Monday, August 15, 2011

Thirty Items or Less

Movie: Thirty Items or Less

Aspects of this looked like it might be funny (i.e. the cast, the premise of being forced to rob a bank, etc.), but I dreaded some of the raunchiness. It's definitely there (mostly foul language) and most of the time it's pointless and doesn't even do anything useful such as establishing character or being funny. But the core story is actually pretty neat, and I liked a lot about two main characters. I was really surprised by how much I liked this. I laughed and it was fun. Silly, but definitely entertaining, and there are enough surprises in the fairly basic story to make it interesting.


Monday, August 8, 2011

Snows of Kilimanjaro

Book: Snows of Kilimanjaro
Writer(s): Ernest Hemmingway

I "read" the audio book version of this which may not have been the best idea. I didn't realize it was short stories and those don't always work quite as well as novels in the car (where I listen to audiobooks). If you miss hearing a sentence in a novel, you haven't missed much, but in a short story, just one line can be critical. Because of that I found a few of these stories difficult to follow. Like the very first one, "Snows of Kilimanjaro," I didn't even realize was a story and thought it was the beginning of a novel (which seemed odd, since it's about a guy on his deathbed, which is an unusual way to begin a novel). I wasn't paying full attention, either, and suddenly the "novel" ended and I realized it was just a short story. Because of all that I'd like to go back and relisten to these at some point: I think I'd get more and more out of them over time. That said, I did enjoy the stories, and actor Stacy Keach did a surprisingly good job reading them. Some I liked more than others, though I can't say that any are particularly memorable. I did enjoy the writing style even in stories I didn't get (like in the boxing story, which I didn't really follow or understand). Probably my favorite was the story about the lion hunter in Africa. I need to read more Hemmingway.


Saturday, August 6, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Movie: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

I was really hopeful of this one as I loved the concept (humans make apes smarter and apes take over), but after the disappointing Cowboys and Aliens and the CGI apes looking questionable in some of the trailers, I kept my expectations low. To my surprise, this was really good. I worried that it would be mostly an apes-versus-human battle, but instead the film is mostly about the development of the apes. Our scientist has a human side, as he's searching for a cure for Alzheimer's to help his ill father, and it's that drug that he develops that spurs the apes rise to power. There are weak aspects, such as the girlfriend role which is just wasted, but I really appreciated the slow, realistic development of the apes. This isn't the "ape gets injection and a week later apes have taken over" which I feared. Instead, the main ape is very human: we seem him slowly go from loving humans to being mistreated and misunderstood and learning to prefer his own kind. It's actually quite extraordinary that a big-budget Hollywood scifi movie would take that sort of realistic character development. I also didn't have any problems with the CGI monkeys -- they looked amazingly good throughout. Some shots in the trailers looked fake, but maybe they were early cuts before the special effects were finalized. Ultimately I'm not sure if this is a classic -- it's certainly not as ground-breaking as the original -- but it's a terrific restart of the series and I'm looking forward to more.


Friday, July 29, 2011

Cowboys and Aliens

Movie: Cowboys and Aliens

I had really high expectations for this, considering the cast, director, and concept. Unfortunately, it doesn't live up to them. The problem is that it falls just a little short in almost every aspect of the film. For instance, the gritty cowboy world is wonderfully done with some terrific character setup, but then that's all abandoned as the film descends into a mere Us-versus-Them battle. The aliens are similar: kind of cool in some ways, but ultimately little more than random monsters (they are certainly not explained or personalized in any way). Even the action and special effects fall short. Throughout there are glimmers of greatness, but every time the film fails to deliver what it hints at or promises. It's entertaining, but not much more than that. The bottom line is we end up with a ton of wonderful potential wasted.


