Jul 28, 2012

Olympics 2012 Diary: Excitement

I love the Olympics.  It is hands down my favorite sporting event - even more than the Super Bowl that I have lovingly blathered on about before on this blog.  Look! I even debuted a new identifier disc to reflect my Olympic spirit!  I'm not some naive doofus that buys into all of that Olympic purity and honor and integrity garbage.  I know that this is big business and that athletes will do anything they can to get ahead.  I would not be surprised to find that even some of my very favorite athletes may have so many drugs in their system they could be considered a pharmacy.  Plus the belief that the Olympics somehow bring peace to this world is a joke.  That has been shown time and again at the Games.  People are still people, countries are still countries.  No torch is going to change that.

Yet, even in my cynical approach to sports, I still have a soft spot for the Olympics.  I believe some of that was forged in my childhood, when we all sat down together and watched the Olympics non-stop.  My parents loved them too - even my mother, who usually was as ambivalent to sports as a person could get.  (Except John Elway.  For some reason, which I never understood, she loved John Elway.)  Anything that caused that to happen in our house was going to get my stamp of approval.  I'm sure it didn't hurt that my first major Olympic memory was the 1984 Los Angeles games when we won everything due to the Communist boycott.

You know how you may have a restaurant you really like, but you only get to go once a year or maybe every other year?  Maybe its a place you go on vacation, so it is REALLY special?  It could be that if you were able to go to that restaurant all the time, it wouldn't be that special anymore.  I think that also has something to do with my draw to the Olympics.  The sports that make up the Olympic roster are ones that I really enjoy AND don't get to see that often.  You aren't saturated with the non-stop presence of them, unlike football or baseball.  So they remain special.  I love watching swimming, diving, gymnastics, track and field, volleyball, and rowing.  I don't know if I would watch those sports if they were on all the time, but I like watching them every four years.  The same goes for the winter games.  Bobsledding, skiing, figure skating, speed skating.  Those are fun things to enjoy, partly because they are rare.  Even the more accessible sports - tennis, soccer, basketball - find a new meaning in the Olympics.  I barely watched any basketball this past season - NBA or NCAA.  But I will watch Olympic basketball.

One final reason I have loved the Summer Olympics is that they usually fall during the summer.  (That may seem obvious, but we have also had games that ran during September, which is just stupid.)  As a student, that timing is perfect.  You are off from school, usually having trouble filling the time.  Out of nowhere, BAM, non-stop Olympics.  It is awesome.  Just about any time of day, you can find some kind of Olympics on tv.  Now, with all the iPhone apps and web coverage, a person could watch coverage all day.  [NOTE: Some of this coverage is boxing.  I hate boxing.  I used to watch it as a kid.  That was before two things happened.  First, the USA started to suck at boxing.  That makes it less fun to watch.  Second, I realized that boxing is a disgusting sport.  So CNBC is basically a useless station.]

As you can see, I love the Olympics.  Here are the ten things I am most excited to see during this Olympics.  (Spoiler alert - not all of them have to do with sports.)

  1. Opening Ceremony - I know this happened last night.  All day, I was excited for it to start.  I actually was counting down the hours.  Personally, I loved the London opening.  I heard a lot of people say it wasn't as good as Beijing.  For some reason, I don't remember much about theirs.  But I thought London did a GREAT job.  Maybe I just appreciated the story-telling.   It was brilliant how they transformed the stadium like they did.  The rising smokestacks were very cool. And the forging elements, complete with the map of London on the floor of the stadium, were just incredible.  Their tributes to literature and music were fun - even though their exclusion of Coldplay, Adele, and U2 (YES I KNOW THEY AREN'T PART OF THE UK!!! But they are on the same islands, for pete's sake) was annoying.  I thought the parade of nations was great.  It was much faster than usual and the background music (which did include Adele and U2, but not Coldplay or Mumford and Sons) was super.  My favorite was the lighting of the torch.  I thought the incorporation of every country in the creation of the giant torch was brilliant - and it mimicked the storyline of building and forging.  I loved it.  Well worth the wait.
  2. Oscar Pistorius Running - For those of you who don't know who that is, he is a sprinter from South Africa.  I've actually been following his story since the beginning.  The dude is fast - one of the fastest sprinters in South Africa.  But he has been refused inclusion for two straight Olympics.  Actually, he has competed . . . in the Paralympics.  He had both of his legs partially amputated as a child.  So he runs with these bladed appendages.  There has been a big fight over if he can compete because his artificial legs gave him an advantage.  US legend Michael Johnson even went on record saying he thought Pistorius shouldn't be allowed.  My thought is HE HAS NO LEGS!!!! What kind of advantage can POSSIBLY make up for having NO LEGS?!?!  He isn't going to win.  But I want to see him finally run in the Olympics.  What an amazing story.
  3. Men's 100 Meter Finals - Talk about running!  This is stacking up to be the most incredible 100 meters race I can remember.  You have Usain Bolt, who has looked like he is running on fast forward for years.  But he has lost to his own countryman several times this year, including the qualifiers.  Plus, there is the gaggle of US sprinters and several others.  Just how fast can a man run?  I remember when Ben Johnson ran the 9.78 100 meter with the steroid needle hanging out of his butt.  I thought that we probably had hit the point where it was impossible to run any faster.  Bolt ran a 9.58 in Beijing.  What will happen in a field THIS competitive?  Will they run so fast they break out of their Matrix slumber?  (That was for the three of you who saw that short story on Animatrix.)
  4. London - One of the alternating best and most annoying things about NBC's coverage of the Olympics is the human interest stories.  Sure, we hardly ever get to see these sports, so let's cut away to see Mary Carillo talking to some Ethiopian athlete's third grade teacher.  But I do love the insight into the host country.  Combine that with the fact that London is my ultimate dream vacation spot.  I love London - like an illogical love of London.  I've never been there.  But I would rather visit there than New York City, Hawaii, the Caribbean.  I've been to Washington DC, Los Angeles, Montreal, Sydney, Philadelphia, and Dallas.  But none of them were as high on my list as London.  I love history, I love Shakespeare, I love several UK bands (I KNOW U2 ISN'T FROM THE UK!!!), I love Harry Potter, I love Sherlock Holmes.  There is so much from London that I love.  At one point, Heather and I had discussed going to London for these Olympics - before Med School made that impossible.  I think I would have exploded.
  5. Women's Gymnastics - I have always loved gymnastics.  They are fun to watch.  The fact that my wife is a major gymnastics fan, which she passed on to our daughter only serves to intensify my love for the sport.  If you don't believe that we are that attached to this sport, think of this.  We went to the Women's Gymnastics Olympic Trials in 2000 on our honeymoon.  That's important.  
  6. Michael Phelps - I like Phelps.  I know he can be arrogant and make bad decisions.  But he is an awesome swimmer.  I want to see him become the most decorated Olympian of all time.  Plus, the drama from swimming is unmatchable.  I still can't believe Phelps won that one match in Beijing.  You know the one I'm talking about.  (That's another great thing about the Olympics.)
  7. Ryan Seacrest - One thing I noticed last night is that his hair looks like he has completely replicated Bruno Mars' pompadour.  At what point does this guy have to clone himself to do all of his jobs?  I'm excited for that.  Cloning yourself never ends well in movies.  What kind of evil could multiple Ryan Seacrests propagate?  I'm on board to find out.
  8. Basketball  - I have generally abandoned the NBA.  But even I have to admit that it is stinking cool to see our all-star team playing together like you do in the Olympics.  I also get a kick out of seeing NBA players playing for other countries - like the Gasol brothers in Spain and Ronnie Turiaf for France.  It will be fun to watch.
  9. NBC Olympics LIVE - With each Olympics, NBC learns a little better how to handle the new technology.  I remember the 2000 Sydney Olympics, when Heather and I would get online to find all the gymnastics scores twelve hours before they were broadcast.  NBC has been under fire for years about delaying sports until prime time.  BUT, this year you can watch just about everything live.  They have a website and an iPhone/iPad app where you can watch any sport as they are happening.  Plus, they have sports running all day on NBC, CNBC, MSNBC, Bravo, and three different NBC Sports channels.  It is almost overwhelming.  Do I want to watch cycling, fencing, tennis, soccer, handball, boxing (not boxing), or beach volleyball?  Or do I go online and watch something I've never seen before?  
  10. Tennis - The tennis matches are at Wimbledon.  Do you realize how cool that is?!?  Wimbledon only happens once a year and is just incredible to watch.  I have always loved Wimbledon.  It is another one of those special events, made more special by their limited access.  BUT, for one time only, we get to see it TWICE in a year.  Awesome.  Plus, all of the big name tennis stars are playing - but for their own country and not just themselves.  That is one thing I do like with the professionals being involved.  These stars make tens of millions of dollars a year.  But there still is something special enough involved in playing for their country that they will give up their offseason to play.  Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal, Maria Sharapova, Serena Williams, the basketball men and women.  It is cool to see them so invested in something like a gold medal that brings no financial gain.  
I hope to be writing a few of these articles as the Olympics go on.  So just look for the fancy new Olympics identifier disc at the top.  

