Friday, February 29, 2008

Frozen in Grand Central

This is one of the most creative and amazing things I've ever seen. I honestly don't know how I'd react to this happening if I walked upon it. Totally check out this video.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

TV shows I watch

The writer's strike is finally over and February sweeps held very little that was worth watching, but there are still some fun shows on TV until the general much-loved shows return. Here's my list of what's been worth watching. If you can recommend other shows, I'm all for trying them out.

Monday: Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. I found this show a little silly during the pilot, but it's becoming more and more interesting as the background story gets more fleshed out and the characters stop hopping through time. They just added Brian Austin Green (Beverly Hills, 90210) to the cast as John Connor's uncle come back from the future. Overall, I like the mystery and uncertainty of whatever will happen.

Oh, and I still watch all the re-runs of How I Met Your Mother. Enough goes on in every episode that it's worth rewatching. Next week is the "Slapsgiving" episode which was one of its best ever.

Tuesday: Until recently Boston, Legal was still running new episodes so I was watching those. Now, not much is on as I won't watch American Idol until after the majority are eliminated.

Wednesday: For the past few months, Wednesday has been saved by Project Runway, but we only get another week of that and it's over! So sad - I hate waiting.

Thursday: Lost has been terrific this season, reinventing its appeal with mysteries about their future rather than just the mystery of the island that defies explanation. And following Lost, the new show Eli Stone has been really terrific. I LOVE the creator - Greg Berlanti (Everwood, Brothers & Sisters) and the show is as "wholesome" and straightforward as Everwood. It's fun to watch, if a little simple in its storytelling.

Friday: Friday Night Lights had more new episodes to show than practically anything (supposedly it comes from shooting in Texas and not having the distractions of LA or New York) so I've been loving keeping in touch with my friends in Dillon. Hopefully this show will return and keep going strong. Also, I love Monk and Pysch, but they run two short seasons a year, in January/February and July/August and this season is now over. I was liking Women's Murder Club but there haven't been any rumblings about bringing it back since the strike. It had potential.

Saturday/Sunday: The new version of Masterpiece Theater has been showing the works of Jane Austen and so far they've been fantastic. They showed a new version of Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, neither of which I'd seen, but both were excellent BBC-type renditions of Austen's lesser-known works. They also showed the wonderful Jennifer Ehle/Colin Firth Pride and Prejudice. They show Mansfield Park this week, and will finish up with a new version of Sense and Sensibility. The quality of the programming has been really terrific.

Oscars relived...

I was counting the number of Best Picture Oscar winners during the broadcast on Sunday - and I've seen 46 of the now 81 winners. My current favorite is still Out of Africa, but there are many I've seen lots of times. Gone with the Wind is always a masterpiece, and I'm one of the few who loves Shakespeare in Love. I don't like Million Dollar Baby or The English Patient, but I can appreciate their quality. I'm also a fan of the musical age, with My Fair Lady, Oliver!, The Sound of Music and West Side Story. There's a great theater in Times Square that often shows Oscar winners on the big screen just before the Oscar ceremony and it was wonderful to see so many the way they premiered, or close to it.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

