Shots Across the Bow

A Reality Based Blog

Thursday, July 01, 2004

Cartoon vs comic

Being self employed has many benefits, one of which is the ability to play hooky on a Wednesday afternoon and go see Spiderman 2 on opening day.

I was in Knoxville anyway, picking up paper for my next print run (got a great deal; 30 reams of 20# 92 bright for less than $60.00) and decided to treat myself to a show. I figured that since it was early, I could save a couple of bucks by going to a matinee, and there wouldn't be much of a crowd.

Right. It's summer, stupid.

I bought a ticket for the 2:00 show and headed into the theater, which, 15 minutes before the show, was already largely full. The crowd was mostly families, but there were a few fanboys like me scattered throughout the crowd.

Just before the movie started, a family of four walked across the theater looking for a place to sit. It was fun opportunity to watch my childhood from another perspective. Just like me when I was a kid, they wanted to sit down front, up close to the screen, while the parents wanted to sit at a more reasonable distance, like, 10 rowa from the back. I think dad was ok with it, but momma was worried about her kids being that far away, and that close to the screen, so, after a brief consultation in the aisle, they all headed up to where I sat. The kids won a partial victory because they didn't sit with momma and dad, instead sitting a couple more rows back, while their parents took a couple of the empty seats beside me.

Then it was time for the previews. Talk about sad! The first preview was for a Tim Allen/Jamie Leigh Curtis yuckfest called Cristmas with Stomach Cramps, or something like that.

Totally awful.

Then there was the preview for the biggest scifi movie sacrilege since Paul Verhoeven's perversion of Starship Troopers; Will Smith's new movie, I, Robot. I'm betting that many of you reading this have also read the original collection of short stories by Isaac Asimov, but just in case a non-scifi reader has somehow slipped in, I, Robot was primarily an exploration of the complex behaviors that can result from simple behavioral laws, in this case the Three Laws of Robotics:
  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

  2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law

The stories were long on talk as robosychologist Susan Calvin tried to determine how some action by a robot could be consistent with the Three Laws.

It's been a litle while since I read the stories, but I can safely say that nowhere in them is any hint of robots rampaging through the streets. In fact, Dr. Asimov was quite determined that no hint of "Frankenstein" show up in his stories. Leave it to Hollywood to get it completely wrong. They've created a cartoon version of Asimov's robots; flat, and unappealing.

Fortunately, almost in spite of itself, sometimes Hollywood gets it right. Even more fortunately, Spiderman 2 is one of those times. (The review below contains spoilers. Leave it alone if you don't want to know. Short version is "The movie is good.")

Posted by Rich
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Wednesday, December 17, 2003

The Return of the King

As I said earlier, I went to the midnight showing of The Return of the King last night, along with my kids. As a consequence, I got about 3 hours of sleep before coming in to work this morning.

It was worth it.

In a year of disappointing sequels, (Matrix Eroded & Matrix Revolting, anyone?) it was wonderful to sit down and see the end of a story, and not be left wondering "Is that all there was?" Where the Matrix sequels squandered the promise of the first movie, The Return of the King fully realizes the promise of the first movie. Granted there was much left out, some of which we can hope will be restored in the DVD version, Jackson does full justice to the Tolkien's tale with a movie that leaves us eager for more.

How soon can he start shooting on The Hobbit?

I'm not going to drone on and on about the movie, since most of you will be seeing it within the next day or two, regardless of what I write, but I do want to point out a few things.

"Scouring the Shire" is totally absent. Never scripted or filmed, don't expect it to show up on the DVD either. Considering that the events in that one chapter could make a movie on it's own, I understand the decision, although part of me really regrets missing it.

Shelob was magnificent. For one of the few times ever, I forgot I was watching CG magic.

Aragorn may be king, but Legolas is THE MAN! (You'll know what I'm talking about when you see it.)

In a like manner, Arwen may be prettier, but I'll take Eowyn over her any day of the week.

I want to live in Minas Tirith. If I can't, then I want to emigrate to New Zealand. Do they have blogs there?

Sam is the Hobbit's Hobbit. Without him, Frodo would have never even come close to succeeding.

Gandlaf swings a mean sword, but there were several parts of the movie where I heard Goose from Top Gun in the back of my head shouting, "Come on, Gandalf, do some of that wizard sh*t!"

If you liked the books, or if you liked the first two movies, you'll like this one. The only minor quibble, and it is very minor, is that the ending seems protracted, like the coda to the William Tell Overture. There are several scenes that feel like the end, but aren't, until you get to the one that is the end, but doesn't feel like it.

Posted by Rich
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Sunday, June 22, 2003

The Hulk

I admit it; I'm a nerd.

I played D&D (although I preferred other RPGs); I played wargames; I read science fiction by the truckload. I've been messing around with computers for over 20 years now; I've had modems from 300 baud all the way up to my current cable modem. I've been a member of Q-Link, Compuserve and AOL (oh the shame!).

And I collected comics.

Not just as a kid; I started in college, and continued after I joined the Navy. I've still got 'em backed and bagged (For the uninitiated, comic collectors keep their comics in pristine condition by placing each one in an individual bag, backed with a piece of cardboard to prevent wrinkles) in my room. Over the years, I guess I've collected about a thousand of them, and The Hulk has his place in that collection.

