Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Griffin Equivalency

My admiration for the writers of The Big Bang Theory knows no bounds.

"A faithful companion I could snuggle with at night--yet would be capable of killing upon telepathic command..."


Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

Saw this on Sunday. What follows is not so much a review, but a download of thoughts on this movie and my predictions for the final chapter. Although I usually try to avoid spoilers when reviewing films, this post will be nothing but. So if you haven't seen the movie or read all the books, do not read this post.


Okay, I haven't read any of the Harry Potter books. No doubt there's a lot of richness that gets cut out of a story when you have to distill 800+ pages into 2-3 hours. I saw the first movie in the theater when it came out and wasn't too impressed. Then the mania over the final book (which I haven't read) inspired me to rent the other four films to catch up.

Of those movies, my favorite was the one prior to this one--Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. I loved Imelda Staunton's work as Dolores Umbridge. In my opinion she made a far scarier villain than Voldemort. Speaking of Voldemort, he's not much of a presence in The Half Blood Prince. Unless you factor in the Damien-esque appearance of the young Tom Riddle.

The Half Blood Prince is very fragmented. There's the obligatory Quidditch match--which does nothing to move the story forward but fans would be miffed if it was left out. Emma Watson is marginally less awful as Hermione, Rupert Grint remains his naturally charismatic self as Ron and we get glimpses of most of the other characters. Neville appears in the movie, but has not even one line. Loopy Luna gets a few choice scenes. Mad Eye Moody is absent as is Emma Thompson as Sybil Trelawney. Instead we get a new character: Jim Broadbent as Horace Slughorn, whose memory of Tom Riddle holds the keys to defeating Voldemort.

That slim plot line is stretched out over two and a half hours. Of course we also get love potions and love triangles, death eater attacks, the aforementioned Quidditch match and a run-in with what appears to be the spawn of LOTR's Gollum. The movie ends with the revelation that Severus Snape is in fact the "Half Blood Prince." What that means exactly is never explained.

After seeing the movie, I gave my thoughts/predictions to my co-worker Sara, who has read all the books and is a rabid Harry Potter fan. Here's what I told her:

  • That if Dumbledore was indeed dead it was a sort of Obi Wan "my death will only make me stronger" type thing
  • That Snape was actually a good guy
  • That Dumbledore and Snape planned Dumbledore's death
  • Snape is protecting Harry and Draco by killing Dumbledore

Sara said, "You haven't read any of the books? You're pretty smart!"

Indeed I am. But I'm also a writer and plot-wise that's what makes sense to me.

I also predict that Ron and Hermione will end up together and Harry will defeat Voldemort.

But it's not like everyone doesn't see THAT coming...

Friday, July 24, 2009

Ain't Technology Grand?

A while back I posted about Catholicism--long steeped in history and ritual--putting the Vatican prayer book on iTunes. Today, there's a story in the Washington Post titled, "New service lets Jews tweet a prayer to God". The article reports on the Western Wall's Twitter account saying:

For centuries, people have stuffed prayers written on scraps of paper into the ancient cracks in the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem. In recent years they could fax or e-mail their prayers - and now they can tweet them, too.
Amazing. Now if we could only Superpoke the Dalai Lama, life would be perfect.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Pushing Daisies Season Two on DVD Today!

Sadly, even Ned's magic finger could not save the Emmy-winning Pushing Daisies from--well, pushing daisies. Fortunately fans of the pie maker (aka the dreamy Lee Pace) can take solace in the fact that the complete second season is available on DVD and Blu-ray today.

The last episode of the show aired a month ago doing its best to wrap up as many plot lines as possible. I guess we won't get to see George Hamilton as Ned's wayward father, but for the most part the fairy tale ended on a fairly happily ever after note.

