Thursday, June 24, 2010


Movie: Killers

I was mildly intrigued by these when I saw the trailers, and then it bombed at the box office and got such horrible reviews my interest evaporated. But I had a free movie ticket that was expiring, and this was the only film qualified (the ticket didn't work for new releases and I'd seen everything else). To my surprise, this isn't nearly as bad as people say. In fact, I rather liked it. The plot is incredibly, inanely dumb and makes no sense at all. Basically our hero's a spy or assassin or something, meets the beautiful girl and retires and marries her. Years later there's a hit out on our killer (someone's posted an absurd $20 million bounty for his head) and she learns of his past life. The two then try to fight off a hoard of killers when it seems everyone they know is a sleeper agent watching them and waiting for the order to kill. The key "reveal" at the end is even more ridiculous. But the lame plot is only an excuse to see the couple squabble over guns and killing, and for some mindless action. There are definite problems with those aspects of the movie as well, but I still liked their relationship and found it interesting and fun, especially as the girl learns how to shoot guns and becomes a little bit of a badass (her character is the non-adventurous type). One annoyance was when the two squabbled over silly marital things in the middle of running for their lives -- I guess it was supposed to be funny but it had a serious edge to it that I found distasteful and distracting. Overall, this is a weak film. It has many problems. It's slow to get going, it can't quite decide if it's a comedy, an action film, a drama, or a love story, and in the end it's just a mishmash of genres that doesn't work. But the film does have some good moments. There are some good scenes, some good lines and decent acting, and the leads are fairly charming. I might be biased because I had a free ticket, but I was surprised at how much I didn't hate this. It was amusing in a brain-dead way.


Thursday, June 24, 2010


Book: Sellavision
Writer(s): Augusten Burroughs

This is a bizarre book. I'd heard of the author (he did Running with Scissors) but this wasn't what I expected at all. I expected a biting satire about home shopping TV and while there's some of that, it's presented within interrelated tales of several "Sellavision" hosts. It's depressing, as the network seems to have a knack for destroying the lives of all these hosts, as we watch one guy get fired for accidentally exposing his penis on TV and then eventually, becoming a gay porn star, while a woman ends up in the looney bin. While some of these stories are interesting, I didn't really care about any of the characters, which made this for an endless read. It's well-done in many ways, and I liked the way everything wrapped up at the end, but throughout the entire book I kept wondering, "Where the heck is this going?" and I never did get a satisfactory answer. It's just a slice of life, I guess, like a stream of consciousness. There's no real plot, just excerpts. Not terrible, but not what I expected or wanted, and I was disappointed. And some of the sex stuff was really unanticipated and offensive.


Thursday, June 24, 2010

USA versus Algeria

Soccer: USA versus Algeria

What a fantastic game and result for the United States. What impressed me the most was their composure and lack of panic, even when we had another goal incorrectly called off, hit the post and it just wouldn't go in, and time was running out. That goal was terrific team play well-executed, not a desperate Hail Mary. Best of all, the U.S. win the group -- an amazing feat few would have predicted -- and now we avoid the Germany side of the bracket and have the potential to go far in this tournament. It's not going to be easy by any stretch, but I like the way the team has progressed and matured, and after the trials they've had so far to reach this stage, I believe they are ready. A huge day for American soccer.


Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Knight and Day

Movie: Knight and Day

When I first saw the short trailers for this I thought it looked awful. The story made no sense and it looked incredibly lame, especially because of the big stars and budget. But then I saw the full trailer in a theatre where they explained the part about Tom Cruise's character possibly being a rogue spy or mentally unstable. That sounded at least a little interesting and so I went to see it. I rather liked it. It's not a hugely complicated movie, but it is fun, quick-paced, and not boring. The "plot" is basically Cruise running into Cameron Diaz in an airport, and eventually kidnapping her and taking her on all sorts of wild adventures as people try to kill them. She's never sure if he's sincere or lying through those perfect teeth of his. That aspect is quite delicious and fun and Cruise is perfectly cast. Cameron does her job really well, but she still felt out of place. I really liked her in places and at other times she seemed miscast. But that's a niggling thing: most of the time the casting works great and the film's a fun roller-coaster that doesn't stop. The plot is gimmicky and doesn't make much sense, but this isn't an intellectual thing by any stretch. It's a fun shoot-em-up and watch-the-pretty-people-fall-in-love film. By that yardstick, I had a great time.


Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Jonah Hex

Movie: Jonah Hex

The reviews of this film are dreadful and I expected the worst, but you know what? It's not that bad. It's mildly fun, the Civil War era setting is interesting, and the plot... well, there isn't much of a plot. The plot's definitely one of the key weaknesses, and there are many flaws. The biggest flaw is haphazard nature of the story structure. We're told of Jonah's past in awkward flashbacks and dramatic glimpses which are supposed to be profound but come of bewildering and lame. Apparently Jonah killed the main bad guy's son (who, I guess, betrayed him), and it's the bad guy who brands Jonah's face. But instead of telling that in a coherent linear fashion, the film jumps all around crazily, with the result that we don't really care about any of the characters, even Jonah. The story is about how the bad guy is out to steal a "nation-killer" weapon just so he can blow up the world (he's an angry guy). Not especially interesting or original, and too far-fetched for reality. But despite these problems, the film's sort of fun in a campy way. It's silly and absurd, and not at all the way I would I done this film, but I don't think it's the worst movie ever made by a long shot. Disappointing, I suppose, if you were expecting more.


Friday, June 18, 2010

USA versus Slovenia

Soccer: USA versus Slovenia

If you missed this game today, you missed something amazing. I'm not sure whether I should love this team or hate this team. They made elementary errors early on to put themselves in a huge 2-0 hole in the first half, but rallied back incredibly to secure a 2-2 draw. A draw that should have been a win if it wasn't for the referee who canceled out the USA's winning goal for an invisible foul that apparently only he saw. The draw keeps us alive in the group -- actually, with England's woeful 0-0 draw we're in a good position where a win in our final match will send us through -- but why must the USA always be playing from behind? We must get our act together and play better against Algeria on Wednesday. If we play like the second half in this one, we'll be fine. I just hope that first half team doesn't show up.


Friday, June 18, 2010

Toy Story 3

Movie: Toy Story 3

Would it be too much praise to say I liked this sequel better than the previous two? Yes, it's that good. This one is by far the most emotional. It tells the tale of the toys when their owner Andy is getting ready to leave for college and must decide what to do with his toys. The ending had me in tears. So bittersweet! I loved all the adventures of the toys: ending up in a day care center, a wonderful toy-filled environment. I loved the classic characters we get to see again, the new characters (including a sweet-looking teddy bear that is incredibly vicious), the hilarious Barbi and Ken combo, and even the humans have more of a presence this time. I loved the cleverness of the visuals and the imaginative use of toys for non-intended purpose. But most of all I loved the story, with its wonderful themes of loss and discovery and the inevitability of change and aging. Powerful stuff, wonderfully told. Plenty of meat for adults and wonderful for children. Hilarious, fun, and brilliant. Best movie of the year so far. Fascinating pre-movie short, "Day and Night," too. Very clever. A must see.


Friday, June 11, 2010

The A-Team

Movie: The A-Team

I went into this with trepidation and not much hope. I'm a fan of the cheesy-but-fun 80s TV series but I wasn't sure what direction they would take. Would this be a satirical vision of the show like the Brady Bunch movie? A clumsy and flat redo like Bewitched? Often these remakes are too self-aware or try to recreate the original so exactly it fails to be anything new.

I am pleased to report that the A-Team, while certainly far from perfect, gets most things right. It strikes a nice balance between new and familiar, with actors similar to the originals, but bringing their own flair for the role. (All are pretty good, but the standouts are Liam Neeson as Hannibal and Bradley Cooper as Face.) The script is excellent, with a perfect blend of humor and action. It's not so chock-full of one-liners it devolves into a parody or comedy, yet humor is a critical aspect of the original show. Plotwise, I was delighted. Yes, it's over-the-top, over-complicated, and over-done, but the best decision was the way they combined an origin story with a new conflict. This is both new and familiar. From the TV show we know that the A-Team was "set up for a crime they didn't commit" and now we get to see that, in addition to how the team members first met (and we find out why BA doesn't like flying). But a lot of films like this go strictly for the origin story, which can feel wimpy because we know much of it already, or they try to crap two completely different stories into one script, and neither gets the screen time they need. Such results are unsatisfying. This script cleverly intertwines both into something we know something about but is also new and I enjoyed it. This is a fun film. It's got a lot of what we love about the original show, but the remake modernizes some things, provides slightly more character development, and allows the new actors to provide their own stamp on things.

That said, there are lots of flaws. The plot's overly complicated and the film goes on forever (it should have been 20 minutes shorter). Some of the events are beyond far-fetched and the green screen special effects are truly horrible -- we're talking video game animation quality for explosions and stuff. The climax at the shipyard is truly awful. However, in a way that fits right in with the TV series, which, while it didn't have obviously digital effects, had pretty bad stunts. That's one of the things that gave the show its lovable B-movie nature. And it works here, too, though I think they should have gone even cruder. The way it is it feels like a mistake; like they tried and failed. It should have felt either low-budget or intentionally fake, like a parody movie. But if you don't take it seriously, it still feels fun.

