Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Valkyrie



I'm feeling a bit mixed on Valkyrie. Overall, it does a lot of things right. Despite how insane he might seem in real life, I still think Tom Cruise is a solid actor, and he's as fine as always here leading an army of less famous but still very good performers, with lots of people you recognize and like even if you don't know their names. The movie looks really great, with some stunning cinematography in some scenes, good enough to help me almost completely ignore a scratch on the film running along the left side side of the screen the entire time. Bryan Singer's back to doing something a little smaller after the first two X-Men movies and the fairly mediocre Superman reboot, and I have few qualms with any of the decisions he made. Despite the overall fairly good production though, something about the film is still rubbing me the wrong way a little bit. I think it's an important story and they did a good job of keeping up the tension despite the outcome's inevitability, but I still feel that I didn't quite really enjoy it, that it ran a little too long and that it was just a bit boring.

It's possibly just a case of bad editing. There's not a scene that doesn't have some value to it, that's not well filmed or put together, but all of them combined don't have as much impact as they probably should. If twenty minutes combined were cut from the planning and after-effects of the attempt on Hitler's life, it might flow a lot better. As it is, there's just not as much excitement as I probably would like from a movie about people fighting back against Nazis. I still respect the movie for its emotional weight and showing how not every member of the Third Reich was a bastard. I also liked how they handled the language issue - it starts out in German with subtitles, and quickly transitions to English. Just a way of acknowledging that this is a movie and they're making a compromise to make the experience easier for its audience without resorting to phony German accents. Too many films just have the actors put on an accent, some more successfully than others, but even if it's completely accurate, it's still a very fake authenticity that really annoys me. If the characters aren't speaking the right language anyway, it's not going to help. Anyway, Valkyrie was all right.

Friday, December 26, 2008

30 Rock - Season 1



I was expecting 30 Rock to not blow me away but still be pretty funny, and it basically met those expectations. It's not the funniest show ever, but it's consistently good, and with The Office dedicated to awkwardness and other shows a little too crazy and shocking for its own shake, it's probably the best "normal" comedy on TV right now. It sort of feels like the heir apparent to Arrested Development; a bit wacky at times but generally very intelligent, with a great cast, the love of critics and award givers, and an unfortunately small viewership. I don't understand why most people seem so resistant to good comedy. Here's hoping NBC gives it more of a chance to grow into its own than FOX gave Development.

30 Rock is about the makers of a fictional live sketch comedy show like Saturday Night Live, and starts when Alec Baldwin comes in as the new VP of such and such and forces head writer Tina Fey, playing a younger version of herself, to hire Tracy Morgan, playing a crazier and more famous version of himself, to star in it. It goes from there as Fey and Baldwin alternately butt heads and help each other out, as she tries to manage all the strange personalities working on her show and her personal life at the same time. Fey rose to fame as head writer and fake news reader on SNL, but I didn't know if she could actually act and carry a whole sitcom, but it turns out she can, and pretty well too. All the supporting characters are funny in their own way, and I like the way the show handles continuity too - it's not chained down so there's always room for fresh situations but there's enough of a storyline to keep it satisfying. If you aren't watching you probably should be.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Braid



Braid is a time-bending puzzle game disguised as a simple platformer like Super Mario Bros., and has enough self awareness to make several references to that fact. Beneath the basic gameplay controls and pleasant, hand-drawn appearance though, there is an incredible amount of depth and inventiveness to every aspect of the game's design, from the time manipulation mechanics to the devious puzzles to the great story. Basically, there are five normal worlds you can run through. The goal is to get all the jigsaw puzzle pieces inside each one, and put them together to finish the ambiguous pictures and move forward towards the ending. The pieces become more and more difficult to get to, and finding them requires you to make use of that world's unique brain-twisting trick.

The first level just introduces rewinding time, which you can use through the whole game. The idea is nothing new to games, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and Blinx: The Time Sweeper were doing it years ago. But no other game has taken it to such an extreme like Braid. You can rewind all the way to the beginning of the area, and as soon as they begin throwing in objects that are immune to the power, things start to become crazy. Further levels add things like the world's timeline being controlled by which direction you're moving and a shadow clone of you that repeats the actions you did in between the last two rewinds. Learning how all these different tricks work and ultimately using them successfully to do something that looked impossible is one of the most satisfying feelings I've had playing a game this year. Even when something's confounding you at the moment, you still feel like the solution's right there because it usually is. I'm not going to pretend I did every puzzle by myself, but even when getting help you can appreciate the genius behind some of the ideas. There are a couple little things that prevent the gameplay from being perfect though, like a single puzzle that you can't solve the first time you see it when this would have been easy to avoid, and a moment here or there where something you didn't expect undoes all the work you just did.

