Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Bickford Schmeckler's Cool Ideas

Movie: Bickford Schmeckler's Cool Ideas (2006)

This claims to be a few years old, but IMDB says it was released recently. I saw it on Showtime and found it interesting. It's not a great film, though it wants to be more than it is, but the cast is very good (lots of not-so-famous people such as one of the geeks on The Big Bang Theory and Topher, from Dollhouse). Olivia Wilde steals the show as the love interest. She is amazing. The story is a good premise but poorly executed. It involves a "genius" college kid whose notebook of "cool ideas" (philosophical and metaphysical ramblings) is stolen (by said love interest). He freaks out and tries to track it down, somehow finding himself in the process. Unfortunately the "tracking the book down" part isn't difficult, nor does the lost book take that great of a journey, so it's not that interesting of a process. There are a handful of cool moments: my favorite was when Bickford, focused on finding his book, rejects some weirdo in the quad trying to give him a free copy of a "mind-opening" book... that of course is his book the guy found! Towards the end there's revelation about Bickford and the book that seems to come out of nowhere and feels artificial and tacked on, but still helps everything make more sense. Overall, I liked the idea of the a genius kid whose thoughts are so potent that everyone who reads them has mind-orgasms and wants to steal his book, but like most stories that involve supposed genius, we're never really privy to what's in the notebook, so the whole thing feels mysterious and contrived. Ultimately, it's just another lonely geek who gets the hot girl story, when it could have been something deeper. Worth watching if you're a fan of the cast or "deep" philosophy.


Friday, December 25, 2009

Sherlock Holmes

Movie: Sherlock Holmes (2009)
Director(s): Guy Ritchie

I was intrigued by this, but cautious as the trailers gave no hint as to the story, and I came away from it with mixed feelings. It's not a great film, but it's good enough, I suppose. I liked many things about it. The casting is fine, though this "new" Sherlock Holmes is more modern and flawed (he's a drunken slob much of the time, something I found distasteful). I loved the humor, and the stylish direction of Ritchie definitely added a fun quirky touch. For instance, the film would occasionally double back to reveal more information about a previous scene. Like in one sequence, we saw a bum accost someone and later there's a speeded up sequence where we see Holmes changing into a disguise and we realize that he was that begger. That is very cool. Another technique was Holmes' thinking about what he was going to do with clipped previews showing his intention, and then the "real life" view of what he actually did (exactly what he planned). Overall, I liked this style a lot: that surprised me as it's a modern technique and not fitting with Victorian-era Holmes, but it worked. What didn't work for me was the overly-convoluted -- and boring -- plot. Basically we begin with Holmes catching a bad guy just before he kills a woman, and that bad guy's eventually hanging. But then the bad guy supposedly was into dark occult magic and rose from the dead and we learn he was part of some secret society out to rule to world. Yeah, really cutting edge stuff. A guess the trio of screenwriters were reading too much Dan Brown. What follows after that is a complicated mess of bizarre events, murders, and mayhem, with Holmes and Watson trying to figure out what's going on. We throw into that a mysterious and beautiful woman, Holmes' long-time love interest who's an international jewelry thief and her questionable motivations and apparent control by a third party, and the strange dynamic between Holmes and Watson, where Sherlock is attempting to sabotage his friend's impending nuptials. What all this means is non-stop action, either in physical battles, mysterious happenings, or hilarious dialogue, but it's all so convoluted and fast-paced that there's no time for genuine emotions or real character development. Nothing makes much sense until the end, and even then, it's questionable. The film also ends on an obvious sequel-is-coming note, a practice I find annoying. The bottom line is that this film is fun, it's entertaining, it's somewhat intelligent in terms of dialogue, but there's just not much of a mystery for Holmes to investigate. It's more physical action than mental genius, and the plot is more suited for a James Bond film than a Sherlock Holmes story. There are also many aspects of character that are so loosely defined I found them confusing: the back story between Holmes and the female thief are only hinted at, and I was never quite comfortable with the whole Holmes-Watson relationship (I couldn't tell if Watson hated Holmes or adored him, or both). I suppose the real bottom line is that I adored Morton Downy Jr. in the title role -- genius as usual -- but I didn't really like the Sherlock Holmes character in this film. Combined with the crazy plot, I have to give a big shrug at the whole mess. Enjoy it for the fun and stylistic filmmaking, but don't expect an intriguing mystery.


