Thursday, April 28, 2011

Black Swan

I think Darren Aronofsky has a lot of talent, but I wasn't sure if he really had a particular style until I saw this. It seemed to take equal inspiration from both Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler (as well as maybe a bit from David Lynch's work), and sort of clarified what he does in my eyes, which is make well-crafted, intense human dramas that I like but don't fall in love with. I could point out similarities between Black Swan and both of those previous works of his. It has Requiem's bleak frenetic energy, trippy visuals, and horrifying use of female sexuality to cause discomfort. And like The Wrestler it has a unique, memorable performance in the lead role; a person playing someone with incredible gifts in a physically demanding profession struggling with inner turmoil. There's also plenty of behind-the-back tracking shots, which seem kind of easy to think up but are still interesting to watch. The movie's different too, though. The easiest way for me to describe it would be an art house horror film, which is a pretty uncommon pair of descriptors to my knowledge. It's not really one of my favorite movies of last year, but I definitely respect the skill that went into making it and the general effectiveness of the end result.

I haven't seen any of the other nominees for Best Actress so I can't really say whether Natalie Portman should have won, but it was obviously an impressive performance. There's been a little controversy over how much of the dancing she actually performed, but even if she needed a double for some of the most difficult moves, that's pretty secondary to the amount of effort she put into training for the film, and even more importantly the actual performance. Nina is a gifted dancer who's nonetheless seen as too controlled for the black swan side of the swan queen rule, and Portman's work portraying her anxiety and pain as she tries to find the ability inside herself to let go and really be the black swan, is extremely impressive. A lot of that comes across in just her face while she's dancing, so even if those shots are her head stuck on a double's body, it doesn't lessen what she's doing. It's draining to watch the whole thing, and the sweat and tears she poured into it are obvious.

Barbara Hershey players Nina's controlling mother, adding another variable onto the pile that weighs down on her as she stresses endlessly under the responsibility, and does a good job of being antagonistic while still clearly wanting what's best for her. Winona Ryder and Mila Kunis play two other dancers, the former an aging star being forced into retirement and the latter a new arrival and challenger for Nina, and they both do good jobs playing characters she sees herself in. She aspires to be like Ryder and sees in Kunis a wild side she needs to find a way to tap into, and the way the plot plays with both of these aspects in a way that you're often not sure what's really happening is key to the story's success as a thriller. Vincent Cassel is in charge of the company of dancers, and he does a good job portraying a character you're never really sure about. He tries to use sex to help Nina get a grasp on both parts, and the way you never really know if he's taking advantage or just using an unorthodox method of coaching makes for some really interesting moments.

The film gets more and more bizarre as it goes on, as it's hard to tell how much of the whole thing is just inside Nina's head, and some of the imagery gets truly odd, often to the brink of laughable but never quite getting there for me. It helps that it's so effectively creepy most of the time, though some of the computer-aided shots don't work as well as others. Much like Requiem, things get pretty relentless by the time of the climax, and it's almost exhausting by the time you reach it. Aronofsky has real skill with building the intensity of a film to an almost unbearable degree, which makes me a bit disappointed that he isn't directing the next Wolverine movie, just because I'd like to see what he could do with a straight up action flick. The ending definitely reminded me of The Wrestler, which might be construed as a spoiler if you've seen it and know what I mean, but much like that film, the important thing is the journey, with what comes after not ultimately mattering to the scope of the story. A flawed movie to be sure, but definitely a compelling one.

Monday, April 25, 2011



- Is a movie
- Is in black and white
- Is Japanese
- Is set during the 1500s
- Was directed by Kenji Mizoguchi, who also made Sansho the Bailiff
- Was released in 1953
- Tells the story of two peasants who strive to make their lives better despite the warnings of their wives
- Is pretty dang harsh
- Doesn't exactly seem to be condemning ambition, but could come off that way
- Probably didn't need to make its two leads look like idiots to tell its story
- Is often pretty effectively harrowing when dealing with the consequences of its characters' actions
- Has a paranormal side to its plot that I wasn't expecting, but fits with the tone of the movie and is effectively executed for the time
- Has a really good scene where the central characters are taking a boat across a foggy lake at night
- Uses an unbelievable plot to tell a very real and gripping human story
- Is a well made, interesting film despite some issues I have with the premise
- Is another in a long line of classic Japanese dramas that I mostly enjoyed and appreciated the skill behind, though I'd hesitate to recommend to anyone who doesn't love that kind of thing
- Isn't very long and is currently streaming on Netflix, so it might be a good way to test the waters if you think you might be interested in old Asian cinema
- Will be the last old movie I write about here out of obligation for a while, because while I'm still enjoying the experience of watching all these classic films I haven't been particularly inspired to blog about them for a long time

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Eagleheart - Season 1

Adult Swim shows are always weird, but Eagleheart seems weird in a slightly different way somehow. At first it seemed to just be a take on a Walker Texas Ranger-style cop show, but while there's plenty of that, there's also a lot of truly bizarre stuff sprinkled in too. It helps when the star is Chris Elliott, who knows two things that most people don't: how to be weird as hell, and how to make that actually funny. He's Marshall Chris Monsanto, who has a strong track record of solving crimes in unorthodox ways and getting his partners killed. After his last one is killed by a long time nemesis, he is assigned not one but two new partners, a hot redhead and a dopey guy with a beard. They then proceed to take on a variety of odd cases. That's all you really need to know, and the fact that the episodes were all aired out of order except for the first and last shows that the series doesn't weigh itself down with developing any characters beyond their starting points. It's just a lot of weird and usually funny stuff happening, which was good enough to get the show renewed for another batch of episodes. I could give some examples of the types of stories this show likes to tackle, but a lot of the fun was just finding out when you sit down to watch what ridiculous new crime Chris Monsanto would be solving. The rest of the fun is mostly in the performances, highlighted of course by Elliott, but also by Mad Men veteran Michael Gladis as the Orson Welles-esque chief of the Marshall station. Not every episode is as good as the next, but I didn't hate any of them either. It's a pretty fun show all around, and it's nice to see Adult Swim's continued development of live action material paying off.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

