A penny saved is ridiculous.

A penny saved is ridiculous.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Brief Asides #2

Welcome to the second installment of Brief Asides, the monthly column within a blog that briefly (hence the title) touches on various things that have occurred to me lately.  As I’d like to keep this whole thing to 800 words or so, let’s get started.

If the purpose of the Oscars is to draw attention to little-seen films of merit, then it is doing an excellent job.  If the purpose of the Oscars is to celebrate and acknowledge excellence among all types of films- the huge ones that fill theaters as well as smaller art-house movies- then perhaps an overhaul is needed.  I’ll probably write a little more on this topic via its own post.

Speaking of big-budget movies that fill theaters, I finally caught Pacific Rim, the 2013 movie about huge robots fighting huge monsters, on cable.  I know this won’t be a very popular opinion, but despite the artistic pedigree provided by Guillermo del Toro’s name in the screenwriting and directing credits, I didn’t think the movie was much better than Michael Bay’s Transformers movies.  But maybe the writer/director wouldn’t disagree with me, as he’s stated he just wanted to make something fun.  Anyway, it’s worth a look, even if you’re not a rabid fan of big robots and big monsters slugging it out.

Moving through A Dance With Dragons, the most recent book in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series (currently being adapted into HBO’s Game of Thrones series), I’m still enjoying the story.  However, I find myself agreeing with many of the fan reviews online that express frustration over excessive bloat in the last couple of series entries, stating that too much attention is given to too many third-tier characters and plotlines, the pace is a too stately,  and there aren’t enough big, dramatic happenings. 

To be sure, the latest book or two are still enjoyable as an immersive experience in an interesting fantasy world, but they’re not the must-read page-turners of the first three.  And I’ve been doing the novels on audio, which almost always makes a book better and more fun, because someone else is doing the work of reading it, as well as providing an entertaining acting performance.  So, while artistic freedom is still a definite ideal in the creative world, more and more I’m seeing the value of the vulgar notion of a writer having to listen to an editor telling him or her to keep things moving and to be entertaining.  The television show has certainly been on the right track, dramatizing the best aspects of Martin’s story and jettisoning the excess.

Moving right along, via my cable system’s On Demand function, I’m about halfway through ABC’s seven or eight episode “series event” Agent Carter, or more precisely, Marvel’s Agent Carter.  Set in the late 1940’s and featuring lavish sets and costumes, secret agent Peggy Carter battles international crime as part of an agency that eventually becomes the SHIELD organization of the Marvel movies. 

Story-wise, the show is only a little better than okay so far, pretty good but not spectacular, which is how I feel about Marvel’s Agents of Shield (I pretty much like the Marvel movies a lot better than the Marvel TV shows).  But unlike that other show, Marvel’s Agent Carter will wrap up its entire story at the end of its small handful of episodes, and isn’t requiring me to make a long-term commitment to its modest pleasures.  I like that.  And if the series comes back, it’ll be in the form of another small batch of episodes.  Kudos to ABC and Marvel for trying to be a little innovative in its story telling.  Not everything on network TV has to consist of hundreds of episodes spanning six or seven years.  I’m a lot more willing to watch and enjoy “pretty good” if there’s a definite end in sight, and sooner rather than later.

The second half of the current season of AMC’s The Walking Dead recently commenced, and the three episodes shown at this point have been pretty solid, though so far they’re definitely emphasizing slow-burn emotions (especially fear and despair) over big action set-pieces.  But the stories have been compelling, being mostly about the difficulty of surviving on the road without the walls and security of a home base.  Though, from the looks of things, that last plot point may soon change.  But for the better?  We’ll see.

HBO’s Last Week With John Oliver, now back for its second season, continues to be a fun way to keep up with current news and issues.  In thirty minutes you’ll be brought up to speed on all kinds of current events and you’ll laugh a lot in the process.  So, even if The Daily Show tanks or experiences a reduction in quality after John Stewart’s departure, we’ll at least still have John Oliver keeping everyone honest...  and entertained.

Well, that’s it for this month’s dose of stream of consciousness.  Regular, more thoughtfully-developed posts will now resume, until Brief Asides returns sometime in March.  Be good, and if you live in the East, stay warm!

