Monday, April 30, 2012

Space Garbage

When it was finally released in theaters last year after months and months of delays, the movie Apollo 18 was pretty thoroughly savaged by the critics. It was enough of a drubbing to convince me to avoid paying theater prices for it... and yet not enough to talk me out of it entirely.

The thing is, I always have been and always will be a total space junkie. I just find the subject endlessly fascinating, particularly space travel. So even fictionalized crap like this (and let's face it, it was probably going to be crap), I had to give a chance.

Apollo 18 is a "found footage" movie in the style of The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, following a secret and classified seventh moon landing that occurred after the official end of the Apollo program. The astronauts discover more than they bargained for. (Here's where you'd cue the dramatic music, except these kinds of movies never have music.)

The idea of the plot is compelling enough on its own. But the execution of the plot is mostly rather dumb. The characters behave stupidly, the scares are cheap ones, the dialogue is often cheesy. But the question of how to "fix" this movie is a surprisingly thorny one.

The single biggest flaw in the narrative is-- well, hang on. I suppose I'd better give you a mild spoiler warning here. I'm not going to talk specifics, and frankly I'll bet you know exactly how this movie will end anyway, but if you don't want to know anything even in general terms, skip over the next paragraph, alright?

Okay then, so the single biggest flaw in the narrative is that it fails to answer the question "where did this footage come from?" Sure, there's this opening crap about some kind of hackers putting it up on a web site. And there's even some in-movie loose justification for why this Apollo flight suddenly has about five times as many cameras on board as any predecessors. But I mean literally, "how did they recover this footage?" During the film, it's made expressly clear that the film was never transmitted back to Earth; by the end, it's just as clear that it was never physically brought back either. So, kind of a gaping plot hole rendering the entire conceit of the "found footage" impossible.

But, on the flip side, this conceit actually leads to the best thing about the entire movie. The way this movie is filmed and then treated in post-production, it feels quite authentically like NASA moon landing footage most of the time. The film looks old and flawed (though not distractingly so). And this solid effort at authenticity in turn lifts the quality of the movie considerably. I've written in reviews of other movies that I don't usually go just for pretty images on film in place of solid story or character, but here the look of the film actually gives the footage a sort of character of its own.

So... they could have fixed the gaping plot hole by abandoning the found footage gimmick and just playing the movie straight. But unless the writing somehow then also got worlds better in the process, you'd only be left with a really lame thriller that didn't have the one element that really worked well in the movie, the solid effort at authentic early 1970s moon footage. Quite the conundrum.

Regardless of what the movie could have been, what it is isn't very good. I'm not sure it's as awful as the reviews said, but then, maybe that's my love of space and space travel causing me to be a bit more forgiving than I should. I rate it a C-. If you're a space junkie like me, maybe it's worth your time. Otherwise, it's probably best avoided.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Ghost of Harrenhal

The latest episode of Game of Thrones puts us halfway through this second season, and gave fans loads to talk about.

Of course, the big revelation for anyone who hadn't read the books came right at the top of the hour, in the death of Renly. The Iron Throne now has one fewer contender. As a reader of the books, the scene I found even more compelling followed soon after, once Catelyn and Brienne had fled. Littletfinger, Lorys, and Margaery discussed their next move in a newly added scene that continued to draw Margaery as a more cunning and ruthless character than she seemed in the books. Her line about wanting to be THE queen told you everything you need to know about her. Her story arc is much more clearly laid out on the screen.

Also laid out clearly -- though this was also carefully telegraphed in the book -- was the plot surrounding the wildfire in King's Landing. Tyrion's entertaining intrigue within the court was rather low-key this week (though he certainly still had some zingers), instead focused around explaining this very important plot device for later.

The explanations feel far less clear to me beyond the Wall. Maybe it's that I never was as engaged in Jon Snow's story as it seems many other readers were, but I've actually read A Clash of Kings, and I found myself a little muddy as to all this stuff about Mance Rayder and the wildlings. This felt like the one drag on this episode, watching the scouts march endlessly through the snow.

We got a taste of Bran again this week, but it seemed mainly to serve as a follow-up to the short taste of Theon we got this week. In his efforts to prove himself to his father, Theon has cooked up a ruse, and it seems young Bran has taken the bait. Then there's the matter of Bran's dream about a flood at Winterfell...

Across the sea, love is in the air for Dany. Well, there's a proposal of marriage offered specifically not for love, but from a man who thinks Dany's servant Mormont is in love with her. And his speech to her in the episode certainly seemed to confirm the hypothesis.

But the best material of the hour went to Arya this week. It began with a scene in which she cleverly matched wits with Tywin Lannister, insulting him within the confines of her current station. It ended with some smart coaching of Gendry, and a realization of the power she now commands with the dark "three wishes" (murders only, please) offered to her by the mysterious man she rescued.

One thing that I'm a bit surprised at is to have Jaime Lannister remain off screen once again. He's been absent since the first episode of the season. This is, of course, faithful to the book... but I'd seen interviews with the show runners acknowledging the problem of being faithful to that part of the book. Jaime was one of the more significant characters of season one, and the actor's face has been used in a great deal of the marketing for the show. It seemed like the writers would have to twist some things around to get him into the show and not spend so many episodes off screen as Robb's captive. Not so far.

Also surprisingly absent was Melisandre, who I assumed would have to make an appearance this week after her very important role at the end of last week's episode. I suppose the episode still showed us the most important thing to come of all that, though I imagine some viewers will be wondering what happened to her after she birthed the strange monster.

Maybe you'll find out next week...

Saturday, April 28, 2012

A New Bend on an Old Formula

Crossing a "random movie I haven't seen" of my list, I watched Bend it Like Beckham. Made in 2002 with a cast of then mostly unknowns, today there are plenty of recognizable faces for a healthy consumer of pop culture. Keira Knightley is of course the "big name" now associated with the film. But the main character is played by Parminder Nagra, who most recently was in the cast of Alcatraz. Jonathan Rhys-Meyers (star of The Tudors and other films) and Archie Panjabi (captivating as Kalinda on The Good Wife) also play prominent roles.

The plot surrounds a young girl of Indian descent, living in the U.K. She has a natural talent for football (soccer, to us Americans), but she faces twin cultural obstacles: women command no respect in the sport compared to (oddly enough) America; and her own parents are both strict about her behaving properly and finding an Indian husband. And so the movie is about challenging stereotypes and breaking the mold.

The result is a curious one. On the one hand, the movie manages to walk a very delicate tightrope of respecting the Indian culture it portrays, while still revolving around a central character who wants nothing to do with it. You feel the frustration of a well-intended-yet-insidious form of bigotry in what the protagonist can and can't do, what she can't make her parents understand. And just as the film tastefully challenges notions of culture, so too it confronts issues of sexism and even homosexuality.

But, on the other hand, the movie is also quite predictable and mundane at the same time. The story of the "hero who must follow a dream" in spite of "parents who don't understand" has been done to death. It's even been done with a sports theme like this. Every scene of the film is painfully predictable, adhering to a long established structure.

In an odd way, perhaps this goes directly to making the movie's point. The idea is that an Indian should be able to do anything a Brit can, and that a woman should have all the same opportunities as a man. And this movie delivers exactly that; despite unconventional trappings, you get the exact same shape of a movie that you've seen before with a blond American male in the lead role.

I don't mean to cast the movie as completely mediocre, but in the DNA, it really is. The quality of the performances do help left it a cut above that, though. Parminder Nagra is a compelling and sympathetic lead. Her friend Tony is played by Ameet Chana with warmth and charm. Keira Knightley is bubbly and energetic.

Ultimately, Bend It Like Beckham is a not-quite-formula formula movie. It's just different enough to be worth your time, but not so different to be truly exceptional. I rate it a B-.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Game Day

Last night's new episode of Awake was a fun, slow build. The beginning seemed almost like a throwaway, acknowledging that Michael's two realities can vary in ways outside his direct control by showing us two outcomes to the football game.

By the time both cases were resolved, that turned out to be not a throwaway at all, but a very intriguing idea at the core the episode: both of the deaths Michael was investigating would never have happened in the other reality. A very neat idea to build the episode around.

But I've been saying all along that the show is at its most compelling when the personal drama with Michael's wife and son takes on a more key role, and this episode was a sterling example of that. The best material came in the final minutes with the revelation that Rex's girlfriend is pregnant with his baby in the reality where he died in the car crash.

