Mon, Nov 30, 2009

: Awake

This is an odd film. It came out a few years ago and the premise sounds so unpromising I had little interest in seeing it. It actually isn’t as bad as it sounds. The idea is a young man goes in for heart surgery but the anesthesia only paralyzes him: he can still hear and feel everything that happens to him. Such a premise seems tremendously limited: are we in for two hours of a patient screaming as his heart is transplanted? How can this idea be turned into an actual story? Well, it spoils things slightly to reveal some more plot, but it makes the film far more appealing: basically, during the surgery, the man learns he’s the victim of an elaborate murder plot. Unfortunately, he’s paralyzed and can’t do anything about it, but at least we’ve got a conspiracy to entertain us. What follows could be called clever or convoluted, depending on your perspective: it didn’t quite work for me and comes across as silly, but mostly that has to do with a poor script and even worse execution. This could have been made into a half-decent thriller; some of the ideas have real promise. Unfortunately, the set-up and execution is heavy-handed, the performances are weak, and the whole thing collapses under its own weight in the end. Still, it was not as bad as I expected, which surprised me greatly, though my expectations were dismally low.

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Sun, Nov 29, 2009

: Lonely Hearts

Strange film from a few years ago: it features a star cast of actors like John Travolta, James Gandolfini, Salma Hayek, and Jared Leto, and it tells the sensational true story of an infamous male-female couple who swindled and murdered dozens of widows in the 1940s. I wondered why I hadn’t heard of it. Unfortunately, that’s clear when you watch the film. It is extremely uneven, both in script and tone. There’s tons of modern swearing and dialogue, which feels out of place in a period piece. Some dramatic scenes are excellent, but others fall flat and obviously don’t work. The charming couple, who pose as brother and sister and romance their way into the lonely hearts of wealthy war widows before murdering them, are too weird for the audience to connect with them. We never really understand their motivations. Hayek seems miscast as her Hispanic accent comes and goes and doesn’t seem to fit her character. Her character is basically insane and she comes across as unlikable. The film’s better moments come from Travolta’s character, a widower struggling to connect with his troubled teenage son, but unfortunately that’s an underdeveloped subplot that feels ham-handed and perfunctory. Interesting, with a handful of intriguing scenes, but way to incoherent to be watchable.

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Fri, Nov 27, 2009

: An Education

I hadn’t heard much about this but it’s getting Oscar buzz and it’s a treasure you need to see. The story’s simple. Set in 1961 England, a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl who’s tired of studying for her exams to get into Oxford, meets a charming older man who seems to be wealthy and worldly, and he romances her off on adventures to concerts and Paris. Finally she’s free of her straight-laced parents and endless books and free to actually live. What’s fascinating is the way her parents go along with this: the man charms them as much as her, and since he’s well-off, they feel the match is okay despite the age difference and her youth. Thus the girl learns that her Oxford destiny wasn’t as much about her accomplishing anything in the world, but merely meeting a suitable match. She begins to question the purpose of education and wonders if a real-world education isn’t superior. I won’t spoil the ending, where she slowly learns that the man isn’t what he seems. The film is brilliantly crafted and the performances are fantastic (the girl is a star in the making). My only criticism is that storywise the film feels slightly lacking, with events leading linearly to a faintly gimmicky conclusion (the story needs a small subplot for additional richness), but there is meat on these bones as the film forces you to ponder the role of education in society. Seek this out.

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Wed, Nov 25, 2009

: Fantastic Mr. Fox

Author: Roald Dahl (book)

Director: Wes Anderson

Though Dahl’s one of my favorite authors, I somehow missed this book and never read it. That changes my perception of the film as I have no idea how they compare. Judging just this film, however, I thought it was fantastic. The stop-motion animation is retro hip, and I just loved the film’s miniature world. The characters and story are wonderful, about a fox being urged by his wife to go straight and stop poaching chickens, and the mean farmers who try and hunt down the fox, his family, and his friends. Toward the end things get convoluted plotwise and I’m not convinced all the hubbub was necessary: I would have been happier with a simpler plot. (Again, since I haven’t read the book, I’m not sure if some plot aspects were “enhanced” for the film or were part of the original book.) But the film is note perfect in terms of style and the way characters are portrayed: deadpan humor abounds and I thought all the performances were terrific. It’s a wonderful film, very different from anything you’ve seen, charming and fun, and heart-warming. Two thumbs up.

