Thursday, September 21, 2006

Now Playing: 24 Season 3

I decided to move 24: Season 3 up in the queue recently because the ending of season 2 was such a cliff-hanger I had to know how the story continued. The producers took the easy way out, unfortunately, by picking up three years later with little more than a "oh, everything is fine now" throw-away comment. Considering how bloody good season 2 was (sans the Kim storyline) I had high hopes for season 3, especially how the Kate Warner-Jack Bauer situation is resolved literally in the first 15 minutes of the premier.

It's a shame then that the show feels like it's treading on water for practically the entire season run. The threat is just as serious, maybe moreso, than the nuke-in-LA threat in season 2 but for some reason it feels like everyone is just spinning their wheels.

The show wouldn't be 24 without at least one utterly ridiculous and show-stopping sub-plot. Last season that belonged to Kim Bauer and everything she did was useless. This season, that sub-plot is unfortunately given to President David Palmer and his Chief of Staff. Palmer is easily the coolest character after Jack Bauer himself and watching how he's sucked into a fairly stupid story involving his brother Wayne, Wayne's affair with the awful Gina Torres (who plays the wife of a major Palmer campaign backer), and Palmer's ex-wife Sherri just drags the show to a screeching halt everytime the focus shifts to it. The lone high point is how it all ends in the final two episodes, but it is a major beating to get there.

So are there any high points along the way? The way the show twists and turns this season remain pretty slick and unexpected, and I love how the initial threat is never the major one. Heck, the main villains of the first half of the season are dealt with by episode 12 and the major villain doesn't reveal himself until around episodes 15 or 16. Also, the biggest thorn in Jack's side is finally, and brutally, dealt with in a scene that I must have replayed a half dozen times. Kiefer Sutherland plays the character so perfectly that when he finally gets his long-in-coming revenge, you want to stand up and cheer.

I can see why Sutherland wants to stay with 24 as long as possible. The storylines may stretch credibility, but even when it veers towards the overtly ridiculous (as it does frequently in season 3) there are gems aplenty to appreciate. The way Bauer never lets anything affect him personally crashes on his head in the final minutes of the last episode and Sutherland sells it for all he's worth. He gives another magnificent performance as someone who willingly puts himself through the ringer time and again because he bleeds red, white, and blue.

While this certainly isn't the best that 24 has to offer, especially coming off the phenomenal season 2, it still has plenty of high points. I just hope future seasons pick up the tempo while refraining from the stupid.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Now Playing: Love Actually

Talk about a "chick magnet" film. My Fair Lady, myself, and a small crew saw this when it first hit theaters and haven't watched it since. We threw it in the queue recently and screened it again this weekend. I find it endlessly amusing how the British film community seems to appear entirely (well, if you exclude Maggie Smith) at some point in this movie. Between this and the Harry Potter series, I'm convinced the British film community is composed of only 20 actors who intermingle across all film genres.

Love Actually is a series of vignettes whose collective point is that love is all around us. With anything like this, some stories are better than others and the majority of my enjoyment came from watching Liam Neeson's recent widower bond with his new step-son. One of the deleted scenes in the extras actually makes their relationship all the more poignant while still being absolutely hilarious. The kid's reactions to falling in love at the age of 10 are funny, but it's the chance to see Neeson (a notorious stiff) actually cut loose and enjoy himself. The two of them have so much fun bouncing off each other that I would have been perfectly happy had the film focused entirely on these two.

Hugh Grant's story finds him as the newly elected prime minister and his comedic relationship with his new assistant. Grant is both funny and charming without resorting to any of his normal ticks, and his character is better off for it. After he loses his assistant and tries to find her on "the world's longest street" the sequence becomes one long sustained belly laugh. The more doors he knocks on the more frustrated he gets, and it's to the writers' credit that they have a unique surprise behind every door.

The Alan Rickman-Emma Thompson story of a marriage that's fallen into the abyss of commonality strikes the harshest emotional chords with Thompson, as usual, at the top of her game. Her personal breakdown late in the film is extremely tough to watch because she allows herself only a few minutes to completely shatter before she has to be back together for her childrens' school play. It's a devastating moment that Thompson absolutely nails. She also belongs to the best of the deleted scenes which involves her son, her school's administrators, and her son's Christmas wish. I shall say no more other than I completely lost it when she had a word with her son about what he'd written.

The rest of the stories circle around these primary three and the best of the rest involves Martin Freeman and Joanna Page as stand-ins for a porn film, and Colin Firth and Sienna Guillory as a cuckold and his Portugese housekeeper. There is a solid intimacy between these two couples as we see their relationships on a sort of highlight reel as they meet, talk, get to know one another, then fall in love. If you're looking for a solid date movie that wears its heart(s) on its sleeve, then this is definitely a good choice.

