Thursday, September 28, 2006

Game Tycoon? Yeah, Sure, Why Not.

Today the TV and Film Guy will venture outside his comfort zone...sort of. Today I will review a computer game. Now the TV and Film Guy likes his computer games (console and arcade games too), but to this point he hasn't reviewed one, so here it is, a momentous first.

“Tycoon” games tend to amuse me. A series of challenges that go from relatively easy to impossibly difficult, a whole new world to discover and help grow, managing crises as they come up. Fun. Even when there are significant problems in the game, as there are with Game Tycoon 1.5, they tend to be fun.

The opening animation for Game Tycoon 1.5 starts off innocently enough, just a fun little peak at what’s in store for you if you play. The graphics for the animation certainly could have used a little more work, because while they’re cute they seem incredibly dated.

But, that’s just the opening, I thought, let’s not be too hasty. The first scenario available to you is a tutorial. A wise move for anyone not familiar with a specific game is always to look at that first, so I clicked on it, and that’s when the disaster began.

The tutorial has a not-so-helpful character pop-up on the lower left hand side of the screen that guides you through making and distributing your first game. A nice enough idea that is horrifically executed.

Once your character arrives at a destination, the tutor seems to deliver his speeches with a pre-determined amount of time between. Additionally, he doesn’t stop speaking once he starts on a tip. This causes some serious problems. For instance, the first task you are given is to go to the bank to get a loan, Once you enter the bank the tutor starts a whole speech. The banker also has a dialog box up as soon as you enter.

Should you decide to click on one of the interactions with the banker, he will start talking at the exact same time and volume as the tutor, making it impossible to understand either. Additionally, sometimes the advice you are given is cryptic and unintelligible. I spent 15 minutes trying to decipher where he was telling me to go next, and only was successful in determining my destination by visiting every single place available in the game until I randomly chose the correct one.

He actually also gives wrong advice, telling the player to “click three times” to bring up a certain screen when only one click is required. Not helpful.

As for the actual game play itself, it’s just as confusing. One of the first tasks in a scenario is to create an “engine” for your game to run on. This is done by clicking on a computer screen in the game and filling out various bits of information: entering a name for the engine, deciding what type of characteristics it should have (side scrolling, save features, sound), etc.

The problem is that if you enter all the information and try to create the engine you get an error message every single time stating that you need to give a name to the engine, even if you already have. Changing the name of the engine does nothing, the same error pops up again and again.

The trick to being able to save the engine is to leave the engine development phase and then go back into it. Only after that point can the engine be saved. This can’t have been what the developers intended.

It’s something of a serious bug, one that completely halts game play and is hugely frustrating. It’s actually far worse than one of the other bugs, which has a crucial dialog box pop up in German, not English. There at least you can guess an answer and continue playing.

All of these bugs actually turns out to be moderately amusing as one of the parts of developing games within Game Tycoon 1.5 is choosing the length of the testing phase, so that bugs can be eliminated from your own creations.

That being said, and despite the fact that I rarely don’t have a company go belly-up every single time I play, there’s still something addictive about the game. There are tons of different choices and paths to follow. There are different ways to create the games, to produce them, to market them, and on, and on.

The graphics and sound are not noteworthy in any respect, they seem as though a minimal amount of effort went into creating them (or a maximal amount of effort over a decade ago).

But with enough pieces of actual game play present that require time and effort, and energy, to puzzle through, it makes very little difference.

If you’re up for a challenge, both in game play and decoding how the game is played, give Game Tycoon 1.5 a shot. It’s not a spiffy as a Rollercoaster Tycoon or some of the other entries into the genre, but it’s not wholly without merit.

Two stars on a five star scale.

The ESRB Rating is E10+ for Suggestive Themes

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Dear The Class, I Hereby Expunge You From my TiVo FOREVER

As a wise man once said: That’s all I can stands, I can’t stands no more. The Class is officially off my watch list, and I’m not happy about it. Still though, I don’t have a choice anymore, it’s gone. It’s been taken off the “Season Pass” list on my TiVo, I’ve removed all entries of it from the “To Do” list, and I’m even contemplating going into my “Recently Deleted” folder to permanently expunge any of the bad memories associated with it.

Call me foolish, but I believe a required part of being a comedy is being funny. The Class intimates that I’m wrong about this however. Here’s a comedy with nothing funny about it. Let’s see: suicide – not funny, running people over – not funny, incredibly one-note stereotypical characters across the board – not funny.

