Monday, April 30, 2012

Double Feature Review

I went out last night with the New Lady In My Life for a double feature: Cabin in the Woods and The Five-Year Engagement.  We were in a movie mood and figured if after Cabin had ended we'd stay for a show of the second film.  We were still up for it, and so we stayed.

So today we have a special two-fer movie review!

First, The Cabin in the Woods.

This movie flat out rocked.  Unfortunately it's so dense in its plot that I can't talk about too much without spoiling most of the movie's surprises, so I can't go into any great detail from that angle.  However, it's well worth the price of admission and I highly recommend it.

The film opens innocuously enough with five college students about to embark on a weekend getaway.  To a cabin.  In the woods.  Only one of their faces is recognizable at all - Chris Helmsworth, of Star Trek and Thor. The kids eventually find a creepy old guy who runs a gas station on their way to their cabin, and he gives them a quite ominous warning.

All this sounds horribly cliche, but that's sort of the point.  Again, I can't go into further detail without giving away crucial spoilers; you just have to see it for yourself.

But then weird stuff happens, like we find out there's some kind of shield covering the forest area around the cabin.  Two guys played by Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins work in a control room setting for most of the film, and feel like they're from an entirely different film until they are ultimately linked to the kids on their weekend getaway.  And there's some really bizarre stuff found in the basement in the cabin....

And of course, people start dying.  In really gruesome and bloody ways.

The climax of the film is so over the top in its violence and blood, I had to marvel at director Drew Goddard's attempts at making it all work.  It's a ballet of blood, like Goddard used his film and turned it into some twisted version of Phantom of the Opera.  What's so unique about the film from start to finish was how it paid homage to past horror classics such as Alien, The Thing, The Evil Dead, Saw, Hellraiser, and many others (that may have been a giveaway on my part listing some of those films).  The film adds cliches found in many of those films and manages to simultaneously mock and respect them.

I am extremely picky when it comes to horror films because so many of them are simplistic in their types of horror.  I have no patience or interest in the likes of Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street because they exist solely to serve the purpose of their villains.  I find horror films like Silence of the Lambs or Seven much more satisfying, and while Cabin in the Woods isn't a psychological horror film like those latter two films, it's still a superior horror film.  There's a real payoff to why everything is happening, and when the audience finally understands the big reveal, it's well worth the wait.  Highly recommended.

Now, on to Five-Year Engagement.

I'm a big Jason Segel fan.  He can be a small supporting player in films like Knocked Up and I Love You, Man to being the star in Forgetting Sarah Marshall.  And I love his writing, considering he either co-wrote or solely wrote most of the movies he's been in.  Mad props to you, Jason.

The Five-Year Engagement isn't a bad movie by any means of the sort.  In fact, there are a bunch of really funny lines and moments in the movie.  It's just the equivalent of cotton candy; it's completely forgettable once the movie is over.

I'm sitting here trying to remember any particular line in the movie that I laughed at and remember.  Thing is, I can't.  I have to go on to find any quotes posted on there from the movie to jog my memory. 

The film opens with Segel's character Tom taking his girlfriend Violet, played by Emily Blunt, out on New Year's Eve for their one year anniversary.  He surprises her with an engagement ring, and they start working on planning their wedding.  The problem is, they never get very far with their plans because of life getting in the way of their future.

I've never gotten close to the point of getting engaged and/or planning a wedding, but I have enough friends who are married who can attest to how crazy such a time is.  That's a concept that's ripe with comedic opportunity, and one that hasn't been done time and again in other movies.

Tom and Violet have to deal with obstacles like other pregnancies, job offers, family deaths, and the like.  All that is funny - even the deaths, oddly enough.  Somehow, despite all that opportunity, it's still a very ordinary film.  It isn't anything close to being as memorable as The Hangover or Bridesmaids, which is a real shame given the talent in the film.  Still, like I said in the beginning it isn't a bad movie at all.  I just wouldn't rush out to see it.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Yeah, But Is the Book Better?

I have a new television addiction.  In the past, I've fawned over series like Lost, Alias, and especially 24.  I can now add Game of Thrones to that list.

I was a little late to the Game of Thrones bandwagon since I didn't have HBO this time last year; before you jump on me for being stuck in 1995, let me (weakly) defend myself by stating I had Starz and Showtime in a package with DirecTV while I was living in Virginia.  When I moved back to Baltimore, my roommate had HBO hooked up, so I had access to all their programming once again.

By the time I got HBO again, the first season of Game of Thrones had already wrapped up.  I didn't read any reviews or spoilers on the season, so I had no idea what the show was about or what happened during the course of the season.  I wanted to give the show a shot since I'd heard it was so great and get caught up to date in time for season 2's start.

