Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Story Behind the Story Behind the Story

Despite my recent bad experience reading Stephen King, I was recently compelled to give him another chance. That's because his latest, The Wind Through the Keyhole, is a new Dark Tower book. Though the series was finished years ago, he apparently found an idea that tickled him enough to go back in and write a new book chronologically wedged between books 4 and 5 of the original series. Despite my middling-at-best reaction to King's other writing, I did enjoy the Dark Tower books overall, so decided this one would probably be worth my time.

But the thing is, the notion that this is actually a Dark Tower book is rather a stretch of the truth. It's actually a turducken of fiction, a fairy tale stuffed inside a prequel, stuffed inside a Dark Tower short story. It's not necessarily bad, as I'll get to in a moment, but it does invite you to read it under false pretenses.

The core of the book is a sort of Grimm-esque fairy tale that connects to the Dark Tower books only in the sense that it uses the same style -- a similar setting and similar language. It doesn't actually involve any of the Dark Tower characters, and I think it would have been more at home in a Four Past Midnight type of story collection.

The gimmick to legitimize the story as Dark Tower material is that it's being told to a young boy by the hero of the Tower series, Roland, during an event that took place when Roland was a young man, many years before the series proper begins. The story is a way to distract the boy from the recent loss of his father in a brutal massacre by a shape-shifting man/monster, who Roland is trying to locate and destroy. This story at least earns the Dark Tower moniker honestly, though the contents of the tale do little to reflect on the Tower saga at large, and hold no real suspense.

But there's an extra added twist to the narrative approach, just for the fans who want to see Eddie, Susannah, Jake, and Oy one more time. The entire book is framed in a tiny side adventure set (as I mentioned earlier) between books 4 and 5. Pinned down in a storm, the group has nothing to do to pass the time, and so Roland tells this story from his younger days... which includes his telling of the time he was telling this fairy tale.

It's a step or two too clever, by which I mean that really, the Dark Tower elements of this book don't work for me. Someone missing those characters would be better served, I think, by just reading the original series again; this slight volume does nothing to really expand or recontextualize their story.

But I said at the outset that I didn't necessarily think this was a bad book. And that's because this tale at the center of the story within the story within the story -- the fairy tale which lends the book its title -- is actually very entertaining. My reading pace quickened when I reached this 100 or so pages at the core of the book. I enjoyed the dark tones Stephen King brought to his uncharacteristically succinct take on "the hero's journey."

I don't know if King felt a commercial need to package this all up as The Dark Tower, or if the need to revisit his beloved characters led him down a creative road where he discovered this short story. In any case, the core is worth a read. I'd call the entire novel a B-, though I would caution Dark Tower fans to lower their expectations.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Greek Comedy

I was enough of a fan of the film Forgetting Sarah Marshall to give a chance to the spin-off movie Get Him to the Greek. Russell Brand's wild rocker character from the earlier film was ported over into this story, in which a young record label lackey must escort the singer to a concert, racing against the clock.

The connection between the films is tenuous, both on and off the screen. Sarah Marshall writer (and star) Jason Segel only consulted on this movie, and contributed to some of the original song compositions that appear here. And there is a bit of a feeling that despite having his name on the movie, producer Judd Apatow may have just "rubber stamped" it all.

There's definitely a different tone here. Forgetting Sarah Marshall was, at its core, a rather sweet story with a healthy dose of strangeness. Get Him to the Greek doesn't really have much of an emotional core to it, and slides the needle more in the direction of "gross out" comedy (though certainly coming nowhere near pegging it).

But all that said, it doesn't mean that Get Him to the Greek isn't also an enjoyable movie, it its own way. A big point in its favor is its excellent cast. Russell Brand may be taking a large role here, but his "funnier in small doses" status is somewhat preserved by making Jonah Hill the main focus of the action. And, as Jonah Hill has shown in several funnier-than-they-should-be comedies, he's a great comic lead.

Colm Meaney, who I of course know best as O'Brien from Star Trek (but who also chewed scenery as the villain of Hell on Wheels) takes an unexpected comedic turn in this film, and is pretty damn funny. Sean Combs is pretty hilarious as the wild executive bossing Hill's character around. Elizabeth Moss hits many of the same quietly defiant notes here that she does as Peggy on Mad Men, but does get in a few good jokes. And many musicians make funny cameos as themselves, including Lars Ulrich and Pink.

But the real "rock star" of the film is Rose Byrne. I know her best on the legal drama Damages, where she plays one of the most humorless characters on television. When I saw her in Bridesmaids, I thought that it was an interesting stretch without actually stretching for her -- the severe, straight role in a comedy movie. But here, she's an outrageous character and one of the funniest elements of the movie. I'm beginning to think of her as an Alec Baldwin or Leslie Neilsen, performers who started out in drama, but who really shined when they started taking more comedic roles.

Get Him to the Greek certainly wouldn't make any list of "funniest movies" I could imagine, but it's good for a laugh or two. I grade it a B-.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Hounds of Baskerville

In the first series (season) of the BBC's Sherlock, the middle installment of the three, while entertaining, was the weakest. They appear to have repeated that pattern in the second batch of episodes. "The Hounds of Baskerville" involves Holmes and Watson traveling outside of London to investigate reports of an enormous mutant hound prowling an area around a mysterious government research facility. An escaped test subject? An intentional "field test?" Something else? You can bet Holmes and Watson will get to the bottom of it.

The trouble is, so will you -- and a good deal ahead of our brilliant heroes. This installment of Sherlock is by far the most predictable. Once Holmes himself sees the object of their investigation, you know exactly what's going on. Further, you know how it all works too, even though that's something Holmes himself doesn't conclude until minutes from the end. More awkwardly, Holmes' big breakthrough doesn't really come through any research, investigation, deduction, or discovery -- he instead sits quietly in place and sifts through random pieces of knowledge already stored deep in his brain, and happens to pull out basically "this really obscure story he read one time with a really minor mention of this detail" that turns out to unravel the whole case. The audience out-Holmeses Holmes in this case, essentially.

But while the plot is lackluster, everything else about this marvelous series is still intact. The rapport between Holmes and Watson has never been better than it is here. The two goad, help, and needle each other throughout the episode; a scene after Holmes' encounter with the hound, in which he confides in (and berates) Watson is especially strong. Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman are, as always, excellent.

Guest star Russell Tovey (known for Being Human) is also strong here. His character is a tormented soul, perhaps borderline psychotic. As an actor, he's called upon to portray impossibly amped-up fear multiple times throughout the episode, and he rises to the challenge ably.

The production values of the episode are also remarkable. As I mentioned, this episode takes the duo outside of London, and the gnarled, spooky ravine in which the most important action takes place is a wonderfully creepy environment. The vast and sterile inside of the government facility, the quaintness of the nearby village -- all rendered wonderfully through set design and location filming.

All told, I'd give this episode a B+. Still excellent work, though not reaching the incredibly high bar set by the rest of the series.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Back in Black

Seeing the newest Men in Black wasn't exactly high on my list. But I did go, and was actually pleasantly surprised. It turns out that this new film might just be the best of the bunch. The reason is that, while the film does preserve the sight gag and whiz-bang mentality of the first two, it adds a far greater dose of heart and sentiment than either of its predecessors had.

The spine of the film is the relationship between Agents J and K. The plot involves an alien baddie that K captured and imprisoned back in 1969. He escapes in the present day, then time travels back to kill K before that fateful moment. To restore the timeline and save his friend, J takes a major leap of faith (literally) and travels back to right events.

You could certainly judge most of what happens as necessary for the demands of the story. But it all unfolds in a way very organic to character. J is instructed to avoid all contact with young K and avoid revealing the truth of his mission back to the 1960s. Instead, he ends up confiding in and working with the young agent. K, a humorless hard-ass as embodied by Tommy Lee Jones for 15 years, is revealed to be a more fun and almost free-spirited man in his youth, and a running thread revolves around "what happened to him" to change that.

And then there's the climax of the story, a big character moment involving both agents. It won't move you to tears or anything, but it is by far the most genuine sentiment expressed in the entire series. It has a nice callback to the first movie embedded within it, is emotionally potent, and represents a great conclusion to the film.

But there are some flaws with the movie as well. For one thing, it's really too brisk. As though fearing that a movie that's fundamentally a comedy just shouldn't get too long, several moments feel missing from the story. Even more character moments between J and K would have been appreciated to set up better for the ending. And elements of the plot are lacking in any explanation whatsoever: why is J the only one who can remember the former, correct timeline after its altered; why does time travel sometimes create a duplicate person and other times replace the person in a pre-existing body; why the hell is a somebody leaving his son alone in the car for hours on the beach on a hot summer day?

