Friday, December 31, 2010

Intolerable Cruelty

Cruelty has a reputation as one of the Coen brothers' weaker films, and the early scenes seemed to signal that, with a generally unfunny and too-silly opening scene featuring Geoffrey Rush as a cuckolded TV producer. Luckily things got better once the lead characters played by George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones are introduced, and while it is one of my least favorite movies by the Coens, that's only because their catalogue as a whole is so damn good, while Cruelty is merely mostly enjoyable. It's also the last movie of theirs I haven't seen, and it was nice to finally plug up all those gaps.

So the movie is a romantic comedy, but it definitely doesn't play like a romantic comedy of the era. It's more of a classic screwball comedy that's been run through a Coen filter, and while it results in a movie with a low bar to jump, they vault it with a fair amount of grace and style. In some ways it's a very typical movie with obvious and less-than-inspired romantic story beats, but I think it's intentional how standard those scenes are, as they're included merely to acknowledge the fact that that's the kind of movie they're making. It's one of only two films where they shared screenwriting credit with others and was followed by their only direct remake, which leads me to believe it was maybe something of a slow period for them creatively. While the work isn't their most original, it's still distinctly theirs with things like the brief snippets with the head of Clooney's firm and the Wheezy Joe character that you would never see if one of the other directors who was previously attached to the story had ended up making it.

So while it is something of a cliche story, it still works because the Coens have such a distinct style and the cast is pretty outstanding. George Clooney manages to make an asshole divorce lawyer into a charming protagonist, and Zeta-Jones is alluring and likable despite her motivations for most of the movie. Billy Bob Thornton pops in in a great dual role that he knocks out of the park, Cedric the Entertainer is amusing with somewhat limited material, and Freddy might be the best character Richard Jenkins ever played in a Coen movie. The dialogue is sharp and rapid-fire in that old style, and the way the movie blends that classic kind of comedy with more modern developments like pre-nup agreement shenanigans just worked for me. When the movie actually wants the sentimental side to work it does, and before that there's a great tension when you know things aren't going the way they should and you're just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Not everything worked out, but I had a good time watching it. And the music choices were good too. Not a bad movie at all.

It's the last day of the year, so here's some housekeeping work I have to do:

In case you haven't noticed, I've started writing for a website called Player Affinity. I am in charge of the PS3 section and I also contribute to the TV side, and here's the reviews and features I wrote or contributed to that I haven't already linked to here:

The PS3 Awards
The Other Games of 2010
This Year's Best PS3 Games So Far
The PS3 Team's Favorite Controversial Games
The PS3 Team's Favorite Horror Games
Is It Okay to Play as the Taliban in Medal of Honor?
Why I Like Single Player Games

The Office episode reviews
Costume Contest
Viewing Party
Classy Christmas

Also, along with the responsibilities, I've actually just started a new full time job that actually makes me money, so I simply don't have the time anymore to post on this blog as often as I have this year. I'm not going to stop, but I'm doing a few things to limit the workload. The first is probably no more baseball posts. When I first started the blog, I intended to use this section more, but the truth is I don't have that much to add to the discussion with all of the great dedicated sites and blogs there are out there, and it's fairly incongruous to talk about sports like once a month when this is otherwise basically all entertainment reviews. Another thing is no more music reviews. I actually expect the amount of music I listen to to increase with a hopefully stable income, but the fact is I've never gotten comfortable writing about the subject. I just don't know how to say what I like or don't like about songs the way other people do, and I don't enjoy having to do it. I'll still make lists, but I doubt there will be anymore full reviews.

When it comes to TV and comics, I'm going to stop posting about individual seasons or trade paperbacks of older titles. If they're still running, I'll write a single post about what was already released after I've caught up, and if they ended before I got to them, I'll sum up the whole thing in one go. Posts about current things will continue as usual. I'll see how this all goes at first, but hopefully cutting out some of the stuff that I've traditionally done as filler will help out a lot. Before the blog was almost a job, but going forward it will be more of a hobby. Who knows, maybe the writing will be better when I don't try to make myself do it every day.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Cool Hand Luke

Like a lot of prison movies, Cool Hand Luke relies on the quality of the craftsmanship on the screen more than the events that drive the story. Not a whole lot happens in the plot, but it still sustains itself well for two hours thanks to skillful direction by Stuart Rosenberg and a good, restrained performance by Paul Newman. George Kennedy acquits himself well in an Oscar winning performance as Dragline, and the rest of the cast is solid as well. But it's Newman's performance I'll remember the best, doing a great job holding up the character end of a character-focused story. He can be the coolest guy in the room in one scene and a broken-down mess in the next, and while his journey can be depressing, on the other hand it's also an example of how the human spirit can never truly be broken, and in a way it's about how legends are made.

Luke is a war hero who seems bored with life, and gets arrested and sentenced to two years in a Southern work prison when he gets caught drunkenly cutting the heads off parking meters. Dragline is a leader among the inmates, and at first the two butt heads. But eventually they bond when Dragline is impressed by Luke's refusal to ever give in, and gives him his Cool Hand nickname after a poker game. Things go pretty well for Luke considering the prison setting for a while, but after a tragedy, he is unfairly punished and becomes rebellious, repeatedly trying to break out of the place, which results in some pretty harsh treatment. The transformation of the character is the meat of the whole movie, and while it's often difficult to see it's always compelling as well. The movie is also famous for some of its dialogue, like the prisoners telling the guards about everything they're doing and the "failure to communicate" line, and those things were entertaining to see, but what most impressed me about the film is just the amount of care that went into making it. Prison is usually a good way to examine the psychology of men, and Cool Hand Luke is as good an exploration as any. It's not my favorite, but it's darn good.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Beatles - Past Masters

To this point I've avoided the very early Beatles releases, not because I truly didn't want to listen to them, but because they seemed a bit reliant on covers and typical early 60s rock style and I was more interested in their later work. Past Masters is a collection of all the Beatles singles that didn't make it onto a regular album, and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the first disc, which covered up through the Help! era. I still preferred the stuff on disc two from when I'm better versed in their work, but there's quite a number of good songs on the whole collection. It doesn't all come together into a cohesive vision as well as their better albums, but there's a lot of enjoyable music here, a nice, pretty eclectic collection of tunes in a wide range of styles.

There's nothing really like their absolute heaviest or must experimental work, these were singles after all. But still, before all the drugs and fame, they were a damned competent pop act, and that definitely shows right from the beginning. It starts off with a song I definitely remember but I'm not sure I mentally attributed to the band, "Love Me Do". I knew the title was a Beatles song before I heard it, but the down-tempo sound and memorable harmonica hook were a surprise to hear, and it was a nice introduction of the group to their British fans. Some of the most famous Beatles songs ever are sprinkled through here, including "She Loves You", "I Want to Hold Your Hand", and "I Feel Fine". I don't like all of them the same amount, but they're all pretty hard to dislike at least, and they mix well with the songs I had never heard before. Some of the more interesting ones on the first disc like "Long Tall Sally" and "Slow Down" are covers of more soulful artists, but they're able to pull them off without embarrassing themselves. And by the time you get to stuff like "I'm Down", they're really turning into the true musical geniuses they would become known as.

A few of the tracks on the collection actually do appear on albums, but are still included here because they're different versions, and this becomes more common on disc two, especially when you get to the situation with Let It Be, which had a few singles taken from it before it was shelved and then re-produced before release. Still though, despite the familiar music, there's still a lot to like here. I might like "Revolution" more than The Beatles' "Revolution 1", "The Inner Light" is yet another worthwhile Indian-style experiment from George, and while it's sappy, "Hey Jude" is one of the group's most famous and sing-alongable tunes. Stuff like "Paperback Writer" is solidly good, catchy when the band was more focused on other things, and it ends with "You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)" is possibly the group's oddest song, sounding like something the members of Monty Python might record, while still somehow feeling like a fitting B-Side for their last ever single. It doesn't amaze as much as their best work, but Past Masters is about 90 minutes of songs that are definitely worth hearing a few times.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Television Update 7: Holiday Specials

There seemed to be an unusual amount of special episodes of shows I watch around the Holiday season this year, so I thought I'd go over them. To get here, the episode didn't have to be Christmas themed, but it did have to be separate from the standard season airing schedule for the show.

Doctor Who - "A Christmas Carol"

Hey, an episode of Doctor Who actually aired in America on the same day as in England! It's a Christmas miracle! While Russell T. Davies' Who Christmas specials tended to at least acknowledge the existence of the Holiday, they also tended to be about everything except it. Now that Steven Moffat's in charge of the show, he's put the Christmas back in Christmas Special with one of his better episodes, and definitely the most holiday-themed Who I've seen. The episode is obviously a take on a story that's been retold countless times, but Moffat and the cast make it work surprisingly well. Michael Gambon plays a man in control of a planet's dangerous cloud layer who takes family members for collateral on loans, and is very much a future version of Scrooge. Needing his help to save a ship full of people including Amy and Roy, the Doctor takes the role of the various Christmas ghosts and creatively uses the TARDIS to try to change his mind. The time travel twists on the classic story freshen it up quite a bit, and there's a lot here to justify Moffat's conception of the show as fairy tale more than science fiction. A very fun, very British hour of television.

