Monday, September 28, 2009

TV Review: Lowdown on the Freshman Class, Part One

The first official week of the new TV season has come and gone. As with every year, there are some real winners, some real losers, and some that simply fall into the "meh" category.

"Bored to Death" - HBO

This one was just asking for a critical bludgeoning with a title like "Bored to Death" (note to TV execs: Avoid using titles that can be used against you as punny put-downs by witless headline writers). Title aside, the show's kind of good -- slight, but good.

Starring Jason Schwartzman, "Bored" is about a self-loathing New Yorker, recently dumped by his girlfriend, who inexplicably puts up an ad on Craigslist offering his services as an unlicensed private detective. His credentials: he's read a lot of detective novels and thinks he gets the swing of it. Rrrrright. It's a comedy, so just go with it. His cases are of the low stakes/high quirk variety (in the pilot episode, a woman hires him to find her missing sister, "who was supposed to go to a concert with me.") Schwartzman does his sighing, narcissistic thing he's been doing since "Rushmore," often more concerned about whining over his broken heart than listening to the needs of his clients.

Executive producer Jonathan Ames creates a world that's equal parts Woody Allen and Wes Anderson, with the neurotic prattling of the former and the cute, deadpan superiority of the latter. Nothing of big consequence happens, mostly just some small laughs and some droll observations about self-centered, over-educated dopes who could live productive lives if they simply pulled their heads out of their own asses. Remarkably, "The Hangover's" Zach Galifianakis comes off as the most socially well-adjusted character in the cast, as Schwartzman's comic book artist friend. Ted Danson, looking more and more like a Frankenstein's monster version of "Mad Men's" John Slattery, is amusing in a supporting role as a publisher who occasionally employs Schwartzman as a freelance journalist, but mostly uses him to score weed. Grade: B

"Eastwick" - ABC
Very loosely based on the John Updike novel and the successful 1987 movie, "Eastwick" has been described as "Desperate Housewives" with magic. That's about right -- plus lots of ten o' clock time slot-appropriate jokes about vibrators and boobs. The show retains the basic premise of earlier iterations -- three desperate women (Rebecca Romijn, Lindsay Price and Jaime Ray Newman) unwittingly summon the devil in the form of a dashing man (Paul Gross) who then shakes up their lives in exciting and dangerous ways -- but updates it with a feminist twist: these ladies don't need men to help them realize their full potential. Of course, that doesn't stop them from obsessing over men in just about every scene. (Gotta have sexual tension, right?) OK, so the show sends a mixed message, but give it points for trying.

Where "Eastwick" loses points is with its male characters. They're either thinly developed caricatures (as with Newman's deadbeat Hillbilly husband), charisma-challenged oafs (the wooden Johann Urb, who plays the woefully miscast object of Price's desire), or motivationally muddled quasi-villains (what exactly is Gross's Devil in a Gucci Suit going to do week to week other than look dashing and occasionally menacing?)

The message seems to be "Boys are stupid and girls just wanna have fun." "Eastwick" operates at the maturity level of a rebellious junior high school girl -- which isn't a bad thing, just know what you're getting into. The leading ladies' magical powers are seriously downplayed, but one guesses that's so the show can build to a moment when our characters will fully embrace their inner "witchiness." That pretty much sums up the show on a whole: not quite there, but ripe with potential. Grade: B-

"FlashForward" - ABC

Another show ripe with potential, but suffering on several fronts. The premise is killer: everyone on the planet blacks-out for two minutes and seventeen seconds, during which they see a glimpse of their future six months from now. The possibilities for story are endless. Why did everyone blackout? What did everyone see? Can the future be changed or are our fates fixed?