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Thu, Nov 19, 2009

: A Christmas Carol

I was not too excited about this film: I didn’t see much point as the Charles Dickens’ story seems to have been done to death (my favorite is the whacky modernization, Scrooged, with Bill Murray). This seemed like a faithful rendition, which could be good or bad, depending on your viewpoint (you could see it as unoriginal or loyal to a classic). It also is a frightfully early release for a Christmas story, though there’s a part of me that likes that. I went and saw the 3D edition which is probably not worth the extra money, though it’s relatively harmless. The 3D is good, but doesn’t add anything to the story. It’s just a fun gimmick. The animation is fantastic, as you’d expect, though I thought some of the minor characters looked slightly odd and unfinished in places. Compared to the incredible detail of the main characters, they looked flat and cartoon-like. The historical detail of Victorian England is well done, providing some fascinating detail about life back then. For instance, the poor family doesn’t have the facilities to cook their own Christmas goose: they use the bakery’s oven down the street (presumably for a fee). As to the story, this is an extremely faithful adaptation, almost to a fault. Much of the language is archaic and can be difficult to understand, especially for young kids. But the ghosts are done in such a modern way it felt like it clashed. There’s is much about the ghosts added in to pad the movie’s length, like several wild action sequences (Scrooge on a rocket into space, Scrooge shrunk down to mouse size and chased, etc.) that add little to the story and strain credibility (you’d think the poor old man would have a heart attack considering all the trauma he’s put through). Another problem is that some of the ghosts are extremely vivid and could be too scary for young children: for a family film, that’s a strange decision. Overall, this is well-done and excellent. However, my major criticism is that other than being digitally animated and in 3D, it breaks no new ground. It’s odd that I feel this way since usually my criticism of adaptations is that they change too much from the original, but in this case this is such a classic story and it’s been faithfully done so many times before, it would be nice to see something more creative.

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Fri, Nov 13, 2009

: 2012

Remarkable spectacle. That pretty much sums this up. It’s not a bad drama: there are a handful of compelling character moments and though they are not profound, they work well enough for this type of film. Story-wise this is well-structured, with a dad trying to save his family from the end of the world. The action is terrific and non-stop once the planet starts to break up, and the special effects are, frankly, astonishing. Most films have one or two scenes that are clearly the main spectacles, but here the effects just keep coming: out-driving an earthquake, skyscrapers falling, an entire city breaking up and falling into the ocean, volcanoes erupting, tidal waves wiping out mountains, just to name some of the bigger events. It’s worth watching just to see the remarkable graphics. But I was pleased to see that the story is decent: we care for the family in danger, there are some non-stereotype events and characters, the plot is actually followable and not too ridiculous, and the ending is classic Hollywood feel-good. Enjoyable. Though it’s over two-and-a-half hours long, I hardly noticed, which says a great deal.

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: MLS Playoffs 2009: Houston at LA

A disappointing game. Houston loses 2-0 to LA in overtime and not in a good way. This game is marked with controversy as twice the lights went out and caused 18-minute game delays. Each time Houston was playing well and the delay threw them off their rhythm and gave the Galaxy time to regroup and get organized. Houston also scored a goal that the ref disallowed for a weak call. Basically two players went down in the box in what looked like standard jostling and the ref blew his whistle late, after Houston put the ball in the goal. The players who went down were off the ball and had nothing to do with the play and many referees would have allowed the goal. Frustrating. Houston finally gave up a goal in overtime on a David Beckham set piece when the Dynamo could clear in a goal-mouth scramble and LA touched it over the line. Certainly not a pretty goal, but one that counts. Houston was still in it, though, as there was plenty of time left, but to give LA credit, they came to life after they scored. Before that they looked beaten and tired, constantly defending Houston’s attacks, but the goal revived them as they suddenly started playing much better. Substitute Alan Gordon broke away on the right wing and though he’s really not a good goal scorer and shouldn’t have worried the back line that much, Houston overreacted and clipped him in the box for a clear penalty which Landon Donovan converted. That pretty much ended it, though Houston did hit the crossbar in the final minute or so.

The bottom line in this one is that Houston, though a very good team, did not quite have that extra something of past years. Though I love Stuart Holden, the team still misses Dewayne DeRossario, who could bring that bit of magic. The team had too many close games this season, especially against teams they clearly outplayed (like this one). In those games the Dynamo were hard to beat but failed to score. One of those games was against LA during the regular season: that home draw was the tie-breaker that allowed this Western Conference Final to be played in LA, and ultimately, with the game going to overtime, that home field advantage was what helped LA win it. I think Houston could have turned it around if LA hadn’t revived after their goal: they didn’t settle into a shell but started playing better than they had all game, and forced Houston into making desperation mistakes as the away team tried to get back in it. I guarantee if this game had been in Houston, the result would have been different.