Friday, December 18, 2009


Movie: Avatar
Writer(s): James Cameron
Director(s): James Cameron

Obviously this film has been getting a lot of buzz and hype. The trailer didn't reveal much to me: it didn't turn me off, but didn't get me excited, either, mostly because it revealed nothing about the story. I think that's a mistake because the story is fascinating. The beginning of the film that sets up the story is a little confusing, which is a bummer, because it's a terrific idea. Basically we have the Avatar project on a distant planet: humans remotely controlling alien bodies so they can pass as natives. That's interesting, but not intriguing. But then we have twin brothers: one is a scientist trained for this mission and scheduled to go to the planet. An avatar body genetically linked to his DNA has been grown and it will only work with him. But then he's apparently killed (a random mugging or something) so his twin brother (with identical DNA) is recruited. He's a marine and has no scientific training, and even more interesting, he's a paraplegic stuck in a wheelchair (he can't afford spinal surgery to get his legs back). The beauty of that setup is two-fold: first, being disabled, the avatar project gives him his abilities back: while controlling the alien body he can run again, which is obviously tremendously appealing to him. Second, since he has no training about the world or the alien culture, he's a stranger in a strange land. That works both for the story, in that he has no preconceived notions and is open for indoctrination by the natives, and it works for the audience, who get to see this new world through his eyes (we are like him, seeing everything for the first time). The heart of the story is not unique: it's basically an environmental conflict between invaders and natives. The human invaders want to mine a rare ore, but the natives don't understand or care and won't get out of the way (their lands are sacred). The plot is very similar to The Battle for Terra, a digitally animated film from a few years ago. But I found the feeling of this film was much more like the epic Dances With Wolves. Instead of white men and Indians, this is science fiction set on another planet with an alien race, but the principles are the same. The human must infiltrate the alien tribe and become one of them, learning their ways and living the way they do. The experience is profound and exciting, for the alien world is brilliantly realized. Storywise, though there isn't much new, it is so well done that it is emotionally powerful. I actually found myself tearing up in a scene or two. Of course one of the main talking points about this film is how much of it was done digitally: the entire alien planet as well as all of the aliens themselves, were created inside a computer. It didn't seem that extraordinary in the trailer, but in the film itself I found myself immersed. I totally forgot that I was seeing digital people and just fell into the story. It's incredible I could be emotionally moved by animated pixels! Truly impressive technology.

I should also add that the alien world is also incredibly impressive. The amount of work to create the fauna and species of a foreign planet is amazing. All the creatures and plants look fully real, too. It's clear why this film took so long and cost so much to make.

I should put in my one criticism: why are the aliens so human-like? Sure they are ten-feet tall and blue, but they have the same humanoid structure, the same facial expressions, and even cry like humans. In real life, aliens are likely to completely different from us. They might be a gas or a rock or something like a spider or fish or bird. They wouldn't necessarily have the same senses as us (they could be blind or have abilities we don't) and we'd certainly find communication difficult (if not impossible). This is something I hate about most science fiction films and TV shows, but there it's usually because it's hard to find an actor to fit into a non-humanoid costume, so all the aliens are humanoid. This film, since it's a digital creation, could have done anything for the aliens. But for some reason, Cameron chose to make them extremely human-like. I find that frustrating. (While that's not a deal-breaker, it does weaken the power of the film for me. This could just as easily be a film from today with Westerners trying to force a native tribe off their Pacific island. There's no reason at all it needs to be on another planet if the aliens are so human-like.)

Another minor criticism is that the environmental message can be a touch preachy at times, but fortunately there's a practical reason the aliens value their land and environment more than just being nature-worshipers (on their planet, all living beings are psychically connected).