Jul 27, 2012

Farewell Dear Friend

This morning I lost one of my oldest and closest friends.  We met in junior high, but like many friendships, it didn't fully grow until years later.  It really solidified in high school.  I remember strolling the halls together at Forest Hill High School.  We thought we were so cool - both just wisps of what we would later become.  We didn't care how goofy we looked - we felt more mature just being together.  As I got older, we grew more attached.  In college, things really firmed up.  And we've been together ever since.  Sure, there were times when my friend disappeared.  Sometimes it was my fault; sometimes it was his.  And sometimes something else would come between us - sever the ties.  But that never lasted.  I felt better with him than without him.  And he knew he couldn't exist without me.  I don't think we have gone more than thirty days in the last twenty years without seeing each other.

But today, tragedy struck.  It had been building for some time.  I had some concerns that he was covering things up.  I couldn't see the situation clearly as long as he was blocking my view by hanging around.  I tried to trim back his presence, but I still was having problems identifying the true story.  Heather and I talked about it a couple of days ago.  She urged me to give it time and see if things cleared up.  But they didn't.  Finally this morning, I knew what I had to do.  I had to make a clear cut of the situation.  I feel weird.  But it was a necessity.

I shaved my moustache off.

It is strange.  Like most guys, I have experimented with different facial hair combinations.  I've had a full-on James Harden hostage beard.  I've gone with no beard and just the little moustache.  I've had long 90210 sideburns.  I have even on a couple of (misguided) occasions gone clean shaven.  But for most of my adult life, I've opted for the moustache and goatee.  I don't like my face without facial hair.  My giant balloon head has so much real estate without something to break it up.  My dad always had a beard or goatee - except for a couple of weeks when I was in high school.  And I have always had one.

I noticed something the other day under my moustache.  Some kind of blemish.  At first I thought it was just a pimple.  (Sorry for the graphic description)  But then I realized that it looked like several pimples. And a big red patch.  Weird.  I trimmed the stache with my normal #2 guard.  I still couldn't figure it out, so I dropped down to the dreaded #1 guard.  Using a #1 guard on facial hair is a risky move.  It basically transforms whatever hair pattern you have.  There is a fine line between "unshaven" and "has facial hair."  A #1 guard is that line.  For some guys, it looks awesome.  For other guys, it makes them look slobby.  (Take a wild guess which group I am in.)  I got a clearer view of the spot and showed it to my almost doctor wife.  "I would have someone look at that."

Friends, let me tell you something, since I know most of you are not married to doctors.  I always thought that having a doctor for a spouse would be incredible.  FREE MEDICAL CARE!!!  Now, my wife has firmly informed me she is NOT my primary care doctor.  I still have plans to never see a primary care doctor again as soon as she can write prescriptions.  There is a great comfort in taking one of the kids to her and having her check them out or asking her about something.  One of my favorite questions (and her least favorite) is, "Hey, can you look at something?"  So, this all is a great benefit.  BUT...  When your doctor spouse looks at something and immediately says, "I would have someone look at that," that is NOT cool.  That is terrifying.  Of course, it is well documented that I am a massive panicker when it comes to medical issues.

Anyways, the spot never cleared up so I shaved off the moustache to get a better look at things.  The white points were not pimples.  They were some kind of dead skin patches.  Once the shower and shave were done, I was left with a neat pink patch about the size of a dime on my face right under my nose.  Doctor Heather looked at it again.  This time she told me to put some Neosporin on it for a couple of days.  And then have it looked at.  AAAAAAAaaaaaaaahhhhh!  What is it?  Leprosy?  Cancer?  Excema?  An alien infestation?  Only time will tell, I suppose.  (It probably is nothing.  Like I said, I like to panic.)  Whatever it is, I already am angry at it.  It cost me my friend.

Jul 21, 2012

Alien vs Alien

My wife is out of town for the week. So that means that I'm bored. Instead of watching the shows stacking up on my DVR (all of which my wife wants to see), I am hitting up the Red Box and catching up on some movies that I have not been able to see yet. To make this even more fun, I will be blogging my reviews and thoughts about the films. Today's Final Installment: Super 8.

What is wrong with aliens today?  This is something that I noticed in some recent movies that has started to bother me.  When I was growing up, we had some really iconic aliens.  Think back.  There was the plethora of cool extraterrestrials in Star Wars and Star Trek.  You had THE alien in Alien and Aliens.  Then there was the predator in Predator.  I would even include E.T. as one of these guys.  They were recognizable and memorable.  If they were scary, they inspired fear.  But they also were just plain cool.  I remember when I saw Alien.  That thing was terrifying.  It looked horrible.  And it was a complete nightmare.  It had armored skin, even side of it was lethal, and it even had acidic blood - so if you did shoot it, it could kill you with its wound!  That is just vicious.  BUT, the alien was so ... stinking ... cool.  I felt the same way about the predator.  They were terrifying with their hunting helmets on.  And when they took them off, man, even worse.

I don't know filmmakers that came after those epic monsters were worried that they couldn't live up to the standard of awesomeness.  Maybe they were afraid that people accuse them of just making a cheap knock off.  Or it could be that they needed to follow the current mindset of "bigger, gaudier, blockbustier" when it came to their creations.  Whatever the reason, aliens in movies are just not doing it for me.

I noticed the trend back in Independence Day, actually.  I remember that they never showed the aliens in the previews.  My friends and I intentionally didn't read anything or watch anything that might show the invaders - just so they would be ready to be stunned at the big revealing scene.  Then they showed the things.  Whaaaa?  What the heck is that?  Their ships were cool, their attacks were awesome.  They were just stupid.  I mean, look at that thing.  As memorable as the movie is (and trust me, it has a huge following), the alien in it is just about the least memorable thing.  You don't see people with little figurines of that or hear anyone clamoring for more of the shovel headed freak.

This has continued with other movies.  I really have rarely been that impressed with the aliens.  It seems the reliance has been on their technology or their ships instead.  Many times we never even see the alien.  There is a menacing craft doing unspeakable damage.  But the thing piloting is is irrelevant.  Think about The Avengers this summer.  Now, I loved the movie.  Absolutely loved it.  But was anyone talking about the aliens in it?  Nope.  They were just cannon fodder.  They had nothing unique or awesome about them.  They actually were one of the weakest elements of the whole movie.

I watched Cowboys and Aliens the other day.  This is a movie that is based on the terror of these invaders.  Again, they never showed the aliens in the previews - just their ships flashing around and the mayhem they cause.  I was looking forward to see what they aliens looked like in their big reveal.  Again, I have kindly included a shot of these things.  What in the heck is that supposed to be?  Is that a fish?  A rock man?  They were ridiculous.  Their chest would also open up and these weird hands would come out.  It actually made no biological sense at all.  Was there a symbiotic relationship?  Were there two creatures inhabiting the same body?  What was the purpose of the second internal hands?  And do they have internal organs?  Plus there was no consistency in how to dispatch the aliens.  They seemed like they could take arrow or bullet hits, but if you hit their head (which seemed extra reinforced) they could die.  The whole thing was very bizarre.  I'm sure it didn't help the movie that the aliens - part of the title of the movie - were lame.

This all brings me to Super 8.  On the whole, this was a very good movie.  I loved it.  Well, I loved the first three-quarters of it.  Then it seemed to derail.  (Hmmmm.  Kind of sounds like another JJ Abrams project involving suspense and thrills.  cough LOST cough cough)  I thought the opening minute of the movie demonstrated Abrams' absolute brilliance at story telling.  The opening scene has the haunting score, penned by the always incredible Michael Giacchino.  There is a factory with a sign showing how many hundreds of days it has had without an accident.  A worker climbs a ladder and starts taking the numbers down, replacing them with just a 1.  Then it cuts to a boy sitting on a swing in the snow.  In just a moment, we already know this boy lost his parent.  Brilliant.  I loved it.

Abrams has a knack for opening a story - it is one of his hallmarks.  Consider the opening scene of Star Trek.  It was absolute mayhem.  And it was incredible.  I remember watching it with my friend, Greg, and he leaned over to me when the scene ended and the title screen came up.  "JJ Abrams is a freaking genius."  I agreed.  The pilot of Lost was as good as any television episode ever.  The same could be say about the pilot of Heroes, the pilot of Alcatraz, the opening of Mission Impossible III.  Abrams grabs your attention on a consistent basis.  The challenge is carrying that all the way through.

