Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Human Condition

The Human Condition can be looked at as either a trilogy of three hour, two part films or a single nine hour, six part epic. Director Masaki Kobayashi also did Harakiri which is one of my favorite movies of all time, and while I didn't enjoy this as much, it was still an incredibly ambitious and mostly successful examination of what war does to people and values. The first film stars Tatsuya Nakadai, who was brilliant in Harakiri, as Kaji, a young man dedicated to socialist ideals in Japan. He gets exempted from fighting in World War II and placed in charge of a work camp for Chinese prisoners. He has to balance his duties to his country with the rights and desires of the prisoners, his own beliefs, and his love for his wife. He has trouble juggling everything, and by the end he finds himself overwhelmed  by the conflicting elements and a much more broken man. It's kind of a slow movie, but there are enough stand-out scenes to help prop the rest of it up.

The second film finds Kaji now in the army, becoming skilled at his trade but still fundamentally opposed to war. This was my least favorite of the trilogy, as like many middle parts of the story, it relies entirely on the events within seeming important and interesting, and a lot of it is just him trying to protect his friends from his aggressive superiors and comrades and worrying about eventually going to war. It's not without its good points, I just thought the whole thing dragged a bit. It does climax pretty dramatically, with the largest single display of inhumanity in the trilogy, a battle that is effectively harrowing and tense. But the first couple hours didn't built to it in a very natural or dramatic way, it was just something and that they knew would eventually happen. The important bit is really how inhumanely soldiers treated each other, even ones on the same side, but it didn't quite grab me as much.

The third film is my favorite of the three, as it finds Kaji as an almost completely different person, not too terribly long after the series begins. Tatsuya Nakadai is an amazingly captivating actor, stealing the viewer's attention much like Toshiro Mifune, though less with a magnetic charisma and more with just an inescapable, fascinating intensity. The movie shows him and a few other stragglers from a battle, trying to make their way back home, battling starvation and fatigue as the Chinese countryside is still dangerous despite the end of the war. He takes point in trying to lead them home, but it becomes clear over time just what the war has done to him, and his desperation to return to his wife is as palpable as it is tragic. The movie is kind of just a major bummer, but it's also one that's hard to look away from, and shows a lot of growth in Nakadai as an actor and Masaki Kobayashi as a director. They'd collaborate on Harakiri a year later, and I think this helped prepare them for it.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands

Although the platforming in Enslaved: Odyssey to the West was mostly decorative, it got me in the mood to play a PS2-style Prince of Persia game again, and luckily The Forgotten Sands was just sitting there ready for me to play it. And while the game definitely felt like Ubisoft cared more about getting it out quickly than polishing it to a shine besides the nice jump to HD visuals for the Sands of Time sub-series, it was still a very entertaining game, at least when you were running on walls and jumping from object to object.

The game supposedly takes place between the first and second in the Sands of Time trilogy, although it doesn't make a particular effort to fit into that story besides giving the prince the limited ability to go back in time and mentioning a couple people like Farah. The prince is visiting his brother's kingdom somewhere, and he gets there during the middle of a siege on his castle, which gets interrupted when his brother foolishly unleashes yet another sand-based evil power he didn't understand, which awakes a bunch of monsters that turn everyone except the two brothers (protected by amulets) into sand. So the prince has to save everybody, while picking up new abilities over time and trying to keep his brother from being corrupted. It's pretty standard middle east fantasy stuff, and while it doesn't hurt the game, it didn't make me want to finish it either - I kept playing because I liked the gameplay, not because I gave a crap about why things were happening. Not a big deal for a video game to have a boring story, but it did feel like a step down after a few previous Prince of Persia games spent so much time developing relationships between the Prince and another character. The supporting characters here didn't have much going on.

The platforming is where it's at, and the game delivers, feeling pretty familiar to fans of the series, even if the controls aren't quite the same. The prince can jump and run up and along walls and grab poles and ledges and beams, and he has to use these abilities to avoid deathtraps and traverse otherwise impassable terrain and solve elaborate yet simple puzzles. He quickly gains the ability to reverse time for several seconds to undo mistakes, and later powers such as freezing running water so he can use it to aid his acrobatics, eventually upping the complexity of his stunts to a level I don't quite remember the previous games reaching. The strength of the series has always been making the prince climb and leap all over the place, and they do a great job of recapturing that here.

Unfortunately, the combat is definitely not up to the challenge, though at least it doesn't seem to obstruct progress as often as in previous games. Still, for a series that's always had issues making fighting monsters as interesting as running around, to see them produce the least fun system they've had yet was pretty frustrating. The new system consists of swatting away large groups of boring enemies with a very simple combo system and a few elemental powers that you can buy upgrades for, but which fail to provide much entertainment to the dull process of whacking a bunch of ineffectually aggressive bad guys until they all fall down. The boss fights are boring also, rarely anything more than hacking at some giant dude's feet while he takes swings at you and you get mobbed by a bunch of generic enemies at the same time. Eventually the game integrates attacking enemies into the platforming, but it never becomes a particularly interesting element of such, and you're left with yet another wasted attempt at making this side of the series nearly as fun as the other.

Like I mentioned a bit before, the production values of the game are decent enough in comparison to the older games, and The Forgotten Sands definitely feels like a budget title more than pretty much anything else I've played on the PS3. While it has better platforming than the last attempt at reinventing Prince of Persia, that still had a look of its own that only this generation of hardware could produce, while The Forgotten Sands looks like they just bumped up the polygon count and lighting effects. The voice acting is nothing special, the music is forgettable, and the sound effects are unreliable at best. It's a fairly buggy game too - repeatedly things that should have worked didn't, and it seemed to get sloppier as it went on. If this had been positioned as a AAA title it probably would have been massively disappointing, but knowing that it was basically pushed out to coincide with the movie and paying less than $20 to get it a year later, with expectations in check, I was mostly pleased with the game. I wanted some fun acrobatic platforming, and I got it, even if everything around it wasn't quite up to snuff.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Edward Scissorhands

Edward Scissorhands is Tim Burton at his most Tim Burtoniest, creating an unusual setting that combines quaint suburbia and the horrific creation of a mad scientist into something of a dark fairy tale that isn't really that dark. Despite Edward's appearance, the movie makes even less of an attempt to really be scary than Beetlejuice, preferring to tell a nice, traditional story using some unusual pieces. Although the Tim Burton look seems to be getting old to a lot of people at this point, I thought it really worked great in this movie. The art direction is outstanding, from the pastel colored identical houses in the neighborhood to the creepy surreal architecture of Edward's mansion to the artistry of his gardening and hairstyling. No other movie looks like it, and that helps a lot to sell the idea.

The movie has a great cast, too. Johnny Depp is great as Edward, pensive and innocent but not without something unusual behind it. I think his biggest skill is how he can take any character and just become them. The family he stays with is filled with recognizable faces, Winona Ryder does her part of being pretty and having a believable arc to her friendship with Edward. Diane Wiest and Alan Arkin are her parents, and the way they take Edward in without question is one of my favorite elements of the story. Vincent Price is only seen in flashback as Edward's creator, but he's Vincent Price, and it's pretty amusing to see how in five years Anthony Michael Hall went from playing the geek in The Breakfast Club to playing the jock here.