There's also an inherent bit of good news/bad news built into the premise of seeing J interact with a young agent K. The good news is that Josh Brolin is phenomenal. He manages to channel Tommy Lee Jones more than impersonate him. You never question that he's the same character 40 years younger. The bad news is that this franchise was built on the interaction between Jones and Will Smith, and the two get maybe 10 minutes of screen time together here, tops. It's like a sequel to a "buddy cop" movie where the buddy cops are never actually together. (And yet, they are! Weird.)

I wouldn't say Men in Black III is a "rush out to see it" kind of film, but it is a "do see it" film, particularly if you liked the original. (Your opinion of the lackluster second installment probably doesn't factor into it.) I rate it a B-.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Blackwater

Tonight's episode of Game of Thrones did what no other episode has done before. Beside blow the budget out on an epic battle sequence that dazzled and amazed, I mean. It abandoned all divisions in the plot for the week, focusing everything on King's Landing and the Battle of Blackwater Bay.

It was a phenomenal hour of the show, not just for the incredible thrills of the battle itself, but for the exciting character moments as well. It was an especially strong episode for Cersei, who commanded several scenes of both tormenting and educating Sansa, pontificating on the power of women, and demonstrating the extreme lengths she'd go to to keep her children "safe."

It was also a good episode for Sansa. It's probably no surprise, but I never much cared for the character in the book. But I think she has a higher wit and a slightly more acid tongue here on the show. It was still infuriating to see her reject the offer to flee with The Hound, though.

Speaking of The Hound, his moments in the episode were also great. His rivalry with Bronn, essentially added from the book, gave some great moments of comic relief in a tense episode.

And of course we had Tyrion, finally earning a measure of respect from the people of King's Landing, being both clever and brave as he defended the city from attack. It was a spectacular performance by Peter Dinklage.

Next week is the season finale, where they'll presumably touch back on all the other tabled plot lines, and get us to several fun, cliffhangery moments to leave us for the next year.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

For Shame

Although the film itself did not receive an Academy Award nomination, Shame had quite a lot of buzz around it in critics' circles last year. Its lead actor, Michael Fassbender, was thought to have been a shoo-in for a Best Actor nomination, but like the movie, was overlooked. And much was made of the fact that its explicit sex and NC-17 rating probably hurt it with the Academy on both fronts. I was curious to see what all the fuss about.

Having seen the movie now, I still don't know.

The film is a fairly explicit and thoroughly uncomfortable look at a man struggling with sex addiction. The title is apt, as the film certainly doesn't make sex look glamorous in any way, despite the multiple contexts in which the film presents it. Fassbender (along with co-star Carey Mulligan) are both fearless in their roles, exposing themselves emotionally as well as physically.

But there's just not much more than visual poetry at work here. I would imagine the script to this film ran barely half the length of a typical movie. There are numerous scenes of lingering camera shots and little or no dialogue. In many cases, it's hard to tell just what the scene is meant to contribute to the movie. (Do we really need to watch the protagonist jog for two whole city blocks? Or hear the waiter describe all the evening's specials and suggest a wine for dinner?)

In short, this film is all style and little substance. I suppose it does sometimes make you restless from discomfort, but more often it just made me restless from boredom, waiting for something to actually happen. This is another movie for those who exalt film as a lyrical, visual medium... and maybe not even those people would like it. I grade it a D-, and feel generous at that.

Friday, May 25, 2012

My Top 100 Movies -- 55-51

55. Real Genius. This hilarious comedy starring Val Kilmer walks a real tightrope act in its humor. It has the sensibilities of a more raunchy 80s comedy, but manages to get there without ever actually showing anything explicit, or using any R-rated language. But it also is full of incredibly intelligent humor, with witty characters instantly turning clever phrases, unexpected sight gags, and more. William Atherton, the you-want-to-kill-him villain of Ghostbusters, is equally horrible-wonderful here, and watching him get his come-uppance is half the fun. And I'll admit, I probably have an extra soft spot for the film because it shows truly geeky, nerdy, social outcasts ruling the roost, having the last word, getting the girl, defeating the bully. Wish fulfillment that I loved when I was younger, and still love today.

54. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. I think this is the best of the Harry Potter films. There are so many triumphs here, made all the more extraordinary in that it made a coherent narrative out of the longest of the books (save the final volume, which of course ended up being two movies). There was brilliant casting here in Imelda Staunton as the cloying Professor Umbridge and Helena Bonham Carter as the mad Bellatrix Lestrange. There was the movies' most powerful death at the climax of the film. Composer Nicholas Hooper contributed an amazing score that included the perfect theme for Umbridge, rousing heroism for the training sequence in the Room of Requirement, an explosive anthem for the Weasley twins' prank, and of course, that important death. As Harry would say, "brilliant."

53. Star Trek. The more time that passes since I saw J.J. Abrams' newest Star Trek film, the more I realize how great it is. Really, the worst thing you can say about it is that it has a rather cardboard villain -- and that only stands out because all of the main characters are presented so fully and wonderfully. Recasting the roles that started it all was, on paper, insane, disrespectful, and foolish. But it all worked because it was made with such clear love, and realized with pitch perfect performances from an ensemble that blended elements of the original actors with new nuances of their own. I'm eagerly looking forward to the sequel next year.

52. Finding Neverland. A few months back, I wrote about how much I love this film. Without belaboring the same points again, I'll just praise one more time the clever approach that allows a biopic to become interesting, as well as the wonderful acting from the entire cast.

51. The Abyss. This may be James Cameron's most under-appreciated film. But to be fair, he may have done it to himself. He always ends up cutting scenes from his movies, and is a wise enough director not to let the writer part of him get hung up on preserving certain favorite scenes that aren't helping the story. The problem is, here he cut the point of the story. Skip right on by the theatrical version of this film and watch the special edition, where the message of it all is made clear. But either way, you'll get to enjoy amazing performances by Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and another fun Cameron-directed turn by Michael Biehn. And if that's not enough, you can also be dazzled by some amazing underwater photography that made shooting a grueling nightmare, as well as a CG "pseudopod" effect that was the first of its kind, and the beginning of a revolution in movie-making. (Bonus points for a warts-and-all documentary on the DVD about the making of this film.)

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Turtles All the Way Down

The brief, crazy experiment that was Awake wrapped up tonight with a season finale that wound up serving as its series finale. It was an interesting hour, in that it basically did "resolve" the story. In a way. It certainly didn't "answer" a damn thing, though.

About two-thirds of the way through the episode, Michael transitioned from his normal alternating realities into a wild fantasy that rapidly destroyed the integrity of his Red World and seemed to expose it as a dream. By the resolution of the season-long conspiracy, he'd seemed to have accepted that Green World was in fact his real world, that his wife had died in his accident.

But then, at the last second, a twist. In a final therapy session with Dr. Evans, he decided to reject that conclusion all over again, with enough apparent force to literally open the door on a third reality, an untinted world where both his wife and son were alive and well.

As closure goes, I suppose the premise of the show is resolved; it's easy to imagine Michael now living out he rest of his life in this newfound reality. As far as interpreting it goes, I suppose it's left up to the individual. It seems to me that Michael is in fact insane following his experiences, and somehow chose to retreat into the manufactured reality that gave him the most happiness. Perhaps in the real world somewhere, he's a drooling lunatic in a psych ward. Or maybe in a coma following his crash. Maybe he was in the process of dying, and now has died and gone to an afterlife. Take your pick.

Of course, the show had always been more about the family dynamic to me than the mystery. On those terms, I wish I could feel like this final episode was the strongest one for the series. Sure, the final resolution was rather poignant, but wasn't the gripping personal drama offered up in other episodes of the show. Partly this was because the bulk of the episode was devoted to wrapping up the conspiracy. Partly this was because so many of the outstanding personal issues were left on the table: what about Rex's pregnant girlfriend? The one partner who betrayed him? The other partner who may or may not be dead?

In all, I don't regret taking the journey that was Awake. I think it's best to file it mentally as a sometimes uneven mini-series, rather than an unfulfilled television series. But either way, it's over now.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Examining Exam

A movie just bubbled to the top of my Netflix queue that I don't recall putting in there. At some point, someone must have mentioned Exam to me; maybe I read about it somewhere. But I had absolutely no idea what the movie was when it arrived, and I decided that rather than read the synopsis on the sleeve, I'd just pop the movie in and let a total surprise unfold.

So... just what is Exam? Appropriately enough, that's the question. In an non-specifically outlined future, eight people of different races and backgrounds are taken into a sterile room, apparently to interview for a job. An "invigilator" informs them of the basic rules of an exam they're about to take: they have 80 minutes; they're not allowed to attempt to interact with the people watching them on camera from somewhere outside the room, nor the armed guard that stands statue-like there inside; they each have a sheet of paper on a table before them (which has only their designations on one side, and absolutely nothing on the other) and are told they'll be disqualified if they "spoil" their paper; they also must remain in the room. There is only one question to be asked, and one answer required.