I chose to wait on watching season 1 until about a month before season 2 kicked off, thereby avoiding having to wait too long for the new season to start.  I finished the season about a week before the new season started, but I made one crucial mistake: I went on IMDB to read some trivia about the show.

The reason that was such a bad mistake was because I had gone on there abou halfway through the first season, and IMDB had a piece of info marked with a spoiler warning, but I read it anyway.  I won't divulge the spoiler for anyone who hasn't yet watched it, except to say it involved a major character's fate late in the season.  Suffice to say, I kicked myself for having read it and ruined a great surprise near the end of season 1. 

Anyway, I've been watching season 2 live on Sunday nights, and it's been excellent so far, especially this week's episode.  I'm not going to review the show per se, but a couple things came to mind about some of the things I've read about the show online.  Before I get to those thoughts, I have to comment on a couple things.

First of all, Joffrey Baratheon is the biggest ass I've ever seen on television.  This is probably the most backhanded of compliments I can give someone.  I really want to hit that little piss ant with a metal shovel across the face because he's such a vile character, but that's actually a credit to the actor who portrays him.  Jack Gleeson plays Joffrey, and he could have made Joffrey completely over the top, but that would have completely ruined the character.  Joffrey is supposed to be hated for what he's done thus far in the series, and I can say I can't wait to see him get his payback for his actions.  He seems to find a new reason for the audience to hate him every week, which is pretty impressive given what's happened so far.

Second, I'm a little disappointed by the overall lack of action on this show.  For the most part, it's people standing around and talking about things.  Before I sound too simplistic, let me make a couple things clear.  First, I don't mind a lot of dialogue in a show.  Game of Thrones is extremely complex in its various plot threads and characters, and that I enjoy.  Second, I know that action sequences, especially in a period piece like this series, are extremely expensive.  HBO already spends an enormous budget on the costumes, set design, and actors, so spending more on fights and action sequences would probably make the show unafforadble.  At the same time, people are constantly talking about going to war, winning battles, and the like, so why can't we see some of those battles?  This week's episode featured the aftermath of a huge battle between Joffrey's men and Robb Stark's army, but we never got to see the battle at all.  Plus all the talk of building up to action can only go so far.

Now having said all that, let me get to the main point I wanted to make.  Game of Thrones is based on a series of books by George R.R. Martin, who is also an executive producer on the show.  Each season is an adaptation of a single book in his series, and many comments I've read online about the series mentions how it compares to the books.  I haven't read the books yet, but from what I can tell, season 1 followed the events of the first book fairly closely.  Season 2 has veered away from the book's plotlines a bit more, which has disappointed some of the fans.  My perspective is this: Whether Game of Thrones follows the plot of its source material closely or not doesn't matter to me.  In fact, I feel this way about any film or television series that is adapted from a book.  Books and films are completely separate mediums, and comparing the two isn't fair to either side.  Can anyone reasonably expect a 500-page novel to be adequately adapted into a 120 or 150 minute film without making substantial changes?

I'll give two examples to make my point.  Consider Fight Club for a moment.  It's not a long book by any means of the sort; in fact it's just over 200 pages.  However, it's written in first person and completely stream of consciousness in style, thus taking away any linear story from the book.  I'm still amazed 13 years later than the film managed to construct a linear story from a whacked out book.  The movie had omitted the final chapter from the novel, but that's okay because the final chapter was essentially unfilmmable (I won't spoil it for those who never read the book).  The important part was that Fight Club, as a movie, took a novel with no real events or conventional story, and made a movie that was completely faithful to its source material in spirit.

Now compare Fight Club to A Time to Kill.  I absolutely loved the book when I first read it.  I blew through it in only a few days and couldn't wait for the movie to come out. 

Then the movie came out.

I actually had missed it in theaters, but I rented it on video later on.  I shut it off about halfway through it because it was just so incredibly boring.  The one noticeable difference between the movie and the book was how Carl Lee Haley killed the two rednecks who had raped his daughter, but otherwise it followed the book's events fairly well.  The problem was that the spirit of the book wasn't carried over into the film.  The same issue was in The Da Vinci Code; the movie followed the events of the book for the most part, but it was an insufferable bore. 

I know I started off talking about how I was late in getting into Game of Thrones, but it's now led into a wholly different topic of comparing films and television series to their source materials.  I would like to read the Game of Thrones books someday, but I'll be a happy viewer of the series as long as it stands on its own merits.  And this week's episode certainly proved the show's value, leaving me wondering just what on earth happens next.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Blood and Fire

I've been a big Star Trek fan since childhood, and I hold a special place in my heart for The Next Generation in particular.  It was the first Star Trek series I had ever watched, and for its time it was a fairly revolutionary and ambitious series on television.  Over 20 years later the series definitely shows its age, so it doesn't really hold up to the kind of production values and storytelling styles of today's weekly dramas, but I still have fond memories of it.