Although the story is a bit frustrating in how it relies on idiotic townspeople to create conflict, it's still an interesting look at how acceptance can turn into fear without much provocation. Like a lot of fairy tales it's pretty bittersweet, and the look and score both do a lot sell it. Some of the best work by Burton and a lot of his collaborators here. I've seen most of the feature films he's directed and as of yet he's never blown me away, but I have to appreciate any film maker who is more concerned with exploring his own ideas than changing them to fit the institution, even if he's an institution himself now.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Modern Family - Season 2

It's hard to tell how much of a popular backlash there has been against this show. The ratings were a little better, and it still does very well in every advertiser's favorite demographic. But it seems like some people have been getting annoyed by how much of a standard sitcom Modern Family is. I thought it was obvious from the start, but the series is still a lot of fun because of the execution. I think at this point people are more aware of what to expect out of the show, which is a bunch of funny episodes and a few disappointing ones. The only real problem I had with this season was the tendency of Cam and Mitchell's stories to be more simple and rote than the other characters',  but everybody really gets plenty of good material over the course of the year. The show's at its best when the whole family is together and bouncing off each other, and while sometimes scripts end up keeping the households separate, it still manages to wring solid laughs out of even the tackiest familiar situations. For a show that people actually watch, it's remarkably good.

But I guess the question is how long they can keep doing the same thing. It's clear that some people are already impatient with the show's standard sitcom roots, which the nonsense mockumentary trappings don't hide that well. Would I prefer it if the series was a little more original about the wacky situations the characters get into? Maybe, but I'm not sure if it's still Modern Family at that point. The title is sort of ironic, because while the show feels up-to-date in some ways, with a gay couple getting a third of the screen time and remarkably solid child actors, at it's heart it's one of the most old school shows on the air, and I'm not sure what it would even do if it wasn't like that. It's kind of the point. It might prevent the show from being the best, smartest thing on television, but all it really seems to want is to be funny and touching, and it does both of things well almost every time. It's a bit broad and lazy at times, but the game it plays of teasing the most stereotypical plots imaginable and then somehow making them seem fresh again is fun. Sometimes it stumbles, but not often enough to turn me off on the whole thing.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Glee - Season 2

Glee's three writers sort of killed the Three Glees theory when they stated that they basically all work on different parts of the various episodes, usually focusing on certain characters they tend to write well, and more or less credited themselves for the different scripts randomly. And with the absence of an actual explanation for why the show is so directionless and inconsistent, the only conclusion is that it's just a directionless and inconsistent show. I liked Glee despite myself throughout most of the first season, but it all came crashing down pretty hard in the second. Some episodes were generally enjoyable, and the show is still usually fun when somebody is singing. But a lot of it was really bad, and the way it ignored or maybe just forgot about certain character traits or stories to serve whatever stupid idea they had for that week made it hard to ever give them the benefit of the doubt. Chuck is another show that tries to be both a comedy and a drama, and often fails at both. But that show still knows what it is at its center, and it builds around a familiar cast. Glee just does whatever the hell it feels like, and that makes it really easy to turn on it when things go wrong. And they tended to go wrong often enough that it soured me on it to the point where I won't be back next year.

I'm not really sure where to start. The main character, Will, has always sucked, and he sucked even more this year when they couldn't decide whether he was a flawed but earnest teacher, or a saint who will do anything for anyone, or an out-of-touch, scheming imbecile. It's not really the actor's fault, but he doesn't exactly save it either. The kids are pretty much the same group they were before, but only the most important ones like Rachel and Kurt really get much to do - the second season is where shows are supposed to branch out and give more of the characters significant stories to work with, and while they do this a bit with Brittany and Santana (when the former isn't so stupid that she believes Jane Lynch in Grinch makeup is Santa Claus), too many of the original Glee kids still feel completely neglected by the whims of the writers. They tried to mix things up with the faculty by having a particularly mannish woman play the new football coach (how many small town schools hire people exclusively to coach athletic programs, anyway?), but their handling of that was one of their biggest bungles, and they basically forgot she existed weeks ago. Emma's OCD is a plot that refuses to go anywhere, and possibly worst of all, they basically butchered Sue Sylvester. I said last time that her absence from an episode was palpable, but this year it was actually a relief. They can't decide whether she's evil or just strangely motivated, and for every step she takes forward in real characterization she takes two steps back with another tired scheme and familiar monologue. Jane Lynch is still great, but even she can't save this writing.

So the show can't really do anything with its characters, meaning all it has is the stories and the music. The plot follows the same basic pattern as last year with not much to mix it up despite the obvious knowledge that the club is going to make it farther this time, but probably won't win the championship because it's only the second season and a lot of this show is still about failure. The show still has some interesting themes, the problem is it just doesn't explore them enough, with it being too focused on reinforcing the road to Nationals and Kurt's gigantic gay bashing/private school/first boyfriend subplot. And the music - well. I don't know. They tried some original songs in a couple episodes, and they weren't really terrible compared to the other generic pop they sing, but I didn't really feel their significance to the kids' stories. They sing songs about stuff they know, but the stuff they know doesn't amount to a whole lot. A lot of the cover choices are fine, even if they're misapplied (when Finn has a religious crisis he sings "Losing My Religion", even thought that song isn't about losing your religion), but it's the performances that are more problematic. It's not the voices, because everyone on the show can sing, even if only a few of them regularly get the chance to (It seems like more than half of Tina's performances were humorously interrupted), but just the arrangements are boring. The show originally captured everyone's attention with "Don't Stop Believin'", when they took an old song and made it interesting with a capella backing vocals. Even the mash-ups in season one, which were deployed too frequently, were occasionally interesting. But the vast majority of the performances now are just standard recreations of a familiar song, backed by a full, conveniently omnipresent band, and without much to separate them from the original recording. It's not like they never mix it up, but they should more. The show just seemed lazier this year, and while it may be content to sit around and keep doing what it's been doing and rake in money from ads and music sales, it's going to have to do so without me this fall. Big loss, I know.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Chicago Code

Sadly, the true misfortune of The Chicago Code getting canceled after one short season is that somehow Shawn Ryan and Tim Minear managed to produce a series that I don't really care is already over. I mean, it's a solid show, certainly above average for a police drama on a network. But it rarely went beyond that, and while it certainly had potential to turn into a great show, I never really saw enough of it get realized to the point where the cancellation felt like a big blow. It was an experiment that didn't quite work, and I kind of wish the creators had really done something riskier with it, because while trying to make a grittier, more nuanced cop show that was still broad enough to attract a wide audience, they didn't really succeed at either, and they still got cancelled in the first season. I haven't seen their previous team-up Terriers yet, but I have the feeling it will continue to have a strong cult following years from now, when Chicago Code is relegated to being the answer to a trivia question, a footnote among the wide swaths of series that no one really cared about.

Which is a shame, because there really was some good stuff here. Although it's a little too teal and orange for my tastes, the show still looks pretty great, making the city of Chicago seem like a really nice place to be despite the apparently rampant gang activity and political corruption. The show does action better than most cop shows that even try (a carryover from Ryan's The Shield), with some solid chases by car or foot and exciting standoffs. Although the show relies on having a new case every week until the end to attract irregular audiences, is still does a decent job of tying things back to the overarching plot relating the main characters' attempt to nab a powerful alderman, and when they finally get around to bringing that story to the forefront, it's handled pretty well. Although the show only ended up having one really great episode in my opinion (the second to last), it was still an enjoyable ride most of the time, even if it rarely aspired for more and the resolution was too quick and easy after the buildup.

