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Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The Da Vinci Code — Movie Review

A project that involves Tom Hanks, Ron Howard, and one of the most popular books in recent history probably had little chance of living up to expectation. While I disagree with the relatively poor reviews The DaVinci Code is receiving, the book definitely was better.

If anyone actually hasn’t read the book, or at least heard about the plot, a murder in the Louvre leads to a hunt through code after code for a religious secret. Clues are hidden in paintings of DaVinci, and reveal a “the greatest cover up in human history” that has been protected for 2000 years by a secret society, the Priory of the Sion.

The movie was at a major disadvantage for me, as the best part of the story were the historical lessons intertwined in the plot. Already having read the book, I didn’t have the same eye-popping reaction to the lessons being revealed. (Despite the Catholic Church’s “father knows best” message about the movie, the revelations are fascinating.) While the book managed to bring the reader along without slowing things down, the movie just wasn’t able to pull off the same magic for the viewer. Although, for those who haven’t read the book, this may not be the case.

There was an effort to compensate for pace issues created by the history lectures, with special affects blending historic and present-day scenes. Maybe I’ve lost my ability to be awed, but I couldn’t do much more than appreciate them as decent.

The film did have a couple advantages over the book, however. With so much of the plot tied up in Da Vinci’s work, it was a major plus to see the paintings (obviously). Seeing The Last Super, along with the affects used to explain the hidden messages, may have been the best part of the movie. I was disappointed that they glossed over the explanation of the Mona Lisa, though certainly its lack of importance to the plot made the move understandable. In fact, I was surprised at how little was skipped from the book.

I also found the ending significantly clearer. I should probably go back and re-read the book’s ending, but I felt like the reader was just sort of led to the conclusions. The movie didn’t leave any doubts.

Tom Hanks, portraying symbologist Robert Langdon, didn’t do anything to hurt the character. Audrey Tautou was equally ok as Sophie Neveu. With so much story to be told, there wasn’t much room for acting to matter much.

If you read the book, you’re going to see the movie regardless of anything some reviewer says. But, for the record and the rest of you, The Da Vinci Code is worth watching.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Newspaper Rx

Philadelphia’s two major papers — The Inquirer and Daily News — were sold to private investors this week after years of corporate ownership. As I heard and read various opinions on what this all means to news coverage, I began wondering what I would want to see in a newspaper.

Opening anything besides the sports page is a rarity for me for two reasons. First of all, most of it is irrelevant to my life. Wednesday’s Inquirer had three front page stories — the sale of the paper, the GOP’s outlook in PA, and the Washington-area sniper. Sorry but none of that truly affects anyone.

I know, I know, it all affects me, right? Sure, I can come up with sweeping statements about the importance of the judicial system, the media, and the government impacting everyone’s life. But few care enough to read long, stylistic articles about these subjects.

So, the first thing I would do is bring back pyramid style writing. This is not the ranting of an X-generation guy who is too impatient to read an article. I’m just sick of every damn story having some dramatic or cutesy opening. Give me what the hell happened and move on. Leave column writing to columnists.

Second, I think papers should do a better job of educating readers. Educating, not influencing. Why is Social Security doomed? Why hasn’t Iraq become self-governing yet? Stop babbling away about the political battles, and, as much as possible, offer concise explanations of the real issues. And, by the way, don’t be afraid to do it again next month.

In fact, make those the only stories you repeat. In Philly we had 24-hours of Terrell Owens coverage for about six months last year. It was the same idiotic story day after day. Cover news, not hype.

Next, eliminate bogus quotes. Simply don’t print any more canned quotes that mean nothing, aren’t meant to mean anything, and are known not to mean anything. I realize there may never be another quote from most athletes after a bad loss or politicians accused of a crime, but I can live with that.

Stop covering what celeb slept with what other celeb. Are people who care about that stuff really reading the paper?

