Saturday, June 30, 2012

Towering Achievement

My Tuesday in London began with a trip to the Tower of London, the famous castle built by William the Conqueror in the 11th century. (That's right, folks -- this building has been standing for nearly a thousand years.) It's been used as everything from a royal residence to a munitions depot to a prison over its long existence, and is now one of the more interesting tourist destinations in the city.

You pass through the castle wall over what was once a moat, but today is a green park area. You can wait for one of the Yeomen Warders or "Beefeaters" to take you on a tour of this place, but after listening to his spiel for over five minutes without moving from the spot we started at, we decided to strike out on our own.

The central feature of the place, literally and figuratively, is the White Tower:

The old palace proper, this castle has now been converted into a museum showcasing all sorts of weapons, armor, and other items from the reigns of famous kings and queens of England. You can see everything from the massive eight-foot tall sword of Henry V... the implied massiveness (ahem) built into Henry VIII's armour (which I'm spelling with a "u" because that's the British thing to do).

There's even a dragon inside the Tower, made up of shields and weapons. I'm sure it has no actual historical significance, but was certainly cool to look at:

For those more interested in the darker side of the Tower's history, you can see some of the torture devices used on prisoners once held there. You can also see the very spot (give or take a few feet, I'd imagine) where Anne Boleyn was beheaded under the orders of Henry VIII, today marked with an interesting memorial marker.

If you prefer your monarchs to be more modern, then the Tower of London is also the place where the Crown Jewels are currently displayed. Ostentatious, yes. But amazing? Also yes. Crowns aplenty, scepters galore, and more precious gems than you could shake said scepters at.

This is going to sound like a too kitschy way of saying it, but the Tower of London is everything that I wish a trip to a Renaissance festival could be. It's as fantastical as something out of Dungeons & Dragons, but is the real thing. I found it a very fun stop on our tour. It would have been a highlight, in fact, if we hadn't had even more remarkable things to come.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Everything Old is New New Again

Since yesterday I reached the end of a day in my London trip recap, I figured tonight's blog would be a good time to pause and throw in some non-vacation content for a day just to mix things up. Well, mostly non-vacation, anyway. As I've noted, the flight to London is a long one, affording you plenty of time to catch up on your reading. I read two books on the way to vacation and back, along with a handful of Sherlock Holmes stories (which seemed an appropriate selection for the occasion).

The first of the books was The New New Rules by Bill Maher, a book lovingly subtitled: A Funny Look at How Everybody but Me Has Their Head Up Their Ass. I think I was hoping that there would be more significant new material here, that the "New New Rules" title was simply a way of branding the book for fans of his HBO show, Real Time, fan who wanted "even more from the mind of Bill Maher." But no, the book is a actually a collection of material he's performed at the end of Real Time over the last few years. There are a handful of short bits that are new here, reportedly cut for time from the show itself, but really it's only the introduction that represents wholly new material.

So on that level, the book was a bit of a disappointment. I don't maintain an HBO subscription just for Bill Maher, but I watch his show every week while I do subscribe to the channel for some other reason (Game of Thrones, True Blood, The Newsroom, what-have-you), so I remember a lot of this material from the show itself.

But on the other hand, it's material that I am entertained by and am to a very large extent in agreement with. I watch Bill Maher because he is very skilled in calling a political spade a spade, and doing so in a truly funny way. This book includes several of the longer monologues he performed that made me practically want to stand up and cheer when I first heard them on the show, and the content is just as true, relevant, and funny today.

The bottom line is this: I do wish this had been a truly new book. But even as a "best of" collection, it's a solid read. I grade it a B.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Window Shopping, London-Style

Monday night in London, after all the museums and most of the tourist attractions were closed, was a day set aside for some shopping -- but it actually turned out to be window shopping more than anything else.

My boyfriend had heard that the flagship Dr. Martens store was in London, and he does love him some shoes. Unfortunately, if either of us was expecting a trip to shoe-topia, we were a bit disappointed. The store was neither large nor particularly unique; it was just one tiny location in the midst of a pedestrian mall area known as Covent Garden. The whole area itself was a minor interest for its sprawl and variety, but wasn't fundamentally different from a place like Pearl Street Mall in Boulder or 16th Street Mall in Denver. So the shoes were a bust.

To reach something of the scale we were perhaps hoping for, we next swung over to Harrod's, a massive department store filling a full city block and rising six stories. The only thing larger than Harrod's are the prices at Harrod's. I don't think we ever had any intention of seeing the whole store, but we'd barely made it through a third of it before we'd been assaulted with enough items at markups of 200-300% to pack it in.

So not a highlight of the trip, certainly. But like I said, the best tourist attractions in London simply aren't open late.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

An Afternoon at the Museum

After touring St. Paul's Cathedral to start the first full day of our London trip, we chose to spend the afternoon at the British Museum.

The British Museum is an endlessly fascinating place. You can -- as we did -- race through it in a few hours and get a sampling of interesting artifacts from cultures all over the world and all throughout history. But if I actually lived in England, I could easily imagine going there more regularly, just to take more time on specific parts of the museum. There's just a ton to see.

The two largest parts of the museum are devoted to ancient Egypt and Greece. The Egyptian collection includes the actual Rosetta Stone, which was the key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics.

But that's just the centerpiece of a vast array of sarcophagi, huge statues, painted pottery, and other miscellaneous artifacts.