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Pretty funny

Cute sign I spotted somewhere or other:

I need a vacation or a martini, and I'm out of vacation days.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Oscar bait

Best of luck to all of this year's Best Picture nominees as we approach the Oscar telecast this Sunday.  I already wrote a little about The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, and Boyhood in earlier posts, so here are some quick observations about the remaining Best Picture nominees:

Birdman is an intense but often fun look at the backstage madness that is undoubtedly part of every Broadway production.  It gets a little ambiguously arty at the end, but that's okay.  Great acting and bravura production values make this a must-view for movie fans.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is a quirky, fun, fable-like tale, full of whimsical characters and situations-- in other words, it's typical Wes Anderson.  If you've liked past efforts by this director, you'll enjoy this one just fine.  Like Boyhood, this one is already showing on most cable systems.

Selma tells the gripping story of the famous civil rights march engineered by Dr. Martin Luthor King.  Dr. King is portrayed here as a dedicated but flawed person- an actual imperfect human being- which actually makes him more admirable, in light of what he accomplished.

American Sniper is (here I go using those two words again) gripping and intense, and you'll be pulled into it no matter your views on Iraq or Afghanistan.  This movie is about the guys on the ground, and yes, a particular sniper in his aerie, and you'll care about all their fates.

Whiplash is a cool-ass movie about the world of music students and the importance of rising to the top.  You'll probably appreciate drumming as you never did before after seeing this terrific drama about an unforgiving teacher and the star pupil who can never satisfy him.

Myself, I don't have a particular dog in the hunt this year, and will just enjoy seeing who wins.  All of this year's Best Picture nominees are worthy films.  Enjoy the Oscars!

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Where everybody knows your name

Considering that you're reading a blog with a bar theme, this quick tip probably won't surprise you. Did you know that all 275 or so episodes of Cheers are right there on Netflix's streaming service for you to enjoy? We've been watching an episode every couple of days, and have been really enjoying the experience.

Cheers ran on NBC from 1982 to 1993, and because it still feels fresh now, it must have really felt like something new and exciting when it debuted.  I mean, for the most part, every episode takes place in a single room: a bar filled with people. The execs who considered whether or not to green light Cheers must have been terrified that the show- aside from promoting drinking- would be endlessly claustrophobic.

To be sure, things happen outside the bar, but we only learn about those things from the people inside the bar when they talk about them.  There's "plot", but again, it's imparted via the dialogue in the bar.  And they kept this going for eleven years! And it never was claustrophobic, or static, or dull.

My favorite movies, books, and TV shows always seem be dialogue-driven.  There's nothing like great lines, great banter, and even a great speech now and then.  Cheers delivered all that, and actually defined itself via those things. Anyway, it's been fun seeing the gang again every couple of days, and basking in sharp, funny, character-driven writing.

If you haven't visited Cheers lately, you might want to get reacquainted with this classic series.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Boyhood under glass

I recently saw and enjoyed Boyhood, but it was the first of this year's Best Picture-nominated films to feel a little bit like a homework assignment to me (I thought I would feel that way about Selma, but I found that film to be consistently riveting, but more on that later).

Boyhood covers 12 years in the life of Mason (and actually his mother, father, and sister, too), and the interesting thing about the movie is that the director, Richard Linklater, actually took 12 years to make the movie, so we see Mason and the other characters growing up before our eyes.  It's pretty astonishing, but the movie's strength is also its weakness: Richard Linklater is a subtle, thoughtful filmmaker, so the issues that Mason deals with over the course of his early life are the kinds of subtle, normal ones that all kids deal with as they grow up.  And subtle isn't always, well... riveting.

For example, Mason gets bounced between his divorced parents, has to deal with the idiosyncrasies of a couple of stepfathers, gets bullied, has to eventually figure out what interests him as a potential career, etc., etc.  It's all handled well, but the almost complete lack of any big drama- even broad, obvious, predictable big drama- is missed a little.  And this is especially true because the movie's running time closes in on three hours.

We actually watched Boyhood at home, as an On Demand cable rental, so we had the benefit of being able to take the occasional break to hit the bathroom or pour more wine.  But even that only somewhat distracted us from the long running time, so I have sympathy for those who saw Boyhood in a theater and maybe found it a little challenging to, well... completely enjoy.

Honestly, though, it's a very good movie, and one that's equally about the trials of being a single mom and the challenges facing 21st century families as it is about one boy's experiences growing up.  Just be prepared for a long film that provides a gentle payoff following a long accumulation of details rather than an intense (or even semi-intense) story laced with constant drama.