Wednesday, December 31, 2003

REVIEW(s): My Favorite Brunette and The Kennel Murder Case

Brunette: * * ¾ (out of four)
Kennel: * * ½ (out of four)

Seen 22 December 2003 in Jay's Living Room (WGBH)

I'm pairing these movies not just because I watched them back to back, cleaning out the ReplayTV, which recorded them in the wee hours of a morning earlier this month. I was doing some thinking and realized that both were the type of movie that was made somewhat obsolete by television. That's not a bad thing; there are some things that television just does better than films, especially once studio contracts went the way of the dodo. I don't have much to say about these particluar movies themselves, but how they illustrate the relationship between film and television is interesting.

In My Favorite Brunette, for instance, it's easy to see Bob Hope as a TV star waiting for the invention of TV. He's playing Ronnie Jackson, baby photographer, but there's not much to distinguish Ronnie from Bob Hope. His jokes are of the one-liner variety, and though Hope did a lot of movies, he still performs as if he's used to working with an audience, leaving plenty of room between lines for the laugh track and occasionally addressing the audience directly. The movie breaks up into four or five seperate pieces, each of which might work as a sketch or the basis for a sitcom episode. His leading lady is Dorothy Lamour, with whom he'd co-starred in many (all?) of the Road To... movies. Bing Crosby has a cameo. These actors were doing two or three movies a year together, for the same studio; in many ways, you could look at Peter Lorre and Lon Chaney Jr. as "guest stars"

It's an enjoyable, if mannered, comedy. The writing is about on a par of what I'd expect from a sitcom nowadays, and the performances are adequate, with Lorre engaging in a nice bit of self-parody. One or two jokes even took me by surprise.

The Kennel Murder Case, on the other hand, is of a genre that not only fled the movies for television, but now seems to only even exist as a niche there - the mystery series. William Powell played Philo Vance five times between 1929 and 1933. Different studios seemed to acquire different books in the series, so Vance was played by a number of different actors, though Powell appears to have played the part most often. Judging from this movie, he doesn't seem to have made the character as distinctive as he later would Nick Charles in the Thin Man mysteries.

Time was, adaptations of a series of mysteries could make for a valuable franchise. However, with actors no longer under contract to studios, maintaining a consistent cast is more difficult; it became more suited to television. Then American television wound up becoming attached to the 22-plus-episode season, and few series of stories can sustain such a TV series very long. Now, this species seems to have been "banished" to PBS and A&E, where new Poirot and Inspector Lynley mysteries can be imported from England as they become available. Indeed, even this type of mystery seems to have vanished from mainstream television; "cozy" mysteries (which I've heard defined as one where at least one person is killed ever week but no-one is ever hurt) used to be a network staple - think Matlock, Murder She Wrote, or Diagnosis Murder - but probably the closest thing to them on American TV now is Crossing Jordan, which is certainly on the gritty side.

Film-wise, the last attempt at a mystery series I can recall is Devil In A Blue Dress, with Denzel Washington signed on for sequels that never materialized; Morgan Freeman did play the same role in both Kiss The Girls and Along Came A Spider, but four years apart and as seperate projects.

But, at the time The Kennel Murder Case was made, actors were under contract and television didn't exist; the movies were how stories like this got told. And Kennel is told meticulously; it's a locked-room murder, which plays scrupulously fair with the audience, requiring a great deal of exposition and detail so that the audience can see just exactly how everything could or could not happen. As a result, it comes off rather dry, with the characters of the suspects and victims barely more fleshed out than the detective, who comes off as sort of a generic wealthy amateur sleuth. It's interesting to watch as an anachronism, as police allow this amateur who knew the victims to participate in the investigation, crime scene evidence is discovered an almost random way, as opposed to the systematic forensics we have today (put some gloves on!), and, of course, it's years until the Miranda Warning is in place.

The history of the character on film is interesting - Vance was clearly a popular character in his day, though the character didn't have the staying power of Agatha Christie's creations - the IMDB shows a 55 year gap between 1947's Philo Vance Returns and a 2002 Czech TV adapation of The Greene Murder Case, but the character appeared on film 27 times between 1929 and 1947. Somehow, he never made the jump to television before '02. And though Powell is the definitive Philo Vance by default, playing the character 5 times, he's better known for other roles, making Vance something of a footnote in movie history.

Sunday, December 21, 2003

REVIEW: Looney Tunes: Back In Action

* * * (out of four)
Seen 19 December 2003 at the Arlington Captiol #1 (second-run)

There are some obnoxious parts to Looney Tunes: Back In Action. The Wal-Mart product placement gag, for instance is belabored and not nearly as subversive as it would like to be; it doesn't come close to blowing up in the advertiser's face the way the product placement in Minority Report did. And even for a movie which is definitely being aimed (at least in part) at a ten-and-under audience, some characters come off as flat and undeveloped. I'm not sure what, exactly, Heather Locklear is doing in the movie, either.

But... Much of the rest is inspired. It's the kind of movie that in today's world could be homogenized into something painfully bland, but somehow writer Larry Doyle and director Joe Dante kept that from happening. Just the very fact that only one writer is credited is something, and it's also great that Dante was allowed to indulge himself. He loves these characters, especially the Chuck Jones versions, which is mostly what's presented here. He also likes old sci-fi movies, as the scene in "Area 52" with Joan Cusack will attest (Daleks... There are Daleks in this movie!). And, hey, it's intensely gratifying for me to see him cast Timothy Dalton as the world's greatest super-spy on-screen and off, him being my favorite Bond and all (of course, he's also the one who would be most believable as both Brendan Fraser's father and young enough to still be active).

Dalton playing Damian Drake, whose life on-screen is the same as it is off-screen, is kind of a tribute to the way the Looney Tunes characters operate. Since the beginning, they've broken the fourth wall or gone completely meta, doing cartoons about them as actors in cartoon movies, but even in those, their personality remained constant. Here, Bugs and Daffy show that their relationship off-screen is just as contentious as it is on-screen, and it drives the plot, as Daffy seeks to strike out on his own and Bugs realizes he needs Daffy.

The human characters are passable. This movie will do nothing to help Brendan Fraser's case when arguing that he's actually a really good actor and not just a goofy slapstick guy, but he is a good slapstick guy. It's a gift, really, to be able to handle screwball dialogue with Daffy Duck, considering the duck isn't actually on set. Jenna Elfman (paired with Bugs) doesn't seem as comfortable as Fraser, but she doesn't quite have the practice. Also a bit out of practice is Steve Martin, who hasn't been able to cut loose and play a total spazz like he does here for almost twenty years.

The big fun of the movie, though, is watching it as a scavenger hunt. Cartoon, pop culture, and cult movie references are tossed around in the foreground and background approximately once a second - aside from the "Area 52" scene, check out the titles of the VPs at the Acme Corporation, for instance, or who's directing the new Batmovie (hey, he can't be worse than Schumacher). Spot Dante favorites Robert Picardo and Dick Allen. Be ready to freeze-frame when the DVD comes out.

In addition, this is one of the few times I can remember most of the Looney Tune voices really sounding right. June Foray as Granny is a given, and Joe Alaskey may, in fact, be a better Daffy than Mel Blanc, but I never figured Alaskey for doing such a good Bugs. Or Billy West as Elmer. Or, heck, Brendan Fraser doing Taz. The only one that really seems off is Eric Goldberg as Marvin the Martian.

In short: Much more right than wrong here. And when "wrong" happens, well, give them a couple seconds. It gets back on track.

REVIEW: The Missing

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 18 December 2003 at AMC Fenway #7 (first-run)

This is an odd throwback of a Western, featuring vicious, slave-trading Indians (aided and abetted by other, white, Army deserters), but also strong, heroic women. The chase across New Mexico is gorgeously filmed, and the danger both nature and civilization present is realistically presented, but there's also an undercurrent of the supernatural that undercuts a lot of the movie's believability.

A good chunk of that believability comes from star Cate Blanchett. As a single mother of two trying to run a ranch, Blanchett displays the kind of strength that is expected from her. Her character is intelligent, stubborn, and fiercely protective of her children; her anger toward the father who abandoned her and the rest of her family as a child (Tommy Lee Jones) simmers, wholly justified but still powerful enough to destroy her.

Tommy Lee Jones is more problematic. He left his family thirty years earlier to live with the Apache, and director Ron Howard makes great use of Jones's wrinkled, weatherbeaten face. His tendency to not so much overact but be larger than life doesn't quite mesh with the other characters in the early going, though. Even for someone who is supposed to be somewhat alien, not part of the same world as the other characters, he seems too different. His other "great white hunter" role this year, in The Hunted, just seemed to fit the rest of the movie better.

The actresses playing the daughters do well. Evan Rachel Wood already has a decent resume, but she plays a character I like - although her disdain for frontier life may rub some audience members the wrong way, it later becomes clear that although she doesn't want to live like her mother, she has inherited the same sort of strength of will and ability to survive. Ten-year-old Jenna Boyd, as the younger daughter, takes a part that could be very annoying, but emerges likable and believable. Maybe she owes someting to Ron Howard, who by now probably has more experience both directing child actors and being directed as a child actor than anyone else out there.

Howard probably deserves more credit than he gets for directing spectacle, too. The Missing features several big set-pieces, all brought off fairly well. He also directed Backdraft and Apollo 13, and other technically demanding pictures, yet his name isn't mentioned when dream directors for big movies come up (for instance, I think he'd do a great Superman). The picture as a whole isn't his best work - it could be shorter, among other things - but it's still pretty good.