The Greek section of the British Museum, meanwhile, is where you can go to see the Parthenon. Sort of. Yes, the crumbling temple still stands in Athens, and would certainly be a cool thing itself to see in person. But when the British Empire stormed through in the height of its power, they removed from the building most of the carved frescoes that ringed the upper edge. That part of the Parthenon is now on display at the museum.

We took a break for lunch at a nearby Chinese restaurant, but went back to spend a total of probably four hours at the museum. I took more pictures there than I think I did at any other place on the trip and, as I said, could easily have enjoyed even more time there to read in detail about the significance of all the objects.

I'll just share a few of the goofier pictures here before signing off for this post.

The dreaded Centaur Noogie:

An Egyptian boardwalk fortune teller machine:

Man's first performance of the Hokey Pokey:

A South American example of a French kiss:

A truly unconventional yoga posture:

And Gollum?

In all, a lot to contemplate:

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Church of England

Day two of my London adventure began with a trip to St. Paul's Cathedral. Designed by Christopher Wren, this building dates back to the early 1700s and is one of the defining landmarks of the London skyline. If you're a "Royalty Watcher" (personally, I'm not), you may know this as the place where Charles and Diana were married, and where Queen Elizabeth celebrated both her Golden Jubilee and 80th birthday.

The main feature of the cathedral is an enormous dome, 365 feet high. You're not allowed to take pictures inside the cathedral yourself, but the internet comes to the rescue and allows me to show you this:

Looking up at this thing is truly impressive, but looking down from it is even more so. A Whispering Gallery runs along side the base of the dome, hundreds of feet above the center of the cathedral, and you can climb the steps yourself and look out for a vertigo-inducing perspective on the open space and other tourists below.

From there, you can climb another flight of stairs to an observation deck called the Stone Gallery that runs around the exterior of the building at the base of the dome. And then, for the truly adventurous (and not yet out of breath), you can climb another tiny, spiraling staircase to get to the Golden Gallery, a tiny observation ring outside the building at the base of the spire atop the dome.

Make it through all that, and you make it to this:

In touring St. Paul's, you not only get to go high above the ground, you can go beneath it too. Beneath the cathedral, and sprawling out in equal size and shape, is a crypt where a number of famous British figures are interred or memorialized. I think our expectations there were for something more... well, "crypt-like," with interesting statues or tunnels or something of that sort. But the crypt is mostly filled with simple engraved plates marking the graves. Interesting enough if you're interested in the people, I suppose, but it left us wanting to see something more "crypty" later in the trip. (This led to an unusual side excursion, which I'll get to covering a later day on the trip.)

Admittedly, it may be a little redundant to go too many places in London that involve "going high to get a look at the city." So from that perspective, if you're ever touring London and your time is limited, I would probably suggest choosing St. Paul's Cathedral over riding the London Eye. Both were fun experiences, but St. Paul's has the longer, richer history and the breathtaking architecture. It was a wonderful stop on the trip.

Monday, June 25, 2012

We Just Decided To

I've barely started with my London trip recap, but I'm going to pause for a day to address something topical -- last night's premiere of HBO's new series The Newsroom. This is the latest creation from writer Aaron Sorkin, the man behind Sports Night and The West Wing, and the DNA of this series is something of a fusion of the two.

As the bland title would suggest, the series is set in a newsroom, and focuses on a news anchor who finally cracks in public under the pressure of constantly withholding his own opinions and fighting the urge to (to borrow a phrase from the first episode) "speak truth to stupid." His network boss brings in a new executive producer to rebuild the newscast, a woman who has a romantic history with the anchor. Drama and hijinks ensue.

The West Wing was a form of dramatic wish fulfillment. It depicted a government, a president, a presidential staff that was as smart, effective, honest, and noble as you would hope would or could exist in the real world. The Newsroom seems to be crafted by Aaron Sorkin to be the same thing for broadcast journalism; it wants to depict the kind of challenging, informative, intelligent news program you would hope could exist in the real world.

The Newsroom does approach at least one major thing very differently from The West Wing, however. It's revealed a bit into the first episode that the series is actually set in the recent past, and the real past, rather than an imagined present. The characters take on an actual news story from 2010, and present the "hard-hitting journalism" approach that no one actually took as the story was breaking. I'm assuming that intersections with real history will be part of the fabric of this show, and I think that could add an interesting layer to that wish fulfillment I spoke of.

The cast of the show is exceptional. Jeff Daniels stars, and is well cast to trade on a career mostly full of characters designed to charm and pull you in; his character here is a prickly and jaded curmudgeon that's pushing people away. Daniels seems like he'll make the character likeable, and he certainly has the facility for Sorkin's language.

Other more well known faces in the cast include Sam Waterston and Emily Mortimer. After just one episode, though, it's hard to see either of their characters as more than stand-ins for similar characters on Sorkin's Sports Night (played there by Felicity Huffman and Robert Guillaume).

Actually, this leads into the most significant flaw I see in the series -- it hasn't immediately carved out its own turf yet. The characters are similar to those employed in Sorkin's earlier shows. The premise is perhaps too similar to those same shows. The characters, not yet having developed much personality of their own, speak mostly in "Sorkin neutral" -- a cool and heightened style of dialogue that's fun, to be sure, but a patter that reveals more of the writer behind the words that the people speaking them.

Don't get me wrong... I'm thrilled to have an Aaron Sorkin show back on TV. I liked what I saw, and I'll be watching new episodes. But I acknowledge that right now, I'm probably just basking in the glow of having Aaron Sorkin back on my TV. I'm hoping that the show itself grows and develops over the coming episodes, because there is room for improvement.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Return from London

Hello, faithful readers!

