Sunday, July 3, 2011

What I'm Checking Out This Month (June 2011)

Here are the various entertainment things I’m listening to, watching or reading this month.


Pirates Of The Caribbean- I wasn’t expecting much when I went to see this because the reviews weren’t very positive but I was bored and wanted to see something. Turns out it was the right choice for that day because it was loads of fun. The story was pretty basic- searching for the Fountain Of Youth- and much simpler than the convoluted plotlines of the second and third Pirates. Apparently Johnny Depp worked with the producers on getting the script right. It works because the movie highlights what you like about the series- quests for enchanted items, Captain Jack Sparrow improvising amazing escapes and dropping saucy comments and colorful secondary characters keeping things lively. Here, Ian McShane’s Blackbeard is a compelling character and pretty terrifying and Geoffrey Rush is back as the amusing Barbosa. No Orlando Bloom though. Not that I care though that does mean no Keira Knightley either and I always enjoy watching her. The one disappointment is the swordfights but I’m always disappointed by sword fights these days, in any movie. They all suffer from ADD editing. There is no build up in tension or sense of danger. It’s 5 seconds of fighting, then a cut to some other angle or incident, then back to another series of clanging swords. I want to see drama in the fighting, I want to see close calls and strategy. I want a real sword fight, like in the movie Rob Roy. If you aren’t going to play it seriously, at least make it protracted and visually stirring like in the 1974 version of The Three Musketeers.

Kung Fu Panda 2- No, I didn’t see this. I was just seeing if you were paying attention. Why would I pay to see 1) A movie with Jack Black in the lead, 2) An animated kid’s movie not made by Pixar, 3) Um, I think the first two items pretty much say it all. I’ll watch this on cable just like I did the first one. I don’t need to pay $10 to see it now. Even if it is in 3-D.

Super 8- The trailer for this made it seem more like Cloverfield than The Goonies but in reality it is a movie made for kids. This is not to say it is a kid’s movie. A kid’s movie is one that is specifically designed to contain the elements a producer thinks kids want to see, like cute animals or wisecracking sidekicks or slapstick and bathroom humor or simplistic plotlines. Super 8 is a normal movie that will be appreciated the most by ten-to-fifteen year-olds. Adults will find it too simplistic and predictable, little kids will find it too scary while teenagers will find it to be too sincere. It’s a combination of modern day monster movie and boy meets girl story- kind of E.T. meets Stand By Me meets Platoon.

X-Men: First Class- Awesome. This is a great looking, engrossing X-Men movie. I was appalled with the previous one (Last Stand) by director Brett Ratner, mainly because it royally screwed up the Dark Phoenix saga. Yes, this movie screws with the Marvel Comics storylines too but does it properly. The essence of the back history remains the same, just some of the events and characters are adjusted. The tone of the story is true its’ source material. Besides, none of the movies were entirely faithful to the comic books. This movie follows a young Charles Xavier, before he becomes Professor X, and how the X-Men came to be. The interplay between Xavier and the future Magneto is interesting and the Cold War backdrop fits well with the ethos of the series. The exploration of the characters and their motivations was fascinating and engrossing. I wouldn’t have minded another half-hour added to this movie, which is already two and quarter hours long. If I had any complaint, it would be that there isn’t enough action. I wanted to see more fighting and the mutants using their powers in action, not just learning how to use them. I’m really looking forward to the next movie and hope it builds on this one.

Green Lantern: I enjoyed this for what it was. It didn’t have any of the gravitas you’ve come to expect from The X-Men movies, but at least it wasn’t as stupid as Thor. From reading the comic books as a kid, I don’t recall Green Lantern/Hal Jordan being as flippant and dissolute as he’s portrayed in the movie. I think that was done to “modernize” the character or maybe to make the goofy ring projections seem less jarring than if they were juxtaposed with a serious character. The sets and special effects worked, and the sstory was a bit stronger than I thought it would be although the ending was pretty perfunctory. I expected more visual fireworks and drama after all the build-up. Props to the director too- Martin Campbell (Goldeneye, Casino Royale, Zorro)- for making it work. He got good performances from the actors- especially the guy playing Sinistro- and kept the special effects from overwhelming the more dramatic parts of the movie.

Hangover 2: If you liked the raunchy humor of the original movie, you’ll like this. If you liked the “WTF” moments from the original, you’ll be less enamored with this iteration. Rather than shocking you with unexpected plot twists and bizarre humor, this time the filmmakers try to shock you with just plain disturbing scenes. In the first movie, when Ken Jeong jumped naked out of the trunk of a car, you were surprised and astonished. In the second movie, he jumps out of an ice chest but you see that coming from a mile away and the nakedness is done by transsexuals in a club, also something you see coming from yards away (not quite miles but at least a few feet away). Both of these are in here just to recreate what worked well in the first movie and since it is gratuitous (on so many levels) it doesn’t work as well. It’s not a bad movie it just not original, something that should not surprise me considering there is a 2 in the title of the movie.