Super 8 started off great.  I was very interested in the story.  It was a great tale.  The train wreck that really catapulted the movie was intense and incredible.  I really liked the kids that were the center of the movie.  It was a very good movie and it was very enjoyable.  But...

Throughout the film, there is this monster hiding.  It escaped from the train and it now lurking in the city.  We see glimpses of things happening.  The monster is obviously formidable.  It can crush a car.  Somehow it affects the electricity in its area.  People scream a lot when it shows up.  It is supposedly terrifying.  They are building to the moment when we finally see it.  I am actually excited and nervous to see the thing.  I'm sure that Abrams and executive producer Steven Spielberg will come up with something worthy of the hype.

Ummmmm.  What exactly is that?  It has six legs, I think.  The first time we saw it on the kids' video it looked like a spider.  I thought maybe it was a giant spider.  A giant spider is what they are going with?  After Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, we are supposed to be freaked out by a giant spider?!?  Then I realized it wasn't a spider. It had that weird face too.  What is that?  It looks like a dozen other creatures we have seen.  Actually, his face reminds me of Megatron from Transformers.

There are tweaks and such, but I wasn't that impressed.  It was ugly.  And then we are supposed to actually have some sympathy for it.  It just wants to go home!  Of course, it has killed dozens of people already and caused tons of damage.  One character has already said that it has no remorse or pity for anything.  And we are supposed to be like, "Poor spider looking transformer thing.  It misses its home."  Sorry.  Not working for me.

The other problem is that the scenes where we actually see the alien up close are so dark that I could barely make out details.  There is no big scene where the thing emerges so we can see it in its full glory.  It is always in shadows or silhouettes.  That's really annoying.  So we either have to deal with scenes too dark to actually be scared of the non-spider or we have to deal with Abrams love affair with lens flares.  [Side Note - there is an entire online community devoted to ripping Abrams for his love of lens flare effects.  For those of you who don't know, lens flares are this trick where light hits the camera just right and you get a little starburst of light in a scene.  Awww.  However, they also can be added through any video or picture editing software.  I know how to do them in Photoshop.  They are actually one of the first "tricks" people learn.  Star Trek was infested with them.  Light bounced off all the chrome everywhere and there were flares galore.  I actually laughed at one scene in Super 8.  It was a gas station at night (of course).  I counted six lens flares in one shot.  In a gas station.  At night.  But I quibble.]

I know that this whole alien thing may seem like a small thing to focus on in a rather enjoyable movie - especially for a guy who gave Cowboys and Aliens a VERY generous evaluation.  But, I think it should be an understandable rule in Hollywood.  If you are going to make a movie or show that focuses on the presence of a terrifying alien, then the alien needs to live up to the hype.  If not, then the movie kind of crumbles.  I mean, that is the crux of the conflict, right?  Was the alien in Super 8 scary?  Well, sure, if I was a kid standing there in a cave and that sucker came up to me, I would soil myself.  Heck, if I was the sheriff and that thing came jumping out of the dark at me, I would soil myself.  But I'm not. I'm a grizzled moviegoer who is used to aliens from decades of invasion movies.  I need to see something memorable.   I don't even know what I was hoping for.  I just know that wasn't it, especially with the big names that were associated with the film.

In addition, to have the movie end the way it did just seemed weird.  It almost felt like I had wrongly identified the main story arc.  The whole time we are sitting there worried about how to defeat this alien.  At the same time, we are supposed to be suspicious of the military guys, knowing they are up to no good.  The alien is actually going out of its way to hunt people.  He isn't just offing the clowns who cross his path.  He is out and causing trouble.  He takes out sympathetic characters, too.  So there is no reason to feel bad for this guy.  I am wondering the whole time how the kids and their parents are going  to fight off the military AND defeat the spider thing.  Then we get a twist that this guy just wants to go home.  And then he goes home.  Aaaaaand scene.  What?  That doesn't make any sense.  Everyone just stares up as his cobbled together ship takes off.  Now, mind you, only a couple people know that he just wants to go home.  But what's left of the town is just going to stare up approvingly at the killer leaving, as their buildings are burning all around them.  Nonsense.

In short, the movie was three-quarters very good and one-quarter confusing as heck.  The alien was disappointing on many levels.  And the ending was bizarre.  But there were some very cool elements and moments.  Which brings me to the end of my week of movie reviews.  I hope all two of you enjoyed it.  Actually, it is funny to see friends of mine out of nowhere putting status updates like "I finally am watching Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" or "Let's see if Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is any good."  I would like to think I made a difference.  Whether or not that difference was worth making is a different story.

Jul 19, 2012

Cowboys vs Aliens

My wife is out of town for the week. So that means that I'm bored. Instead of watching the shows stacking up on my DVR (all of which my wife wants to see), I am hitting up the Red Box and catching up on some movies that I have not been able to see yet. To make this even more fun, I will be blogging my reviews and thoughts about the films. Today's Installment: Cowboys and Aliens.

There is an especially funny episode of Friends where Rachel decides to make a traditional English trifle.  Her cookbook somehow gets some pages stuck together and she ends up combining the recipes for trifle (custard, lady fingers, and jam) and shepherd's pie (ground beef sauteed with peas and onions).  The resultant dish is reviled by all, with Ross going so far as to say, "It tastes like feet."  However, Joey eats not only his plate, but all the other hidden plates.  When someone asks him if he likes it, he says, "What's not to like?  Custard? Good. Meat? Good. Jam? GOOO-ooood!"

That exchange immediately popped into my head when I was thinking about Cowboys and Aliens.  On the surface, the individual elements of the movie look and sound great.  Jon Favreau, who brought us the incredible action movies Iron Man and Iron Man 2 and the class Christmas comedy Elf, was directing.  Steven Spielberg was producing.  As far as the cast goes, you have both James Bond (Daniel Craig) and Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) in roles that seemed created just for them.  The supporting cast was even stellar: Clancy Brown (Highlander, Shawshank Redemption), Keith Carradine (Deadwood), Olivia Wilde (Tron: Legacy, House), Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood), Sam Rockwell (Iron Man 2, Galaxy Quest), Walter Goggins (The Shield, Justified).  You get the point on the cast - a good strong cast.  It's a Western, which has a strong following.  It's a sci-fi, which has a stronger following.  Then you have a unique concept when so many people complain about too many reboots and sequels.

So, naturally, with all those great sounding ingredients, the movie bombed.  No, it wasn't a John Carter or Battleship level bomb.  But it was hardly the raging success everyone hoped for when it was made.  It took in $100 million in the USA and another $75 million overseas.  That doesn't sound bad, except it cost about $170 million to make, not counting the massive promotion costs.  So it didn't make blockbuster money.  Not only that, but its reviews were far from stellar.  If you go on Rotten Tomatoes - the online review site - the movie has a 44 percent fresh rating.  That means just 44 percent of people who reviewed it gave it a positive rating.  Among professional critics (translation: Morons that can't relate to the average moviegoer), it had a 50 percent fresh rating.  With the general audience, it had a 45 percent positive rating.  So, across the board, the movie just seemed to be not well liked.

When you actually read the reviews, few of them are actually viciously negative, though.  For some films, you will find hateful and scathing reviews.  I didn't see many like that at all.  Instead, most of them echoed along these sentiments.  "The movie wasn't as good as it should have been" or "It wasn't as fun as I thought it would be."  It seems like most people who went in thought they were going to get a fun, madcap, action film.  They were disappointed that the movie didn't deliver on it.

All of this puzzle me.  I remember reading about the movie from its original casting announcements.  I saw the previews, saw the marketing.  I don't really remember the movie ever being pitched as some kind of summer fun ride.  It wasn't supposed to be The Avengers or Fast Furiou6: More Fasterer and Furiouser.  So I'm not sure where people developed this perception.  After seeing the movie, I can say that the movie was a Western.  It had the pacing of a Western and the feel of one.  Thinking back on the Westerns I have seen, I don't remember to many of them having a frantic pace.  There aren't planes or guys in metal suits to race around.  There aren't race tracks and sports cars zipping back and forth.  People ride horses or walk.  It is dusty.  Fun time is sitting in a saloon and drinking, playing cards, and listening to music.  That's your average Western.

I know that the commercials highlighted the exciting moments of the film - Daniel Craig jumping off a cliff onto a spacecraft, Daniel Craig blowing up a ship with his bracelet weapon.  But it also showed a lot of Harrison Ford growling and Daniel Craig scowling and Olivia Wilde staring.  So, was Cowboys and Aliens mismarketed?  It is entirely possible that is the answer.  I know that even up to the release, friends of mine were not sure if the movie was supposed to be funny or not.  "Is it a spoof or something?"  [Answer: No.  It is not funny.  Very few laughs.]  When I would try to explain it to them, they would look at me and usually say, "That sounds dumb."  Now, these are the same people that have already pre-ordered tickets to Dark Knight Rises and can give you a fifteen minute dissertation on the symbolism in the Batman films.  They aren't movie noobs that don't get to a theater often.  But they still didn't catch the Cowboys and Aliens fever.

