Entertainment

the-lego-movie-poster-full-photoI haven’t been to a movie on its opening day in ages. But for months, all of us here have been looking forward to the opening of The Lego Movie because…well…Legos, and it just looked hilarious.

And it was.

The story is about Emmet, an ordinary Lego living in a huge Lego city, following the instructions that all Legos live by. Then, after falling into a hole at a construction site with a red block stuck to his back, he is identified as “the Special,” who is supposed to return individuality and creativity to the Lego world.

He falls in with a group of “Master Builders” who can build just about anything they can imagine from the bricks they find around them. And they look to him for leadership.

They are fighting against President/Lord Business, who wants nothing more than the perfect world he has built to stay that way.

It’s a simple story, and an allegory about following directions, being creative, embracing change, and so much more. But it’s done really well at various different levels, so it’s entertaining for the kids and grown ups. It’s quickly paced, and filled with all kinds of humor. It’s a crisp story that only stumbles a bit at the end as it works too hard to make the ending too deeply emotional.

And the animation–most of the movie is CGI, though some of it is actual Lego–is so well done that the Lego world is just truly overwhelming to look at at one time (we’re going to need to go frame-by-frame when we get the DVD or Blu-Ray). The water, fire, streets, buildings, and everything are Lego, and it’s just amazing to look at.

Is it a perfect movie? No. Is it a great movie? In many ways, yeah. In some ways, no. But I think its shortcomings are easier to overlook because the rest of the movie is just so fun and great looking. But for every kid who has ever had a collection of Legos, there is so much of this movie that you can relate to and celebrate: the different types of sets, the instruction manuals, and that playland that exists in your head when you’re building and playing with these toys.

It was a movie that was worth seeing on its opening night. And we’ll see it again several times, though probably on DVD. Four out of Five Stars. 

See you tomorrow.

hitchcockI’ve seen Psycho once. And yes, it freaked me out. I’ve seen other Hitchcock films as well, and I actually felt that Rear Window and Rope were better (Rope is my all-time favorite Hitchcock film because of what it manages to do–make you get as panicky as the lead characters who’ve murdered a friend and put his body in a chest that is used as the serving table for a dinner party). But I think they’re better because they just suck you into the horror of the story without actually needing to draw the picture of what’s going on.

Psycho is somewhat similar, but Hitchcock goes a step further by giving you those jump-out-of-your-seats moments that the other two just don’t provide.

But back to our film for this evening. It’s 1959, and Hitchcock and his wife Alma are coming off of his most acclaimed film, North By Northwest. The commercial success was gratifying, but he was becoming disenchanted with the demands and meddling of Paramount, the studio which owned his contract. He hated the high budget and high-priced stars who had been forced on him for the film, and he sought to do something truly different.

Hitchcock becomes infatuated with the novel Psycho, which was based on the Ed Gein story, and buys the rights and comes up with a screenplay. Meanwhile, Paramount refuses to allow him to make the movie, wanting another hit like his last film, but Hitchcock digs in, eventually self-financing the movie and claiming 60% of the take from the film as long as Paramount agrees to distribute it.

He’s also got to get around the censors, who, based on the script, refuse to give him a seal for the film because of the now infamous shower scene, and a scene showing a toilet (which had never been done in an American film before).

While filming a movie, problems with his relationship with his wife, Alma arise, and the strain on their personal finances takes a toll.

The wonder of movies like this is that you know how things turn out–Psycho was made, was a huge success, Hitchcock went on to make more movies, and everything came out swimmingly. So why watch a docudrama on the making of this movie?

Frankly, they probably could have chosen any of his movies, but this one was his most controversial and probably most difficult. And it made for some nice dramatic treatment, which probably was just over the top. But what really made this movie work so well was Anthony Hopkins as Hitchcock.

There were more than one moments when I stopped and asked myself “is that really Hopkins?” because his performance was so good. No, he didn’t look quite like Hitchcock, and he didn’t speak quite like him, but it was all consistent enough to make you just accept the entire performance without question. Add to his amazing performance the strong support of Helen Mirren as Alma, and everyone else almost became window dressing.

So while much of the story is fabricated or at least exaggerated for the sake of drama, its effortlessness makes it easy to watch and actually kind of fun because it’s so entertaining.

