Monday, October 31, 2011

A Timely Movie

When I first saw the trailer for In Time in front of another movie, I wasn't enthusiastic to see it. It looked like Logan's Run meets action film, a brainless bit of fluff masquerading as something that had at least a little bit of brain. I made no plans to see it.

Then I found out that In Time was written and directed by Andrew Niccol, the writer and director of one of my very favorite movies, Gattaca. I changed my tune immediately. Surely this was just a case of a movie studio cutting a bad trailer, trying to present an intelligent science fiction allegory as a bit of shoot-'em'-up fluff they figured would appeal to the masses.

Sometimes, what you see is what you get.

In Time posits a world (which Harlan Ellison claims was his idea first) in which aging stops at 25 -- at which point every person on Earth has exactly one more year to live before they drop dead on the spot. Time has become the new currency; you sell minutes off your remaining year to buy goods, and work to get minutes put back on your clock. Society has stratified into a strict class culture, where the poor struggle to hang on to life as the rich live almost literally forever.

It all sounds like an interesting jumping off point for some social commentary, doesn't it? And with so-called "class warfare" being a hot political issue these days, surely the man who wrote Gattaca has some provocative things to say on the matter.

Or maybe he just wants to make a sci-fi Bonnie and Clyde. Despite the intriguing set-up, In Time quickly devolves into a running, jumping, chasing, shooting action flick. And a mindless one at that. One character after the next engages in behavior that makes absolutely no sense, given the circumstances. Good guys triumph not through their own ingenuity, but through dumb luck, and stupidity on the part of the villains.

The movie wasn't a total loss, as some of the action was at least interesting, as action for action's sake goes. Also, Justin Timberlake is likeable enough in the starring role. (Anyone who might question his acting chops clearly hasn't seen The Social Network or Alpha Dog.) The rest of the cast falls short, though. Amanda Seyfried is a personality free love interest; Cillian Murphy is surprisingly dull as the investigator pursuing the hero; Vincent Kartheiser is just a cartoonishly more weaselly version of his Mad Men character; Matt Bomer is unable to convey his character's motivations in his limited screen time (and the script does him no favors); Johnny Galecki is supposed to be 25 years old? (Yeah, right.)

I'm shocked to find that I'd ever be recommending a Michael Bay movie, but if you're looking for a shallow sci-fi chase film, The Island delivered better thrills. In Time, I rate an average C.

Sunday, October 30, 2011


With Halloween tomorrow, bringing with it the final day of haunted houses, I hesitate to even mention this. But I had a fun experience last night at a haunted house here in Denver, and I figured that some of you might be looking for something to do tomorrow night.

It's the Spider Mansion, at Heritage Square near Golden. It's a 5 to 10 minute experience with all sorts of fun different elements. There are several actors scattered throughout, dressed both as famous horror movie characters and general scary archetypes. The scares are well placed to get you from directions you aren't expecting. I'd say more, but it would kind of spoil the fun, now wouldn't it?

But I will offer two tips. First, for this haunted house in particular: they allow no more than 4 people in at a time, and the line gets long. I would imagine it will be longer still tomorrow. So if you go, do yourself the favor and pay the extra $7 for the VIP pass that lets you jump the line.

Next, a tip for haunted houses in general: take a screamer with you. Though I did enjoy this experience, it wasn't as fun as the last time I visited a haunted house two or three years ago. Why? I didn't have a jumpy, nervous screamer going through the place with me. Without such a person, sure, you get a few good startles. You appreciate the atmosphere. But you don't really get into the experience. Next year, I'm totally taking a screamer.

Happy Halloween, everyone.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Sea Minus

I recently watched the 2002 film The Salton Sea, starring Val Kilmer. It's vaguely a film noir, in that the main character is a narrator and that there is a bit of a mystery in play, but it's more of a "drug haze" movie. The subject wasn't of particular interest to me, but I had heard some positive reviews of it -- and in particular, heard that Val Kilmer was very good in it.

It turns out that the film has a pretty significant twist in the plot. A couple, arguably. It's not necessarily a "twist ending," but it does unfortunately play out that way, because the turn is held back until the onset of the final act. And I found that a shame, because frankly, I found the film a bit boring up to that point.

Up to that point, the film really is nothing more than a drug haze movie, a Blow or a Requiem for a Dream. I at least liked it more than the latter of those films. Requiem for a Dream relied heavily on crazy camera work and rapid editing to convey the world of drug use, where The Salton Sea doesn't need to stoop to tricks. It relies on the solid performances of Kilmer, Vincent D'Onofrio, Peter Sarsgaard, and others. The acting requires no trickery to sell the environment.

But when the real truth of the story arrives -- and I think I can say this without actually spoiling too much -- the film is revealed to be a revenge story. It's far more compelling. The movie becomes less "diorama" and more "story," and is infinitely better for it. But I confess that I'd been driven past the point of no return by then. I'd already become bored, and a strong ending wasn't going to completely save the experience for me.

Not completely, anyway. It certainly turned it around to a place where, though I wouldn't really recommend the film, I wouldn't call it "bad" either. I'd grade it about a C- overall. I'd much rather the script had just laid all the cards on the table early to draw the audience in, rather than try to keep us guessing.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Taking It Down a Notch

Last night, I went to see the band Portishead in concert. I was not at all familiar with their music before being asked a while back if I wanted to go. When I went and listened to one of their older albums, I found them a difficult band to categorize.

In some ways, I heard touches of Evanescence in the band. The voice of the lead singer, Beth Gibbons, definitely reminds me of Evanescence's Amy Lee. But the comparison basically ends there. The music itself it much more low key, perhaps brushing against new age as Evanescence brushes against "nu metal."

There's probably not much point in me "reviewing" the concert in the traditional sense, because if you want to see them yourself, you probably can't now (unless you live in Europe). The English band almost never tours on this side of the Atlantic, and last night's show was the final one in this particular American tour. But it was a very different concert experience that I did feel I had to comment on.

Basically, this was the most mellow concert experience I've ever had. (Admittedly, my concert experience isn't all that great, though -- so take that with a grain of salt.) I couldn't help but contrast it with my recent night out to see Primus. Primus is just three people, in many ways making as much music as they possibly can. Portishead had six musicians on stage, making maybe half the sound of Primus. It was a study in restraint; measured instrumentation, threadbare riffs, atmospheric vocals. This is not to say that the experience was "less," but markedly different.

Usually, when I go to a concert, my eyes are peeled the entire time. I want to take in every part of the spectacle, watch how the musicians play, watch for fun people in the crowds -- everything. With Portishead, I felt the goal was not just to entertain, but to transport. I found myself wanting to just close my eyes and let the music pour over me, to feel the sonic vibrations and see the play of the lights behind my eyelids. Hmmm. Describing it, I admit that might sound a bit drug trippy. But I find myself hard pressed to describe the experience well.

