as had the Netflix Recommending Overmind. It stars Emma Caulfield of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. So right there, a trio of reasons to get my interest.

The premise sealed the deal. The film has what is essentially a science fiction conceit, but it is set in the present, and simply uses its gimmick as a launching point for an unusual romantic comedy. In the movie's version of reality, a company has invented a device (the Timer of the title) that is implanted on your wrist. It counts down the days until you will encounter your one true soul mate, and then beep at the moment you first make eye contact with one another.

Oona, the heroine of the movie has an uncommon problem, though. It turns out that a Timer only works if your soul mate, whoever and wherever s/he is, also has a Timer implanted. Oona's Timer remains uselessly blank, and she has suffered disappointment after disappointment as she has dated Timer-less guys, convinced them to get one implanted, and discovered that none of them were in fact her One. As the film begins, she decides to try a different approach to happiness and indulges a relationship with a Timered guy whose countdown is soon to expire. Hilarity ensues.

Well, hilarity is perhaps over-selling it, as the movie isn't a farcical romp. But it did have many moments that made me laugh out loud as I watched. And moreover, it had a lot of surprising sweetness to it. All that, and it managed to tickle the brain here and there with some interesting ideas. If there were such a thing as a Timer, would you want to know?

The film also explores some entertaining facets of its key premise. Oona has a sister, for example, whose Timer indicates it will be more than a decade before she meets her One. (And knowing that "true love" is that far away has given her an interesting outlook on life.) The installation of a Timer led to the divorce of Oona's parents. The ritual of it has led to a bizarre coming-of-age rite of passage among young teenagers. Choosing not to have a Timer brings up social issues too.

Yes, it's a cheaply made film. And yes, it wraps up in a way you'll spot coming from at least the halfway point. But it makes you laugh, makes you think, and might even get you choked up if you allow yourself to be caught up in the sentiment of it. And if you need a couple more reasons to check it out, perhaps a few of the other cast members might provide it, including Desmond Harrington (of Dexter) and JoBeth Williams (of countless films and TV shows; perhaps most notably to my generation as the mother from Poltergeist).

I rate TiMER an A-. And since it's available for Instant viewing on Netflix, it should be pretty easy for most of you to check out if you like.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Lost Re-view: Deus Ex Machina

The next episode of Lost's first season is centered around Locke. And I think it's a sterling example of exactly why I wanted to watch the series again from the beginning; this episode plays much better on a second viewing than it did the first time around.

First of all, this is the episode in which Boone receives the injuries that will lead to his death. In past reviews, I've mentioned the sort of shell game set up by the writers, who had tipped their hand about killing off a major character sometime during the first season. After false starts with Shannon and Charlie, here's the first of a "two-part episode" in which they make good on their threat. And without the audience trying to avoid being fooled again here, the drama plays much better (as I'll get into momentarily).

Secondly, there's a great flashback storyline involving Locke meeting his father, forging a bond with him, and then being conned by him. It's a really powerful and emotional tale, and Terry O'Quinn's acting is stellar. But here again, the drama couldn't quite be appreciated for what it was the first time around. A first time viewer has only one question on his mind right now regarding Locke's past: how did he end up in the wheelchair? Learning anything else feels like a stall. And this episode even messes with the audience on that issue. Early on, we see Locke hit by a car. "Ooo! Is that it? Is that how it happened?" And then he agrees to donate a kidney to his father. As the two men are prepped for surgery, you think, "Ooo! Is this it? Are there going to be complications?" When we learn nothing of how Locke was paralyzed by the hour's end, it was hard not to feel cheated the first time around -- particularly when the on-Island story involved him beginning to lose his newfound ability to walk.

But those two major distractions really got in the way of appreciating a fine episode. It was actually the very first one to be written together by the two men that would run Lost for the duration, Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof. Not much can be said of director Robert Mandel, though; this was his only work on the series.

The episode begins in a meticulously crafted manner, inside Locke's flashback at a time when he worked in a toy store. He's setting up a game of Mouse Trap, and explaining it to a young boy, saying it's his favorite game. He delivers a very carefully written monologue that talks about the wheels within wheels nature of not only the plot we're about to see with Locke's father, but that reflects on the series Lost itself.

Then a woman shows up, played brilliantly by Swoosie Kurtz. She says just the right things to get Locke's attention, and he finds her in the parking lot moments later. This is his mother, whom he has never met, and she's just on the other side of crazy. She tells Locke over coffee that he's special, part of a great design. She also says he has no father, and was immaculately conceived.

The episode lets us off the hook on that one in only a few minutes, but I have to confess that the first time around, I did a bit of a double take. We'd just seen Hurley win the lottery with supernaturally cursed numbers; maybe this show really was going to tell us John Locke was immaculate conceived and mean it.