This is a fascinating way to rip open the fresh wound of Rex's death for Hannah, and should make for some good drama in coming episodes. Also, this seems to be the thing that will keep the two of them from actually moving away from L.A. -- one can expect they'll choose to say close to their grandchild, their one remaining connection to Rex. (Well.... hers, anyway, if not his.) I've been wondering how the writers would call off the move, and I think this is a wonderfully creative way to do it that could add a great new dimension to things.

After a few off episodes, I think this was a fine step back in the right direction.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

A Ghost of a Chance

I passed on the newest Mission: Impossible film when it came to theaters last year. At the time, I actually didn't even consider going to see it, given my thoughts on the previous films.

The first movie was a decent enough action movie, but a real travesty of a "Mission: Impossible" story, disrespecting the team dynamic and one of the classic characters that the original series was based on. I was quite disappointed, overall. I don't remember how I got talked into seeing the second movie, but it was a complete mess -- a non-sensical, noisy action showcase for Tom Cruise. I would have passed on movie three after that, but then J.J. Abrams stepped in to direct it. I loved the first two seasons of Alias so much that I had to assume he'd do something decent with an action spy movie. Well... better than the predecessors, at least. But honestly, I can't today remember much of anything that happened in that movie.

So, a fourth Impossible movie? No thanks, I'm out.

But then a funny thing happened. The critics rallied around it and declared it was actually a good movie. More importantly, several friends of mine saw it and reported back, "no really, it actually is pretty good!" I broke down and tossed it into the Netflix queue.

They're right. It's not too bad a movie. Certainly (although I realize this is faint praise after what I just wrote), it is the best film of the series.

This Mission: Impossible film finally, at long last, embraces the format of the original television series. An outrageous, high stakes mission requiring an entire team of elite operatives, each with specialized skills, to carry it off successfully. Tom Cruise's returning character, Ethan Hunt, is just one quarter of a group that all get star moments, great set pieces, and heroic saves throughout the course of the film. That's what it's supposed to be.

Though this movie finally adds what was missing to the mix, it wisely retains elements that did work well in the previous films -- chiefly, the outrageous technology. With the arrival of Jason Bourne, spy movies have tacked sharply away from implausible gadgetry. The newest James Bond movies have followed that mold. And so it's a breath of fresh air to see the a film built around masks that allow you to perfectly impersonate a person, projector screens that can track and display a false environment in real time, gloves that let you scale buildings like Spider-Man, and more. These implausible gimmicks lead to unique action sequences of a kind that you just don't see anymore. And assuming you can suspend your disbelief, they're quite tense and exhilarating sequences.

Director Brad Bird is helming a live-action movie here for the first time, following films like The Iron Giant and The Incredibles. He brings from that experience a great eye for framing shots. The movie looks fantastic. He also reigns in the crazy from Tom Cruise, while getting solid performances from co-stars Jeremy Renner (himself about to do the other kind of spy movie in the next Bourne film), Simon Pegg, and Paula Patton.

Composer Michael Giacchino delivers a really impressive score. Making liberal use of Lalo Schiffrin's original TV theme, harnessing the same wild enthusiasm from his early work on Alias, and adding in everything he's learned in more than a decade of writing scores, he kicks the action into overdrive.

The weak element of the movie is the script. The plot is straight-forward enough, and the justification for most of the crazy action makes sense enough. But the exposition lands with a loud thud, and it's only through the efforts of the actors that you don't always notice how ridiculous the dialogue is. There's also a bad "epilogue" that makes the movie drag on nearly 10 minutes after it should rightfully end, tacked on just to tie the film back to earlier entries in the series. (Films which, like I said, are best forgotten anyway.)

After the solid box office performance of this film, the studio is said to be circling another one. If this is the mold they follow, I'm likely to give the next one a shot. I wasn't blown away in the grand scheme of things, but very pleasantly surprised beyond my expectations. I rate it a B-.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

My Top 100 Movies -- 65-61

Wondering when you'd see another Top 100 Movies post from me? Wonder no more!

65. Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. The Wallace and Gromit half-hour shorts from Nick Park and Aardman Studios are some of the best entertainment to ever come out of the U.K. (I say that knowing full well that there's plenty of other fantastic British entertainment; Wallace & Gromit are among the best of the best.) This full-length motion picture is perhaps not quite as good as, say, A Close Shave, but it's still marvelous... more than good enough to merit a spot in my top 100. Hysterically funny, wonderfully sweet at times, and lavishly detailed. To hate Wallace & Gromit is to hate good things.

64. Raiders of the Lost Ark. The first and best of the Indiana Jones movies. Harrison Ford has spent the last two decades of his film career coasting along on formula, but he was in his prime here, and has perfect chemistry with every other wonderful actor in the movie. His romance with Karen Allen is perfect. His rivalry with Paul Freeman is perfect. His repartee with John Rhys-Davies and Denholm Elliott is perfect. The action scenes in the film are exhilarating; the suspenseful scenes are tense. This is one rip-roaring adventure.

63. The Cider House Rules. This emotional tale sports a truly magnificent cast, from headliners Tobey Maguire, Charlize Theron, and Michael Caine, to supporters Delroy Lindo, Paul Rudd (yes, he's in this), Kathy Baker, J.K. Simmons, and Kieran Culkin. Author John Irving wrote this screenplay from his own novel, and it takes you on a complete and moving journey. This was a Best Picture nominee in 1999, a year of truly worthy competitors.

62. Aliens and 61. Alien. It is truly difficult for me to pick one film over the other here, and perhaps because of this, they've ended up stuck together in my Top 100.

Ridley Scott's 1979 original is a masterfully suspenseful horror movie. It puts the characters in a truly impossible situation, completely trapped, fighting a creature who even if killed will threaten their lives. The movie upended all sorts of expectations by killing off the character who seems like the hero early on, and putting a strong woman (no coat-hanger-wielding, shrieking heroine like Halloween's Laurie Strode) at the center. The performances are outstanding, from a cast in which every name has appeared in countless other good movies: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Harry Dean Stanton, Yaphet Kotto, John Hurt, Ian Holm, and Veronica Cartwright. And the musical score from Jerry Goldsmith is brilliant at every turn.

James Cameron's 1986 sequel is as good an action movie as the original was a horror movie -- and what a brilliant and gutsy choice it was to completely switch genres like that for the sequel. Populated by a fun cast of characters memorably brought to life by actors like Michael Biehn, Bill Paxton, Paul Reiser, and Lance Henriksen, this movie is both tense and full of ass-kicking action. Sigourney Weaver actually received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress in this movie, one of the few times in history an actor has been nominated for "sci-fi" work, and it's wholly deserved. James Cameron's screenplay pops, with dialogue far better than his later successes, Titanic and Avatar. Composer James Horner contributed music so perfect and iconic that it got used in other movie trailers every year for more than a decade after he wrote it.

Both movies are sterling work in their respective genres, for their respective directors, by their respective casts, and so on.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Dance With Somebody

Tonight, Glee served up the second of two back-to-back theme episodes, this one a tribute to the late Whitney Houston. And it was definitely the kind of mixed bag that a Glee theme episode usually is.

In the plus column were the orchestrations of the songs themselves. Several of the songs featured this week were arranged in very different ways from the original recordings. Rachel and Santana's version of "So Emotional" took on an almost Motown vibe, and a noticeably faster tempo. "I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)" stayed true to the original's pop sensibilities, but embraced an almost techno instrumentation that made sense for a dance song now, 25 years later. (Yes, the song is that old.) And no song was more transformed than the episode opener, the a cappella rendition of "How Will I Know."

Honestly, I wish that Glee would take this sort of approach to their music more often. Many haters accuse Glee of being glorified karaoke, and I sometimes find myself agreeing when they adhere too rigidly to the original songs. Performances like this show that the series doesn't have to resort to mash-ups to present a song in an interesting new context.

However, the curse of a Glee theme episode is that the songs -- whether creatively rendered or not -- are often shoehorned into the plot. And that was especially true this week. Those three songs I just mentioned really had no context at all. The finale number, "My Love Is Your Love", was similarly chosen for no particular reason. Two other songs were given context, but only by manufacturing a fracture in Blaine and Kurt's relationship that had never been hinted at before tonight. Yes, the reasons for it, once revealed, made sense, but the whole thing would have played out better if it we'd actually seen any of this supposed "last month" in which the two had grown cold to each other.