The cast is pretty good, especially the main character and his partner. Brotherhood's Jason Clarke plays a McNulty-esque cop named Wysocki who cares more about good police work than niceties, although he has a much nicer relationship with his most prominent superior. His partner is Evers, new on the force and a bit clean-cut for Wysocki's tastes. Their relationship starts off as something of a cliche, but the writing and acting of the show make it seem natural, and the thing I'll miss most about the show is probably the development of their careers together. The other main characters are an assortment of cops at various levels, and Delroy Lindo as the corrupt alderman they target, who's also good at selling his dark side without letting you forget that he does do some good for the city. The show deserves some credit for being better and smarter than networks usually allow their series to be, but it's just not enough to take it from pretty good to something truly worth missing. More than anything it just made me want to watch other things by the producers, which is fine, but doesn't really speak for how well it stands out. I would have watched season two, but I'm not terribly bummed that it isn't happening.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Borgias - Season 1

The Borgias is a lot like The Tudors, a period piece focused on a powerful figure from the Renaissance period, that tries to make up for occasionally stilted, stuffy storytelling with a lax attention to accuracy and a fair amount of blood and sex. Much like The Tudors, neither the historical nor the entertainment side of the show is strong enough to make up for the shortcomings on the other side. Shows like True Blood and Spartacus: Blood and Sand definitely tend to have worse writing and acting than The Borgias, but they still entertain me with their frequently over the top depictions of some of our base instincts. Right now I'm plowing through The West Wing, which is a show that relies almost entirely on people talking about politics and is always a ton of fun. So the fact that The Borgias tries for both and ends up just being kind of boring is disappointing. It's not like juggling both can't be done; Rome and Deadwood were both incredibly rich (though abridged) depictions of important points in history and incredibly inappropriate for children at the same time. And right now, Game of Thrones is trampling it in just about every category, and I think I'd be saying that even if I didn't already love the books.

Of course, those HBO shows all have much larger budgets than what Neil Jordan apparently had to work with on Showtime, but it's hard to use that to cover up the issues with the series, which extend beyond the limitations of the sets and computer effects. There's not very much going on in the story, the characters generally aren't likable, and I didn't really get a sense of what was happening being important or where it was leading. It's hard to identify an arc at all, sure, there's an invasion that comes as the season ends, but I had trouble identifying why it mattered. And like I said, it's not much of a guilty pleasure either - plenty of time is spent examining the sexual relationships between the characters, but these scenes don't offer much titillation, and a lot of the violence is either pretty rote stabbings or poorly shot war scenes. I think it's an interesting family, and an historically noteworthy one, but watching them in action hasn't been very fun. I may come back to the show later, when I can watch it in chunks instead of one dull hour at a time, but I see no need to come back to it each week next year. Jeremy Irons is usually really good, but that's about it.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Family Guy - Season 9

As I hinted in the last post, I'm not really feeling this show much these days. It's just different in ways I don't like, and I'd say more different from the show when it came back from the dead than it was then in comparison to its original run. You still have most of the same characters and an unending dedication to remembering pop culture no matter how bad or obscure it is, but the style just isn't right. It feels less like a sitcom and more like... I don't even know what, it's just really weird now. They'll do murder mysteries and reenact scenes from movies and stuff like that, and they're ideas that I would have liked to have seen a few years ago, but the pace now is just so slow, and the focus seems to be more on getting all the story beats and camera moves right rather than entertaining the audience. It's like the fun has been sucked out of the process, a lot of the jokes are the same as ever, but the sense of fun is missing. There will be a scene where two characters are just talking in a car for several minutes, and you'll wonder what the hell they're trying to do with it.

They also try to have emotional moments, and they just don't work. This is Family Guy, a show for which nothing is sacred, a show that will casually toss out racial insults in increasingly non-ironic-seeming fashion, a show with a producer who was one of the idiots making insensitive comments about Japan on twitter after the Tsunami, a show that made an episode about abortion and then didn't air it but still sold it on DVD by itself for $15. So I just can't give a shit about the show pretending Brian might let himself die to give Peter his kidneys for half an episode. The show has no soul, and there's no sense trying to give it one now. It's best when it's firing a million jokes a minute and a few of them manage to land, and what they're doing now just isn't very entertaining. I won't pretend there weren't moments or even entire episodes that I didn't enjoy, but the show just isn't worth dedicating time to it on a regular basis anymore. I won't turn it off if it comes on and I'm bored, but I won't make sure to see every episode.

Monday, May 23, 2011

American Dad! - Season 6

This is the first FOX show I'm talking about since FX finished burning off the four unaired Running Wilde episodes, so I'm going to write a sentence about them. Those episodes were okay.

Anyway, American Dad. It's back as the best Seth MacFarlane-produced show they have. It's hard to say what makes it better than Family Guy, other than just the writing is better. In some ways it's much more of a typical, run-of-the-mill sitcom, at least structurally. The plots of most episodes can be traced back for years or even decades to plenty of other shows that have done similar things. But while Family Guy is screwing around with reenactments and parodies and anti-humor and inserting entire embarrassing music videos into episodes, American Dad just makes sure that the jokes are funny and that the formulaic storylines manage to surprise you at least once. It's a more typical show, but it's also just a much more consistently entertaining one to watch.

There isn't much particular to note about this season, except for what they've done with Haley. There was a story arc (atypical for this show) at the beginning of the season where she married her boyfriend, and it's resulted in her having a diminished role in the series. Not that I generally mind, because Haley and Stan butting heads over social issues was always far from my favorite part of the show. But when practically every episode boils down to Stan pairing off with Francine, Roger, or Steve, it makes me wish for a little more fluidity in those roles sometimes, and the way Haley is usually wasted could have been avoided to help out there. Still, with the formula is pretty rigid, it works, and the show has yet to use up all the potential it has for this family. It's probably the only animated show I'm watching that doesn't premiere on Adult Swim that I look forward to, and I could see it holding steady for a few more years.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Fantastic Four, Volumes 1-4

Jonathan Hickman was the writer chosen for the final arc (as of now) for Fantastic Four, which resulted in the widely reported death of the Human Torch and the monthly book being retitled FF, which stands for Future Foundation. I've never been that into the group, but this was a pretty solid storyline with a lot of crazy stuff going on, all delicately balanced to keep from getting out of control. The Fantastic Four were already a pretty weird group, as befitting super heroes with an origin story that involves them being in outer space. They were already into some advanced stuff when they were turned into freaks thanks to Reed's superb intellect, and putting those together combines for some wild ideas. There's so much going on in these 19 issues; parallel universes with parallel Reeds working together, a bunch of his dads collapsing into one timeline, the discovery of several cities with new civilizations running them, Galactus finding his future corpse and getting PISSED, and the fact that I didn't lose my mind reading it probably speaks to Hickman's ability.

Some of the concepts are pretty silly, or just not given enough time to be explained when he jumps to some new thing he wants to talk about, but it kind of works to create a sense of chaos that builds towards the climax, where not everything is resolved but a pattern emerges and a big emotional event happens for the characters. It's hard to care much about Johnny because I don't have a history of affection for the group and the refusal of most comic book characters to stay dead is pretty infamous, but it's still a well-realized moment, and the epilogue issue of mourning is a departure for most mainstream books and fairly interesting. Plus it had a good Spider-Man scene, so that's a bonus. I don't expect I'll be reading any FF, but I appreciate the occasional opportunity to check out some of the more prominent story arcs that go on in this universe, which are never as resonant as the books I read more regularly but still worth a quick read. Comic books!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Parks and Recreation - Season 3

The constantly-reinventing-itself Community is still my favorite comedy on TV, but if it didn't exist, Parks and Rec would be a perfectly admirable substitute. The additions of Adam Scott and Rob Lowe as regular characters does a good job of growing the show a bit without interfering with the chemistry that had already been built. They fit right in, with Lowe as Chris, the super eager and optimistic new guy running the city government, and Scott as Ben, a disgraced former 18 year old mayor who's now a budget expert. They were introduced at the end of season two to kind of push the plot along, but they're fully integrated into the cast this time, with Chris' new ideas disrupting the flow in the office, especially for Ron, and Ben being both lovably awkward and an interesting match for Leslie. I like how the show has handled relationships, not wasting too much time dancing around the idea before having actual fun with it.

