Wednesday, February 29, 2012

My Top 100 Movies -- 80-76

My Top 100 list continues...

80. American Pie. This riotously funny movie launched the careers of several young actors, showed us for the first time that Alyson Hannigan is as gifted in comedy as she is in drama, and was a fantastic use of Eugene Levy. It contains several "laugh so hard you can't breathe" sequences, and brings a very British sensibility (awkward, cringe-inducing humor) to an American comedy. And it introduced the world to the term "MILF."

79. Signs. This isn't M. Night Shyamalan's best work (though it's far from his worst), and it does ask the audience to overlook a pretty glaring plot hole: why would aliens invade a planet awash in the very thing they're critically vulnerable to? But set that aside, and you have a strong anchoring performance by Mel Gibson, an even stronger one by Joaquin Phoenix, and two great child actors in Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin. The family sentiments at the heart of this story feel genuine, and there are plenty of great moments of tension to make you jump.

78. The Blair Witch Project. I thought the world of this film originally, and later came to put it in a somewhat more reasonable perspective. But it still remains a top 100 movie on my list. For more of my thoughts on it, you can look at my earlier review.

77. Contact. I also wrote a full review on this movie. It's a wonderful use of science fiction, telling a story that's grounded in character and emotion.

76. The Matrix. Originally, I was not as enamored of this movie as it seems most of the world was. I felt that Dark City, released a year earlier, hit many of the same notes here, and did it much better. But over time, my opinion of this movie increased, and it found its way on to my top 100 list. The visual style of the movie is top notch. The music is a fantastic juxtaposition to the visuals -- a very traditional orchestral score to support a very techno atmosphere. Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, and Joe Pantoliano are absolutely wonderful in this movie. And Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne, two actors I would otherwise criticize for a relative lack of range and skill, are nevertheless perfect for these roles; it's hard to imagine anyone else as Neo or Morpheus. Two unfortunate sequels of diminishing quality don't mar the wonderful first film, which can still stand just fine on its own.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Taking a Machete to the Star Wars Films

This week, several friends of mine (who don't know each other) used Facebook to link to an article in which a blogger named Machete pontificates on the proper viewing order for the Star Wars films. Before I read it, there would have been absolutely no question in my mind on the subject: IV, V, VI... and best stop there. (But if you must, then IV, V, VI, I, II, III. Not I, II, III, IV, V, VI, as Lucas himself would now have you do.)

But then I read the article. And I suggest you take a moment and go read it too.

I have to admit, the "Alternative Suggestion" makes a lot of sense to me. Entertainment audiences have become quite accustomed to non-linear narratives in the last decade or so. They've become particularly adjusted to the flashback structure, and extra-particularly adjusted to the "flashback which provides context for the main narrative." So yeah, I'm now thinking, if you must watch all six movies, I do have to wonder if the best order for it might not be IV, V, I, II, III, VI.

But what to make of his eponymous "Machete Order," in which the writer suggests that the narratively superfluous Episode I be jettisoned entirely?

Well, on the one hand, I can't argue with some of the points this Machete makes. Episode I is fairly inert in terms of story. The movie does play at best like a prequel to the prequels, putting pieces onto the board that is "the Clone Wars" without actually kicking that story off in any meaningful way.

But, on the other hand, I think Machete is being blind to what a terrible movie Attack of the Clones was. Seriously. That is by far the worst Star Wars films. Ask anybody what the "good parts" of The Phantom Menace were, and you actually can get a handful of different answers that people don't really have to hedge about:

There's the podrace. Machete dismisses it as a prolonged action sequence that doesn't advance the plot. First, that's false. At the very least, it lays the groundwork for Anakin's natural ability as a pilot. Secondly, the poster child for "prolonged action sequence that doesn't advance plot" was delivered to us at the end of The Matrix Reloaded. And thirdly, it's unfair to be so dismissive of a sequence that should have earned Ben Burtt an Academy Award for his amazing sound design. Seriously, every audiophile I know uses this sequence from this film to test a new home theater setup. It's genius work.

How about the lightsaber duel? Best duel of the six films in terms of choreography, and in terms of defining each participant with a signature fighting style. Also, the death of Qui-Gon (which Machete is quick to dismiss) does serve as a narrative echo for the events of Episode IV -- the master must die so the apprentice can come into his own.

Or what about... well, okay, I might be tapped out on the "good parts" of Episode I. But seriously, name me one good part of Episode II. (And if you say the Yoda fight, you're wrong. I find no entertainment in watching a CG whirling dervish fight a CG-augmented, frequently stunt-doubled 80-year-old man.) And even if you could come up with one truly good Episode II scene, would it really be worth sitting through the hackneyed dialogue and wooden acting of the Padme-Anakin courtship scenes? If only there were a way you could omit that film from the narrative, then I think Machete might be on to something with the "leave one movie out" approach.

Basically, I think Machete is just reflexively responding to the fans' thirst for blood when it comes to midichlorians, Jar Jar Binks, and Jake Lloyd. Yes, those things sucked about The Phantom Menace. But Attack of the Clones sucked worse even without any of those things.

So I think I can't complete the journey as Machete proposes. Though I do at least thank him for the suggestion of the Lost-style viewing order of IV, V, I, II, III, VI.

Monday, February 27, 2012

On the Money

The morning of the Oscars, I got to watch my third of the nine nominated films, Moneyball. It became my favorite of the three nominees I've seen.

Moneyball is the dramatized story of Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland A's who, in 2002, championed the use of sabermetrics in baseball as a way of assembling a winning team on a fraction of the budget given to MLB titan teams. The film had a somewhat troubled birth. It fell through almost entirely once, then had a second script all set to go, written by Steven Zaillian and directed by Steven Soderbergh. When the studio balked at the last minute at that approach's half documentary style, in came eventual director Bennett Miller.

It was also at that point that Aaron Sorkin came in to craft version three of the screenplay, and because of him that I had any interest in seeing the movie. Baseball barely holds my interest, but Sorkin has a proven track record at making compelling narratives by heightening real situations. He's done it before specifically in the field of sports with his brilliant-but-cancelled series Sports Night, and done it with a true story last year in The Social Network. I was eager to see what resulted here.

The finished screenplay carries the credits of both Sorkin and the writer before him, indicating the strong hand of both in the finished product. And yet, Sorkin's mark is all over the result, and all for the good. The patter of the movie is fast and clever. It simplifies that statistics aspects perhaps a bit too much, though I think anyone truly interested in that could go read the book on which all this is based; the right thing for strong drama is to focus on the character arcs here.

Brad Pitt is the perfect anchor for this film. His performance is engaging and natural. You immediately root for him, as you should in any "sports underdog" movie. Jonah Hill is also strong; you can see why he got swept up in the Oscar current and was nominated for this film (though perhaps at the same time, you could also imagine other actors who could have filled the role just as well). There are also appearances by many recognizable working actors in the business, and a great (though not meaty) supporting turn by Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Though I never quite got caught up in any emotion by this film, my mind was engaged throughout... and after. I found myself wanting to do more background reading on this story after the movie was over (possibly including the original book). And all this despite a lack of interest in baseball. I think that right there should tell you the movie was doing something right.

I rate it an A-. It makes it onto my top 10 of 2011 list in the #7 slot, still rather far from my favorite, but the best of the actual Oscar contenders I've seen so far.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

And the Oscar Snark Goes To...

It's Morgan Freeman! Titty sprinkles!

I'd forgotten how much I used to enjoy these Billy Crystal film montages.

