Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Bones, Season 1

There aren’t a whole lot of things on TV I watch regularly. The Office would be top of the list, but if DW didn’t ensure it was a part of our routine I might even skip that. The ones that I do really like I either buy on DVD or rent. The most recent of these includes the show Bones, created by Hart Hanson and currently in its 5th season. “Oh no!” you say, “Not another procedural/forensics show!” As much as I’ve avoided these up until now, I happened to catch a glimpse of Bones somewhere along the way and was drawn in.

Bones is loosely based on the real life of Kathy Reichs, a forensic anthropologist, professor and author. The character in the show that is based on her is named Dr. Temperance Brennan nicknamed “Bones” by her partner, Agent Seeley Booth of the FBI. She earns her name because she deals entirely with human bones to help Agent Booth and the FBI to solve murders. She’s the best in her field, and as a result ends up partnering with Booth to give him information about murder victims that ends up being evidence pointing to their killers: from a skeleton she can determine age, gender, illnesses, hobbies, manner of death, and favorite color. Well, ok, maybe not the last one, but pretty darn close.

The reason why this show appealed to me when others didn’t is because from my experience, most of these shows revolve around some tough guy cop/agent who always comes out on top and his adventures with his female sidekick. In Bones, Dr. Brennan is the central figure who drives the story and more frequently, Agent Booth defers to her.

The characters in this show are a lot of fun. Dr. Brennan is a brilliant anthropologist with a good heart but a brain that often overrides the good that heart could experience. She lives, eats, and breaths science and has great difficulty functioning outside of its method. Booth, in contrast, leads with his gut and is good at his job because of his instincts and theories. As such they make a great pair for solving crimes, but also tend to butt heads because of their differing approaches. Bones works with a team (or “squints,” also nicknamed by Booth) who all embody very different types of people as well, sometimes to a fault. Angela is a fun-loving artist who works to recreate the faces of victims. She’s also Bones’ best friend. Jack Hodgins is a scientist who works with everything that no one else wants to touch—namely insects and filth—and is a conspiracy theorist in his spare time. Zack Addy is a doctoral intern studying under Dr. Brennan whose abundance of intelligence as well as lack of social skills is staggering.

What I enjoy most about this show is the gender role reversal of Booth and Bones. While she is grounded in fact and reason, he is driven by emotion, faith, and passion for his work. This makes for some great sparring. Frequently, Booth tries to assert himself as the big tough FBI agent, only to be emasculated by the cool and calculating Bones. They definitely have some kind of chemistry, which gets dragged through the season as they either deny that it’s true or fail to recognize it.

I wouldn’t want to turn this into a rave, because as much as I enjoy Bones it definitely has its faults. One is that sometimes their favorite themes get redundant and tiresome. I love Emily Deschanel and David Boreanaz in their roles as Bones and Booth, but there are times when she is too bland and robotic and he is too hammy. Also, because they’re dealing with decomposing bodies, it can get pretty gross. (I try to avoid watching while I’m eating!) Finally there is one character, not mentioned previously, that I felt took away from the chemistry of the characters: Daniel Goodman is the director of the Institute where they work, and doesn’t seem to fit at all. He’s a paternal type who is loosely connected to the goings on. Also, the actor allows his Shakespearean training to surface way too often. Thankfully, this problem was remedied by his absence from season two.

Rating: 10

Overall, Bones is a show with engaging, funny characters and some interesting scientific nuggets. The episodes have a little something for everyone: the mystery of solving a murder, the humor of the workplace, the science of forensics, and the chemistry of an attractive male and female lead. What more could you ask for? (That’s rhetorical.)

Favorite Scene: Booth and Bones are discussing their murder investigation in New Orleans and the claims that voodoo played a role.

BOOTH: Voodoo. Who's going to believe that stuff?

BRENNAN: It's a religion. No crazier than – well, what are you?

BOOTH: Catholic.

BRENNAN: They believe in the same saints you do, and prayer. What they call spells, you call miracles. They have priests.

BOOTH: We don't make zombies.

BRENNAN: Jesus rose from the dead after three days.