The biggest issue is the film's main villain. Played by Eric Schweig, this Apache "witch" is a caricatured monster - hulking, scarred, playing with snakes, dabbling with supernatural, selling nubile young girls into slavery. He barely speaks, further dehumanizing him. He's so undeveloped relative to the other characters, character-wise, that the writers seem to try to make up for it with viciousness. An odd choice, as well as a politically incorrect one.

REVIEW: Devil Fetus (Mo tai)

* * (out of four)

Seen 17 December 2003 at Allston Cinema #2 (Weekly Wednesday Ass-Kicking)

This just ain't a good movie.

Go ahead; try and find a plot. Try and find some sort of underlying theme, or some sort of idea of the monster's motives, or method to its madness. You can't. From the time it's released from some sort of jade vase as a vapor to when it is finally defeated, it's a kind of generic monster that does whatever the writer and/or director needs it to do that moment. The movie is also hilariously dated.

As bad, no-budget horror movies go, though, it's done relatively well. With a simple goal of grossing the audience out, it does that. There's vomited worms, people eating dog entrails, and icky green monsters having sex with pretty young women. The movie careens haphazardly between these events like a pinball, its cast never seeming to understand what's going on but also never seeming to be terribly disturbed by it. Indeed, it's like they're not aware much of the time, until the plot requires it. This may be the single most arbitrary movie ever made.

At least it's enthusaistic. There's something kind of admirable about the way it just charges ahead with its nastiness, leaving plot details behind, like "we could explain this, but isn't the unknown scarier, anyway, and, besides, it would waste valuable time that could be spent revolting you." In that way, this Hong Kong horror movie is like its kung fu cousins, knowing which bits of the movie the audience responds to on a visceral level, and not wasting much time with the other stuff.

REVIEW: Topper Returns

* * ¾ (our of four)
Seen 13 December 2003 in Jay's Living Room (WGBH)

The screwball murder mystery is a genre that seems to have more or less died out nowadays; only the Coens, with movies like The Big Lebowski and The Man Who Wasn't There, seem to be in the general ballpark. I imagine it's a casualty of the growing push toward realism films have made over the past thirty or so years - you could combine elements as dissimilar as a premeditated murder and goofy comedy when the artifice of a movie was clearly on display, with sets that unashamedly looked like movie sets and actors who hadn't yet developed the naturalistic technique of today's film and television performers. We're more sophisticated today, and like our cross of humor and tragedy served up with a heavy dose of irony.

So maybe a movie like Topper Returns, which throws a little murder, a little romance, and a fair amount of comedy together without winking at the audience, wouldn't work today. And, indeed, it doesn't necessarily work for its time (1941). At times, the Toppers only seem to be included so that the film doesn't have to spend much time explaining why Gail Richards (Joan Blondell) comes back as a ghost. Indeed, the film never explains why Gail allows Topper to see her but nobody else, and the plot mechanics become more convoluted and elaborate as the film goes on. It's an idiot plot, really. And Eddie "Rochester" Anderson's performance as Topper's chauffeur is awfully Steppin Fetchit for a modern-day audience.

The film is not without its charms, though. Joan Blondell and Carole Landis go on my list of actresses I'd really rather not be reminded would be old enough to be my grandparents if they weren't dead; they're pretty and likable here. The movie has a knack for escalating comic scenes, as well; it's good lightweight fluff.

REVIEW: The Triumph Of Sherlock Holmes

* * ½ (out of four)

Seen 12 December 2003 in Jay's Living Room (WGBH)

I confess, I've never seen a Rathbone & Bruce Sherlock Holmes movie. I grew up on the Jeremy Brett TV series, and read the books enthusiastically; I cherish my gigantic "Complete Sherlock Holmes" volume, with its Sidney Paget illustrations. From what I've heard of them, with Watson acting like a bumbling idiot and Holmes transplanted to the "present day" and fighting Nazis, I can't help but feel they'd strike me like the James Bond movies (entertaining on their own, but having little to do with the character from the books).

1935's Triumph came out four years before the first Rathbone/Bruce movie, and is part of another series, featuring Arthur Wontner as Holmes and Ian Fleming (not the one who created James Bond) as Watson. It is based upon "The Valley Of Fear", although it does incorporate characters and dialogue from other stories. It's a mostly faithful translation, with Watson happily not being played as incompetent, though he does tend to function as comic relief. Lyn Harding is nicely reptillian as Moriarty.

Indeed, if not for Moriarty's presence, this might have been one of the most faithful translations of a Holmes story ever made. It's because of movies like this that the general public tends to overestimate his importance to the Canon. Moriarty only appears in one story ("The Final Problem") and is only directly referenced in one other ("The Adventure Of The Empty House"). The existence of someone like Moriarty is hinted at in "The Adventure Of The Red-Headed League" and one or two other stories leading up to "The Final Problem". Yet he appears in almost every Holmes film and many pastiches. Here, he serves only to make an already-complicated plot more convoluted.

That said, it is fun to see Harding reciting lines from "The Final Problem" when he makes his first visit to Holmes; it game me the impression that the screenwriter was a fan, forced to add Moriarty in by studio executives. Indeed, the rest of the movie is very faithful to the source material - perhaps too faithful. It matches the original work by cutting away from Holmes and Watson for an extended flashback in the middle, for backstory that's set in America (much like "A Study In Scarlet" - Conan Doyle wasn't afraid to re-use devices). This middle section is necessary, but not as interesting as the rest.

For the most part, though, the good outweighs the bad. The movie is somewhat stiff - as if the people involved were much more used to silents or the stage than talkies - but the story is good and Wontner plays a good Holmes, one who is basically annoying and does a lot of the forensic detection that made Holmes a character ahead of its time. I'd be interesting to see other movies in this series.

Thursday, December 11, 2003

REVIEW: Robotrix

* * ¾ (out of four)

Seen 10 December 2003 at Allston Cinema #1 (Weekly Wednesday Ass-Kicking)

That's more like it. The last couple entries in this series have been pretty lackluster, but this Robocop-inspired kung-fu T&A-fest was fun. I'll readily admit, a good chunk of what makes it enjoyable is the same thing that make Swimming Pool enjoyable - there's plenty of bare flesh on display, along with enough going on that the audience can say they're watching it for more than just nudity.

Indeed, as B-movies go, Robotrix is downright competent. The story makes just enough sense to prevent a whole lot of "yeah, right"s, it's structured not to require a lot of special effects that would either blow the budget or look incredibly fake, and the action sequences pass muster. The places it falls short - clunky exposition, goofy subtitles, and a "high-tech" android research lab that appears to be running on leftover MSX or C64 computers from the 1980s (and, indeed, robots that look a lot less sophisticated once the human skin is off) - were at least "good camp", as far as I was concerned.

The movie's biggest problem is that the action storyline is on the grim and grisly side - the evil robot tortures a kidnap victim with a drill, and is said to rape and kill several women (though only a couple are shown on-screen) - but at the same time, there's a lot of goofy, slapsticky comedy. A murdered pimp has a cartoonish dent in his chest, for instance, and you have to wonder about the way grown men become drooling 12-year-olds around Amy Yip's naive robot-girl character. A western remake would probably tone one of the sides down for fear of appearing to be two similar movies sewn together.

Robotrix is unapolagetic exploitation - sex and violence with a bit of comedy in the mix. It's livelier than the average direct-to-video (at least in the US) effort, though, and in an audience like that at the WWAK, can be a fairly enjoyable couple hours.

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

REVIEW: Portrait Of Jennie

* * ½ (out of four)

Seen 7 December 2003 in Jay's Living Room (WGBH)

Every few months, WGBH-2 has a month where they fill their overnight hours with old movies instead of airing them Sunday afternoon/evening on channel 44. They're not necessarily taken from great prints, the start and end times listed are of the +/- 10 minutes variety, and they can really fill up the ReplayTV's hard drive if you're like me and treat them like free DVDs - well, I may not want to watch it tonight, but maybe later...

They're doing it again, but there's precious little room to maneuver on my Replay because of the other old movies I've recorded and forgotten (that, and the complete runs of Big Guy And Rusty The Boy Robot and Strange World I really intend to save on tape). So, time to start clearing some space. First up - Portait Of Jennie.

The movie can perhaps be best described as a ghost story which isn't a horror movie. Painter Eben Adams is uninspired until he meets a young girl by the name of Jennie Appleton. The girl seems curiously out of place, speaks of her family working at a theater that's no longer in existence, and the second time Eben sees her, has aged quite a bit.

There's the core of a good story here, but it's also kind of frustrating - Adams never seems to have any curiosity about why or how someone from years ago is appearing to him, nor does he try to track her down in his present day after he realizes there's something odd about her (granted, this was a more daunting challenge back in those pre-internet days). There's also a ton of narration and stilted dialog - it's clearly an old adaptation of an even older book. And there's something creepy about the romantic feelings Adams develops toward a girl who, from his perspective, was something like ten years old scant weeks earlier.

If you overlook that, though, the romance is kind of interesting, and the movie plays with color tints in an interesting way toward the end, having previously been entirely in black-and-white (or the print WGBH used really, really sucked). Portrait Of Jennie is an interesting curiosity, but not a classic.

REVIEW: The Last Samurai

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 7 December 2003 at Loews Harvard Square (first-run)

In a just world, this would be Ken Watanabe's movie. It would focus on the final, doomed resistance of the samurai against the westernization of Japan, and what this process meant for the Japanese, whether they be samurai, emperor, or peasant.