Oh, and this film was my introduction to the great Bill Nighy who brilliantly plays aging rock star Billy Mack. To say any more about his story would be a disservice to its hilarity. Cheers.

Now Playing: Ray

Ray is one of those films where the central performance is the reason you see the movie. End of discussion. Jamie Foxx deserved every accolade thrown his way during awards season because he doesn't mimic Ray Charles Robinson. He literally becomes him, and that's the caliber of acting which elevates a solid biopic to the level of greatness.

It's a shame that Ray remains a thoroughly average and overlong, though entertaining, film about a music legend.

I blame director Taylor Hackford, to be honest. The film jumps back and forth between Ray's present day and his early years as a kid throughout the entire run of the film. There are heartbreaking moments of sadness and joy in the flashbacks, but we get the point early enough to where most of the rest are extraneous. Yes, Ray's mother was tough on him regarding his blindness but she was right. With a little tough love, Ray proved himself stronger than either he or his mother thought he was. The way his hearing compensated for his blindness borders on mythic in the film, but the movie gets enough of the small details right to allow for some "fudging."

The thing that bothers me about modern biopics is how they try to cover too much ground when they should have kept things more focused. The key is finding a singular event, even if it spans a few years, that defined a person. Patton was brilliant in this regard because it focused specifically on General George S. Patton's involvement in World War II. That film is the benchmark against which all other biopics should be measured, in my opinion, because it gets everything right and doesn't stretch itself thin by turning itself into a highlight reel.

Jamie Foxx is actually so good as Ray that he forces everyone around him to bring their A-Game. For example, Regina King delivers a career-best performance as one of Ray's many flames and when they square off in Ray's hotel room (the result of which is the song "Hit the Road Jack") the energy just explodes off the screen. Far too frequently King relies on the "louder is better" approach to acting, but here she's nuanced, vibrant, and passionate without being overbearing.

Oh yeah, the soundtrack is amazing. The aforementioned duet of "Hit the Road Jack" goes from the hotel room to the ballroom and the performance is staggering. I read a perfect description of the entertainment industry somewhere that if a performer of any type was lucky then he/she would eventually conquer their personal demons, but if we were lucky as an audience they wouldn't. Ray's great demons consumed him for years, and the result was the sort of music that will be held as great art 200 years from now. Unfortunately, the movie frequently revels in Ray's personal demons to the point where the audience is bludgeoned over the head with "heroin bad! lost little brother bad!" The film ends on a true high note though when we finally glimpse Ray's eyes (in a dream, mind you) and despite his handicap he finally learns how to see with his mother's eyes. It's a terrific moment in an otherwise average movie anchored by a star-making performance from Jamie Foxx.

I'll agree this is a fairly schizophrenic review, but watching a film that leaps all over the place and changes tone faster than Ray Charles can play the piano will do that to a person. It remains something worth seeing if only for the soundtrack and Foxx's performance, but it falls short of being a great biopic of a modern legend.

Now Playing: Final Fantasy Advent Children

This is one of those films I watched a few months back then never got around to reviewing. Funny enough, I think it most closely resembles The Matrix films in terms of pure anime rush. The flip side to that is that The Matrix series encompassed both the best and the worst elements of anime, and Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children is no different.

The movie is a direct follow-up to the mega-ton selling PlayStation game Final Fantasy VII which, if you've never played it, was one of the most beloved games ever. I honestly couldn't tell you why because having played through the whole thing the bad far outweighed the good. The story was crippled by entirely too much metaphysical emotional baggage, the overwrought "big character death" happened to the most annoying character in the game (hence it puzzles me when people say they still get teary-eyed thinking about it), and the only way to get the ultimate weapon in the game was to sink roughly 50 hours into breeding giant birds.

I'll say that last again: The ONLY way you pick up the ultimate weapon in the game is to spend 50 FRICKIN' HOURS OR MORE breeding giant birds. When you finally breed one with a certain ability, you can ride him to a certain island, pick up the weapon, and then go kick the villain's butt inside of 15 minutes. Whoo-hoo, sounds like fun!

Thus it strikes me as absurd that this game is the basis for SquareEnix to make a franchise out of, but they've given it the ol' college try with Advent Children. If you're familiar with the source material then you should be able to jump right in, but if you're someone like my mother who's never heard of it then don't even bother. The film assumes you know who the major players are, the backstory of the world they inhabit, and what the personal stakes are.

As for me, I just couldn't get over how much cooler the game would have been were the characters able to fly like they can in the movie. There must be no gravity whatsoever in this world because characters can leap tall buildings in a single bound all while shooting at one another. It would be undeniably silly, moreso than it already is, if the animation were anything less than dazzling. SquareEnix has crafted a magnificently detailed, jaw-droppingly beautiful world with characters that border on photorealistic. Many times you'll just sit back and stare at how beautiful everything is and there are dozens of instances where the artistry on display is nothing short of overwhelming.