His opening number was clever too. But he isn't as strong a singer anymore, and showing me Tony Bennett applauding in the audience won't convince me otherwise.

Accepting for Hugo's cinematography, the love child of Michael McDonald and Kris Kristofferson.

What's with the close-up on the envelope in Tom Hanks' hands? Do they think we'll be able to read the contents?

A horrifying tale of the perils of botox. If you have to ask who I'm talking about, you weren't watching the show.

What's with the montage of old movies? If we're already watching this show, we don't need to be convinced that movies are good. All you're doing is wasting broadcast time, and reminding us of films that were better than most of what's nominated this year.

The Oscar goes to Jennifer Lopez's and Cameron Diaz's butts.

Interesting that the makeup award went to The Iron Lady -- a tacit endorsement that the subtle job is the harder job.

Does anyone else want to see The Gargantuans now?

Adam Sandler saw Diamonds Are Forever and said, "can I please do that?" Sean Connery?

Sandra Bullock's Mandarin Chinese is captivating.

You can't assuage generations of racial guilt with one standing ovation, no matter how deserving Octavia Spencer was of her award.

Is Bradley Cooper doing a remake of Magnum P.I.?

Work with David Fincher, win an Oscar for editing. He notoriously does dozens and dozens of takes, so I suppose this is an award for sifting through all the footage.

"Hugo. No, Hugo." Little sound editor joke.

Each time we see her, Martin Scorsese's granddaughter is learning more and more that going to the Oscars is boring.

Poor Cirque performer gets only one chance to land his trick. Aw... too bad.

We don't want to watch George Clooney watch the Cirque performance, we want to watch the Cirque performance! Bad Oscar producers! Bad!

If you haven't heard that the Kodak Theater is being renamed, then half of Billy Crystal's material is not funny to you at all.

The people who won for Undefeated look and sound exactly like a bunch of football fans in tuxedos.

The piano music playing those guys off sounds like a silent serial killer is going to come for them if they don't hurry.

Looks like Gore Verbinski made the right choice directing Rango instead of Pirates of the Caribbean 4.

I think I want to unwrap Emma Stone. And it looks like the slit in the middle of her dress wants that too.

At this point, if you had the "under" on anyone associated with Hugo acknowledging the book it came from in their acceptance speech, your bet is looking good.

Put Penélope Cruz and Owen Wilson together to present. It's a nose thing.

I thought it gracious of Ludovic Bource to shake the hands of the other composer nominees. Or maybe he was just star-hobnobbing. I would in his place.

Billy Crystal has been wearing that annoying white mic all night, but when Will Ferrell and Zack Galifinakas show up in all white tuxes, they get black mics.

Hooray to Bret McKenzie for remembering to thank Jim Henson.

Angelina Jolie deliberately kicks her leg out there to say, "Yes, look at this. (I'm too skinny.)"

Way to go, The Descendants writers, for mocking the Jolie pose.

And to Jim Rash, an Oscar should go a long way toward consoling him when his brilliant show Community gets cancelled too soon.

In these "my favorite movie" montages, I appreciate people like Reese Witherspoon and Brad Pitt picking the completely non-highbrow movies they did. What if the Academy voters as a whole would be similarly honest about their tastes?

They always always always pick some hot woman to host the Technical Awards. This year, it's everybody's favorite zombie hunter/element, Milla Jovovich.

The Short Film winning father smacks his daughter about not being married in front of the entire world. Lame move, dad.

I wish I'd thought of the "Scorsese" drinking game. Though I wouldn't be able to type straight right now if I had.

The Animated Short winners win best tuxes of the night with the orange lining peeking out.

Michael Douglas is presenting his award from the aquarium.

I would so have loved it if someone accepting for The Artist had written an acceptance speech on cards and just flashed them to the camera.

After the Golden Globes, Meryl Streep makes a big presentation showing that yes, she has her glasses.

That is a truly powerful afro.

Wait, I didn't hear Whitney Houston had died!

Apparently, Peter Graves didn't die last year.

The "actors give tributes to the nominees" moments from the last few Oscars were well loved by viewers... but it's just not working for me at all to have one person (Natalie Portman and then Colin Firth, in this case) do it for all the nominees. It was the personal connections to the nominees that made it work before. (Which is why the presentations that worked best were the ones Portman gave to her former co-star, Gary Oldman, and Firth to his former co-stars, Meryl Streep and Michelle Williams.)

The man accepting The Artist Oscar is the French love child of Peter Lorre.

And there you have it, folks!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Mul Whine

I just watched the first hour of David Lynch's movie Mulholland Drive. It's two-and-a-half hours long, so I escaped from it without even reaching the halfway point. Yet still, I left with the sense of having wasted an hour of my life I'll never get back.

David Lynch conceived of the story as a television series, a sort of heir-apparent to Twin Peaks, following a number of separate stories about disillusioning struggles in Hollywood. ABC declined to pick up the series after viewing what Lynch had created, so he went back and filled it out with additional material, releasing it in theaters as a full movie.

There's the first flaw, right out of the gate. The entire thing looks like a cheap, made-for-TV affair. It honestly doesn't even look as good as most TV of its era (the early 2000s); cheap sets, cheap film stock, cheap lighting, and cheap costuming all make it look more like a product of the late 1980s.

Then there's the acting -- horrible from top to bottom. The opening sequence features a car accident in which a character played by Laura Harring loses her memory and stumbles away into the city. Her performance is stilted and robotic, and sets the tone for everything that follows. The main characters only come off remotely realistic by being surrounded by even more phony secondary characters. After this "read from cue cards" performance, it is a wonder Naomi Watts had a career.

But worst of all is the narrative -- or utter lack of one. The film plays like a fever dream. Imagine a delivery boy running around a studio lot with an arm full of scripts to deliver to six different sound stages. Some guy on a bicycle rounds a corner fast and slams into the delivery boy, scattering pages of all the scripts everywhere in a shower of paper. So he just scoops up the loose pages in random order (and losing several pages in the process) and delivers the jumbled mess as though it was a single, coherent script.

The entire film is a put on, the cinematic equivalent of a pop artist who rubs his feces on a canvas and then challenges people to point out that the emperor has no clothes. Several prominent critics fell under the sway of this, praising the film and proving unwilling to speak the truth: this movie is utter nonsense. It's in a dead heat with Dark Star for the ignominious title of Worst Movie I Have Ever Seen (Part Of, Anyway). F doesn't begin to cover it.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Forward Thinking

One of the things that held up my top 100 film countdown was one movie in particular, Pay It Forward. I had accepted that I wasn't going to have time to re-watch every movie on my list to place it precisely, but this was one movie I really wanted to make time for.

See, the thing is, I loved this movie when I saw it originally at the theater. Loved everything about it. But it was hammered rather hard by the critics, and over the ensuing 10 years, on any occasion it has come up, it's been in a conversation about how bad someone else thought it was. From friends and critics alike, the people who come down against the film are pretty united in their dislike: they find the movie treacly, working too blatantly to manufacture false sentiment.

I just had to watch the movie again to see if a movie so widely disliked was really going to end up in my top 100 list. And my conclusion? Pay It Forward is a real barometer of taste in film.

It's the story of a young boy (Haley Joel Osment) being raised by a single mother (Helen Hunt) battling alcoholism. A mysterious but inspiring school teacher (Kevin Spacey) assigns a class project that gets the boy thinking about how to change the world for the better, and heart-warminess (or treacle, depending on your perspective) ensues.