I was eager to see the movie version for a couple of reasons. First, I love Ang Lee's work. Like the best authors of speculative fiction, he uses the extraordinary to explore the ordinary. While the mayhem is entertaining, it's the story that grabs you, and the characters that keep you. Stan Lee understood that principle, and used it to drive Marvel to the top of the comic book world. I wanted to see if Ang and Stan had anything in common beyond a last name. Second, Marvel seems to be on a roll with their latest movie adaptations. Spiderman rocked, and Daredevil was electric, so I had high hopes that the Hulk would work as well.

As the guy standing beside me on the way out of the theater said to his date, "They got it right!"

We'll get the bad out of the way quickly.

First, there was that godawful travesty aired during the Superbowl. What on earth possessed them to market an unfinished clip? On the basis of that promo, I was planning to skip the movie entirely. Fortunately, the trailer I saw later showed more movie, and less unfinished CG work. Next, capturing Nick Nolte's descent into madness on film (David Banner/Nick Nolte...typecasting? You be the judge) may have been interesting, but it led to some truly unbelievable moments in the film.

Yeah, I know, we're watching a movie about a guy who turns into a giant green monster, and I'm carping about unbelievable moments from Nick Nolte. As any writer worth his salt knows, maintaining the reader's suspension of disbelief is paramount. He has to convince the reader that what is going on is real in order to get him to care about it. In general fiction, this is hard enough; in speculative fiction, you've already got one strike against you, namely that giant green monster jumping around onscreen. The audience already has to work hard enough to stay with you on that; to ask that same audience to believe that the Army, knowing what Banner is capable of, would allow his father to try and bait him into a homicidal rage without acting to stop it is asking too much.

Now, for the good.

First, the obvious; Jennifer Connelly is the most beautiful actress in Hollywood today, and one of the most underutilized. With any luck, betwen this movie and her Oscar winning role in A Beautiful Mind, we'll get to see a lot more of her. Maybe they'll give her a role where she's not in love with an emotionally disturbed genius. How about one where she's in love with an emotionally disturbed blogger?

It could happen...

Second, Ang Lee's direction and Frederick Elmes' cinematography combine to echo the comic book format while transcending it. The split screens, the transitions, the extreme closeups, and the multiple angles all evoke the language of comics, where artists had to use all kinds of visual shorthand to convey complex emotions and actions in a few highly stylized static panels. Lee chose to emulate that shorthand and Elmes made it work brilliantly, bending and sometimes breaking cinematographic rules in the process, but producing a truly unioque and powerful look to the film. I'm betting that Hulk will be nominated and win for Best Cinematography.

The story itself is busy, as we have Bruce and his father, Betty and her father, Bruce and Betty, and both fathers, all interacting in a complex chain of move and countermove, all trying to influence the actions of Bruce. In this light, the Hulk becomes the monster, and more the victim of the machinations of those who try to take advantage of him. It is the contrast of that towering rage and relative innocence that makes the Hulk such a popular character, and this movie captures that contrast perfectly.

Rating: 9 out of 10.

Posted by Rich
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Tuesday, May 27, 2003

The Matrix is Reloaded

Unfortunately with blanks.

Because some things never change. And some things do.

This is what the Wachowski brothers attempt to pass off as meaningful dialogue. We know it's suppoesed to be meaningful, because like most of the other drivel spouted endlessly in this movie, it's with all the affected gravity of adolescents minds trying to impress themselves with their own brilliance.

Yeah, it's got "bullet-time", and slow motion wire-fu, and really cool sunglasses, and all the stuff we'd never seen before the first movie.

It's also got an interminable car chase scene that makes up for it's lack of originality with an utter lack of excitement, a mish-mash of sub plots and characters that are never explored, much less developed, and a story that tties to do too much, while attempting to do very little. (This ambiguity stuff is contagious...)

The first movie was very cool eye candy. The Wachowskis created a visual style that had not been seen before, but has since been ripped off by movies from Charlies Angels to Shrek. In Matrix Reloaded, the Wachowskis give us more of the same, without anything new. This is a common problem for franchises that rely heavily on special effects. Some choose to go with bigger effects, sometimes sacrificing the story to do so. Others stay with the same level of effects, and concentrate on telling a story to keep interest high. The Wachowskis chose to go the plot route, with limited success.

Let's face it; if you want to make a movie to explore deep philosophical and intellectual topics, Keanu Reeves is probably not the best choice for your lead actor. On the other hand, Lawrence Fishburne is magnificently annoying as the portentious Morpheus, leading the field as this year's candidate for the James Earl Jones Excellence in Diction Award. It's actually a relief to find that most of the films other characters find him to be just as annoying as we do. As for Trinity, as a love interest, she makes a great hacker.

Character quibbles aside, the plot rips off better movies at every turn. Neo surrounded by Zionists begging him to save their loved ones is a dark echo of a similar scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but where Harrison Ford manages to convey compassion and concern, Reeves can only muster his habitual confusion and depression. The Wise Elder counselling the Young Savior is a staple of every action film ever made, and here feels like a formality, rather than an homage.

The action sequences are ruined because there is no drama. When Neo fights a thousand Agent Smiths, he gets hit a few times, but never hurt, and eventually just flies away. I was left wondering why he didn't just dive in and blow up the Smiths like in the first movie, instead of engaging in hand to hand combat. Nobody ever gets gets hurt, nor do they ever really appear to be in danger of getting hurt; well, except for a few thousand of the humans Neo is supposed to be saving, but they really don't count, which is a problem that lies at the heart of the movie.