A Man Escaped

Funny how this and Le Trou ended up so close together in my queue. They're both French prison escape movies released in a five year period, set in the 40s, and they're both very good. While Le Trou was about five men working together to escape imprisonment, A Man Escaped focuses almost entirely on a single man, a member of the French resistance who's being held by the Nazis and must break out before he is executed. Much like Le Trou, the cast is made up of mostly non-actors and derives most of its action from a simple take on the real events that inspired the story. There's not a lot of drama or forced suspense, no shocking twists or fake outs or anything designed to manufacture a response from the audience. Just a man plotting and painstakingly preparing for his escape. I gotta say, it really works. The plan is interesting and fairly clever, and the way the plot slowly ramps up the stakes and makes his continued imprisonment turn into a clock ticking towards his death is a great way to make the simplest moments seem incredibly important. The man's guilt over leaving while his fellow Frenchmen are being killed and internal struggle with what to do at various points is palpable, and it's just a really well filmed, taut work of art. The ending is kind of abrupt and anticlimactic, but it also fits with the entire tone of the story, taking realism over the traditional ups and downs of a plot, so it wasn't really an issue. I wasn't quite as entranced by it as I was by that other movie, but I was still very impressed by it.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Archer - Season 2

The first season of Archer was fun, but I thought it a bit lacking in comparison to Adam Reed's previous work on Adult Swim. There was strong potential, but a little too much reliance on shock humor rather than genuinely funny moments. Season two did a great job of pushing the show forward though, still keeping its FX edge (including some gags that I'm a little surprised made it on the air, even with it being animated), but improving every aspect of the show, from the consistency of the one liners to the intelligently interwoven plot lines to the continued development of the entertaining cast around H. Jon Benjamin's Sterling Archer and all of their messed up relationships. It was pretty much vintage adult cartoon humor all season long.

It's hard to put my finger on exactly what I thought was good about the show this year and not so great last year. It's not like they flipped a switch, because I do think they got better as they went along in season one. The level of raunchiness in the comedy is pretty much the same, I guess it just seems less the racial/homophobic/whatever material early on was propping up the dialogue, while over time it's merely become an element of writing that's strong on its own merit. They didn't have to shy away from it to make the show better, they just had to really figure out the characters, and at this point I think they have. The actors all nail their roles every week (you almost never see actors used to live action do so well in the voice booth), and they found a great balance between Archer and Lana going on globe-trotting, world-saving missions and everyone just killing time screwing around at headquarters. Not every episode was a total winner, but I definitely felt like it was just a much more consistent and entertaining show. I'm looking forward to a few episodes airing alongside the next season of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia this Fall.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Bridge on the River Kwai

I have now seen enough films (two) by David Lean to know that if you want a good but not amazing British war epic made in the middle of the twentieth century, he's your guy. Like the slightly-more-heralded Lawrence of Arabia, Bridge features strong work by Alec Guinness, soldiers of different nationalities setting aside their differences to achieve something, and won a ton of awards including Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director. Guinness plays the commander of a British unit that surrendered to the Japanese during World War II, and is being forced to build a bridge in Thailand. Guinness initially rebukes Colonel Saito for ignoring the rules of the Geneva Convention, but after compromises are made takes on the job as a personal mission, placing his pride in the ingenuity and workmanship of British soldiers over the possibility of sabotaging their captors. He works harder towards the bridge's completion than even the Japanese do, and his award winning performance is an impressive and impassioned one.

William Holden plays the flip side of the coin, an American captive who wants no part of the project and attempts to escape. The interplay between the two men is the most interesting thing about the film, and their last encounter at the end is part of a truly outstanding climax that overshadows the rest of what I thought was a solid but less than amazing film. The performances are good and it's a pretty nice looking movie for the time, helped by being in full wide-screen color when a lot of movies were still black and white. It does a good job of taking you to another place and giving you an idea of the toil of prison labor in war time, without ever letting it get too grueling. I just didn't find myself invested are actively interested as often as I'd like, which is similar to my minor issues with Arabia. These movies are so big, I don't see why they're stimulating my brain less than some much smaller dramas of the time. I mean, the goals aren't quite the same, it just seems like war as a subject should never veer anywhere close to boredom. Good movie though, especially the ending and Guinness' work.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Battle of Algiers

The Battle of Algiers is an almost documentary-style drama about the Algerian War of Independence, shot on location by director Gillo Pontecorvo with a grittiness that is unusual for the period. The awkward staging of some of the more violent moments and the frequent reliance on overdubbed dialogue, especially with Arabic-speaking characters, damages the believability of the film somewhat, but it's still pretty noteworthy for its time. It doesn't hold back on much, sugar coating the actions of neither the French occupying police nor the terrorists leading the rebellion. The movie is bloodless, but the widespread violence of the events still gets across well. Prisoners get tortured, officials get shot, and innocent people get bombed on both sides. My favorite part of the production was probably the score, which makes sense since it was worked on by Ennio Morricone. I'm pretty sure the military theme was used in the Morricone-heavy score of Inglourious Basterds, and the numerous recurring pieces set the tone well.

The story focuses on a man named Ali, who leaves prison and enters the ranks of the FLN, the terrorist group fighting against the French. He gradually makes his way up the chain and meets leaders in the resistance as the stakes ramp up and Algiers turns into a war zone. It's almost hard to pick sides in the movie, with the side getting the most attention being violent terrorists, and the French taking few opportunities to make themselves look better. A good portion of the movie kind of feels like it's just repeatedly showing the same sort of thing over and over again, though there is a trend in the balance of power that is pretty significant, and a few sequences elevate themselves above others with their power and the skill of their creation. It's far from my favorite story of war and politics, but it's a pretty remarkable one to come out in the sixties, and only a few years after the real events it depicts. It's certainly an important moment in cinema history.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Party Down

Co-created by Paul Rudd and Veronica Mars' Rob Thomas among others, Party Down is a pretty fantastic little comedy that didn't last nearly as long as it should have, which probably makes its twenty great episodes seem all the better. It's about a catering crew led by Ken Marino's Ron, staffed mostly by actors who are either trying to make it big or have already given up on that dream. Adam Scott is Henry, an old coworker of Ron's who's returned to tend the bar after quitting acting. Lizzy Caplan is Casey, a comedian/actor who ends up in a casual hook-up relationship with Henry. Martin Starr is Roman, a nerdy writer of "hard sci fi" who has his eyes on Casey. Ryan Hansen is Kyle, a dim-witted actor/model/musician who has a bickering friendship with Roman. Jane Lynch is Constance, an older former actress that shares a kinship with the similarly blond Kyle. She's replaced in the second season by Megan Mullally, an irritating-yet-likable divorced mother of a young aspiring actress. You see how I chained all the main characters together like that? Pretty good stuff.

What's sort of interesting about Party Down is how there isn't a single scene where the characters aren't working their jobs, with two qualified exceptions. They screw around all the time, but every episode takes place entirely at the event they're catering, as their personal lives and disagreements boil over and affect their work. The writers do a solid job of mixing together wacky catering hijinks with longer term character development, in a way that serves both while sacrificing neither. There's a certain level of sadness to most of the characters that is a central jumping off point for the humor, a dichotomy that you often find in the best TV comedies. Everybody's frustrated with their careers and their distant ambitions and their love lives, and it leads to some pretty entertaining explosions of emotion and resentments that are played out in pranks and sabotages.