Besides all that though, a big part of Braid's appeal is the presentation. The music and graphics merge to create the perfect environment for the story, slightly whimsical but with a certain dark edge that doesn't become clear until later on. Everything in the game works for the story, in fact. A lot of it is revealed in vague bits of text before each level, but that's mostly flavor for the real plot, which can be interpreted in a number of ways. What's especially great is when the quirks of the time manipulation work in the story's favor. Little moments like the end of the world where time progresses with your movements are great touches, and the final level is one of the most brilliant things I've ever seen in a game. A scene plays out that you see from multiple perspectives, and the way it all fits together is remarkable. After that there's an epilogue that reveals a little more about what could possibly be happening, but that last level is amazing enough to end it right there. The combination of intelligent puzzles and storytelling make Braid the best download-only game I've experienced. I played it on a friend's 360, but when it gets released on PC in a few months I'll pay for it myself because it's totally worth it.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Television Update 3: Fall Finales

As the year comes to an end, tons of shows I watch are going on hiatus until early next year. Here are some brief thoughts on how each of their current seasons are going so far.

American Dad! - It still doesn't have its sister show's popularity and most likely never will, but at the time I think it's the more consistently enjoyable program.

Battlestar Galactica - It's been a long time since they showed the first half, so I don't remember that much. I think I generally liked it, but watching a scene where two characters talked about "frakking" with my parents in the room was one of the most embarassing things ever. At first that stuff was a little clever but they overdid it.

Burn Notice - Fun spy show, not quite sure about its attempts at being more serious.

Chuck - I'm still conflicted on this show. It's often enjoyable, but often frustrating how much it loves dramatic cliches.

Family Guy - I'm not a big fan of the newest stuff at all. It's still usually funny, but the writing is gradually getting lazy and tired.

Fringe
- Not really what I was hoping for. It has some interesting ideas, but everything's dumbed down for the average viewer and I'm not a fan of the run time - it's closer to 50 minutes than 40, and instead of spacing out a couple commercial breaks, there's the same number as usual and most are too short to actually do anything in.

Heroes - Bleugh. I can't even go into it, let's just say it's not the Writers' Strike's fault that season two was crummy.

Legend of the Seeker - Terry Goodkind's books don't have the warmest spot in the hearts of most serious fantasy fans, but what can I say, I think this is a fairly entertaining series so far. There should be more shows in a setting besides the modern USA.

My Name Is Earl - Still the same decent comedy that thankfully doesn't try too hard to be anything more.

The Office - I think we're all in agreement that the peak was around season three-ish, but it's still a great show most of the time and I like how they're handing Jim and Pam. Really easy thing to get wrong.

Prison Break - Continues to be a solid if not great thriller. It does a few too many things to make you roll your eyes, but at least the plotting is better than some other shows that air at the exact same time.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars - Not as bad as the movie, but that's like favorably comparing someone's skin to sand or something weird like that. The action's decent at times.

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles - Some of the episodes are pretty smart, but there's something about this show that makes me not want to like it.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Portishead - Third



Third is the third (hey!) album by Portishead, one of the 90s' top trip hop bands, although from what I can tell it's not very close to what that sounds like. I don't have to be familiar with their earlier work though to know that this is one of the bleakest and most gripping albums I've heard in a while. It's one of those things you really have to listen to with headphones.