But no; she's just a loon that seems to not want Locke to meet his father. (Though this is all "part of the plan.") Locke feels compelled to hire a private investigator, who first confirms that Mom is who she says she is. (And also drops that she spent some time in the same mental hospital where Hurley was a patient.) He then tries to talk Locke out of pursuing his father, claiming an intuition that it's not going to end well. Locke won't have it, presses for a folder of information the PI has already gathered, and is off to meet his father.

Anthony Cooper lives in luxury behind a guarded gate, but does agree to see Locke, and the two begin to forge a bond. He takes Locke hunting for the very time, a neat story point that goes to show us how different past Locke is from Island Locke. He calls Locke "son" at a very key moment, and it clearly has a profound effect.

He's "accidentally" caught by Locke using a kidney dialysis machine, and "reluctantly" reveals his urgent need for an organ donor. And over the course of three or four carefully woven flashbacks, Locke eventually agrees to be the donor -- an idea that Anthony Cooper himself never suggests.

It's revealed that this is all a con. Locke wakes up after the surgery, and his father has already left. He's rushed off to hide behind his iron gate, and this time he will not let Locke in. Locke's mother reveals that it was all a con, for which she herself received some much needed money for her participation. And Terry O'Quinn makes us feel the full weight of betrayal by two parents Locke had never even known before now.

Much later on in the series, we'd learn that Anthony Cooper was the "Sawyer" that conned young James Ford's parents and set him on his quest for vengeance. I was surprised and thrilled when the connection was revealed, but on watching this episode a second time, it feels almost obvious. Or if not "obvious," then at least inevitable. The con we see Anthony Cooper run here is so similar to the one we saw Sawyer (our Sawyer) run in his first flashback episode. The goals are of course very different, but the methods -- to make the mark think the whole thing is his idea -- are precisely the same.

Sawyer is actually the focus of the Island subplot in this episode, though not in any context that would have helped a viewer make that connection between he and Locke. In fact, they don't even share any scenes together in this episode. Sawyer's story is a comedic bit of background where he's suffering from headaches, but is too proud initially to approach Jack for medical advice.

Jack enjoys messing with Sawyer for a while before revealing his diagnosis -- Sawyer needs glasses. His far-sightedness had never been an issue before all the reading he's been doing on the Island. Sayid improvises a welded pair of glasses from two separate sets recovered from the crash, prompting Hurley to quip that Sawyer "looks like someone steamrolled Harry Potter," and in all we have a nice bit of light relief from the very serious material of the episode's primary storyline.

That, of course, centers on Locke, and his adventures with Boone. It begins with another failed attempt to get inside the Hatch, using a makeshift trebuchet. Locke's leg is injured by a piece of shrapnel that flies off the broken device, but he doesn't feel it or even notice it until Boone points it out. Later that night, Locke test his legs with a needles, and finds he has no feeling in them at all. Is he losing the miraculous gift given to him by the Island?

Actually, before I go on, what the hell is going on here? This is something that is never really explained -- not in this episode, not in the entire series. And I'm at a loss to come up with the "man of science"'s explanation for it; I can only offer what the "man of faith" would say. It really does seem to be like some outside will is messing with Locke in this episode.

We know the Island has healing powers, as evidenced by Locke and Rose, and seen more subtly in the fast healing times that characters have after getting the stuffing beaten out of them on a regular basis. But we also know that sometimes, the Island's healing properties just don't work. Ben's spinal condition is the prime example, and Jack's appendicitis is another notable one that figures prominently into the plot. From this episode, add Locke's momentarily relapse (if that's the right word), losing his ability to walk. Hell, add Sawyer's vision if you want; if the Island can cure cancer and paralysis, why can't it cure farsightedness?

The only path to a possible solution that I can see lies in the fact that pregnancies are also a problem on the Island, a problem that while never directly explained, is strongly implied to be a consequence of "the Incident" at the site of the Swan. It's also kinda-sorta implied that Jacob, in his capacity as Island guardian, could exert some mojo to undo this damage, but either ignores it or chooses not to.

Or, to put it directly: when something goes wrong with the natural healing properties of the Island, Jacob is to blame, either by indifference or by choice. And since Locke was walking perfectly fine before this episode began, it seems that it cannot be the former. Perhaps Jacob has chosen this moment to pull the rug out from under Locke. A test? A lesson?

If it's not Jacob, it seems like there is some force at work here, because it also gives Locke a very specific nightmare. He's accosted in his dream by an angry Boone, who tells Locke to give up on trying to open the Hatch. In rapid fire succession, Locke sees his mother, sees himself in a wheelchair, and sees Boone suddenly bloody and battered, chanting "Theresa falls up the stairs, Theresa falls down the stairs," over and over. He also sees an image of a small prop plane crashing on the Island, and vows to pursue it upon waking.