All that said, I’m strangely not that depressed. I’m frustrated and annoyed, and certainly disappointed, and I’ll definitely root against LA in the final, but Houston did their best and it wasn’t quite enough. Ching had a game-winning header that Ricketts pushed over the bar to keep the game scoreless and that was the game right there. The tough calls and awkward stoppages give the Dynamo something to gripe about, but in years past they had the quality to overcome such disadvantages and this year they did not. (Designated Player Ladin, who came on for Oduro, did little. He was slow and still not on the same page as his teammates. If he’s the replacement for DeRo, that’s not a good replacement.)

Topic: [/soccer]

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: The Survivors of the Chancellor

Author: Jules Verne

I’ve been listening to this audio book for a couple weeks and it was an interesting coincidence that on the way home from watching the end-of-the-world caper 2012 I finish this book which is also a survival story, though set 150 years earlier. This is about a ship that sinks while crossing the Atlantic and the survivors who build a raft and try to stay alive long enough to reach land or be rescued. It is a harrowing and grim tale, and halfway through you think surely they’ve suffered enough, but the bad stuff is only beginning. It is a quite remarkable story of survival and the ending has an unexpected aspect that I enjoyed. There are aspects of the book that are a challenge to understand because of differences in time and culture (many of the nautical terms were meaningless to me, for instance), but the human condition and will to survive is understandable to all. Excellent.

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: The Killing Room

Interesting film about a strange — and deadly — psychological experiment conducted by mysterious black ops government types using volunteers from the classifieds. It’s a little bit like the Saw movies (in the sense that imprisoned people are faced with unanswerable dilemmas, but without the gore), and also reminiscent of one of my favorites, Cube. It doesn’t have the depth of Cube, unfortunately. It builds us up for a grand climax but the payoff isn’t there. The explanation regarding the experiment is interesting, but not that plausible (I don’t really buy it); it seems like there would be much easier ways to find out what they seek. Another flaw is that though the characters seem interesting and have potential, we really don’t get to know them beyond the surface. There are some nice moments, some of the dialogue is excellent, and the performance of a few of the actors are terrific; however there’s too little happening here. You’re interested for a while, but that’s mostly because of the mystery and your desire to find out what’s going on, and ultimately it feels like a film short stretched to feature length.

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Thu, Nov 12, 2009

: Show Business: The Road to Broadway

This is a fascinating documentary that follows the creation and production of four musicals on Broadway during the 2003-2004 season. What I especially liked is the broad treatment: we get to hear from actors, writers, musicians, directors, critics, and even fans. Each group has different insights into theatre. The second thing that makes this work is the variety: each of the four musicals (“Wicked,” “Taboo”, “Avenue Q,” and “Caroline, or Change”) are extremely different in subject matter, style, and tone, which helps give this documentary a broader appeal. There should be something of interest to everyone here.

But the thing that fascinated me the most — pertinent right now as I’m polishing my second novel — is the surprising knowledge at just how much these productions can change, even after opening night. Songs are rewritten, production numbers moved around, stories changed, scenes added or dropped, etc. I have worked in theatre and minor adjustments would be the norm, but I didn’t realize they would actually rewrite the entire thing. Of course, the theatre I did was mostly unoriginal work, so we wouldn’t have thought of rewriting a classic play, for instance. Broadway does a lot of brand new productions that are still in flux, so they change according to audience feedback. That’s why shows that open to mixed reviews may find their feet later, as they figure out the bugs, enhance the scenes that work, and drop the problem areas. Fascinating. Worth watching.

