28 June 2008

Film: "Wall-E"

Directed by Andrew Stanton

Story by Andrew Stanton & Pete Docter
Screenplay by Andrew Stanton & Jim Reardon
Starring: Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight, Jeff Garlin, Fred Willard, John Ratzenberger
Theatrical Release Date: 27 June 2008
Date of Screening: 27 June 2008
MPAA Rating: G

Saying the most recent work of an artist is his/her/their best work is not only a cliche, but usually nothing more than hyperbolic enthusiasm.  In the case of Pixar's Wall-E, however, that may not be the case.  Visually, the opening titles alone far surpass Toy Story, and as the film progresses, it continues to outshine the CG accomplishments of its predecessors in their filmography.  Still, many films look great; what makes Wall-E so special is its storytelling.

First, the story itself moves between a sweet, touching story of connection between the titular Wall-E and planetary visitor Eve, and a larger story concerning a colony ship used to evacuate Earth centuries ago.  Like the best science fiction, Wall-E uses a different setting to make a social commentary about today's world, and this is what distinguishes it from all previous Pixar films.  Clearly, concerns over the environment are expressed, but so too are concerns over our growing addictions as a society to automated-aided laziness, obesity, and the isolation that accompanies our cell phone and Internet use.  Yes, we're "connecting" with more people than ever before, but what can be said of the quality of those connections?  Wall-E may entertain the children in the audience, but hopefully it makes them begin to realize the world their parents have created for them....and to realize that it will be up to them to eventually try to make things right again.

Speaking of the children in the audience, kudos to Pixar not only for what story they told, but how they told it.  Much of the film lacks dialogue, compelling the heathens in the audience to keep quiet.  The screening I attended (with my wife and some friends) was the quietest audience I'd sat through a movie with since Fahrenheit 9/11.  Where other entertainment directed at children presume their attention span is limited and must be frequently bombarded with splashy colors and loud noises in order to be sustained, Wall-E proved that good old-fashioned quality storytelling will still do the trick.  It is refreshing to know that a studio as entrenched in the commercialized world of children's entertainment is still also daring and innovative enough to attempt such a production...and at the top of their game, they're good enough to make it work beautifully.

16 June 2008

Film: "Dick Tracy"

Dick Tracy
Directed by Warren Beatty
Screenplay by Jim Cash & Jack Epps, Jr.

Based upon characters created by Chester Gould
Starring: Warren Beatty, Al Pacino, Madonna
Theatrical Release Date: 15 June 1990
Screening Date: 15 June 2008

MPAA Rating: PG
Cinescope Personality Types: Courageous Detective, Passionate Maverick

Firstly, thanks to Baxter Avenue Theaters for screening Dick Tracy as part of their "Revenge of the Return of the Summer 'Splodin' Series" last night. Kudos also to Beau Kaelin for bathing the lobby in vintage Tracy materials from lobby cards to masks, from stand-up displays to posters.  Walking through the front door was like stepping back in time eighteen years, and it couldn't have been any cooler. Seeing the film on a big screen for the first time was especially rewarding, because I finally got to read the billboard signs, and really appreciated the cinematography. I was already in love with the production design, the sets, the costumes and the music.

Dick Tracy also featured something no other movie I've seen in a theater this year offered: a rewarding ending. Today, of course, the film would be done with a heavy reliance on CGI and it would not have been nearly as impressive. Like The Wizard of Oz, Dick Tracy is rewarding in part because it is clearly a production that required a lot of hard work from creative people to produce it. In an era where CGI has lessened the demands on filmmakers, this kind of movie-going experience is truly special.

The nice thing about Dick Tracy is that it has a clear storyline involving well over twenty characters, and even though secondary and lesser characters may not be particularly well developed, the principal characters are given ample storytime. Dick Tracy is committed to bringing down Big Boy Caprice; Tess Trueheart is committed to domesticating Tracy; The Kid is committed to not going back to the orphanage; Big Boy is committed to running a city-wide crime syndicate; Breathless Mahoney is committed to turning Tracy's dedication to herself. Each spends the duration of the film pursuing those goals, and each succeeds (at least at one point or another in the film). Ultimately, of course, Tracy gets his man, as does Tess.

Coupled with the overwhelming production values of the film, the plot's simplicity becomes charming; a nice throwback to earlier times. The film harkened back to 1938 Chicago (though never identified as such; paystubs are dated November 24, 1938 and the climax occurs on New Year's Eve; the name Chicago is absent entirely); the screening took us back to 1990. As an added treat, the original Roger Rabbit short, Rollercoaster Rabbit played before the feature!