The overall sound is a sort of a downbeat industrial/electronic thing with a healthy mix of normal guitar and percussion added. Any remnants of hip hop scratching or whatever aren't there. The songs flow perfectly, with the instrumentation sparse when it needs to be and booming where required. It's another record that nails the balance of a cohesive tone while varying the sound enough to keep the songs unique and interesting. "Silence" has a quick drum beat and some dissonant feedback to play with the electronic sounds. In "Hunter", they go back and forth between the chirps and a more normal, slow guitar and drum thing. "The Rip" starts in with a plucking acoustic melody and eventually brings in quicker drums with an infectious electronic element. "Plastic" has the most obvious trip hop sound to it, I think. "We Carry On", as Pitchfork aptly mentioned, sounds a lot like a Clinic song, with its constant and off-putting beat. "Small"'s another track that bounces back and forth between styles. "Magic Doors" manages to work a piano in there along with some horns. The closer, "Threads", might be the most aggressive, with a nefarious twinge to it, and ends with a minute of a very angry sounding machine sound.

I've been ignoring one of the most important elements though, which is the vocal work by Beth Gibbons. Her voice is mournful and haunting, and fits perfectly with every track, and she sings the depressing lyrics in a very evocative, affecting way. Just look at two back to back songs, "Deep Water" and "Machine Gun", completely different musical styles, one a simple, acoustic, folksy number, the other pure minimalistic industrial with a few synth chords added in, both improved greatly by her singing. Third isn't exactly the most wonderful thing to listen to, but for what it's trying to do, it's one of the best constructed and executed works I've heard.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Entourage - Season 5



Is it just me, or is the season when I catch up on an HBO show always the worst? Season 5 of Entourage isn't bad, but it's still easily the weakest. There are still some standout moments, and the episode where the gang does mushrooms in the desert is probably the funniest in the series. The cast is solid as always, especially... wait for it... Ari! He's still loud and insensitive. I can't tell if Drama's continuous spiral downward after a breakup was good or bad for his character, but he always provides some entertainment. Turtle gets involved with the series' most ludicrous hookup, and that's just the start of the hard to believe parts of the season.

The problem is that they go too far showing Vince's career go down in flames after the disastrous failure of Medellin. A bomb can hurt your career, but it was only a $30 million project (I love how they don't even bother showing what happens to the financier by the way even though that was basically all his money), and he's starred in some very successful films previously, so it shouldn't have been enough to make him virtually unemployable even if he does have an uncooperative reputation. And if you're going to say his career's that far gone, at least don't let him bounce back with one of the most desirable projects possible based on some dailies from a $100 million canceled movie that he helped tank. It always seemed like the show was trying to show what the business was like, but this time I didn't buy it. Still, watching it from moment to moment was still fun and I'm ready for more.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Moral Orel



Adult Swim just finished "44 Nights of Orel" showing the entire series over the course of eleven weeks in a special order to compliment the new episodes of the third and final season. I'm still not fully clear on whether it was canceled because it was so depressing or it was so depressing because it was canceled, but based on the last episode I think it's the latter. When the show first aired a couple years ago, it was a unique but somewhat simplistic parody of old sitcoms and religion. Every episode featured Orel, an innocent and painfully devout Christian boy, grossly misinterpreting some sort of lesson from his father or pastor and doing something horrible like selling his urine or raising the dead. Afterward his dad lectured him on how he was wrong with the help of his belt and then reminded Orel of one of God's "missing commandments". It was often clever and funny enough, but pretty disposable too.

I didn't watch as much after that, but as I learned in the last couple months, they started going in a much different direction with the show starting in season two, and taking it even further with the last one. The focus is less on being funny and more on just developing the characters in the strange town of Moralton. There's still some darkly humorous stuff happening, but starting with the hunting trip that ends the second season, it can get downright disturbing. Orel's less pervasive of a protagonist, and it starts to be about his dad's dirty little secrets more than him. Just because it's not that funny doesn't mean it's without merit though, as some moments in the last season are as meaningful as any I've seen on Adult Swim. And it's not all bad though, with the final episode doing a nice job of showing that there's still hope in the world. It's probably not for everyone but I liked it.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Entourage - Season 4



Entourage continued to slightly tweak the formula in its fourth season, although not everything changed, and not everything that changed was for the better. The first episode is a departure, showing the production of Medellin as a mockumentary like The Office instead of its normal form. Whereas earlier seasons always focused on securing a new project for Vince, this time Eric's career gets the spotlight as he attempts to expand his managing business beyond just his best friend. There's a lot of worry about Medellin, with Eric worried that it sucks despite it getting accepted into Cannes and having a good looking trailer get leaked on the Internet. For a while things are looking good, with a new film from the same team close to becoming a reality, but ultimately the season ends on a lower note than any of the first three.

