Monthly Archives: December 2005

Munich

Two ‘based on true events’ murder stories, I said. And two it was, as the limited engagement for Munich included one of my two local theaters. (And a couple more around here, but nothing with actual expended effort, so, hooray!) And when I say it’s a movie all about murdering, well, that’s completely true. Still nothing like the other one, though, what with the nuanced script and acting, Spielbergian direction (I’d feel bad for him if it wasn’t, I expect), and general lack of being a horror movie in favor of solid drama.

Shortly after the events of the 1972 Olympics at Munich, where a Palestinian assault on the village resulted in the deaths of all of the Israeli athlete-hostages, Mossad and the Israeli Prime Minister are purported to have authorized a black ops mission to eliminate eleven members of Black September, the terrorist organization responsible for the strike. After you know that much, all the rest is fallout. So many good questions here: Is it acceptable to rain terror down upon terrorists? Is that even a valid strategy in the first place, given that your goal is the cessation of your enemy’s hostilities rather than revenge? Is it possible to do evil in order to protect good, and keep your soul intact? (See also Serenity, for this one.) Can you ever come back from the edge? Is it even possible to see the edge, except from the other side of it?

But, as good as the story and the acting (and incidentally the history lesson) were, my favorite part was the balance. It takes a real talent to showcase an event that is so clearly delineated as far as who was wrong and who was not, and have sympathy for the people who were wrong without being insulting in the same move. The question I walked away with, and it’s not a question that’s ever gotten burrowed down into my head before, is about what the fate of the Palestinian people will be. Regardless of whether they’re right or wrong, and regardless of who is ultimately to blame for their status, when I think about them now, I see people who are pretty similar to the Jews in 70 A.D. (and not a few other times in their own history), and I wonder what they will be 2000 years from now. Out of a movie made by a Jewish director, that is more than anything else about an atrocity perpetrated on Jewish people. And without being insulting to the memory of that event. Like I said, folks: that’s talent.

Half-Life 2: Lost Coast

I noticed (apparently a while after the fact) that the Half-Life 2 expansion, Lost Coast, was finally available through Steam. So then I downloaded it and played it. Some brief web-searching indicates that if I’d spent another $1000 or so on my PC in the past year, it would look like the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen on my desktop’s monitor. I have not, which only leaves the gameplay.

Now, here’s the thing. I was expecting it to be a full expansion going in, like the two that followed the original Half-Life. So, when it took approximately as long to play through the single level as it did to download and tweak the settings to my taste in the first place, well… not what I’d call a satisfactory experience. That said, it was definitely Half-Lifey goodness, and as a result I’ve snagged the first of what will probably be a few third-party level packs to play at, whereas before I’d never have thought to look. So, a win? Sure, why not.

Wolf Creek

Busy movie week. I basically ran the gamut of movies that can be described as ‘based on true events’, and yet the core element of them was identical. That is to say, murder. It is possible that this says something about my deeper taste in film. It is also possible that this has already been said, again and again.

Out of Australia, the chilling true tale of three vacationers in the western part of the country who stumble upon their doom near the meteor crater at Wolf Creek. Shades of Chainsaw, sure, but how can you avoid that when you’re talking about plausible serial killer activity framed as a horror movie? The job here is to take the tension, and ratchet it higher and higher. For two thirds of the movie, there was success, and I can’t ask for more than that.

On the downside, it was constrained by the actual events in a way that a less literal film like Chainsaw doesn’t have to be, and to its detriment. We have a point A and a point B, and no way to know exactly what happened in between, so the writers had to make up something that was both exciting and true to point B at the same time. This is only possible if you artificially inflate the stupidity quotient of the principles. So, whatever else good I can say about it, I cannot say it’s smart. Still, it’s a horror movie, so were you really expecting me to?

The Colorado Kid

After a month-long book, it was time for a quickie. Lucky me, Stephen King has just dropped off a pulpy crime drama that may not even be a crime. Although I’m going to have to leave that question open, I’ll say that The Colorado Kid delivers in a lot of other ways. It’s a story about telling a story: in the latter sense, it ranges across the country and twenty-five years, while in the former it never leaves a tiny, island newspaper office, except to go out on the deck and watch the ocean rolling in.