New on DVD

To catch up on my Oscar viewing I have been watching lots of DVDs (that and new TV hasn't started yet) and Gone, Baby, Gone and Michael Clayton were some of the best I've seen this year. Gone, Baby, Gone was touted as Ben Affleck's directorial debut and it really is very well put together, well directed, and well shot throughout. However, the only thing you remember after watching it is how awesome Casey Affleck has become as an actor. I just rewatched Good Will Hunting and Casey is a skinny, sniveling, side-kick at best. And played a similar character in the Ocean's series, basically annoying and forgettable. He probably could have played character roles for the rest of his career, but this year has transformed him, both physically and his career. His roles in Gone, Baby, Gone and as Robert Ford in The Assassination of Jesse James have definitely given him the credentials to play leading men. In G,B,G he plays a private detective hired by the family of a kidnapped little girl. He and his girlfriend/partner are torn about taking the case because they don't want to find a dead little girl, and they're not sure they have the ability to actually find her. However, the personal connections he has to the low-lifes in the Boston neighborhood are ultimately his biggest strength. He works with two older cops, one is Ed Harris in all his good guy/bad guy complexity, and the chief of the kidnapping division - Morgan Freeman. All kinds of standard kidnapping/cops scenes go on - negotiating with a bad guy with innuendo and metaphor ("if I did have the kid, she might be okay if I was given a lot of money"), the money exchange going really badly, and all the people being devastated and not really knowing what should have/could have been done. However, most movies end there and nothing new would have been brought to the genre. This movie was based on the book written by the same author as Mystic River. It goes on to find connections with other kidnapping cases and reveal a great mystery that I knew was coming, but totally didn't see the whole thing unraveling the way it did. The supporting cast is terrific, particularly Oscar-nominated Amy Ryan playing the kidnapped girl's mother. She's crass, lying, stupid, and doesn't really care about her daughter, but somehow you still hope things work out for her. The first half of the movie is sad and you don't really want the little girl to be returned to these people. However, Affleck's partner played by Michelle Monaghan, voices our concerns about how ugly and horrific some of the people connected to the little girl really are. I found that without her character voicing my own issues with the neighborhood, I'd have been screaming at the screen and not able to watch such a terrible place. But Affleck attempting to defend the status quo in his childhood neighborhood and her arguing the moral high ground gives the movie the depth it needs to make you care. I really liked the movie and can't wait to see Jesse James just to watch Casey Affleck on screen again. Nearly 5 of 5 stars (like 4.75, only diminished by the horrors of the story being difficult to watch, though very cleverly shot to avoid imprinting grisly images on our psyche).

Michael Clayton, on the other hand, makes it pretty clear throughout who is good and who isn't. But like G,B,G it doesn't make it clear that all good things come to good people. Oscar-nominated (and previous winner for Syriana) George Clooney is a lawyer with a huge firm, whose main job is to fix problems quickly. He describes his position as a janitor, not a miracle worker. It seems he calls in favors and provides favors to make sure his clients get what they need. He also seems to manage Oscar-nominated Tom Wilkinson's manic character who's gone off his meds and is sabotaging his career. The movie follows Clooney figuring out how far Wilkinson has gone to sabotage a case protecting a huge polluting mega-company. On the flip side, Oscar-nominated Tilda Swinton is also following the sabotage and as the head lawyer for the mega-company making sure they're protected. Swinton is good as a unsure, high-ranking female lawyer who is always conscious of the company she works for and protecting it. It's an interesting story, well acted, and with terrific twists throughout. It's good, but I didn't think it added a lot to the concept or the genre. Erin Brockovich does a better job representing the legal case of lots of nobodies fighting a big company for polluting, and the legal thriller is covered by all John Grisham's work. It was a good movie, but not a favorite. 4 of 5 stars.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Oscar Predictions

I feel like I've been hearing so much information about the Oscar predictions that I only have about a 50/50 shot on any of these. Usually I feel a little more confident, but obviously ignorance was bliss. Anyway, here are my predictions for better or worse:

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Spiderwick Chronicles is great fun

I saw The Spiderwick Chronicles yesterday with a theater full of kids off from school, and both they and I loved it. It's a simple story with lots of recognizable features: kids from a broken home move to a creepy old house, discover something left by a previous inhabitant and have to solve a mystery and save themselves and the world. This variation on a theme is very well put together and uses lots of unqiue features to stand out without trying too hard. Freddie Highmore plays twins, a nerdy science twin Simon, and the bad boy twin Jared. He's a British actor and his accent was good, but not quite like his sister or mother, and thus a little distracting. Otherwise, he's terrific as both twins. Jared finds the old lab in the house of his great-relative Arthur Spiderwick who wrote a field guide describing all the secrets of the fairy world. This book is being persued by Malgarath (played occaisonally by Nick Nolte, he morphs into a huge monster too) who wants it to gain all the power and rule the world. He sends his minions to attack the house which is protected by a circle of toadstools through which only humans can pass. There are good goblins/fairies/creatures too - Thimbletack helps protect the book (voiced by Martin Short perfectly, in picture), and Hogsqueal is a Hobgoblin who helps the kids "see" the fairies. Hosqueal is voiced by Seth Rogan (from Knocked Up) and provides all kinds of light-hearted humor as he attempts to aid the kids, but gets distracted by birds constantly. The climax is perfectly done with some humor, some suspense and quick wrap-up with a non-traditional explosion (spaghetti sauce can destroy the creatures). The monsters are fun, but it's easy to see the good vs the bad just from their appearance, but unlike other fantastical stories (The Dark Crystal) these goblins aren't scary, just evil. Overall, I really liked the movie, it has a lot of humor, a lot of fun mystery explaining a new fantastical world, and really good acting from all the characters. Definitely 4 of 5 stars.