Overall, that's the key to take from this movie. Have Face's reaction to everything -- always good-natured, with that too-perfect grin no matter what awful thing is happening to you -- and you'll have a blast. Leave your critical brain at home and go have fun!


Monday, June 7, 2010

Lost (series finale)

The series is now concluded. Over the past weekend and several days, I watched the entire final season -- all 18 hours or so (much less when you skip commercials). I've been saving them on my DVR so I could watch them in one sitting, because the show's cliffhangers drive me nuts. I didn't quite do it in one sitting, but found it surprisingly compelling and often stayed up well past midnight to watch one or two more episodes.

First, let me give the standard spoiler warning, because I cannot discuss this show without giving things away, so if you haven't watched the finale yet, don't read any further. (I'll try to avoid spoilers as much as I can, but you are warned.)

Second, let me preface my comments by pointing out my history with the show since that influences my impressions. When Lost first debuted, I tuned in. After about two or three episodes, I dropped out. The show reminded me way too much of J.J. Abrams' Alias, which I hated. Like that show, Lost seemed to throw out lots of weirdness or dramatic plot twists with no rhyme or reason. I had little faith that the show had any rational explanation behind the weirdness. While I was intrigued by many of the ideas and I liked the concept of the show, I just didn't trust the producers (which I felt had betrayed me on Alias) and so I stopped watching.

Over the years, I tuned in occasionally, but I probably only saw an episode or two a year -- just enough to remind me how much I didn't know about the show. Some seasons I saw more episodes and had a slightly better idea of what was going on. More recently, Lost reruns started on cable and I recorded them and watched them on fast-forward. Basically I skipped through storylines I didn't understand or care about, and mostly followed the main plot and the stories of the main characters. That may not sound like the best way to watch Lost, but the interesting thing is that it worked. Not only did I catch up with what was happening (for the most part) without it taking nearly as much time, but I started to see how the show was tying in stuff from the earlier seasons. Events in earlier episodes that had seemed random and just bizarre for weirdness sake suddenly had real explanations. I got hooked. Last season I recorded and watched most of the season all at once, and I did the same thing this season. (That is by far the best way to watch Lost, in my opinion. It is not a show that benefits from a weekly break.)

So, what do I think of the final season and the show in general? Here we go.

In many ways, Lost is an impressive show. It features terrific drama, amazing actors, unusual story arcs, wonderful music, and of course, fantastic island landscapes and cinematography. From a storytelling perspective, it is almost the perfect show: a fantastic world where pretty much anything can happen. The show is an incredible blend of science fiction and fantasy, and I love the way it pits faith and science against each other, with non-spiritual characters becoming spiritual and vice versa. I also love the way its characters are not black and white, but wonderful shades of gray. You aren't sure if people are truly evil or just making mistakes. The way the show sets up a person as a bad guy one week, then switching it around the next, is truly astonishing.

Much of this season reminded me of the very best of Lost. Instead of backstory of the characters, we followed them into the "sideways" universe, where the plane hadn't crashed and things were similar but different. The crisis of faith versus science was brought to a head. Some of my very favorite moments of the series happened in this season.

Unfortunately, all that was ruined by the final episode. Take away the final episode and you're still left with mystery and wonder. The finale tries to pull back the curtain so we see the little man running the show and we're naturally disappointed. What I feared from the very beginning on the show became true: the producers had no idea where they were going and wrapped everything up in a convenient dream sequence. (I saw a joke on a competing show which claimed "the whole thing was a dog's dream" -- and sadly, that's not too far off.)

The problem that I have with the finale is that Lost, from its inception, was a show grounded in reality. People died. People suffered. There were injuries and recoveries, tragedies and triumphs. People sacrificed themselves for others. People were greedy and selfish and cruel and evil and loving and kind. We were shown this over and over. No matter what odd or weird thing happened, the consequences were real. The show gave us the impression that there was science behind the mysteries. The unusual things had rational explanations. That is what made the show interesting. We tuned in to discover those explanations.

Please note that I'm not against supernatural explanations. I am a spiritual person and I have no problem with such a resolution, if it is done correctly. This was not. The finale was ham-handled, promising a great explanation and delivering nothing at all. It was a thin excuse by the producers to flash back through all the show's events and actors and bring everyone together for a final scene. It was a feeble attempt to give viewers a "happy" ending while still resolving the show. It was a cheat and a con, and I feel betrayed. The finale taints the entire series for me. I would recommend people watch the show, but I would advise skipping the last episode which will only disappoint.