The show spends its first hour setting up this premise, complete with awesome, apocalyptic special-effects (see what happens when the world falls asleep at the wheel for a couple minutes -- cars crash, buildings burn, and kangaroos run rampant down Wilshire Boulevard). Joseph Fiennes plays an FBI agent reacting to this global event much in the same way Matthew Fox reacted to the plane wreck in the pilot to "Lost," a show this one is positioning itself to replace (going so far as to use the same font for its opening credits). "FlashForward" certainly has the mystery factor going for it, but where it fails to live up to "Lost" status is with its characters. There are no Hurleys or Lockes or Jacks or Kates or Sawyers or Charlies. No one introduced in the first hour has a unique or compelling personality. There's little in the way of humor. Everybody's too busy talking about what they saw in their flash-forward or wondering aloud about why the blackout happened.

But this is just the first hour. Here's hoping future episodes focus more on distinguishing its characters so we have people to care about amongst the sci-fi concept. Grade: B

Come back tomorrow for grades on more new shows, like "Modern Family," "Cougar Town" and "The Cleveland Show."

Friday, September 25, 2009

Top 10 Movies of the 2000s

Every cineaste and their dog is going to be putting together his or her own "Best Movies of the 2000s" list by the end of this year, so I thought, what the hell, I'll do one of my own! Making up a list of the best films from the past decade is an ultimately unfair venture -- unfair to the year 2009, namely. One, because it's hard to judge a movie's lasting power less than 12 months after its release, and two, because I can't wait three more months to do this list, so if something amazing comes out between now and December, it'll have to sit on the bench of honorable omissions to be published at a later time.

Looking back at what's been released since the start of the year, yeah there have been a couple of great movies ("Up," "The Hurt Locker," "Inglourious Basterds"), but I wouldn't swap any of my carefully selected "top ten" to make room for those. And looking ahead to what's coming out by year's end, I don't foresee anything that's gonna knock my socks off (yeah, yeah, assumptions only make an "ass" out of "u" and "me," but in my defense, I refer back to Reason Number 1 as to why this list is ultimately bunk anyway).

So without further ado, here are my top 10 favorite movies from the past decade. Be warned, a few of my choices may seem like cheats, but I'll explain when we get there.

10. The Dark Knight (2008)
The most recent entry on my list may inch its way higher as the years go by, but to be as fair as possible to the other movies on my list that have hung in there since nearly 10 years ago, I decided to put this one at number 10. The 2000s was the decade of the superhero genre. "Spider-Man" ushered it in, "The Dark Knight" perfected it -- more specifically, Christopher Nolan perfected it, creating a superhero epic that was also the best crime saga since Michael Mann's "Heat" 15 years ago. Heath Ledger's Joker has become iconographic, the pounding score by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard continues to get regular play on my iPod, and the psychologically intriguing script by Nolan and his brother Jonathan elevated what could have been a mere comic book movie in the hand's of a lesser director into the realms of gothic drama.

9. Shrek (2001)
I debated over whether to put this movie on my list instead of any of the 7 wonderful Pixar movies that were released in the past decade. With all due respect to Pixar, I felt the need to include "Shrek" in my top 10 not only because it stands toe-to-toe with "Wall-E," "The Incredibles" and "Ratatouille," but also because it paved the way for animated films that could be edgy and satirical, but still retain a beating heart. There have been many imitators -- including two inferior sequels -- which only goes to prove that what "Shrek" did the first time, did it so incredibly right.

8. Gladiator (2000)
It was this movie and Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" back in '98 that infused action filmmaking of the 2000s with a brutal specificity, where we felt the punches, stabs and spear thrusts right along with the heroes on screen. Ridley Scott put us in those battles with Maximus and let us fend for ourselves as we ducked arrows and dodged chariots tricked-out with razor-blade rims. And amidst all the chaos, Russell Crowe made us care through his commanding, Oscar-winning performance. "Gladiator" set the bar high right off the top of the 2000s.

7. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001, 2002, 2003)
OK, OK, so it's actually three films. But, really, folks, they're all part of one, gigantic, Cave Troll-sized enterprise that was masterfully helmed by Peter Jackson. The vision it took Jackson and his hundreds of collaborators to pull this off is staggering. They took what were relatively benign (dare I say "twee") fantasy books and transformed them into full-blooded, exciting, visually spectacular films that, like other films on this list, inspired imitators ("The Chronicles of Narnia?" The best thing to come out of that franchise is the SNL Digital Short "Lazy Sunday"), but none earned a seat at the table with the hobbits.

6. The Bourne Identity/Supremacy/Ultimatum (2002, 2004, 2007)
Again, three films that I'm cheating into one. The "Bourne" movies took the gut-clenching action stylings of "Gladiator" one step further, adding a "you-are-there," hand-held urgency appropriate for a modern age of on-the-go technology and post-9/11 terror alerts. Yeah, the story was always second banana to the go-go-GO! action. But go with it I went. A pure action movie rush. So influential, the James Bond movies rebooted its entire franchise just to be more like "Bourne."

5. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Charlie Kaufman emerged in the 2000s as the screenwriter who would twist your brain into balloon animals. All of his movies ("Being John Malkovich," "Adaptation," "Human Nature") are blindsidingly original and wryly funny, but it was "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" that showed he could also make balloon animals out of our hearts. His observations on the destructive/reconstructive cycles of relationships, and how the painful memory of a great love lost is better than no memory of it at all, are easily his most relatable and emotionally compelling subjects to date. Jim Carrey's never been better. Also noteworthy for being one of the only movies in which Kate Winslet doesn't bare her breasts (or has the scene slipped from my memory?) Speaking of memory loss...

4. Memento (2001)
Christopher Nolan has the noteworthy distinction of having two movies on this list. His first feature, "Memento," is still his best: intricately plotted/edited/directed/acted. "Pulp Fiction" popularized jumbled jig-saw storytelling in the '90s, but whereas that film did it mainly for reasons that could best be summed up as Tarantino raving, "Wouldn't it be fucking cool if the story were told out of order?" the backwards construction of "Memento" is purely character-based, reflecting the short-term memory loss of its emotionally shattered hero on the hunt for the man who killed his wife. The ending (or I guess the beginning) still packs a wallop. In his debut film, Nolan announced himself as one of the best directors to come out of the last 20 years, an artist fascinated with the psychological states of his characters, finding fascinating ways to dramatize them. His followup a year later, "Insomnia," is also very, very good. ("The Prestige?" Less so. I could see that ending coming a mile away. Handsomely directed, though.)

3. Almost Famous (2000)
Cameron Crowe was leading up to this one for years and finally, after the success of "Jerry Maguire," he got the chance to tell his teenage life story -- and what a funny, heartfelt, tragic, hopeful, starry-eyed, so-unbelievable-it-could-only-be-true story it was! Patrick Fugit (from Salt Lake City -- holla!) got the role of his (short) career playing a young Rolling Stones reporter on the road with a fictional rock band named Stillwater, learning valuable life lessons from assorted sources (Philip Seymour Hoffman gives the best advice, concerning bullies at school: "You'll meet them all again on their long road to the middle.") Roger Ebert got it right when he said he wanted to hug this movie. Let's make it a group hug, Roger. The best coming of age story... well, aside from my number 2 pick. And still, to date, the best performance Kate Hudson ever gave. (It's like she contracted the "Cuba Gooding, Jr. virus" and went on to make crappy movie after crappy movie after crappy movie.)

2. Spirited Away (2002)
The most imaginative animated film... well, ever. It's master Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki's delightfully bizarre take on Alice in Wonderland and how a little girl gains self-confidence and maturity after she and her parents stumble into a world that defies description. Basically, there's a bathhouse full of strange customers run by an old woman with a giant head and an even bigger baby, there's a boy who can turn into a dragon, there's a black, gloopy, ravenous creature... if you've seen it, you know what I'm talking about and you're smiling. If you haven't seen it, GO WATCH IT RIGHT NOW! That's right, I pulled out the capitals.