Futurama - "The Futurama Holiday Spectacular"

This special is a lot like the Anthology of Interest episodes from the past, showing three silly short films within the Futurama framework, although this time there's nothing to frame the different stories and everyone dies at the end of all three, making them decidedly out of continuity. They're all based on a different holiday and also have sneaky environmental themes attached, providing a Christmas story about seed contamination, a Robanukah story about the depleting Petroleum reserves, and a Kwanzaa story about honey bees disappearing. It's far from one of the best episodes the show has done, with many of the jokes falling flat and yet another Al Gore appearance feeling a bit redundant at this point, but I'll give it a pass because each segment made me laugh out loud at least once. A bit scattershot, but they were probably constrained by the short running time for each bit, needing to hit multiple themes in each one, and finding a way to kill off the cast at the end each time, so the end result is respectable if not outstanding. A decent hold over until the next season starts.

Robot Chicken - "Robot Chicken: Star Wars Episode III"

There was actually a proper Christmas episode that aired before this, but it appears to be part of the regular fifth season which is starting up soon, while this is definitely a special. While the Family Guy Star Wars tributes have a clear purpose to go on for three episodes, retelling the story of the original trilogy, the Robot Chicken Star Wars episodes have been all over the place with all six movies, making a third seem less necessary. And at an hour long it could have easily dragged. Luckily the writers saved it with a real concept this time, going forward chronologically through the whole series, following Emperor Palpatine's ascent to the throne. It's still just an excuse for a lot of random gags and jokes, but the general progression makes it more interesting than it could have been. Their take on Palpatine is still pretty funny, and a lot of the sketches are among the best and most elaborate they've ever done. It's still definitely just more Robot Chicken in places, but I liked the episode more than I expected.

Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! - "Chrimbus Special"

The Awesome Show's apparent ending earlier this year was a surprise heartbreak, though they've changed that sentiment in the last couple months with a new tour (that I missed getting to go to), a new hour long episode, and an announcement of a coming movie as well as the possibility of more seasons if they feel like it. That's all great news, and the holiday "Chrimbus" episode was hilarious as expected. Chrimbus is a warped version of Christmas much more focused on the receiving aspect of the holiday than the giving side, and it's an opportunity for more awkward audience reactions, mildly disturbing song and dance numbers, and one off sketches. The episode works as an excuse to bring back all of the old favorite guests, from known celebrities like Zach Galifianakis to fan favorite oddities like Ben Hur. There's a couple more ridiculous Cinco products to throw on the gigantic pile, and a multi-part arc with Carol and Mr. Henderson that wasn't exactly necessary but still pretty outstanding. More fun for Tim and Eric fans, and if it had ended up as the last thing they did, it would have been a nice send off.

Monday, December 27, 2010

True Grit

True Grit is yet another very good film by Joel and Ethan Coen, though it might be the least distinctly-Coen movie to date. It's not a remake of the John Wayne movie, but much like No Country for Old Men, it appears to be a very faithful adaptation of a novel, and one that ties even less into their existing style. The trademarks of distinctive, playful dialogue and stark, sudden violence are still there, but putting the story in the 1800s removes it even farther from what we're used to seeing, and in fact I think besides a couple scenes at the end it's their only work not to take place in the 20th century or later. But while I wouldn't have minded seeing a bit more of my favorite filmmakers' flair shine through, the film doesn't need it to succeed. It's already a story that they know how to do, and it's filled with actors that knew what they were going for.

Jeff Bridges plays Rooster Cogburn, the Wayne character, and he's unsurprisingly excellent as a cantankerous drunk of a US Marshall who'd just as soon shoot a man down as take him in to custody. He's far from the nicest guy, but you still end up loving him because of his unique attitude and competence when it really matters. Though his name is the biggest on the marquee, the protagonist of the story is really Mattie Ross, played almost shockingly well by the teenage Hailee Steinfeld. I believe the first film to adapt this story reduced Mattie's role in the story so they wouldn't have to worry about a young girl carrying the story, but the Coens confronted the problem directly and found the perfect person for the part. The character is at times stubborn, vengeful, and vulnerable, and Steinfeld does everything better than could be expected. Matt Damon plays Texas Ranger La Boeuf (La Beef as he pronounces it), and manages to make the character likable while still conveying his somewhat bumbling nature. Josh Brolin's role as Tom Chaney is surprisingly small, but he pulls it off well, and Barry Pepper is a good mix of scary and laughable as Lucky Ned. The rest of the characters are mostly minor, but well cast, and pretty much everyone seems to nail their old fashioned Southern accents.

So the story is about Mattie hiring Cogburn to track down Chaney, who killed her father and is also being tracked by La Boeuf for crimes in Texas. The three all butt heads and part ways at various points, but generally stay on Chaney's trail while having various unusual encounters in unsettled territory. Some of what they run across is quite grim, while other things are played more for laughs, with the general tone being fairly dark but not without a lining of lightheartedness. Eventually things start to get more violent as they get closer to their goal, and I was a bit surprised by the bloodiness and savagery of some of what happened considering the PG-13 rating. There wasn't anything in particular that was graphic enough on its own to bump it up, but the amount and unpredictable nature of it was notable. I enjoyed the movie a lot, but in what have might have been an artifact of the sometimes unusual structure of a novel, the pace of the plot seemed a bit off. A lot of time is spent establishing the characters before they really set off, and the climax and end of the story seemed to sneak up unexpectedly. We don't really get to know any of the bad guys before they're killed, and while that can work when done right, it felt sort of strange when the whole story was based around pursuing a man who only gets a few minutes on screen before the end. There's something to the antagonist being just another guy that gets built up when he evades capture for a long time, but it made for a less than perfectly told story in my mind. I liked pretty much every individual scene, they just didn't all come together quite as well as the Coen brothers usually manage.

As I mentioned though, it was still a good film, and the production quality certainly didn't hurt. The locations they used for the story were perfect, and the whole thing was gorgeous from beginning to end. Great cinematography, framing, and lighting combined with the right natural beauty make for a movie that's just great to look at the whole time, and the sets they built felt right too. The score was also fantastic, a lot of it was based on old hymns which disqualified the film for the Oscar, but it helped set the right mood in every scene, especially when bad things were happening. If everyone could just adapt a story and put it on screen as well as the Coens do pretty much every time, then the film world would be a much better place. Not my favorite movie of the year, but it certainly has a spot pretty high on my list.

Sunday, December 26, 2010


The Rocky series has kind of a silly reputation, because it's probably the most heavily milked Best Picture-winning series of all time. But the original film is justified in winning the award (thought it wouldn't be my pick), and it's really quite a good movie. It's a series of boxing movies, but the original is a movie about a boxer. That's a significant distinction, and it's why the film works. It's two hours long, and there are only two matches, one at the beginning, and one at the end. It doesn't exist to show Sylvester Stallone as a conquering hero with impressive musculature, but rather as a bum who makes the best of the one chance he gets. Stallone is lumped in with a lot of the other meathead action movie actors, but he's the only one I've ever seen write a good script like this and play such a vulnerable underdog of a character. Really good work by a guy who's content to make roid-fueled bloody extravaganzas these days.

So Rocky Balboa is a past-his-prime boxer who earns a living roughing people up for a loan shark. He still fights sometimes for extra money, and tries to talk with the mousy pet shop employee who sold him his turtles, and who's the sister of his drunkard meat packing friend. The owner of his boxing club hates him for missing out on his potential, and he lives alone in a crummy apartment in Philadelphia. But he gets a big break when Carl Weathers' Apollo Creed needs an opponent for his Bicentennial boxing exhibition, and essentially picks Rocky's name out of a hat of local fighters. So Rocky tries to get his act together, starts a relationship with the girl, and trains his hardest for the fight, which is only a few weeks away. I was impressed with how strong the character work was in general. His relationships with his friend and trainer are both difficult, as the former feels he isn't getting his due and the latter has shared a mutual disappointment with him for years. It's good stuff, and the boxing is really just a backdrop for a guy trying to get his life on some sort of track. The last fight is appropriately dramatic and brutal, and the ending is perfect, going back to it being about the people and not who wins. I don't expect a whole lot from the many sequels but I'll probably watch them all eventually anyway, just out of curiosity.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Fantasia 2000

When I first heard of Fantasia 2000 over a decade ago, I wasn't sure what it really was. A sequel? A remake? An update? It turns out to mostly be the first one, thought there's a whiff of the third in there as well. It basically recreates the formula of the original film, with various animated segments interspersed with a bit of live action that tell their stories exclusively through imagery and accompanying classical music. They reuse "The Sorcerer's Apprentice", the segment with Mickey bringing a broomstick to life, because I guess it wouldn't be Fantasia without it. But besides that it's all new, and includes some music that's very familiar, like "Rhapsody in Blue" and "Pomp and Circumstance", and other pieces that are more obscure but no less enjoyable. Each segment is also introduced by a celebrity for some reason, something the original didn't feel the need to do, and while having them there doesn't really take much away from the film, it seems unnecessary when the original just let the pieces speak for themselves.