Let’s look at a quick example of not funny: Sam Harris’s character, Perry. And, sadly for Sam, it’s not his fault. Over the course of two episodes he’s been given one joke and forced to tell it over and over and over again. The problem is that the audience got the joke with his first words, we know that Perry has all the affectations commonly associated with gay men. This is supposed to be funny because his wife, Holly (Lucy Punch) had a crush on one of her classmates that turned out to be gay. See, that’s funny, she married a seemingly gay man after having a crush on one. It might have worked as a joke the first time out, but by the end of the second episode it is incredibly grating. Will & Grace’s Jack just went off the airwaves at the end of last season, did the producers of this show not get to see any of the 8 seasons worth of episodes of Will & Grace in order to see how the character could be written? There were times when Jack got old, but Perry is less than a shadow of Jack’s character.

I said this one before, but I’ll say it again: repeated jokes about someone trying to kill themselves is not funny. Yet, the second episode of The Class ends with the another joke about Richie (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) getting interrupted in the middle of a suicide attempt. Yeah, that’s funny, this man is unable to kill himself because the phone rings, and then, he might have succeeded in taking enough pills only to decide he may not want to die because the phone rings again. Not funny. Sure, we all learned over 35 years ago that Suicide is Painless, but that’s not the same as an attempt being funny. We as a nation sign petitions willy-nilly all the time and protest at the top of our lungs the smallest of issues. Are we really okay with this portrayal of attempted suicide as being funny? Where are all the activists to jump up and down and scream bloody murder?

And I’ll tell you what upsets me even more about the whole thing: The Class is hurting the ratings of one of the best shows on television – How I Met Your Mother. Have you met Ted? No? You need to. This is a truly hysterical show that is far more capable of anchoring the 8pm hour than The Class ever could be. Neil Patrick Harris is pitch-perfect as Barney. He was actually cheated not only out of an Emmy Nomination for the role, but the actual award itself too.

Looking at last night’s fast affiliate ratings, How I Met Your Mother improved over The Class by 25% in the demo (Adults 18-49) and did better in both households and total viewers as well (ratings taken from Mediaweek’s Programming Insider). One of these shows could be a lead-in, and one probably shouldn’t even get to be a lead-out.

The biggest problem of all though is that I didn’t want to take this show off my “To Do” list. It’s on Mondays at 8pm. That’s the start of a week of primetime, and I can’t fathom not having a show to watch at that time, much less a good show to kick the whole week off with. And, I’m certainly not going to flip networks in order to catch the beginning of something else only to flip back in order to see How I Met Your Mother. It’s just depressing. Not depressing enough that I might try to kill myself with a bad laugh track running over it, but depressing nonetheless.

Nova scienceNow: Science Now, Science Later, Science All The Time Really

Last year PBS launched a brand-new spin on its classic show, Nova, entitled Nova scienceNow.  The show will debut its second season during the first week in October.  New this season is astrophysicist Neil Tyson as the host for the series. Tyson makes for a wonderful addition to the series and gets the ball rolling almost immediately.

He starts off the show with a fascinating, and terrifying, account of the possibility of another asteroid collision with earth. Numerous asteroids have hit earth in the past, and Tyson promises us that another one will occur in the future. Besides discussing one specific asteroid that might hit us, Apophis, Tyler describes previous asteroid impacts and what a future one could do if it hit us. The undeniable reality of an asteroid striking the earth is horrifying, but Nova scienceNow provides several different experts to take us through ways to potentially stop the inevitable. 

From the problems of the universe on a macro scale, the show takes us to the mysteries of the universe on a micro one. The next story deals with nuclear chemists searching for new elements.  It goes through, on a level that everyone can understand, what an element is, and how these nuclear chemists are trying to create new ones, and additionally describes for the viewer the history of the chemists themselves and how they entered into this field.

The third of four stories Nova scienceNow delivers in the premiere episode is about weight. Scientists have discovered a gene which, when lacking in mice, causes obsessive eating and weight gain. It is believed that the absence of a specific protein in humans affects them in a similar way. The theory is that this protein allows the body to know that it is full, thereby signalling the cessation of eating. Thus people without the protein don’t realize that they are full and eat more than they should.  Research into the field is continuing, with the hope of making people in the world more healthy.

The final story in the first episode this season is about Karl Iagnemma, a scientist and fiction writer. It goes into depth on his growing up, how he came to both a top engineer and respected author, and why the vast majority of people have difficulty managing these disparate activities. 

Nova scienceNow has the wonderful ability to take stories that could rapidly devolve into hyper-specific scientific techniques and pursuits and explain them to the average viewer. This episode uses a lot of computer graphics to animate asteroids, space shuttles, and the insides of elements.  In virtually every case the graphics are not what someone accustomed to multimillion dollar Hollywood films is accustomed to.  But when used correctly (as with the example of the inside of elements) it makes no difference -- they are clear and perfectly illustrate the show’s points.  However, there are moments during the asteroid piece with Neil Tyson standing in front of a green screen where the effects do look cheesy and don’t add to the story or episode. 

