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Friday, July 13, 2007

Stranger Than Fiction — DVD Review

I wanted to see Stranger Than Fiction more for the concept that the film played with more so than the promised comedy. As someone that at least attempts to pursue writing, I was intrigued by the idea of a fictional character actually being alive. I’m not really a Will Ferrell fan, and was happy to find the idea really did carry the film as opposed to his usual brand of humor.

Harold Crick (Ferrell) is an IRS auditor that begins hearing narration of his life as its happening. It turns out that author Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson) is writing a novel in which Crick is the protagonist. The bigger problem, it turns out, is that Eiffel always kills off her main characters, and Crick quickly realizes he’s not about to be an exception.

With a very slight nod toward Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, the film’s less-serious look at the relationship between an author and character was darker than I expected. Not that the film doesn’t pull off some decent laughs, but in the end this was still a man that had to live in fear that he was going to die rather soon.

I would have liked just a touch more on how Crick came to be. That might have been impossible to do, and certainly the film wasn’t striving for realism, but even the simplest of explanation would have helped. Obviously, the woman wasn’t writing this one novel her entire life — or his — so I just wanted some “bridge” to why he was suddenly aware of her. I’ll freely admit this may be nothing more than my anal side kicking in.

I really liked Thompson’s portrayal of Eiffel. Considered a modern literary giant, she is battling years of writer’s block, and is suddenly faced with a physical manifestation of the fact that she kills off all of her protagonists. Thompson pulls off a frumpy, depressed author without losing sight of the character having exceptional talent. A scene in which she explores the possibility of killing Crick in a traffic accident was particularly interesting just to see the depth of her devotion to her craft.

Dustin Hoffman as literary professor Jules hilbert and Queen Latifah as Penny Escher were decent, but I expected more from the characters considering the names in the roles. Along with Eiffel, the characters also seemed a bit too ready to accept to accept Crick’s presence. Maggie Gyllenhaal as Ana Pascal was solid, and her character helped add depth to Crick.

Overall, this certainly wasn’t a must-see, but if you watch it for fun while looking for something better you won’t be too disappointed.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Live Free or Die Hard — Movie Review

John McClain (Bruce Willis) is back fighting terrorists in Live Free or Die Hard, the most over-the-top chapter of the action series of films that doesn’t exactly strive for realism in the first place. McClain’s wit and sarcasm are securely in place, but the fourth Die Hard left at least this fan of the films yearning for the days of McClain single-handedly taking out 20 bad guys.

Assigned to bring one of the nation’s most watched computer hackers, Matt Farrell (Justin Long), to Washington for questioning after a breach of security at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, McClain is quickly thrust into the race to catch the mastermind of a plot to steal most of the country’s wealth. At various times fighting to save the hacker’s life, as well as that of his daughter, Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and, of course, his own, McClain teams up with the hacker to pursue a former member of the FBI out for revenge after his warnings about the vulnerability of the nation’s computer systems were ignored.

Far too much of the film is spent trying to figure out what the criminals are truly after. Reminiscent of the third Die Hard, an attack on the country’s infrastructure eventually proves to be nothing more than a ruse to steal money. Of the many stretches in the film, the attempt to play on current fears of foreign terrorism was at least a little questionable in terms of taste. It also made the ease with which even the “good guy” hackers circumvented government security less than palatable. But maybe I’m the only one that’s done being enthralled watching some computer geek go tap-tap-tap on a keyboard and break into the supposed most secure systems in the world.

Another problem was that John McClain just isn’t made to fight high-tech crime. Having McClain tote around a computer hacker to handle (and explain) the techy side of things was a bit contrived, and lowered the action quotient the series has thrived on. At times McClain is reduced to doing little more than offer funny quips.

That’s not to suggest Live Free or Die Hard doesn’t have plenty of action. In fact, it pretty much gets rolling within minutes and never stops. But the previous films earned some of the over the top action, whereas by the time McClain is balancing on the wing of an Air Force bomber that’s chased him (mistakenly) down a highway I was rolling my eyes.

Long and Winstead were decent as side characters, but, whether it was the actors or the script, they could have been better. Willis turned in his usual fun performance, and avoided my fear that he might seem old in an action role.

Live Free or Die Hard won’t disappoint fans of the series, but certainly doesn’t rival the original or first sequel. For the rest of moviegoers, it’s still not too bad.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Man of the Year — DVD Review

It would have actually been nice if watching Man of the Year was out of season a year-and-a-half before the next presidential election, but the Democrats took care of that problem. With an unexpected element of some drama, the film was a very pleasant surprise and offered more laughs than anything I’ve seen in a good while.