This is no random nightmare, because so many details of it are absolutely true. Locke asks Boone about the meaning of Theresa, and Boone is very shaken at the memory. She was a nanny who would always run up and down the stairs to entertain him as a boy, and she fell doing it and broke her neck.

Also true is the vision of the plane crash. The two men find the plane, stuck high up in a tree. By this point, Locke has almost totally lost the ability to walk, and so he puts Boone in the role of "Theresa," urging Boone to climb up inside the plane to investigate.

Inside, Boone finds a stash of heroin (later to be an important story point for Charlie), a dead body (later to be revealed as the brother of the not-yet-known Eko)... and a working radio! As the plane shifts precariously, he sends out a mayday, identifying himself as a survivor of flight 815. You're just barely able to make out the responding voice, who says, "We're survivors of flight 815..." before the plane falls from a great height. (We'll later learn that voice belonged to Bernard, but it's hardly of importance at the moment.)

Locke crawls into the wreck and finds Boone bloodied exactly as he saw in his nightmare. He also finds that he's recovered the ability to walk again, and hoists Boone over his shoulders to carry him to Jack. Lying awkwardly about how Boone "fell off a cliff," Locke slips away in the commotion before Jack can press for any more information.

He slips off to the Hatch, and has an emotional breakdown perfectly synced with the one in his flashback over his father's actions. Locke rails against the Island itself, screaming "why did you do this to me?!" And then a bright light appears inside the Hatch, concluding the episode. (It's interesting, because amid so much material in this episode that never is really shown to have a "normal" explanation, this final moment actually does have one. We later learn that Desmond, working alone inside the Hatch, simply heard someone beating on it and turned on a spotlight to investigate. Not nearly as momentous as it seems purely in the context of this episode.)

And so there you have it, an episode full of strong character drama and topped with excellent acting -- though you do have to just roll with it and accept the too-timely loss of Locke's ability to walk.

One last thought here, which would never had occurred to me myself without sifting through the Lost Wiki. According to the fans that meticulously tracked the passage of time on the show, reckoning events from the known date of the crash (September 22, 2004 -- the same actual date the first episode of Lost aired), the events of this episode fall on Halloween. No mention of this is made within the episode itself, but with all the spooky events going on, I do briefly wonder if the writers were aware of this themselves when they put the story together.

In any case, I rate Deus Ex Machina a B+. It's a solid episode, and very important in the story of Lost.

Monday, January 10, 2011

"Not Yet" Time

I recently watched a documentary film entitled This Film Is Not Yet Rated, a look at the fickle and secretive Motion Picture Association of America's "ratings board." This is the small group of anonymous people -- all parents, we're told -- who sit in a room counting kill shots, curse words, pelvic thrusts, and so forth, and come up with the rating each American film receives when released to theaters.

The documentary focuses most on the blurry line between R and NC-17, the latter a kiss-of-death rating that ensures few theaters will screen a film, and that prevents advertisements for the film from running in virtually any venue. Because of this, the ratings system is less a method for informing parents about the content of a film their child might be watching, and more a form of censorship by a shadowy organization with no accountability. So as a loather of censorship, this film had me before it even began.

Unfortunately, it slowly lost me from then on. It's not a bad movie, but I felt like it had surprisingly little to say. Its 100 minutes are divided roughly equally into two kinds of material -- railing against the review board, and trying to use private investigators to expose the identities of its members.

The film makes its point about the first subject rather well rather quickly. There are telling examples of how largely similar material falls under a double-standard: female directors seem to be rated more harshly, as do female depictions of "experiencing pleasure" (as opposed to male), as does any gay themed material (compared to contextually identical straight material). Violence gets a virtual blank check compared to sex. But then the film sort of belabors these points. Instead of whining on about the unfairness and fickleness of it all, which seems to me a given, I found myself wishing the film would issue more of a call to action.

And as for what the film suggests to do about any of this? Well, that's the part that really left me underwhelmed. The caper to unmask ratings board members doesn't really come off like the entertaining heist I imagine the director envisioned. I found myself unable to invest in any of these individuals as the bad guy so much as the people they work for, or the kind of "group think" that emerges from them as a collective entity. This part of the film seems to think it's Ocean's Eleven (the re-make), but comes off more like Ocean's Eleven (the original).

Perhaps I'm doing the film a disservice, trying to force some kind of unnecessary pretense of impartiality about it as I watched it (and now review it). But I can't help but feel like if I, someone firmly in agreement with the film's thesis, was not much entertained or compelled by it, what possible impact could it have on anyone else? I don't suppose every documentary has to be a "call to action," but this one seems to fall short of even less than that. Though it did point me toward some other films I think I'll now want to check out. I rate the documentary itself a C+.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

A Film Too Long

It's time to check out another film dubbed by many a classic, 1977's A Bridge Too Far. This story is an account of World War II's Operation Market Garden, a failed attempt on the part of the Allies to drop paratroopers behind enemy lines, secure key strategic bridges on a path into Germany, and win the war by Christmas of 1944.

