Friday, March 30, 2012

Not So Fast

Fast Food Nation is a 2006 film loosely based on the non-fiction book of the same title. Directed by Richard Linklater (of indie movie acclaim), it's a collection of interwoven stories all revolving around a giant fast food chain. We follow an executive looking into accusations of tainted beef, illegal Mexican immigrants working in the meat processing plant, minimum wage workers at a local restaurant, and more.

The cast is what drew me to take a look at the film. It's a long list including Greg Kinnear, Wilmer Valderrama, Bobby Cannavale, Bruce Willis, Kris Kristofferson, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Paul Dano, Luis Guzmán, and even (oddly) pop star Avril Lavigne.

And while many of the performances are very good (particularly Willis' indignant single-scene cameo), ultimately the movie is a bit aimless. The "fast food bad" message was hardly news by the time this film was made from the book, and is even less so today. More problematic, the movie doesn't even really seem to go after that message too directly; the theme is circumstantial, secondary to watching this collection of characters in a variety of situations ranging from trying to awful. There's no real narrative with a beginning, middle, or end, only a dreary point at which things just stop and the end credits roll.

Some of the sequences are entertaining, particularly those surrounding a young group of headstrong activists who discover that it's hard to actually do anything in support of their anti-fast food cause. But it all just comes off as a clever anecdote or two, and not really worthy of a movie.

I'd grade the movie a middle-of-the-road C. It needed to pick one side of that road, and either be a hard-hitting documentary aiming to change minds, or a piece of entertainment with an actual story to tell.

Thursday, March 29, 2012


I was at the point where I was thinking I wouldn't keep writing about Awake every week. Oh, not because I suddenly wasn't enjoying it anymore. Rather, because it had seemed to settle into a fairly pleasant routine, but one more "procedural" than "serialized," one that didn't necessarily seem worthy of pontificating about here on the blog. But then came tonight's episode.

The latest Awake episode presented all sorts of exciting shakeups in the world(s) of the show. Even more so than in the episode where Rex was abducted, this episode tracked only one crime in one world. The "red world" had no case of its own, but instead was the venue for a subplot of emotional tension between Michael and his wife.

And the resolution of that was quite interesting. I don't see Michael actually picking up with his wife and moving to Oregon. For one thing, where would that leave the actors playing his partner and therapist in that reality? For another, there are all the practical real world budget considerations that drive a show to be set in Los Angeles in the first place. But perhaps this push to move could at least result in them moving to a different house, shifting the realities at least a little bit?

Also coming to a head in this episode, Michael's "hunches." Realistically, the show portrayed that he couldn't keep having them for long before people would start to get suspicious, and while the matter did get resolved for the time being (he was exonerated of being a copycat serial killer), it seems likely to come back to the fore within an episode or two. Perhaps he'll end up sharing the truth with his "green world" partner soon?

Lastly, there was the resolution of the crime in this episode. For the first time, Michael's case was not solved by the end of the hour -- a big first for the show. And of course, the bigger twist was that this killer knows Michael's secret. I suppose this could be a set-up for a continuing plot with this nemesis, though I actually didn't get the impression the character would be showing up again soon. More interesting was the killer's implication of sharing something in common with Michael. Was he simply spouting typical serial killer mumbo-jumbo, saying the two were alike in seeing more to the world than mundane people? Or was he implying that they see the same "more to the world," that he too is living in some kind of fractured reality? Interesting stuff.

So yeah, I think Awake continues to be a show worth discussing. And I'll be tuning in eagerly next week.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Piece on Mind

Not long ago, I watched the 2010 effort from the Dreamworks Animation studio, Megamind. I'd skipped the movie in theaters, in part because it seemed like they were venturing into territory already skillfully covered by Pixar in The Incredibles. But on the other hand, there was a twist here -- this film was built around the villain who opposes a do-gooder superhero.

Another point that made me waffle on seeing the movie was the main star, Will Ferrell. I've definitely enjoyed certain performances he has given, but quite hated others. But, given that he was contributing only his voice here, there was little chance this movie would feature any of the stupid, "get naked" humor that leaves me cold in so many of his movies.

Will Ferrell is good in this movie, it turns out, though he's only one in a pretty strong cast. Also featured in the cast are Tina Fey, Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, and David Cross -- all actors I've enjoyed in other films, and all well utilized here.

So I gave Megamind a chance, and was surprised. It wasn't that I liked it a good deal more (or less) than I expected; I was quite simply surprised by what I saw. I think I was expecting a more comedic effort, exploiting the "it's about the bad guy" premise and mostly comedian cast for laughs. But I found the true laughs in the movie to actually be rather few and far between.

Instead, there turned out to be a rather enjoyable and sweet story at the heart of the movie. It's a story of nature vs. nurture, sweet sentiment, and rising to the occasion. It's largely predictable, but also wholly genuine. And while it lacks the real weighty moments of, say, Up or Toy Story 3, it runs deeper than most "kids movie" fare.

I rate Megamind a B+. I won't be adding it to my collection or anything, but I can certainly give it my recommendation.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

All Wet

Several issues back, Entertainment Weekly did an article about a cult movie from 2001, Wet Hot American Summer. I hadn't heard of it before, but what I read grabbed my interest. It was written by Michael Showalter and David Wain, two members of the comedic triad who (with Michael Ian Black) have served up some strange but funny comedic confections over the years. (The oddly funny TV series Stella included.)

The cast includes the two Michaels, and a long list of truly funny performers: Janeane Garofalo, David Hyde Pierce, Paul Rudd, Christopher Meloni, Molly Shannon, Amy Poehler, Bradley Cooper, Elizabeth Banks, and Judah Friedlander. The structure of the script plays to the sketch comedy strengths within most of that group. It's the last day of summer camp in the early 1980s, and hijinks ensue among the camp counselors in a long series of sketch-like scenarios, often intercut with each other.

The problem is, the sketches are almost aggressively unfunny. Do you watch Saturday Night Live at all? You know the sketches that start off with a dumb idea and then keep on going at least three minutes longer than they ever should just to fill time? Nearly all of Wet Hot American Summer is like that. I was seriously thinking about turning the movie off, but I figured I'd hang on for its brief 90 minutes and fold laundry or whatever on the side.

It turns out that the movie does pick up a bit in the final 20 minutes or so. The movie just takes one step farther into the absurd, and with that added ridiculousness, starts to be a bit funny. Maybe it's just that the movie reaches a place where it becomes an effective parody of itself, I'm not sure.

That ultimately saved the movie from being a total loss for me, but still left it a long way from anything I'd recommend. I'd call it a D+. As cult fare goes, this is one cult I do not understand at all.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Garrett Stillman / Tommy Madsen

Tonight brought us the season's final two hours of Alcatraz -- possibly the last two ever episodes of the series. Unfortunately, they weren't the strongest episodes of the series to go out on.

By putting off the "major mysteries" of the show for a big season finish, these last two episodes had to short change most of the things that made the rest of the season most interesting. There weren't many of the great character beats that peppered earlier hours; we got a taste of the Doctor (Sengupta or Bannerjee, depending on the year) integrating back into the group, and that was about it. No appearance at all from the autopsy doctor that had been flirting with Soto, only bits of the good rapport between Soto and Madsen, and only a late game appearance by Uncle Ray.