It's also just a well-acted show, with the main cast doing a terrific job and surrounded by a veritable revolving door of recognizable comedic talents. It's Starz so they're allowed to get away with a lot, though some episodes are definitely dirtier than others, such as one centering on an orgy that never seems to really get going. the tension between Henry and Casey is the main focus of the show for the most part, though Ron's hilariously pathetic life gets a lot of attention too, and no main character ever really gets short shrift. I would have liked to have seen where they'd go with a third season this year, but the show does a pretty great job with the time it has and ended up closing on a solid moment of hope without getting too sweet about it. Maybe if it had a little more in the way of people with swords stabbing and screwing each other it could have lasted longer, but what it is still ended up being pretty special.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Mirror

The Mirror is pure art house cinema. It's not a movie made to be casually absorbed and enjoyed, it is a film designed to be examined and reexamined and appreciated. It's the kind of thing that requires careful study to truly grasp the complex subtlety of, and having only seen it once and with less than perfect attention, I can't say I fully got it. There's not really a plot anywhere, as the film jumps back and forth in time, from black and white to color, from reality to dreamy imagery, as the main character reflects on his past. Scenes are punctuated with poetry written and read by the director's father. It does the classic art house thing of having one woman play multiple important characters in a person's life. The "pretentious" label really isn't hard to apply, and it's easy to see why a casual viewer wouldn't fall in love with it.

I still liked it though, which speaks to Andrei Tarkovsky's skill as a director. It takes a lot of talent to make a movie with no real story interesting for close to two hours. I don't know to what extent the film reflects his own life, knowing only that it's considered a fairly autobiographical film, but there's a sadness and believability to the whole thing that comes across even if you're not doing the best job of combining all of the separate little pieces into a cohesive whole. There's some really striking and profound imagery, most commonly found in the pretty amazing dream sequences, and letting the film wash over me proved to be an interesting if not thoroughly exciting experience. I definitely prefer a little more plot in my movies, but Tarkovsky is good enough to carry the thing out of the endless void of its own ass it could have fallen into.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West

Enslaved is a pretty weird game. It's a retelling of the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West, a story which has inspired countless other adaptations such as Dragon Ball, set in a future where society has been wiped out and the few remaining humans fight to survive against slavers and homicidal robots. It has a lot of platforming components to its basic gameplay, but it's literally impossible to fall to your death. The main character is a freakishly athletic shirtless man with facial tattoos and voice acted by Andy Serkis, best known for playing Gollum. The entire game is basically one long escort mission. The third most prominent character is a fat guy who resembles and sounds like a talking pig, and the story goes on for the entire time with no real visible villains. Namco was disappointed with the sales, but frankly I'm surprised it did even as well as it did. There's just not much about the game that screams commercial success, despite the lush visuals and solidly fun action. I really dug the game a lot, and find it a bit disheartening that it's now so cheap and probably won't get a chance for a sequel. But I definitely see why that's the case. It's a unique product released in a really busy time without much fanfare.

Even with better positioning though, it was probably destined for a fate similar to a game like Beyond Good & Evil, which miraculously actually does have a sequel in development, at least last I heard. I was repeatedly reminded of that game while playing this one, though it isn't quite from the same school of design. BG&E took a lot of inspiration from The Legend of Zelda's philosophy of a large open area leading to various puzzle-heavy dungeons, while Enslaved takes more from the recent Prince of Persia games with a linear progression of platforming-heavy areas punctuated by larger set pieces and some combat. They're not exactly alike, but I think the comparison is apt, and I think there's more than a little in common between the two, enough to make me think a fan of one would like the other. They were both developed by European studios, which sometimes have a flavor that feels distinct from American games. They both have a main character equipped with a powerful staff and a vehicle that lets them float over water, and are frequently accompanied by one or more computer-controlled characters. They both have good stories heavily featuring characterization that's unusually strong for a video game.

The game starts as Monkey escapes from a slaver airship that crashes in a destroyed and overgrown New York City and is then subdued by Trip, another captive with a lot of computer skill, who uses a special headband that will kill him if she dies or he disobeys her orders. She promises to set him free when he brings her home, though there's tension between them at first as Monkey resents her actions. As he guides and protects her on the way to her village, their relationship changes into a friendlier one, and the development there is one of the game's strongest aspects. It gets a bit awkward with the pig-like third character is introduced, but he eventually becomes sympathetic as well and pays off well before the story ends. There's a weird use of live action elements sprinkled around here and there that also feature heavily in the ending, the bizarreness of which overshadows the actual revelations of the plot at least a little bit, but I appreciated that they took risks and tried out new things with the story. A lot of it works because of the voice and motion capture work, which I believe was directed by Serkis, and lends a realism to the animation that helps a lot.

The visuals in general are pretty spectacular. All of the animation is a pleasure to watch, with Monkey being one of the smoothest and most agile game characters I've had the fun to play as. The environments are awe inspiring as well, with a lot of the highlights coming early on in the destroyed city, but there's a lot of cool stuff near the end as well. Some of the areas in the third quarter or so of the game are a bit bland, focusing on indoor industrial locations, but the game is just fun to look at any time you're outside. There are some Unreal-engine related issues with the detail on certain things popping in later than it should that seemed to get worse as the game went on, as well as some problems with audio skipping or dropping out, but they didn't end up distracting me much. It wasn't the most technically perfect game I've played, but I liked the look as a whole a lot.

And it's a fun game, too. Monkey is fun to control, the interaction between him and the other characters usually adds to the joy of working things out, and there's even some light shooting elements thrown in that work. The mix of stealth and brawling in the combat helps out a system that's not terribly complex on its own, and which manages to sustain itself through the length of the story. The platforming is a bit on auto-pilot, as the game only lets you jump towards things you can actually jump to, but Monkey's acrobatics make it entertaining nonetheless, and there are parts where obstacles or collapsing portions do add an element of danger that is otherwise lacking. No single element of the game is really taken to its fullest extent in a game that doesn't last terribly long, but it mixes things up a lot and pulls you along with the story that it's just a fun ride while it lasts. The orb collecting and upgrading sort of felt like they were only there out of some sense of obligation that a modern game should have collecting and upgrading, but they didn't hurt the game either. Really, not much about Enslaved is truly exceptional or original, but the way it puts everything together without the seams showing and with a solid sense of wonder makes it greater than the sum of its parts. I like shooting things and blood exploding everywhere and dark, serious stories just fine, but things like this are always welcome.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Le Trou

French cinema has this reputation of being really snobbish, pretentious, arty, and not very fun to watch. It doesn't seem to be especially accurate though, as I've seen as many really great masculine thrillers out of France as any other country during this classic-film-watching journey. Le Trou is perhaps the great unsung prison escape film, being a pretty perfect example of what makes that kind of movie awesome without ever dreaming of insulting the audience's intelligence.