Overall, I was tremendously impressed. This film is not just a technological achievement, but it's a great story well-told. The acting is excellent, the visuals are spectacular, and the action and drama is top notch. I urge you to see this film. I won't say it's the greatest film ever or anything like that. It's very good. It actually is quite similar in tone to Cameron's previous film, Titanic: it's an epic with dramatic scenes and spectacular visuals and a solid-but-basic story anchoring everything. It's worth seeing just for the experience (just like Titanic). It's definitely a fun ride, but there are real emotions here. Two thumbs up!


Monday, December 14, 2009


Dexter is a wonderful TV show exclusive to Showtime, the pay channel. I watched the first season on DVD a few years ago, and caught the others when they aired on regular TV (CBS owns Showtime and aired part of the series). I think I've missed a few episodes, but I've seen most, and Dexter is one of my favorite series and characters. He's a serial killer. But he's a "good" serial killer, in the sense that he only kills bad guys (other serial killers, rapists, murderers, etc.). He's really good at what he does. His adopted father was a cop and recognized early on that Dexter was a psychopath. He's the one who taught Dexter a code: to only kill those who deserved killing and to do it in such a way that he wouldn't be caught. Dexter actually works for the Miami police department as a lab geek: he's a blood spatter analyst. Thus he has inside access to forensics and is involved in major investigations, but he's also surrounded by cops, which is dramatic and fascinating. The entire series hinges on Dexter's feelings of alienation and the potential of his dark secret being uncovered. We're also never quite sure about Dexter: though he seems likeable and is intelligent and cunning, he's also unemotional, distant, and slightly creepy. We see him do horrible things without an emotional waver and that makes us wonder just what he'll do next. But there are glimmers of hope. In the previous season he finally married his long-time girlfriend, a woman with emotional problems of her own (her ex-husband abused her). In this most recent season, he's trying to settle into domestic life: raise her kids, deal with their new baby, keep the wife happy and clueless, while still leading a double life as serial killer.

As usual, the series is terrific and every episode keeps you on the edge of your seat. I love the way they write this series. Each season is like a novel, with each episode a chapter. It's one long story with shorter events in between. There are always terrific plot twists and unexpected turns, secrets and discoveries, and dramatic events and plenty of bloody killings. It's wonderful. Though some episodes are naturally weaker than others, and some subplots distasteful or not that intriguing, overall this is one of the best series on TV. This particular season was incredible for a number of reasons. First, our bad guy was a serial killer played by the fantastic John Lithgow, who somehow pulled off the amazing feat of arousing our sympathy while being chillingly evil. Second, Dexter's quest into becoming a real person seemed to be making a great deal of progress: domestic life, while causing lots of complications for his extra-curricular activities, seemed to be helping him. He's the most human yet and that raises the stakes of the drama because as he becomes more human he's more prone to emotion and mistakes, and his relationship with his wife becomes less of an act and he's in greater danger of his secret being discovered. (That is one of the things that hooks us in: what would Dexter do if his family discovered his secret? Would he kill them in cold blood? Or is he human enough that would now be difficult?) The final thing that makes this season so incredible is the dramatic ending. I won't spoil it, but let's just say it's unexpected, tragic, and completely changes where the series is going. It makes you rethink everything that happened so far this season. While I didn't find it unbelievable (it fit with the characters and wasn't arbitrarily done), it effected me emotionally in ways I can hardly explain. I had trouble sleeping after the final episode. I felt like I'd lost someone close to me. It was a profound experience. I haven't felt that way since I first saw David Lynch's Blue Velvet or his Eraserhead. It was disturbing, creepy, sad, and left me bereft and confused. But it also left me fascinated, exhilarated, admiring the daring and brilliant writers of the show, and wondering where the series is going. I cannot wait for next season. I want to watch it right now. (Unfortunately, it won't presumably happen until next fall.) I should reveal my technique for watching this series. I had a free three-month subscription to Showtime, which was awesome, as Dexter was the only thing I really wanted on the channel. (I am now convinced it's worth paying for Showtime just for this series.) Anyway, all this fall I recorded the show on my DVD. When I saw that Sunday night was the final episode, I started watching all the episodes I had cued up. Yes, I watched twelve episodes of Dexter in a row. I won't say one sitting, since it took me a few days, but I knew that's how I had to do it: every episode ends on a cliffhanger and I hate that. I can't stand waiting in limbo for the next chapter. This was an excellent way to watch the show (as getting it on DVD is also). It also could be why the final episode effected me so dramatically: I was profoundly in the whole Dexter world and experience. Anyway, if you haven't seen Dexter, you need to do so. It is amazing. It's quirky, fun, creepy, bizarre, dramatic, and colorful. The characters are twisted, the violence is realistic and gory (yet not so bad it's unwatchable), and the pacing of the show is excellent. Highly recommend (but do start with the first season if you haven't seen it as you need to start at the beginning).