Comparing the actual film to the first is a bit difficult, because the original is so ingrained with my childhood. I remember it as one of my most frequently rewatched VHS tapes, and I found captivating, funny, and even terrifying in places. And what's here just doesn't have that impact. It's very nice to look at, with some very good hand drawn animation and also some computer generated elements that seem integrated pretty well for the time. And the music is really nice, and well performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It's just hard to appreciate it as much when you're not a kid and experiencing the same sort of thoughts while watching it. My favorite segment is based on the previously mentioned "Rhapsody in Blue", which is itself an incredible piece of music, and it's animated in the style of Al Hirschfeld cartoons. It feels like a classic Chuck Jones short or something, and is possibly the purest piece of creativity in the whole movie. The rest are generally pretty good, although using Donald Duck to prop up a segment seemed kind of forced when you already had Mickey and the original was so strong with him as the only recognizable face. It's not a bad showcase of animation at all, I just don't see it as having the same potential impact for anyone watching it. Like I said, I may be biased, but for anyone born before the turn of the century, who wouldn't be?

Thursday, December 23, 2010


I've long been an appreciator of Akira Kurosawa's work, but I haven't once seen something by him that captivated me as much as Masaki Kobayashi's Harakiri. It's not only my new favorite samurai movie, it's one of the great film tragedies of all time. Kurosawa's period films are well known for their epic scope and adventurous tone, but Harakiri is much more contained and dark, both of which work in its favor. The majority of the film takes place inside a single mansion, and I honestly wish it spent even less time elsewhere. The story flashes back to past events in other places to explain the story, but all of the regular action is in this one location, and I was basically enraptured for every second of it.

Tatsuya Nakadai plays Hanshiro Tsugumo, a grizzled and distant ronin who wanders into a lord's estate and asks permission to commit ritual suicide via disembowelment within its walls. It takes place in a time during which peace reigned which left many former samurai out of work, and it was hard to find ways to even stay fed. Some opted to honorably kill themselves, but in the story, it's been going around that after one such ronin made the request, he was instead giving a position at the estate instead. Other samurai since made the same request without ever intending to actually kill themselves, content to receive handouts and be sent on their way. The particular place where Tsugumo makes this request received a similar visitor months earlier, and rather than letting him walk off with some money, they forced him to do what he requested, even making him do so with his bamboo blades after he sold the steel ones. A man tells Tsugumo this story and advises him to just walk away with his life, but he is steadfast in his desire to die within this building's walls.

From there we start to learn a lot more about how Tsugumo knew the other samurai and why he's so dedicated to dying, as he explains it to the other men present while waiting for his second (the one who will decapitate him after he completes the act). I was already fairly familiar with the plot specifics before I saw the movie, but the knowledge never dulled the impact of what was on screen. Information is doled out at a near-perfect pace, only slowing down a bit during the more depressing segments, scenes which would have passed with a bit less boredom if the framing story wasn't so mesmerizing. There are moments of incredible brutality, triumph, and sorrow all throughout the plot, and it's hard to overstate just how remarkable watching it is.

The black and white cinematography is gorgeous, and the leisurely pace and measured, considered acting add tons to the intended mood. Nakadai is a very intense actor, and the movie just wouldn't be the same without the slowly building rage behind his vacant stare. The rest of the cast is good as well, and while the beautiful film work is enough to keep you interested in the beginning, the shocking violence of some of the scenes in an early 60s film and tension that builds through the entire two hours before the climax will have any true film lover totally entranced to the end. I'm really gushing here, but it's a seriously amazing movie, and even people who don't care for cinematic history should enjoy the last twenty minutes for just being well done bits of action. I was so impressed, I'm actually kind of looking forward to seeing Kobayashi's The Human Condition, a nine-hour trilogy that's looming on my Netflix queue. Awesome film.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Freaks and Geeks

Freaks and Geeks is a show from a decade ago that was liked by everyone who saw it. Unfortunately, the number of people who saw it was too small, and it was canceled after one season. It's still relatively well known today though, because it was produced by and starred several names that are still big today, most notably Judd Apatow and his favored actors Jason Segel, James Franco, and Seth Rogen. The trio form the "freaks", new friends of protagonist Lindsay Weir who prefer smoking pot and jamming in their garage band to focusing on school work. Lindsay's young brother Sam and his two friends played by Samm Levine and additional Apatow veteran Martin Starr are the geeks, who have less trouble with grades but have to worry about bullies and getting girls to notice them.

The cast is rounded out by Busy Philipps as Franco's girlfriend and the Weir siblings' parents, both of whom I don't recall seeing elsewhere but add a lot to the show, especially Joe Flaherty as the stern but lovable father, who might actually be my favorite character despite the good work by the more famous cast members. There's also a ton of easily recognizable actors in supporting and guest roles, such as David Krumholtz as Levine's older brother, Jason Schwartzman as a guy who can get fake IDs, Shia LaBeouf as the former school mascot, Joel from Mystery Science Theater 3000 as a guy who won't let disco go, and Biff from Back to the Future as a somewhat misguided but well-meaning gym teacher.

The show takes place in the early 80s, but it has a more timeless feel thanks to the nature of the storylines, which probably won't be going away for a while. Lindsay is tired of being an ace student and wants to have new experiences, frequently butting heads with her parents' wishes. And Sam and his friends try to deal with getting embarrassed in class and wondering if they'll ever find a way to get more friends, or at least stop getting picked on. I saw a lot of the show when it was on air, but I've been meaning to go back and watch the whole thing for a while. Once I did, it was like I had never stopped watching. Some of the moments they go for are a bit cheesy or forced, but for the most part it's one of the most realistic takes on the high school experience you'll ever see in the media, especially from the outcast's point of view. It struck a chord with me being pretty similar to the geeks especially, as they ask for video games for their birthdays and play Dungeons & Dragons instead of going to parties.

Sam and Lindsay get the most screen time, but pretty much every main character has a real chance to shine despite only 18 episodes being made, like Starr's mother dating a teacher and Levine discovering his father's secret in one of the greatest ever TV moments. Among the students, Franco and Segel give the best overall performances, and Segel's troubling emotional and domestic issues in particular are well handled. I don't know what the plan was if the show got a chance to really grow, but what there is here is just a unique experience, pretty much perfect for what it tries to be. I can't imagine many people not seeing at least one sympathetic character they can relate to. Seeing it get canceled was possibly my first experience with that kind of heartbreak, and watching it ten years later it still tugs on those strings.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Rhythm Heaven

Rhythm Heaven is the sequel to a Game Boy Advance game that only came out in the DS, which makes some amount of sense because it is a pretty weird series, although putting it onto a touch-based platform is a perfect fit which definitely justifies bringing this one over. It plays out as a series of mini games where the player taps, rubs, and flicks the screen to achieve objectives based on various rhythm-based skills, periodically reaching a checkpoint where they have to put several of these skills together to move on to the next group of games. It's a fun and rewarding system, constantly dangling a carrot in front of you so you have something to work toward. Doing especially well on a game earns medals, which unlock other toys and things to mess with, and achieving a perfect score will grant access to further diversions. And while the games can get frustrating, the game will never lose you because you can opt to skip one if it's proving to be overly difficult. You get penalized a bit for resorting to this, but if you just want to play the other games it's no big deal.

Not including extra gadgets there are 25 different games, and they all feature their own music, specific play mechanic, and unique and often bizarrely humorous premise. You might be clapping in sync with a bunch of monkeys in the audience at a concert, matching a singing moai head's vocals, or flinging eggs into your mouth at a breakneck pace. When the game works it can be transcendent, especially when you get to the harder levels but have something down and can basically do it in your sleep. Unfortunately, not all the games are created equal, and some have a hard time being fun when they're either too demanding in an area your musical mind can't really handle or what they're doing just doesn't make sense for whatever reason. It's just a bit too hit or miss to be a truly great product. On the bright side though, you are free to mostly ignore the things you don't like, but if you're like me you won't want to do that. There's plenty of incentive to always try to improve on how you did last time, and while a lot of the music is pretty goofy, it tends to stick in your head long after you turn off the system. I typically prefer more traditional story-based games, but this was certainly a good time.

Monday, December 20, 2010


Karas is sort of a weird case, released as six episodes on DVD in Japan, but sold as a pair of movies in the US. Either way, it's about three hours of content, a bit light on meaningful story and character development but full of crazy visuals and reasonably entertaining action scenes. It's not easy to summarize, because what story is there is fairly obtuse. In fact, I'm having some trouble remembering what it was really about, and I saw it only a week or two ago. Basically, Yokai are spirits that most people don't believe in, and even fewer can see. A Karas is someone who protects humanity with the use of a special kind of armor that can also transform into things like a jet. Yeah, it's weird. Try to keep up. The bad guy is a former Karas who turned rogue, and he has several especially dangerous Yokai on his side. The protagonist is a newer Karas, a former Yakuza hitman with a lot of skill, and there are a couple sympathetic Yokai on his side, and also another Karas I guess but she doesn't do much.