At heart, The Matrix is an elitist vision of the future. The only players that matter are the machines and the people of Zion. All the masses of humanity, trapped in their cocoons, are treated as worthless or as enemies. Machines and humans alike kill hundreds indiscriminately. From the machines point of view, this would be a terrible squandering of a valuable resource, and should be even more repugnant to the humans. But apparently, only those specially chosen to have their minds freed are worthy of any consideration.

The above makes the movie sound horrible, and it wasn't. It's a decent movie, but I was disappointed because it utterly failed to recreate the magic of the original. The second movie in a trilogy is the most difficult to make, simply because it has to function as a bridge between the first and the last, while functioning on its own. The Empire Strikes Back
is a movie which successfully fulfilled both roles, resulting in what I believe to be the best of the Star Wars movies so far. The Two Towers also succeeds, setting up the events of The Return of the King, while telling its own story. In Matrix Reloaded, the two functions work against each other. The expositional material needed to set up Revolutions kills any momentum Reloaded tries to build. With the exposition dealt with, there is a good chance that Revolutions will close the franchise on a strong note.

Grade: 6 of 10

Posted by Rich
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Wednesday, May 21, 2003

Season Finales

Ok, time to lighten up a bit. I've been watching the season ending episodes of a few shows over the last couple of weeks, and now it's time to pass out the reviews.

First up is Ed Well, my worst fears were realized. Y'all might remember back at midseason, when I was irritated by the plot decision to split up Ed and Carol.

It turns out it was all just a plot device to keep us watching until the end of season sweeps. Now a perfectly good character (Frankie) has been introduced and discarded, in a blatantly manipulative attempt to keep us watching. Sorry, but I just don't buy it anymore.

Which is sad, because when the writers aren't acting like a bunch of lazy hacks, they can really come up with some powerful television. The episode featuring Eli's (Darryl Mitchell) return to the restaurant he lost after the accident which paralyzed him was moving without being mawkish or manipulative. The final scene, showing Eli getting dressed for the day is simply one of the greatest acts of bravery captured on film. Ed has the writers to live up to that standard. It's too bad they decide to lay down so often.

Next is CSI. OK, is it just me, or did Jorja Fox look all discombobulated in the last episode? Even before the explosion, I mean. That, plus the way she was dressed led me to expect some kind of major announcement during the finale, like, "Grissom, I'm pregnant with your baby!" Instead, we get Grissom going to the hospital for surgery on his ear, accompanied by Catherine who just found out that her father is a casino boss and a murderer. Not a happy day for Catherine. And no Sarah story! This show is at it's strongest when it concentrates on the weekly episodes. Their attempts to draw story arcs are flat, and unconvincing.

Next up is ER. John Carter goes to war, where he gets to act heroic, disgusted, bemused, terrified, and world weary.

The Alias season ender was a slam bang episode, complete with all the double crosses, suspence and action Alias fans have come to expect. Then they had to end it with a clinker like that? After one of the better chick fights ever put on film, Syd collapses on the floor in her room, anly to wake up some undisclosed time later in Hong Kong. A distressed Vaughn tells her she's been missing for 2 years.

Beg pardon? Two years? There was absolutely no lead up to this, so it hit like a sack of wet cement, and was equally enjoyable. Had they ended the episode with Syd unconscious on the floor, Francie shot over in the corner, and Will slowly bleeding to death in the bathtb, that would have been enough of a cliffhanger for anyone. But no, they pushed a little too far, and had to throw in a missing 2 years.

Well, they might be able to pull it off, but it'll take a much better effort than this season's cliffhanger resolution.

Now we come to the best of the bunch, the season finale that actually exceeded expectations. The Dead Zone

In the novel by Stephen King, Johnny Smith dies while attempting to assassinate Gregg Stillson, a presidential candidate who will lead the world to destruction. Johnny dies in the attempt, refusing to shoot Stillson, who shields himself with a small child. This ends Stillson's political career, allowing Johnny to die peacefully, knowing that the world is safe from the future represented by Stillson.

While this works for a one shot movie, it kind of limits the span of a continuing series. The show's writer's came up with a creative way to resolve the technical problem while remaining faithful to both the novel and the series, and they chose to use the season finale to do it.

In the series, writers added the character of Bruce, Johny's physical therapist and later friend. In this episode, Bruce goes home for his father's funeral, and begins to wonder if he should have stayed home. Through contact with Johnny, he has a vision of an alternative reality, where he and Johnny never met. In this reality, events play out similarly to the original novel; Johnny is killed attempting to assassinate Stillson. However, Stillson isn't hurt politically either, and we are left to assume that he goes on to drag the world into destruction. Johnny and Bruce emerge from the vision, leaving Bruce to realize that Johnny needs him. The series is now free to move in a direction different from King's novel, while still remaining within the spirit of the original.

This episode also deftly changes the dynamics of the storyline in a profound way. In the novel, Johnny and Stillson were the antagonists, fighting over the fate of the world. In the series, Stillson and Bruce are now the antagonists, fighting over the soul of Johnny Smith, which will determine the fate of the world. The writers played up this shift by giving Bruce and Stillson mirrored upbringings. Both were raised around religion, but where Bruce's father was genuine in his piety, Stillson's father used religion as a con game. They are the two sides of humanity, the angelic and the monstrous, and Johnny is in between, like all of us.