Friday, July 22, 2011

Captain America

Movie: Captain America

I had high hopes for this as the previews looked fantastic. But the opening scene had me worried as it was completely out of context and didn't make any sense. It turned out to make sense, but only once you knew what was going on. The filmmakers were being a bit too clever here. In my case, since there was no context or explanation, it put me in the wrong mood for the film. Thankfully, other things came along that were so good it almost eliminated that feeling, but every tiny mistake was exaggerated because of that awkward start. For instance, the worst thing about the film is the "magical" energy source the bad guy digs up in the Arctic: I found that ridiculous and silly and very comic booky. But my irritation with it came a lot from that rough beginning of the film which had me looking for flaws. All that said, once the film gets going (10-15 minutes in), it's quite wonderful. I loved the appropriately slow pacing of the initial story of our weakling hero transformed into muscular super-guy. That's my favorite part of the story and I had worried and expected the filmmakers would resolve that storyline in five short minutes. Instead, it's a major part of the film, and not only does that mean we actually get to know our hero as a person, but when he does transform it's far more believable and a bigger event. Though the film's action begins with that transformation, the pacing is still slow enough to be realistic, which I appreciated. I loved the way they had him come up with his "Captain America" name and costume; it's probably the most believable costume origin of any superhero ever. While the bulk of the film's plot centers around Captain America's origin, I liked that, for I found the Nazi super-villain storyline to stretch credibility so much that I wasn't interested (though the bad guy is deliciously performed by Hugo Weaving). The ending's slightly anti-climatic, but I also liked that, as it was appropriate. The very end of the film is really nice as it sets up everything for the inevitable sequel and does that brilliantly. I think they have a hit new series here.


Friday, July 15, 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

Movie: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

I was somewhat against this movie being split in two, but I am glad they did in the sense that the story needed the length. It would have been awful chopped down to three hours. This one has a nice leisurely pace that's needed for some of the somber events that conclude the series and for sure that would have eliminated if they had tried to do the whole thing as a single film. (I still think this should have been released much closer to Part 1, though: by the time I saw this, I'd forgotten all about the first half.) As for commenting on this film, there are two ways to go: one can write about the film itself, or judge the story (which is judging the book). I'll do both. In terms of a film, this is very good. I liked a lot of the decisions made, such as minimizing the "war" and "battle" scenes (implying them or showing them in the background). I find such scenes tedious and boring and I had been dreading having to sit through long minutes of hordes of people and creatures battling. Though the film doesn't give you any sort of summary of the previous films and just continues right where the last one left off, you don't need to know much. The trio simply has a series of missions and sets out to accomplish them, with the inevitable final confrontation between Harry Potter and Voldemort the dramatic conclusion. Of course, people who didn't like the way the book ended will have similar problems with the film. But I still think it's a good ending and it works well for me.


Thursday, July 14, 2011

Horrible Bosses

Movie: Horrible Bosses

I love black comedies so this one about three idiots wanting to kill their bosses appealed to me, but the marketing gave it a raunchy comedy feel that worried me. I was pleased that though there are moments of that in the film, overall it's pretty tame in that regard (nothing as bad as The Hangover). It's quite funny and entertaining, and I loved the way everything resolved in the end.


Thursday, June 30, 2011

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Movie: Transformers: Dark of the Moon