And that's it.

What follows is a character study mixed with a "locked room mystery" puzzle that feels in many ways like a spiritual successor to the movie Cube. Both are low-budget independent films. Both use rather narrowly defined ciphers as their characters. Both are about the interpersonal meltdowns between the characters. Both are about trying to reason out of a science-fiction tinged trap.

But while Exam begins in rather intriguing fashion, it ends up being an inferior effort to Cube. In a story where all you have to go on is the immediate motivations of the characters, understanding and believing those motivations is key. Cube handles this by putting them in a deadly prison; the audience doesn't really need to know anything to understand or contextualize the desire to escape. But Exam is about a job interview. The movie wants to be only about the mystery, and thus provides no real names for the characters, threadbare explanation of the job they're "interviewing" for, and only occasional context for why the position (whatever it is -- that's rather vague too) would be so important to any of them as to subject themselves to such a strange set of circumstances.

Consequently, while the opening of the film is admittedly quite intriguing, it ultimately begins to come unraveled the more extreme the behaviors of the characters gets. It all unfolds in real time, and the stakes don't seem nearly high enough to explain the lengths these characters end up going to. Many of the characters also peak too early, going to crazy extremes and committing inappropriate acts, but then having to somehow recover from that to still be a presence in the story -- something they really can't do.

Director Stuart Hazeldine, who wrote the script along with Simon Garrity, does have some obvious filmmaking skills. He keeps the pace moving and the environment fresh, even though the entire movie is set inside a single room. He also coaxes earnest performances from his cast of unknown actors. But he didn't arm himself with an entirely credible script, and the ending does nothing to resolve any questions, or to even make sense of it all.

I'd rate the movie a C+. If you're a huge fan of Cube, you may want to check it out. The rest of you would probably find it too overwrought.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Goodbye

Tonight's season finale of Glee was the most solid episode they've delivered in some time. Almost every moment in the episode landed well. In fact, maybe the biggest flaw with the episode might be that it felt more like a series finale than a season closer, particularly with so many sequences calling back moments from early in the first season on the show.

There are characters and relationships I wish that we got a bit more closure on. Sam doesn't seem too torn up about losing Mercedes. Quinn and Artie's friendship, which seemed full of potential after her accident, was basically resolved with a hug. She also doesn't seem to care much about Joe, whose help and encouragement in her rehab may be the reason she can walk now.

But there were plenty of great moments too. Burt's "graduation gift" to his son was both hilarious and touching, everything we've come to expect of their relationship over the seasons. Santana's mom, played ably by Gloria Estefan, may have been a little too relaxed and generous to be true, but nonetheless was good for the episode. Sue's goodbye to Finn was probably Jane Lynch's best work all year.

The various goodbye songs characters sang to one another were all pretty strong, with Kurt's "I'll Remember" a particular standout in my book (even if his dedication of it specifically to the glee club guys felt a bit odd). The underclassmens' take on The Beatles' "In My Life" was also poignant.

Of course, the jubilation of the graduation was followed by the dramatic punch of both Finn (no surprise) and Kurt (shocking) failing to make their New York dreams come true. And while I would have liked to have seen what this did for the entire trio, the focus (again, no surprise) shifted to Rachel and Finn. At least it led to what may have been the best acting either of them has ever done on the series. His stoic goodbye to her, and her crestfallen response, was really the first time I've ever believed their relationship as genuine and not a mere puppy-love high school fling. Needless to say, Lea Michele then killed the final song, which took us to New York to leave things in a very uncertain place for the start of next season.

I think for now, I'll call this episode an A-. I think it will take time for my opinion of it to settle into place. Indeed, a lot of it may depend on where the show goes next year. Are characters being written out of the show for good at this point? If so, which ones? And was this a good ending for them?

We'll see next fall.

Monday, May 21, 2012

A Scandal in Belgravia

The brilliant BBC series Sherlock has served up a second batch of episodes (three more, just like the first run) that has just now been broadcast in America. Those first three 90-minute episodes were some of my favorite entertainment I saw all year -- in film or television -- and I'm thrilled to finally see more.

For those who have not yet heard about this series, it stars Benedict Cumberbatch (villain of the upcoming Star Trek movie) as Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman (Bilbo of the upcoming two Hobbit films, in addition to appearing in the original incarnation of The Office, and the film Love Actually) as John Watson. The spirit and adventure of the classic Sherlock Holmes tales has been updated to the present day; the series even takes particular plot points from Arthur Conan Doyle's original writing and weaves them into a new narrative that's thrilling and intelligent.

The first of the new episodes brings a notable character from the original stories into the mix, one also portrayed in the recent Hollywood Holmes films, Irene Adler. The character is realized here as a wonderfully cunning foil for Holmes, able to manipulate him with razor-sharp wit and even sharper sexuality. The story unfolds over the course of a year, with very clever writing indicating the passage of time without ever needing to resort to any "months later" expository text on screen. The case is satisfying and complex, and the resolution entertaining.

But, as before, the main draw of Sherlock is the wonderful acting. The interaction between Cumberbatch and Freeman is top notch. Recurring guest stars Una Stubbs (as Mrs. Hudson) and series co-creator Mark Gatiss (as Mycroft) add wonderfully droll accents to story. And Lara Pulver is added to the mix as Irene Adler, and almost steals the show.

The show remains as wonderful as it was in its first brilliant season. This first episode gets an A from me, and I'm eagerly looking forward to the next two.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Prince of Winterfell

This week's episode of Game of Thrones was a bit more relaxed in pace than recent episodes; what we saw this week seemed to be setting things into position for a breakneck final two episodes of the season. Still, I found it a very entertaining hour with many great character moments.

The episode started with Yara (that's Asha to us book readers) showing up at Winterfell to trade barbs with Theon -- the equivalent of a fight with an unarmed man. It was an interesting scene in that once all the bluster was done and the spectators dismissed, Yara actually opened up with some genuine sympathy for her brother.

Beyond the Wall, Halfhand is trying to set Jon up to be a double agent among the Wildlings. Personally, I feel like Ygritte has been portrayed as far too clever to believe it, and the careful look she gave Jon as she gathered him up seemed to indicate she didn't quite trust it.

There was some fantastic verbal jousting this week between Tyrion and Bronn, and Tyrion and Varys. There was also a great exchange with Cersei, who believed she'd located Tyrion's beloved, though we the audience learned she'd been in error.

In a scene added from the book, we saw Robb and Talisa's relationship... advance considerably farther. With Robb not being a perspective character in the book, and his story told only through Catelyn's perspective, his relationship with Jeyne (is this meant to be the same character on the show?) was a relationship that was really hard to grasp in the book. Catelyn, of course, doesn't want this relationship to happen, and so is quite disdainful of it. We don't really get to see any of what draws Robb and Jeyne together. I'm not entirely sure I see the romantic allure of stories of severed limbs and near-drowning victims, but at least an effort is being made here to, ahem, flesh things out.

Jamie and Brienne are now on the way to King's Landing together, in a storyline not created, but rather moved forward from the third book, A Storm of Swords. I'm curious to see just how far the writers pursue this story this season. Or perhaps they'll invent a brief subplot for them to play in the next few episodes remaining this year, delaying the unfolding of the story as originally written for next year.

Arya found a clever way to use her final "death," arranging for her escape (along with her friends). This was all from the book, but very entertaining to watch, I thought. Her wry adopting of Jaqen's unusual speech pattern made her twisting the knife on him that much more enjoyable.

Uh... Dany made a probably unnecessary appearance. I hope that the depiction of the House of the Undying turns out pretty cool, because they certainly are building it up and drawing it out.

Lastly, the revelation that Bran and Rickon are still alive. I wonder if any show viewers who hadn't read the books really believed in their deaths last week, but in any case, I'm glad the show didn't try to drag this out for too long. Still, I think the whole ruse goes to show how stupid and short-sighted Theon is. He brought back the bodies of the farmer's kids, believing that he'd only be able to control the people by pretending the Stark boys were dead. He did not anticipate that it would just fan the flames of anger against him, nor did he apparently have a plan if the two were to show up alive later. Stupid, stupid Theon.

Next week, we get the episode that George R.R. Martin took time off to write himself, instead of actually writing the next book. It had better be good.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

An Oz-Picious Occasion

So, as I mentioned several days ago, the touring production of Wicked has been here in Denver for several weeks (and not for the first time). Many people I know have already seen the show at one point or another, and now I've finally joined their ranks.

Wicked is a musical written as backstory and in parallel to The Wizard of Oz, following the Wicked Witch of the West (here named Elphaba) and Glinda the Good as they meet in school, forge an unlikely friendship, and ultimately start on the road that leads to the events of the movie everyone knows so well. It's based rather loosely on a book of the same title by Gregory Maguire, which I read several years ago, prior to the creation of the musical.