Robin Williams plays Tom Dobbs, host of a fictional version of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show. An off-hand remark about running for president leads to the comedian throwing his hat into the ring. He begins taking things seriously when he actually gets into the debates, and wins an improbable victory. When results of the election are called into question due to a flaw in the new computerized voting machines, a cover-up ensues. Dobbs, who ran as a political outsider, is forced to decide whether or not he’s any better than the career politicians he’s railed against for years.

Williams was predictability brilliant throwing one-liner after one-liner at the political scene. In two-and-a-half years of writing reviews, this is the first time I’ve felt like if the movie only offered the laughs this one offered it was worth it. While it certainly wasn’t the funniest thing I’ve ever seen, I definitely missed a joke here and there laughing at the previous one.

Quite honestly, that was all I’d hoped for based on previews. But there was plenty of drama when officials at Delacroy, the company that owned the contract for the new voting machines, try to silence the employee (Laura Linney as Eleanor Green) who discovered the problem with the machines to protect their sky-rocketing stock. Instead of the typical effort to kill the do-gooder in such films, Delacroy officials drug her as part of a fairly successful campaign to make her seem insane.

The combination of comedy and drama works within Dobbs’ campaign, too. Christopher Walken (playing Jack Menken) adds a very solid presence to the film as Dobbs’ mentor and advisor. Lewis Black (as Eddie Langston) helps in a short-lived but interesting debate — or maybe friction is a better word — as the campaign shifts from being a joke to a real effort to win.

This 2006 film seemed to come and go with little fanfare. It definitely deserved more, and is a gem worth watching.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Shrek the Third — Movie Review

How I’ve managed to watch all three Shrek movies is beyond me, but I can blame most of it on being an uncle of young kids. Heading out to Shrek the Third on its opening weekend had a lot more to do with keeping two little ones busy than anything else. That said, the movie still managed to disappoint.

Shrek and Fiona are knee-deep in marriage these days, with Shrek filling his ailing father-in-law’s ceremonial duties as king of Far, Far Away land. When his heinous croaks (hey, he’s a frog, I get one bad pun), Shrek, Donkey, and crew, head off to find the only heir that gets Shrek out of becoming king. Meanwhile, the evil Prince Charming is rounding up all of the characters doomed to be the bad guys of fairy tales to rebel.

If this seems a bit complicated for the apparent intended audience of the big green guy, I think so too. Worse, the humor almost always relies on pun and inuendo way over the heads of any one under 10 or 11, and wasn’t all that funny the third time around for the rest of us.

I’ll admit fairy tales weren’t a huge part of my life as the youngest of four boys, but they just had to reach too far for new jokes. Sleeping Beauty, Goldy Locks, and a transvestite-looking chick that I still don’t get were part of Fiona’s buds that end up having to fight off Charming, and the predictability runs rampant. Donkey, voiced by Eddie Murphy, had a somewhat reduced role, which wasn’t helping things, either.

A strange side note for me was how much Charming and the King’s long lost relative looked alike. It was so obvious I thought for sure something would come of it, but it was never even mentioned. I guess coming up with what would have been only the third or fourth original looking character was too much to ask.

Sadly, the best part was the postscript to the story in which Fiona has given birth to several little Shreks. A few classic dad-taking-care-of-baby jokes were the best laughs of the night. I only say “sadly” because Shrek 4 seemed to be guaranteed in those final minutes.

The original Shrek was solid, but that was all I ever needed to see. Talk of an ongoing franchise should frieghten movie goers and young parents alike. Shrek the Third just wasn’t that good.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Bobby — DVD Review

Ten minutes into Bobby, the main thought I had was to wonder whether or not we really needed another period piece about the ‘60s. By the end of the film there was very little doubt that the answer to that question was a resounding no, at least not this one.

Bobby follows several individuals at Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel on the night Bobby Kennedy was shot and killed while in the midst of his presidential campaign. From campaign workers having their first acid trip to hotel employees dealing with the racial tension of the day, the film gradually pulls together these disjointed stories intertwined forever by the tragic moment that many feel changed the course of our country’s history forever.

This film tries to do too much, and never allows the viewer too latch on to any of it. The closest thing to a story line that I cared about was the racially charged conversations and disputes among the kitchen staff working under a bigoted boss (Christian Slater) who won't give his employees time off to go vote. Another decent aspect was the young girl (Lindsay Lohan) who was marrying a guy she didn't love just to help him (Elijah Wood) avoid the draft and Vietnam War.

Emilio Estevez, the film’s creator who played a small part as the husband of an alcoholic lounge singer played by Demi Moore in a subplot that lost my interest early on, seemed to rely on nostalgia and star power to drive the film. William H. Macy plays a hotel manager cheating on his wife (Sharon Stone), a hotel beautician. Anthony Hopkins and Harry Belafonte play a couple old pals who just play chess and offer wise observations.