I remember in the past that there have been a handful of movies that were horribly mismarketed.  The strange thing is that I generally like those films because I judge them based on what they actually are.  But most moviegoers go in with a perception and are disappointed when the movie doesn't match that.  Here are a couple of examples.

  • Hudson Hawk - This movie was supposed to be a typical Bruce Willis film.  Lots of action, some humor and sarcasm tossed in.  It was marketed as a caper film.  Bruce Willis was the best burglar in the world going after his biggest prize.  I can understand why someone would be upset when it turned out to be an action comedy about a duo of burglars who sang songs during their thefts instead of wearing watches.  It was zany and bizarre.  There were subplots about Da Vinci, the Vatican, mercenaries named after candy bars, and alchemy.  I loved it.  But it was NOT Die Hard 3: Rob Hard.
  • The Cable Guy - Jim Carrey was a superstar.  Everything he touched up to this point was pure gold.  He was in the middle of a run that most stars would kill for.  Ace Ventura ($72mil), The Mask ($120mil), Dumb and Dumber ($127mil), Batman Forever ($184mil), Ace Ventura 2 ($104mil) led up to this movie.  The next two after it were Liar Liar ($181mil) and Truman Show ($125mil).  The Cable Guy thudded in at $60 million after costing $47 million to make.  It had Matthew Broderick, Ben Stiller (who directed it), Owen Wilson, Jack Black, and a very hot Jim Carrey.  People HATED it.  Why?  Well, simply enough, they were expecting a Jim Carrey movie.  They wanted to see him acting all crazy and speaking out of his rear end.  They thought he would twists his mouth sideways and cackle.  Instead, they got a VERY dark comedy and commentary on the unhealthy infatuation with entertainment, especially the voyeuristic appeal of criminal trials and the like.  It was should be paired up with Truman Show instead of Ace Ventura. Horrible marketing.
  • Last Action Hero - Arnold Schwarzenegger at the peak of his drawing power.  He had just put out the monster hit Terminator 2 and was about to release True Lies.  This movie raked in a pathetic $50 million on a $85 million budget.  How did it fail so badly?  Again, it was marketed as a big Ah-nold blockbuster.  And it was NOT!!!  It was a BRILLIANT satire on the action picture genre that was about to collapse on itself.  Seriously, go back and watch it again.  I remember seeing it in the theater and being disappointed that it wasn't typical Arnold.  I watched it again a couple years later at home and loved it.  It was hilarious.  
  • Shawshank Redemption - It wasn't marketed at all.  Or it was promoted as "from the mind of Stephen King."  Yes, he wrote the story it was based on.  But it was NOT a Stephen King film.  I remember seeing it in theaters and saying, "What in the world is THAT?"  I had no clue until the Oscar nominations came out that it was even a good movie.  Then I saw it.  WORST. MARKETING. EVER!  Seriously, this is one of the top 100 movies ever?  And it doesn't even get promoted.  Dumb.
So, did Cowboys and Aliens get tripped up by its own packaging?  I don't think it was as horribly mismarketed as those other films.  It wasn't presented as a comedy and then turned out to be a drama or anything.  But I do think it was communicated poorly.  People thought it was either a spoof, a rolling action flick, or a sci-fi film.  Each of those comes with a pretty standard set of preconceptions.  And those are all a pretty far cry from a Western.  Imagine if someone went into it thinking it was like Will Smith's Wild Wild West and realized it was closer to Unforgiven.  That would throw you for a loop.  

Judging the film for what it is, I actually liked Cowboys and Aliens.  I read one review that said Favreau couldn't control the erratic shifts in tone and mood.  Well, you're in a Western.  There's a guy who is wanted for all kind of crimes wandering through town.  People are coming after him, slowly, on horses.  One of them is a corrupt and cruel cattle baron.  They are threatening to hang him or ship him off to the marshalls.  Then three alien spaceships comes screaming down the middle of the street, blowing up stuff and snatching people.  That would be a erratic shift in tone and mood.  That is what made the movie so interesting to me.  How exactly would a Western gold rush city handle an invasion of massively technologically advanced alien spacecraft?  They don't have a clue.  They have six shooters and rifles and sticks of dynamite.  Think of the panic that ensued in films like Independence Day or V.  Those people at least had the benefit of having science fiction movies predicting alien invasions.  The Wild West didn't have that.  So it was a shock.

I also saw one reviewer mock the fact that the characters were able to overcome their differences to defeat a common foe.  Well, duh.  They had to.  Isn't that a common theme in movies from the very beginning?  And books?  And all literature?  Sometimes it takes a common enemy to help people learn that their differences are not really that important.  It puts things in perspective.  Why in the world someone would have a problem with that is beyond me.  That is the message at the heart of The Avengers.

I did enjoy the movie.  It wasn't my favorite movie of all time, or even my favorite Western.  (That still goes to Tombstone.)  I think that Jon Favreau has done better work.  Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig were both good in their roles.  And the aliens were actually very creepy and somewhat original.  There were some surprises that caught me off guard.  But I can understand the overall opinion that it didn't blow me away.  If I had spent the money to go to the movie in the theater, I would have been a little disappointed.  When I used to go to the movies all the time, this one would have fallen into the "good, not great, mostly forgettable, a little disappointing" category.  Now, I would have been more let down, since I don't go as often.  I wouldn't buy it, but I'm glad I saw it.  

Tonight I finalize my week of catching up with another film that I never got around to seeing.  Like last night's film, it has a lot of good credentials.  But this one lived up to the hype according to most people who saw it.  It is a good conclusion to the week - it has aliens,  secret agents, JJ Abrams, Steven Spielberg.  Basically it has a little bit of everything from the whole week.  Super 8.  Now the review won't probably be up until Saturday, though.  I'll be driving to Tampa on Friday.  Sorry to make you wait.  

Jul 18, 2012

Cruise vs Cruise

My wife is out of town for the week. So that means that I'm bored. Instead of watching the shows stacking up on my DVR (all of which my wife wants to see), I am hitting up the Red Box and catching up on some movies that I have not been able to see yet. To make this even more fun, I will be blogging my reviews and thoughts about the films. Today's Installment: Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.

Last night I bypassed the Red Box and grabbed a BluRay that had been sitting on the shelf since I got it for my birthday - Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, aka Mission: Impossible 4.  I have, for the most part, enjoyed the Mission: Impossible series.  It is kind of a hard series to adequately assess.  When Tom Cruise decided to adapt the series, he for some reason came up with a plan to have a different director in charge of each series.  Usually in a franchise there is some kind of continuity - at least that is the goal.  You want to keep the same director, producer, screenwriter, and stars, if at all possible.  Otherwise you have a very uneven series.

I know that Batman is pretty high in the public awareness right now.  Part of the problem with the original series from the 90s was that there was so much changeover.  You had the Burton/Keaton movies, which were very good.  Then you had the Schumaker/Kilmer/Clooney films, which were disasters.  One very large reason that the current trilogy has been so good is that there has been very little change in leadership, acting, or anything.  (Well, except for switching Katie Holmes for Maggie Gyllenhaal, which really didn't matter at all.) You can also see this in the Star Trek movies.  They were extremely uneven, largely due to the fact that each movie had its own director with his own vision.  Harry Potter had several directors, but there was a common screenwriter, common producer, and the stabilizing influence of JK Rowling.  Plus they had the same director for the last four movies.

Tom Cruise actually wanted the change of vision.  The first movie, which was amazing, was directed by Brian DePalma and was more full of intrigue and mystery.  It was an older spy flick, where the main character had to unravel the story right along with the audience.  There still were some great action sequences (especially on the high speed train).  But the movie itself centered on solving the puzzle.  The second movie was helmed by John Woo.  As is his style, the movie was like a Hong Kong action movie.  There was a lot of stylized action and slow motion sequences.  It also served as a celebration of all things Tom Cruise.  The camera lovingly portrayed him as a model who could do anything.  I didn't care for the movie very much.  One of the best things about it was that it was filmed in Australia and I had just gotten back from there.  It was fun to see the various places I had been.  But I also annoyed my wife by pointing out where they had messed up the geography of the area.  [The funniest one to me was where Cruise and the bad guy battle at one place and then had a massive motorcycle race to another location for a second fight.  The two battle places were actually about a half mile away from each other and the road they raced on was what you take from Sydney to get to the beach.]  The third movie was directed by JJ Abrams.  It was typical Abrams with great action scenes, lots of character development, and brainy elements galore.  It was a bit of a mix of the first two films.

