Posted by mike in Film,Reviews at 10:56 pm on May 31, 2009

Status: In theaters (opened 5/29/09)
Directed By: Sam Raimi
Written By: Sam Raimi & Ivan Raimi
Cinematographer: Peter Deming
Starring: Alison Lohman, Justin Long, Lorna Raver, Dileep Rao

Before he came to preside over a billion-dollar franchise, Sam Raimi cut his teeth making ultra-low-budget horror movies, gaining a huge cult following for the trilogy that defined his early career (The Evil Dead, Evil Dead II, and Army of Darkness). Now taking a respite from the Spider-Man trilogy that has defined his career as of late, he’s returned to his roots to revisit his classic style of scary-yet-funny horror with Drag Me to Hell.

Raimi learned early on—working with a virtually nonexistent budget—how to create suspense and repeatedly startle his audience without ever showing them an actual embodiment of the evil forces that torment his protagonists, and he’s returned to that style here, mixing his low-budget techniques with significantly higher production quality, with just as satisfying results. Here we have Christine Brown (Alison Lohman), a lovely and innocent farm girl who’s trying to make it in the big city. When she attempts to impress her boss at the bank where she works (David Paymer) by denying a creepy old woman (Lorna Raver) an extension on her mortgage, Christine becomes the subject of a curse that involves three days of torment before reaching a fiery conclusion, giving her a hard deadline on finding a way out of it. The demon that plagues Christine does so from the shadows, blowing through the leaves and tossing her around without ever showing its face (or whatever it is demons have in lieu of a face). Raimi finds several creative ways to keep this suspenseful and frightening, many of which are nostalgically reminiscent of the Evil Dead films; a lot of the early techniques described in Bruce Campbell‘s hilariously telling autobiography If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor are revisited here in slightly more sophisticated form (e.g., the “shaky cam”).

Christine and her all-too-perfect boyfriend (Justin Long) patronize a seer (Dileep Rao), who of course just happens to be familiar with her particular type of curse and by coincidence has books on his shelf that describe how it works, giving him a good opportunity to explain it to her and the audience at the same time. It’s always important for a horror movie to make sure its audience is aware of the rules under which it will operate, and this is an effective and concise manner of doing so. Rao plays the role of the seer almost tongue-in-cheek, all but winking at the camera as he suggests various solutions to Christine’s dilemma. This is an extension of the tone of the film as a whole, which never takes itself too seriously, always quick to temper the heart palpitations it’s inspiring with a moment or two of levity.

Poor Christine is subjected to all manner of terror and humiliation, and Lohman is always in possession of our sympathies. Her pretty face is hit, clawed, vomited upon, drenched in all manner of bodily fluids, sprays blood of its own, is covered by bugs, and gets vomited upon some more. Sometimes the effects of these assaults seem real, and she ends up with her clothing and hair stained or cuts and scratches on her face. Other times they seem to be hallucinations the demon is capable of inflicting upon her, disappearing as quickly as they appeared, with everyone around her (particularly the mostly-oblivious boyfriend) unaware of what she’s just experienced.

The seer also just so happens to have a colleague (Adriana Barraza) who has experience with the particular demon in question, providing more opportunity to explain how things work before showing us in dramatic fashion. There’s a great, pivotal seance scene that goes through all of the film’s modes of excitement, from startle-scary to funny-scary to scary-scary (and then back to funny-scary again).

Drag Me to Hell isn’t a movie for every occasion or mood, but it’s one that fits a certain occasion and mood as well as any of this type of movie I’ve seen. This particular blend of horror and comedy just may have been invented by the Raimis—writer-director Sam and his brother and co-writer Ivan—in the first place, and they’ve clearly perfected it. The biggest disappointment might just be that Bruce Campbell isn’t in it.

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Posted by mike in Film,Reviews at 6:12 pm on May 30, 2009

Status: In theaters (opened 5/21/09)
Directed By: McG
Written By: John D. Brancato & Michael Ferris
Cinematographer: Shane Hurlbut
Starring: Christian Bale, Sam Worthington, Moon Bloodgood, Anton Yelchin

Terminator 2: Judgment Day was one of the great defining films of the 1990s. (I feel like I could write a book about the films of the 90s… and in fact, I intend to do so some day.) Not only was it an enthralling, thoroughly unique story, masterfully directed by James Cameron, with a strong, intricate screenplay that featured one of the great female leading roles there’s ever been (Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor), but it also was a landmark in the development of computer-generated special effects and one of the films that served to both mark the arrival of and legitimize the era of CGI. It showcased career-defining roles for Arnold Schwarzenegger and Robert Patrick, while telling a compelling, timely and foreboding story.

Terminator Salvation is none of these things. It’s an unneeded and unnecessary addition to a franchise that has now gone twice as long as it ever should have. Salvation‘s primary goal seems to be to capitalize on the cachet it inherits from Terminator 2, and not much else. There are shoehorned-in callbacks to the defining film of the series sprinkled throughout, from forced dialogue (“I’ll be back”) to music cues (the Guns N’ Roses song “You Could Be Mine” and a timely revisiting of the primary T2 theme by the great Danny Elfman). There’s also a climax that features a computer-rendered likeness of Arnold, a culminating battle in a factory, and a tacked-on concluding voiceover that reiterates T2‘s theme that “there is no fate but what we make.”

