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Monthly archives: June 2008


A Break from Movie Summer
2008-06-30 18:26
by Mark T.R. Donohue

I was going on a pretty good clip there storing up films to write about in another Summer of Movies post. But my opinions about Last King of Scotland (great, James McAvoy deserved more credit for his role), V for Vendetta (absolutely terrible, except for Hugo Weaving's acting), and Let's Go to Prison (written by a team of "Reno 911!" and "Stella" folks and funnier than you might think) will have to wait for a few days.

I probably should have done all of them sooner, since the last time I watched a movie I hadn't seen before was about a week ago. Continuing work on my band's rock opera, an exciting and exhausting new retail job, and an attention-needy cat have all combined to make my taste for new media register at somewhat less than its usual rapaciousness. It's been TV comfort food for me lately, with reruns of "Buffy" and "The Simpsons" and "King of the Hill" keeping me company while I recline on the couch.

It's mostly been only when I'm too tired to play video games that I've been watching TV recently. Grand Theft Auto IV offers little in the way of new gameplay, but has much more of an effective sense of reality than its predecessors. That makes it rather intimidating to play casually, since your character is always getting phone calls and text messages from his "friends" in the game world. A well-executed idea (much more so than the broken gang warfare dynamics of GTA: San Andreas), but one regarding which I'm still puzzling out the impact on fun. Is it more fun to play in a Grand Theft Auto world where the characters are more fleshed-out? I don't really think that's what most people turn to the series for. I wonder how well it has gone over with gamers in general. I imagine there are plenty of people who ignored the social dynamics completely and just went out and blew stuff up. I have trouble gaming that way -- I'm a color-inside-the-lines person that way.

So with GTA IV, I feel a little bit like I'm being compelled to do all of these things I don't wish to by the game. I could just ignore them, but that's not how I'm hardwired. My attention to completist detail is bearing more fruit with Rock Band. Trying to get five stars on every song on every level with every instrument is a monumental task. This is another way in which Rock Band simulates the experience of being a real musician. When you're in a band, sometimes you have to play a song over and over and over again until you get it right. I have been in many practice situations where everyone wanted to kill each other because there was a song we'd played eight times all the way through and still hadn't perfected. Applying the same tenacity to Rock Band isn't hard, particularly on the drums. It's nice to be instantly rewarded for your tenacity -- few sounds are more pleasurable than the one the game makes when you earn another star during a song.

I saw again the contrast between the amount of content Rock Band offers versus the Guitar Hero games when Guitar Hero: Aerosmith came out this weekend. This is a fun game, and I'm glad it finally gave me the opportunity to upgrade to the wireless XBox 360 guitar controller from the crummy X-Plorer one that came with GHII. The animations of the band look cool and funny, and the presentation is terrific. A lot of people will probably skip right through them, but I thought the little between-stage interview segments with Joe Perry and Steven Tyler and company talking about their rise to fame were cool and a natural extension of the Guitar Hero career mode formula.

However, it only took me about an evening to beat all of the songs in the game on hard and with two days off tomorrow and Wednesday, I'm probably going to have it utterly whipped less than a week after it was released. Rock Band on the other hand just keeps plugging along. They just put out a full album download of the Pixies' Doolittle and David Lovering's drum patterns alone are worthy of a whole game to themselves. I haven't tried it yet, but I bet the vocal tracks are a hoot too: "Slicing up eyeballs, oh ho ho ho!"

Anyway, the pain in my left pinky finger from the GH: Aerosmith marathon I had the other day has subsided. I think I'll go back to the Pixies now. In conclusion, any further Guitar Hero games that come out should have drum and vocal tracks as a matter of course. I want to support the idea behind Guitar Hero: Aerosmith because if it sells well I can see them doing some of the other titans that are too monolithic to have had a single song in a Guitar Hero before now. Led Zeppelin. AC/DC. Pink Floyd. Dare we even say it, the Beatles.

Movies and Stuff
2008-06-16 17:45
by Mark T.R. Donohue

My new idea for the page is that I'll just try and take a second every day to write a few paragraphs about some movie or TV show I've just seen. It didn't take all that long for me to lapse on my every day (or almost) pledge, and I keep watching things... I feel like I'm falling terribly behind. Anyway, let's see if I can catch myself up all in one go here and we'll start fresh with the one-thought-a-day thing tomorrow. Or maybe Wednesday.