The fact that I read that book is what made me rather reluctant to see the musical despite many people raving about it. Put simply, it was a dreadfully boring book. It was more about tone than narrative, and was quite episodic in building up a lengthy backstory for a character that just didn't seem to warrant that kind of exploration. I struggled to get to the end, and I struggle to imagine how there was ever enough interest in it to warrant the two sequels the author has written since.

Wicked comes off far better on the stage than in a book. Though it takes a few settings and ideas from the novel, the musical incarnation of Wicked essentially crafts a new story that's essentially about two things. First, it shows that the Wicked Witch was actually a nice, kind-hearted person. This isn't a story of how a good person turned bad, but how her identity was co-opted and corrupted by others to turn her into a villain. This part of the musical, driven by the friendship between Elphaba and Glinda, is very solid material and forms the backbone of an entertaining show.

But the more the musical unfolds, the more it starts to serve a second master, playing with established tale of The Wizard of Oz. The play stretches mightily to explain too many things to us: why those slippers were so important; where the flying monkeys came from; where the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion all came from; how it is that a powerful Witch could be vulnerable to something as mundane as water; and so on. The first time or two that a connection like this is made in the show, it feels novel. I even heard a few members of the audience gasp as they made the mental connection. But when it happened the sixth, seventh, eighth time, it feel like being clever was more the goal of the storyteller than actually telling the story.

But while the book is mixed, the two main characters are not. Elphaba is a well-written and sympathetic role with plenty of meat for a talented performer to tear into. And Glinda is arguably the even better role in the piece, with both laugh out loud comedic moments and sweet, emotional ones. It's clear that original Broadway performers Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth made an indelible mark on this show, because the cast members of this production were definitely imitating their style (quite distinct, if you've ever seen them perform on say, Glee, the film version of Rent, or The West Wing).

Musically, the show is more solid than most big Broadway hits. There are one or two forgettable clunkers in the mix, but each of the lead women gets multiple show-stoppers that pull laughs, jerk tears, and amaze with power and range. The two most signature songs of the show, "Defying Gravity" and "For Good," are even more potent when seen in their intended context.

While some of the grand contortions kept me from loving this musical as much as it seems many people do, I still have to say that overall, it's a night well spent at the theater. I grade it a B. If you still haven't seen it, you might want to pencil it in. (Or you could hold out for the film adaptation that I've heard may be on the way; you can bet that will come for sure if Rock of Ages does well this summer.)

Friday, May 18, 2012

Nationals

The second of Glee's episodes this week was the Competition Episode to end all Competition Episodes, the gang's final trip to Nationals. This was all a foregone conclusion, of course; after a first season that saw them fail to get there at all, and a second that saw them make it but lose, the only logical conclusion this time would be to have them win. But sometimes it's not about the journey, but rather the destination.

So how was the hour? Well, a mixed bag, I think. I certainly wanted to get swept up in the sentiment of it, but I was finding myself not quite able to keep my suspension of disbelief at bay. I can offer many examples:

I feel like the recently remodeled Sue is a great thing for the show. She's still nasty and tough, but does it in support of the glee club. It's true to her character, but shifts it in a way that will actually be sustainable for the show in the long run as opposed to her cartoonish extremes of season two. But... did the writers seriously not have a better way of getting her there than this preposterous pregnancy subplot?

It's great that the writers are keeping continuity from the glee club split earlier in the season and still having the "Troubletones" perform one number in each competition. But seriously, who the hell were all those extra girls performing with them? We didn't see them practice with the group, and they vanished for the subsequent two songs as soon as they were done. We didn't see them ride up in the bus to the competition, or stand on stage to accept the trophy at the end. Seriously, who are these people?

The Meat Loaf song, "Paradise by the Dashboard Light" was an appropriately epic song selection for the big competition, and the group performed it well. Lea Michele was also strong in the solo on "Because You Loved Me." But another Celine Dion song in a second back-to-back episode? And as good as the group was, I found it hard to believe they'd actually win over Vocal Adrenaline based on what we saw. "Pinball Wizard" was a bit over the top and silly, but "Starships" kicked serious ass; Alex Newell was blow-your-mind awesome as Unique, and the group choreography was pretty sick.

Having Emma and Will finally uh... get together... was a great culminating moment for the characters after three years. But it was a little odd that winning Nationals was the thing that finally made it possible. I'll bet you Will would have been working the glee kids a lot harder all this time had he known.

And the sentiment of having Will win the teacher award was nice. I could even believe the kind words that Finn and Rachel had to say about him too. But objectively speaking, this is the teacher who quit teaching Spanish just earlier this year because it was apparent he didn't know a damn thing about it. Kind of hard to believe he would really win with basically only a dozen students in the entire school advocating for him.

So yeah... lots of moments that hit the right tone. But a bit hard to swallow in their particulars, if you actually stopped to think about them. (And what was the whole point of that Mercedes food poisoning subplot at the beginning? To give her one more bit of acting to do before they write her off the show? To wedge in a product placement name drop for Chipotle?)

I'd grade this episode a B. It had the spirit of an A, but not the execution.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Two Birds

As expected, NBC dropped the axe on Awake this week. Due to its dwindling ratings, it will not be renewed for another season next fall. At this point, all we have left is the two-part finale that started tonight. If you were still one of the few watching, and were hoping for some resolution explaining Michael's dual realities, it seems very unlikely we'll get it. But it seems like we will at least get an interesting story to go out on, and a likely resolution to the why and how of his accident.

Early on in the series, each new episode pushed the format in an interesting new direction. Now, at the end, the writing has gone back to that model. Tonight had a couple of interesting elements. One lent the episode its title, the heavy involvement of Michael's partner Bird in both realities. This was the most we've ever seen a character primarily associated with one world interacting with Michael in the other, and it made for an interesting way to unfold the story as Michael switched back and forth between worlds.

And hey, if you're a Star Trek fan, you can pretend you do have an answer to which reality is real now. Bird had a ridiculous goatee in the Red World, thereby making that the "Mirror Universe" and the false, alternate reality.

The other interesting development was in the opening teaser, a montage of Michael consulting with both his therapists. For the first time (and, I suppose, last time) in the entire series, the two were in full agreement in their diagnosis of Michael's situation. Neither was willing to entertain the possibility that he really saw what he said he did. Apparently, Dr. Evans' compassion does have limits.

We'll see how this cliffhanger wraps up next week. (Let's hope not with another that will never be resolved.)

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Props

Last night brought us two back-to-back episodes of Glee. The first of them, "Props," felt to me like the better of the two hours... though, of course, anyone who has read my reviews of Glee before won't be surprised, knowing what I normally think of competition episodes.

A quick side trip here before I talk about the episode itself. The hash tag crap FOX is doing all over the place now? Horrible. They've been doing it for a while now, but what finally drove me over the edge was the moment this week when Sue tells Kurt he has to cross-dress and calls him "Porcelina," then "#Porcelina" appears on screen. This seriously makes me contemplate not watching live TV on FOX anymore. So if the point is to drive viewers to other avenues like Hulu or their web site, mission accomplished. But given how networks always seem to be whining about dwindling viewer numbers, my guess is this is not their intended effect. So they'd better cut it the hell out.

So... the episode itself. It really is a shame to me that Tina has received so little time on the show that even the "previously on Glee" guy was quite snarky about pointing it out. Because the time that focused on her tonight was pretty stellar. For one thing, she killed the Celine Dion song (and held her own with Lea Michele in the closing duet, "What a Feeling"). Then there was the great scene where she stood up for Rachel with Madame Tibideaux; following Tina's earlier awesome episode this season where she helped her boyfriend Mike, she's now probably responsible for getting two people into college.

Even better was the continuation of the domestic abuse storyline with Coach Beiste. While I still wish the show had offered us a bit more context on the whole thing and actually showed the disintegration of her relationship with Cooter, the fact is that Dot-Marie Jones was Emmy worthy in all of her big scenes this episode. The scene in which she confronted Puck in the locker room was especially surprising, as we've never seen such good acting from Mark Salling either. It's often said that one mark of a good actor is in how other actors step up and perform better when working with them; by that measure, I think Dot-Marie Jones proved herself one of the best on the show in this episode.

But there were a couple parts of the episode that didn't work as well for me. For one, the lackluster Prom episode of last week now seems even worse to me, because it interrupted the narrative flow for the Rachel storyline. Last week, she seemed to be coming to grips with her failed NYADA audition. This week had to open up with a rather unnecessary solo for her just to get her character back to the place she left off two weeks ago. It was a waste of time that could have been spent on the other great material in the episode.

