Posted by mike in Film,Reviews at 9:29 am on July 31, 2008

Status: In theaters (opened 7/25/08)
Directed By: Chris Carter
Written By: Frank Spotnitz and Chris Carter
Cinematographer: Bill Roe
Starring: David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson, Amanda Peet, Billy Connolly, and “Xzibit

Chris Carter is a man with strong beliefs, particularly with regards to some hot-topic current-day issues, and he’s not afraid to share them with his audience. In this second X-Files movie, he takes the opportunity to present some of these beliefs front and center. For the most part, this film explores some of the issues arising out of these beliefs in a manner that is more mature than, say, the “are you good or evil?” quandaries presented in The Dark Knight, although it does dip below the thoughtfulness line and into browbeating territory on a few occasions.

For example, Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), now a retired FBI agent who has fully dedicated herself to a career in medicine, works at a Catholic hospital. This provides for a very topical conflict between the decision to use experimental stem cell-based treatments on her young dying patient, in a last-ditch effort to save his life, or stepping back and allowing “God’s will” to determine the boy’s fate. This is a timely and interesting conflict, and it’s presented in a manner that feels appropriate. Scully’s method of going about her salvation attempt, though, is a storytelling cop-out of laughable proportions: she Googles “stem cell research,” prints out some of her findings, and proceeds with an operation that apparently consists of injecting stem cells or something into the patient’s brain. You’d think a surgeon would have access to a bit more information that wouldn’t require her having to resort to such informal—not to mention unreliable—ways of learning about new medical research; then again, you’d also think that screenwriters aiming to make a point would do a little more research into the course of action they’re trying to advocate, to at least present it more realistically.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, we’re presented with a much more fully fleshed-out conflict in the character of Father Joe Crissman (Billy Connolly), an excommunicated Catholic priest who is trying to atone for that most stereotypical (and again, timely) of Catholic priest sins: “buggering 37 of his alter boys,” as Scully puts it—herself a woman of faith, resulting in a nice internal struggle with her scientific skepticism, dichotomous to her external struggle with Father Joe, who claims to have a psychic link with an FBI agent who’s recently gone missing. (As an aside, I found the choice of the number 37 for Father Joe’s victim tally to be rather odd and humorous, considering its fame from Clerks; I can’t help but think that this was not totally coincidental.) The disagreements between Scully and Crissman are multifaceted echoes of arguments that we hear currently rippling through our culture: faith and its promise of redemption, the difference between beliefs and evidence, and the challenge of looking at others on a more granular scale than “good” or “evil” (as our current president—who also gets a brief nudge in this film—so often and so childishly tends to do).

The circle is closed by the FBI’s request, through Scully, for Fox Mulder (Duchovny) to return from exile and assist them in interpreting Father Joe’s premonitions. Agent Dakota Whitney (Amanda Peet) is familiar with Mulder’s prior work with the X-Files, and seeks his expertise in locating her missing coworker. Scully is able to deliver the message to Mulder, since they are still very much in touch with each other; initially it seems like she keeps him sequestered in her basement, but we later find out that the two of them are in a romantic relationship of somewhat ambiguous terms. This, too, is handled maturely; there is no dialogue from either one attempting to summarily define the basis of their situation, but rather we see that it is complicated and adult in nature and are left to infer the details from there.

In the midst of all of this moral and relational ambiguity, the actual plot of the movie almost gets lost. Mulder finds himself tracking down evidence that leads to an illegal Russian organ-harvesting ring of a very perverse nature, and there are further complications and twists as the multiple story threads spiral together in a satisfying—if somewhat overly coincidental—fashion. The story told here is tight and somehow manages not to drag, despite all of the extraneous points Carter’s and Frank Spotnitz’s script attempts to make. (There is another one involving the primary antagonist that seems to be saying something in favor of gay marriage, but then makes the questionable—and offensive to gay men—implication that homosexual males in a relationship secretly have a desire for one to be female; saying any more about this would give away more plot details than I’d care to, but it will be apparent to what I’m referring if you see the movie.) It might sound like all of this directorial belief-sharing might get in the way of the movie’s story, but instead it is used effectively to drive the plot while also actualizing the characters with realistic shades of gray.

Things are kept exciting by clever interweaving of simultaneous storylines. We’re often left with two or three cliffhanger-style scenes at once, rapidly cutting between them as each progresses. This has the effect of multiplying the edge-of-your-seat nature already inherent in the subject matter, which never feels too forced. Rather, most of the gruesome scenes are handled with a delicacy that is unexpected in this genre, and speaks well to Carter’s sensibility as a director in general. The most disturbing images in this film are seen from a distance, or in passing, sometimes feeling like mere glances out of the corner of the viewer’s eye. This not only adds to the intrigue of what’s being shown, but also helps to avoid focusing the movie’s attention on it; instead of devolving into a gore-fest as the details of the plot are revealed, the focus remains firmly on the characters involved and what their motivations are for doing what they’re doing.