Slither I taped this off the cable and watched it early last week. My main interest in seeing the film was its star, Nathan Fillion, whose lead performance in "Firefly" and Serenity proved him to be uniquely suited for smirking, genre-warping sci-fi. Going on two weeks after seeing it, there are still images from Slither popping unbidden into my mind and making me momentarily shudder. That's a good thing for a horror/gore picture. Although it does involve extraterrestrials, Slither is definitely a horror movie, and one of the scarier ones I've seen in a while. Director James Gunn made Tromeo and Juliet, and the combination of Troma's utter lack of taste and medium-budget CGI effects is delicious. Or, well, more revolting, really, which is the point. Michael Rooker gets infected by a meteorite from outer space and turns into an unspeakable tentacle being whose tastes in food and method of reproduction are demonstrated in appalling clinical detail. My favorite thing about the film, besides the room-sized pregnant woman who eats a forest's worth of animals to nurture the thousands of tiny alien mind worms she's carrying, was the way it doesn't cheat. The ending doesn't present a magical reset that made it all not happen, and the death toll is truly staggering. It's weird how many movies are too cowardly to do that, even though it's not real people getting killed. Seeing Gunn's ex-wife Jenna Fischer playing a receptionist -- well, a dispatcher, but same difference -- covered in crusted blood and controlled by the alien presence is an interesting sensation too.

Jumper Really, really dreadful writing and acting in this one, rented at one of those dollar rental kiosks at McDonald's on Saturday. The premise was interesting enough to have made me want to see it, but Hayden Christensen is just brutal. Who keeps putting this guy in movies? Sam Jackson pulses in for his most mailed-in performance to date. I'm unsure he ever even read the script. He probably just showed up, slapped on a white hairpiece (for some reason), and read his lines off cuecards. Getting no more engaged than Sam did in the project is probably a wise idea. There's some really neat action scenes in Jumper. Director Doug Liman, who made the first Bourne Identity, realizes as few other big-time action filmmakers do that audiences can inuitively sense when all that they are seeing is fake. Obviously Jumper, which is about people who can freaking teleport, uses more computer effects than did Bourne. But Liman smashes up enough real cars and sends enough real stuntmen sailing to make things really play, and I wish his talents were more often harnessed to better material. (Liman also helmed Mr. and Mrs. Smith, another movie with fabulous action sequences and an insultingly stupid plot.) Jumper blatantly wants to be the first movie in a series, but its mythology is barely explained and what does come across is stunningly harebrained. Christensen is a jumper, and SJ is a paladin. Paladins fight jumpers. Why? Because they do. How do the paladins fight people who can instantly teleport anywhere? With tasers. Really, really strong tasers. But how do they get the jumpers to stand still so that they can tase them? Still unclear. After the film's concept is introduced and Jackson makes his first appearance big battles between the hero and the paladins take place constantly. He goes to see the Colosseum, five minutes later they're there. How did they know? Did they put a GPS on him or something? In order for the paladins to work the way they're shown in the movie, there would have to be literally millions of them -- a big office in every major population center in the world. Who's paying for that? And for what purpose? Man, this is a stupid movie.

Breach I've written before about my affection for old-fashioned "thrillers" where there's no actual action and seldom do any of the characters speak in a raised voice. Michael Clayton is one of the best movies I've seen in the last few months but the somewhat similar Breach is not on its level. I watched it late last night after having it kicking around on the DVR for a little while. I liked it enough to stay up until about four to watch the end, but it's surely the lesser film. It suffers from a less sharply drawn protagonist, and while Clayton was firmly about its hero and therefore had a really effective arc structure, Breach ends on a decidedly unsettled note. The high-level FBI traitor played by Chris Cooper explains right on screen why he decided to sell out his country, but we still don't feel as if we know. I'm going back and forth internally over whether the deliberately incomplete picture we get of Cooper's Robert Hanssen is good for the film or not. I'm pretty sure it is, but would be easier to say if Ryan Philippe and Caroline Dhavernas, who play the young agent working undercover as Hanssen's clerk and his wife, weren't so bland. Philippe isn't terrible, and he's certainly come a long way since Cruel Intentions. He can act more than Hayden Christensen, I'll give him that much. But in Breach he comes across as too much of That Young Hotshot, an annoying cliché in movies of this sort; a guy with less of an obvious leading-man vibe would have been vastly more interesting. And Dhavernas is useless as The Loving Wife Who Never Thought Her Husband Would Have To Go This Far. What's interesting about Breach is that the parts that work the best, all of the bizarre details about Hanssen's life that don't seem to cohere or make sense, are the ones that are based on the real man. The marriage-crisis junk and Laura Linney's presence as The Tough But Fair Boss are typical screenwriting excrement. Breach is a pretty dull-looking film, with a limited color palette and a sitcom camera style. There are movies that make Washington, D.C. look very beautiful, but this is not one of them.