Friday, December 11, 2009


Book: 361
Writer(s): Donald E. Westlake

I'm not sure why I got this audio book. I don't remember what the description was, but I guess something intrigued me. It turned out to be about the mob, which is a topic that doesn't interest me (I don't understand the fascination people have with gangsters). That said, though, this one turned out to be a little different and interesting. It starts of dramatically with the young son returning home after being discharged from the military, and on the way home with his father, his father is shot and killed and the son badly injured. That starts the son on a quest to find out who killed his father and why. The secrets uncovered lead to organized crime and the son's surprisingly role in that gangster world. It's a decent yarn, well-written, and I ultimately liked it. However, in the middle of it I was somewhat bored as I didn't care for the topic, and secondly I was confused because the main character who seemed like a good guy was doing bad things and it seemed like he was going to do worse. Everything turned out appropriately in the end, but the journey was rocky for me. Interesting, but not a book I'd ever read again.


Thursday, December 10, 2009


Movie: Brothers
Director(s): Jim Sheridan

I originally did not want to see this movie. The trailer intrigued me by the casting -- Tobey, Jake, and Natalie -- but the story seemed entirely elaborated in the trailer and entirely trite and predictable. Basically we have the two brothers, one of whom goes off to war and gets killed, while the other falls in the love with his brother's wife. At least that's what the trailer implied and I had little to no interest in such a film. Such an idea has been done a million times and I didn't want to watch another film about an affair. But I heard a review of the film that warned me not to watch the trailer (too late) and said that the trailer ruins an excellent film. That intrigued me that perhaps the film was different from the trailer, so I went, and I'm glad I did. This film is nothing like the trailer. There are several key differences. The first is that we don't learn in the trailer the interesting relationship between the two brothers. One is "good" and one is "bad." The bad one has just gotten out of prison. The good one is the loyal soldier who's going off to war. He's always been the good son, the other the screw-up, and their ex-military father treats them accordingly. That sets us up with a familiar but still interesting conflict, especially when it's the good son that gets killed overseas. I don't want to spoil all the plot details, but let's just say the implications of the "affair" in the film are overblown. The film is far more about family relationships: the daughter-in-law struggling to cope with her husband's death, the "bad" brother trying to figure out how to form a new life after time prison, and both trying to help the dead brother's young daughters. For me, the daughters are the film: the two little girls are so darling and quirky and wonderful, they break your heart in every scene they are in (scenes like the one where the girls attempt to make pancake breakfast for mom are incredibly precious and real). The relationships between them and their mother, their father, and their uncle are all fascinating. That is why you see this movie: to see the amazing family dynamics, adults trying to protect kids, kids who are simultaneously wiser and more innocent than the adults, etc. Forget the silly plot about a brother stealing his brother's wife or whatever: that is not what this film is about. It's about lost people attempting to be found. The film has some obvious plot twists that I won't spoil here, but they are interesting and important, and the climax is dramatic and thought-provoking and doesn't turn out quite the way you'd expect. This is a very good movie. It's an amazing emotional journey. It's less about the plot and more about various emotional states. Definitely one of the best films of 2009. My one criticism concerns a certain violent act in the middle of the film. This act is crucial in understanding one of the characters and the entire story, but the director shields us from the violence by cutting away so we don't see it clearly. Honestly, that confused me. I wasn't even sure the act had happened. I thought maybe something else had transpired and it wasn't until later events that I realized it had happened. Even more important, the violence of the act is critical to establishing to true horror of the act and our understanding of the character's later regret. Yet since the audience is shielded from the violence, it minimizes the act. Combined with my confusion over whether or not the act had actually happened, it softened the impact of the event tremendously, which weakened what should have been the film's most profound aspect. I can only think about how much more powerful this film would have been had we been given at least a glimpse -- one quick shot -- of the raw, bloody violence. It would have been horrible and gut-wrenching, but that's the whole point, of course. Everything that transpired after that would have been ten times more emotional. I don't know if the director chose this approach or if he was pressured by the studio or others into toning down the act, but the sequence felt badly edited to me. Perhaps I need to see it again. Whatever the case, that was the only major flaw I noticed: I thought everything else about this film was fantastic. The daughters were amazing, the lead actors were terrific, all the scenes were wonderful with just the right mix of conflict and interesting dialog and tension. The dinner scene where the black sheep brother has his first family meal after being in prison was incredible, with each family member's personality being evident and the drama and tension overwhelming. Just terrific. Ignore the trailer, don't even bother to watch it, and just go see this film. Be prepared for an emotional journey that will affect you profoundly. It's not necessarily a sad film -- don't think this is a Kleenex festival -- it's just emotional. There's happy, sad, tragic, melancholy, touching, precious -- all sorts of emotions. You'll leave somewhat drained, and perhaps changed, and that's the sign of truly powerful art.