The movie is based on a book which was based on the real story of men who escaped from French prisons, including one who actually plays a character in this film based on himself. It begins as a man accused of attempted murder by his wife is made the fifth inmate in a cell where the other four have been planning to break out. After they test him a little bit, they let him on the plan, which involves tunneling through the floor of their cell to the basement underneath, and from there tunneling to the outside world. It's a simple plot, and a great deal of time is spent just watching the men work in real time, slowly chipping away at cement or sawing through metal, which sounds like it could be boring but ends up giving the viewer a real sense of the brutal labor and commitment that undergoing such endeavors would take. The movie itself isn't terribly long so it's hard for these scenes to ever really overstay their welcome. There are lots of clever little things the men do to evade detection or sneak something by a guard, and the story never runs out of surprises or ever seems to get mundane despite the relative simplicity of their plan.

The true strength of the film is the characters. All five men are well drawn and sympathetic figures, each with their own personalities and thoughts and worries, and the way they come together in pursuit of the thought of freedom is inspiring. I would say there's no real main character, obviously the fifth inmate gets a bit of a spotlight due to his circumstances, but the focus isn't on him so much as the whole mission in general. It's a really tense and visceral film right up to the ending, which is as surprising and memorable as you'd hope from this type of story. Le Trou was Jacques Becker's final film, but I'd guess he was still at the top of his game during filming. Just a really tightly made, interesting movie from start to finish.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

MI-5 - Season 9

This recently popped up on Netflix' instant watch service, which is as far as I know the only way it's currently available in the United States. These eight episodes aired as the ninth series of Spooks on the BBC last Fall, and I'm pretty sure this is easily the quickest the show has ever been brought over here. Maybe being on Netflix has helped the series gain a bit of popularity, which has done well enough in its home country, but never caught on much here when they tried. It's still a solid series after nine years, though the speculation that the tenth series might be the final one isn't exactly bumming me out. I've seen 80 episodes at this point, and they've rarely if ever been bad, but after a certain point you've done so many different stories that continuing doesn't have the same excitement anymore. This ninth series tackled the one obvious spy story type that they hadn't really done yet, and it did it well enough that I've now seen pretty much everything I could have wanted to see out of a British spy show.

It might be a bit of a spoiler, but that story type is of the agent going rogue. They've had supporting characters betray the others before, but this is the first time they've really had a central figure end up playing the antagonist role in a significant storyline. Usually in these kinds of plots the spy going rogue is still the good guy, working against a system that's doing the wrong thing, but I liked how this time they pretty much just have them betraying their country for essentially selfish reasons. They were coerced into the betrayal, sure, but in a way that wouldn't have happened if they hadn't turned out to have a pretty sordid back story. The plot didn't totally work because it sort of seemed to ignore the entire previous season's development of the character's past and love life to serve its own purpose, but it still ended up being an exciting and somewhat heart wrenching tale. The rest of the season was fine as well, not exactly unique in the show's run but good enough as far as twisty plots and solid action. The reintroduction of the tension between Harry and Ruth was well handled also, and I find myself wondering if they can manage to get through the possibly final tenth season without one of them ending up like pretty much every other main character in the show's history. You know, dead.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A Woman Under the Influence

Not long ago I saw Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and spoke about how it was one of the most uncomfortable portrayals of a bad marriage I'd ever seen. Well, at least they had the script's dark humor to prevent it from becoming too troubling, and there weren't any children around to give their relationship real consequences. A Woman Under the Influence has neither of those mitigating circumstances, and it was quite possibly even more painful to watch. Previously I've known John Cassavetes as an actor, but he was also an acclaimed director of independent movies, and this is his most celebrated film. He pretty much had to do everything to get it on screens, securing his own financing and even personally seeing to the distribution. No one really wanted anything to do with the story, and I can see why.

Cassavetes' wife Gena Rowlands plays Mabel, and Peter Falk plays her husband Nick. They have three young children. She has some mental problems, and he has little patience for them. Disaster pretty much ensues. Early on as they're still introducing the characters, Mabel seems a bit odd, acting inappropriately in a bar when Nick stands her up for a date night due to work and then seeming a bit off when making a big early lunch for him and his coworkers after a long shift. Then Nick yells at her at the table, and you start to see just how badly off their marriage could really be. And then things just get worse and worse. She becomes irresponsible with the children, off-putting to those around her, and eventually seems to be genuinely disturbed. But while Rowlands' performance is great and the movie would be good just examining the life of someone like her character, the real gut wrenching stuff comes from how other people react to her, especially Nick, who doesn't handle her issues well at all, and the way it impacts their family. It gets pretty brutal, and doesn't really relent even the plot gives itself an opportunity to. In fact, it might just get worse. Well-directed, well-acted, difficult stuff. I can't imagine ever wanting to see this again, but it's as good a drama you'll find at showing real life without pulling any punches.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Sym-Bionic Titan

I was honestly pretty surprised when I learned that Sym-Bionic Titan was not renewed after watching the final episode on Saturday. It just seemed obvious that with crap like Star Wars: The Clone Wars coming back for a fourth year, there would be enough kids who liked it to give it a second. Sure, kids don't always have the best taste in their entertainment, but I couldn't see how they wouldn't enjoy this show. And it apparently was fine in the ratings, despite being moved from the desirable Friday night time slot to earlier on Wednesdays, and then finally dumped to 9:30 in the morning on Saturday for the last three weeks of its run. I guess I should have seen it coming with all that bouncing around, but I was still disappointed, the show apparently not having enough of a presence in the toy market.

Titan was the latest, and perhaps now the last show by creator Genndy Tartakovsky, whose work has matured along with myself, all the way from childhood favorite Dexter's Laboratory to now. His art style hasn't changed all that much, although the quality of the animation sure has - some of the work done on this show is easily among the best I've ever seen on a weekly cartoon. The character designs are a bit more grown up if still distinctly Tartakovsky's, and the mix between hand drawn work and well-integrated computer elements is top notch. Occasionally the show is truly stunning, mostly in the action sequences, whether they're focusing on a giant robot fighting an alien monster or just a guy running through the city to keep up with a bus. The use of color in particular is always good. It's just a joyful show to look at.