I hated the first two, so I have no idea why I went to see this one. I guess I just want to like these. I love robots and tech and science fiction. These films have so much potential. But they waste it. Like the others, this one starts off well. I loved the way they mixed in historical President Kennedy and moon landing footage with new stuff. The conceit of a Transformer ship crashing on the moon in the 1960s setting off the space race is brilliant. But after that good start, the film just goes into typical Transformer nonsense where the laws of reality don't apply. Parts of it look cool, but I just don't care about anything or anyone since nothing's real and there are no consequences. I've watched the previous films several times because I keep falling asleep during the action scenes and when I wake up, I have no idea what's going on. (Of course, I was confused before I fell asleep.) I realized during this one that as I watch these I naturally try to make sense of things. But these films don't make sense so I literally turn off my brain. If I didn't, I'd go insane. So I turn it off and just try and enjoy the visuals. And that's why I eventually fall asleep. It happened in this one, too, though only for a few minutes -- which I guess means this is the best of the three (that's not saying much). I just don't understand why they can't get some screenwriters with a few brain cells. I mean, the lack of logic is mind-blowing. Like in one scene our hero is on the phone with a spy who then switches to a complicated-looking "encrypted phone" so that their conversation is "secure." Yet the original guy is still on his cell phone! I mean, that's idiotic. It not only wouldn't work (you can't have one-way encryption as the phone on the other end would only hear gibberish) but it obviously wouldn't be secure. In another scene, the boy and the girl apparently break up. While I was baffled by their relationship through-out the film (they did not seem like a couple, even an unlikely one), the break-up scene was incomprehensible. I have no idea why they broke up -- or even if they broke up (it wasn't really clear). Basically she walks in, sees him with spy stuff, and she's like, "I'm leaving" and he's like, "Don't go." Apparently she was mad at him for hanging out with the robots, but I have no idea why: it was like they'd had this fight fifty times before and this was the last straw, but since we didn't see the previous fights, were don't understand any of their shorthand fighting. Sadly, that's actually one of the better scenes in the film, too, because at least there's a vague pretense of acting. Speaking of the girl, what the hell was she doing there? Who is she? Apparently they met at the White House when he was there getting a medal for his heroics in the previous films, but I didn't understand at all why she was there, who she was, how they ended up together, why she liked him, why she was British, or just about anything else about their relationship. And how the heck does she know about the robots? Did he tell her? When? In one scene she says something about how she thought his stories were just stories, not real -- so did she not believe his stories about the robots? If so, then why isn't she surprised to see them? And why do all the top secret government people just accept her along with him simply because she's his girlfriend? I guess the good news is that they found a perfect replacement for Megan Fox: the new actress has a similar skinny-yet-over-sexed body type and the same deadpan acting range. Speaking of acting, there's isn't much for the actors to work with here, but I loved Patrick Dempsey's performance which was terrific. But Frances McDormand's character is too off-putting and I didn't like her strange personality switcheroo mid-movie, and John Malkovich's cameo is just bizarre. (Why would the CEO of a multi-billion dollar company be constantly checking up on a mail room kid? And what the heck was that bit about him basically worshiping the robot?) Maybe these characters were for comic relief but it wasn't very well done. I do like the comedy in these films (it desperately needs the relief), but it's so poorly done most of the time, with lines thrown around so quickly you can't even get the joke. The "action" is similarly fluid: basically everything's a metallic blur (especially the transform sequences which I want to love but they are too fast for me to understand and therefore they just annoy me to death). I can't distinguish one robot from another and when two or eight of them are fighting, they look like a metal tumbleweed. There's a vague attempt to give people critical missions so that all the characters are contributing to the big victory, but there's so much going on and ninety percent of it is pointless (most of the time it seems the moment they accomplish a task they find out it didn't help and there's a new task they now have to do or the world will end). I'm also sick and tired of super-advanced alien races that are so dumb they build a massive planet-wide super-weapon that can be disabled by knocking over a special "control module" bowling pin. (It's like blowing up the Death Star with an M80 dropped in just the right ventilation shaft.) As for plot, don't get me started. There are half-moments of sanity, and then the plot just veers around like a drunk driver with half-assed assassinations, betrayals that make no sense (if the traitor's got the super-weapon that can win the war, his reasoning that he defected to the other side because it was inevitable the bad guys would win is nonsense), and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of bad robots. The bottom line: this is about ten minutes of story stretched into two-and-half hours of silly action nonsense. There are a handful of special effect sequences that are mildly interesting, but even during those reality is so far from being included I found them impossible to enjoy. (Like how come giant robots that can squash a metal dumpster flat with one step can't stop a weaponless teenage-boy-sized man? Or for that matter, why do giant alien robot lifeforms with missiles and special guns fight each other with giant X-Acto knives?) Okay, enough of this. The reality is this film has nothing to do with reality. If you can enjoy it despite that, good luck to you. All that said, of the three films, this one's the best. By the slightest of margins.


Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Cars 2

Movie: Cars 2

I don't understand why the critics are giving this such a hard time. Or rather, I do: they feel this is their chance to pounce on Pixar and give them their first bad review. But this isn't a bad movie. It's just not a serious one. It's a silly spy spoof. It's fun. No, it doesn't have the heart and depth of any of Pixar's previous films (even the original Cars, which is probably the least literary of Pixar's films), and because it's a sequel, it doesn't feel very innovative. But it's still a good movie. It's certainly better than most films, especially those aimed at kids. Pixar does make an attempt to have a serious spine in the story as best friends McQueen and Mater have a conflict that threatens their relationship, but of course it's easily resolved, and with all the complex spy shenanigans going on, it feels like a minor aspect of the plot. The bottom line is this has a fun story with cool spy gadgets and intrigue, beloved characters, and it's a great around-the-world adventure with wonderful views of Tokyo and London in a car-only universe. I enjoyed it. It's ultimately silly as spy spoofs always are (think Get Smart), but there's nothing wrong with that at all. Go have and enjoy it.