Once the action truly kicks in about three quarters of the way through, Advent Children becomes an anime John Woo movie. Up to that point, the focus was on two main characters from the game, Cloud and Tifa, and their struggle to figure out why the children of the world have grown increasingly ill since they defeated the arch-villain Sephiroth. It seems that Sephiroth wasn't the only clone born of a government experiment, and the three nuts on the loose want his power for themselves regardless of the consequences. They go so far as to unleash a dragon on the main city, and that's when all the secondary characters from the game show up and throw down.

The resulting action is, in a word, mind-blowing. The camera moves so fast through the city that you'll have trouble breathing. It all leads up to Cloud going mano-a-mano with a reborn Sephiroth and all manner of insanity results.

It's tough to actually judge this as a film all by itself because in no way does it stand on its own. It draws from and relies entirely on viewers' experience with the game, so even hardened anime buffs unfamiliar with the source will be lost. There's a feature on the disc that gives people a quick run-through of the game's highlights, but even then I felt I was missing some details. Advent Children remains gorgeous to look at and doesn't skimp on the action, but it is unfairly weighted down by the overstuffed plot from the game. This isn't to say the movie isn't worth your time, but if you're expecting balls-to-the-wall anime action then just skip to the one hour mark and kick back for a heck of a ride.

Monday, September 11, 2006

That's a Lotta Buns for the Moolah

My Fair Lady and I signed up for a Costco membership this past week and actually started shopping this weekend. Primarily because the particular vintage(s) of wine My Fair Lady enjoys so much were something close to half off compared to the local Centennial. Her eyes bugged out when she saw the Costco prices in much the same way mine would were I to find an Xbox 360 for about $150.

And people say that men and women are different. Pfft.

One thing that caught my eye was in the bakery. We came across hot dog buns and I noticed they were priced at $2.39. "That's comparable to Tom thumb, wouldn't you say? I asked MFL.

"Yeah, that's... wait. Look at the amount," she replied.

I scanned them quickly, then noticed what she was pointing to.

"Holy crap! That's $2.39 for 24 buns instead of eight? How have I missed this my entire life?"

In short, I'm going after Costco's buns from this point forward.

Friday, September 8, 2006

Now Playing: Idiocracy

This was the second comedy I saw this weekend and it couldn't be more different than Beerfest if it tried. Fox dropped this on seven cities across North America with zero publicity so we can expect it on DVD roughly three Tuesdays from now. Writer-Director Mike Judge was similarly shafted when Office Space came out to no fanfare in February, so one can see how he might be a little angry at history repeating itself. I can't say it's a travesty comparable to someone shelving Gone With The Wind, but the film made me laugh more times than not and was surprisingly intelligent considering its "stupid" subject matter.

Luke Wilson plays an average guy frozen in a military experiment along with a prostitute played by Mya Rudolph. They wake up 500 years later to find the world has gone stupid which is hilariously explained early in the film as rednecks breeding faster than educated people. I died laughing watching the "family tree" graphic as it swelled exponentially on one side.

The laughs build from there and the primary reason behind the jokes being as funny as they are is courtesy of the narrator. He sounds exactly like the voice of those old NFL Films highlight movies we all grew up with as kids, and it frankly wouldn't surprise me if that's who Judge used. It makes sense in context to have that exact voice narrate and his deadpan delivery of certain lines, particularly how the locals view Wilson's manner of speech, laid me right out in hysterical laughter.

There are a few missteps though, and a big one is Dax Shephard as Wilson's attorney. People can claim he's funny until they are blue in the face, but to me he comes off as a less shrill version of Will Ferrell. In short, he sucks. Quite a lot in fact. But as a counter-point to his lameness, Judge created President Camacho who is one of the greatest supporting characters I've seen in a long time. A former wrestler turned President of the America, Camacho is hysterically over the top and it cracked me up how he could turn from friendly to hostile and back to friendly all in the span of about four seconds.

Since it'll be on DVD soon enough, check it out the second it does. There are so many countless background sight gags that multiple viewings aren't so much required as demanded. It's relatively easy to get past the jokes that don't work, because somewhere in the background are three that do. It's a shame Fox didn't appreciate it more, but frankly I'm not surprised. If you're in Austin, Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles or Toronto then hunt this film down and see it in the theater. For everyone else, it'll be on disc soon enough.