So check it out. It’s worth the 90-plus minutes of your life you’ll give up for it. Four out of Five Stars

See you tomorrow.

Day three. And this one hurts a little.

One of the great double-edged swords of our modern mobile-technology age is that everyone–and I mean damned near everyone–almost always has a camera with them. And more likely than not, that camera has internet access. This means that those people can post cute pictures of their kids, animals, or landscapes; or they can mock misspelled signs or bad wordings in menus; or, unfortunately, they can post self-portraits. A lot.

Lucky for you, I’m not a fan of selfies.

CaptureBut I do find a simple kind of joy in looking at stupid pictures of all kinds of stuff online. And there are enough that make me laugh that it makes the stupid ones go right by. So I admit to you, here and now, that I am a frequent viewer of content from the Cheezburger sites–a complete collection of internet memes ranging from animal pictures to bad clothing choices to bad repairs to celebrity photos.

And yes, there are times I wish I could say that a picture or two were my idea. But they never are. It’s a blow to my creative ego.

When you’re needing cute pictures of animals, just hit the Daily Squee. If you want to see a bunch of useless and funny information and truisms placed into graph form, hit Graph Jam. Whichever of the channels you check out in your daily sprint across the internet, something there is bound to catch your eye and make you ask just where humanity is going.

Just don’t expect any kind of satisfactory answer. Because it’s just too damned scary.

See you tomorrow.

Day two.

Continuing from yesterday’s website theme, the next guilty pleasure is a set of sites I go to at least once a week, and sometimes twice a week. They’re the types of sites that I believe makes the internet such a wonderful place–with so many people of varying interests, it’s great to have well-made and maintained sites that cater to the specific interests of a relatively small group of people, and do so unapologetically.

CaptureOne site is called UniWatch. It’s a fairly simple daily blog run by Paul Lukas who appears to have spent his lifetime collecting and reviewing unique and interesting sports uniforms. He’s done this so well and for so long at this site that a couple of years ago, ESPN.com picked him up as a weekly columnist to write for their site on some of the unique things he sees in the world of uniforms.

I know. Many of you who either don’t follow sports or don’t see anything special about uniforms may ask why a site like this would be interesting. But it is, when you consider that for almost every season these days every sports team at the college and pro levels makes some changes to their uniforms, be they minor tweaks to full-on makeovers. And the site does not hesitate to let their opinions be known about how that latest look works (or doesn’t).

Yes…It’s a fashion blog for sports. Thus it’s manly.

CaptureNext we have the best of a handful of sites about ballparks and stadiums around the country.

I’ve always found ballparks and stadiums to be remarkable and unique buildings. And for a while, I thought it was just me, or maybe a few people in the world who held the same thought. Growing up, I was intrigued to see the differences between baseball parks, football stadiums and the like in different cities, and only as I’ve grown up, I’ve found that there are many out there who have the same interest. So there are a few sites that I hit on a regular basis that serve those needs.

Ballpark Digest has pretty well carved out an exclusive niche in reporting on all things baseball ballpark in the country–from major league parks to the minors, college and independent league news. And while it doesn’t have as many pictures or reviews or data on the stadiums as some other sites, it’s the easiest to use, read and check in on and follow on a weekly basis.

For other stadia news around the world, with a definitely snarky and anti-public funding bent, there’s Field of Schemes, run by a group of people who have put out a book reporting on how public funding of stadiums helps support the profits of individuals and companies who run sports teams, concessionaires, and the like. As such, it’s best to read it through a filter, but it still does a great job of collecting information about the planning, financing and building of these unique buildings.

If it’s just pictures you’re wanting to see, then hit these sites, though don’t expect them to necessarily be user-friendly: Ballparks by Munsey and Suppes is one of my favorites, though it’s updated infrequently.  Ballparks of Baseball focuses on major league ballparks, but is a horror to look at. Digital Ballparks probably has the best collection of pictures of every ballpark out there, but it’s also just a mess. But you have to love the enthusiasm about it.