I found three of the four stories told in the premiere to be completely riveting.  The one that I personally could have done without was the final one, on Karl Iagnemma.  It’s not that Karl’s story is run-of-the-mill in any way, but I didn’t believe it to work in with what the rest of the episode was about.  Karl’s story’s main focus is on him, whereas the other stories, while they do focus on specific people, use the people to illustrate the larger story, as with the overweight families that were discussed in the piece on the “fat gene.” 

Even so, Nova scienceNow is a wonderful example of how to tell important scientific stories to mainstream America without dumbing them down and without talking over people’s heads. 

Nova scienceNow will premiere Tuesday October 3 at 8 pm on PBS.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Loverboy: Bacon Expanding That Whole Six Degrees Thing

Loverboy, Kevin Bacon’s feature film directorial debut, is the moderately disturbing tale of a woman who wanted to provide her child the love she never felt from her parents.  It stars Kyra Sedgwick as Emily, a woman with such a deep need to love and be loved that she cannot determine right from wrong, appropriate from inappropriate. 

When she was young, Emily’s parents loved each other to such a great extent that they found very little time for her.  Emily therefore goes far overboard in the other direction.  She is completely obsessed with her son, Paul, and wants him to have no other friends but her.

Though there are flashbacks to Emily’s childhood, and early on in the film we get to see how Paul was conceived, the vast majority of the action takes place when Paul is six.  Emily insists on home schooling her son, whom she refers to as “Loverboy,” and wishes him to have no friends, and very few acquaintances, besides herself.  Emily is unable to accept Paul’s growing up and his desire for socialization. 

Taken as a whole, the film makes one uneasy.  Emily’s obsession with her son at times appears to border on being sexual.  Her need to spend every waking second with him, and him alone, is disturbing and makes the viewer incredibly uncomfortable. 

The film has numerous flashbacks to Emily’s youth, many of which are far too cryptic.  Very little happens in these snippets of young Emily’s life, and the viewer is often left wondering what they are supposed to take away from them.  Too often, the answer is nothing more than her parents didn’t love her as much as they might have.  

The fact that the movie is quite so disturbing and upsetting is a testament to the wonderful portrayal given by Kyra Sedgwick.  She manages her role as mother/child/and would-be lover with wonderful ability. It is assuredly not an easy part, but she carries it off exceedingly well.  In other hands the character of Emily may have come off as entirely unsympathetic, which would have made the film impossible to watch.  It’s a fine line between feeling upset for Emily to simply feeling disgusted at Emily and Sedgwick manages the job well.

One of the perks of being a great actor turning to direction must  be the ability to get top talent to appear in bit parts in your films.  This happens here with performances by Sandra Bullock, Oliver Platt, Matt Dillon, and Marisa Tomei.  While individually all these performances are good, at some point it becomes difficult to pay attention to the movie as one is busy looking for the next cameo. 

The DVD release of the film comes with virtually no extra features to speak of, save a director’s commentary track that may have been better left off the release.  Kevin Bacon does provide some interesting insights to his methods and methodology, but it is interspersed with so many false starts, uhhhhs, and ummmms, that it is hard to listen to the track in its entirety. 

In the end, the movie is interesting, fun, upsetting, disturbing, and a solid debut for Bacon.  I look forward to seeing more projects with him at the helm.

Friday, September 22, 2006

A Lament for er

Dear Producers of the once great er,
I must tell you that you’ve simply strayed too far.
For years you’ve recycled more than one old plot
Surely others have told you this, have they not?

Last night you started to take from other shows,
Why you went to Prison Break heaven only knows.
The plot certainly did steal from one with er roots,
Yet with Sobricki it was a stabbing, not a gun that shoots.

And, this is much to my great dismay,
In the premiere not once did your theme song play.
And what of your once great credit roll,
Where, oh where, was that mighty scroll?

For at least three years you’ve used lighting to set the mood
Is this because your writing is simply all too crude?
You honestly believe that Stamos will save your arse?
Your show is no longer more than a sad old farce.

Where are the likes Carter, and Benton, and Greene?
The characters you have today are rather lean.
And don’t get me started on what Sam just did.
I don’t buy it, not even for the safety of her kid.

Have you completely lost your mind?
I know my words are quite unkind.
But I was always your biggest fan
And now your show is in the shit-can.

You’ve totally lost the ability to reason.
I pray to God that this will be your last season.
A “medical drama” you no longer are
Who would’ve guessed you’d strayed so far.