I do know that I enjoyed myself, though. It was great to have a concert experience that wasn't all high octane, pulse-pounding backbeats. A fun and refreshing change of pace.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

A Perfect Kiss

About six years ago, when it was playing in theaters, I wrote a review of the movie Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. A rather lame and superficial review. I figure that between that injustice I did to the film, and the fact that it's now over half a decade later, writing about the film again would be okay.

In short: go watch this movie!

The longer version: this movie was written and directed by Shane Black, the man who wrote the first two Lethal Weapon movies. He was a pioneer in the "buddy cop" genre, and in this film, he tweaks everything he made quasi-sacred. Robert Downey Jr. stars as a petty thief who gets mistaken for an actor, and is thrown into training to play a detective in an upcoming movie. He trains by shadowing a private detective played by Val Kilmer. The two of them wind up embroiled in a murder conspiracy, and hilarity ensues. Lots of hilarity.

The comedy in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang plays on many levels. At its most shrewd, it comments on movie-making itself. The whole "I'm an actor" conceit is a vehicle to skewer spoiled Hollywood celebrities. The main character himself is the narrator, and a really lousy one. He gets bits wrong, or out of order, or muddled. And he doesn't just tell his story, he talks to the audience with full knowledge of the fact that he's telling a story... and doing it badly.

But then there are base slapstick jokes, clever sight gags, speedy word play, and all sorts of other humor peppered throughout the film. It's like an episode of Arrested Development, packed so tightly that it rewards multiple viewings.

Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer are both fantastic in this movie (as is the "femme fatale" of this psuedo-noir, Michelle Monaghan). Downey is sarcastic and self-aware, and totally likeable. Kilmer is equally coarse but fun, berating his partner for believing in every stupid cliché about movies, the private detective business, and more. And an extra bonus about the Downey/Kilmer pairing is the reputation both had as actors at the time. Kilmer was and still is widely known to be difficult to work with. Downey was coming off his second plunge into drug abuse, pre-Iron Man and pre-Sherlock Holmes, at a point in his career where no one would work with him. That two "impossible" actors would appear together in the same movie? Unreal!

You don't have to like either actor, or the detective genre, to like this movie -- though you'll certainly love it more if you do. It's enough to simply like storytelling in general, as this movie is such a carefully crafted send-up of the process. In that original review, I rated the movie an A-, and expressed uncertainty about whether it would be on my top 100 movie list. Having watched it again lately, let me amend all that: it's a grade A movie, and definitely is on my list.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Before There Was Tru Blood...

Around 15 years ago (holy crap -- it was 15 years ago!), I had a regular RPG night with my friends. We played Vampire (The Dark Ages version) every week or two, playing the same characters for over two years. Good times.

I actually have a souvenir of those times. One night, one of the group came in with several bottles of wine. He saw it in the store, it was cheap, and so on a lark, he bought us each our very own bottle of... Vampire wine.

It turns out they still make the stuff: see?

Anyway, I kept the bottle. Intact, actually. I took it with me when I moved to Virginia, a memento of my friends back in Colorado. I brought it back with me when I returned. It has survived no less than six moves, and I've never been tempted to open it because I'm really not much of a wine drinker.

But recently, I have to confess to some twisted curiosity. I mean, I'm sure a worthless bottle of wine aged 16 years is still a worthless bottle of wine. But I'm still friends with all of the people who were in that old role playing group. Maybe there would be so kitsch value in popping open the bottle some time when we're all together and letting everyone have a taste. I mean, I could still keep the bottle as a memento afterward, and then there would be two stories to go with it -- the receiving it, and the drinking of it.

Or maybe it's better to just hang onto it until it's a 20-year old bottle of wine. Or 30. Or more. Maybe I should save it to pop open some day when I'm old and grey, and use it to recapture memories of my youth?

Or maybe I'll just be disappointed at what I waited for for decades.

I'm not sure there's a point to me sharing any of this, other than: hey, I didn't have anything better to talk about tonight; did you know there's Vampire wine?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A Sexy Movie

One of these days, I'm going to learn my lesson and stop watching "biopics." Movies that bring you the life story of some person, no matter how compelling the person, always seem to bore. Whether its audience knowledge of how the "story" will end, or a meandering lack of story caused by overstuffing the film with minute details, I can't think of a biopic that's truly entertained me.

And yet, I recently gave another one a try: Kinsey. This is the story of the scientist who in the 1940s did pioneering research into human sexuality, and caused quite a storm with the books he published on the subject.

It was the cast that pulled me in. Liam Neeson plays the title character, and I don't think I've ever seen him be bad in anything. Laura Linney plays his wife, while his research team includes Peter Sarsgaard, Chris O'Donnell, and Timothy Hutton. Want more? Okay, you've got John Lithgow as his father, and other colleagues, financers, and subjects played by Tim Curry, Oliver Platt, Dylan Baker, William Sadler, John Kaskinski, and Lynn Redgrave. Not to mention numerous other unknowns who seem to be bolstered to great performances of their own by the exceptional talent surrounding them. A better cast has rarely been assembled.

There are even a handful of good scenes in the movie. There's an unconventional seduction. An awkward dinner. And possibly the most uncomfortable sex scene I've seen in a mainstream film. All a testament to the aforementioned cast.

But the movie never can transcend the biopic problem. In this case, the movie spends far too much time setting up Kinsey in his years before switching his research field. The entire first act is filled with his attempts to catalog wasps -- not really relevant to his legacy or to establishing his character, and the significance of which isn't clearly articulated in the film.

The film also doesn't really have an ending. The final act tracks the defunding of his research due to its controversial nature, but lacks any real sense of closure. The movie never says "that was it." It doesn't follow Kinsey to his death, to his failure to continue his work, to whatever... I honestly don't know what happened to the man after this. The film just reaches a certain minute count, and then just stops. No summation, no message, no nothing.

If you want to see some fine acting, the film might entertain you -- though I suspect it will bore you at stretches too. But ultimately, I rate it a C-. You might not find all these actors in one movie, but you could certainly find them all individually in better movies.

Monday, October 24, 2011

A Fright Night at the Movies

'Tis the season! Halloween! I got involved in a discussion with a friend today about good movies to watch at this time of year. What started off as a trickle ended up a torrent of suggestions. I thought to myself, maybe there are others out there looking for a good movie (or movies) to watch during this week leading up to Halloween. So here come a few suggestions.

I'm going to start with the assumption that you've seen "the classics" and the well-known, mainstream options -- Halloween, The Thing, Poltergeist, The Ring, Alien, and so forth. If you haven't, go watch them; my work is done. Beyond that, however, I'm going to try to dig a little deeper -- worthy films that, in my experience, most people I know have not seen.

If you liked Halloween... I suggest The House of the Devil. Though made just a couple years ago, it is a faithful and loving homage to the tense slasher films of the late 70s and early 80s.