Two random points of note: Mulder is involved in a foot chase at one point, and as he catches up to his suspect he is profusely sweating. It occurs to me that I cannot recall the last time I saw a character sweat after running in a movie—in fact, this is always something that annoys me in the back of my mind. Nice to see that somebody else pays attention to things like this, too. Also, the end credits sequence is downright off-putting and very out-of-place, and if you stay until the very end it gets just plain cheesy. You’ll see what I mean.

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Posted by mike in Film,Reviews at 12:11 am on July 25, 2008

Status: In theaters (opened 7/18/08)
Directed By: Christopher Nolan
Written By: Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan
Cinematographer: Wally Pfister
Starring: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, and Morgan Freeman

Not altogether unlike Spider-Man 3, Christopher Nolan’s superhero sequel aims to up the ante in terms of villains, storylines, and life-or-death scenarios. While it does get bogged down in some ways, it manages to balance things more capably than Sam Raimi’s effort did. As the film opens we find that the Scarecrow is still on the loose, but he is quickly captured and pushed aside so Batman’s attention can be focused on the Joker, an up-and-coming criminal mastermind portrayed—despite my protestations to the contrary— quite admirably by Heath Ledger. He brings an impressive instinct for where the best balance between the Joker’s insanity and humanity lies, and really does deliver a performance that is simultaneously his own and an homage to those who have portrayed the character before him. I think that the talk of a posthumous Oscar is going a little too far (not to mention an example of sentimentality-skewed judgment), but it’s a very good performance nonetheless.

The story of The Dark Knight is primarily, though, the story of Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), Gotham City’s District Attorney. He and Lieutenant Gordon (Gary Oldman) are the only trustworthy members of the Gotham government and police force, and they set out to combat the Joker’s reign of terror. Dent also happens to be the new boyfriend of Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Bruce Wayne’s old friend and former lover (portrayed by Katie Holmes in the previous film). This makes for a tenuous relationship between him and Wayne, who feels a natural competition with Dent due to their common love interest, but also recognizes his ability to galvanize the city and make a real difference by taking extreme actions to sweep up and incarcerate its criminal element.

On this last point the film prefers to focus its attention, to a fault. It goes beyond portraying an interesting dynamic involving the lone good-natured man in politics in a city that is on the verge of collapsing under its own corrupt weight, and repeats itself a few too many times in an effort to make sure its messages get across. Said messages are made a bit too much of a priority and are a bit too explicitly spelled out, to the point where they feel more preachy than natural.

We’re often reminded of the cliche that movie audiences are dumb, and require everything to not only be presented in an obvious visual manner but spelled out for them audibly in dialogue as well, but it always disappoints me when a director or screenwriter takes this adage too seriously. Crash, as CK so aptly pointed out, was one of the worst such examples, and while The Dark Knight never gets anywhere near that bad, it does dip into “hitting you across the teeth with its message” territory more than once. With a tip of the hat to The Editing Room, a particularly climactic scene goes something like this:


THE JOKER confronts BATMAN to tell him all about his
diabolical scheme.

	I have come up with a very contrived
	situation to prove to you that people
	are, by nature, BAD.  Just so we're clear,
	I'll state it again: I believe people to
	be BAD and SELFISH!

	Personally, I believe that people are
	by nature good.  Their forthcoming
	actions will prove this.

PEOPLE take actions that not only thwart THE JOKER's scheme,
but also prove BATMAN correct while reassuring THE AUDIENCE
of the inherent goodness of humanity.

	In case you forgot, the action just taken
	by those people was designed to
	demonstrate their INHERENT GOODNESS.

	I still think people are bad!  And despite
	the fact that I'm way too good of an actor
	to be delivering dialogue like this, I
	will continue to state this belief for the
	remainder of my screen time in this movie!

Christian Bale apparently believes strongly in the “show them, tell them, then exaggerate it some more” style, as well: he seems to have decided that the wardrobe changes aren’t enough to clue us in to when he’s Batman and when he’s Bruce Wayne, and Christopher Nolan obvious agrees with him. What we get is a lot of overenunciated speech from Wayne—not unlike the condescending tone Bale used frequently and more effectively as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho—juxtaposed with gravelly growling from Batman. In Batman Begins I found this to be a bit much, but here it is much more exaggerated and at times taken to embarrassing levels; as the film progresses, Batman’s growls get more intense, to the point where in the above-parodied scene he has a few lines that are actually difficult to understand.