And speaking of great material, we had Tina's body-swapping dream sequence. While a lot of fun, this felt like a squandered opportunity to me. I feel as though the concept could easily have carried an entire episode. For the few actors that actually got to perform a fair amount as the alternate characters (Cory Monteith and Mark Salling as Kurt and Blaine, Matthew Morrison and Jane Lynch as Sue and Schu), there were some truly funny moments. But the rest of it all was so brief, crammed into a single 10-minute span between commercial breaks, that it was essentially just a bunch of sight gags delivered by the costume department. It just plain would have been fun to spend a whole episode in the alternate reality.

The only other major musical number I think I haven't mentioned was Beiste and Puck's duet on Taylor Swift's "Mean." Though not the most technically impressive performance, it certainly landed with emotional heft.

Overall, I'd have to say this was on its way to being a great episode, but was ultimately brought down a peg by, appropriately enough, too much Rachel. I'd call it a B+.

As for hour two? Well, unlike the show itself, I'm not going to cover it all in a single night.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

No So High Wire

Those of you checking in tonight for my thoughts on this week's double dose of Glee will unfortunately have to wait for a day or two. Instead of nesting in front of the television tonight, I went to see the touring production of the Broadway musical Wicked... which, of course, will surely warrant its own post as well. But don't fret. I had a movie review written up ahead of time and ready to go:

Earlier this year, director Steven Soderbergh's action spy movie, Haywire, breezed quickly through theaters. As with many of Soderbergh's films, it boasted an impressive cast that drew my attention, including Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor, Bill Paxton, Channing Tatum, Antonio Banderas, and Michael Douglas.

The film's star, however, was a less known quantity -- to me, at least. Gina Carano's previous claim to fame was as one of the American Gladiators. This film takes advantage of her athletic background, putting her at the lead of a spy-on-the-run thriller that hops across exotic locations. She's honestly not much of an actor, but the film actually doesn't call on her to "act" much. She mostly just kicks ass, and is quite convincing at it.

The look and feel of the film is top notch. Soderbergh, as always, knows how to frame a perfect shot, and knows how to stage a sequence to tell a story. His film has many sequences with the kinetic energy of the Bourne movies, but without the shaky handheld camera work that gives many people nausea. It's very well staged and good looking action.

The problem is, the script is nothing you haven't seen in countless other movies, including those aforementioned Bourne movies. Haywire is an all too conventional tale of a burned agent out to get to the bottom of the conspiracy that burned her. The plot unravels in a very paint-by-numbers way, unique only in a nested flashback narrative device, itself cribbed from other kinds of movies. There are no surprises in its brief 90 minutes.

All told, your decision to see his movie should stem from whether you generally enjoy movies "like this." Because I guarantee you've seen a movie like this. If you have an appreciation of style and technique in filmmaking, you'll want to see it. If you're looking for something exciting and different, this isn't it. In my book, it's a C+. Well executed, but nothing extraordinary.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Rumble in the Jungle

It's been quite some time since I originally saw Predator, long enough that I had only the dimmest recollections of the movie. My memories were corroded enough that in a recent conversation I had with a friend about the quality of the movie (it's one of his favorites), I couldn't rightfully say where I'd place the film. I decided to give it a fresh viewing.

Filmed during the very core of Arnold Schwarzengger's 80s action domination, Predator is a movie that literally began as a joke. According to multiple sources I read, there was a joke going around Hollywood after the film Rocky IV was released, which basically went that for Stallone to up the ante for yet another Rocky film, he'd have to fight an alien. A few intrepid screenwriters took the idea seriously, banged out a script, and voila -- Predator.

If anything, my problem with the finished product might be that it actually tried to be a bit more than that. The second and third acts of the movie, in which the Predator starts picking off an elite forces team and ultimately goes one-on-one with Schwarzenegger, is fairly entertaining stuff. But the opening act strains to put a logic to why this elite team is in the South American jungle to begin with. And so we have to sit through 40 minutes of the detailing of a covert mission, an air drop into the jungle, the carrying out of said mission, the taking of a hostage during said mission... and with only an occasional Predator POV shot to indicate you're watching anything other than a conventional war movie. It's paper thin, and almost boring because the audience knows none of it actually matters.

But, as I said, once the real action starts, it's pretty entertaining. Although some of the characters sometimes behave in questionable ways, it at least always yields an entertaining set piece. And though none of the actors here will ever win an Oscar, they're well suited to this kind of movie; in addition to Schwarzenegger, there's Carl Weathers (there's another Rocky connection), Jesse Ventura, and Bill Duke, among others.

The real star of the movie, though, is the music. Alan Silvestri, not too long after his epic Back to the Future score, turned up the military influence and delivered a fantastic soundtrack for Predator. The final third of the movie, with virtually no dialogue, is carried by his tense strings, pounding percussion, and blaring horns. It's bombastic, energetic music, the sonic equal of the no-apologies action unfolding on the screen.

Ultimately, there are plenty of action movies I'd rank higher myself, but Predator is one worth seeing if you never have. I rate it a B-.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

A Man Without Honor

Tonight's episode of Game of Thrones was especially filled with great character moments spread throughout the entire cast. There were also, as my recollections go, several departures from the book, but all serving to flesh out the characters in interesting ways.

For example, there was the scene between Sansa and Cersei. I don't recall Cersei being so candid with her in the book, but it was quite interesting how she laid things out so plainly: for a queen, loving a husband is the exception, not the expectation. Also, this scene (along with the later one with Tyrion) really laid out a somewhat more sympathetic side to Cersei. She basically confessed to what a horror her son Joffrey is, but admitted that because she's his mother, it didn't matter. She has to love him, and yet recognizes that no one else really should. A very tricky performance for Lena Headey, and very well done.

Another character becoming more likeable in the show than in the book is Tywin Lannister. He and Arya had only one scene this week, but it was a great one for both. Arya cleverly stayed on the right side of the line, but still traded barbs back and forth with Tywin, and earned some measure of respect from him in the process. I have my theories as to why Tywin is being allowed to show a softer side here in these recent episodes, but I can't really get into it without spoiling things to come. I'll try to remember to come back to it later.

North of the Wall, the arrival of Ygritte in the show -- just as it was in the book -- is proving to be a real shot of adrenaline for the Jon Snow storyline. Actress Rose Leslie has done a wonderful job with the role, part camp, part grit, and all fire. My friends who are fans of her in the book cheered tonight at her line "you know nothing, Jon Snow," and for good reason.

Across the sea, Dany did not resolve the theft of her dragons this week, but did bear witness to a rather spectacular transition of power in Qarth. Her role in her own storyline has gone a bit passive, I'm afraid, but again, the writers are having to expand her meager chapters in the book.

Another character with a minor presence in A Clash of Kings is Jamie Lannister, who finally returned tonight after being absent since the first episode of the season. His conversation with his cousin in the holding pen was an added scene, and pointedly reminded us (lest we've forgotten this season) just what a mean sonnuvabitch he is. It wasn't enough for him to turn on his own relative to try for his freedom, he seemed to actually enjoy softening the poor guy up for the kill with words before the deed. This, along with Jamie's later speech to Catelyn about the necessity of, let's say, flexible morality, really tells you all you need to know about the character. For now, at least.

Lastly, there's Theon. Oh, Theon. With Joffrey out again for the week, Theon is left to play the role of the most hated villain on the show again this week. He won't get there, because being unskilled at everything includes being unskilled at being a villain. But he certainly tried to give it a good run this week.

Hard to believe, but there's only three episodes to go this season...

Saturday, May 12, 2012

What's In a Name?

Some people I know have sworn to never again pick up an incomplete fantasy saga, to read only completed trilogies, sagas, or stand-alones. Today's review is not for those people.

I'd been hearing a lot of praise for the book The Name of the Wind, by first-time author Patrick Rothfuss. First, that praise came in the form of blurbs from some authors I particularly like. Eventually, it came from a few people I know reading the book themselves and declaring that indeed, it was enjoyable.

The first volume of a projected trilogy called The Kingkiller Chronicle, The Name of the Wind is the tale of a legendary hero (or notorious villain?) gone into hiding, but found out by a Chronicler who wishes to take dictation of his life's story in his own words. This living legend agrees, and begins pouring out his checkered past from early childhood.

I'm reluctant to dub the story a "Harry Potter for adults," because I happen to think that Harry Potter is a quite wonderful Harry Potter for adults. But this first book is overall quite similar, if unsuited to give to most kids to read. The main character's history involves his childhood without his parents, his ultimate discovery of magical ability, his enrollment in a university for magic, his conflict with some students and teachers there (and friendship with and guidance by others), his side adventures in a nearby town, his ultimate quest for revenge on the evil force that killed his parents...

Stop me if you've heard this one before.