If you liked The Thing... I recommend Frailty. There's actually no "monster movie" comparison to be drawn between the two. But like The Thing, the core of this movie is the question: "how do you survive when you have no one you can trust?" And the situation is far more realistic (and therefore unsettling).

If you liked Scream... try Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon. Like Scream, the movie has a lot of humor, and makes sport of tweaking slasher film clichés.

If you like gore... watch Slither. There's plenty of humor here too; the movie doesn't take itself at all seriously. But it's also the most disgusting horror film I've seen in the past decade or so -- in a good way.

I hope this has been of use to you Halloween fans out there. Happy holidays!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Active Avoidance

Many movie critics and entertainment journalists have written articles over the past few years praising the virtues of going to see a movie on the big screen. As prices rise and theater-goer manners plummet, some people feel compelled to take up a battle cry and say that going to the movies is still an experience worth having. And me, I mostly buy it; there are plenty of movies that I want to go see in the theater.

But I'm also thinking that there are some movies that are better suited to viewing at home.

I was discussing this weekend's new movie, Paranormal Activity 3, with my boyfriend. We've both seen the two prior films. We both enjoy scary movies. But we decided not to go to the theater to check this one out. And that came about from us comparing notes on those past experiences.

When I went to see the first Paranormal Activity, it was still a month or so before it actually opened nationwide. At that point, a guerrilla marketing was in full swing, trying to build up word of mouth about this low budget independent film. The movie was being screened only in a few cities (mostly college towns), and only at midnight. You had to work to see this movie, and I drove up to Boulder to do so. And I did enjoy that experience (obviously enough to then want to see the sequel a year later), but it didn't blow me away.

My boyfriend, on the other hand, watched Paranormal Activity alone in his house at night. Like me, he enjoyed it without being wowed. But then, the movie ended. And with no "decompression time," he was... alone in his house at night. Wait. What was that noise? Was it the cat? Was it the furnace? Was it something coming from... the attic?

I must say, the "immersive" experience sounded a hell of a lot more appealing to me than the "saw it first" experience. Not to mention, "saw it first" doesn't even apply here -- Paranormal Activity 3 was far and away the number one movie this weekend. Tons of people saw it.

So, despite the good reviews that critics have unexpectedly bestowed on the film, I've decided not to see it. I think this is one to wait for on DVD a few months down the road.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Nook Again

Several months ago, I wrote about my purchase of a Nook e-reader. I'm bringing it up again to just confirm that this was an awesome purchase. I'm a total convert to the whole e-reader thing now. It hasn't quite reached the point where I've decided to purchase an e-book for reading even when I already have access to a physical copy, but I can't say for certain that won't happen some day.

There are a couple of down sides, I admit, but they seem pretty minor. Basically, you can't use it during airplane takeoffs and landings (my tip: bring a magazine). And if you're a "read in the bubble bath" type of person, you'll lose considerably more if you accidentally drop your book. But aside from that, it's a big win.

In fact, I've actually found that I've read more books so far in the months since getting the Nook than I did for probably the last year or two. It has me back in a habit that I probably haven't truly been in since before college. (Ah, college, the moment when reading stopped being recreational for me and became work.)

If you're on the fence about an e-reader purchase, I'll throw it out there one more time. Do it! You'll love it!

Friday, October 21, 2011

When Everything Is Not Enough

A good helping of critical praise was heaped on last year's small independent film, Everything Must Go. It stars Will Ferrell as a lapsing alcoholic who loses his job on the same day his wife kicks him out of the house, leaving all his possessions on the lawn. The 90-minute film is about his slow journey to acceptance of what has happened, as shown externally by his decision to sell off his stuff in a yard sale.

I'm on the fence about Will Ferrell as an actor. I don't like him at all when he's in stupid mode, stripping down for a cheap laugh. But he has a more intelligent mode of humor as well, and has shown some decent dramatic chops too (in films like Stranger Than Fiction), so I figured this might be worth a shot.

Unfortunately, the movie doesn't really seem to amount to much. It's too dark and dry to include too many jokes, but it's too simple a premise to say anything really profound. The main character is simultaneously pitiable for his predicament, and deplorable for the role he had in its making; he's hard to root for or against.

Really, the movie feels like an experimental one-act play. It's even mostly confined to one "set," the front lawn of his former house. And as a play, it feels like the playwright needed to "workshop" it a bit more. The movie doesn't really have a message or a point of view, but plays out as perhaps some episode from someone's actual life, where the writer said "hey, that would make a good movie" without really dressing it all up for the occasion.

Will Ferrell is good enough in his role, and the cast includes some other good performers, including Laura Dern and Stephen Root. It's not bad. There's just not much to it, and it becomes boring far too quickly. I'd call it a C-.

Really, I'm not sure how much hype small movies like this really get, but if you've heard any, don't believe it.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Just One More Thing

I've already written a review of the new prequel to The Thing. But I was involved in an interesting discussion earlier this week, and now feel compelled to revisit it. My core review hasn't changed, but there was an aspect to the film I didn't mention before.

For all the movie's flaws, it's abundantly clear that the writer and director have a reverence for John Carpenter's original film. The script goes to great lengths to explain away every last detail about the state of the Norwegian camp as seen in the first movie. What's with the missing grenade? What's with the axe in the wall? You probably weren't burning for the answers to these questions, but the movie provides the answers all the same.

But here's the particularly interesting... uh... thing. I mentioned in my review that this new film comes up with a new way in which a Thing can possibly be identified. And it turns out that this too connects with the original film, specifically its ending.

If you've never seen the 1982 John Carpenter film, turn away right now, go do that, and come back later. Or, if you're pressed for time, know that it had an ambiguous ending, and then skip the rest of this paragraph. You may recall that the movie ends with Kurt Russell's character staggering away from the flaming wreckage of the Antarctic base, only to encounter one other survivor. The trouble is, neither one knows whether the other has been replaced by one of the creatures. Unable to trust each other, they settle down to freeze to death in the subzero night.

The new method used in the prequel film to identify a Thing can actually be applied to that final scene of the original movie. And it turns out, it provides a conclusive answer. Okay, sorry to keep interrupting the flow here, but now I have to warn you away from spoilers about the new film; if you don't want to know anything about it, you're just going to have to opt out of this post now.

Last chance.

Okay, in the prequel, the main character is able to tell that her partner has been replaced because the earring he was wearing -- an inorganic (and therefore unmimicable) piece of material -- has gone missing. Well, take this knowledge back to the final scene of the original, and it turns out that Childs (the character encountered by Kurt Russell's MacReady) has an earring! So he is in fact human. And of course, we the audience have been following MacReady every step of the way; we know he's not a Thing either. So it turns out that the two survivors at the end of the film are survivors. Neither is a Thing.

Now, on the one hand, I kind of feel like this revelation cheapens the ending of the original film. That final note of uncertainty was the perfect way to close a film all about distrust. But, on the other hand, the bleak hopelessness of the ending is unchanged. If anything, it's even darker now -- we know that two human survivors probably froze to death because neither could trust the other.