The criminal-of-the-week aspect wasn't great either. The second hour, of course, didn't really have one at all; all the flashbacks were devoted to the warden wining and dining Tommy Madsen while teasing the conspiracy behind it all. The first hour had a potentially interesting character in master thief Garrett Stillman, but rather than expose anything about his character, his story too merely served to put pieces of the conspiracy into position.

So, if these two hours were really all about the ongoing story and the mystery at the heart of the show... how did it do on that front? A mixed bag, I'd say. On the one hand, I was hoping for some kind of unforeseen twist to be revealed. The whole season had been increasingly hinting that the warden was behind everything, and that Tommy Madsen was essentially his lead operative. Tonight's finale only confirmed exactly that. On the other hand... well, you can't say the series wasn't playing fair with its information all along.

The final episode resolved very little, but did set up some clear threads for season two (should the series get one). First, Hauser and his team have managed to capture the scientist who appears to be responsible for the tech of what's going on. Assuming he doesn't immediately escape somehow, one would expect some valuable information to be learned there. Second, it was revealed that the show will no longer be confined to the San Francisco area; inmates are going to be appearing all over the country, so presumably the team will have to start going on the road to apprehend them. I hardly felt tired of the San Francisco setting after just a half season of episodes, but if they want to open up the show farther, I could see that being interesting.

The last moment cliffhanger was the apparent death of Detective Madsen. The voice of a doctor was "calling it" officially. But who knows what kind of magic colloidal silver blood or whatever might work to bring her back? Or then again, maybe the show would take a chance on removing its theoretical lead and bringing on a character with a bit more personality to replace her?

Again, of course, assuming that the series is even picked up by FOX, which at the moment seems a bit of a long shot.

All told, I'd have to say that this season of Alcatraz remained entertaining throughout, but also didn't really deliver on the full promise of the early episodes. The concept ended up being niftier than the execution. Or maybe it's just that the arrival of the series Awake displaced Alcatraz as my favorite "unusual catch-the-bad-guy" show. If Alcatraz somehow is renewed in May, I'll probably keep watching it. But I think I can also make my peace if this is it.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Black Marks

This afternoon, I traveled a bit up the mountain to Evergreen to watch the Evergreen Players present the play Black Comedy. It's a one act British farce written by Peter Shaffer (a playwright normally known for intensely dramatic material such as Equus and Amadeus). It's also a play that I performed years ago in college. I'd never actually seen it myself, but I recall it being perhaps my favorite play (and favorite role) I ever got to perform. I was eager to see this staging.

Black Comedy is still an amazingly funny script. The premise has a starving artist trying to impress both his girlfriend's father and a wealthy art buyer all on one night, having furnished his apartment for the occasion with fancy furniture stolen from his vacationing neighbor. But a power outage occurs, setting into motion a spiraling chain of calamity in true farcical fashion.

The particular gem at the heart of the play is a theatrical conceit: when the lights are on full on the stage, that's when the characters all behave as though they're in the pitch blackness of the power outage. As people stumble around in comical near misses, we get to see it all while the performers act as though blind.

It's a particularly challenging piece to perform. There's the British accent to master. Then there's the physicality of pretending to be blinded by darkness. And for the central character (whom I was fortunate to play), there's the juggling of several key agendas -- keeping the girlfriend happy, sucking up to the father, returning the neighbor's stolen furniture (in the dark!) when he returns from vacation early, and keeping a jealous ex-girlfriend at bay when she too decides to crash the party.

Frankly, it's too much for most actors to handle. Watching the play this afternoon, I got the distinct impression that I myself was probably lucky to have been half as good as I might have once imagined myself to be in my own mind. The play is so rich, so densely loaded with jokes, and so demanding of swift timing, that you can easily find 100 moments for big laughs, yet leave another 100 unmined.

I enjoyed the Evergreen Players production immensely. It definitely serves up plenty of laughs, and is well worth going to see. But I also felt the pace slacken in several key moments. Some of the cues were a bit loose, leaving a few performers awkwardly stifling a logical character response until the appropriate moment for their line came along. That said, the cast as a whole was quite strong with the physical comedy, serving up many hilarious near-collisions and other humorous moments.

Particularly strong in the cast were Carol Meredith as the unhinged drunk Miss Furnival, and Andrea Rabold as spurned (and thus sinister) ex-girlfriend Clea. JR Cody Schuyler is also quite good as Brindsley -- his character work is developed, and his physical comedy sharp (though his accent is a bit spotty).

The show has one more weekend coming up, and I suspect seats that can still be filled. If you live in the Denver area, would like a reasonably priced night at the theater, and love to laugh, I would definitely recommend the production.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Games On

From the box office figures being reported, it seems that almost everyone is going to see The Hunger Games this weekend. Well... count me in with the everyone. After having read the book, there was no way I was going to skip on the film.

I can't imagine a film version of The Hunger Games being much better than this. This is not to say that they rendered the novel perfectly. The movie is a significantly different experience in several ways:

There are several missing elements from the book. Some are wisely removed (like the awkwardly described man/animal monster hybrids that attack at the climax of the novel; they're just panther-like creatures in the film). Others are sorely missed (such as the background information Katniss learns about District 11 that explains why its residents are moved to rebellion by her relationship with Rue). But more than anything, I'm impressed with how the movie managed to take a very violent concept, render it on film without truly compromising the sense of horror or violence, and yet tastefully retain a PG-13 rating.

The biggest difference between novel and film has to do with emphasis on character. The Hunger Games, the book, is a first-person story narrated entirely by Katniss. As such, you get a deep insight into her thought processes, and learn that what she does doesn't always match what she thinks. These subtleties are utterly lost in the film; a film-goer will never understand the degree to which she is playing for the cameras, and will take her behavior more at face value. A significant loss.

But in exchange, many of the other characters come off more fully defined, as you get to see them for yourself and not through the lens of Katniss' narrative. Her sister in particular, Prim, is a much better character in the film (even without any more time devoted to her), because you see the personification of how young and helpless she is, and can more fully understand Katniss stepping in for her. This in turn also strengthens Katniss' bond with Rue, who is much more understandable as a ringer for Prim on screen.

Other characters also pop thanks to the talents of the actors playing them. Woody Harrelson is a marvelous Haymitch (even though he looks nothing like what I pictured reading the book). Elizabeth Banks as Effie perfectly captures the intersection of "so annoying you want to kill her" and "thinks she's being genuine and doesn't realize how annoying she is." Lenny Kravitz is a wonderfully sympathetic Cinna. Stanley Tucci and Donald Sutherland are perfectly oily as Cesar Flickerman and President Snow.

The Hunger Games was so not a "Team Him" vs. "Team Other Him" story to me, but in this age where love triangles push paper (or celluloid), the casting of the two love interests is key. To that end, I think the deck is stacked against poor Gale. Granted, Liam Hemsworth doesn't have much to do as Gale in this movie, but Josh Hutcherson is a perfect and compelling Peeta. And then, anchoring the film, is the talented Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss. She received an Oscar nomination for her film Winter's Bone. Though I quite disliked that film, she is just as dedicated to her considerably more mainstream performance here. Even without the benefit of the book's inner monologue to make Katniss a more likeable character, she makes you enjoy the character in the movie very much.