I was messing around online recently and found a list of unproduced scripts for each Star Trek series to date, some of which had plot descriptions.  One of these was titled Blood and Fire, an episode written for Next Generation's first season.  The episode was written by David Gerrold, who had written for the Original Series in the 1960s, and he wrote a few episodes during the first season of TNG.  However, his script for Blood and Fire was rejected by the show's producers due to its controversial subject matter, and Gerrold quit working on the show shortly thereafter.

The reason the episode was deemed controversial was because it was largely an allegory for the AIDS virus, and prominently featured an openly gay couple.  The script was written in 1987, so AIDS was still very new to the general public, and not many people knew much about what it was or how it was transmitted.  Ultimately the script was left on somebody's proverbial desk until a group of Star Trek fans decided to produce a fan series titled Star Trek: Phase II.

Now here's where things get really convoluted.  Star Trek: Phase II was supposed to be an actual television series in the 1970s until Paramount decided to dump the series in favor of turning the franchise into a series of films.  Star Trek didn't return to television until The Next Generation, and the rest is history.  However, a few years ago a group of Star Trek fans decided to take the concept of Phase II and make it into a series available on YouTube, and produced several episodes of the show, including a few scripts that were originally written in the 1970s.

One of the scripts they used for the new Phase II was Blood and Fire, and David Gerrold was brought back to rewrite the script, as well as direct the episode.  So now we have a series called Star Trek: Phase II featuring all the Original Series' characters, but starring a bunch of amateur actors.

I tell you all that so I can review the actual episode Blood and Fire, which is available to watch on YouTube.

I'm not going to talk about the acting in the episode much since, like I said, it's a bunch of amateurs.  All I will say is, the acting leaves a lot to be desired.  The actor who plays James T. Kirk does his best cheesy William Shatner impersonation, which ups the camp feel of everything, but it's kinda hard to take the show seriously when this guy seems more focused on mocking William Shatner than doing his own performance.

Anyways, let me talk about what I liked about the episode.  First, the production values are GREAT.  The sets and costumes look like dead ringers for the Original Series, and the lighting and photography are very similar as well.  I'm not sure if the look was designed to be nostalgic or a conscious effort to make the episode feel like it was truly produced in the 60s or 70s.  The special effects are also really good too, and they don't look like cheap CGI.  Even the transporter beams look exactly like they've been lifted from the effects used in the Original Series.  It's clear the team behind producing this web series has the money and resources to recreate the look and feel of the Original Series as much as possible.

You'll notice all the positives I've listed are technical aspects of the show.  That's because the actual story behind the episode is pretty average, and the controversial subject matter is very....odd.

I'll talk about the story first before getting to the controversial stuff.  The Enterprise is responding to a distress call from a Federation ship adrift in space near a twin pair of stars.  The crew finds it headed straight for impact with one of the stars, but they have to salvage whatever evidence and logs they can find before the ship is destroyed.  An away team beams over and finds the ship is infested with parasites known as bloodworms, which literally suck the blood out of any victim's body.

(I should add a note here that one of the other things I liked about the show was that there's a crew member's death in the episode, and his fate is in complete keeping with the "red shirt" cliche of the Original Series - very nice touch!)

With the away team stuck on the other ship, the rest of the crew has to figure out a way to eradicate the infestation and escape before the ship impacts the star.

By now you're probably wondering how on earth the gay couple fits in with the rest of the episiode.  That's my problem with the couple; it doesn't fit at all.  It's a completely arbitrary addition to the story, one that if it was excised from the episode, the rest of the show would be exactly the same.  I could certainly understand why the Next Generation's producers rejected the script in 1987 since American audiences hadn't gotten used to gay characters on television yet, but the real irony to the script's rejection is how Star Trek had been viewed as a very progressive series since the 60s (one only has to look at integrating a black woman and a Russian among the rest of the cast in the Original Series to see how socially progressive Star Trek has always been).  In the end, including the gay couple feels like they were added more for shock value than anything else, which is really disappointing.

The episode would've been much better had Gerrold added homosexuality in a more organic fashion.  Had he done something like that, the episode would've likely had more weight to itself, and the entire allegory to our day and age would've been better.  Instead, the gay couple is much more of a B-storyline involving two people we've never met before and didn't care about previously.