So that basically left just one song well paired to its story, the Joe/Quinn duet on "Saving All My Love for You." The beginning of a possible romance between them was the most solid thread of the hour. The other significant subplot (unsupported by song) of Will trying to move up his wedding to Emma was alright, but possibly placed in the wrong episode. The moments felt genuine, but also redundant to the conflict between Kurt and Blaine.

I do have to give bonus points, though, for another fantastic scene between Kurt and his father. Burt Hummel, once again, is the best father on television. With that, I might just kick my grade up to B-. But I'll definitely be glad if this is the last theme episode we see this season.

Monday, April 23, 2012

A Matter of Fairness

This post is mainly for "friend of a friend"s out there. In the last few weeks, I've seen a few people on my Facebook feed comment on the issue of marriage equality. Apparently, a few people I know have friends in their circles who aren't on board with the issue. Separate but related, I have some friends of my own that live in North Carolina, which is right now just weeks away from voting on a particularly hate-driven ballot initiative, Amendment One -- a piece of legislation so concerned with denying same-sex couples any legal recognition that its draconian language will actually wipe out civil union protections for all couples, gay or straight, in the process.

Some of these people I know might be in need of some ammunition for their friends as to why marriage equality should be supported. Of course, there are enough answers to that that I could probably fill an entire week's worth of blog posts and more. (And it's not out of the realm of possibility that, as the 2012 political season grinds on over the next six months, I might not be able to refrain from writing those other posts.) But for the moment, anyway, I'm going to constrain myself to one aspect -- the matter of fairness. Specifically, a question I put to those who are against marriage equality...

Why is acceptable to allow the following people to marry, but not a same-sex couple?

Infertile couples. Many people argue against same-sex marriage by saying that the primary purpose of a marriage is procreation and the raising of children. But we don't require people to test for infertility before allowing them to get married. Many opposite-sex couples marry who are incapable of reproducing. Why let them marry and not a same-sex couple?

Elderly couples. There are many senior citizens fortunate enough to find a loving partner (maybe their first, maybe not) in their later years. Not only are such couples incapable of producing children (as noted above), but there's almost certainly no chance these couples would ever choose to adopt children either. They likely either have children already from a previous relationship, or have passed the point in their lives where they have the desire or energy for children. But we let the elderly marry. Why not a same-sex couple?

Divorcees with children. Ever watch The Brady Bunch? Mike and Carol had three children each from previous marriages. The chances that they would ever want to have another kid together had to be about zero. There are plenty of real-world couples just like this that have more than enough children in their lives from previous relationships. But we let them marry.

Women battling addiction. It's medically proven that use of cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs can have profoundly negative effects on a fetus. Of course, children born with birth defects for these reasons are every bit as deserving of love as children born healthy. But if you're going to attempt a "think of the children" argument, is it right to rubber-stamp the marriage of a serial addict likely to produce an unhealthy child, while at the same time red-flagging the marriage of a same-sex couple?

Abusive parents. Every day, there are children taken away from their neglectful and/or abusive parents by Child Services. But the parents that failed to care for those kids or who beat them to within an inch of their lives? There's nothing preventing them from having still more children to neglect and abuse. And certainly nothing to prevent them from getting married or re-married.

Multiple-time divorcees. Some people say that a same-sex couple represents some kind of affront to the "sanctity" of marriage. And yet somehow, a man or woman on their third or fourth spouse represents less of an affront -- or none at all. We don't ask about the annulment of the drunken Vegas impulse wedding. We don't care about the 72-day Kardashian wedding. All we ask is if the person wants to get married to the new potential spouse, whether it's wedding number one or number six. Is there no point at which a serial spouse becomes more of an assault on the "sanctity" of marriage than one same-sex couple?

Adulterers. Some people cite passages in the Bible as grounds for their persecution of same-sex couples. (Not to drift off point, but the documentary For the Bible Tells Me So is an excellent refutation and contextualization of such arguments, and highly recommended.) What about people who commit other sins and blasphemy, according to Biblical word? I cite adultery in particular as the most common example. It's the #7 directly stated "thou shalt not," according to Exodus. But expressing love with another person who happens to be of the same gender? That's not even on God's Top 10 List. We let people who were unfaithful to one spouse go on to marry a different one. Why give adulterers a second chance, but not give a same-sex couple a first?

Criminals. People in prison are allowed to get married, not just after they're released, but while they're still incarcerated. And it doesn't matter what crime they've committed. Even if you're one of those people that for some reason thinks a same-sex relationship is a "sin," surely it's less of a sin than the one that was committed by a rapist or a murderer. We let the convicted rapist or murderer get married. We let the murderer get married even if he's on death row, has no chance of being released, and therefore (to return to an earlier point) will not be in a relationship with any chance of producing offspring. But somehow the disrespect to life shown by a rapist or murderer is less objectionable than the supposed disrespect shown to the institution of marriage by a long-time, loving same-sex couple that wants the same rights as everyone else.

So unless you first want to argue with earnestness that the infertile, elderly, divorcees, addicts, child abusers, adulterers, rapists, and murderers should also not be allowed to marry, I really don't see how you can argue to deny same-sex couples the right to marry. Or at least, not while staking any claim to morality in the matter.

To any of my friends who find themselves listening to bigoted anti-gay remarks from one of their friends, I hope this provides you a few thoughtful counterpoints so that next time, you won't let the matter just drop without comment. Or hey, if you think someone would actually read through all this themselves, feel free to direct your friend here to my blog.

I say: friends don't let friends express intolerance.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Garden of Bones

Season two of Game of Thrones races on, continuing with what I feel has been a very successful strategy for managing the multiple plot lines: forcing some stories to take a week off so that others can be given sufficient space in which to play.

This week was "off" for Jon Snow's adventures beyond the Wall, Theon Greyjoy's return to the Pyke, and Bran Stark's stewardship over Winterfell. Cersei, while spoken of frequently, spent the week off screen. But returning from an absence were Daenerys and Robb Stark.

Why not start with them? This episode brought the first major development in Dany's story this season, her arrival at Qarth. I was intrigued to see the city rendered on screen, because it seems so much more vast and civilized than I'd imagined it in my mind's eye. And all to the better, I think. I confess to sometimes feeling a bit of monotony in reading about Dany's Dothraki Drive Through the Desert. Seeing a bit more character and diversity injected into that story than I was perceiving can only help.

This week's opening sequence involved Robb Stark, and was a wholly manufactured scene not from the book. While the writers perhaps went a bit overboard in showing "the horrors of war" (really, sawing a diseased leg off instead of at least using an axe or something?), I was entertained by Robb's subsequent exchange with the nurse.

Tyrion, of course, is the man. It is known. He continued carving through every conspiracy in King's Landing, creating for himself a spy in Cersei's midst. He also valiantly came to Sansa's rescue, and admitted to some admiration for her. Anyone earning Tyrion's respect must not be all bad.

Of course, his play at controlling Joffrey backfired. The evil menace was back this week, and more depraved than ever. The show is certainly doing a fantastic job of capturing how despicable he is in the books... though watching it play out, I admit that I'm a bit surprised to realize what a relentlessly dark character he really is in the books. So many of George R.R. Martin's characters have both good and bad in them. But I suppose Joffrey's is a tale of power corrupting. He did have a few nice moments back in season one was he was eager to please others around him; once he takes the throne, however, there's no looking back.

Arya's plot continued with the formation of her nighttime "death prayer," her litany of all the people she'd like to see dead. It culminated in the arrival of Tywin Lannister on the scene, recognizing her for a girl (but not specifically which girl). Her situation, which has already changed twice in as many episodes, is now bound for more change next week.

Meanwhile, brothers Stannis and Renly are the first claimants to the throne that look to directly come into conflict with each other. But Melisandre has a role to play here, and I was satisfied to see it unfold every bit as unsettling and creepy as it was in the book. The monstrous thing she gives birth to at the close of the episode seemed to be of more substance than I think I imagined from the book, but it's far more menacing. Again, a great improvement on what I'd imagined.

If I'm remembering the book correctly, big things are in store next week!

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Love Crossing Borders

Going the Distance is a recent romantic comedy starring Drew Barrymore and Justin Long. Meeting in New York at a time when neither is really looking for a long-term relationship, the two are together just six weeks before she moves to San Francisco. They decide to continue their romance despite the distance. Hilarity (and some tenderness) ensues.