I just don't know how to feel about it. Except I will say this: given how meticulously the writer planned all those connections between the new prequel and the original, I have to assume that this connection was intentional and not accidental. And on that front, I have to say "job well done" on finding a way to inject new insight into a nearly 30 year old film. It certainly sparked some discussion among my friends.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Something Special

I was recently involved in a discussion of interesting DVD special features -- good, bad, and ugly. As someone with a too-large DVD collection, I've seen my share of each category. Here are a few that came up:

Insomnia -- The director's commentary on this film by Christopher Nolan presents the movie in the order in which it was filmed. You get to see the out-of-order jumble that is the standard for movie making, and marvel how anyone can keep it all straight.

Galaxy Quest -- This disc has an alternate audio track that plays the whole movie in Thermian, the language of the movie's aliens. Well, I think the whole movie. No one has ever made it through the whole thing.

The Abyss -- The special edition of this film has a warts-and-all documentary that shows what a tyrant director James Cameron is on the set. But he did get results here.

Total Recall -- I've mentioned this one before, but it bears mentioning again. This disc has a terrible commentary track of Paul Verhoeven and Arnold Schwarzenegger narrating everything that happens on screen in incomprehensible accents.

The Matrix -- The box set of all three movies has a pair of commentaries for each film, one by two philosophers who ate up all that heroes' journey junk with a spoon, and one by a group of film critics who loved the original film but trashed the two sequels in their reviews (and do so again at length in the commentaries).

The Mist -- Director Frank Darabont originally wanted to release this movie in black-and-white, but couldn't get the studio to go for it. But you can see his original vision by selecting the special black-and-white presentation of the movie on the DVD.

Can anyone think of other good ones?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Primus Numbers

Last night, I went to see Primus in concert. They were returning to Denver after playing Red Rocks only a few months ago, to further promote their recently released album, Green Naugahyde. This concert, in a much smaller and intimate venue, was probably more my speed anyway.

The thing is, the three musicians in Primus (Les Claypool on bass, Larry LaLonde on guitar, and Jay Lane on drums) are crazy talented. Whether you like their music or not, I think you can still appreciate that there just aren't many rock musicians today that can play at this level. At a place like Red Rocks, I don't think this can be fully appreciated. But last night, at the Ogden Theater, I was looking forward to really watching them play, to see how they were making the music with their instruments.

From that standpoint, I'm sorry to say that the concert was a little bit of a disappointment. I felt like a group of magicians were doing their best to actively prevent you from figuring out how the tricks are done. The drummer was hiding behind a massive kit of at least 20 pieces; it was hard to see inside and actually watch him play (from my vantage point below stage level). The guitarist was standing in the dark for most of the concert; the lighting design seemed uninterested in showcasing someone who wasn't the vocalist, and he had no idea how (or desire to) find a light to stand in. And leading the band, Les Claypool didn't seem to want to face the audience any more than was strictly necessary; whenever he wasn't singing (and if you don't know many Primus songs, know that they tend to have much longer instrumental sections than vocal sections), he spent about 80% of the time with his back to the audience, twitching-dancing in place and maybe watching the giant video screen behind the band.

By all that, I mean that I wouldn't call myself a "fan" of Primus, I'm absolutely an admirer of their skill and technique, and felt disappointed that I wasn't really able to study it during the show.

It was still a good show, at least. They played two sets themselves; no opening act. The first set was a sampling of many of their best-known classic songs, while the second was the entirety of their new album, in order. The crowd was certainly into it, with some people putting on a bit of a show themselves with their air instruments and wild dancing. (And of course, Primus having a bit of a reputation as a "jam band," lots of weed wafting through the air.)

Unless you're actually a fan of the band, or way into the technique of making music as I am, I'm not sure you'd enjoy seeing Primus live. But if you're in either of those camps, you should definitely check out the band if they tour near you.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Almost Great Beyond

I just watched one of the more recent of director Clint Eastwood's myriad films, the 2010 drama Hereafter. A different title would have conveyed the flavor of the film more effectively; imagine it had been called "Death Actually."

Okay, this movie doesn't actually have the sprawling cast and numerous subplots of Love Actually. Nor is it anywhere near as good a film. But the structure is similar, in that three different (and for most of the film, unrelated) stories are presented involving characters grappling with death in a variety of ways. There's a woman who's coming to terms with her own near death, a psychic unable to live a normal life because of his visions of the dead, and a young boy who has just lost his identical twin brother.

It's all heavy material, and yet perhaps not as heavy as I would actually have preferred it to be. There are a few scenes that pull on the heart strings, and yet I feel like the movie spends too much time on the supernatural, the ethereal, to really provoke the powerful emotional responses.

A fair chunk of the cast is unlikely to be recognized by most audiences. The couple of faces likely to register are Matt Damon (returning to work with Eastwood again after Invictus) and Jay Mohr (not remotely comedic, in an uncharacteristically serious role). Still, the mostly unknowns are actually one of the stronger elements of the film. French actress Cécile de France conveys strength and vulnerability where needed, while young twins Frankie and George McLaren actually play the most emotional drama in the film, and very effectively.

Hereafter is actually a decent and entertaining film, but it's also really "just good enough" to make me imagine the even better film it could have been. It's intriguing, but stops short of going really deep. It tugs on a few emotions, but doesn't go on to present anything truly profound. I'd rate it a B-.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

And Another Thing

The reviewers weren't being kind, but I still had to go see The Thing this weekend. John Carpenter's 1982 film The Thing is in my top 100, safely far enough up the list that it will probably always be there, so I just couldn't help but want to see what they'd do now, almost 30 years later. It couldn't possibly be good, though, right? Prequel, following up a beloved movie? Recipe for disaster.

I lowered my expectations so much that this movie managed to slip over them. Actually, for the first half of the movie, it cleared my expectations by a fair amount. This new incarnation of The Thing started out with a pretty firm grip on the same sense of paranoia as the first. It had a few standout interesting (and smart) characters. And it seemed to not just rely on CG; there were several actual effects used to portray the creatures, lending the film a faithful continuity with John Carpenter's film.

But it couldn't quite sustain. The roster of characters was a bit too long to make every character matter. CG effects stepped in in increasingly flashier ways; along the way, the psychological thrills gave way to conventional monster movie scares. And the characters stopped acting smart and instead were just lucky enough to keep on surviving. (The ones that did, anyway.)

Making the main protagonist a woman was an interesting choice, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead portrays her well. Concocting another way in which a "thing" might be identified (different from the memorable blood test of the first film) was clever. But ultimately the film gives in to simpler urges and becomes a "run from the killer" movie that is only marginally more interesting for having a more unconventional killer. And of course, there's the problem of all prequels -- that you know exactly where the story has to end up in order to facilitate the beginning of the prior (er, subsequent) story.