It seemed like some characters stepped forward and others stepped back. Piven won his third Emmy and first Golden Globe for this season, and he was great as usual. It wasn't just the angry rants this time, he actually showed a little more emotional depth. Eric has an entertaining story arc with Anna Faris, although it ends the way things usually end for him. I was hoping the success of his new show would make Drama evolve a little as a character, but he and Turtle continue to be stuck in the mire of the typical sex and drug antics they're always involved in. It makes me wonder whether the show really wants to be an accurate portrayal of Hollywood life or just a silly, vulgar comedy. I didn't mind any of that too terribly though.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Sarah Silverman Program - Season 2



The first half aired over a year ago, but the show came back from hiatus at the same time as South Park this October, which would have been a nice tandem if they actually aired on the same night. If you haven't seen the Program, it's a pretty solid satire of normal sitcoms, frequently done in very broad strokes. When Brian and Steve spend entire episodes engaging in fart jokes, it's a little hard to tell whether it's a send up of banal humor in other comedies or just banal humor. I generally give them the benefit of the doubt though, because in general the show does a lot right.

The first season was really short, but it had a lot of great moments making fun of really sensitive issues like AIDS. The second doesn't have as many iconic episodes like that, but there's still plenty to make fun of and a lot of laughs. I have to appreciate a show where the main character sleeps with God and then gets annoyed when he's too clingy afterward. Laura and Jay are a nice parody of the irritatingly happy couple, and Brian and Steve fill in for the marriage with constant problems that always manage to get solved within 22 minutes. There's some fun cameos too, like Tim Heidecker in a small role and Adam Corolla as a man a little too passionate about beards. I'm not sure if a third season is going to come but I think it should.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Entourage - Season 3



The third season of Entourage is a bit weird in that it's the longest in the show's run by quite a bit and took a break halfway through that lasted for half a year. In fact, the second half aired much closer to season four that it did to its own first half. Still, you can tell that it's all part of the same story arc; the long arduous process of creating Medellin. It's the movie that Vince and Eric have wanted since the beginning of the series, and it's failed repeatedly as numerous things seem to be conspiring to stop it from happening. The length allows the season to be more tumultuous than the first two, as project after project falls apart before they get off the ground, and Vince and Ari even split for a while at one point.

It seems like they're trying to show a different side of Hollywood, a slightly uglier one. It's not all making money and partying, there's lots of backstabbing as people who don't really like each other have to come to delicate agreements. It doesn't lose its spirit though, as the gang still has time to have some fun, and Johnny Drama finally gets a break. It's not quite as carefree and fun as before, but Piven's great in his second straight Emmy-winning performance, and it's still a nice, fast watch.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Dexter - Season 3



I found the third season of Dexter to be neither as enjoyable nor as believable as the first two, but it's still a solid show with an edge. It's hard to pinpoint the problem, because there's still a lot of good stuff going on. It just felt less like a show about a serial killer and more like a show about a guy who happens to kill people occasionally. When the show started, Dexter was a cold, mysterious person, with all of his outward niceness a facade to hide his terrible secret. He tracked down and killed criminals because he had an insatiable desire to. By now, he's basically transformed into the nice family guy he was pretending to be, it's just he still has to murder once in a while, but it's usually protecting himself anyway. This is all the result of developing the characters over a period of time and clearly intentional, it's just less of a compelling existence.

The main problem Dexter deals with this season is Miguel Prado, an Assistant DA played well by Jimmy Smits. He and Dexter become close friends, and eventually, he becomes the third person in as many seasons to learn Dexter's secret. And if you've seen the first two seasons, you know what's probably going to happen after that. The problem is that I just didn't buy his character arc as easily as the others. His transition from seemingly normal guy to a big problem to be dealt with is just too quick. He has strong convictions, but it's just not something you see happening that way. The supporting cast does a fair bit of growing and changing itself, and the major case the cops are working on is solid enough, if not as well connected to Dexter as it's been before. Another season's on the way, and I hope they can maintain the show's identity enough while still doing what they want to with the story.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Entourage - Season 2



The second season of Entourage picks up a few months after the first one ended, with Vince and the guys coming back from filming Queens Boulevard. Then unfolds the epic story of Aquaman, as every possible thing that could go wrong does as they try to put a movie together. Worries about whether Vince actually has the job or not, conflicts of interest with other projects and actors, trouble getting James Cameron on board when the director of Boulevard won't screen it for him, and so on. I don't know how accurate a picture of the Hollywood business it really is, but it's easily entertaining enough to keep watching.