1. Minority Report (2002)
Steven Spielberg's reminder to the world that when he's on his A-game, he makes it look effortless. A film noir at heart, with a plausible, futuristic, sci-fi sheen. Watch this film: it's a master class of visual storytelling, with so many memorable set pieces, I'd eat up another 1,000 words talking about each of them. In short: the mag-lev escape, the spider scanners, the fist fight at the Lexus factory, the eye doctor, the confrontation with Crowe, the opening sequence that introduces us to the characters and the concept of Pre-Crime not through clunky exposition, but through an exciting action sequence... I could go on and on. A film so tightly made you could pluck it and it would hum. Up there with Spielberg's finest.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Summer Movie Review Haikus

"Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" (Three-and-a-half out of four stars)
Awkward teenage love, very funny.
David Yeates perfects rich Brit-Goth aesthetics.
Best since "Azkaban." Yay Quidditch!

"The Hangover" (Three-and-a-half out of four stars)
Clever script. Lots of laughs.
Bradley Cooper and Zach Galifianakis: mad props.
Planned sequel? Really? "Hangover: Amsterdam!"

"Public Enemies" (Three out of four stars)
Michael Mann subverts gangster conventions.
Matter-of-fact storytelling. Bit too dry?
Shoot-out in woods -- Awesome.

"The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3" (Three out of four stars)
Denzel meets Travolta: Sparks fly.
Tony Scott reigned in by tight script.
Gandolfini memorable in small role.

"Away We Go" (Three-and-a-half out of four stars)
Hilarious and whimsical. Mendes scores.
"SNL's" Maya Rudolph shows her dramatic range.
Don't let Gyllenhaal raise children.

"Drag Me to Hell" (Three-and-a-half out of four stars)
Raimi returns to horror roots.
Slick and fun exercise in BOO! moments.
Saw that switch ending coming.

"Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian" (Two-and-a-half out of four stars)
Everything but the kitchen sink.
Excuse to trot out funny special effects.
No shame in that really.

Angels and Demons (Three out of four stars)
Better than "Da Vinci Code."
Exposition on-the-run = good idea, Ron.
No Power Point presentations! Yay!

Friday, June 26, 2009

Movie Review: "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" (1 out of 4 stars)

While watching Michael Bay’s “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” I was aware that something was happening on screen in front of me, something frenetic and flashy, accompanied by booming explosions, witless dialogue and a substandard action movie score that wanted me to know something action-packed was happening right now, at this very moment!  For two-and-a-half very long hours, I was aware of a movie happening, but never engaging me.  “Revenge of the Fallen” is like watching bad porn—except the ticket buyer is the only person getting fucked.

I kind of came around to the original “Transformers” (2007), which, in comparison to its noisier, longer, more exposition-crammed sequel, is downright quaint and cuddly. At the climax of the first movie, the Autobots and Decepticons decimated a city block to get back a cube. At the climax of part two, the ‘bots tear a gaping hole in the Great Pyramid to uncover a giant laser that will destroy the Sun.  What’s left for part three? Can’t really top a Sun-Destroying Laser. Maybe Megatron will crack open the Easter Island heads and find chocolate?

Oh, the story is so much nonsense, but you expect that from a movie based on a line of toys, right? The story picks up with Sam Witwickey (Shia LaBeouf) relocated to college and separated from his two loves: Autobot Bumblebee, who cries lots of valuable windshield wiper fluid when he learns his master is going to Princeton; and hot girlfriend Mikaela (Megan Fox), who straddles the motorcycles she repairs at her dad’s auto shop like girls straddle mechanical bulls. There’s nonsense about Sam and Mikaela’s inability to say the L-word to each other, nonsense about Sam’s mom (Julie White) getting high on pot brownies she gets at her son’s dorm, nonsense about Sam obsessing over strange alien symbols after he touches a shard of the All Spark (that cube thingy from part one that could, I dunno, do whatever the movie needed it to do at any given moment).

