4 November 2006

next time, without the fart jokes, okay?

Yesterday I made mention of watching a movie, and surprisingly I'm going to mention it again. I use the word 'surprisingly' because it came from Adam Sandler and company (a Happy Madison film) and yet I found bits of it to be rather a bit better than I expected.

As far as news on the baby front, we had something of a rough night in the hospital, but Jessica covered that far better than I could [in a journal entry lost to time], so click that if you wish, and I'll go back to discussing films.

Well, movies at least. "Film" may be aiming too high for a movie with Rob Schneider in it, since its own sights are set so low.

I've seen more than my fair share of the Happy Madison oeuvre, and I think the movies can be divided into two camps*: the movies that saddle a simple, decent story with goofy characters, meaningless side plots, in-jokes, bad accents and painful cameos and Rob Schneider; and the ones with everything I just listed but the simple, decent story.

So I make no bones about it: there are many, many things to dislike about this movie, and only four or five of them pertain to Rob Schneider and his hammy 'acting' and accent.

Several other of the bit players have roles that must have taken a good two or three brain cells a second or two to create. Sean Astin has fallen far to go from playing sturdy, dependable Sam the hobbit to Doug the lisping bodybuilder. Dan Aykroyd has done better and done worse, but I didn't stick around for enough of the credits for the animal cruelty disclaimer to see how the other whales were treated. I suspect more time was spent finding good trained dolphins, a walrus and a penguin than was spent on re-writes and dialogue coaching.

But enough about the negatives. Deep down at its core, this movie hinges around an intriguing, if not simple and convoluted idea. A capsule description probably doesn't sound too bad: A former playboy finds himself loving a sweet, damaged woman he must reintroduce himself to every day.

Even in executive summary form it doesn't sound so bad: Drew Barrymore plays a woman unable to form any memories lasting longer than a day because of a tragic accident. Adam Sandler plays a commitment-phobic marine veterinarian who finds himself smitten with her, and wants to add himself into the routine her father, brother and some friends have created to insulate her from her painful past and present. Despite the obvious difficulties, they fall in love, until she decides she's keeping him from his future by continually re-living her present.

Not so bad, eh? I actually found myself wondering, around the one hour mark, how they'd meet the critical romantic comedy requirement of "boy loses girl" but that is handily explained with a rather significant plot point that nobody found fit to mention beforehand. It's cumbersome and halfway predictable, but the story more or less makes up for it in the end.

Whether this is the contribution of first-time writer George Wing or an effort Adam and his chums have made is up in the air - I'll be looking forward to future movies George pens (like the upcoming Outsourced) more than I will the next Happy Madison product.

But is it worth slogging through all of the dreck to find the good bits? Would I have felt so sentimental if I weren't watching it with my new baby daughter laying asleep on my chest? Would I have enjoyed it more if I weren't so worn out and tired?

Possibly not. This matters not.

I have had an idea, though. What should be done in cases like these? Is there a way to throw out the bad and improve the good?

Of course there is: remake!

Why wait a decade or more to revisit this movie and freshen it up?

After all, nobody blinks when two blockbusters appear in theaters hinging around the same plot, the same action-packed set pieces. Why wonder if the second film just takes a little bit longer?

Perhaps this is a cause for the French to take up. Hollywood has a long history of remaking their films romantic, comedic and otherwise; why not do one the other way?

Or maybe Bollywood will take up the challenge. For all I know, they already have.

* I checked to make sure: Punch drunk love was not a Happy Madison production.

Nor was The wedding singer, but probably only because the company was formed to make (the first) Deuce Bigalow.

15 July 2006

who cuts in line for the Bobcat, anyway?

I haven't been to Cedar Point in a year. The only time I go anymore, despite its being a relatively easy two-hour drive north, has been the annual company family day at the park.

It was a hot sunny day in the park, and I found myself glad to have grabbed a hat at the last minute. Years ago a friend of ours had lost a bucket hat on the Mean Streak, and while I was leery of wearing the one hat I own (that I'm comfortable wearing) to the park, I'm glad I did. I may have looked strange constantly flipping the brim to the back, but it kept the sun off my neck and face and left me with no sunburn.