But all of that doesn't really amount to much, because it's mostly a series about crazy looking things fighting each other. There are a number of supporting characters and subplots that seem like a concession to the episodic format more than anything else, because they are mostly relegated to watching from the sidelines when things really start happening. It's all an excuse for some pretty nice computer generated and traditional animation to happen, and from that end, it works quite well. It's interesting, even though the plot is fairly unimportant and generally tough to truly understand, I still found myself enjoying watching it play out, even if I was at most vaguely sure of why things were happening at any moment. Anime gets away with that more than other entertainment with me for some reason. And yeah, those action scenes are pretty entertaining, although I found myself enjoying them more when they relied less of computers. It's watchable, but probably tough to get into unless you're really used to what anime is like, and director Keiichi Sato's The Big O is a much better bet, with the second season also explaining Karas' predilection for being totally strange.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Television Update 6: Fall Finales '10

Here we are again, it's the end of the year and there's nothing on TV. Here's the stuff I've been watching.

30 Rock - The show is back, and that's a pretty good thing. It's always been the same series, thin plots supporting joke after joke after joke. Last year the jokes weren't very good, but this year they are. Pretty simple. Not up to the show's peak but still fun.

American Dad! - It doesn't seem quite as unique and inspired as it has in the last couple years, but I am enjoying it more than the other Seth MacFarlane show I'm watching right now.

Castle - The cases seem less interesting this season. The audience is skewing older and older, which means less complicated plots and more standing around and doing nothing with character development. This could be the last season I watch unless they impress me this Spring. It's not bad, it's just very unexceptional.

Chuck - Timothy Dalton is a great villain, but otherwise this has been a pretty blah season. They still haven't found a way to avoid making me roll my eyes at least once a week, and putting Chuck and Sarah together has resulted in annoying "let's talk about our issues" stories instead of annoying "are they going to get together?" stories.

Community - Holy crap, Community. Awesome in season one, hands down the best network show of this Fall. Truly tremendous combination of amazing high concept stories and brilliant character work. I just love watching it every week.

Family Guy - I don't know... something just seems off about the show these days. There's a weird rhythm to it, and now that they pretty much have free reign to do whatever they want, they seem more interested in sweeping computer-generated landscapes and longer, non-cartoon like stories than making me laugh.

Fringe - By far the best network drama I watch right now(seriously, do you see anything better?), and Fox rewards it by moving it to the dreaded Friday night slot. The show isn't going down without a fight, I'm just worried that it's going to die right when I'm really starting to dig it. The dual-universe stuff was great, and the cast and writers both seem to improve every year.

Glee - Have you heard of the Three Glees theory? Basically, the show was created by three dudes who write all the episodes separately, and they all have different ideas of what the show should be. That means different strengths and weaknesses, and while in season one they tended to work off what they could do well, this fall has brought a very disappointing show. Insulting plot lines, bad character work, terrible gimmicks - the show is in desperate need of something to put it back on track.

How I Met Your Mother - The cast is still a great mix, the meta jokes are back with a vengeance, and they've given me a reason to hope that maybe this season we really will meet that damn mother.

Modern Family - I think more people are realizing this is a really typical family sitcom that just happens to work because the cast is awesome and the writing is usually exceptional despite the tired plots. But both of those good things are still there, so it's still a very enjoyable program.

The Office - With this being Steve Carell's final season, I thought they'd be doing more work to bring his character to some sort of natural end point. Maybe there's a grand plan that I'm just not seeing yet, but progress seems to have been pretty slight. Still, I like the show.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars - The end of season two gave me hope, but if anything the show was even worse this Fall. Too much focus on both characters I don't care about and things that just don't feel like Star Wars. Seriously, what am I watching? Anakin and Obi Wan hardly even got a chance to cut things in half with laser swords. And worst of all, they brought Ziro back. Yeah, they killed him off, but that entire episode was like a drill slowly boring its way inside my skull.

Sym-Bionic Titan - And casting the awfulness of The Clone Wars in stark relief was the giddy brilliance of Titan, the new show by Genndy Tartakovsky (you know, the guy who actually made Star Wars on TV interesting?). The high school stuff is forgettable, but the show looks amazing and is just fun in all the ways kid-friendly action cartoons should be and The Clone Wars isn't. I'm not sure when they plan to show the rest of the production season, but I'm holding off on a full review for now.

Saturday, December 18, 2010


You can pretty easily draw a comparison between Trainspotting and Requiem for a Dream, and the fact that the former came out four years earlier doesn't do the latter any favors. They're not quite the same, but they're both the second film by directors who are still acclaimed today, and use a lot of style to tell stories about the lives of drug addicts. Trainspotting is less overwhelming and depressing, and all told I ended up liking it more as a film. It's about five friends, three of which use heroin. One of them refuses but is a psycho on his own without the help of narcotics, and the other ends up getting pulled into that world worse than all of them.

There's an unusual flow to the plot as the protagonist played by Ewan McGregor goes through many ups and downs over time, falling into and out of his addiction. It's a good performance, making the character sympathetic despite myriad screw-ups and bad decisions, and the people around him are good too. My favorite character might be Tommy, played by Kevin McKidd with far more luxurious hair than I'm used to seeing, and Jonny Lee Miller (who we just saw do his best to save a disappointing season of Dexter) is another friend who sees himself as a very smart person, and who likes James Bond maybe a bit too much. Robert Carlyle is sort of a likable psychopath, and while I didn't know Ewen Bremner by name before this movie, I've seen him before and he fits his sad sack role well. Kelly Macdonald plays a girl Ewan rushes into a relationship with, and it's a pretty different part from what I'm used to seeing from her.

Danny Boyle's direction definitely helps the movie a lot, making every scene more interesting to watch and filling the whole thing with a lot of little touches that are both amusing and enhance the story. The scene where Ewan is in withdrawal and hallucinating is obviously a highlight and the film's most famous sequence, but it's far from the only scene that's unique and inventive. Things like completely entering the toilet and falling into the rug are similarly effective at putting you in the head of someone who's out of their mind, and it all works to somehow make the movie a bit more lighthearted than its subject matter would suggest without glorifying it. I really dug it a lot, more than Slumdog Millionaire, and Boyle is definitely a director I need to see more work by.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Burn Notice - Season 4

Burn Notice's fourth season injected a much-needed breath of fresh air by adding a new main character to the mix. The chemistry between the three leads has always been fun and strong enough to carry most of the show's episodes, but just adding a new guy who's there from week to week really shakes it up a bit, especially when he's something of a loose cannon like Jesse. The character gets introduced when Michael accidentally gets him burned during one of his jobs, and he takes him on as another member of his group while trying to hide the fact that he's the reason he lost his job. There's some irony to Michael burning an innocent guy while trying so hard to get back at the people who burned him, and there's  the inevitable dramatic moment where the truth is revealed and things get messy. In the end though they're all main characters, so they manage to find a peace while agreeing to do their best to get everybody back to where they want to be.

Of course that's easier said than done, as every week the crew takes on a random job in Miami while making baby steps towards the conclusion of that season's main story arc. This year Michael finally comes face to face with the guys he's really after, or at least one of them, and for the first time in a while there seems to be some real movement on something resembling a plot. More and more familiar faces from the past come back as the show builds up a universe of spies and government officials, and sometimes Michael gets the best of them, while sometimes he doesn't. I definitely think I'd like the show more if it just focused on the story instead of a bunch of miscellaneous jobs to fill time every week.

Obviously the structure of the show is such that the stand-alone material makes up the bulk of the running time, but the two hour season finale had none of that, and it was definitely the better for it, easily being the most tense and exciting content on the show from the entire year. The ending suggested a big change in how the show will operate from this point forward, but if I know anything from past seasons, it will take all of fifteen minutes in the season five premiere for Mike to be back in Miami taking odd jobs. In fact, I'm pretty sure I made that exact comment at the end of season three. At least they fixed the scheduling issue - the show was on this weird pattern where the gap between the first and second halves of the season was actually longer than the gap between one season and the next, but they pushed up the second half this time to November instead of some time in 2011. It causes the odd situation of two season finales in one year, but it made it a lot easier to remember what had already happened before.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Kirby Super Star Ultra

Kirby Super Star Ultra is an upgrade of a Super Nintendo game with improved graphics and more content. The original was already loaded with stuff to do, so the kart is fairly packed to the brim with activities. It's really a collection of games, including a few touchscreen-based competitive modes but mostly focused on an interesting mix of takes on the normal Kirby gameplay. Kirby runs, jumps, floats around, and can absorb 19 different powers from various enemies that occupy the levels. There's a surprising amount of depth to these abilities, with most of them featuring several different attacks you can figure out, and when you add it all up Kirby's range of skills is quite impressive.Also, at any time you can turn one of those powers into a buddy to help you, which can be controlled by either the computer or a friend with a DS if you have one. They're usually pretty helpful, even if the computer has a tendency to be pretty bad at jumping puzzles.