Venus In Fur (Studio Theatre)- I loved this play. It was an examination of the treatment of women in the theatre, and by extension how they are treated in life by the men they interact with. Are they whores or submissives or equal partners or superiors? Are people only what they seem like on the surface or if you look deeper will you find their real essence? The plot is straight-forward- a women arrives late to an audition for a part in a play and the director is so tired of seeing the same pathetic actresses vying for the role that he just wants to go home. The late-arrival seems like a stereotypical actress but every time the director is about to leave, she surprises him by showing another layer to her character and her acting ability so he stays a little longer. The actress impressively switches between her characters Marisa Tomei-like “real” personality and her Kate Winslet-like acting ability. Right there you know I would like the play since the main character is channeling the wonderful and adorable Marisa Tomei. What hooks you though is how she controls the situation even though she is the aspirant, the one trying to win the role and keep the director from leaving. It reminded me of Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story, the way one person kept drawing the other back into conversation.

TV Shows:

French Open- Going into the first weekend of June, we have the top four players in the world competing for the men’s title. Oops- Nadal just beat Murray in straight sets, no tiebreaks either, to get to the finals. I’m not sure if I want Federer to beat Djokovich and then lose to Nadal in the final or if I want him to lose now and be forced to watch two other people play for the title. Either way, I ultimately want Federer to lose in a painful way. About the only scenario that would make me unhappy is if he won the whole thing. (Hope God wasn’t listening just now. Although God can’t be a Federer fan, can He? Even so, I’m too insignificant for Him to waste time making me unhappy or else He would already have gotten me a shrew-ish wife to torment me.) [Editor’s note- Nadal won. Stomped Federer in 4 sets and took his record tying 6th French Open win.]

Breakout Kings- This isn’t a bad show considering it is on A&E but it is so derivative of so many other things, particularly Leverage, a TNT show about cons with special individual skills working together to help stop bad guys. That’s the premise of Breakout Kings as well, except that the main characters are just criminals, not specialized criminals and I’ve watched three episodes now and none of them were compelling enough to make me seek out this show.

NBA Finals (Miami Heat vs. Dallas Mavericks)- Mavericks sucker-punched a Heat team that got lazy in the 4th quarter and went on a 22-5 roll to sneak out a win on Miami’s home court. Now we have a real series going on and the Heat better watch out. I kind of want them to lose although not for the reason everyone else has (hating LeBron James). I am disappointed that they beat the “new Utah Jazz”, i.e. the Chicago Bulls- home to Carlos Boozer, Ronnie Brewer and Kyle Korver, all Jazz players last season.

Miami threatened to pull away in the second game and go up two games to zero but they got stomped by Dirk Nowitzki in the fourth quarter when the Mavericks went on a 22-5 run to win the game on the final shot and even the series at one game each. The third game ended with a decisive last second shot but this time it was Miami to win at the last second on the Mavs home court. For the fourth game, the Heat had a decent lead going into the fourth quarter. Then they floundered again and the Mavericks caught up, got ahead, and Dirk kept them ahead by three points with 5 seconds left. The last second shot by Miami…missed so it’s two games each. Wondered what will happen in game five tomorrow?

Apparently, the same thing that happened in the first game- the Mavericks came from behind in the fourth quarter to win the game. It was tied with about two minutes left and then after Jason Kidd- yeah, that old guy- the Mavs pulled away to get 9 point lead with a few seconds left. Three games to two is a good place to be if you are playing the last two games on the road. And in game six, the Dallas Mavericks took it all and won the championship. The only bad part of that is that Jason Kidd now has a ring and John Stockton doesn’t. Stockton is still the better point guard though, by far. No ring for LeBron either and he has to spend the off season defending himself. I wouldn’t care so much about him getting stomped except for the fact that he felt like he was entitled (a state of mind that always bothers me) to a championship but most of all, when Dirk mentioned he was a little bit sick, LeBron and his teammates started coughing in interviews and making fun of Nowitzki. Acting like bratty little kids didn’t endear the Heat to me at all. So it was a great series and I’m thrilled with the winner. It’s the first championship series in the last three years that I actually watched consistently.

Wimbledon- Tennis season is in full swing and I’m ready to see who wins this tournament. All I’m hoping is that it isn’t Federer. And it isn’t because the semi-finals just wrapped up today. Things almost went as expected- Nadal beat Mardy Fish, the lone American left (Roddick fizzled, like usual), in four sets so it wasn’t a rout. Djokovic beat someone and Andy Murray beat Feliciana Lopez. So you would figure the top four ranked players moved on right? Especially since Roger Ferder started out his match up two sets to none and his record is 178-0 when starting a match up by two sets.