It's not just there where the show is as enjoyable as ever - every character seems to be getting better with age. Donna isn't quite as funny as the show wants her to be, but she at least has a full personality now, and the way they've explored Jerry's interests makes him a more worthwhile punching bag. Tom's big city attitude in a small town schtick gets a lot of play to, and the end of his arc this season is one of the things that has me most excited for this fall, when the show is thankfully returning this time. They only had 16 episodes to screw around with, but they generally made the most of them,  expanding on the insane little universe the show takes place in, with some of my favorite bits being Perd Hapley's talk show and the fabulously wealthy citizenship of nearby Eagleton. I like that there's a continuity in there too, with certain wacky citizens coming back when appropriate, and basically any scene where a bunch of town folk are in the room together is fun. Not every moment is great, and the show has some really weird identity issues that revolve around the whole mockumentary thing. But it's still an exceptionally funny and joyful show, with a fantastic and growing cast (I didn't miss Mark once) and a great sense of where it's going. I don't want to speak too soon, but when all is said and done, I think Parks might end up being viewed as a better series than The Office. At least by me.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Office - Season 7

I have written so many words about The Office for Player Affinity that I'm not sure how many I have left. But I'll give this season summary a shot anyway. This was a big year for the show, as they said goodbye to Steve Carell, the guy that everybody knows and player of the main character. We don't know yet whether the series will survive long without him, but in any case they did a good job of further establishing the entertaining dynamic the entire cast shares while allowing Michael to leave with a classy and emotionally fulfilling storyline. It's a goodbye that the actor deserves more than the character, as even in the end they never totally sold the transformation of Michael from horrible, misguided boss to a silly yet beloved authority figure. I mean, he's always been more sympathetic than his British counterpart (who actually showed up a couple times this year, proving that the two shows exist in the same universe and that there's a lot of documentary makers interested in paper), but he was still too much of a screw-up to totally earn some of that stuff. I didn't mind though, because it was sweet and well handled.

Steve Carell's departure kind of dominated the show during this time, because while plenty of other things happened this year, that's where most of the attention and discussion was. Jim and Pam were kind of stagnant, but I enjoyed the development of Kevin, Darryl, and Andy among others. Some episodes were a lot of fun, others a bit less so, and that's sort of how it goes with most sitcoms. I do think this season was a bit better than the last couple, both in terms of just being entertaining and in developing story stuff, though most of that was devoted to Michael. The whole ensemble is just really solid now, a bit familiar for the most part but still really likable. I don't find myself really invested in anything that's going on with most of them beyond a general feeling of goodwill towards them, but the cast is big and varied enough that I think they could just coast with that for a lot longer than say, Scrubs did. Personally, I think Andy is the best choice to take over Dunder Mifflin - like Michael, I think he'd have the right mix of goofiness and competence (though maybe in different places) to keep the company from burning to the ground while still bringing a solid amount of chaos to the show. It could be an interesting dichotomy - Michael was a good salesman but a bad manager of people; Andy is bad at sales but might have the empathy to keep a diverse group like this from killing each other. Anyway, we'll see what happens this Fall.

Also, here are my recaps for all of the episodes this year:
The Seminar
The Search
Threat Level Midnight
Todd Packer
Garage Sale
Training Day
Michael's Last Dundies
Goodbye, Michael
The Inner Circle
Dwight K. Schrute, (Acting) Manager
Search Committee

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Castle - Season 3

The last show got a stay of execution, but there is no such luck for Castle. I mean, for me, anyway. The show is going strong in the ratings and is coming back next year, but I won't be watching it. Having your show star Nathan Fillion will only get you so far before it has to be able to stand on its own, and after three years Castle is still just a mildly charming yet otherwise totally standard cop procedural, one that just doesn't do enough to keep me interested anymore. I don't know if the mysteries are actually getting lazier or if I'm just used to all of their tricks, but the cases each week are much less likely to be surprising, or even just passably entertaining. I swear there were two episodes in a row where the killer was the obvious suspect's assistant. With the episodic stories no longer being as thrilling, and the serialized elements reduced to a joke at this point, there's simply no reason to keep watching.

Obviously we're coming back to the sexual tension thing - how long can you have two characters who obviously dig each other but don't hook up for various flimsy reasons before it becomes irritating? I definitely prefer for relationships between characters to actually develop and change over time, but I think if it's just part of the story, you can keep it going for a while. The problem is that the will they/won't they crap between Castle and Beckett is the only thing the show has going besides the periodically boring crimes to solve. The other cops in the station are mildly likable to the point where a scene with them isn't a total drag, but they don't actually ever have anything interesting to do. Castle is pretty much the only character who is ever seen even having a life outside the scope of an investigation, and that stuff is extremely boring. His mother pretends to have an active social life and his daughter has teenage girl problems that always seem to have an extremely convenient thematic link to the case, but there is nothing close to entertainment to be derived from any of that stuff. So you have a show that exists only to come up with new ways and reasons to murder people and keep its two leads apart, and it doesn't do either of them very well.

Sometimes the show will go out of its way to have special events in certain episodes, two-parters or season finales that deal with especially high profile investigations or further the unfolding mystery of the conspiracy behind the death of Beckett's mother. These don't really work either though, because they often shift the focus away from the peppy tone that makes the show watchable in the first place, sideline the main character, or just expose the fact that the writers aren't very good at coming up with those kinds of stories. The show already has an entirely laughable premise it has to stick by, with a writer being partnered with a homicide detective for three years now. But when they try to do something like a nuclear bomb threat... it's supposed to be big and series, but it's just goofy. This year's finale was particularly egregious, ruining a perfectly serviceable supporting cast member for the continuation of a mystery that still doesn't make any sense. And then they had the balls to try and pull that final scene with the sniper. I don't hate watching Castle, but I am indifferent enough to it that it just isn't worth the hour every week.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Chuck - Season 4

I'll admit that I was pretty darn close to breaking up with Chuck. It conflicts with a superior show on Monday night (the one I blogged about yesterday), it was never that great in the first place, and the way it flailed about this season searching for anything interesting to do was getting pathetic. The specifics of its fifth season renewal though made me decide to stick with it to the end. It'll be airing on Friday where there's less competition for my attention, it's definitely the last season, and there will only be 13 episodes. This along with the relatively decent way they wrapped up this year was enough for me to stay on board. I've never loved Chuck due to its bad plotting and distracting, usually failed attempts at humor, but there's something charming about it that starts with the main cast (besides Jeff and Lester) and ends with the fact that their relationships are often able to overcome the frequent failures of its storytelling. Most of the characters besides Casey tend to annoy me once in a while, but never enough that I get sick of seeing them (Again, besides Jeff and Lester. As solid as the end of the finale was, it would have been better if the Buy More exploded and then got sucked into a wormhole that prevents it from ever being rebuilt).

This season expanded on the family history that drives the spy intrigue on the show by bringing in Chuck's mother, played by Linda Hamilton, an apparent traitor to the CIA. But obviously that's not the whole story, and there's a whole bunch of stuff involving her and her mission and Timothy Dalton's Alexei Volkoff, a villain who's not quite who he seems and has own family issues and blah blah blah. It's all for the most part less interesting than the overarching stuff that came before, and it's not helped by the fact that the show again didn't get a full season order at first and so had to develop and try to pull off consecutive stories on the fly, which isn't that easy to do.