Screenwriters John Brancato and Michael Ferris (who also wrote the uneven Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines) should listen to this advice. There’s only so much mileage that a sequel can get out of revisiting themes and beats from its predecessor before it actually has to pony up and do something unique on its own, and Terminator Salvation goes well beyond that point. There are no surprises here, no revelations, no insights into the well-known story of the previous movies. Put another way, if I wanted to see all of the cool things from Terminator 2, I’d just watch Terminator 2, where they were done better the first time. This new film’s fate should be in its own hands, but it chooses instead to defer to the movie it wishes it was and bring not much of its own to the table. (This article, which is a really insightful look into the development and production of Terminator Salvation, reveals that I’m probably being a bit unfair by laying the blame on the screenwriters here. In truth, at least with Terminator 3 they did put a new spin on the lore of the series, and it seems that was their intention here as well, but the director and star would have it otherwise.)

The real stars of this movie are Sam Worthington and Anton Yelchin, though its marketing would have you believe otherwise. Christian Bale, as John Connor, doesn’t have much to do but yell and grunt and generally overact in his typical style. Worthington plays Marcus Wright, a human/robot cyborg with an overly symbolic human heart, who initially doesn’t know that he’s a machine. (I would normally consider revealing this information to be a major spoiler, but the film’s trailers were happy to ruin the surprise of this plot point already.) Marcus teams up with Kyle Reese (Yelchin), who we know from the first film (played there by Michael Biehn) as the father of John Connor. Here he’s a 17-year-old boy with a mute sidekick (Jadagrace), who only hopes to become a member of the Resistance some day. There’s also Blair Williams (Moon Bloodgood), who is a member of the Resistance army that’s fighting against the all-present machines, led by Michael Ironside.

This all takes place in the post-apocalyptic future that we’d seen hinted at several times in the previous films. Everything is gray and black and bleak—the world here resembles what I imagined while reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. In fact, Terminator Salvation‘s production designers build sets like I design websites: pick a single bland color and run with it.

When it is revealed to Marcus that he’s really a machine, he decides to just go on as if he were a human, for reasons that aren’t made clear and don’t make much sense to begin with. Blair, because she’s a woman and thus dumb, falls for him anyway—I suppose you have to forcibly inject a potential love story into every movie for it to be considered commercially viable during these contentious summer months. Or maybe it’s just because they needed an excuse to have everybody chasing and/or running from someone or something, because that’s what the majority of the movie consists of. There isn’t really an antagonist to speak of, save for the nameless, faceless machines that frankly just aren’t that scary when they come by the dozens and have already destroyed much of the world anyway.

It is hard to deny, though, the fanciful sets and impressive special effects on display, and there is a decent amount of excitement that’s derived from the various chases and battles and explosions—they had a big budget for this production, and they used it. There’s a significant movie-going population that just wants to see shit get blown up, and they’ll be satisfied by this movie. (They’re also presumably the same group of people who are willing to take a guy who calls himself “McG” seriously.) If you’re capable of shutting off your brain and just enjoying a ride (perhaps even literally), Terminator Salvation could be kind of fun. If you want a story that makes sense and is somewhat compelling, though, not so much.

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Posted by mike in Film,Reviews at 5:27 pm on May 24, 2009

Status: In limited release (opens wide 5/29/09)
Directed By: Rian Johnson
Written By: Rian Johnson
Cinematographer: Steve Yedlin
Starring: Rachel Weisz, Adrien Brody, Mark Ruffalo, Rinko Kikuchi

In one sense, writer/director Rian Johnson’s sophomore effort The Brothers Bloom is a refreshing change of pace from recent con films like the Ocean’s series. It has its share of twists and surprises, but its focus is on its characters and their developing relationships, and this makes for a more engaging experience. In another sense, though, this doesn’t entirely work. For two-thirds of the movie it’s a con flick, with all of the betrayals and one-upsmanship that an audience would come to expect from the genre, but then its third act is devoted to a love story that, while emotionally satisfying, almost comes as a let-down because it doesn’t involve any big reveals or final grand twists. This is, again, refreshing in a way, but the change of pace is a little too awkward to totally sustain the interest level.

Taking a cue from Magnolia, the film opens with an introductory narration by Ricky Jay, who in addition to being an accomplished magician and master of sleight of hand also possesses one of the most enjoyably intriguing and soothing voices there is. He takes us through the childhood of the titular brothers, Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) and Bloom (Adrien Brody), where we see them learn the art of the con at a very young age, with the elder brother (Stephen) discovering his talent for writing stories that manipulate people’s behavior and play them into his schemes. This is fun, light-hearted, funny, and a fitting introduction to what will be a “joy ride”-type of movie.