These issues, fortunately, do not get too much in the way of what is a very unique story among the mainstream superhero tales. The Joker, as characterized in this go-round, is not merely a “bad guy” as we’re used to seeing them; he is a completely insane lunatic who terrorizes a city by capitalizing on the fact that they continually underestimate his complete lack of respect for any system of rules or values. I attribute the fullness of his depicted insanity at least as much to the screenwriting of the Nolans as I do the acting of Ledger. And yet, Ledger takes the Joker and adds insightful little edges to what is essentially a one-dimensional character: he’ll lick his lips or smirk in just such a way and at just the right time to make the Joker’s insanity downright disturbing.

Harvey Dent, on the other hand, is at once a more complete and a more straightforward character. His transformation throughout the film feels natural and real, and I fear that Aaron Eckhart will unfortunately be overlooked for his characterization of Harvey Two-Face in deference to the flashier but less dynamic Joker. Again in contrast to Spider-man 3, which felt like it crammed the story of Venom into a single film that already had another villain in it just to get him out of the way, here Two-Face feels like his tale is completely told and would wear thin were it stretched out any further.

This all leaves Batman as the growling antihero stuck in the middle. This movie is called The Dark Knight because it is the story of how he takes on that role rather than the story of how he functions in it. When the story of the Joker vs. Two-Face is finally resolved—emphasis on the “finally,” because it does take longer than it should need to—Batman is left as the odd man out. (I don’t think I’m giving too much away by saying this, and I don’t feel that it’s much of a spoiler to do so; rather I am simply trying to convey the strange feeling the film leaves the audience with after watching its hero take a back seat to his two costars for two and a half hours.)

The Dark Knight, really, both works and fails in much the same ways as its predecessor, Batman Begins. The pace is uneven and the choices of which storylines to focus on versus which to gloss over feel awkward; at the same time, even with the audience finding itself wishing the plot would delve deeper than it does at times, the film seems to drag as well. This movie, more than the first one, shifts the focus away from down-and-dirty fight scenes—although there are plenty of those here, too—and more towards the old-school type of stereotypical bad guy behavior that Hollywood seems to have gotten away from in recent years: one villain holds himself to a self-imposed ruleset (an extremely simplified version of Anton Chigurh, in a way), while the other switches back and forth between blindly insane murder of his peers and overly-complicated possible-death scenarios to which he subjects the innocent citizens of Gotham. Batman continually indulges him in the tradition of classic easily-set-up heroes, and we are happy to go along for the ride, not easily forgetting that we’re being toyed with and manipulated as much as he is.

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Posted by mike in Entertainment,Film,News at 9:25 pm on July 21, 2008

Some sad news quietly came out today without much press coverage of it, but I think it warrants recognition: Both Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper, of “At the Movies with Ebert & Roeper,” have opted to part ways with Disney and the show that’s borne their names since 2000 (and bore the names of Gene Siskel and Ebert for well over 20 years prior to that). It’s been a sad time for this show the past couple of years as it was, with Roger’s health not allowing him to appear. Still, Roeper has done a decent job of carrying the torch in his absence, and the guest reviewers have been generally enjoyable.

Things had been going downhill for a while, including Disney’s abrupt ending of the use of the trademarked “Thumbs™” and resultant blame game played between them and Ebert. Hopefully there’s a Disney-less future for this format. The good news is that the huge archive of episodes and individual reviews remains online, and should remain available in the future, barring any further fallings out.

On a positive Ebert-related note, an Ebertfest documentary recently premiered on the Big Ten Network. It’s well worth checking out—hopefully it’ll be replayed (keep an eye out for “Illinois Campus Programming” on the schedule).

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Posted by mike in Film at 11:28 pm on July 17, 2008

Here’s an idea: let’s find a young, up-and-coming director with some indie cred (say, Martin McDonagh). Let’s get him to “re-imagine” a story of a mental institution, providing a touching and humanizing view of the inmates while critiquing the system that dehumanizes them. We’ll get a hot young star to personify the free-spirited inmate who inspires the others to dream of their own freedom before martyring himself to the cause. We’ll call him McMurphy, and I think that Justin Timberlake would be perfect for the role. We’ll get someone like Susan Sarandon to costar as the cold-hearted nurse who embodies the oppressive nature of the mental institution and combats the inmates’ attempts to find happiness at every turn. We’ll call it The Nest, and market it as a darkly modern coming-of-age story. It’ll be a sure-fire critical and box office success.

The Nest poster

Or, here’s another one: this time we’ll use a well-established, well-respected foreign director (Ang Lee sounds just perfect). We’ll have him craft a classic Hollywood private eye tale set in modern-day Los Angeles. The dynamic leading man—Jake Gyllenhaal—will find himself wrapped up in a scandal involving the city’s public works, matrimonial betrayal, money laundering, and a shocking revelation about the woman who hired him—Charlize Theron as Evelyn Mulwray—and her daughter (the up-and-coming Amanda Seyfried).