The production values of the film are top notch -- the environments believable, the visual effects carefully deployed without often going over the top. And while I do miss some of the subtleties of the book narrative, well... like I said in the beginning, this is probably as good a movie version of this story as you could get. I rate it an A-.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Order Out

Trolling for movies to "help pay" for my HBO subscription, I recently recorded The Order, a 2003 movie starring Heath Ledger. I vaguely remembered seeing a trailer for the film many years ago that made it look possibly interesting. And the plot synopsis was intriguing -- a self-doubting priest comes into contact with an immortal being with the power to devour the sins of humans. An exorcism-themed movie with a twist?

I probably should have checked out the film's Rotten Tomatoes score before trying out the movie: it's rated a pathetic 9%. And while I thought the movie wasn't truly that bad, it was certainly a long way from good.

Actually, more than anything, it was just boring. What starts off with the trappings of horror quickly gives way to a strangely dull take on a strangely warped "hero's journey." (Anti-hero's journey?) The raw material is compelling and different enough that it kept me tuned in all the way to the end, but the script itself never rose to be worthy of the ideas in it. The film remained bland and predictable.

Though it did have one more check in the "plus" column -- the performance of Heath Ledger. Oh, it's by no means award-caliber, but this movie showed that he was an actor who would give a performance of equal intensity and integrity whether the movie was as well-regarded as The Dark Knight or Brokeback Mountain, or... well, kinda schlocky like this. I think with nearly any other actor in the role, the film would have crossed the line into unintentional camp. Somehow, with Ledger it remains serious.

Still, you'd be digging down deep in the barrel to come up with this movie. I'd call it a middle-of-the-road C. While there are easily worse movies, there's also little reason to spend your time on his one.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Kate Is Enough

Tonight's new episode of Awake was a strong episode overall that unfortunately suffered from a rather weak bookend plot device. The opening scene had Rex flipping out over the damage done to "his" tennis racket. It wasn't hard to deduce that the real reason for his anger was that the racket belonged to his tennis-playing mother. Unfortunately, the episode made us wait until the final scene for Michael to catch up with us, a rather poor showing for a brilliant detective.

But, as I said, the bulk of the episode in between was quite good. The plot device of the babysitter Kate was a very useful one for the show. It served character and plot equally well. Her role as a witness in one reality and a perpetrator in the other helped cloud the resolution of both cases. And as a model of two different ways of dealing with grief, she provided an emotional lesson for Michael.

We've now gone two weeks since the revelation that Michael's car crash was not an accident, and have had no follow-up on that plot thread since then. Interestingly, I think that might be for the better. I found the premise of the show intriguing enough that this extra continuing plot didn't seem necessary to me. Obviously, having mentioned it, they now have to follow up on it eventually. But if they let it slip back into the background for a while, that's alright with me.

Awake does seem to be settling into a rhythm as a typical detective show that happens to have a high concept, but I'm engaged enough with it on that level, that I've actually found myself thinking about dropping a different show in favor of this one. (The long-in-the-tooth CSI.) So yeah... I'm still liking it.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A Helpful Review

I recently crossed another one of 2011's Best Picture nominees off my list, The Help. I believe this was the most widely viewed of last year's nominees, and had quite a few people praising it. But there was also a second current of criticism mixed in, of some people calling the film too trite and easy for such a serious subject.

That subject, if you somehow missed it, is racism in Mississippi in the early 1960s. The story surrounds a young woman trying to break into the publishing industry. Inspired by the maid who raised her from childhood, she begins to interview several maids, compiling their stories on the racism they've encountered throughout their lives.

I didn't find the movie trite, but neither was it truly profound. Though there are certainly some sad and dramatic beats in the film, it's ultimately a feel-good story. As such, the movie does brush up against some serious depictions of racism from time to time, but usually pulls out and back into a more inspirational and uplifting tone. (Though, interestingly, it doesn't really end on one.)

Some have complained that for being ostensibly about "The Help," the movie does spend quite a lot of time with the character played by Emma Stone, the young woman interviewing and collecting the maids' stories. It's true that her storyline is given equal weight with those of the characters played by Oscar nominee Viola Davis and Oscar winner Octavia Spencer. Some called this a flaw in the movie. I saw it more as three equally important stories all in need of their own resolutions.

The performances in the movie are the main draw here. You might find the story a bit treacly, or you might find it moving, but there really can't be any doubt that Viola Davis was a worthy Oscar nominee for her work her, and Octavia Spencer a fine winner. Emma Stone also does a great job in a more dramatic role than I personally have seen her before. The cast also includes Allison Janney and Bryce Dallas Howard, and a relative newcomer in Jessica Chastain -- all of them have strong scenes.

Overall, the movie didn't rocket onto my own list of 2011's best, but I've seen many worse films that garnered Oscar nominations. This one is worth the time, if you think you're interested. I rate it a B+.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Webb Porter

I found tonight's new Alcatraz episode to be a bit of a mixed bag. The "criminal of the week" aspect didn't really thrill me. There was something sort of trite and tired about the story of a tortured boy with untapped talents being driven to darkness, and something equally familiar in the way he'd trap and torture his victims. It's not that I could point to a particular story I've read or seen somewhere and say "oh, they're doing THAT this week." I just generally felt like it was well-traveled waters lacking in any uniquely Alcatraz spin.

But the advancement of the ongoing story was compelling where the stand-alone tale was not. Seeing the softer side of Hauser was really needed to progress his character. There weren't great strides there, mind you, but seeing his date with the doctor in the past, along with his continued protectiveness of her in the present, made him a less robotic individual.

The episode also ended with Madsen and Soto finally discovering that Dr. Sengupta is herself a '63. Either they'll step up their questioning of Hauser, or keep their knowledge to themselves and begin working more actively behind his back. Either seems like a good starting point to launch into more interesting stories.

But then, there are only two hours left to go -- and both are scheduled to run next Monday. Whether that serves as a season or series finale will probably not be decided until May, but either way, I'll be hoping for a good pair of episodes.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Beside the Dying Fire

Tonight brought us the second season finale of The Walking Dead. It did continue the general upward trend of the last couple episodes, gradually pulling out of the long, slow funk that dragged down the bulk of the season. But it still had a few flaws.

One of the things that made the first season of the show so great was the way that dramatic character scenes would sit side by side with tense action scenes, all within the same episode. Season two seemed too often to be one thing or the other, and this week wasn't a great exception. Having apparently squirreled away dollars on a budget-saving season confined mostly to a single location, the show tried to make up for it by throwing a Zombiepalooza in this final episode. And yes, the action was fun. But I think the show would have been much better overall if they'd used some of the bucks they'd stored for this bang at the end of the season earlier on to infuse some excitement into the endless "sit around the farm and talk" episodes.