Yes, the film works very deliberately to do what it does. It's carefully written, with every moment having a job to serve in the larger whole. But where some apparently see strain in this, I found it genuine. And I found it all lifted up further by exceptional performances. All three actors I've mentioned already are compelling and perfect for their roles -- even many of the critics writing negative reviews acknowledged that.

In the end, I found that not only would this movie remain in my top 100 list, but it would be higher than I'd originally thought to place it. And that might make it the highest rated "bad movie" on my list, judging by its officially Rotten score over at RottenTomatoes.com. But it's my list. So there. Obviously, it's an A in my book.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

A Dark Turn

I recently finished reading the third book of the Dexter series by author Jeff Lindsay. Dexter in the Dark picks up where the previous book left off, which is to say in the book universe that is increasingly divergent from the TV series.

This third book has a very interesting idea at the core of it, one which might be worth exploring in the show at some point. Dexter comes into contact with a much more dark and sinister force than his own "Dark Passenger," and his darkness is essentially frightened away. Dexter finds himself without the urge to kill or skills to do it, and suffers a profound loss of personal identity without this thing by which his entire life has been defined.

The problem with with the book is... well... just about everything else. For starters, the way the author comes at this problem is to essentially define the Dark Passenger as an actual otherworldly force, not just a darkness within Dexter, but as some actual form of demonic possession. For all the flaws of Dexter's sixth season, it at least did a much more interesting job of exploring religion and the nature of the soul.

The book also suffers for some of the details the author isn't willing to just let go of from the previous book. Deb, for example, is still dating the federal agent she met in book two, who has been left emotionally and physically crippled by the events of that book. It might be an interesting character exploration on its own, except that Dexter books are narrated by Dexter himself, and so there isn't really a good way to access meaningful stories about the personal lives of other characters.

There's also the character of Sergeant Doakes. He was absolutely a highlight of the series, and the books as well. And in book two, like in season two, the story of Doakes came to a close. A different one, but an end all the same. Except that now, in book three, it turns out it wasn't the end. Doakes returns in book three, and serves absolutely no narrative purpose in doing so. He appears in two brief scenes, and seems like he might yet somehow prove to be a nemesis for Dexter... but the story never goes anywhere, and the book ends with absolutely no resolution, temporary or otherwise, on the matter of Doakes.

The matter of Rita's kids, Cody and Astor, is also continued from book two, to greater effect, though the book doesn't reach much resolution on that either. This was the thing I was most looking forward to from book two, and I feel like I only got a taste of what I was waiting for here.

And then there was the actual writing technique itself. It was fairly sloppy work. First, Jeff Lindsay violated the "rules" of his own universe by having chunks of the book pull out of first person Dexter narrative to provide a third person perspective of the darker force stalking him. It was a transparent way of injecting suspense. Meanwhile, the actual Dexter chapters were often repetitive. The intially compelling idea of a Dexter without his Dark Passenger soon becomes tedious, as he spends chapter after chapter mulling over his predicament using exactly the same language and drawing exactly the same possible conclusions.

So in the end, my journey through the Dexter books may be over. There are more books after Dexter in the Dark, but I found this one too big a disappointment to be eager to read the next one. The character of Dexter is in much better hands with the writing staff of the series rather than the author who created him -- I say that with conviction even despite the bizarre missteps of the season that just concluded. Dexter in the Dark gets about a D+ in my estimation.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Black Mark

I've talked about how behind I am on seeing this year's Oscar contending films. So I recently spent a couple hours doing the obvious thing: catching up on last year's nominees.

I watched Black Swan, a Best Picture also-ran that secured Natalie Portman the award for Best Actress. My desire to see her lauded performance was very much at odds with the knowledge that the film was directed by Darren Aronofsky, a director whose work I have not liked at all to this point. The latter force held sway for this past year; the former finally took hold.

The latter was the better instinct.

Black Swan actually managed to cohere to a sensible narrative for nearly half of its running time, a major feat compared to Aronofsky's other films. The story follows an ambitious young ballerina cast in the lead role of Swan Lake. But she becomes increasingly overwhelmed by her desire to perfect the part, increasingly suspicious of a new young starlet who might be out to take her place, increasingly tormented by her washed-up and domineering mother, and... well... increasingly insane.

By the halfway point, the film has transformed (like the swan?) into its true form, a visual landscape of the descent into madness. Plot becomes unimportant; what is real and what is imaginary even less so. The movie instead serves up a procession of meditations on insanity, each more disturbing than the last. Some of them are quite effective at provoking an emotional response (revulsion, usually) but I found the sum total to amount to overkill. In my book, The Machinist is a far more compelling look at a slip into insanity.

Natalie Portman does commit to her role with relentless intensity. Add in the rigors of learning the complex dances, the moments in which she plays dual roles on screen, and the plain showiness of the script, and it's not hard to see how she won the Oscar here. It is a good performance. But I found it (along with Mila Kunis' surprisingly effective turn) merely the thing that made a terrible movie tolerable. That's not the criteria by which I personally would award an Oscar, were it up to me.

I'd grade Black Swan a D+ overall. If you love movies that really use film as a visual rather than narrative medium, then you may well love this movie. But if your tastes hew closer to mine, you'll do well to steer clear.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

On My Way

It's a truly weird thing to say about an episode of Glee, but my opinion boils down to this: tonight's installment would have been the single best hour of Glee ever, if it weren't for all the songs.

I've written multiple times before that the actual competitions in competition episodes of Glee always suck the life out of the story for me. The vocal performances are usually great, the choreography often a season high mark, but there's no shaking the fact that the story grinds to a halt for 20 minutes while we watch five or six consecutive songs (some not even performed by the main cast). Glee has sometimes montaged its way out of this problem (most effectively with Quinn's child birth in season one), or helped infuse the competition with more meaning by cleverly choosing songs (and cleverly handing them to specific cast members) in a way that reinforces the plot. This competition didn't really do well at any of that. Effectively, a 25-minute episode of Glee was split in half by a 20-minute episode of The Sing-Off.

But holy crap, what a great 25-minute episode it was! The plot line of Karofsky's suicide attempt had all the weight I hoped for when it was set up last week. It presented a strong social commentary of topical importance, and did it without delving too far into Very Special Episode territory. It believably softened the cartoonish villainy of Sebastian. It gave both Sue and Will believable moments where they connected with their students. And it gave us a run of inspiring (and humorous) affirmations from all the characters.

And then, of course, there was the cliffhanger ending. The writers have certainly slipped up on Glee more than occasionally. But they nailed this. All the pieces were put into place over the last few episodes. Quinn had her descent early in the season, and subsequent redemption. She had her "thank you all (and good night)" solo a few weeks back. Tonight, she had her reconciliation with Sue, and expressed her joyful hopes for college. Adding it all up, I truly believe at this moment that the writers may go through with killing off her character. And I do not want the resolution spoiled for me before the show returns in April.

Blaine's solo at the top of the episode, intercut with Karofsky's suicide attempt, was really the only musical number that worked for me in the entire episode -- precisely because the powerful plot kept on rolling even as the music played. I only wish all this could have had more room to play out without being wedged into another competition episode. But I'd easily call it an A- overall -- at least -- and a really great episode to go out on for a while.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Johnny McKee

Tonight's episode of Alcatraz was a fairly entertaining hour, though it did sport a rather major flaw... and I might as well start with that.

This week's criminal was a particularly well crafted nemesis, with a rather more interesting back story that some of the characters our heroes have come up against. He was a considerably greater menace that we've seen before. His background was given to us in an interesting way; we the audience were filled in on the whole story, while Madsen and Soto themselves never learned the full reasons behind his criminal acts.