Addendum: Also, I forgot to mention the music. Usually in these kiddie-branded movies the music is sweet and treacly and manipulative. This movie felt more fresh and fun rather than sinister from music alone. The music complements the movie really well.

Monday, February 18, 2008

The Bucket List

I'm really behind in seeing this movie, and I think it's actually been playing in a local theater for weeks and weeks, but we missed the showing of Spiderwick Chronicles, and the other options this weekend weren't good locally (I'm not a fan of horror), so The Bucket List was it. And for good entertainment, it hit the spot. Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman do a great job fighting and traveling and philosophizing about death. They're both handed a sentence of a few months to live, and Freeman starts writing a "bucket list" to record what he might want to do before he "kicks the bucket". Nicholson jumps on board, and luckily comes with the money, private jet, and personal assistant to do almost anything. They put some obscure things on the list (like observe something majestic) but also lots of easy to check of off kinds of things - get a tattoo and sky dive. The rest of the movie is them traveling around the world doing all kinds of things, and luckily deciding NOT to do some things - like hunting a big cat. I thought their dialogue was fun and witty, and it was the first movie where the co-stars could really hold their own against each other. Nicholson seemed on edge and unsure of how Freeman will respond, but it makes their characters more believable. Nicholson owns a huge company and has always been deferred to on everything, and while Freeman was a mechanic for 45 years (which they repeat a little too often) his "death sentence" has given him the freedom to do whatever he wants, including leaving his family to experience some of life he gave up for the family. It's a cute movie, with obviously sad overtones, but you can't really predict where it will all go. It's definitely cheesy, but for pure entertainment, it works really well. 4 of 5 stars.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Simpsons Movie

I liked The Simpsons Movie (which I just caught on DVD) more than I've liked catching new episodes lately. It's a funny story where Homer of course does something ridiculously stupid that ends up getting the whole family in trouble. They escape a dome put over Springfield and move to Alaska. Of course they decide to come back and save Springfield. I won't tell you the end cause that would spoil it. There are tons of really funny jokes throughout - "Clap for Alaska" causing an avalache - that are exactly what makes the Simpsons unique unto itself. It's nothing bigger than the average episode, but it's great entertainment if you're a Simpsons fan. It's so chock-full of little jokes that I think it'll stand up well to repeat viewing. I don't think it deserved the Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature - there were surprisingly lots of other animated movies that were much better. 3 of 5 stars, but if you already like the Simpsons it's about a 4.5.

Blood is Boring

First, I loved Daniel Day-Lewis' performance in There Will Be Blood. He's brilliant, totally encompassing the role, such that I looked at him a few times thinking I recognized him from something else, which obviously I did because he's Daniel Day-Lewis. But I was looking at the character he created and not seeing DDL. He's sinister, creepy, a little ruthless, and at times strangely violent. His fights, mostly slap fights with Paul Dano are painful. You almost want to look away because you're not sure what DDL is going to do. Those were the valuable things about the movie. As a whole I didn't like it and am pretty surprised it's nominated for best picture. There was no dialogue for the first 25 minutes of the movie - you just watch DDL dig oil wells, break his leg, and then set up news ones. One of the men on his rig has a baby he's carrying around. Then the guy dies and DDL takes the kid, H.W., as his own. This kid is actually a good actor, and his story was the most interesting element in the movie. Then it was about another 30 minutes before something that actually seemed like "plot" appeared, when DDL snubs Paul Dano at the blessing of the new oil derrick. DDL arrives at a new place in California after a tip by Paul Dano's twin. He arrives, buys up tons of property, sets up a new rig and convinces the community, except Dano, that he's a good guy and good things will happen. DDL becomes rich and gets his big house and becomes a totally crazy old man. Overall it's a pretty boring movie, that could have used about an hour closer editing, and some actual dialogue. Barely 2 of 5 stars. I know I must be missing something, but this just wasn't a movie for me. Daniel Day-Lewis should and will win the Oscar though.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Bard's Arcade