The style and pacing of each movie were completely different.  But there still were some common elements in all of the movies.  There are always surprises.  One way is in having characters pretend to be other people with hi-tech masks.  How many times in the four films has that technique been used - often to a shocking end (especially in MI3).  Another shocker is when there is a big time actor cast and then killed off early on in their appearance.  I still remember the absolute shock in the first M:I when Emilio Estevez got offed.  I don't think anyone suffered this fate in the second one.  But it happened in the third and TWICE in the fourth.  I like movies and shows that aren't afraid to kill off apparently major characters because it amplifies the stakes.  There is also always a lot of technology on display, fast cars, great action scenes.  And we almost always see Tom Cruise doing some kind of insane stunt that proves he is still a stud.  The first movie had the drop from the ceiling and the train chase.  The second movie had the free climbing scene at the outset.  The third movie had the bridge explosion.  And the fourth movie had the free climb up the tallest building in the world.

As far as Ghost Protocol itself goes, it was a very good action film.  I would say it was the second best film of the series.  Brad Bird, director of The Incredibles, took over this film - with Cruise and Abrams serving as Producers.  Simon Pegg returned from MI3, but the rest of the team was completely new.  We didn't even have Ving Rhames playing a major role as Luther for the first time in the series.  The team was completely isolated.  Somehow they still were able to get all kind of neat toys to use, anyway.  The other big change was the introduction of Jeremy Renner as another big time character.  (You can tell that his inclusion was intentional as a way to either spin-off or hand over the series at some point.)

For the most part, the movie took place overseas: Moscow, India, Dubai.  Even though it was set in exotic locales, it seemed like a tighter film.  A lot of the action took place in just a few places within those foreign cities.  They didn't roam all over Dubai - mostly they stayed in the hotel with just a few excursions elsewhere.  This actually helped the movie by allowed to build tension without being too frantic.  I thought this encouraged more character growth.  It also highlighted the isolation of the team - they had to make do with what they had and with each other.  The plot seemed far-fetched and familiar - someone wants a nuke, but for very different reasons than in many movies.  It wasn't the standard Arab terrorists either.  Personally, it was a nice touch for me to see the movie address some of the developing economies worldwide.  So many times when we see India or Arab countries portrayed, we see the dust and the poverty and the overcrowding.  This time, though, we saw that there are some very wealthy people in those countries.  The movie had elements in the slums and markets, but most of it stayed in the other areas.  That brought a unique feel to the movie.

The movie also did a great job with the character of Agent Carter, played by Paula Patton.  So many times in these movies women will only be included as victims or love interests.  Even Mission: Impossible has fallen into this trap.  The woman on the team is competent to a point.  The main character invariable falls for whatever woman lasts into the last half hour.  This time, though, she was a strong and competent agent throughout.  She had a history that motivated her and depth to her character.  She used her looks to accomplish tasks, but was not defined solely by them.  And there was no romantic connection with Tom Cruise - and not because she was a lesbian, which is one of the other cop-outs for action movies in their portrayal of women.

Tom Cruise himself is such a polarizing figure.  I am thoroughly convinced that in real life he is as wackadoo as they come.  Just by analyzing how he is marketed and portrayed, he is probably narcissistic.  His behavior dealing with Scientology and his marriages is beyond bizarre.  But, on screen he is still very popular - one of the last examples of an old-school movie star.  The Mission: Impossible movies have always been a great franchise for Cruise.  It reminds everyone of his drawing power and keeps him looking young and spry.  As long as it doesn't become a movie version of Glamour Shots, like MI2, the series is one of Cruise's strongest resources.  I have always liked Cruise on screen.  Personally, I think people are too harsh on him.  Most of the time, when he ventures outside of his typical wheelhouse of characters - the fast talking, smiling, likable, heroic characters - he gets slaughtered by fans.  I have never been bothered by those roles, though.  I thought he was pretty good in Interview with the Vampire and Valkyrie.  Actually, I was more ticked off by his going to the well too many times in movies like Knight and Day and Last Samurai.

Cruise's portrayal of Ethan Hunt has grown over the years.  In the first movie, he was the younger agent taking over the reins from the older generation.  In the second, he was the superstar.  (Unfortunately he was more like the whiny, self-obsessed Dwight Howard/LeBron James superstar.)  In the third movie he was getting older and realizing that there was more to life than just fighting and risking his life.  He wanted to settle down but was afraid of the risks involved.  In the fourth movie, he became the elder statesman.  He had a world weariness in his eyes that had come from too many losses, too many fights, too many double crosses.  He still is dedicated to his craft and understands its importance.  He has reached a place of expertise, where he knows what to do after so many years - no matter the situation.  However, you can still see that he is tiring of the battle.

I think this series still has legs.  They apparently have announced a fifth movie already, which I'm sure I will see.  If Cruise tires of the role, or if he just becomes too old to keep doing the field work, he could turn over the team to someone like Renner.  Or, if they want to continue to be daring by mixing things up, they could hand the reins to Patton and have a female lead the way. Based on precedent, there probably will be a new director for the fifth installment.  I would love to see Brad Bird get another shot since he did such a great job.  If not, I hope they find a good alternative that can add something and usher Ethan Hunt into the next stage of his career.

I hope you're enjoying these posts.  They have been fun for me and have given me something to do.  Tonight's feature will be something that I haven't looked at yet in this series - a bomb.  Not a real bomb.  Every movie I've watched had bombs in them.  But a movie bomb.  I'm going to be watching Cowboys and Aliens - something I really wanted to see, but didn't want to waste the money on.  Thank you, Red Box.

Jul 17, 2012

Sherlock vs Sherlock

My wife is out of town for the week.  So that means that I'm bored.  Instead of watching the shows stacking up on my DVR (all of which my wife wants to see), I am hitting up the Red Box and catching up on some movies that I have not been able to see yet.  To make this even more fun, I will be blogging my reviews and thoughts about the films.  Today's Installment: Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows.

I have been a fan of Sherlock Holmes since elementary school, when I first discovered the books at the library.  I probably was the only middle schooler in South Florida that was proud to own nearly one hundred year old detective stories.  I'm not sure why I was so into the books.  My love of reading has been a lifelong trait.  I really enjoyed The Hardy Boys books, so maybe this was just a natural progression from that.  I can honestly say that I have read every single (official) Holmes story and novel.  I wouldn't call myself an expert that knows every last detail (like the people that wrote the Wikipedia page).  But I think if you read over fifty different works about a character, you have a good understanding of it.

I feel like I have some fairly reasonable ground to stand on in a discussion of Holmes.  My knowledge isn't based on a stereotype perpetuated by random references.  So, how do I feel about the modern takes on this classic and beloved detective?  Here's my general opinion: I like them.  Now, I find it ridiculous that the people in charge of making movies are so unoriginal that they have to constantly reboot and rework and sequel current stuff.  I wish that there was more original stuff out there.  One of the reasons I like Christopher Nolan is that, while he is having tremendous success with reworking a classic character in Batman, he also creates original movies that are exceptional.  However, this is just the way that the movie landscape is now.  In light of that, I would rather see something based on Sherlock Holmes than other dumb stuff. 

I don't have a problem putting a modern twist on an old character.  To expect a filmmaker to stick religiously to a source work is a bit ridiculous.  First of all, infinite retelling of a story would be a bit boring.  It begins to feel like a high school production at that point.  How many times can you see Romeo and Juliet done the same way?  (Oh yeah, I'm also a huge Shakespeare fan.)  Second, I have enjoyed seeing classic stories moved into different eras.  It shows how they lasted for so long by the fact they can hold up in different settings.  Conversely, I also like it when comic companies DC and Marvel have moved their comic book characters into different worlds in their "What If..." and "Elseworlds" series.  Superman landing in Communist Russia?  The infant Kal-El being found by Thomas and Martha Wayne?  Batman as a medieval knight?  Good stuff.  Third, I like to see what others bring to the stories - what they appreciate is not always what I do.  It helps a fan to see even more about their character.

My basic hope is that the creative director will at least stay somewhat true to the essence of the character.  Move them around.  Change their dialog or their costumes.  Emphasize different character traits.  But at least stay true.  Take Batman, for example.  The thing about comic books is that they always have different writers, so characters evolve over time.  Batman has taken on a much darker tone in the last thirty years.  Catwoman has moved from straight up villain to anti-hero to hero to villain.  So it is little surprise the movies have taken different approaches.  Tim Burton's films were wonderful.  (I know some people disagree.  I don't care.)  Nolan has taken a completely different approach - trying to ground the superhero saga into reality, as much as that is possible.  Of course, if you were a purist you SHOULD hate Nolan's efforts.  But a true Batman purist can't hate Nolan's work because they only serve to enhance the overall Batman mythos.  Burton, Nolan, the comic writers all try to stay true to the essence of the character.  This is why Joel Schumacher's atrocities were SO offensive.  They completely abandoned all of what made Batman what he is.  He revisited and tweaked it to the point that it wasn't even the same universe.  