I also felt that in these last couple episodes, the writers failed a bit at providing an experience that can exist separate from the original comic source material. I know snippets of the comic book storyline, getting the occasional details from some of my friends that have read them. But largely, I approach the show as its own thing. And on that level, the big "reveals" here at the end of the season simply weren't that compelling.

Last week, we learned that Walkers can be made not just by the bites of other Walkers, but that every person who dies of any cause will rise again as a Walker. Rick then confirmed this week that this was the big secret told to him by the CDC doctor way back in the first season finale. And apparently, this was a big revelation in the comic. As for the show? It gets a big "so what?" from me. How does it change anything about the survivors' plight?

The big cliffhanger ending of the episode was an even bigger misfire, if you've never read the comics. The show ended on a big dramatic shot of a prison in the distance. From the snippets I've heard from comic readers, The Prison (which certainly sounds deserving of capital letters) was a big, important storyline that ran over several issues. But to a TV only viewer, it doesn't mean a damn thing yet. Am I supposed to be excited to see it? If anything, I'm dreading that we've finally left one drama-killing setting (the farm) only to apparently be heading straight to another static location where the characters will try to wall off exterior problems and stew in their own stupidity-manufactured internal conflicts for another season. I'm not encouraged.

But there were a few strong moments in the episode that at least made it more entertaining than most episodes this season. Glenn taking charge. Rick's timely rescue of Hershel. Andrea's badass solo warrior flight from the farm.

Overall, I'm glad to see the series take a break. I hope the writers use the next few months to really regroup and think about the rather considerable list of things that did not go well with this season -- the glacial pacing, the irrational and ugly behavior of Lori, the repetition of plot points over several episodes ("Carl, get in in the house!" Guess what, Carl doesn't listen.). I could see myself possibly getting drawn back into The Walking Dead more fully, but I'm honestly far more excited to see what comes of this new TV series that I hear Frank Darabont is putting together over on another network.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Rich Burgundy

It's been quite a while since I've posted a board game review, in part because the time I've been able to find for games had shriveled up there for a while. But that particular ebb and flow is starting to flow again, and I should once again have a few new games (or new to me, at least) worth commenting on.

One is from a designer I've come to enjoy and admire greatly, Stefan Feld. He has contributed yet another game to the so-called "Alea large-box series," The Castles of Burgundy. There's an interesting similarity between it and his previous entry in that series, Macao, in that both make compelling use of dice. The games aren't actually very similar, but both take a random element of dice -- which are usually anathema for me in a really enjoyable game -- and find a way to make them work in the context of a truly strategic game.

Stripping out several of the nuances, the game is essentially this: each player has his own personal board, a large hexagonal grid on which he's trying to place tiles (earning special powers in the game as each is placed). The tiles are "bought" off of a common board shared by all players, where purchase options are divided into six categories. Each turn, every player rolls two dice, then takes one action with each of his rolls. He may use a die to acquire a tile in the corresponding number category from the common board, or play an already acquired tile to a matching numbered space on his own personal board.

The dice element works here for a number of reasons. First, players roll a lot in the course of the game -- 25 times, to be exact. It feels like enough rolls for the occasional bad roll to even out in the long run. (Plus, players have chips that can be spent to change the outcome of an undesirable roll.) Also, players have some flexibility in managing their actions. If your roll this turn is bad for placing tiles on your board, maybe it will be better for purchasing new tiles... or vice versa. You can usually find a way to make your intended strategy work over the long run, even if you hit a few temporary bumps in the road.

I don't find the level of resource management here to be quite as satisfying as that in Macao, but the game is also a good deal easier to explain and wrap your head around than Macao. In short, both are worthy additions to a game collection, in my opinion -- one or the other to be brought out on any given night depending on how taxing a game the players want. After maybe half a dozen plays, I'd rate this one a B+. It's not as solid a game as some of Feld's earlier work, but the man does keep making games I would always be happy to play.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Bad Medicine

I've owned the soundtrack album for the movie Medicine Man since the film originally played in theaters 20 years ago. But until this week, I'd never actually seen the movie.

A high school friend of mine had seen the movie, loved the music, and bought the soundtrack himself. Knowing my own love of good film scores, he loaned the CD to me, and I went straight out and bought my own copy. Jerry Goldsmith's score for Medicine Man is a wonderful fusion of classic, sweeping film music, pulsing (though not cliche) tribal rhythms, and interesting synthesized sound effects. It should have earned Goldsmith an Oscar nomination, though the Academy was notoriously stingy to the composer.

Having now seen the movie, though, I think I can understand the oversight. The movie is actually pretty terrible. Goldsmith's score is basically the one good thing about it, and Academy voters no doubt blocked the entire experience of the film from their minds.

The plot involves an aloof researcher (Sean Connery) in the Amazon who has discovered a cure for cancer in the local environment... but is unable to reproduce the exact method he used to synthesize his serum. A bean counter (Lorraine Bracco) who holds the purse strings to his expedition arrives on the scene to evaluate his work, and winds up racing against time to help him before the local rainforest is destroyed by a road building effort. It's all a rather ham-fisted way of expressing the otherwise noble message of nature conservation. The inelegance would be forgivable, but its far from the worst thing about the script.

That dishonor would go to Dr. Rae Crane, the character played by Lorraine Bracco. She's written as an impossibly shrill and abrasive nuisance from cover to cover. The script writer was clearly more interested in the "fish out of water" scenario than any other aspect of the story, and overindulged that interest by writing a character too "fishy" to be believable.

Lorraine Bracco then takes what was on the page and injects even more ridiculousness into the film. She was nominated for a Razzie award for this laughable performance. She should have won. She's as cloying as any of the worst female characters I've seen on film or television in years. It's something of a wonder that Bracco found work again after such a shameful performance.

Sean Connery is only better in that he's really no different than he's been in countless other films. But the script hardly does him favors either, presenting his character as a chauvinistic boor in the opening act. All the better, one assumes the screenwriter assumed, to make the two main characters have to grow more to like each other by the end of film. Instead, it just makes Connery's character as unlikable as Bracco's at the outset; only decades' worth of accumulated screen charisma allows him to (slowly) overcome that.

On the strength of that incredible score, I'd rate Medicine Man a D. But really, why waste your time? Go find the soundtrack somewhere if you're a fan of film music (or Jerry Goldsmith in particular) and save yourself an hour and forty-five minutes.

Thursday, March 15, 2012


Tonight's episode of Awake was possibly my least favorite of the three so far, but I was still very entertained and found it interesting. I did like the way they took a typical cop show story about a kidnapping and put a spin on it that would only be possible on this show.

Michael's desperation at the possibility of losing his son was heightened by having already lost his son in his other reality, a strange kind of intensely personal stakes that could only be done on this show. And then there was the realization that he could still question a suspect who had died by traveling to the other reality to do it there.

I read some online criticism of last week's episode, saying that the scenes involving Michael's wife -- without him being present -- seemed to concretely state that reality was the true one. This week shot that theory down by including scenes of Michael's son without his presence. The scales are balanced again.

My response may not be that of the typical viewer, but I find I just don't have any interest in proving one reality as "real." I accept the premise exactly as the main character is living it -- that both worlds are real. I'm entertained at the interplay between them, and am not out for "answers." Awake may run six seasons, it may run six episodes, but to me Awake is no more about proving a reality than How I Met Your Mother is about actually meeting The Mother.

