★★★★☆
Review

The Big U

!>/files/2007/11/0-380-81603-2.jpg(The Big U)! I can’t remember the last time I read an entire book in a day, but when I picked up Neal Stephenson’s 1984 debut novel in the afternoon I found that I kept coming back to it as the day wore on, only to finally finish it early in the morning. Staying up this late almost makes me feel like I’m back in college, and the subject matter certainly doesn’t hurt that view.

_The Big U_ begins as a straight satire of life at a big public university. The setting is American Megaversity, the campus of which is made up of one massive building — the Megaplex — 20 stories tall and spanning nine city blocks of an unnamed metropolis with an unsurprising resemblance to the Boston University environs. Stephenson effortlessly skewers pretty much every single aspect of college life, from a bureaucracy seized with political correctness disorder to asinine course requirements, uncaring students, a useless student government, and tenured faculty content to coast along.

And lets not even discuss the massive central cafeteria constructed to feed 20,000, with its huge pressurized vats of processed food pastes and enriched soy substitutes.

As the story unfolds, characters end up interacting with radical student groups, strange religious cults, crazy academic departments, and a maintenance staff composed entirely of refugees from a Eastern European country with an unpronounceable name. And lets not even discuss the massive central cafeteria constructed to feed 20,000, with its huge pressurized vats of processed food pastes and enriched soy substitutes, or the complex battle plan used to respond quickly and efficiently to the ever-present threat posed by food fights.

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Review

Syriana

This synopsis contains comprehensive spoilers for _Syriana_.

Having finally seen this thought-provoking film and understood much but by no means all of it, I’m providing a fairly complete story synopsis that might serve to clarify things a bit. I really recommend seeing the film first, as it was quite good (and in storytelling somewhat similar to _Traffic_).

Syriana is a complex and layered film that in the end is concerned with only one thing: examining the political and human consequences of the oil trade. Early on, we meet Bob Barnes, a CIA agent who performs his duties without question or complaint in the service of his country, even though it has cost him his relationships with his wife and son. Bob is involved in an arms deal that goes wrong when one of the two shoulder-mounted missile launchers disappears into the arms of a mysterious blue-eyed Egyptian rather than blowing up and killing the targeted terrorists.

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★★★★☆
Review

High School Musical

!>/files/2006/02/hsmusical.jpg(High School Musical)! This gem of a Disney Channel Original Movie (or DCOM, for short) is called _High School Musical_ but is targeted — as you might suspect — at middle schoolers. The plot is minimal and contrived, the characters are stereotypical and completely flat, the ending preordained, and the movie, on the whole, absolutely wonderful.

Troy the basketball star and Gabrielle the mathlete are paired off against their will at a New Years karaoke party and discover their hitherto unknown shared passion for singing. They think it is a chance meeting on vacation, but (shock!) soon find that they are attending the same high school, which just happens to be casting its winter musical. Troy is afraid of what his basketball buddies might think of his thing for singing, Gabrielle is reluctant to take on such a public activity before she has gotten her bearings at her new school. The two, a bit perturbed by how the school’s resident diva is treating the student composer, decide to try out after all, and just like that we’re off to the races.

The tertiary characters — jocks, “brainiacs,” band geeks, and the like, are stereotyped to the point of absurdity, which is probably the idea, and the school is thrown into chaos when Troy’s brash action causes others to start revealing their secret obsessions and crossing boundaries that shouldn’t be crossed. The ball player who bakes is my favorite. His crème brûlée obsession makes me hungry. 🙂

Between unintentionally funny dialogue and the occasional hilariously cheesy joke we have catchy if simplistic tunes that will stick in your head. While the various factional leaders attempt to break up Troy and Gabrielle, they soon discover the error of their ways and everything turns out okay in the end, as you might suspect. The only obvious thing that this movie lacks is the main character’s kiss, tactfully broken up by a basketball. Guess Disney wanted to keep that G rating.

Me, my sister, and my roommate agree — High School Musical is a blast. It’s also Disney’s most popular DCOM to date, with over 7 million viewers on its first night. If you get a chance, check it out. You (probably) won’t regret it!

★★☆☆☆
Review

Elektra

Fiddling with my silly DVR tonight I accidentally stumbled upon this Marvel Comic-inspired film on HBO-HD. The visuals are beautiful, the cinematography captivating, and the main character, played by Jennifer Garner, is deep and interesting. And that’s about it. I can’t summarize the plot because, having seen the movie, I don’t understand it. The bad guys have annoying superpowers, everybody is a ninja, and standard action film cliches apply. Elektra’s childhood backstory, wonderfully flashbacked, never leads anywhere interesting.

In general the plot is straight-forward and easy to follow — girl with strange gifts (she can see glimpses of the immediate future), mother killed when she was young, young woman full of anger, finds work as a hired assassin, caring teacher and mentor, woman ends up on a path to redemption — except that there is cleary so much more (probably explained in the comics) that is only barely hinted at and then tossed aside, haphazardly, leaving the viewer with a sense that there is probably a lot of meat here, if only someone wanted to take the time to clue us in. Then Elektra decides to save her latest assasination targets (a father and young daughter) rather than killing them, and all kinds of weird superpowered villains appear, from nowhere in particular, to finish the job. Elektra fights, as you might expect. We never quite understand why.