I have returned from my week-long vacation to London with my boyfriend. It was a wonderful trip, and I have plenty of tales of it to share over the next several days (probably interspersed with some other material, for those of you not interested in "looking at vacation pictures" either literally or in the form of stories).

It began with a long flight to Dulles from Denver, and a longer flight from there on to London. That second leg was on a 777, a very cool plane with individual TVs for every seat, on which you could watch a variety of movies instantly on demand. But this wasn't quite obvious. See, we were sitting in the second row behind a bulkhead, on the left side of the plane; the row in front of us had two seats, while our row had three. I had the aisle seat, which carried the wonderful prize of not having a seat in front of me: therefore tons of extra leg room! But also, no seat in front of me: apparently no cool insta-TV.

About 60 minutes from the end of the flight, we saw someone in a bulkhead seat in the center pull out this crazy Transformer arm from somewhere even lower than the dinner tray, and his personal TV was on the end of it. That's when I learned that the big yellow twisty knob labeled "Release," that looked potentially hazardous or something, should actually have been labeled something helpful like "Get Your Cool TV Here." Had I taken the plunge and turned the suspect knob after reaching cruising altitude about six hours earlier, I probably could have watched three movies or something. Alas. But I'm passing the intel onto you, if you should ever find yourself in such a seat.

We landed at Heathrow, where apparently the gates are as far from customs and the baggage claim as the highway is from the airport itself in Denver. (If you've never been to either airport, that's far). We walked for 20 minutes through a comically long, sterile hallway of endless turns to finally reclaim our bags and get the trip started. I think England's athletes may have a measurable advantage in this year's Olympics for not having to tire themselves out walking through these halls before arriving at the Games.

Out hotel was in South Kensington, very near the Royal Albert Hall, Natural History Museum, and Science Museum. All wonderful places, I've heard. All places we walked by on our last day, actually, and asked ourselves, "might we not have saved ourselves some foot sores one day and gone one of these places instead?" But as you'll see, there's not much we did do that was likely worth trading away for that instead.

We arrived around noon. Knowing we'd be completely exhausted and jetlagged -- but knowing we'd never begin to adjust if we gave into the urge to go to bed right away -- we'd purchased tickets for something in advance that very afternoon. We headed to the London Eye, this well-known ferris wheel-type attraction built around the turn of the millennium along the Thames:

That photo is actually from the river itself, because the first thing we did was board a 40-minute cruise up and back along Thames, taking you by the numerous landmarks along the river. It was a perfect "first thing to do," actually, as we got to see where many of the things we'd planned to do were located, and know that if our plans somehow got fouled up, we could still say we at least got to see a huge number of things and places.

I was asked before the trip by a lot of people if I had any reservations going there so close to the Olympics. No, I was not worried that things would be extra zany there yet. But yes, Olympic preparations are evident everywhere in the city. Most of the Underground stations were warning about the preposterous amount of traffic they're expecting a month from now. There's a parade of flags of different nations hung above Oxford Street (something I'll get to another day). During this cruise, we saw that the Tower Bridge has been adorned above with the Olympic rings:

We completed that mini-cruise, then rode the Eye itself. I'd certainly recommend it to London visitors, as it affords wonderful views, from the breathtaking:

To the exclusive (who knew there was a building hidden inside the other building?):

To the unsettling (why does the guy seem to be holding up a dead child in this statue?):

This all kept us up and moving until around 5:30, and we were running on fumes by then. We stopped for a fast and simple dinner of sandwiches somewhere, and then called it quits for day one.

More (oh so much more) to come!

Friday, June 15, 2012

A Week's Hiatus

Greetings, blog fans!

I'm heading out on a vacation "across the pond" to visit London for the first time. Sometimes I get content written in advance when I head out of town. This is not one of those times. So the blog will be silent for the next week.

I hope you'll all be back for me on my return, and that you have fun too while I'm gone.

...just not as much fun as I'm having.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

My Top 100 Movies -- 45-41

45. Ocean's Eleven. Steven Soderbergh directed this wildly entertaining heist film with an endless cast of great actors who are clearly having fun with their work. Every character gets at least one great moment and some snappy dialogue. The careful construction of the heist is thrilling, and the Vegas atmosphere is a blast. And the musical score by David Holmes is bouncy fun from beginning to end. Whenever I'm about to take a trip to Las Vegas, I always want to watch a film the night before to "get in the mood," and this is one of the movies I'll often look to.

44. Pay It Forward. I wrote of my love for this film earlier this year. Some would view it as irrational love, but I guess I'm a softie.

43. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. This is the best of the Star Trek films. I could go on a length about its merits, but to keep things short, I'll focus on the ways the film does the impossible. It manages to make a battle with truly slow naval-style pacing be edge-of-your-seat tense. It makes a riveting sequel to a single one hour episode of a television episode made 15 years earlier. Its director, Nicholas Meyer, manages to get a true acting performance from William Shatner that moves you to tears. After the boring mess that was Star Trek: The Motion Picture, this film literally saved the franchise. Without the triumphant creative and financial success of this movie, none of the Star Trek that came after would ever have existed.

42. A Few Good Men. This was what first put Aaron Sorkin on my radar. The amazing creator of The West Wing and Sports Night, writer of The Social Network and Moneyball, first adapted this brilliant film from his own stage play. Rob Reiner did an outstanding job with the directing, managing to make a riveting film despite most scenes having little physical action (or even movement of any kind, thanks to the courtroom setting). The excellent cast includes Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, Demi Moore, Kevin Bacon, Kiefer Sutherland, Kevin Pollak, J. T. Walsh, Noah Wyle, Cuba Gooding Jr., Xander Berkeley, Joshua Malina, and Christopher Guest. If there's ever been a better courtroom drama than this, I haven't seen it.