Helen Hunt and Martin Sheen, and Ashton Kutcher, were involved in a few of the side stories that just never went anywhere for me. I kept wondering why Hunt gets matched up with co-stars that at least seem a lot older than she is and how Kutcher ended up in a serious period piece. His role as a hippie getting the scrub election workers high seemed like a weak attempt at humor, though I’m pretty sure it wasn’t meant to be.

I’ll admit this film quickly lost my strictest attention early on, and might take a slightly older viewer to appreciate. That said, Bobby just wasn’t that good.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

The Pursuit of Happyness — DVD Review

I looked forward to seeing The Pursuit of Happyness for quite a while, having been denied the chance to see it in theaters due to a sellout one night and being a fan of Will Smith. Unfortunately, while it was a decent story, I was fairly disappointed considering the hype the film received.

Smith played Chris Gardner, a down on his luck salesman fighting to keep his family afloat and together while seeking the American dream. His wife finally leaves him, but he insists that his son stay with him. Gardner takes a competitive internship at Dean Witter despite the offer of no pay, and on many nights literally scrounges to find a place for him and his son to sleep, while continuing to sell an alternative to X-ray machines he invested in.

My suspicion is that the disclaimer that comes on most films depicting true stories (as this one does) that some events were dramatized was more necessary than usual for this film. Every piece of bad luck that could befall a person nailed this guy right between the eyes. I’m not suggesting people don’t go through the things Gardner went through, but there was just so much “bad luck” packed into this film it became draining just to watch.

I also didn’t find Gardner to be an overly sympathetic character. It was admirable that he pursued his dream and that he wanted to be a real father to his son, but it just seemed like he chose the hardest route possible. For example, I wondered why he didn’t eat the loss on the bone density machines and take some sort of night job for steady cash.

I always find it hard to judge actors playing real people. They’re limited to what they can (or even should) do. Smith certainly never stepped out of character, and he was at least a guy you rooted for. Smith’s real-life son (Jaden) also played his son in the movie, Christopher, and was fine, but I don’t quite get what all the fuss was about over his performance.

The restraint Gardner showed in the face of some prejudice from his boss for the internship was interesting. I could see some wanting it to be explored more, but too much more may have distracted from the intended picture of this man’s determination. In fact, his restraint appeared based in that determination not to be deterred from his goal.

The Pursuit of Happyness gets a touch long, but won’t make you regret not doing something else with the two-and-a-half hours. That said, it’s just entertaining.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Rocky Balboa — DVD Review

Watching Rocky Balboa wasn’t about seeing a movie. It was about watching a character I’ve known my whole life, a character that personifies the city I call home. It was about remembering watching Rocky II from the balcony of the neighborhood theater where the movie crowd seemed to blend with the on-screen fight crowd. It was about fake boxing with a kid from our first neighborhood in the basement of our house. It was about watching Rocky V with my dad on a dreary afternoon — probably the only movie we ever went to by ourselves.

Sylvester Stallone brings his story of a fighter from Philadelphia full circle with the final installment of the Rocky films. The retired champion owns a restaurant named after his beloved wife, Adrian, now deceased, as he struggles to cope with her loss and a strained relationship with his grown son, Robert (Milo Ventimiglia). A computer simulation suggests a younger Balboa (Stallone) would have beaten the current champion, Mason Dixon (Antonio Tarver), who is desperate for a fight the public actually cares about. The inevitable match-up is set as an exhibition that allows Rocky to step into the ring one more time.

Unlike Rocky II through V, Rocky Balboa truly returns to the character-driven storytelling that made the first a classic. It doesn’t reach the level of the original, but it offers an excellent capper to this series. I saw Stallone in interviews say he just wasn’t satisfied with Rocky V as the conclusion, and by comparison Balboa shows why.

To be honest, I was disappointed when I heard the movie included one more fight for Rocky. It just seemed like too much of a stretch, even with the real-life example of George Foreman coming out of retirement well into middle age. But, while “the fight” is always a key to the Rocky films, this one, like the first, really wasn’t the center of the movie. Maybe more to the point, winning the fight wasn’t the driving force. That said, it still stirred enough emotion that I wanted Rocky to knock Dixon’s ass out by the end.

This was really more of a celebration of a character that, at least in Philly, has been adored for 30 years. I thought the loss of Talia Shire, who played Adrian and turned down reprising the role again, would be tough to overcome. Instead, she was almost a center piece of the film, as Rocky even admits she’s never far from his thoughts. His tour of all the places that reminded him of her on the anniversary of her passing was a terrific way to tie-in the previous films and include the character.

They tastefully “replace” Adrian by having Balboa befriend the young girl he encouraged to find a better crowd in the original, Marie (now played by Geraldine Hughes). Again, I just thought it was a great way to recognize the past.

Pauley (Burt Young) is still around, and gets off a few good lines as always. Deleted scenes showed an abandoned effort to offer his character a little more depth, but the unspoken loyalty and the connection with Balboa through Adrian (Paulie’s sister) works well.