I admit I have been influenced by award winners and just overall buzz in my DVD picks recently. So yesterday I saw King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters and the HBO film As You Like It. Kong was getting good buzz, and Kevin Klein won the SAG award and Bryce Dallas Howard was nominated for a Golden Globe for the Shakespearean update. I'll talk about the one I liked first. In general Kenneth Branagh has not been particularly successful bringing Shakespeare to the screen. Personally, I think he's only batting .250 (which I know is a good batting average, but it's bad for film quality). Hamlet, Love's Labours Lost, and As You Like It weren't successful in achieving his reinterpretation of classic Shakespeare. The one I really like and will watch repeatedly is Much Ado About Nothing, but that's barely reinvented and is probably the reason it still works. The newest, As You Like It, tells the story of a duke overthrown by his brother and sent to live in the forest. As the new duke fears his niece, Rosalind (played brilliantly by Bryce Dallas Howard), she is banished as well. The new duke's daughter, Celia (Atonement's Romala Garai) decides she will leave the court as well. Just before leaving, Rosalind falls in love with Orlando, the youngest brother of a bad guy in cahoots with the new duke. Rosalind, Celia, and the court jester (Alfred Molina) flee to the forest to find the overthrown duke. Rosalind pretends to be a man (often called "pretty youth") and convinces Orlando that she/he can help him woo Rosalind. As in all Shakespeare, mistaken identity and chance meetings often result in love and marriage, so Celia marries Orlando's older brother, the real Rosalind comes out from her man clothes and marries Orlando, and Alfred Molina marries a woman they find in the woods. The original language is very well spoken throughout and the acting is incredible. Howard is wonderful, which is good as she's the leading character and speaks the most. The one thing that puts this play in league with the bad Kenneth Branagh pics is that it's set in feudal Japan. There seems to be NOTHING adding to the story or being more interesting by being set in Japan. Rather than just wrestling, Orlando sumo wrestles for a minute. Otherwise it could be set in any forest anywhere, and the dresses could be standard English fare rather than pseudo kimonos. Finally, where does Kevin Klein's SAG award fit into this? He plays "Mr. Melancholy", the character that mixes all the stories together as he travels between them. He's very versatile, and integrates the stories with his knowing nod to all the characters that tells us that all will work out fine in the end. He's great, but I'm not sure award winning. Overall 3 of 5 stars. Good, but not great. If you like Shakespeare, it's terrific, if not, skip it, there's nothing new to see.

Now, here's why you should really think through why you rent movies. Renting something only because the hype is good should not supercede your inner monologue that says "will I like a movie about Donkey Kong?" My answer was probably not, but some reviewers had said there were great things about it, so I decided to give it a shot. It's about a man who dedicated his leisure life to setting the high score in Donkey Kong arcade game. It means overthrowing a 20 year old record held by a strangely unappealing guy. They have to get scores approved by an "independent" agency that doesn't seem to like having long-term scores reset, which is an odd trait in an independent agency. Basically the previous record holder plays a little dirty beating the new high score by sending in a tape of his really high score after it's been reset by our underdog. The underdog never gets to go head-to-head in public with the "bad" guy and then the film ends. It's boring, slow and never really appeals to a general audience. It definitely appeals to anyone particularly interested in video games, but the people involved are carefully pigeon-holed into good guy and bad guy. It's so artificially done that you start feeling sympathy for the "bad" guy because he just wants his high score to stand and make his real business successful. I didn't like it at all, and don't recommend it. 2 of 5 stars.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Why I love James McAvoy

There are many reasons James McAvoy is a terrific actor and will someday win his Oscar nomination (and eventually the award). I thought I'd been seeing him for ages, but it turns out not to be as long as I thought. The first movie he's really memorable for a US audience was Wimbledon, as Paul Bettany's bumbling, gambling brother who wears a cycling cap the whole time, and inexplicably wears cycling clothes the whole time. He's not all that memorable, but neither is the movie, so that's hardly his fault.