Sunday, June 26, 2011

A Kiss Before Dying

Movie: A Kiss Before Dying

I'm surprised I never saw this 1991 thriller staring Sean Young and Matt Dillon. It's definitely my genre. It opens with Dillon killing off his fiance in a shockingly calm way, and then killing more people to hide his crime. He later marries his dead fiance's twin sister and we learn that this is all a ploy to get to her rich father. It's a simple enough concept and we've seen similar stuff more recently, but I'm sure this was rather innovative twenty years ago. Seeing this now, though, it's lacking in a lot of ways: a lot of the material is too "on the nose" and not very subtle; some of the editing and direction comes off as thriller-cliché (like the dropping the coffee cup in shock slow motion effect); the acting, particularly by Sean Young, is atrocious (I'd heard her described as wooden but I always thought she was decent, but she does a wonderful impression of a wooden doll doing an emotionless script read in this film); there are a couple awkward sex scenes which feel strangely artificial as though the director was mandated by some studio policy to include a certain about of sex; there's no ambiguity or philosophical insight to anything -- we just see a greedy killer doing bad things; and the ending is trite and not particularly satisfying. But despite all these flaws, the film is still interesting and above average. I rather liked it.


Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Devotion of Suspect X

Book: The Devotion of Suspect X
Writer(s): Keigo Higashino

Something about this novel caught my eye on Audible and so I bought the audiobook. I was nervous about reading a Japanese book: I have enough trouble keeping track of Western names in books (or in real life) and figured I'd end up hopelessly confused with who was who and aspects of the Japanese culture I don't know about. While there's a little of that -- I still have no idea what sort of electrical appliance was used as the murder weapon (the Japanese name is given) and I couldn't tell female names from males (and the male narrator of the audiobook didn't do female voices in a female voice) -- but overall I found it surprisingly easy to follow. The book itself is terrific. It starts with an amazingly simple premise and uncovers a boatload of complications. In the first chapter we meet three people: a lonely high school math teacher who leads a simple boring life and his next door neighbor, a woman with a daughter (I never could figure out how old the child was). We quickly realize the man has a secret crush on the woman. Every day he visits the lunch shop where she works but he never has the nerve to speak with her. Then her abusive ex-husband visits her and in self-defense she kills him. She's terrified that she'll be going to jail and leave her young daughter helpless and alone. (I guess they don't have self-defense justification in Japan.) The neighbor man shows up and volunteers to help her hide the crime. It turns out, he's a genius, a man of math and logic, and he proceeds to create an amazing coverup of the crime. We are then introduced to two new characters: a detective in charge of investigating the crime, and his friend from the University, a physicist who sometimes helps the detective when the crime is too puzzling. It turns out the mathematician and the physicist were in school together and knew each other. The physicist always wondered what happened to his old math buddy, so he goes to visit him. Through their connection, and the puzzling aspects of the murder, which has several elements that puzzle the physicist, he begins to investigate the crime. What follows is an amazing cat-and-mouse game between the detective, the physicist, and the mathematician. We layer onto that the woman and her story, as she begins to realize that by allowing her neighbor to help her, she is now at his mercy; with a word he could ruin her. What is he going to demand of her in recompense? That's the first two thirds of the novel, which is incredible. I loved it. Unfortunately that final third has some severe weaknesses. Some of those are endemic to the plot, such as the book's secondary ending, which is awesome. But the fact that the story has two endings is a problem, for it drags things out a bit too long. Then the book goes on with a third ending, which I found rather pointless and depressing. This last ending didn't really advance the story (which was long finished) but was more like a long epilog, and while it was interesting following the lives of characters, it would have been far better to leave things ambiguous and let us imagine our own endings for them. (As usual when I have a book that ends poorly, I mentally delete that bad ending and think of my own and use that instead.) I still rate this book extremely highly, but it's disappointing that such a great read runs of out steam in the end. A tighter ending would have made this a dynamite of a novel. Overall, though, this is a fantastic work. I love the simplicity of the story, the complexity of tiny things that become big, and the wonderful battle of wits between the physicist and the mathematician. And the twist ending is brilliant.