That sort of movie has probably been made several times in Japan. The Last Samurai, however, is an American movie being made by Americans for an American audience. So enter Tom Cruise as an ex-Army captain haunted by his service in the Civil and Indian Wars, on a self-destructive path but admittedly not good for much other than soldiering. Hired to train Japanese soldiers in the methods of Western warfare, it is through his eyes that we see this battle.

And that's not entirely a bad thing. The connection in his eyes between American Indians and the people of rural Japan is an interesting one, and the chance to atone for his sins toward the former with the latter gives the movie a nice dramatic arc. The downside is that any active role assigned to Capt. Algren, as there must be for the story to be satisfying, must diminish (if only slightly) the role of the Japanese in determining their fate.

But that's history; putting it aside, how is the movie as entertainment? Pretty good. Cruise doesn't submerge himself into his role quite so well here as he did in, say, Minority Report or Magnolia - he's a bit further to one end of the Movie Star/Actor spectrum - but he's chosen a good Tom Cruise role. He's supported ably by both the English- and Japanese-speaking actors, and develops a camaraderie and respect with Watanabe that is very pleasant to watch.

And the movie looks great; only very rarely does anything seem fake, and the battle scenes are well-staged. And unlike, say, Dances With Wolves (a film I've seen The Last Samurai compared to), it doesn't draw itself out by continuing on past three-plus logical ending points (one at most).

If you can get past a defining event in Japanese history being told from the perspective of a fictional(?) white guy, there's quite a bit to enjoy about this movie. If you can't, though, you might be well-advised to stay away.

REVIEW: Love Actually

* * * (out of four)
Seen 6 December 2003 at Loews Boston Common #6 (first-run)

It's becoming increasingly difficult to figure out how the Richard Curtis who writes Working Title's Hugh Grant romantic comedies like Love Actually (see also: Four Weddings And A Funeral, Notting Hill) with the one who co-wrote every episode of Blackadder a decade or so ago. Where's the bite, the willingness to make the audience laugh at something they may find uncomfortable? The occasional meanness that we Americans find so thrilling about British comedy?

In Love Actually, most of that is supplied by Bill Nighy, playing "Billy Mac", who would be the kind of aging pop star Randy Newman skewered so well in "I'm Dead (But I Don't Know It)" except that he's fully aware how past his prime he is, and walks around being horrible to his manager, his friends, his audience, and various other pop stars. He's spending December promoting his truly awful holiday cover of "Love Is All Around" ("Christmas Is All Around"), showing up on the televisions and radios of the characters in the other interconnected love stories.

In some ways, Love Actually is like a happy Magnolia. Some of the stories are obviously connected, whereas others barely pass by each other. Most are fairly upbeat, and few could sustain an entire movie on their own. All are well-performed, though, even by the kid. It's to be expected from a cast including Nighy, Liam Neeson, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Colin Firth, Laura Linney, Keira Knightly, and Hugh Grant. The movie also has a real knack for cameo casting, as well - Rowan Atkinson is in the advertising, but the real surprise is the actor playing the US President. I won't say who he is, but the temptation for him in particular to play the part as an obnoxious redneck (especially with Bill Clinton and George W. Bush in everyone's minds) must have been immense, but he instead plays it cool and reptillian, a complete departure from his roles in two other recent comedies. Most of the American Girls in the end are recognizable, and I suspect Brits caught a lot more.

Love Actually is a crowd pleaser; it knows its aim and is never far off-target. It's not a hit-and-miss affair like many overlapping-story films; the tone is fairly consistent throughout, so that if you like part of it, you should enjoy all of it.

Thursday, December 04, 2003

REVIEW: Peacock King

Seen 3 December 2003 at Allston Cinema #2 (Weekly Wednesday Ass-Kickings)
* ¾ (out of four)

On the surface, this looks like a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup of a movie - kung fu action and stop-motion monsters being the two great tastes that taste great together. Unfortunately, there's not close to enough of either one, leaving this short movie (in the 85-minute range) feeling not so much padded or boring as just lightweight and under acheiving.

The plot is thoroughly silly - some two thousand years ago, there was a battle between good and evil which resulted in the Hell King being imprisoned, but now his servant Kaga, the Hell Witch, and daughter Ashura, the Hell Virgin, are somehow going to bring him back by opening four Holes. Destined to oppose them are two martial artist monks, the Chinese mercenary Peacock and the Japanese esthete Lucky Fruit, who pick up a pretty sidekick along the way.

Goofy, but so are other examples of this genre; you tolerate the goofy because it gets you to the action sequences. But there's only one good martial-arts sequence, and the monsters are pretty disappointing. Indeed, it cruelly teases the audience with dinosaurs, but the promise is never fulfilled. The final sequence is in some ways torturous - it offers up a giant who always seems to be moving but never seems to get much closer to the heroes, and relies too much on battle auras and power emanating from hands, and not enough of people punching and kicking each other.

I believe this movie was based upon a manga, and I can't help but think animation might have been the way to go here. That, or a Hollywood-sized special effects budget.

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

REVIEW: Bad Santa

Seen 30 November 2003 at AMC Fenway #9 (first-run)
* * * (out of four)

First, a rant about AMC Fenway's pricing - $7.50 for a matinee? $3 for a small soda? (which, to be fair, seems to be about the same size as a Loews medium). That's something like $1.25 more than at Boston Common, and the presentation isn't that much better. The reports that AMC and Loews are considering a merger should scare all of us, especially if it means the good things about Loews (Weekday Escape tickets, vs., spiffy indie programs like Shooting Gallery and Sundance) fall by the wayside along with semi-reasonable pricing.

OK... The movie itself. It's one I'd been looking forward to, what with it being produced by the Coen Brothers, directed by Terry Zwigoff (Ghost World), and starring funny people like Billy Bob Thornton, Lauren Graham, Bernie Mac, John Ritter, and Alex Cox. Thornton playing Willy, an alcoholic department store Santa who robs his place of employ along with an elf accomplice every year, is a funny notion. It's a sort of variation on his character from The Man Who Wasn't There, only with his contempt for himself this time eclipsing his contempt for the rest of the world.

This year, though, he runs into a couple of people who inexplicably like him. One's a bartender (Lauren Graham) with a Santa fetish; the other is a fat kid who may just be the retard that other kids taunt him for being. Indeed, none of the characters aside from Cox's (who can get into small places while Willy cracks the safes) are really that bright, but this isn't really a moron movie. It's more about how basically selfish people and basically decent people handle each other.

Don't look for anyone to learn the true meaning of Christmas - Zwigoff isn't the kind of hypocrite who would serve something sanctimonious up after letting the audience revel in bad taste for an hour and a half. A good deal of the fun of this movie is watching Willy do things you would secretly want to do in his situation, but you never feel jealous because he's so pathetic; that would feel hollow if Willy were to suddenly feel bad about what he does. This movie's cynical to the end, although it manages that without being completely heartless.

Still, leave the kids at home. There's sex, swearing, and just about every form of depravity and bad behavior you can think of, most committed while wearing a Santa suit.

REVIEW: Pieces Of April

Seen 30 November 2003 at Kendall Square #8 (first-run)
* * ¾ (out of four)

There are only a few prodcuers who are a better indication of what a movie will be like than the director. Jerry Bruckheimer, for instance, will give you a glossy movie with a fine cast all playing well below their capabilities in a story that doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but which has some memorable bits. Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, Gary Winick's InDigEnt (Independent Digital Entertainment) will generally deliver a grainy, flat-looking movie with a surprisingly good cast that talks a lot but doesn't say as much as they think they do.

Just as Bruckheimer sometimes lucks into a good movie every once in a while (The Rock, Pirates Of The Carribean), so here does Winick. Pieces Of April looks nicer than the other InDigEnt films I've seen (Sam The Man, Tape), which may just be a factor of better technology, but also seems to be the result of better lighting. Which is good, because what use are the fine performances by Katie Holmes, Patricia Clarkson, Oliver Platt, et al., if you can't see them?

The story itself is simple; April (Holmes) is the black sheep of her family. Neither her parents (Clarkson and Platt) or siblings can think of any happy memories involving her, and since leaving home, her life has been one disaster after another. As this Thanksgiving starts, though, she seems to have turned a corner - her boyfriend (Derek Luke) seems like a nice enough guy, and she's offered to host the family's holiday dinner.

There's a likable desperation to April - though at times she seems too nice to have been the nightmare her family describes, she has lapses where she's rude or inconsiderate, and there's a subplot with her boyfriend that indicates she may still be quite capable of bad judgment. But her mother has cancer, and it's quite clear that this may be April's last chance to prove to her family that she's not a total screw-up.

There's a fair amount of padding - Sean Hayes has a character who is little more than obnoxious, and it occasionally seems that about twice as much time is spent on April's family in the car as needs to be. But there is one magical moment, where April is trying to explain Thanksgiving to a Korean family that knows little English - she stumbles over the sugar-coated version I learned in first grade, then the politically-correct rebuke, before finally cutting right to the heart of it. There's been lots of "true meaning of Christmas" movies, but a "true meaning of Thanksgiving" one is rarer, and interesting because of that.