What's worse is just the continued inconsistency of the individual episodes. It's anyone's guess each week whether the show will be a pretty fun time, kind of bland, or a total train wreck. Feeling the need to have someone for Chuck to lie to, some of stuff in his relationship with Sarah that arises from his absurd insecurities, a lot of Morgan's subplots - they just become really irritating and make it easy to forget why you liked the show in the first place. They generally do a good job when a season (or mid-season) finale is coming up of pulling things together, but otherwise there's no knowing. And there are so many shows that manage to be at least passable every week that it's hard to keep excusing after four years. Still though, as I said, there are only 13 episodes left, and they aren't interfering with anything major going on, so I'll watch them. I hardly owe the show anything, but I'll do it the favor of watching it try to tie everything they've done into one neat package.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

How I Met Your Mother - Season 6

I'm a little conflicted about this season. On one hand, it was funnier and more clever than last year, when the show was still pretty good but didn't quite have the creative spark it did earlier. The gimmicks came back in a big way, and while relying on tricks to get by can seem tacky and often result in stuff that just doesn't play well, this show makes it work. It's part of its charm - the jokes aren't usually as sharp as some better comedies, but the cast is a lot of fun and they're always trying new things, messing around with time and hidden clues. I think this season did well with that stuff, and it was generally funny too.

On the other hand, the amount of progress we're making towards the show's promised end game is pretty pathetic. I know it's silly to complain about the overarching plot in a sitcom, but the show is called How I Met Your Mother, and every single episode features Bob Saget using narration to frame the story within the context of his long journey towards maturation and finally meeting the woman of his dreams. All we really learned this year is that Ted won't meet her until he's at someone else's wedding, and now we have to wait for that character to get married before he can really get anywhere. I believe the show has been renewed for two more seasons, and if that marks the show's end and he doesn't meet her until the finale - well, eight years is a heck of a lot of background to give your kids before you get to the point of the story.

Again, it's a sitcom - the point of the show is to entertain the viewer with jokes and likable personalities. But the writers of this show have always obviously put more effort into the story that you have to in these cases, and I just want it to pay off. We don't really know if the show will end when they meet or if it will keep going to show how they get together, though the former seems more likely as each season passes by without them meeting, and the hints and gotchas are starting to become a strain on the series, and a satisfying ending seems like a difficult proposition. Not that they can't do it, but I'll be impressed if they do.

The whole issue is affecting the week by week course of the show, too. It's gotten to the point where I can no longer give a crap about any of Ted's relationships anymore, because I know that these women aren't going to end up mattering. This entire season found him balancing a woman with a professional conflict she caused, and it was frustrating because I knew, and the writers knew, and everyone knew that it was a dead end. The show has had success here in the past, but it's starting to not work anymore. Luckily Marshall and Lily were really strong this year, particularly Jason Segel's Marshall, who had probably the best single season of development and growth of anyone yet in the series. Their family changed and and moved forward while Ted and to a similar extent Robin and Barney basically spun their wheels. I'm going to keep watching the show because it's still fun and I still have hope for the long term elements, but I'm definitely less confident than I was before.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Movie Update 6

I saw some more movies. They were all pretty good. Some won awards!


Much like Milos Forman's earlier One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, this won a ton of Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor, this time for F. Murray Abraham as a Vienna court composer who had an equal amount of hate and admiration for Wolfgang Mozart. This was kind of an odd movie, with Mozart being shown as both a master of music and kind of a clownish person, and some of the performances felt a little off. It managed to stay interesting for three hours though, and I loved the way it depicted the writing and reading of music. Lots of interesting classical music throughout, even if some of the opera segments seemed to drag on a bit. Abraham really is good too, especially in the scenes when he's older.

Cinema Paradiso

I definitely feel conflicted about this one. I thought it was too long, at almost three hours, especially since the version to actually receive accolades was almost an hour shorter. On the other hand, the shorter version cuts a subplot that I felt added a lot of actual meaning to the story, which makes me wonder which version I actually would have preferred. It's a story about many things; the love of film, a romance that ended too soon, and a man's friendship with a mentor, whose death kicks off the flashback-heavy plot. The first thing came through the best, especially in the final scene of the movie, which is remarkably touching. And Ennio Morricone's scoring can make any movie better. Not great, but there's a lot of heart in it.


For all of the terrible things that happen in this movie, about the final days of Nazi Germany's role in World War II, it didn't seem quite as sad as it maybe should have been. There's something just a bit clinical about all of the failure and suicides that add up over time, preventing it from becoming soul crushing but also from being a truly great film. Bruno Ganz is terrific as Hitler though, not really making him sympathetic (who would want that?), but making him seem like a person instead of an inscrutable monster. It overcomes the dozens of videos that put silly subtitles over one of the film's most dramatic moments, which is certainly worth noting.

Red Beard

Akira Kurosawa's final black and white film, and his final collaboration with Toshiro Mifune, is another solid creation from a director that I respect more than I enjoy. If it was just the story of a young, talented doctor coming to work for a gruff but singularly brilliant aging medical talent, I might have liked it more, but too much time was dedicated to the sob stories of many of their patients, which never seemed worth the time they tacked onto yet another three hour marathon of a film. No single scene is bad, and almost all of them are pretty remarkable from a pure film making perspective. I just wasn't interested in watching a lot of them. It makes the story seem choppy and missing some sort of focus. Mifune is again amazing though, impossibly awesome and captivating regardless of the age of whatever character he happens to be playing. That only fifteen years passed between Rashomon and this speaks to his talent. Which is what makes it mystifying that they never worked together again after this, though I'm sure there were plenty of factors.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Community - Season 2

Community was my favorite comedy last year, and the show didn't have to do much besides keep being itself to maintain that honor this season. But the Community I know wouldn't rest on its laurels, so they pushed things even farther and took a lot of risks. It could have fallen on its face, but thanks to great writing and my favorite ensemble cast on TV, Community did the opposite, and became an even better series. I know some people do think it went a little too crazy, but I don't see it all. Community throws itself into everything it does, and the results are always at least pretty funny, and occasionally downright transcendent. There's just so much the show does well, and while it's far from flawless, the great way it always makes me feel always manages to make those problems seem like trifles.

What makes the show work is how it can bounce between standard sitcom storytelling and plots with much grander ambition without it ever seeming like there's a disconnect between the two. Part of it is how straight the pop culture send-ups are always played, despite the occasionally absurd scenarios. The most obvious example of this from season one was the finale, which used paintball guns to play out a typical action movie scenario. The thing is, if you took out the paint, the episode would basically just be a pretty good twenty minute action movie. Sure, there are jokes, but the genre tropes are laid bare and used to tell a fun story, instead of just being mocked and misused. This is the template season two often uses, whether it be a story about simulating a space mission, or pseudo-zombies attacking a Halloween party, or revisiting paintball guns in the two part finale, which managed to be a great Western AND a great war movie (with some Star Wars flavor, to be more specific). The tone is just right, which is what allows the show to keep working when it's just being normal. Or, as normal as this show can be. It's not disappointing when an episode is just about the group playing Dungeons & Dragons together, or trying to find Annie's special pen, or visiting a bar on Troy's 21st birthday. The characters are the same people every week, so there's no disconnect in either situation.

And then you just have standout episodes like the fully animated Christmas special, which worked both as part of the ongoing series and also as one of the best genuine holiday cartoons ever made. I can't think of another show that would even try something like that, let alone totally nail it. I love the way the outside cast has expanded, too. Only a few guys like Dean Pelton and Dr. Duncan are really more than caricatures at this point, but guys like Starburns and Leonard and especially Magnitude are just fun diversions that somehow stay amusing without a lot of development, and bring joy whenever they pop up again. Or pop pop up, as the case may be. As far as the actual main cast, Jeff, Troy, Abed, and Annie remain great, and I liked the work they did developing Britta and Shirley more this time. Pierce and Chang are a bit problematic, though. All season long there's a running story about Pierce butting heads with the rest of the group, and while I liked the payoff at the end, the way they handled it wasn't always consistent or interesting. And even though I continue to enjoy Ken Jeong in anything he's in, his Spanish teacher persona was a lot more consistently incredible than his reluctant student one, and I hope they find something better for him in season three now that's he's a permanent cast member. These problems seldom brought down the show though, and it was one of the best, funniest, and most imaginative single seasons of a comedy I've ever gotten to see. It seems like a miracle that the show is coming back again (thank God for NBC's consistent failure to find better ratings draws), and I'm going to enjoy this while it lasts.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


Casino seems to be generally viewed as a rehash of Goodfellas, with director Martin Scorsese revisiting similar ideas with a similar cast, and not doing much to set it apart from his most recent gritty classic. Casino is basically just the same movie with more of everything - more violence, more swearing, a longer running time. So is it wrong that I actually like Casino more than Goodfellas? Yes, it's a somewhat excessive movie in some places, but isn't that the point? It's a movie about excess. It's based on the true story of America's most notorious criminal network during their most overtly violent and influential period operating in one of the world's biggest stages for pure capitalism. Las Vegas is bringing in obscene amounts of money, a ton of it is being stolen right off the top, and people got murdered left and right to keep them quiet. It would be disappointing if the movie wasn't over the top. And I enjoyed the hell out of it for most of its nearly three hours of running time.