13 June 2008

Video Game Response: "Mario Kart Wii"

Mario Kart Wii with Wii Wheel 
Date of Release: 27 April 2008
List Price: $44.99

Simply put, Mario Kart Wii is the most addictive game not named Tetris.  Like previous installments in the series, there are a handful of racing options, from Grand Prix to Time Trials, by yourself or with friends, etc.  This time, though, they've added a Wi-Fi experience, allowing gamers to race folks from around the globe.  This is especially nice, because the most infuriating part about the game is the brutality of the CPU characters and their often ridiculously unfair employment of the over-powered items.

A note on that last point: It is not uncommon for three CPU characters to blitz you while driving.  You might be POW'ed so you spin out, zapped by lightning and then have Blooper ink your windshield all at once; in fact, this is a pretty common combo of attacks.  Not only is it unfair, because you can do nothing about any of those things, but they tend to hit you at the worst possible time; say, when going into a ramped jump over lava, or approaching the finish line at the end of the third lap.  If you get hit by things that don't affect everyone else (for instance, if you are targeted by a few turtle shells all at once), you can expect that at least four karts or bikes will go screaming by you and your place in the standings will drop dramatically in the time it takes you to recover.

The good news is that, except for being blitzed going into the finish line at the end of the cup, you can generally recover.  It requires a certain level of calmness and a combination of skill and good fortune, but it can be done.  There are plenty of unlockable characters, karts and bikes, and they require that you complete various tasks in order to unlock all of them.  For instance, by simply playing eight Time Trial courses, you will unlock the Magikruiser.  If you want to unlock Baby Daisy, you must earn at least one star for each of the four cups that comprise the 50cc Grand Prix.  If you want to use your Mii as a racing character (which, by the way, rocks), you must unlock him or her by winning the 100cc Special Cup for Outfit A or unlock all 32 Time Trial expert staff ghosts for Outfit B.

So it's unfair and there's a lot to unlock: what about the gameplay itself?  Simply put, this is why Mario Kart Wii is addictive.  You have several options for gameplay.  Obviously, the method Nintendo is pushing is for you to plug your Wii Remote into the Wii Wheel, and that method is fun.  I personally found this preferrable to controllers, but then, I'm a horrible video gamer, especially when it comes to driving.  For those who prefer to kick it old school, you can race using the Classic Controller (or even a Gamecube controller).  Personally, I found the Wii Remote with Nunchuck combination the easiest and most comfortable, because each hand then has something to do.  How much easier?  I actually enjoy Rainbow Road with that set-up.  Whatever your preferred style, you have the choice.  Kudos to Nintendo for giving us so many options.

Yes, it gets me hopping mad.  And yet, I can't seem to put down the Nunchuck.  In fact, it's so addictive, I'm still only on chapter 5 of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" in Lego Indiana Jones: The Original Adventures.  The only feature of the last console installment in the Mario Kart series (Mario Kart: Double Dash!!) that Nintendo should have carried over that they didn't is the ability to race the Grand Prix and unlock content with more than one driver.  My wife and I used to delight in racing one another while earning characters and karts, but with Mario Kart Wii, we're forced to trade off racing by ourselves to unlock things.  On the plus side, we tend to each be stronger at different courses, so we team up.  A note for those partnerships looking to do the same: you need to agree on which of your control set-ups you all prefer beforehand, because it won't let you switch from one course to the next.  If you start with the Wii Wheel, you're gonna have to race the entire cup with it.

10 June 2008

Junior Griffey

In the century-plus history of Major League Baseball, only six players have accumulated six-hundred or more career homeruns.  Ken Griffey, Jr. became the sixth yesterday.  He needs ten to pass Sammy Sosa for fifth place, all time.  Whether his career will last long enough for him to tie or pass Willie Mays for fourth is questionable, as Mays ended his career with 690.

What does it say about us as fans, or even us as a society that at the same time we applaud this magnificent accomplishment, we cannot help but ponder how much farther along the all-time list he might have been, were it not for that bum hamstring of his?  This is, after all, only the sixth player ever to hit 600 homeruns out of all the players who have ever worn a big league uniform.  Mark McGwire didn't do it.  Reggie Jackson didn't do it.  Mantle, Maris, Yaz, Teddy Ballgame, neither Iron Horse, so on and so forth: none of them did it.  And nobody holds it against those guys.  Why, then, does Junior's accomplishment feel hollow?  Why can't his 600 (and counting) simply amaze us?