Things starts out really easy in the first game, but as more unlock they get tougher, especially if you're interested in beating your high score. Some are standard platforming adventures, but others are races or scavenger hunts or have added time pressure. Eventually you get to the arenas, which are just making you face off against a series of bosses with no extra lives, and are definitely the toughest thing in the game. Some of the games are far less linear than others, making you figure out the right way, which makes getting to the end more interesting even if getting from place to place is generally pretty simple. My favorite mode is new to the DS game, letting you play as Meta Knight through most of Kirby's stages, and his skills and bonus powers are a lot of fun after Kirby's relative helplessness. There's some good bonus content too, like multiplayer in pretty much all of the games and galleries with all the movies and sounds you could want. It's just a good time for anyone who enjoys playing games starring that little pink ball, and surprisingly loaded with replayability.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Running Wilde

Running Wilde really never had a chance. It was never on consistently, getting bumped in favor of episodes of Tuesday night companions Raising Hope and Glee. Then its few remaining episodes were briefly scheduled for the dregs of Sunday nights in December, before Fox just pulled it from the schedule completely. No more show. I'll probably watch the last five episodes whenever they pop up on DVD somewhere, but I don't really need to to pass judgment on the show. There's a lot of talent behind this series, created by Arrested Development's Mitchell Hurwitz and star Will Arnett, and also featuring the lovely Keri Russell and Peter Serafinowicz in possibly his most amusing role. But the show itself simply isn't good enough for its cancellation to be a real tragedy. They never really found a proper footing in these eight episodes, which ranged from mildly enjoyable to mostly boring. It's just hard to mourn a series that never made you say, "Wow, that was great." I generally liked watching it, but the plots never seemed to go anywhere, and the inspiration just wasn't there. It's like they were trying too hard to make it more accessible than Development but forgot to actually make it good, and they ended up really pleasing no one.

Arnett plays Steve Wilde, the heir of the Wilde oil company. Russell is Emmy, the one who got away (there's a somewhat amusing metajoke to Steve constantly trying to please a girl called Emmy, and they thankfully never hammer it too hard), all the way to Africa. She's helping a native tribe survive with her daughter Puddle (who does some obvious narration and little else) and her fiance played by David Cross (unfortunately not a very interesting character), but through a series of events ends up living in a tree fort on Steve's estate back in America. There he tries to win her back over, but it's a struggle as they're constantly butting heads over everything imaginable. He's rich! She lives in the wilderness! These stories never get too complex as they basically just try to one-up and manipulate each other, and the fact that the show's central concept is so standard really hurts it. Serafinowicz plays Fa'ad, Steve's eccentric neighbor, and it's always a highlight when he shows up to outdo Steve's events and functions and show off his immensely thick chest hair, although he doesn't save the show by himself, and neither do the servants that make up the rest of the cast. I really wanted it to be good, but the truth is it's a show that Fox was justified in canceling. I wish I didn't have to wait until an undetermined date to see the rest of what they filmed, but like I said, it won't make a big difference.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World

By the time I saw this movie my Scott Pilgrim fandom had waned slightly, not because of anything in particular, but just because the novelty had worn off a bit. Still, it's a very entertaining property, and Edgar Wright managed to strike a perfect balance between faithfully bringing Bryan Lee O'Malley's unique vision to the screen while changing enough to keep it fresh. I think the books and the movie both have their own strengths, the comics obviously have more time to spend developing secondary characters and the setting whereas the movie rushes through that a bit, but it also helps towards the end where it builds to a natural climax and exciting conclusion instead of the weird vibe I got from the final volume. It's a good companion to the books, and also stands well enough on its own for someone who's never read them to still enjoy the heck out of it, even if some of the background comes off as shallow.

Visually, it's one of the most kinetic and unique things I've ever seen. Wright is constantly playing with reality, having scenes warp and distort to fit the mood, and the editing is intensely in tune with whatever is being seen or heard. It calls a lot of attention to itself, but it works for the type of story it is, frantically racing from scene to scene, musical performance to martial arts fight, and it creates an atmosphere of giddy energy. All of the bands sound pretty much how they should, and the use of music to accentuate the mood or a fight (or even be a fight itself in one instance) is effective. There's also a ton of video game crap all over the place, tons of borrowed sound effects and musical cues and a few visual elements that pull you into the strange version of Toronto the film is creating and are also a nice bonus activity for nerds to spend their time identifying. The movie is primarily a comedy, and it's very funny, but what's impressive is how well the action works. The movie combines the weird gaming sensibility with some genuinely entertaining fight choreography, and while the stunt doubling is occasionally obvious, they're still very well produced scenes and I'm confident in saying they're actually the best action scenes I've seen this year. Fast, exciting, and you can actually see what's going on the entire time. It's an impressive feat.

The movie also works because almost everyone is right for their parts. Michael Cera actually doesn't fit how I pictured Scott Pilgrim acting in real life, as he's usually much closer to his completely awkward and shy persona. But that version of Scott manages to work in Wright's film, and he's surrounded by a pretty great supporting cast. A lot of the faces are recognizable elsewhere, as they pretty much got as many hot young people with talent that they could find. The evil exes in particular stand out, the twins are pretty much gone before they can do anything, but Matthew Patel is extremely weird, and the other actors who I actually know all do good jobs. Thomas Jane as a member of the vegan police was a bizarre but welcome cameo, and Bill Hader has a great narrator's voice. Kieran Culkin is a standout among Scott's friends as his awesome gay roommate Wallace. It might have been a good idea to tidy up the parade of Scott's acquaintances and merge a few parts just to make it easier to keep so many minor characters straight, because I'm not sure how manageable that is without prior knowledge. Still, it was fun seeing everyone so well realized in live action form. Not my favorite movie this year but certainly one of the most fun, and it continues to show how much skill Edgar Wright has with putting pure joy on film.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Dexter - Season 5

I did not like this season of Dexter. It wasn't awful, because a show where Michael C. Hall plays a serial killer is always going to be at least passably entertaining. But whereas the boring third season felt like a hiccup more than anything truly worrisome after the fairly awesome fourth one last year, this felt more like the show beginning a true decline. Dexter's bag of tricks just isn't exciting as it used to be. And now I'm suspicious that John Lithgow's amazing job was maybe just an illusion masking a show that's been running out of really good ideas for a couple years now.

The previews leading up to this season and the beginning made it seem like the story might be more organic this time, growing out of the troubles that would arise after the fourth season's surprisingly vicious conclusion. It kicks off just a moment later, with Dexter being questioned by the police and struggling mightily on the inside. But it's not long before that plot is shut down before it can begin, the kids are shipped off so they're less of a nuisance, and we're right back to another big bad on the horizon as Dexter tracks down some bad guys while Peter Weller plays an ex-cop on his tail. Of course they got a special guest for this part, because it's much easier to get rid of a problem like that when it someone who doesn't have an actual relationship with Dexter and a spot on the regular cast list. A big difference this season is that Dexter rescues a victim of this season's boogey man and actually gets her on his side, although it's really just a twist on the same idea from seasons two and three, Dexter gets a friend and we're supposed to wonder if he can keep them. So while Julia Stiles plays the part well and it does provide for some interesting situations, it's not a true game changer like the show pretends it is.

The supporting cast around Dexter continues to be pretty boring and disposable, as the writers keep trying to keep us interested in what they're up to, but they haven't been fun in a while. Masuka's gimmick isn't funny anymore, forcing Angel and Deb into relationships with worse characters really doesn't help them as individual characters, and the homicide unit's side case that runs for most of the season is somehow even less compelling than usual before it gets dropped so the show can pretend that Dexter is in danger of getting caught by someone who knows him. All of this would have been fine if Dexter's stuff was up to its usual standards, but there just seemed like an excessive amount of shortcuts and overly convenient bouts of luckiness and unluckiness just to get the characters through all the story beats they wanted to. It just felt sloppy this year, and while many individual scenes were as raw and thrilling as the show can get, the whole was less than the sum of the parts. It was too easy, like the writers cared more about getting us from scene to scene without making sure it made sense or was even remotely believable. It's sad to see a show you used to love turn into something ordinary, and with the series being as successful financially as it's ever been, I don't see Showtime deciding to end it. Which means the only chance we really have of a proper ending coming reasonably soon is probably for Hall to decide he wants to do something else. Here's hoping that happens.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Monty Python's Life of Brian

A lot of people think Life of Brian is the best movie Monty Python did, some going so far as to call it the best comedy film ever made. I disagree, on the basis of it not being nearly as funny as their other two films. Obviously there's more to movies than laughs, and in some ways, Life of Brian is their most impressive work. It actually tells a story, with a cohesive plot and recurring characters through the whole thing, without many scenes that just feel like disconnected sketches thrown together to tell a few jokes. The cast is still mostly the Python members playing multiple roles each, but there's definitely more people involved than usual, and there's actually a point to the whole thing, as they have several interesting things about faith and the role of the church to say that are actually still relevant thirty years later. But it's just not as funny, and I don't think their admirable stab at making a movie like normal people makes up for that gap.