The story stars and is heavily narrated by Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci playing mob guys from Chicago. De Niro is Ace, a Jewish money guy who gets tapped by the family to run one of their casinos, and Pesci is Nicky, an enforcer who's there to back him up. Both the actors and the characters have a lot of history together, and the movie returns to the unstable relationship they had in Raging Bull, though this time it's Pesci who's the crazy one. The Chicago accent prevents him from seeming like a total rip-off of his own character in Goodfellas, and if anything he's even more out there with his short temper and tendency towards extreme violence. Lots of people end up getting stuck in holes in the desert, and he's responsible for a lot of them. As time marches on and the feds keep building their case against them, they struggle to avoid killing each other as they continually blame each other for all the problems they have. Compounding the issue is Sharon Stone as Ace's wife, an out-of-control hustler/junkie who is even more manic that Pesci, those less prone to stabbing you for messing with her. She has a sleazy ex-boyfriend played by James Woods who does a lot to sell his scumbag nature without much screen time, and he instigates a lot of their marital troubles. Mob movie regular Frank Vincent is also around as one of Nicky's guys, and he does a solid job.

The three central figures are interesting, and while I eventually got kind of sick of Stone's overwrought performance, the combination of business and personal problems that pile on top of them over the course of the story add up to a hectic, exciting, wild ride. And it might be a pretty good movie with just that, but this is Martin Scorsese we're talking about, and this is probably the single greatest display of style and invention I've seen from him. There are long tracking shots that mix with extremely quick cuts that are narrated over by two different characters and all sorts of little touches and interesting moves that you don't really see anywhere else, and they all add up to a film that is almost too fun to watch. The soundtrack is filled with tons of period music that both tells you where you are in history and fits perfectly with the action, and it's hard to go five minutes at any time without seeing something new. It might be style over substance, but it also might be one of the best examples of that ever put on film. I like mob stories because they make you feel things you shouldn't for very bad people, and Casino does that almost as well as any movie you can name. I wasn't blown away by Goodfellas, and while I can see why people would be and why they would prefer it to Casino, I just can't agree with sentiment. The Godfather is the best crime movie ever made, and Casino is one of the most entertaining. The violence is hard to watch like violence should be. The family drama is painful like family drama should be. It's just a visceral, thrilling experience the whole way.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Gears of War 2

Gears of War 2 didn't wow me as much in 2011 as Gears of War did in 2006. Part of that is just the time difference - I've played a lot of shooters in that period, and most games don't benefit from waiting until a couple years after release to check them out. I do think it's still a slightly less impressive game than the original though. It's a sequel that doesn't do a whole lot new - its cover mechanics are still among the best in the business, but they're not exactly fresh; its mantra of being bigger and more badass doesn't result in combat situations that are necessarily more interesting; and in a world where plenty of games combine third person shooting with other fun elements, games that are nothing but third person shooting the entire time don't stand out as much. It's still a really solid shooter - the graphics still look great two and a half years later, the fundamentals of the gameplay are as good as anybody's, and there are a few surprising ideas sprinkled around. It just didn't strike me as a great game the same way the first Gears did - the first game set the tone for action games for the whole generation, while the second is... just the second one.

I've had people tell me Gears is really meant to be played co-op, and perhaps I am doing the game a small disservice by only playing it by myself. But that's how I play most games, and I believe that if one actually needs to be played with a friend to be awesome, then it's not really awesome - almost everything is better if you're doing it with friends, so it's not actually to a game's credit that it has working co-op. I played Gears 1 by myself too, so it's not like that was the factor that caused me to find the game slightly disappointing. Nothing was really missing at all, it's just that the things they added weren't enough to maintain the same thrill throughout the length of the campaign. Large set pieces like riding a huge platform on wheels through a forest look neat but don't quite result in especially memorable action, and too much of the game is spent in environments I found fairly dull - underground caverns that have a lot of technically impressive art in them, but are a bit boring stylistically and end in formulaic boss fights. I enjoyed the game more when I was battling through a war-torn city near the end, and wish there was more of that - I know some people are bored of shooters that use too many flashy scripted events to shake up the action, but it usually at least distracts you from fighting through a lot of similar battles over and over.

Few of the new weapons made a real impact, and I mostly ended up using what I was familiar with. In some ways, the Lancer is actually too good of a weapon. It's reasonably accurate, it holds a lot of ammo, and it has the best melee ability in the game - there's no reason to ever not have one, so you're limited to fewer slots for experimentation. It's the gun I used for a significant majority of both games, and I don't expect that to change in the third - if they made it wilder or took away the chainsaw to compensate, fans would throw a fit. Additions to the things you can do in combat didn't quite pay off. For example, the idea of being able to pick up a wounded enemy and use him as a shield sounds neat, but it rarely comes up in actual gameplay, because you spend most of your time ducking behind a wall across that battlefield from most of your enemies, and I suspect opportunities for that kind of up-close scuffle are even more rare on harder difficulty levels, where a couple seconds out of cover are likely to get you torn to shreds. This even has an additional negative effect on the game - downed enemies can now crawl around looking for help like your buddies can, which results in them either being revived and dragging out fights, or being hidden out of sight when everyone else is dead, preventing the game from playing the sound that indicates you've cleared the room of enemies, making you unsure of what's happening for a little while. The fact that you yourself can now be revived as long as your friends are still walking mitigates it somewhat, but it's still an annoyance.

Another example of a somewhat superfluous feature is the addition of certain areas where the cover can be raised or lowered out of the ground by switches, and you have to make sure you're protected and your enemies aren't during fights. It's kind of a cool idea, but it doesn't result in many actual battles of much strategic significance, and it sort of just makes you wonder why the Locust thought it would be cool to fill their city with switches that raise and lower chest-high metal walls with no real purpose. That's not even the only new cover gimmick - for some reason Epic seemed to feel the need to experiment with that stuff, but just give me a few sandbags or crumbled columns to lean against and I won't complain. On the positive side, I did enjoy the increased variety in the "vehicle" sections, and the game gets stronger as it goes on. I was kind of surprised by how late some of the stuff they showed before the game's release ended up being in the final campaign, but luckily that didn't cause it to lose too much impact. I enjoyed it when the tone departed a bit from the dude bro action somewhere in the middle, and again, it's hard to overstate how nice the game looks.