This whole piece breaks my heart.
I loved you from the very start.
I’ve done this whole piece in rhyme.
To help you get back your sense of time.

I beg of you to go out this year on a high-note.
Or you’ll just make me want to slit my throat.
I’ve stuck with you for so very long
Don’t make me think I’ve been horribly wrong.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Smith: No Face, No Name, No Heart, No Soul

Sometimes it’s incredibly difficult to review a new television show. Watching Smith is one of those times. Here’s a show with a good cast: Ray Liotta, Virginia Madsen and Simon Baker among others. The story is the exact sort of thing I tend to like, and the majority of the acting is solid. That being said, for some reason, I was completely uninterested in it. So, what went wrong? I’ll try and figure it out…

The title for the show, Smith, comes from the term police officers give to unidentified criminals. Thus this show actually centers around a group of “Smiths” with Ray Liotta as the main character. Liotta plays Bobby Stevens, a thief that tries to balance his home life, his fake day job, and his heists. Maybe part of the problem is that Ray Liotta is completely unbelievable as a non-bad guy. Thus the home life and day job bit simply don’t ring true. When I look at Ray Liotta I see unrepentant evil, not James Bond super-villain evil, just regular old bad guy evil, but it’s undeniably there. So I cannot imagine how anyone looking at Bobby Stevens in the show doesn’t know within five minutes of meeting him that he’s doing something horribly shady under the table.

Shohreh Aghdashloo makes a brief appearance in the episode as Charlie, Bobby Stevens's boss/runner. She is absolutely convincing and great to watch. She is able to pull off the evil but pretending to be good in a way that I just don’t feel like Liotta can. While Virginia Madsen’s character (she plays Bobby's wife) seems vaguely interesting and something of an enigma here in the pilot, that may just be because she isn’t terribly fleshed-out and that once she is any curiosity I have about her will disappear.

Maybe the reason it just doesn’t feel astounding and wonderful is that it comes on the heels of both Heist & Thief, two other shows that centered around the criminals, not the cops, both of which failed to generate much audience interest. Andre Braugher did manage to garner an award for his work in Thief at this past Emmy Awards, but critical accolades do not a successful show make.

So, Smith definitely does have the feeling of something that’s been done before. But that really isn’t enough for me to dislike it, after all, how many police or medical procedurals are on the air? The topic may not be 100% fresh, but it certainly has some life left in it.

Executive produced by John Wells and Christopher Chulack, the shows settings certainly have a real feel to them, the heist itself was well presented and interesting, and as a whole the show certainly makes stabs at substance. It doesn’t really get there, but it makes a stab and certainly may be going somewhere. However, airing head-to-head-to-head with Law & Order: SVU on NBC and Boston Legal on ABC may mean that Smith gets arrested before ever truly generating any momentum.

Like crime dramas? Like Ray Liotta? Like Virginia Madsen? Like seeing things from the criminal’s point of view? This show may be right up your alley. Then again, maybe it won’t be: I like all these things and it’s not up mine.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

MI-5 is Back: Tom's Not, But That's Okay

Friday night A & E network premiered the latest season of MI-5, known in England, where the show originates, as Spooks.

The show focuses on, as the American titles states, MI-5, the England’s domestic intelligence service (the equivalent of the U.S.’s CIA), or more rightly, single team at Five. Think 24 without the superhero character Jack Bauer has become since that show’s inception. Additionally, MI-5 tends to have more reality-based plots than 24’s outlandish world destruction ones. As such, MI-5 has a far more gritty, far more realistic sensibility to it. The characters here are far more fallible.

Over the course of its existence the cast of MI-5 has changed significantly, with the main three characters dropping out and being replaced by new individuals (as well as other additions and subtractions to the supporting cast along the way). The episode this Friday actually begins at the funeral of one of the original characters, Danny Hunter (played by David Oyelowo, though he doesn’t appear in the episode, only a picture of him does). The mourning is quickly interrupted however when a bomb explodes in London killing over 30 people. Danny’s colleagues file out of the church and the new season begins in earnest.

In true MI-5 fashion, not only do they spend a lot of time in front of the computer trying to sort out video and other hints as to the goings on, they take shots at the “special relationship” England has with the United States, and find themselves in grave personal danger when in the field. It all works extremely well.

Save maybe this last point. The new characters in the show have not yet been as completely fleshed-out as the old ones. Not only do we know far less about them, but I personally am far less disposed to develop the same affinity for them as I did with the first cast.