When we catch up to the brothers as adults, we see that they are well-established as some of the best con men in the world. We also learn that Bloom has become disillusioned with their chosen life, in particular his frequent role as the love interest in Stephen’s scams. He longs to wake up next to somebody and know that they are there for him, not the character he’s playing in a con; he yearns to live “an unwritten life.” Brody and Ruffalo, while looking very physically dissimilar, are thoroughly convincing as brothers, and watching them play off of each other is one of this movie’s highlights. The other, of course, is the always-great Rachel Weisz, who plays Penelope Stamp, the rich heiress who will be the mark in what the brothers agree will be their final con.

The role of Penelope is a tricky one, but it allows ample room to exhibit Weisz’s considerable talents. She’s a shut-in with many eccentricities, and her character oscillates between naiveté and savviness: at times we think she’s just along for the ride, hoping to inject some adventure into her life without really knowing what she’s getting herself into, but at others we’re convinced she just might be the one doing the conning. Weisz keeps us guessing throughout the film, injecting her character with her typical overt charm, yes, but also with an underlying cleverness, too. Her performance alone is worth the price of admission.

These three are joined by a pyrotechnic expert, Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi), a mostly silent character who provides comic relief; she’s Johnson’s version of a Harpo Marx character, and her presence provides a lot of nice little touches peppered throughout the film.

Rian Johnson is, in fact, an expert at sprinkling clues and foreshadowing throughout his script in a very naturalistic manner. When one character comments at the start of the film that the problem with fake blood is that it doesn’t turn brown after a time, for example, we instantly know there will come a point later in the film where discolored blood stains will inform us of a major event. Setting up developments in this manner and then paying them off is very satisfying for an audience, and it’s pleasantly indicative of maturity on the part of the writer. Unfortunately there are other examples to the contrary, the one that I personally found most annoying being a character called Diamond Dog (Maximilian Schell), who is a rival of sorts of the brothers, but their history is never explained to us, or even hinted at. Diamond Dog simply shows up out of nowhere, and we see that Stephen hates him and Bloom fears him, but it’s left at that. He exists as a purely gimmick of a character, without any story or motivation of his own, and worse, without his relation to the protagonists ever being developed. I was fortunate enough to see this film at a screening where Johnson was present to do a Q&A afterwards, and during it he explained that even he didn’t know this character’s backstory; he conceived of him in terms of only what we’re shown on screen. This is one of the most telling examples I’ve seen of just how important a thorough sense of verisimilitude is to a film: while a character might not need his story to be completely told on screen, that story should at least exist, if even in an underdeveloped sense. The result of not doing this is not only a weaker character, but also a suspicion on the part of the audience: I found that it actually broke my suspension of disbelief to have to be subjected to scenes involving a completely unbelievable character occasionally interacting with the otherwise fully-developed ones. (This article on the topic of verisimilitude, which I was pointed to by Chas, is well worth reading in its own right, but it also has fitting relevance to The Brothers Bloom.)

Visually, the film is really pleasant to look at, thanks in large part to its wide and varied locations, from Prague to Mexico. There are titles that introduce several scenes, a little reminiscent of The Royal Tenenbaums, and they help maintain the playful overall mood of the film, serving as repeated visual reminders of how Stephen diagrams his cons, a practice we saw him develop as a child in the film’s introductory scenes. There are some shots where Johnson prefers to keep the action in the background or even outside of the frame completely, and whereas in his first film Brick I assumed that such techniques were at times used due to budget constraints, here it feels more natural and fitting to the style of the tale itself. I caught myself leaning forward in my seat on a couple of occasions, trying to peer around a corner to see what wasn’t being shown in the frame. Such instances can sometimes be annoying, but here I took them rather as a pleasant sign of my engagement in the story being told.

There are lots of little elements like this, all of which add up to The Brothers Bloom being a very fun movie. It takes you along for a ride that doesn’t let up until it’s time for the more character-driven love story to take over, and while this transition isn’t totally smooth and I think some audiences will feel that the end of the film drags a bit as a result (I count myself among such audiences), at the same time it’s a refreshing way to approach the con movie genre. It’s also an enjoyable chance to see a developing young writer-director. He’s not quite as polished as, say, a Martin McDonagh (In Bruges), but he’s definitely intriguing. Having as seasoned a cast as he does here surely doesn’t hurt, and the quality of their performances (particularly Rachel Weisz) helps to carry the film over the otherwise rough patches in Johnson’s script. He’s certainly a savvy filmmaker, though, who goes out of his way to connect with his audience (see, for example, the theatrical audio commentary he’s made available). The Brothers Bloom is not his masterpiece, but it is an enjoyable and interesting step along the way, and a pretty good movie in its own right, despite a few flaws.

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Posted by mike in Film,Reviews at 12:29 am on May 19, 2009

Status: In theaters (opened 5/15/09)
Directed By: Ron Howard
Written By: David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman
Cinematographer: Salvatore Totino
Starring: Tom Hanks, Ewan McGregor, Ayelet Zurer, Stellan Skarsgard, Armin Mueller-Stahl

This will be a review of Angels & Demons. It’ll start by summarizing the movie’s plot, and then by telling you about how the film very overtly addresses science, religion, and the apparent conflict between the two. Then it’ll move on to talking about the film’s structure and execution. We’ll take a divergence to mention the actors’ performances, and then summarize my feelings on the movie and its screenplay.