Story-wise, it's... well, it's Gears. John DiMaggio plays a gruff-voiced badass in charge of a group of badasses who don't take no shit and refuse to wear helmets, because they obscure your vision more than they expose your brain to getting bullets shot into it. It's a mostly cheesy conglomeration of action, war, and science fiction tropes that works well enough to keep things going without ever being especially memorable or profound. Dom's still kind of a wiener, although now he has a shoehorned in subplot where he's searching for his wife that makes his wienerness stand out more. Cole's still over the top, and Baird is still the secretly likable one. There are a couple new guys, although they don't end up getting much to do. The queen of the Locust Horde still seems out of place in this setting, and while the climax and conclusion of the story seemed better formed this time, it also ended kind of abruptly in the game itself. They clearly put more effort into the back story with some tangents that seem like they could come up again and hidden notes scattered everywhere, though honestly I didn't feel compelled to track that stuff down or even read it when I found it. Being that this is the era of trilogies, the third game is supposed to bring this grand arc to a close later this year, and while I don't really care what happens to any of these people, I imagine I'll end up playing it at some point. The Gears of War series is not exactly one I have a real affection for, but it's hard to say they're not competent, well-made games.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Fringe - Season 3

I realized during this season that Fringe is actually the best drama currently on a network, at least as far as ones I watch. It's actually gotten to a point where it might be the only one I watch at all when this Fall comes around, unless something new looks enticing. How pathetic is that? Not to be insulting towards Fringe, but it's just not consistently good enough to be the best hour-long show airing on one of the five most watched channels. Still, season three was their best job yet, and while it got into some really oddball material as it wore on, is still featured a compelling central story and some of the best acting by a whole cast on TV. And though I doubt the show will make it past its fourth season, I'm definitely going to be sticking with it until it does end up getting axed in favor of something starring a sassy doctor or whatever.

When the show came back last year, it began with what was probably the best single stretch of episodes it has had yet, bouncing back and forth between the two universes at the core of its plot, exploring regular Fringe-style mysteries with the bonus of fleshing out an interesting alternate view of how the world could be and an exciting running story featuring a couple of mismatched Olivias. After that resolved the show slowed down a bit, and had a couple of clunkers here and there, but also some really outstanding stuff as well. You can make a comparison between Fringe and another show produced by JJ Abrams, Lost, when you look at what it does well and what it sometimes doesn't. I really liked the weird sci-fi stuff on Lost, but a true resolution of a lot of it was ignored in favor of really wrapping up the characters well, and Fringe also succeeds when it puts the burden of its stories on the strong central figures at its core. Olivia, Peter, and especially Walter are all heavily damaged people with unbreakable links between them, and when that's the focus, it's often a much better series than when it's just some weird pseudo-science thing going on.

Even worse is when the show goes quasi-mystical on top of that, as it did with a somewhat misguided arc near the season's end, and in a few places they may have taken it too far. But I guess when a show gets bumped to a bad time slot and its ratings continue to dwindle - the writers forget about pleasing everyone and just try anything that comes to mind that seems like it could be cool. Not everything is, but enough works out that the experimentation is always interesting. It hasn't yet produced the kind of fevered genius that say, Dollhouse's imminent cancellation brought about, but it's clear from the season finale that they're not afraid to try things. In some ways it was a bad episode, using a cop-out to explain a season-long riddle and resorting to a couple tired pulp sci-fi cliches. But it also showed what works about the show on a very basic level, reestablished their skill at creating whole new settings out of nothing, had some more great character work, and had a great final moment that hints at a potentially mind-bending season four. I've always wished that Fringe could have more fun with itself, and they definitely showed signs of that here. If they combine that with a less wishy-washy stance on science versus fantasy and more consistent writing, it could really earn that best network drama title.

Also, here are my recaps for the episodes when I was filling in this season:

Saturday, May 7, 2011


The truth is, Thor is kind of a silly premise for a movie, and it's a bit difficult to reconcile it with the rest of the Avengers project. Marvel characters in general, at least the most famous ones, all have fantastical origins, but at least they're based in some sort of scientific premise. Spider-Man, the Hulk, and the Fantastic Four were all hit by some sort of radiation. The X-Men mutated. Iron Man uses amazingly advanced technology. But Thor is literally a god or god-like being from another dimension. He's part of the grander, weirder, more out-there side of the Marvel tapestry, a side that has gone mostly ignored in major films to this point. I liked the few Thor comics I've read and have high hopes for The Avengers next year, so I was hoping Kenneth Branagh and his cast could pull off some pretty difficult material reasonably well, and I was satisfied by the results. Thor isn't exactly great, but it's a lot of fun, and considering the degree of difficulty one of the most successful comic book super hero adaptations to date.

The key to Thor's success is that it's funny. With the figures of an ancient mythology transformed into extradimensional aliens who wear science fiction plate armor and ride rainbow bridge lightning bolts to other worlds, the whole thing could have failed just by being too silly. But there's a lot of humor intentionally injected into the story, which allows a lot of the goofier moments to slide on by and just be part of the fun. If the movie took itself too seriously, it could have been a disaster, but the tone is just right to get away with it. Most of the significant characters get a chance to tell a joke or two, and while a few moments still come off as funny without trying, they don't do much to harm the story.

The film jumps back and forth between two locations: Asgard, where Thor's allies try to unravel Loki's plot to overthrow him, and a small town in New Mexico where Thor meets a trio of scientists and tries to recover his lost powers. I enjoyed the New Mexico side of the movie more, because that's where most of the fun was, including a lot of solid fish-out-of-water humor and an exciting confrontation with the intimidating and well-executed Destroyer. Chris Hemsworth is surprisingly outstanding as Thor, pulling off his entitled arrogance without making himself unlikable, and gradually realizing what it takes to truly be noble. It's obvious he wasn't cast only because of his looks. The scientists are played by Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgård, and Kat Dennings, and the group dynamic between all four is pretty fun. The romance angle seems a bit forced because of the short time scale the story is operating on, but it works out okay because Portman and Hemsworth make a good team. Thor struggling to understand human society is probably the best part of the movie, and I could have sat through a lot more of that.

On Asgard, the movie is more like a slightly stranger version of The Lord of the Rings. There's a power struggle between Thor and Tom Hiddleston's Loki, as they both wish to prove to Odin, played with enthusiasm by Anthony Hopkins, that they are fit for rule once he steps down. Thor fights a bunch of frost giants with Sif and the Warriors Three, Idris Elba's Heimdall is a complete bad-ass, and the movie's version of Loki's plotting and realization of his past is fairly interesting. The two sides of the movie come together near the end as the action climaxes and Thor ends up back where he was, but of course with a tease that he'll return next year. There's a decent amount of legwork done to continue the set up for The Avengers, both as part of the central plot as SHIELD sets up camp around Thor's immovable hammer and in the requisite tease after the credits. Nick Fury and Hawkeye make cameos, and we learn what classic doohicky will prove important down the road. I thought the movie integrated the overarching stuff with its own plot better than say, Iron Man 2 did, and while the visual effects and action weren't amazing, they were adequate enough. The real strength here is the cast, and the film worked best when the focus was on the actors instead of the more fantastical stuff, which was okay but got in the way just a bit. And now we're only a couple months away from the next step in this crazy journey.

Friday, May 6, 2011

30 Rock - Season 5

I'm glad the show bounced back this year, because last time it was a little sad seeing it flounder a bit in comparison to Community and Parks and Recreation. Really, there are two things amazing about 30 Rock. The first that it's still on at all, and has passed the 100 episode mark. Absolutely no one expected that when it started. The second is that they still find ways to make it funny after all that time - you'd think there would be a shelf life on most of these characters, but even the more one-note ones like Jenna and Tracy still manage to be humorous thanks to writers who never seem to run out of weird, unique things for them to say and solid performances. Next year will be Alec Baldwin's last on the series, and it should probably mark the end of the show as well. I'm already dreading the thought of a season of The Office without Steve Carell (and I lived through a season of Scrubs mostly without Zach Braff), and the thought of a Baldwin-less 30 Rock running alongside it is just terrible to imagine. And really, they can't keep it going forever. But I did like this season a lot, and I hope I'll like the next one too.