Overall, I'd rate the film a C+. It's good enough not to offend you that someone tried to revisit The Thing. But neither is it good enough to truly recommend.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Grading the New Class

In years past, I've often blogged about some of the new television shows debuting in the fall. I didn't do that this year, I suppose, because none of the shows I sampled really grabbed me that strongly. Here's a quick rundown of what I've (for the most part) already stopped watching.

Pan Am -- Interchangeably dressed characters in a tiny, bland set. The first episode was slow paced, despite being stuffed full with plot threads -- runaway bride, disappearing girlfriend, undercover spy, extramarital affairs, and more. The second episode was so dry, I couldn't finish it.

2 Broke Girls -- I was halfway through the first episode before it made me laugh, and then I thought "maybe this isn't so bad after all." I found the next two episodes to be more like the first half of the pilot than the second. The "highlights" every week were horse poop jokes. No thanks. It's a shame, too, because the two lead actresses were both very good, bringing unexpected dimension, believability, and likeability to their lame, stock characters.

Terra Nova -- The two-hour pilot was surprisingly dull, considering the plot included dinosaurs and time travel. And that was as good as it got. The next two episodes were lamely recycled Star Trek plots, with shallow characters and weak acting.

Ringer -- If it wasn't for Sarah Michelle Gellar's "Buffy aura," I wouldn't have made it through as many episodes of this as I did. Cheesy soap opera stuff that actually did get kind of awesome in the last three minutes of every episode. Too bad it's a 42 minute show.

Revenge -- I haven't bailed on this show yet, but I probably should. It's also cheesy soap opera, but executed much better than Ringer. The problem is, after only three or four episodes, the series is already as formulaic in its own way as any of the myriad crime dramas that run on network television. You know the exact format to every single episode.

Person of Interest -- A cool gimmick, the whole "system with spy cameras all over the city" premise. Good actors, too. But from these good ingredients sprang the most conventional crime-of-the-week series, just like the 12 others CBS has on its schedule.

Homeland -- This Showtime series, running after Dexter, is the one new show I have some enthusiasm for at this point. A rescued Iraq war veteran is suspected by a federal agent (with poor credibility) of having been turned into a sleeper agent. It seemed like the show was going to play the "is he a spy or isn't he?" game for the duration of its season, but then seemed to come out and declare the truth at the end of the first episode. Suddenly, I'm intrigued to see just what sorts of stories they are planning to tell. And the solid cast includes Claire Danes, Damian Lewis, Morena Baccarin, and Mandy Patinkin.

There are a few more new shows still to come later this month, but overall, I'd say it's a pretty lackluster new crop this year. Which is probably fine. I need to watch less TV anyway.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Train (Criss-)Crossing

I've been slowly working my way through the Alfred Hitchcock canon -- just periodically, not methodically. This recently brought me to Strangers on a Train, the famous story that has inspired numerous subsequent murder stories. Two strangers meet on a train (I know, shocking from the title!), and converse about the people they wish were out of their lives. One carries through with the over-the-top notion to each murder the other's victim, and drama ensues.

There's a lot about the movie that works. The acting is rather good for it's time. Farley Granger (also seen in Rope) stars as a tennis player with a conniving wife that won't grant a divorce. Granger plays just the perfect notes of spinelessness that make the whole plot possible. You believe he'd be nice enough not to reject the crazy man approaching him on the train at the start of the film. You believe he'd be panicked enough not to go to the police early while he has the chance. You believe he's too soft to envision a way out of his position. Truly skillful work. And Robert Walker, as the other part of the equation, is a very capable psychopath. He's just the right amount of unhinged, just the right amount of refined.

The visual style of the film is superb. The film is in black and white, and makes excellent use of the format. Harsh lights and deep blacks are carefully used to drive the duality of the characters and the story. There's extensive use of rear-screen projection that, while not good enough to fool the eye today, certainly opens up the film enormously in scope. And then there's the thrilling visual climax, a fight on an out of control carousel. The breaking down of the carousel is a truly spectacular visual effect for 1951, and must have truly gripped and terrified the audiences of the time.

The writing, however, lets the film down too frequently. The movie is asking you to believe a lot -- that a man would be so unstable that after a chance meeting on a train, he'd feel compelled to commit murder. The 10 minutes at the top of the film just aren't deft enough to make this idea credible, and actor Robert Walker must step in to bridge the gap.

He does so, as I noted earlier, presenting a truly creepy character that almost convinces you the story could happen. Except that the script then saddles the character with pangs of guilt in the second act. It's impossible to believe that the man who would commit the act at all, the man with the calm composure displayed throughout the first hour, would start to come unraveled later on.

And then there's that climax I mentioned on the carousel. Though it may have made for a dazzling visual, the situation is simply preposterous. It's set up by a police officer firing into a crowd of innocent bystanders, and illustrating exactly why this would never actually happen -- he hits one, the ride operator, who slumps over on the carousel controls. You are then asked to believe that carousels actually have a "fly itself apart" speed that dutiful ride operators are keeping them from achieving. There's just no moment of the finale that is in any way believable.

There are plenty of people to make an audience that could see past these flaws. Film historians could appreciate what was accomplished for the time. People who prize strong visuals in a movie would find much to love here. But story is pretty key for me, and in that area, I felt the film had too much weight dragging it down to receive a high mark. I rate it a C overall.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

#1 With a Bullet

So last night, I'm settling in to watch some with some company, and I hear this noisy cricket on my side patio doing its thing. I'm certain I'm never going to find the thing to deal with it, but I'm too annoyed not to at least try. Of course, we didn't find the cricket.

We did find a bullet.

An unfired, 9mm Luger bullet, just sitting on my patio by the grill.

What. The. Hell?

I suppose it's possible that someone has taken out a hit on me and this is some sort of warning. Or maybe a time-traveling Nazi was hiding on my patio and dropped it there.

I think the most likely explanation is that the people living in the condo above me were messing with this out on their patio and dropped it. Or maybe it was carried there by this particular cat in my complex that seems to sometimes get confused and think it lives at my place. (Now and then, it stops at my porch and meows to be let in.)

I don't particularly feel like knocking on my upstairs neighbor's door to say, "hey, is this your bullet?" But I'm not sure I want to just throw a bullet in the trash, either. So for the moment, it's just sitting here on my mantle, perhaps waiting for a few dozen compatriots to show up to make an interesting necklace or belt or something.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A Hunger for Reading

For quite some time now, I'd been hearing how good The Hunger Games series is. The books are filed in the young adult section, but often likened to Harry Potter in the sense that there's plenty within for adult readers too. A film adaptation of the first book is coming next spring, and I resolved that I wanted to read the book before it arrived.

I was pleased to find that the book is all that people brag about and more. It's a very engaging story with vivid characters, clever plotting, and deft writing. And how it got classified as a young adult book completely escapes me. Okay, there's no sex or cursing, and the main character is a teenager. Is that alone enough to qualify for the genre despite an avalanche of rather graphic violence?

