Sunday, February 17, 2008

Review: Knight Rider (2008 edition)

Repeat after me:

"Thank you, Peter.

"Thank you for subjecting yourself to the wooden acting of Justin Bruening, Deanna Russo, Sydney Tamiia Poitier, Susan Gibney, and even Bruce Davison.

"Thank you for listening to them actually improve on David Andron's obvious, painfully-bad script, as hard as that may be to believe.

"Thank you for not turning off the television as soon as you saw David Hasselhoff's name in the guest-star credits, and for actually staying around until his mercifully-short-yet-still-too-long self-aggrandizing cameo.

"Thank you for sitting through the crapfest that was Knight Rider so that we don't have to subject ourselves to it, and if, through some horrible twist of fate, it actually goes to series, for warning us that it's not only as bad as we thought it could be... but worse."

Review: The Departed

Fifteen months after seeing The Departed at the theatre with daughter Tammy, I watched it a second time, thanks to the magic of DVDs. I'd say that I enjoyed it slightly more on the return trip, although overall my reaction was about the same. Here are my thoughts from November 2006 before I add to them:

"I'm not a big Martin Scorcese fan, as I've had mixed results with his movies. Among his films that I've enjoyed are Taxi Driver, King of Comedy and The Last Temptation of Christ; but on the negative side of the ledger are Raging Bull, Casino, and The Aviator. And since I generally don't like gangster movies, I've never even tried Goodfellas. So I'd say I'm somewhere in the middle on Scorcese, in general.

I'd heard that The Departed was essentially a remake of another film I hadn't seen, Infernal Affairs. But the film it reminded me of was No Way Out. Both stories involve the search for a mole within an organization, although there are actually two moles in The Departed. In each film, the key element of suspense revolves around the question of whether the traitor will be found, and if so, how? In No Way Out, leading man Kevin Costner is put in charge of the search, and a series of coincidences and poor decisions by him make it apparent that he may in fact implicate himself as the mole, although the actual identity of his quarry isn't revealed until the end of the film (and I'm not about to spoil it here).

In The Departed, we know from the get-go that Matt Damon is a crooked cop on the payroll of big-time badguy Jack Nicholson, while state trooper Leonardo DiCaprio is sent into Nicholson's organization early on to infiltrate it on behalf of the staties. Once again, though, the coincidences start to show up as they had in the other film. For example, both men fall for the same woman, despite the fact that the two moles don't know each other. The plot also asks us to believe that she'd be attracted to two such different personalities, out of all the men she meets in the course of her day. They learn of each other's existence around the same time, but of course don't know who is who. They each use cellphones to check in with their real employers, and yet manage to shield that fact at every turn, even to the point of DiCaprio text messaging the cops while sitting the back set of Nicholson's car while it speeds to their destination. Similarly, Damon sends off a warning text message from the midst of a big gathering of cops in a crowded room just as they're about to catch Nicholson red-handed in a criminal act. In other words, lots of symmetry around the two leads, which frankly stretched my credibility a little bit.

But overall it was a very compelling story, and moved along at an impressive clip. Tammy pointed out the movie was almost 3 hours long (a little more than 2.5 hrs, actually, at 152 mins according to IMDB) but it certainly didn't seem to drag at any point. Most of the acting was first-rate, even DiCaprio who I normally don't like. I thought Damon basically just re-cycled the same smart-ass character he put on the screen in Good Will Hunting, but that may just be me (I didn't like that character then; and I didn't like him here). Nicholson was fun to watch, as he almost always is.

The final several minutes were a bit much, with too many dramatic events happening machine gun-like, one after another. The audience we saw it with laughed out loud at one scene that was clearly not supposed to be funny (people died). I think that was just a reaction to the over-the-top nature of the final act. It didn't seem to be of the same high quality as the rest of the story.

I expect any Scorsese fan will love The Departed. Others will likely enjoy the suspense and top-notch acting, may be put off a bit by some of the violence, and will find the ending a bit of a let-down. But I doubt they'll be bored!"

The coincidences actually bothered me a bit more this time around, as so many of the events seems to rely on the symmetry between the two young lead roles and there's really no plot-supported reason for it. The reveal at the end, of a second mole within the police force, also seems to come out of left field.

So why did I enjoy it more than the first time I saw it? Well, I could appreciate the acting more now that I wasn't having to work so hard to follow the twists and turns of The Departed. Martin Sheen and Alec Baldwin, in particular, really shine in their supporting roles. It really is an ensemble piece, and every one of them stepped up and delivered solid performances.