The 4-disc DVD/Blu-ray includes all 13 episodes as well as some tasty "extra helpings":

  • "The Master Pie Maker" goes inside the mind of creator Bryan Fuller
  • "From Oven to Table" examines what it takes to bring the imaginative scripts into reality
  • "Secret Spoon Ingredients" highlights the musical contributions of composer Jim Dooley
  • "Add a Little Magic" focuses on the amazing special and visual effects
I'm sure Bryan Fuller will be back with yet another clever, cute and quirky series, but until then fans of Fuller and his whimsical oeuvre will have to satisfy themselves with watching and re-watching the abbreviated season one (shortened due to the writers strike) and season two (shortened due to series cancellation) on DVD or Blu-ray.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

500 Days of Summer

I was going to blog 500 reasons I loved this movie, but that would take forever. So here's an abbreviated list:

1. It's not your standard rom-com: As the tagline for the film goes, "This is not a love story. This is a story about love."

2. The movie opens with the following title cards: "Any resemblance to people living or dead is accidental. Especially Jenny Beckman...Bitch."

3. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays Tom, has gone from being DJ's creepy friend on the Roseanne show to become a formidable talent. And a hottie to boot...

4. Zooey Deschanel who brings a Holly Golightly charm to the title character of Summer.

5. Switching up the traditional roles with Tom as the idealistic romantic and Summer the commitment-phobic realist.

6. The awesome soundtrack which features Hall and Oates' You Make My Dreams Come True as part of a fabulously cheesy musical sequence that has an euphoric post "first time" Tom dancing down the street.

7. Clever but not overdone effects like the call-out to French and Swedish existential films (The Seventh Seal, anyone?), a split-screen fantasy vs. reality sequence and the random chronology of scenes illuminating the pre and post-breakup of Tom and Summer.

8. Los Angeles--the setting for the story--has never looked better!

9. Not your usual pat Hollywood ending. 500 Days of Summer is sweet and funny and sad, yet ultimately uplifting.

10. Did I mention Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel? That's the main reason for seeing the movie. Such cuties. Such chemistry...

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Anathem by Neal Stephenson

After many, many, many (way too many...) months, I finally finished Neal Stephenson's latest tome. All 960 pages of it. And I have to say, this was probably my least favorite Neal Stephenson book.

My favorite is still probably Snow Crash. I really was jazzed about Stephenson's five minutes into the future style. Imagining a Los Angeles where housing is in such short supply that people live in public storage units? Heck, before the housing market crashed at the end of last year, that was a total possibility. I also loved the interminable Baroque Cycle in which Stephenson stepped away from the near future and went back to the past.

Given that we are now living in a world of DVRs, product placement, Twitter and the iPhone, science fiction is hard pressed to impress us these days. In an interview with William Gibson, Rolling Stone asked, "You made your name as a science-fiction writer, but in your last two novels you've moved squarely into the present. Have you lost interest in the future?" to which Gibson replied:

"It has to do with the nature of the present. If one had gone to talk to a publisher in 1977 with a scenario for a science-fiction novel that was in effect the scenario for the year 2007, nobody would buy anything like it. It's too complex, with too many huge sci-fi tropes: global warming; the lethal, sexually transmitted immune-system disease; the United States, attacked by crazy terrorists, invading the wrong country. Any one of these would have been more than adequate for a science-fiction novel. But if you suggested doing them all and presenting that as an imaginary future, they'd not only show you the door, they'd probably call security."
No wonder Stephenson moved to the 1800s for inspiration! In Anathem, he bucks sci-fi and our brave new world by creating a whole new world and planet named "Arbre." Unfettered by Earthly realities--and much like J. J. Abrams copped out with the recent Star Trek reboot--Stephenson is free to create a universe of his own imaginings. Arbre is similar to Earth: cars (known as "mobes"), SUVs and trucks (known as "fetches"), smartphones (jeejahs) and the internet (aka "reticulum") all exist on the planet--along with scientific and philosophical theories that will be familiar to many students. Hey, it's not like Newton was the only one in the entire universe to have an apple fall on his head!

Speaking of science and philosophy: the cool thing about Arbe is the segregated of its "thinkers" from the general population. Children (aka "fids") are collected around their tenth birthday and are educated in concents living a monastic lifestyle dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. Aha! It's Earth turned inside out with science being the new religion.