It's just a neat concept, and the writers are still feeling their way around it. And I like what they're finding.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The New Faces of Evil

Last year, I heard of a small-budget independent film that caught my interest, but wasn't able to see it until recently, on Blu-ray. It has a catchy title: Tucker and Dale vs. Evil.

One thing that intrigued me was the premise. Two quintessential country hicks are mistaken by a camping group of college kids for a pair of inbred homicidal killers in the model of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Hilarity ensues.

The more intriguing aspect of it to me was the casting of those two characters: Tyler Labine and Alan Tudyk. Most people wouldn't recognize either by name, but they'll both be familiar to "genre" TV fans. Labine appeared in both Reaper and Invasion, while Tudyk was the pilot, Wash, of Firefly. Both displayed wonderful comedic chops in those roles, and a goofy premise like this seemed tailor made for them.

What results is indeed very funny, though funnier still the more horror movies you've seen. This film is a parody of the slasher genre, going through all the wonderful cliche moments you expect and mining them for laughs. Even the moments you see coming will still make you laugh when they arrive.

But what isn't quite as effective is the final act of the movie, where the comedy is largely set aside and the story actually has to wrap up in some way. At this point, the movie becomes a bit of a horror movie itself. It reminded me somewhat of the structure of another horror-comedy, Behind the Mask. The laughs were better there, and so was the wrap-up, though I have to say that the very premise here was more entertaining.

Regardless, fans of the horror genre -- or of either of the two main actors, if you're geeky enough to recognize them -- will definitely want to check this movie out. It satisfies thoroughly for its brisk 90 minutes. I rate Tucker and Dale vs. Evil a B+.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A Legend in Its Own Mind

It seems that until The Lord of the Rings films came along, nobody in Hollywood seemed to think that fantasy films should be taken seriously. The few fantasy themed films that were made all had very light touches. Sometimes, the results were still enchanting, as with The Princess Bride.

Other times, you got Legend.

Director Ridley Scott, who played it so wonderfully serious with Alien and Blade Runner, didn't stay with that approach when he moved away from science fiction. He wanted to make a classic fairy tale, and found a little-known writer to deliver him this script. This very hokey script, loaded with ludicrous and overwrought dialogue. He then guided his actors, a young Tom Cruise and Mia Sara (of Ferris Bueller's Day Off fame) in very unnatural and awkward performances. The only actor who manages -- barely -- to not be laughable is Tim Curry, who hides unrecognizable behind intense makeup and just hams it up, Rocky Horror style.

The movie isn't a total loss, because the look of it is pretty fantastic. While most of the sets definitely look like sets and never like convincing real-world locations, they're all so detailed and vast that the film is still a wonder to behold. And the makeup is still striking and thorough even decades later. It's enough to make you wonder if a more believable, natural, and entertaining movie could be lurking in there somewhere if you only took the sound away and dubbed in new dialogue.

That's perhaps not that fanciful a notion if you know what happened to the musical score to this film. Originally, composer Jerry Goldsmith created the music for the film -- and his work was released in the European version. But Ridley Scott, ever one to tinker with multiple versions of his films, decided to cut portions of the movie for the American release, and he also decided to completely replace the music. He enlisted Tangerine Dream (featuring eventual Babylon 5 composer Christopher Franke) to create the score that now adorns the film. I don't know that a serious Goldsmith score could have "saved" this mess of a movie, but I think it likely would have been easier to take it seriously without the sing-songy, synthetic plucking of the Tangerine Dream score.

But I'll certainly make no effort to hunt down the European version to compare. I suffered enough watching the movie once. I rate it a D-.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Clarence Montgomery

Tonight, FOX ran the Alcatraz that was postponed two weeks (and three episodes) ago, Clarence Montgomery. It was an interesting hour that mixed some social issues into the series narrative.

This episode was the first centered around a "colored" inmate, to use the episode's 1960s parlance. It provided the opportunity to look at racism at the time, and also provided an unlikely opportunity to humanize the character of the warden by having him be a progressive on the subject of race. (But there was more at play there, as I'll come back to.)

The episode also focused around a "reverse Clockwork Orange" scenario, in which a peaceful and innocent man was turned into a violent killer through psychological and chemical therapy. Because of this aspect of the episode, I think it actually was for the best that the episode was delayed from its intended air order (something I never thought I'd say about the network). Last week's Sonny Burnett episode showed how a man could be corrupted by the prison system itself. Granted, Burnett was already guilty, but he was mutated into far worse by his incarceration. This episode pressed the theme farther by driving a completely innocent man to murder, and I think seeing this first might have lessened the impact of the "natural transformation" in the other hour.

In the end, it turns out this demented therapy was performed at the request of the warden, which undermined any attempt to humanize him earlier in the hour. It's not just that the man was ordering experimentation on the inmates -- we already knew he was doing that with the blood samples. He also specifically acknowledged that he knew Montgomery was innocent, when I would think any man with an ounce of compassion would have seen to his release from prison.

With all the focus on social commentary and fleshing out the 1960s ongoing story, there wasn't much room for character development in the present time. Soto scored a date with the autopsy doctor he's been flirting with for a few episodes, but otherwise, he, Hauser, and Madsen played their required roles in moving the story along, with little more.

In all, it was an interesting hour of the show, though not one of the series' best.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Change You Can Believe In?

HBO has just begun airing a new original movie, Game Change. It's based on portions of the best-selling book of the same name, and surrounds John McCain's selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate in the 2008 presidential election.

Politics being such a polarizing subject, and Sarah Palin being an especially polarizing figure, it's of course impossible to come to the film able to enjoy it fully on its own merits. But I myself wasn't really watching to see Palin eviscerated in a two-hour made-for-TV movie. (Though I certainly wasn't looking for her to be humanized, either.) Mainly, I was tuning in to see the performances of two actors I particularly enjoy.

Julianne Moore takes on the role of Palin, while Ed Harris portrays John McCain. Both have an unenviable and near impossible job of playing real world figures, still alive and well, and doing it without crossing the fine line into caricature. They have to present real people the audience will respond to appropriately within the context of the narrative. Very few actors could ever pull off such a tightrope act, but I was eager to see these two try.

Of the two, it's much harder to fairly judge Julianne Moore's performance. I can say that she certainly doesn't play Palin broadly, or for comedy. Several scenes in the film have her Palin watching Saturday Night Live footage of Tina Fey's Palin impersonation, and this side by side comparison serves to show just how carefully crafted and realistic Moore's performance is. But... this is still Sarah Palin we're talking about here. Some will say the script of this film is a hatchet job to her. Personally, I'll simply say that I think the movie portrayed her exactly as she was (and is). If you disagree, then you can blame the script; Moore's performance is above reproach.

But I found Ed Harris to be particularly impressive in the film. He neither looks nor sounds as much like John McCain as Moore does Palin, but Harris manages to infuse his performance with a surprising humanity. McCain (the character) comes off as a largely admirable and thoroughly principled man who learns the consequences of compromising those principles -- and accepts them.