And story-wise, it's solid. It's still a show made with young teens at the oldest in mind, so they can't get too dark or complex with it, but I was still impressed by some of it. The core cast is solid. Brian Posehn's Octus is a cool take on the super intelligent robot who struggles with some human concepts, Lance is kind of a typical badass loner but has a well fleshed-out background, and Ilana is a good female character without resorting to obvious ways to establish that. The high school stuff was generally the kind of irritating high school stuff you always see on TV, though they do throw in a few surprises by making archetypes like the gorgeous head cheerleader and huge, brainless jock into likable, interesting characters.

The other side of the show involves the whole aliens-who-escape-war-and-hide-on-Earth-where-they-fight-monsters-with-robots thing, which unfortunately ends up being a whole lot of set up with no payoff after the whole cancellation issue, but was cool enough while it lasted. There were a couple flashback episodes that showed life on the main characters' home planet before the series started which were definitely among the best the show did, allowing a departure from the secret high school super heroes thing. Even though most episodes ended with a fight against some alien threat, the actual story arc of the season focused more on the group's struggle against various government agencies with various ideas of how to approach them as a new presence on Earth, which unlike the grander plot, did manage to see some sort of conclusion by the end, even if it wasn't really a final one. Still, they did create a story with a beginning, middle, and end, even if it wasn't the whole story they wanted to tell. It helps ease the disappointment of not getting to see the series continue a little. I just wish the market for kid-friendly action and science fiction entertainment was less focused on selling them toys.

Monday, April 11, 2011


Carl Theodor Dreyer wasn't particularly busy during the silent era compared to some others, though he was certainly active, frequently directing films in various countries. But he slowed down after, with Ordet being only the fourth sound film he finished in the 27 years following the release of The Passion of Joan of Arc. Ordet is less inventive stylistically than Passion, but its simple production belies the power of the content, which I thought made it a richer and more emotional story. The film is about a family of farmers in early 20th century Denmark. There is a patriarch with three sons. One is married with two daughters and has lost his religion, one has been driven mad and believes himself to be Jesus Christ, and one who wants to marry a girl of another religion. The main issue with the second is obvious, but problems arise with the others as the first's pregnant wife goes into a difficult labor and the third's marriage seems doomed as both their fathers refuse to allow a member of another faith into their family.

The central figure is the father Morten, who is played well by Henrik Malberg and struggles to balance all of the troubles his children bring him. He's a wise man but not an infallible one, and the way he learns and grows over the course of the story is very interesting. The film is based on a play, which shows in the limited scope of the production, though the type of family story and religious study it is prevents that static feeling from seeming to limit it or hold it back. I found the ending to be very surprising, because it changes the nature of the entire plot if you don't see it coming, shifting it from a meditation on religious beliefs to something else entirely. I thought it worked though for whatever reason, though I don't think a movie made today would be able to get away with the same thing without a bit more set up. Ordet is one of those movies that I thought I was going to be entirely bored by, but I ended up becoming invested in somewhere along the way and impressed by its ability to move me a little. I certainly don't recommend it to everyone, but it was better than I hoped for.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Merlin - Season 3

In a way it's amazing how consistently Merlin manages to squander any potential it has to be an exciting show. So many good ideas wasted by sloppy plotting or overacting in search of comedy or absolutely atrocious computer effects or just not taking things as far as they should go. And most essentially, the central premise is just beyond annoying at this point. If you're doing a hidden identity story where the main character has a secret no one can know, and it's still a secret to your second most important character after three seasons, you're doing it wrong. People finding out shocking things about someone who's been close to them for years? That's good drama. Merlin saving Arthur's ass with magic but covering it up somehow, resulting in Arthur making a snide comment about Merlin's uselessness for the umpteenth time? That's extremely boring.

The whole anti-magic thing just makes for an eternally frustrating series. Interesting ideas could be explored by having something as potentially devastating as magic be outlawed, and having good and bad people on both sides of that line, but all it results in on this show is alternating between stories of Uther punishing innocent people because they use magic and stories of evil people using magic to punish Uther for punishing innocent people because they use magic. Much like Star Wars: The Clone Wars, it's hard to enjoy storylines where the main characters try desperately to save an authority figure who is essentially a bad person, and whose death would ultimately push the whole plot forward in an intriguing direction (or in Clone Wars' case, stop the third through sixth movies from happening). There are hints that the fourth season might move away from Uther as the ultimate power in the series, but since I won't be watching it, I don't care about those baby steps.

And with every good thing the show does, you have to take a couple bad things with it. Finally establishing Morgana as a real villain is good. But the way she operates through the entire season is extremely irritating, manipulating events and then overly obviously smiling evilly in front of people when their lives are going horribly, and the whole dynamic where neither she nor Merlin will reveal the truth about the other is one of the most boring and nonsensical stalemates I've ever seen. I don't want to be too hard on the show, because I can see why someone would still like it after everything that's happened. At its heart, it's a simple, family-friendly fantasy adventure with a couple laughs and maybe an interesting idea or two every week. It's just not my kind of series - the plots are simplistic and inconsistent, the characters are static, and there simply hasn't been nearly enough progress in three years to keep my interest. The occasional nods to recognizable Arthurian legend come off as only there to remind people that this is somewhat, loosely, vaguely, occasionally based on it, and it has this weird issue where whoever happens to be taking the lead role in an episode comes off as less interesting than they do in a supporting capacity. I still don't hate it, but I've definitely had enough of Merlin and Arthur's faces at this point to safely call it quits without losing any sleep.

Saturday, April 9, 2011


Jean-Luc Godard is another big name from that French new wave period, and I think this is his best known work. It's about a French guy who spends a lot of time with an American girl while on the run from the cops after he kills one for finding him in a stolen car. He doesn't seem to care very much about the crime or the chances of getting caught, and is much more interested in getting the girl in bed again. It's a pretty nihilistic movie, one where the two main characters seem unrealistic but are often pretty fascinating to watch as they just talk for minutes on end or ponder their next moves. Lead Jean-Paul Belmondo as an easy charm despite his despicable actions, though the real highlight of the film is Jean Seberg's performance as the girl. I couldn't tell if she was using her regular voice or intentionally putting on an American accent, which was sometimes distracting. But the character and her allure were still very strong.

The editing style is pretty unique for the time period, using jump cuts within a shot in a way that feels very modern. I'm not sure if it was a deliberate style choice from the beginning or a way to get past small mistakes on a cheap budget, but either way it gives the movie its own feel. The ending is very suitable for the film's bleak tone, and it's a pretty quick film that brings the audience into its own harsh world view before ending and letting them go on their way. I didn't find it to be a very likable movie, though it had funny moments and does what it attempts effectively. It doesn't really want to be likable, which for me limits how much I can really care about, but is a somewhat admirable stance to take.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Game Update 17: DLC Round-Up 4

Surprised it's been over a year since I've done this. But I guess that happens when you don't buy any new games for almost a year.

Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood: The Da Vinci Disappearance

Review at Player Affinity

Costume Quest: Grubbins on Ice

This add-on to Costume Quest was roughly one third the length of the original game at one third of the price, which made it a nice way to extend the experience a little for fans. It takes place after the original and has a winter theme, though the gameplay is pretty much the same - you trick or treat until the area is clear, fight simple turn-based battles, find some collectible costumes and upgrades, and find stuff for people. The boss fight at the end was the most challenging encounter they've made so far, although it still wasn't terribly difficult. The ending teases more content on the way, though I suspect at this point it will be another stand-alone game rather than a small five dollar chunk.

Left 4 Dead 2: The Passing/The Sacrifice

Originally, the intention was to release The Passing for L4D2 and then The Sacrifice for L4D1, tying the two games together and killing off one of the original characters. The Sacrifice ended up also being released for L4D2 though, which allowed players of that game to play with the old characters using the equipment and enemy upgrades from the sequel, as well as starting the release of all the old content in the same way. So while the two campaigns are kind of short and don't add a whole terrible lot in terms of new twists on the series, they're still pretty fun and helped Valve experiment with new ways to roll stuff out to players. The online comic that preceded The Sacrifice's release was interesting as well.

Mass Effect 2: Arrival

Review at Player Affinity

Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare

Pretty darn meaty for ten bucks, Undead Nightmare completely changes Red Dead from a western-themed shooter to a game all about scraping by against a horde of zombies. Ammo is limited, enemies charge at you in groups and only go down easily from headshots, and there isn't a lot of help to be found. You'll usually divide your time between doing missions to advance the lengthy and surprisingly funny story and rescuing and defending outposts from invasions, which is more fun than it sounds. Most DLC doesn't come close to changing the game as much as this one, and it's a lot of fun. There are a bunch of other supernatural extras like side jobs involving horses of the apocalypse and sasquatches. One of the best DLC packs for the money I've ever played.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Das Boot

Wolfgang Petersen's Hollywood career has been pretty thoroughly mediocre, but he made a pretty outstanding film in Das Boot, a story about a German U-boat crew's mission and the struggles they go through. The cut I watched was well over three hours long and except for a few scenes takes place mostly within the claustrophobic confines of the submarine, as the crew men go about their lives. They joke around, butt heads, become friends, and share moments of triumph or terror depending on how well their journey is going. Although the film is sympathetic to Germans it is far from pro-Nazi, which is a distinction that helps you root for the characters despite knowing they were on the wrong side of the war. In the end, the soldiers fighting a battle usually don't have a lot to say about the actual conflict behind their fighting, and with sub crews being notoriously indifferent to Hitler in real life, it's a way to show how despite everything, we're all just people with fears and hopes. The way that the tone of the ending conflicts with the content totally works and encapsulates this whole idea very well.

It's also just a really enjoyable, tense war film, despite the length and lack of real action. The U-boat engages in a number of small skirmishes but they're over very quickly compared to how much time is spent establishing the stakes, preparing for action, and responding when something goes wrong. They hardly get through any action unscathed, and the divide between anguished waiting and frantic action before and after receiving a blow is a pretty masterfully played note every time it comes up. A lot of emotional ground is covered, and there are some really good performances among the central characters that make the whole thing seem more real. And the beards, man. The whole crew grows beards over the course of their voyage, and they are essential to the film's brilliance. Never forget those beards.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Battlefield: Bad Company

This game is a few years old at this point, but I enjoyed the campaign of the sequel enough that I decided I would eventually check it out, which is what I ended up doing. Obviously the series is still best known for its multiplayer, and it seems kind of silly to check out an old game best known for its online with a sequel and probably not many people left playing it, But I'm kind of a silly guy and the game was pretty cheap. The campaign features seven fairly lengthy missions, and places you again (or for the first time) in the role of Preston Marlow, new recruit of Bad Company. It's the same core cast and voice actors and the sequel, and they're a fun group of guys to shoot at evil Russians with, fun enough that I could overlook some of the game's weird quirks.

Bad Company 2 did a fair number of things to set itself a bit apart from the standard Call of Duty formula for games about shooting guys, allowing for a variety of approaches to certain situations and heavily featuring the series' trademark of lots of vehicles and special equipment you can actually use yourself. It was still a heavily guided and checkpoint driven shooter though, and had instances of the game forcing you onto rails and frequently pulled you out of gameplay to advance the story. Bad Company on the other hand is almost a complete oddity as far as single player campaigns work, feeling very rooted in the series' origins as a multiplayer only experience. There are cut scenes at the beginning and end of missions and moments where the game glues you to one spot for some exposition, though until near the end the plot never goes beyond feeling like a less random version of playing an online match, as the person in charge tells your squad to go here and do this and then go there and blow up that. Some standards of the genre just aren't there like they are in the sequel - instead of automatically regenerating you have a health bar, although it's functionally pretty similar since you always have a recharging needle you can inject yourself with to heal up. Instead of the standard two guns and a few grenades, weapons work more like the class kits from the online - you can have one with a time, and they all come with either an explosive attachment, a few grenades, or a side arm.

The way death is handled is especially odd - if you fail a specific objective you might be reset to a checkpoint, but otherwise getting killed just causes you to respawn nearby, with all of the things you've done in the mean time still accomplished. Bioshock had a similar system, although that game explained the concept in the story, while in Bad Company it just feels like another way that a multiplayer team was still figuring out how to do a campaign mode. If one enemy sees you then all of the ones in the area seem to know where you are automatically, and you just march from location to location on a constantly expanding map, killing dudes who get in your way, driving tanks or jeeps you find, and blowing up things that need to be blown up. The game's big addition to the franchise is the ability to destroy the walls of buildings you come across, which is effective at exposing stubborn enemies who just hang out behind them and also adds to the tension of trying to escape from an enemy tank. It's kind of disappointing though how you can never truly destroy a structure like in Red Faction: Guerrilla - the walls can be blown away, but those support beams are completely rigid. It adds a little fun to the game's sandbox, although it's sort of a fleeting thrill.

