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I tell those cocksuckers about Deadwood's first season

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Deadwood starts out really slow.  Slow enough that I wasn't sure I wanted to watch it after the first two episodes, which were halting, jerky, and full of black-vs-white morality that I was very suspicious about.  Okay, I GET it.  Swearingen is evil.  Bulluck and his Viennese sidekick are good.  Deadwood's a rough place.  To make matters worse, the only significant female in the series is the so-badly-acted-its-funny Calamity Jane.  I was going to give the one more episode to shape up its act, then it was going to be forever consigned to the mental pile of overrated TV shows.

I'm glad I gave it a chance.  After a really stupid hiccup that had Tara and I watching the third episode of the second season by mistake (Hint to DVD producers: please put the season on the DVD as well as the disc number and episode numbers), we watched the third episode.  Tara wasn't sold at that point, but I felt that the series was reaching a turning point.  I don't want to spoil anything for anybody, so you'll have to go past the break if you want to read why it improved.

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Beavis and Butthead: The Mike Judge Collection Vol. 2 - The definition of middling.

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I previously reviewed Vol. 3 of this, which I had thought was Vol. 2, but my inability to read what was right in front of my face instead resulted in me looking very stupid.  I don't have a whole lot more to say about this second iteration of the franchise, except that it's very 2ish.  It's not as weak as volume 3, but it's also not full of the best stuff, like volume 1.

There are highlights, particularly the Halloween episode with Beavis and Butthead's last-minute costumes and the winkingly self-referential "Animation sucks" short.  But for the most part, this is disposable culture, and it's just simply not the best.  This is sort of like a b-sides compilation in music.  If you're a fan, you'll like it, but the majority is stuff that's not quite there, not quite the best, and not quite polished enough.  If you're looking for your B&B fix, stick with Volume 1.

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Mitch Hedberg: Mitch All Together

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I am not really one for stand-up comedy on TV.  I find it funny when I see it, but I prefer my visual comedy to have several people interacting with each other, either in sketch- or film-format.  In the wake of his death, Mitch Hedberg eventually got recommended enough to me that it penetrated even my anti-stand-up comic defenses.  I checked him out on YouTube, and this guy is funny.  I quickly plumbed everything that YouTube had easily accessible, and wanted to see more.  I decided to check out this Comedy Central compilation, called Mitch All Together, as it was the only DVD I could track down on Netflix.  It sounds like, according to Wikipedia, that this was originally some kind of a package deal with a CD.  Unbeknownst to me, most of this stuff was the exact stuff I already watched on Youtube.  To make it worse, the DVD is really short, only about an hour in total.  The format and the experience was rather subpar, although I suspect that somebody new to this material wouldn't have the same reaction.

If this material is new to you, it's worth seeing.  I'm not guaranteeing that his off-the-wall humor will make you laugh, or even that you won't hate it.  But I bet you'll find it fascinating.  Hedberg is not the classic stand-up in the vein of Richard Pryor or Robin Williams.  Hedberg is deeply insecure, and hides beyond his long hair barely looking at the audience.  It's not hyperbole when I say that he spends more time looking at his drink than at the audience.  He spends much of his Comedy Central special talking about how badly he's doing, and how unfunny the audience is finding him.  He settles on calling it "The Mitch Hedberg Not-so-special."  When he finally does get some laughs, he derides it by saying that his old stuff still gets a laugh, but his new stuff is falling flat, so he must be washed up.  It sounds like a schtick when I write about it here, but it's genuine.  This is a guy who struggled with drugs and alcoholism most (all?) of his career, and finally succumbed to a drug overdose.  The cracks are there for you to see on stage, and it has a compelling tragedy about the whole thing.

As for Hedberg's actual comedy, it's very funny.  The bizarre thing is that he specializes in one-liners.  In other words, these are things that you can tell your friends as actual jokes.  Most stand-up comedians will find a theme, and riff on it for awhile, getting laughs through outlandish physical humor and exaggerated build up.  Mitch Hedberg, from silence, says things like "I used to do drugs. I still do, but I used to, too" or "This shirt is 'dry-clean only'...which means it's dirty."  Then, no transition, directly onto the next joke.  His humor is the type where you don't laugh immediately.  Instead, you blink, then guffaw as the absurdity hits you, and finally break into full laughter only when you realize that, hey, this guy IS funny.  Or you get lost somewhere along the process and never make the laughter stage.

Depending on your mood and intersection with Hedberg, this will either be genius, or completely baffling.  It's worth seeing if you don't already know where you fall.