Monday, December 01, 2003

REVIEW: School Of Rock

Seen 29 November 2003 at Somerville Theater #3 (second-run)
* * * ¾ (out of four)

I was amused by the Boston Phoenix review of this movie when it appeared a couple of months ago. The author of said review seemed flummoxed by how much he or she enjoyed a broad, PG-rated comedy that features a group of kids and an unlikely mentor forming a team/band and, at the climax, entering a competition. He seized upon Richard Linklater directing and Mike White writing the thing, and decided that it was, like the rock and roll that inspired it, actually subversive and adult - an independant film cleverly disguised as a mainstream comedy.

Bollocks. School Of Rock is a mainstream, kid-friendly comedy. It's an exceptionally entertaining one, not because it does different things, but because it does the usual things better. It gives us the ethnically diverse group of kids, each of whom is dominated by one personality trait, but it is also gifted with an ear for how kids really speak and a great ensemble of young actors to bring them to life.

And, of course, the movie has Jack Black. This is a perfect role for him; it lets him throw dignity to the wind while at the same time show off things he's really good at. The music is the obvious one, but he's also great with the kids; they seem as at ease with him, and he's able to play off them, to an extent that brings Bill Cosby to mind. He's able to give his character a mix of slacker lethargy and burning passion for music that only needs the slightest push to become a complete person.

It's funny, period, but the filmmakers are able to make even obvious bits like a "learning montage" work in different ways at the same time - you get the outrageousness of the video clips Black's character shows the class in and of themselves, him mugging for the camera, and the class of gifted children reacting so seriously. It's brilliant in a way, a clinic in how to cut across age groups and make the same part of the movie funny for everybody in the audience. And the music is legitimately good rock - the kids have talent, it's stuff parents will like, but also speaks to the elementary-schoolers in the audience.

Right now, School Of Rock is vying with Finding Nemo and Intolerable Cruelty for the title of "Year's Best Comedy". It's a gem.

Wednesday, November 26, 2003

REVIEW: Inner Senses

Seen 23 November 2003 at the Brattle Theater (Eye-Opener)

* * ½ (out of four)

I must confess, I don't know if I've ever seen another movie starring Leslie Cheung. I know he's one of Hong Kong's most popular and respected actors, but that would mean seeing good Hong Kong cinema, as opposed to the narrow spectrum from Kung Fu to John Woo. So, I can't really say anything about how Cheung's last movie fits in with his body of work; just how it is as a ghost story/thriller.

And that's not so well. The set-up is okay, with Karena Lam as a young woman seeing ghosts and Cheung as the psychiatrist who works with her. He doesn't believe in ghosts, and that the girl's problems are more earthly (she has attempted suicide multiple times), but also grows fond of her.

There are a few problems here. The ghosts Lam's character sees don't have any connection to her; some are connected to her apartment, but that's the closest to a personal stake they have. The first half of the movie is pretty clunky at times, with a lot of inner monologue/exposition awkwardly delivered. And then the movie takes a sharp turn midway through.

Normally, I like that. Here, though, it doesn't quite work - the plot of the first half is wrapped up in too pat a manner, abruptly reducing an intriguing lead to a bland supporting character. Also, there are scenes where I got the impression that the writers initially wanted to go one way with whether the ghosts were real or imaginary, but decided to go the other without making the rest of the story consistent.

Monday, November 24, 2003

REVIEW: The Matrix Revolutions

Seen 23 November 2003, at the New England Aquarium (The IMAX Experience)

* * (out of four)

Random comments my brother Matt and I passed back and forth from the time we met at the Simons IMAX Theater to when we went our separate ways at Park Street (and later embellished):

"She's not really bringing that kid, is she?" (Not only is The Matrix Revolutions rated R, but the sound system in an IMAX theater could do serious damage to the ears of a girl that small)

"Look - they're not kidding. Those 'Chocolate Covered Bugs' have 'insect larva and/or cricket' listed in the ingredients. Who buys that?"

"Hang on - you actually counted how many seats were in a row and divided by two to decide where to sit? You can't just eyeball it like everyone else on Earth?"

"You know, Ryan [our racing fan cousin] will absolutely explode when he sees there's a Nascar 3D movie coming out."

"If a program you wrote started spouting philosophy rather than searching a database, you'd consider that a bug, wouldn't you?"

Bonk. Bonk. Bonk. "They need to make these seats higher. Us tall people really get hurt when a bad movie makes us pound our heads against our seat backs."

"Should we keep a count on how many times someone says something needlessly cryptic? Or just do it for the Oracle?"

"You know what's keeping me in this theater? $14, that's what."

"Are we supposed to believe there's some kind of chemistry between Keanu and Carrie-Anne Moss?"

"Sure, it's just endothermic - it reduces heat."

"I say we find whatever costumer made Monica Belucci's breasts look grotesque and kill him multiple times."

"Do you think that if they keep telling us Neo and Trinity are in love, we'll eventually believe it or care?"

"I love this character - the one who's supposed to be a stubborn, unlikable hardass but because everyone else in the movie is so damn stupid ends up being the only one talking sense. Still, it's never a good sign for a movie when it has this character."

"Good lord, just how many characters from Reloaded did I completely forget exist?"

"Laurence Fishburne and Jada Pinkett Smith - endothermic?"

"You mean there's supposed to be something between them?"

"How on earth does Trinity not realize that's Agent Smith?"

"Oh, Lord, not The Kid. Does anybody care about The Kid?"

"Neo's just having a complete Ted moment here, isn't he?"

(mostly silence - the attack on Zion was pretty sweet)

"I wonder what this day on the set was like for him. Sit in the chair, wave a couple joysticks around, and scream. Again, and again, and again."

"Biggest. Deus ex machina. Ever."

"Gee, I'm glad you told us that was beautiful. Not like we couldn't tell on our own."

"Yes, Neo, it's very sad. But, um, the clock is ticking on the fate of all humanity here."

(Points at watch)

(Makes "move it along" motions)

"When did this become the Wizard Of Oz?"

"Y'know, if I were an evil computer virus that had replicated several million times and was confronted with the man I hated more than anything, I'd be all over ganging up on him."

"New. Biggest. Deus ex machina. Ever."

"Really, I'm shocked the crucifixion symbolism took this long."


"So, let me get this straight - all the human beings inside the Matrix are likely dead, the machines still rely on their body heat for power, and there's a big hole over the planet's only other source of human beings. And Zion is celebrating?"

"Man, it's a good thing we're easily impressed by new and creative ways to blow shit up."

REVIEW: The Executioner

Seen 19 November 2003, at the Allston/Bombay Cinema #1 (Weekly Wednesday Ass-Kickings)

* (out of four)

So... Let me get this straight. This is one of Quentin Tarantino's favorite Sonny Chiba movies, heck, one of Chiba's own favorites... And the only print in the US is the one we saw, with horrific dubbing by the cast of Speed Racer? Ooooooo-K.

This is, let's say, pretty bad. The story is comical in its absurdity, the character interaction is almost never believable, and the fight scenes themselves are not particularly exciting. It's too slapdash to be good camp, but too silly to be a straight action movie.

REVIEW: How To Marry A Millionaire

Seen 18 November 2003, at the Brattle Theater (Make It Wide - Celebrating 50 Years of Widescreen)

* * * (out of four)

It's a good thing this movie's wide, because it's not much in the other direction - this film, based upon multiple stage plays, clocks in at roughly an hour and a half, with perhaps ten minutes at the start given over to Albert Newman conducting the studio orchestra, followed by five minutes of opening credits. Then, in the middle, there's another long scene where a group of models (including our main characters) are paraded in front of a man ostensibly shopping for his mother (but more interested in Lauren Bacall).

It's a thin movie - Lauren Bacall, Marilyn Monroe, and Betty Grable each get two suitors to choose between and something like an hour and a quarter between them to do it in. Naturally, they're going to choose the ones who like them for more than their beauty. It could be called dated, and in some ways it is, but consider that the plot of my favorite comedy of 2003, Intolerable Cruelty, also involves marrying for money, the only difference being that Catherine Zeta-Jones's character doesn't trade freedom for security.

REVIEW: Die, Mommie, Die!

Seen 17 November 2003, at Loews Copley Place #2 (Sundance Film Series)

* * * (out of four)

I arrived a bit late for Die, Mommie, Die!, so I missed out on the credits. A shame, because it probably had a credit sequence as clever as its utterly hilarious trailer. But, the rest of the movie was worth it.

What surprises me, in a way, is not that it worked - I'd enjoyed screenwriter/star Charles Busch's Psycho Beach Party - but that both of these movies had started out as stage plays. They're lampooning such specific genres of film that doing them on stage seems in some way unnatural. However it worked on stage, though, it's a ton of fun as a film - Busch casting himself as Angela Arden, the film's leading lady, is almost necessary to kick the absurdity level up another notch or two over an authentic piece of melodrama.

I liked the supporting cast, as well. Jason Priestly is only too willing to chew as much scenery as he can fit in his mouth, and he's given tons of opportunity, with the chance to seduce nearly every character in the film, male or female. Both Natasha Lyonne and Stark Sands are very funny as Arden's equally dysfunctional kids. Philip Baker Hall doesn't fare quite so well, having little to do but be grouchy for most of his screen time. Complaining about hemmeroids just isn't in and of itself funny.

Parody's a tricky thing to do well, especially for a genre that manages to make itself look absurd without much help. Die, Mommie, Die! manages it, though, even while mostly playing fair as a murder mystery.