And finally, there’s Ballpark Reviews, which is a site that I love if for no other reason than it’s run be someone with a true passion about ballparks and sharing pictures and stories about them. The site offers personal reviews of everything in the stadium, from the architecture to the comfort to the atmosphere and concessions offered there. And while the design is a jumbled mess, it’s fun to go look at because it feels like you’re sitting looking at a photo album with the guy while he’s telling you about his visit…And having done that with half-interested people in the past myself, it’s fun to participate in his exercise in sharing.

See you tomorrow.

Welcome to a new feature here at the ol’ blog, wherein I lay out the guilty pleasures I enjoy both around this time of year and during the rest of the year. Might as well give thanks for all of them and air my shame all at the same time, right?

First up, I’ll celebrate the odd and wonderful collection of off-beat websites I visit. Some I go to on a daily or weekly basis. Others are seasonal or occasional destinations. And those that are occasional are occasional for reasons you’ll discover here shortly.

CaptureA couple of years ago, my darling wife introduced me to this little pop culture horror show, which is a surprising and always entertaining mix of pop culture appreciation and deprecation. The site celebrates the good in all pop culture, but also revels in the train wreck that can be some of the great pop culture misses of all time.

Over the last couple of years, the site has hilariously reviewed, song-by-song and disc-by-disc, several Time-Life CD music collections, the worst of the Billboard Top 100 throughout the ’90s (often arriving at the “what were we thinking?” conclusion), and, during the holiday season, offers reviews of some of the greatest Christmas recordings most of us have never heard.

They call the feature “Mellowmas,” and this is the feature I was first introduced to by Jenni.

Mellomas features two of the staff writers for the site commenting (occasionally profanely, depending on just how bad or over-the-top the song is) on the selected song for that day. The song is offered in a player on the page, and you can read along through the comments and almost follow them as the song progresses, thus welcoming you into an almost “Mystery Science Theater 3000″ style running commentary on the songs. If you hit the link above, you’ll find several years’ worth of the Mellowmas entries, just waiting for you to waste an entire afternoon on.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Oh. And you’re welcome.

See you tomorrow.

 

Hyde.Park.On.HudsonSomehow, it isn’t at all surprising that a president–especially one as generally well respected by history as Franklin Delano Roosevelt–would have a mistress. Or perhaps mistresses. Which may be part of the point of the movie Hyde Park on Hudson: to portray FDR as a regular, flawed man, and not the overblown four-time leader of the free world that he sometimes is viewed as.

The story is based on the diaries and journals of Margaret “Daisy” Suckley, FDR’s sixth cousin. These manuscripts weren’t discovered until her death at the age of 100 in 1991. In them, surprising stories were told of her–and apparently others’–intimate relationships with FDR.

The film focuses on the June 1939 visit by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth to the summer home FDR and his mother shared: the Springwood Estate at Hyde Park, NY. The King had been sent expressly by the British government to ask for American support in the likely event that Britain would become involved in World War II. FDR knew this, but he and his mother worked to make the visit a low-key affair, which put the royals on their heels a bit.

Intertwined in this is Daisy’s love affair with FDR, the discovery of an affair by the president and his secretary, and a disclosed third mistress, along with the arrival of his wife Eleanor, and the whole event takes on comic and dramatic overtones, even when it’s supposed to be an important meeting of the two countries.

All told, it’s a wonderful film. Laura Linney is, as always, simultaneously proper, dramatic, and nervous. But Bill Murray’s FDR is remarkable. Nothing is over the top, and yet you almost feel like the character is being properly played as a caricature. He’s convincing, but in the dramatic parts and in the comedic parts of the movie. And what’s even better is that everyone’s character, while played with deserving weight, seems almost effortless and light, making the 95 minute movie move along quickly.

If you’re into the docudrama kind of thing, enjoy great stretches of dialog, and well-played acting, then this movie is definitely for you. Four out of Five Stars. 

See you tomorrow.

Ages and ages ago, like most of my 8th grade peer group, I’d stay up late on Friday and Saturday nights (or I’d videotape the episodes) and watch this British sci-fi show called Doctor Who.

Being a British show, and being sequestered to late nights on our local PBS station made it hard to find out much about this show–its history, how far behind we in the states were (one season, until the BBC started exporting earlier episodes of the show), etcetera. In fact, we were being fed shows featuring the fourth incarnation of the lead character: “Doctor Who,” a Gallifreyan “time lord” who travelled through time in a “Police Box” and could regenerate into a different body when the old one had worn out or was dying. This would be like trying to join the TV series “Dallas” right after J.R. Ewing had been shot.

