Friday, September 30, 2011

Funny Tasting Chocolate

I recently watched Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (the original, not Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). I think I'd probably seen the entire film before in 5 minute pieces, during its 17,000 television airings in my lifetime. But I had never watched it all in one sitting.

It's probably inevitable that I could never like this movie as much as some of my friends. Many kids of my generation grew up loving this film, continue to remember it with childhood nostalgia, and watch it through rose-colored glasses. In short, it might be that I'm simply too old and jaded to experience this movie for the first time now.

So take that into consideration when I say I was underwhelmed by the movie. I didn't hate it, but I certainly didn't see whatever makes people love it so.

I would certainly praise Gene Wilder's performance in the movie. He's funny throughout, and marvelously dry at times. There's actually less than an hour of film to go by the time he makes his first appearance on screen, but he commands every minute he's in.

The music was a mixed bag for me. Some of the songs have stood the test of time and become standards even outside the context of the film -- songs like Candy Man and Pure Imagination. But my uncertainty comes from the fact that I'm not sure these great songs are actually great in context. Willy Wonka seems too dark and sinister for a light and fanciful song like Pure Imagination. Why does the big opening number, Candy Man, not feature a single major cast member? Why does Charlie's Mom get a song when she's barely in a third of the movie? It all feels to me like an odd way to structure a musical.

But I can sum up what I really didn't like about the film in two words. And before I do, I should warn you that I've shared this observation with a few different friends now, and every one of them has said, "hmmm... I don't think I'm going to be able to watch the film the same way now." So before I risk ruining a movie you might love, I'm warning you that you might want to skip the next two paragraphs.

Okay, are you ready? What I really didn't like about this movie: Grandpa Joe. He's been "bed-ridden" for 20 years, and for a fair chunk of that time has watched his daughter maintain a family of six all by herself. Recently, he's even allowed his only grandchild to start working himself just to keep the family fed. But as soon as the prospect of a candy factory tour materializes, he's up out of bed, dancing a jig! How about shouldering some of the burden for your poor daughter and grandson?

And about that tour. Grandpa Joe spends the whole time bitching about how horribly the other children behave, but the second he and Charlie are left alone in a room, he's the one breaking the rules. He puts Charlie up to misbehaving, then yells at Willy Wonka when consequences are imposed for it, and very nearly costs Charlie his reward at the end of the film. So basically, Grandpa Joe is a lying, heartless, lazy, sanctimonious purveyor of double standards. Seriously, screw that guy.

Overall, I'd call Willa Wonka & the Chocolate Factory a C. I vastly prefer the Tim Burton version.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Magical Tales

Penn Jillette, of the comedy-magician duo Penn and Teller, recently published a new book. He's tackled fiction and non-fiction before, written both with and without Teller. This is a solo non-fiction effort with a head-turning title: "God, No!: Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales." Penn has always been an outspoken atheist. I was very curious to see what he would write on the subject.

I wasn't expecting what I got. The "Other Magical Tales" part of that subtitle should be highlighted on the cover, because that's what makes up the bulk of the content. In fact, I'd say that only about 25% of the book is actually tackling the subject of atheism head on. Another 25% is pertinent to the topic, in the form of anecdotes that illustrate how an atheist can still be principled and have morals without any belief in a god. But that leaves half the book a random jumble of tales about visiting a San Francisco bathhouse, suffering a truly horrific mishap with a hair dryer, and so forth.

Now here's the thing. The book is funny. Literally laugh-out-loud funny. And some of the off-topic content is among the funniest material in the book. So, if you're looking to be entertained, there's really nothing to complain about in this book. I was entertained.

But I was looking for more, a witty insight into atheism. Okay, maybe I should be looking to a more learned writer for such material -- a Richard Dawkins, let's say. But then, a Dawkins probably wouldn't be that funny. So I guess you can't have it all.

Overall, I'd rate the book a B. If you want a lot of laughs (and indeed, if you can laugh at this subject matter), then I definitely recommend it.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A Low High

When I saw the trailers for the comedy Your Highness earlier this year, I admit I was a bit intrigued. The "high" fantasy movie looked like it could be some dopey fun... or just plain stupid. When the movie hit theaters, the critics weighed in and resoundingly declared it was indeed just plain stupid. So I never went to see it. But I did drop it into my Netflix queue. And months later, here it was.

I hoped for more, but expected very little. I got exactly what I expected. The skilled and funny cast (including Danny McBride, James Franco, and Natalie Portman) leads you to want more, but that's only setting you up for disappointment. I can't tell for sure what it says that this was Natalie Portman's first movie after winning an Oscar for Black Swan -- does she have a big sense of humor, or no sense of taste?

I felt willing to turn off my brain and just laugh, but the script served up very few funny jokes. In fact, the biggest laughs of the movie came courtesy of the costume department (comically large codpiece) and the props departments (comically large minotaur.. er, trophy). In between, the nimble cast wrings out a couple of unwilling laughs, but mostly just makes you tolerate the bad movie.

I wasn't expecting something as good as The Princess Bride, but is it too much to ask for one other good comedy-fantasy movie? I guess so. Your Highness gets a D+.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Glory Be (Actually, Less Than B)

Those of you expecting my weekly Glee recap will have to check back in a few days. I've taken a quick out of town trip and will have to catch up later. Still, the show must go on...

Every once in a while, I decide to take a shot on an old war movie. Though not old enough (or perhaps well regarded enough) to be considered a classic, my latest attempt was Glory, the civil war film starring Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Cary Elwes, and Andre Braugher. Specifically, the movie chronicles one of the first African-American infantry units to fight in the war.

Though the film has a different jumping off point in its subject matter, it ultimately falls into the trap that turns me off of most films in the genre -- it doesn't feel like it's telling one story with a cohesive beginning, middle, and end. In less than two hours, the film covers a period of years, from the formation of the unit, through its basic training, growing pains, inner turmoil, struggle to achieve legitimacy, and deployment into the field. The result is, as with so many war movies, a scattershot narrative of mini episodes, a would-be mini-series where each installment is maybe 10 or 15 minutes long.

Also as is often the case with these movies, an exceptional performance by an actor means there's still something worthwhile to see. Denzel Washington won an Oscar for his performance here. He's fiery and passionate throughout, but also good in some scenes that show a more vulnerable and tender side to his defiant character. Morgan Freeman and Andre Braugher are also both strong in their respective roles.

Matthew Broderick, I'm sorry to say, is a bit of a weak link in the cast. In other movies, he has effortless played "in control" (see Ferris Bueller's Day Off), but I don't feel that here he can pull off "in command." He seems too young, too weak, too unbelievable as a commanding officer. I suppose you could argue this is actually good for the movie, in letting the soldiers take center stage and not throwing focus to "the white man" who led these soldiers. But I think that approach would have required the character to have a lesser role in the script.

Overall, I'd grade Glory a C+. It's not bad, but it's not really worth putting on your list either, if you haven't seen it already.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Good Will, Indeed

I've seen trailers for different movies that tout "Academy Award Winner Ben Affleck" or "Academy Award Winner Matt Damon" in the cast. Not to take anything away from their acting, but the implication here is basically a lie; these two actors won their Oscars for writing, on Good Will Hunting. This was another movie I was trying to accurately integrate into my Top 100, so I recently broke out my copy and watched it again. I found it even better than I remembered.

It's a worthy Oscar winner for writing. The storytelling is very taut, with lots of careful set-ups and pay-offs, excellent and visually-oriented exposition, distinct throughlines and motivations for all the major characters, and several uplifting points to make. Apparently, Rob Reiner and top-notch screen writer William Goldman both contributed some advice on the story, but all parties involved declare that the script ultimately is the work of Damon and Affleck. However they got there, their finished product was solid. And it's a real shame the two haven't teamed up since to write again.

But the script is bolstered even farther by solid acting. Affleck does great work as the crass comic relief, but then muscles in at the end with one dramatic scene that's a highlight of the movie. Minnie Driver is a love interest who feels like a real character; her relationship with Damon's character feels truer than Epic Movie Love, and she's likeable, smart, and funny. Stellan SkarsgÄrd has the most workman-like role in the film, but still nails emotional clashes with Robin Williams' character, and conveys the anguish of The Most Brilliant Guy in the Room losing his title. Matt Damon manages to make mountains of technobabble play breezily, and keeps a character that could be conceited and deplorable firmly in the camp of relateable and sympathetic.

And then there's Robin Williams. He won an Oscar for this performance, and deservedly so. It would be easy to overlook his skill here and dismiss this performance as a shade of his work in Dead Poets' Society, but this role goes deeper. His character here has a recent personal tragedy, and Williams conveys many textures of grief (from depression to rage to being able to laugh) without ever becoming maudlin or false. It's also clear that by bringing his "A game," Matt Damon's performance was pulled up a level too; the two have a great interplay with one another in this movie, in scenes funny, aggressive, and sentimental.