Weighing in at a slim-for-the-size 163 pages, it revisits a lot of the tropes that made King famous. Small-town Maine and its closely held secrets; that delicious accent that is so perfect for spinning a yarn; mysterious, incomprehensible events. It’s the first book since he finished the Dark Tower series and stopped writing books (well, obviously that’s not so, and I’m glad he’s still doing it; there’s another one in January, whee!), and I think perhaps he’s trying to revisit his earliest days, maybe get back on a new horse in the same saddle. I know I’m playing it close to the vest, but the nature of the story demands that I do. I can say that, as usual, it works.

Call of Duty 2

In amidst all the extra-long book reading and multiple movies-watching I’ve been up to lately, I managed to squeeze in time to finish the first of my three launch titles for the XBox 360. (Yay, I found one!) Call of Duty 2 tells yet another version of that same half-decade story of tragedies and triumph that is World War II. And really, this is the beauty of the WWII video games; there are an infinite number of stories to tell, so everyone can cash in as early and often as they’d like, so long as the story and the game are good.

In this case: success. I mean, it’s easy to care about beating Nazis, but they do a good job of making you care about the soldiers around you as well, which I haven’t seen very often yet. You might call it a mistake to get the AI unintelligent enough to run in front of another soldier lining up a shot, but I call that realistic. These were kids, after all, and probably they took more than their own fair share of actual friendly fire. But I appear to digress. Anyway, you’ve got a standard sequence of Russians, British, and Americans fighting it out against the German war machine, mostly in Europe, and let us never forget a fateful D-Day landing thrown in for deadly measure.

Really, deadliness was the one problem with the game. It was far, far too easy to survive on the normal setting. That’s okay, as it has replayability in spades, and I actually expect to for a change, at least once. The worst part was the multiplayer. … … Okay, now that you’ve settled down, let me explain. I haven’t gotten onto Live and found a big battle to jump into with a couple of friends. But I had a friend around to do one on one in the console, and… man, it stank. It’s possible that the options let it tweak down to usable levels, but all we had was a series of one-kill, reset to beginning of level, and on a level that was a little large for two people and without any ammo to collect to change up the flow. Very boring. So, I’ll reserve judgment there, and really hope that the online play and some tweaks make it as fun as I’d expect it to be, instead of as miserable as it was.

And did I mention how very, very pretty it is?

Midnight Tides

You would not think that by the fifth book of a ten book series, it would be prudent to be introducing what is essentially a completely new cast of characters in a completely new situation. And sometimes you’d be right. To my surprise, though, not always. Midnight Tides marks another high water mark in Stephen Erikson’s epic tragedy of the Malazan Book of the Fallen.

It has a lot of oddities relative to the rest of the series. It’s almost completely prequel, in that it tells the story of a character first met in the fourth book and how he came to the dire straits the reader first found him in. (Or it pretends to do that, though ultimately it stops short, leaving us with only the flavor of that betrayal. Which is okay.) It essentially leaves out the Malazan Empire entirely. And there’s considerably less warfare than I personally am used to from the series.

Nevertheless, it has a lot of what I’ve come to look for, too. For one thing, the Crippled God is here in force, revealing enough of his nature that it’s finally fair to pick a side. But mostly I’m not talking about plot elements, because these aren’t books you come to for the plot, good though it is. It would be like admiring Monet’s work with stippling and never bothering to step back to see the actual image on the canvas. We have tragedies galore; mirrored families on both sides of the conflict, one betrayed by the empire they are sworn to uphold, one doomed by attempts to tear down the evils they see in an empire that has long since outlived whatever good it may once have brought to the world. And within the families themselves are betrayals and true brotherly spirit alike, sometimes from the same brother to the same brother, in the same action. It’s a complex tapestry against which to weave the fall of an old, old empire to the ascendancy of a bloody new one that has forgotten its own ancient past, wrought in bloodier betrayals still.

This is also the funniest of the books so far, perhaps in an attempt by the author to cut the horror and tragedy to bearable scales? It worked, in any case. It’s been a while since I’ve laughed so often at a book that wasn’t written to make me laugh. Best of all, there are a few people left to play meaningful roles in the future of the tale; I’m pleased, because these are all people I really want to see more of.