41. Good Will Hunting. I gushed about this film when I re-watched it last year. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck are excellent writers, literally writing their own tickets to stardom with this film. Robin Williams is as moving as he is restrained here. An emotional, powerful movie.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

A Mime Is a Terrible Thing to Waste

I snapped this photo myself on the 16th Street Mall in Denver this evening:

Psst! You're doing it wrong!

Monday, June 11, 2012

Blood on the Ice

Last year, a low budget, blink-and-you-missed-it film sped through a handful of theaters, seen by virtually no one, but surprisingly well-reviewed by a number of critics. Goon is a loose adaptation of an autobiography by a minor league hockey "enforcer," the story of a hockey player who can barely skate, has no offensive or defensive skills, and is there to serve one role only: to beat the crap out of players on the opposing team.

The film was written by Jay Baruchel and Evan Goldberg, the former an actor who starred in the TV series Undeclared and the films She's Out of My League and How to Train Your Dragon, the latter a screenwriter who has collaborated on numerous films with Seth Rogen. The two channeled their clear passion for hockey into this lightly comedic, outrageously violent love letter to one particular part of the sport.

The movie does do some things well, but it all does them repeatedly -- so much so that the film has started to burn out before even its brief 90 minutes have elapsed. Early fights in the film get played well for laughs, the jokes revolving around what an efficient brute (and total idiot) the main character is. The later fights in the film are cringe-inducing in their level of violence. But the middle is a repetitious mess with little real plot to get involved in.

Seann William Scott stars as the Goon of the film's title. He does play a bit against type here, and does so successfully; usually, he's the wittiest wisecracker in any film he appears in, but here he's an endearing idiot. Liev Schrieber plays an older enforcer nearing retirement, and the film builds to a showdown fight between the two players. Jay Baruchel takes a secondary role himself, playing the foul-mouthed, fanatical friend of the main character. Eugene Levy pops up in a couple scenes as the main character's father.

The film is entertaining enough, I suppose, though I find myself a bit hard-pressed to see what led to its 80+% rating over on Rotten Tomatoes. The premise will interest you or not, and your decision to see the film can be reliably based on that initial reaction. For myself, I give it a C+.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

An Artistic Endeavor

I recently got to try a new-ish board game from a designer named Sean D. MacDonald, called Pastiche. It's a tile laying game with, as you might expect from the title, an art theme.

Players draw two paintings from a deck (actual paintings from actual artists), each one listing up to seven different colors (out of 17 total in the game) needed to paint it. Each player also has two hex tiles in his hand at all times, with dabs of primary colors on them -- a big one in the center, and smaller ones on the six corners. In a nutshell, you play a tile on your turn, hooking it into the growing web of all players' tiles, and drawing one paint card for each intersection of two or three colors you play. You can then make certain trades with the bank using the paint cards you've acquired, trying to get to the colors you need to complete one of your paintings and score points. The first player to a certain point threshold ends the game -- though last minute bonuses for finishing paintings by the same artist might give you a bonus to pass that person and claim the win.

The rules to the game are pretty simple. The theme is very strong, and the vaguely Carcassonne-like tile play is a tried-and-true model for a game. The game has just a light streak of educational value to it without beating you over the head with it. The components are neat, including fold-out wooden easels on which each player can place his paintings-in-progress to hide them from the other players. In short -- good concept, pretty execution.

But not a flawless game. For starters, there are some difficult-to-learn rules about what colors combine to make other colors. Sure, everybody knows that red and yellow give you orange, black and white give you grey, and so forth. But blue-blue-red as purple and blue-red-red as magenta? What makes teal again? Amber? Bisque? Even when you know exactly what you need to make, you'll find yourself constantly referring to a crib sheet to recall how to make it. (At least they did provide the crib sheets.)

A bigger concern is the crippling degree of "analysis paralysis" possible here. You have two paintings in your hand. There are four more face up in a common area, with the ability to trade one of yours out once per turn at any time. You have two hexes to ponder, each with seven color blobs on them, two or three colors always represented, and six possible orientations for them all -- most with different outcomes. And the longer the game runs, the more options you have on where to play those tiles. You could easily spend several minutes looking for the play that best gets you the most paint you need... and then spend a while longer figuring out how to combine that paint in such a way to avoid discarding unnecessarily to the eight-paint hand limit you must obey at the end of your turn.

It is fun, when you get down to it. But you also just have to be a respectful player when playing it, willing to stop looking for "the perfect move" after a certain point in the interests of keeping the game moving. I can't help but feel like the ideal venue for this game would be in an iPad/iPhone/Android incarnation, where you could take all the time you wanted on your turn before passing it along to the next player. Maybe someone will get on that.

I think this game deserves a variable rating, depending on who you play it with. I'd give my initial experience a B- or B... but I could easily see the game slipping whole letter grades if played with the wrong people.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Good Scott

I mentioned earlier in the week that seeing Ridley Scott's Prometheus was high on my "to-do list," and so I headed out opening night to catch it. (Just Friday night, not one of the midnight screenings. I think midnight openings for are now on my "Murtagh List." ("I'm getting too old for this shit."))