The "unlikely genius" story has been told in film many times before, and many times since, but in my book, I don't know that it's been told better than in Good Will Hunting. I give the movie a solid A.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Kind of Good

A couple years ago, I was steered away from seeing the alien abduction thriller The Fourth Kind by a fairly savage batch of reviews. But in the last month, I've been trying to feel like I'm getting value out of my HBO subscription beyond just watching True Blood, so I went trolling for movies to record. I remembered how I'd originally wanted to see this movie, and decided to give it a shot.

Perhaps this was a case of clearing low expectations, but I actually found the film to be much more entertaining than I expected. Perhaps by telling you that, I've already raised your expectations too high for you to enjoy it. In any case, I don't think the movie deserved the critical drumming it took.

The movie stars Milla Jovovich as a psychologist in Nome, Alaska who begins to uncover a disturbing pattern of alien abduction in her patients through the use of hypnotherapy. And while it's far from a perfect movie, it does have several genuine moments of strong tension and good scares. In particular, there are two things the movie gets very "right" in my book:

First, the movie respects the fading horror film tradition that imagining "the monster" can be more effective than seeing it. I find this a particularly effective choice for an alien abduction film, since everybody knows exactly what the stereotypical abductor alien looks like. You don't need this movie to show it to you.

The second strong choice is in the structure of the film. It begins in a very jarring manner, with Milla Jovovich walking right up, looking straight into the camera, and introducing herself -- her real self, the actress. She tells you that what you're about to see is a true story, and will include some very disturbing material taken from real audio recordings, video tapes, and interviews. It's up to you to decide what you think of what you're about to see.

At every step of the way, the movie reminds you it's a dramatization. Whenever a major character first appears on screen, a caption identifies the name of the actual actor playing the role. Staged footage is sometimes intercut, and sometimes presented in split screen, with video camera footage of the events. Sprinkled throughout the film are excerpts of an interview with the psychologist to whom this all actually happened.

But here's the thing -- it's all fake. This movie isn't actually based on a true story. All the video and audio footage that's presented as real? It was created in the production of this movie, just like everything else. Every major role was cast twice, once with the likes of Milla Jovovich and Will Patton -- recognizable actors -- and a second time with unknowns selected to play the "real" people. I found this a very novel way to approach the trendy "found footage" movie. It's all done in a very credible manner. Even more importantly, I think it all works even when you know it's not real. So credit writer-director Olatunde Osunsanmi for a fun new spin on an established format.

Overall, I found The Fourth Kind to be more tense than most of the horror films I have seen in theaters lately. I rate it a B-. I think it's a good choice for a lights-off viewing in the creepiness of your own home.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Park Placement

Since I pointed people to Flickchart (and started using it obsessively myself), I've not only been refining my own Top 100 Movie list, I've been watching several friends' lists take shape. And it's been very interesting to see what ends up on those lists.

Case in point, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut -- the big-screen incarnation of the series that was released quite early in the show's now venerable run. I saw it popping up on several people's lists. I do remember thinking it was quite funny, but it probably wasn't that good. In any case, it has since blended in with 15 seasons and 200+ episodes in my mind. Was it possible that I'd forgotten a candidate for my Top 100 list?

The first compliment I'll give is that the film does a fine job of justifying its existence. That sounds totally harsh, but what I mean is that you have to ask "why have the movie when the show is still running strong?" (And at the time, nobody knew just how strong it would continue to run.) Other TV-to-film transitions haven't adequately addressed this key question. The first X-Files movie (made during the show's run) didn't really get there. The people behind The Simpsons wrestled with this issue for more than a decade before finally releasing their film, and it still didn't really get there. But the South Park movie does manage to feel like something "more" than just a long episode of South Park.

Mostly, it's in the choice to make the film into a musical. Several episodes of the TV series have featured a song, but the movie is structured in the classic musical tradition, with a dozen major numbers. It's undeniably South Park, while simulataneously being something you haven't (and wouldn't) see on the TV show. And it doesn't hurt that most of the songs are pretty good (one, "Blame Canada," even receiving an Oscar nomination).

They also up the ante on the animation, chiefly in their awesome realization of hell, a massive Bruckheimer-Emmerich fusion of over-the-top, unnecessary CG. With paper cut-outs wiggling on top, naturally. Even a decade later, with huge advances in CG, you don't see this sort of thing on the TV series, because of the tight one-week timetable on which each episode is produced.

The movie isn't all flash, though. The best episodes of South Park have some biting observation at the heart of the comedy, and the movie finds a worthy target in censorship. In theory, making a film would free creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone from some of the restrictions of television, but instead they ran up against one conflict after another while making this movie -- with studio Paramount, with the MPAA, and more. In a wonderfully "meta" twist, the film became an example of the subject it was speaking out against.

And, not unimportant in all this, it's funny too. Laugh out loud funny, intelligent, critical, and crass all in one package? Yeah, that's a pretty good movie. But still, you can't watch the movie and not compare it to the 200+ episodes of the TV series that exist. It's maybe not fair, but it simply is. No doubt, the movie ranks as a "great episode" of South Park, but it has been outdone on occasion. There have even been some multi-episode arcs of the show (Imaginationland, Coon and Friends vs. Cthulhu) that feel just as much like a movie as this does.

So all told, I end up ranking Bigger, Longer & Uncut an A-. Great, well worth watching, but not quite good enough to crack my Top 100 list.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Rosy Outlook

Here's a rare and unusual moment for the blog. I'm about to review something, and that review stands at least some chance of actually being read by someone who created the thing I'm reviewing. In this case, it's a book called Autumn Roses, by Kate Blair.

I doubt you've heard of the book or the author. She's a Denver local, making her debut with this novel. My connection is that her father was one of the teachers at my old high school. He was a great teacher, with a great family, and I've been in touch occasionally over the years since. I'm thrilled to support someone I know (even tangentially) having a published novel, even if the book is outside the genres I usually read. I have a friend or two who would love to make the same big break as a published author, and I would love to be there myself some day, so it's sort of a "be the change you want to see" thing. Maybe.

I imagine that if I were forced to put Autumn Roses somewhere in the bookstore (other than just "Fiction"), it would go in the Romance section. But really, it's a modern fairy tale -- and tells you that right on the first page. In some spots, it borrows very directly from familiar fairy tales (chiefly Beauty and the Beast). But in other areas, it evokes the texture and trappings of a fairy tale without specifically lifting from any given source (for example, the protagonist is the youngest daughter of three, who lives in the shadow of her two older sisters).

It's a somewhat oddly paced book, spending around the first half just setting up the flavor of the situation and the characters, without really launching into the meat of a plot. When the plot arrives in earnest, it's quite brisk -- perhaps because the author knew that her readers' familiarity with fairy tales wouldn't really allow for the story to be drawn out for suspense or surprise. Put another way, I felt that I had no idea where the book was going, until the moment halfway through when I suddenly knew exactly where it was going. An odd experience for a book.

But an enjoyable one. As I said, I don't usually read books in this genre, so it's hard to evaluate a book that's probably not "for me." But Kate Blair has a good way with words. She uses just the right descriptive words to paint a picture, evoking not only sights, but sounds, smells, and more. Reading this made me look at my own writing technique, and reminded me of a few things I'd like to incorporate into my own emerging novel. (Very slowly emerging novel.) By that, I mean that even while I wasn't truly enthusiastic about the story, I was taken by the writing. So Kate, if you're reading this, my compliments -- and congratulations.

Honestly, the tastes of people who frequent my blog probably don't sync up well with a book like this. But if you're in the mood for a change of pace, Autumn Roses might be worth a try. And if you do check it out, you can say you know someone who (somewhat) knows the person who wrote it!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Strangles in the Night

I had thought that many years ago, I'd actually watched Alfred Hitchcock's movie Rope. It's a much-talked about movie in film geek circles, the movie Hitchcock made "all in one take" (more on that later). Perhaps all that talk convinced me I had actually seen the movie when I hadn't, because when I sat down recently to watch it, I quickly concluded "there's no way I would have forgotten this movie if I had seen it." (More on that later too.)

But I have to start by giving a summary of the plot to those who haven't seen it. Rope opens with two men strangling a third to death, dumping his body into a big chest in their living room, and then proceeding (in "real time") to host a dinner party with the body right there in the room, possibly to be discovered at any moment. More shocking than their bold flirting with disaster is their motive for the crime: they essentially have none at all. These two men believe themselves to be "superior" individuals, and are thus entitled to murder any "inferior" individual they desire. They've picked this particular victim, but might have just as easily picked anyone else. Choke on that.

Rope was based on a stage play, and perhaps as an homage to that, Alfred Hitchcock decided to create the illusion of filming all 85 minutes of it in a single take, a "one-er," as it's now known in the business. But practical considerations compromised this concept right out of the gate. First of all, a camera could hold only about 10 minutes of film; that's all that Hitchcock could actually film before having to cut. Hitchcock tricked his way around this problem by disguising some of the cuts. He'd have the camera zoom in tight on something (usually a person's back), filling the screen and blacking it out, then switching film and pulling off that zoom to continue the scene. Technically speaking, these changes aren't executed very well; you know the cuts are happening there, if you're looking for them. But narratively, they work just fine. It serves the purpose of carrying the story along without interruption.