What makes the episode special is that the resolution of the continuing plot issues is incidental to this story. (Writer's of Ed, pay attention!) Through the vision, Bruce deals with paternal expectations, religious faith, accepting his place in the world, and making a final peace with his father. Instead of hammering us over the head with manipulative plot devices, the writers gave us a well crafted story of loss and redemption, while also creating a new direction for the series. Truly well done.

Posted by Rich
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Monday, May 12, 2003

My illusions have been shattered….

I watched the finale of Survivor last night. Did anybody else catch the blooper?
After the two hour episode, they had the live revelation of the winner, supposedly unknown up to that point.

Yeah, right.

The suspence must have been unbearable, because the guy responsible for running the character generator flashed the words, "Jenna's Family" on the screen minutes before the vote tally was announced. At the time, the screen was not showing her family, it was showing the members of the jury.

Timing is so important on a live TV event.

The illusion is shattered; CBS knows who won long before the live telecast. So much for all the suckers who bet on the outcome.

Speaking of the outcome, the best player lost. So did Matt. The weepy whiny wench won.

Posted by Rich
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Wednesday, April 30, 2003

Knoxville Radio

You know, we have it pretty good here, despite a lot of complaints. Yes, we have our generic syndicated stations, playing all the latest crap pouring out of Hollywood, prepackaged for mind-numbing hours of drool-inducing listening, interspersed with adds for the latest sugar infested treat or designer tampons and what-not. Star 102.1 and B97.5 spring to mind

We have our university station, carrying NPR and classical music, where all the DJ's sound like they're on tranqs and decaf, unable to get excited about anything.

We also have the "Classic Rock" stations who've kept the same play list for the last 30 years, although the DJ's have changed, the music hasn't.

Before I joined the Navy in 1984, I used to listen to WIMZ. They played the best mix of rock, carrying all the latest cuts. When I came back to Knoxville in 1995, they were still playing the exact same songs.

The word pathetic springs to mind.

Then there's 104.5 The Bone where you can practically hear the mullets growing.

So that's the downside of Knoxville radio. But there is an upside.

We'll start with WDVX, a very small, independent station that plays just about any music under the sun, with a strong leaning towards roots music, Americana, blues, bluegrass, alternative country, and anything else that feels right. You can count on hearing something different there. They are publicly supported, and are setting up a fundraising music festival in my neck of the woods at the Dumplin Valley festival Grounds. A quick look at the acts they have lined up will give you a good idea of what this station is all about.

Next is a long time Knoxville radio station that's recently gone in a new direction. WOKI has become 100.3 The River, and abandoned the classic rock format to bring an eclectic mix of new and old, blues and rock, Americana and reggae to the Knoxville radio scene. Longtime Knoxville DJ Phil Williams returned to radio at the River with new partner Frank Murphy. It's nice to listen to a local morning show, rather than some syndicated zoo that has nothing to do with Knoxville. WOKI brings local programming together with some of the best syndicated programming available. Locally, they produce the Americana Cafe, a weekly tour of the bet and latest offerings in Americana music. Syndicated offereings include Acoustic Cafe, House of Blues Radio Hour, and E-town, all featuring music heard only on the River.

One of the things I like about the station is that they play new music from old artists. For example, Tom Petty's latest album, The Last DJ has gotten extensive airplay.

But the strength of the station is in new music from new artists. Jack Johnson, Norah Jones, Susan Tedeschi, Lucinda Williams, and John Mayer have all been introduced to Knoxville listeners by WOKI. Even better, The River has sponsored concerts by most, if not all of these artists, many of them free.

It doesn't get much better than that.

WDVX and WOKI both support local musicians, providing venues for acts that otherwise would have to rely on word of mouth to get their music out. Both stations have studios that they use for live performances, and sponsor events around town.

Glancing at the AM side of the dial, we have WNOX, Newstalk99. The format is tried and true; news, weather, and sports, with a heavy accent on the sports, please. What's different is that while many talk radio stations have cut down on original programming in favor of syndicated stuff, WNOX has moved in the other direction. Mornings are run by Hallerin Hilton Hill, followed by Frank Cagle for a 6 hour block of local programming. After three hours for Rush Limbaugh, local programming resumes with Sports Talk with John Wilkerson and Jimmy Hyams, then a variety of local shows until 9PM, when syndicated shows take over, including the bizarre but entertaining Coast to Coast AM. If you want to know what is going on in Knoxville, this is the station to turn to.

There may be some other good radio stations out there that I'm not listening to. If so, let me know and I'll give them a chance.

Anything to avoid Britney and Christina, n'sync, and all their clones...

Posted by Rich
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Tuesday, February 25, 2003

The Bible Code II:  The Countdown

Michael Droskin has written a comic masterpiece, albeit unintentionally. The Bible Code II is the sequel to The Bible Code, which breathlessly tells us that there is a code hidden in the first five books of the Bible which reveals everything about the future.

For those of you who are unaware of the Bible Code, here's a quick overview. According to Eliyahu Rips, the Israeli mathematician who 'discovered' the code, information about the entire history of the world is encoded in the first five books of the Bible. The code is accessed by using the original Hebrew, removing all spaces, and treating the resulting text like a string. The text is searched for key words, using both standard searches and skip searches (every other letter, every third letter, etc.) When the key word is found, the string is broken into an array, based on the skip pattern. Then, rather like a cross word, the resulting code table is examined for relevant key word associated with the original. Rips obtained some startling results utilizing this process, results which were well beyond the realm of statistical coincidence. I don't have the math to verify his analysis, but the only paper published so far to dispute his claims is seriously flawed, only demonstrating that it is possible to fake the results Rips achieved in his original experiment.