Sandbox is a good word to use when talking about this game, which often feels like the developers just decided to give you a bunch of tools to play with and loosely tied them together with simple mission objectives and brain dead computer opponents. It's not really open world, because most of the map is locked off at the beginning of a level, and the levels aren't connected, but I think sandbox is evocative. Most of the areas look really similar - peaceful European forests and meadows, overrun with roads connecting cookie cutter bases made of small buildings surrounded by dozens of easily destroyed barrels filled with explosive material. It's not exactly creative, but it works, and it's fun to tool around with your buddies, listening to them butt heads and crack jokes while you call in air strikes and launch rockets. The biggest mistake the campaign probably makes is having you go it alone for most of a mission near the end. It's kind of a quirky game with not a lot of attention paid to certain aspects of it, but I ended up enjoying it about as much as the sequel in some ways. There's enough weapon variety to make finding a new one an exciting moment, and it does a good job of training you for the multiplayer, which I didn't bother trying because I'm sure there are no PS3 players at this point, but I'm sure is as fun as the series always is. I was sort of dismayed recently by a producer on the upcoming Battlefield 3 speaking out against that kind of sandbox design. I'm all for seeing what DICE can do with a COD-style tightly focused experience, but I think there's definitely merit to giving the player more freedom, and there's definitely plenty of people who will tell you the series' current brand of online, with dozens of players doing whatever they want in an attempt to win a battle, is a total blast. I guess we'll see what direction they end up taking it.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me

David Lynch's unique style and direction make this movie enjoyable, though it's certainly a flawed one. People who haven't seen the show either won't understand at all what's going on or find what they do understand to be unsatisfying, and people who have seen the show will probably be disappointed by some of the things from the show's central appeal that are missing, and might find the material that is there a bit too well-worn to be really compelling. It was a project that was probably doomed to fail, though it was nice to visit the town that made the show such a joy one more time.

Fire Walk with Me is a prequel to the series that shows the initial investigation of Teresa Banks' murder and the events of the last few days of Laura Palmer's life, while also filling in a little bit about Agent Cooper's introduction to the case and what happened after the series finale. It begins with another pair of agents investigating Teresa's death, and after one disappears (the other is played by an enjoyably quirky Kiefer Sutherland), Cooper is put on the case. Before long though he hits a dead end, and the focus shifts to Laura's story, which takes up most of the movie. Here we see a whole lot more of the depravity and weird mumbo jumbo that made up the circumstances around her death, the former of which we mostly already knew about and the latter of which still doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Laura does drugs, ignores her friends, prostitutes herself, and becomes increasingly erratic as she learns more about the strange man who's been tormenting her. Eventually things spiral out of control as we see what really happened the night before the series starts.

None of the details are too unexpected though, and at times Fire Walk with Me feels less like a movie filling in gaps and more like a mythology-heavy flashback episode that the show never ended up really needing. Lots of characters return, mostly played by the same actors, although too often little is done with them besides reminding the viewer of little things. Hey, remember how Laura did Meals on Wheels with the diner? Or how Bobby scored coke for her? Now you get to watch it. I don't object to seeing the world of Twin Peaks expanded, I just wish that the movie had more of a point to it. I also wish it was a bit closer to the tone of the show. Twin Peaks had adult themes but was acceptable enough for prime time television in the early 90s, while the movie really earns its R rating with swearing, violence, and nudity. This would be fine, but the dark aspects of the film end up taking over the whole story, and the other side of the series, the goofy, charming side, is pretty much entirely abandoned after a certain point.

So I think the film is worth watching if you really loved the show, and would like to see more about the key events that shaped it in the beginning. It's actually a reasonably effective horror movie, an element that the series touched on but never really embraced. It doesn't really go out of its way to terrify you, but there's lots of spooky and creepy imagery, especially revolving around all the mystical stuff, and the last act of the movie in particular is brutal and uncomfortable to watch. Lynch has a handle on film making even when the material isn't top notch, and in saying goodbye to the show he loved but didn't completely deliver on, he made a reasonably entertaining movie. I know a lot of people really hated it, but if you go in knowing the limitations and what you're in for, I think it's worth seeing.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Tudors

The Tudors is one of those shows that deserves to have quotation marks around the word historical in their descriptions. It's not that they go out of their way to make things up, but it's the simple fact that they are more concerned with telling a story and creating a mood than accurately portraying what happened. The Tudors tells the story of King Henry VIII, the guy we all ready about in school who had a bunch of wives and created the Church of England. Because of the limitations of covering a forty year reign in 38 episodes over the course of four years, many things are compressed and forgotten and compromised in order for it to be a series and not just a documentary.

And that's okay, really. Rome did the same thing, and it was pretty outstanding. But while I thought The Tudors was decent, something about it felt limited. Despite using Henry's parade of marriages as an excuse to turn him into a sex-crazed lunatic, the show really wasn't as trashy as I thought it would be. I wasn't expecting Spartacus: Blood and Sand levels of softcore pornography and fountains of blood, but I was definitely expecting more than there was. Long stretches of the show are merely people meeting at court and planning changes for the kingdom and stuff like that while all of the wars Henry got into occurred mostly off screen, and the worst thing you can really say about is that it's actually a little boring sometimes. The show gets in its fair share of sex scenes and decapitations (and hangings, and burnings at the stake, and drawing and quarterings), but it's not quite debaucherous enough to be pure fun, nor is it really well written enough to pull off a fully respectful treatment of the material. It was popular enough to stay on the air for as long as it did, but I have trouble imagining an audience that was completely satisfied with the series' tone.

Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays King Henry, and I was mostly pleased by his work. He's not exactly the most talented actor, but one of the most important things for the role was that he have a commanding, authoritative presence, which he does. I was also reasonably impressed by the way he handled the character's increasing age as the show wore on. The new Superman Henry Cavill plays the Duke of Suffolk, and is the only actor in a major role to appear in all four seasons besides Rhys Meyers. Unlike most other characters who exist to provide something for Henry to deal with (or have sex on top of), Cavill is mostly just a loyal friend who has problems of his own to deal with, which were often a nice change of pace from the main plot. Otherwise there are a lot of beautiful women who make their way through the court and often die, as well as a number of respected and/or recognizable actors appearing in brief but significant roles, like Sam Neill as a corrupt cardinal who's nonetheless on Henry's side or Peter O'Toole as the pope, who isn't having any of the king's Church of England crap.