Having mentioned the Mean Streak, I'd like to point out that it's still the best wooden roller coaster I've ever ridden, and holds its own against many of its metal brothers in the park. What I noticed this year for the first time is that it has an amazing view of the park (situated northernmost as it is) that I someday must somehow take a picture of it. I did have a cheapie disposable (film) camera and took a surreptitious shot here and there that I'll probably develop in a year or two, but I doubt many came out well. I wasn't at the park to take pictures anyway; I was there to have fun.

Which I did. I rode many of the big-ticket attractions, and even some of the less-popular ones. Since they add one major attraction every year, some of the older ones lose their luster even though they're still solid rides. Immediately the Magnum XL-2000 comes to mind.

In any other park, one that doesn't have Magnum Force and the Raptor, the Magnum XL-2000 (what a stupid name. Didn't they realize it would stand for more than a year?) would easily be the best 'coaster in the park. It was, at one time, the fastest and tallest in the world. Just because it doesn't hold the top honors anymore doesn't mean it's any slower or shorter.

And the lap bars are so much more forgiving than the newer coasters. Not that I need extra space; I like to have it loose so I can (nearly) stand up atop that tall hill. Few thrills match the pause between the front reaching the apex of the hill and when the back, just before the train hurtles everybody back groundward. It's the perfect moment for a 'V for Victory' or 'Invincible!' (or even 'I am not a crook') yell, arms thrust skyward. Trust me, and try it at your own peril.

Even less popular than the Magnum is the Gemini. The Gemini can't compare for height, or speed, or much else except for the fact that it's a fun ride. I don't know how many other double coasters there are in the world, let alone ones on which the operators sometimes run a train backward, but this one's worth it. The line's always short, and even choosy people can be in any seat they want in under fifteen minutes. I've seen more people running straight from the exit back into the entrance on that ride than any other. Not bad for one that only reaches a height of 125 feet and speeds no faster than 60 mph.

Oddly enough it is those very same numbers they mention in the pre-launch routine on their newest ride, the SkyHawk, though the riders of the Gemini aren't facing almost straight down when it happens. SkyHawk is a giant swing, and the ride's over much more quickly, and yet the line was easily five times longer than the Gemini's. It's newest, and the operators were only running one of the two arms, but for the wait the ride wasn't all that great. In a few years, when the hype has died back down and fewer people ride it, it might be a worthwhile thing to do, but until then I think I'll stick to the coasters.

Speaking of the line for the SkyHawk, though, I was forced to do something I've never done before: snitch on fellow riders. After about half an hour of waiting thee teenage boys climbed under the railing to join a sullen and lonely girl a few people ahead of me. She was happy to see them, but the couple next to me and the youngish frat boys/Abercrombie customers weren't so pleased to see the kids. We spent the remaining ten or twelve minutes of waiting giving each other suspicious, telling glances, or discussing the kids, deciding that "somebody" should "do something" about it.

When the time came to stand on the circles for the seats, the three boys bounced ahead like they'd done nothing wrong, and it wasn't until I tapped the line attendant and pointed out that they were, in fact, evil line-jumpers before anything could happen. Signs all over the park point out that line-jumpers will get tossed out, but I'd never seen it actually done. Having fingered the guilty parties, I looked away to avoid (presumably) their withering stares, as they were led out of the ride. I don't actually know if they were ejected from the park (for them to use that term makes me laugh, since Cedar Point has no shortage of rides that could easily launch a normal-sized adult well over the fence and into the parking lot) or merely the ride, but when the people around them thanked me I felt a tad bit better. I was the bad guy to the kids, but a minor hero for the rest of the people around me. All was soon forgotten in the last few minutes of waiting, as the frat boys were admonished by the dad of a youngish girl near them to keep their hands off his daughter. This became a running joke for the couple-minute runtime of the ride, and before long I didn't feel too bad about the three rule-breakers. Sadly no employees had seen them cut, but it would seem that few people would ever get thrown out if customer witnesses aren't enough.

Not an hour later, though, while I was standing in line for the Bobcat (a pint-sized coaster distinguishable for having a single-car "train" more than anything else) three people again jumped the line in front of me. They weren't even kids, but unattractive, smelly adults, and the woman behind me only grunted when she saw it happen. She didn't even shrug, and without backup from her I wouldn't be able to get this trio in trouble. So I let them ride, and thought almost nothing of it thereafter. I had bigger fish to fry, like scaring the small children that the operator put in the seat in front of me, the ones who quickly converted from "I'm scared!" to "Let's ride it again!" though they were on their own for the return trip - one ride on the Bobcat is enough for me for each visit to the park.