The entire rom-com genre is filled with movies about complications in a budding relationship. Usually, these complications are outrageously fictitious, or unrealistically inflated just to create enough conflict to fill two hours of film. So I found it rather refreshing that this film was predicated on a very simple and honest complication that didn't really need extra dramatization. Actually, you'd think in this day and age, there would have been more movies built on this kind of premise.

Even if the market floods with such movies over the next few years, I think this one will remain worth seeing because of a solid cast. Drew Barrymore and Justin Long are a very likeable and sympathetic screen couple. Their relationship is believable, and is well established very quickly; since the movie is about them being apart, the film rightly doesn't spend much time on showing them together.

The supporting cast features Charlie Day, Jason Sudeikis, Christina Applegate, and Jim Gaffigan, and brief but funny appearances by Ron Livingston and Kristen Schaal. Everybody manages to get laughs without being too outlandish. And the film honors the more serious moments well too.

Of course, I don't really claim to have a soft spot for romantic comedies, so it's likely I could only think of one as being "so good." But this might come about as close to that ceiling as I could imagine. I give it a B. There's not a world of substance here, but it's pretty good for a movie night in at home.

Friday, April 20, 2012

You Can't Fight in Here...

I recently heard about a documentary from 1993 called The War Room. It covered the presidential campaign of Bill Clinton, from the very first primary battle in New Hampshire through what would ultimately be his election to office. I wasn't sure the subject matter was of inherent interest to me, but I'd heard about it in the context of some "all time great documentary" list somewhere or other, and decided I'd give it ago.

With some additional research, I learned what apparently makes the documentary sit in such high esteem among those who praise it. Clinton's campaign is thought by many to be the first to really embrace "new media" (of the time, of course) and a new philosophy on the art of campaigning. That a documentary crew happened to be there filming it essentially resulted in a film that chronicled the transformation of politics... and a successful one, as luck would have it, since the documentary makers had no way of knowing the outcome when they started filming.

So say those who praise the documentary, anyway. I saw something somewhat different in watching the film today, nearly 20 years later. If a new age of politicking truly began here, then we're still in that age; the vast majority of the film seemed uncomfortably similar to the way U.S. political campaigning works today. Neither the players in their behavior, nor the landscape itself, seem very changed.

Candidates give interviews talking about how "the American people" will surely vote against the incumbent president, because what they "really care about are jobs and the economy." Rally attendees talk about how they're planning to vote for "change." People in the 1992 Democratic National Convention crowd can be seen waving signs for "D.C. Statehood Now!" ("Now" hasn't come any closer.)

Well... actually, a few things have changed. People talk about how heated and toxic the American political climate has become today. And perhaps at a congressional level, you could make the case that's true. At the presidential campaign level, however, things actually seem more vitriolic in the 1992 campaign. We see a clip of a Democratic candidate debate in which -- contrary to anything seen today -- candidates are directly allowed to engage one another. And boy, do they. Jerry Brown and Bill Clinton are seen in a pointed argument with raised voices talking over each other and pointed fingers jabbing.

One other oddity for historians is a brief appearance by Clinton's running mate Al Gore. At one point, he gives what I thought to be the most impassioned, energizing speech shown in the film. The crowd is in a frenzy, and you can't help but think that that guy could have won the presidency in a landslide. Instead, somewhere in the next eight years, the more professorial Gore emerged.

If you're a news junkie, you'll recognize the two primary figures of the documentary: George Stephanopoulos, Clinton's communications director, and James Carville, his lead strategist. (Today, they're noted political reporters for ABC and CNN, respectively.) And the background is littered with other faces that are all over cable news today.

But perhaps the most distinct thing about The War Room is its complete lack of any narration or direct subject interviews. It plays completely "dry," feeling almost like a series of home videos (in part because of the old 4:3 aspect ratio). And essentially, you're left to tell your own story. That could be seen as novel, but I also think this basic lack of perspective keeps it from really being the great documentary it was touted to be. I really think that the collection of clips amounts to an inkblot test that ultimately reveals nothing because it challenges no conceptions. Whatever your opinion of Bill Clinton before you see this film, whatever your memories of his campaign might be (if you've been around since then, of course), this film will not change your mind. It won't show you anything you didn't know.

As a piece of archived history, there is some interest here, and I suppose there will continue to be in the future. But as a documentary film, it does little more than illustrate that "the more things change, the more they stay the same." It's entertaining enough, but certainly not a truly great documentary. I rate it a B-.

Thursday, April 19, 2012


Tonight's episode of Awake was, unfortunately, a real dud for the series. The writers didn't really do anything with tonight's episode that put the signature "Awake" stamp on a rather conventional one-hour cop drama.

Not only was there no trace of Rex in this week installment, but the two therapists also had the week off. There were a few scenes of quiet warmth with Michael and his wife Hannah, but nothing that really made strong use of the show's two world premise. This tale of anxiety over a pending move could have been told on just about any one hour drama. And when the two of them inevitably don't move to Oregon in a future episode, this is going to seem like even more a distraction.

Some of the more fantastical elements of the show have taken a back seat before, but it's been to give more space to a truly interesting detective story. Not this time. Both the Red World and Green World plot reflected on the matter of picking up and moving (and what you have to leave behind), but neither was a particularly compelling case to unravel, nor did they have especially dramatic conclusions.

In the end, the only tension the episode managed to achieve at all was making you wonder how Michael would end up in the unusual position we saw him in during the teaser. But then, this sort of "XX hours earlier" gimmick is getting pretty tired on TV shows, especially when it seems to exist only for this exact purpose: to inject a little interest into an otherwise inert story.

Every series has a bad episode now and then, so it's not like I'm instantly off the Awake wagon. But I am disappointed.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

It's Not Easy Seein' Green

At some point, I'm going to have to just accept that subscribing to HBO to watch Game of Thrones is enough for me to "get my money's worth." I keep surfing for movies to watch to theoretically defray the monthly cost or something, and I keep watching some true crap. The latest (and I truly hope, last) example of this: Green Lantern.

I'd heard the critics say the movie wasn't very good. I'd heard a lot of my comic book loving friends say that even they aren't fans of the story of Green Lantern. But I thought, I've seen Ryan Reynolds make some otherwise poor movies watchable (like the remake of The Amityville Horror). Can it really be that bad?

Yes. It can.

It's hard to put my finger on exactly what is wrong with the movie... in part because so much is wrong with the movie. But to pick out a few particularly egregious problems from the whole:

The movie suffers for having so little reality in it. There's barely a single frame of it untouched by the hand of some CG artist; huge stretches of the film exist only on a hard drive somewhere. The movie never really seems to have meaningful stakes, as neither the heroes nor the menace ever seems real.

For a hero and plot that revolves around the power of imagination, the story shows surprisingly little of it. The characters are stock, the dialogue cliche, and the arc of plot a predictable paint-by-numbers hero origin story. Plot holes abound, from gaps in logic to what comes off like missing scenes that would have stitched parts of the action together. ("Wait... how did the bad guy get away there?" and "When did he go capture the damsel-in-distress?")

About the kindest thing I can think of to say about the movie is that you can't really call it "boring." It's such a relentless, noisy assault on the eyes and ears that you can't ignore it -- even if everything you're seeing and hearing is half-baked at best. But I hope that comes off as sufficiently faint praise. I would think that even those with short attention spans and low action-movie standards could still find something more suited to their tastes than this mess.

No, wait -- there is one good element of the film, a solid score from James Newton Howard that is intense and powerful like the work he did with Hans Zimmer on Christopher Nolan's Batman movies. But it's only on the strength of that music that I feel I can rate this movie anything other than an F. Call it a very weak D- instead. Call it nothing worth anyone's time.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Saturday Night Glee-ver

Tonight's new Glee episode had some good story pieces working in it, but as is often the case with a "tribute episode" centered around an artist or theme, there were a few too many songs in the hour to give sufficient space to those stories.

I'll start with the one plot line that did actually feel most "cooked" and fully presented, that involving the new guest character of Wade. He was played by the last of the four finalists from The Glee Project, and though his arrival in the mix was rather abrupt, his short journey and resounding triumph of unleashing the true woman inside him was a positive and uplifting tale.

The ongoing saga of Finn and Rachel has been running all season, so it may not seem right to characterize its treatment tonight as congested... and yet it was abrupt for Finn to decide that what he really wants is to be an actor. He's had a few tastes of it over the course of the series, after all (most significantly in The Rocky Horror episode last year), but never showed any hint that he cared about it as much as football or the glee club. Shrug.