Rating: *** 1/2

Friday, February 15, 2008

War Is Over (If You Want It Or Not)

It's looking more and more like the High Definition DVD Format War may be all-but-over. I've certainly been pulling for Blu-Ray ever since buying my PS/3 over a year ago, but in that time I've only invested in about 4 movies in the new format, for fear of being stuck with a Betamax library in a VHS world. A few recent, high profile business decisions that have favoured Blu-Ray just may have pushed the debate past the tipping point and knocked HD-DVD down for the count. If things continue in this direction then the prospects of me buying Blu-Ray movies and favourite TV shows in the future will go up substantially.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Indiana Jones IV Trailer

The wait ain't gonna be easy, either!

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

SMG to appear at Buffy Reunion

After years of refusing to be involved in any Buffy-related events (both during and after the show), Sarah Michelle Gellar has agreed to attend the reunion event at the Paley Festival (what I hear is TV's version of Cannes) in March. This news left me with mixed emotions. Happy that she's agreed, and sad that I'm not going! Hopefully someone puts the video on youtube!

Confirmed attendance:
- Amber Benson (Tara)
- Nicholas Brendon (Xander)
- Emma Caulfield (Anya)
- Charisma Carpenter (Cordelia)
- Eliza Dushku (Faith)
- Sarah Michelle Gellar (Buffy)
- Seth Green (Oz)
- James Marsters (Spike)
- Michelle Trachtenberg (Dawn)
- Joss Whedon

Yet to RSVP: Willow, Giles, Angel.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Host (2006)

The Host surprised me. About fifteen minutes in, I was beginning to write the film off : the characters seemed buffoonish, stereotypical, and a bit like they'd wandered out of a sit-com. Perhaps this was considered side splitting to some, but my patience was starting to wear thin. If I was supposed to relate to this hulking idiot and his subservient father as they worked their snack bar alongside the Han River, it was becoming increasingly clear that I wouldn't. Enter the idiot's perfect little daughter (of course she's perfect!) and I let out a sigh of loss--my loss of time having watched the film this far, loss at the money I'd spent to see it.

Then as the idiot takes some cooked shrimp to a customer sitting on the lawn near the river (because the idiot had eaten one of the customer's previous shrimp legs, and the father had to make it up to the customer, this lesson passing the idiot son by), someone sees something hanging off a nearby bridge.

Then things go very, very horribly wrong. And suddenly all that pretence of goofiness that went before was revealed as the misdirection that it was. I sat up straighter on the couch. Here we go, I smiled.

Like Cloverfield, The Host is a monster movie that focuses on how this would affect 'normal' people, instead of the usual approach of barking generals and worried scientists. As the dysfunctional family (the idiot, the father, another alcoholic son and a slightly self destructive daughter)try to regain what they've lost, the film kept surprising me with unexpected moments of heartbreaking sadness. Of scenes where the simplest mistake can carry such horrendous consequences. And of how in any disaster, the moments of true heroism are the ones no one sees.

Even now, three days on, certain scenes keep replaying in my head. I can now see why this film made so many top ten lists, both in North America and abroad. I just pray that no one tries to remake it for American audiences...or did J.J. Abrams already do that?

*****(5 out of 5)

Monday, February 11, 2008

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Review: 49 Up

It's almost as much about you as it is about them, when you come right down to it.

I've previously raved about 35 Up and 42 Up, the (respectively) fifth and sixth installments in the incomparable Up Series from director Michael Apted. The magic continued in 2006, with the release of 49 Up. In fact, there's probably no other film franchise that has delivered so consistently on its promise to entertain and delight its viewers. I've yet to hear of anyone who's given this amazing documentary series a look without coming away suitably impressed, and so I continue to recommend it every chance I get.

This time around, the Up subjects are staring down the barrel of the big 5-0, and there's a noticeable mellowing to be seen in their attitudes. Several of them are now grandparents, and couldn't be prouder. Some of the marriages from seven years earlier have ended, while others are stronger than ever. One of the men who refused to participate in 42 Up - John, he of the snooty upper class sneer and disdain for the entire proceedings - has returned, once again with the explanation of wanting to draw attention to his favourite charity of choice. All of the other regulars are still in the game, although former "chain-smoking neurotic turned salt of the Earth mom" Suzy vowed on-camera to make this her last appearance. Here's hoping that she changes her mind by 2013!