But lest I sound too critical, let me be clear that I actually found the book a rather entertaining read. The shape is certainly familiar, though many of the particulars are different. And the writing is entertaining. Though a bit slow at first to pull me in, once the book finally set its hook in me, I read it quite rapidly. The sometimes episodic nature of the main character's history made the book easy to read in pieces or in long stretches as desired.

Though I'll certainly never convince any "no incomplete saga" people to change their minds on this book, I feel the cliffhangers at the end of this volume are fairly mild. The book is a telling of the character's life story, and ends after "just one episode" amidst the episodic progression of events. The book certainly has implications of a larger plot at work, and of course that series title, The Kingkiller Chronicle, promises bigger things to come. But I'd say the end of this book feels more like the end of one season of a partly-serialized television show than a conventional first volume of a fantasy trilogy. (The second volume, The Wise Man's Fear, was released last year, and is now on my future reading list. The third volume is yet to be completed by the author.)

That rather tenuous overall narrative does keep me from holding the book in too high an esteem, but I must say again that it was a well written and entertaining effort. I'd call it a B+. If you like fantasy, you'll probably like this...

...assuming you're willing to wait for the final volume (before or after reading the first two books).

Friday, May 11, 2012

Drugged Out

The general charm and talent of Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway convinced me to give a chance to their romantic comedy, Love and Other Drugs. Some would challenge me calling the film a rom-com, because it includes within it the very serious and drama issue of Parkinson's Disease. As movie relationship complications go, that one's a doozie.

And yet the movie follows an utterly formulaic rom-com route. First they spar with each other. Then they agree to have fun, but not to actually have a "relationship." Then feelings blossom. Then they hit the skids. Then he has to chase after her before she gets on some form of public transportation. Seriously, you've seen everything this movie has to offer before.

Sure, these two make a screen couple with palpable and enjoyable chemistry. And for some, that might be reason enough to give the movie a chance. But I'm a bit dismayed that a movie with such an atypical premise at the core of it yielded such typical results. Frankly, the more unconventional aspect of the movie turned out not to be that the story incorporated a serious medical issue, but rather that the movie has a substantial amount of foul language and nudity, where most rom-coms hew to strictly PG territory.

The movie is also saddled with some go-nowhere subplots that fall by the wayside before reaching a conclusion. Gyllenhaal's character is a pharmaceutical rep who, for a while, is trying to best a rival rep from another company. His competition vanishes halfway through the film. He also has a brother who, despite being rich, can't really get his life on track. There's no real resolution to that story either.

So what you're left with is a winning cast. Besides the two leads, there's also Josh Gad, Hank Azaria, and Judy Greer. And there are some legitimate laughs here and there. But what there aren't are any tears, though the movie does feel like it's trying very hard at times to elicit them.

Gyllenhaal and Hathaway are good enough that, should you ever watch the film, you probably won't regret the experience. But even they are not really good enough in a thoroughly average movie for me to actually recommend having that experience. I call it a middle of the road C.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Say Hello to My Little Friend

Finally, just as networks are starting to announce their pick-ups and cancellations for next season (and Awake is almost certain to get the axe), Awake suddenly jumps back into the game it was slacking off on these last few episodes. In a surprise to me, the episode that really caught my attention again was built entirely around the ongoing conspiracy storyline, an element that I'd been rather dismissive of in the past.

What pulled me in tonight was that this episode was also more personal to Michael than any has been possibly since the pilot. Michael was snapped out of his split realities, stuck in "Red World" with his wife and forced to deal with the loss of his son. It was a full arc for the character, watching him struggle to try and get back to "normal," and then ultimately forced to accept that he'd found his true reality and would have to accept the death of Rex. Of course... shortly after he'd resigned himself to this, he discovered the true nature of his hallucinations, and just like that, reawakened in the "Green World" to return to his double life.

If you're deeply invested in pronouncing one reality as the "real" one and the other as the delusion, I think this episode actually kept both scenarios equally alive. On the one hand, you could say that the fact Michael locked into Red World rather than Green says that's the real home, the place where he almost got stuck. On the other hand, it was encountering the man behind his accident in Green World that actually started the whole thing, knocking him out... into a dream? ... where he could work through the truth before returning to reality.

All I know is, it was a hell of a performance by Jason Isaacs. He gave his all tonight, and I believed it. Now maybe Awake will punch out strong with its last few remaining episodes.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

A Whirlwind 24 Hours

A few weeks ago, I got a rather large response to a post I made on the subject of marriage equality. I hinted then that it was really only the tip of a large iceberg of things I could find to say on the subject. And since dozens of people on my Facebook feed have been talking about marriage equality today, it seemed to me like this would be an almost required occasion for me to join in.

It's been a crazy 24 hours for marriage equality in the United States. It started last night with North Carolina voting in favor of the hateful Amendment One. Not to be outdone, Colorado followed a few hours later with Republicans in the state House shutting down all voting on 30 pieces of pending legislation, just because one of them happened to be a law to allow civil unions for gays and lesbians (that was already confirmed to have enough votes to pass). Then today, President Obama went on the record as the first sitting U.S. president to endorse full marriage quality -- no exceptions, no half-measures. And in Colorado, Governor Hickenlooper announced he would invoke his power to schedule a special legislative session, in which the state House will be required to vote on some of the issues tabled at the deadline last night, including the civil unions bill.

People on both sides of the issue have had their passions inflamed by all this. A lot of the same arguments against marriage equality are now being trumpeted. Tonight, I want to focus on one in particular that I find especially egregious: the argument that people against marriage equality are actually the ones being oppressed, that their religious liberty is threatened by the supporters of same-sex marriage.

Oh, where to begin?

Supporters of marriage equality are not pushing to require same-sex marriage, only that it be permitted. Just look at the six states (and Washington D.C.) in which those marriages are now legal. You'll be unable to find one single case of anyone being forced to perform a same-sex marriage against their will or beliefs. And this isn't just out of respect for people's freedom of religion -- no minister is ever required to perform any kind of marriage.

I've heard of a fair number of ministers requiring a form of pre-marital counseling session(s) prior to giving their consent to perform a marriage between a couple. And if the couple refuses to attend, or if they do attend and the minister doesn't like what he or she sees? The minister isn't forced to perform the ceremony against his/her will. And the couple, if determined to get married, must go look elsewhere -- another minister, a justice of the peace, whatever.

And that's the crux of the issue here. They can go look elsewhere. People who oppose same-sex marriage are arguing that because they personally are against the idea, same-sex marriage should be impossible everywhere. Proponents of same-sex marriage are saying that no church should be required to perform a same-sex marriage it doesn't condone, but that there should be somewhere that marriage can be performed. See the difference?

Some people will then double down on their position at this point, declaring that the existence of same-sex marriage anywhere is indeed an affront to their religious freedom. Setting aside the question of whether Christianity or any other religion does in fact condemn same-sex marriage (a subject worth an entirely different post), this is still an unreasonable and intolerant stance.

The position is that marriage that isn't in accordance with your religion is wrong and should be banned. One problem with that is that the world is full of marriages that aren't in accordance with any given religion's particular beliefs. I'm going to use Christianity as an example. If you're a Christian, every marriage in accordance with Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, etc. beliefs are not in line with your religious beliefs. But somehow, Christians seem to get along fine without advocating laws that Muslims, Buddhists, etc. should be banned from getting married in the United States. Why tolerate all those other kind of assaults on your religion in the form of marriage, but focus all the rancor on this one area? Because you know those other marriages aren't assaults on anything. No one is ever going to force a Catholic priest to perform a Shinto wedding. And no one for marriage equality would require a religion to accept tenets it doesn't believe in; proponents just ask you to coexist with this one more thing you don't believe in, along with the countless other things and people in the world you also disagree with.

Of course, as long as the First Amendment and freedom of religion is being flaunted as a trump card here, I should conclude by pointing out the obvious, that it cuts both ways. Yes, the First Amendment does indeed guarantee religious freedom in our country. But actually, the very first words of the amendment are "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion..." Quite literally and succinctly, there can be no law in this country based upon the desire of one religion to the exclusion of other religions, or to a lack of religion, or to others who interpret the same religion differently than you. No law is allowed to prohibit the free exercise of your religion, and in turn there can be no law because of your religion.

It's that simple.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Prom-asaurus

Tonight's episode of Glee was a mediocre one at best. I do credit the writers with accurately presenting a high school prom when it came to the music selections. Aside from the unlikely inclusion of "Take My Breath Away," I had never heard a single one of the songs in this episode before tonight. I'm surely too much of an old fogie now to a high school senior to have any taste for whatever music they'd listen to.

Props also -- I think -- for the incredibly bizarre Dinosaur-Head Cheerleaders led by Cave Brittany. That was one of the weirdest things ever on Glee, but kind of worked. A whole lot more than the boring boy band cover, the static Blaine/Kurt/Rachel trio, and the... honestly, I can't remember any of the other songs in the episode without going to look it up on Wikipedia.