Except it isn't: Arbre has religious monasteries as well.

Between the alien cosmic neologisms and trying to find the parallels between the fictional Arbre and Earth, it was tough going for me. Add to that lengthy passages of scientific and philosophical theories and--well, let's just say there was a whole lotta skimming going on. To be honest, sneaking time to read has been difficult and there were days where I would eke out progress a sentence or two at a time.

But the real problem with Anathem was the lack of an intriguing protagonist. Eramus, the narrator of the tale, is a fairly passive character. He's certainly no Jack "The Gypsy King" Shaftoe nor is he any kind of Hiro Protagonist. Stephenson introduces us to a plethora of characters in the book, but the entire story--unlike the character jumps in The Baroque Cycle--is told from Eramus' perspective. Too bad he's such a bland and lifeless character...

Even more distressing is the lack of strong female characters in the book. Nothing like his Eliza, Y.T. or Juanita at all. Although Arbre is presented as a pretty equal society, the female characters are pretty much lacking.

And Anathem suffers from what I like to call the "Star Trek intergalactic anomaly"--which is that on all planets other than Earth, people look the same and speak the same language all over the whole planet. Sure Star Trek has Klingons and Romulans like Anathem has Arbrans, LaTerrans, etc.--but have you ever seen an episode of Star Trek where two Klingons meet up and can't understand what the other is saying because one is a "French" Klingon while the other is a "Chinese" Klingon?

Never happens!

On Arbre, people generally speak "Fluccish," although those in the concents speak "Orth," which I suppose is sort of like Latin.

The most irritating thing about this book was the lack of urgency. After the initial setting up the new world and its parameters, we find out that Arbre is being orbited by aliens. And that those aliens are fairly hostile. So what do the people of Arbre do? They pull all the best minds from within the concents, religious orders and general population and have a CONVENTION (aka "convox"). Meetings and meeting of discussions. If those discussion centered around, "What are we going to do about the hostile aliens?" it might make a bit more sense. But no, the topics of discussion explore space and time and reality. All while there are HOSTILE ALIENS orbiting the planet!!!

I mean, where is Will Smith when you need him?

If Anathem were a script, it would definitely suffer from one of the basic rules of storytelling--"Show, don't tell." Anathem spends a lot of time setting the scene--which is forgivable--and way too much time exploring theories and concepts which go nowhere. There are some great and exciting sequences in the book. Unfortunately when you're slogging through 960 pages, they are few and far between.

Although Stephenson takes a few jabs at our society via the sister planet of Arbre, what with spin and marketing and much ado about nothing being labeled "bullshytt," (there was no need to flip to the glossary to translate THAT term!), I failed to comprehend just what he was trying to convey with this novel. Science fiction, after all, usually provides an incisive and insightful look at our own state of affairs. Even the concept of parallel and multiple narratives or time tracks might have made for an interesting exploration. But even that theory gets swept away as quickly as it was introduced.

I wonder if cutting out 300 pages or so would have made a difference...With the elimination of some of the lofty erudition, Anathem would make one heck of a sci-fi story.

Maybe with Shia LeBoeuf as Eramus...

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Stephen Colbert Cracks Me Up

While waiting for my optometrist appointment, I had a extensive selection of magazines to choose from: Family Circle, Better Homes and Gardens and Newsweek. What no People, no US Weekly?

Sigh--the things I must endure...

Anyway, as it turned out, the issue of Newsweek was the one that was guest edited by Stephen Colbert. I'm sure the receptionist was wondering why I was shaking with laughter. An excerpt of his "From the Editor" column titled "Why I Took This Crummy Job:"

"Turns out there are still 135,000 troops in Iraq, which I don't understand because we've already won the war. And we've won it so many times. We should win something for the number of times we've won it. We eliminated the weapons of mass destruction by having them not exist. We took out Saddam Hussein—or a really convincing and committed Saddam Hussein double. We helped write the Iraqi Constitution and clearly gave Iraqis the right to bear a lot of arms. And by August of next year we'll withdraw every single one of our troops, leaving behind only memories and 50,000 troops.