Brian is played by Graham Chapman, who fits the leading man role fairly well again, and ever since he was born next door to Jesus Christ, he's grown up in his shadow. He's been to a few sermons, though they aren't as effective when you're too far away to properly hear what's actually being said. He lives a usual life for a Jew in Rome, until he is so incensed at learning that his father was actually Roman that he decides to join one of several splinter resistance groups. He spends a fair amount of time rebelling and being chased by guards until it leads him to giving an incidental sermon of his own, which leads to him developing his own following. His story follows a parallel to Jesus' as you might expect right to its natural conclusion, which is fairly easily the best ending to anything the members of Monty Python ever wrote. All of the members get a few moments to shine, and the movie's also notable for some of its more bizarre ways to get Brian from point A to point B and its clever use of comedic nudity. Like I said, it's not as gut-bustingly hilarious as their other work, but it's still a really enjoyable watch, from the tone-setting opening scene to the somehow darkly upbeat finale. It really should be seen by anyone who wonders about religion, provided they can actually see what the movie is trying to say.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia - Season 6

I thought next week was going to be the Sunny season finale, but as it turns out they're just airing the Christmas episode they put out on DVD last year. I think it's pretty shady to tell people they can only watch an episode if they pay for it and then air it anyway a year later, but what can you do? At least they're showing it, and it is a pretty darn funny episode. And the twelve new episodes that made up this season were pretty consistently funny as well. There were a couple that clunked a bit, which is prone to happen once in a while with this show, but for the most part I was laughing as much as always. I don't think it quite matched season 5, but it still had a lot of good stuff. Dennis continued to be a highlight week to week, and bits like the gang's interpretation of what a fifth Lethal Weapon movie would be like were great ways to branch out the comedy a bit while still being Sunny.

The biggest thread running through the season was Sweet Dee's pregnancy, mirroring actress Kaitlin Olson's in real life. They were writing around it for a few episodes where she was obviously showing with loose outfits, but it became part of the show in the brilliant Halloween episode where the gang realizes she's pregnant and try to combine their hazy memories in a series of Rashomon-stlye conflicting flashbacks to a drunken party months earlier. The reveal of the real father was a sly callback to a couple of other stories the show's done, and I like how they had a moment of sentiment around the birth in an episode where they reveal that Dee has been berating and nagging all of her old boyfriends into having sex with her for a long time. The show had some good low-profile guests on this season like Jason Sudeikis, Dave Foley, Chad Coleman, and a couple of two-part stories that were integrated a bit more naturally, basically playing as mini-arcs of things like Dennis rushing into and out of marriage and Charlie temporarily taking his custodial talents elsewhere. I always like when a show as goofy as this one at least throws a few bones to the idea of the characters living in a world with continuity and character development, even if at the end of the day they're all the same idiots they were before. There's at least one more season coming, and I'm sure I'll enjoy it.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The French Connection

The French Connection is sort of in a weird position with regard to its legacy and how well it holds up. On one hand, it fits right in with a lot of more modern thrillers and crime stories, because it was a really early example of the super gritty way of doing that, with a down to earth and believable style and blunt depictions of its adult content. But on the other hand, some of the impact of that is lost because it's become such an obvious way to do these kinds of stories. The shock of seeing movies made this way is lost when it's so common now. A victim of its own influence. It's still a very good movie, but it was probably amazing 40 years ago. Back then it was showing a dark side of New York no one had ever seen before, but now it looks completely familiar to anyone who's ever played Grand Theft Auto IV. Today I wouldn't pick it as a better film from that year than A Clockwork Orange, but I can see how it was definitely more important.

The film is based on the true story of two narcotics cops in New York uncovering a heroin pipeline from France to their own city, slowly over the course of a few months, as they follow suspicious characters, listen to hours of taped conversations, and gradually connect the dots in a large criminal conspiracy. It's basically like a mini-season of The Wire, and as a bonus it's all basically real. Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider are essentially playing real people, only slightly fictionalized versions of the real cops, and they both happen to be outstanding in the movie. Hackman won an Oscar playing Popeye Doyle, and it's here that he created his tough-guy persona that he's used on occasion to great effect for years. A lot of the movie is fairly sedate, but things always have a chance to get dangerous when Doyle's around, and the film does happen to have a pretty outstanding action scene added near the end. It only exists because a producer mandated that they add a chase that outdoes Bullitt, but it's a unique and exciting scene that doesn't match the technical superiority of more modern chases but in some ways manages to thrill more, and it's just a great sequence from start to finish. The ending is surprising in its ambiguity and lack of triumph, but it definitely works for the story they were telling. It's a movie about the real world, and from that perspective it seems like a total success.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Kino's Journey

Kino's Journey is an example of a kind of anime I really like. There are definitely other kinds I enjoy as well, but I feel like this sort of show is one that's unique to the medium, and simply couldn't exist in another form, at least not on US television. It takes place in a unique fictional setting, and doesn't really bother with explaining itself or the history of the place, it just puts you in that world and lets you enjoy some stories in it. Haibane Renmei is something I reviewed fairly recently that is sort of like this, although Mushi-Shi is a better comparison because they both feature mysterious protagonists traveling alone and encountering strange situations week to week without much continuity. Kino is the star of this series, a girl of undetermined but fairly young age who visits various countries for no more than three days with her talking motorcycle. She's well equipped with guns and knives to protect herself, but often episodes resolve their stories with no violence committed at all.

Kino does have a past history that explains how she got to this position, but the show doesn't overly concern itself with the details. We see how she ends up setting off from her home to become a traveler, and that's all we really need. A lot of the situations she encounters are unusual but not really dangerous, and sometimes she doesn't even need to do anything, she just takes in the tale of wherever she happens to be along with the audience. Other times people need her help, and she may or may not agree to offer it depending on how she's feeling. Sometimes someone just wants to hear a story from her travels, and once in a while she has to use her weapons to right a wrong, help someone, or save her own life, but this is rare enough that it's always exciting and important without resorting to ever getting too over the top or bloody. It's interesting how often her presence is entirely peripheral to the plot at hand, and puts her in the same position as the viewer, just seeing what's happening because it's interesting. It's not the most dramatic or shocking story, but it's a pleasant and thought-provoking one. It's the sort of show people always ignore when they talk about how brainless and silly anime is.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Requiem for a Dream

Requiem for a Dream is about as different a film from The Wrestler as you could imagine, at least in terms of style. They're both good, sad films, but they tell their stories in very different ways. They're on completely opposite ends of the naturalism spectrum. Requiem uses the medium of film itself to convey mood, and along with all the stylistic touches it's a very effective technique. Very basically, it's a movie about addiction, as four interconnected all people go from casual users of various drugs to becoming completely addicted and stuck in horrible situations. Time dilation conveys the meaninglessness of time when under the influence, SnorriCam (a camera mounted so it's always looking at the actor's face) shots show disorientation and trauma, and a signature super close-up/fast cut shot depicts the many different ways the characters take their drugs. As they descend deeper into their struggles, scenes get shorter and shorter and the cuts get faster and faster before it all becomes overwhelming to watch, and sort of pulls you into the horrors they are facing.

It's a well-told story, although for whatever reason I found myself struggling to connect with the characters. Maybe it's because I knew they were doomed from the outset, but I found myself intrigued by their struggles rather than concerned. The acting is good - leads Jared Leto and Jennifer Connelly are a likable couple before their need to get high pulls them apart, Marlon Wayans is surprisingly solid as Leto's friend who helps him get involved with dealing, and Ellen Burstyn got an Academy Award nomination for her startling descent from standard old lady to pill popping train wreck. But while the film work was good at putting you in another mindset, it was also at times gimmicky, and seemed to reduce the weight of what was happening when it was trying too hard to be clever. I have an inkling I would have liked it more in high school, but there was something odd about seeing something as heavy as crippling drug addiction often get depicted by cutesy camera cuts. It was less like a film and more like a visual experiment. A really good one, but less effective than it might have been otherwise.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Boardwalk Empire - Season 1

The most remarkable thing about Boardwalk Empire might be that its main cast features two Steves and no fewer than four Michaels. Besides that though, the first season, while not quite living up the billing of the great crime dramas of HBO's past, was still a very good show with loads of potential going forward. It was created by Terence Winter, who wrote frequently for The Sopranos, and was executive produced by Martin Scorsese, who also kicked things off by directing the pilot. So it has a strong legacy, and it's no surprise that is was a success out of the gate. It doesn't quite have the magic of a true classic series yet, but I still feel like it could be one. What's most interesting so far is how it mixes together all its elements of politics, business, and crime. Other shows have covered all of these topics, but they're all brought together at once by the central figure of Nucky Thompson, and it's a twist we haven't quite seen before. There's just something intriguing about a man who can influence candidates for national office and then turn around and order an execution, and Steve Buscemi is great in the role. He doesn't have the fire or passion of someone more charismatic, but there's something equally compelling in his cold and calculating demeanor. He rarely lets anger get in the way of a good deal, and its this that makes him powerful yet also keeps him alone. The show might not work without him.

