Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy New Year, Everyone!

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

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

Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Get Lost, Lost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

More Christmas Tunes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Christmas Elfman

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 26, 2011

Girl Movie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 23, 2011

A Marginal Movie

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Surprisingly Good

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Penguin Party

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 19, 2011

A Christmas Carol, Featuring Tiny Twins

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you to my "Christmas benefactor."

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Killer Finale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Fear Itself

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

I will editorialize with these two comments:

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

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

Friday, December 16, 2011

Going Crazy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Holiday Favorites

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

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

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

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

Am I missing something here?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Extraordinary Merry Christmas

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 12, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 11, 2011

People -- Get Ready

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 10, 2011


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

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

Friday, December 09, 2011

A Horrible Comedy

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Christmas Community

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Hold on to Sixteen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Poetic Tragedy

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 05, 2011

Collapse in Judgment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Mashed Blog Entry

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

Wax Audio.

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

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

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Off Roading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 02, 2011

Dirty Laundry

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Never Again

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

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

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

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

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

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