The line between fantasy and reality is blurred just a little too much, I thought, though seeing Mike Tyson give Dixon crap about not fighting anyone was kind of funny. The fight scenes, billed as some of the most realistic on film, lost something for me. I wanted more of the classic Rocky fight scenes with some more emotion between the fighters. Instead viewers were offered a simulated version of a fight on HBO pay-per-view, complete with the grating commentary of Larry Merchant.

I don’t know if people outside of Philadelphia get Rocky, and I don’t really care. If you’re from the City of Brotherly Love, Rocky Balboa was in and out theaters way too fast. I regret not seeing it with a crowd, but I certainly wasn’t going to miss it altogether. Neither should you — it’s a must-see and well worth watching.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

The Night Listener — DVD Review

In a little ballyhooed film, The Night Listener, Robin Williams offered additional evidence that he can play more than comedic roles. Yet, this true story falls short of its “Hitchcockian” promise, and shot itself in the foot at least once weakening this strange tale.

Williams plays Gabriel Noone, a radio personality who reads his own creative stories over the air. In the midst of breaking up with his gay partner, Jess (Bobby Cannavale), Noone is desperate to fill the void left in his life. He tries to fill that void when a devoted young fan (Rory Culkin as Pete D. Logand), whose gravely ill, and his mother (Toni Collette as Donna D. Logand) who start calling him. When questions arise as to the whether or not he’s talking to two people or one deranged woman looking for sympathy, Noone becomes obsessed with finding out the truth.

There were a couple of serious flaws in this film. The biggest mistake was showing the boy talking to Noone on the phone. There was no suggestion that Noone was just picturing a boy, viewers were clearly seeing a character in the film. We even see him and his mother together. This was completely avoidable and weakened the sense of mystery surrounding their identity.

I also thought Noone’s need for love needed to be a bit clearer up front. That said, I did “get” his obsession on the level of wanting to know whether or not someone he grew to care for even existed. But only when his own need for closeness is clear could his increasingly odd, or aggressive, behavior be understood.

On the positive side, The Night Listener does a solid job of bringing the viewer along. The mystery unfolds very well, as opposed to everything artificially coming together in the end. I’m normally intrigued by characters that are writers, and that at least pulled me in to this film, though this trait could have been put to better use.

One interesting DVD extra explained how the woman portrayed as Donna Logand actually sent letters to the set while filming was going on. It gave the overall experience of learning about this true story more impact, but not really enough to save it.

A writing instructor once told me that just because something was true doesn’t make it a worthwhile subject to write about. That’s how I felt about the ending of this film. I’m sure it looked to stick to the truth, but I wanted more out of it from an entertainment standpoint. A true fan of Williams might enjoy The Night Listener, but few others will. It’s not that good.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Devil Wears Prada — DVD Review

Previews of The Devil Wears Prada suggested little more than a typical comedy. Yet, the surprisingly enjoyable picture offered at least a glimpse of some real character development.

Andrea Sachs (Anne Hathaway) heads into the business world with her degree in journalism in hand and full of ideals. She ends up working as a second assistant to Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep), head of Runway magazine. Andrea decides to suffer through what she deems the absurdities of the fashion world for a while for the connections and resume boost working for the shrew Priestly brings. She soon adapts quite well, but faces the reality that success means truly joining the world she once mocked.

Usually these types of films have a clear-cut rooting interest for the audience as hope abounds that the protagonist will come to her senses and follow her better instincts. I honestly didn’t want Sachs to “do the right thing” as I watched, and her eventual loyalty to Priestly was intriguing. There’s a real change in the character that leaves the ending in some doubt.

Streep did a great job of playing the boss from hell. As over-the-top as she was at times, there was never a moment where she seemed fake. There’s even a nice touch at the end that offers the character depth without the aw-shucks feel that would have signified it gone too far.

There were a few pitfalls for The Devil Wears Prada. The attempted coup on Priestly, which brought out Sachs’ loyalty, was a bit complicated for a light-hearted film. Sachs’ transformation into a fashion plate, even with the help she got from Nigel (Stanley Tucci), the magazine's art director, seemed questionable based on her presumed finances.

Tucci and Hathaway were fine, but didn’t especially standout. Priestly’s first assistant, Emily (Emily Blunt), was pretty good and managed to be more than a prop for Sachs.

The Devil Wears Prada doesn’t set the world on fire, but was not bad at all.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Castaway — DVD Review

The first time I saw Castaway I was less than impressed, but that was because I was on a blind date. Watching Tom Hanks on an island with nothing but a soccer ball to talk to left way too much silence while I sat beside a woman I literally met 30 seconds prior to entering the theater. All I could think was, “Make something happen!” It only got worse when something finally did happen . . . while my date was in the bathroom.

So, who ever said first impressions were important?