But within that clear motivation lies the problem. McKee was clearly depicted with a singular drive, to kill people who deserved it -- bullies. But the climax of the episode had him committing a mass murder on a subway full of anonymous people who hadn't done him (or anyone else, that we saw) wrong. The writers shoehorned in some nonsense about an infatuation with "the future" to try to provide an explanation, but the fact remained that the episode's big climax required the villain to behave in a manner completely inconsistent with the M.O. carefully presented in the rest of the hour.

Still, the rest of that episode was fairly compelling at least, even though it fell more on the "self-contained story" end of the spectrum than the last few episodes have. The small bits of ongoing story doled out this time came in the form of inmate Silvane, returned again for a few brief scenes. Soto of course wasn't there to hear Silvane mentioned the name "Beauregard," or else it's likely the whole game of Hauser's secret prison would surely be up. The series isn't going to be ready to go there until the end of the season, at least.

So, not my favorite episode of Alcatraz, but still good enough to keep me intrigued and awaiting the next installment.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Triggerfinger

I haven't blogged about The Walking Dead since the final episode of the first season. At that time, I called it one of the best television series on the air.

How the mighty have fallen.

The writers have been forced by network budget cutbacks to confine the narrative of season two to one setting for an inordinate length of time, and thus have delivered to us the "farm season." Sure, plenty of good television series have revolved around a single location. (How many seasons of Cheers took place almost entirely in a bar?) But the problem with The Walking Dead this year is that it has become dramatically stagnant.

Every episode has followed an increasingly predictable formula: let's have a fight about staying on the farm when Hershel wants us to go; let's run around the woods looking for Sophia; let's watch the most infuriating character (Lori) deal ineffectively with the two men in her life.

I choose tonight to write again about the show because tonight it delivered the best episode it has since season one. A number of things about the show that haven't been right in a long time were finally right again.

There were good "that's messed up" no-win situations that really presented the horrors of the post-apocalypse. Ripping that poor guy off the fence was horrific, and the alternatives were little better. A mercy killing might have been the "best" thing to do, but I like that Rick, Hershel, and Glenn are not so far gone (see Shane) that they're able to kill a human when they don't have to.

Shane lying to Lori to get her back to the farm was a good "survival instinct" moment too. Very truthful for that character, and actually one of the most morally pure things he's done in quite some time.

But the writing still sucks when it comes to Lori. Her decision to drive off in search of Rick -- without telling anybody! -- was so idiotic that there's simply no way I could accept it. Is she really so thoughtless that she's willing to risk leaving her child with no surviving parents? Did she really believe that any danger that could have gotten the best of Rick would be something she could overcome? The only possible explanation I think you could give for such a total and profound lapse in judgment would be to chalk it all up to "pregnancy brain," and that's not just doing a disservice to this character, I think it's fairly offensive to women in general.

Sure, Lori may have got herself out of the jeopardy she put herself in, but by the end of the episode, she was running to her husband to protect her from Shane. The dialogue was walking a bit of a tightrope, but she was basically asking her husband to kill her former lover. This is a plot line and character treatment worthy of daytime soaps, maybe, but is pretty pitiful for The Walking Dead.

This week had moments that showed that in fact, the show has not completely lost its way. But man, it has strayed far from the path. Perhaps I'm being dramatic, but I blame it on the sky-high expectations that the first season set for me. This show was so good when Frank Darabont was running it, and is so obviously lessened after his unceremonious firing by AMC, that it's difficult to not judge it harshly.

At this point, I watch the show more because friends of mine watch it than I do for actually enjoying it. They're still delivering solid "Zombie Kill of the Week" moments, beyond that? I sure hope they can turn it around.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

My Top 100 Movies -- 86-81

Time for another few entries from my top 100 list. You get six today instead of five; the addition of 50/50 to my list has pushed things down one notch. The old #100 (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) is muscled off the bottom of the list, and the #86 I revealed last time (October Sky) is taken down to #87.

86. Scrooged. I should be sick to death of the story of A Christmas Carol. We're all exposed to it every single year whether we like it or not, and it's a rather trite tale. But not only do I not get tired of Scrooged, I will often make time to watch it every December. Bill Murray, when he's on his game, is that good. I wrote about this movie a while back, so you can look back on that review if you want to read more.

85. Being John Malkovich. I don't go for "Weird for the Sake of Being Weird." But here the weirdness in in support of a compelling plot, interesting characters, and twisted commentary on narcissism and the nature of the soul. There's also fantastic performances from John Cusack, Catherine Keener, Cameron Diaz, and of course, the "title character." Other movies (including some from writer Charlie Kaufman) have come along since to try to capture the magic here, but all have fallen short.

84. Back to the Future, Part II. It's no secret how much I love Back to the Future. What makes me enjoy this first sequel so much is that makes it clear how much everyone involved -- writers, actors, and director -- loved it too. So much, in fact, that the entire third act of this movie is a loving look back at most of the best scenes from the original, with fun twists thrown in. Plus, you get an entertaining opening act that takes you to "the future" (which is even funnier now that 2015 is almost actually here), and a great middle act in a hellscape of a reality as run by Biff. Perhaps the whole is a touch too schizophrenic, and that keeps me from rating the movie higher than this. Still, I love the way this movie just embraces the geek to weave a complicated narrative.

83. The Silence of the Lambs. The story is interesting, but what makes this movie so exceptional is the powerhouse acting. Anthony Hopkins is delightfully urbane-yet-terrifying. Jodie Foster's naivete makes you sympathetic and fearful for her character. Ted Levine is one of the creepiest criminals in cinema. And this movie does the "you think we're in one place, but we're really somewhere else" gimmick exceptionally well, and long before so many subsequent TV shows and films would wear it out. Of course, as great as this movie is, all other sequels and prequels are equally bad in my book. This film stands on its own.

82. Malice. Some people find this movie a bit corny, with dialogue like "I am God." But the actors just make it work: Bill Pullman, Nicole Kidman, Alec Baldwin, George C. Scott, and more. This was one of Aaron Sorkin's earlier scripts, before he was more widely known, but I think it's just as good as some of the things that would earn him Oscar nominations later -- and a lot more fun. I've written about this film a while back too, so check out that post if you're interested.

81. The Mist. Stephen King and director Frank Darabont are meant to be together. While this isn't their best collaboration, it's certainly their most unsettling. I had a strong reaction to this movie when I first saw it, and if anything I like it more now. Reading more Stephen King stories, and seeing how they're all just missing that something that must be what Darabont brings to the table, just makes me appreciate this film more. I think the only imperfection in this film is the rather cartoonish character played by Marcia Gay Harden, but it's otherwise a wonderfully character-driven example of horror.

Friday, February 17, 2012

A Phantoms Menace

An odd combination of influences prompted me to watch the movie Phantoms. It was filmed here in Colorado, and I tangentially know a few people who worked on it. It's based on a Dean Koontz novel that, from what more than one person has told me, is one of his best. And, according to Kevin Smith (by way of his movies), "Affleck is the bomb in Phantoms." It took me a while to get around to it, though, because it sure didn't look like a good movie.

Sometimes, looks are not deceiving.

I can still believe that Phantoms could have been a good book turned into a bad movie, because it plays like a movie with several scenes missing. The pace is so rapid fire that, while it's not hard to follow the action, it is hard to believe it. People are meeting one minute, and acting like life-long friends the next. Problems escalate from innocuous to life threatening in a matter of seconds. Explanations of the plot are few and far between... you just have to go with it.