There is a larger message at play in Game Change, however, than putting these two figures under yet another microscope. The film's undercurrent is more about the devolution of news into a circus of entertainment. It's also a fine example of "group think" in politics, a lesson that translates to groups of many sizes and many beliefs and affiliations. The film presents exactly the sort of echo chamber inside the McCain campaign that led to Palin's selection, and how it persisted against reason all the way through the campaign. And I think whether you accept this as unvarnished truth, or find it shaded (to any degree) with fiction, you'll still recognize it as something that does happen.

That said, while the message is there, and the acting is fine (not only from Moore and Harris, but from an ensemble cast that includes Woody Harrelson, Peter MacNicol, and Sarah Paulson)... well, like I said at the beginning of this, it's impossible to come to this film and watch it on its own merits. The film can't really change minds (if it even would intend to), nor can it provide any sort of emotional catharsis (when the audience's emotions about it are predetermined before the first frame appears). In short... it can only be so good.

Trying to wrap that all up to put a mark on it, I think I'd call Game Change a B-. I think I'd recommend it to anyone who, like me, is keenly interested in the actors involved. Otherwise, you might well choose to avoid it.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

A Great Idiot

Last night, I went to see the U.S. touring production of American Idiot, the musical based on the Green Day album of the same name. This rock opera takes the songs of that album (in order), interjects another half dozen Green Day songs, and layers a story on top to create a high energy, one-act show.

Though American Idiot is, as you'd expect, a loud and pounding show, it actually has a fair amount in common with a silent movie. There's very little dialogue added between the songs to explain the narrative. And the songs themselves... well if you've heard the original album, then you know that there isn't quite a story there either. But the musical actually does have a coherent story (with three major characters featured in parallel plots), and you can follow it quite clearly. And that's the silent movie aspect. American Idiot is almost a pantomime, and Green Day just happens to be the soundtrack chosen as the "back drop" for it.

That said, while the lyrics of the songs largely don't describe the plot, they certainly are a tonal and emotional match for it. And what's more, they rock. I've liked the original album (and the band) for a while now, but having the music retooled for a stage and a chorus really does add to them. Harmonies that are somewhat subtle in Green Day's original recording leap front and center -- and more are layered on top. The core "rock trio" sound is doubled by three more musicians (another guitar, a keyboard, and a cello), all of whom are in full view on stage for the entire performance, the cast weaving around them in a dizzying, frenetic choreography.

Not taking away anything from Green Day, but nearly all of the songs actually sound better this way, as though they were written for the stage in the first place. And they weave a sastifyingly broad tapestry. Some retain the amped-up punk rock rage you'd expect, while others turn quite soft and tender. The result is both concert and musical, and works well on both levels.

The set dips a toe in both waters too. It's an open space with a somewhat industrial look, as has been featured in shows like Rent or Stomp. But it's also lined with TV screens used extensively for background projections, much like a typical concert. Another effective combination.

The current headliner of the touring cast is Van Hughes in the role of Johnny, and he really is a really strong performer. While there really are no weak links in the cast, his voice is flexible enough both for punk anthems and slow ballads, and the emotions behind what he's singing always come through loud and clear.

American Idiot's stop here in Denver is for this weekend only, which is probably bad news for any of my local readers who would want to try and see it. But it's probably good news for my readers in other places; the show is right back out on the road and heading to other cities -- perhaps near you. If you're at all a fan of Green Day, or of rock musicals, this is one you should definitely get out and see.

Friday, March 09, 2012

My Top 100 Movies -- 75-71

My continuing top 100 movie list...

75. Little Shop of Horrors. I do have a bit of a soft spot here, having performed this musical in high school. But the film version really is great, featuring the same great music from Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, fantastic puppet work under the direction of Frank Oz, and great performances by Rick Moranis, Ellen Greene, and Steve Martin (with a memorable cameo by Bill Murray). If you like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, or Aladdin, there's really no reason you shouldn't like this "grown up" musical from the same brilliant composers.

74. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. After the bump in the road that was Temple of Doom, this third Indy film really went back to the roots of the original Raiders of the Lost Ark. The object of the quest was similarly mythic and epic, the humor had returned, and so had John Rhys-Davies and Denholm Elliott. On top of that was the wonderful addition of Sean Connery as Henry Jones. Really, the only missing element here was Karen Allen; the film was otherwise a wonderful thrill ride.

73. Copycat. I really do love this movie, probably more than it really deserves. I'm blogged about it before. But I think what I really love about it is that there are plenty of movies like this, but none others I can think of where not one but two significant roles are filled by women -- the two most significant roles here. And both the actresses are playing rather against type, with Holly Hunter playing the tough detective, and Sigourney Weaver the terrified victim.

72. Slither. I always liked this movie, but didn't love it immediately upon release. Over time, I've come to regard it as the perfect cocktail of humor and horror, and the perfect starring vehicle for Nathan Fillion. This movie is absolutely gross, and revels in it. I suppose this owes a debt to the Evil Dead movies and others, but I feel like this did it all better than its progenitors. Come for the gore, stay for the hilariously (in)appropriate song that plays over the end credits.

71. Soapdish. This movie is absolute genius, and it pains me to hear that they're trying to remake it. There might actually be a worthy script in a remake somewhere, looking at how soap operas are on the outs today, compared to their heyday (shortly before this film was made). But you could nevernevernever assemble a cast as hysterical and perfect as Sally Field, Kevin Kline, Elizabeth Shue, Whoopi Goldberg, Robert Downey Jr., Cathy Moriarty, and Teri Hatcher. Anyone who has ever got caught watching not just a soap opera, but any evening drama with a serialized story, is bound to recognize something familiar in this movie, and laugh wildly at it.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

The Little Guy

Tonight's second episode of Awake definitely cemented my interest in the show. It's not that the show has rocketed into my, say, top 5 favorite shows right now... but it certainly seems to me like the best detective show of the moment.

Most cop shows don't even bother to inject much personal interaction or character development into the proceedings. Even the few that do tend to keep those elements wholly separate from the week's crime. What struck me most about tonight's Awake was that the crime itself revolved around a very emotional story -- of the young man learning his father's real identity, feeling a sense of violation in his very own DNA. The character's plea as he confessed, to simply not allow others to go through what he has gone through, was just so far advanced beyond the normal cop drama fare. You know, the typical, vaguely Scooby Doo-esque confession that tends to conclude every episode of other cop shows?

Even that would have been enough to satisfy me, but of course, Awake is operating on another level too -- that of the two-reality conceit. This week's episode had a strong subplot there, of Michael trying to help his wife cope with the loss of their son, and her discovery of the motorcycle in turn helping Michael to bond with him in the other world. It seemed like honest family drama within the heightened premise. Very encouraging.

It seems that part of the ongoing story is now going to be the truth behind Michael's accident. It seems a conspiracy of some sort is at play there, affecting at least one of the two worlds. That may grow into another layer of entertainment, but the moment I think the show is doing just fine without it.