The nonsense spreads and spreads. The symbols Sam is seeing lead to a key called the Matrix that powers the aforementioned Sun-Blasting Laser. The bad ‘bots, led by Megatron and a mysterious new foe called The Fallen, badly want this laser to go off, and the good ‘bots badly want it not to. Oh, and there’s some juicy power source to be harvested, to what purpose, I’m not sure. Evil ‘bot babies gestate in gooey pods back on the home planet. Maybe the juice is for them. Gotta feed the kids. Why the Sun has to be destroyed… this is where I threw my hands up and simply waited for the action sequences to come, hoping they would perk things up.

Sadly, the climatic battles in “Revenge of the Fallen” fall victim to the same problems the first movie suffered from—robots pummeling robots with little sense of who’s who, who’s doing what and why. Robots wrestle and throw one another through historic landmarks and all we see is an incomprehensible tangle of arms, legs, fists, rotors, gears, mufflers, swords, flames and leaky jaws. For sure, Michael Bay knows how to shoot large-scale pandemonium with a slick, blown-out, fetishistic hunger for all things shiny, sexy and slow-motion-y cool, but he’s lapsed into self-parody.  What should be a 90 minute movie is bloated to nearly three hours simply because Bay can’t get enough of Bay. “Bigger. Fucking. Robots,” is what it said across the chest of the T-shirt he wore to Comic-Con last year. Maybe it should have said, “Big. Fucking. Ego.”

The actors do what they can—which is mostly scrambling out from under the stomping feet of the huge ‘bots. LaBeouf continues to represent geeks across the world who dream of bedding a hottie like Megan Fox. He’s charming enough. Fox is the most convincing robot in the cast (Jolie-Bot 2000). The underutilized Josh Duhamel continues his streak of thankless roles, playing an Army dude who gets less dialogue than a remote controlled truck—and at least the truck gets to dry hump Megan Fox’s leg. John Turturro is back as conspiracy-nut Agent Simmons. The remote controlled truck makes fun of his “Jew-fro.”

Which brings up the movie’s nasty streak of racist stereotypes, ethnic slurs and male chauvinism. Two new Autobots have been added to the cast: Skids and Mudflap, jive-talking African-American stereotypes who confess they don’t like to read, and one of them even has a gold tooth. Fox’s character is called a “bitch” on more than one occasion.  On every occasion she’s shamelessly dangled like a piece of meat to the slobbering boys (and boys at heart) in the audience. She’s just another doll in Bay’s toy box.

As I sat watching this movie under the giant dome of the Arclight theatre, I noticed something: the kids in the audience were getting restless.  One in particular, sitting in front of me, started playing with his hot dog wrapper about two hours in.  That little boy invested more fun and imagination into playing with that hot dog wrapper than Michael Bay invested into all $200 million dollars worth of "Transformers." Wow.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Idiotic Research Study of the Week: What's in a Name?

Say you're a big fan of those wacky "Ernest" movies. You think "Ernest Goes to Jail" is a comedic gem and "Ernest Scared Stupid" is the funniest horror movie since "Friday the 13th, Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan." Maybe you like these movies so much, you're thinking about naming your first born after the titular buffoon.

But wait!!!! Before you sign little Ernest's birth certificate (they are signed, right?), you owe it to the life of your child to read this very important research study by David E. Kalist and Daniel Y. Lee of Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania.

I like this bit in particular: "The findings could help officials 'identify individuals at high risk of committing or recommitting crime...'"

Forget racial profiling. Lets skip straight to name profiling. So, all you Ernests out there, next time you try to board a plane, don't be surprised if Homeland Security pulls you aside...

"Excuse me, Mr. Ernest P. Worrell, could you come with us please?"