However, he's incredibly memorable in Rory O'Shea Was Here, a film about two physically disabled young men who want to get the most out of life. McAvoy plays Rory O'Shea, a bad-ass Irish guy who can move his head, face, and hands, and is completely confined to a wheelchair. He'd love to live a real life in his own apartment taking care of himself, which is nearly impossible. He befriends another man, Michael, in the home for the disabled who can barely speak due to cerebral palsy, but thanks to a lifetime of living with other disabled people, Rory can understand him just fine. The two of them manage to get an apartment and an aid to help get them into and out of bed. Rory introduces Michael to all that life has to offer, but still can't protect him from the jeers and stares nor the inaccessibility of so much of Dublin for the disabled. They get stuck in various places and find it harder than expected to care for themselves. McAvoy plays the fast-talking, womanizing, quadripelgic with so much spunk and spirit that you're sure everything will work out great, which is rarely the case. It's a really terrific movie, 4.5 of 5 stars.

I didn't even realize that McAvoy was in Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe until I started looking at his resume. Then I remembered Mr. Tumnus, the faun and it totally clicked. He's perfect, bringing the literary character to life so well. He's physically retiring, but wants to fight the witch and is nice enough to Lucy to spark the entire adventure as she seeks to rescue the nice Mr. Tumnus. He creates a character so vividly that I totally forgot it was McAvoy, and just remember the faun. The movie isn't wonderful, but I thought his performance was. There are elements that work throughout the movie, but overall, it wasn't my favorite. I'm sure it'll end up on TV often in the not too distant future and you can check out just McAvoy's performance.

The Last King of Scotland is worth skipping, if only because it gives a dead dictator the chance to poison more peoples' souls. Forest Whitaker is brilliant, transforming his unassuming teddy bear demeanor into a sociopath with moments of clarity and humor. James McAvoy plays a doctor who supposedly falls under Amin's spell, but it doesn't play that well - McAvoy comes across as a weaselly guy trying to get ahead by getting cozy with the President. He follows Amin through the insanity and spends a lot of time trying to balance the dual goals of having a positive impact on the world by advising the leader, and saving his own butt from being killed too. There are movies that portray horrific events with compassion and sensitivity, but this is not one of them. The violence become gratuitous and more than a little scary. Forest totally deserved his Oscar, but McAvoy deserved more recognition for his role too.

Becoming Jane stars Anne Hathaway doing a credible job playing Jane as a witty woman who knew she wasn't going to live a wealthy life, but thought she could buck convention and marry the man she loved. James McAvoy plays a lawyer sent to live in the country to end his frivolous lifestyle and meets Jane. He teases her about her writing and of course she gets her hackles up and she whacks him back. Their banter is really good, and McAvoy has succeeded where Jude Law never made it - as a love interest that isn't smarmy but cunning and deserving of adoration. The costumes and settings are perfect. Oh, oh, oh, and Dame Maggie Smith plays a rich neighbor who gets angry when Jane spurns her nephew's proposal. It's clearly the inspiration for P&P's Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Overall, it's a terrific historical romantic comedy. It's not overly complicated, but if you're an Austen fan, you'll see all the elements of her books represented, and you'll know that Jane's love of McAvoy's character drove most of her future writings.
And finally, Atonement was really an amazing performance by McAvoy. He's slowly moving up the scale of the love interest possiblities. He played the young man who was able to cross class lines because he was smart and know how to play by the rules. He deserved his Golden Globe nomination, and really should have made it to the Oscar pool - I'm guessing he was 6th or 7th on the list of nominees, so didn't make the show. He'll get called up eventually and it'll be terrific. His next movie with Angelina Jolie (Wanted) shows he'll be able to be the leading man/action star too. Such a great actor and finally getting the roles and attention he deserves.