The second problem is the "change-over" (which any fan of the movie Fight Club will understand). A reel of film in the theater could hold only about 20 minutes of footage before running out. The illusion of a two-hour film was exactly that -- an illusion. As one projector wound down after 20 minutes, the projectionist at a movie theater would have to start up a second projector to present the next 20 minutes of the film. Knowing that he could not rely on any consistent precision from projectionists anyway, Hitchcock opted not to disguise "every other cut," the one that would fall on the change-over. Thus, there are three visible cuts in Rope, where the angle simply changes from one person to another. The action remains in real time, so once again, the feeling of uninterrupted flow is preserved, but the myth of "Hitchcock's one take film" is again simply not true.

But set aside the technique, and let me talk about how it plays. Sometimes, it's brilliant. There's a prolonged two-minute sequence at one point where an entire conversation happens off camera, as we watch the housekeeper clean up at the party, and come ever closer to discovering the body. Watching her and only her as we hear the conversation continue is a very effective way to ratchet up the tension. It totally works. But then other times, there are moments where you definitely want to see the reaction's on the killers' faces as people at the party say "just the right thing," but you don't because the unbreaking camera doesn't take you there. In moments like that, possible tension is lost. So ultimately, I'd call this aspect of Rope a cool experiment. It works sometimes, and not others. It's a useful tool for Hitchcock to have put in the filmmakers' toolbox, the idea of the "one-er," but it should be used in moderation, like any other tool.

I said at the beginning that I'm sure I would have remembered seeing Rope before, and here's why: within about two minutes, it is abundantly clear that the two main characters -- the men who commit the murder -- are a gay couple. Upon realizing this, I immediately thought, "when was this movie made?" The answer: 1948, which seems impossibly early for a movie to include such content in so overt a manner. I then decided that I must be imagining it, that I was just reading too much into the film. But the longer the film kept rolling, the more it seemed clear I wasn't imagining anything; Hitchcock and screenwriter Arthur Laurents had built a film around a gay couple -- and not a stereotypical one -- in the late 1940s. After the end credits had rolled, I had to do some research.

I quickly discovered that I wasn't imagining anything. The writer and both actors (John Dall and Farley Granger) publicly acknowledged later that, oh yes, the characters were most definitely a gay couple. What's more, their former prep-school teacher, played by James Stewart, was also meant to have had an affair with one or both of them at some point in the past. Well, okay, I totally didn't see that in the movie, but still -- my mind is officially blown. Reading about how they got away with this was informative and entertaining. It was forbidden by the Production Code censors of the time to include any reference to homosexuality, so Hitchcock apparently instructed Arthur Laurents to "over-write" it. The original play was British, and filled with British-isms that Laurents had removed in his American screenplay treatment. Hitchcock had him put back in all the "my dear boy"s and so forth, which the censors flagged as "homosexual dialogue" that had to be removed. As he knew they would. The rest of the innuendo, plain to see but never mentioned aloud, was left alone.

I wonder if the clever cat-and-mouse game with the censors actually helped the script. Because the script couldn't play the stereotypes, the main characters had to be rounded and believable characters; they didn't kill because they were gay and depraved, they were simply depraved, and also happened to be gay. Again, it's just amazing to think that they got away with this in 1948. My continued research quickly found that the inspiration for all this was the Leopold and Loeb murder case. Their killing was similarly motivated -- they picked a random victim they thought they could get away with killing. Still, Rope brings plenty of original ideas to supplement its "ripped from the headlines" origins.

But Rope isn't a triumph, either. I mentioned earlier that technical limitations sometimes mar the narrative conceit. Another problem is the character played by James Stewart. Oh, Stewart himself is fine enough in the role -- though to hear the lead actors and screenwriter tell it, they don't think Stewart was ever aware his character was suppose to be gay (and perhaps that's why that bit of subtext in the plot isn't apparent). No, the problem is with the character as written on the page. And I'm going to have to spoil the end of the movie here to explain myself, so if you've never seen it and want to without knowing the ending, you should skip the next paragraph.

This character is supposed to be the teacher who first professed the theory embraced by the killers -- that the "superior" are entitled to murder the "inferior." He's challenged on this theory in the movie, and defends it staunchly and seriously. And yet, once he confronts the reality of that actually having happened, he's outraged and shocked. He claims that he never thought to see his words "twisted" like this. How else can his words possibly be taken, if not literally? (And he says point blank in the movie that yes, he means literally.) It feels like a major inconsistency that no actor could reconcile in a performance. Neither is it convincing that the character is suddenly realizing the horror of something that was formerly just a theory. Put simply, this character just does not work, and as he's key to the unraveling of the whole murder, the climax of the film just does not work either.

With so much going on both in the movie and behind-the-scenes, it's hard to know just how to rank it. I think it works out to about a B- in my book. It's not perfect, but I do think it one of the better Hitchcock movies I've seen. And it's about as old a film I can think of that I've actually enjoyed. On that basis, I think I have to give it a strong recommendation.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Re-Making the Grade

My ongoing use of Flickchart has now called into question a few things about the way I review things -- movies in particular, but really anything I review in general.

For starters, there's my non-conformist use of letter grades (A, C+, so forth) in reviewing, when iTunes, Amazon, Netflix, and just-about-everywhere-else uses a 5-star system. I suppose my original inspiration for grades was the fact that Entertainment Weekly (the one magazine I actually subscribe to) uses them. Or maybe I just find it novel to use grades, because I never had them until my years in college. (I went to schools that either used unconventional grading systems, or no grading systems at all.)

Flickchart looks at the placement of a movie on your list, and helpfully tells you how many stars you should rate it based on that placement. They even tell you how you should score it on a scale of 0 to 100. Sure, you could do the calculations yourself, but they put it right there. So maybe I should just stop using the letter grades and be like all the other children?

But really, that's all just cosmetic. The larger issue exposed by my Flickcharting is that I have been grading on a curve unknowingly.

I've been rebuilding my Top 100 Movie list, last updated many years ago. As I looked at that old list, I knew some things near the bottom probably wouldn't make the cut this time around. Even some of the movies I knew I still liked, I would not have called "grade A" movies. For example, consider The Blair Witch Project. When I recently reviewed it, I concluded by saying that I had a better sense today of the movie's flaws, and would only rate it an A-. But I still thought it would make the top 100 list. The clear assumption in there is that I've seen less than 100 movies that I would rate an A; somewhere on my top 100 list is the cutoff where movies get an A- instead.

The problem there is that Flickchart now tells me I've seen more than 1200 movies. There are 12 letter grades from A on down to F, including all the + and - modifiers in between. That means if I were to distribute my grades evenly, every movie in my top 100 should receive an A. It also means that I've seen 100 awful, grade F movies. I would not have thought either of those things to be true. So, should I keep grading on my pseudo-bell curve that is apparently pushing most movies into B and C status? Or do I go with what seems to make sense mathematically?

Mind you, I'm not planning to go back through all my old reviews and update my grades. This is more just a "going forward" thing. Thoughts?

And yes, toothygrim, Watchmen still gets an F.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Purple Piano Project

Glee's third season kicked off tonight. I wouldn't quite call the episode a rousing success, but after the very uneven second season, it certainly felt like a step in the right direction. The emphasis in the hour was clearly on character, and starting off some story lines that can continue over several episodes -- and not so much on wedging in songs to sell on iTunes.

Rachel and Kurt are still an entertaining and compelling pairing. They're better supporting each other than they ever were against each other. And seeing them brought face to face with a group of talented, super-type-A kids was a nice awakening for both of them. If the writers can keep the thread of their college dreams going, this should provide solid material for the season.

Spinning people out of the glee club also seems like good material for Quinn (who I can easily believe would try to reinvent herself) and Santana (who I can easily believe is most comfortable lashing out rather than fitting in). The show has always tried to present the glee club as the outsiders, but now these two characters are positioned to be real outsiders, each on her own. Assuming the writers let them flounder for a while, here again is more solid material for upcoming episodes.

Will and Emma as a couple left me indifferent, as did the newest feud with Sue. But in the latter case, "indifferent" is probably a step up. Sue had become an impossibly cartoonish character by the end of the second season, so extreme that the only way to redeem her, bring her to earth, and humanize her was to kill her sister. In this premiere, she seemed closer to the level of her original, season one brand of crazy. Hopefully they resist the temptation to take her farther.

Blaine's transfer to McKinley was inevitable but still welcome. We'll see how long it takes before seeing him singing with the club (and without the Warblers) seems natural.