So should I have snitched on the grownups, for skipping ten or fifteen minutes of a line? It's against the policy to skip any line, but hey, it's just the Bobcat. Punsihment for jumping that line should be less severe, like making them stand in line instead for the Iron Dragon* or something.

* The Iron Dragon is, to my knowledge, the only coaster in the park that spends more time going uphill than down, though I wasn't able to time the Top Thrill Dragster. That'd be a close call. I'm not saying the Iron Dragon's not a passable ride, just that riders spend more time on the clack-clack-clack uphill portions of track than anything else. This was the first visit wherein I did not ride the Iron Dragon at least once.

24 April 2006

three movies in search of a more forgiving audience

... at least, more forgiving than I'm willing to be.

I realize I'm probably at least twice the target demographic for Jon Favreau's Zathura (and I've never seen Jumanji, to boot), but I don't know if that can explain my dissatisfaction with the film. I'm not entirely certain I can explain it well, but I'll try.

First, an aside. Why didn't the people who put together the trailer (really just the first important scenes of the movie) have any input on the cover art? The trailer, to its credit, revealed a lot without giving too much away, and left rather major plot points out entirely. The cover, on the other hand, pretty much ruins the surprise on most everything. This is something that is not limited merely to this film, or its cover. Lots of DVDs have covers and menus and whatnot that spoil stuff, but this time around the trailer seemed so well crafted and the cover so, well, not, that I thought it merited mention.

The trailer wasn't the only thing done well. The two kids are very believable as two brothers, and their actions for the most part ring true. At one point the younger brother hits the older one in the face with a ball, not out of malice but simply because it seemed like something to do. Something in his expression or manner shows that so well. The kids, both of them, did a good job but they deserved better.

First of all, they were slaves to the game. Nothing they did had any bearing on the final outcome, save for occasionally figuring out how they were supposed to use what they were given. In those cases there was only one way to do things, so they were trapped anyway.

Second, they were robbed of characterization when from the first few minutes it became obvious that the two of them, initially at odds, would become best buddies forever. Moreover one of the boys doesn't really get much of an arc at all, other than he's a tad bit less timid at the end than the begninning. He's on screen almost the entire time, doesn't he deserve a little bit of personal growth?

Of course, this is a movie for kids, and they won't really care about those things. They probably won't care about oversights and shortcuts taken in the special effects, the most glaring of which is the static 'stars' outside the windows that are so obviously a wall four feet away. If Star trek: the next generation could get this right on TV couldn't they have done the same? After all the effort put into effects like the meteor shower, overlooking something like that seemed just cheap to me. But the kids won't notice. Nor will you, if you don't know what you're seeing (if you haven't been told, of course. Sorry).

Next up, Charlie and the chocolate factory. Few so-called family movies are more divisive* than 1971's Willy Wonka and the chocolate factory: In none of the conversations mentioning that movie I recall did anyone admit to being lukewarm or wishy-washy on it. People love or hate it. Those who love it, really love it, though, and as such a remake was all but inevitable. It's a shame that with the improved technology, the filmmakers didn't spend time on an improved story (or even one to rival the first film or original book).

The movie's actually dumbed down. The story's dumbed down and Willy himself is dumbed down. The writers found fit to add not only scenes to show things that don't need to be shown, but also entire subplots to explain things that don't matter. In previous incarnations, Mr. Wonka was an enigma, and even now we don't need to know his life story. And to contradict what I said about Zathura: just because he's a major character doesn't mean he needs a character arc. After all, his name's not the one in the title anymore.

This is not to say that some of the new additions are unwelcome. The Small World-esque sequence at the factory in the beginning is an intriguing idea, and pays off unexpectedly later in an almost throwaway bit you'll miss if you blink ("This is the puppet hospital and burns center. It's relatively new"). The design of the glass elevator was much closer to Roald Dahl's original vision (and illustrations, if I recall) than the one in the 70s film, and they used it the way they should, as an elevator that could go in any direction, and, as such, was done well (though I thought back to the very similar Magrathea bit in The Hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy that at the time was simultaneously cool and tedious). The squirrels bit is amazing, at least until the plot takes hold again. The new approach to the Oompa Loompas was refreshing, if for nothing else to be rid of the hideously ugly costumes and makeup. The new Oompa songs, though, were a failure of style over substance, in that I couldn't make out a good half of the lyrics and was far too distracted by the visuals (elaborate staging and production design) to want to try much harder. Most of the other new problems suffered similarly in execution, but weren't as good of ideas.