Or maybe we should choose another iconic role from Jack Nicholson‘s career and recast it with a different young hotshot actor, refactoring the character in a darker and more exaggerated vein than how Nicholson portrayed him. Maybe we’ll find a smackhead to play the part, and—ooh, get this—if he could manage to OD before the movie is even completed, everybody on the planet will dub it the greatest performance, like, ever before the movie is even released. That might be the best idea of all!

Even realizing that being someone who thought Batman Begins was a so-so film puts me in a minuscule minority, the fanfare with which its sequel The Dark Knight has been anticipated is hard for me to comprehend. I realize that we now live in a world where moviegoers are not supposed to have a memory of more than a couple of years, and anything made outside of the current decade is regarded as legitimate fodder to be remade, re-imagined, revisited, or sequelized, but to me there’s just gotta be a point where a line is drawn. Thinking about Heath Ledger reinterpreting the Joker only 19 years after Nicholson so thoroughly and definitively embodied that character reminds me of the time I got kicked out of a bar in Champaign for verbally assaulting a DJ who was scratching Beatles songs; there are some things that you just should not mess with. And yet, that’s where we’re at: nothing is sacred, nothing is untouchable. The majority of our current culture’s artistic talent (just look at that cast—not to mention the considerable ability that is the Nolan brothers) is being focused on movies that are unoriginal ideas more often than not.

That’s not to say that there’s not value in a movie like this, and even I will readily admit that The Dark Knight looks like it’s going to be damn good and I’m excited to see it. I’m just skeptical of the extent of the praise it is receiving already, and particularly of the praise for Ledger’s performance (especially considering that most of those praising it have only seen a few minutes in a trailer). Sentimentality seems to have a lot to do with this; were Ledger still alive, I can’t help thinking, the situation would be quite different. And at the same time, I find myself admitting that my own skepticism is almost surely in part a backlash to what I perceive as premature praise. The movie is finally coming out this weekend, at least—as I write this, people on the east coast are just getting out of the first midnight showings, and people here on the west coast are eagerly waiting in line to see it as soon as possible—so we’ll all know for sure soon enough. I just can’t shake the feeling, though, that I’m the only one who hasn’t already decided on my opinion of it.

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Posted by mike in Film,Reviews at 12:40 am on July 16, 2008

Status: In theaters (opened 6/27/08)
Directed By: Andrew Stanton
Written By: Andrew Stanton and Pete Docter
Starring: Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight, Jeff Garlin, and Fred Willard

WALL-E isn’t the first time we’ve seen a deserted Earth in a film, but it might be the best such depiction, as well as possibly the most unique (and realistic) reason for said desertion. In the not-so-distant future, our consumerism produces so much garbage that it takes over the planet, forcing drastic cleanup measures to be taken. Such measures include the entirety of the Earth’s population boarding massive ships, the largest of which is called the Axiom, upon which they will live for 5 years’ time while Waste Allocation Load Lifters (Earth class), or WALL-Es, compact and stack all of the trash that is covering the planet’s surface. Of course no plan of this sort is ever allowed to go off without a hitch, and as the film opens we find that there is only a single functioning WALL-E left, still dutifully going about its day-to-day task of compacting trash, one cubic foot at a time.

The first half hour or so of WALL-E is, without a doubt, the most impressive computer animation seen to date. The abandoned planet’s vistas are beautiful and haunting at the same time, and the charm with which the little robot goes about its business is more touching than I’d ever imagined an animated character could be. He even seems to develop a personality of his own (as movie robots always seem to do), and collects odd knick-knacks for himself that he finds amongst the trash. This, again, is handled with such a charm and a gracefully delicate characterization that the audience doesn’t question why, in developing a trash-compacting machine, WALL-E’s creators would program him with the ability to form attachments and be sentimental in the first place (unless said audience contains me, I suppose). WALL-E develops such emotion, in fact, that he comes to desire—by watching a VHS tape that he has somehow rigged up through an iPod—to experience love as he sees it portrayed in Hello, Dolly!

The attentive reader will at this point note that even this humble reviewer, who tends to be more jaded than the average bear, has quickly made the transition from referring to the last WALL-E robot on earth as a machine to referring to it using human pronouns. Such is the effectiveness with which Pixar portrays a protagonist, as we’ve seen in all of their previous works. Even the most heartless of audience members cannot help but feel for poor little WALL-E, so lonely by himself on that great big abandoned planet, and all he wants is for someone to love.