Except it wasn’t quite like that.

Each episode was kind of a stand-alone item, with common threads like the Doctor’s history and his travelling companions running through the episodes to maintain some sort of cohesion from one episode to the next.

Eventually, I found a few books on the series. I’d discovered just how long it had been on–nearly 20 years to that point–how many Doctors had gone before, who they were, and what their stories were like. But that didn’t come until later.

And then the fourth Doctor regenerated. He regenerated into “my Doctor.” Every “Whovian” has their Doctor–the one they associate most closely and dearly with the role. The fifth Doctor was mine: he was young, fun, and the show brought a new-found modernness to it. And then came the 20th anniversary episode: “The Five Doctors,” featuring, as you could guess, the five Doctors in one episode (well, three really, as the actor who played the first had died and was replaced by a look-alike, but he was active in the episode; and the actor who played the fourth Doctor didn’t want to come back to the role at the time because he didn’t want to be typecast). My friend group was thrilled: all five Doctors! In one episode! What a great idea for the show!

This was 1983. It wasn’t until a few years later that I’d discovered there had been a “Three Doctors” episode.

We all graduated from high school. But I still watched Doctor Who. And so it was a big deal when Doctor Who celebrated its 25th anniversary with a special episode…Well, not terribly special like “The Five Doctors”, but it was “special.” The show had become bloated, costing the BBC too much money, and not attracting the ratings and foreign purchases they’d been hoping for.

They put the show on “hiatus” in 1989.

Oh, I was fan through some of those years, even dressing the role, somewhat regrettably. But I enjoyed watching it and still retain some of those old stories.

It’s all come back lately. See, in 2005, the BBC revived the show, and my entire family has become huge fans. So after Patrick and I got home from the Gopher football game on Saturday, we watched the new big special episode: the 50th anniversary episode.

“My Doctor” wasn’t in it, really–there was a fuzzy shot of him that I’m pretty sure was pulled from one of his original episodes, in fact there seemed to be those from several of them. But it all fit in the episode and helped make it a great episode that really seemed to move the story forward while honoring the past.

And this time, Tom Baker, the fourth Doctor, agreed to be in the show.

I don’t know if I’m as huge a fan as I once was. I mean, I enjoy following it, but for some reason, I just haven’t been as excited about the shows as my family and have actually missed a few over the last few seasons, and can’t recite the plot points as well as Patrick can. But I can say that I do kind of enjoy being asked about the old shows…

You know. The ones from 30 years ago.

See you tomorrow.

I’ve tried. Really, I’ve tried. But I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to do this.

house of cards americanEveryone, and I mean everyone, has fallen in love with this series. Except me. Because, I’m starting to think, it’s taken an excellent original version and twisted it so much that it’s become aimless and uninteresting. But there’s enough it’s trying to keep in common that it’s distracting.

Let me explain. The 1990 original follows Francis Urquhart, the Chief Whip of the Conservative Party. In the post-Thatcher era, his party is hanging on to a majority by a thread, and when a new Prime Minister is elected, and Urquhart believes he’s going to benefit from years of loyalty and support to the party and the new PM. But the PM tells him instead that he’s more valuable where he is, passing him over for a promotion. So Urquhart concocts a scheme to take down the PM and other party leadership through a carefully concocted smear campaign that he conducts through manipulation and leaks through a relationship with a young, ambitious reporter.

The new American version is about Francis Underwood, a South Carolina Democrat, and House Majority Whip. He, too, is passed up for promotion when a new president is elected, and is told the same thing. So he hatches a plan to…um…Oh hell, I’m nine episodes into a thirteen episode season and I’m still not clear what his plan is. So far, he just seems to be trying to undermine the president’s influence over congress, and take control of the Democratic party, which obviously would put him in a good position, but it’s so convoluted that you wonder how he’ll ever get there.

house-of-cards-britishAnd that’s just the start of the problems. The original wrapped up the story in 4 episodes of just about an hour. The American version is overblown at 13 hour-long-ish episodes.