If you were an actor in the 1970s and you weren't in this film, then you either didn't want to be, or had the worst agent in the world. The cast includes James Caan, Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Elliott Gould, Anthony Hopkins, Gene Hackman, Ryan O'Neal, Laurence Olivier, Robert Redford, and Maximilian Schell. Some, like Connery and Redford, are really just there to add the special brand of swagger for which they were (and are) best known, but a few deliver some surprising performances. Gene Hackman serves up an entertaining turn (though with a perhaps not-quite-credible Polish accent) as an officer who warns of the impending disaster, and James Caan is the best performer in the movie as a soldier who goes to extreme measures to save another man's life.

Though praised by some today, the film was largely ignored in its time. My theory is that this is because the subject matter could actually be considered controversial. First of all, it focuses even more on British soldiers than American soldiers, playing against the patriotic grain so often associated with older war movies. Worse, it shows those soldiers overreaching, behaving stupidly, and more or less getting their asses kicked. This goes a step farther than merely dramatizing "the horrors of war," as other films have done. This was admitting to an unfortunate chapter in WWII history, and demonstrating that it could easily have been avoided in a number of ways.

While I found this perspective to be a refreshingly different take on a war movie, and one that did hold my interest for a while, the film was just ponderously long. It comes in about 5 minutes shy of three hours. The first hour is rather engaging, the characters sometimes intriguing, and the promise of action does ratchet up the tension. Amazing cinematography of recreated paratrooper drops dazzle the senses.

But then the battles of hour two all begin to drag. And then there's an hour three! What started with promise ends in boredom. Moreover, it just made me want to revisit the extraordinary mini-series Band of Brothers, which I believe also dramatized Operation Market Garden in a tight, excellent 60 minutes.

If you're the sort of film enthusiast who is wowed by stunning visuals, A Bridge Too Far might be one for you to check out. For myself, though, I can only rate the movie a C-. I can't say I was "disappointed," as I wasn't expecting much, but I can't recommend it in any case.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Holmes, Sweet Holmes

In 2010, the BBC bought a pitch from two writers associated with Doctor Who to create a TV series updating Sherlock Holmes to modern times. It seems like it's maybe been longer ago than that, because when I heard the lavish critical praise for the results, I immediately put into my Netflix all three 90-minute movies that made up the "first season" -- and I waited for what seemed like an eternity through the "Very Long Wait" for disc one to arrive.

I knew within two minutes of watching the first episode, "A Study in Pink," that I should have simply gone out and bought the DVDs. It made an immediate impression on me, one that did not diminish as the rest of all three movies unfolded, and I'm certain I'll want to watch them again.

Sherlock is a brilliant adaptation. I can't say this as any kind of scholar of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's original writing; I've long wanted to read all his stories, but thus far have only managed a few, and a passing familiarity with the plot of some others. I do know that the first film discards a fair amount of the material from the original novel, A Study in Scarlet. Furthermore, the following two films, "The Blind Banker" and "The Great Game," aren't adaptations of any particular Holmes story, though they do incorporate elements of a few of them.

But it feels like a brilliant adaptation all the same, because it feels totally authentic to the Holmes stories as I understand them. Classic Holmes adaptations I've seen seem to get caught up in deerstalker caps and cobblestone streets and the trappings of the stories, not the content. Sherlock feels to me like what Doyle would have written, were he alive today to do so. The relationship between Sherlock and John Watson (and other recurring characters, for that matter) is perfect and entertaining. Meanwhile, the way modern settings and technologies are woven into the story seem effortless and logical.

And the acting is exceptional. I could go on at length and talk about how perfectly countless parts in the movies have been cast, but it really all begins and ends with the two men in the key roles. Benedict Cumberbatch is Sherlock Holmes. He even has a name you'd imagine a portrayer of Sherlock Holmes to have. He serves up an incredible embodiment of a "high-functioning sociopath," and nails every facet of the character from his thrill at tackling a worthy puzzle to his disgust at the gnat-like dullards to which he must explain himself. Martin Freeman (best known for The Office, though in the not-too-distant future, likely to be known better still as Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit) is equally authentic as John Watson, able to believably endure the not-so-occasional barb from Holmes, prove his own worth at other times, and perfectly convey the odd form of friendship that brings these two together.

I don't think I need to put any kind of qualifier on my recommendation of this series. I don't think you have to like the Holmes stories specifically, or even mysteries in general. It's a strong enough character drama all on its own. Were I rating the episodes as actual films -- and at their length, you reasonably could -- each one would receive an A. I eagerly await the production of a second season, said to be on schedule for later this year.

Friday, January 07, 2011

2010 in Review -- Movies

Now that I've posted a couple reviews on a few other key films of last year, I can offer up my summary of 2010 movies. Like 2009, it was a pretty big movie watching year for me -- I saw 162 movies in all.