Nucky is just one part of it though, as there's a whole world revolving around him. If I'm being honest, the show feels less like it takes place in 1920 and more like a modern series about what 1920 is like, which isn't really a complaint, just an observation. It takes place mostly in Atlantic City, but also partly in the New York and Chicago of that time, and likes showing a lot of the corrupt politics and criminal dealings that happen around Nucky, as well as rooting a lot of the story in history. Obviously prohibition is the major subject of the show, but there's also women's suffrage, the presidential election, and all sorts of miscellaneous events that come up. It's a wonderful looking series, with its own boardwalk set and endlessly gorgeous cinematography that helps the period feel. The sets and costumes look great, and it all adds up to something prettier than just about any other series. Again, I didn't believe I was watching 1920, but it helps a lot when your series is enjoyable even in moments where very little is happening. This being HBO, of course there's plenty of violence and nudity. There's an almost comical amount of naked women around, and I thought the show might have been going for some sort of record for consecutive episodes with nudity before they broke the string late in the season. The violence serves the story a bit more, and it's usually visceral and shocking when it shows up. There are of course a few Scorsese-esque moments where things get operatic and there are montages of death set against more mundane events, but they are rare and well-earned.

The cast is great, featuring a mix of fictional characters and notable figures from history like various politicians and infamous criminals. I don't want to go through everyone, but I'll mention a few that were particularly interesting. Michael Shannon plays Nelson Van Alden, a prohibition agent and one scary, psychotic son of a bitch. Stephen Graham proves again he was born to play crooks, portraying a perversely likable Al Capone. Michael Stuhlbarg was perfect in A Serious Man, but he proves he has a lot of range as elite criminal moneymaker Arnold Rothstein. Michael K. Williams was underused as Chalky White, and I hope he gets more moments like the tools scene in season two. And while it's kind of a silly character, Anthony Laciura playing Nucky's German butler was always fun. There are plenty of supporting members as well, the most notable probably being Jack Huston's Richard Harrow, a veteran of the war missing half his face who becomes a useful and completely terrifying member of Nucky's network. Most of the characters get a nice arc over the course of the season, as everyone has grown up a little and accepted more of what world they live in by the finale. The set up for next year isn't made too explicit, but it's pretty obvious what the major story ideas going forward will be, and I can't wait to see them play out.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Walking Dead - Season 1

The Walking Dead's first season showed a lot of promise for what you can do with a series about the end of the world via zombies, especially with network content restrictions, but unfortunately the actual execution was fairly uneven. I liveblogged the premiere, and I thought it was amazing, a perfect introduction to the comic's world for anyone who was interested. But what came after was inconsistent at best, with some pretty unfortunate characterization, especially among characters new for the show, as well as some pretty contrived plotting and overly soap opera-esque dramatic moments. The show still had a lot of good points, especially when it stuck to the story of the comic, but it just didn't live up to the promise of the pilot.

I want to make it clear that I don't think the show's failings are due to it simply deviating from the source material. It's pretty clear that they're using the books as a general guide rather than a bible, and that's fine, especially when the book's creator writes one of your episodes. They're obviously trying to keep the same general pace, and when you have 48 minutes of screen time rather than 25 pages to fill, that means more time spent on everything and more need for subplots and ideas that only last for one episode. The problem is simply that a lot of what they did just felt silly and forced in comparison. The show fluctuates wildly in tone, sometimes wanting to be a big horror-action fest, and sometimes wanting to be a muted human drama set against a global catastrophe, and these two things don't always gel. And I'm not sure if this is related to the other factors or not, but most of the new characters are simply bland and hard to like. Norman "You may recognize me from The Boondock Saints" Reedus plays Daryl, a skilled hunter and racist who's sort of delightfully off his rocker, but everyone else is either irritatingly stupid and aggressive or just undeveloped sketches. Thankfully they're mostly dead or gone by the end of the season, but it makes you wonder even more why they were there.

The show does do some good things though, and it would be wrong not to bring those up. The show looks awesome. Frank Darabont is a Hollywood man, and it seems like he brought some of his friends with him, as every episode is well shot and lit, and they really capture the pure essence of the imagery a show like this needs. The zombies are fantastic, with great makeup effects, and the show pulls absolutely no punches killing them, with loads of gore all over the place. The main cast is very good also. Andrew Lincoln plays protagonist Rick, and he's good at conveying both sides of him, the part who's a strong leader and the part that doesn't actually know what he's doing. Jon Bernthal is good as Shane, playing a much more interesting if no less scummy version of the character. Sarah Wayne Callies brings unfortunate memories of Prison Break, but she's fine as Lori. Glenn is as fun as he should be, Andrea does well with some tough material, and Darabont regular Jeffrey DeMunn captures what's great about Dale. It's a show with a very strong foundation, it just needs consistently better writing in season two. That seems like a feasible goal, which leaves my expectations high going into next year.

Also, here are my recaps for the last four episodes of the season:
Tell It to the Frogs

Sunday, December 5, 2010

A Bit of Fry & Laurie

I might have a new favorite ever sketch comedy series. The easy comparison when you look at Fry & Laurie is to the grandfather of British comedy groups, Monty Python. And obviously a show from the 90s won't be as groundbreaking as a similar one from the 70s. But while Monty Python was very important and usually hilarious, it often spent more time trying to be surprising and weird than actually humorous, and that's a way in which Fry & Laurie is superior, because it never sacrifices being funny to make a point or be unique. It has slightly more wit per square inch than Python, which makes it possibly the wittiest thing ever constructed. The jokes often revolve around wordplay, and while sometimes that's not always the cleverest thing, there's just something about the way with language these two guys have that makes every second listening to them speak a delight, and I laughed out loud more frequently than I pretty much do at anything besides the best comedy available.

Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie make a pretty great team, with Fry often being the more verbose and eccentric one, but Laurie getting plenty of opportunities to be funny as well. A lot of the sketches are based around some unusual way of speaking or a clever and unexpected pun, and they rarely overstay their welcome, not always reaching the most amazing of punchlines but milking the humor while it lasts and then moving on to the next scene. The bits are mostly stand-alone, but there are a few characters who appear repeatedly, and they don't have to resort to the kind of nonsense that most recurring bits on some other sketch shows do. My favorites are probably Control and Tony, a pair of secret intelligence operatives who have a particularly courteous and stilted way of speaking, although John and Peter, a pair of angry business men who keep running progressively worse operations into the ground, are great as well.

Another bit that recurs through the whole series is a string of fake voice-on-the-street segments where Stephen and Hugh dress as people from various walks of life and make humorous comments. These parts evolved over time, at first mostly being non-sequiturs but starting with the third season being filmed a bit differently and more often having fully formed jokes. I honestly kind of preferred the way they started, since it was just a weird way to cleanse the palate before the next sketch. Otherwise the show really doesn't change that much over time, beyond changing the opening and ending sequences with each season, although the fourth did bring a string of special guest appearances that were apparently mandated by the BBC. It could have been an obstacle, but they did a good job of integrating them properly into the sketches and it was almost worth it just because of the overly elaborate and silly introductions they each got from Stephen and Hugh. In the end, they were still the stars, and they put together a wonderful show.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Deer Hunter

The Deer Hunter is possibly the most restrained epic I've ever seen. It tells a story about war and how it can destroy lives, and about love, and is a sweeping three hours long. But there are fewer than ten characters of any real significance, and for the most part the story is contained to a small blue collar town in Pennsylvania. None of this makes it bad, it's just interesting how they decided to allot the running time to the different aspects of the story. Vietnam is the crux of the plot and all of the things that affect the main characters, but the movie probably spends less than an hour total there.

So five friends work at a steel mill, and three of them are leaving for the war soon. One of them is getting married before they ship off, and except for the groom they're all going to go deer hunting one last time after the ceremony. A bearded Robert De Niro is the one who most loves the thrill of the hunt, obsessed with bringing down the deer with one shot, and he's also in love with Meryl Streep, who happens to be in a relationship with his best friend played by Christopher Walken. And that's really everything from the first part of the story, which takes up the first hour. It then cuts quickly to Vietnam, and it's an abrupt transition from people having a good time at a wedding and on a hunting trip to people getting shot and burned alive in a war-torn village. They're captured by the enemy, and then the film introduces its infamous element of Russian Roulette. It might not be a historically accurate depiction of what happened in the war, but that hardly matters when it provides so much great material for the story. The game is an apt metaphor for the pointless, random violence of war, and is a nice way to show that without throwing too much money into huge battles. It also provides from some thrillingly intense scenes of drama.

None of the friends are killed in the war, but they are all deeply affected by their experience, and they don't all make it back to Pennsylvania. The third act is about the post-war life, and focuses mostly on De Niro. All of the central performances are great, including John Cazale's final role as one of the friends who stayed behind, and Walken's, which won him an Oscar. De Niro really holds the end of the movie together though, and without him supporting it it might not have worked. It's a complicated story where nothing is easy or black and white, and as a depiction of what trauma can do to people and how it can wreck plans and affect people who didn't even go, it's a powerful piece of filmmaking. I didn't like everything about its choices in pacing and a few other things, but still definitely deserving of its status as a great film.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Man Who Wasn't There

The Man Who Wasn't There is the Coen brothers' take on film noir, but like all of their work, it takes its inspiration in odd new directions. Because of its dedication to the filming style of older movies, matching the same sense of pace and a lot of the standards of where to point and focus the camera, it looks very old fashioned. You can still tell it's a more recent film though, even without the recognizable collection of excellent actors and Coen veterans that make up the cast, because there's just something weird about it. They're well known for the frequent nihilism of their plots, and Billy Bob Thornton's Ed Crane is so far into this mode that the film's been compared to The Stranger by Albert Camus, the ultimate existentialist novel.