However, whether the code is genuine or not, Drosnin's book is an amusing trip through the mind of a less than rational man. We start with 9/11, and finish with a proposed dig in the desert of Jordon to find artifacts left by the aliens who first seeded the earth with life.

I'm not joking.

Drosnin states over and over that he doesn't believe in God, that he is an atheist. How then does he explain the code hidden in the Bible, the Code that he claims predicts our future?

Aliens, of course.

Yep, aliens from another time or place came and crashed to earth, seeding it with DNA which eventually became man. He uses Francis Crick, the co-imager of DNA to back up this claim. Of course, Crick's claim that life must have been seeded since DNA is too complex to have evolved has taken a beating recently with the discovery of chaos and complexity theory, but Drosnin ignores that bit, and goes so far as to claim that not only is DNA the code of life it is inextricably bound up with the Bible code. He even suggests that part of the key to unlocking the code may be in our DNA.

In fact, Drosnin is so enamored of the idea that aliens came to earth that he claims to have pinpointed the area where they crashed, and hopes to find their ship buried in the desert near the Dead Sea.

With this as background, it is clear that this is a man to take seriously when he predicts the end of the world, coming to you in 2006. from his intensive studies of the Bible Code, he tells us that the final war will start after a terrorist attack in the Middle East.

I'm shocked, truly I am.

According to him, he ran around for a couple of years telling various heads of state this shocking news, and was disappointed when they didn't react with amazement at his ability to divine the future.

To add to the comedy, he claims to have found proof in the Bible that Al Gore actually won the election, and the Supreme Court Stole it from him. I guess the Encoder never checked the recounts from Florida.

Ok, enough with the jokes. This book is a piece of crap from end to end. Wjatever merit the original paper by Rips had is utterly demolished by this slapped together piece of rubbish. Unless you enjoy inadvertant comic relief, avoid it like the plague that will hit Israel in 2005.

You heard it here first.

Posted by Rich
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Sunday, February 16, 2003

A Musical Mistake

I watched The Music Man tonight on ABC. At least I didn’t have to pay anything for it.

Who in their right minds would even think of trying to remake a classic like The Music Man? Robert Preston made the role of Harold Hill his own. Everybody who takes on the role will forever be measured against Preston and come up short, and Broderick is no exception. OK, so Matthew Broderick does have a better voice than Robert Preston did, but I guarantee Robert Preston could bring more life to the role today than Broderick could at his best, and Preston has been dead for several years.

Yes, Broderick was that bad. He simply does not have the flair needed to carry off this role, and since Hill is the central character, the show founders with him.

Sadly, he isn’t the only sour note in this production. Victor Garber, while wonderfully menacing in Alias, is totally miscast as the befuddled Mayor Shinn, and the script hides many of his best lines. david Aaron Baker tries, but can't live up to Buddy hackett as Marcellus Washburn. In fact, most of the cast suffers in comparison with the original film, with the notable exception of the town councilmen, played in the original film by the Buffalo Bills, and Kristen Chenowith, who plays Marion Paroo. They are the only reasons the movie isn't a complete waste.

The other problem is the format. The Music Man is an old fashioned love story, a romantic musical and needs a certain amount of work on the part of the viewer. After all, in real life, people don't burst into song and well choreographed dance routines at the drop of the hat. We have to work to get into the story, and allow the necessary suspension of disbelief. Any slim chance this production had of succeeding is destroyed by the constant commercial interruptions.

In short, it was a complete waste of my time, and somebody else's money.

Posted by Rich
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Sunday, January 26, 2003


I saw that Chicago took a lot of awards on the Golden Globes the other night, so Friday night I went to see what all the fuss was about.

I and about 12 other folks had to sit through about 10 minutes of commercials before the movie started. Not trailers, mind you, but commercials. Message to theater owners; if I want to see commercials with my movies, I'll wait until they hit HBO. I've already shelled out $7 for a ticket, and $7 more for popcorn and a coke; I don't need you shilling more crap on my dime.

When I go to the movies, one of my favorite parts is the coming attractions. Sadly, many times they are more interesting than the movie I'm there to see. This night was an exception, probably because of the main movie. I don't think studios are going to pitch XMen2 at an art house. One movie, The Quiet American looks good, although I have a hard time picturing Brendan Fraser as a CIA agent. BUt it has Michael Caine, and although I haven't forgiven him for On Dangerous Ground or Miss Congeniality yet, I do still try to see anything he's in.

The other trailer of note was for The Hours, which I'll wait to miss on video.

Chicago tells the story of chorus girl Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger) who winds up in prison after murdering her lover. While there she meets her idol, Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones), also in jail for murdering her husband and sister. The two women share a fast talking smooth operating lawyer, Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), who promises to get them off, and make them famous. The movie also stars the ubiquitous John C. Reilly, who plays Roxie's somewhat less than bright husband, and Queen Latifah as the prison matron, Mama. It may well be nearly impossible to make a movie in Hollywood without giving Reilly a part. I'm beginning to think the only reason Peter Jackson filmed The Lord of the Rings in New Zealand was to get away from Mr. Reilly.