Clearly this is no a movie I can recommend if one is looking for any depth. As a standard action film it is so-so. Which is sad, because the locations they filmed in were marvelously deep and interesting and beautiful and infused with personality, the visuals were captivating, some of the fight scenes were delightful (if one can ignore Elektra’s hideous red costume), Jennifer Garner’s portrayal of the main character was so full of promise, and even the score (by _Buffy_ composer Christophe Beck) was pleasant. Sadly, all of that counts for little when there isn’t a plot.

If you’re looking for something with which to enjoy your new HD setup, though, this fits the bill quite well.

★★★★☆
Review

Ragtime

Last weekend was my last “free” weekend before work began, and I decided to celebrate by traveling to New York City to visit with Shaina, who is there for a summer program, and Amy, of whom I haven’t seen much lately. The impetus for the journey was finding out that the Paper Mill was staging Ragtime, but only for a few more days. Ragtime being one of my favorite shows, if not the favorite, I looked forward to the opportunity to see it again.

It was an excellent production. Broadway-caliber. Others who have seen it noted that the “stripped-down” staging put more emphasis on the characters and removed some of the “ponderousness” of the original production. First let me say that I agree with most of Seth’s short review, namely that several of the actors were superb, and I note his omission of the man who played Coalhouse. His voice bugged me. I also wasn’t fond of the little boy in the sailor suit (as he is referred to in the novel). But I wholeheartedly disagree with Seth’s point in re: the set.

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★★★★☆
Review

Saved!

This Memorial Day weekend was an opportunity to watch a few movies I’ve wanted to see for a while. Saved! is a play on modern Christian schooling and born-again values. Good Christian Mary ends up pregnant (get it?) and devestated when a “vision” from God tells her to cure her “perfect Christian boyfriend” of his gay affliction. See folks, this is what happens when all you teach is abstinance — no one knows what a condom is.

As her super-Christian friend Hilary Faye abandons her, Mary starts abandoning her faith and turns to bad girl and social outcast Cassandra (get it?), the only Jew in the Baptist high school, and Hilary Faye’s brother Roland, who is paralyzed and in a wheelchair (get it?). Minister Skip, the “hip” servant of God, tries to do what is right while harboring uncouth feelings for Mary’s mom, and his son Patrick, who just got back from missionary work (get it?) is attracted to Mary and consoles her with his own brand of faith against his father’s wishes. Meanwhile Mary’s boyfriend is hauled off to a degayifying err… –re-education support facility. Where he is housed with another “troubled” gay roommate, of course.

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★★★☆☆
Review

Camp

Camp is a sendup of musical theater camps and the crazed teens that attend them. They don’t fit in at home, but they fit in at camp, where they rehearse for 12 hours a day to put on a new play every two weeks. All of the guys are gay, of course, which leaves plenty of room for all-American newcomer Vlad to get with every girl in the place. Meanwhile Ellen deals with her self-confidence, cross-dresser Michael deals with his parents, and washed up playwright Bert deals with his bitterness (mostly through alcohol).

It’s cute. It has a lot of jokes that (apparently) only theater people will get. But where Saved! succeeds in spoofing by easing off and presenting a reality, Camp fails by trying too hard, lacking any focus, and being more worried about the song and dance numbers (of which there are many, and they are really good) than the plot. There is a lot of potential here, and there is some humor, and there is some pain, but it is too muddled, the characters too boring, and the story too lacking in wit and cleverness to be really gripping.

See it if you have been to theater camp or wish you had. See it if you want to hear some good music, or if you revel in Sondheim. Don’t see it if you are a layperson looking for entertainment…Camp misses the mark.

Review

Scenes

Tonight I caught the second half of Scenes From An Execution for my lighting class. Based on what I saw and an one paragraph review I read, I gleaned the following plot:

The painter Galactia is commissionsed to produce a massive tribute to Venice’s victory in a military battle. She chooses, rather than glorifying the battle and the Venetian heroes of it, to produce a piece of art that depicts in massive detail the brutality and terror of war. Those who see her hundred foot long, thirty foot high masterpiece burst into tears at the monstrosity of it.

Why does Galactia do it? That I was not able to glean from the second act, but one could say she is sticking to her morals and her artistic self, or trying to make a point, or trying to differentiate herself as an artist, or maybe all three and more. She manages to anger both the state and the church, which both were responsible for waging the war of Christians against Muslims, and is eventually thrown into a dark, damp, disgusting jail cell to rot away her life.

Somewhere in this the relevent parties are persuaded to show the work, and in the end it is assimilated into Venetian culture, rationalized into the art world, and Galactia accepted as a celebrity.