I’m not even sure I know why this movie stops my channel surfing almost without fail every time I come across it. The story behind its filming and the themes considered are far more compelling than what’s actually depicted on the screen. Chuck Noland’s (Tom Hanks) struggle to stay alive after being the only survivor of a small plane crash that leaves him washed ashore a deserted island examines the human instinct to simply live.

Castaway (2000) was filmed over an extended period to allow Hanks to go through the transformation required to portray a character that survives in isolation for a number of years on nothing but instinct and intelligence, as well as love for a woman. There are a few scenes that even I notice as rather special from a visual standpoint. At one point Noland shares the sea with a whale in such close proximity it makes the viewer’s pulse skip a beat or two.

But what has turned this film into a “new classic,” I believe, is how truly thought provoking it is. Castaway taps into the desire many, if not all, of us seem to have to strip away the amennities of modern life and live on a more basic level. One of the most memorable scenes is when Noland proudly proclaims, “I have made fire!” While no one would envy the circumstances under which he is forced to almost re-discover this rather basic element of life, the exhiliration he feels in overcoming what modern man would consider obstacles to create fire is something we do envy and draws us to the film.

Then, of course, there’s Wilson — the soccer ball that becomes Noland’s companion. As someone who has experienced feelings of isolation (due to a disability), I was intrigued by this element of the story. Sure, it was a bit contrived that Noland was a FedEx executive marooned with a few packages that made for good supplies, but the personification of this ball says a tremendous amount about our need for each other. The symbolism of Wilson face coming from Noland’s own blood could spawn at least an essay or two. We need companionship at all cost, it screamed. The man literally weeps at the thought of losing this ridiculous ball, and it’s completely believeable.

A related element is his beloved Kelly (Helen Hunt), whose memory he holds on to over the years as something worth fighting to live for. His longing for her serves as his motivation to stay alone. After years alone, he feels the same about her as he did the day his plane went down, and the way things play out is incredibly sad, yet again thought provoking. Without giving too much away, they’re both forced to accept the death of the love of their lives more than once.

Ultimately, the film tackles what even the strongest wills would have considered under such circumstances — suicide. In fact, it may be too ironic for some that his inability to devise a way to kill himself is what keeps him from the act, when he’s proven himself rather ingenius throughout the story. After his failed effort to commit suicide, one more thing washes ashore bringing him renewed hope. I mention that not to spoil anything, but because it leads to an overlooked line that should be considered a classic: he knew he had to “keep breathing . . . you just never know what the tide’s gonna bring.”

Castaway isn’t a perfect movie, and I’m not even sure its status as a “classic” will hold up. Its “crossroads ending” was a bit too tidy, and may be the films’ ultimate downfall from that lofty billing, but it is without question a film to make a point to watch.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Shining — DVD Review

After reading The Shining, I couldn’t resist the urge to take another look at the film version of Stephen King’s novel. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to watch a film after having read the book it’s based on and judge the film on its own merits. Inevitably, watching the film becomes about seeing how the producers got across what’s in the book and comparing the two. In this case, King’s novel gets the nod over Stanley Kubrick’s so-called masterpiece.

Obviously, the basic story line is the same. Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) takes a job as the off-season caretaker of the Overlook hotel, and slowly succumbs to “cabin fever.” His wife (Wendy, played by Shelley Duvall), along with their young son, Danny (Danny Lloyd), who foresaw disaster at the Overlook, are left to try to avoid his murderous rage.

While expecting Kubrick to get all of the novel’s background into the film would be silly, nailing down Danny’s ability to “shine” needed to be a priority. After all, it gave the book and film its title. Instead, the film leaves doubt as to whether Danny truly has premonitions or just an over active imagination. It was never even made clear that Danny had the ability to know what others were thinking, which would’ve taken next to nothing in the early scenes with the Overlook’s head chef, Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers). In fact, I’m not convinced that if the film is viewed without having read the book that it’s ever clear Danny truly shines.

Another major problem was the lack of depth to Jack. The book offers a complex character, struggling to hold on to what was once a promising career, while trying to be the good husband and father he wished his father had been. He slowly slips into the grips of insanity. The movie simply offers a rather cold character from the outset who becomes more and more enraged. By the time there’s an effort made to show that he truly loved his son, he’s clearly “the bad guy” of the film.

It’s tough to discuss a movie’s ending without giving too much away, but Kubrick’s end did very little for me. Hedges that seemed to come alive in the book transformed into a maze that Danny fled to as his father chased him with an ax. Suffice it to say I just didn’t buy the ultimate outcome.