Sure, both Urquhart and Underwood are despicable people, but Ian Richardson’s Urquhart is evil while still being incredibly charming. Kevin Spacey’s Underwood comes off as just conniving and unlikable.

And I’m not really sure if they’ve tried weaving gay undertones into Underwood’s past or not…

I know what part of it is: the American version is trying to make the story complex and deep by developing more characters and introducing more subplots so that the suspense will build. And that would be okay if the story actually deserved subplots. Frankly, it’s a simple story, and one that played out brilliantly and quickly in the original.

A key example of this is with the men’s wives: Urquhart’s wife is supportive of his political goals, and knows and encourages him to do what is needed to secure his place in the government. But what she does outside of their home life is completely left alone because it doesn’t need to contribute to the story. Underwood’s wife, on the other hand, heads up a non-profit and is ruthless on her own, and ends up being wrapped into part of Underwood’s scheme to get a drug-addicted congressman elected as Pennsylvania’s governor.

Both men directly address the camera frequently, though Underwood’s asides are usually angry and fail to actually explain things, except for his own hatred of things and people he has to work with. Urquhart’s asides are illustrative, occasionally floral in their description, and act as a window into the depth of his plan. He still comes off as almost completely affable.

I think I know where some of the differences come from: this version was made during this complete congressional stalemate. No one in congress has appeared to be above the fray, and maybe this is just a grander statement on that. But if that’s the case, this isn’t the story to portray that.

I think I’ll fight through the rest of the episodes of the American version, because I am over two-thirds of the way through. But I went back and watched one episode of the original and found it light and intriguing by comparison. I suppose there’s a chance that things could completely change in the last few episodes, but I’m prepared to be disappointed.

Then I’ll have to consider if I’ll watch the next season of the show.

See you tomorrow.

TooBigToFail_Poster.inddI think this may speak to my movie tastes somewhat.

Friday night, I wanted to just shut down my brain and watch something that required no thought, no engagement, no need to actually actively pay attention. But there was nothing immediately appealing in my Netflix instant queue, my Netflix DVD (which I’ve had since the Carter administration, I think) is Life of Pi, and from everything I’ve heard, that requires a great deal of engagement, and there seemed to be little of interest either on TV that night or recorded on the TiVo.

Except this: Too Big To Fail. It’s an HBO produced docudrama about the beginnings of the 2008 financial collapse that basically set off the “Great Recession.”

Sure. Something light to entertain me for the evening. No problem.

The thing is that the movie accomplished a couple of things without being overly heavy: first, it’s paced remarkably quickly. I just started watching it thinking I’d duck out at some point and find a sporting event or Warner Brothers cartoon or something. But before I knew it, I was two-thirds of the way in, and I wanted to see how it ended–not because I didn’t know how things came out, but because I wanted to know where it went with the story. The second thing is that it’s fascinating because it simplifies and explains the things that were going on without feeling like it’s dumbing things down or treating the viewers like an idiot. The movie is based on a book by the same name, which, apparently, lays things out in pretty clear, easy-to-read detail.

The cast is remarkable: William Hurt, Paul Giamatti, Topher Grace, Cynthia Nixon, Bill Pullman, Tony Shaloob, James Woods, Ed Asner, among others. All play it with the requisite attention to detail while not going too far over the top–well, except Giamatti, but we’ll discuss that in a minute.

I think most of us know the story by now, or at least the basic framework: For several years, banks had been gambling on mortgages by loaning more and more money to less and less qualified borrowers at higher interest rates that would go nowhere but up over the course of the loan. Meanwhile, they backed their gambles with insurance policies in the form of mortgages backed securities which were sold to other banks and large insurance companies, most notably AIG.

Eventually, as the lower interest rates on these loans ratcheted upward and those homeowners were unable to pay the loans, they defaulted, leaving the bank with a house and less money than they counted on. The mortgage-backed securities that the banks bought and sold each other became nearly worthless, wiping billions of dollars off of their balance sheets. And in the meantime, there was a run on the insurance companies to try to recoup some of these losses, and AIG started running out of money itself.