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Wed, Nov 11, 2009

: The Box

I was curious about this film because I made a similar movie short (“The Dilemma”) about ten years ago (in mine, it’s a website that offers the money for a mouse click instead of a button on a box). Unfortunately, this is a dreadful mess. It is truly one of the worst films I have ever seen. That said, there are aspects I liked very much: the problem is the whole package fails miserably. (Note: I will avoid spoilers in my comments, not that this movie could be spoiled any more than it does to itself, but I won’t reveal the “twists” upon which it depends just in case you want to see it.) The main problem is that the main premise of a moral dilemma is never really explored. It’s set up (“push the button and someone dies and you get a million dollars”) but never really debated. After the button is pushed (not much of a story without that happening), the film veers off into unknown territory. There seems to be a vast conspiracy happening, with mysterious people and events, strange effects, supernatural stuff, etc. You are basically bewildered and confused for the next hour. That’s not necessarily a problem if the final explanation is a good one. The problem I have with that explanation is two-fold. First, it’s a cheap cop-out, akin to a beginning writer ending a story with “and then he woke up.” Second, even if you ignore the flaws of the cop-out, the film could have gone further and explored the ramifications of that explanation which would have been a new and interesting exploration into ethics. But the film doesn’t do that and instead ends with a bizarre and meaningless and illogical new “dilemma” which makes no sense, is horribly grim and depressing, and leaves you wondering why you wasted two hours of your life watching this dreck. So basically this film is a decent set-up, a middle that is fascinating but convoluted, with an explanation that doesn’t justify any of the nonsense that precedes it, and a conclusion that as unsatisfying as any I’ve seen. There are parts of this that are brilliant: my favorite was the conversation with the babysitter and the husband, where she’s apparently possessed or something and her words have double-meanings that freak out the husband. Some of the weird stuff is very well done, extremely creepy and bizarre without elaborate special effects. But all this is piecemeal and none of it fits together in any rational way. Frustrating.

One final note. I discovered after I’d seen the film that this was done by the director of the cult classic Donnie Darko, something that might have lowered my expectations going in. I did not like Darko and yet it’s a much better film than this one, if that tells you anything. This has a lot of the same flaws, but at least Darko had a better plot.

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Tue, Nov 10, 2009

: Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant

The “Cirque du Freak” in the title confused and bothered me: it seemed unnecessary and awkward (“The Vampire’s Assistant” would be a great title on its own). But apparently this is based on a book series so that’s why it’s included. Of course I’ve never heard of the books and I doubt most people have and that’s symbolic of the problems with this movie. Book fans rarely want to see their cherished stories warped by a screen adaptation, so why cater to them? Adding that tag line to the title just alienates non-connoisseurs like me. Anyway, the film itself has many flaws. It’s extremely uneven. There are some brilliant concepts: I like the idea of a boy becoming a vampire’s assistant and the freak circus is visually interesting with the opportunity for fascinating characters. But the freaks are not used well. Everything is for display purposes only and we don’t really get to know anyone past the main characters and even they aren’t that interesting. The main boy is a do-gooder who becomes a half-vampire to save the life of his best friend. He’s rather bland but with a good heart, and represents humanity. Unfortunately, his reactions to the freaks are strange: he doesn’t abhor them or even show much surprise, yet he is initially anti-freak and prejudiced. I found myself confused and unsure of how I was supposed to react: are the freaks good, bad, strange, exotic, normal, humorous, or what? No idea. The story is too convoluted and doesn’t really go anywhere. There are mysterious bad guys, a whole vampire mythology that seems incredibly thin yet is trotted out in bits and pieces as though it’s epic, and a horrible ending that resolves little and doesn’t really end. (The ending is just a setup for sequels, which I doubt will ever happen. Apparently this movie is based on just the first book or two and there are something like eight books published in the series, so the producers were obviously hoping this was just the beginning. But instead of giving this one a conclusion, they end it in mid-sentence, so to speak.)

All these negatives aside, there is something above average in the film. It’s got a sort of charm. It feels unpolished, like it’s not sure what it is (Is it for children or adults?), but that doesn’t necessarily ruin it. Ultimately, it’s a weak film, a flawed film, but not a terrible film. It reminds me of a television pilot that sets things up wonderfully for the future but isn’t really that good on its own. I actually wouldn’t mind a sequel; just like TV series often find their rhythm after a few episodes, I could see this series becoming really excellent. But this first one is too confused. See it for the good performances, the exotic visuals, the vampire genre, and ignore the poor story and inconsistent tone. Overall I liked it, in a strange way, but I can’t really recommend it.

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Sun, Nov 08, 2009

: Houston Beat Seattle in 2009 Playoffs

What a terrific day. Not only did I get up early this morning and finish the last chapter of my novel, but my team (the Houston Dynamo) has advanced in the playoffs to the Western Conference Final! They beat the expansion team Seattle Sounders in overtime on a terrific Brian Ching volley. Fantastic! They thoroughly deserved it, too, out-playing the Sounders with tons of possession and good passing, but it was still an extremely tight game and could have gone either way. Seattle had a great first season and I give them props, but they I’m cheering for Houston to go all the way. They need to beat LA on Friday to advance to the final. Because of the league’s silly tie-breaking rules, that game is in LA so it’s not going to be easy, but if they play like they did today, they’ll do it.