One off note, which I suppose is inevitable these days. Was I the only one who saw the Letherii Empire as a blatant caricature of a popular external view of modern America? It’s not that the overt politicizing of a really good story would bother me (although it does, a bit), so much as that on more than one occasion it forcibly pulled me out of that story. That, I really don’t care for.

King Kong (2005)

Yesterday, I wandered off for a morning show on opening day, as has been my wont of late. The beauty of not having a job is thusly demonstrated, though I miss midnight shows a bit. Haven’t done anything event-like since Serenity. (Which, to my amusement, I’m going to see right now, so I’ll continue the actual review after I get back. Yay, dollar theater.) But, anyway. Opening day for King Kong, which is to say, Peter Jackson’s latest attempt to show the world that a horror movie director can in fact be a world-class director in the general sense.

There’s a lot going on here. First of all, it’s a remake. There’s always, then, an urge to compare the remake to the original. Usually, this comes out very, very poorly for the remake. Not here though. Of course the technology is so many orders of magnitude improved that it’s hardly worth discussing. Except for a couple of CGI people, there was nothing that did not look real. Kong and the other denizens of Skull Island looked real 100% of the time. In fact, Kong looked real enough that I feel comfortable claiming he could act better than most people in the kinds of movies I generally watch. The moment when you could not read his thoughts on his face was a rare one indeed.

And, okay, three hours seems like a lot (though for my money, the movie was never truly slow). But where the movie shines is that the story is intact, yet still improved. It takes a special eye to take a classic tragedy and make changes that are improvements instead of disasters. Jackson has already shown he has that eye, but now he’s shown that it wasn’t a fluke. Simply put (and please believe me when I say I’m trying very hard not to gush here), this is the best movie I’ve seen in years. It’s easily in my top five, and if I were being fair to the movie instead of my sense of nostalgia, I expect it would be top two or better.

I’m going to say something here, and it’s not going to make any sense, but it might if you let it percolate for a moment. King Kong is easily the best serious drama (i.e., not a movie with fantastic elements) I’ve ever seen. Now, okay, does it compare to The Godfather, say? I’m not trying to answer that, because deep down, apparently romances are more to my taste than mafia flicks, so it’s an unfair comparison. But the thing is, every note was right. It’s a tragedy because everyone is a good guy. Okay, Jack Black’s character has a few moments of not-so-good, but he’s far more sympathetic than he should be by rights, and he’s the only one who crosses any kind of line. So you’ve got all these characters doing the right thing as they see it, and the outcome is inevitable, and completely heartbreaking.

Maybe what this all says about me is that I’m a sucker for a simple, well-told story. Which I’m willing to admit to, though the complex ones certainly have their place. But if you have any of that in you, I dare you to find a movie you liked better this year. (And make no mistake, I adored Serenity, and I really liked Revenge of the Sith, out of more than obligation. So it was already a pretty big movie year for me, and I would not have expected to be hearing me say this, a couple of days ago.)

The Back Lot Murders

What can I say about The Back Lot Murders? Well, for one thing, it has Corey Haim’s finest performance since… uh…. Dream a Little Dream 2? Yup, that’s right, he lights up the screen as the blue-haired drummer of a band on the verge of making it big, now that they’ve cut loose their songwriter, who combined the band’s only source of talent with anger management issues the size of that stack of million CDs required to go golden. (I know I’m reaching. You would be too. This thing was awful.)

Well, okay, lights up the screen is an exaggeration, since I couldn’t even tell it was him, and once I did pick him out, it was obvious that he was slumming all the way. And why shouldn’t he? You’ve got a group of talentless hacks recording a music video on the Universal backlot, in order to tie in to the success cash cow that was (no lie, here) Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World. The only problem (other than that pesky lack of anything resembling talent; seriously, they could have dubbed *some* local LA band that’s good but starving. They exist.) is the mysterious masked killer wandering the lot slaughtering crew, topless groupies, and eventually the band.

Yeah, that’s pretty much all you need to know to make up your mind. Obviously, I bought it on first sight in the Fry’s horror section a few months ago, and with slightly less info. (Well, I couldn’t possibly have guessed just how bad the music would be, could I?)