One of the many emotional scenes comes when wiser-and-more-confident Sue (not to be confused with Suzy) takes film-maker Apted to task for what she perceives to have been an inappropriate question that the director asked her while making 21 Up. At that time, as viewers of that installment will recall, the somewhat plain faced young lady was asked if she'd yet had enough sexual experience to warrant getting married. Presumably that question, and the embarrassment that it caused her both in the moment and ever since, thanks to the film series, was something that she finally got up the nerve to call him on. And to Apted's credit, that exchange made it into the final cut of 49 Up.

The crossover event this time around involved Simon and Paul being re-united (with supportive wives in tow), approximately four decades after they'd both been situated in a charity home together, as recorded in the original 7 Up broadcast. Seeing just how far each of the two men had come from their humble and limiting beginnings, both in terms of finding happiness and some small amount of material wealth, provides one of several emotional payoffs this time around.

Along the same lines, I almost wanted to cheer out loud at the news that physicist nice guy Nick, whose wife had refused to participate after being cast in what she considered a negative light - I'm ungenerous enough to feel that she just didn't like what she saw of her own unvarnished flaws, there on the big screen - was now free of her! Better still, he'd moved on to a much sweeter woman whose biggest worry seemed to be that she'd unintentionally cause Nick to change his ways in his earnest attempts to make her happy! From all appearances, this seemed to be a clear case of him marrying up, made all the more ironic by the fact that apparently Wife # 1 had dumped him!

As always happens when watching one of these updates, it's impossible not to think about your own life, and how you'd come across if someone were interviewing you every seven years along the way. How does your lot compare to Neil's, Bruce's or Jackie's? What's changed in the past seven years that would shock, thrill or sadden someone who'd last checked in on you that long ago? And was your current personality really all that apparent in the seven year old version of you, as seems to be the case with each of the individuals in the Up Series? These are the sorts of questions that few films are ever going to make you consider!

The DVD for 49 Up includes a fascinating interview of Apted by none other than film critic extraordinaire, Roger Ebert. (This must have taken place not long at all before Ebert's first surgery for his ongoing health problems.) Hearing the two men discuss not only the metatextual significance of the series but also the individual subjects and how much they've all come to mean to both of the grey-haired gentlemen was very touching, to say the least. A notion that occurred to me while watching 49 Up - that the entire franchise will make an incredible historical document for generations to come - was touched on by Ebert, and it was fun to watch the director's reaction to a suggestion that his work might hold a relevance long beyond his own natural lifespan.

I hope that all of the necessary stars align such that, five years from now, fans the world over can thrill to the release of 56 Up. Even if that doesn't happen, though, the seven existing chapters in this series have already achieved the status of high art and are true "Must See TV" for students and casual observers of the Human Condition everywhere.

Rating: ****

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Rabble Rousing From Whedon

I very much enjoyed this diatribe by Joss Whedon over at the United Hollywood blog. He argues passionately for the striking WGA members to hold fast to their anger toward the studios, right up until that moment - if it ever comes - at which an agreement is reached. As you'd expect from the creator of Buffy, Angel and Firefly, it's all written extremely well, but this is my favourite part:

"And the studios? Well, the Oscars provide advertising revenue and a boost for the films that win. But the studios have shown impressive resolve in ignoring short-term losses in order to destroy us. I don't hear any knees knocking in the Ivory Towers over that night of programming. Hey, I wish I did. I wish, like a lot of people, I could hear anything from in there besides that weird clicking sound Predator makes."

That last bit... made me laugh out loud!

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Worst Movies of 2007

(according to me... my apologies for the very short write-ups. at this point, if i don't do it like this, i won't do it at all.)

1. Spider-Man 3

Unfocused, contrived, a disgrace to the wonderful films that came before it.

2. Elizabeth: The Golden Age

Poor knowledge of history, over-acted, passionately awful.

3. Pirates 3: At World's End

I am one of the few that actually liked the second Pirates film. I found it driven and slightly captivating. This film resolves little, makes no sense, and is generally a waste of time.

4. Ocean's 13

Just sort of

5. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Perhaps my favorite book of the series, yet definitely the worst movie (so far). None of the excitement, edge-of-seat action, or epicness or the book translates.

Some things worth mentioning:
- Although in principle I don't object to the concept of sequels or reduxes, all of these films are just that.
- #3-5 I saw while on my voyages through Europe. While they were certainly a welcome respite from the heat, and a piece of home - they all sucked.
- Best lists (1-4 of 2006, and 1-10 of 2007) on the way... hopefully.