Friday, December 4, 2009

Monk: Series Finale

Today was a sad day as what frequently was one of the best shows on TV for many years came to an end. I don't know why it ended; if ratings were low or the creators were burned out, but I'm still pissed about it. When they announced last spring that this fall season would be the end I thought my heart would stop. Monk has consistently been one of the few shows I can watch any time, any where, in any mood. It is funny, heartwarming, intriguing, clever, and just all-around wonderful. Other shows sit on my DVR for months before I get around to watching them (I've got 15 episodes of House queued up right now and I love House, but I have to be in the right mood). Monk I often watched the same day (on special occasions I managed to save it for watching during Sunday dinner). It was not always perfect or consistent, and sometimes it got repetitive and predictable, but the thing about Monk is that I didn't care: even a bad episode of Monk was better than most good episodes of other shows.

This final two-part episode resolves all the show's mysteries. While I'm glad it ended that way instead of suddenly and without any resolution, I'm not that impressed with the conclusion. Yes, Monk finally solves his wife's murder, and no, that doesn't magically cure his OCD (though it helps), but the mystery itself didn't seem too mysterious (it was extremely predictable) and Monk didn't have to do much sleuthing or anything brilliant to capture the bad guy. The finale tries to hit so many notes and resolve so many things it feels scattered and weak. My preference would have been to have changed this around: had him solve the murder in a brilliant way in part 1, then deal with all the ramifications and resolutions in part 2. Instead they tried to spread the murder across both episodes and crammed the resolution into the last half hour and it felt forced and awkward for me. Not so poor that it ruins the series, but not going out with a bang as I would have wanted. Monk needed to do something brilliant in this episode, some thing only Monk could do, and instead he has the murderer handed to him on a silver platter. Lame. I still love this series, though. I hope it lives forever in reruns and I really hope the books continue and I would love for USA to do a Monk TV movie once a year like they did with Columbo and Perry Mason and other series.


Thursday, December 3, 2009


Movie: August

Strange movie that sounded interesting: it's about the downfall of a high-tech startup by two brothers. There are some cool moments and the lead character is certainly a character, but he's an arrogant jerk and isn't likeable so we are ultimately glad to see him fail. A bigger problem for me was the lack of information provided about what, exactly, the company did. There were hints and tech words dropped, but everything was vague, as though even the writer didn't really know what the company did. That gave a vague feel to everything, and though it was clear enough why the company was failing (the business model didn't work and revenue wasn't coming in as originally projected as new technology had changes the landscape). The relationship of the brothers was also vague and stereotypical. (One is the tech genius, the other the public face and business guy -- sound like two Steves you've heard about?) Ultimately, the film goes nowhere, nothing happens, we learn too little about anyone, and we don't really care.