Roxie: "Jesus, Mary and Joseph!"
Mama: "You talkin' to the wrong people, girl!"

The above quote is the heart of this movie. It celebrates the venality of man, so we watch with a feeling akin to the fascination we feel when passing a car wreck on the side of the road; we know it's going to be ugly, but we want to see just how ugly. There's a difference between exploring the darker side of our natures, as in The Gangs of New York, and celebrating it, as in this movie. In Chicago, there is not a single charater I cared about. Roxie is vain, manipulative, and grasping from start to finish, as are Velma and Billy. Mama is as corrupt as they come, and Roxie's husband Amos is too dim to be counted as loyal.

What keeps us involved in the show is the music and the dancing, which is top notch throughout. All three leads perform admirably, including Gere, who at times seems to channel Robert Preston's Harold Hill. (As an aside, if you want to remake The Music Man, Gere would be a much bette choice than Ferris Bueller.) The singing and dancing were top notch, with the surprise performance being Reilly's song, Mr. Cellophane, the only touching moment in the movie.

3 out of 5. I'd like to give this movie a higher rating, because it was so well done, but the incessant cynicism wore me down after a while.

Posted by Rich
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Friday, January 24, 2003

Gangs of New York

I've been struggling to write this review for a few days, and it hasn't been going well, but I think I just figured out the problem. I've been trying to write a serious, insightful, professional review, and that's just not my schtick. I have some serious things to say, but I just can't get into the mindset to get into the critic's voice. Now that I'm just being me, things should go better.

I was going out to see the new Bond flick with my date when for one reason or another, she decided she didn't want to be my date anymore. It was disappointing, because we enjoyed each other's company, but we were headed in different directions, and looking for different things.

Anyway, I decided instead of seeing the Bond film, I was in the mood for something a little darker, so I went to see Gangs of New York.

I'll start off by saying I'm not a big Leonardo DiCaprio fan, and nothing I saw in this movie changes that. I did gain more respect for Cameron Diaz, who adds another excellent performance to her growing list of films, belying her initial appearance as eye candy in The Mask.

Scorsese has created an epic vision of New York during the Civil War, revealing a slice of American History text books usually ignore and Hollywood usually romanticizes. He once again takes us on a journey into the dark underbelly of American culture, only this time the gangs are Irish, and uses these gangsters as a mirror for America as a whole. The story itself is trite, with DiCaprio playing Amsterdam Vallon, a young man out to avenge his father's death at the hands of Bill, "the Butcher" Cutter, played magnificently by Daniel Day Lewis. Along the way, DiCaprio falls for a beautiful pickpocket and sneak thief (Diaz), who is one of Bill's favorite mistrisses. Di Caprio worms his way into Bill's organization, and soon becomes his close confidante, positioning himself to take down Cutter. So we have revenge and a love triangle of sorts as the plots driving the film. Throw in betrayal by a jilted lover, and the cliches are complete.

The shortcomings of the plot are compounded by Scorsese's take on the history of the time. He tells us that the true birthing place of America is the slums and tenement houses of the Five Points, not the drawing rooms of high society. However, as the history behind the movie makes clear, the gang wars in New York were a tool wielded by those powdered wig aristocrats, not the other way around. The gangs were used by Boss Tweed and others to carry out their agendas, not the other way around. Any tool may turn on it's user; that doesn't mean it isn't a tool.

The strength of this movie is not in the plot or thematic material, but in the characters, which is why DiCaprio is so disappointing. Instead of seething with rage, his Amsterdam sulks and pouts like a child denied a sweet. He simply does not have the depth to pull off the complex emotions required by the part. Amsterdam sets out to destroy Cutter, but finds himself beginning to admire him, and there's reason to do so. Cutter praises Amsterdam's father, Priest Vallon, played by Liam Neeson, as a man of honor, the only man, he says, worth killing. Cutter even becomes a father figure to Amsterdam, which isn't too surprising, since there was little difference between Cutter and Priest. They both lived, fought, and died by the same rules; they were both hard men, unyielding in devotion to their principles. Although we don't see Priest Vallon for very long, we have no reason to believe he'd be any less brutal than Cutter. As Amsterdam gets closer to Bill, he becomes confused, at one point saving Bill's life from another assassin. None of this confusion ad turmoil is in DiCaprio's performance. We know of it only because he tells us in a voice over narration. A good performance would tell us what we need to know about a character without the need for a narrator.

The character of Cutter is a complex mix of brutality and intelligence, and Day-Lewis really shines in his protrayal of the man. It would be easy to make Bill totally unsympathetic, to concentrate on his brutality, but Day-Lewis instead gives a fuller portrayal of the man. He does this without lessening the brutality one bit; while we can't bring ourselves to like Bill, Like we could with Michael Corleone, we don't see him as a complete monster either. In the end, Cutter shows the purity of a true ideologue, prefering to die rather than compromise his beliefs.

Cameron Diaz shows a hard edge as the character of Jenny Everdeane, the 'turtledove' who falls for Amsterdam. She plays the role to the hilt, showing the toughness Jenny would need to survive in the hell hole of the Five Points, while still showing tenderness once she opens up to Amsterdam. You see true vulnerability when she shows her scars to Amsterdam. Sadly, we don't get anything similar from DiCaprio.