In the movie, we almost have four sides to root for and against: Hurt’s Henry Paulson, the Treasury Secretary; and Giamatti’s wimpy Ben Bernanke, both of whom recognize the problem but feel that government doesn’t have a role in fixing the problem because they believe the banks should take care of themselves and the weaker ones should be bought by the stronger ones. Then there’s the stronger banks, who refuse to touch the weaker ones without being forced to because of the toxic mortgage assets that are being held. And then the weaker banks, run by a bunch of greedy men who found that the formula worked for a few years, but now everything they’d built is crumbling as they watched. And finally, there’s the rest of the government–President Bush and congress–who were unable to agree to any kind of hard-edged, pointed solution because that would have required more government regulation.

Paulson is treated as the hero here, mainly because he came to the Treasury position from the leadership of one of the eventually weaker banks, so he knows the people involved, and knows how things “should work.” But the problem is that things moved so far so quickly that decision-making quickly became a full-blown panic. None of the banks come off very well here, for obvious reasons. Bernanke is made to be a whimpering idiot for most of the movie, deferring to Paulson on all of the decisions. So it’s left to Paulson to make all of the decision as the financial system threatens to collapse over the course of a couple of weeks.

In the end, TARP is passed, giving billions of dollars to banks across the country, with the expectation that they’ll loan out the money, which they didn’t do.

The only thing I can’t quite work out is whether we’re supposed to feel any kind of empathy for Paulson: clearly he’s worried, as everyone would be in that situation. But the fact of the matter was that he was part of the problem for a while when he headed up one of the banks, and also that he now no longer understands the mindset of the CEOs of the banks so consistently underestimates their ability to make the decision that he expects them to.

Okay…I’ve rambled, but if you want a quick-moving recap of the near complete collapse of our banking system, then check this movie out. If not, watch a Three Stooges movie or something.

Oh…Four out of Five Stars. 

See you tomorrow.

J-Edgar-8-typeI had very low expectations for J. Edgar going into it. My experiences with Leo DiCaprio films have been shaky at best–he was good in The Aviator as Howard Hughes, seemed flat and almost emotionless in Gatsby, really good in Catch Me If You Can, and flat in Inception. But you also need to realize it was one of those movies that I’d sort of decided I wanted to see, but never went out of my way to put it on my list in Netflix or see it in the theatre. Instead, I noticed it was coming up on HBO, so I recorded it.

I was very impressed with his performance–easily one of the best of his career. And, as an aside, the makeup artist who aged him needs a huge award if they didn’t already win one.

There isn’t much to say about the plot here: it’s the story of J. Edgar Hoover’s meteoric rise to director of the FBI and how he worked to grow, solidify, and protect the bureau from all threats he perceived, whether they were real or not. It goes into his personal life and persona a great deal without ever going over the top with the rumors that have swirled around him. And it focuses particularly on his relationships with his mother and Clyde Tolson, his long-time companion and assistant director of the FBI.

The story is told as an autobiography, as Hoover calls in Agent Smith to basically take dictation from Hoover and write what Hoover insists is a history of the organization and beginnings of the FBI, so that a grateful nation could know the true story.

For the first part of the movie, it gets confusing, jumping back and forth into different eras of Hoover’s life to tell the stories that he deemed important, but once you got the hang of things and what the stories and times were, it became a lot easier to handle. Though, it dawned on me that I’d seen this same treatment, in almost the identical style once before: in Bird. A quick IMDB search told me what I didn’t realize: this film and the docudrama about jazz great Charlie Parker were directed by Clint Eastwood.

It’s a really done story and acting job to successfully illustrate how Hoover had always been insecure and dominated by his mother, and how he was really successful at appearing powerful while still being a bit unhinged deep down. He learned early on how appearance could make or break a career like his, and he continued living into that belief for his entire life.

By the end of the movie, you don’t really like Hoover, but you’re not completely angered by his actions, either. For a while, it’s obvious he did what needed to be done to start the FBI in a nation that was being overrun by gangs and other interstate crimes. But then his own paranoia takes over and he begins collecting information for his secret files–long rumored, but only proven through small collections of information, misfiled through the years.

If you’re the sort who goes for a really well done docudrama, doesn’t need action or tension or any other plot devices than seeing how a man’s life turns out, then definitely check out this movie. Four out of five stars. 

See you tomorrow.

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