When the first group of characters started to leave the show I was hugely disappointed to see them go, particularly Tom (played by the absolutely brilliant Matthew MacFadyen). If the cast is completely disposable it is far more difficult to convince the audience to truly get involved in their lives, and consequently the viewer is not as invested in the character’s surviving through the episode (after all, the producers will simply right in a new one next week). This is felt even more so for a show coming across the ocean from England, where viewers will only be treated to at most a dozen episodes before it disappears for at least a year and often longer than that (cable networks in this country also tend to produce shows in this manner). This difficulty is far more simple to overcome in a comedy, such as Coupling, where Jeff Murdock (Richard Coyle) left after the third season to be replaced by Oliver Morris (Richard Mylan) in the fourth. As Coupling is far more light-hearted, the viewer (at least this one) needs to invest less emotionally in order to be satisfied.

Even so, Adam Carter (Rupert Penry-Jones) is a worthy successor to Tom and after only one episode the new season seems to firing on all cylinders: there is a mole in the service (something of an old storyline for a show like this one), there is an operative being held at gun point, Harry Pearce (head of the department) has a secret, and the episode will be continued next week.

Despite any weakness in developing the newer cast members, MI-5 is well worth checking out for any fan of the genre.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The Greatest Game? Maybe. The Greatest Movie? Not so much.

The Greatest Game Ever Played? Maybe, but certainly not the greatest movie ever made.

It’s perfectly fun (if you like golf), and moments of it are touching, but the plot plays out without anything remotely surprising occurring. From the main character, Francis Ouimet, losing in his first qualifying attempt to his father coming around at the end of the movie and supporting his son’s decision to play golf and being there to bask in his victory, there is not one moment in the entire film that the average filmgoer could not have scripted themselves.

The movie is based on a true story, but as we all know “based on” can mean anything from “the names of the characters are the same as real people” to “this is, line for line, word for word, beat for beat, what happened.” So, if this is in fact precisely what happened it ought to either be altered somewhat to make it more dramatic (and therefore simply “based on”) or rather than being sold as “based on a true story” it should have been sold as “this is the true story, seriously, this is exactly what happened.”

Bill Paxton does a capable job of directing the story he has, but there simply is not enough meat on the bones here. David and Goliath sports movies are a dime a dozen, it takes more than just a standard story for one of these films to set themselves apart and The Greatest Game Ever Played does not have much going for it in that department. It is definitely interesting to see how both Francis Ouimet & Harry Vardon try and silence the crowd around them and prepare for their shots, but the special effects, while interesting, does not make up for the lack of a more dramatic story. Additionally, the effects are clearly computer generated, which is at odds with the early 20th century trappings of the film.

Another main problem, Harry Vardon, the Goliath character here, is a good guy instead of a bad one. He is battling his own demons and sees a lot of himself in Ouimet. While that’s an interesting concept, it may also be why the movie doesn’t work dramatically: when the tension is supposed to be at its peak, the movie is about one good guy duking it out with another. There is absolutely a character with which the audience is supposed to identify more, but without someone to root against at that moment the emotional touchstone for the audience is simply not big or strong enough.

Though I am a fan of golf, this movie seems to simply reinforce the arguments against golf being a televised exhibition instead of refuting them. The entire film works at an extremely lackadaisical pace and contains no sense of urgency whatsoever. It’s beautifully shot and looks great, like many a golf course. It’s filled with solid performances by actors that truly seem to be in the moment but fail to create an emotional connection with the viewer, another argument against many a golfer.

Despite it’s best attempts at arguing that golf is for the masses (a theme within the film), this movie is made strictly for the golf fan and history buff. As such it’s perfectly interesting and makes for a fine way to spend a Sunday afternoon during the rain delay of a final round.

Monday, September 11, 2006

The Genius of Homer

18 years.

Amazingly, it’s been 18 years. Or, more correctly, 18 seasons as its own entity, and before that a part of The Tracey Ullman Show. And it’s still going strong. The center of the show seems to have changed over the years from the boy to the man (I use that term solely to denote age, not mentality), but it continues apace.

From it’s greatest hits like “The Bartman” and the famed, much ballyhooed, tomacco episode, The Simpsons has done just about everything at least once, and sometimes two or more times. Heck, the even have a movie coming out next summer. And, last night they premiered the first episode from their 18th season. Homer is just as dumb now (some say dumber) as he was at the beginning, Bart is still a little hellion, Lisa a smart-alec, Marge a long-suffering housewife, and Maggie still doesn’t speak (except for that one episode).

But, it doesn’t seem to matter. They’re just as funny now as they were then. There have been a number of different showrunners over the years and consequently the show has changed somewhat, but they still find new things to lampoon, or new ways to lampoon old things. Sometimes the episodes are topical (but even those don’t seem to get stale years later) and sometimes they are less so, but they are always funny and often smart.