BOOTH: Jesus is not a zombie! All right? Man. I shouldn't have to tell you that.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Into the Wild

“When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” This aphorism is intended to mean that when circumstances get harder, you have to rise to meet them, not run away from them. When you run away from your problems, they don’t go away. In fact, it usually creates more problems.

This is a truth which eludes Chris McCandless, the main character of Into the Wild, portrayed with skill by Emile Hirsch. Being a recent graduate of Emory University, he subsequently decides to donate his life-savings to charity, abandon his car out in Arizona, burn all the money in his wallet, burn his Social Security card, changes his name to Alexander Supertramp (I’m not kidding), and become a hobo. The language “hobo” is never used in the film (or the book it’s based on), but that’s what he is: a hobo. I shudder to think what he must have smelled like at the end of this movie.

Speaking of the movie, it was a simultaneously beautiful and frustrating experience. The main character is idealistic, childish, and ridiculously foolish. Ostensibly, Chris wanted to find God, or himself, or transcendence, or all of them in nature, to escape from the materialism of society, and seek the greater meaning of life. But really, he just wanted to get away from his family, meanwhile causing them a great amount of pain. He’s like a 7-year-old running away from home, only to Alaska instead of down the street. The hypocrisy of his motivations diminishes his actions.

Chris seems to be operating under one central idea: the misery of his life is caused by the people in it, so the solution would be to remove all people from his life. People = problems, so mathematically speaking, if the value of “people” is zero, then the value of “problems” must also be zero. But another truth which eludes him is that human connection means everything. All the beauty and transcendence of nature mean nothing if you don’t have another human to share it with. Now, this may seem like a no-brainer to you (it did to me), but Chris just doesn’t get it. He only realizes it at the very end of the movie, and his life, which only make the story more tragic.

To compound matters, Chris constantly meets people along the way that try to show him this truth, and are even living examples of this truth, examples that apply directly to him. The hippie couple who give him companionship; the young girl who lets him see a picture of what his life could be; the old man who shows him the meaning and effect of loneliness. They’re all trying to bring him out of his singularity to a place of glorious give-and-take, where he can truly love and be loved. But he squanders the opportunities they give him, and ultimately rejects their love.

Another reason this movie is frustrating is that the entire first half presents Chris’s journey of self-discovery as romantic, epic, and even exemplary. I have very little patience for people who think that the best way to solve society’s problems for themselves is to remove themselves from society. In Chris’s case, his no-going-back trek into nature wasn’t even born out of a genuine desire to find a higher state of being; he just wanted to get away from his dad. Towards the second half, the movie takes on a different tone, one in which the viewer realizes that nature isn’t all fun and games and kayaking without consequence to oneself. There are very real dangers to deal with, and you have to realize that you may have great reverence for nature, but nature doesn’t give two craps about you. Naïve people like Chris will eventually meet an end like his own.

There are some great performances in Into the Wild, including an Oscar nod-worthy turn by Hal Holbrook. The cinematography is simply breathtaking, and beautifully captures the grandeur and majesty of nature. Director Sean Penn has a gift for gentleness and an even hand. What he lacks is pace and a good film editor. I think the movie could have been about half an hour shorter or more, and is at times plodding. It also takes too many forays into the very stylistic, which I could have done without. It takes a long time to say what it has to say, and seems to be saying something completely different when it starts. I thought it had some great things to offer, but I ultimately thought the main character was too much of a naïve idiot for me to really enjoy it.

Iconic Lines:

“12 years? To paddle down a river?”

“What if I were smiling and running into your arms? Would you see then what I see now?”

“The freedom of simple beauty is too good to pass up.”