A mixed bag on the songs, I thought, and in the way they were presented. Season two started on the exact same premise, with "let's perform songs in public places around the school and make people want to join the glee club." (They even did one on the steps outside.) So I didn't think much of "We Got the Beat" or "It's Not Unusual." And I was bored by Kurt and Rachel's "Ding! Dong! The Witch Is Dead!" -- yet another Oz-related diva-off for the two of them. But the NYADA members' mashup of songs from Anything Goes and Annie Get Your Gun was pretty strong. And the closing number, from Hairspray, was pretty high octane awesome.

I'd rate the episode a B+. Now let's hope they can build up again from there.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Down Shift

Over the weekend, I went to see the new movie Drive. It stars Ryan Gosling as well... a Driver. (Literally, that is his character name.) By day, he drives stunts for movies. By night, he's a wheelman for hire for anonymous criminal adventures.

The movie seemed to be billed as an action thriller, with the promise of lots of cool car stunts. Or, if you prefer, "The Fast and the Furious," but not as dumb. But looks are deceiving here. In practice, the film is a slow-paced, noir-ish affair that feels more like a Michael Mann effort.

All movie long, we hear about what an amazing driver Driver is -- a virtuoso who can do anything behind the wheel of a car. We never see it. There are only two significant driving sequences in the entire movie. The one that opens the film displays the protagonist's ability to think on his feet and be clever more than his driving skills; the second one (halfway through the film) is far too brief to get the pulse racing. And you'd think a movie called Drive would have a car-centric finale, wouldn't you? You'd be wrong.

The writing is bad in other ways, too. Driver is a strong, silent type of hero who never says more than he has to (and usually says less). When he's being taciturn with his partner, or the Bad Guys, it works. When he also doesn't say anything to The Girl, you really have to question why she's ever drawn to him. Especially since she's married. And when he doesn't say anything to Her Husband to put him at ease, you wonder why he never tries to beat the crap out of him. It's all very strange.

What does work is the acting. The casting is superb. Like "who does this guy know in Hollywood to get these people to be in a movie like this?" good. There's Ryan Gosling, excellent as always. Carey Mulligan, rather fresh off an Oscar nomination for An Education, is a likeable and sympathetic love interest. Bryan Cranston is great, but thoroughly underused as the owner of Driver's garage. Ron Perlman chews the scenery as a villain. And in the most inspired casting, Albert Brooks goes dark and serious and plays the head of a criminal organization with a chilly demeanor and a nasty talent with a blade.

The look of the movie is also strong -- dark and brooding like its hero. (Though what's up with the weird pink, cursive titles that look like they came from an 80s movie?)

Overall, I generously rate the movie a C. Great actors are giving their all in service of something not worthy of their efforts. They make it watchable, but not compelling.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

2011 Emmy Snark

And now, the miscellaneous quips from my Emmy viewing party this evening:

For a man who has insisted for years that he's retiring, Leonard Nimoy sure works a lot.

By the end of Jane Lynch's opening number, the Emmys have already outlasted most FOX TV series.

I see they took Wilmer Valderrama back out of the egg for this event.

In case you don't actually watch any of these shows (in which case, why are you watching this?), here's a montage to catch you up.

Julianna Margulies' dress is ribbed for your pleasure.

So, looks like Modern Family is on a tear. Yes, it's great, but you can't make up for not recognizing how awesome it was in its first season by doubling the award love now.

Seriously, did anyone from a show other than Modern Family need to even show up?

Brilliant choice by the show director to cut to the writer's wife when he confesses being "caught in the act" by his children. Twice! Gosh, that director should win an Emmy.

So, if you're the child of a Modern Family writer, you'd better walk the straight and narrow. Anything you do wrong is going to end up in an episode.

But the Emmy director did not cut to Chuck Lorre while Charlie Sheen was speaking. Maybe he's not that brilliant after all.

Color me shocked that Steve Carell didn't win the sentimental goodbye Emmy.

I love this Best Comedy Actress award on stage moment. And the standing ovation is well deserved. But I can't tell where Edie Falco's skin ends and her dress begins.

Melissa McCarthy? Seriously? I guess I really have to see Bridesmaids now. (I'm sure as hell not going to start watching Mike and Molly.)

Seeing Jesse from Breaking Bad on The Office was the highlight of the night for me. Maybe of the entire TV season. It's a high bar to have set so early.

Is Kaley Cuoco gonna click her heels three times and go back to black and white?

Colbert and Conan's writers both came up with basically the same gag. So you know immediately neither of them is going to win.

Someone straightened Michael Bolton's fake mustache between parts of the song. It was way funnier before.

I'm not sure what the point of that song was, other than jealousy that the Oscars have musical numbers.

I just now realized how tiny Scott Caan is, seeing him stand next to Anna Paquin -- because she is not a tall woman. Jon Stewart looks tall next to him. Seriously, the apple box budget on Hawaii Five-0 must be astronomical.

If Peter Dinklage is winning an Emmy now, just wait until we get to the stuff that happens to Tyrion after the first book! Except that he forgot to thank George R.R. Martin, the man who ultimately controls his fate. Big whoops.

Did Katie Holmes put her dress on backwards?

Do you hear that? It's the sound of AMC's reign ending. And just when they've pissed off and/or fired the creators of all their most successful and acclaimed shows.

So only now, after Friday Night Lights is over, do they finally decide to give it awards?

The new Angels are totally groping Kyle Chandler.

Jane Lynch gets in a wickedly awesome burn on the Entourage cast.

What is that lizard Muppet sitting behind Tina Fey?!!

The writer of Downton Abbey is married to Gloria Swanson.

The Emmys seem to have followed the Oscars with attempting to enforce a "don't applaud during the death montage" policy. But the audience takes a stand and applauds a few people anyway.

Guy Pearce looks like he skydived to the Emmys.

Claire Danes is starring in Splash 2.

Kate Winslet wins, but starts walking away from the stage.

Downton Abbey wins the TV Movie award, giving us a second dose of extreme harumph-humph-humph.

William H. Macy came to the Emmys in the Red Baron's plane.

Mad Men wins yet again? Perhaps my report of the decline of AMC was premature. Though I'm at a loss on how a show that apparently didn't have any of the best writers, directors, or actors still managed to be the best show on television.

If both the acting and country music things fall apart for Gwyneth Paltrow, she's ready to take up belly dancing.

Quality speech from the creator of Modern Family to wrap up the evening.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Decidedly Different Direction

Not long ago, I read the first book in the series that inspired the TV series Dexter. I've now finished the second book, Dearly Devoted Dexter. This is the point where the books and the show part ways; after a first season that followed the first novel rather closely, the plot of this second book is a separate story. On the one hand, that's a bit of a shame, since the second season of Dexter was, in my opinion, the show's finest. But I think it's better still to get to read something different and surprising.

This novel has the Miami police on the hunt for a criminal who isn't technically a murderer -- though you could easily argue he's much worse. He abducts his victims and then performs multiple amputations on them over a period of days or weeks, ultimately leaving them alive as legless, armless, tongueless husks. It's actually a really disturbing notion, more visceral than anything the TV series has attempted to portray.

There are a few elements from the show that were clearly inspired by this book, though not adapted precisely. Deb does begin a romantic relationship with a visiting Washington agent -- though he's not at all like Keith Carradine's character Lundy. Doakes is suspicious of Dexter and stalking him relentlessly -- though the subplot doesn't take the same course as it did on the series. One of Dexter's signatures on the show, dumping his victims in the ocean, has its origins in this book -- and is the disposal method of a different killer Dexter is hunting.

Still, the bulk of the novel feels like all new material, and is better for it. Author Jeff Lindsay still doesn't like to dwell too much on fleshing out characters (as opposed to advancing plot), but the people do seem a little sharper, a bit less like ciphers, than they did his first time out. Interestingly, he spends a fair amount of time on Rita's children, Astor and Cody, and serves up a very compelling and unexpected subplot I'm interested to see carried on into the next book.

Overall, I would still hold that the series is the superior incarnation of Dexter. But this novel is still an improvement over the first, and I find that to be more than enough. I rate book two a B+.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Limitless Engagement

I missed Limitless when it was in the theater earlier this year, but recently caught up on DVD. This action-thriller starring Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro follows a struggling novelist coming off a break-up (no connection to the screenwriter, surely) who gets his hands on a miracle drug that turns his life around. The drug gives him the ability to use 100% of his brain (playing into the scientifically disproven myth that humans use only a small percentage of their brains), turning him into an all-knowing, all-remembering, all-awesome superman. (The drug also makes him realize that appearance matters and a haircut can do wonders. But that's incidental.)

I skipped the film in theaters because I simply couldn't decide if it looked like there was enough juice to squeeze from this concept. The movie turned out to be better than you might expect, but not as good as you might hope. There are elements good, bad, and mixed at play.

I'd put the acting in the good column. Bradley Cooper makes a believable and sympathetic schlub at the beginning (even if the hair and costumes oversell the concept), and then a charming hero once he "transforms" -- even though the character could just as easily have come off smarmy. De Niro isn't giving a career-best performance by any stretch of the imagination, but he does have fun with his role without chewing on the scenery too much.