The Hunger Games is the first-person narrative of Katniss, a teenage girl in a dystopian future where 24 children are drafted annually to participate in a televised battle to the death for the entertainment of the masses. The book works because this character works. Katniss is a credible teenager with moments of self-involvement and definite blinds spots... but she's not annoying or too self-involved. And she's whip smart. She thinks her way out of many situations over the course of the book, and rarely if ever does something stupid without damn good reason.

It's going to be a challenging film adaptation, if you ask me. On the one hand, the gladiatorial setting is a natural for the screen. But that first-person element of the book is going to be a challenge. It seems like far too much material to convert to narration, and yet so much of what Katniss does has ulterior motives that the book is able to clearly articulate to the reader. What she does in the movie may not make sense without that insight into her thought process.

But that's a matter for later discussion. For now, I'll just celebrate the triumph of the novel itself. I grade it an A, and plan to continue on with the other two books in the series in the near future.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Fourth Down

It slipped by me in theaters earlier this year, but now that it has arrived on DVD, I had to give Scream 4 a shot. I thought the original was a really solid film (surprisingly so, perhaps), and while the sequels were examples of diminishing returns, they didn't slip so far that I wasn't willing to see what one more swing at the pinata might produce.

Perhaps a decade is too long a wait, compared to the handful of years separating the original trilogy. Too much time to expect too much. In any case, I found Scream 4 to be a disappointment.

There were still some clever elements to the script. A lot has happened since the last Scream was made, and the movie did advance with the times. Phones played a very important role in the franchise from the beginning, and the film advances with the times to incorporate the ubiquity of cell phones. The franchise has also always been very self-aware, tweaking horror cliches to good effect. It now tackles the new cliches -- "torture porn," remakes, inexplicable plot twists just for the sake of surprise -- and also gets good mileage out of these ideas.

And yet the movie is also too much an homage to its own roots to be truly entertaining. All the big moments are echoes of the same moments from the original film. For a while, this is a good gag when the film itself comments on this, but soon the gag wears thin. And the greater sin is that the entire movie becomes quite predictable. Knowing the end of the first film makes it virtually impossible to not guess the end of this film.

The dialogue isn't quite as snappy, the characters aren't quite as entertaining... it's all the pieces of Scream, but simply brought out of storage and put back into use. Nothing about it feels like it was polished to look nice for the occasion. I'd rate it a C. There are far worse horror movies out there, and a horror fan certainly isn't going to hate this one. But it doesn't really get the blood racing either, which is the real mark of a good film in this genre.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Too Much -- Not Enough

Just before I switched my HBO subscription over to Showtime (bye-bye True Blood; hello Dexter) last month, I recorded a whole slew of movies I figured could become my new "Netflix instant queue" (since I switched to their disc-only plan). "While I'm waiting for a new disc in the mail, I'll watch one of these."

One of "one of these" was The Man Who Knew Too Much. It's another collaboration between director Alfred Hitchcock and actor James Stewart, and I'd say it falls on the continuum between Rope (which I rather liked) and Vertigo (which I really didn't). It follows a man vacationing in northern Africa with his family, who becomes drawn into a web of conspiracy involving a planned political assassination. It's sort of North by Northwest, with more child endangerment.

The biggest strike against the film, in my book, is the languid onset of the plot, as is typical of most classic movies. You're 30 minutes into the movie before it feels like the story even gets started. And once the plot does arrive, it doesn't entirely make sense. I'm still a little fuzzy about what people planning an assassination in London are doing in Africa. I'm even less clear about the reasons the conspirators are planning the assassination.

But the performances are pretty good. I've noted before how much more natural James Stewart seems than most actors of his era, and that believability really works to make him a sympathetic hero in this movie. His screen wife, Doris Day, isn't quite as strong, though her acting seems far closer to the style of the modern era than that of the 1950s.

Music is well incorporated into the film. Composer Bernard Herrmann enjoyed a long collaboration with Hitchcock, and the music in this film is more prominent and important than perhaps any other Hitchcock film outside of Psycho. The composer even gets an on-screen appearance, conducting a symphony orchestra.

Still, I can't really say the movie held my interest throughout. It's a hit and miss affair that works out to a C- in my book. You might want to check it out if you're a classic film enthusiast. But then again, if you are, you've probably already seen it.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Laugh Riot

I just got back from a fantastic evening seeing Tim Minchin at the Boulder Theater. If you're unfamiliar with this amazing singer-songwriter-comedian, do yourself a favor, go punch his name into YouTube, and watch some of the results that come up.

He's even funnier in person. His show was a great mix of new material and bits I'd seen before on TV and the internet. But new or old, he had me laughing that joyous can't-breathe/tears-streaming laughter that comes along too rarely. And though that would have been more than enough, it was a well-rounded show too. His main finale displayed his dizzying piano skills, while his two encores showcased a warm and sentimental side that had the whole audience singing along in non-ironic community.

I can't remember the last comic performance I've enjoyed this much, and I've seen some damn fine comedians over the years. If you ever get a chance to see Tim Minchin perform, do it, do it, do it. I know I wouldn't hesitate to go see him again. Tomorrow, if I had the opportunity.

Good times.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Art Imitating Life

This afternoon, I went to see The Ides of March, the new political drama directed by George Clooney. It follows the staff of a Democratic candidate for president as he campaigns to win the Ohio state primary.

I have to say, it felt to me like the Contagion of political dramas. The movie was striving to be utterly realistic, presenting as accurate a portrait of political brinksmanship as possible. And it doing so, it wasn't always entertaining. The West Wing plumbed this sort of material for years on television, and did so with larger than life characters, better than life behavior, and wittier than life dialogue. This movie was simply "life." It felt more like a documentary on the subject of politics than a dramatization.

The cast is strong. Clooney himself takes what amounts to a secondary role, playing the candidate. His staff includes Ryan Gosling, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Evan Rachel Wood, while other players in the story are portrayed by Marisa Tomei and Paul Giamatti. Everyone works within the atmosphere of realism, giving quiet and restrained performances. But while this certainly fits the intended mood of the piece, it also contributes to the feeling that there simply isn't enough fiction in this story. These actors would be capable of a much more elaborate story, and the movie feels like it's holding them back.

I can't really say that The Ides of March was a bad movie, but it is nevertheless a movie I can't really recommend. I rate it a middle of the road C.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Go Team!

After revisiting the South Park movie recently, I felt compelled to revisit another creation of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, Team America: World Police. It's another solid effort from their scathing satirical minds, though not quite as razor sharp.

As with South Park, there is a message of sorts behind the satire. Instead of taking censorship to the extreme, this movie is about taking patriotism and political correctness to the extreme. Well... sort of. Really, there are only brief moments where Team America reaches for anything that profound. For those most part, it just tries to take "action movie" to the extreme.