This is very much like the experience of watching Ron Howard’s sequel to 2006’s The Da Vinci Code, based on Dan Brown’s novel. The film is an extremely straightforward A-to-B-to-C journey, which enjoys first telling you what will happen, then showing those events transpiring, and then reflecting upon them with the insight of a junior high book report. It opens with a tried-and-true device: showing us news broadcasts that quickly get us up to speed on what we need to know, informing us of the recent death of the Pope and summarizing the procedure for electing a new one which will form the events that surround the film’s narrative. We are then shown an experiment taking place at the Large Hadron Collider, being undertaken by a physicist named Vittoria (Ayelet Zurer) and a priest-scientist of some sort (Carmen Argenziano). They’re attempting to create antimatter, in order to produce energy and demonstrate the screenwriters’ misunderstanding of current scientific theory. (I think it must also be good at trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.)

The Vatican enlists the help of everybody’s favorite symbologist, Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), with a matter that ties these two events together. It seems that somebody claiming to be a modern-day member of the Illuminati has both kidnapped the front-runners for the position of Pope and stolen a large hunk of antimatter, and while the Catholic Cardinals are attempting to elect a new leader, he plans to kill the preferiti one by one and then to detonate the antimatter, annihilating Vatican City in the process. Langdon, of course, immediately recognizes the pattern that will be followed, and explains to both Vittoria and the audience how they will proceed to follow the trail, which they do, exactly as he’s described.

The lengthy second act of Angels & Demons consists of the protagonists running around Rome with various local law enforcement personnel (Italian police, Vatican police, and the Swiss Guard, the latter headed by Stellan Skarsgard). Langdon is really good at figuring out the clues that inform them of where to go next. So good, in fact, that once he gets started he’s never wrong; he says, “Oh, we must need to go here next,” and so they do, and that is the proper place for them to be in order to receive the next clue, just in the nick of time. On one hand this is pretty annoyingly implausible, and the audience doesn’t even have a chance to try to figure things out for themselves along with him. On the other hand it’s a welcome way to expedite the proceedings, acknowledging that the audience wouldn’t have nearly enough information to know how to figure out the clues anyway, so you might as well just come right out and tell them.

Dan Brown has a knack for taking real-world locations and bits of history and stringing them together into a fictional story that feels like it could be grounded in actual historical events, and that is on display here. I have no idea if the 17th-century Italian art, geography of Rome, or Vatican politics that play key parts in the unraveling of the movie’s mystery are made-up or not, but it did a good enough job convincing me that they might be real, and that’s really all that’s needed. When the script ventures outside of this comfort zone, however, its credibility begins to fall apart, particularly when dealing with the aforementioned antimatter contrivance. There are several very forced attempts to reconcile the void that exists between science and religion, punctuated with juvenile speeches on the subject. The worst of these is given by Ewan McGregor’s character, and it’s painful to watch such a good actor have to recite such terrible dialogue; he puts his heart into a ridiculously factitious speech about lightning, which apparently screenwriters David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman think is a mysterious phenomenon that science is “not mature enough” to explain (in contrast to religion, which we’re told has gained the wisdom to know enough to fear lightning’s awesome power…). Yeah.

If you can stomach such painful attempts at adding depth to what would be better off as a more superficial story, the clue-chasing is enjoyable enough, and Tom Hanks and Ayelet Zurer approach their leading roles with the right amount of playfulness to keep things light and engaging, while Stellan Skarsgard plays a heel with enough ambiguity to avoid becoming merely a caricature. There’s a major twist ending that comes about in surprisingly natural fashion, though it utilizes the now-clichéd device of replaying an earlier scene from a different perspective in order to forcibly (and somewhat unnecessarily) drive its point home. The twist is followed by a storytelling gimmick that’s a recycled version of the “cut from the gymnastics team” gag that Koepp previously employed in his Lost World screenplay (with gymnastics ability swapped out for helicopter piloting talent in this case). It works here, but the cheap writing trick is annoying, especially since it’s not the first time the same writer has used it.

I fear, though, that I’ve made this movie sound a lot worse than it is. While its screenplay is gimmicky, its production is polished and its execution is more or less solid. It’s a movie that’s most enjoyable if you attempt to believe it when it tries to convince you that it’s smart, rather than expecting all of its explanations to make sense and satisfy any sort of genuine intellectual curiosity. There’s a lot of information revealed along the way, though nothing that most reasonable adults would mistake for authentic disclosures of fact, but it does serve to drive a compelling story. Employing talented actors throughout helps the film to overcome its sometimes-cheesy dialogue, and the deeply-rooted historical basis of its central mystery likewise is able to overshadow some ill-conceived philosophical diversions. And hey, if nothing else, that antimatter serves yet another purpose that I haven’t yet mentioned: providing an excuse to show off what state-of-the-art computer graphics can do when given a big enough budget. Just don’t try to fully understand them, because after all, CGI is still an immature field, so it can probably only be explained by God.