But despite our continued victories, Americans have many lingering questions about Iraq. For example: where is Iraq? My guess is somewhere near Paraguay.

I wanted to find the answers. So when Jon Meacham asked me to guest-edit NEWSWEEK, I jumped at the chance, particularly because my guest editorship at Mature -Honeys fell through. I guess my photo essay of sexy housewives reenacting the Battle of Fallujah was too "real" for them.

Of course, guest editing is more than just sitting around tanning myself by the gleam of Fareed Zakaria's teeth. I set the editorial agenda, assigned stories and yelled at Peter Parker to get me more photos of that web-slinging vigilante, Spider-Man. He's a menace!"

"Tanning myself by the gleam of Fareed Zakaria's teeth..."

Every time I've ever seen promos for the CNN personality, I've thought to myself, "My god, that's a scary smile!" Colbert--as usual--nails it.

Read the whole piece at Newsweek.com.

Howlingly funny...

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Kitty Visits

I got a new storm/screen door installed last weekend. It's awesome being able to keep the door open and air out the apartment. As the weather finally starts to heat up, it's gonna be a lifesaver!

A side benefit has been random visits by neighbor kitties attracted by the light and sound of my TV.

A fellow One Life to Live fan, no doubt!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

ER Season 11 on DVD Today!

It amazes me that ER ran for 15 seasons. Grey's Anatomy will start season six in the Fall, but if you ask me it had already burned itself out by season two.

The difference between the two medical dramas is that ER--created by former medical student Michael Crichton--concentrated more on the medical, while Grey's Anatomy is all about the drama. By focusing more on the medical, ER managed to create character arcs and relationships that played out over several seasons, while Grey's Anatomy cast members play a constant game of musical chairs. I believe this is why ER was such an enduring television show.

That and the fact the producers were smart enough not to cast a whiny anorexic in the lead...

ER : The Complete 11th Season is available on DVD today. Fans of the show will remember that this was the season that Abby (Maura Tierney) started as a doctor, Neela (Parminder Nagra) returned to the E.R. Sam (Linda Cardellini) and Luka's (Goran Visnjic) relationship got more serious, Dr. Lewis (Sherry Stringfield) becomes Chief of Emergency Medicine, Dr. Morris (Scott Grimes) becomes Chief Resident, Dr. Corday (Alex Kingston) takes her leave of County General as does Dr. Carter (Noah Wyle).

The season also included a memorable guest appearance by Ray Liotta, who won an Emmy for his performance as the dying alcoholic Charlie Metcalf. The episode titled "Time of Death" reminded me of "Of Past Regret and Future Fear" from season four where Nurse Hathaway stays with a chemical burn victim with no hope of survival. Very powerful episodes. I dare you to watch without shedding a tear or two!

The six discbox set includes all 22 episodes of season 11 plus "Outpatient Outtakes" aka unaired scenes. ER fans will definitely want to add it to their DVD library!

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Hurt Locker

The Hurt Locker, a film about an Army explosive ordnance disposal squad, is getting rave reviews from critics. It's Metacritic ranking is a whopping 92%. That's better than Up.

On IMDB, however, The Hurt Locker is currently rated at 7.7 out of 10. This is a more accurate rating. It's a good movie, not a great movie. The cast, which includes cameos by Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes, David Morse and Evangeline Lilly, is uniformly excellent. The three lead roles are portrayed by relative unknowns with Jeremy Renner (perhaps best known for his recent stint on The Unusuals) playing the part of the renegade adrenaline junkie, Will James.

The cinematography, editing and directing is also top-notch. It's a fairly realistic and gritty portrayal of these soldiers lives in Iraq--hot, dirty, dangerous and deadly. Although there are those with more knowledge than I who quibble about the accuracy, I thought the movie--with its hand-held docudrama style--did a good job at creating a feeling of versimilitude.