I'd put the visuals in the mixed column. The director and cinematographer definitely have a strong sense of style here. The film is loaded with sharp shadows, swift cuts, whip pans, and more eye-catching techniques. Sometimes this is effective at maintaining pace and tension, and other times it feels like overkill. The signature trick for the film is a "neverending zoom/dolly," a camera that just keeps pushing forward and forward, through objects, through settings, through everything. It's kind of neat, but also done way too fast. It's a good thing this movie wasn't presented in 3D in the theaters, because patrons would have been vomiting in the aisles.

I'd put the script in the bad column. The problem with building a story around a protagonist who is supposed to be supernaturally intelligent is that he has to be supernaturally intelligent. Instead, he makes stupid mistakes (getting himself in trouble with a loan shark, for example), and does lots of things that the still-smarter audience can see coming around the corner. I do rather like the "no learning, no message, just fun" tone of the film's ending, but I spent far too much time overall saying, "this guy literally cannot be this stupid."

All told, I'd rank Limitless a C+. As a Netflix rental, it's not bad. But it wasn't smart enough to be a "smart thriller," and not dumb enough to just be a "big dumb action movie."

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Game On

When I first made my top 100 movie list many years ago, it included three films directed by David Fincher: Seven, Fight Club, and The Game. As I've been remaking the list, I've been sure the first two would still easily qualify. But what about The Game? I decided to watch it again to figure out where to rank it.

If you've never seen The Game, I would honestly recommend that you just stop reading this review after this paragraph. It's a fun psychological thriller (with noir sensibilities) well worth recommending. And the less you know about it before you watch it, the more I think you'll enjoy it.

Alright, just us chickens? Okay then. There's plenty to say about The Game, but I think what jumps out at me first is that its largely a one character movie, and that character is a total asshole. Plenty of movies put you squarely in the perspective of a single character, leaving you as confused as he is. Memento is my favorite in this category, but you could excavate film history to at least North by Northwest and probably earlier than that to find plenty of examples. But in every case I can think of, the protagonist is a sympathetic victim that the audience roots to see survive the chaos.

Not so in The Game. At least, I don't think so. The lead character of The Game is a major type-A investment banker, the sort of man who would and could buy and sell everyone in the movie audience, and not care. And in this choice, the movie walks a careful tightrope. He's not exactly Ebenezer Scrooge; he is somewhat redeemed in spirit by the end of the story, but that's not really the point of the story. We're not exactly rooting to see him suffer, either; the corporation that's screwing him over in the story comes off even more evil. It's a challenging way to structure and tell a story.

And it probably wouldn't work at all without the perfect actor, who they found in Michael Douglas. In probably his most famous role (in Wall Street), Michael Douglas patented the way to portray an oily-but-entertaining character. But there, he wasn't the protagonist of the story. Here, a Gordon Gecko type is front-and-center, and it works brilliantly. Major kudos are due to Michael Douglas, not just for achieving this balance, but for essentially carrying the entire movie on his shoulders. Sure, there are other co-stars, most recognizably Sean Penn as his crazed brother. But none of the other characters appear in more than a handful of scenes, leaving Douglas to command the screen.

David Fincher brings a fantastic visual style to the piece. The film is stark, bleak, and dark, much like Seven, but still distinct. The photography magnifies the sense of paranoia and claustrophobia invoked by the plot, resulting in a taut and compelling film.

All that said, I found that after my recent viewing, I don't think The Game will quite crack my top 100 list. The acting is great, and the style exceptional, but I found the content a bit lacking on the second viewing. It is a "twist" movie, and there isn't any great discovery to be made in seeing it again when you know the outcome. (For the record, I had guessed the ending during my first viewing, and I think many others could too -- but the movie has just enough pervasive doubt in it that I think this doesn't detract from that initial experience.) On a second viewing, in the absence of any uncertainty, you're left to focus on the emotional journey instead. And as I noted earlier, the main character here isn't really sympathetic. There's no moral or comment on the human condition here; just a psychological head game. No matter how aesthetically pleasing it is (and it is), I feel like I need just a little something more to confer "Top 100 status."

So today, I'd rate The Game an A-. It's still a great film that I definitely recommend and that I enjoyed watching again. But I think I'd classify it as very good brain candy.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Something's Not Clicking

Judging by their record sales, you've probably never heard of The Click Five. Several years ago, their debut album got a short write-up in Entertainment Weekly (which is how I heard about them). Their whole "next big thing" prediction didn't pan out, though. That first album sold alright, but the follow-up sank like a stone.

Now they're back with a third effort, TCV. And apparently, confidence here in the U.S. was quite low. The album has been available in Japan (where I gather they have a better fan base) for over a year, and was only finally released here, almost as an afterthought. After two good albums, I was ready for more of their fun power-pop sound, catchy licks, and hummable tunes.

Unfortunately, this album turned out to be their weakest effort. It starts off strong with three or four great songs in a row, led off by one of their earwigiest songs ever, "I Quit! I Quit! I Quit!" But then comes the "slow section" of the album. Many albums do this "take it down a notch" thing in the middle, but the last two Click Five albums plowed right around the convention. This time, they not only get slow, but they even get a little bit country on "Good As Gold." Boo.

The album never really recovers from there. The last track, "The World Comes Crawlin' Back" isn't bad, but before you get there, the music gets increasingly cheesy. I know that's the risk of the power-pop formula, but I thought The Click Five had managed to avoid it on their first two albums. From the Tom Petty-lite "Dancin' After Midnight" to the snooze-fest "Love Time Space," the album just doesn't come together as I'd hoped.

I'll still listen to those handful of early tracks that I liked, but the album as a whole was a disappointment. I grade it a C+ overall. If you aren't already a fan of the band, I don't imagine this album winning you over.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Six Sides to a Story

As an enthusiastic fan of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and a let's say "entertained" fan of Stargate (in its various incarnations), I've heard of the movie Cube a few times over the years. Its cast includes Nicole deBoer (from DS9's final season, as well as The Dead Zone) and David Hewlett (from Stargate: Atlantis), so the movie would often come up in interviews or articles on either actor.

Cube is a partly sci-fi, largely horror, low-budget movie made in 1997. A group of strangers awakens in an elaborate maze, with no idea how they got there. The maze is a series of cubic rooms with exit hatches on each wall, floor, and ceiling. The majority of rooms are rigged with lethal traps. The strangers must find a way to cooperate, and must find the skills amongst themselves to safely navigate this mysterious labyrinth and escape.

The movie is a pretty powerful example of guerrilla filmmaking. The set is a single 14 x 14 x 14 foot room, frequently re-lit and occasionally supplemented with CG to create the impression of a vast maze. The premise is basic, with the meat of the story being in the relationships between the characters; it's rather like a stage play in this regard. In short, if you had thought of this idea first, you and a handful of your friends probably could have drawn on your savings accounts and made this movie.

Which is not to say I didn't like it. Actually, the mystery is intriguing, the visual look very striking, and the acting quite decent. The film is crammed full of interesting ideas, and plenty of effective paranoia and suspense. Where it falls short at times is in its characterizations. Each person is said to have a role in the maze, and similarly, each character has a role to serve in the story. At times, the characters seem to behave at preposterous extremes just to drive home their "two-word summary." Though I suppose you could make the argument that the situation is so impossible that it's hard to imagine how anyone would realistically react when put in it.

Overall, though, I find the movie easy to recommend. It's horror that doesn't rely on startling you, science fiction that is truly infused with science, independent filmmaking that does its best within its limitations. I call it a B.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Spectacular

I tend to think the Oscars usually get it wrong when it comes to Best Picture. It's not necessarily that my favorite film of the year doesn't get nominated (although that happens too). It's that invariably, given the choices of the nominated films, they never seem to pick my favorite of the batch for Best Picture.

For 1999, they bestowed the honor on American Beauty. It's one of my favorite movies ever. And yet, I feel like they still got it wrong that year. I liked The Sixth Sense even better. But seriously, how good a year was 1999 for movies? I mean, the Best Picture nominees also included The Cider House Rules and The Green Mile. (Well, and The Insider. But nobody's perfect.)

The thing is, not everyone loves American Beauty. At least one of my friends hates it with a passionate fury. Premiere magazine put it on their list of the Most Overrated Films. So needless to say, when I really set out to rebuild my top 100 list, watching this movie again to know just where to place it was a high priority.

My enthusiasm hasn't waned. American Beauty is still a triumph of a script from Alan Ball. He wrote this before Six Feet Under would further plumb the depths of domestic longing -- and long before he'd blend drama with camp on True Blood. His work here is nuanced and multi-faceted. There are half a dozen characters with meaningful story arcs in the film. What you get out of watching the film, what message you perceive, will surely depend on which characters you most identify with.

There's Lester Burnham, a worker drone father, utterly dissatisfied with his life, who finally decides to take charge and pursue joy. Is this a rallying call to change your life? Or are you saddened at the other people harmed by his selfish actions?