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Posted by mike in Film,Reviews at 8:02 pm on May 17, 2009

Status: In limited release (opened 4/24/09)
Directed By: James Toback
Written By: James Toback
Cinematographer: Larry McConkey
Starring: Mike Tyson

Growing up in the 80s, Mike Tyson was a mythical figure. Everybody knew who he was, and everybody followed his career: becoming the youngest boxer to hold the unified heavyweight title, his numerous first-round knockouts, his eccentric personality. He was also the star and subject of one of the early iconic Nintendo games, which only increased his mystique among people in my age group.

Tyson is the story of the former champ’s life, from growing up in Brooklyn to winning and then losing the title, as told by the man himself. I heard an interview with director James Toback on Ron and Fez where he repeatedly compared his on-camera interviews with Tyson to therapy sessions, and the effect is certainly there: seated on a couch, Tyson opens up completely for the camera, sharing with the audience several revealing monologues that are completely unencumbered by any sense of self-censorship.

The manner in which he relates his story is at least as interesting as the story itself. Tyson’s odd, lisp-enhanced speech pattern borders on surreal at times, particularly when he flexes his surprisingly impressive vocabulary—which he continually balances with mispronounced and invented words. His defining characteristic, though, is his frankness; Mike Tyson is a man who doesn’t care what anybody else thinks and isn’t afraid to let them all know it. He speaks openly about his romantic relationships: the time he contracted gonorrhea before a title fight, his inability to remain faithful (which he refers to as “extracurricular activities”). This has particularly interesting implications when his alleged rape of Desiree Washington is addressed, as to this day he maintains his innocence, and we’re left with no reason to doubt him—especially when he implies, in not exactly discreet terms, that he has raped other women before, just not her.

Aside from the tabloid topics, we also get Tyson’s take on his professional career, with a lot of engaging revelations along the way. Particularly telling is when “Iron Mike” repeatedly becomes choked up while discussing his mentor and father figure, Cus D’Amato, who died before he got a chance to see his protégé become world champion. The contrast between the tough street kid who doesn’t want to allow his emotions to come out and the still-maturing adult who’s baring his soul is fascinating. This theme permeates the film, in fact, with Tyson often playing the role of tragic figure, allowing us to see through the chinks in his macho armor to the humanity underneath.

Toback’s filmmaking style is best when it stays out of the way of his subject. There are no interviews of anybody other than Tyson, and yet, due to the man’s inability to ever restrain himself from saying exactly what’s on his mind, we are told more than one side of every story. Toback gets a bit too clever for his own good, though, sometimes showing overlapping interview segments on screen simultaneously in growing and shrinking boxes, and these sequences feel more like somebody playing around with his editing software to see what it can do than a director trying to allow his subject to tell his own story. This technique is thankfully only used occasionally, though I wish it weren’t present at all, as I feel that all it does is get in the way of the documentary’s narrative. It’s a lapse in judgment—infrequent as it occurs—to think that anything other than putting Tyson on screen and allowing him to speak is needed in order to hold the audience’s attention.

Perhaps the most revelatory sequence—as well as the best-edited—is when Tyson describes his fateful WBA title bout with Evander Holyfield, which famously ended when Tyson bit off his opponent’s ear. His take on the fight, while not entirely vindicating, is certainly an interesting exercise in perspective, and Toback’s style of syncing the proper footage from the fight itself with Tyon’s narration serves to demonstrate what led to the bizarre outcome in a way that is much more empathetic than I would’ve ever expected.

Coming into this documentary, I knew a lot of Tyson’s story, having always been fascinated by him. Despite not being much of a boxing fan, I find that I always stop when I discover a Tyson fight while flipping through channels. I’ve watched ESPN Classic shows about him, I’ve read exposés in Playboy exploring his relationship with D’Amato, but never have I seen anything as complete or, more importantly, as personal as the story that is told here. Mike Tyson is an engaging figure, shown here in a shockingly candid manner. His monologues range from touching and borderline tear-inducing to completely hilarious, and everything in between. The one consistency is that he is never boring or uninteresting, and Tyson is a unique opportunity to see him tell his own story, completely.

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Posted by mike in Annoyances,Entertainment,Sports at 12:25 am on May 15, 2009

Since I live on the west coast, I only rarely get to watch baseball games live. My team, the Chicago Cubs, plays most of their games at either 1:20pm or 7:05pm Central, and I’m rarely home from work in time to catch the beginning of even the later-starting games. I don’t really mind this, because watching on DVR delay means I can skip through commercials, and I’m typically busy enough at work that not spoiling the score (or outcome, in the case of earlier games) isn’t too difficult (although sometimes, when the sky is clear, I’ll listen to a day game on XM while at work, but that’s a different situation). The ideal goal is to have just the right amount of buffer built up so that you catch up to real time in the bottom of the ninth inning, having missed all of the commercials but seeing the game end live. I’m almost always a bit off from that, though, as I don’t usually begin watching a game until a couple of hours after it’s started.