To which Ernest replies, "Cavity search? No thanks, sir, already went to the dentist this year. Know-what-I-mean?"

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Best Films of 2008

I love making lists.  Grocery lists, to-do lists, lists of people to hug when I see them next (will it be you?).  I draft at least 5 different versions of my list to Santa Claus; that includes spell-checking, adding hyperlinks to, and sending the drafts to five of my friends for constructive feedback ("Rethink this Tickle-Me-Elmo doll, Aaron").

This is why I look forward to January: time to compile my list of Best Films of the Year!  And, like my list to Santa Claus, it changes from minute to minute, depending on mood, altitude, and what I ate for breakfast.  So, right now, these are the films I remembered from 2008, for better.  Next week I'll do for worse.

10. Forgetting Sarah Marshall
If you think about it, Jason Segel is playing the role usually reserved for a woman: rejected, weeping, inconsolable, vulnerable (not that I think this role should be played by a woman, just pointing out Hollywood thinks so).  Aching after his breakup with movie star girlfriend Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell), Segel boo-hoos his way to Hawaii, hoping to escape the pain -- but wouldn't you know it, there she is with her new beau (Russell Brand, perfect).  And they have a suite right next to his.  And their sex is both noisy and gymnastic.

Segel bucks the trend of what we usually get in terms of a leading man, which is what makes him and this movie so endearing and refreshing.  It's OK for men to wear their hearts on their sleeves--or nothing at all, like the scene when Segel gets dumped in his birthday clothes.  Crude and sweet.

9. Burn After Reading
The Coens had the misfortune of releasing this moronic comedy hot on the heels of their Oscar-winning "No Country For Old Men," which was as stark and serious as this one is broad and ridiculous.  Instead of applauding the Coens for how adept they are at shifting from drama to comedy, most critics berated them for going stupid.

But that's the whole point!  What makes "Burn After Reading" so delightful is watching those CIA agents try to make heads or tails of a blackmail scheme hatched by gym trainers whose combined IQ score could be counted on two hands.  Their scheme is so shallow, so not thought out, so confounding, the only conclusion the CIA can come up with is: "What a clusterf**k!"

8. Doubt
Jumping to the other end of the spectrum, there's John Patrick Shanley's "Doubt," based on his own play, about a nun who suspects a priest is taking advantage of a young black schoolboy.

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the priest, Meryl Streep plays the nun, and Amy Adams plays the Sister who plants the seed of doubt.  Is Hoffman guilty?  Doesn't matter to Streep, whose conviction is like a steamroller flattening everything in its path.  Viola Davis, as the mom of the boy, has about 12 minutes of screen time with Streep and blows her out of the water.

The ending offers no simple answers, just lots of complex questions to ponder.

7. Synecdoche, New York
It's long and oftentimes nonsensical, but damn, if it didn't linger with me for days after I saw it.  Charlie Kaufman bites off more than he can chew in this story about a dying theatre director (Philip Seymour Hoffman, having a great year) whose latest project is nothing more ambitious than Life Itself.  He hires actors to play himself, his family members and his loved-ones.  He builds a life-sized recreation of his neighborhood--and then a recreation of the recreation within the recreation.  It's life as a Russian Nesting Doll.

I think this is the first time I've seen a film that's not so much about life as about the process of life and how we try to understand it.  Bizarre, meandering, funny, a little dull sometimes -- yup, that's life.

6. The Wrestler
There wasn't another movie character in 2008 that I cared about as much as I did Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a washed-up pro-wrestler played by Mickey Rourke, he himself a washed-up pro-wrestler-turned-actor.  We get the sense that we're not watching a movie, but a flinchingly accurate biography of a man who thrives on punishing himself.  Pock-marked and puffy-faced from steroid abuse, Rourke is his character.  We sympathize with him from frame one when he's crouched over and coughing minutes before a fight; a once proud warrior racked with pain and guilt, yet still reaching for the stars.