What about his wife Carolyn, a woman so consumed by putting on the appearance of success and happiness that she literally attacks herself when her armor shows any sign off cracking. Do you feel sorry for her? Or do you condemn her for ultimately cheating on her marriage?

Take their daughter Jane, a typically disaffected teenager who finds a kindred spirit in the new neighbor boy. Are you happy that she's embracing the one thing to finally bring happiness to her life? Or are you sad that she impulsively risks her future on a guy she's just met?

And what about that boy, Ricky, the young man tortured both by his admiration of beauty in the world and his dictatorial father? Is he a sympathetic soul for enduring the beatings by his father, yet remaining able to see the beauty in life? Or is the fact that he's a drug dealer who might be ruining a young girl's life unforgivable?

What about Jane's friend, Angela? Is she pitiable for having crafted this iron persona that she now struggles to live up to? Or is she a spoiled, stuck-up cheerleader who must now lay in the the bed she's made?

How about Ricky's military father, Frank? He beats his son and has possibly traumatized his wife to the point that she barely speaks. And yet he's also carrying around a secret, the burden of which has piled up to unimaginable proportions.

Add to these principal figures several other entertaining characters to even more fully flesh out the world of this film -- uber-driven real estate tycoon Buddy Kane, and painfully introverted housewife Barbara. Or the most blandly normal couple in the neighborhood, gay partners Jim and Jim.

For such a carefully constructed tapestry alone, I would love this movie. But that's only the tip of the iceberg. Sam Mendes makes his directorial debut here, and the compositions of his shots are impeccable. Every image is carefully framed to suggest thematic echoes, establish character relationships, suggest inner monologue, and more. Few established directors are so precise.

There's an amazing musical score by Thomas Newman. At times, it's wonderfully discordant, gently tear-jerking, or loud and playful. It's a perfectly supportive effort, and stands well on its own too.

And then, of course, there's the amazing cast. Kevin Spacey is a bright star, perfectly inhabiting his character at every stage of his transformation. But don't overlook the rest of them. Annette Bening makes you laugh in one scene and cry in in the next. Chris Cooper makes you fear and hate the same character you feel pity for later in the film. Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, and Mena Suvari all bring wonderful nuance and maturity to their teenage characters. And then there's Allison Janney, Peter Gallagher, Scott Bakula, Sam Robards -- each adding the perfect spice to this perfect meal.

So I can't truly fault the Academy's Best Picture choice here. When I say I liked The Sixth Sense better, it's by only the slimmest of margins. By the time I'm this high up on my Top Movie list, I really have to grasp at tiny reasons to rank one above another. American Beauty is a rock solid, grade A movie. Or, as main character Lester Burham says himself: "Spec... tacular."

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Day of Reflection

I had "just another blog post" lined up for today, but then it somehow felt like I should write something about the tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks. I wanted not to give into that impulse; I mean, it's also the birthday of two different friends, the airing of the fourth season finale of True Blood -- plenty of other "life goes on" occasions that suit me better than a "pause and reflect" attitude.

And yet, here I am, doing it. I guess I decided I did have something to say. So here it is:

My biggest takeaway might be how scared witless and irrational the experience made everybody in America. I don't mean to go far down the political viewpoints road here (though I certainly could), but I remember some of the ways I personally reacted in the days and weeks after the attacks, and they weren't rational.

For example, I was living in a rental house at the time with two other people. That afternoon -- having been sent home early from work -- we found an American flag in the front closet, and started flying it every day for weeks. We'd lived there for months, the flag had been there the entire time, and we'd never flown it. Not for Independence Day, not for nothing. And now we were -- I was -- buying into this false wave of patriotism and flying this flag, as if that was somehow doing anybody any good. Because what else could be done?

I say false patriotism, and probably run the risk of seriously pissing off a few readers. I suppose if you're such a person, you have a more genuine sense of patriotism, and won't know what I mean. I mean that for me, the sentiment was completely false. I'm not an "ask not what your country can do for you" type of guy. Never have been. To me, country is just the people I'm closest to, geographically speaking. America prides itself on being a "melting pot" of all different types, and to whatever degree there is a real national identity -- what is "an American?" -- I don't feel much connected. I'm not like what "most people" in America seem to be, I don't have much in common with them, I don't believe what they seem to believe.

So the notion that I was digging a flag out of the hall closet to buy into the sweeping wave of patriotism? That was me being scared and not knowing what else to do. Okay, on the "scared scale," that's far less an overreaction than, say, rushing off to invade multiple foreign countries (see, I told you I could start down the political road), but the point is that when really crazy shit happens, people can do some really crazy, out of character things.

So my hope here for the anniversary is to never forget. Not the events themselves, though remembering them is fine too. I hope not to forget myself whenever events conspire to make me want to lose my head, and lose myself. Not just if something horrible like that happens in the world at large, but on a personal level, in regular life. I don't mean we should all be robotic or Vulcan or whatever -- I just hope that in me, in everyone, that the brainless, animal reaction doesn't overwhelm the reasoned, thoughtful one.

I'm coming down off the soapbox now. I'll be back to the fun, fluffy movie reviews and such tomorrow.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Doctor Examination

Last night, I went to say the latest viral hit, Contagion. (Wakka wakka!) This movie from director Steven Soderbergh seems to be billed as "Outbreak, but you know, more serious." That is true, but it would probably be even more accurate to call it "Outbreak, but you know, less fun."

Contagion plays more like a documentary about disease outbreak than as an actual piece of dramatic fiction. This isn't to say it's not interesting at times. I have no real idea how accurate the film is about the methodologies of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, but it feels credible and interesting. But ultimately, the movie is supposed to be a work of fiction, filled with interesting characters, and that's where the movie falls flat.

Oh, it has characters. Too many of them. The cast is epic; Steven Soderbergh called every name in his cell phone, and they called every name in theirs. Thus, you end up with one movie that features Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet, Elliott Gould, Bryan Cranston, and more. It's like the Ocean's Eleven of viral outbreak movies.

Except it's not. Ocean's Eleven had over a dozen characters, and each had a distinct personality. You could invest in nearly all of them, even though some had only minutes of screen time. Here, the story is simply divided into too many subplots, and it becomes too hard to care about everybody. I feel for the plight of Matt Damon's character -- and yet he has absolutely nothing to do with the actual curing of the disease, and so his scenes come to feel tedious and unnecessary. I'm intrigued by Marion Cotillard's epidemiologist, but after she's built up in a few interesting scenes, she vanishes for the bulk of the movie (and not for the reason you might think).

Actually, a better way of putting it might be that the movie feels like it wants to be the Game of Thrones of virus stories, and so you can see that its one hour, forty-five minute run time simply isn't sufficient to do the job. A novel or TV mini-series could have given sufficient space to all these subplots to make them interesting. As a movie, all it does is attract a more A-list cast.

I wouldn't call the movie boring, but it's not exactly entertaining either. I rate it a C- overall, and to get that much out of it, you probably have to be a bit of a science nut. Or have a desire to see a goofy-acting and goofier-looking Jude Law wearing a strange prosthetic tooth.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Brotherly Like

Over the years, I've been involved in lots of conversations about people's favorite movies. And if I had to guess, the movie that seemed to come up most often near the top of friends' lists -- that I hadn't seen myself -- was O Brother, Where Art Thou? It was just hard for me to muster the interest with so many strikes against it.

First, it's a Coen Brothers movie. I don't generally think much of their films (even the ones widely thought to be excellent), and sometimes I really hate them. Second, it stars George Clooney. I don't hate him or anything; I just find him to give too similar performances in the movies he makes. Third, country music figures heavily into the story. Well, okay, a more "jugband" sort of sound than country, but it is in any case a style that holds little appeal for me.

But eventually, I got worn down. Finally, enough people told me how much they liked the movie that I said "alright, I'll give it a shot." I even went in assuming there was some chance I would actually like it. There's at least one Coen Brothers movie I really enjoyed (True Grit). Even starring as "George Clooney," George Clooney does sometimes make entertaining films (Ocean's Eleven). And country music... well, okay, I got nothing there. But the point is, I went in with as open a mind as I could muster.

I came out perhaps as well as could be expected. No, I didn't love the movie. But I didn't hate it either, even with all the strikes against it. I "liked it alright." There's plenty of snappy, swift dialogue in the movie. There's a fun, musical quality to the speech above and beyond the actual musical content of the film.

That musical content was actually pretty good too, though the voices they found to sing in place of the actors did not match at all. This was perhaps an intentional choice, though if it was meant to be a joke, I found it distracting, not funny.

George Clooney does manage to turn the dial of his performance probably about as far as he can turn it. There are still plenty of moments where "George Clooney" pokes through, but there are also times when an actual character seems to be there too. His onscreen cohorts, John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson, both play good "id-jits," and there are some fun appearances by John Goodman, Holly Hunter, Stephen Root, and Michael Badalucco.