So, when it comes to Sherlock Holmes, I can handle the different approaches.  And what we have right now are two VERY different takes.  On one hand, you have Guy Ritchie and Robert Downey Jr. presenting their movie version.  On the other, you have Stephen Moffatt and Benedict Cumberbatch offering their television take.  (Then there is CBS' upcoming Sherlock-in-New-York with a female Watson series which I will reserve judging until I see it.  As ridiculous as it sounds.  But I won't judge it yet.  Or at least I'll try.)  There really could not be two different ways to address this character than what is currently out there.  The movie version leaves Holmes in the late 1800s, but emphasizes his physical prowess in weaving an action tale.  The television show moves Holmes and company into present day London, while trying to keep true to the Holmes we know (just if he had a cell phone and access to a computer).  The surprising thing is that both of them are very good and enjoyable.  And both respect the character, while providing a welcome (and needed) modern update.

The very fact that Sherlock Holmes is pictured in the movie poster holding a gun and smirking instead of holding a pipe and thinking shows what kind of movie to expect.  This is not going to be the traditional Holmes, bent over a desk and demonstrating all sorts of anti-social tendencies.  Instead he is a lovable rogue who isn't afraid to get his hands dirty.  Guy Ritchie decided to tap into some of the lesser known characteristics of Sherlock Holmes - the disguises, the ability to fight, his attraction to Irene Adler.  Instead of being fringe elements, these are played up more.  In the books, Holmes could fight.  He had knowledge of martial arts and bare knuckle fighting and was a strong person.  But these were never distinguishing elements of his life - more of surprising facts that proved useful on occasion.  He could have a wit about him and was very sarcastic, especially for the era in which he lived.  However, there is a massive leap between that and RDJ.  To me, it seems like Downey plays Holmes as a Victorian Tony Stark.  He is smarter than everyone, does what he wants, but has developed this strong desire to see good - partly for the good of others, partly because it is a way to make himself feel superior.  He has an abrasive nature, but not in the way of the classic Holmes.  Its a likable unlikeability, if that makes any sense.

The biggest problem I have with the Holmes movies is that they really eliminate the mystery aspect.  We are not drawn into this story, trying to figure out what is going on along with everyone else.  Yes, there is some element of intrigue and some neat tricks in the reveal.  But that was more apparent in the first movie, where I was seriously wondering how in the world the villain was alive when he was supposed to be dead.  In Game of Shadows, we know the bad guy from the outset.  He isn't hiding it at all.  And there isn't really a big mystery of what is going on.  He's orchestrating explosions.  So what?  He's pushing Europe towards war.  So what?  I never was sitting there confused.  When they did any kind of big reveal, it was almost like, "Oh, was I supposed to be wondering about that?"  Any level of suspense came from how Holmes was going to stop the guy, like how any superhero will stop any villain.  There are some scenes where Ritchie will show Holmes figuring out something before the others, but it more often than not is in the midst of a fight - how can he effectively vanquish his foes by guessing their moves.

I am not sure if this is a problem with Ritchie's Holmes or an indictment of movies in general.  It is pretty rare to have a good mystery any more in movies, where the viewer is kept in the dark and figuring things out with the hero.  Sure, movies have twists in them.  But the detective genre has almost been completely banished to television at this point.  One of the last movies I saw that really held me the whole time and kept me in the dark - not due to confusion but due to forcing me to use my mind - was the first Mission: Impossible movie.  Of course, a lot of people railed against that movie, saying it was too hard to figure out - which is exactly why I liked it.  It is almost like we have abandoned the detective today - it is too easy with technology to do what these people used to work hard to do.  Batman used to be known as The Detective.  How often do you see that element any more?  That is how I feel about Downey's Holmes.  The detective element is played down in favor of action.  He unravels things with action first, gimmicks second, and mind third.

That is really what makes the BBC version of Sherlock so riveting to me.  It really is a throwback to the original Holmes books.  It even takes those original stories and revamps them into modern situations.  Benedict Cumberbatch plays Sherlock as the cerebral detective.  He knows more than everyone else and he is more perceptive than everyone else.  He believes everyone should see this and yield to his superior nature.  So he is actually befuddled by the fact that people are offended by him.  He doesn't shrug it off, it is a confusing reality to him.  He reminds me of an elementary aged child who thinks you should be able to say anything you think without consequence.  He can be truly awful to people - social skills are not as important as learning or solving the mystery.  And his desire to solve the mystery is more out of fascination.  If it strikes his fancy, he will jump at it.  Otherwise, no matter how important the crime is, Holmes sees it as a waste of time.  He has loyal friends, but he doesn't always see the reason for them.  That is changing over time.  However it is still painful to see him run roughshod over the local morgue worker, as she is standing there infatuated with him.  

The show revels in the mystery.  It sets the stage to where the viewer is completely in the dark as to the solution.  There have beens six ninety minute episodes thus far and I haven't guessed the solution in the first hour of any of them.  The intrigue is one thing to love, but the show is also humorous and well acted.  Cumberbatch is great.  I think he is a star on the rise.  Last year he started in two Oscar nominated movies along with the show (War Horse, Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy).  He is currently filming the Star Trek sequel and will be the voice of the dragon in The Hobbit.  It really is only a matter of time before he hits it very big.  I think of him joining Michael Fassbender and Tom Hiddleton in the brainy darker leading man category.  And speaking of The Hobbit, Martin Freeman, who will be starring as Bilbo Baggins in that film, does an amazing job as Dr Watson.  He is exasperated with Holmes, but at the same time enthralled by him.  He comes alive during the mysteries, all the while complaining of how he is being dragged into it.  I think he is the perfect Watson for this version of Holmes.  (Being perfectly fair, I think Jude Law does a great job with Watson in the movies.  He is also the perfect version for Downey's Holmes.)  In addition, Holmes' brother Mycroft is brilliant.  He matches his brother's wits.  And he is just as cold when it comes to people, but as a government official thinking of the higher good of country.  I also like the police officers, especially Lestrade.  They are like any modern police procedural team if they had a weirdo overstepping his bounds.  

One thing that is a little different in the show is that the supernatural element is almost non existant.  It is so grounded in the modern scientific world that the thought of something otherworldly being the culprit hardly enters the mind.  The only episode that even ventured there was "Hound of the Baskervilles."  If you read the books, many of them had elements of the supernatural hanging over them.  It could be that in that era, that was a more common first guess.  But I think it also was that some of the mysteries were so hard to fathom that the ludicrous became logical.  The first Holmes movie did a good job of harkening back to those stories.  The whole secret society and executed men coming back to life angle really felt like a Arthur Conan Doyle story.  

The last comparison I will make is in the area of how the two properties address Professor Moriarty.  This is the villain to end all villains.  He can match Holmes' intellect.  And he is evil to the core.  It is hard to portray that without resorting to cartoonish depths.  One offering properly did that; one failed.  Surprisingly, the one that was successful was Ritchie's movie.  His Moriarty was brilliant and respected.  But he hid an evil viciousness and a criminal empire.  The people in power didn't know he was a criminal since he hid things so well.  The one problem I had was that he was portrayed very quickly as the baddie.  We didn't have to wonder who was actually Moriarty or anything.  But the role itself was more in line with the arch villain we know.  The television show, on the other hand, did a good job hiding his identity.  We were completely caught off guard when we realized who Moriarty was.  But the excitement ended there.  I hated every minute he was on screen until the last episode.  The character was so over the top.  Obviously he was mentally unstable, but he acted like a complete loon.  It was almost that he was modeled after Heath Ledger's Joker instead of a plotting and manipulating genius.  He was just full on nutso.  I never liked the character, which is unfortunate for someone of that stature in a story.

Overall, I did enjoy Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows.  It was a fun action flick.  Robert Downey Jr is at the point where he is playing various versions of his show biz persona in just about every film - kind of like how Alec Baldwin has merged into his Jack Donnaghy character from 30 Rock.  If you like Downey, you will like Sherlock Holmes.  (You will also like Iron Man.)  But if you like Sherlock Holmes, you will love the television show Sherlock.  That was a puzzler.  Next up on the BluRay train?  Mission:Impossible: Ghost Protocol.

Jul 16, 2012

Spy vs Spy

My wife is out of town for the week.  So that means that I'm bored.  Instead of watching the shows stacking up on my DVR (all of which my wife wants to see), I am hitting up the Red Box and catching up on some movies that I have not been able to see yet.  To make this even more fun, I will be blogging my reviews and thoughts about the films.  First up: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is an old-fashioned spy thriller.  I mean, not just Hunt for Red October old-fashioned.  I mean really old-fashioned.  Set in 1973, it has virtually none of the trapping of a modern spy film.  It was kind of hard for my brain to transition to the different environment.  There were no cell phones, no computers, no surveillance cameras on every corner.  Instead, the spies used pay phones and read paper briefings.  Rather than using high-powered assault rifles, homemade bombs, and specialized training these spies relied on knives, pistols, and hunting rifles.  But their biggest weapon was their words.