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Looking back, the review contains one spoiler for the movie. You have been warned, though I personally wouldn’t sweat it, I don’t think. It’s not that kind of movie, being based on a decades-old book and all.

So, way back on opening day, we trekked across town to the Rave theater in northwest Fort Worth, because the guy who sold my dad his TV had claimed that that chain had the best equipment in town. It was fine and all, don’t get me wrong, but nothing like worth that kind of drive. If we hadn’t also had other things to do quite near there indeed, it would have been pretty much a terrible waste of gas. It occurs to me, in retrospect, that when he claimed the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe had beat out the Lord of the Rings movies for both story and technological advancements, that should have been a sign that he was a loon on other fronts as well. (In fact, I’ve just talked myself into being a bit worried about the TV, which hasn’t been delivered yet.)

The thing is, it was a pretty good movie, and suffered only by that comparison. True to the source material without carrying along Lewis’ overbearing tone, pretty as all get out, and with excellent sense of wonder quotient. Sure, it was a kid’s movie, and there were elements that were not just fantastic but downright nonsensical. (It’s not just that Santa Claus showed up to give them presents. It’s not just that this was a sign that the evil winter was coming to a close, even though 12/25 seems to fall at the beginning of winter in the majority of farmer’s almanacs that I personally have perused. It’s that he chased them halfway across a frozen lake without using a few hos to identify himself, just to create tension with the other ensleighed character of the film. Cheap, is what.)

So. Good movie? Yeah, despite being unapologetically for kids. It didn’t have those ‘for adults too’ winks and nudges, which sometimes work and often don’t. But it was still really good, in that you could put yourself in a kid’s position and still remember caring and fantasizing about things like this. The two family-friendly movies out for the season that involve multiple ‘parents with way too many kids‘ scenarios? No adult wants to remember wishing for that as a kid; I’d like to think that no self-respecting kid wishes to experience it now.

Christian movie? It’s very visible, yes. If you wanted to use it to talk to your kids (or your pagan friends, though that might be dangerous, considering the history underlying resurrection myths around the world) about what happened with Jesus and why, the parallels are there to be drawn. If you’re in a minority that’s as allergic to Jesus as a minority of vocal Christians are allergic to anything non-Christian, then, well, the parallel will almost certainly set you off in hives. If you’re most people, it falls somewhere safely in between, to be ignored if you want it and savored if you do.

Speaking of minorities, if you’re in the one that’s allergic to Furries, well, Narnia is one of the early examples of the genre, so that’s going to be unavoidable. And if you’re in the one that really gets off on that, well, try to go to a theater late in the run where nobody else will have to listen to your heavy breathing, okay, pal?

Effects? Yeah, they were fine, but don’t expect any awards.

Aeon Flux

And then on Friday, I saw Aeon Flux, which just goes to show you that it was a big week for movies. In the relatively distant future, all but a percent of the human race has died out, and what is left is kept within a single city by the armies of an evil scientist. Life is perfect, except for when people are disappeared or if you live the life of one of the ultra-violent revolutionaries who want to put a stop to those disappearances. Or if you live the life of one of the ultra-violent enforcer guard types who keep the status quo. I’m not sure which group got ultra-violent first, but they have made a science of stylishly shooting and/or breaking the necks of their respective enemies.

The premise tells most though not all of the story. Our heroine, Aeon Flux, is one of the revolutionaries, and the time has come to stop the evil regime forever. Or it would be, but instead of that, she goes about peeling back layer after layer of the onion, to find out what’s really going on in our idyllic-yet-bloodbathed utopia, who the bad guys really are (perennial tagline: Not Who You Think!), and what happened centuries ago to get us to here.

I never watched the MTV series it was based on, and so I have no idea if that helped or hindered my enjoyment. But it did its key jobs of looking pretty, delivering explosions and mayhem, and containing a reasonable enough sci-fi mystery. It probably should have picked a sparser sci-fi year if it wanted to stand out, though. And since the series debuted ten years ago, one is forced to wonder what made this week so attractive. (Also, if the MTV series was based on a comic first, well, a) that would explain the why now part, but mainly b) I don’t read enough comics. It is known. It need not be pointed out extensively after the fact. (Research is for people who are getting paid, so that it can be used as a tax dedution.))