Perhaps because there was never any doubt about his potential.  Junior has always had the single sweetest swing in all of baseball; watching him is more than watching a well-oiled machine, more than watching an artist.  Many predict that it won't matter how many homeruns anyone hits in a few years, that Alex Rodriguez is destined to become the all-time homerun hitting champion.  That may be, and yet one cannot help but wonder...if A-Rod should reach 600 and we doubt his health and ability to keep going much farther, will that milestone, too, be hollow?

Incidentally, Dusty Baker has managed three of the six members of the 600 Homerun club: Junior, Sosa and Barry Bonds.  Baker also managed Bonds in 2002, when he set the single-season record.  Surely, that will earn him a spot in a trivia game somewhere.

05 June 2008

John Smoltz

"It wouldn't surprise me if he came back as a left-handed pitcher." --Fredi Gonzales on John Smoltz's 2008 season-ending surgery

Every generation has its heroes and villians, its legends and myths.  For baseball fans of the last twenty years, it would be difficult not to include John Smoltz on a list of heroes (unless, of course, you couldn't stand the Braves, in which case he probably makes your villians list).  Forget the stats (only pitcher with 200 wins and 150 saves, 3000 strikeouts, most post-season wins ever, 1996 Cy Young award winner, etc.).  Unless someone exposes something about the guy that hasn't surfaced in his lengthy career to cast a dark shadow over him (which can happen; ask Roger Clemens), it's a foregone conclusion that they'll cover up some wall space in Cooperstown with a John Smoltz plaque in a few years.

On the field, Smoltz has always been a team leader, and in this day of prima donna athletes, it has always been refreshing to hear and read his comments about his teammates (protecting those who were struggling, encouraging young players) and to see a guy who was willing to say, "I can't be a starter anymore, but I can help from the bullpen."  Then, when the Braves' starting rotation was dismal, it was Smoltz who again spoke up and said, "I can be more help to this team as a starter, and I know I can handle it now."  This year, when he went on the disabled list, he again spoke up, recognizing that his ability to help the team as a starter was diminished, but hoped he could help from the bullpen.  Unfortunately, that has not worked out and he is out for the season with his fourth career arm surgery.

Off the field, Smoltz has long been recognized for his humanitarian work; he probably has more Home Depot Humanitarian awards than he has MLB awards.  Simply put, this is a guy who has demonstrated time and again a willingness to work hard, to put the team first, and to offer a helping hand when he could.  Maybe that's what caused all the inflammation that is now plaguing him.  In any event, much like Cal Ripken, Jr.'s consecutive games played streak, John Smoltz has been a model of athlete we may not see again.

Will John Smoltz return to baseball next year?  If he does, will it be as a starter or closer?  We won't know for some time yet, and I for one sincerely hope that he is able to return.  If, however, his playing days are finished, one hopes that at least one of the thirty ballclubs is smart enough to recruit him as a pitching or bullpen coach.  Don't forget: not only does he know a thing or two about starting and closing, but he knows how to hit and he knows his way around the bases, too, having been called on from time to time to pinch hit and pinch run.  These are little things that American League pitchers aren't required to know, but a National League staff can benefit greatly from honing.  The bottom line: John Smoltz has given baseball quite a lot of himself over twenty years, and it would be a shame for that not to continue next year.

04 June 2008

Film: "Baby Mama"

Baby Mama
Written and Directed by Michael McCullers
Starring: Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Greg Kinnear, Dax Shephard, Romany Malco, Maura Tierney, Holland Taylor and Sigourney Weaver
Theatrical Release Date: 25 April 2008

Date of Screening: 3 June 2008
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (For Crude and Sexual Humor, Language and a Drug Reference)

Baby Mama sold itself as a Tina Fey/Amy Poehler comedy, and that it delivered.  Fey's Kate is sweet, but driven by the loud ticking of her biological clock; Poehler's Ann is an ignorant redneck hired by her as a surrogate mother.  In published interviews, the two admitted they made the film more or less as an excuse to work together and selected fertility issues as their plot point because they felt a lot of women out there had dealt with it and could use something funny.The cast is good, including Greg Kinnear and Steve Martin.  Martin's role as Fey's uber-hippie boss is different for him, and yet it too quickly calls to mind another Saturday Night Live alumnus (Kevin Nealon in Grandma's Boy).  