I'd say at this point, my only complaint -- a minor one -- is that when it comes to Michael's two therapists, the scales are tipped heavily toward Dr. Evans right now. Her caring and encouragement make her a much more likeable character than the prickly Dr. Lee. What's more, her acceptance of the two realities as a useful exploration is consistent with our view as the audience, seeing both worlds for ourselves. Thus, Dr. Lee is left as a bit of a heavy in this tale, and I think he'll need some propping up at some point. But hopefully there will be time for that.

I'm already looking forward to next week...

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Settling the Scorsese

It may have lost the Best Picture Oscar to The Artist, but Hugo rounded up a raft of technical awards and received nearly as many praises from critics. This past weekend, I got to catch up with the film and judge for myself.

Director Martin Scorsese has spoken frankly about his motivations in making this film. One was that he was keen to make use of new 3D technology and make his first 3D movie. Though I did not get to see the movie in that format myself, it was clearly designed for it. It is an intensely "worked" film. I would say overworked, actually. Every frame is labored on to create this very polished, not-quite-storybook-but-not-quite-reality feel. The camera sweeps and moves every which way, and "pop out of the screen" 3D gags are present at every turn. I think it all a bit overt, but if Scorsese set out to make a 3D film, then mission accomplished.

The other key motivation Scorsese has acknowledged in interviews was a desire to step away from violent, adult films and make something that his grandkids could watch. On this count, I think Scorsese was significantly less successful. The pacing of the movie is quite slow and methodical. I struggled with my own attention span at a few moments during the movie; I can't imagine a child hanging with it more attentively just because two of the main characters are pre-teens themselves.

So, Hugo is a luxurious looking film with a slow pace. Total Oscar bait, right? Well, add in the true subject matter at the heart of it. Ultimately, the movie is about the origins of movies themselves, revolving around the work of a real-life French filmmaker who made a famous early film about a voyage to the moon. (Anyone who watched HBO's From the Earth to the Moon mini-series may recall Tom Hanks playing this man in the final episode.) So add to the Oscar bait cocktail a reverence for the history of film, glorifying a century-old classic of the medium. And the whole thing was directed by Martin Scorsese.

If only The Artist hadn't come along to be even more a love letter to film history, you could rest assured Hugo would have won the Oscar for Best Picture.

There are entertaining performances by Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Chloe Moretz, and Jude Law. Young Asa Butterfield isn't the strongest lead, but he is still at the heart of the few scattered moments of some emotional heft in the film. And, as I mentioned before, the look of the film is top notch. If you like the spectacle of movies, this one is for you.

But I myself felt a little too bored by the plot. I still have more than half of 2011's Best Picture nominees to go, but this now stands as my least favorite of the ones I have seen. I rate Hugo a C-.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Barenaked on Broadway

Broadway is certainly short on ideas these days. A number of new musicals are being developed that adapt pre-existing movies into would-be stage spectaculars. Last month, it was Back to the Future. This month, it's Animal House.

And once again, I might just have to see this musical if it ever actually makes it to the stage.

Oh, I hold no great enthusiasm for Animal House as I do for Back to the Future. Not even close. But according to this announcement, the music for this production will be provided by one of my favorite bands, Barenaked Ladies.

Oh, well played, Broadway. (Damn you.) Well played.

Monday, March 05, 2012

The Ames Bros. / Sonny Burnett

Tonight brought us two new episodes of Alcatraz. Neither was a blow-your-mind revelation, but both did stretch the shows in interesting directions.

It's inevitable in a show about a prison that sooner or later, you'll tell a prison break story. The first hour, The Ames Bros., was the series' first take on that subject. As a twist, the 1960s prison break featured in the episode wasn't really about escape, but rather about locating mythical Civil War gold in the bowels of the island. Still, it was a framework to hit all the prison break beats -- the escape plan, the conspirators, the execution, the complications.

This backstory was intercut with a bottle show present day story that had the main characters hunting through the empty corridors of Alcatraz for the inmates-of-the-week. The most effective moments of this were seeing poor Doc Soto -- the proxy for the audience -- in danger. The show couldn't really manage to generate much tension, as you knew the heroes weren't actually going to die or anything, but it was a fun and serviceable hour.

The second hour, Sonny Burnett, was interesting in that it portrayed the first criminal to not just pick up the M.O. of his previous crimes, but to specifically go back and visit a previous victim. It was also interesting in that Burnett was arguably the most villainous criminal yet featured on the show. Yes, that's a bold claim to make when we've already seen a callous sniper shooting innocent civilians, and a poisoner who tried to gas a subway car... but this was a man torturing one particular person purely for vengeance, for the thrill of it, and showing no qualms about any collateral damage.

I doubt the series had many lofty ambitions in their storytelling here, but the hour could be looked on as a minor critique of the prison system itself. Far from rehabilitating a criminal, or even just punishing him, we saw how prison transformed a criminal into an even more savage and evil person. Sure, it's fiction, but you wouldn't have to look hard to find real life cases of some similarity.

If you watch Alcatraz for the mysterious doors and keys, oddly modified blood, and other such mysteries, well, you got a bone or two thrown your way tonight. Nothing amazing. But it does seem as though this is the mode Alcatraz has settled into. Yes, there's an ongoing story, but it's not going to play a very big part from week to week.

For my part, I'm enjoying the "catch a crook" part of this show more than the average episode of CSI or what-not these days, so I remain entertained, if not blown away.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Don't Ask

A few months ago, I caught a particular episode of the movie review show At the Movies. They were filling summer rerun season by broadcasting a classic episode from the early 80s starring Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. The two were debating who was the funnier filmmaker, Mel Brooks or Woody Allen?

That might well be a great barometer of one's taste in movies. I've long been a fan of Mel Brooks and have seen most of his films. On the other hand, I've seen relatively few Woody Allen films, and aside from some of his more recent work in which he does not appear as an actor, I haven't liked what I've seen.

I recently decided to take a chance on an Allen classic, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask). It has done nothing to change my opinion of him.

But the film certainly does serve as a fine test case in the Brooks vs. Allen argument, as I think you could easily see The History of The World, Part 1 as Brooks' version of (or spiritual successor to) this film. Both are essentially sketch comedy films featuring a large cast of actors in brief vignettes. In Woody Allen's film (made almost a decade earlier), the vignettes take their titles from the chapters of a book on sex, popular at the time. But the titles serve as little more than jumping off points for some comedic premise.

The trouble is, most of them just aren't funny. A funny line drops in occasionally, perhaps one per sketch (out of seven total in the film), but the bulk of the sketches are quite dry. The puns are weak, the characters more like caricatures. In the last two sketches of the film, Allen seems to finally embrace the spirit of total zaniness, and the film manages to be a bit funnier. But overall, the wait getting there is just too long.

But what really drags this film down is how poorly it has aged. Very few movies can be said to be truly timeless and still appeal to audiences decades later. Comedies seem to have particularly short half-lifes. But this film is particularly archaic, as several of the sketches are predicated on forty-year-old attitudes about sex. It's all too benign to be considered offensive; it's simply not mean-spirited. But it's also just not funny.