It does an excellent job of that. Every cliché of the Bruckheimer-esque summer blockbuster is skewered, from the relentless explosions to the illogical plot twists, the shoehorned-in romance to (of course) the montage. (Montage!) And the movie also stops along the way to poke fun at other things: the musical Rent, Hollywood celebrity activism, Kim Jong Il, and more. Including, not least significantly, the movie itself. Some of the best laughs in it come from gags about the Thunderbirds-style marionette puppetry.

I think I'd say this movie is slightly funnier than the South Park film. But I'd also say South Park was a bit smarter in its satire and construction, and had the better songs to boot. It's a close call in any case; I'd still grade this movie an A-. It too isn't quite high enough to make my top 100 list, but it's a fine evening's entertainment.

P.S. -- "Maatt Daamon!"

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Glossy Print

Not long ago, I was praising Robin Williams' performance in Good Will Hunting. Watching it reminded me of one or two other films he's done that make me think maybe he's a better dramatic actor than a comedic one.

One of his more serious roles in the last decade came in One Hour Photo, which I recently decided to watch again. Williams plays a "crisp and clean on the outside, creepy stalker on the inside" employee of the photo finishing department in a Walmart-esque super store. The film follows his disturbing obsession with one particular family that's been developing film with him for years.

Williams is very unsettling in his restraint in this movie. Perhaps the audience is bringing "extracurricular" knowledge to the film, knowing how wild and unhinged he can be as a performer. Imagining that potential inside this buttoned-tight character heightens the tension enormously.

Michael Vartan, Connie Nielsen, Gary Cole, and Eriq La Salle round out the interesting cast. No one is doing flashy work here; they improve the film by being completely realistic and minimal in their acting.

The story is compact but compelling, mining every corner of the simple stalker premise for effective tension and suspense. Writer-director Mark Romanek delivers a film that makes you feel like your brain needs a shower afterward. About the only misstep is the ending. It's not "weak" exactly; it just doesn't measure up to the taut quality of the bulk of the movie.

I grade One Hour Photo an A-. If you like suspense, and want to see the normal (rather than the fantastical) made scary, this is one you should check out.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

For Better or Norse

So, on the one hand, I've been cutting back on the number of superhero movies I see. For more than a year there, I didn't watch any. On the other hand, the fact that Joss Whedon is making The Avengers for next year pretty much requires that I go see it. And speaking of requirements, it sort of seems like the separate movies for all the individual characters might be required pre-reading for this "assignment." Alright, Captain America wasn't too bad. So time to backtrack to Thor, now that it's on DVD.

No such luck. Thor turned out to be pretty lame. And I think that has a lot to do with the fact that every "first superhero movie" is an origin story, and Thor's origin story seems pretty lame to me.

The movie is on a tight timetable, running only an hour and 50 minutes. The first half hour of that is all preamble, just building up to Thor being cast out to Earth. It's disconnected in terms of content, and thoroughly paints Thor as an entitled jock that is absolutely unlikeable as a character. Sure, that's the point; he has a lesson he has to learn. But the opening left me more wanting to see him get bitch slapped rather than redeemed, and that's a seriously wrong foot to start the movie on.

So, about that lesson learning stuff. The movie has to have a big action climax, of course, so there's 20 minutes off the back end. That leaves just one hour in the middle of the film for Thor to have his character arc -- arrive on Earth, develop feelings, and turn his character around. It's not enough. The scenes we see in the movie just aren't enough to make believable the journey from frat boy to humble hero. The story tells us this happens but doesn't effectively show it.

The acting is average. There are a lot of good people here. Chris Hemsworth definitely has leading man charisma. There have been many movies where Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgård, and Anthony Hopkins have all excelled. But this one-dimensional script just leaves them all with nothing to do but chew scenery. They do it very well, but there's no depth to any of it.

But the movie does look pretty spectacular. The visual sensibilities are phenomenal, from top to bottom. The costumes are cool, the sets are cool, the painted-in CG landscape of Asgard is cool, the visual effects are cool... there's tons of eye candy in this movie, and it's delicious. A lot of that is probably coming from the comics and from the art teams, but if Kenneth Branagh's direction had anything to do with it, praise there too -- it's hard to praise him otherwise when he had so shallow a script to work with.

I suppose the movie was therefore a perfect match for Thor himself as a character concept -- pretty, but empty. I give the movie a D+. I'd recommend it only if indeed it is required knowledge for seeing Joss Whedon's The Avengers. And I'm guessing the script he wrote will be clever enough that required pre-viewing won't be necessary. So don't bother with Thor.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Asian F

So, even though Glee just got started again, it's now taking a baseball-enforced three week hiatus. Lame. But it punched out with its strongest episode in a long time. Yeah! This episode continued this season's encouraging trend of presenting character-driven stories with plot developments that seem built to run for more than just one episode. And it was the best yet of the season.

Mike Chang has had quite a journey, from not even having dialogue, through not even having a name, to finally having some big moments in this installment. Even though his "tiger parent" storyline with his father moved rather fast in this episode, it still had enough space for some powerful moments. The scene with his mother was tender and true, and could hit home with just about anyone with any secret they've kept from their parents. Plus, finally Mike sings! Well! (But we'll get to that.)

Rachel and Mercedes have had diva-off plots before in the show, but this one was far more engaging. For one thing, it wasn't all wrapped up in a nice bow by the end of the episode. For another, Mercedes' inner queen didn't just materialize from nowhere this time, but was motivated by her new boyfriend. I wasn't sure what to make of her intermittent complaints of sickness -- it seems the writers are planning on a surprise pregnancy here, or otherwise aren't quite aware of how unsympathethic this makes the character look if it's not in that context. We'll see.

Kurt and Blaine just had one scene together this episode, but it was a great one. Blaine perfectly encapsulated my thoughts -- that Kurt "zigged" when he was expected to "zag." I was so sure that Kurt was going to have a full meltdown, first losing "his part" to his boyfriend, and now at risk of losing "his class presidency" to his friend. But it didn't happen this week. Instead, he focused on celebrating Blaine's moment. And there was some wonderful acting from Chris Colfer and Darren Criss in the scene, the moment where you could tell they wanted to share a kiss, but dare not risk it in public in school.

Rachel tossing her hat into the class president race seemed like maybe one thing too many for the character and the episode both, but I do like how it puts Finn in the middle between his girlfriend and his brother. That's a no win scenario for the poor guy, and it should be interesting to watch that play out.

Then there was Will and Emma, and Emma's crazy parents. On the one hand, "ginger supremacy" seemed like too preposterous a grab for laughs to believe even for one second. On the other, I have to concede that for a person to have become as thoroughly OCD as Emma, her parents would had to have been that strange to push her there. Maybe the ginger jokes were Sue-esque unrealism, but that tossed away line about tying young Emma's thumbs together was far more sinister. In any case, it all landed real enough for me to be moved by the episode's closing number.