Wednesday, September 6, 2006

Now Playing: Beerfest

Comedy is probably the oddest element known to humankind. What makes one person laugh until tears stream forth can make another person hurl in the theater aisle. It's all a matter of personal tastes and a little perspective, and there are not two more disparate comedies than the ones I saw this Labor Day weekend. So let's start off with Beerfest, the latest and arguably greatest from the Broken Lizard comedy troupe. This is the group who came up with perennial college dorm room favorite Super Troopers and the less well received, but infinitely superior, slasher comedy Club Dredd.

Beerfest opens at the funeral of the head of the Von Wolfhausens. Two of the Broken Lizard guys normally relegated to background status are front and center as the two grandsons who must take their grandfather's ashes to Germany and spread them at the famliy resting place. Once they arrive in Deutschland, they run into Oktoberfest in full swing and the riot which ensues is one long sustained belly laugh. The scene just builds and builds and I was on the floor laughing. They were sent to meet a certain man and when he picks them up he takes them to an underground beer drinking ceremony called Beerfest and all hell breaks loose. It turns out their grandfather stole a beer recipe, and fled to America as an exhile. The guys are beaten down and shipped back to the States in humilation.

Once back on American soil they decide to form a squad to return as conquerors to the next year's Beerfest. That's also all you need to know about the movie other than Broken Lizard goes out of its way to pull laughter from you. A lot of it is pretty dang gross, bordering on nasty, but I laughed more times than not and it's hard to argue with that. By contrast, My Fair Lady didn't seem to find it half as funny as I did. But I freely admit to being a sucker for Americans shamelessly mocking bad German accents and everytime the German team started speaking I started laughing.

Speaking of which, the Germans are led by none other than Jurgen Prochnow who proves to be as fearless at comedy as he is at drama. There's one long running gag referencing his most famous film, but the thing that got me was another joke aimed at that same film which Prochnow sort of tosses off as an aside. I just howled when he said it.

Kevin Heffernan, though, has consistently proven himself the MVP of the troupe as the go-to guy who can get it done. Here he plays Landfill, a compulsive eater and all around screw-up who sees this tournament as his shot at redemption. The places he takes the character are priceless and I was laughing pretty much every time he was on screen. Cloris Leachman though was hit-or-miss as Great Gam Gam, the great-grandmother who lords over the main family. She's in full on Young Frankenstein over-the-top mode and while some of what she says is funny, a lot more just isn't.

But overall the hit-to-miss quotient immensely favors the hits so if you're looking for pure, unadulterated, albeit very strange, comedy then Beerfest is a pretty solid flick.

GUN a AAA Title? Hahahahahaha!

I picked up GUN this weekend which, as noted below, hosed my plan of dropping below 10 games in my console backlog. The good news is that the game looks pretty short even factoring in all the side quests. I'm north of 60 percent finished already and I've played it for two days. What impresses me most is the voice cast which is uniformly stellar. I don't know how I managed to completely miss a game starring Thomas Jane with a father played by Kris Kristofferson and challenged by villains played by Lance Henrickson and Brad Dourif. That's the kind of voice work that demands attention especially when all of them get into their roles. Henrickson in particular rips stuff up as the most ruthless SOB the War Between the States ever produced.

What stuns me though is how this game was marketed last year as a AAA title by Activision. I have to laugh heartily at this because I picked it up for $20 in accrued store credit at EB and that was the right price point for it. There's no way in Hades I'd pay the full $50 (or $60 for the 360 version) that was originally charged. It's fun, but not fun enough to warrant multiple play throughs. Once I'm finished this thing goes up on the trade block.

One thing that stuck in my head which I wasn't able to figure out were the animations. In short, they're junk. You stand in front of a badly done model and watch them gesticulate wildly even after they stop talking. I knew I'd seen those somewhere else but couldn't place it. I knew they looked ugly as hell in that other place too, and it stumped me that anyone would use them in the first place let alone twice. Lightning struck this morning.

The same animations were used in the half-ass Pirates of the Caribbean: The Legend of Jack Sparrow. I ought to go back into my review and knock 10 points off it for reusing such poor animations. I thought the game was sloppy to begin with but now I consider it even more of a disaster than I originally did.

In so far as Gun is concerned, it's not bad but it's far from great. It's very much a GTAIII-lite set in the Old West which is a setting sadly ignored by almost everyone. With every company in the world pushing a WWII shooter of some sort almost no one (to my knowledge) is working on a Wild West shooter. Outlaws is considered one of the finest games in the entire FPS genre for good reason.

It got it right.

Playing through that back in college was akin to starring in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly and it was glorious to experience. Everyone involved not only knew what the cliches were, but reveled in them with an infectious energy.

Gun is missing that same energy but as far as time wasters go it's not a bad one. But it's a B-title at best that doesn't come close to the AAA status Activision said it was.

Sunday, September 3, 2006

And Still 10 To Go

Beat the latest game I've been working on tonight but I picked up Gun yesterday while My Fair Lady and I were at the mall.