I found it easily the worst of the Woody Allen movies I've sampled. I'd advise seeing it only as the prime case study in why Mel Brooks is a funnier filmmaker than Woody Allen. I rate it a D-.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

A Real Nightmare

It's never been high on my list to see Wes Craven's New Nightmare. But I troll for movies occasionally on HBO to weakly justify my subscription beyond watching the HBO It Series of the Moment. This movie ran recently, and I've always been faintly curious.

Made in 1994, writer-director Wes Craven returned to The Nightmare on Elm Street franchise for the first time since the original. The franchise had trucked along without him for five more films in the meantime, and had culminated in "killing" Freddy Krueger. Wes Craven came back to put a new twist on things... he went "meta."

New Nightmare takes place in the "real world," and stars Heather Langenkamp (the heroine of the original film) as "herself." She's tormented by nightmares about Freddy, receiving harassing phone calls that seem to be from him, and worried about her son's possible mental disorder. Meanwhile Wes Craven (a character in his own film) is also having nightmares about Freddy, and is incorporating them into a new Nightmare script he intends for Heather to star in. Several stars from the original film (including Robert Englund) appear as both "themselves" and as their characters in the franchise. Rabbit-holery ensues.

My real curiosity about the film stems from my love of the movie Scream. Wes Craven would direct that just two years after this, and while he did not write Scream himself, it certainly seems that screenwriter Kevin Williamson was very much inspired by the meta approach to New Nightmare. In short, New Nightmare seemed very much like "Scream Zero," and I wanted to see what it was like.

But New Nightmare is a mess from start to finish. The script wasn't quite whipped into shape before it went before the camera. Consequently, there's lots of confusion as to just what the story is about. Is Freddy trying to abduct Heather's child, or become him in some sort of demonic possession? Does Heather believe her son actually has a mental illness, or does she suspect Freddy's intervention? (It certainly takes too long for her to make up her mind.)

In a lame attempt to perhaps smooth over some of the confusion in the tale, voice-overs are used liberally throughout the film, audio montages of dialogue from earlier in the film that explain the dramatic importance of what we're seeing. At least, that's the nice way to put it. It feels more accurate to say that the movie assumes you're stupid and need to be reminded of things you watched only a few minutes earlier.

The acting is pretty uniformly awful, and Heather Langenkamp is the worst of the lot. Her delivery is the sing-songy awkwardness of a parent who isn't very good at reading books to a child (which is especially funny, since she does that very thing in two scenes of the movie). Robert Englund is alright (though the script lets him down; more on that in a moment), and a young Miko Hughes is fairly effective, but the rest of the cast is difficult to watch.

All of this, and I haven't even covered the movie's biggest problem -- it isn't really scary. In fact, it's more funny than scary. Perhaps some of the humor was intentional, but it really doesn't come off that way to me. The film's big climax has ridiculous slo-mo, and makes big moments out of Freddy's inflatable stretching arms and prehensile Harryhausen tongue. It's flat out ridiculous.

I suppose I shouldn't have expected so much from a Freddy Kreuger film. But really, did it have to be this bad? I see no way not to rate it an F. Its place in cinematic history as a forefather to Scream gives it a reason to exist, but there's no reason to actually watch it.

Friday, March 02, 2012

A Degree of Success

A new theatrical production opens at the Vintage Theater in Denver this weekend, of the play Six Degrees of Separation, by John Guare. Its the last production by Vintage in this space. (They're being forced to move by the business they're adjacent to.) I got to watch their final dress rehearsal this week, and I'm happy to say this is a fine production for them to end their tenure in this space.

I watched the movie adapted from this play a little over a year ago, but I had never seen the play itself. The scripts of the two are quite similar; by my memory, I'd say almost identical. The two different mediums definitely favor different aspects within the work.

The play is rife with characters speaking directly to the audience, presenting the story out of order and with their own commentary. In the film, this device is handled with flashbacks, and is much easier to pick up on and process. It also sets up the finale more strongly, in which one character accuses another of just mining their experiences for amusing "anecdotes" to share at parties -- because that's exactly what he's been doing through the whole movie.

On the stage, the rhythm of the play is harder to get into. Things are so rapid fire for the first five or ten minutes that, even knowing the story beforehand, I felt a bit lost. But in exchange for that, the brilliantly written monologues of the different characters come into greater focus. Where the camera cutting of film sometimes robs the power of a good actor giving a good speech, the stage more easily serves up the full emotion, unfiltered and complete from beginning to end.

It's an exceptionally large cast for a modern play (or one that isn't a musical, anyway): 17 characters. And with a bench that deep, perhaps the greatest thing about the Vintage Theater production is that they found so many good actors to fill so many of the roles. Really, everyone is quite good, though a few deserve particular praise. I wish I could single them all out by name, but as I saw a dress rehearsal, I have no program to refer to. I can only say that the performer playing Doug is hysterically funny, the performer playing Rick heartbreakingly powerful, and the two in the larger roles of Ouisa and Paul (pictured) quite skilled in both extremes.

I would certainly recommend the show to fans of theater in the Denver area. It runs throughout the month of March, so you should have plenty of time to go see it.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Wake Up

Tonight marked the debut of an intriguing high-concept drama on NBC, Awake. It's the story of a police detective who was in a serious car accident with his wife and only son. Since the accident, every morning that he awakens, he switches between two realities -- one in which his wife was killed in the accident, and another in which his son died instead.

That very cool concept is the framework that easily excuses "yet another cop show" coming to television. Because, despite the trappings, that does appear from the pilot to be what this show is: a detective drama. Half of the first episode was devoted not just to solving one crime but two, a different case in each divergent reality. But actually, even if it were just a "cop show," it would be a pretty good one. The cases were interesting, and the dual reality element trickled into that part of the show too, with elements of one crime suggesting resolutions to the other.

But what worked best about the show was the way that the rather science fiction-like premise was actually dealt with in a very believable manner. In the span of just one hour, we got to see all the pain of losing a loved one, and the joy of becoming closer to another. We got to see the strain of trying to keep the two worlds separate, and the anguish of the main character trying to unify them just a bit and failing.

The last ingredient in this very promising concoction was a cast of fine actors. Jason Isaacs plays the lead in a very gritty a determined way; in the moments where his emotion shows, you feel not just the weight of them, but the releasing pressure of having held them back. It's a full force performance. His wife is played by Laura Allen (of Dirt and The 4400), and his son by Dylan Minnette (of Saving Grace); both play wonderfully opposite Isaacs.

The dichotomy continues in other aspects of the plot. The main character is paired with different partners in each reality, Steve Harris (of The Practice) and Wilmer Valderrama (of That 70s Show). He's also seeing department-ordered psychiatrists in each reality, one played by BD Wong (of Law & Order: SVU and Oz), the other by Cherry Jones (of 24). That's a strong pedigree of great actors that all bring great work to this pilot.

But I confess to being nervous to see more episodes of Awake. It seems like the kind of show that is most likely to go one of two ways. (How appropriate!) It could have great difficulty matching the drama of this first episode, and devolve quickly into a run-of-the-mill cop show. Or it could end up with a handful of very compelling hours of television before running out of places to go with the plot; a scenario in which the show would have made a brilliant, limited-run BBC-style series.

Here's hoping that the writers of the show manage to carve out a third reality for the series instead. I'm very intrigued to see more episodes.