Netflix is still the main reason that tally is rather high. Well, it seems high to me... I'm guessing the average person doesn't anywhere close to that many movies in a year. In any case, only 29 of the movies I saw were actually out at a theater, down a bit from the year before.

As for the movies I saw that were actually released in 2010, here are my picks for the Top 10. Rather than re-expound on my reasons for liking them, I'll just include links to my original reviews.

1. Toy Story 3
2. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1
3. Despicable Me
4. Date Night
5. Kick-Ass
6. Inception
7. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
8. The Social Network
9. The Kids Are All Right
10. Tangled

I have yet to see a fair amount of the "Award bait" that is likely to be nominated for an Oscar, so it's possible this list will be shaken up a bit. But I think you get the gist. The two types of movies that apparently scored best with me last year were animated movies and fun, popcorn ass-kicking movies that basically strove to do one thing and do it well.

True Grit just missed the list, but there's a bit of a dropoff after that; I wouldn't need more space to name all the films that I thought were truly worthwhile last year.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Apotheosis

So here it is: the end of the road, the final episode of the Battlestar Galactica spin-off series Caprica. The show basically goes out on the same note it held throughout its run: just good enough to keep me watching, never approaching the greatness of its parent series.

The final act of the final episode was the most noteworthy thing about it, but I'll get to that shortly. First, a quick rundown of everything leading up to that.

If you were trying to rationalize a non-death out of William Adama's fate in the prior episode, no such luck. He's dead, and this episode sees Joseph on a quest for vengeance against the mob boss. His rather flighty daughter, after loving Joseph, then getting him in trouble, now decides that the death of a child is too much for her, so she agrees to help set her own father up. Joseph executes the man for his act, and his daughter ends up taking over the mob. The somewhat illogical behavior here overshadows what really should be packing a punch, Joseph having to deal with the loss of another child, after losing his daughter and wife only months before.

The dirty agent in the GDD decides to frame Daniel and Amanda as terrorists (in the wake of Clarice's failed assassination attempt). If you ask me, it's completely murky why, if this is so easily accomplished, he didn't do so earlier. In any case, it puts Daniel and Amanda on the run from the law. Their first stop, the place where Amanda met Jordan on the day he was shot, and they locate Clarice's holoband -- simply misplaced and not stolen, in a rather anticlimactic bit of circumstance. They learn "the plan," to blow up the Pyramid stadium during a C-Bucs game, and rush off to save the day.

In command of a troop of Cylons (from where? don't ask such questions.), Daniel is able to kill all the would-be bombers in the crowd before they detonate their explosives. Meanwhile, as those executed "martyrs" materialize in Clarice's manufactured "heaven," Zoe shows up (how? don't ask such questions.) and uses her increasingly God-like (though decreasingly explained) powers to reform the entire place as a fiery hellscape. Foiled again, Clarice.

Throughout all this, Tamara, Lacy, and Jordan are completely MIA.

Then Caprica shamelessly steals a page from Galactica's playbook, deciding to end its season (and series, as it would turn out) by jumping over a period of time in its final act. The exact amount of time is unspecified, but evidence within the act suggests it's about five years.

That evidence? Joseph now has another young son of about four or five (presumably with Evelyn?), and we see him being christened "Bill," to honor the sacrifice of his lost brother William. So, fooled you, viewer! This is the boy who would grow up to command the Battlestar Galactica.

Other events in this future? Cylons have become fully integrated into society. After saving the day at that Pyramid game, people quickly embraced them. Clarice now preaches monotheism at a church whose congregation is made up entirely of Cylons.

A brand-new flesh and blood (looking) Zoe wakes up in a Cylon-esque "goo bath," her work with her father finally successful in producing a "skin job" body.

Lacy is revealed to be the new "reverend mother"-esque figure running the STO training camp.

Unexplained -- and apparently never to be explained -- who shot Jordan two episodes ago? What happened to Tamara? Would a time jump have helped Caprica find itself to more interesting plots? Was a more direct connection to the events of Battlestar Galactica really what the show needed to be good, or was it just missing the right dramatic charge regardless of the number of Cylons on screen?

Syfy seems to believe that what people want to see is Cylons. To that end, they've already commissioned the next attempt to continue Battlestar Galactica, a prequel movie (with a backdoor option for a new series) that follows Bill Adama during the Cylon war -- titled Blood and Chrome. For my money, what Caprica lacked was the gritty realism, and sympathetic characters trying to cope with it, that Galactica had. No matter how many shoot-'em-up Cylon fights this new movie has, I don't expect I'll like it any more if it doesn't address that more crucial issue.