Nope- he wasn’t inspired and didn’t seem to play hard in the last set. No energy at all so Jo-Wilifred Tsongasgot a break and held onto it to make it a surprise upset of the six-time Wimbledon winner. Now I don’t care who wins- I’d be happy with any although I’ll root for Nadal because it will make Roger more upset than if Djokovic wins because Nadal is starting to challenge Federer’s Grand Slam record. Okay, just watched the final and Djokovic won in four sets. Good tournament and Novak has now only lost one match the entire year (to Nadal at the French?) so it will be interesting to see how he does the rest of the year and in the US Open come August. I think he’s gonna accrue the best winning streak in tennis history.

Women’s World Cup: It just started the last week of June so the big matches are yet to come but it will be a good tournament because all my favorites are there- the U.S., Sweden and Norway, with Australia, Germany, China and Brazil thrown in just to make it interesting. From the looks of things so far, Norway won’t get far, so I’ll be rooting for the U.S.A. and Sweden but basically anyone but Brazil or Germany.


Outwitting Trolls (by William G. Tapply)- This is his final finished mystery story and I was quite sad to get to the end. First because there are no more Brady Coyne stories coming and also because the character didn’t get a fancy send off. It was an optimistic send-off though. I’m not sure if that’s how the author wrote it or if the editor tweaked it after the fact but here’s a quote from the last page.

She said, “Tomorrow this time you’ll be here tucked in with me.”
“If we can outwit the trolls”, I said.
“I’m not sure I believe in trolls,” said Alexandra. “I’d rather believe in fairies.”
“I think we can have it both ways.”
“Trolls and fairies?”
“And wicked stepmothers and fairy godmothers,” I said. “It’s a more interesting world with all of them, don’t you think”
“A more complicated world, anyway.” She chuckled softly. “I’m at a good place with my novel. I’m not going to think about it all weekend. I’m just going to hang out with you and the dog. Walk in the woods, paddle our kayaks, cook good food, watch some old movies, and snuggle in bed. I can’t wait.”
“I’m at a good place too,” I said.

Food Rules: An Eaters Manual (By Michael Pollon)- I can see why people would stop buying books if they had to pay $15 like the list price on this slim little tome suggests. There is nothing of any interest here to someone who has read his “In Defense Of Food”. Basically, Pollon takes that previous book, removes all the science, social critique and background history to present some 60 food rules which are really common sense rules anyway. Without understanding why we should do them, there is no impact and hence no reason for this book to exist. Other than to make more money for Pollon by repackaging his previous efforts.

Zombie Spaceship Wasteland (By Patton Oswalt): I was curious to see what Oswalt would write about. I’ve kind of disliked him for years and only part of that is a result of jealousy. Yeah, we graduated the same year from the same college and he went on to become rich and famous and I didn’t. Discounting that pettiness though, I still don’t find him to be funny in the least. (It’s not just because of jealousy either- Jon Stewart also graduated from my college and is rich and famous but I think he’s funny. Yeah, I’m still jealous of him but I think he has real talent and I admire his success.) So what Oswalt writes about is a little of everything. He does some “comedic” essays, he does some memoir type stuff, he writes some spoofs of wine reviews, he does a short comic book, he makes lists. Basically he does the same stuff I do but for a lot more money. I was surprised to find that I liked some of the stuff he wrote. He doesn’t seem to be too much of an egotist, he has a good grasp on story-telling and he likes some of the same comedians I do (e.g. Maria Bamford). Most of the things were well-written and enjoyable. I found my distain for Patton Oswalt softening quite a bit. I don’t recall really laughing much while reading the book though so maybe I’m not sophisticated enough to appreciate his humor. Or maybe he just isn’t that funny! Still, I’ve developed some empathy for him and think he might be a decent human being after all. One I’m still jealous of, by the way. More so now that he’s a published author.


The Cars: Move To This- The reviews were right; this sounds like classic Cars stuff. The problem is that it is classic Cars album cuts, and not even the good ones. It’s the Cars stuff you skipped past to get to the best songs that were not released as singles. If you loved the song “You Might Think”, you won’t particularly like this. If you loved the song “Since You’re Gone”, you will hate this.

Black Keys- Brothers: A two man band playing minimalist sounding music but injecting it with intensity to make up for the lack of sonic layers. Kind of like the White Stripes do. Or did. I’d heard the song Tighten Up on the radio but was reluctant to buy the album because it’s just one song. The rest could suck. After getting the album as a gift for my birthday, I was thrilled to find several other great songs on there. I also liked the rootsy stomp of Howling For You and the songs The Only One and Ten Cent Pistol.

Whitesnake: Forevermore- Don’t ask me why I bought this or their previous album because I never bought any Whitesnake albums during their heyday. How is it? It’s Whitesnake. It sounds just like you expect it to sound. It’s knuckleheaded arena rock songs that have lots of guitar solos and go on for two minutes too long. It’s harmless fun. Nothing as good as Slow And Easy or Here I Go Again but nothing that embarrassing either, aside from being Whitesnake in the first place.

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