The stories of the hour were a mixed bag. I liked the pairing of Becky and Puck, and especially liked the way that the story didn't just culminate in him doing something for her -- she helped him too. Blaine's whole hair gel thing was kind of ridiculous, though at least for once the Glee writers telegraphed something an episode ahead of time in last week's weird locker room gel conversation between Blaine and Mike.

As for the rest of the stories, they just strained credibility. It was hard to accept Rachel pulling herself even this much back together after her life-crushing failure last week. It was hard to believe Quinn could have made such strides in her rehab so quickly. It was hard to believe that a school that just had election fraud for class president earlier in the same school year would turn around and let the prom candidates count their own ballots. It was hard to believe that Santana and Quinn would let go of their own desires, especially to honor Rachel who -- from their point of view -- has had one bad week after years of hogging the spotlight.

Brittany did have some fun lines. Tina had a brief but believable scene where she expressed the regret that things are about to end. But overall, I'd say there was more bad (or average) than good in this episode. It's a C- in my book.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Captain's Prerogative

Last year, William Shatner released a documentary he directed called The Captains. In it, he conducts one-on-one interviews with all the other actors to have played the lead role of "the captain" in an incarnation of Star Trek: Patrick Stewart, Avery Brooks, Kate Mulgrew, Scott Bakula, and even Chris Pine. That sounded like catnip to a Star Trek fan like me, so I had to check it out.

Unsurprisingly, the film is as much about Shatner as it is about any of his subjects. His style of conducting an interview is to talk just as much as the other person, and large chunks of the film use the backgrounds of the other actors as a way of talking about his own background. But then, if it's a revelation to you that William Shatner can be kind of self-centered, then you probably haven't seen any Star Trek and wouldn't be interested in this documentary anyway.

What was a bit more revealing to me about Shatner is that this documentary exposed him as something of a mimic. Not an actual impersonator, but a sort of "mood ring" that changes according to the people around him. Yes, there is a certain Shatnerocity that never leaves the man. But as you watch him throughout the movie, cutting from one actor to the next, you see different behavior in each situation.

With Patrick Stewart, Shatner gets deeply introspective. Stewart has the most thoughtful and introspective things to say about his experience as a Star Trek captain, and so in turn, Shatner probes most deeply into his own character during their conversation. He speaks of how seeing the gravitas and authenticity Stewart brought to Jean-Luc Picard made him come to terms with his own experience as Kirk, from which he had long sought to distance himself. Essentially, Stewart "legitimized" Star Trek for Shatner. Stewart has his own interesting perspective to share, that he learned from the cast of his own show that it's possible to do serious, quality work and have fun at the same time; prior to Star Trek, he says, he thought of the two as more mutually exclusive.

Avery Brooks comes off as borderline crazy. Benjamin Sisko is arguably the most severe and composed of all the Star Trek captains, but Brooks is a flighty man who seems perpetually high on a cocktail of jazz piano and spirituality. His interview with Shatner takes place at a piano, and he responds to most of Shatner's questions with an improvisational spray of notes and an only-sometimes-related stream of consciousness beat poem. Shatner gets right into this odd groove, parroting and riffing back in some kind of strange Meisner exercise set to music.

Kate Mulgrew is the most playful of the interview subjects, and Shatner is in a playful mood before it even begins, staging to "meet" her by waiting in a cardboard box outside a theater in New York. The two do venture into deeper territory when they start contrasting male and female leaders. I'm not entirely sure, but it felt like it ventured into sexist territory... though the two were in full agreement with one another the whole time.

Shatner is introspective in another way with Scott Bakula. The two speak of Bakula's musical background, and get into the grind of working on a television series. Quantum Leap is as much a subject as Enterprise, a series in which Bakula appeared in almost every scene shot for five seasons. (He says in the interview that he had only five days off set in the entire five years of shooting.) The two both speak of how the television grind accelerated the disintegration of their marriages. They also get into some mutual admiration. Shatner seems most genuinely impressed with Bakula's skill as a performer out of all the captains, and Bakula for his part wishes that his Star Trek cast, talented though they were as individuals, could have gelled in the way that seemed to come through with the original cast.

Shatner transforms yet again when interviewing Chris Pine. It's the shortest interview of all, but Shatner channels his inner child, challenging the younger "Kirk" to an arm wrestling match.

Yet while the more illuminating moments in this documentary are there, the overall experience is ultimately lacking. This rather interesting idea would have been better realized in the hands of a third party who treated Shatner like just one more of the subjects. But with Shatner in command, the whole movie is less about these very different actors and more about how he reacts to them. He indulges in flights of fancy, including a five-minute section where he interviews Christopher Plummer. (The justification? Well, he was a "captain" -- a general, in fact -- in a Star Trek movie. But more, it was understudying for Plummer that gave Shatner his first big break early in his career, and Shatner just wanted an excuse to put his old friend on film.)

I think here and there in the film, you get glimpses of what could have been a truly interesting documentary that compared and contrasted different actors and their styles of acting. The result is probably still must-see viewing for any serious Star Trek fan. But it is still all less than the potential sum of its parts. I grade the movie a C+.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

The Old Gods and the New

Without getting too specific I hope, there were a few characters whose stories in the book A Clash of Kings weren't particularly exciting to me. Daenerys was at or near the top of that list, with a scant five chapters in George R. R. Martin's book that didn't thrill me half as much as the writing on the other characters.

So imagine my surprise to see tonight's episode conclude with a major development that didn't occur in the book -- the theft of Dany's dragons! Reflecting on it now to write up my thoughts on the episode, I suppose I could have been annoyed at an idea clearly manufactured to create a punchy cliffhanger. I could note the lack of real suspense here, because the story is clearly going to have to end in a way that lines back up with the books. But instead, I find myself pleased that the writers have injected a bit more life into what I found to be a relatively stagnant plot line. I don't know exactly what's going to happen next week, and I think that's fun!

It wasn't the only fun addition this week, either. Unless my memory has failed me, the scene in which Littlefinger shows up to meet with Tywin Lannister was also an addition from the book, and I thought the tension of Arya having to hide her identity from him was marvelously executed. I knew that she wasn't going to be discovered in that moment, but I was nonetheless on the edge of my seat, thrilled to watch her maneuver out of the snare.

The rest of Arya's story did come straight from the book, though... but was just as well executed. Arya is wasting away her three "death wishes." She used the first last week on a rather petty and immediate target, but it was understandable given that she didn't understand the full scope of the power she had at her command. This week, she had an immediate problem that could not wait, so had to squander her second death to protect her identity. (And what a fantastic reveal of the door opening and her victim falling dead of a poisoned dart.) She has only one death left, and I don't think you have to have read the book to know that she'll use it more wisely.

For once this season, it was a light week for Tyrion. He had only one or two big moments, even letting a slight from Cersei go unanswered. But then again, he did have a moment that I'm sure made people leap on their couches with joy, when he slapped Joffrey upside the head. Not that it would put any sense in him.

Someone else desperately in need of some slapping around, the weaselly Theon. The opening sequence at Winterfell was a wonderful illustration of just how oily and incapable he is all at once. First he was goaded into carrying out an execution (never mind the fact that his first mate was probably right about respect), and then he couldn't even do it properly. Inept on every level, and he showed it again later when Osha got the better of him and slipped out of the keep with Bran, Rickon, the wolves, and Hodor. (Hodor!)

Beyond the Wall, Jon Snow ran into Ygritte, the wildling woman who finally starts his storyline down a much more interesting path. The episode tried mightily to explain how it was the two came to be separated from the rest of the party; I believed it a bit more here than in the book, I suppose, but I still thought it a bit suspect. Ah well, a necessary contrivance to move the story along, I suppose.

Overall, another solid episode.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

An Hour You'll Never Get Back

If you saw any movies at the theater about half a year ago, you probably saw a trailer for movie called The Darkest Hour. Aliens invade Moscow. They're invisible. They disintegrate humans in an instant. They're here to destroy everyone.

It looked terrible. Actually it looked good. The visual effects were impressive... but it just looked like a bad movie overall. Well, a friend just loaned it to me, so I got the chance to judge for myself, free of charge.

There probably was a good movie somewhere in the DNA of this thing, but the writer was not able to bring it out. The major flaw of the script is that it's sorely lacking in any kind of connective tissue. There are numerous examples of this:

The first ten minutes of the film are a setup for some of the major characters, including their relationships to each other, their personal backgrounds, and hints of their skill sets. None of this comes into play at any subsequent point in the film, once the invasion happens.