As for Caprica, I think it'll go down as Crusade did after Babylon 5 -- as a never-fully-baked attempt to extend the original, with a few good elements here and there, but never enough to make it a winner.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Tangled Up

The last movie I saw in 2010 was the latest animated feature from Disney, Tangled. I had heard such praise for the movie that my expectations were perhaps a little too high. Put simply, it was not the best movie of the year.

But it was among the best. This version of the Rapunzel story features a slim number of major characters, voiced by Zachary Levi, Mandy Moore, and Donna Murphy. This is no Beauty and the Beast or The Little Mermaid, peppered with a small army of wise-cracking secondary characters. The focus here is on two relationships -- Rapunzel with the dashing Flynn Ryder, and Rapunzel with her "adoptive mother," the witch.

In other respects, though, the film does forge a connection with that 90s "second age" of Disney animated films. Alan Menken is back (with a new lyricist) to provide the music. The visual composition of many scenes seems more consistent with hand-drawn animation than with CG.

But I did feel like it took a while to hit its stride. Throughout the first act, the characters are entertaining and easy to laugh at, but there was a little something missing. Similarly, the music got the job done, but seemed to be missing that special spark that might really have pushed the film over the top.

All of that changed at right about the point of an action sequence, of all things. An exciting escape from a shattered dam amped the adventure into high gear, and soon after followed scenes of playful sweetness, dark menace, and sweeping emotion. Musically, there came a sinister reprise of an earlier number, and a touching duet to close the second act. Basically, the last half of the movie seemed to hit every beat perfectly, and culminated in a touching ending.

All told, I'd rate Tangled a B. Though it won't displace some of my Disney favorites, it's a worthy addition to the lineage.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Here Be Dragons

Tonight's the night when the final five Caprica episodes run in a marathon on Syfy. But I'm already up to the next to last episode thanks to DVD. Basically, "now we're talking." This was a fairly packed episode that delivered on a lot of things that had only been tiptoed around in previous episodes.

As the episode unfolds, the "cunning accountant" woman who had been dogging Joseph in the previous episode goes to report to the mob boss. It turns out, she's his daughter. So naturally, it doesn't take too much convincing him that the Adamas are dirty, and he orders the hit on them. Soon, the whole family is on the run, young Willie too.

But Sam is not with them at first; instead, he's in V-World with Amanda and Daniel, looking for Zoe (who, for her part, is using her revisionist powers to make it incredibly difficult to get to her). But Amanda doesn't trust Sam, and ends up shooting him to permanently remove him from the New Cap City environment. The Graystones then forge ahead alone. (A good moment for Amanda, but all the more reason now to hate the previous episode that stalled the "chasing Zoe" plot solely to recruit Sam to come along; he wound up being basically useless.)

Daniel and Amanda are unaware that a vengeful Clarice, along with her two husbands, have broken into their house in the real world, intent on killing them. Automated security kicks in to protect the clueless V-World-surfers, but it's only a matter of time before the invaders break through. (And poor Serge gets "killed" trying to protect the family.)

At the STO training camp, the higher-ups decide the Lacy and her Cylon-controlling ability are a threat, and order her death. But she has enough friends to get the drop on the would-be assassins, then storms into the Cylon holding area and wakes them all up to do her bidding. I still remain utterly unconvinced that mousy little Lacy is actually the ruthless leader the show would have us believe, though I'll look forward to a small army of butt-kicking Cylons for sure.

Meanwhile, in V-World, Amanda and Daniel change tactics, finally entice Zoe to come to them, and Amanda has the heart to heart with her daughter's avatar that she's needed since the very first episode. And it actually works. Zoe agrees to relocate to a virtual version of the Graystone house, where together she and Daniel can work on creating a new, more human-like body (a "skin job," she calls it) to come back into the real world.

Successful, Amanda and Daniel leave V-World just in time to be caught by Clarice, and nearly executed... until Zoe comes to the rescue. There's a U-87 chassis still in Daniel's lab. (I'm thoroughly confused on this point. The one he was working on with Zoe inside it was boxed up, right? Did he have it brought back and I forgot? Is this just some other random U-87, and we're just meant to know that any U-87 could be Zoe, after the events of the previous episode?) Anyway, Zoe comes to life in the Cylon and throws the beatdown, killing one of the husbands and chasing Clarice and the other one off.

But the big changer comes in the episode's final moments. The forged travel documents the Adamas need to escape the mob are, unfortunately, at Sam's club. So they have to risk going to a place where they'll surely be found. They do, and they are. Joseph and Sam are held at gunpoint inside. Outside in the car, a nervous Willie wonders what is taking so long and goes rushing in rashly. He creates a diversion that is enough for Our Heroes to overcome their captors, but...

He gets shot -- fatally -- in the process. The final moments of the episode show the Adamas crying over the lifeless body of young Willie. Which, of course, makes all us Galactica fans go "WHAAAAAAA----????!!!!" over the death of William Adama.