But from a story perspective, the film didn't hold together at all for me. I know that it's based on The Odyssey by Homer; never having read it, I don't know how close this adaptation is. But the result is a largely episodic tale that often loses its throughline. Indeed, you don't even learn what the throughline is until late in the movie, when it's finally revealed why the main character was driven to escape from his chain gang. In place of a solid single narrative, you get a section about recording a hit record, a section about getting mugged by a Bible salesman, a section about a Ku Klux Klan rally... it's all over the place.

All told, I'd rate the movie a C+. That's not a very high mark for me, though it is the same grade I gave the Coen Brothers' Oscar-winning film No Country for Old Men. So perhaps coming from me, you'd consider that a rave review.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Putting On the Jacket

My incessant usage of FlickChart has amassed a lengthy list of movies I haven't seen. More than I'll ever want to see. But a useful thing about the "Movies I Haven't Seen" list is that it gets ordered by the global rank assigned to it by FlickChart users. In other words, it's probably a good ordered list of "What I Should See Next."

High on the list of movies I hadn't seen was Stanley Kubrick's 1987 war film, Full Metal Jacket. It's been in my Netflix queue for ages -- probably since I first had a Netflix queue. I decided to bump it to the top and see what I'd been missing.

When critic Roger Ebert originally reviewed the film, he gave it an average rating and an overall thumbs down, calling it "strangely shapeless." His colleague Gene Siskel apparently gave him a lot of grief for this opinion, bit I for one am in full agreement. Full Metal Jacket isn't a bad movie, and there are great moments in it. Just don't expect anything resembling a plot to ever show up. The film is just a long series of self-contained episodes ranging anywhere from one to ten minutes each, grouped into two sections: boot camp and Vietnam. Things happen, but no real story is told.

Undoubtedly, this lack of narrative is intentional in order to make several points that might include the following: Vietnam was a war that many people felt had no point to it; Marine training is a day in, day out, demoralizing slog that similarly feels like it has no beginning, middle, or end; war in general "just is." I do understand the stylistic choice. I just don't agree with it. A movie should tell a story and not only present images or episodes; the latter seems more the purview of poetry to me.

With that vaguely rant-like observation out of my system, let me turn to what is good about the film. There's a fine cast, including Matthew Modine, Vincent D'Onofrio, Arliss Howard, Adam Baldwin, and John Terry. Each brings a distinct character to the soldier he plays, a particularly important thing for the boot camp grunts to capture.

But really, if you want to know the reason to watch this movie, it's R. Lee Ermey. His drill instructor Hartman is an iconic character in cinema, well-known even among people who've never seen the movie, and often imitated and parodied (on occasion, even by the actor himself). But there's a reason this actor is famous for this character -- he's that good. He's one of the few people ever allowed to improvise dialogue in a Stanley Kubrick film, and he allegedly improvised nearly all of it. Reports say that he also routinely needed only two or three takes to nail his scenes, even though Kubrick notoriously would do dozens -- even hundreds -- of takes in his filmmaking process. I don't know how better to explain it. He doesn't just become this character; it seems like he is this character.

For Ermey alone, I probably would recommend watching this movie... or at least the first half of it in which he appears. But personally, I find the aimless lack of narrative a fatal flaw in the film, and can only see my way to rating it a C- overall.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Reap Thoughts

For many months now, I've slowly been working my way through the TV series Dead Like Me for the first time. It aired on Showtime just shy of 10 years ago, running only two seasons before being canceled. It's the story of an 18-year-old girl killed in a freak accident, who is then drafted to become a grim reaper. Her job is to "collect souls" of people about to die, and lead them to the beginning of their respective afterlifes. She works with a team of reapers, led by Mandy Patinkin, and including Callum Blue (from The Tudors) and Jasmine Guy (from A Different World, if your memory goes back that far).

My interest in the show was due to the man who created it, Bryan Fuller. He's the mind who created Wonderfalls and Pushing Daisies, two other delightfully quirky (and wonderful) shows that were also cancelled very quickly. Dead Like Me feels very much like the spiritual predecessor of those two shows. It has the whimsical take on death that was a hallmark of Pushing Daisies, and a curmudgeonly young heroine like the one featured in Wonderfalls. Yet while Dead Like Me is enjoyable, it's not as good as either of those successors.

Perhaps this is due to the fact that for Bryan Fuller, the show ended even sooner than two seasons. After only a half-dozen episodes of the first season, he and Showtime parted ways over creative differences. Two other staff writers took over "show runner" duties for the remaining 20-or-so episodes that got made. The overall tone does remain the same; there's no sharp break in the format partway into the first season. But the show does become somewhat repetitious. It spends a lot of time with the heroine's surviving family, trying to deal with the grief of her death. This is tough to invest in as a viewer, since the family rarely interacts with the reapers, the main element of the show.

And as for the reapers... well, it's kind of the same thing, week in and week out. It's fluffy and fun, like a tasty dessert. Occasionally, a more profound statement is made about life and death. But mostly, the show is all about presenting the "quirky death of the hour" -- a gimmick Pushing Daisies did with much greater emotional impact. It's not that Dead Like Me is a bad show. It's just not as good, and not a show to chain-view on DVD, one episode right after the next. The one-a-week pace of its original TV airing feels like the better way to take it in, in my view.

The DVD set of the complete series also includes a TV movie that was made years after the show's cancellation, a possible attempt to revive the series and continue it. I was warned by friends who had seen it that it was pretty lame in comparison to the show itself -- in fact, so strongly and so often that when I finally got around to watching it, my expectations were at rock bottom and I therefore didn't think it was that bad. But it did have an awful lot of lame "buys" it asked of the audience. Mandy Patinkin was on Criminal Minds, unavailable to return (if he'd even wanted to), so his pivotal character from the original series is indecorously disposed of off-screen. Another character is re-cast with a different actress who is far less suited to the role. And yet, from a writing standpoint, the movie does a better job of integrating separate storylines than the show was doing during its original run. And it includes a couple choice scenes that land with stronger emotion that most episodes of the series.

Overall, I'd grade the full package of Dead Like Me a B. If you enjoyed Wonderfalls or Pushing Daisies, then it's definitely something to check out. You'll enjoy it; less, but you will enjoy it. Of course, if you haven't seen either of those other shows, I'd steer you to them instead.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Bowling Score

The shootings at Columbine High School had a powerful effect on me back in 1999. I can't pretend to understand the emotions of the families who lost someone in the tragedy, or of the students and faculty who survived it. I didn't go to school there, and I didn't know anyone who did at the time. Nevertheless, I had been to the school many times growing up. (For the longest time, their school library doubled as the local branch of the county library system.) It was barely 10 minutes from my house. Literally and metaphorically, it felt "close to home."

Needless to say, a few years later, when Michael Moore released his documentary film Bowling for Columbine, the pump was already primed for me to love it unconditionally. And I did, going so far as to include it on my Top 100 Movie list when I originally compiled it. But now it's a decade later, and I'm able to approach the movie with a more reasoning mind. Which is just what I recently did.

I find that today, I'm much more conflicted about the movie. Michael Moore does make a number of great points. Particularly strong is all the material surrounding people who sought to explain the motivation of the shooters by blaming the music they listened to, the clothes they wore, or the video games they played. Then and now, the movie instills me with tremendous respect for Marilyn Manson, who appears in the film and comes off as the most reasonable, compassionate, and intelligent person in it.

I'm similarly compelled by Moore's suggested explanation for this and other gun violence in the U.S.: the sheer number of guns we have, and the ready access to them. He builds a strong case, and effectively takes down weak counterarguments like "we're a more violent culture because we have a more violent history."

But at other times in the film, even as he's won me over, he loses me. For example, he tries to extend his "prevalence of guns" argument to the Lockheed Martin plant here in Littleton, Colorado, suggesting that "of course kids are going to think weapons are cool when their parents go to work every day and manufacture them for a living." My father worked in that exact plant for most of my childhood. During annual family events, I got to tour the very factory floor on which a Lockheed representative is interviewed during the movie. And while what Moore says about Lockheed Martin's weapons manufacturing as a whole may be accurate, the implied statement here is patently false. For many decades, this Littleton factory made rockets for launching commercial payloads and communications satellites. The parents of Moore's analogy were going to work not to make weapons, but to help the world communicate with each other.

Grandstanding stunts are a hallmark of Michael Moore's films. So is making some of his interview subjects look bad (or letting them do it to themselves). And sometimes, it works. In this movie, when he obtains a free rifle for opening an account at a bank, and quips about the wisdom of offering guns at a bank, I want to cheer. When he's letting James Nichols (brother of Oklahoma City bomber Terry) reveal just how crazy he is, I laugh (and shudder). But the next moment, Moore is ambushing Dick Clark, implying it's somehow his fault that a 6-year-old was killed by a gun in a school because the shooter's mother worked at a Dick Clark's American Bandstand restaurant.