If Affleck truly is the bomb here, it's only because he just goes with gusto. Some of his co-stars just ignore the bad and act like hell even more so -- chiefly Liev Schrieber. And then there's acting legend Peter O'Toole, whose appearance in this film seems to defy explanation. My theory: either he lost a bet and had to do it, or won a bet by voluntarily doing it.

There are a few good moments scattered throughout that make you pine for the truly creepy movie this could have been. A couple scenes depicting possession are almost unsettling, and a couple early moments of gore are gleefully effective. But mostly, the film is just boring, a truly damning thing to say of any horror movie.

I'd rate Phantoms a D+. There's not much there for even a horror lover to enjoy.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Winning Odds

I have a new candidate for the film of 2011 I wish would win the Oscar for Best Picture. Sadly, it's not even nominated in the category.

Last weekend, I watched 50/50, the film about a young man (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) diagnosed with a rare spinal cancer, and his best friend (Seth Rogen) who supports him through his treatment. I heard quite a bit about the film when actors were making the rounds promoting its theatrical run. Seth Rogen in particular made it clear in interviews that the humor of the situation was something he thought had been overlooked in other films, and that's what made this "cancer movie" stand out.

And it's true, 50/50 is a really funny movie. Not laugh riot, but it makes you smile a lot. It also makes you cry. The subject of cancer is handled with tremendous honesty and powerful emotion. The film really explores all aspects of the subject, not just focusing on the main character's diagnosis, but on what it does to his friend, his girlfriend, his mother, and more. Yes, there is humor in the situation, but I think the film's real triumph is the other emotions it conveys -- just how scary the situation is, and how helpless it makes everyone feel.

I liked the movie so much, in fact, that it has made its way onto my top 100 list. And that's going to cause a little wrinkle next time I pick up with my countdown. But for the moment, the takeaway is that I give 50/50 an enthusiastic A. It's the best 2011 movie I've seen.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Heart

Last night's new Glee was a good episode overall, and had plenty of great moments in it. At the same time, though, I think it was a little too overstuffed for its own good. Most of the multiple running subplots felt to me like they could have easily filled more space, and some even seemed to suffer for the short time they were forced into.

The one subplot that seemed to have exactly the amount of space it deserved was the love triangle of Artie, Sugar, and Rory. The character of Rory has basically been given nothing since his initial appearance. Given that he was chasing after Brittany in that episode, all we can really conclude of Rory is that he's a big horndog. Basically, a high school student. The highlight here was the fun "one upsmanship" montage.

The longer running love triangle of Sam, Mercedes, and Shane (aka "whathisname") should have been given more space to breathe, I think. Mercedes' confession to Shane was almost off-camera (shown only by flashback, mid-song), and though she has expressed guilt about loving two guys before tonight, her sudden transformation to "and so I can't have either of them" seemed a bit of a contrivance just to accommodate the song "I Will Always Love You." I think with just a bit more time, I could have gotten there. I'm all over giving Mercedes (and Amber Riley) more things to do.

Rachel's dads had taken on such mythic proportions in the two-and-a-half seasons leading up to now (they were mentioned in the pilot!) that I'd really hoped to see more of them than happened here. Especially when the bit we did get to see was so entertaining. It really gave insight into why Rachel is the way she is, because her dads were loving, outgoing, and secretly very manipulative. Of course, the parenting instinct here is probably dead-on, that you can't make a teenage girl do what you want by telling her what that is. I do assume, though, that we'll be seeing more of the dads again before the season is out.

Given even shorter space was the romance between Brittany and Santana. They finally did get to kiss on screen (briefly), so at least there's that. But I'm more interested in the moment where the principal busted them for kissing in public. Frankly, that's dark stuff right there. Some serious exploration of the straight/gay double standard was warranted there, and Principal Figgins has tried to argue the righteous high ground on so many occasions that I think it would have been really good to see him taken down a peg. But instead, this serious issue was skirted just to put Santana in a "fighting mood."

Which led to another interesting story, Santana's request to have the "God Squad" deliver a singing telegram to Brittany, and the angst that involved. This plot had some real flaws for me. Putting a new guy into the mix (another winner from The Glee Project, by the way) was certainly necessary to give this play at all, because basically, it was completely unrealistic for any of the other characters to have any problem with this whatsoever. Sam and Quinn (especially Quinn) did a very articulate job of laying out one point of view there.

Mercedes' position was hard to accept. One of her best friends is Kurt. Yet suddenly she might have a problem with someone being in a same-sex relationship? The writers tried to salvage this by making her conflict be more about "I don't want to force people to do something they don't want to do," but I still don't think that does justice to Mercedes' history. Again, Kurt's a best friend. But she's going to not stand up to a total stranger on behalf of that friend? I'm all for using a new character to explore the issues here, but I feel like a bit of injustice was done to the established characters in the process.

But shortest shrift of all was given to the story of Kurt's secret admirer, who turned out to be Karofsky. I can only say that this storyline had better be picked up on in future episodes, because I don't think the episode really conveyed just how huge a thing it was for a person like Karofsky to lay it all out on the line like that. (Instead, I think the episode more conveyed a creepy stalker vibe.) Kurt was trying to handle the situation with wonderful tact and sensitivity, but then another student caught Karofsky in the act, which should pile on an already tough situation and force the poor guy back into his shell. I want to see the consequences here in future episodes.

Musically, the episode ended up being mainly about one big moment -- the unfortunate coincidence of including a Whitney Houston song just days after she died. Amber Riley did perform wonderfully, and the emotion from both her and Chord Overstreet as Sam felt very genuine.

As a footnote on the music, I'll just observe that I love The B-52s and "Love Shack," but Kurt's rendition of Fred Schneider's wild vocals was much better than Blaine's.

One more episode before Glee goes back into hibernation to make more episodes. This one, I grade a B+.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Run of Luck

I won't be getting to tonight's Valentine's Day episode of Glee, on account of actual Valentine's plans. But for those looking for some sort of television review tonight, I cooked this up in advance.

I picked up HBO a few weeks ago so that I could check out the latest from creator David Milch, Luck. I knew nothing of the show in advance, other than that it dealt with horses somehow, and starred Dustin Hoffman. And, of course, that most important detail, David Milch's name. He earned such goodwill from me with his brilliant writing on Deadwood that I'd be willing to give just about anything from him a try, no questions asked.

Three episodes of Luck have aired now, and I'm still not sure what to make of it. By this point in Deadwood's run, I already loved it, though I recognize that as an unreasonable standard to hold a writer to. But Luck so far has displayed signs of the same "recipe" that made Deadwood.

Many disparate plots are in play. A career criminal kingpin is trying to put things back together after a prison stint. A group of "railbirds" hits big betting on horses, and their relationship begins to fracture in the aftermath. A washed up trainer is trying to secretly champion a new horse to the big time. The connections are casual at best, but there seems to be some inevitable intersection on the horizon.

The dialogue is dense and delicious. The entire show is filled with the terminology of horses and gambling, and if you don't understand it all (I admit, I don't), you just have to sink or swim. By osmosis, you'll eventually learn to keep up. Very Deadwood.

But so far, the characters still have some catching up to do. There aren't many sympathetic characters to get behind, and while it's true that some of Deadwood's best characters were not what anyone would consider "good guys," none of Luck's "villains" have the pop of a Swearingen or Tolliver.

But maybe they'll get there.