Last night’s premiere was no exception. Last night’s pop culture lampooning was of The Sopranos and more than one of The Godfather movies. There is a certain illogic to the episode, and the series, that works wonderfully. Last night is, by no means, the first time that Fat Tony and Homer have crossed paths, but for both it is like the first time. As a short aside, for years every single time Mr. Burns met Homer he had no idea who he was and the plot was acted out as though the too had never really met. It actually happened so much that at one point that the producers made an episode in which Homer was infuriated that despite all the time they’ve spent together Burns still couldn’t remember Homer. Besides that piece of illogic, one would have thought that if Fat Tony had a kid in Bart & Lisa’s school everyone would have known it before last night. There are numerous other moments of illogical lunacy, but those two will suffice to highlight my point.

The true genius of the show exhibits itself in the fact that the producers are blissfully aware of these inconsistencies and plow ahead anyway as though they made no difference. And, for whatever reason, they make no difference. Whether the inconsistency is noted by the producers or not (they often are), they are quickly overlooked by everyone involved, including the audience.

The premiere episode of season 18 may not have been the funniest episode ever, and despite its rehashing of plots it was funny, it was irreverent, and it certainly looks as though the family could go on for another 18 seasons.

I for one hope they will.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Changing a Classic Movie: Sensational or Senile?

At what point is a movie no longer owned by the filmmaker and instead owned by society? Does that transition ever occur?

In recent years, with the advent of DVDs and new digital technologies, filmmakers have found it to be their right to go back and alter movies, movies that have been a part of our popular culture for twenty years or more.

This all comes to mind because this Tuesday George Lucas is re-releasing the original Star Wars Trilogy to DVD. This time around however, if one buys the original film, Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, they will receive not just the 2004 updated version but the original 1977 version as well (The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi will also be released as both the original theatrical version and the updated 2004 editions). Sort of. At least one exceedingly minor content change from the original theatrical release will occur: When the prologue scrolls at the top of the movie, it will say “Episode IV” and underneath that “A New Hope.” The original theatrical release of this film lacked the “Episode IV” title.

This is a very minor change, and one that very few, if any, people will actually complain about. It probably doesn’t really change anything, maybe the way society see the film, but we’ve been taught to see it as Episode IV anyway by now. So Lucas going back and editing that part is acceptable except to an exceedingly small portion of the population.

At what point is it not acceptable though? In the special editions of the movie Lucas certainly improved the sound quality. Is that okay? He also improved the special effects and added more digital creatures. How about that, is that something we can approve of? Some people at this point would still say that it’s all well and good, even a good percentage of Star Wars fans.

The vast majority of fans however balk at the notion that Han Solo didn’t shoot Greedo first in the Mos Eisley Cantina. Han certainly shot first in the 1977 release. In the Special Edition release he didn’t, Greedo fired the first shot. Is that a minor change? Is that a major change? Many would argue that this moment actually changes who Han Solo is at the start of the trilogy. If Greedo shoots first and Han is protecting himself is Han’s emotional change and story arc smaller over the course of the trilogy? If Han shoots first he starts out closer to being evil, or if not evil certainly more on the outskirts of acceptability. By having Greedo shoot first and Han fire only after being attacked he may have a shorter way to travel to being the hero of the Rebellion that he becomes by the end of Return of the Jedi.

Is that too far? Is it always George Lucas’s movie and does he therefore have the right to continually edit and re-edit it? And what about Harrison Ford who played this iconic character, should he get any so whatsoever in this?

George Lucas isn’t the only person to do this in recent memory. Steven Spielberg, for the 20th Anniversary of E.T. The Extra Terrestrial made several changes to his movie. He changed all the guns police officers were holding in one scene to walkie-talkies, changed a line about a Halloween costume from “terrorist” to “hippie,” as well as digitally enhancing many of E.T.’s facial expressions during the movie.

This re-imagining of movies has occurred before of course, many movies have been released as “director’s editions” that continue more footage, or a slightly altered story (the elimination of the voice over in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner for example). But the digital technology seems to allow for more of this to occur. An inordinately high percentage of films released to DVD have scenes on the disc that did not occur in the theatrical release. Sometimes these scenes are part of the film itself, and sometimes they are only available through submenus.

As our society changes and technology changes, filmmaking necessarily changes as well. But does that give the filmmaker the right to change previously released titles. What if Michael Curtiz decided in the late 1950s that he wanted to colorize or change the ending to Casablanca, should he have been allowed to do it?