Friday, November 21, 2003

REVIEW: The Animation Show

Seen Sunday, 16 November 2003, at the Brattle Theater (Special Engagement)

I don't recall a "Spike & Mike's Festival of Classic Animation" either this or last year, which is too bad - I never was terribly interested in the "Sick & Twisted" one, there's something of an after-the-fact feeling about the "Oscar's Shorts" package at the Coolidge (and, presumably, the one that played Copley Square this summer), and what you get for animated shorts at the Boston Film Festival is pretty slim pickings. Happily, though, Don Hertzfledt and Mike Judge have teamed up to present this new collection of animated shorts, which they intend to make a yearly event.

Focused as it was on recent Academy Award nominees, I'd seen a number of these shorts before. For the most part, this was an uneven show, but the good shorts were very good indeed. I'll just run down what I saw in (roughly) the order of presentation:

  • "Welcome To The Show" by Don Hertzfeldt (2003) - Even though Hertzfeldt is probably the most simplistic animator in the show, he's also one of the funniest working today. Here, two of the little fluffy guys from "Rejected" (who look like cornflakes to me) show up to explain what animation is. It being a Hertzfeldt short, it starts out just looking odd and quickly becomes surreal.

  • "Strange Invaders" by Cordell Barker (2001) - Sort of cute, in a grotesque way. A childless couple who watches the neighborhood's children from their telescope. When a spacecraft crashes nearby, the tiny, big-headed alien inside seems like fine baby, but their dog knows different. This is one that seems to go out of its way to look bizarre, which is a style I'm not overly fond of.

  • "Mt. Head (Atama Yama)" by Koji Yamamura (2002) - I saw this in March at "We've Got Oscar's Shorts"; it didn't appeal to me terribly then, and I like it just a little better now. It's got some amusing parts, and some nice visuals, but ultimately plays like a fable without a moral.

  • "Ricardo" short-shorts by ??? (????) - The stop-motion is good, but I'm always unsure with this type of bit - are they supposed to be making fun of a retarded kid or laughing with his youthful naiveté?

  • Excerpt from "Mars And Beyond" by Ward Kimball (1957) - Wow. I don't believe I've ever seen this, but I am really, really hoping that Disney includes the complete version on the upcoming "Tomorrowland" Walt Disney Classics set. What you've got here is science-fictional imagination combined with smooth Disney animation, and it's just phenomenal.

  • "Ident" by Richard Goleszowski (1989) - An early work from Aardman Animation. Like a lot of the shorts here, it's going for surrealism, but I find I've got to either get some sort of story or idea from it unless it looks really pretty to enjoy it.

  • "Billy's Balloon" by Don Hertzfeldt (1998) - Yeah, this is some nasty, twisted stuff. It's also gut-bustingly funny, and the movie that first made me love Don's work despite the obvious crudity.

  • "Katedra" by Tomek Baginski (2002) - Another I'd seen before, but this one grew on me. It still comes off more as a tech demo than a short on its own, but it does manage to tell a story and look real good without any dialog, a real plus in a visual medium.

  • "Intermission In The Third Dimension" by Don Hertzfeldt (2003) - Pretty straightforward; characters in a two-dimensional medium expressing awe and wonder at a mythical "third dimension" was done on a Simpsons Halloween episode once, and jokes about the lameness of 3-D movies are shooting fish in a barrel. It still manages an enjoyable absurdity.

  • "La course a L'Abime" by Georges Schwizgebel (1992) - Nifty piece with a painted appearance. No real story, but it does look and sound pretty.

  • "Parking" by Bill Plympton (2003) - One of the new entries, a very funny Plympton work about a parking lot attendant trying to eradicate the small plant which threatens the pristine beauty of his asphault, while impatient patrons just want to park their cars.

  • "50 Percent Grey" by Ruairi Robinson (2001) - Slickly rendered CGI with a soldier not coping with the afterlife very well. Kind of a bleak, one-joke short.

  • "Early Pencil Tests and Other Experiments" by Mike Judge (ca. 1990) - Mostly amusing stuff. I liked "Inbred Jed" the best, and still have no idea what people find so funny about "Office Space". I did find it kind of odd that the two co-producers of this festival are the ones whose animations are perhaps the least advanced technically

  • "Vincent" by Tim Burton (1982) - My brother was somewhat surprised that Disney produced something like this, not aware that Disney occasionally had a little edge, pre-Eisner. This is certainly a treat to see, though, stop-motion in a style that is about one evolutionary step away from The Nightmare Before Christmas. Can't go far wrong with Vincent Price's narration, either.

  • "Rejected" by Don Hertzfeldt (2000) - "Rejected" being nominated for an Oscar is about the most surprising thing I can remember about the awards. If you haven't seen it, it's simply hilarious, at once a parody of the pap audiences often expect and the incoherent work artists often supply. Really, sublimely absurd.

  • "Das Rad" by Chris Stenner, Arvid Uibel, and Heidi Wittlinger (2001) - I think this should have won the Oscar over "The Chubbchubbs"; the stop-motion effect is nice and the basic idea of observing civilization in "rock-time" was very clever.

  • "The End Of The Show" by Don Hertzfeldt (2003) - I laughed so hard at this. I won't describe it, except to say that my brother and I were yelling "ROBOTS!" at each other all afternoon.

  • Looking over the list, I come across as more critical than I mean to be. While none of these shorts except possibly "Mars And Beyond" are perfect, keep in mind that most of those paragraphs took longer to write than the shorts did to watch, and my first reaction was almost uniformly positive. Also, it was great to see all those styles together, showing off the range of animation as a medium.

    Monday, November 17, 2003

    REVIEW: The Event

    Seen Sunday, 16 November 2003, at the Brattle Theater (Eye Opener series)

    * ¾ (out of four)

    I'll admit it - it just might not be possible for me to enjoy a pro-suicide movie. Especially one, like The Event, that exists to exalt assisted suicide. Even if I were in Matt Shapiro's position, dying of AIDS and not responding to treatment, I couldn't imagine killing myself, because a cynical (or is that optimistic?) part of me would just know that some kind of breakthrough would be announced the next day, and how stupid would I look then? And assisted suicide? That's putting the people you love, care about, and trust into ethically and legally precarious positions so that you can avoid responsibility one last time.

    But even if I agreed with this film, I don't think I'd like it. Although writer/director Thom Fitzgerald peppers it with some amusing black humor, he has made an "issue movie" which neither engages in debate nor makes anything close to a strong argument for its cause. It portarys Shapiro (Don McKellar) as a saint, and his mother (Olympia Dukakis) even refers to him at one point as a "hero", akin to a police officer who died in the line of duty.

    The woman she makes this observation to is Nick (Parker Posey), an assistant district attorney investigating Shapiro's death (the "goodbye party" which precedes it is the "event" of the title), along wtih a number of other apparent assisted suicides who were all connected to the same doctor (Brent Carver). Nick could have been an interesting ethical counterpoint, someone who believes life is precious and feels that the willingness to end another's life erodes respect for life in general. But, instead, she's just working the case because it's the law and upholding the law is her job, even apologizing to the doctor at one point.

    I'm not sure where my disagreeing with this movie ends and where my disliking it begins. I think the filmmaker is so certain of the rightness of he beliefs that he didn't allow any conflict or drama in, and that in the end the film (and the audience) suffers for it.

    REVIEW: Master And Commander: The Far Side of the World

    Seen Friday, 14 November 2003, at Loews Boston Common, Screen #14 (new release)

    * * * ½ (out of four)

    It's good for the soul to sit through the credits for a film like Master And Commander. The sheer amount of glossy, well-produced, technically astounding features that Hollywood sends to our local cinemas every week can cause a frequent moviegoer to take for granted just how much effort goes into producing these films, especially one with the degree of difficulty this has.

    The plot is nothing new - you have your basic beloved, veteran captain and ship; the more intellectual, relatively pacifistic foil; the stealthy, more advanced, unseen enemy ship; orders being exceeded in a way to put the crew in serious danger; the officer who does not have the crew's confidence and respect; the need to sacrifice some of the crew to save the ship. The difference between Master And Commander and, say, Crimson Tide is one of details.

    But what details! Few movies in the genre are so well-researched, and the way the tactics and necessities of 19th-Century naval warfare are described in an offhand, but precise, manner are impressive. The shots on the water are gorgeous, especially the opening image of a fog bank being illuminated from within by cannon fire.

    Performances are generally solid, though the movie tends to drag for a few minutes before the crew begins preparing for the final battle sequence: They're doing standard sub/ship movie stuff, and I was anxious fort hem to get back to what makes this movie unique, as opposed to what was mostly familiar.

    Still, highly recommended - director Peter Weir is not known for messing around and he delivers what may be the greatest fighting-sailor movie ever made.

    REVIEW: Dragon Fight

    Seen Wednesday, 12 November 2003, at Allston/Bombay Cinema (Weekly Wednesday Ass-Kicking series)

    * * * (out of four)

    Despite what the three-star rating would seem to indicate, Dragon Fight is not really a good movie. In fact, it is decidedly sub-par in almost every area other than fight choreography - which is, in fact, rather impressive. Jet Li and his sparring partners do a nice job without much (if any) wire work.

    This movie does gain a certain amount of camp appeal, though, by sheer dint of how hard it tries. It must have been a considerable expense (relative to the genre) for a Hong Kong martial arts movie to shoot in San Francisco, even closing off streets to stage some vehicular mayhem. But while great attention is being paid to detail and craft in some areas, the movie is terribly sloppy in others. Characters speaking English invariable sound ridiculous; I had to rely on subtitles to understand what some of the Chinese Triad bosses were saying. But even the white and African-American characters sounded awful. The producers must have hired people they found on the street, or perhaps the director just kept screaming for a more "intense" performance, whether it matched what real people sounded like or not.