Prometheus might just be the prettiest movie I have ever seen. The visuals are simply breathtaking, from the top-notch CG landscapes and vehicles and creatures, to the elaborate and detailed sets, to the sweeping vistas contributed by Mother Nature for on-location shooting. I think it's no coincidence that early on in Prometheus, the movie makes mention of Lawrence of Arabia; that's another film that was famous for its majestic visuals, and this movie seemed to consciously be applying to that elite club. And, if you ask me, assuming the throne. I'm just short on words to describe how jaw-droppingly gorgeous this film is.

That said, I've said many times before here that grand scenery is not the primary thing I look for in a movie; story and character are far more important to me. And in this area, Prometheus is pretty good overall... but not without flaws.

The main problem with the characters is that there are simply too many of them. The ship Prometheus has a crew of 17, we're told. Only 5 or 6 are given much screen time, and the rest just recede into a haze. In a conversation with my friends after the film, there was actual confusion over which-was-which in a key moment involving two secondary characters. I think it would have been better to ditch the dead weight and devote even more time to Michael Fessbender's creepily passive David, or Charlize Theron's brooding and hard-nosed Vickers. We could have seen more moments to explain why Noomi Rapace's quiet scientist Shaw had such toughness in her; or seen why Logan Marshall-Green's Holloway was so reckless despite being so educated; or seen another side to Idris Elba's Janek that helps explain his actions late in the film.

The plot is intriguing, and many of the suspenseful sequences do fill you with the same sense of creeping dread that Ridley Scott created so well in Alien. But there are also at least two moments where the jeopardy feels blatantly manufactured, scenes in which characters behave in ways that seem completely illogical just to lead to the narrative necessity of putting the crew at risk. Assuming you can put those questions aside, though, the action is exciting and the suspense is tense.

Prometheus is not the triumph that was Alien, but it is a very good movie. I grade it a B. And also, I think I might actually recommend seeing this one in 3D if you go. I usually skip 3D these days, and did on this occasion too. But one of my friends has seen it in both formats and recommended the 3D. Imagining how those sweeping visuals would have looked -- shot natively in 3D, as I understand it -- I have to concur that this one would be worth it.

Friday, June 08, 2012

A Professional Review

A sterling review in a recent Entertainment Weekly -- along with a compelling plot summary -- convinced me to take a look at a new novel from a first-time author: The Professionals, by Owen Laukkanen. It's the story of post-college friends who, unable to land jobs, have taken to serial kidnapping in the hopes of slowly amassing enough money to retire. When one job fails to go according to plan, a detective and an FBI agent get onto their trail, and the chase begins.

The book is certainly a page turner. The construction is similar to that used by a lot of popular writers today -- nearly 100 chapters to a book, each a fairly short burst ending on a cliffhanger designed to continually pull the reader through to find out what happens next. The technique certainly works here; the book is compulsively readable, and made me set aside many other pursuits in my free time until I'd finished it.

But despite that major strength, the book does have a few flaws too. There are a number of characters involved, with the story following the perspective of not only the kidnapping ring, not only the investigators, but some others as well. Not all of these characters are as thoroughly drawn, and not all of them seem to behave believably or consistently the more the story races on. And frankly, there comes a point where I'm no longer sure who I should be rooting for. That's good in the sense that it's true to the moral ambiguity of the situation; it's bad in the sense that it makes the story hard to resolve. I'm honestly not sure how I feel about the way it all ends, whether the people I truly wanted to win rule the day.

Plot is key here, and while it's a good one, some other aspects of good writing occasionally fall by the wayside. The truly clever and original turns of phrase in the writing are rather few and far between. The physical descriptions of the characters and environments are a bit threadbare in places. But maybe these are reasonable sacrifices in the name of preserving the compulsive readability.

In the end, I tore through the book quite quickly, and overall I'd have to say my enjoyment of it outstripped my hesitations. I'd grade the book a B. I could see reading this author's next effort, assuming it has as catchy a premise -- though I won't necessarily be telling everyone I know "you have to read this book!" in the meantime.

Thursday, June 07, 2012


An interview I read not long ago with Peter Dinklage (currently commanding the screen as Tyrion on Game of Thrones) made me interested to see the movie that brought him his first taste of fame, The Station Agent. This low-budget independent film wasn't seen by a wide audience, but was seen by enough people in the industry that Dinklage began to see more parts coming his way.

The movie itself centers around Dinklage's character, a withdrawn and quiet dwarf who inherits a rundown and defunct train station on a faraway property when his friend, owner of the model train store where he works, dies. He relocates to live in the decaying building, making the acquaintance of a handful of interesting characters in the tiny town.

It's hard to say much more about the plot than that, as I don't believe there really is much more to the plot than that. This is not a film driven by narrative, but by character. Not much happens, but what little there is, the film is more concerned with who it happens to.

Ordinarily, I'd find this kind of movie a rather dull affair. And truthfully, I didn't find it wonderful. But it isn't quite boring either, and even has a handful of oddly compelling scenes. And the reason is the exceptional cast.

Dinklage is a wonderful lead, putting up an inscrutable exterior to others while teeming with constrained emotion beneath the service. His interactions in the film are primarily with two others. One is a man trying to maintain his happy-go-lucky outlook on life while dealing with an ailing father; he's played by Bobby Canavale with fun energy to serve as a polar opposite to Dinklage's reserve. The other is a woman in a rocky separation with her husband; she's played by the wonderful Patricia Clarkson, who moves back and forth along an emotional continuum between the two throughout the film.