Johnny Depp plays Willy as an aloof idiot, and talks in a manner that mixes the worst of David Spade, Dana Carvey's Church Lady, and a four year old. He doesn't just talk like an idiot, he often acts like one too, walking into the glass doors of his elevator not once but twice. Humor doesn't work like that, at least not for me. The kids are a mixed bag as well, acting into cliches more than characters, but Charlie and his family come off as more or less genuine, a feat none of the other characters even approaches.

But still the question remains: why did they need to bludgeon us with the message about family**? Why did Willy need to change? We may never know the answers, at least not until the next producers and writers take this on in the next remake cycle. Give it another 35 years, and we'll see.

Rather than remaking any one of the 'classic' Universal Studios monster movies, the makers of Van Helsing chose to appropriate the star attractions of pretty much all of them. Frankenstein's monster met the Wolf Man back in 1943 (and then Abbott and Costello and Dracula too) but rarely since have so many monsters shared the screen in the same two hours. Trivia buffs more well-versed than I am in these 'classics' point out that there wasn't a Universal Jekyll and Hyde film other than the Abbott and Costello spoof, but that part does make for a very watchable sequence and does somewhat propel the movie forward. That's all the movie does, all the way through - rush forward without many a moment to waste. It follows the video game pacing (that Scott Tobias mentions in his review of Silent hill) of action-exposition-action-exposition for a while, but soon leaves out the exposition altogether and we're left seemingly knowing even less than the characters do.

The effects are mostly good and the atmosphere okay, if a bit drab, but so much is so silly for me to take this movie seriously. All but its most ardent fans will admit it's a mindless popcorn film, but when I watched it I guess that wasn't enough.

So these movies weren't exactly horrible, but none were great. In my opinion. Which we know can't count for too much, because I can recall thinking that Spawn wasn't all that bad, at the time, and am willing to admit that now. If you've seen it, that should clear things up. If you haven't, well, don't. Give one of these three a try instead, and who knows, maybe you'll like them more than I did.

* One word that always, always, always eludes me is the one that you use to describe this sort of thing: Opinions are divided completely for or against; there is no middle ground. The word occasionally comes to me, but when it doesn't I can't find it, and founder about with the wrong words like "galvanizing" and "catalyzing". I know I'm on the right track with those two, as the word I seek is vaguely scientific, but neither is the right one. Each time I recall or rediscover it, I know it right away, but every single time I've forgotten, and the quest begins anew. What is this word? It's more than just "controversial" and "divisive", it's... what?

** To see a movie that gets the whole 'family' message right, watch Disney's Lilo and Stitch. There's a movie about families (and aliens), not a movie about a boy and a chocolate factory and other stuff with a family message and subplot grafted on as an afterthought.

9 March 2006

shortsighted outlook

If Microsoft Outlook (the second-newest version) is so advanced, why doesn't it have a simple image viewer built-in for attached photos? It understands images, since it renders them in the messages, but it farms out attachments to whatever the system uses for viewing images.

On other file types (PDFs, ZIP archives, Office files, etc) this makes sense*, but not on images. When I'm reading a message with seven photos attached, I want to be able to toggle back and forth between them without going back to the message window. My image viewer of choice (IrfanView) can only open one at a time, since they are dowloaded to the temporary directory when you load the image, not the message.

I cannot say exactly how much time and productivity I've lost over the years of using Outlook, but I'm certain it can be measured in minutes... sheer tens of minutes.

* Even then, I must but wonder why a program that can embed Microsoft Word as an editor (and probably a viewer) isn't smart enough to take a message that contains no text, only a .DOC attachment (or worse yet, PowerPoint) and save me a click or two by just displaying the attachment.

I mean, if you're gonna make an email program dumb enough to trust every file it gets, why not make it smart enough to make things easier?