    I enjoyed it because, he, Jet Li can kick some ass, and it was a good (if small) crowd, which had been softened up by trailers for Taoism Drunkard and stuff like The Gravy Train. In another environment, though, the cheesy production might have been annoying rather than oddly charming.

    Sunday, November 09, 2003

    REVIEW: The Human Stain

    Seen Sunday, 9 November 2003, at 11:40am, Landmark's Kendall Square Theater, Screen #1

    * * (out of four)

    The Human Stain doesn't really do much wrong, but I'm not sure I really see the point of it as a movie. It's got some terrific actors - really, Ed Harris and Gary Sinise seem to be overkill for their parts - and is nicely shot. But there's also no escaping that it was adapted from a book, one which was undoubtedly able to spend much more time on each of the characters.

    Anthony Hopkins's character, Coleman Silk, gets the most time. He's an interesting choice for the character, for reasons I won't get into because I think I may have enjoyed the movie more had I not known his character's secret. After a hammy beginning, his performance settles down nicely. Nicole Kidman is also strong as Faunia Farely, the janitor forty years his junior that he falls for. Nothing wrong with Harris as Faunia's ex-husband or Sinese as Nathan Zuckerman, a writer friend of Silk's.

    Much of the early part of the movie seems contrived, though - Silk loses his job for calling two students who haven't shown up to class "spooks". I guess I'm ignorant, but I have never heard of that being considered a racist term. The way in which he meets Zuckerman also defies belief. And even if I bought into Wentworth Miller playing the same character as Hopkins, only 55 years younger, he seems stilted, not like a real college kid at all.

    The structure also seemed off. Sinise's character narrates as if it were a book, and indeed in the end speaks about the book - The Human Stain - he is writing. Which may have worked fine, in the book. In a film, though, it's an intrusive device

    I can't quite recommend The Human Stain, the film. The book may well be a different story.

    Sunday, August 17, 2003

    [MISC] Paragraphs only vaguely related to each other

    So, I've been working at SodexhoPASS USA for the last couple of weeks, give or take. Not a bad place, but it's still only a contract job with a hard October due-date. It's also out in Newton, which makes for an hour-long commute where I've been very fortunate as far as the weather is concerned (note to self: buy umbrella). Hopefully, the dream high-paying with benefits job in downtown Cambridge will appear sometime soon.

    In a total non-sequiter, I miss Fresh Samantha already. I sadly haven't been able to afford $2.50 juice drinks in my current semi-jobless state, but today Star Market had coupons right on the "Odwalla" fridge (Odwalla being the company that bought Fresh Samantha and has now retired the brand) for 75c off and the self-checout lane was ignoring the do-not-double stamp on it. So a $2 lemonade could be had for fifty cents.

    Or, in this case, a "Strawberry Lemonade Quencher". Which didn't really impress me much at all. Sure, it's better than a 5% juice Snapple (what isn't?), but it didn't have much of a lemonade taste (and Fresh Samantha lemonade was really good stuff). Not bad, but not worth a premium price for.

    It just sort of irritates me that Odwalla chose to enter the New England market by buying and shuttering Fresh Samantha rather than coming in on their own. It reminds me of how, back in the eighties, Broderbund bought Synapse software. Both were companies that made games and productivity file for 6502-based computers. Broderbund, though, wrote for the Apple II and converted to other systems, while Synapse wrote for the Atari and Commodore lines and converted from that. Within a couple years, though, Synapse was gone, and fans of theirs had to make do with what Broderbund put out. Not that Synapse would have lasted much longer - the industry was changing too much, and Broderbund itself isn't even a pale shadow of what it was - but it just sucks to see a company beat out its competition with their wallet as opposed to their product.


    Friday, August 01, 2003

    [MISC] Did something vaguely like work today

    And I guess I'll even get paid for it. I got a call from someone at Randstad earlier this week, who found my resume on Monster and apparently wasn't aware I had already signed on with them nine months ago. They asked me to go to the Harvard Square branch and take some tests on Access. Which seemed silly - the stuff on my resume was much more complicated and useful than what they tested me on (honestly, is the ability of a DB guy to change the font on a table particularly important?). Then I go out to Newton in order to meet the folks who need an "Access guru", and he quizzes me on all sorts of things.

    So what do I do when I come in today? I'm supposed to design one of those paper forms with the little boxes that an automated scanner can read. And either those scanners don't come with software to do it or they don't know about it, so I wind up doing it in Visio, which really isn't suited to the task, but seemed better for it than anything else installed on the machine they sat me at. So, in the end, you had a database/Visual Basic guy using charting software to create a text form, and they apparently loved it. I just shook my head; this is an important office for a large international company.

    But, hey, they're willing to pay me. Fortunately, I got email/calls from another company that might actually want me to do development work full-time. Hopefully that'll come through, because then you get the medical benefits and potential raises and all that good stuff. And no more dealing with Randstad, where the left hand really seems to have no clue what the right hand is doing and the assignments they come up with are just strange.

    Friday, July 18, 2003

    [RED SOX] Ugh

    In cartoons, you see it all the time. A character blithely walks out over a cliff without any sort of support, only to fall when it's pointed out to him that gravity suggests they really shouldn't be there.

    Last winter, the Red Sox hired Voros McCracken to develop statistics and research for them. Voros's most famous work is something called Defense-Independant Pitching Statistics (DIPS), which to oversimplify, says that pitchers have very little control over what happens to balls in play, and the surest path to success is to strike out a lot of people while avoiding walks or home runs. These are things most pitchers want to do anyway, but this was the first time balls in plays were minimized so much, with numbers to back it up. Considering that Lowe's success last season flies in the face of DIPS, having the guy who developed the system on staff and showing Lowe his work might be the equivelent of the Roadrunner pointing down while Wile E. Coyote stands out over open air. The best thing to do would be to shore up the infield defense behind him, but it takes a miracle to get Freddy Sanchez into a game.

    Lowe really had nothing last night. In four innings, he didn't get much in the way of ground ball outs, what important outs he did get seemed to come via the K, and a few defensive miscues hurt him bad. The bullpen was mostly solid, aside from that blast mite-y Casey gave up, so at least something good can be said of the pitching. Still, it seemed to take a lot more effort than it should have - Lowe threw about 80-90 pitches in his four innings, but most telling was Chad Fox throwing 30 pitches in the top of the seventh, while Halladay had thrown something like 60 pitches in the first six. Of course, he was just having a good game - the flaw in the whole take-and-rake strategy is that when a guy like Halladay shows up and throws strikes, a hitter can be down 0-2 quickly, without much to show for it.

    Despite all that, I had a fine time indeed at the ballpark. I called my brother to see if he wanted to use my spare ticket, but he had to work late. I suspect he wouldn't have minded too much when he saw where I was seated - not being a big fan of heights, being in the last row of those steep right-field roof box sections might not have appealed to him. Fortunately, I was able to unload the ticket for $20 before the game, and the guy apparently just wanted to get in because he didn't sit next to me (which is fine, because he looked kind of sketchy). I probably could have gotten more, what with the game being a sellout, but it was a single ticket, twenty minutes before game time. Besides, I have a fear that if I sell a $37 ticket for $38, I watch the game from jail. Just because the vermin scalp tickets pretty openly in front of the gate doesn't mean you can't get picked up for selling an individual ticket, right?

    Wednesday, July 16, 2003

    [RED SOX] All-Stars

    I may have to reconsider my disdain for "This Time, It Counts!" That was a pretty good game last night, although I think the biggest improvement was that Fox toned their act down. There were no over-the-top ceremonies, no chatting with Joe Torre and Don Zimmer during the game, and no omni-present Jeter-cam (honestly, when I heard he wasn't in the game, I was sure Fox would put him in the booth or doing interviews in the AL dugout). No Budzilla, either. Fox basically just showed a baseball game, and it went well.

    As to whether the game was played differently or was more intense because something was on the line - there's good and bad to that. Nomar only played three inning and got one at-bat, and Tek didn't play at all. I have to admit, it made the game less interesting to me; it must have been even less fun for the folks in Detroit and Tampa who love their team despite everything. I did find it kind of amusing that Soscia, whose fluke team seems less likely to go to the World Series this year than Dusty's Cubs, was apparently much more concerned with winning (versus getting everyone in) than Baker. But Baker's got that reputation, I guess, of being a guy whose main concern is making people happy. Not quite Torre, but give him enough appearances and he could be.

    Monday, July 14, 2003

    [MISC] Things Looking Up

    Geez, has it really been almost two weeks since I entered something here? So much for the purpose of this blog being to make me a better writer by making me write every day.

    Still, the scary "I don't know how I'll pay August's rent" situation is past. A new roommate should be moving in today, one Juan Carlos Jiminez-Marquez. It was great fun, yesterday, to take down all the online "roommate wanted" ads. Depositing the check for the security deposit shall be even more fun.

    And, I've finally got a job interview tomorrow, after first talking to the recruiter two weeks ago. Takes long enough, sometimes. I am hoping like heck that it doesn't rain. The job is in an office park out in Newton, and the MBTA bus only goes to the end of the street, with something like a half-mile to walk after that. Already, I'm thinking about just wearing a T-shirt and putting my "interviewing outfit" on once I arrive at the place.