There are smaller supporting roles filled by mostly unrecognizable faces (though you may know Michelle Williams and John Slattery), but even the unknowns are just the perfect tone in this quirky setting. Together, it all weaves a poetic tapestry. The film has more of a tone than a message, is more a slice of life than a narrative.

It's a well made movie -- just not a movie that's entirely my cup of tea. I'd call it a B-. If you enjoy movies with an almost British sensibility of restrained "being," this is probably for you. The rest of you probably should check it out only if you're a fan of one of the main actors.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

My Top 100 Movies -- 50-46

50. Finding Nemo. One of several Pixar films in my top 100, this movie is a perfect cocktail of honest and affecting emotion, plenty of great humor, vivid characters brought to life through great voice acting and talented animation, and eye-popping underwater vistas that really stretched the boundaries of what computer animation could accomplish at the time.

49. Who Framed Roger Rabbit. In my mind, this might just about be the last great "how did they do that?" movie. The rise of computer effects has now made it so easy to create seemingly impossible visuals that your eye and mind now just assume that "they did it in a computer somehow." But this movie had a never-ending array of on-set devices used to create the interactivity of animated characters with live actors, and a talented group of animators to then seal the deal. The movie is funny, adventurous, and even scary at times. The performances are great, from Bob Hoskins and Christopher Lloyd on camera to Charles Fleischer and Kathleen Turner behind a microphone. Anyone who ever loved a classic Warner Brothers cartoon would love this movie. (And it's one of the few -- only? -- times that Disney and Warner characters appeared on screen together.)

48. Life as a House. I wrote about this film when I first saw it a few years ago. It's admittedly one of those movies that some people find overly and falsely sentimental, but that others (like me) find right on the mark. Kevin Kline and Mary Steenburgen are especially good in a strong cast. It's one of those movies that's uplifting even though it will wring you out at times.

47. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. The work of the great Stephen Sondheim has rarely been translated to the screen, but it's done spectacularly here by director Tim Burton. The atmosphere is perfectly drab and macabre. The music and lyrics are both impossibly clever. Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, and Alan Rickman give fantastic performances. You can read me praise it more in my original review.

46. The Thing. John Carpenter's 1982 horror movie is loaded with practical, on-set effects that on the one hand don't hold up wonderfully today, but on the other hand still manage to convince you that's how more movies today should still be made. The fear and suspense in this movie are palpable. Kurt Russell manages to be both an heroic ass-kicker and wonderfully vulnerable -- sometimes in the same scene. This movie is so great that The X-Files basically ripped it off entirely for an early first season episode ("Ice"), and yet that was still one of the best of the season, and arguably a top 20 for the series. And that moody, pulsing theme from composer Ennio Morricone? The perfect accent to the proceedings.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Study Guide

One of my dearest friends is a long time enthusiast of Sherlock Holmes. To my friend's credit, he has never tried to hard sell me on reading Arthur Conan Doyle's original stories. Still, he's had his thumb on the scale for years, and that combined with the recent added weight of the stellar second batch of episodes of the BBC's Sherlock finally sold me -- I decided to pick up the complete stories of Holmes and start working my way through them in order.

Though the vast majority of Doyle's writing of Holmes was in short story form, he created the character in the full length novel, A Study in Scarlet. It chronicles the first meeting of Holmes and Watson, the procurement of their flat at 221B Baker Street, and the tackling of their first case together -- a bloodless murder with an apparent revenge motive.

I've been told that Doyle is not altogether consistent in his writing of his characters. Combine that with many authors' natural pattern of "finding a voice" slowly over time, and I found that A Study in Scarlet bears only some resemblance to the Sherlock Holmes that became world famous.

Holmes is famously played as a dispassionate, calculating analyst. The Holmes of this first novel is actually quite emotional. He has no small amount of pride, and displays warmth and humor in excess of what he's commonly shown to possess. Most significantly different is his attitude toward people less mentally gifted than himself. I think of Holmes as irritated by such people, barely tolerating their intrusion into his life; in this novel, Holmes is actually seems amused by others' shortcomings.

Watson, on the other hand, seems to be truer to form. Though some adaptations of Doyle's writing have done better than others in providing an essential role for Watson in the action, Doyle absolutely knew what he was doing in creating a character to be a first-person narrator of his detective stories. The problem of writing a mystery is to find a way to casually drop in clues that the reader could pick up on as "playing fair with the audience," without hanging a bell on them and making them too obvious. Watson solves this problem by becoming a veil behind which to hide some information when necessary; he can tell us that Holmes has clearly perceived something, while himself lacking the objectivity to tell us exactly what.

But more than the not-yet-evolved treatment of Holmes, there is a bigger problem with the novel. Five of its 14 chapters are devoted to a sub-narrative explaining the motivation of the killer in a prolonged flashback. This section is written in the third person, conveying information Watson has no knowledge of, and revolves mostly around two characters that never appear again in Doyle's writing. It's a lot of time and words devoted to establishing secondary characters; who is Doyle planning to serialize here, Holmes and Watson, or Freeman and Lucy?

That said, though the flashback feels long and off-point, it is compellingly written. There is tension and danger in this section of the book that even outpaces that of the main narrative, and I rather paradoxically found it the fastest section of the book to read. (Although maybe that came from wanting to plow through it quickly; it's positioned just at the moment Holmes reveals that he's solved the case, but before he reveals any details of the solution.)