- Today I saw a film that resonated personally more than anything has since Lost in Translation. I look forward to writing about it.

Ebert's Top 10 of 2007

1. Juno
2. No Country for Old Men
3. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
4. Atonement
5. The Kite Runner
6. Away from Her
7. Across the Universe
8. La Vie en Rose
9. The Great Debaters
10. Into the Wild

I've seen: #1,2,4,10. No particular interest in the rest, but I'm sure they're good if he says so.
As for my own list, I still have to finish 2006!

Once Again: Is The WGA Strike Nearly Over?

Things have looked promising on this front before, only to come to naught, but maybe this time will be different. There's a good summary over at the United Hollywood blog. Bottom line: several major media outlets are reporting that the two sides are close to making a deal, with a resolution expected as early as later in the week.

I'm keeping my fingers crossed... after all, I want a full 16 episodes of Lost this year, not just the 8 that have been written and shot so far!

Review: Sicko

There's a good reason why most people tend to either love Michael Moore's films, or absolutely hate them. And it's not because he's overweight, smug in his beliefs, or from Flint, Michigan (although he is all of those things).

Well, OK, maybe the smugness has a little to do with it! But mostly it's the fact that he's willing to both stand behind what he believes and shame the Hell out of anyone who's on the other side of the argument!

In case anyone is wondering, I'm definitely in the "love his movies" camp, although I can't help but acknowledge many of the flaws that keep him from qualifying as a true documentarian. His anecdotal approach to film-making, for example, always leaves him open to criticisms of selectivism, which I think are very valid. His over-the-top storytelling style, while every bit as entertaining as a dozen clowns crammed into a Volkswagen Beetle, often undercuts the seriousness of his subject matter. And his condescending narration probably doesn't help, either.

But had his Fahrenheit 9/11 film had the intended effect and cost George W. Bush his re-election bid in 2004, Moore would have transcended the level of "dispassionate documentary maker" and actually affected history (sadly, it wasn't to be). Now, with Sicko, he's trying once again, but this time on a more personal front: he's championing the fight for universal health care within the United States of America. And as such, he's set his sights squarely on the ironically-named Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs) who've successfully shifted American medicine's focus away from saving lives and onto saving money.

Along the way, there are a lot of great scenes in Sicko, although the subject matter tends to weight it more toward the heart-wrenching than the comedic. I suppose some might find a dark humour in the contrast between the American man who had to choose which of his two fingers to have re-attached (one was going to cost $12,000 and the other $60,000, and the poor guy had to... sorry... foot the bill himself) and his Canadian counterpart who had all five fingers saved after they'd been severed (total bill: $0, courtesy of OHIP). Me, I could only think how sad it is that those types of scenarios are playing out on a regular basis in the country just a few hundred kilometres to the south of us.

And Sicko is full of tableaux of that sort, including a young girl who died because she couldn't be treated at the hospital that she was initially taken to (the HMO insisted that she go to a facility under their control, by which point she'd gone into a coma), a young man who needed a bone marrow transplant to save his life but couldn't get his insurer to approve the operation even after his younger brother was found to be a perfect match, and the senior citizen couple who had to move into their daughter's basement storage room after losing their life savings to medical bills. The film is a litany of tales that citizens in "every other Western country" can't help but regard as something akin to a horror movie. Moore visits Canada, England, France and even Cuba, and of course he casts those health care systems in a little too unrealistically-perfect a light... but one has to remember just what he's comparing them to!

One of the more pointed segments of the movie deals with the American doctors who go to work for HMOs and whose bonuses are then tied to how many health insurance claims they help deny! That raises the question: Is there still a Hippocratic oath, or are they all just hypocritical oafs? Moore actually missed an opportunity to really drive that point home when he interviewed a British doctor who described how his salary structure rewarded efforts like early detection and preventive medicine. There was a chance to show how both of those systems ultimately save money for the insurer; it's just that the English one does it while also serving the best interests of the patient, whereas the American HMO model focuses purely on profit and loss. I wish that the film-maker had drawn that parallel a little more clearly, as it's a powerful (and positive) message that shoots to Hell the notion that you have to choose between either saving money or saving lives.

Sicko is a must-see movie, as far as I'm concerned... but as I said earlier, I'm a bit biased. If nothing else, it certainly paints a picture of just how screwed up the American health system is, and should help those of us who live elsewhere appreciate just how well off we really are, at least in comparison!

Rating: *** 1/2