Luckily just such a “someone” comes soon enough, in the form of an Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator (EVE), sent back from the Axiom to search for the existence of plant life, um… terrestrially (but hey, even I’ll give them that “EVE” is a much better name for a robotic love interest than “TVE”… it’d still be nice if it weren’t so obviously contrived, though). In another fit of unexplainable programming, EVE is designed to immediately blow away anything she detects moving with her massively powerful laser cannon. It seems to me that something sent to search for proof of life would want to preserve any life it finds, but maybe that’s the 21st-century programmer in me talking—I’d probably never make it in the future, at least not as a robotic AI programmer. This design decision makes for a rocky introduction between WALL-E and EVE, but nonetheless results in love at first sight for the little garbage crusher.

WALL-E manages to follow EVE back to the Axiom, and we are presented with the stark contrast of worlds that this film hinges itself upon. Whereas Earth is dark, gloomy, and photorealistically rendered, the Axiom is bright, smooth, and cartoonish. WALL-E, a product of Earth, is dull and dirty and appears sort of cobbled together; Eve, sent from the Axiom, is pure white and smooth (both in her surface and voice), the product of an incredible design (her arms and head, for instance, are not actually connected to her body; instead they simply float in place, just as her body itself floats about the ground). Perhaps the greatest contrast of all, though, is in how the human characters are portrayed: on Earth, the CEO of the Buy-N-Large corporation that we are led to believe is responsible for the massive consumerism and pollution that drives the humans from the planet in the first place is played by Fred Willard, in the flesh. In contrast, the captain of the Axiom is a rotund computer-generated cartoon, comically voiced by Jeff Garlin. Stylistically, this is an effective device. In practice I tend to think that it is taken a bit too far, even considering such measures as a brief explanation (by Willard’s character) of the humans’ changing appearance over the years. There is a really nice dichotomy, nonetheless, between seeing EVE’s sleak form on the jagged Earth compared to WALL-E leaving a trail of dirt everywhere he rolls on the pristine Axiom.

What really disappointed me, though, about this technique is the change in tone that goes along with the change in setting and corresponding change in style. The movie starts out fairly dark and bleak, portraying a robot stuck in its routine well beyond the point of futility, not unlike what should’ve been the actual ending of A.I. (where David gets stuck in an endless loop, praying to the Blue Fairy to make him into a real boy). There is then an abridged transition of sorts, where WALL-E’s humanesque qualities lighten the mood via standard feature animation devices, such as his cockroach sidekick and his general penchant for cuteness. Once aboard the Axiom, the mood becomes much more silly, and we suddenly find ourselves in the storyline of every other Pixar film, wherein the primary gang of lovable characters (oh yeah, WALL-E and EVE happen to find themselves a gang of lovable robots) ends up being chased by a big scary faceless baddy, and hijinx ensue along the way. This is all done with Pixar’s usual high aptitude, and the movie ends on a nice feel-good note, but it all feels a bit generic after the originality and ability with which the film’s first act is handled.

Beyond being one of the most beautifully-rendered computer generated films ever seen, and one of the most interesting and fully-realized visions of a deserted planet ever seen, WALL-E might also be the most homage-paying movie ever seen, too—and the science fiction genre is fond of homages. The Axiom’s autopilot is characterized by a large, round red eye, in an obvious reference to HAL 9000 from 2001, for instance. I also found the people of Axiom, who live their lives floating around in easy chairs, to be quite reminiscent of the Golgafrinchans from Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide books (particularly their captain, who spends the entirety of their 3-year voyage in a bathtub). And WALL-E himself seems like the product of an unholy coupling of Johnny Five from Short Circuit with R2-D2 from Star Wars. In fact, I felt that all of this was taken a bit too far, and instead of being an original movie filled with clever little homages to the greats of the genre, it started to feel like a derivative mish-mash; the fact that as the film progresses the plot gets more generic doesn’t help in this regard, either.

WALL-E is a pretty good movie, probably Pixar’s best to date. It’s not quite the groundbreaking achievement it feels like it could’ve been, though. On the other hand, it could very easily be seen as a groundbreaking achievement in animation technology. I do feel that no discussion of this movie can be complete without giving special mention to Ben Burtt, the venerable sound designer who’s been in the business a long time and has produced some of the most iconic sounds in movies over the past 30-plus years, from back when he first mixed the sound of a lion roaring with other animal noises to teach audiences what a Wookiee sounds like, to providing the voice for WALL-E himself. Hats off to him, and hats off to the rest of those involved with this movie for the exceedingly high production value it exhibits. If only they went a bit deeper with the story, and perhaps toned down the references and overly-stylized contrast of settings just a bit, they might’ve truly had a magnificent film on their hands.