I was looking for enough pull to justify staying with Luck after the required month for which I have to keep HBO, and as of right now, I think Luck is going to pass that test. (Of course, drop it or no, I'd be picking up HBO again come April 1st, for the second season premiere of Game of Thrones.) I doubt I'll be posting about the weekly ins and outs of Luck, but you might look for an update or two from me as the season unspools.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Paxton Petty

This week's new Alcatraz episode felt like a good tack in the right direction for the show. The episode did a great job of balancing stand-alone elements with the ongoing story arc, balancing character moments with a contained mystery-of-the-week.

The back story of Dr. Banerjee (and by extension, of Hauser) was the most satisfying part of the episode. We got to see the doctor working in the 1960s, very clearly ahead of her time, and able by episode's end to earn the respect of the prison staff -- which to this point had been portrayed as the most impenetrable of boys' clubs. We also got the hint of a budding romance between her and Hauser, providing greater context for his reaction to her coma in the present.

But I thought the best part of fleshing out Hauser's character was to see his normal operating procedure getting him into hot water. As always, he withheld information from Madsen and Soto, and as usual, for no apparent reason of safety or security, but rather just because he felt like it. And this time, the withholding meant that when he was trapped and needed rescue, none was certain to be coming. Madsen had to reconstruct the clues all on her own to determine Hauser's location and come for him. Hauser doesn't seem like the sort of person to let this one incident change his way of thinking, but I could see this being the first chink in the armor. If more come in the episodes ahead, it could lead to a much needed softening out of his character.

Admittedly, the motivations of this week's inmate-of-the-week were a bit flimsy, but there's only so much time and space that could be given to that without crowding out those strong character elements, and the tantalizing teases of story progression: Banerjee inquiring in the past about the experiments on the inmates; Soto learning in the present that a woman doctor was working at the prison; all of us finding out pretty concretely that the inmates have absolutely no recollection of where they've been for 50 years, and that they'll appear in all sorts of places.

I still hope for Alcatraz to keep getting better, but I think it's safe to say that I'm hooked now for the rest of the season. And if it stays on this course, I'll be rooting for it to get another.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Womanly Affection

Yesterday, I went to see the new movie, The Woman in Black. It's a period horror movie starring Daniel Radcliffe as a young widower with a young son, sent by his law firm to a spooky country house to resolve the legal paperwork there. Haunting ensues.

The movie marks a wonderful return to a form not seen nearly often enough today, in my view. This horror film is not intended to gross you out, it is intended to scare you. And while it does resort to loud noises and louder musical accents on occasion, the great thing is that mostly, the film does it with good, old-fashioned, creepy suspense and dread. The most effective scenes in the film involve minute-long sequences where you can see the scare coming (or sometimes hear it; or sometimes imagine it), but wheeeeen willlll iiiiit arriiiiiiiiive. To me, this is what good horror should be.

Daniel Radcliffe is quite good in the film. He's a very sympathetic main character, and manages to portray the sad introspection called for in the script without turning it into dark brooding. A great deal of the film calls for him to be on screen alone in the haunted house, with no one to play off of and no dialogue to deliver. He manages a very effective performance where you can read on his face the wheels of his thought turning. It's a fairly good choice of movie for him as an actor, trying to stride from the long shadow of Harry Potter.

But the film does at times actively work against him in this regard. For starters, while the audience may want to work its hardest to suspend disbelief and accept Radcliffe as someone other than Harry Potter, asking us to accept him as father of a four year old boy is a bit of a stretch. Granted, at Radcliffe's actual age (particularly given the 1890s setting of the film), it's fine, and yet we all just saw Radcliffe "graduate" from "high school" in the final Harry Potter film just a few months ago.

The trappings of the 1890s also occasionally suggest Harry Potter. When Radcliffe's character boards a cross-country train, it's hard to not to think "Hogwarts Express." When he runs into a trio of children -- two boys and a girl -- the specters of Harry, Ron, and Hermione are conjured. And Radcliffe's main co-star is Ciarán Hinds, who played Aberforth in the final Potter film. All superficial details, of course, and unfair to latch on to, but it nevertheless takes a good 20 minutes (when the real scares begin) to really set Radcliffe's indelible film history aside.

Once you can, though, the film is a very effective horror piece. The atmosphere is dark, the Macguffin well thought out, the scares scary, the music effective, and the ending appropriate. As I mentioned earlier, there are just a few cheap scares earned with loud noises and quick camera cuts, but I forgive the indulgences when so many other scares in the movie are earned more honestly.

I was hopeful about the movie after hearing praise from some friends, and then I was still pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. I grade it an A-, and give it an enthusiastic recommendation to anyone who likes tense, chilling horror movies.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

A Whole Lot of Nothing

Over the years, I've read a few of Stephen King's novels. I decide to give him a chance to show me what the fuss is all about. I usually walk away still uncertain, and then don't try another Stephen King book for a few years.

My best experience with King was reading The Dark Tower series. Though book 1 felt like the longest short book I ever read, book 3 was a tedious slog, and book 5 was entirely too built around referencing King's other books and appealing to fans, I quite liked books 2, 4, and 6. And most importantly, I thought the concluding book 7 actually managed to wrap it all up in a satisfying ending.

But when I tried Misery? Meh. The Dead Zone? Meh. It? Meh, the mini-series was better. The Stand? "Wow, this book is really goo--- what the hell kind of ending is THAT?"

Well, it's been a few years since my last King experience, so I decided I was due. And this time, I decided to ask a friend of mine -- who has read (nearly?) everything King has published -- "what King book would you recommend I read?"

His answer: Salem's Lot.

This was Stephen King's second published novel, and it is an homage to Bram Stoker's Dracula. A powerful vampire in the truly classical, old school model comes to a tiny Maine town in the "modern day" (the mid 1970s of the book's original publication). A group of disparate townsfolk must band together to defeat the monster.

It took me two months of on-and-off reading to finish reading the book. Granted, Skyrim was responsible for a lot of the time I didn't feel like reading. But the book certainly did little to pull me along. Having finally finished it, I suspect two key reasons for my friend's recommendation here:

First, this friend knows that I've read The Dark Tower, and if you're going to read just one Stephen King book to provide greater context for the material in the later Dark Tower books, Salem's Lot is the one. One of the characters crosses over from Lot into the epic series, and I agree that his "redemption" is more meaningful when you fully understand why he needed to be redeemed.

Secondly, the ending of Salem's Lot is not bad. At least, it's decent by King standards. There's a pointless epilogue that steals from the melancholy note the book would otherwise have concluded on, but ultimately the novel does deliver on all the amped-up vampire slayage you came to read.

But it is certainly not the Stephen King book I would have recommended to me. In fact, of all the stand-alone novels of his that I've read, it's certainly the one I've liked least. King wrote it as a young writer clearly infatuated with Bram Stoker. I've read Dracula, and it's a ploddingly slow, truly boring novel. It is structured as a series of newspaper clippings, diary entries, and so forth, forming a jigsaw puzzle of a tale that is more concerned with the trappings of the story than the story itself.

And Salem's Lot is the most complete homage to that format I could imagine. Nothing of any real consequence happens in the first third of the novel. A hundred pages and more are spent just setting up the Maine town of the title, and its community. Like, every person in the community. You get the perspective of a kid fighting a playground bully, a town drunk beating on his wife, a tourist writer (King always seems to put a damn writer in his books), a country doctor, a proper young college girl, a... zzzzzzzzz....... Weren't there supposed to be vampires in this book?

Occasionally, King gets into a groove and paints an interesting picture of one of these myriad characters. But he's no George R.R. Martin when it comes to crafting a distinct character amid a cast of dozens. King will just manage to start something interesting with one character, and then whisk you away to another you simply don't care about.