    Speaking of jobs, here's an amusing ad - a job for a computer programmer at the Boston Globe, but the ad on BostonWorks (a Globe site) doesn't allow you to apply online. Sure, I do have a printer and stamps, but it just strikes me kind of odd to try to recruit technical people with the internet but not do it all the way.

    Thursday, July 03, 2003

    [MOVIES] Terminator 3

    Terminator 3 isn't the big, knock you flat on your back experience that Terminator 2 was back in 1991, and still can be today. It does a lot of things very well - and is in fact exceptional in a couple of places - but is somewhat generic at times. Where the first Terminator was a taut, gritty action movie wrapped around an understated (and cleverly science-fictional) love story, and T2 had an unmatched go-for-broke intensity to it, T3 isn't anything we haven't seen before. It's biggest problem is probably that Nick Stahl and Clare Danes are able enough actors, but don't generate the emotional intensity that Linda Hamilton, Michael Beihn, Joe Morton, and Edward Furlong did in previous installments. They're nice, I liked the characters, and I understood John Connor's demons, but they only rarely were able to make the jump to where you believe that what happens to all of humanity depends on what they do.

    Instead, the machines take center stage. Which isn't any bad thing - Schwarzeneggar inhabits the role of the T-101 like he was made for it, and Kristanna Loken is, especially during the first half of the movie, great fun as the T-X. She has the knack of looking pleased with herself without actually smiling, so you could just be assigning human emotions to a machine in your head, if you like your killing machines to be just that. And it's a kick when she analyzes the DNA from a blood sample with her tongue. It's not like watching actual people when they take center stage, but it's not watching a printing press, either.

    The movie's biggest potential problem is that the plot is, basically, the same as that of T2 - machine travels back in time to assassinate John Connor, another machine follows, and Connor winds up attempting to get to the man who builds SkyNet. To the filmmakers' credit, they have some fun with tweaking how similar the two movies are at points - T-101 going into a bar to get clothes being a case in point. And Clare Danes as Kate Brewster is a great addition - she fits the middle ground between the "Sarah Connor, damsel in distress" and "Sarah Connor, badass" of the first two movies. She can take care of herself, but isn't in-your-face about it.

    The movie's big draw is, of course, the action. It's the good stuff, with a big first-act chase scene that sets a new standard for vehicular mayhem, even compared to The Matrix Reloaded. In fact, director Johnathan Mostow keeps the tension high enough toward the end that I completely let slide something I normally would pick up on and complain about - until a character realizes the same thing, too late. Indeed, the last act of this movie is something pretty special - the comic relief slows down, and the movie actually becomes eerie, in a way, without resorting to the usual atmospheric tricks. It follows mayhem with stillness, and made me really wonder about the Terminator movies' future in a way that I really hadn't before.

    T3 isn't a masterpiece, but it's a pretty darn good movie that manages to add something new to the Terminator series. Supposedly, Warner has purchased the distribution rights to T3 and T4, and I must admit to being curious where the story goes from here.

    Tuesday, July 01, 2003

    [MISC] MathCounts on ESPN???

    Yikes... It's absolutely surreal to see an event I participated in broadcast nationally on ESPN (well, ESPN2). Mainly because I'm not athletic in the least, of course. But even if it wasn't on ESPN, just knowing that the competition was being taped for later broadcast, even if you're talking about The Learning Channel or one of those digital cable stations they didn't have fourteen or fifteen years ago would have froze me completely.

    Of course, if you look at how I did when I participated in the event, it's debatable whether anyone would have noticed that I'd frozen.

    [MOVIES] July & August at the indies

    Okay, since I've just spent a good deal of time whining about the less-than-ideal experiences at some of Boston's mainstream theaters, let's counteract that with something I love: Looking over the programs for the next couple months at the "alternate" venues and commenting on them. My comments will be in blue. Also, note that films seperated by an ampersand are a single-admission double feature, but those on the same day but seperate lines are two seperate admissions.

    Allston Cinema Underground ($8 admission)

    Turn It Up! Music Meets Movies
    5 July - 6 July: Fugazi: Instrument ($5)
    11 July - 12 July: Tom Waits: Big Time
    13 July: Wesley Willis: The Daddy Of Rock And Roll
    18 July - 19 July: Shane McGowan: If I Should Fall From Grace
    20 July: All Kindsa Girls: The Real Kids
    23 July: Nobody Knows: Chronicle of An Unsigned Band
    That's a lot of colons. Those $8 admissions for bands I don't know probably will keep me away.

    The Hip Hop Film Fest
    25 July - 26 July: Freestyle: The Art Of Rhyme
    25 July: Word
    26 July: Breath Control: History of The Human Beatbox
    27 July: Soundz Of Spirit
    27 July: Street Legends

    Allston hasn't announced their August line-up yet, but apparently there will be more kung fu. Yay! I had great fun at the shows I went to, but attendance seemed to drop off between mid-May and late June.

    Brattle Theater ($8.50, $5.50 for members)

    Genre Films of The 50s (Mondays)
    21 July: Bad Day At Black Rock & On The Waterfront
    28 July: All That Heaven Allows & Pillow Talk
    The films that inspired Far From Heaven and Down With Love, respectively. Meaning I may just take in Pillow Talk, especially with a good show at the Harvard Film Archive that night.
    4 August: High Noon & Ride Lonesome
    Haven't seen High Noon. Should fix that
    11 August: The Thing & The Man From Planet X
    18 August: Rear Window & The Sniper
    I have seen Rear Window quite a bit, though. Still, The Sniper looks nifty.

    From Panel To Frame: Comic Books In The Movies (Tuesdays)
    Co-sponsored by Million Year Picnic, the local comic shop I patronize. I'm sort of surprised not to see many more conventional superhero movies; I'd like to see Batman in a theater again. Still, the "vertical" programs are short this time around, so I guess they went for the more highbrow stuff.
    22 July: American Splendor
    Opens at Coolidge Corner, and likely other theaters, a month later. Could easily sell out ahead of time
    22 July: Ghost World
    29 July: Barbarella
    Saw it at SF/27, no need to do that again. Now, if it had been a double feature with Danger Diabolik...
    5 August: Ghost In The Shell & Metropolis (2001)
    Tempting... Metropolis was my favorite movie to come out (in the US) last year.
    12 August: Crumb & Fritz The Cat
    19 August: Blade

    Recent Raves (Wednesdays)
    23 July: Spider
    30 July: Morvern Callar
    6 August: The Good Thief & Bob Le Flambeur
    The Good Thief is the only one in this series I got to in the regular theaters, so it'll be the one I skip. I'll probably check out Bob Le Flambeur, though.
    13 August: The Man Without A Past
    20 August: Ten

    Chinese Period Drama Featuring The Films of Zhang Yimou & Gong Li (Thursdays)
    31 July: Farewell My Concubine
    7 August: Raise The Red Lantern & Ju Dou
    14 August: To Live & The Story Of Qiu Ju
    21 August: In The Mood For Love & Shanghai Triad
    Masterpieces all, or so I'm told. Still, every trailer I've seen for this genre makes them look sumptuous but dull. I'm not saying they should mix Once Upon A Time In China 3 in or anything, but I can't get psyched for these

    Special Engagements
    27 June - 10 July: Le Cercle Rouge
    This has a neat trailer, with a seemless blend of the original French theatrical trailer and stuff plugging the rerelease. I know this, because I've seen it a couple dozen times in the last month. Lots of opportunity to see it, apparently.
    11 July - 17 July: Fellini: I'm A Born Liar
    12 July - 13 July: 8½
    11 July - 17 July: Versus
    Apparently the print didn't get to Allston in time to actually be shown, which would have been a major bummer if I didn't know this engagement was coming. I'm all over this; the trailers before the other Ass-Kicking Asian Summer movies there are just cool as heck.
    18 July: Cremaster 1&2 & Cremaster 3
    19 July: Cremaster 3 & Cremaster 4&5
    20 July: Cremaster 1&2 & Cremaster 3 & Cremaster 4&5 ($10 ticket)
    Heh. The Museum of Fine Arts was charging $10 for each show. This could be tricky, though - the middle one is three hours, so if you're going to want to bail, it'll be during that. But once that's over, the last two apparently go quickly.
    24 July: "Trailer Treats" ($12 for the 8pm "party" show)
    25 July - 27 July: Lilya 4-Ever
    Great reviews; I'll check it out.
    26 July - 27 July: Microcosmos
    1 August - 3 August: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly (restored, full-length version)
    8 August - 9 August: Roman Holiday & To Kill A Mockingbird
    10 August: Cape Fear (1962)
    15 August - 17 August: Tattoo
    22 August - 4 September: The Weather Underground
    5 September - 11 September: A Woman Is A Woman

    Coolidge Corner Theater ($8; $5 members)

    Coolidge Selects (Video screening room)
    11 July - 24 July: Bonhoeffer
    25 July - 7 August: On_Line
    Looks the most interesting, but $8 is a lot to spend for projected video.
    8 August - 21 August: What I Want My Words To Do To You
    22 August - 28 August: OT: Our Town
    29 August - 4 September: Boys Life 4

    Summertime Blues (Mondays in July)
    7 July: Bluesland: A Portrait Of Blues In America
    14 July: John Lee Hooker: That's My Story
    21 July: Ray Charles: The Genius Of Soul
    28 July: Martin Scorcese Presents: The Blues (compilation reel)
    I like the Blues, and always feel like I should know more about it, but these collide with the 50s Genre Films at the Brattle, so they'll probably lose out.