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Posted by mike in Sports at 10:06 pm on July 14, 2008

In case you don’t keep up with football in general or the story of Brett Favre specifically, let me bring you up to speed on the past few years in his career

  • After a terrible 2005 season (his 15th), in which he threw 20 touchdowns and 29 interceptions and ranked 31st in the NFL among QBs, speculation ran high that Favre would retire, having just spent the past year demonstrating that he no longer “had it.” The media (and by “media,” I mean “SportsCenter”) focused on the question of whether or not Favre would retire incessantly, until he ended the “suspense” (and by “suspense” I mean “annoyingly repetitive coverage of something that is a binary event and does not require updates unless its status changes”) by announcing in late April of 2006 that he would return the following year.
  • After the last game of the mediocre 2006 season, in which his Packers defeated the rival Bears on New Year’s Eve in Chicago, Favre cried like a little girl on national television while reflecting on the career he’d had. Most people took this as a sign that he was intending to retire.
  • During the offseason, having not yet officially announced his retirement, Favre criticized his team for failing to sign Randy Moss, who instead went to the New England Patriots and proceeded to set a single-season record for touchdown receptions in 2007. Most had assumed that Favre would be willing to come back to play for another season if his team got him a marquee receiver to throw to; since they didn’t do that, the assumption followed that he would finally retire rather than return again and have another mediocre season.
  • Not one to give up easily, Favre returned to the packers for a 17th season. He proceeded to set NFL records for most career wins as a starting QB, most career TD passes, most career passing yards, most career pass completions and attempts, most career games with 3+ TD passes, and most career interceptions.
  • He proceeded to lead the Packers to a resurgent 13-3 season, making it to the NFC Championship Game, which they hosted in Green Bay. This game ended with Favre throwing an interception in overtime on a retardedly risky pass attempt, thus ending his team’s season. The media tend to regard such passes as “youthful exuberance and love of the game,” whereas people who respect smart decision-making from their quarterback regard them as “idiocy.” (This can also be regarded as exhibit #43,082 in the case of Me vs. The Sports Media, in which I prove how embarrassingly biased they are in their portrayals of players; see, for instance, the contrast between “Good Rex and Bad Rex” or “Youthful Brett and His Love For the Game”—both are ways to spin what could more accurately be described as “occasionally interception-prone” or “decision challenged”).
  • Finally, in March of 2008, Favre announced his retirement, crying about it yet again. Emotional, unrealistic Packers fans who didn’t realize how much he was holding their franchise back were sad, while the sports media (again, SportsCenter) took it as an excuse to create 17 different montages that they could replay constantly as filler during that boring period of the year after March Madness ends and during the first month of the baseball season. Sane people saw it as a good way to go out, ending a legendary career with a good season. I liked to focus on the fact that his career ended—fittingly—with an interception, but I realize that I’m in the minority.

You’d think that might be the end of the tale, but you’d be wrong. Poor Brett just can’t go an entire off-season without inviting some cameras into his Mississippi home for one of those somber interviews that SportsCenter loves to do, featuring that one Green Day ballad in the background and voice-overs that overstate Favre’s importance to the point where you almost find yourself believing that chucking a football around a field really is enough to dub a man “great” (but, hopefully, you catch yourself).

So now we have reports that Brett finds himself feeling “the itch,” and having the desire to unretire and play football yet again. The only problem is, the Packers have moved on. After grooming Aaron Rodgers to be the next starter for the past 3 seasons, now that Brett has retired they are ready to move ahead and hand over the reins. Favre’s idea, in response, is to request that the Packers release him so that he can play for some other team with less of an interest in building for their future and more of an interest in stroking his ego and capitalizing on selling #4 jerseys for a season so that they can get the publicity of hosting his next retirement press conference, where he will undoubtedly cry yet again.

Adding even more excuse for additional coverage of this circus, the Packers are refusing to release Favre, for fear that he’ll sign with a division rival (the Bears and Vikings have both been suggested as likely candidates) only to exact revenge on his former team on the field in 2008, resulting in more bad press for them. So what will be the outcome? Personally I’m rooting, as I’ve rooted during every off-season for the past decade and a half, for Favre’s ACL to spontaneously explode and make all of this a moot point. He’s slated to be on the cover of Madden 2009, after all, and people always need more reason to believe in “curses.”

Or maybe old Brett will just give up and go away, and spare us all from having to see him cry anymore, and end the ridiculous amount of empty, pointless coverage that his ego requires. Maybe. But don’t count on it.