Sunday, June 19, 2011

MLS Soccer: Portland Timbers 3, New York Red Bulls 3

Soccer: MLS Soccer: Portland Timbers 3, New York Red Bulls 3

One of the craziest games I've ever seen. Anyone who can watch soccer like this and not be entertained is dead. Once again the Timbers came out flat and coughed up a terrible goal just five minutes in, allowing NY to run rampant right through their defense. Though that was pretty much all NY did in the half, Portland gave the ball away constantly, didn't pressure when NY had it, and defended frantically. It was men against boys with the Timbers only got one off-target shot the whole half -- the most exciting thing was the contestant winning a thousand dollars during the halftime show. I held out little hope for a victory and prayed for a tie and feared what the second half would bring. I don't know what happened in the locker room, but though they had on the same jerseys, a different team came back on the field. From the kickoff they swarmed over NY who staggered back unable to stop the assault and within minutes Captain Jack Jewsbury buried a grounder to the back post. Former New Yorker Kevin Goldthwaite had come on for Portland to start the second half and I'd joked to my friend that he would score against his former team. Well, the coach looks like a genius, because a moment later, he does, a nifty backheel right in front of the net started off by a Jewsbury free kick through the box. Five minutes and Portland lead! It was amazing. The stadium was in delirium. Portland continued to dominate though NY did occasionally look dangerous when they tried to break out. Then Perlaza gets to the endline on a great run. No Timbers were in the box for the cross so he just puts it across the face of the goal. I don't know if he saw Keel sliding but if he did it was a brilliant play because former Timber Keel couldn't stop his slide and his momentum just carried the ball into his own net! What made this even funnier was that I'd joked before the game that Keel would score an own goal as that would be fitting with the theme of scoring when playing against your former club. The whole stadium erupted with cheers and jeers when Keel's picture was put on the big screen. Hilarious. But things go somber when with 20-something left Thierry Henry has a brilliant double give-n-go on the left side and breaks into the Portland box and professionally slips it past Perkins to bring one back for NY. Yikes. Nail-biting time. But Perlaza as another breakaway into the box and NY's goalkeeper Greg Sutton brings him down. Perlaza was looking for it, but still a clear penalty. So, after Portland's recent adventures in penalty taking, who would take it? Captain Jack steps up and I was worried: it felt like an extra-heavy burden to take on. Sutton's a monster of a keeper, too, at over 6'5" and I think all that made Jack try too hard to put the shot in the corner and it came off the post. Arrgh! So the game is still 3-2 and tight. But the Timbers continue to play well and dominate and probably should have had another goal for their troubles. They hold out into the four minutes of stoppage and things are looking good. That's when chaos erupts as Henry pushes one of our players to the turf in an off-the-ball scuffle. The ref consults with his linesman and then pulls out the red for Henry! The superstar is off! With only a few seconds left, Portland has this one wrapped up, right? Not so fast. A ball up the right wing into space is harmless enough as Goldthwaite is there to clear it... but instead of just blasting it into the stands he hesitates, perhaps wanting to control it, and then when he's in serious danger of losing the ball he panics and rushes his clear, whiffing on it. New York's DeRosario takes the gift up the right wing and manages to get in a hard cross from the endline. No one from NY was really in the box so it was a harmless situation, but the ball struck Wallace in the arm and the the assistant ref waves his flag frantically. I don't think the main ref was going to give it, which seemed fair since it was more ball-to-hand instead of hand-to-ball (and the rulebook does say handballs must be deliberate), but with the assistant so adamant (my impression is that assistants seem to be more literal about calls than center refs who use their judgement on calls), the ref awards NY the last-second penalty and DeRo ties it up with the final kick of the game. Arrgh! Only a point when Portland should have had three. But still, this didn't feel like a loss because they'd played so well (if you forget the first half). The team is struggling to put on a full 90-minute performance and if they get so they can do that, they could be a formidable team considering the way they played against Colorado last week and NY this week. But they've got to stop the foolish mistakes and allowing defeated teams back into matches. Fun game to watch, though.