Mercedes and Sam had what could have been a really nice story in a less stuffed episode. It was certainly sweet to see Sam doing all he could for Mercedes -- and also nice that "all he could do" was, realistically, put a video on YouTube. (As opposed to, say, magically conjuring up an L.A. record exec ready to produce her album.) These two have a more interesting relationship to me than Finn and Rachel, and so I feel it's a shame we didn't get to see more of it.

Lastly, there was Santana's desire for fame. This storyline was good for seeing another likeable couple get screen time, and for the return of more wonderfully dopey Brittany lines. (But don't knock stupid. Apparently, stupid can train a cat to do household chores. Wouldn't that be nice?) But the problems with this story were playing moments for comedy that really should have serious implications if you actually think about them. (Brittany posting a sex video?!) Plus, it was all eventually revealed that all that middle material was for nothing; there was apparently a full ride scholarship for Santana already set up by Brittany waiting in Sue's desk drawer anyway.

So... the music. This was a rare case of an episode where the performances that were supposed to be so amazing really were the best ones in the hour. I'm talking about Mercedes' "Disco Inferno" (which was supposed to be on its way to becoming a minor YouTube sensation), and Wade/Unique's "Boogie Shoes" with Vocal Adrenaline (which was supposed to be so good that it would bring a whole auditorium of people to their feet). In both cases, I found it believable that yes, the performances were that good. "Disco Inferno" felt even more high-octane to me than the original recording, and Unique sold not only the energy of the song, but I thought also the fact that, "yup, this person was meant to be a woman."

Next to those two numbers, not many of the rest could stack up. The episode opener, "You Should Be Dancing" had some nice choreography, as did the closing "Stayin' Alive." Those were also songs where guys weren't forced to mimic the only-a-Gibb-can-or-should-do-this falsetto stylings of the Bee Gees; guys were allowed to sing in a more reasonable register, and women were also used to complete the harmonies. The Bee Gees imitations on "Night Fever" and "More Than a Woman", on the other hand, really didn't do it for me. And "If I Can't Have You" and "How Deep Is Your Love" are two songs I find too trite and/or boring in general to enjoy them much here on the show.

Overall, I'd say the hour came together pretty well for a theme episode, but still was probably just "alright" in the bigger scheme. I'd rate it a B.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Cabin Fever

Over the weekend, I went to see The Cabin in the Woods, the new twisted horror movie co-written by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard. Being a long time fan of Whedon's work, I first heard about this movie almost three years ago when it was originally shot. Unfortunately, the division of assets in the bankruptcy of MGM relegated this film to the vault until now, when it was finally bought by Lionsgate and released to the public.

In fairness, no movie would truly be worth a wait like that. But it was pretty damn entertaining.

If you know nothing about the movie already, I would strongly recommend you keep it that way. If you like horror movies, or like anything Joss Whedon has ever produced, that's really all you should need to know to put this on your list. Go see it. But if you find yourself needing a bit more information to convince you, I'll try and give you the rest of this review with the smallest amount of spoilers I can manage.

The plot -- as much as I care to share of it -- revolves around a fun conceit. We all know how classic horror movies seem to feature the same tropes: specific character types behaving in predictable ways, making expected mistakes, getting offed in a particular sequence, all on the way to a typical climax. This movie shows us why that is.

The movie stars a mixed cast of relative unknowns (Kristen Connolly, Jesse Williams, Anna Hutchison), actors who were unknown three years ago but are far bigger now (Chris Hemsworth), veterans of Joss Whedon's various television series (Fran Kranz and Amy Acker) and a few long-working character actors playing in the "Whedon-verse" for the first time (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford). It's a strong ensemble that perfectly delivers Whedon's trademark blend of earnestness with irreverence. There's also a fun cameo appearance from a performer with plenty of fanboy genre cred, best left to see for yourself.

There are a couple weaknesses in the film. One is that it's part of the point that the characters hew close to established archetypes. There are some minor tweaks, but overall, this group of characters doesn't pop as well as many other Whedon creations. (Though with less than two hours of screen time versus several seasons of television, I suppose that's only natural.)

The other is that tweaking the horror genre is itself already traveled territory. Scream was really the first film to lay out many of the "rules" this film plays with. Plus, in that unfortunate delay between the filming of this movie and its release, there's also been Tucker and Dale vs. Evil playing in a somewhat similar space.

That said, these are fairly minor weaknesses. The film does deliver a full spectrum of entertainment, with a few scares, plenty of laughs, several clever ideas to make you think, and more. I'd rate the film an A-, and I definitely recommend that you go see it for yourself.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

What Is Dead May Never Die

The construction of this week's episode of Game of Thrones was very interesting to me. As a reader of the books, I was quite engaged by a lot that transpired. But afterward, I had to wonder a bit what the perspective might be of someone who hadn't read the books.

For starters, there was a lot missing. If your favorite character/plotline is Daenerys or Robb, you got nothing this week. If you're still trying to find your footing with Stannis and Davos and Melissandre? Tough luck; they sat out this week too. If you love to hate Joffrey? Too bad; he spent his second straight week off screen.

A non-book reader might then be further flummoxed by the introduction of still more characters -- the skilled woman-warrior Brienne, and the coldly calculating Margery Tyrell, wife of Renly. I would like to think, though, that any trepidation surrounding these two new women would be quickly dispatched by their compelling introductions. We saw that Brienne was a towering powerhouse of a fighter, the best we've seen in a duel since The Mountain back in season one. As for Margery, we saw just how much she was willing to overlook for the sake of amassing power; she's fully aware of what she's getting (and not getting) in marrying Renly.

At least if you're a fan of Arya or Tyrion (and most are), you got plenty to enjoy this week. Tyrion was absolutely in his element, plotting to unmask a traitor in his midst with a carefully constructed ruse. This storyline had no "action" in the traditional sense, but was still fun and tense. Arya showed a wit just as keen at the end of the hour, when she covered for Gendry with the soldiers who'd captured them all. There were also two key moments -- the story told to her of the killing prayer, and her releasing of the fugitives -- that certainly had book fans squealing to see what will come next.

I remain impressed with the way the show has portrayed Theon. I've said before how unlikable I found him in the books, and how difficult I found it to understand his motivations even while being inside his head. I actually think it might be better not to "hear" his actual thought processes, but to instead just see him beg for any scrap of love from his father. He took a big step tonight in turning his back on the Starks, and while I'm certainly not rooting for him, I "get it."

Lastly, we got snippets of Bran and Sansa, the former believing he's assuming the form of his dire wolf in his dreams, the latter suffering in her plight at King's Landing. We also got a small taste of Jon Snow and Samwell up beyond the wall. These stories were all marking time a bit... but of course, we still have seven more episodes to go in this excellent second season.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Hawaiian Tragedy

I recently crossed another of last year's Academy nominated Best Pictures off my list: The Desendants. It stars George Clooney as a father of two daughters, living in Hawaii, whose wife has been involved in a terrible boating accident. She's been left in a coma from which she will never emerge, and so he sets about saying goodbye to her... only to learn that she had been having an affair behind his back in the months prior to the accident.

While The Descendants lost the top prize to the steamroller that was The Artist, its three screenwriters (including Jim Rash, currently appearing on the hilarious sitcom Community) did win for their screenplay, adapted from a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings. I thought I was prepared for the tone of the movie in advance; I was instead surprised by what I watched.

I thought the movie was going to use a lighter touch, peppering the proceedings with a lot of humor around the tragic situation. Something along the lines of a 50/50. Not really. The film certainly does have a few lighter moments in it, but this is not a film about trying to face death with a smile and a laugh.

Well alright then, I thought as the movie unspooled. Perhaps the pendulum would swing in the other direction and this would be a movie designed to wring you out like a rag by the closing credits, to wrest tears from you whether you want to cry or not. Nope... it wasn't that either. The nature of the plot meant there were too many intentionally awkward and uncomfortable moments for the audience to ever give over entirely to the drama of the situation.

Instead, The Descendants ultimately offered another take on death that I've rarely seen explored in a movie: numbness. It all seemed crafted to hollow you out inside, and put nothing in to fill the space. The overall tone of the movie, to me, felt like emptiness.