On the one hand, A Study in Scarlet -- when taken solely on its own -- does leave me wondering how Holmes managed to catch fire so massively despite some obvious shortcomings. On the other hand, I found it much more entertaining and easier to read the other novels more than a century old. I think I'd average it all out to just a B-, though I am looking forward to continuing my journey through the stories of Sherlock Holmes.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Great Scott

After months (you could argue years or even decades) of buildup, Ridley Scott's new science fiction film Prometheus is arriving in theaters in the U.S. this Friday. He has tried to play it coy as to how much of a true prequel it really is to his original 1979 film Alien, perhaps juggling an artistic desire to not be seen as repeating himself with the private thrill of revisiting some of his earliest work after a long career of experience.

Meanwhile, the marketing of the film has been something I've tried to actively avoid as much as possible. From what I hear (and have, unfortunately, seen snippets of on too many occasions), increasingly spoiler-filled and lengthy commercials and trailers have been giving away too much of the game. It feels like the studio, once frightened that no one would be interested in seeing a prequel to a three-decade old movie, are now instead simply terrified that no one will go to see their movie.

As I recently noted, Alien is one of my favorite films. Ridley Scott's spectacular directing there is enough to make me want to see Prometheus no matter what it is. And with the new film just around the corner, I felt compelled to watch Alien again, no matter how strong or weak the connection is between it and the new film.

Alien still works marvelously. It's a near-perfect blend of respecting several tried and true horror conventions while turning others on their ear.

The pacing is purposefully slow, just fast enough to keep your interest, but slow enough to ratchet up the tension and make you start anticipating scares that aren't even there. Too many horror movies are too quick to get to the massacre, dispensing with any true anxiety and going straight for revulsion.

The concept of the movie is truly horrifying too -- a monstrous creature that cannot be reasoned with, wants nothing but to kill you, and can't be killed itself without endangering you. Just when you think you understand it and how terrifying it is, it transforms itself into a whole new horror, from something that will knock you in a coma and feed off you, to something that will gestate inside your body until it fatally bursts out of your chest, to a giant two-mouthed menace that will impale and crush you all at the same time. And to top it off, the hapless characters find themselves facing this monster to begin with because they were twice betrayed from within -- once by a heartless corporation looking to profit by any means, and once by a member of the crew itself who isn't at all what he seems.

The characters aren't typical teens lined up for the slaughter, nor are they heroic bad-asses equal to the threat. They're decidedly blue collar workers whose main concern before this is simply to get paid. They're more honest and real people than most horror movies get. And they defy stereotypes even in the way they die; the male captain you expect to be the hero is supplanted by a female protagonist who makes it through the crisis.

The acting is wonderful throughout. Particularly good are Veronica Cartwright as Lambert (so weak and emotional you can't stand it, even if realistically speaking, you can understand it, given the circumstances), Ian Holm as Ash (unnervingly cold, a psychopath at the core without any of the typical histrionics), and of course Sigourney Weaver as Ripley (believably vulnerable and strong at different moments throughout the film).

The musical score by Jerry Goldsmith is phenomenal. Before his death, he admitted in interviews that his work had been compromised by the editor and by Ridley Scott, with many moments "dialed down" in the mix, and two major cues replaced entirely -- once by work he'd done for another film entirely, and once by work from a completely different composer. But not only does the music still work in context to augment the already tense proceedings, the soundtrack album of the film reveals his intended composition in all its glory.

If Prometheus turns out to be even half as good as Alien, it will be a truly good movie indeed. Alien remains a grade A film in my book.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Valar Morghulis

While you could certainly argue that last week's Game of Thrones was the peak of the season for its sheer scope and intensity, I think this week's finale was just as brilliant in a different way. It was one wonderful scene after another, a procession of outstanding character moments.

After Tyrion was enjoying perhaps his all-time high last week, a clever hero of the battlefield, he was brought low this week. He's lost his position as Hand of the King to his father, despite having served magnificently in the role. He's lost his personal soldiers, Bronn, any glory from his pivotal role in the battle -- everything but Shae, who stayed by his side despite it all. (And special acknowledgement to the great makeup job in giving him a grisly scar, particularly gross in the way the bandage stuck as it was peeled away.)

It was a wild ride for Sansa in her one scene this week, and a great performance from actress Sophie Turner, despite her having very few lines in it. She kept up her mask as Joffrey set her aside to claim the ambitious (and oh so oily) Margaery Tyrell, then let the mask drop briefly when only we the audience could see her relief. And then we could see how foolish she was to think this meant she was at all off the hook. Littlefinger was quite apt to call her the worst liar in the court. Should have fled with The Hound last week.

The scene between Varys and Ros (a character not even in the novels) wasn't the most compelling added scene the show has ever presented, but it was interesting to see the Spider working to try to undermine Littlefinger, and he got in several great cutting remarks during the scene.

The scene between Brienne and Jamie was a tense one, carefully written in such a way that I think it was deliberately aimed at book readers. I found myself truly questioning if a particular plot point that doesn't occur to them until early in book three was going to happen here in the season two finale instead. It didn't, but the payoff of the scene was still excellent in the moment when she gave the same "justice" to the three thugs on the road that they gave to their victims.

Oh, Theon. Stupid, weaselly Theon. Maester Luwin did try one last time, and genuinely I think, to help the boy out and give him a shot at redemption. But instead, Theon decided to make a stand... and a speech. I think this was another particularly clever bit of writing, as his speech seemed to crib several memorable turns of phrase from other "rousing speeches" delivered in other films. The resulting feeling: Theon can't do anything right, and he can only to pretend to be things he's seen other people be. His right-hand man knocked him out at the climax of the speech (yay!) and then impaled poor Luwin and left him for dead (boo!).