22 Rating: -3

Particle Man

Monday, September 28, 2009


Those who know me personally (or have read this blog before)are at least passingly familiar with my tendency to kvetch about the sad state of my favorite film genre, horror. So, there's no need to reiterate that old rant here, save that gore and shock are favored over atmosphere. But I've never talked much about films that did have that atmosphere in this space.....but that's changing. I'll start with one of my favorite films, and one of the most iconic, yet somewhat obscure, horror films ever made: Dario Argento's Suspiria.
Suspiria is the story of Suzy Bannion (Phantom of the Paradise's Jessica Harper), an American ballet student who arrives in Germany to study at a prestigious ballet school.....that may be run by a coven of witches. Like most of Dario Argento's films, the plot of Suspiria is not it's strong suit, though it bears mentioning that the story and acting are tighter here than in most of Argento's other works. What Suspiria's great strength is, is visual. One, it was the last film ever made in Technicolor, which I find a lot warmer than modern coloring systems. Two, this film has some of the strangest interiors I've ever seen, as far as the ballet school. It can be said in certain films that the location is an actual character......this was never truer than it is in Suspiria. This film has some of the strangest, most flamboyant sets you will ever see. Three, the lighting in Suspiria is the most dramatic I've ever seen in a film. Scenes are bathed entirely in bright, primary reds, blues, yellows, etc. Four, what Argento lacks in the department of structure and ability to direct actors, he makes up for in spades in the department of setting up a shot. His visual style remains largely consistent across his catalogue, which is notable considering that he has worked with several directors of photography. All of the above factors combine to make Suspiria the best-looking film I've ever seen, in any genre.
Special mention has to go to the soundtrack by Argento proteges/mainstays Goblin, who also scored the original Dawn of the Dead. The eerie main theme, with it's arpeggiated pedal point progression, is a clear inspiration to later iconic horror themes like Halloween and Phantasm.......and that's before you factor in the unusual use of the bouzouki and tabla on the title track. The rest of the soundtrack is about as strange, but you can't really get the impact from me telling you about need to hear it. It's truly decades ahead of it's time.
There are, however, a few things that keep Suspiria from being counted amongst the all-time great horror film greats by more mainstream tastes.......the events of the film aren't as tight as they could be. There's a lot that happens, mostly character death, that does little to nothing to move the story along or raise the stakes. Also, some may find the performances somewhat dated.
Despite that, Suspiria is a remarkable film, and one that I heartily recommend. I give Suspiria an 18 out of 22 on the 22 scale.

Monday, September 21, 2009


Ensemble movies are one of the basic foundations of film since its inception. In the past 10 years or so, digital movies have become commonplace at the theater as well. Naturally, the combination of the two is a natural leap to make. 9 was not the first movie to do this, however; that would be Toy Story. 9 isn’t even the first of its kind in the digital serious sci-fi arena. The horrible Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within comes to mind, though there might even be one earlier. So 9 is original… how?

That’s not to say the movie was bad; it wasn’t. It just wasn’t all that creative. Post-apocalyptic world… check. Futuristic Matrix-like man vs. machine setup… check. Female character who could kick yours and everyone in the theater’s asses… check. All the elements are in perfectly in place, which may be a good thing or a bad one, depending on how easily satisfied with conventions you are.

The one big thing 9 had going for it was that all the characters were machines made out of burlap and watch gears. That was pretty creative. The look of the movie was spectacular; lush and vivid settings and interesting-looking characters were consistent throughout. It was also a little interesting and different to have all the principles’ names be numbers (there are 9 of them, hence the title). In fact, nobody in the film has an actual name. The story concept was pretty great, too; a scientist’s creations must carry on his last mission after his death. Tried and true, but with a little futuristic twist.

While the visuals were phenomenal, and the story idea had a lot going for it, 9 trips up in the plot and story presentation, especially the dialog. The voice actors are all awesome in real life (the film boasts the talents of Martin Landau, Christopher Plummer, John C. Reilly, Elijah Wood, and Jennifer Connelly), and they lend their awesomeness to the digital screen to a certain degree. However, they don’t have a whole lot to work with. The script is pretty weak, and it relies heavily on action and visual wow to carry the film. Dialog and character interaction are given a backseat, and it’s clear that not a lot of time or energy were put into them.

Slight spoilers here, so watch out. The story idea was great, but some story elements were poorly explained in the film. This goes back to the dialog being very substandard. Also, the concept of the 9 living machines all being parts of the Scientist’s soul was interesting, but not well thought through. Also, the only ones left at the end of the movie are the two kids, a male and a female. The assumption is that they will repopulate the earth (that whole “this world is ours” thing), but… they’re machines. Machines can't copulate. Or if they can, that belongs in a different movie.

I’m glad I saw 9 in the theater, because it was quite the visual spectacle. That alone was almost worth the price of admission (or at least it would have been if NYC theaters weren’t so damn expensive). If you don’t expect too much else from the film, though, you’ll at least get to see some great CGI, if nothing else.