5. Role Models
The best comedy of the year is formulaic, yes.  Predictable, yes.  But still hilarious and surprising from moment to moment, due to the inimitable Paul Rudd and Seann William Scott as buddies burning off community service hours at a Big Brothers program, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Bobb'e J. Thompson as the kids they mentor.

Rudd does caustic self-loathing like no one's business, and William Scott inserts a little adult responsibility into his classic Stiffler character (just a little).  Jane Lynch steals every scene she's in as the program's founder, an ex-druggie who mistakes uncomfortable candor for motivational frankness.

Extra points for poking fun at fantasy role-playing while still embracing it. 

4. Slumdog Millionaire
A harrowing fairy tale of love lost and found...and lost again.  A thrilling sociological travelogue of slumdog life in Mumbai.  A Dickensian tale of orphans, thieves, murderers and brotherly betrayal.  An all together amazing experience, directed with visual gusto by Danny Boyle ("Trainspotting," "28 Days Later").  Great soundtrack by AR Rahman.

3. Wall-E
It seems pointless to say a Pixar film is great, because that's pretty much assumed.  To say Pixar has outdone themselves with this dazzling mix of sci-fi, Chaplin-esque comedy, and social satire is huge praise.

Wall-E, a little trash-compacting robot tasked with cleaning up a filthy, uninhabitable Earth, gains the love and trust of everyone he meets.  He gets those fat, lazy humans in their biggie-sized spaceship to rediscover life before consumerism.  He changes the world around him simply by perpetually and courageously being himself.

2. Milk
The story of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to a major political office, carries extra significance in the wake of Proposition 8.  He gave hope to a minority that still struggles for acceptance to this day.  Played by Sean Penn in an Oscar-worthy performance, Milk won over the hearts of not only the gay community but anyone who felt marginalized; he was a charmer, an optimist, a smart, funny man who didn't believe in "platforms" and "issues" but the simple fact that all men are created equal and deserve a fair pursuit of happiness.

Gus Van Sant directs with an eye for documentary detail from a script by Dustin Lance Black that chooses all the right moments to paint a full portrait of a complex man.

1. The Dark Knight
What to write about a movie that's been so widely seen and so universally embraced?  As he did with "Batman Begins," writer-director Christopher Nolan crafts a movie that transcends its comic book origins and becomes something grander.  What is a hero?  "He's the hero Gotham deserves...but not the one it needs right now.  So we'll hunt him, because he can take it.  Because he's not our hero...he's a silent guardian, a watchful protector...a dark knight."

Here is an action movie with spectacular action, but always at the service of the story.  A comic book movie with "heroes" and "villains," but existing in a world that could almost be our own, pondering over moral and ethical dilemmas usually reserved for more serious drama.

And Heath.  As the Joker, he gives a performance that stands up there with Marlon Brando's Godfather, Daniel Day-Lewis's Bill the Butcher, and Jeff Bridges' The Dude in terms of characters that are bigger than life and stay with us forever.

And that semi flipping over?  Effin' cool.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Resolutions: Make 'em or Break 'em?

Out from the shadows comes Aaron, here to begin the new year with a vengeance.  That's right, I'm ready to kick the tires and light the fires.  I'm ready to whup E.T.'s ass.  I'm ready to say, "Now that's what I call a close encounter."  All in all, I'm ready to move on from these hokey "Independence Day" quotes and begin the new year with a list of resolutions.  But what list of resolutions would be complete without a snide, self-defeating scale from 1 to 10, rating how likely I am to break them (1 being will-power wins the day, 10 being who the hell was I ever kidding?)  Let the pessimism commence!

1. Get in shape
What human being on the planet doesn't make this resolution and subsequently break it within weeks?  The gyms might be crowded the first few months of the year, but just give 'em till March and those treadmills and ellipticals will be abandoned in favor of couches and bean bag chairs which have the unfair advantage of being soft, comfortable, parked in front of an XBox and undemanding on your hamstrings.