Long Night of Sex
2008-06-04 15:05
by Mark T.R. Donohue

Yes, I went to see the Sex and the City movie. I didn't have to be dragged to it, either. I'm sure I wouldn't have gone if it weren't for my girlfriend, but it's not as if she had to beg and plead. I was curious in an academic sense about how the show would translate to film, and at least a little interested in the continuing storylines of Carrie and her cohorts. I don't have any memory of ever deliberately setting out to watch the whole "Sex and the City" TV series, but between my sisters, those surprisingly ubiquitous basic-cable reruns, and the research department (one of the series' biggest straight male fans), I seem to have more detailed memories of the show's plotlines than many who have.

In that very fact might lay the key to the whole reason that the Sex and the City movie doesn't work. The TV show was never very much for plot; it was girl meets boy, girl loses boy, again and again and again. It was always blatantly obvious whom the ideal matches for each of the girls were, even if these supposedly successful New York businesswomen were completely unable to figure it out for themselves. The heart of the show wasn't getting from Point A to Point B, it was the breezy dialogue, titilating sex talk, and the painstakingly chosen wardrobe choices.

All of those things make their way into Sex and the City, the movie. Speaking as someone who pretty much wears a baseball cap, a T-shirt, and dilapidated khakis every time he leaves the house, I absolutely loved the pretty outfits the girls model. I totally got in touch with my feminine side, or my gay side, or whichever, seeing all of the bright colors and bold designs up on a huge screen. For the first time, I started to understand why whole books of "Sex and the City" fashion choices have been published. I don't have great eyesight, and on TV it was less obvious to me how carefully the costume designers worked to make sure that each outfit was perfect for the setting and content of each scene. It's impossible to ignore in the film, where each scene featuring the four women together practically begs you to get the DVD, pause it, and see just how marvelously everything works in harmony. Or even better, Blu-Ray! That's right, the film that's going to get me to upgrade to Blu-Ray is the Sex and the City movie.

The banter and the sex talk are out in full force, as well. Indeed, too much, as any time the four girls are around a table director/screenwriter Michael Patrick King feels obliged to throw in some stuff that doesn't advance the plot any. The movie is sitcom-paced the whole way through, and while it stays snappy for an impressive hour and fifteen minutes or so, it keeps going for another hour after that. Wonderful fan service, I suppose, and keeping the spirit of the TV show alive, but as far as providing a good time in the movie theater for someone who's more of an admirer of the original series than a diehard fan, it fails. The conflicts for Samantha, Carrie, and Miranda have resolutions that are all obvious the minute they're introduced, and poor Charlotte doesn't even get an arc.

The movie does make a certain degree of a concession to the changed scale by giving the male foils a bit more to do. David Eigenberg, always good on the series as Miranda's long-suffering Steve, stays more sympathetic than Cynthia Nixon does, even though it's he who cheats on her. Chris Noth at first seems a little uncertain as to how to create a full-blooded human out of the once-ephemeral Mr. Big, but his concerns about his marriage to Carrie play as the only three-dimensional conflict in the film. Unfortunately, he disappears for nearly two hours. Jennifer Hudson's personal assistant character serves absolutely no function whatsoever other than to needlessly extend the picture another fifteen or minutes or so -- and saddling Hudson with an underwritten part that amounts to a kid-sister impression of Sarah Jessica Parker is a waste of her talents.

The "movie" feels for all the world like a straight-to-DVD release of five episodes. That's how it should have come out, but that would have deprived the "Sex" machine from charging their fans once to see the film in the theater and then again for the home release. Rather than packaging that home video version as a single film, they ought to just go ahead and chop it up into episodes, using deleted footage to make the lengths uniform. They could even add them right into the syndication cycle! Only then would this "movie" really play as the true successor to the TV series and not a massive craven cash grab.

What People Watch
2008-06-01 17:34
by Mark T.R. Donohue

Entertainment Weekly printed the final ratings for this season of television in its June 6th issue. I'm sure the information is on the Web somewhere for those who want to see them. Where are the shows that I watch on a regular basis? Let's take a look.

#1 "American Idol" Obviously, I tuned in every week (after the interminable and useless open audition shows). Season Seven was a step up from the one before but the show still seems stuck to a few certain annoying conventions even while it furiously changes things that don't need changing. They need fewer rigid theme nights, longer performances, and the results shows (#2 in the ratings) need to be abolished or at least truncated dramatically. With all those quibbles, I still had a lot of fun watching it and will watch it again next year.