Iconic Lines:

I must have mentioned at least twice that the dialog wasn’t very good, so I got nothin’.

22 Rating: 4

Particle Man

Friday, September 04, 2009

Eternal Sunshine is Real

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is one of my favorite movies, and easily belongs on the Top 10 list of movies of the decade. And it basically starts with this premise: What if we could erase painful memories?

Well, apparently science has once again caught up to filmmakers' imagination. According to this study, a team of researchers has figured out a way to erase the memories of rats. They trained the rats to associate a particular sound with an electric shock, so that eventually, whenever the rats hear the sound, they freeze. Adult rats never forget -- they always freeze. But when scientists injected a drug that's supposed to dissolve the protective sheath around the brain cells in the amygdala -- lo and behold -- the rats stopped freaking out when they heard the sound.

Now, this is being talked up as something that could become immensely helpful to those with PTSD. And I can certainly see that. But I also wonder how long it is before it goes from being PTSD specific to being prescribed to anyone who, like Joel and Clementine in Eternal Sunshine, are just sad about a lost relationship. In any case, it provokes the following questions: Should we erase memories at all? If so, what kinds? And who should be able to decide what kinds?

Anyone have any insights here?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


As soon as I read the brief plot synopsis on IMDB of Defiance, I knew it was a movie that I wanted to see. While I missed the experience of seeing it in theaters, I finally caught it one night on television. Defiance, which is based on actual events, tells the tale of the Bielski brothers (mostly the older two) who are a Jewish family living in Belarus, when the Nazis decide to roll on through and carry out the “Final Solution”. After witnessing the atrocities that are being inflicted on their neighbors, the brothers flee to the forest in an attempt to escape the same fate of their neighbors. As the Nazis carry out their plan, more and more people are jeopardized. However, after hearing about the Bielski’s that are hiding out in the forest, people begin to join them, and what started out as one family’s hiding place turns into a woodland safe-house for over 1,000 Jewish refugees, with the elder Bielski’s in the roles as caretakers.
As I was watching this movie, there was one thing that kept on bugging me; I wasn’t feeling any of the emotion that the film should be rampant with. Of course there were instances where the audience served as the witnesses to the emotion, but I never felt it. This lack of feeling really caught my attention. In a time where there was so much to be afraid of, why didn’t I feel any of it.
Although some may say I am devoid of emotion, and that is the reason for the lack of feelings, I believe that the cause of this lay in the two main characters, Tuvia (Daniel Craig) and Zus (Liev Schreiber). Both did an admirable job acting, but there seemed to be only strength in their characters, and no emotional parts. I wasn’t sure if they were stonewalling because of their roles as the leaders, or if the emotion just wasn’t there. I know it may seem weird that I am focusing so much on the emotion of this film, but when it comes to films that have the atrocities of the Holocaust as their backdrop, I have found emotion to be the main aspect of the film.
As I said there seemed to be nothing wrong with the acting, nothing was over the top, as some films that deal with this historical period tend to do, but it seemed to be compensating for the films that overwhelm their audiences with emotion by allowing the audience to feel very little. It is very hard to lose yourself in the story when you feel as though a major aspect is escaping you. I understand that some people may find this review to be bad, but I have tried to write it several times, and I keep getting lost in the lack of emotion of this film. In the end I would have to say that this film allows the audience to be outsiders that are looking in, but not participating or connecting with the characters. This aspect has made it very hard to give Defiance a rating, but I feel comfortable giving it a 7.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

My Sister's Keeper

I read the book version of My Sister’s Keeper about a year and a half ago, and found my newest Favorite Writer. I’ve since read three more novels by Jodi Picoult (pronounced pee-ko), and loved them all to varying degrees, but none so much as My Sister’s Keeper. What I loved best about that book was not that each character was a fully realized person (which was great), but that the story had a completeness to it, such that you saw the entire picture only when you had read the last page.

Anna Fitzgerald is thirteen years old, and to the surprise of her family, she is seeking medical emancipation from her parents, the reason being that she was genetically engineered before birth to be a perfect bone marrow match from her sister Kate, who has leukemia. She has undergone countless medical procedures, all without being asked, in service to her sister. The ramifications of such a decision will be unpredictable, for Anna’s family and for Anna herself.