I think that most people would agree that some changes are acceptable, the addition of the subtitle “Episode IV” to the first Star Wars movie for instance. Most would agree that some changes go too far, had Curtiz decided to change the ending to Casablanca for example. It’s the middle ground where things get iffy. Is there a clear line that can’t be crossed? Is it a case-by-case basis? And, if so, who should institute these rules and how? The idea of creating a new regulatory agency seems outlandish and wrong, and the idea of filmmakers self-policing seems unlikely. After all, it is their creation.

But, then again, if a film is part of the public consciousness doesn’t it belong to all of us?

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Nip/Tuck Looks Great For Now

Last night the FX original series Nip/Tuck premiered its fourth season. Much like individuals after they have plastic surgery performed by Drs. McNamara & Troy, everything was tight, high gloss, and looked great. Of course, like the vast majority of those individuals as well, a beautiful surface sometimes is no more than that; there isn’t always anything of substance underneath.

In Nip/Tuck’s case however, I just don’t know that it makes any difference at this point. The show is fun, moderately witty, and completely engaging. You are compelled to watch just to see what will happen next. And, I mean just that, just because you know what will happen (and you often do) you want to actually see it happen (and you often do). In this premiere for example, it was clear that at some point Christian Troy (played perfectly by Julian McMahon) was going to bed his psychiatrist (played by Brooke Shields). Somehow the shows producers still make it great, disgusting, and absolutely compelling when it does happen. Christian has a sickness, that much is clear, you unquestionably feel bad for him, but you still like to see him slip further into the muck. Not because you don’t like him, just because it’s incredible to watch.

The show is a guilty pleasure, and certainly meant as such. It satisfies a base desire to watch the beautiful and rich get, for lack of a better word, screwed, literally, psychologically, and metaphorically.

It is unquestionably an adult oriented show, and not one that could be easily transported to a broadcast network. Virtually all the topics tackled on the show are of an adult nature, from Christian’s sexual exploits to the emotional turmoil between Sean McNamara (the reliable Dylan Walsh) and his wife, Julia (ably played by Joely Richardson) to the exact changes the doctors’ clients want and why.

The biggest problem with last night is that in comparison to what is going on in Christian’s life, Sean’s seems positively dull. There are dramatic elements to it and what could make for a very interesting storyline (the impending birth of Sean & Julia’s son, whom he just learned will have a physical handicap), but seeing it juxtaposed with Christian’s life leaves it wanting. It’s a far more dark, far more serious storyline than Christian’s, and as such it almost feels like the two belong to different shows.

One major concern for the future of the show is that while the creators have new specific plots for Christian and Sean from the first episode to now, the macro pieces have not changed. Christian is still having problems having a serious adult relationship and is using sex to keep himself from having to and Sean is still not seeing eye-to-eye with his wife. There has been very little development in the characters. It’s still fun, and it’s still interesting, but I question for how much longer it will be before people just get tired of it.

It is definitely a beautiful surface, hopefully one day it’ll be more than just skin deep.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Spielberg's Last Great Film

Steven Spielberg has had an amazing career as a director, he has made a string of hit movies and has unquestionably changed filmmaking (for better or for worse, I won’t argue which). But, do you realize that his last truly great movie was put out over 13 years ago?

I kid you not, for the last 13 years while he has put out good movies, and many movies that will go down as being “classics” his last truly great movie, Jurassic Park, came out 13 years ago. From that time to this Spielberg has directed ten movies, most are very good and some are just fine, but not one of them is truly great. They are, in chronological order: Schindler’s List, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Amistad, Saving Private Ryan, Artificial Intelligence: A.I., Minority Report, Catch Me if You Can, The Terminal, War of the Worlds, and Munich.

Okay, so what makes a movie great? After viewing it you need to ask yourself a series of questions. Did it take you somewhere you hadn’t been before, show you something you hadn’t seen? Did it leave you with a sense of wonder and awe? Did it make you think? Was it good, was it fun, did it show you the world in a whole new light? What about the characters, and plot and storytelling? Were you intrigued and enthralled, engrossed and enraptured?

A group of Spielberg’s films from Jurassic Park to now are what I will refer to as the historical epics (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, and Munich, and to a lesser extent but it still fits the category Amistad) are all good movies, but none actually approaches greatness. Every time Spielberg makes one of these epics there is a certain tangible feel to them, they all feel a little desperate. Spielberg may be the greatest popcorn filmmaker ever, but his attempts at more serious, dramatic fare are lacking. Each time he goes and makes one of these historical epics one cannot help but watch and feel as though Spielberg is desperately trying to earn a place as a serious filmmaker, a filmmaker that has changed not just the way movies are made but the way people see the world.