I find it highly unlikely, however, that a character like Will James would survive and prosper in the Army. The military is not known for being a haven for rebels and non-conformists. James not only consistently endangers his own life, but the lives of his squad as well. Although I agree that the men and women fighting over in Iraq deserve to have the realities of their lives portrayed, the character of Will James is not exactly what I'd call heroic and his reckless actions are not worthy of glorification.

I did appreciate Renner's work and look forward to seeing more of him in the future. He acquitted himself admirably in a role that was not quite realistic or fully realized. In one scene, the cool operator used to making snap decisions in the face of death is at a loss trying to pick from the myriads of options in the cereal aisle. Moments like this offered intriguing possibilities in story telling--unfortunately there were far too few of them.

One IMDB reviewer described the film as "a vivid portrayal of...war-like situations," and I think that sums it up nicely. Writer Mark Boal has strung together a sequence of tense, taut, terse scenes. It's engrossing and will keep you on the end of your seat. But the story as a whole never goes anywhere. Will James is pegged at reckless from the get-go by his team so when Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) rants at him after being shot in the leg due to an unnecessary excursion, there's no drama. When Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) whimpers about wanting to live to have a son after another James-induced close call, it's merely more of the same.

Perhaps if Boal had taken the time to create a clear trajectory for the story: maybe by having the team being impressed and influenced by the hair-trigger hotshot only to turn on him when his antics cut too close for comfort. I'm not sure what the solution is, but the film doesn't add up to much of anything in the end. The film opens with a quote by Christopher Hedges: "War is a drug," and apparently the point is that Will James--and America--is addicted. But that gets lost in repetitive action sequences.

Too bad. A little more exploration and insight into what makes the addicts like Will James tick--instead of the bombs he detonates--might have turned a merely good movie into a great one.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

I Hate Paying for Parking

Just got back from seeing The Hurt Locker at Westfield Century City (review to follow...). I validated my parking at AMC, which in the past buys an extra two hours over their standard first three hours free. After the movie, I did some leisurely browsing (scored 3 cami tops at Lucy for $6.99 each!) and after about 3.5 hours at the mall total (including 2.5 hours for the movie when you factor in previews, etc.), I headed back to my car.

Westfield has automate pay stations now and this usually entails slipping the parking ticket into the slot, a bit of whirring of the machine which then calculates that I owe no money and spits said ticket out again for me to use when exiting the parking lot.

Imagine my shock when instead of spitting my ticket out, the machine indicated I owed $3 for that extra 30 minutes. WTF?!!! I looked at the parking rates and sure enough, that validation from AMC bought me an up to two hour grace period--for $3.00.

Smart move, Westfield! I mean three hours is barely enough time to see a movie these days when you account for arriving a bit early to buy tickets, popcorn, find a seat plus previews. Forget about getting out of an epic blockbuster like Harry Potter in less than three hours--not gonna happen. So now, instead of seeing a movie and then doing a bit of shopping afterward (I mean, as long as I'm already here!), it behooves the financially conscientious not to linger after the credits roll, but to high tail it out of there before racking up a $3 parking charge!

Way to go, Westfield! In the midst of a recession, you've found the perfect way to drive your customers away from the mall...

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Men: Soon to be Superfluous

The Washington Post reported that British scientists claim to have created human sperm.

Reminds me of an old joke: Why does a woman need a man? Because a vibrator can't take out the trash.

[Cue rimshot]

Can you imagine a world without Dick Cheneys? Rush Limbaughs? Bill O'Reillys?

Imagine a drastic reduction in pedophilia, rape and war.

Not to mention that we wouldn't have to ever worry about accidentally landing in the toilet because some moron left the seat up...

Okay, before I get accused of misandry I'm willing to admit that males have not been rendered completely useless by this scientific discovery.

After all, we still need y'all to take out the trash...

Monday, July 6, 2009

I'm Still in Mourning for MJ...

Yeah...not so much. Thought it might make a good excuse for my not blogging consistently for a while now.

Is it too much to hope that after tomorrow's memorial extravaganza that the Michael Jackson updates slow to a trickle?

Sigh. That's what I thought...