I generally avoid spoilers in movie reviews, but there are some serious questions raised by the final act of Baby Mama.  After sitting in a court room to find out that Ann's pregnant by her redneck, scamming ex-common-law-husband Carl instead of her sperm donor, it is entirely too unbelievable that Kate--or anyone else--would offer to drive Ann to the hospital when her water breaks outside the courtroom.  And for her to find out, upon being revived from passing out during Ann's delivery that she has, herself, become pregnant while trysting with Kinnear, is not only too convenient, but it suggests that neither Fey nor Poehler were particularly considerate of the very audience for whom they said they made the film in the first place.  What message is there for the numerous women who are going through what Kate went through at the beginning of the film?  That by the end of your movie you'll get your happy ending?

Clearly, Baby Mama could have used another draft by writer/director McCullers.  The humor was there, and the set-up was interesting.  Unfortunately, like too many recent movies (coughIndianaJonescough), no matter how much fun it may have been in the middle, it's the third act that makes or breaks a film, and Baby Mama's third act is too...many things, really, from contrived to insulting...to make it as rewarding as it might otherwise have been.

01 June 2008

The Disappointment of Not Attending

No matter what the event was or is or will be, each of us with Crohn's knows what it's like to be all set to go somewhere and do something...and not make it. A few years ago, I had tickets in my hand for a sold-out end-of-tour Kenny Chesney concert that our neighbor ended up using because the morning of the show I felt too miserable to brave the state fair traffic and parking on top of the concert crowd. My last major league baseball game was in August 2006 for our honeymoon; I've had arrangements fall through and even had tickets to three other games since then. Yesterday (1 June, Sunday), I was set to take my baby brother to Cincinnati to see his Atlanta Braves visit my Cincinnati Reds for an early 25th birthday present. You can probably tell where this blog is going.

Sure enough, about 2:00 AM Saturday night, I started to feel miserable. I finally drifted off around 4:00-4:30 AM and hoped it would clear up by morning. It didn't. Some of our friends and my wife's mom and step-dad were also part of the entourage, and my wife met with my in-laws for breakfast. By the time she got back, it was apparent I wasn't going to be up to the drive to the ballpark, the game and the return drive. Once I made it clear I wasn't going to chance it, she tried to bail, too, but eventually she gave in and went and, from what I was told afterward, had a great time.

When we ordered tickets, she spent at least a half an hour on the phone with the box office person to find us seats that not only would put the seven of us together, but were in a location that would allow me to quickly get up and to the restroom if needed. I have to say, from what I was told about the seats, the Cincinnati Reds' box office person did a great job finding us accomodating seats. My wife said that all they had to do to get to the restrooms was to, basically, walk down the steps into the concourse and hang a left (or was it a right?). I'm glad the seats didn't suck, because I would have felt even worse if everyone had been corralled into seats that sucked just because of me, especially since I ended up not even going.

About ten minutes after they left, it turned out I was right not to have gone with them; I spent most of the next hour in and out of the bathroom. It settled down around the time the game started, but about an hour later I was right back in there. I went in and the Reds had a 3-0 lead; I came back out and found out that Johnny Cueto had given up back-to-back jacks and put a runner on second. Fortunately, the Redlegs prevailed, but still...it's an eye-opener to realize you've spent so much time in the bathroom that two guys have homered and a third guy has made it to second base. Then, consider that I originally went to the bathroom at the end of the previous inning, with the Reds still at bat!Briefly, it appeared that Cueto was going to pitch at least a no-hitter (he was perfect through the first four and two-third innings of the game when he gave up a walk) and there was much hope that Ken Griffey, Jr. would hit career homerun number 600, becoming just the sixth player of all time to reach that milestone. Like my day, though, despite the hope and promise, neither was meant to be. Still, Cueto and Junior oughtn't complain; Cueto got the win and Junior will get another couple of cracks at 600 in Philadelphia tomorrow; I didn't even make it to the game. My brother celebrated his 25th birthday with two of my friends, my wife and my in-laws; I'm sure he had fun, but I'm also sure it was somewhat disappointing for him at the same time.

Am I blogging about this to invite you to my pity party? No, and I don't think I'm having one. This profile exists strictly to discuss the impact of Crohn's disease on my life, partly to give others insight into what it's like to live with this obnoxious, stupid disease and partly to let those of you who can relate to share your experiences and discuss our mutual frustrations. So, how about it: What was your most recent Was-Gonna-Do-It experience? Any suggestions on how to handle that particularly deflating feeling that goes with knowing your friends and family are all there, with an empty seat? Sure, no one ever says anything to you, and they know better than to question you when you spend the money to buy a ticket to something, but you know. You know the next time something like this comes up, you'll either take a pass outright (which sucks) or you'll fork over the cash...and wait to see where the ball in the roulette wheel in your terminal ilium lands.