How should Lost have ended?
The problem, like I said, is that since the show has always been reality-based, it cannot suddenly turn to mysterious supernatural stuff at the very end. The show is violating its own laws of physics. That isn't to say there couldn't be a spiritual component to the explanation. The original Locke character, for instance, is considered the spiritual heart of the show. He was the man of faith -- a converted skeptic, the most dedicated of all. Why not end with a little mystery? Give us a rational explanation for 90% of what we've seen and leave us with a spiritual loophole that a character like Locke can point out. Have a scientist-type person accept the technical explanation with some doubts, wondering if there's more to the spiritual side that he's neglecting. The method the Lost writers took was a cop out.

Unfortunately, I don't know if there was ever a good way to end this series. The whole premise of the show was the mystery: what is the island? Why do such odd things happen there? Pretty much any explanation is going to leave you unsatisfied, either too mundane or too supernatural. The producers did a great job milking that mystery for six seasons, but end in the end, they ran out of places to hide. Far better to just let it end on a mysterious note, leave us wondering. Instead of wondering why we wasted six years of our life on this pointless story.


Friday, June 4, 2010


Movie: Splice
Director(s): Vincenzo Natali

Cube is one of my most favorite movies of all time, so when I heard the director of Cube was doing Splice, I was intrigued, though the trailer and premise did not seem to offer much in the way of innovation. The story seemed too basic and predictable: two scientists splice together the DNA of several species, including human, to create a new creature -- which then turns on them. Ho hum. Haven't we seen that hundreds of years ago with Frankenstein's monster?

I am pleased to report that this film is much better and deeper than the trailer suggests. What I didn't get from the trailer is that the creature is less a monster and is nearly human -- a beautiful woman, no less. That sets up intriguing relationship issues, which are really the core of the film. The husband and wife scientist team have their own problems, there's the whole moral dilemma of playing God with human DNA (an issue I would have liked to have been explored more), and there's the nature of the creature itself: is she human? The film asks a lot of intriguing questions. Unfortunately, the film doesn't quite fit into any genre. That's a bad thing because this isn't quite enough of a horror film for folks who like that sort of thing, and science fiction fans will feel short-changed because there's too much emphasis on the horror. Another awkward aspect -- slight spoiler alert -- is the concept of inter-species sex. That caught me completely by surprise (the trailer doesn't even hint at that), and though it's essential to the plot and perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the story, it was so unexpected it felt like a clip from a different movie had been spliced in (ha ha). The result is an uneven film: not quite horror, not quite science fiction, not really a love story. There's not much action and the plot is fairly minimal as well (it reminded me of a play). The most intriguing aspect are the performances by the actors, which are all excellent, but even there we're cut off from the true impact of the situation, unlike in David Cronenberg's The Fly, which is probably the closest similar film. In that film, we felt the horror in our gut. In this one, it is interesting, but from a distance. We don't know the scientists well enough to care about them that much, we don't understand their motivations in creating the chimera, and we're not sure how we feel about the creature (Is she good? Is she evil? Is she human or animal?). The bottom line is that this is a fantastic premise with intriguing possibilities that aren't exploited, but skirted, and in the end, we're left a little short. That isn't to say this isn't a film worth seeing. It's got a lot going for it: great acting, unusual ideas, fascinating visuals, and a decent (though predictable) ending. Fans of Natali will probably like most of what they see. Hard-core horror fans will likely be the most disappointed as this really isn't a monster flick like the trailer makes it sound: it's much smarter than that, though not as smart as The Fly. Still, I recommend this if you're into the genre or curious about the premise. It is definitely above average; it just didn't quite reach the level I hoped.


Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Prince of Persia

Movie: Prince of Persia

I went into this movie with very low expectations based on my disinterest in the trailers (which were really boring and colorless) and my lack of knowledge about the video game upon which this is based. I had played an ancient version of the game once or twice, but not enough to understand the mythology of the story. The trailers gave me no hint of the story so I went in blind, expecting lame action without a brain. To my surprise, the story was quite good. It's about an orphan boy adopted by the King and raised as a prince. His character's somewhat roguish (it needed more development) but I liked the way the film played with our expectations of brother versus step-brother hatred and delivered something else (still a predictable storyline, but slightly more compelling than the obvious).

Anyway, there are plots and machinations against the King, the orphan prince becomes a fugitive framed for murder, and he escapes with a mysterious princess and a magic dagger that can turn back time. Once you get to the midway point things start to get overly convoluted and silly, and the ending is predictable and boring. But overall the film turned out to be better than I had expected. It's actually got a decent story and okay action. It's not a great movie by any stretch, but it's not that bad. Much better than lame fluff like the Transformers franchise. Quite fun and some of the visuals are very well done. (The desert landscape and ancient Persian scenery is excellent. Why didn't they show that in the trailers?) There are certainly worst ways to waste your time.