George Clooney carries he full weight of the film on his shoulders. He's most assisted by the older of his two screen daughters, played by Shailene Woodley, and her boyfriend, played by Nick Krause. But without this carefully modulated performance from Clooney, the film wouldn't work. He was nominated for Best Actor for this performance, and even though it's largely subtle work, it's deserving. A few other actors you'll probably recognize do pop up throughout the film -- Judy Greer, Matthew Lillard, Beau Bridges, and Robert Forster -- though none really has more than a few minutes of screen time.

My tastes would be for a movie that picked one of those other styles I expected. Still, credit where it's due to this movie, that does find another voice and uses it well. I give The Descendants a B. You'll certainly want to already be in a particular mood when you go to watch it, but it's worth making the time to watch.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Whatever Reposessed Me to Watch This?

Recently, I decided to take a chance on watching the 2010 sci-fi action movie Repo Men. Its a "near future" story in which artificial organs are repossessed by the manufacturer when their owners default on installation payments, killing said owners in the process. It seemed like a premise possibly prone to cheese, but also possibly a vehicle for some interesting social commentary. Plus, it starred Jude Law; I figured that I've liked him in a variety of films, and he probably wouldn't have signed on to a movie wholly without merit.

Of course, what I should have been focusing on was the fact that it co-starred Forest Whitaker, who after his appearance in Battlefield Earth, should never again be trusted to choose any script with any merits whatsoever.

There's no wry commentary of any kind. You just have to buy into the crazy premise, and then accept when the movie quickly turns into a mindless "run from the bad guys" mess done infinitely better in Total Recall. Or hell, done infinitely better in the still mediocre Surrogates.

This complete mess of a movie really has only two points in its favor: breakneck and inventive fight choreography, and cartoonishly hysterical gore. But even both of those modest successes are cases of rapidly diminishing returns. The gore shocks in the first instance or two, elicits laughter in the next dozen or so, then actually starts to bore the audience when it devolves into an apparent contest between makeup effects artists trying to one up each other. The fight choreography is intense, but ultimately just as boring by the time the end credits roll.

Oh, but before you get to those credits, you have to watch the utterly predictable ending, telegraphed from an hour and a mile away. A scene of hamfisted exposition early in the film, serving no apparent purpose to contextualize anything you've seen so far, is of course going to play in the obnoxious ending.

If you're a fan of gore, you might watch to be impressed by the work here. (Though even for such a person, I can't say I'd recommend watching it all in one sitting.) But even being generous, I might only rate this a D-. You really should all just steer clear.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Ricky's Tacos

I've said of past episodes of Awake that I appreciated the way they attempt different types of stories within their format, not settling into a single routine. But I think tonight's episode stretched in a direction I hope they don't return to again.

Specifically, tonight's episode really underscored for me how important the main character's relationships with his wife and son are to the overall fabric of the series. There were only a couple of very brief scenes with Hannah in Red World this week, and essentially none at all with Rex in Green World (save for a dialogue-free, three-second piece of a closing montage). And without the vital personal stakes that those characters provide, this episode of Awake teetered on the edge of just being "Another Cop Show."

Yes, the episode dangled the ongoing conspiracy in front of us a bit... but not really progressing that storyline, just keeping it alive. I suppose I do want this story to go somewhere interesting in the long run, but the fact that it seemed so inert to me in this episode just underscored even more how important the family element of the series is.

There was some consolation, though, in the fact that at least the cases this week were interesting for "Another Cop Show." Well, certainly the Green World case was. The rape/suicide was a sad tale that got sadder still when the truth of it was finally exposed near the end of the hour. It was also interesting that this dark storyline actually led to a very warm scene for actress Laura Innes as Captain Harper, the scene in which she drew the truth out from the little girl. It showed a caring side to her character, whereas the Red World incarnation of the captain seems to be more of a "mustache twirler." A reluctant one, but still ultimately part of whatever the Evil Plot is.

Just a small bump in the road, I hope. We'll see what the show brings next week.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Not Worth the Wait

Around five months ago, I wrote that I was planning to see Paranormal Activity 3, but saving the experience for a dark night at home for (hopefully) maximum effect. Now that the movie is available on Blu-ray, that time has come.

If I did achieve maximum effect in not going to the theater, I sort of hate to think how I would have felt had I actually gone. To call the movie a disappointment is overstating the matter, since I probably wasn't truly expecting that much from it. But I was hoping for better, I suppose, and didn't get it.

The first Paranormal Activity was a bit of a gimmick, but a very effective and well-realized one. The second film was a bit of a re-tread, but had a very novel way of linking to the first movie that ultimately made it an enjoyable experience. This third installment, though, smells a bit too much of "been there, done that."

The story takes us back to the late 1980s, to the childhood of the two women in the first two movies. It apparently runs in the family that the boyfriend likes to tape things, and so we see footage of an earlier "haunting" surrounding these girls at a young age. And while the opening moments of the movie explain how these tapes came to be "lost" and unseen by the adult women (thus providing an explanation for how the first two movies could even come to pass), it's rather impossible to explain -- after you see how the movie ends -- why the tapes even survived and weren't destroyed.

But okay, let's say you agree to check that logic at the door. (These movies already ask that, to a certain extent, in demanding you not question why the characters wouldn't at some point just put the camera down.) Then you're left with a bump-in-the-night movie where too many of the scares are cribbed straight from the earlier installments. You get the "person pulled out of bed by an invisible force" moment, the "someone stands by the bed and watches someone sleep for hours straight" moment. The one original contribution to the mix here is a "panning camera" gag that involves a makeshift rotary fan turned into a camera mount that pans methodically between two rooms, allowing for a few clever "what's happening while we can't see it??!!" moments.

The truth is, if you liked either of the first two movies, you really couldn't dislike this movie. They're all just too similar. And if you've never seen any of these movies? Well, this third installment might be as good a place to start as any. My suspicion is that whichever Paranormal Activity movie you watched first would be your favorite. But to see a new one churned out every year in time for Halloween? There's not much juice left in this particular piece of fruit. I rate number three a C.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Big Brother

Glee is back from its "mid-winter" break, and wasted no time in revealing Quinn's fate from her car accident. (The sing-songy tone of the narrator in the re-cap was an early tip: it wasn't fatal.) She survived the accident, but is now in a wheelchair. The doctors say her paralysis is likely temporary, but she optimistically thinks she'll be back on her feet in just seven more episodes. We'll see...

But in the interim, I think it's very interesting to pair Quinn with Artie. Those two characters have had essentially no interaction with one another for the series to date, and whichever way the story breaks, it's likely to yield some compelling drama for one of the characters. Either Quinn won't recover, and she'll have to really come to terms with her new life; or she will recover, and Artie will have to deal with the unfairness of her paralysis being temporary while he remains confined to his wheelchair. Both scenarios seem full of dramatic possibilities.

The main plot of the episode revolved around Blaine's pompous, tormenting older brother coming to pay a visit. I found it interesting to give Blaine the storyline of feeling overshadowed by a demeaning sibling. Since his introduction in season two, he's essentially been the most together, self-assured character on the show (with the possible exception of Sue Sylvester). On the one hand, you might find inconsistency in his sudden shrinking in the light of his brother. On the other hand, what better character to take down a peg? While the story certainly was compressed (playing out in just a part of a single episode), the tonality of it felt right. It's a Glee happy ending that put them on good terms so quickly, but the emotion of their conflict felt genuine even when the specifics of it (basically, all of Cooper's behavior) felt less realistic.

Speaking of being taken down a peg, Sue's story this week started with her being challenged for control of her Cheerios. But that seemed merely the Macguffin to pull her more into supporting the Glee club for the rest of the season. Her real story surrounded her developing pregnancy, and the revelation that her child has Downs Syndrome. I feel like the jury's still out on this one. The very idea of giving Sue a pregnancy storyline is over the top even for such an over the top character. But maybe it's best to approach the whole thing like a science fiction tale. Just accept the impossible premise, and then see if the resulting story depicts emotional truth. I'm working on the former; we'll see if the latter materializes.

Oh, and Finn and Rachel are once again questioning their marriage plans that they were certain of after they were doubtful after they were certain. Yawn.

Music this week rested squarely on the pairings of Artie with Quinn and Blaine with his brother Cooper. I've always felt Dianna Agron's voice one of the weaker ones on the show when it comes to solos, but I also think she has paired with more different characters in duets than anyone else to good effect. The take on Elton John's "I'm Still Standing" made for a good opening, though was better than the later "Up Up Up."