#7 "House" I don't know if "House" is as watched as it is because of "Idol" carryover or because it's a good show, but I'm fine with either. It's a surprisingly dark, adult, psychosexual show to be this widely seen and that sort of bothers me. It ought to be a cult show like "Dexter" and yet everybody watches it. A lot of the credit for that has to go to Hugh Laurie for creating and sustaining one of the most vivid characters on the small screen. Season Four was pretty shaky, starting with a "reality show" concept where House eliminated potential replacements for his ducklings one by one. That kept important characters from getting enough screen time, so when the last third of the year tried to put a bow on everything by justifying the introduction of some of those extraneous folks, it didn't quite pay off. The two-part season finale, however, was fantastic.

#21 "Lost" So much has been written about the fall from grace of "Lost" and all the things that needed to be done to fix it, but it's still #21 -- and that's not bad given a shortened season, haphazard scheduling, and a level of self-reference that's grown completely impenetrable for new viewers. I thought the loss of a handful of episodes really hurt what was otherwise a rollercoaster year. Not enough time was given to delineate which of the freighter folk were important and what their backstories were, so we ended up not caring about most of their actions. Also, the reintroduction and use of Michael was hugely disappointing. The Desmond episode "The Constant" was a series highlight but a week later there was an actual episode with the Ticking Digital Clock, one of the most abominable clichés in film. And with the decisions they've made this season, they could be screwed for next year. I like the way the "Lost" writers work without a net, but they don't need to try and redefine the show with every episode.

#46 "Bones" I really like this show, which adds believable personal issues for its characters with the usual forensic science gadgets and LCD displays and whatnot. I'm always surprised when I find out one of my friends likes it, but a pretty substantial number of them do. It's just one of those quiet shows that people watch, enjoy, and forget. That's okay. I used to really be annoyed by the supporting cast behind David Boreanaz and Emily Deschanel but they've grown into the show's strength. I like the show's concept that people who do strange, macabre work are all a little loopy themselves. I think it's mostly true.

#63 "The Big Bang Theory" I don't care at all for "Two and a Half Men," which is the highest-rated comedy at #16. But I really love "Big Bang Theory," which came from the same creative mind, that of epic title-card writer Chuck Lorre. What's the difference? Well, "Men" is mostly idiotic sex jokes, and "Big Bang" has had dialogue about the Heisenberg principle, neurofeedback, and game theory. Perhaps some people will gets smarter or become interested in science from watching this show. It's also usually pretty funny.

#64 "How I Met Your Mother" I ended up watching almost all of the first- and second-season DVD's of this show over the weekend, just because I started them and I was too exhausted to get up and take the disc out of the player -- or think of something else to watch. I think it's a sitcom that really improves on closer viewing, because so much of the humor is derived from the personalities of the five characters. "Mother" is the rare TV sitcom where the punchlines absolutely aren't interchangeable. If Marshall were to say one of Barney's lines, it immediately wouldn't sound right. The other thing this show has going for it is Alyson Hannigan. She's so adorable.

#64 "Family Guy" Isn't this an interesting tie? "Family Guy" is a cultural phenomenon with ring tones, t-shirts, action figures, and the rest. "How I Met Your Mother" is a little show that has to sweat out its renewal for the next season after every year. But they're dead even in the ratings. How did that happen? Well, "Family Guy" on Fox is kind of besides the point for Seth McFarlane and his team. They could do it for nothing if they wanted. It's the wall-to-wall reruns on TBS and Cartoon Network, DVD sales, and merchandising that makes the "Family" engine run. Personally, I don't think the show has been at all funny since it "came back" to make new episodes for Fox. The writers are completely in love with themselves and like to torture the viewers with stuff they know will annoy them just for the sake of doing it. Compared to how sharp "South Park" has been recently, "Family Guy" definitely loses the feud between them. "American Dad," #95 in the ratings, has actually gotten better than its parent show. Mostly due to Patrick Stewart.

#73 "The Office" and "The Simpsons" Another interesting tie. I don't think much needs to be said about either of these shows. "The Office" certainly is much more of this time, while "The Simpsons" will kind of always be stuck in the more sarcastic, individualistic 90's. Neither is as funny as it used to be.

#83 "My Name Is Earl" Weird, weird season for Earl, which had a prison stay, a coma, a quickie wedding, and several people being hit by cars. I love the way that any number of a huge ensemble cast could pop up at any moment, like "The Simpsons" only live-action. I also adore Eddie Steeples' beatific portrayal of Darnell. Next year Greg Garcia needs to focus on getting back to the show's basic concept and away from over-the-top dream sequences and other more conceptual mucking about. The Catalina character needs a lot more to do.

#92 "King of the Hill" The single most underrated show on TV.

Everything from 147 to 160 (the bottom) on the list is CW shows. I heard "Aliens in America" got canceled -- that's a shame, that was a cute show, although it never quite came together the way the promise of the pilot suggested it could. C'mon, America, we need to find Scott Patterson a vehicle!