Because of my viewing schedule, and my desire to remain ignorant of anything that’s happening with a particular game I’m going to watch until I’ve seen it for myself, I have my DirecTV +HD DVR set to record every Cubs game from the time it starts until 3 hours after it’s scheduled to end (that’s the max amount of additional recording time for a particular program that the software offers). This gives an allowance for rain delays and/or extra-innings games. Since I watch games every day, the wasted disk space on the DVR isn’t much of a problem—I just delete each game after I’ve finished watching it (which is usually while it’s still recording, due to the extra 3-hour record time).

This sounds like it’d be a good situation for someone like me, and it is, for the most part. The problem with it, though, is that it relies on heavy use of the DirecTV DVR software, which I have now decided is definitely the single worst piece of software I’ve ever had to use on a regular basis. Last year it made me miss Zambrano’s no-hitter, and while there hasn’t been anything quite that dire yet this year, it has nonetheless found other ways to annoy the ever-loving shit out of me on a way-too-frequent basis.

The most recent example involves the way DirecTV tries to be way too clever with their guide: despite the fact that they dedicate an entire channel—two, actually, for games that are available in both standard-definition and HD—to a game for a whole day, for some reason when the game actually ends they update their guide information so that the receiver/DVR knows the game is over. This results in the guide deciding that the channel is now devoted to a different, upcoming game, which, despite the fact that I have the MLB Extra Innings package and would be able to watch when it’s actually on, I am not yet authorized to receive. The result of this is that when I’m tuned to that channel—or in my case, watching DVR-delayed content from earlier on that channel—the DirecTV DVR decides that I am not authorized to watch it, and finds it necessary to repeatedly inform me of this… while I’m still watching the game.

To order this program now...
This is what last Friday night’s Cubs-Brewers game looked like for me during the final few innings (click to enlarge)

So I get this annoying box popping up, occupying over a quarter of the screen, at random intervals and for seemingly-random lengths of time… and it doesn’t respond to my remote’s “exit” button. I can select the “More Info” box, but all that does is obscure the screen even more, until I hit “exit,” at which point the info box disappears for a few seconds before popping up again. This happens from a point shortly after the game ends (I think it’s a half hour) until I’m done watching it.

An illustrative timeline might clarify, if my description has been confusing at all:

I'm behind realtime, but the game is over

What’s really odd is that this doesn’t always happen. From my casual observations, it seems to only come up when I’m more than a certain amount of time behind real time. For example, call the difference in time between when the game starts and when I begin watching it “interval A,” and the difference in time between when it ends and when the guide data changes “interval B.” I think that if interval A is greater than interval B, then at “interval B” time after the end of the game, the “To order this program now…” box will begin displaying on the screen. (The corresponding guide data change would be, in this instance, from “Cubs @ Brewers [HD]” to “Upcoming: Cardinals at Reds.”)

The one solution I’ve found is as follows: once the box starts being displayed, I have to stop watching the game and change the channel to something normal (i.e., not part of a sports package). I then have to stop the recording, and then resume watching the recorded game. I’m always a little nervous to do this, though, because I’m not positive that my theory of what causes this to happen is correct, and I don’t want to stop the recording only to find that I’ve caused myself to miss the end of the game. And it doesn’t always do the trick, anyway. At any rate, it’s really not something I should have to contend with in the first place, and the fact that it’s just the result of sloppy programming on DirecTV’s part only makes it that much more annoying when I do.

The box keeps coming back

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Posted by mike in Film,Reviews at 7:52 pm on May 13, 2009

Status: In theaters (opened 5/8/09)
Directed By: J.J. Abrams
Written By: Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman
Cinematographer: Daniel Mindel
Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Eric Bana, Bruce Greenwood, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, and Leonard Nimoy

It turns out you can, apparently—if you go about it properly, as is the case here—have it both ways. J.J. Abrams’s new Star Trek movie is both a reboot/reimagining/rehash (or whatever they’re calling them these days) of a well-established (and much-beloved, if you survey the right demographic) franchise, re-introducing all of the classical characters and basic story tenets, as well as an enjoyable and well-made (if a bit over-produced) introduction to a new potential series for those who do not already count themselves as fans of the previous films and TV shows.

It helps to have ILM on your side, of course, and the world’s premier effects house has here brought their A game. This film is a visual spectacle first and foremost, and the special effects deliver all of the eye candy one could hope for. Around the fully-imagined futuristic world in which this new Star Trek takes place, they’ve created a believable and vibrant atmosphere that brings the settings and action to life in thoroughly convincing fashion. There’s a bit of an overzealous use of lens flares and other unnecessary artificial enhancements, but they don’t detract from the incredible realizations of alien worlds and space encounters that are on display throughout the film.