The production itself is gorgeous, as is the cinematography. Although it does take liberties with history in order to make it's point, the script is excellent, almost literary in quality. The pacing is good, except for a few scenes towards the end of the second hour that could have been tightened up a bit.

The final image of the film, the WTC standing over a decrepit graveyard where both Bill Cutter and Priest Vallon are buried, is both haunting and confusing. In two hours and firty-five minutes, Scorsese doesn't manage to give us enough information to understand what he is trying to say with this image. I thought that maybe it was just me, that I missed something, but as I look around a various reviews, there appears to be as many interpretations as there are reviewers.

Over all, I give the movie 3.5 out of 5. I was absorbed throughout the movie, despite the relative flatness of DiCaprio and the fact that I never really cared about what happened to any of the major characters was ofset by the magnificent sets, and the glimpse into a part of history usually swept under the rug.

Posted by Rich
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Thursday, December 19, 2002

Ed revisited

This is why I didn't like the whole, 'Ed leaving Carol' plotline. The last couple of episodes have really just ignored the whole thing. Yes, we got the shot of Ed and Carol burying the hatchet, and now they behave as if nothing happened. Yes, the other characters discuss it peripherally, but it no longer rings true. There are no scars on either Ed or Carol. Life goes on in Stuckeyville, at least until the next sweeps when we will see another manufactured crisis, as Ed gets closer to his new love interest.

It's just too artificial.

On the other hand, Alias is remaining faithful to it's concept and plot lines. If you haven't been watching this show, you've really been missing out. It's a spy thriller, but the best parts have more to do with personal relationships than with espionage. I won't try to bring you up to speed; there are several websites that will do that, but so far the show has remained consistent with it's storylines, while still throwing in the occasional surprise. The best example was the season premiere, where Sydney's mother turned herself in to the CIA. This was a great echo of the pilot, whre Sydney turned herself in, becoming a double agent for the CIA. The one forshadowed the other, giving us a framework to support the surprise. Of course, we don't know whether Irina is on the level, or advancing her own agenda, but we don't completely disbelieve that it could have happened. It was a shock, but within the bounds established by the series.

Of course, I am still watching Ed, because the Ed-Carol storyline was only one part of the show. The new lawyer they introduced this week will provide a good foil for Ed; it was nice to see Molly get a little more meat to her role; we got to spend sometime with Phil, on another bizarre entrepenurial journey; the only thing missing was Shirley. I am sad to see them recycling the "new love interest for Ed' angle again. Let's leave his love life alone for awhile....

Posted by Rich
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Monday, December 09, 2002

Ruining the magic


Guilty confession time: I like to watch Ed. I like the quirky humor, which sets it apart from most TV romantic comedy. I have little quibbles with details from time to time, but mostly I just enjoy an hour of watching the underdog get ahead.

That is, until the last episode.

If you haven’t seen the show, Ed, the title character, comes back to his hometown after his wife leaves him. He’s trying to find his bearings, and get his life back together, so he buys the local bowling alley and opens up a law office. He begins to pursue his high school dream girl, Carol, who barely knew he existed back then, but begins to relate to him now. A touch preposterous at times, Ed is a likable little comedy, well crafted and until recently, well conceived.

For some reason, for sweeps, the writers decided to inject a little reality into the show. Carol gets engaged to a guy who is completely wrong for her, they get to the altar, he realizes that she loves Ed, and walks out. Then in a dramatic episode featuring Carol and Ed locked into the bowling alley, where we all expect them to get together and live happily ever after, they break up.

Call me shallow, but I don’t like it when you mix genres on me. This is a dad-gum romantic comedy for cryin’ out loud, not some soap opera tragedy. I know the producers are just trying to stretch out the story for a season ending cliffhanger, but they really screwed up the dynamics of the show with this one. Yes, you need a little bitter to appreciate the sweet, but this is the equivalent of dousing a chocolate cake with Tabasco sauce.

It just ain’t right.

Here’s the problem, and it goes back to something I said about Solaris. If you want to achieve a surprise, you have to do it within the framework you’ve already established, or else you lose the illusion; your audience will see it as a trick. We all know that in real life, getting jilted at the altar does not end up with you finally falling for the right one, who was there all along. We know that; we see it in our own lives. But in Stuckeyville, hey, if you can have a law office in a bowling alley, peopled by oddball characters with at best a nodding acquaintance with the real world, anything can happen. But now, reality has been injected into the cozy little world of Stuckeyville, and it’ll take a while for the stench to wear off.

Posted by Rich
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Sometimes, when I go to see a movie, I leave dying to read the book. Usually, it's a good thing; I want to know more about the characters, what they were thinking, what their motivations were. A book has room to take you inside a character's head; in a movie, you have to rely on the actor's ability to convey his innermost thoughts and emotions, sometimes with little more than an eyebrow twitch, or a dramatic pause. Other times, I want to read the book to get the original take on the story. Directors have a tendency to change things to suit themselves, sometimes altering the entire thrust of the story, to make the movie say what they want it to say, which sometimes bears no relation to the author's intent. (Lawnmower Man anyone?)

The third reason I want to read the book is not so good; I want to find out what the heck happened! Sadly, this is the case with Solaris. The plot is pretty simple. Psychologist George Clooney goes to a space station around the planet Solaris in response to a plea from his old friend, who now runs the station. Upon arrival, he finds most of the crew dead, including his friend, and the survivors acting very strangely. Oh yeah, and when he falls asleep, his dead wife is re-incarnated on board the station. How he deals with this makes up the bulk of the movie, except that he never really deals with anything.