Which seems like a good place to segue into talking about the music. After last week's "all auditions" episode, this week switched over to present more of my favorite style of Glee number, the half-reality/half-fantasy moments. The first two numbers (Mercedes' "Spotlight" and Brittany's "Run the World") both had an interesting blend of actual performance and glimpses into the characters' heads.

There was a dip back into audition mode. Rachel and Mercedes' dueling solo of "Out Here On My Own" was, I thought, the weakest number of the show. It was pure stage performance with little added resonance. The intercutting called to mind season one's far more poignant performance of "Defying Gravity" with Rachel and Kurt. It just didn't do it for me. But seeing Mike finally rock a solo with "Cool" from West Side Story? Alright, Glee, occasionally, I have to give you one like this.

"Fix You" was a strong capper to the episode. I'm not much for the breathy falsetto of Coldplay, but Matthew Morrison belted the song out with a bit more force, and the montage conclusion helped sell it.

But the best number of the night was "It's All Over." Hell, it was the best number in half a season or more. When Mercedes turned around and the music kicked in, I had a half second where I thought "oh crap, Dreamgirls again?" But it worked beautifully. The instant transition into a false reality where everyone in the cast lived the song as a ringer for a real argument, and the way in which the show never actually depicted that argument? It was perfect.

So basically, there was one weak song, a couple of easy jokes, and the unexplained and easy reacceptance of Santana into the glee club. Otherwise, a rock solid episode that did everything else right. I grade it an A-. Good note to pause on, Glee.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Winner Winner

I caught wind of an interesting independent movie released earlier this year, but never quite had the wherewithal to get out to a theater to see it. When it arrived on DVD recently, though, I bumped it straight to the top of the queue.

Win Win stars Paul Giamatti and Amy Ryan as parents navigating financial difficulties. His modest law practice is a bit too modest, and he's having trouble making ends meet. When a rich older client with early stage dementia and no family is about to be ordered into state care, he steps in and volunteers to be the man's caretaker -- to receive the monthly $1500 stipend from the state. But no sooner has he accepted the role that he learns the man does have living family; a grandson shows up, fleeing an abusive mother, and now the couple must take him in too.

The film is a sweet collage of humor and sentiment, a fun concoction that simultaneously entertains and pulls gently on the heartstrings. The characters are deep and believable, and the performances are great all around. Bobby Cannavale, Burt Young, Margo Martindale, and Jeffrey Tambor show up in supporting roles, and the newcomer playing the grandson, Alex Shaffer, is wonderfully subtle and engaging.

I would compare the tone of this movie to that of Juno. While this movie doesn't quite reach the same lofty heights of quality, it's still a very well made and thoroughly enjoyable film. I rate it an A-, and would strongly recommend it.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

The Not-So-Great Hunt

It has been a while since I finished reading The Eye of the World, the first book of Robert Jordan's series The Wheel of Time. I read a variety of other books afterward, before finally circling back around (ha!) to book two, The Great Hunt. I find myself in a quite similar place now as I did after reading book two.

I did find the plotting to be an improvement over book one. The story of The Great Hunt isn't the Lord of the Rings knock-off of the first volume. (It is still thoroughly steeped in the "hero's journey" tradition, but this is what you get when you read fantasy, nine times out of ten. It's hard to quibble much with that.) More importantly, the book concludes in a more exciting way, suggesting where book three will be going, and seems like still another improvement.

On the down side, the writing itself got worse than book one, in almost every way. All the female characters remained as uniform and uninteresting as they were in book one. All the characters -- male and female -- continued to think and say the same things over and over again, as though repetitive behavior is the thing that defines one's character.

Most annoyingly, the pace began to slow. Robert Jordan seems to require 20 pages to say what could be said in two. That's perhaps no surprise, considering he wrote 11 books averaging 300,000 words each in his lifetime, and still couldn't finish... but reading it, I often found myself exasperated at the way entire chapters could be filled with mundane nonsense that didn't progress the plot. I've heard from some friends who have read the whole series (so far) that this became par for the course after a few more books. If what I'm reading now is Jordan being "to the point," I'm not sure I'm going to be able to hang in there for the long haul.

But I must confess that the ending did leave me curious enough to continue on for at least another book. It feels like that book is sure to be a telling one. The Great Hunt concludes very much like the middle volume of a trilogy, and from where I'm sitting now, I can't fathom what story could take a dozen more books to tell. I feel like the ending should be right around the corner, so I'm sure my desire to continue after book three will depend on whether I feel the story earns its right to keep going after that.

As for The Great Hunt, I'd probably call it another B-, like its predecessor.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

I Am Unicorn

It took me a few days, but I finally caught up on the episode of Glee from earlier this week. And while I wouldn't really say it was "worth the wait," there was a lot about the episode I did enjoy.

In the plus column, it was an episode really long on plot and character. In fact, they only found time for three songs. (More on those in a bit.) I liked the storyline for Kurt, as it really did take him to a different place. He's basically been the person he is since we first met him, and has been accepting of that the entire time. Tormented at times, but still never really regretful. Now he's wishing for the first time to be some other way, and it's a sad but honest development for him. And he can't exactly go to his boyfriend for consolation, either; it looks like Blaine is going to be taking the lead role in West Side Story that Kurt wanted. (Another great scene between Kurt and the best father on television, by the way.)

The return of Rachel's mother created lots of interesting turmoil for Rachel, Puck, and Quinn, and it looks as though it's going to continue for a while. Good potential there, I think. Puck has shown a more caring and nurturing side on rare occasion before, and I like this avenue into a deeper character they're exploring right now.

But I'm mixed about Quinn's storyline here. Throughout the second season, nearly all the characters on Glee would radically change behavior from week to week in service of the plot. But Quinn was always the worst offender. So I suppose it's "consistent" for her to decide out of the blue that she wants to pursue custody of her daughter. Not sure how I feel about that. On the one hand, I'm happy that her character has a clearly mapped out arc that could last for a while; on the other hand, I feel like there was still more mileage they could have gotten out of "Skank Quinn." The glee club accepted her back too quickly, too easily, it seemed to me, and I think the writers could have let her twist around a bit and spiral further downward before pulling together on her new mission.

So, about those musical numbers. Musically, I think Glee is pretty much at its worst when the songs are just presented American Idol-style, just plain singing on a stage. And all three pieces were like that. On the other hand, we got a powerhouse duet for Rachel and her mother, Kurt's flashiest number yet in his audition piece, and a kick-ass take on "Something's Coming" from Blaine to cap the hour. The vocal performances where all outstanding... I just wish they'd been a little more interesting in the context of the episode. (Well, okay, Kurt's scaffolding gymnastics could hardly be called boring.)

Overall, I'd say the sentiment in this episode landed fairly well, so I think I'd grade the episode a B.