Storywise, there are two main things this movie does to draw in a wider audience than the normally somewhat niche Trek-head ultra-nerds. First, it tells an origin story of sorts of the crew of the Enterprise, showing where the major characters come from (Kirk and Spock in particular) and how they come to meet their supporting cast: we see the story of these characters literally from the start—their births. And second, it turns up the action a considerable amount, leaving behind the dialogue-heavy format of previous films in favor of a faster-paced story than that which is usually told in this universe. I found both to be mostly successful, though I think it will probably come at the cost of alienating some of the most die-hard fans. At the same time, I thought the script tried a little too hard to make sure it wasn’t conflicting with the sizable canon of the Star Trek universe, employing a bit of a gimmick that, while kind of clever, didn’t strike me as altogether necessary: present-day audiences are so used to accepting the newest remake-of-the-month as its own story, independent of its predecessors, that I think they’d be willing to allow this new film to exist by itself without having to result to contrived plot devices to explain its posturing. Then again, typical audiences aren’t as rabid as Star Trek fans tend to be, so maybe it was wise to avoid their continuity-related scorn altogether; all in all, I think a good balance is achieved, explaining away the existence of this new storyline without dwelling on it any more than is needed.

What impressed me the most about this movie—along with the aforementioned special effects—was the cast. While I wasn’t very familiar with Chris Pine (Kirk), I thought it’d be difficult to view Zachary Quinto (Spock) as anyone other than Sylar or to see John Cho (Sulu) as anyone other than Harold, but I’m happy to report this was not an issue. Pine in particular owns his leading role, embodying the cocky, playboy farmer who was born to become a leader, and Quinto does an equally commanding job in his own right. The supporting cast is almost universally good, nearly all infusing their roles with just the right amount of campiness while not getting too cheesy. The one exception to this is Simon Pegg, who goes just a bit too overboard with the goofiness of his performance for my taste (especially in his scenes shared with the obligatory alien sidekick, which are all throwaway beats, overtly lame attempts to garner cheap laughs). Eric Bana is sufficiently menacing as the Romulan-gone-mad who serves as the film’s antagonist, although Abrams overuses the “extreme facial closeup shown on a huge staticy monitor” a little too frequently. And the absolutely gorgeous Zoe Saldana (Uhura) deserves special mention, not just for the manner in which her considerable beauty steals every scene she’s in, but also for her role itself, around which a particularly salacious plotline revolves, which she plays with just the right amount of subtlety when needed and smugness when warranted.

On a personal footnote, Abrams’s Star Trek earned itself an almost unimaginable stamp of approval from my girlfriend Megan, who I often deride as a “sci-fi bigot” (I still haven’t been able to get her to watch Blade Runner). Taking her as an example of somebody who is most decidedly not in this film’s target audience, I think it speaks well of the pacing and engaging storytelling at work that she, like me, found it enjoyable.

If only they hadn’t felt it necessary to shoehorn in a closing voiceover, which left me with a bit of a distaste, something that’s never good for your film’s final scene. Then I remembered the Winona Ryder cameo and resumed reflecting fondly upon this fun, action-packed, and well-produced movie.

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Posted by mike in Film,Reviews at 8:14 pm on May 6, 2009

Status: In theaters (opened 5/1/09)
Directed By: Gavin Hood
Written By: David Benioff and Skip Woods
Cinematographer: Donald McAlpine
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Liev Schreiber, Danny Huston, and Lynn Collins

Some things are just better left unexplained, and the origins of the Wolverine character from the X-Men films, I’m sorry to report, serve as a prime example. The whole source of his coolness (well, aside from his neat metal claws and his generally badass attitude) is the fact that he comes from mysterious origins; even he isn’t aware of the details of his own past, which is a valuable plot device that’s been used to great success many times previously, from classics like Spellbound and The Manchurian Candidate to modern-day blockbusters like The Bourne Identity. Part of what makes such films work is that the audience and protagonist are along on the same ride; the fun of the story lies in what is not known, and in discovering the hidden truths behind the characters as the story progresses (typically climaxing with a big reveal late in the third act). This technique basically comprises Wolverine’s story arc in X2, the best of the X-men films, and after seeing a whole lot more of the character’s past revealed in embarrassingly bad detail in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, I wish they had just left it at that.

This film primarily fails, then, in its very intention. I will fault the script for its silly premise, but at the same time I don’t know if there is a better one out there; once the decision had been made to tell the “full story” of Wolverine’s origins, I’m not sure any story they came up with would’ve really worked. As we already know the basics, finding them out in drawn-out fashion is not a particularly interesting undertaking—not to mention that the additional details only serve to, in my opinion, weaken the character. (I don’t know if the backstory used is taken from the Marvel comic books or not, but I’m only concerning myself here with the film in the context of the series to which it belongs.) For instance, we learn during the opening credits sequence that the mutant who would become Wolverine, who is also sometimes called Logan, was originally named Jimmy, and has been alive since the mid-19th century. This is a throwaway piece of character development, though: were we told that he had been born 30 years before the events in the film take place, absolutely nothing about the plot would have changed. Nonetheless, Wolverine/Logan/Jimmy is apparently a Highlander of sorts, the explanation I assume being that his mutant healing power is also capable of healing him from aging, the most ubiquitous of all diseases—though it didn’t stop him from growing to adulthood, despite his mutant powers being present in adolescence, as we’re shown in the film’s equally throwaway introductory scene. We also learn that Wolverine’s trademark claws were originally present in his body as bones that can grow out from between his knuckles. I’m sure some people will see this and think it’s cool, but it was hard for me to not laugh at the ridiculous goofiness of it every time his bony claws sprouted out. I had always been under the impression that Wolverine’s mutant power was super-healing, and the claws and metal skeleton were the result of government experimentation, which he was able to endure thanks to his ability to heal. Now we find out that his mutant power is super-healing, and also he’s kind of a half-wolf man, sort of, and oh yeah, he’s immortal too. Then the government just metal-coated his already-existing claws to make them look cooler.