Friday, June 17, 2011

The Green Lantern

Movie: The Green Lantern

Who comes up with this drek? The feeble trailers had me worried but I was still hoping that this might be better than it looked. Sadly, it's much worse. I don't know much about the Green Lantern superhero and this has some interesting aspects to it: Green Lanterns are part of an intergalactic peace-keeping force with one member selected to guard each of the 3,600 quadrants of the universe. That is different and cool, especially when we get shots of unusual-looking aliens and inter-species mingling. The basic origin story has our hero, an arrogant death-defying irresponsible win-at-all-costs fighter plane test pilot who is selected by the Green Lantern ring as the replacement Green Lantern when the old one dies. Parts of that story I really liked. But from there it falls apart. The biggest problem is the vague villain, which is a bizarre unseen force that feeds on fear and swallows entire planets with its black smoke-like being. He's threatening the entire universe because even the Green Lanterns can't stop him. I don't know who came up with this villain, if he's in the comics or what, but it was a lame choice for the film. It's too abstract, and the intergalactic nature of the story is much too big for a first film. Aspects of the philosophical debate between "fear" and "will" were interesting, but only hinted at instead of properly delved into, and the action felt forced. Of course that's not the only problem. The actress who plays the pretty girl in the film is pretty, but horrible at acting. In each scene she's like a different person. The first time we see her she's the Bitch. Then she's the long-loved childhood Sweetheart. Then she's the love interest. And so on. Every performance is one-note and bizarre. I cringed at every scene she was in for I didn't know who she was. Part of that could be the mediocre writing, but she still should have known to give some variance to her character. (Her "anger" scene was really unconvincing -- I kept thinking she was joking and going break out in a "just kidding" smile at any moment. It baffled me when I finally decided she was apparently supposed to be legitimately angry.) Ryan Reynolds as the lead is okay -- certainly buff and he brings a bit of charm and even emotion to the role -- but the character is still too one-dimensional. His test pilot character was much more interesting than once he put on the Green Lantern suit and became a superhero. Then he was just boring. That's really the key problem: with such an abstract conflict (a fear creature) and a simple origin story (dying alien hands him magical ring), there isn't anything special about the people or events. The conflict is vague and smoke monster special effects are underwhelming. Throw in weak writing and bad acting and a film that's not sure what it wants to be and you've got a real mess. I think this safely goes down as the worst movie of the year so far. Lots of potential, but just wasted.


Sunday, June 12, 2011

Diary of the Dead

Movie: Diary of the Dead

I love George Romero's dead movies and I noticed this one, which I'd never heard of, got a high critical rating, so I checked it out. It's not as good as his classics (like Dawn of the Dead, which is my favorite), but it does have its moments. When I read the description I thought it sounded fantastic: "a group of college kids making a horror film stumble upon real zombies." I pictured something like Shaun of the Dead with confusion over who are actor zombies and who are real zombies. But that's not what happens. Instead it's simply a film set that gets interrupted by news of zombie attacks, so the troop decides to head home and the director films the apocalypse for posterity. The whole movie is really a "found footage" film. The zombie adventures aren't that exciting, nor is the acting very good, but this does shine in its commentary on our video culture. When the director's friend is being attacked by a zombie while he just films and does nothing to help her says a lot about our society's values. I wish there was even more of that in the film, though. Still, this is much better than your typical slasher film. Worth checking out if you like this sort of thing.


Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Secret in Their Eyes

Movie: The Secret in Their Eyes

This is a fascinating and amazing murder mystery film from Argentina. It's about a retired court worker who has been haunted by the brutal rape and murder of a young woman twenty-five years earlier, a case he was involved with, and he decides to investigate it again and clear up some of the mysteries about it. So the film jumps back and forth between the present and the past, as we follow the original investigation and the modern day follow-up. Mixed in with that are the stories of the interpersonal relationships of the various characters, such as the woman the man loved and how he could never tell her that. The film incredibly well-done, with fantastic acting. I don't know how they did the aging/youthifying of the actors, but it's subtle and realistic and extremely effective. The film deals with serious philosophical topics, such as the nature of time and the decisions we make. That fits, as the main character is old and retrospective and in the re-telling of the investigation, he's reliving his old life. The story itself is unusual and different, and I loved the ending. I had expected a final twist of some sort, but not what I got. Fascinating film. Highly recommended.