I never had really thought about how much spies in older spy movies were so dependent on words.  They were everything.  That was how you transmitted information, organized plans, turned enemies.  Words were the most valuable commodity around.  Sometimes, that was the ultimate goal - to hear just a simple word.  A code, a mission name, an operative's handle, a target location.  Just a single word could have massive, long-term ramifications for hundreds of people.  In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, one agent was broken through enemy interrogation and he sold out all the operatives in an area.  He asked if they had gotten out okay, only to find that his words had betrayed every one of them.  Words had meaning.  

I had seen in several reviews of the film that the dialogue was critical and was hard to follow.  I understand why people would say that.  I had to have my television's volume about fifty percent higher than normal just to catch everything (which made for a shock when a pistol would go off).  I don't think the movie itself was to blame.  Rather, it is more a commentary on how we, as moviegoers, have become so accustomed to noise.  That is where there is the greatest contrast between Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and modern spy offerings.  When I think of the modern spy genre, immediately I think of the Bourne series.  It also includes the newer Bond movies, shows like Burn Notice and Covert Affairs, and films like Salt or Mr. and Mrs. Smith or Mission: Impossible.  In these stories, the modern spy is still brilliant and deductive.  But they also are like real-life superheroes.

Think about Jason Bourne or Michael Westen.  They know how to use every weapon: knives of all sizes, grenade launchers, rail guns.  They are trained in all sorts of combat - from Asian martial arts to parkour.  They are military geniuses.  In addition, they are all super sexy and use seduction as a common technique.  They also have super spidey senses, able to tell if the smallest item is moved or if a person breathes two rooms away.  Words are not as important as trickery and acting.  Technology is deeply interwoven into the modern spy's repertoire.  He or she must be able to hack into any computer, clone drives, nullify unbelievably intricate security systems, hijack the local network of cameras, and edit videos on the fly.  

Looking at the difference between the Bourne series and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is an interesting exercise.  Both films are very good.  They are well written and executed.  They attract amazing casts.  Think about the names that were in those films.  The Bourne films have Oscar and Golden Globe nominees and winners galore.  Matt Damon, Jeremy Renner, Edward Norton, Chris Cooper, Albert Finney, David Strathairn, Joan Allen, Clive Owen, Scott Glenn, and Brian Cox all have acting hardware on their shelves.  Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy can easily match that roster (as well as show their apparent affinity for grabbing Harry Potter cast members.  Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, John Hurt, and Toby Jones all have been acknowledged by those groups - while other cast members Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, and Mark Strong will almost assuredly be nominated at some point in the near future.  

Interestingly, they both tell the tales of a spy disillusioned by their role and their leaders.  It is pretty common for modern American cinema to wallow in the anti-establishment end of the pond.  Most Americans don't trust their government and believe there are conspiracies afoot.  So it is only natural for the modern brilliant spy to uncover the nefarious plots.  Apparently a few decades back, the British intelligence community was as highly regarded as a circa 1990s American automobile.  So the more alert operatives in that group were hitting the same place that modern US operatives are now.  The themes of betrayal, corruption, misguided methods, and blind ambition run through both works.  For all of their similarities, though, these two examples go about things in a completely different way.

Jason Bourne is a man of few words.  But he is a man of action.  Gary Oldman's George Smiley is also a man of few words - at first.  I clocked it last night.  Even though he was in virtually every scene in the first part of the movie, Smiley didn't talk until the 18 minute mark.  At that point, he mostly spoke in minor phrases, spending most of his time thinking, analyzing, and plotting.  As the movie progressed, though, Smiley spoke more and more.  Bourne, as the movies progressed, would demonstrate his physical brilliance in fending off increasingly dangerous attacks.  Smiley showed his mental brilliance as he maneuvered through the web of lies all around him.  Instead of breaking out into violence, he wielded his words like a sword - both to inspire loyalty from those close to him and to strike fear into those plotting against him.  He pulled a gun once, but never actually USED a weapon.  A far cry from a modern spy.  

There were no car chases, no explosions.  There were few, if any, fight scenes.  There was violence.  It was crude and awful - which made it all the more shocking.  So many times in modern action movies, people die and property gets destroyed at such a rate that we rarely blink an eye when someone gets offed.  In fact, going into a film like Bourne, we expect that two-thirds of the people will probably end up dead.  I kept waiting for the wholesale clearing house scene in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.  It never happened.  Each death that was shown was brutal and affecting.  It really brings home the fact that taking a life weighs on a person.  You could see that weight etched on the faces of each person.  The younger spies were overwhelmed by the pain of loss as they experienced it for the first time.  The older spies had a weary look of acceptance, but the pain didn't disappear.  

Another example of this genre of film would be The Good Shepherd.  It was a modern film that looked at the beginning of the CIA.  Matt Damon played another word-sparing spy.  But this time it was in a different world.  Gone were the images of Damon beating a man up with a magazine and blowing up an apartment complex with a microwave.  The spy in Shepherd was coldly calculating.  I could actually see that character growing up into Oldman's George Smiley.  They were cut from the same cloth and spies of a similar era.

I think both types of movies have their place.  I love sitting back and watching Michael Westen blow up half of Miami without any consequences.  It is fun.  Westen is brilliant and talented.  So is Jason Bourne.  I am excited about Bourne Legacy.  I loved the first three movies.  They are exciting and riveting.  But Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a different kind of movie.  It is slow and thoughtful.  It requires the viewer and the spy to pay attention to everything.  There is nothing loud and explosive to distract and thrill.  Instead there is just the enjoyment of watching a master at work.  

Part of that mastery is found in Gary Oldman's portrayal of the elder spy.  Personally, I think Oldman is one of the most brilliant actors out there.  He is a complete chameleon.  He makes every role his own to the point that you can't imagine anyone else being cast.  JFK's Lee Harvey Oswald, Dracula's vampire prince, Fifth Element's wacko Zorg, Harry Potter's Sirius Black - even Batman's Commissioner Gordon.  (I am a massive Batman fan and when I heard Oldman was cast as Gordon, I just about wet myself with excitement.)  I have always found it more difficult for actors to portray a quiet character than a loud one.  I am nowhere near as impressed by Al Pacino's Scent of a Woman or Oceans Thirteen performance as a I am by his Godfather or  Insomnia ones.  I think actors love to portray over-the-top characters because they are so showy and noticeable.  It is easy to overlook someone quiet and thoughtful.  But the ability to imbue that person with layers and depth takes work.  You can't rely on a big speech to flesh out your character.  It is in a glance or a sigh.  That actually is also why I think Matt Damon is such a good actor.  His Jason Bourne and Good Shepherd character both carried that ability to say enough by saying nothing at all.  

That all being said, I enjoyed Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.  It was tense and engaging.  I loved the performances by everyone - especially Oldman, Tom Hardy (brilliant in its restraint) and Cumberbatch.  [Side note: Tomorrow's post will deal more with him as I compare the Sherlock Holmes movies with the BBC Sherlock show.  Spoiler alert: I think Cumberbatch is a brilliant megastar on the rise.]  I appreciate a movie that make me think and doesn't rely on action sequences all the time.  It was a throwback, which I appreciate from time to time.  Maybe its because I remember the era the movie was set in, when spies were these mysterious characters in an invisible war instead of superheros fighting nothing in particular.  

Jul 2, 2012

Where's the Mystery

I threatened numerous people that my next post after the award winning Reunion Files would be a list of my favorite superheroes.  BUT, I lied.  Sure, this probably will reference superheroes, but the actual list will have to wait for another day.  Instead, I am wanted to address something that has been bugging me for a while now.  It started as a Facebook status update.  But, when I realized that it was going to take a paragraph to explain, I knew it had to go somewhere else.


[Side Note: Facebook friends, if you feel it necessary to write a full column for your status update, can I suggest you perhaps turn that into a note?  Then I will at least know what I am getting into.  I don't mind a short paragraph.  Everyone knows that I have written my share of long statii.  If the status ventures into needing its own ISBN number, go the Note route.]

I have reached the end of my tolerance of movie and tv spoilers.  There was a time, not too long ago, where I enjoyed the random spoiler.  I liked to know some information about where a show was heading, or what treats may pop up in a movie.  When Lost was on air, I would visit many sites to figure out what just happened, what it meant, what was coming.  I like to know the random detail about a television series.  We watch Burn Notice every summer and winter.  It left us last year with some big cliffhangers last season, so I was naturally curious about what was going to happen.  I did at some point go onto ew.com and see how long a character would remain in jail.  But that is a big difference from the spoiler madness out there.