Topic: [/soccer]

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: Finished Second Novel

Today I finished my second novel. That’s two this year, which is a huge accomplishment. I should write more about writing because I’m understanding things in a different way. Writing a novel isn’t about the words, but the story, and I’m learning more about how to master that. No idea if my novels are any good, but that’s not the point: the point is I’m learning to walk so I can learn to run. I’m sure my work will get better. This second one is very different from the first and I think it’s a deeper novel and I can’t wait to see what my writing will be like three or four novels from now. I feel like a novelist, which is amazing. (Next I want to feel like a paid, successful novelist, but that will come.)

Topic: [/writing]

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Fri, Nov 06, 2009

: The Men Who Stare at Goats

This one is pretty much what the trailer shows: a quirky tale of military psychic experiments told mostly in flashbacks while a reporter has adventures with an odd ex-army officer who supposedly has psychic powers. It’s funny and charming and well done, but in the end it all seems a bit silly (the wimpy ending re-enforces this). I liked it, but it’s not a must-see. At least it’s speedily paced, humorous, and not too long.

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Thu, Nov 05, 2009

: Remembrance

Author: Joel Pincosy

Director: Joel Pincosy

Really nice little film short by up-and-coming director Joel Pincosy. It’s about an elderly man reflecting on the changes in his life as he faces minor conflicts with his family and growing old. Nicely done with excellent performances. It’s simple and elegant. I loved the smooth transitions to the flashbacks and the way there’s not much dialogue but the story’s obvious from what you see. Worth checking out if you can find it.

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: Spiral

Interesting small film about a weird lonely painter who may or may not be a serial killer. Though he’s strange, he apparently attracts women via his art, paints a series of pictures of them (always the same sequence), and then — perhaps — kills them. He’s somewhat of a sympathetic character, but what intrigued me was the girl and her personality and relationship with the guy, which was interestingly done. There’s sort of a twist at the end that I liked, but this is a fairly quiet movie, a film about thinking, not action. It’s a tragedy, in a way. I rather liked it, but it’s not for everyone. It can be slow and inconsistent, but it has its very good moments. I also discovered at the end that it was filmed in Portland, which is terrific. I need to watch it again just to see if I can spot familiar places.

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Mon, Nov 02, 2009

: Paranormal Activity

I’ve been hearing about this for a while and almost saw it a few weeks ago, but it didn’t work out. Now it’s everywhere and big hit. It cost about $11,000 to make and has grossed nearly $100 million, which is incredible. The story, if you’re not familiar with it, is exceedingly simple: a young couple are experiencing a haunting and set up a video camera to record any “paranormal activity” and we get to watch the footage. Fortunately, there’s not too much hand-held camera and it doesn’t feel awkward or nauseating or cheap. The scares are of a mostly subtle nature: creepy sounds in the dark, mysterious movements, and so on. It’s surprisingly effective. By showing so little, your mind imagines the worst, and that’s far more frightening than seeing fake blood or a wax monster. I didn’t find it particularly scary during the film (though the ending is creepy — and good) but I didn’t want to think about it later that night, alone in my house with the strange sounds outside. The main thing I enjoyed about this was the performances of the two stars. They are unknowns and they are perfectly cast and the acting feels real. They are sympathetic, too, so we feel bad that these things are happening to them, which keeps us involved. I also loved the choice of setting in a modern house in suburbia rather than in the traditional creepy falling down ancient mansion. The setting made this seem much more real and plausible and therefore scary. Storywise, the film feels light: it should have had a subplot that would tell us more about the characters and keep us engaged. The problem with the suspense nature of the paranormal activity is that it must be milked out carefully throughout the film, and thus there are places where activity lags and not much is happening and it’s a bit boring. (Note: this is not always, just sometimes. Many times the slow pace is just perfect and totally creepy as you watch an empty room for many long seconds waiting for something to happen.) A subplot would have kept things entertaining and given the characters more depth. Still, it works as it is, though it’s therefore not a profound movie: just a recorded event with not much else to go with it. Recommended, though I wouldn’t recommend it if you live alone in a creaky house!

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