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Encino Man: Another pillar of our culture for future archaeologists

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If you expect this movie to get anything BUT a scathing review, then you don't know me very well.  Sam Gamgee and Pauly Shore get together and find a caveman buried frozen in their backyard in Southern California.  Of course, he's still alive, so they take him to high school.  Hijinks and a fucking horrible movie ensue.  It's not so-bad-it's-good, it's not bad-but-good-through-the-rose-colored-glasses-of-nostalgia, is is simply bad.  It's full of flat characters, product placement, stereotypes, and terrible acting.  It's half- or possibly quarter-witted humor that is unwatchable if you are anywhere over the age of 10.  It's like Rudy got married to American Pie, but then Pauly Shore got really drunk and you have to spend the whole reception taking care of him in the bathroom while he vomits all over your shoes.

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The Hustler and The Color of Money

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Paul Newman plays a pool shark at the two ends of his career, first as a brash youngster in The Hustler, and then as the wise old hand in The Color of Money.  They make for an interesting contrast.  Newman is virtually the only connection, as the two movies were released 35 years apart, by different studios with different directors, producers, and screenwriters.  They even threw out the plot of the second novel in order to write an entirely new one.

The Hustler is a classic.  It has the air of a play about it, making me recall the tragic heroes of Tenessee Williams or Henrik Ibsen.  Newman plays the overtalented Fast Eddie Felson to a T, the same Newman you'll recognize from Cool Hand Luke.  Lined up alongside him are Jackie Gleason and George C. Scott.  The basic story of hubris is agonizing, as we can see the denoument coming from a mile away, and we're left to squirm as we see Felson eventually get his comeuppance.  This is also a fascinating piece from a film history perspective.  The whole movie feels like it could have been in the 40s, when broadway-to-film conversions were in their heyday.  It's rightly accorded as a classic.  7/10

When I tell you that The Color of Money is what The Hustler would have been if it was made in 1986 by Martin Scorcese, the image that you have in your head is probably pretty close to the real movie.  You get the overwrought music, you get the gritty gangster twists of Scorcese, and you get plenty of vintage 80s tropes like Tom Cruise, big hair, arcade games, and materialism.  It's a well-crafted movie, and it's certainly enjoyable to watch, but it doesn't touch its predecessor for emotional depth or for contemplative drama.  There's too much going on, the characters are a little too flat, and the turns are a little too predictable.  We've seen this done before. 5/10

The Social Network: Pretty fly for a Harvard guy

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As usual, I'm late to the party, but I watched The Social Network after it's been out in theaters a few weeks.  It's great.  I'm not a facebook user, or rather, I used to be, but I'm not anymore.  I've never been drawn in the same way others seem to be.  I'm not exactly thrilled with its rapid growth, both on a personal level, and as a professional web developer.  So, I suppose I was predisposed to like a movie that is critical of the site.

But all-things-considered, The Social Network doesn't spend too much time criticizing the site.  Instead, it gets into the details of the founding, particularly how Mark Zuckerberg turned his drive and determination into a gigantic site.  It's not exactly shocking, and I think that any company that has a similar meteoric growth probably has similar warts in its history.  It is a familiar parable: rapid success strains relationship between former friends, and relationship ultimately dissolves.  The fact that this is Facebook doesn't change that much.

What the film does superlatively is use a flashback storyline to allow several very strong, very young actors to tackle some difficult roles.  Particularly mesmerizing is Jesse Eisenberg's portrayal of Zuckerberg.  Even though I spent a lot of time scoffing at the fact that Zuckerberg can't be quite that naive and nerdy, I still was riveted every time he was on screen.  The screenplay sometimes lacks depth in its handling of Zuckerberg's character, making him the villain extraordinaire, but Eisenberg keeps him believable.  The supplemental characters are also strong, even Andrew Garfield, who I hated so thoroughly in Never Let Me Go.

Not everything in the film is perfect.  The complete fabrication of Zuckerberg's love interest to spur him to making the site is somewhat disturbing, as it calls into question just what else the film misrepresented.  Just because I don't love Mark Zuckerberg, doesn't justify making up stuff for virtue of a better story.  In fact, I'm pretty sure that the story would be plenty strong on its own, without embellishment.  Falsifications just discredit the film and look amateurish.

This is one of the best films I've seen in the theater this year, in a year that I have gone to a lot of movies.  Strongly recommended.  And if you want to cancel your Facebook account when you're done, don't say I didn't warn you.