The reason I even thought about this was that one of my regular entertainment sites - not even a normal spoiler site - had a post up about who Joseph Gordon Levitt was playing in The Dark Knight Rises.  This is the thing.  Christopher Nolan is notoriously secretive about his movies.  And he is even more paranoid than he usually would be because of the way people now desperately want to ruin films.  I love Nolan's films.  I like the intrigue and surprise of them.  If you allow yourself to, you will be kept off guard the entire time.  This has been his hallmark from the early films on through the Batman movies.  Memento, Insomnia, The Prestige, Inception.  All of those are complex stories that require the viewer to remain in the dark.  I loved those films BECAUSE I didn't know what was going on.  The experience would have been ruined if I had known spoilers.  Nolan's ability to make intriguing movie trailers without giving away plot points is almost as breathtaking as his ability to make the movies themselves.  I remember seeing the Inception trailer and thinking it was incredible.  I started to wonder what was going on in certain scenes.  And then when I saw the movie, I was completely wrong about everything I had guessed.

Now, I know that massive movies like Dark Knight Rises do not allow for complete secrecy.  You can't hide filming a giant vehicle racing through downtown Chicago or a bomb exploding on a football field.  So there is going to be paparazzi shots of those things online.  But if the filmmaker is going out of his way to keep SOMETHING secret, let him do that.  There is probably a good reason.

J.J. Abrams is another director that gets labelled "notoriously secretive."  But he has to his credit some really twisty surprising stuff that would not have worked if everything was out in the open.  When a director fights the intrusive nature of modern media, it is almost they get a target on their back.  Now it becomes an accomplishment to get set photos, script peeks, or character bios.  This is happening to Abrams now on Star Trek 2.  He went so far as to rent giant cargo carriers to surround the shooting area because he got tired of seeing every little thing plastered on the web.

I guess I don't see the point of all of this.  I suppose for the photographers there is some kind of thrill in breaching security.  Maybe it is the modern equivalent of a photo safari in Africa.  But for the moviegoing fan, does this actually help the moviegoing experience?  Do you enjoy a film more because you know everything about it?  I know that I don't.  I want to be surprised.  It may not ruin the entire movie, but it isn't as good as it could be.  Heather and I were watching the series premiere of a show the other day on television.  There was a big twist at the end where a character dies - someone you never would have imagined was going to bite it.  The only problem was that I already knew that.  I wasn't looking for information on the series.  I was just reading an entertainment story about the premier (which we were watching on DVR the next day).  There wasn't any warning or anything.  And this wasn't like I flipped out because someone told me the secret in Psycho fifty years after it came out.  This was the next day.  So what did I think about the whole episode?  "So when does this dude die?  How does that happen?"

The thirst for secret information combines with some of the worst journalism since newspapers were called newsrocks and the fact that you can get information anywhere, any time.  This is a perfect recipe for disaster.  The writers are so desperate for scoop to drive traffic to their site that they don't care if their information is damaging to anyone.  Here are some recent examples that I will put SPOILER WARNING in front of, just in case you have missed stuff.

  • After The Avengers, entertainment sites were flooded with people discussing the details of the monster film.  Ordinarily, I would have been right there opening weekend and been in the discussion.  But I couldn't make it until the second weekend.  I actually had to completely avoid any story with Avengers in the title because so many of them had spoilers in them.  One of the most grievous was on blastr.com (a major offender).  They ran a photo gallery of the most shocking deaths in Joss Whedon's film career.  The picture to promote the gallery was of the character who shockingly died in The Avengers.  
  • The massive response to Avengers led to people searching for information on the next Marvel film - Iron Man 3.  Sure enough, out comes a picture of a red, white, and blue Iron Man suit.  It gets plastered all over the place: blastr, yahoo, ew.  Who is this?  Is it Iron Patriot (from the Dark Avengers storyline)? Is it War Machine?  The very fact that this discussion was happening may have ruined a major story arc in the movie!  
  • Ridley Scott is one of the original secretive directors.  With Prometheus, he tried to keep as much information under wraps (until it was time to super-promote the film by apparently telling everything that happened).  The movie had barely hit theaters before multiple sites were talking about what was said in a conversation at the end of the movie.  Of course, the conversation gives away massive information.  
It used to be that you had to hunt for information about a movie or a show.  Now you have to actively and intentionally avoid it.  And it is getting worse and worse.  If you don't see a movie opening night, be prepared to have all the secrets ruined the next day.  I have gotten into the habit of just avoiding sites altogether until I can see a movie.  More than that, though, I go into total media blackout.  I remember back when Independence Day came out, I didn't want to know anything more than I had to.  I wouldn't even look at the toys until I saw the movie because I didn't want to accidentally see the aliens.  Back then it was a different story.  To not get information, you didn't go to the toy section and didn't read insider magazines.  There was no Internet.  

Today, it is a real challenge to not see a movie spoiled.  Take Dark Knight Rises.  I am so excited for this film.  First of all, I am a major Batman fan.  Second, I love Christopher Nolan.  Third, I have thoroughly enjoyed Nolan's Batman series.  Fourth, it looks like it may be harkening to the Knighfall comics arc, which was one of my favorite.  It is an excitement on par with Avengers.  The original trailer came out and didn't show much - just enough to excite fans everywhere.  Then a second trailer came out and gave more information.  Then multiple viral campaigns got started.  Then there were the onslaught of television commercials.  At this point I already have seen more than I wanted because I know there are two different Batmobiles and there is a Batplane.  I have tried to avoid a lot of the spoilers out there, but there have been intense online discussions about what the Selina Kyle character is all about, if Joseph Gordon Levitt is playing a good guy or bad guy, if Talia Al Ghul makes an appearance.  Not just that, but when you go to the toy store, there is a whole line of toys with characters and vehicles that I wouldn't know existed without watching the movie.  [Similar problem with The Avengers, when Lego brought out sets that showed the aliens that Whedon had worked so hard to never show.]  It becomes tons of work to NOT see anything that will spoil the movie.

I really miss the older days when you knew a movie was coming out, you saw the trailer, there may be a magazine article and that was it.  Now we are so saturated with a film and its coverage and its tie-ins that the film itself almost becomes a second thought.  It makes me wonder if the marketers behind all of this thinks it is successful.  Was The Avengers successful because it was marketed to high heaven and had relentless coverage?  Or was it because it was a very good movie that tied together several other really good movies?  Is Dark Knight Rises going to break records because it has been promoted non-stop for the last month?  Or is it because it probably is going to be beyond amazing?  The thing is, even with all of this promotion and marketing and coverage and "leaked info" and snoop pictures, the moviegoing audience can still identify junk and avoid it.  John Carter, Battleship, Dark Shadows were all promoted to a ridiculous level.  They all had the same level of pubic recognition.  And they all bombed because they were awful.  

The is a fine line between spoilery information that will attract and info that will ruin.  I want to know what JJ Abrams' show Revolution is about.  I think it looks very cool and I plan on watching it.  I don't think that it hurts to know Elizabeth Mitchell has been cast as the main kids' estranged mom - even though I didn't know those kids had an estranged mom.  Knowing Mitchell is on board is another draw.  But if they start telling me a bunch of information about everything, that is going to turn me off.  Of course, marketers would probably label me an "educated viewer."  That doesn't mean schooling, it means that I know a lot about entertainment and the like.  With a show like Revolution - like with Avengers and Dark Knight Rises - there are three groups of viewers.  There are people who are on board no matter what.  There are people that won't go no matter what.  And there are those who need swayed.  Just about all of these efforts I've talked about are aimed at that last group.  With the new Batman movie, the first group was won over when the movie was announced.  But the blockbuster status of the film will be determined by just how many of the last group can be swayed.  The problem is when the powers that be, the media, those who are obsessed with information actually damage the interest of the fans to gain fringe viewers.  [You could actually argue that Apple has been walking this line for a while, and failing from time to time.  Their desperation to pull in new users with things like the new MacBook Pro and Final Cut Pro updates actually alienated long-time Apple devotees.]  That may make business sense, but it stinks for those people who really support projects.   

I know this isn't going to change any time soon.  It actually will get worse.  Everyone has a phone with a camera.  It is so easy to post news.  Real journalism is being run out of town by entertainment media and gossip sites.  And movie and television studios have to have MEGA-hits to justify their costs.  Everything has to be big now.  I have never seen so many $100 million and $200 million grossing movies labeled bombs as I have this year.  We have seen shows that consistently pulled in over ten million viewers weekly cancelled for poor performance (Alcatraz, Terra Nova, Rob!).  It is going to become harder and harder to control how much information we get about entertainment.  I'll guess I will just have to expand my media blackouts even more.  I can only imagine how bad it will be by next year's Man of Steel.  But if you happen to know anything in advance, just keep it to yourself.