A matter for the last episode to resolve, one would hope. Unless the cancellation of Caprica nipped that answer in the bud. In which case, I might just be sorry I kept watching this show.

Monday, January 03, 2011

A Bit of All Right

It was a hard movie to find when it ran in theaters several months back, but I had mentally filed away The Kids Are All Right as one to check out later on DVD, even before Oscar buzz started to circle about it.

The film is a simple "nuclear family" story with a modern twist. The parents raising their two teenage children are lesbians who each gave birth to one of the children using the same anonymous sperm donor. The 15 year old son is curious about his biological father, and convinces his 18 year old sister (soon off to college, but now old enough to make inquiries about the donor's identity) to seek some answers for him. The donor enters into their lives, and complications and hilarity ensue.

The script is good in the way it treats a situation some would find controversial with barely a nod to that fact. It's purely a relationship tale, and neither elevates nor degrades the Moms. I might even go so far as to say the script is a touch too conventional at times, as it spends what feels like some unnecessary time on friends of the two teenage children that ultimately doesn't seem to feed the drama.

In any case, the acting is wonderful. Annette Bening and Julianne Moore play the parents, and each perfectly embodies their character -- the former a control freak trying to find a way through the chaos, the latter a bit of a drifter excited at the possibilities opening with these new developments. Mark Ruffalo plays the donor in a perfectly pitched performance that allows every character to believably react to him as they should -- some characters find him grating, others charming.

And while it's those three that are most talked about when critics speak of the film, the two younger actors playing the children also deserve mention. Mia Wasikowska (of Alice in Wonderland) and Josh Hutcherson are also crucial in making the entire thing fun to watch.

I rate the movie a B, and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys a comedy that's not afraid to include serious moments too.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

The Heavens Will Rise

The antepenultimate episode of Caprica was a rather frustrating exercise in going nowhere. Okay, some of the subplots in the episode did move forward. But as you may recall, the last episode ended with Daniel and Amanda resolving to go into V-world together in pursuit of Zoe.

So imagine my frustration when that plot utterly failed to progress in this hour. Oh, it's not like Daniel and Amanda were off screen. The teaser even shows Daniel using a backdoor to hack into New Cap City in violation of its rules, only to be caught by Zoe, forcefully ejected, and then having his backdoor access erased. He then decides he needs a little muscle on the mission, and recruits Sam Adama to accompany them into V-World.

The problem is, all this takes the full episode, and the hour concludes right back where the last episode ended -- with Daniel and Amanda planning to go into V-World after Zoe. (This time also to meet Sam on the inside.) With only two hours to spare after this one, I was disappointed to not get anywhere.

My frustration was further amplified by the most prominent plot of the episode involving Lacy in her STO training camp. One of the recruits is about to be executed by a superior, who orders a Cylon to shoot him for no real provocation. Lacy is spurred into "action," ordering the Cylon to stop. To everyone's shock, the robot obeys. It takes until the final act of the episode to resolve all of this, but she ultimately learns that some piece/copy/remnant/whatever of the Zoe avatar that was in that original U-87 model is present in all the Cylons being manufactured, and so they all respond to her orders. Possibly an interesting development... but one to be explored next episode, it seems.

After Lacy, the most time is devoted to the plot with Jordan. Having been drummed out of the GDD, his only remaining recourse is to convince Amanda to go back to Clarice's house and steal her holoband, swapping it for a duplicate. With her holoband in his possession, a hacker friend of his may be able to uncover her plan. With some reluctance, Amanda agrees, and actually carries off her mission without a hitch.

The problem comes in making the handoff back to Jordan. An unseen sniper shoots him, and Amanda is barely able to get him to the hospital in time -- losing track of the holoband in the process. (For Galactica continuity fans, she mentions that the man at the hospital who tended to him was a young Doc Cottle.) So a double mystery here -- who shot Jordan, and why didn't s/he shoot Amanda when she came to his rescue?

The Adama boys each get a minor subplot. As mentioned earlier, Sam's has Daniel trying to recruit him for a mission to V-World. At first, Sam wants nothing to do with pursuing the fake version of his niece. But Joseph's sinister mother-in-law Ruth and equally conniving Evelyn both prevail on him to do it, to put an end to Tamara.

Joseph is troubled by a woman affiliated with mob, who just got out of prison. She apparently had an affair with him while his wife was still alive. But the bigger issue is that she's a busybody accountant type, and by the end of the episode, she comes to suspect that the Adama boys are smuggling Cylons to the Tauron resistance.

Finally, there's Clarice, whose perhaps more clever husbands discover that her holoband has been switched. In a flash of insight necessitated by the limited number of episodes remaining, the three of them deduce that Amanda must be the real mole -- and that their wife was executed wrongly by Clarice. They resolve to make the Graystones pay... but again, this is held for next time.

So a lot of marking time this installment, setting up for (hopefully) better things to come. But there's not a lot of time left to do it.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

2010 in Review -- Games

Happy New Year!