Watching this season, I came to appreciate just how much Baldwin really brings to the show. I was skeptical of him in a long-term comedic role when I started watching, and while he mostly won me over, I don't think I fully grasped how good he was, or maybe I just forgot during the mild stumbling of last season. But he really is fantastic. On a show full of constant one-liners, his are usually the best, both because the character seems interesting to write for, and because his delivery is just so consistently razor sharp and perfect. There's no sentence you can give Baldwin that he wouldn't make better just in the saying of it, and while at times they undercut his effortlessly cool demeanor for some broad comedy, you never forget how fun he is when he's on. Without Alec Baldwin, 30 Rock is just a shell, and no amount of Tina-Fey-is-unattractive jokes and slapstick sitcom antics could fill that hole.

That kind of shows in how Jack and Liz are written over the course of the series. They pretty much split protagonist duties, sometimes sharing the load evenly and sometimes having one take center stage more, but the meaningful development of their characters is so heavily in Jack's favor that it's not even a contest. When the series started, Jack was a rising executive who didn't know much about the TV channel he was taking over and completely disregarded thoughts of a family with a focus on work, and Liz was a fumbling head writer who couldn't find or keep a decent guy. Five years later, Jack is a much more people-oriented business man who still finds ways to keep his operation running, with a (still kidnapped) wife and child, and Liz is a fumbling head writer who can't find or keep a decent guy. Consistent, meaningful development for Jack, zero forward progress for Liz. She's not the only one of course, basically every character on the show is like this. If anything, Jack's the only person that hasn't gone backwards, regressed into more of a caricature. It's a cartoon with one real person in it. How on earth will this show not rip itself to shreds when he's gone? I hesitate to find out, and I hope the people involved don't try.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Justified - Season 2

The first season of Justified was a very good cop show, often ignoring an overarching story in favor of occasionally familiar stand-alone cases for Tim Olyphant's Raylan Givens to solve, but loaded with good acting, great dialogue, and a ton of culturual flavor specific to the southern region it takes place in, and finished strong with a bloody, multi-episode conflict between Walton Goggins' Boyd Crowder and his father. The second season looked like it might do the same thing at first, though the early cases connected much more directly to the grander story threads that begin in the first episode and it wasn't very long at all before the plot kicked into high gear. Tangential subplots still sprang up, but everything felt much tighter this time, like the writers sat down and hammered out a full story before they even thought of doing anything else, and it resulted in a deeper, better show this time around. It wasn't perfect, but I fully expect it to end up as one of my five favorite TV dramas of this year. And if it doesn't... well, I can't wait to see what could possibly be in store from the rest of the medium.

Raylan was a big reason the show was so fun in the first place, bringing a thrilling sense of old fashioned justice to some otherwise ordinary story ideas. What's remarkable is that the show hardly even needed him to be like that this year to be great. Of course Raylan doesn't hurt anything, and he's still a very interesting guy. But he became much more just a part of the series' incredibly rich tapestry of interwoven, unfriendly families, and I would say he's probably only the third most intriguing guy on his own show at best. Boyd spends a good amount of time not sure what he wants as the season starts, but he eventually gets back in the game and is as fascinating as ever. And most impressive was Margo Martindale as Mags Bennet, a woman who at first seems to be a friendly, motherly shopkeeper, but turns out to run illegal activities in her county with a frightening verve and keen intellect. We see how Raylan wasn't the only person to grow up there with that old sense of right and wrong and how things should be dealt with, and the exploration of the history of the Givens, Bennet, and Crowder clans while those rivalries reignite in the modern day is exciting and compelling every step of the way.

The show's still violent (in the surprising and poetic way that only the best shows are), but the shootouts don't carry the stories quite the way they did last time. Mags has three sons who help her business (the standout being Dickie who's played by Jeremy Davies, and who you never quite get a handle on the true nature of), Boyd has a new relationship with Ava and a new crew to run with, Raylan has a relationship with his coworkers that continues to develop in fits and starts (Rachel and Tim still hardly count as characters, but Art is great) and an ex-wife with husband issues and a continued uneasy alliance with Boyd, and the way the show lets all of these little pieces get thrown into a blender and come out in unexpected patterns and combinations never stops being fun to watch. Throw in a nefarious mining company looking to get rich off their home turf, and there's a lot to juggle in just 13 episodes, but the cast and crew were definitely up to the task. The plot they cooked up came to a satisfying resolution without forgetting to leave a few threads ready for the third season to pick up and run with next year, a season I am now early in the process of being unable to wait for. I'm not sure I really care about Raylan's home life as much as they wanted us to, but otherwise Justified is as entertaining a cop show as you're ever likely to see.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Movie Update 5

I mentioned before that I didn't want to dedicate entire posts to movies that didn't inspire that amount of writing in me anymore, but I don't want to let them go completely unmentioned either. So here are my brief thoughts on some movies I watched in the last week or so.


I watched this because it was streaming and I was reading all the reports about Quentin Tarantino's next film, which is supposed to be a Western called Django Unchained and including this film's star Franco Nero in the cast. And it's not bad at all, though it's not nearly a classic either. Django is an interesting character, and his gimmick of dragging around a coffin with a surprise inside is interesting if a little impractical. The movie starts out pretty strong, but it bogs down a bit later after he starts hanging out with Mexicans and ignoring the obvious fact that he's still in danger. It's a pretty brutally violent movie for the era, and has some really great moments, though like many contemporary Spaghetti Westerns it's lacking in polish. Probably worth checking out if for nothing else than homework on Tarantino's upcoming movie. I'm still annoyed I never watched the original Inglorious Bastards when it was streaming.

Life is Beautiful

This is truly one of the most confounding movies I've ever seen, and I'm still not sure that I didn't totally hate it, though I don't think I did. I did really dislike the first half, which was a silly and boring (tough combination) romantic comedy, and I really don't like director Roberto Benigni's performance in the lead role, and I'm frankly flabbergasted by the fact that he won the Oscar, considering some other performances that were considered. The movie does improve significantly in the second half. I was still pretty vexed by slapstick comedy showing up in the Holocaust, but there's something powerful about the way he uses it to protect his son and the extent to which he goes not only to keep him alive, but to keep him unafraid. I think I would have liked it a lot more if it was half an hour shorter at least, with most of that taken out of the beginning, but I'm pretty sure it was otherwise decent. Pretty sure.

Singin' in the Rain

I'm surprised it took this long for a musical to pop up on my list, though that's certainly partly attributable to the nature of the sources I used when compiling it originally. As far as very famous musicals I've seen, Singin' is a bit lacking in classic tunes (there's the title song and "Make 'Em Laugh", obviously, and I've heard "Good Morning" before), though I thought it more than made up for it with the dancing, with Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor tapping and jumping all over the place in a generally enjoyable way. It's a funny movie too, more of a comedy without the music when many of the classic musicals would be closer to dramas. There's lots of great set ups and memorable lines, and it was able to take a bunch of existing songs and throw them into a fun story with likable characters without much of a hitch. I thought Jean Hagen's screechy performance was more irritating than funny, but it was the only major blemish on an otherwise nice film.


The original book has been adapted numerous times, most recently by Steven Soderbergh, but this is the 70s version by Andrei Tarkovsky. Much like his later work Stalker, it's a very slow moving, cerebral science fiction film with less of a focus on the exact nature of the bizarre phenomena its characters observe and more on the inner turmoil it brings to the surface. A strange planet is able to produce reproductions of things inside the head of people who are staying on a space station floating above it, and when a scientist's wife is brought back to life, it opens up a huge can of worms for him and the other crew members. It looks kind of cheap now, but the story gets through despite those limitations. Definitely not for everyone, but it's an interesting movie with a unique style and a great ending.