The characters develop as much as the plot, too. Vince and Eric butt heads some more, but come out as friends in the end anyway. Johnny Drama continues to try to get his career back, although pretty often his storylines devolve into really awkward humor. Turtle's also a little more likable when things occasionally don't go his way and he actually works for a thing or two. Ari really comes into his own too, and I can totally see why Piven gets so much love for his work, he's completely the most consistently funny and interesting character in the series. His angry rants and the way he bounces off of everyone he works with and against are always fun. I still think he's the only truly humorous character on the show, but there's enough there to make it worth watching.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Y: The Last Man, Book 8: Kimono Dragons



In the second half of this series, Goran Sudzuka has done about as much pencil work as co-creator Pia Guerra, but it's hard to even notice, as his style meshes perfectly with hers. The art continues to look great, and remains a huge part of the comic's appeal. But I'm not reading for the pictures, the story's still the most important part. The eighth volume manages to develop the plot further while still featuring some entertaining action and humor, something that haven't quite happened perfectly earlier in the series. In addition to the main plot about recovering a monkey, there are a couple more issues with backstory on supporting characters. They've done a pretty good job of developing all the interesting people that pop up and keeping it relevant to the point of the story. It's a unique tale, with lots of strange elements, like ninjas, pleasure robots, and a mob run by a Canadian pop star, just in this book. But behind the outlandish cover, there's a lot going on. I might just be reiterating myself, but it's basically the perfect encapsulation of comic books as a medium. Only two more volumes left, and I can't wait to see how this ends.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Superjail! - Season 1



Superjail! is a bit divisive among some segments of the Internet. Some people understand that it being nothing but eleven straight minutes of over-the-top, ludicrous, well-animated, incredibly violent insanity is the entire point; that that's plenty to carry an enjoyable late night cartoon; and that there's tons of inventiveness behind the sloppy art style and constant, pointless death. And some people are stupid. No, not really. But they're wrong about Superjail!

It's really a simple show. It always opens with the same inmate who's escaped from the prison and is in the middle of some new crime. He gets painfully arrested by the same robot, and then gets brought back to jail by a new surreal route as the theme song plays. Then the normal episode starts, usually involving the warden coming up with a plan to woo the horrifyingly masculine female guard that ends up going horribly wrong, resulting in a huge brawl as dozens of inmates are brutally killed in creative and often morbidly funny ways. It's not Emmy writing here, it's just fun to watch. There's also some more interesting stories, like the two part season finale where the Warden is arrested by time police before he commits a horrible crime. In the right mindset, Superjail! is a lot of fun.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Hot Rod



At first glance Hot Rod seems like a typical stupid sports comedy, and basically is. But it has enough originality and quirkiness to make it fairly enjoyable. I got a bit of a Napoleon Dynamite vibe from certain scenes that exist only for a single odd laugh, like finding firecrackers in the bathroom and setting them off, without much happening. It takes physical comedy to a new level, with the impacts as Andy Samberg crashes his bike and gets hit by cars and rolls down hills taken to an extreme, which sort of makes them funny again after we've gotten tired of it. It's not the greatest of comedies, but it kept my attention well enough with some atypical jokes and fun cameos that I didn't get bored. Danny McBride has come out of nowhere to make solid contributions to some recent comedies like Tropic Thunder, Bill Hader's a consistent handler of whatever minor roles he gets, and Will Arnett is in classic asshole form. Isla Fisher is the nice, pretty girl inexplicably attracted to the protagonist, best known for playing the crazy sister in Wedding Crashers and having Borat's baby. Ian McShane brings some actual skill to the role of Samberg's stepdad, and the reason for the movie's plot. Andy makes some silly videos and impressions on Saturday Night Live, but he shows here that he can carry a decent little movie, too. Most of what happens is pretty predictable, but it's cute enough to watch once.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Entourage - Season 1