If you've been following my blog long enough, you know that early in the new year, I like to look back on movies I've seen and games I've played in the previous year. The movie wrap-up is going to have to wait a bit, because right as 2010 closed out, I caught a couple of films that cracked my top 10 of the year; until I've written specific reviews for them, my overview will have to wait.

But games! Let's talk games! After the "play every board game I own" challenge of 2009, I "resolved" that 2010 would just be business as usual. Perhaps it's not a surprise, then, that I didn't play quite as many games total: 313 over the course of the year. (As per usual, that tally does not include any games played specifically for work purposes, and is a tally of just board/card games, not PC/console games.)

Here's how that broke down:

4 Agricola
4 Agricola (with Farmers of the Moor)
1 Alchemist
12 Alea Iacta Est
1 Amun-Re
3 Ascension
3 At the Gates of Loyang
1 Attika
1 Attila
1 Betrayal at House on the Hill
1 Blokus
3 Bohnanza
1 Capitalism
1 Carcassonne: The City
1 Cartagena 2
1 Catacombs
1 Cave Troll
2 Caylus
1 Chicago Express
2 Clans
1 Cleopatra
1 Code 777
3 Cuba
1 Cyclades
1 Days of Steam
4 Der Magische Labyrinth
3 Dixit
1 Doge
1 Dominion
2 Dominion (with two expansions)
1 Dominoes (Mexican Train)
12 Dungeon Lords
6 Egizia
1 Eketorp
3 Endeavour
2 Fluch der Mumie
8 For Sale
2 Founding Fathers
1 Fresco
1 Gheos
1 Goa
1 Hacienda
1 Hansa Teutonica
1 Hare and Tortoise
1 Hey That's My Fish
1 High Society
1 Identik
1 In the Year of the Dragon
2 In the Year of the Dragon (with both expansions)
1 Industria
1 Kingsburg
1 Kingsburg (with expansion)
6 Le Havre
2 Loot
4 Lost Cities
9 Macao
1 Maori
1 Metropolys
1 Mission: Red Planet
2 Mr. Jack Pocket
1 Mwahahaha!
3 Mystery Express
1 Mystic Tower and the Book of Spells
1 Nefertiti
1 Neuroshima Hex!
2 Notre Dame
7 Notre Dame (with expansion)
1 Palazzo
8 Pillars of the Earth
15 Poker
1 Primordial Soup
1 Princes of Florence (with expansion)
2 Puerto Rico (with expansion)
19 Puerto Rico (with both expansions)
1 Ra
2 Race for the Galaxy (with two expansions)
4 Race for the Galaxy (with three expansions)
1 Rattus
4 Ricochet Robot
1 Robo Rally
1 San Juan (with expansions)
1 San Marco
3 Set
1 Settlers of Catan
3 7 Wonders
1 Shipyard
6 Sleuth
2 Slide 5
3 Small World
1 Sneaks and Snitches
5 The Speicherstadt
1 Squint
2 Stone Age
3 Taluva
5 Telestrations
2 Thebes
3 Thurn and Taxis -- Power and Glory
1 Ticket to Ride -- 1910 U.S.A.
2 Ticket to Ride -- Europe
1 Ticket to Ride -- Europe (with 1912)
2 Ticket to Ride -- Marklin
1 Ticket to Ride -- Switzerland
1 Time's Up
2 Time's Up -- Title Recall
9 Tobago
1 Tongiaki
5 Tower of Babel
2 TransAmerica
4 Vasco de Gama
2 Vikings
1 Witch's Brew
6 Witch's Brew (with all expansions)
1 Wits and Wagers
9 World Without End
1 X vs. Y
1 Ys
3 Yspahan

I'm pleased to once again have Puerto Rico back on top -- for the first time since I've started this blog. (It used to be played once or twice a week back in Virginia, at the very least.)

I love Dungeon Lords, but I have to acknowledge that none of those 12 plays were 100% by the book. My friends and I still get more than enough challenge in the game without using those "these will really screw you" event cards that come up once each season.

The things most played on my list represent a good balance of games I really like (Puerto Rico, Dungeon Lords, World Without End, Macao, The Pillars of the Earth, Notre Dame), and games that I don't mind, but really got played so much because they're quick and easy (Alea Iacta Est, Tobago, For Sale).

I've talked about Telestrations before, but I think I undersold just how wonderful a party game it really is. We played it with 8 players last night for New Year's Eve, and there was riotous laughter all around. In the party game category, it might just be as good as Time's Up (which, sadly, I hardly played at all in 2010).

The games of "Captialism" (published as The Great Dalmuti, and known by a variety of not-family-friendly names) and Dominoes came during my summer trip in Indiana, and thus are quite memorable amid the hundreds of other games.

On to 2011. Let the games re-begin!