Saturday, June 11, 2011

MLS Soccer: Portland Timbers 0, Colorado Rapids 1

Soccer: MLS Soccer: Portland Timbers 0, Colorado Rapids 1

A wild game full of chances. In the first half, Timbers created some chances but blew them, while Colorado looked extremely dangerous when they attacked, forcing several critical saves out of Timbers' keeper Troy Perkins who was huge. The second half was much better for the home team, which kept possession and limited the Rapids to no real serious chances while created a ton of opportunities for themselves. But the Timbers' finishing was woeful, as they just couldn't score. They shot high, they shot wide, they even got a few on goal only to see the chance saved by Rapids' keeper Pickens. It looked like for sure it was going to be a disappointing nil-nil at home for Portland, when in stoppage time, out of nothing, a FK was floated into the box and an open Rapids player put his header on goal. Troy made the save again, but the rebound fell right to a Rapids player who had an open corner of the net in front of him and I thought it was all over. But somehow Troy made another save on that try, though the ball wouldn't stay for him and slipped out into the crowded box and no one could clear and then Drew Moor blasted in the dramatic late winner for Colorado. Portland had one more huge chance in the final minute after that, but again the shot was over the bar and that's all she wrote. Disappointing, for sure, but strangely, this did not feel like a defeat at all, mostly because the Timbers clearly outplayed the defending champs who were on their heels all night. The crowd had a great time and the cheering was loud and strong and spirits were high even after another home loss. If Portland can keep playing like this, they will win games. It's just frustrating that they can play that well and not score and lose.


Friday, June 10, 2011

Super 8

Movie: Super 8

I really dreaded this would be like Cloverfield, a gimmicky film whose "big secret" turns out to not be much of a secret at all. My biggest criticism of this is the marketing, which hints at a monster we never see, as though that's the draw of the film. In truth, though, the monster is only 10% of what this film is about. What works is the excellent 1970s setting and the relationships between the kids. (The plot is about some kids making an 8mm horror film when they witness a terrible train derailment and after that, mysterious bad things start to happen all over town.) I loved the kids, realistically portrayed with all their awkwardness and innocence and childishness. There are characters you can relate to: the main kid's mother has just died, there's a girl who might be abused by her drunken father, a fat kid who's forgotten in a crowded family, a firebug, and so on. All this is set in an atmosphere of the 1970s, with paranoia of a Russian invasion high and a government that does mysterious things seemingly without oversight. I loved that the casting is mostly unknowns: that helps sell this and makes it feel more real. Their performances are slightly uneven, but that just makes everything even better, and most of the time they are astonishingly good. And I really loved the movie within the movie (stay tuned during the credits to actually see the zombie movie the kids made -- it's hilarious and worth the price of a movie ticket on its own). Film-wise and thriller-wise, this doesn't feel too innovative. It's fairly paint-by-numbers, with a few nearly silly scenes of mysterious sounds, off-camera monster attacks, etc. I guess that's supposed to build our anticipation of seeing the monster (a la Cloverfield), but I just found it tedious and insulting. It's one thing if the characters in a scene don't know what's going on, but it's quite another when they can see stuff and tricky camerawork hides the details from the audience. (At least Cloverfield had a "found footage" motif that meant the missing details were the result of amateur camerawork; here we know it's deliberate and it feels like a cheesy slap in the face by the director as he yells "Ha ha!" at us.) But fortunately, this film has plenty of other juicy meat for us to chew on (unlike Cloverfield) so this technique doesn't ruin the film. The plot, while it has a few puzzling holes (Security cameras at rural gas station in the 1970s?), generally works and I liked the ending and explanations very well. There's nothing earth-shattering here, so don't expect much, but trust that despite the gimmicky film techniques, things do make sense in the end. The bottom line is that this is a terrific film: it's interesting and different, fun with a hint of camp, and has both tender and humorous moments. Two thumbs up.