And then there's the big finale, where he lands an interview with (the now deceased) Charleton Heston. Frankly, it makes me cringe. From what I know of Heston's politics, there are few people in the world I disagree(d) more strongly with. But I want to see people I disagree with taken down intellectually, with reason. Moore lets Heston come unarmed to a gun battle -- almost in a literal sense. He lands the interview by leading Heston to think he's a proud supporter of the National Rifle Association, and then tears into him with a bunch of questions that the 80-year-old man isn't remotely prepared to answer. I say let the opposition come fully prepared with their best arguments. Tear those down, and you've truly made a point. Steamroll a few off-the-cuff remarks, and you haven't really done anything.

Still, I'd say there's much more good than bad in the film. The examination of Canada is very telling. The critique of "if it bleeds, it leads" media is right on the mark. Ultimately, I rate Bowling for Columbine a B. It's still a good movie. But today, I see its flaws, and realize that it isn't really Top 100 material.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Long Distance Call

I recently went back and watched Contact again (for perhaps the third or fourth time), a movie I haven't seen in many years. It's based on a novel by Carl Sagan, and chronicles the reception of Earth's first communication from an extra-terrestrial intelligence. I remember really enjoying the film myself, and the majority of critical reviews for the film are positive. But the negative reviews all seem to be strong, claws-out criticisms. I wondered what I might think of the movie today.

The elements that drew me in the first time are still plainly evident. This isn't Hollywood blockbuster science fiction. Carl Sagan tried to imagine what contact with aliens might really be like, and the film presents that well enough that it's refreshingly different from any other movie I can think of. Aliens don't land among us, they send a radio transmission from 26 lightyears away, and it's up to scientific ingenuity to figure out how to even understand the message. A story in which outer space meets puzzle solving? Yeah, call me hooked.

The story then goes on to mine deeper thematic territory, with multiple threads exploring the clash between science and faith. ("Faith" in this story usually means "religion," though that isn't always the case.) Among the issues raised by the movie: How would believers in religion react to confirmation of alien life? What role should religious beliefs play in selecting an emissary to communicate with an alien? Is steadfast belief in science itself a form of religion? What happens to the character of a scientist confronted with an experience that can't be rationally explained?

No, this is not a lightweight tale. But in this, I think I can see something of why certain reviewers reacted negatively to the film. In a movie -- even a longish one like this (that runs two-and-a-half hours) -- there's not really enough time to probe deeply into these issues. The questions have to be raised expediently, sometimes in "obvious" ways, and the story must roll on. I've never read Carl Sagan's novel, though I imagine it afforded the space to be more in depth and more subtle with these issues. In other words, I watch the movie, find it thought-provoking, am willing to do the "homework" in thinking about the issues on my own, and like the movie. Those who just stop at what is presented in the movie might find it lacking, too superficial, or too "on-the-nose."

Director Robert Zemeckis deploys a fairly large visual arsenal in telling the story. There's extensive use of virtual sets in the climax of the movie. Then-president Bill Clinton is rotoscoped into a handful of scenes. There are several conspicuous "one-ers" (long takes unbroken by cuts), including one set inside a mirror before the camera finally pulls back into the "real world."

Then there's that opening shot, worthy of mention all by itself. It's a single 3-minute shot created entirely with CG, and at the time was the longest uninterrupted CG sequence in any live action movie. It starts with a view of the curve of the Earth, and then just starts pulling back -- past other planets, out of our solar system, out of our galaxy, and ultimately out of the pupil of our young protagonist's eye. It might seem like a technical overachievement, until you consider the many important roles in plays in the story. It conveys the sheer vastness of the universe (an important point that recurs throughout the film), it defines the sense of wonder and exploration in the main character, and it illustrates the time it takes for radio transmissions to travel from Earth out into deep space.

There's plenty of solid acting in the film. Jodie Foster is a great choice for the protagonist; she's both someone you want to root for, and someone able to easily explain the science for those less savvy in the audience. Matthew McConaughey is a nice foil to represent issues of faith vs. science. James Woods and Tom Skerritt are wonderfully slimy villains, one blatantly adversarial, the other conniving and self-serving. William Fichtner is a fun confidante for the main character, and convincingly plays blindness. John Hurt chews the scenery in two pivotal scenes, and really has fun with it despite the high amount of exposition he has to deliver. David Morse is touching as the protagonist's father. Jake Busey plays a convincing crazed zealot (though one wonders how hard that could have been with his father to model the behavior). And yes, Angela Bassett and Rob Lowe are there too.

I confess that I'm predisposed to like a movie like Contact, but I think I love it because it's just a well made movie. I grade it an A-.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

A Measure Response

It's that time of year again, the time when Terry Brooks publishes his latest novel. This year, it's the second and concluding volume of the Legends of Shannara series, The Measure of the Magic. This two-part series is part of a larger work (begun in Genesis of Shannara), connecting a near-future Earth apocalypse with the world of his classic Shannara books.

When I commented on the first book of this pair, Bearers of the Black Staff, I noted that it made too much use of existing Terry Brooks tropes, but did manage to twist them enough in places that my overall impression was good. This second book is absolutely in keeping with the first.

In terms of his plotting and character development, Brooks is breaking absolutely no new ground in this book. Characters continue to be stock types he's used in past series. The plot largely follows a predictable course, weaving in many Brooks conventions. The writing is brisk and easy to read, but it isn't among Brooks' best compositions.

Still, the book did leave me satisfied overall, because Brooks did spice his meal with a few different elements. This may be the darkest pair of books he's ever written. The stakes are high; more characters die than in a usual Terry Brooks novel (and many of those deaths are more grisly than is typical for him). And then, in the final chapters, there are a few interesting surprises. They don't feel out of place, but I wasn't expecting them from a book that had otherwise followed an established formula.

I suppose it might sound like I'm damning the book with faint praise, but I really would rate it a B+ overall. It's just that Terry Brooks is passing into a different category for me. Once, he was probably my favorite writer. I still think he does what he does very well. But I also have started to look on his annual releases as a sort of "comfort food," not expecting as much as I used to from them (and not really getting it, either). If you've liked his other books, I'm certain you'll like this one. If you aren't a fan already, I'd recommend starting elsewhere for your first Terry Brooks experience (with either Ilse Witch or The Scions of Shannara).

Friday, September 02, 2011

The Origin of the Apes

For a long time, the original 1968 version of Planet of the Apes has been on my "To See" list. It never could quite make it to the top, because I always felt like there might not really be much for me to see there. The premise is well known, and the ending even more so. And I've seen maybe a hundred people impersonating Charleton Heston's near-Earth-orbit acting, serving up his half-dozen famous lines.

But then, pushing back against all that was the recent release of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The new film made me feel like I really should check out the original, particularly when I noticed a few references to the original in it (and had to assume that there were others).

The movie certainly has its share of camp... but no more so than you find in other science fiction stories of the late 1960s. Do these astronauts really believe they've landed on another planet where an entirely different species happens to speak and write English? Do we the audience, once the revelation comes, really believe that an intelligent ape society has sprung up in just 2000 years? Don't ask such questions; just sit back and enjoy the ride.

Admittedly, the ride is pretty enjoyable. Yes, the laughs are unintentional when Heston is beating his fists on the beach or screaming about the "madhouse," but the intentional jokes land the way they should. Ah, monkey humor. I do wish that this ape society would have reacted more realistically to the revelation of a talking human, but that's probably asking for a level of realism that just wasn't in the consciousness of a 1960s science fiction writer. Not a writer for film or television, anyway.

What you do get is some wonderful acting from the various people playing the apes -- particularly from Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter. These actors all have the challenge of working through mostly intractable makeup, but through their fantastic efforts, none of this is half as hokey as it surely could have been. In fact, the least believable character in the movie is Heston's, the astronaut Taylor. Put simply, the guy is a huge jerk. Unbelievably so. He needles and belittles his fellow astronauts every waking moment until he loses his voice. And don't think that experience humbles him in any way, because he's even more arrogant and belligerent in the final act of the film.

The movie makes wonderful use of location shooting. The first act was filmed at Lake Powell in Utah, near the Grand Canyon in Arizona, and in parts of California. The final act takes place in a great cliff setting overlooking a beach somewhere on the California coast. Epic, sweeping photography of all these locations must have done wonders for the tourism industry at the time; it all looks gorgeous. I'm not much of an outdoors person, and I'd totally love to go there and see these places for myself.

Also great is the musical score by Jerry Goldsmith. It's a bit bombastic for todays standards, but in the style of those classic Star Trek action cues that are just fun to listen to even today. Savage drums, screaming horns -- a fitting soundscape for a movie filled with apes.

It's not quite right to say that the movie "holds up" now, over 40 years later, because it really is dated in production values, acting style, writing style... you name it. But even with the metaphorical wires showing, the movie is still fun to watch over 40 years later. Overall, I rate it a B-. Not one of my favorite "classics," but a good measure better than most, in my view.