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Posted by mike in News,Sports at 10:37 pm on July 13, 2008

I generally make it a point to see at least one or two Cubs games every year in person (it’s hard to afford any more than that). Last year I was even fortunate enough to attend the sole playoff game at Wrigley Field. With our recent move, I’ve found myself needing to get creative in order to follow my favorite teams. DirecTV with the MLB Extra Innings package helps, although due to MLB’s stupid blackout rules it can be frustrating at times. For live game experiences, though, one of the first things I checked when we decided to move was the Cubs’ schedule, to see when they would be traveling to San Francisco to play the Giants. They had a 4-game series at the start of this month, and Megan and I were able to attend the middle two of those games.

We had a thoroughly enjoyable time visiting AT&T Park, the Giants’ home since 2000. For the first game we went to (game 2 of the series), we drove to the ballpark and paid $30 to park. While exorbitant, the price was almost worth it for the walk around McCovey Cove from the parking lot to the ballpark.

McCovey Cove Cove-side entrance

The second night, we wizened up (and I left work earlier), and we took the BART downtown, the round-trip price for both of us adding up to less than half of what we’d paid to park the night before.

Thanks to the Giants having a poor season, we found great seats for both nights on StubHub for less than face value, and got to see a game from either side of the park.

July 1st view July 2nd view

The second game we went to (game 3 of the series) was a military servicemen appreciation night, and both teams wore special American flag-inspired hats, which they would continue wearing for the next several games, joined by the rest of MLB the following day and throughout the Fourth of July weekend. As part of this event (and general Fourth of July festivities), a fireworks show was scheduled for after the game. In another of those “welcome to the Bay Area” moments that we’ve been experiencing a lot since the move, there was unfortunately too much fog over the bay that night to really enjoy the show. They went ahead with it anyway, though, and we stayed along with a decent percentage of the crowd (many of them staying despite the fact that the home team had lost the game) to see as much of the show as was visible.

Foggy fireworks More foggy fireworks

Like most baseball fans, I always enjoy having the opportunity to visit different ballparks, and it’s made all the more fun when I can see my favorite team playing there. It’s also made more convenient–which also contributes to the enjoyment of the experience–when the park is only a 10-minute drive (or 20-minute train ride) from where I live. I’ll surely make the Cubs-Giants series an annual event while living in the area. I’m planning on taking a visit to the other side of the bay next month, too, to see that “other team” from back home when they come to McAfee Coliseum to play the A’s.

On the way home from the fireworks display, we realized we’d forgotten to take the obligatory “here we are at the game” pictures, so we took a picture of ourselves riding the BART instead.

Mike and Megan on the BART

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Posted by mike in Film,Reviews at 10:49 pm on July 7, 2008

Status: In theaters (opened 6/27/08)
Directed By: Timur Bekmambetov
Written By: Michael Brandt & Derek Haas and Chris Morgan
Cinematographer: Mitchell Amundsen
Starring: James McAvoy, Angelina Jolie, and Morgan Freeman

Had I known prior to seeing Wanted that it was based on a comic book miniseries, I might’ve entered the theater with somewhat different expectations. Then again, the previews pretty much told me all I needed to know: this is not a movie to be taken seriously. In this world, cars can be flipped on a whim, bullets can be curved in mid-air by whipping one’s arm around (in a pretty stupid-looking manner) while shooting a gun, and it’s not enough to just kill somebody by simply raising a gun and pulling the trigger; no, better to stand on top of an L train and curve a bullet around the corner of a building so that it bursts through the glass window and passes over a boardroom meeting before striking its target, who happens to be sitting exactly where you inexplicably knew he’d be.

Still, though, I wasn’t expecting it to be this ridiculous. Sure, there are plenty of cool stunts, most of them involving Angelina Jolie (whose character might as well just be called “Obligatory Hot Chick”; her actual name–Fox–isn’t far from that) making cars do things that is in no way remotely possible outside of a Fast and the Furious movie. These feats are stomachable insofar as you should expect nothing less from this type of movie. I’m even willing to sit back and enjoy without questioning things like one car using another as a ramp (while both are speeding towards each other in an oddly controlled manner) so that it can flip over a third car, giving the driver an open shot through the sunroof. Things start stretching thin, though, when we get to the bullet control. Wesley (James McAvoy), the film’s supposedly nerdy yet oddly buff protagonist, we learn, is able to shoot the wings off of flies, and to make bullets fly in circuitous routes on their way towards their targets. This is all shown, of course, with that now-stereotypical ultra-slow motion that somehow manages to actually make it less cool (at least, to me it does).