So for four seasons we see Meyers grow from a young king to a nearly crippled old man, trying to find a wife that will bear him a male heir, juggling alliances with multiple other finicky monarchs, and rooting out dissent among his people. He puts a lot of people to death, ignores logic to support his own deluded beliefs, and never seems to fully connect with anyone around him. Some subplots were a lot more interesting than others, and you never know when a character you like will disappear or one you hate will hang on for way too long. It's a mostly watchable show that never gets too annoying to be unbearable or too good to make you really excited to keep going. Despite all this though, I found myself surprisingly moved as the series wound down and ended on its own terms. Not incredibly touched really, just surprised that I was a bit sad to see the slow decline of a man who's come to see that his best days are long behind him. The shift to old guy makeup seemed a bit drastic, but it worked nonetheless. The show was entirely written by creator Michael Hirst, and I think that might have been a mistake, because more people working on it could have meant a tighter and more thoroughly entertaining series. But in the end I kept watching it, because I enjoy these sorts of takes on interesting historical eras despite myself. Next I'm going to check out The Borgias, a show created by Neil Jordan that Hirst is producing.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Get Him to the Greek

I don't recall if I ever saw a full trailer for this movie, but I know from the TV spots that I don't think they ever made it clear that this is actually a spin-off of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, with Russell Brand reprising his role as insane rock star Aldous Snow. I didn't know this until people mentioned it elsewhere, and you'd think the advertising would capitalize on this face, since Snow was possibly the funniest single thing about that movie. As it was, it just looked like a raunchy comedy about a fat nervous guy and a wacky British guy running around and partying. Which it is, but it happens to be a very enjoyable one, and the Snow character is a big part of that. I'm ambivalent about Brand, who can come off as endearingly wacky or completely irritating depending on what day it is, but this role certainly brings out the best in him. Snow is partly just a typical drug abusing out-of-his-mind musician, but there are layers of loneliness and self awareness underneath that exterior, and his unique use of the English language never ceases to entertain. He plays a secondary role to Jonah Hill's young talent agent Aaron, but I think he could have carried the movie himself.

Not that Hill's bad at all in the movie. He always seems to find a new little twist on his general persona in each new movie, and this character is definitely a bit different, being a very nervous young guy who just wants to do a good job but makes a habit of screwing up. He has to get Snow to the Greek Theatre in LA from his home in London in just a couple days, and unfortunately for him Snow is much better at procrastinating than he is at getting him to do anything. There's an interesting dynamic between the two, as Aaron grows from admiring Snow at a distance to understanding what the man is really like, and Snow comes to appreciate one of the only people he's met who doesn't want to take advantage of him. The supporting cast is good too. Elisabeth Moss plays Aaron's girlfriend, and she seems liberated by playing a character that isn't a 60s copy writer. Their relationship is sweet, even if it gets splintered heavily by the events of the film. Colm Meaney plays Snow's father, and his combination of easy charm with completely awful motives is an interesting turn. Diddy is also surprisingly entertaining as Hill's boss, even if it seemed like his role was overplayed in advertisements. His character is truly foul mouthed and insane, which are both aspects they couldn't really get across in TV spots, and I was pleasantly surprised by the character.

So Hill and Brand run around Europe and then the United States, getting impossibly intoxicated on alcohol and drugs, and going to absurdly debaucherous parties, and basically doing everything except going where they should be. I think the movie works because the adult content is just so completely over the edge, which makes it more interesting to watch than a standard R rated road trip movie. I did see the unrated version, so I wonder how much that helped. Over time they learn more about each other, and by the end they've finally realized things that will let them have better lives from that point forward. It's a pretty standard arc for this sort of movie, but it all works because it's very competently put together by Nicholas Stoller and his crew and the cast is very solid. Not every gag works, but enough do for me to recommend it as much as most other Judd Apatow-produced comedies.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Star Wars: The Clone Wars - Season 3

The most common feeling I had as the third season of this show was winding down was that I couldn't even remember why I ever liked Star Wars. And that's a pretty bad thing to be thinking about one of your favorite film series. The Clone Wars is not completely terrible - it looks pretty nice, and there will occasionally be a well crafted action scene, and it will sometimes pay homage to a classic moment from Star Wars or just another old adventure movie which can be fun. But I just find it a drag to turn it on every week, not knowing if it will be tolerable or just completely irritating. There was enough of the former to keep me watching through three seasons, but now that I'm working forty hours a week and have to get the most out of my free time, a half-tolerable show based on a favorite property is not nearly worth it. I now feel that a show is only worth my time if I'm actually excited to see a new episode every week, and there are a number of series that don't fit that bill that I'll be dropping as their latest seasons end this Spring. The Clone Wars is the first.

I just don't identify with hardcore Star Wars fans, I guess. I get no joy out of a universe expanding to the point where it's unrecognizable, or seeing every possible idea from the movies being revisited even if it makes no sense, or learning the origins of every single god damn bit character from the movies that happened to be alive when the show takes place. And some of the original stuff is even worse. Ziro the Hutt returned this season, and watching him and his mother and his interspecies girlfriend was an exercise in seeing how much a cartoon could make me wish I was dead in just 22 minutes. There was a little story arc where Obi Wan and Anakin visited a planet where a family of extremely force sensitive people talked to Anakin about his destiny and all of this nonsense and I felt like I was watching a direct to video fantasy film you'd find buried under stacks of The Land Before Time sequels at the rental store. The show has no real direction, it's basically an anthology series of vaguely Star Wars-related story ideas rather than something that actually has a goal to accomplish. It's filler, a way for kids who think light sabers are awesome to pass time, and there is really no reason in the world for me to watch it, so I won't anymore.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Crimes and Misdemeanors

The third and last Woody Allen film I watched over the weekend. Crimes and Misdemeanors is the first film of his I've seen that you could reasonably call a drama more than a comedy, although there's still funny moments, usually involving Allen's character butting heads with Alan Alda's. But considering that a murder is central to one of the main two character arcs in the story, calling it a drama certainly seems fair. The film is fairly neatly divided between two threads. In one, Allen plays a documentary filmmaker in a loveless marriage, who is given an opportunity to do a profile on his hot shot producer brother in law played by Alda, and then becomes his romantic rival after meeting an associate producer played by Mia Farrow. In the other, Martin Landau plays a successful eye doctor who has to deal with an increasingly intrusive mistress played by Anjelica Huston. The two threads barely bump up against each other until the end, when the two leads meet at a wedding and share a quiet moment.

The film is certainly different than what I'm used to seeing from Allen, and while it didn't totally work for me, I admired a lot about it. The cast is pretty terrific as always, and I appreciated the attempt at some genuinely dark material without a hint of a humorous motive. This is also the second Allen film this week to take an idea from an Ingmar Bergman film, and he's not a bad person to pay tribute to. Alda's character is pretty much the perfect smug bastard, refusing to take no for an answer and carrying a tape recorder around with him to track every little idea he has for the next big hit. The relationships on display have the appropriate mixture of sweetness and melancholy, and there are a few inspired moments. I felt like a few of its concepts got in the way of creating a more genuinely entertaining movie though, and Allen isn't quite a master of suspense when it comes to the darker stuff, or at least he wasn't yet. Still a perfectly fine film, and it was cool seeing him try something different.