Meanwhile, Darren Criss and Matt Bomer were a good match. I was a bit aggravated that the writers couldn't just pick one Duran Duran song and have them sing that, but the final act take on "Somebody That I Used to Know" was really a solid performance for both. As for Blaine's solo, "Fighter", I thought the best work belonged to director Eric Stoltz and his staging of the sequence. Darren Criss seems to handle bouncier, light material than he can handle more dramatic moments like this, but the way the montage was put together, I still bought into the overall message.

I'd call this episode a B+. I'm looking forward to seeing where things go from here.

Monday, April 09, 2012

That's Not My Penguin

I finally had a chance to catch up with last week's episode of Awake, and I continue to be intrigued by the way the series keeps exploring its premise. Rather than just settle completely into a standard format where Michael solves a crime in each of his two realities -- with a connection between them -- the writers are still trying new things.

This week, the main twist was putting front and center the question of whether Michael is hallucinating one of his worlds, by having him deal with a schizophrenic hostage taker committed to a delusional reality of his own. There were also interesting new ways in which the two therapist characters were used this week. First, Michael interacted with Dr. Lee outside of the doctor's office -- and ultimately got to be on the scene to see Michael do his job very well, deflating concern over Michael's ability to function. And yet, this was undermined on the spot by the realization that most of Michael's interaction with Lee in the episode was actually a hallucination.

The Dr. Evans scenes were also compelling, as we finally saw a crack in her unwavering support for Michael. She began the episode encouraged that Michael was taking a healthy step forward to resolve his situation. But by the end of the episode, she and Lee had begun to flip-flop in their opinions of Michael. Now she was the one concerned that continuing to entertain the "other world," in the way he was maintaining it, was going to begin doing psychological damage to Michael.

All this said, I'm still trying to keep my enjoyment of the show at arm's length, if possible. Even though it's on NBC, where the ratings don't have to be all that high to ensure renewal, the series has been sliding dramatically since its premiere. It may well be that this single run of episodes is all the Awake we'll get. If so, then I'll hope for continued quality in however much we still get to see.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

The Night Lands

Tonight's new installment of Game of Thrones definitely cemented for me the feeling I had after last week's season premiere: I'm going to enjoy this story in this medium more than I did actually reading A Clash of Kings.

I'll have to tiptoe extremely carefully for a moment here, so as not to spoil anything for those who haven't read the books. But as even the TV viewers have now seen, Theon Greyjoy is a more prominent character in book/season two over book/season one. And when I read it, I pretty much hated him. Now George R.R. Martin does have a way of starting you out hating a character, then twisting things around to make you like them later... or at least feel sympathy for them. I struggled in this with Theon, as I find his motivations rather hard to accept or justify.

Oddly, it took just this one episode for me to suddenly start down the road of understanding Theon better. Punked by his sister, replaced by his sister in the eyes of his father, rejected by his father. Yes, he's still an entitled little brat who hasn't had life even half as badly as he thinks he has... but I'm starting to see the bigger picture of how he basically spent his whole life dreaming of a homecoming, and then is spurned when it comes to pass. Mind you, all of this material is also present in the book, but the series writers have found just the right way to bring it to the screen to highlight the most important points. I'll be looking forward to Theon's story in the coming weeks.

Of course, the two characters I most often hear are reader/viewer favorites -- Tyrion and Arya -- were both great this week. Tyrion's marvelous manipulation of the former Captain of the Watch, and installation of Bronn, was a great scene. But he also traded barbs with the Spider and his sister once again this hour, and both were highlights of the episode. Meanwhile, Arya had a great exchange with Gendry, and showed she's lost none of her fire during her recent ordeals.

I may have to go back and check my reading comprehension here... or maybe it's just that it's been a rather long time now since I read A Clash of Kings, but I don't recall it being presented as whole truth than Stannis was sleeping with Mellisandre (though I do believe it was at least implied). Of course, neither of those characters is a perspective character in the book, so I suppose without someone else there to watch them, implication is all we could get. It adds an interesting texture to an already murky relationship.

We had a bit more of Jon Snow this week, and a brief touch of Daenerys. But several stories were necessarily put on hold for the week to make room for the rest; no Bran in Winterfell this week; no Robb or Catelyn out in the field (and nothing of captive Jamie either); no Joffrey (though he was still very much a topic of conversation between Cersei and Tyrion).

And as always, some interesting additions. As with last week, the biggest chunk of new material not from the book (if I recall correctly) was a scene involving Littlefinger. In case we'd forgotten his betrayal of Ned last season and needed a reminder of just how dark and dangerous a character he truly is, we saw him this week menace one of his women with chilling civility.

Once again, I look forward to next week.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Wedding Bells

Hello all!

My sister's wedding was last night, and now I'll be getting back to the routine here. Some of you might be hoping for a comment or two about the occasion here, so I'll try not to disappoint. Still, the bottom line is -- I don't have much to say. I'm very happy for my sister and my new brother-in-law, who both were clearly having a wonderful night.

For any future wedding planners out there, I'll throw out this tip: if you want to increase your chances of a "memorable moment," use children in your ceremony. My sister's young daughter was the flower girl last night -- and also a significant part of the ceremony, as the couple made a point of the event not just being about the two of them coming together in marriage, but the three of them coming together as family.

But you can't account for a young girl's temper just a couple minutes before the start of the ceremony. She had just freshly not gotten her way in some thing or another, and while she was still willing to walk the aisle as required, she threw her fistfuls of petals at the floor in rather entertaining fashion. Later, though, she perked right up when she took part in a sand-pouring ceremony (similar to how many weddings employ the "unity candle," but appropriate for children that should not be playing with fire). When she climbed up on the stool and saw all the glass and colored sand arrayed before her and quietly whispered "wow!", everyone smiled.

Also providing some fun was the young son of my two good friends, who served as ringbearer for the occasion. Though apparently not pouty, he wasn't inclined to stand still, and was very much in love with the sound his handsome shoes made as he walked around. He also had a great moment where he leaned into a microphone to start talking, and then recoiled in embarrassment when he realized it was actually on and functioning.

So there -- if you want a bigger chance for some light-hearted moments at a wedding, look to the kids.

Congratulations to the happy new family!

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Talk Amon---- Amongst Yourselves

As I mentioned a few days ago, my sister is getting married tomorrow. I'll be taking the day off of both work and blog for the occasion, and I'm taking advantage of the opportunity to sleep in by having a night out on the town tonight.

So, sorry... but no witty blog post for you tonight or tomorrow. I should be back in action Saturday.

For those of you hoping for something, I'll leave this little nugget for discussion. Yesterday, I had a repeated attack of hiccups. It's not something I'm prone to, but for whatever reason, I had hiccups come and go five times -- sometimes for as long as half an hour before I could shake them. The one sure-fire cure that seems to work for me is eating a spoonful of peanut butter, but I didn't have a jar handy at work yesterday during most of the "attacks."

Is there a hiccup cure you swear by?

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Moving the Pieces

I have written before of my long love of the musical Chess -- this despite never having seen a professional production of the play in person. I discovered the multiple soundtrack albums in high school, was jealous when my high school actually did the play the year after I graduated, and most recently, enjoyed the reimagined concert version on DVD. But now I can say I've finally seen it for myself -- the Arvada Center here in the suburbs of Denver is staging it, and I went last night.

Oh, what a fun mess Chess is. The music is my favorite overall of any musical I've ever heard. But its story has never completely worked. And so Chess has become a perpetual work-in-progress for over 25 years. Even its creators basically give their blessing for any staged production of it to mix up the songs, reorder the scenes, and rearrange the dialogue in search of that elusive perfect production. I'd heard that the Arvada Center was mounting a new version of the play, and I just assumed it would be a full staging of the concert version I'd seen on DVD. But no, it turns out that the theater world is still not done tinkering with Chess.

This production does retain a lot of the elements that worked in the "Chess in Concert" version. But it also tries out some new ideas, and largely they did not fit quite right. Most awkward was the attempt to modernize the timeline -- or to at least bring it forward to after the fall of the Soviet Union (and the invention of flip cell phones). The whole American vs. Soviet nature of the chess tournament in the story really needs a 1970s or 1980s backdrop to fit, not to mention that the references to main character Florence's birth in the early or mid 1950s make no sense in any later time frame.