From there it just gets stupid. Rather than subject us to anything resembling a vaguely believable training sequence (or perhaps even a cliched montage), we see that Wesley learns by getting the shit beaten out of him for no apparent reason by the other members of the uncreatively-named Fraternity. It’s okay, though, because he can just take a nap in a strange milky bath, and his wounds will heal right up in no time. (This ritual does, admittedly, serve one noble purpose: providing an excuse to show Jolie’s ass as she emerges from said bath; then again, if I wanted to see her naked in a bad movie, I’d just watch Gia again.) Then we learn that this Fraternity decides who to kill not by any of the standard movie-about-assassins ways, but rather by reading the threads of a magical loom that has been weaving on its own for a thousand years. I realize that this might be considered a spoiler, but I cannot conceive of anybody caring when this plot point is revealed. Even those who seemed to really be into the mindset of this film in the packed theater in which I saw it scoffed at this revelation. It’s not even cool in that stupid action movie way, it’s just dumb. The fact that the preceding few sentences give about as much explanation as the movie (via Morgan Freeman’s character) does of this phenomenon hopefully demonstrates how absurd and uninteresting this story is.

In my opinion, there is a way to do a mindless stunt-and-effects movie like this without making it so obvious that the writers are struggling mightily to concoct some sort of loose and poorly thought out plot around the action sequences. Shoot ‘Em Up, for instance, was a movie that didn’t bother with attempting to justify its existence, preferring instead to just be a vehicle to demonstrate some cool shoot-out scenes. I’ve got more respect for that–a movie that knows what it is and doesn’t try to kid itself or its audience–than I do for something like Wanted, which attempts to wrap its already-ridiculous world in an even more ridiculous mythos.

All of that said, the action sequences in Wanted are quite well done, if you can shut off your brain and allow yourself to get into it. All of the now-typical gimmicks are here: shots that are constantly speeding up and slowing down, 360-degree pans, absurd attention to detail when it comes to blood or teeth or bullets flying out of a person’s body. But maybe it all works, after all: when I saw this movie, I seemed to be the only one who found the climactic scenes–with the movie holding out its best and most absurd fight moves for last–to be hilarious. And if it’s not apparent, I’m actually not giving everything away: it gets even more ridiculous than what I’ve described here.

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Posted by mike in Film,Reviews at 6:37 pm on July 6, 2008

Status: In theaters (opened 7/2/08)
Directed By: Peter Berg
Written By: Vincent Ngo & Vince Gilligan
Cinematographer: Tobias A. Schliessler
Starring: Will Smith, Charlize Theron, and Jason Bateman

Amidst all of the comic book-inspired summer blockbusters comes a breath of fresh air in Hancock, a movie that somehow manages to tread the fine ground between superhero megaproduction and heartfelt character study. That it is an original story not based on an existing comics franchise probably helps a bit, as does the fact that its lead character–ostensibly, the superhero–is entirely unliked for the entire first act and most of the second. Will Smith is good, as always, almost to a fault: even when Hancock is being a complete asshole, it’s hard not to like him. Of course this is necessary to the film’s success; if the audience wasn’t able to instantly get behind Smith’s character from the get-go, his transformation throughout the film would be ineffectual.

Along with the near-guarantee of Will Smith as its primary factor for success, Hancock reveals a secret ingredient that we can only hope other movies will take notice of and make more use of in the future: Jason Bateman. His performance is great, again, and provides the perfect balance needed to temper Smith’s likable asshole while counterpointing him in the comic relief department as well. Bateman’s Ray Embrey is the PR man who takes it upon himself to rework Hancock’s public image, and of course the two become friends along the way.

There is a third aspect of the character relations triangle involved in this movie that I felt the marketing campaign (at least, the previews and marketing that I was exposed to) did an excellent job of avoiding, to the film’s benefit. I don’t want to spoil it for anybody, but needless to say Charlize Theron is present in this movie as more than just arm candy for Bateman’s character. The twist that comes feels natural enough, in the sense that I don’t think it’s the kind of shift in story that will put off most audiences (although it will probably invite some Highlander jokes and comparisons).

The execution of this film’s production is top-notch. There is a climactic battle that is done primarily with computer graphics, and it can serve as an example of “the right way to do it” to other films that overuse such technology to their detriment (I’m looking at you, Louis Leterrier). Here the fight scene is brief and always character-focused. If anything, it almost feels like director Peter Berg wants to get the big action sequence over with so that he can get on with the character development he’d been working on prior to the fight breaking out. I don’t want to belabor the point any more than I already have, but suffice it to say that I feel this is an infinitely better way to make a movie, and it is effective here.

In further contrast to most other superhero movies, Hancock seems to be a complete, self-contained story. As its primary draw is in the telling of the story of how an indifferent alcoholic with super powers becomes a responsible and reliable superhero, I’d like to think that there isn’t much left to be told once said transformation has been fully explored, but a successful holiday weekend at the box office might dictate otherwise. Regardless, this is a movie that hits on all of the big superhero points while bringing something unique to the table, and it accomplishes what it sets out to do admirably and enjoyably.

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