Of course, this assessment doesn't bode well for my own goal, which is to tone up this bendy straw body of mine into one that, at the very least, resembles a more sturdy straw; those thick, plastic ones that come with sippy cups, perhaps.  I'm actually pretty good about sticking to an aerobic routine.  But walking on the treadmill at a quick pace is about all I can stand.  The only way you're gonna get me to run is if you cover me in bratwursts and release a pack of starving wolves.  Where I get lazy is with strength training.  I mean, really, do those weights have to be so darn heavy? Breakability Factor: 8

2. Read More
This I've already started doing.  Over the Christmas Break, I read Stephen King's great book "On Writing," which, if you haven't guessed, is about cooking squid.  I've never read a better book on the craft of writing.  In his folksy, "hey-man-pass-me-another-Bud" style of speaking to his reader, King makes the obvious but important point that a Writer must be a Constant Reader.  Well, of course.  That'd be like telling a musician he or she must be a Constant Listener.  But in our busy lives, it can be so easy to get wrapped up in our day jobs, our schoolwork, our writing, that we blow off actual reading.

Like King, I plan on carrying a book with me at all times this new year so I can bust out some esoteric Cormac McCarthy jams whenever, wherever.  Example:

The infant's ossature
the thin and brindled bones
along whose sulcate facets clove old shreds of flesh
and cerements of tattered swaddle.
- Cormac McCarthy, "Suttree"

WTF?  Breakability Factor: 2

3. Procrastinate Less
I'm writing this resolution blog on January 1st instead of January 31st, so I think I'm already ahead of the curve on this one.  Patting myself on the back is something I should most certainly put off, however; we'll see how well I stick to this resolution when school starts again and I'm weighing Rock Band in one hand and my thesis script in the other.

I have the nasty habit of waiting until the last possible moment to begin a writing assignment.  Why start the day before it's due when you can get up at 5 a.m. the next morning and do it just before class?  Who needs sleep?  The irony of this is that I put things off and still get them done in time.  So why start earlier?  Ever eaten a half-baked loaf of bread?  I have a feeling a fully-baked loaf of bread might taste a little less yeasty.  Breakability Factor: 5

4. Be Wise With My Money
If you were to open my checking account like a purse, a moth would flutter out of its cavernous vacancy -- followed by a tumbling tumbleweed and the low whistle of a vast, empty plain, in case you don't get how empty my reserves are.  It appears I need constant reminders that I'm not living at home, rent-free, receiving a steady paycheck.  I'm an unemployed graduate student sharing a two-bedroom apartment that resembles a Motel 6 without the free HBO, paying an ungodly amount of rent using government-lent money with more strings attached to it than an octopus marionette.

I shouldn't be dining at sushi bars where they serve tuna rolls off the smooth abs of naked Japanese women.  I shouldn't be buying "The Complete ABBA" on iTunes.  And I shouldn't be shopping at Nordstrom's for hip, expensive jackets that make me look like director Michael Bay's less successful brother (that would be Jimmy Bay, director of adult knock-offs of his brother's films, including "Very Bad Boys," "Transsexuals" and "The Cock").

No more buying DVDs I'll watch once and then store away like a squirrel storing nuts (in case of a long, cold winter, I've squirreled away every season of "The West Wing," even though I hear after season 4, I might as well toss the other 3 nuts).  No more buying books that I could most likely get at the library and keep on my nightstand for 7 years.  No more lighting cuban cigars with wads of hundred dollar bills.

But then again, my XBox sure could use a new game... Breakability Factor: 6

5. Maintain This Blog
I, Aaron Allen, do solemnly swear to update this blog at least once a week with stories about my life or whatever tickles my fancy.

Ah, geez, but with all the exercising, reading, focusing and penny-pinching I'll be doing the first three weeks of the year... Breakability Factor: 10