Entourage is the kind of comedy that isn't terribly humorous, but still has likable enough characters and goes by fast enough to be an enjoyable use of time. I can't really think of anything else that fits that description, but that's basically what it is. Based on producer Mark Wahlberg's life as a young guy in Hollywood, Entourage is about the charmed life of Vince Chase, an up and coming actor. He lives with some people from back home; there's Johnny, his brother who's trying to get back into the acting game himself; best friend and manager Eric who's in just as much of a starring role; and Turtle, another friend who drives him around and contributes very little to the show. They get along pretty well, often playing tricks on or cracking jokes about each other, but still long-time companions who support each other. Ari Gold is Vince's Agent, played by Jeremy Piven, and judging by his four straight years of Emmy and Golden Globe nominations and four statues, people really like him as this character.

And he's been the funniest part of the show so far, but it's only been eight episodes, so it's too early for a real judgment. In the first season, Vince's new movie with Jessica Alba comes out and does pretty well in the first weekend, and then he agrees to do an indie film back in New York with an eccentric director. And that's about it. Eric has some girl problems. Eight episodes breezed by pretty quick, and this is really the sort of show that you can just consume immediately without realizing it. It's like television junk food, not terrible fulfilling but easy to eat. There are a lot of cameos by famous actors playing themselves or weird characters, like Val Kilmer as a pot growing Sherpa. I feel like saying too much more about eight episodes would just be repeating myself so I'll stop.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Wonder Showzen



Wonder Showzen was the first show by PFFR, the band that also makes Xavier: Renegade Angel on Adult Swim. Whereas Xavier's made with very ugly computer graphics, Showzen is a mix of traditional animation, puppets, and live action segments, including stock footage and interviews with people on the street. On the surface it resembles an educational show for children, but as it constantly reminds the viewer, it's nowhere near appropriate for kids. It's violent, has lots of disgusting shots of things from real life, and treats tons of sensitive topics like suicide, race, and abortion with a crude sense of humor. But there is a lot of intelligence behind it, intelligence that only pops up occasionally but still shows that satire runs the gamut from subtle to as subtle as hitting you in the head with a hammer.

Some of the best segments are the ones on the street, where a kid dressed as a reporter or a blue puppet named Clarence asks people questions, usually to hilarious effect. The kids usually just trick adults into agreeing to something stupid, but Clarence is an expert at pissing people off. It's funny how often people will start freaking out and cursing at a hand puppet, and the final episode consisting solely of Clarence asking people to make compelling television set to original music has some great moments. Like they do in Xavier, they often divert from the story to just screw around with brain twisting stuff like having the characters watch a bootleg knockoff of their show, on which the knockoff characters are watching the original show in return, and so on. It's a funny show that quite often becomes avant garde just to annoy the audience. But if you can tolerate being screwed with, it's pretty enjoyable.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Y: The Last Man, Book 7: Paper Dolls



Y has been enjoyable all the way through, but for a few volumes in the middle it seemed like I was only getting snippets of the real story in the background while the main characters were content to get kidnapped and fight people a lot. You could tell there was more there, Vaughan just hadn't shown it yet. But Paper Dolls is the first book in a while where we start to get a good look at the (wo)man behind the curtain and get a much better taste of why this is all happening. A lot of the details about why everything that's happened has happened the way it did, and it's made the story a lot more gripping. I've lost some sympathy for Yorick for various reasons, but I got some of it back seeing his renewed devotion to his personal mission and some more of his character. It's important in a story like this for him to be a really interesting character, and for better or worse, he is. 355 also gets her own flashback issue, and it's certainly worth reading. The most important issue is one about a monkey though, explaining how Ampersand came to be Yorick's monkey. Everything's starting to come to a head, and I hope to see how it ends as soon as reasonably possible.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Breaking Bad - Season 1



I'm not sure what drove AMC to get into the original programming market. They used to show older movies in widescreen, commercial free, and without edits, but they've shifted to a format much more typical of normal television. It's not too bad if it means they can create quality programs like this and Mad Men. Breaking Bad's definitely a different sort of show. It hinges on Bryan Cranston's performance, which is fortunately great, notable enough to get him an Emmy despite only having seven episodes so far. Cranston's been a likable actor for years, known for roles like the dentist that Jerry thinks converted to Judaism for the jokes on Seinfeld and the dad on Malcolm on the Middle. With Bad, he shows that not only can he be funny, he can legitimately carry a significant role. The show's premise is that a high school chemistry teacher decides to cook Crystal Meth to make money for his family after he finds out he has lung cancer. He's a normally timid man who starts changing as he sees the end in sight, and it's really interesting to watch how everything affects him.