Let’s face it, if you’ve read the book you’re going to watch The Shining. With the background of the book, Kubrick’s version is just entertaining. For those who haven’t read King’s novel, I’m guessing it’s still something to watch for fun while looking for something better.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Shining — Book Review

I probably never would have read The Shining had it not been sold in a volume (seen here) that included Carrie. In fact, after reading Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, only my anal side got me to read the third and final piece of the volume. Having seen the film, I purposely saved it for the winter months, and had the mood set for me as I finished it up during the first real snow storm (in Philadelphia) of the winter. Whether it was the right mood or low expectations I’m not sure, but The Shining was the best of King’s work I’ve read.

Jack Torrence takes a job as the winter caretaker of the Overlook hotel, a summer resort with a history of prestigious guests and, Torrence learns, more than one murder that has been swept under the rug. Jack doesn’t have a pristine past either, but Wendy, his wife, agrees to go to the Overlook in the hopes of a fresh start. Their young son, Danny, foresees disaster via his ability to “shine,” but tries to ignore his premonitions.

King offers more character development in The Shining than seems to be his norm with good results. He walks the line between realistic drama and science/horror fiction without simply abandoning the former, which is his usual pattern based on what I’ve read. He certainly pushes into the world of fantasy, but earns the trip by keeping the reader off-balance as to whether the other-worldly events were truly occurring or the result of the potentially unstable minds of the characters.

Early on Danny meets Mr. Hallorann, the Overlook’s in-season caretaker, who shares his ability to see events and the thoughts of others. A minor character in the film (as I recall), he is critical to the novel. The ability to “shine,” as he calls it, becomes a real thing for the reader through Hallorann, as opposed to some contrived element of the horror genre. Certainly suspending your belief in what reality can be is a prerequisite to reading King, but in The Shining he meets the reader half way.

This is also apparent in character and plot development. A lengthy novel, King justifies almost all of the space used. Jack’s history of alcoholism and abusive behavior makes it clear that being trapped in a mountainous region locked in a hotel that would be a perfect ski resort except for exceedingly brutal winters was a bad idea. The isolation alone offered a history of murderous outcomes. Wendy’s own past with a poor support system informs her desire to keep her family together despite plenty of warning to flee the Overlook. Danny’s youth more than explains his attempts to initially ignore what the shine was telling him about his father, a figure about which none of us ever want to believe the worst.

Of course, King is still King. I cut my reading short more than once as the hours reached later in the night and the usual noises of the house seemed a bit louder. The ending, which I still can’t remember from the film, was plenty brutal and not overly predictable. It may have run just a touch long, but it’s length is very forgivable.

Young fans of King will love The Shining, and those that liked the film will enjoy the depth of the characters. Overall, if you’re looking for something to pass a few long winter nights, it’s worth the read.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

King Kong — DVD Review

The remake of the classic King Kong started slow, and gradually improved to a poorly done film that raised the question of whether or not the original actually had better special effects. With a subplot that was rather dull and a failed attempt to make the main story more dramatic, the 2005 film falls way short of the classic category obtained by the original.

Carl Denham (Jack Black) headed overseas in a rush to make a feature film that his supporters were about to pull the plug on. Veering ridiculously off course, the ship and crew ended up on Skull Island, which seemed to get stuck in pre-historic times. Complete with dinosaurs and monstrous insects, the island is home to a massive ape that captures (technically rescues then captures), and falls in love with, Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) – the heroin of Denham’s film. King Kong is eventually captured, and the money-grabbing producer attempts to exploit the giant ape back in New York to disastrous results.

I only vaguely recall watching the black-and-white version of this film, but I remember being compelled by it. This version barely kept me watching on a cold, slow night. It took about an hour into the film for them just to get to the island, which was followed by a side-trip into conflict with the natives that served little purpose.

King Kong even failed to sell the bond between Ann and Kong. First of all, she would’ve been dead 10 times over the way Kong carried her around. Maybe I’m nitpicking, but she was constantly in Kong’s grip as he wild flung his arms around. Besides that, there was never any moment where the viewer thought she cared about what happened to Kong, except for the very end.

Aside from going on too long, the film’s biggest flaw was the lack of build-up to the end. I would’ve preferred skipping half of the Skull Island scenes, and seeing how the heck they got Kong home. Or how about a little on how they kept him sedated? Or hidden? I mean, Denham is just suddenly back in New York with a theater show with Kong as the centerpiece. Ann’s not involved at all. Then, suddenly on opening night, Kong decides to go wild and find Ann.

Jack Black’s character didn’t quite work for me, either. Half the time Denham was a quasi-swindler looking to capitalize on the trip any way possible, and the rest of the time he was truly into his work desperate to salvage his footage. Besides that, Black couldn’t shake the fact that he’s known for roles like Nacho Libre. I couldn’t take him all that seriously, and kept waiting for him to make some ridiculous joke or launch into a song parody.

Naomi Watts was the saving grace early on, selling the sweet, innocence of a young, vaudeville actress in need of work. But her efforts at the sassy chick while trapped with the ape never quite worked. Again, I never bought that she grew to like the ape.