If you're lucky. The most aggravating thing about the novel is that sometimes, King writes from the perspective of the town itself. There's a 5-page passage that opens the worst chapter of the novel, in which King simply writes on about the typical weather patterns in rural Maine in September and October. No plot, no character. It's a glorified poem from a man that really should have just gone out and written some poetry, if that's where his muse was taking him.

Once things finally do get rolling, the book does get rather interesting. But in that two month period of trying to finish the book, I read the last half in the final three days. It took the whole rest of the time to reach the point where it felt like the novel even actually got started.

If you're a fan of Dracula, I would imagine I couldn't recommend this book highly enough. It is a loving tribute to the style of the classic novel. But I certainly wasn't entertained enough by it to recommend it outside that context. I'd grade it a D+. Maybe it might have reached C-, if the siren pull of Skyrim hadn't kept me from soldiering through it earlier.

Friday, February 10, 2012

A Leap in Logic

I won't say "not to nitpick," because of course, this is totally about nitpicking, but...

I saw this ad on a web site this week:


It seems a little off to me to be advertising this product right now, in this month of February in particular, in a year that in fact has 366 days.

That is all.

(Tagged "holidays," because Leap Day should be one.)

Thursday, February 09, 2012

A Night at the Cirque

Tonight, I went to see Dralion, a Cirque du Soleil production making a brief stop here in the Denver area. It's actually more than a decade old, having been around long enough that several acts have been changed since its original incarnation. Yet it just keeps touring all over the place, going as strong as ever.

This was the first time I'd seen Dralion, and it was far and away my favorite of the touring Cirque shows I've seen. It even eclipsed several of the standing shows I've seen. Part of the reason for this is that the structure invited easy comparison to other Cirque shows.

The show was filled with similar acts to those of other Cirque productions. There was a juggler, a Diabolo routine, a trampoline act, a couple performing an aerial ballet, a jumprope piece, and more. Indeed, there were only one or two acts that felt wholly different from other Cirque shows I'd seen (though they were highlights). What set Dralion above the pack was that -- at least, in the second act -- the performances of these routines were far more clever and well-done than I'd ever seen in other Cirque productions.

The music was a particularly interesting element of this production. The soundtrack of Dralion is more percussion driven than most Cirque shows, and the vocalists were featured in the show much more dramatically than in other shows. One of the singers was even wired up and suspended over the stage, as much a part of the show as some of the acrobats.

Another distinctive element of Dralion was its use of the clown characters. Every Cirque show has them. Most of the shows also make use of an audience plant. This was the first Cirque show I'd seen that, after playing around with the plant at great length, came clean and revealed to everyone that "yes, this guy is part of the show." More interesting, the final clown act of the show was a "montage" that lampooned most of the acts and characters from earlier in the show -- it was like Cirque playfully making fun of itself.

If Dralion tours near you, I'd definitely recommend seeing it. It entertained me, even though I believe it's the tenth Cirque production I've seen. And I'm sure it would thrill anyone who hasn't seen one before.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

My Top 100 Movies -- 90-86

It's been a while now -- longer than I'd planned -- since my last post counting down my 100 favorite movies, but it's still a "project" I'm pursing. So, without further ado...

90. Toy Story 2. I've raved before about the amazing third installment of the Toy Story series, but the second film is wonderful too. Character is king in this touching tale, not just the indelible creations returning from the first movie, but the new characters added in this sequel. The montage in which we see Jessie's abandonment by her former owner stood as the most deeply emotional sequence Pixar had ever put to film until Up and its heart-tugging opening came along years later. The jokes are funny, the vocal performances top notch.

89. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. I praised this movie fairly recently on the blog, so I'll point you to my last review rather than go on about the film some more. (Though I easily could.)

88. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Those of you who recall my earlier mention of The Fellowship of the Ring will realize that that makes this third film my favorite of the trilogy. Some people complain about the length of this final chapter, and about its "multiple endings." (And I agree, to the extent that I think the credits should roll when all the people of Minas Tirith are kneeling in respect to the Hobbits.) But for me, The Return of the King contains all of the most emotionally impactful scenes in the trilogy: Sam's tearful defense of Frodo; Pippin being forced to sing for a callous king as people are slaughtered in a nearby battle; and that aforementioned moment where Aragorn leads a tribute to the Hobbits. The emotions of this film are strong and true, and transcend the adventure (however compelling) of the other two films.

87. Airplane! A relentlessly funny movie. You didn't laugh at one joke? Don't worry, the next will be around in about three seconds. This movie casts a long shadow, inspiring most of the parody movies made even to this day, and being often quoted by anyone who claims to like movies. The pitch perfect, deadpan performances of Robert Hays, Julie Hagerty, Leslie Nielsen, Peter Graves, Lloyd Bridges, and more (most of them known as sternly serious actors before this) seal the deal. I can't see this movie ever getting old or tired.

86. October Sky. I'll confess that it's been some time since I've watched this film, and my memory of it is less than crystal clear. (Indeed, this is one of the handful of films that delayed me "publishing" my top movie list for month after month; I'd always meant to get back around to watching this again to place it accurately.) But I do remember this as a touching coming of age story. It centers around a fascination with and love of space, which effectively aims it squarely at me. And it featured great performances by Jake Gyllenhaal, Chris Cooper, and Laura Dern. Random factoid: this movie was actually the first one I ever purchased on DVD (and I still own that copy).

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

The Spanish Teacher

Tonight's Glee offered a couple of fun scenes, but wasn't a very strong episode overall.

The main plot revolved around the question some fans have been asking about the show since the beginning: "When does Will actually teach Spanish?" And the answer to that question was revealed tonight -- he's not actually a good Spanish teacher at all; what he really knows of Spanish is a series of stereotypes.

What weakened the episode for me is that while delivering that valid message about stereotypes (punctuated by a great speech by Santana), the episode that was supposed to have featured Latin music totally copped out on that. Hence we had covers of songs by "famous Latin artists" such as... LMFAO, Madonna, and Elvis Presley? Wai--what? At least the Madonna song has lyrics about nominally Spanish things. But other than that, "Latin week" included only one song that actually seemed to fit the theme, "Don't Wanna Lose You" by Gloria Estefan. I for one don't think that translating English songs into Spanish counts. Why not get a song by Selena? Or maybe a more modern option like Juanes? Or hell, in a pinch, maybe some Ritchie Valens? Or would it hurt the iTunes sales too much for them to actually take a risk and get a song by a prominent Latin artist that someone like me probably hasn't heard of before?

Another dark spot on the episode was Will's suddenly amped up jerkiness to service this week's plot. Characters on Glee have been fickle in this way in the past, but with several strong continuing story arcs this season, I was daring to hope the writers had left those days behind. It might not have been so bad here, except that Sue was telling us in this very episode that she admired Will for never acting exactly like this.

Yet another dark spot came in awarding tenure to the guidance counselor who, in this very episode advised that two students having communications difficulties should agree not to speak to each other at all for a period of time. Huh?

Fortunately, the episode wasn't a total loss. I already mentioned Santana's speech as a great moment. Watching Sue get out-Sued by the synchronized swimming coach was another. And Kurt's pep talk to step-brother Finn was another.

But mostly, I found this episode to be a mess. Toss in a few more saves by some of the funnier lines of dialogue to appear on Glee in quite some time, and I average it all out to a C-.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Guy Hastings

Tonight's new Alcatraz was a bit of a mixed bag in my book.