He's the star of the show, but it's also about his family and the connections he makes with people in the business, such as an old student who's become a dealer. Things go really bad from time to time, and as much as the show is a subtle character study, it also has some shocking and even really cool moments. A fifty year old science teacher's not your typical criminal, and seeing how he uses his impressive base of knowledge to fight back intelligently against obstacles is really interesting. They still haven't done too much to put him in danger of being caught or hurt, but there's some really good places they could go with that. A second season is coming soon, and the show has plenty of ways it can expand and get better, although you have to wonder how long they can keep it going when the crux of everything is a character who could be dying. How he faces the cancer is a really important part of it, and there are a lot of ways that could go wrong as a story element. It hasn't yet though, and I'd really like to see more.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Happy Gilmore



Eh.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Matrix Revolutions



Structurally, the finale of the Matrix series seems very odd. The action sequences are bigger than they've ever been, but it seems like the main characters don't actually do a whole hell of a lot. It's not that easy to even come up with a point for the first half hour - they could have easily skipped the whole Trainman part and just had the stuff with the Oracle without much changing. It's like the Wachowski Brothers looked at the script and said, "This needs to be two hours. Let's add a few more scenes in the Matrix, even though this is supposed to be a dichotomy with the second movie or something." That whole part is basically a retread - one last gunfight, one last Trinity jump kick, one more scene with the Merovingian. And that's basically all the main supporting cast gets to do for the rest of the movie.

The main conflict takes place in the real world, as Keanu goes to confront the machines while their army launches an assault on the humans' last city. The big battle largely features people we don't care about - a bunch of nameless goons in poorly-thought-out walking tanks and mildly developed bit characters running around here and there, while Will Smith's wife and a snarky crew race there hoping to help. The whole thing goes on for about twenty minutes, after which this has happened: the robots are still coming. One of the most enjoyable sequences in the movie happens before all this though, on the other ship with Neo and Trinity; where Bane, a human whose mind has been taken over by Smith, attempts to kill his nemesis. It's the only fight in the series that doesn't feature stylish martial arts or science fiction vehicles, just a couple of guys knocking each other around and using anything in arm's reach to gain an advantage. The guy playing Bane has a spot on Smith impression, and while he could have taken business a little smarter than he did, it's an important sequence for showing how Neo's powers have extended beyond the computer simulation they started in.

Unfortunately, the other scenes with Smith aren't so great. He transforms from the cold, brutal, efficient machine he was before into a typical maniacal bad guy, complete with silly menacing laughter. He seems to become more human as he struggles harder to eradicate them as a species. That's probably intentional, but that doesn't make it enjoyable characterization. The final battle between him and Neo is pretty mixed. It has some good moments, and it's interesting to see an over the top anime-style fight put to actual film, but it gets silly pretty often and, again, ends up feeling a bit pointless. The story's resolution is satisfactory for what they built up, although I could have done without the very obvious Christian imagery. The series went a while with Neo being a non-specific savior, it seemed weird for them to suddenly tie him directly to one Religion. In the end, Revolutions wasn't the redemption most were hoping for after Reloaded. They're both pretty watchable sci-fi action, but they don't come close to the simple quality of the original.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Matrix Reloaded


I forgot to mention in the last post that the movie has good music too. Solid mix of original orchestral stuff and licensed techno and rock. Anyway, the first sequel had insane expectations that it failed to live up to. I still think it's an entertaining action movie, but it's sadly devoid of a lot of the elements that made the original good. A big problem is that most of the action seems pointless. The sense of fear and tension is missing. The first time around, Agents were scary and powerful, and the good guys were very vulnerable, just doing enough damage to give themselves time to escape. Now, Neo's practically omnipotent, and he treats them like playthings. It's not just him either; Morpheus holds his own against an upgraded model much better than he did against Smith. The danger's just gone. Neo can resurrect people and fly away from any fight, but he sticks around anyway to show off his moves. The ghost twin things chase after our heroes with an SUV and assault rifle; the gunner can fire a burst into any vehicle and cause it to flip over, but he empties hundreds of round at the good guys and nary a scratch. Every time a car crashes and spins through the air, we get treated to a slow motion glory shot from the best angle. The movie spends twelve minutes on the freeway chase, in which the following happens: they get away.