Jack Driscoll played Adrien Brody, who saved Ann while they were on the island. Meant as a foil to Denham, the character just never stood out enough to make a difference in the movie. Like the rest of the characters in this film, I never cared much about this one.

Overall, skip the 2005 version and watch the black-and-white version.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Flippin' Around

As the winter doldrums settle in, I’ll admit I’ve had some trouble finding things to write about. There were a few things I thought would be worthwhile that just didn’t do much for me. So, here’s a few quick thoughts on what I’ve found just flippin’ around the channels.

24: I’ve never gotten into this show as I figured missing one episode would mess me up for the rest of the season. But I was bored stiff and looking for something to get into when the two-night four-hour premier came on. It wasn’t too bad at all, though I’m not sure what the craze is all about. It certainly moves, but it doesn’t revolutionize television or anything. The show grabs on to the constant attention threats of terrorism receive these days, but isn’t a whole lot more than a high-grade cop show. I already missed an episode, so I’m guessing I’m out of luck.

American Idol: I tried watching this show two years ago, thought it was fairly stupid, and checking in on it again did nothing to change my mind. Maybe it gets better after the open auditions, but I just can’t stomach it long enough to find out. As a wannabee writer, I know what it’s like to have your best stuff shot down. But some of these people are insane, and putting them on the air just encourages these morons. Watching Simon, et al, get off on being the self-appointed experts doesn’t do much for me, either. I will continue to skip it.

According to Jim: I’ve caught this on re-runs lately, mostly because it comes on before Friends. In fact, that’s probably the only way I would watch it — by leaving it on before a show I want to watch is coming on. There’s nothing that bad about the show, the woman that plays Jim Belushi’s wife is ok to look at, and Belushi is ok. Overall, the show just isn’t that good, though.

Deal or No Deal: This is the only game show I would want to actually go on. My theory is that if you can’t walk away with $100k you’re very unlikely or kinda dumb. As a viewer, Howie Mandel is very good. He’s genuinely funny, and usually tries to keep the show going. The simplicity of it is why the show works — it’s watching people risk money to get more of it. For those of us who can only spell Wall Street, it seems like a fast-forwarded version of playing the stock market.

The Office: I hate this show, mostly because it’s too on the mark. I saw one episode where they celebrated a birthday, and it reminded me way too much of my last job. It’s a half-hour every week of the awkward moments I used to spend most of my week trying to avoid. I usually skip it.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Blink — Book Review

Blink, Malcolm Gladwell’s follow-up to The Tipping Point, studies instinctual reaction. At times a fascinating look at what many call gut reactions, the book offers plenty of antidotal and scientific evidence suggesting that paying attention to our first impressions makes a lot of sense. Much like its predecessor, though, the text can get bogged down in minutiae.

Gladwell analyzes everything from speed-dating to war games to the failed attempt of the J. Paul Getty Museum to authenticate a kouros it ended up paying millions for to illustrate the value of the thoughts that come to us in the blink of an eye. The detailed examples are often compelling, and certainly on point, but for me Gladwell’s analysis almost always dragged on too long.

The best example for my criticism, and the only example Gladwell offered which really made me doubt his suggestions, was a marriage counselor that predicted to a high degree of accuracy (based on divorce rates) the compatibility of married couples after observing short, inconsequential conversations between them. There were plenty of interesting tidbits — how a positive remark can actually display negativity — but I didn’t buy the premise. Watching the conversation frame by frame on video or analyzing levels of palm sweat doesn’t seem like worthwhile analysis of a relationship, and reading about such analysis certainly wasn’t enjoyable.

Other examples started out as very compelling reading, though eventually wandered into eye-drooping analysis. Looking at why “New Coke” failed and the flaws of taste-test results offers plenty to get the reader thinking. But by the time the exact details are waded through, few readers are still going to be interested.

The shooting of Amadou Diallo offered plenty of insight into how we react to each other and in high-stress situations. Gladwell even examines the feeling that our mind actually slows down time for us to allow for things to be processed mentally. This was a rare example in which the author avoided over analyzing the situation.

Blink is definitely worth reading, but may be a challenge for some to get through.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Ellen Degeneres Show — TV Review

Last week Ellen Degeneres won the People’s Choice Award for Favorite Talk-Show host. While I always thought there was something off about the stand-up comic’s sitcom, there’s nothing “off” about The Ellen Degeneres Show, which is one of the funniest, most enjoyable things on television.

While every other talk-show seems hell bent on ramming society’s shortcomings and most disturbing aspects down the throats of viewers, Degeneres sticks to her theme song’s advice of “have a little fun today.” Literally dancing in the isle at the beginning of each show, she couples a quick wit with a warmth that would be heartbreaking if it were ever revealed as phony.