Science fiction is one of the best venues to tell a story that can be used to drive a social theme, and Star Trek has done that many times over the years.  Blood and Fire could've been one of the more memorable episodes that Trek has done as an allegory, but the episode was very average and the controversial aspect was unnecessary.  That's a real shame too because I understand what the producers were trying to accomplish, but they missed the mark with this one.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

For Those of You Who Are Keeping Count

One of my tasks that I really wanted to complete more than most others was get a passport.  I've never had one, and obviously I've never needed one.

Until now, that is.

One of my best friends is getting married Memorial Day Weekend, and she invited me to come.  That was just the kind of motivation I needed to get a passport to travel.

There's so much about this that I'm super excited about.  First, I haven't taken a real vacation in nearly six and a half years.  I've taken weekend trips to the beach here and there, but I haven't really let loose for a real fun trip since I went out to Phoenix several years ago.  Second, I actually get to travel internationally!  I don't really know what to expect in terms of getting through customs in the airport and then landing in the Caymans, but there's only one way to find out.

The best part is that one of my other friends told me she's getting married next year in the Dominican Republic, so I'll get some good mileage in my passport pretty early on.  Two real vacations in a year after hardly ever traveling for most of my adult life definitely makes up for my lack of trips in the past.

So hey - I can cross another task off my list!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Bittersweet Memories

Today marks the fourth anniversary of the passing of one of my best friends from grade school.  Tim and I hadn't spoken in years; in fact I think the last time I had actually seen him was my first year of college.  On top of all that, we had only been classmates for two years in 7th and 8th grade, but during that brief period of time we had built a great friendship. 

Before I get too in depth, I should confess something: I didn't remember today was the anniversary of his passing until I happened to see one of my friends mention it on Facebook.  I didn't even know she and Tim had known each other at all, but when I saw her post I immediately thought back to the day when I had found out about him being gone.  I felt like I was a bit of a bad friend for not remembering today was the date I found out he was gone, but I was relieved that some of my friends have better memories than I do.

Four years ago, I got an email from my sister one day who was messaged on Facebook from another of my childhood buddies who was part of my circle of friends with Tim (I wasn't on Facebook at the time).  There were four of us all together: Rob, Dan, Tim, and me.  One of our mothers - I'm not sure which - had dubbed us The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse since we were all so close and had a knack for causing as much mayhem as your average adolescent kid could.  Still, we were a good bunch of kids, and we had a blast during our brief time as classmates.

Getting back to the email from my sister, she forwarded a copy of a message from my buddy Rob.  He said he was trying to get in contact with me and found Marie on Facebook.  He wrote her hoping she was my younger sister (obviously, he was right) and asked if she could put the two of us in touch.  I wrote him as soon as I got the message to see how he was doing, and that was when he broke the news to me: Our fellow Horseman Tim was gone.  He didn't have any details as to the circumstances, but he wanted to make sure I knew.  It was a very bittersweet reunion of sorts, since I was both thrilled to hear from Rob, but also shocked to hear about Tim. 

I did more digging on Tim over the next few days, and I eventually found a website where friends and family posted messages to his family after his funeral.  From what I could gather, he was married and his wife was pregnant at the time of his passing.  A bunch of familiar names showed up on the message board, and I had hoped in this time of great sorrow and mourning, his family was able to find a little solace in knowing how many lives were affected by Tim's passing.

I know this is one of the more saddening posts I've written in a long time, so I'll close with a good memory of Tim.  I'm not sure if anyone reading this will really appreciate it, but here goes.  When we were in 8th grade, all Four Horsemen had to work together on a science project on weather.  We decided on doing a video project called The All-Disaster Channel and videotaped it at one of our houses in the basement.  We took G.I. Joe action figures to represent "on-site" reporters who had experienced disasters such as mudslides, city fires, tornadoes, earthquakes, and hail storms.  I was chosen to be the Peter Jennings of the bunch and ran everything from my "studio," but I couldn't keep a straight face to save my life.  We even included blooper clips of me bursting out into laughter from reading the script we had put together.

Our video culminated with a massive hail storm where an unfortunate G.I. Joe stood in as a reporter on the front lines as we pelted it with crumpled pieces of paper to represent hail stones.  We had the guy sitting in a Jeep, and one of us played his voice, narrating everything he had experienced in the storm.  He yelled out, "Oh no, here comes a BIG ONE!" and we dropped a bowling ball on the Jeep, shattering it into pieces.  I think somehow we still ended up with an A on the project, even though it was one of the most absurd videos ever put together.

Tim, wherever you are now, I hope you are at peace.  We may not have spoken in years, but I pray your family is well and that God is watching down on them for you.