Friday, June 3, 2011

X-Men: First Class

Movie: X-Men: First Class

This was excellent. It has a lot of the heart of the first film, with the whole "mutants as oppressed minority" thing, but this time overshadowed and enhanced by the recent events of WWII and Nazi Germany (the bulk of the film takes place in 1962). Here we learn the history of the X-Men and find out what shaped the characters and why they do what they do. It's well done, with a terrific cast, and though there's an awful lot going on, the director does a remarkable job keeping everything from being overwhelming. It's not perfect -- there are a few areas where the editing seemed rushed and an incomplete scene or two will leave you scratching your head a bit -- but impressive considering the monumental task. Though I didn't get every question answered (I'm still confused about a couple of things), for the most part this film did a great job of explaining everything (both for this plot and as a setup for the other films). Visually the film is quite good, though the 1960s era seemed to come and go. When it was obvious, I really liked it, but too much of the time it wasn't clear we were in the past and when something like a black-and-white TV video came along it was jarring and felt odd. Much of the mutants' tech felt much too modern (it could have still done the same thing but just looked 1960ish). In terms of the plot, I was really impressed. We follow the origin story of Magneto and his creator/nemesis, while eventually catching up with the other mutants and the forming of Professor X's school and everyone teaming together to stop the bad guy. I loved the way the plot blended in real history (according to this film, the Cuba missile crisis was caused by the bad guy and it was the mutants who saved us all from nuclear war). The mutants we get to see are all pretty good, though, as usual, not being familiar with the comic series, I found sometimes found their powers confusing. (I'm still baffled by Emma Frost. I didn't understand her character's abilities at all. She seemed super-powerful in her first battle, but then she's tamed remarkably easily later. I didn't figure out that she can turn into a diamond suit until after I read something later. The special effects of that diamond form were really poor.) I also thought some of the mutant scenes seemed forced, as in, "We need another special effect here to make this look cool so have a mutant do something." What I liked much better were the stories of the characters. Understanding their motivations was fascinating, especially knowing that in the future several of these mutants will become enemies. I thought Raven/Mystique's character could have used a more elaboration -- she's in a lot of scenes but most of those don't really help us understand her. But the bottom line is I was thoroughly entertained. I found the story thought-provoking, the performances above average, and the plot was compelling. Two thumbs up. The best X-Men so far by a wide margin (though I am saying that as someone who isn't a reader of the comics so there could be flaws I didn't notice).


Friday, June 3, 2011

Kung Fu Panda 2

Movie: Kung Fu Panda 2

There's nothing too wrong about this: if you liked the first one you'll probably like it, but there isn't anything new or different, just more of the same and not quite up to the original's standard. It's pleasant, but probably not worth the trip to the theatre. I did like some of the Chinese-style hand-drawn animation used in parts of the film.


Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Hangover: Part II

Movie: The Hangover: Part II

I was not a big fan of the original, which, while it had its moments, seemed to go out of its way to be crude and socially unacceptable (to the detriment of the film). Perhaps because I knew more what to expect this time, I was surprised by how much I liked this one. It's basically the exact same plot -- drunk guys black out and can't remember their night and have to piece together what happened -- though this time it's set in Bangkok instead of Las Vegas. It's a little slow to get going -- the early workings aren't too funny -- but once the guys wake up with the hangover it starts to get good. Oh yes, it's still full of the socially unacceptable, and there are a several cringe-worthy moments, but except for one or two they are mercifully quick. What I liked far better was the nice blend of characters who are each pushed out of their element by circumstance (and the liberating influence of alcohol and drugs) and the excellent plotting, which never felt contrived or forced and came across as an outrageous but believable series of unfortunate events. The deadpan reactions, the unexpected oddities (I loved the stick attack by the monks, for instance), the way the characters stayed true to their personalities, the solving of the "what the hell did we do last night?" mystery, and, of course, that hilarious (and cute) monkey are all highlights. While the ending (where everything works out fine, of course) was a little too smooth and convenient, the whole thing was a fun, wild ride. While I could do without some of the shock/crude humor, I guess that's part of the whole point of this series (I mean, a hangover without shame and mystery isn't worth the trouble, right?). Not for everyone's taste (to understate it), but if you can handle this kind of thing, this is a quite funny and entertaining movie.