From crank calling viewers to involving them in trivia games, Degeneres connects with her audience as well as anyone. She’s also never afraid to make fun of herself, just last week having her personal trainer (the guy from Biggest Loser) on and admitting she cried after working too hard in their last session. I can’t imagine another host arm-wrestling with a famous guest (I forget who it was) and jumping on Rob Lowe’s back as they “skied” in front of a fake slope backdrop on a blue-screen. Yet, for Degeneres it was just another week.

Degeneres seems to genuinely like her fans, even bringing two audience members to the People’s Choice Awards. She has plenty of giveaways, and while I’m sure she’s not footing the bill, she does things without the harp music (unless she’s mocking it) and the river of tears. Even when touching moments present themselves, she’ll find humor in the moment instead of focusing on the drama.

I’d probably get more done in a day if I didn’t make a point to catch Ellen. But her humor while frequently reading viewer e-mail or her Wunnerful World of Web Videos or almost anything else she does, is more than worth making a point to watch.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

We Are Marshall — Movie Review

Admittedly entering with low expectations — having gone to the movies to see Pursuit of Happyness (sold out) — I ended up enjoying We Are Marshall just fine. Despite the predictability inherent in any true story, coupled with being a true sports story, the film offered plenty even to viewers already familiar with the ending.

On November 14, 1970, the plane carrying the Marshall University football team and others home from a road game crashed while attempting to land during a storm. The were no survivors. The impact, of course, devastated the campus and surrounding small town that thrived on fall Saturdays filled with football. Despite strong resistance, Marshall University ultimately decided to continue the program, and the movie follows the first year of the rebuilding process.

Matthew McConaughey plays Jack Lengyel, who takes on the job of head coach after actually lobbying for the position and goes about the seemingly impossible task of building a football team almost from scratch. McConaughey was very good, never once coming out of character. At times you actually wanted the guy to be more polished, but the film never loses touch with the fact that this was a football coach spearheading an effort that involved so much more than a team.

In fact, the film’s biggest success may be never losing touch with the tragedy of the crash, which is given plenty of play in the beginning of the film. A decent secondary story follows a grieving father, Paul Griffin (Ian McShane), and girlfriend (Kata Mara) of one of the star players that died in the crash as they attempt to move on surrounded by constant reminders of football. The father actually plays a pivotal role in trying to stop the university from continuing the program.

Anthony Mackie gives an emotive performance as Nate Ruffin, an injured player who wasn’t on the plane and fights to keep the program. Injury ultimately ends his career, but a very touching scene between he and McConaughey in the locker room before a game as Ruffin begs to play is one of the best in the film.

Despite the emotional content, the movie manages not to get bogged down in it. The battle between the university president and the NCAA to allow freshmen to play was done in a fun way. A few practice scenes offer lighthearted moments, as does a scene with a young rival coach, Bobby Bowden. (The class Bowden showed should win the legendary coach a few more fans.)

A film like this almost always leaves a few holes. Possibly some will have wanted more on the kids or assistant coach, Red Dawson (Matthew Fox), that weren’t on the plane, but it’s impossible to cover everything. There’s also the question of reality versus fiction in this type of film that, at least for me, can take away from a film if there’s too much discrepancy; for instance, I read that the dramatic scene in which students gather outside of the meeting held to decide the football program’s future simply never occurred. The biggest flaw, which seems to befall most sports movies, is the big play ending. Nonetheless, We Are Marshall is worth watching.

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Dirt May Not Last

In the premier of FX’s latest series Dirt, Courteney Cox a good job of shedding the character of Monica that she played for so many years on Friends, but the show may not have much staying power. Looking to capitalize on our star-crazed culture, the show may get as repetitive as some of the network’s other shows.

Cox plays Lucy Spiller, a ruthless editor-in-chief of two of the most popular celebrity magazines. The show looks to explore the ugly side of getting the “dirt” on Hollywood stars. A couple of promising characters on the magazine staff may help the show survive, but there was a lot of focus on the celebs in the pilot. Unless they’re going to have a high turnover rate as far as the celebrities go, plot angles might be hard to come by.

Ian Hart stole the premier as Don Konkey, as schizophrenic photographer that stops at nothing to get the picture. He battles imagined demons as well as real ones, including the impact his job has on the lives of those he shoots. Konkey is the only character I really cared about by the end.

Spiller fights her own battles with what she does despite a hard-core exterior. Paranoia causes her to use an electric shocker on a guy she goes home with after meeting him outside of a club. Her character will need more depth to make the series a hit.

As a wannabe writer who dabbled in the newspaper business, I enjoyed watching how Spiller and her staff developed and maintained sources. However, despite their more intriguing methods of covering their beat as opposed to traditional papers, I doubt it will be enough to keep viewers. The flash of celebrity life may allow it to gain a soap opera type of appeal for some, but that’s not going to last with FX’s short seasons. Dirt is ok, but it’s just not that good.