Stupid for love, Robb Stark secretly married Talisa in violation of his oath to the Freys. Tune in next season to see how that plays out...

Arya had one last moment with Jaqen to conclude her story this season, with him offering her the chance to learn his mysterious assassin art form... before he changed his freaking face! A fun moment from the book, and more fun still to see here in the show (even if Jaqen did adopt a comparatively butt-ugly new identity).

Winterfell is burned to the ground, and Bran, Rickon, Osha, and Hodor (Hodor!) are off seeking Jon Snow at the Wall. At first, I was disappointed that the ruin of Winterfell didn't look as disheartening in the show as I'd imagined it in the book, but then came that wonderful CG-assisted wide shot where we saw the entire keep burning in the background behind them. Yeah, that's the punch to the gut I'd imagined.

Daenerys went through a beautiful, mysterious, and interesting "dream sequence" type thing inside The House of the Undying. She saw herself first in a burned out throne room at King's Landing, then at the gate to the Wall, and then finally in a tent with a welcome return cameo by Jason Momoa as Khal Drogo. It was a great scene with touches of humor, tenderness, and more -- the best material Emilia Clarke has had to play all season. She then came out of her vision with dragon fire blazing, burned the creepy mage alive, imprisoned Xaro "Cask of the Amontillado" style, and seemed to finally be back on track.

Halfhand made the ultimate sacrifice to help plant Jon Snow undercover with the Wildlings, but it was not a sacrifice made in vain. Jon's captors cut him loose on the spot, and have now pledged to take him to see Mance Rayder in a surprisingly large city beyond the Wall.

And finally, we ended on a great sequence with Sam. In my own mind, I imagine the writers and visual effects team collectively going "oh, that's nice what you tried to do last year, The Walking Dead. Top THIS!" Dessicated zombie leader. Freaking rotting zombie horse! Massive undead army! Awesome!

It was a great final episode for the show. And now the long wait for season three begins.

Saturday, June 02, 2012


Last year, Steven Spielberg directed his first animated feature film, The Adventures of Tintin. It was somewhat lost in the shuffle, perhaps between his other film Warhorse and Martin Scorsese's bigger critical darling Hugo. It slipped by me too, until I recently caught up with the film on Blu-ray.

The film is adapted from a series of comics much more loved and famous in Europe, but is a grand adventure easily accessible to any audience. It has an almost Indiana Jones sensibility, actually, as the main character hops all over the globe trying to get to the bottom of an old mystery. The script was crafted by Steven Moffat (of Doctor Who and Sherlock fame), and writing partners Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish.

This movie was produced by Peter Jackson, and while it definitely bears Spielberg's stamp in its style, the casting has a heavy influence from Jackson. Jamie Bell (from Jackson's King Kong) stars as Tintin, and motion-capture king Andy Serkis (of multiple Jackson films) plays the role of Captain Haddock. Edgar Wright contributed to the "family atmosphere" too, as his frequent collaborators Simon Pegg and Nick Frost also play roles in the film. The motion-capture performances are well used here, as everyone is able to play slightly off-type from usual. Serkis, of course, steals the show as the brash drunkard Haddock, but Daniel Craig is also wonderfully oily as villain Sakharine.

Spielberg definitely works to make the most of the animation medium, composing a number of complex shots from difficult camera angles. A major chase sequence in the second act has an unbroken take lasting several minutes, following the action all around the streets of a city.

But perhaps because the almost-human animation style keeps the viewer a bit at arm's length, I never found myself completely caught up in the movie. The spectacle was always impressive, but the story usually less so. It was fun but simple; a never-quite-gripping level of action that was, I imagine, deliberately kid-friendly.

It's certainly worth watching the movie, though it doesn't break into the upper echelons of Spielberg's many efforts. I rate it a B.

Friday, June 01, 2012

The Reichenbach Fall

The final installment of the second series of the BBC's Sherlock was the best episode yet. If you know anything at all about Holmes, then you know that the title is an allusion to arguably the most famous of all of Arthur Conan Doyle's original stories, the one in which Sherlock Holmes... well, if you actually don't know, I suppose I shouldn't spoil it for you. But suffice it to say that with a title like that, the series seemed to be boldly declaring, "yes, we're going there, and we think we have a story worthy of it."

They certainly did.

The mastermind that is Moriarty, that we got to see at a distance in the first series finale, is displayed front and center here. I think it would be spoiling too much to say exactly what his game is here, but he has crafted an elaborate web of multiple layers in which to ensnare his rival Holmes, and it's thrilling to watch as the episode slowly pulls back layer after layer.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman top their already amazingly high performances as Holmes and Watson, infusing this episode with the most tender relationship between the characters I've seen in any adaptation of Holmes. The episode finds a way to reveal Holmes' true feelings without compromising his calculating core; Watson is shown to care for Holmes above and beyond just admiring his skill.

Andrew Scott is a chilling Moriarty. The character is typically portrayed in other adaptations as a posh and erudite villain, but Scott's performance goes beyond the savagery of a Hannibal Lecter and into truly psychopathic territory. Moriarty is far more than a foil for Holmes here -- he is purely, completely evil. And the lengths to which he goes to snare Holmes lead to the most shocking moment of the series.

Naturally, the episode ends on a cliffhanger... though not the in-the-middle-of-a-scene kind of ending the first series had. Nevertheless, I don't need to see what happens next to feel completely satisfied by this episode and pronounce it a jewel among jewels, and absolute grade A piece of entertainment.