Characters are constantly making intuitive leaps, reaching coincidentally correct conclusions about the nature and limitations of the aliens even when several easily brainstormed theories might also be correct. They work like this; they can't do that. That must be how it is! Well actually... no. You just happen to be right. (And by the way, if you're ever writing a piece of fiction and you ever give a character the line of dialogue "that makes sense," you are shoveling crap on your reader/viewer to cover up bad storytelling. Either it does make sense, in which case your audience doesn't need to be told so, or it doesn't, and you're only trying to convince yourself it's okay to move onto the next scene.)

Characters that seem to be locked into intractable viewpoints change their opinions on a dime on just one choice sentence or two from another character. If only minds could be changed so easily in real life! (And do you think it gets any easier when post-apocalyptic life and death are on the line?)

But there are still more terrible choices in the writing. One of the worst is to regularly include POV shots from the perspectives of the aliens. Showing us exactly what they see robs tension from several scenes throughout the film, where leaving us to wonder along with the characters would have been a more suspenseful choice. Worse, there's a specific action sequence started in the middle of the film when we see one of the aliens spot three characters in a situation where we've specifically been told and shown earlier in the film would actually be impossible!

The one good thing is what you could take away from the trailer -- the movie looks great. That awesome disintegration effect never really gets old. (And good thing, because you see it a hundred times.) Also, the scope and intensity with which the apocalypse is rendered feels far grander and better than such a cheesy movie deserves. It's up there on par with some very good modern disaster movies like 28 Days Later and the remake of Dawn of the Dead. But the movie is unworthy of the effort.

I feel generous grading the movie a D-. Your darkest hour would be the one in which you choose to watch it.

Friday, May 04, 2012

Afternoon Assembly

The Avengers made its theatrical debut today here in the U.S., following a blockbuster two weeks abroad that seem to indicate it will be the biggest superhero film ever. For my part, I'd certainly love to see that, in the hopes that it may give its writer and director, the brilliant Joss Whedon, as much credit in the film world at large as he enjoys among the much smaller but fiercely loyal fan base he already enjoys. But is The Avengers a good movie?

The short answer is yes, it's pretty good. But the early word from many fanboys ("this is the best superhero movie ever" and "on my death bed, this will rival the birth of my first child for a great moment in my life") and the sky-high 90+% aggregate score over at Rotten Tomatoes don't really paint an accurate picture. If you look at the real tone of the reviews from most critics, you'll find nearly all of them saying "it's not bad for a superhero movie." That equates to a "positive" review, and accounts for the aggregate review. And as for the fans? Well, I gather it meets their lofty expectations.

For my part, my only prior exposure to Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Black Widow, Hawkeye, and Nick Fury came in the films released over the last four years. I saw neither of the Hulk films (though I did watch a few episodes of the old television series). For me, there was plenty about this new movie that worked... and a few things that did not.

I say with conviction that this movie is certainly better than all those others I just mentioned. Joss Whedon did here what he has done so well in his other writing. There's plenty of great humor, deployed skillfully throughout. The characters all pop. Every one of them has a strong and clear personality. They all get their star moments, scenes where the movie seems to be all about them for a brief flash in time. In fact, there are plenty of side characters that are also well developed even as the focus is on the heroes, including Clark Gregg's Agent Coulson (a returning character), Cobie Smulders' Maria Hill (a new characer), and Gwyneth Paltrow's Pepper Potts (in a cameo appearance). The middle chunk of the film, which focuses on all of the characters interacting with one another, really shines.

But the past films starring these characters have all relied on contrived plots to get the action going, stories that lack the deeper emotional resonance present in the truly best superhero movies like the first two Spider-man films and Christopher Nolan's Batman films (so far, at least). The Avengers is like its predecessors in this regard. I found the Macguffin at the heart of this film to be murky at best. It somehow involves the boring villain from Thor siding with a vague army of aliens who want to destroy things for no apparent reason, and also requires the use of the infinite power widget from Captain America (which for some reason requires additional power to operate?).

On the one hand, I think I would have enjoyed more explanation so I could have context for why things were going boom in spectacular fashion. On the other hand, the fact that the movie soldiered on just fine all the same seems to point out just how little any of that really mattered anyway... so why waste any more time on it? It would have just meant less time for those great character moments I mentioned earlier.

The acting is all really solid. Robert Downey Jr. commands the screen with the same larger-than-life personality he introduced in Iron Man's solo movies. Mark Ruffalo is a sympathetic and intriguing Dr. Banner. Samuel Jackson gets lots of great badass lines. But actually, more than anything, this movie made me wish that Black Widow and Hawkeye would each get their own movies. Scarlett Johansson and Jeremy Renner both shine with a deeper personality than any of the super-powered heroes in this tale.

So while this wasn't the masterpiece I would have hoped for in Joss Whedon's big "mainstream" debut, I suspect the vast majority of its audience will be pleased. I grade it a B.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Slack Water

As Awake pulls close to the finish line (likely for good, given its dwindling ratings), it's losing some of the great steam it had in the beginning. While the show has not turned "bad" by any stretch, it has become a more typical detective show without that special spark it had in the beginning.

The series' strength remains in Michael's life outside his detective job. And tonight's episode did have a good storyline there, with Hannah and Michael embracing the idea of becoming grandparents. Though the shape of the plot was rather predictable, the emotional beats it hit were still fairly genuine.

But the problem for me seems to be that the show can't keep juggling all its balls in the air at once as effectively as it did in the beginning. This week, three characters sat on the bench. Not only was Rex absent, but Michael paid no visits to either of his therapists. And I think each one of those characters -- along with Hannah -- are a vital part of what makes the show distinct.

It's funny that the episode mentioned The X-Files right at the end, because the "mythology" -- the ongoing storyline -- was ultimately the weakest element of that show. And tonight, as the larger story unspooled a bit more, it seemed far less interesting. It seems that there's nothing unusually sinister about Michael's accident. It seems to have just been a simple matter of a drug kingpin wanting a detective out of the picture. It seems too conventional to be true. On the one hand, I hope it is. On the other, I'm not really eager to see the next chapter in that ongoing saga.

Awake seems poised to be a show with early lofty ambitions that came slowly unraveled as its ratings declined. The TV landscape is littered with the corpses of such shows. But I suppose I've come this far; I suspect I'll see it through to the end.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

My Top 100 Movies -- 60-56

60. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1. When I watched this movie for the second time, the night before going to see Part 2 in theaters, I was really struck by just how much I loved it. Yes, it's an incomplete narrative with the conclusion left for the second part, but what's wholly complete are the strong emotions throughout the film. From the opening moments of Hermione erasing her parents' memories for their own sake, to the final moments that make you feel true sorrow for freaking Dobby of all characters, the movie is full of hefty, emotional scenes. Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint give their most nuanced and layered performances of the entire film series. I love the darkness and despair that permeate this film. (Though perhaps in part because it's incomplete, it's not my favorite Harry Potter film.)

59. Noises Off. Playwright Michael Frayn created a masterpiece when he wrote the British farce Noises Off. When performed well with precision timing and comically gifted actors, I think you'll never spend a funnier night at the theater. Admittedly, that brilliant play loses something in its transition to another medium, film. But it also gains an incredible cast in Michael Caine, Carol Burnett, John Ritter, Christopher Reeve, Marilu Henner, Nicolette Sheridan, Denholm Elliott, Mark Linn-Baker, and Julie Hagerty. It's possible my love of theater in general -- and fond memory of attempting this play in high school -- causes me to love this movie more than it objectively deserves. But this isn't a list of what might objectively be argued as the best 100 movies of all time. It's my favorite 100 movies. And this movie will make me laugh out loud, uncontrollably, every time. Comic genius.

58. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. This is one of the most fantastic documentaries ever made, because it manages to elicit all the drama and emotion of a constructed narrative -- and does it over, of all things, watching people play a video game. (Donkey Kong.) The movie has heroes, villains, moments of soaring victory and sobering defeat. And, in a message close to my own heart, it shows that "fun and games" isn't always fun and games.

57. There's Something About Mary. I'll never forget the experience of seeing this movie in the theater. The shocked outburst of the opening "franks and beans" scene. The inability to hear a single word of dialogue over the roar of the "hair gel" scene. The Farrelly brothers caught something in this movie a cut above their other efforts, and Ben Stiller, Cameron Diaz, and Matt Dillon (along with a fantastic supporting cast) are part of what made that happen. I'm sure this is a movie that can only diminish in repeat viewings, but I still love it enough to give it a spot on my list.

56. Zombieland. This movie really does have it all. Yes, it's hysterically funny... but it also has sympathetic and believable characters, and even a few genuinely good scares too. There's never been a better cameo appearance in a film than the one here. The four main actors are all superb -- Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, and Abigail Breslin. Originally, the writers had planned this as a TV series, then converted it to a movie when they were unable to sell it. After the creative crater The Walking Dead fell into after its stellar first season, I find myself wishing that maybe this had been the zombie show to make it to television instead. But of course, then I'd be deprived of one of my favorite 100 films.