On the one hand, the series really deepened its overall story this week. The story of Virginia's grandfather was front and center. We learned that Uncle Ray already knew of the returning "63s." We saw the first guard (rather than inmate) from four decades past. We learned that Ray and Tommy were actually brothers, and got some tantalizing hints of the past between them. All compelling stuff.

On paper, anyway. The thing is, despite all this interesting material, I actually found this to be the least interesting episode of Alcatraz yet. This episode lacked the tension of earlier hours. The case wasn't particularly dangerous, because the "catch of the week" wasn't actually a bad man; it seemed unlikely that anyone was ever in any actual danger.

In short, while I think this is ultimately a direction the show can and should go, fleshing out the larger story, the writing of this type of episode needs to grow. I'm not truly sounding the alarm, but it does make me hope the show doesn't go the way of The X-Files, which soon reached a point where the "mythology" episodes were tedious and labored affairs that had to be suffered to get to the far more compelling and entertaining stand-alone episodes.

We'll see what Alcatraz has in store next week.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

A Bowl of Quips

Football fans got to enjoy a close-scoring Super Bowl this year. I think that means it was good or something... I don't really know. Or care. I played board games and watched the commercials. Some random thoughts on what I saw:

If vampires weren't played out before, they must be now after showing up in an Audi commercial. And by the way, I hate-hate-HATE when somebody with blinding headlights like that gets behind me on the road. I don't want to buy that car, I want to run anyone off the road who does.

Elton John as evil king of Pepsi made me laugh.

I think if it were actually that easy to peel the shell off an M&M, they'd replace Oreos as the ultimate play-with-your-food food. Get on that, someone!

The apocalyptic commercial left me remembering Twinkies and Barry Manilow more than... what truck was being advertised again?

Did anyone really believe the "unrated content" on GoDaddy's web site would include the implied nudity?

I understand the board game Battleship doesn't have enough "plot" to base a movie around, but seriously, does that movie have anything to do with the game? I think it would have been just as accurate to name the movie Candy Land.

GE wants you to know they're the power behind Budweiser. GE: We Bring Crap Beer to Life.

The TaxAct "gotta pee" commercial was funny, but in that context, the slogan telling you to go to their web site and "feel the free" seems like they're saying "our web site will pee on you."

Mos Eisley patron is right. Dog funnier than Vader.

I wanted to see that polar bear actually open that bottle of Coke after all that fumbling around.

Half that commercial for The Phantom Menace was spent showing clips from other Star Wars movies.

Comic book movie ads? Women in lingerie? Who the hell do they think watches the Super Bowl?!

Singing head on back tentacle wins creepiest ad of the year. And that's even with E-Trade still doing the talking babies.

Dear NFL fantasy game people: one million bucks isn't what it used to be.

Clint Eastwood wants you to support Detroit. And get off his lawn.

I don't think I want to buy a Toyota, but I could certainly see picking up some of their other "reinvented" products.

As fun as it was to see John Stamos get viciously head-butted, there are so many other celebrities I'd rather have seen in that commercial.

Jay Leno's joke-ruining expertise is brought to an otherwise killer Jerry Seinfeld ad.

Why is Budweiser campaigning so hard against prohibition? Do they think it's coming back?

The Matthew Broderick commercial was awesome. The full two minute version on line is better still. I want to be able to remember what it's actually for, but nope, it's just the ad for "as much Ferris Bueller 2 as could possibly be good."

MetLife unites cartoon characters from across several studios. Cool.

Football games are so long!

If only "Weego" would fetch good beer.

So, not only am I unconvinced of the necessity for a phone with a "pen," that phone looks way too big to be comfortable in any pocket.

Does it even count that you touched the Lombardi trophy if you were wearing gloves?

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Skip the Beginners

Skilled actor though he is, Christopher Plummer has never won an Oscar. All the critical buzz says that's about to change in a few weeks, as he's the odds-on favorite to take the Best Supporting Actor prize for his role in Beginners. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

Based on the real life story of its writer-director, Beginners is the story of a man whose 75-year old father comes out to him as gay... and then dies of cancer just a few short years later. The film pops back and forth in time as the man reflects on his own failed attempts to meet the right person, and contrasts his new relationship with the few short years his father got to live openly and happily after four decades in a "traditional" marriage.

The real star of the film is Ewan McGregor, whose budding relationship with Mélanie Laurent is the spine of the story. Christopher Plummer's much lauded performance is "supporting" in the truest sense of the word; a loveable Jack Russell terrier commands nearly as much screen time. The love story starts out sweet and quirky, but the laughs dry up very quickly. Interesting moments are too few and far between.

What results feels very much like an obscure foreign film. Long scenes full of "meaning" in what isn't said stretch on for minutes. Strange, "artistic" intercuts in time rule the narrative. Odd dramatic "choices" are thrown in to imply grandeur, such as the decision to subtitle the silent stares of the dog with dialogue.

And as for Christopher Plummer? Well, he's good. But Oscar good? If he does indeed win, I'll count it as one of those "body of work" awards that the Academy always seems to give out, recognizing a performer who really should have been recognized for some other film earlier in his or her career. I hardly think a half-century veteran of film should finally be awarded just for taking the supposed risk of playing gay. Millions of gays and lesbians play straight every day, even more convincingly, and they're not winning any awards for it.

Unless, of course, the award would be saying that the movie would be unbearable entirely without the talents of its cast? That, I could probably get behind. The Herculean efforts of Plummer and McGregor did manage to pull a laugh or two out of me even after long stretches where I was fighting to stay awake. But as for the movie itself? A plodding D+ that I really can't recommend to anyone.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Back for More?

An entertainment news story dropped today that has me filled with the most mixed of emotions: several of the creative forces behind my favorite film ever, Back to the Future, are in early discussions to mount a Broadway musical incarnation of the film.

On the one hand, this is sort of everything that's wrong with the entertainment industry right now. Messing with something that was absolutely perfect the first time around. Regurgitating an old idea rather than crafting a new one. Crowding out the few new ideas with endless remakes of old ones.

On the other hand, how could I possibly not want to see a Back to the Future musical, if they actually made one?

Checkmate, you bastards, check and mate.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Earnest Thoughts

This week, I went to see a production of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, in the middle of its run locally at the Arvada Center. It was a particularly fun night at the theater for me, as this is a play I myself performed "back in the day." What's more, one of my friends who appeared in that college production with me was now appearing in this professional production... in the very same role I had.

It was a bit of a trip through the looking glass, and through history. I found that even though it had been 15 years, I still remembered a considerable amount of the dialogue. But the play still had the power to make me laugh. Indeed, I took away from the evening an even more profound respect for the writing of Oscar Wilde.

"Earnest" is an exceptionally funny play. There were jokes in it that we hit squarely in our production. Last night, I got to discover other jokes that we'd missed, but this production nailed. And in thinking more about this, I realized the potential for still other big laughs that neither of us had hit upon. All this in a 100 year-old comedy, when comedy is so routinely "of its time" that it doesn't last. Yes, a truly brilliant play, this.

As for this production, it's a strong, enjoyable staging. On the evening I saw it, the crowd was a bit sedate throughout the first act, but everything seemed to start firing in Act Two. The crowd woke up, the cast picked up the comic timing, and each began to feed off the other as happens in good theater.

Seeing the play brought back to mind many fond memories, but I do think it's a show anyone could enjoy, even if they know nothing of the play. It's just a fun, spirited farce. And if you live in the Denver area, you still have a few weeks to catch this fun production.