Different versions of the play have portrayed the wild man American chess player, Freddie, differently in the second act. Some times, he's a returning competitor going in to face his Russian adversary a second time. Other times, he's a washed up failure now watching from the outside, but trying to still manipulate the game behind the scenes with politics. This production awkwardly tried to retain both elements, having him compete while simultaneously trying to pass as a separate master manipulator.

A problem not really solved in this version more than any others is the behavior of the characters. The first act still asks the audience to believe in a love established in only two scenes, and a seven year business relationship of obvious friction somehow now busting up overnight. It asks you to imagine for yourselves how the love went sour during the undramatized year that passes during the intermission. It asks you to accept the motivations of all three main characters turning on a dime during the second act. It's a schizophrenic story, and can probably only be sold by an over-the-top acting style that probably wouldn't ultimately entertain anyway.

But oh... that music. And, in this case, the staging. The Arvada Center's production had an impressive two-story set with a spinning turntable, a raised "chess board" space, a moving balcony, and industrial-looking staircases framing it all. And the action was placed upon it in dynamic and entertaining ways.

And there were some very skilled performers in the cast. The ensemble chorus was a solid support throughout, and shined during the few numbers in which they got to take on specific roles ("Press Conference" and "Embassy Lament", in particular). Denver local Stephen Day, as Molokov, was the one performer to consistently land his jokes and elicit laughs from the audience. Lisa Karlin made a strong Florence; her vocal prowess in the songs was matched by a Herculean effort to try to build a behavior arc for her character in spite of the limited script support. And Tally Sessions was a phenomenal Anatoly; he seemed like he might be a bit shaky at first, but by halfway through Act 1 (and with his powerful "Anthem" in the Act 1 finale), he cemented himself as the best in the cast.

You're not likely to think Chess the best night you've ever spent at the theater. But if you can forgive the odd compressions and contortions in the story, it is a feast for the senses -- the visuals will impress, and the songs will move you. If you're at all familiar with the music, you'd do well to attend in the next two weeks before the show closes.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

The Last of a Generation

This afternoon, I received the unexpected news that my grandmother passed away last night in her sleep. These things do happen, of course, but she still seemed active and healthy enough for her age when I saw her a few months ago at Christmas. The timing of it was just a surprise.

A little less than six years ago, when her husband died, it was just 2 days from when I was going to be flying out to Indianapolis on a business trip, and would have seen him again at a dinner. Today, we're just 3 days away from my oldest sister's wedding, which my grandmother had been planning to attend -- I would have seen her again. Even at their respective ends, it seems the two really were cut from the same cloth and meant to be together.

My grandmother was a very loving and caring person, and I'm very happy to say that I got to learn how much so before she passed away. When I finally worked through all my fears and got the nerve to come out to my family and friends, she was a big question mark. Well... actually... she wasn't at all. She had spent her entire life as a deeply religious woman, with staunchly conservative views. I suspected she'd have a hard time with the news, and her own daughter my mother thought so too. I was very seriously entertaining the notion of just never telling her.

But it was another wedding, of another of my sisters, that ended the feasibility of that "plan." My grandmother was going to be attending, and so was my boyfriend, and even if I'd had the energy for some sort of masquerade, I no longer had the desire -- for so very many reasons. So a few weeks before the wedding, I wrote my grandmother an e-mail (yes, I had a grandmother in her 70s that used e-mail) and told her the truth about me. I invited her to call if she wanted to talk about it -- or not to, if she wanted that.

Two days later, she did indeed call, and we talked for a while. I wasn't sure what questions she'd want to ask -- very few, as it turned out. Mostly, she just wanted to hear my voice, it seemed. At the end of the call, she basically said, "well, you sound the same as you always have." And that was that. She came to the wedding, met my boyfriend, and it wasn't any kind of issue at all. She came back for Christmas, and was no different with he and I than she was with my middle sister and her husband, or my oldest sister and her (for the next few days) fiance. And it never seemed like she was making any effort to accept me. She just did.

My preconceptions were completely wrong. In a situation where I was asking her not to look at me any differently than she always had, I was made the hypocrite -- I assumed that she would be different than she always had.

She was the last of my grandparents. I never knew the first, who died before I was born. Two others passed away before I told anybody I'm gay. But one got to know the real me, if only for a few months. And I got to know more about her too as a result.

I'm very fortunate to have had her in my life, and I will miss her.

Monday, April 02, 2012

My Top 100 Movies -- 70-66

After a bit of a break, it's time to pick back up with the countdown of my 100 favorite movies.

70. Changeling. Angelina Jolie powerfully demonstrates that she's not just a pretty face in this Clint Eastwood-directed film about a 1930s woman who goes through the horror of having her son go missing... only to face an even greater horror when the police return to her the wrong child, and then begin to look at her as though she's the one going crazy. The acting is what puts this film onto my list, as I noted in my original review.

69. Saving Private Ryan. It's been a while since I watched this movie, and I really must make time for it again. Many were upset when Shakespeare in Love won Best Picture over this film, and while I don't think it's an outrage by any means (as Shakespeare in Love is on my 100 list too), I agree this was the superior movie. It has the soul of an epic war film, but the heart of an intimate character drama. The performances are amazing from top to bottom. I've seen many war movies, but this one stands head and shoulders above them all in my mind at conveying a real sense of what the experience of going to war takes away from a person.

68. The Illusionist. Over time, I've warmed to this period piece starring Edward Norton as a turn-of-the-century magician. What once I saw as slow-paced, I now see as methodical and full of purpose, and a vehicle for great acting from Norton and Paul Giamatti. The story is also clever, and has a lot to say about the lengths one will go to for love.

67. Sneakers. I love a good heist movie, and I think this is one of the best. It has a wonderfully eclectic cast of top shelf actors, including Robert Redford, Sidney Poitier, David Strathairn, Dan Aykroyd, River Phoenix, Mary McDonnell, and Ben Kingsley. It demonstrates that movies that are meant at their core to be "just fun" don't also have to be stupid, an assumption too often made by summer popcorn fare. It also marked one of only a couple times in his long career that composer James Horner actually shook up his formula and wrote interesting new music (though he would then go on to reuse this reinvented style in a long "second age of Horner").

66. 50/50. It was less than two months ago that I saw this movie for the first time, and I ended up making room for it in my top 100 list. As I said then, I think this was the best movie of 2011.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

The North Remembers

Rejoice! Game of Thrones is back!

Season two of the HBO series will be based on the second novel of George R.R. Martin's series, A Clash of Kings. Overall, it was a book I did not enjoy quite as much as the first book. Still, it was a very enjoyable read, and tonight's season premiere gives me hope that it will make an even stronger season of television.

One of the ideas that has formed in my head over the years since I read that second book was that not as much happened in book two as in book one or three. And while that may largely be true, what might be implied in that statement -- that "nothing" happens in book two -- isn't true at all. We have so much to look forward to in these ten episodes, and whatever moments of slackened pace there were in the book are sure to be excised to fit in the time allotted.

Tonight was a great example. There were so many balls in air at the close of last season (and new ones now to be introduced) that many plot lines were afforded only a single sequence -- or even only a single scene -- to check back in and get things rolling. And so we had just one scene of Daenerys, only slightly longer sequences for Bran and Jon Snow... and Arya, who had more chapters dedicated to her than almost anyone in the book, appears only for seconds at the conclusion of the hour.

And I found myself eagerly interested in all the stories. Even Stannis and Davos, and boy did I find those Davos chapters the driest of all in A Clash of Kings. Seeing the character of Mellisandre brought to life suddenly makes all that a great deal more interesting. And maybe now having a face to put on Davos will make the book better when I eventually go back and re-read it.

With the loss of several cast members in season one, Peter Dinklage now moves into the first slot in the opening title sequence. And indeed, Tyrion could now well be said to be the star of the show. Certainly, his scenes tonight were some of the best. Watching him trade barbs with his sister Cersei was one of the best exchanges yet on the show.

And just as with season one, I find myself just as drawn to the new scenes added that do not come from the book. Tonight's most significant addition was an exchange between Baelish (Littlefinger) and Cersei, where he tries to lecture her about the use of power, and is menacingly put in his place. It was a great scene on many levels, though one must really know what happens to both characters in the story ahead to really appreciate just how well this scene sets both of them up for the twists to come. (And in the interests of protecting my readers who don't know the books, I'll say no more.)

I'm thrilled to have this series to once again look forward to every week.