    Sounds Great (New sound system on main screen - about time!)
    24 July: Singin' In The Rain
    Missed it at the Arlington Regent. Missed it at the Brattle. Didn't blink when the new DVD came out. And, really, even though it's some kind of classic, the trailer makes it look overstuffed with songs that stop the action dead. So, I'll probably miss it here, too.

    BF/VF Meet The Director
    8 July: Stonewalk
    12 August: The Cloggers Of Putneyville

    Kung Fu Madness (Friday/Saturday Midnites) ($6 tickets)
    5 July: Dragon Fight
    I'll probably be in Maine, so I'll miss Jet Li kicking triad ass. ::sigh::
    11 July - 12 July: Mismatched Couples
    Donnie Yen in a Kung Fu Breakdancing Spectacular? Sold.
    18 July - 19 July: The Victim
    Sammo Hung's best? Sold.
    25 July - 26 July: Crippled Avengers (aka Mortal Combat)
    Not quite as quick a sale as the others, but handicapped kung-fu could be good fun.

    Crazy About Swayze (Saturday Midnites)
    5 July: Red Dawn
    12 July: Dirty Dancing
    19 July: Road House
    26 July: Ghost

    80s Scifi (Friday/Saturday Midnites)
    1 August - 2 August: Goke, Bodysnatcher From Hell (actually, 1968, "lost" Japanese film)
    Anyone who knows me knows I'll be unable to resist that title.
    8 August - 9 August: Robocop
    Never seen it; probably should.
    15 August - 16 August: The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai: Across The 8th Dimension
    22 August - 23 August: Spaceballs
    29 August - 30 August: Krull

    Harvard Film Archive ($7 admission)

    Cinema A-Z: Treasures From The Harvard Film Archive
    1 July: A is for American Tragedy - The Crowd & McCabe and Mrs. Miller
    Piano Accompaniment by Yakov Gubanov on The Crowd. I'm sorely tempted, despite being broke.
    2 July: B is for Behind Bars - Down By Law & Genera Della Rovere
    3 July: C is for Children of War - Forbidden Games (Jeux Interdits) & Lacombe Lucien
    4 July - 5 July: D is for Divine Intervention - A Matter Of Life And Death (aka Stairway To Heaven) & Au Hasard, Balthazar
    6 July: E is for Exploitation! - Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls & Possession
    45 minutes were apparently cut from Possession for its US release. If I'm back from Maine in time, this could be a good twin bill to see Sunday night.
    7 July: F is for Forbidden Love - The Wedding March & Camila
    8 July - 9 July: G is for Ghost Stories - Dead Of Night & Hour Of The Wolf
    10 July: H is for Historical Revision - Arsenal & The Nasty Girl
    Gubanov again, on Arsenal.
    11 July - 12 July: I is for Insanity - Pierrot Le Fou & Betty Blue
    13 July: J is for Jannings... At Last - The Last Laugh & The Last Command
    Gubanov on both.
    14 July - 15 July: K is for Kitchen Sink - Room At The Top & Saturday Night And Sunday Morning
    16 July - 17 July: L is for Love Triangles - Two English Girls (Les deux Anglaises et le continent) & Un Coeur En Hiver
    18 July - 19 July: M is for Mail Call - Jour De Fête & The Kremlin Letter
    An interesting double feature - Tati and what looks like a pretty good spy movie. Say this for these HFA twin bills, they're not just showing you the same movie twice!
    20 July - 21 July: N is for Nostalgia - Play It Again, Sam & Amarcord
    22 July - 23 July: O is for Oracles - The Thief Of Bagdad & The Last Wave
    24 July - 25 July: P is for Polanski - Knife In the Water & The Tenant
    26 July - 27 July: Q is for Queer Renegades - Without You, I'm Nothing & Caravaggio
    28 July - 29 July: R is for Roeg Images - The Man Who Fell To Earth & The Masque Of The Red Death
    Hmmm... Good stuff at the Brattle these days, too.
    30 July - 31 July: S is for Simply Sellers - The Ladykillers & I'm All Right Jack
    I don't think I've ever seen a Sellers movie. I should rectify that.
    1 August: T is for Trailers - Trailers, Trailers, Trailers
    Wow, two trailer shows within a week of each other. Great planning, huh?
    2 August: U is for UK Underdogs - High Hopes & Raining Stones
    3 August: V is for Vitti Vignettes - The Phantom of Liberty & High Infidelity
    4 August - 5 August: W is for Women's Pictures - The Women & Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown
    6 August: X is for X-Rated In America - W.R.: Mysteries Of The Organism & Blue Shorts
    7 August - 8 August: Y is for Youth Gone Wild - Zero For Conduct & If...
    One of the few cases on this program where one film is a clear influence on the other.
    9 August - 10 August: Z is for Zombies - Night Of The Living Dead & I Walked With A Zombie
    One of these Zombie films is described as a "West Indian version of Jane Eyre." Guess which one.

    Monday, June 30, 2003

    [MOVIES] The Environment

    Every once in a while - like, once a month - someone at HTF will start a thread or resurrect one saying "I'm not going to movie theaters any more! The sound sucks, the people are rude, and it costs too much! I'm just gonna wait for the DVD from now on!" Sometimes there's a rider saying "well, maybe I'll see the big releases that have to be seen that way. But that's all!" Now, I'd argue that every film deserves to be seen in its native environment first, but whatever. Up until recently, I'd be one of the people defending the theatrical experience until it became perfectly clear that I and others who agreed with me were being totally ignored. Those threads are about people knowing that they are sacrificing an important part of the movie experience and wanting validation that they're not missing much.

    Usually, I have to admit that I haven't had many bad moviegoing experiences - even though the new theaters (new in that they weren't open when I moved to Cambridge in 1999) at Fenway and Boston Common make the theaters I'd patronized previously seem inadequate in comparison, I can't say I found a whole lot of fault with the older ones. I was going there for a movie, and as long as it was competently projected, I figured I had gotten what I paid for. If the audiences weren't ideal, I must have been tuning them out except in extreme situations.

    I'm not ready to join that crowd yet - heck, I just ordered 20 "Weekday Escape" tickets from the Loews discount ticket website - but the last couple of movies gave me some insight into their thoughts.

    First, there was May last Thursday. Wasn't really fond of the movie, but what really shocked me was the room it was in - I counted 69 seats in Copley Square's #3 theater. Consider that, before GCC Fenway and Loews Boston Common was built, this place tucked into the Copley Square Shopping Center was one the mainstream first-run places for a city the size of Boston, and it's no wonder the city was considered seriously underscreened. But it's the design of the place that is truly aggravating - I arrived ten minutes early, and tried several different seats. There were no good ones. The room has a reverse slope, such that each row is actually lower than the one in front of it, and the screen itself is at least six feet above the floor. Which means everybody has to crane their necks up. The first row is about four feet from the wall, and the last row (actually only three seats plus spots for wheelchairs) actually sits underneath the projection booth's overhang. The projection itself was mostly all right, except for the "in the event of an emergency..." snipe, which was upside down and backwards (and thus without sound). This was on a Thursday... Did nobody in the theater really notice it all week, or did they just not care?

    The lesson, of course, is not to go to Copley Place to see a movie unless that's the only place it's playing in the Greater Boston area. If you have a bunch of $4 Loews tickets and, being out of work, really can't afford the $6.50 for a matinee at Kendall Square or a book of discount tickets there, consider it incentive to get a new job fast.

    Tonight I went to see 28 Days Later at Boston Common - one $4 ticket that had to be used by the end of June 2003, and Charlies Angels 2 was sold out. In contrast to Copley Place, all of Boston Common's screening rooms are stadium seating, with few bad seats. I'd say none, but there's probably not a theater on Earth where being stuck at the extreme left or right of the front row doesn't create the temptation to see if you can exchange for another show. But some jerk had a laser pointer. He or she seemed especially fond of trying to hit the irises of a character's eye, or trace the outline of his nostrils in a close shot, or something like that.

    Explain to me the thought process behind doing this. If you're the only person or group in the theater and the movie's not holding your interest, I suppose it might be no big deal, but I was trying to watch the movie. I did not pay to watch 28 Days Later And A Guy With A Laser Pointer. It's just rude. Much of the movie was shot and edited in such a way that it was difficult to keep the pointer focused on anything (which I think is one of the movie's problems, from an aesthetic standpoint), but that meant that this was mainly happening during "character scenes", so to speak. I was tempted to join the person who at one point yelled to knock it off, but I wasn't about to give this doofus the attention he or she was clearly craving.

    Also, someone sitting in the seats further up probably wouldn't notice it, but I certainly was able to recognize the telltale discoloration caused by soda meeting screen. Folks, movie screens aren't just white painted walls, or stretched-out bedsheets - they are made of a semi-reflective material that cannot be easily cleaned and cost over a thousand dollars to replace. If something in the movie displeases you to the point where you have to throw something, make it dry popcorn, all right? Otherwise, you're just lowering the quality of your experience next time you see a picture in that theater.

    Ah, well. Ultimately, neither situation was truly bad enough to try to get theater management involved - all they really merit is a rant on a blog that nobody else reads. As much as I love home theater - aside from having movies available to watch whenever I get the urge, the secondary effect of fewer people going to a second show and thus more new movies being released is great - I do fear that being able to watch movies in their living room may have conditioned people to act like they are in their living room whenever they watch a movie.