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The Tillman Story

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The Tillman Story is a straight-up documentary.  Most people already know the basics:  Pat Tillman was an NFL safety, an up and coming star with the Arizona Cardinals.  Soon after 9/11, he joined the Army Rangers to serve his country, leaving behind a multimillion dollar contract and fame.  In the service, he was killed in the line of duty, and the Bush regime claimed it was in an enemy ambush, in order to further stoke the patriotic fires.  It later came out that Tillman was killed by friendly fire, and that officials all the way up to Donald Rumsfeld covered up the truth, in order to avoid exposure for the embarassing mistakes of commanders up and down the line, and to make Tillman more heroic.  The Tillman Story is an account of how the public gradually found out the truth about Tillman, and the ultimately unsatisfying conclusion of the investigations of culpability.

Between Gary Smith's Sports Illustrated article from 2006 and John Krakauer's 2009 book Where Men Win Glory, many people have heard Pat Tillman's story.  And, unlike those two accounts, this film doesn't really cover much new ground.  Instead, it's mostly a rehash of already known information.  Most of what I saw in this film felt rather stale to me.  There were tidbits of new information here and there, but I already knew this story.  Still, it could be that others less familiar with the story could find it revelatory.

There are times when the medium of film is used to good effect.  It is powerful to see film of the actual canyon, as well as the bullet-riddled rock where Tillman was getting shot at by his fellow rangers.  There's also a neat computer-generated topographical model of the canyon, which sounds hokey, but is actually very useful for contextualizing the actual events. 

The film also got interviews with many of the main players, including several of Tillman's ranger cohorts.  But, unfortunately, the interviews are clumsy and not very revealing.  Generally, you get the impression that the interviewer is just not very good at his job.  The interviewees come across as very flat and unemotional, which is odd considering that they are talking about a death of somebody close to them, many times an immediate family member.

If you want to know about the Tillman story, I would suggest reading Gary Smith's article linked above.  This film tells a compelling story, but mostly misses the resonance.

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Never Let Me Go

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Never Let Me Go is a dystopian science fiction story set in an alternate history where the UK (and presumably the world) was changed forever by the discovery of how to cure diseases previously thought incurable.  There's probably a better way to describe the discovery that changed society, but the movie leaves it intentionally vague.  There's a twist in the movie, which, although it happens rather early in the movie, I would rather not spoil for anybody who's interested.

The movie is more interesting than it is good.  It uses a very oblique storytelling style, where very little is laid out for the viewer, which sounds great, but feels somewhat plodding.  We get bits and pieces of the larger story, but for the most part, we are left to discover the idea behind the society on our own.  There are very few "Aha!" moments, but instead, a slow sense of building as the viewer puts together the story.

The plot unfolds in two parts.  The first occurs when the protagonists are about 10 years old, in a boarding school of unknown location.  This part is great.  The children they get to play the actors are convincing, and the innocence of the children works as a great contrast for the darkness of the story.  I wish that this part could have gone on longer, and that the entire story could have been done in this world.  It would have made for an interesting parable using children, similar to Lord of the Flies or The Secret Garden.

It's the second part of the movie, when the protagonists grow up, that the lackluster execution starts to overwhelm the idea.  The main characters grow up, move away from the school, and generally begin adult lives.  As the dystopian reality is clarified, the movie loses a sense of mystery, and instead veers off into a cheap love triangle, straight out of the romcom bargain bin.

The acting is, well, kind of horrendous.  The only name I recognized going in was Keira Knightly, and her effervescent, authoritative style doesn't lend itself very well to the movie.  The male lead is absolutely horrible, having apparently gone to the Keanu Reeves school of clueless acting.  The other main character uses silence as her main method of communication.

Never Let Me Go is exactly the type of movie that could be great.  A stumbling plot and uneven acting keep it from reaching its potential.  If dystopia is your thing, check it out, otherwise give this one a miss.

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LA Confidential, Primer, X-Files Season 1, Heroes Season 3

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This was a second viewing of L.A. Confidential for me, the first coming when I was an impressionable, fresh-faced high school student, full of vim and vigor and other youth-driven cliches.  I thought it was fine then, but Tara wanted to watch it, as she had never seen it.  This time, on the second viewing, it was a bit better.  It's biggest strength as a movie is how fresh and different it is.  Really, it shouldn't work, as it's a mishmash of a bunch of different styles.  It's a noir thriller, mixed with a 50's period piece, mixed with an action-driven cop drama.  And while it's a good movie on its own, what's really interesting is how it twists each of the genres, and comes up with something so different.  And for that reason, it helps to be more familiar with the genres as a whole, so that you can recognize where Confidential breaks the boundaries and admire the movie more for those breaks.  Rating: 6/10

 

Primer flew way under my radar when it first came out.  It's a small-budget release that tells the story of two engineers of a small startup that accidentally invent a time machine.  Yes, I said accidentally.  They're experimenting with anti-gravity, and instead end up with a time machine, although the first part of the movie is them figuring this out.  Primer is also a mind-render in the same vein as Pi, with a plot and storyline that refuses to lay itself out for the viewer.  In the same way that the engineers don't really know how their machine works, we don't follow the movie.  It's a clever little trick to get the viewer experiencing the same emotions as the characters. 