Finally, I can’t write a post like this without mentioning the lack of coverage concerning people with disabilities. I’ve said it before; if any other minority faced the level of unemployment we do, it would dominate the news. But it doesn’t fit the formula of covering people with disabilities in human interest stories only, so it’s ignored.

Clearly, this doesn’t cure all that ails newspapers. But it’s one man’s opinion for a good start.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Catch-22 Book Review

I could never figure out why I had never been assigned to read Catch-22 in school. A so-called classic, the title is commonly used to reference “a situation in which a desired outcome or solution is impossible to attain because of a set of inherently illogical rules or conditions.” (See Dictionary.com.) After laboring through Joseph Heller’s novel for the last several weeks, I’d like to thank every English teacher I ever had for not assigning it.

Yossarian is A bombardier looking to survive war at all cost. His biggest hurdle is his own colonel, named Cathcart, who keeps raising the number of missions men must fly to complete their service. The bureaucratic rule called catch-22 that seems to offer hope of being relieved of duty is really just one big contradiction – a man is considered insane if he willingly continues to fly dangerous combat missions, yet merely requesting relief from such duty proves the he is sane and therefore ineligible to be relieved.

Yossarian’s response is to spend as much time as possible in the infirmary to avoid combat. This, of course, becomes another catch-22 as the number of missions is always raised while he’s in the hospital. In fact, if he’d merely flown his missions as scheduled, he might have reached the required number of missions to be relieved of duty.

Laughing yet? Me neither. I’ll admit that dark humor does little for me, but I don’t think that’s the only problem I had with the novel. There’s just no true foil for the endless stupidity of events in the story. Not even Yossarian rages against the absurdity that surrounds him enough to give the reader an anchor of sanity. It’s merely one idiotic thing after another, without the promised hilarity.

Another problem seems to be the whole focus, or non-focus, on the catch-22 rule. It is supposed to be one obscure rule, but the phrase is already being used by the characters to describe instances of what amounts to double-talk. Yossarian’s actions aren’t a true response to the rule, they’re just his way of avoiding combat after learning that catch-22 was of no help in that pursuit. There’s no real reason for the characters to have focused on the rule, except as a symbol of all the other absurdity. If that was the case, it was far from clear.

Heller seemed to want to make a statement about unquestioned command in the military. If so, it was certainly clear enough that he had little time for it. I just think his potential point is lost in the lack of sane behavior to balance the absurdity blind loyalty can create.

The title alone forces me to suggest reading Catch-22 to broaden your horizons. If nothing else, reading it let’s readers know where the famous phrase comes from.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Will & Grace Finale

Who would’ve thought Will & Grace would offer up a better finale than the West Wing? The show took a surprising risk, and showed what happened to the characters twenty years into the future instead of wrapping up a short-range story line. While it did not offer edge-of-your-seat suspense, the finale offered a realistic view of the complex relationship between a gay man and straight woman.

Scoff if you will, but the relationship between the two main characters was always complex. The question of “where the hell is this going” was never far from the show. The answer — not too far — may have been disheartening, though it was ultimately softened by “fate” leading their children to meet, seemed realistic.

Of course, sit-com finales always seem a bit disappointing in the one element that made them thrive — humor. Will & Grace was really no different, but did an above average job of remember the laughs. But it was certainly not a laugh riot, as the necessity of story-telling to tie up loose ends took over.

The hour of behind-the-scenes clips before the show, however, provided a great reminder of how funny the show once was. I will admit I was reluctant to watch a show with a gay main character. But after missing half of the first show I watched busting a gut at Jack, I was hooked. Though it lagged a bit in the final seasons, Will & Grace was always worth it to make a point to watch.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

West Wing Finale

I just couldn’t pass up my last chance to critique West Wing. Still disappointed the show ended this week, I was merely satisfied by its ending. After seven seasons, the finale was done straight down the middle — offering the behind-the-scenes details of the presidency fans loved, but little excitement. I give the producers credit for not making one last grab at the overly dramatic, but some drama would’ve been nice.