Schindler’s List is certainly the strongest of these historical epics, the one with the most gravitas, and yet even Schindler’s List is discussed in critical circles about its representation of the Holocaust and whether or not the depiction is well constructed. One of the arguments against this film is that to tell the story of what happened to six million Jewish people Spielberg chose to deify a Nazi; it is less the story of what happened to the Jewish people and what they did to save themselves and each other than it is how a Nazi came to their aid. Granted, Spielberg depicted atrocities with a brutal honesty and unflinching eye, but these horrifying depictions do not make for a great movie.

Saving Private Ryan, suffers from this problem as well. Spielberg was able to recreate D-Day and some of the horrors of war with an unflinching brutality and a realism not heretofore put on screen, but that does not make for a great movie. There is, as with Schindler’s List, an undeniable import attached to the film, and it is a good movie, but outside of the war scenes, the movie did not fire on all cylinders. The plot was certainly lacking, and almost seemed as though it were completely an excuse to make the movie so that he could accomplish is true goal of creating the battle footage.

As for the two other historical epics, while they are both good and both worth watching and will both teach you a little about American history (not every detail is correct), neither is arguably great. That just leaves us with: The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Minority Report, Catch Me if You Can, The Terminal, and War of the Worlds.

Two of these is easily dismissed. The Lost World is but a hollow sequel, a mere shadow of the original film. From the thinnest of thin excuses that get Ian Malcolm to go back to the island on to the unleashing of a dinosaur in San Diego, this cannot be classified as a “great” movie. As for Minority Report, it, like The Lost World, is full of enough plot holes that while it is perfectly enjoyable, and who doesn’t like a good mystery, it’s just not great.

The Terminal is a perfectly fun film, it’s light, it’s airy, it’s so transparent and flimsy that it’s practically not there. Tom Hanks doing Andy Kaufman’s “Foreign Man” for 2 hours and Stanley Tucci hating him for no particular reason. It’s a moderately amusing series of vignettes that just don’t hold together well enough or long enough or cause the audience to care enough to make this a great movie.

Artificial Intelligence: A.I., while it has other flaws, is dismissed from the list of great movies due to what has become a common Spielberg problem: his inability to end his movies. If he had shortened the movie by 15 minutes, cutting out the final footnote and postscript he may have had a winner. The story is intriguing, the characters well drawn, and it has a great look and feel. But, by the time the credits finally roll he’s lost too much of the audience, he’s let himself get too carried away and loses the heart of the picture.

War of the Worlds, you say? Just not possible. No way. The (and this is a SPOILER, don’t read this if you don’t want to know the ending) son can’t be alive at the end of the movie. We actually get to see him go over the hill, everything explodes on the other side of the hill. The son is dead. A dead person doesn’t magically turn around and get to live again in order to make a happy ending. And, speaking of the ending, the machines dying off at the end felt false. It wasn’t properly built into the movie earlier, it just made it seem as though Spielberg decided that now that Tom Cruise has made it to Boston the movie should end and since the movie should end the machines must die. That does not make a movie great.

That leaves just Catch Me if You Can. Probably Spielberg’s best work (not including the historical epics) since Jurassic Park. It’s fun and light, without being as flimsy as The Terminal. It has some substance to it without being as heavy-handed as Saving Private Ryan. Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio are hugely bright spots in the picture. Ask some of the questions required for greationess: did it take you somewhere you hadn’t been before, show you something you hadn’t seen? Or was your thought walking out only “wow, I can’t believe that guy got away with so much?” Another one of the things that stops the movie from being great is Spielberg himself. Unfortunately for Mr. Spielberg he has set the bar so high that many of his films simply don’t meet it. Would you honestly include this movie in with E.T. or Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark or Jaws? Is it that much fun?

Jurassic Park accomplishes each and every one of the criteria for a great movie. It’s scope his far greater than Catch Me if You Can, and when the lights come up after it you’re simply awestruck. The man made dinosaurs come to life. And, while he was doing that he also told an incredible story and managed to paint vivid characters as well. It is the work of a master director at the top of his game. There are huge questions asked in it about science and technology and where the world will take us, and where we can take the world. There are questions asked about what makes a person good, what is right and what is wrong and what makes a family. Big and small, grandiose and humble, Jurassic Park takes a look at everything and does it in purely mesmerizing style.

Spielberg’s name most certainly appears in the pantheon of great directors, and not terribly far from the top of the list. His recent films, while good, don’t have the same kind of pizzazz that he was once able to put forth. I don’t believe it’s a question of him forever having lost what it was that made him great, it’s still there, and I’m sure he can (and one day will) find it. Now that is a day that I will be thankful to be in the theater.

And I truly believe life will find a way.