Primer is the 2004 brainchild of one guy, Shane Carruth, who wrote, directed, produced, and starred in the movie.  He has done a grand total of nothing since then.  What's the deal?  Is he burned out?  Was this a one-and-done thing?  Is he afraid to work with others?  According to Wikipedia, he has another movie that is in the early stages of pre-production, but of course, that could mean many things, including that it will never materialize.  Perhaps Carruth is just as content to rest on his laurels with one great movie.  I'll certainly be eager to track his next project.  Rating: 6/10

 

Tara is a diehard X-phile, and watched the series every week on television back in high school.  I am a notorious baby when it comes to horror media, and tend to avoid them unless I've had something recommended to me so much that I can no longer ignore it.  Tara got me to watch The X-Files by gushing over it repeatedly.  I had first tried to watch them starting with some of the best seasons, which is season 6.  I was so lost by what was going on that the whole experience was both disorienting and creepy, absolutely the worst feeling I can get from a thriller.  We tried again with season 1, and the feeling of disorientation went away.  I was able to appreciate the show on its own merits, without a whole lot of mythology baggage that I wasn't familiar with.  I definitely enjoyed the viewing.  It's amazing how long ago the 1990s seem when I view the series now, both in terms of style, and in terms of social themes.  It's been a fascinating cultural prism.  Rating: 6/10

 

If you're wondering why it took me so long to write about season 3 of Heroes, it's because I lost interest.  It gets downright terrible.  There are many, many cringeworthy moments, where you get taken out of the series and say "Why did they do that?"  I kept telling myself I would get to the end of Season 3, and it took me a while to admit that I probably never will.  Sure, there are storylines I wish would resolve, but I've been watching for episodes, and nothing is getting better.  Instead, it's getting both cornier and more obtuse, a terrible combination.  I understand better what happened to this show.  Season 1 was fantastic, with a small rough patch in the middle.  Season 2 was still pretty good, though the rough patch was both longer and rougher.  Season 3 has lost any grip on me, and all of the cachet that the series had is now lost on me.  Everyone should watch Season 1.  Fans should watch Season 2.  Nobody should watch Season 3.  No wonder it got cancelled.  3/10

The Kids Are All Right and the Lagoon Cinema

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I love going to the Lagoon, my local theater for small-release and indie films.  A few nights ago, on a whim, Tara and I decided to go out for a movie.  Tara had heard good things about The Kids Are All Right, so we plunked down our cash and saw a late night show.  The film was good, but what it really enforced for me was just how much I can trust the Lagoon.

Here's to a good local theater.  Here's to walking a few blocks, picking a movie based on the titles alone, and seeing something that makes you think.  Here's to a theater that curates what it shows, rather than picking the largest blockbusters.  Here's to exposing small-run films to larger audiences.  Here's to showing the shorts nominated for an Oscar in a special showing.  Here's to not being afraid to be highbrow.  Here's to good writing, fresh directing, and small-budgets.  Here's to the small film studios, even those that are part of gigantic studios that we hate.  Here's to the unsanitized independent drama laden with social criticism.  Here's to the independent comedy that relies on dark humor rather than slapstick.  Here's to the young director, striving to make himself known.  Here's to familiar actors, using small-release films to step outside the normal comfort zone. 

Oh, and I suppose you want to know what I thought of the movie.  It was a good-but-not-great family drama that seemed to use all of its experimental cachet when it decided that it was going to be about a lesbian couple, leaving it unable to challenge some of the other preconceptions.  It's good to see a GLBT couple onscreen portrayed as your average suburban household.  But the movie misses some chances to make some incisive points about the .  I am guessing this is at least partially a conscious choice in order to focus on Annette Benning and Julianne Moore's relationship and portray how "normal" it is.  I respect the decision, but I think the movie suffers a bit for not taking the risks.  I'm not sure that the risks would have paid off, but not taking them keeps the movie from being anything more than your run-of-the-mill independent drama.

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