What's funny is that the advanced visual effects have aged worse than the first movie's tricks. The "burly brawl" starts out decently enough, with some interesting choreography as long as you ignore a few obvious stand-ins and the fact that the only thing they seem to be doing is grabbing Neo's shoulder, but as soon as the Smiths really start coming in the fight becomes a slow motion computer-fest as an extremely fake looking Keanu Reeves smacks around a bunch of extremely fake looking Hugo Weavings, accompanied by domino and bowling sound effects. Any time Reeves is replaced by a digital model to do something fantastic, it looks incredibly dated, and they bring the camera way too close to their sad creation. The movie is simply less believable than its predecessor. And outside the fighting, the movie's not that great either. Lots of people like to complain about the rave/sex scene, and for good reason. From when the drums begin to the final shot of Keanu's butt covered strategically by Trinity's leg, about five minutes pass. That's not a terrible amount of time to waste, but in those five minutes, we learn nothing, and the bits of dialogue only reinforces plot details we already knew.

When the movie came out, it was part of a multimedia attack featuring a video game and collection of anime short films. It was cool at the time, but now you see how it weakens The Matrix Reloaded as a film on its own. Why should we care about this dumb kid Neo rescued since the last time we saw him? Why are we just glazing over this apparently important stuff that Will Smith's wife is doing? All the other humans we meet don't really add much to the story. There's a whole fleet of hovercrafts with crews that jack into the Matrix, so how come we met none of them last time around? It kind of seems like the Wachowskis took their tight little science fiction story and wanted to make it more epic. The story works on some level, it just doesn't seem like the logical extension of the first film. I personally didn't mind the philosophizing and blunt exposition that cropped up, but it probably could have been presented more naturally. Also, the cliffhanger was fairly poorly executed. Bane is set up as a villain for the third movie, but at the time Reloaded ended he certainly wasn't memorable enough to get away with revealing him for a split second upside down. There are twists right before the break that really shake up what we believe in an interesting way, but it certainly wasn't a middle on par with some other famous trilogies.

Monday, December 1, 2008

The Matrix



For a while I called The Matrix my favorite movie, and the only reason I don't anymore is that I have a difficult time declaring a favorite anything. It's legacy was marred by the sequels, but watching it again, it still holds up as a really good action movie with a story worth thinking about. The "bullet time" effect shots aren't as impressive as they used to be and the way that they're lingered on seems kind of silly and self-indulgent now, but they don't detract too much from some otherwise excellent fight scenes. Everybody and their dog is complaining about shaky cam filming now, and it's nice to see an American movie again that shows the action in a way that you can actually tell easily what's going on. People don't like stunt doubles anymore, so it seems the compromise is to move the camera around really fast and cut quickly so it's hard to tell if it's really the actor or if he's even doing anything. The Wachowski Brothers on the other hand, say what you will about them ripping off anime and Philosophy 101, decided to take the time to train the main actors enough so they could convincingly pull off some pretty nice martial arts choreography. Nobody's confusing Keanu Reeves with Jet Li or anything, but it works well enough, and they don't go overboard on the wires either, a technique that I've come to dislike.

The movie isn't only good at Kung Fu, either. It has a really good gunfight and a really good chase that's intertwined with a really good science fiction robot monsters thing. It's still tense after all these times I've seen it. The movie's almost ten years old, but it really has aged better than many expected it would. Just the central story, the revelation of what's really going on behind the scenes, the whole crew of the Nebuchadnezzar and their camaraderie, the solid betrayal and interrogation scenes... the movie is just good. I enjoyed the sequels enough, but they're not close to the original's incredible watchability. Neo is the role that Keanu Reeves was born to play, sort of like Arnold with The Terminator. They're not very good actors, but this is a role he just seems to fit perfectly. There's not many people you could buy as a disconnected hacker (there's his woodenness) and as badass savior of humanity (he's good at looking kinda stoic). And this is where Hugo Weaving declared himself as king of the movies for nerds genre, playing a great villain with moments of both unnerving coldness and immense rage. I have no qualms with saying I love this movie.