The show basically ended when the election was decided for the Santos character, which I still think they foreshadowed all too clearly in the first episode of the season. Their depiction of the transition was decent, but knowing the show was ending the final episodes had little to care about.

Ironically, NBC’s airing of the pilot just before the finale only reminded viewers of how far the show had slipped. A fast-paced show with amazing attention to detail focused on how things truly got done in Washington got bogged down in a major transition that was ultimately unnecessary.

While the final episode tied up plenty of loose ends, I’m surprised at how many details the series let go in the last few years. The biggest unanswered question, of course, revolved around why Sam never returned to the White House. But I was more intrigued by the smaller details left unexplained. One episode suggested Margaret was pregnant, but the pregnancy just sort of disappeared. Whatever happened to Josh’s replacement in Bartlett’s administration? Bartlett’s teen-aged granddaughter mentioned in the pilot?

Ok, maybe I’m nit-picking. But, I do think the show lost itself in an effort to keep the show going past Bartlett. I think most viewers were just waiting to get the election over with. While I’d have been on board with a Santos West Wing, in retrospect fudging the calendar and keeping Bartlett around may have made more sense.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Excitement Wanted

Ok, so I’m not the only guy whose bored with his surroundings this week. Some guy named David Blaine apparently tried to set a world record for holding his breath. Here’s the funny part — it was on ABC . . . in prime time . . . during sweeps.

It gets even funnier — people actually watched. In fact, according to Bling, some bloggers had the nerve to be angry that the network wussed out on the promise that he would succeed or “die trying.” However, no one seemed bothered that they were dumb enough to watch a show on a guy holding his breath or believe that he would die trying.

Of course, I’m guilty of watching plenty of dumb TV, too. I’m practically addicted to Deal or No Deal. I haven’t decided what’s more intriguing: watching people get weak in the knees over passing up one-hundred grand or Howie Mandel offering the fist-knock to avoid shaking hands.

It’s so bad that I actually checked out Dallas Maverick owner Mark Cuban’s blog after he was fined for ripping NBA refs, and found a post on clickfraud. Can someone please tell me why a filthy rich guy even knows about click-through programs?

Of course, in the midst of all this, NBC brings the curtain down on West Wing this weekend, giving TV viewers one less reason to watch. At least The Da Vinci Code hits theaters next week. Still the best book I ever read, I plan to make it my first review of a movie “in theaters now.”

Yeah, I know, read a book. Well, I’m trying, and my review of Catch-22 will explain why that hasn’t helped my boredom . . . if I ever get through it.

Wednesday, May 3, 2006

Thief Needed More

FX’s Thief ended last night, which left me wondering just one thing: whatever happened to the mini-series? FX has taken the “series” part of that term way to literally. Instead of a 3 or 4 night extended movie of the week, we now get 2-month long “seasons” of shows that constantly seem to be leading to something that just never materializes.

Andre Braugher starred in the latest version of this FX formula. Braugher’s presence carried the show, but a plot that simply went no where left him little to work with. Braugher’s character leads a team of crooks through a robbery of the U.S. government. An odd secondary story line in which he ends up stuck with his stepdaughter from an interracial marriage — after his wife dies in the first episode — is the main element meant to complicate the plot.

The tension between Braugher and the girl, whose long-distance father simply refuses to take custody of her, is real. Braugher manages to shoe a human side of a career criminal. But the relationship never changes, except for possible acceptance by the girl that her stepfather is her only option. Braugher’s loyalty is solidified, but never truly seemed in question anyway.

The “main” plot line is fairly ho-hum. Bad guys running from the law and other bad guys. Again, the tension built in episode one never moves. Obvious conclusions could’ve been made last night, and, in a way, things were brought to a close. Yet, I have little doubt that season two of Thief will appear at some point. If it does, skip it.