The most frustrating part of this movie is that it raises all kinds of interesting ideas about identity, perception, the nature of reality, love, redemption, and life and death, but it never really examines those ideas, only hinting at them, not only leaving them unresolved, but unexplored.

The movie suffers from other flaws as well. The acting is competent, but limited by the script and direction. We never even come close to caring about any of the characters. The plot is inconsistent. When doing fantasy, it is vital to achieve suspended disbelief from your audience. In order to sustain the audience's suspension of disbelief, the main conceit, i.e. re-incarnated loved ones appearing on the space station, must be presented with consistency. When you break the rules to introduce a plot twist, you lose your audiences' trust and any chance of communicating your vision. Solaris does just that, and suffers for it. I could have overlooked it if the twist had brought a new revelation, or a new direction to the movie, but it did nothing of the sort, just propelled the characters along paths they had already chosen.

Another problem was the pacing; this movie is slow. Time that could have been spent exploring some of the ideas raised by the plot is instead wasted on lingering shots of the planet, or the station, or of Clooney asleep. A movie doesn't have to have action to be entertaining, but it must provide something to grab the audience and bring them into its world. A movie without significant action must be character driven. You have to get to know and care for them. In this case, all I cared about was not spilling my coke, because it was filled too full. This is the first movie I've ever seen where the dead coming back to life is boring.

I do want to read the book, and see the original film, since the ideas raised are very intriguing and worth exploring. Unfortunately, this Solaris feels most like a Cliff's Notes version of the real thing.

Posted by Rich
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Monday, December 02, 2002

Ice Hockey in Knoxville

I went to see the Ice Bears play last Saturday night against the Cape Fear fire Ants.

I've never been to a live hockey game, and never watched a game on TV, unles you count the movie Youngblood, and I only paid attention then when Cynthia Gibbs was on screen, but after Saturday's game, I'm hooked. I'm surprised that hockey isn't bigger down here than it is; it has everything a southern boy needs; violence, alcohol, speed, shooting, men with clubs, furry mascots, and fist fights. All we need is some cheerleaders and the game will be complete.

I bought my tickets at the Ice Bears web site, but from now on, I'll buy them at the gate. Thewebsite added $5 for shipping and handling, but I was picking up the tickets at the "will call" window. Then they added another $5 charge for picking them up at the "will call" window. There are plenty of seats available, so just go to the window and buy your tickets that way.

Their home games are played at the Civic Coliseum. I remember going to the Coliseum as a kid for the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus, and thinking how huge the place was. Now I see how small and cramped it actually is. Forget the Convention Center, Universe Knoxville and all the other boondoggles; Knoxville needs a new Coliseum. The Civic Coliseum was fine when Knoxville had a population around 60,000, but is hopelessly inadequate now. But I will give the staff credit; the place is clean, and well maintained. The lady may be showing her age, but she hasn't fallen apart.

As we were walking over from the parking garage ($4.00) we followed a family dressed in their Sunday best. I figured that either they were over dressed, or I was terribly under dressed for a hockey game. Since it is impossible to under dress for a hockey game, I assume there was another event going on.

The game started promptly at 8:30, although the usual start is at 7:30. The game was fast paced, and I discovered that you can see the puck a lot better in real life than on TV. As for the rules, I'm still a little fuzzy on them. I think you hit the puck with your stick, or your opponet with your stick, until the referree skates over and stops you. He grabs the puck, and two players wait for him to drop it like your dog waits for you to throw him a treat. Occasionally, for mno visible reason, the ref will refuse to drop the puck until two new players line up. When the ref throws the puck down, the two players swing wildly at the puck and each other, trying to gain an advantage. This is called a face off, and it happens a lot.

The object of the game is to get the puck past the goalie, a poor unfortunate recruited to stand in front of a half pound chunk of frozen rubber heading directly at his person at about 600 miles per hour. If he fails to get out of the way of this missile, he can count on it being immediately assaulted by several people with sticks swinging wildly in an effort to get the puck into the goal. If he does manage to get out of the way, the other team scores a point, which seems very unfair to me. Why penalize the poor man for acting in self defense?

Speaking of penalties, if a player commits a foul, like hitting another player across the face with his stick, he is forced to sit in a penalty box for 2 minutes if his victim survives, and 5 minutes if he dies, after which the player returns to the game nicely rested, and looking for revenge. In the meantime, his team plays short a man, which gives the other team a scoring opportunity.

Anyway, instead of halves, or quarters, like regular sports, hockey has three periods (Those crazy Canucks!) of 20 minutes. Each period takes about 40 minutes to play, with two 18 minute intermissions, so the game takes about 2.5 hours. Don't worry about geting bored, because during the intermissions, you get to watch games, and the Zamboni. The Zamboni is the machine they drive around ice to scrape up the bad ice, bloodstains, and loose teeth left on the surface during the game. The Zamboni also lays down a new layer of ice which does two things; it creates a smooth surface for the players to skate on, and allows the puck to break the speed of sound.

So we have mayhem with weapons, a distinct shortage of rules, power tools, brawling, shooting, and scoring, and all for a reasonable price. What more could you ask for?

Posted by Rich
Reviews • (2) CommentsPermalink

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