Book-to-movie adaptations are a tried and true convention of film, but some books are just begging to have movies made out of them. My Sister’s Keeper was kinda like that. After a small battle over rights and money, we have a Hollywood version of this movie, complete with an Oscar darling playing the lead role. But don’t break out the champagne just yet. The movie is pretty good, but takes some rather alarming departures from the book.

To start with, the movie had beautiful lighting and sets, and the directing made it flow rather nicely. Props go to Nick Cassavettes for having a pretty steady hand when it came to directing. The acting, however, left a little to be desired. Nobody in it was particularly bad, but I got the sense from most of the actors that this wasn’t a movie they were very invested in. Abigail Breslin is an exception; she portrayed Anna’s combination of spunk and timidity very well, and I could tell she was putting out her best effort. Cameron Diaz was also very well-cast, and was as good as she can be (which, granted, isn’t saying much). Alec Baldwin, however, completely phoned in his role and checked out of the movie. This is a real shame, because his character (Campbell Alexander, the lawyer representing Anna) was one of my favorite parts of the book, especially his numerous “he’s a service dog” jokes. He’s not given his due screen time in the movie, and is tragically underused. Though with Baldwin’s I’ll-be-in-my-trailer attitude about this role, it’s not all that surprising that he got cast aside.

Sofia Vassilieva puts in a very rote and cliché performance as Kate, cancer girl extraordinaire. Her reactions to everything are exactly what a 15-year-old girl’s would be, but that’s a credit to both the screenwriters and Picoult. She plays them just right, but in a way that doesn’t surprise the viewer at all. Evan Ellingson is given a somewhat large part and doesn’t really know what to do with it. The only other thing I’ve seen him in was a few episodes of 24 where he played Jack Bauer’s nephew, and was pretty bad. Joan Cusack plays a judge with a daughter who passed away, which scores points for plot resonation, yet Cusack turns in a mediocre performance.


The thing that made this movie not nearly as great as it could have been was the change in ending. In the book, Kate survives because Anna dies in a car accident and posthumously donates both her kidneys, saving Kate’s life. In the movie, Kate dies in a completely ordinary manner, one you expect from the very beginning of the film, and Anna and the rest of her family move on to lead relatively normal lives. This switch in the movie transports the very meaning of the story to a totally different place than where it is in the book.

Now, given the moviemakers have the author’s approval (or the changes are thoughtful and make sense if the author is dead or otherwise unavailable), departures from original source material are acceptable. After all, Lord of the Rings strayed very far in the details from Tolkien’s original story, but by-and-large they were good and intelligent choices. So the differences from book to movie in My Sister’s Keeper don’t upset me all that much. It’s just that most of the choices the moviemakers made took away what made the story so wildly original, and thus popular. The story went from new, edgy and intriguing to kind of ordinary and unremarkable. Kate dying of cancer and Anna living a normal life afterwards are just so… well, ordinary. I have a feeling Picoult was involved in the changes that were made, though her approval is uncertain to me. Some of the changes have a novelist’s touch, but the switch to a more ordinary ending seems like a very un-Picoult move to make.

All in all, the movie wasn’t bad. I know that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement, but it was an emotionally wrenching and tear-inducing way to spend two hours, if you’re into that kind of thing. What’s great about this movie is that, if you’re a guy, you can cry at this movie and not feel like a panty-waist. It’s complicated and real enough that it feels like a tragedy that actually happened, rather than a contrived Hollywood tissue-fest.

In short, if you’re a breathing human being, you need to read this book. If there’s nothing better at the video store, you should see this movie.

Iconic lines (or exchanges):

Judge (the dog): BARK BARK BARK!!!

Judge De Salvo: Mr. Alexander, control your dog or he will be removed from the courtroom!

Campbell: Quiet, Judge!

Judge De Salvo: Excuse me?!?

Campbell: Not you, the dog.

Anna: Can I pet him?

Campbell: Judge is a service dog.

Anna: What’s he for?

Campbell: I have an iron lung. Judge keeps me away from metal detectors.

22 Rating: 8

Particle Man