Except they don’t. The claws look equally (though differently) stupid in metallic form. This doesn’t make much sense to me, because we’ve seen three previous films where this was handled infinitely better. It just adds to the general thrown-together feeling this movie has, its other major failure being its technical execution: taking silly ideas and implementing them poorly certainly doesn’t help matters any. The special effects are distractingly bad, those claws looking like drawn-in cartoons whether they’re the bones we initially see or later the metal-coated knives we’re more used to. It almost feels like this movie was made about 15 years ago, during that post-Jurassic Park period in the mid-90s when seemingly every studio and effects house in Hollywood suddenly thought that good computer graphics were easy, and then proceeded to come up with as many ways as possible to prove that hypothesis wrong. The early fight scenes in Wolverine are also particularly bad, utilizing an artificial motion blur effect that adds a slightly strobe-like feel to them, not unlike the jumbled messes of fight sequences Joel Schumacher employed in his terrible Batman films.

The early low point comes when Jimmy/Logan/Hugh Jackman finds his lover (Lynn Collins) apparently murdered in the woods, and you can see what’s coming from a mile away: he will kneel beside her bloody body, cradle her in his arms, wait just long enough for the tears to start flowing, and then tilt his head back and shout “NOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!” at the overhead camera as it pulls back to show him alone in the woods. It sends chills down your spine, though they don’t stem from the emotional weight of the scene; they come from the embarrassment of having to sit through such bland, uncreative writing and generic, unimaginative direction.

Somewhat surprisingly, once the film manages to slog its way through the lengthy and mostly pointless exposition, it gets to a story—the actual story of how this Jimmy guy came to become “Wolverine”—that is sort of interesting, though it is inconsistently and sloppily told. It’s tied into the previous X-Men films via William Stryker (Danny Huston), the U.S. Army colonel who serves as the primary antagonist in X2 as well (played there by Brian Cox). He is behind the mutant super-soldier experiments that will lead to Logan gaining yet another moniker, Weapon X (the tenth attempt, as Stryker explains—the X being a Roman numeral… though later in the film, his next project is called “Weapon Eleven,” not “Weapon Ex-Eye”). These experiments are the work of the U.S. government, I think, though it’s explained poorly enough—in addition to contradicting the previous explanation we’ve seen, which seemed to indicate that it was the Canadian government that was behind the creation of Wolverine—that I’m not entirely sure. It all amounts to feeling like thinly-veiled excuses to contrive some fun fight scenes with Wolverine and his brother Sabertooth (Liev Schreiber). In this endeavor the film does deliver to a point, though it has trouble overcoming the poor special effects and confusingly weak storytelling that seems to be the result of sheer laziness.

The script attempts to make up for the fact that we are already aware of all of the big surprises of its story by throwing in various smaller ones throughout, to mostly lukewarm success. Likewise, it attempts to cover up for the fact that we already know all that’s interesting to know about its main characters (and what will become of them) by throwing in several other mutant characters, most of whom feel like they’re the result of scraping the bottom of the barrel that is its voluminous source material. It predictably ends off at a point that will dovetail somewhat conveniently into Wolverine’s introductory scenes in the first X-men film, as well as shoehorning in an introduction to a forthcoming installment in the series, though both are in a very forced and contrived fashion. It left me confused in several regards before I just gave up trying to make sense of things, but I won’t spoil everything here should you want to see for yourself… though that is not something I can really say I recommend you do.

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Posted by mike in Film,News,Reviews at 11:58 pm on May 4, 2009

I don’t know if anybody other than me will find this useful, but I thought it’d be neat to have a little database of my movie reviews, with a relatively easy-to-use query interface for it, so I went ahead and made them. (In truth, I’ve been keeping the database all along, I just finally got around to making the search interface over this past weekend). There’s a new link on the right, now present on every page, which will take you right to it:

Search Movie Reviews

I’d appreciate any feedback anybody has, both regarding bugs or problems you find with it, as well as suggestions for improvement. I’m thinking of experimenting with querying the IMDB in order to add ways to search by director, writer, actors, etc., as well as by genre, but that’ll be in version 2.0 if I ever get around to it. For now this is good enough for me, but if you’d like to see something else please feel free to let me know.

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