The story starts like a lot of noir plots that go wrong in a hurry, with a relatively benign criminal scam. Crane is a barber, and he suspects that his wife, played by Frances McDormand, is sleeping with her boss, performed by James Gandolfini. After a customer tells him about his scheme to get rich with a new idea known as dry cleaning, Crane decides to make some money, and maybe get even while he's at it (although he really seems like he doesn't care that much about the affair), so he anonymously blackmails Gandolfini into leaving him the money to keep quiet. As expected though, things go very wrong, and people start dropping dead. Some bits are more predictable than others, but they do a good job of keeping things interesting, and things get a lot weirder after a certain point, eventually culminating in an ending that sort of feels like a fever dream that's actually happening.

It's an interesting story propped up further by the stellar look of the film (it was actually filmed in color and converted later to a beautiful black and white) and the outstanding performances by everyone involved. A lot of actors doing disaffected can just come off bored, but Thornton has mastered the art form. You really get inside his head and see what he does and doesn't care about (mostly he doesn't, you get the feeling that he truly doesn't mind the adultery and just tries the blackmail because he thinks it will work) with him having to say very little outside the narration. Gandolfini has to convey a lot of moods in not very many scenes and does it well, McDormand is just right for what the Coens are doing as usual, and Tony Shalhoub's lawyer is the perfect scumbag opportunist. Richard Jenkins and Scarlett Johannson are a father and daughter that don't have a lot of screen time, but Jenkins is excellent as a weary drunk and Johannson plays well off Thornton as the one thing he seriously seems concerned with. There are a lot of Coen trademarks, such as sudden and shocking bursts of violence and using similar imagery for scene transitions, but in some ways it's also unique for them, more restrained than usual and dedicated to matching the style they were after. They're still my favorite filmmakers, and this is one of their most intriguing projects.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Green Mile

The Green Mile is a good movie trying very hard to be a great one. It's Frank Darabont's second film from the 90s, and like The Shawshank Redemption, it is a period drama set mostly in a prison in early 20th century America, featuring a bond that forms between a white man and a black man, and based on a story by Stephen King. It also features a strong cast, and is undeniably well made even if you don't like the story. The film has an extremely stately pace and feel, almost to excess, and tugs very hard on your emotions, although it's not quite the same as Shawshank. One of the biggest reasons is that the plot actually has a supernatural element, one that would actually qualify the film as a kind of fantasy story, and one that I imagine would greatly surprise anyone who came into watching it blind, especially since this element doesn't actually surface until a full hour into the film. A lot of things are like that though, since it's three hours long when the story seems like it could have been told in two. I wouldn't say it was too long exactly, or that it ever really got boring, I just don't see what the benefit was to giving every single bit of story as much time as the producers would physically allow to develop.

So Tom Hanks is in charge of death row at a prison. Most of the prisoners are decent guys who did wrong, but the two that get brought in after the movie begins are different. Michael Clarke Duncan is a saintly giant, the ultimate version of the magical negro. Sam Rockwell is a deranged, freakish bastard. Hanks is the boss of several recognizable faces as the other guards, who are mostly good men like he is, except for Doug Hutchison's character, a privileged piece of shit with family connections who wants to watch a couple crooks fry before transferring to a better paying job. Sam Cromwell plays the warden, and Patricia Clarkson is his wife dying of a brain tumor. Those are pretty much all the pieces that will be shuffled around, as the guards learn more about Duncan's abilities and realize why he ended up getting sentenced to death for the rape and murder of two young girls. The acting is good all around, especially the two leads, with Hanks' weariness over what his job is doing to him and Duncan's otherworldly innocence, despite the stereotypical nature of the character. It really is a well produced film, and I liked the mixture of fantasy bits with an old fashioned southern drama. But it seems like the kind of thing I'd struggle mightily to ever watch again, and the whole movie is quite possibly just a bit up its own ass. Still, I liked it.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Sons of Anarchy - Season 3

Not everyone has seemed to like Sons' third season as much as the first two, but personally I enjoyed it a lot. It probably helped that I ended up watching most of it very quickly, only managing to catch the final two episodes on their original air dates, which helped smooth over any pacing issues. And I can understand where people's problems lie. The show isn't perfect, occasionally having to warp believable plotting or character decisions a bit to accomplish a necessary task in the story in a limited time. And with how rarely I actually enjoy tumultuous romantic relationships in television, I really didn't like how they shoehorned in some of that drama here because they apparently felt it was still necessary. But for the most part I really had fun with this season, and especially its willingness to change location for a while.

It probably takes them at least an episode or two too long to get there, but the most important thing to happen this season was the gang's excursion to Ireland, which has story effects both immediate and otherwise. Obviously they have an immediate reason to be there, but it also becomes clear that the thing that's been hanging over this entire series, what really happened to Jax's father, is heavily influenced by the gang's previous time in the country. The shift in setting for a bit brings a shift in style, including a really cool redone theme song over the opening credits, and I liked how the show spent a bit of time with the main characters out of their element and let us in on how some of the other criminals in its world live. The Irish side of things was interesting enough that I feel like it could even sustain its own show, although probably not one with quite the same audience as Sons of Anarchy.

Ireland is really just part of the season though, as of course there's plenty of other stuff going on constantly for the characters to worry about. It wouldn't be Sons if things weren't just one second away from blowing up in everyone's faces. It culminates in the finale when a ton of plot threads that have built up over most of the show's run come together in one of my favorite sequences on television this year, offering a moment of pure fun and surprise that most shows don't attempt. Season two ended on a major cliffhanger and season three felt like a continuation of it more than its own entity a lot of the time, so I liked that they closed off a lot of things here, while also providing a definite direction for the fourth. I expect them to jump forward in time at least a bit this time, but it's hard to really say with this show. How much time has actually passed? Maybe a year? Not that it really matters, but the characters probably need a few moments to breathe at this point.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

MI-5 - Season 4

I thought that the fourth season of MI-5 was a step down from the previous one, although it still had its share of interesting episodes and good moments. I felt like they were turning to the Islamic terrorist angle a bit too often this time, since it often results in some of the least compelling stories the show has to offer, although I'd hesitate to call anything the show has done thus far truly bad. We do get the series' first true two part episode, although honestly I'm not sure the bad guys here actually deserved to see their scheme get carried across nearly two hours. Andy really, they were dipping into spy story cliches a bit too much, with things like an agent's former spouse not being dead after all and a CIA agent orchestrating an attack in England to garner support for an invasion of Iran is about as silly as they've gotten thus far. On the other hand, a lot of the nitty gritty espionage stuff was as cool as ever, and the cliffhanging season finale involving a possible conspiracy around Princess Diana's death and a particularly well equipped nemesis is possibly the most fun I've had with the whole show so far. I've gotten a bit more used to the transience of the cast at this point, and I think it sort of works both for and against the show. The willingness of the writers to write out or even kill off central characters makes the stakes high in every episode and has resulted in some strong drama, but with how frequently it's been happening, it also makes it more difficult to become too attached to a character when you know how easily they could be replaced. It stunts character development just a bit when the people who get the most screen time are the most likely to leave, too. Still, the show has balls, and that's a good thing.

Monday, November 29, 2010

8 1/2

Famed Italian director Federico Fellini's most celebrated work is unfortunately not one that I can say I truly enjoyed all that much. It's a well-made film with a lot of thought, creativity, and inventiveness crammed into its two hours of meandering story, but at times I found actually watching it more of a struggle than a classic should be. There was obviously a lot of talent involved in making it, it just wasn't a movie that was made for me. I probably would have appreciated more if I knew more about Fellini's life and career, because it's known as an especially autobiographical film, as he delves into his own mind quite a bit. But as it is, that doesn't enhance it that much for me. I guess you could say it's about as watchable as an Italian expressionist film from the 60s could be, but it's still something that requires a lot of attention and forgiveness for certain production quirks.

It's about a film director struggling to come up with his next picture. He spends a lot of time talking with his writer and producer, meeting actors, and wondering what he will do. But while this is the focus of the plot, the film itself goes a bit deeper. There are tons of dream sequences, and they're usually interwoven with reality so before you know it you've transitioned from one to the other and back again. These scenes are often the most interesting in the film, because they shed light on the director's psychology, particularly in regard to all the women in his life, and they often have an energy that's missing in the scenes from reality. The film's score and visual sense are some of its greatest assets, with a ton of well chosen imagery and darn good cinematography for the 60s, and a mix of classical music that tends to enhance what's happening on screen. An unfortunate aspect of the way it was put together is the dialogue though, with every single line being overdubbed and often quite obviously not matching whatever the actor was saying on set. I realize that it was a choice by Fellini, but that doesn't make it less distracting, and with a movie that's basically filled to the brim with rapid dialogue as the director is bombarded with questions, it strikes me as a curious relic that I'm glad doesn't happen anymore. It's the kind of artistic movie that I think almost anybody could see the intelligence and craft in, although I think many would struggle to enjoy it as I did. Worth seeing if you love the medium, but definitely a long two hours.