Rather than sparking outrage or discussion or overthrow, Galactia’s painting becomes just another piece of art, and she herself just another artist. In the end she gives in completely to this defeat and goes to take her place in society.

For some reason immediately afterwards I was not saddened or depressed by the play, missing perhaps the significance of Galactia’s transformation and marvelling more at the accessibilty of this play at Brandeis (compared to others that frequently drive audiences away) and the lighting I had observed rather than the truth of the story, which conveys a timeless struggle of social and artistic outsider against an all-consuming society.

Since then, yes, I have become saddened by this. Specifically, I am applying this to my own life by looking at my routines and being disgusted that I am so normalized into the social fabric, that I do things every day and every week and have lots any sense of spontaneity or creativity. It is hard to get people to cut free from their routines and behaviors and just enjoy things on an emotional level. The everpresent repression of conformity is constantly at work against you,a nd it is impossible to ever truly be free, unique, individual.

Perhaps I did not at first see the sadness in the play because I did not at first think that societal influence is such a terrible, repressive thing. I still do not believe that. The benefits of society are such that we all chose to live within it. If Galactia was concerned only with being true to herself, then why try so hard to convince others of the rightness of her cause? Why be so worried about what others think and feel, why tie your own sense of self so strongly to their feelings and reactions?

We choose to live in society because of the many benefits it provides, not the least of which is the fundamental benefits of socialization, shared realities, shared thoughts and experiences. But we are never really wary enough of the many negatives of such a system, and we frequently sacrifice being true to ourselves in order to be more true to social norms. That is what makes me sad. We cannot break free, but we choose not to break free. But perhaps we need not grip so tightly, perhaps we can do just as well, better even, by holding on with just one hand.

Review

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

What if you could have all memory of a person erased from your mind? It sounds like a gimmicky premise for a movie, but Eternal Sunshine is not one ounce gimmick. What it is instead is a pure and beautiful artistry, an intricately woven story communicated brilliantly in bright, dancing color. The movie winds its way backwards through a two year relationship, stopping frequently for side diversions and running commentary. In the end, everything makes sense.

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☆☆☆☆☆
Review

The Bourne Supremacy

In the first of many sequels to The Bourne Identity, Jason Bourne gets back into the killing swing of things and leaves trails of bad-guy carnage across several European countries. And possibly some non-European countries. Its hard to tell.

Slivers of explanation and tons of extreme close-ups make this film almost incomprehensible, especially if you are unfortunate enough to be sitting in the front row of a packed theater. Bourne is running from place to place, beating up various people, but we’re never quite sure why. Once everything is resolved, the film goes on for another 30 minutes or so, culminating in a massive and useless car chase followed by some time set aside for repentance.

Some have suggested that Jason Bourne might be the new 007. Yeah, I’d buy that. While I thought Identity was intriguing, mysterious, and fun, Supremacy was just boring and gaudy, and the camera work made me seasick.

Review

The Frogs

Nathan Lane wrote the book to this revival of a 1974 adaptation of a Aristophanes play from 400 BCE. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Lane stars as Dionysos, the (half-)god of drama who, with his slave Zanthias (Chris Kattan) travels to the underworld to find an artist and playwright who can awaken the modern day world out of its stupor and put inspire us to right wrongs and improve society. Seems basic enough.

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★★★★★
Review

Lost In Translation

Now I’ve seen Lost in Translation twice, brooded over it, been dazzled by it, and am ready to comment on it. Occasionally a movie comes along that defies description, where plot is subservient to feelings, emotions, characters. In Lost in Translation there is little plot, but much longing. Longing to find one’s place amid the chaos and confusion. Longing for connection in an age of consumption. Longing to understand one’s purpose and destiny.

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★★★★☆
Review

Babylon 5

The show is corny but highly captivating. I’m really enjoying it, and it is fascinating to watch a show where every episode is penned by the same hand. It’s kinda like the glory days of West Wing when Sorkin wrote everything, and it’s amazing to think about. But it’s also kinda funny because you learn what to expect, not just from the various characters, but in terms of reactions of characters in general, because J. Michael Straczynski writes in a certain predictable way regardless of who he is voicing. Much unlike West Wing, B5 was planned out from the beginning in a five year arc, with the result being that every episode continues the overriding plots and characterizations. I really like the way the show continues and grows in each episode and we’re not stuck in the normal loop of most television.

Yeah, I like it. A lot. I’m a little over halfway through season 1, and it’s nice to know that I have another 90 or so episodes before me.

Review

Pirates of the Caribbean

You think Terminator 3 was excellent? Naw, it was just good. Okay, quite good. But it wasn’t excellent. You thought it was excellent because everything else that has come out recently has been such dreck. But you’re in luck, because there is a wonderfully stupendousely excellent movie out right now. Which one? Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Truly excellent. Sadly, the preview for Haunted Mansion, while intriguing in that it shows Disney is taking their Imagineering-movie crossovers to new levels (Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, anyone?) looks far less excellent. More like bad.

Here’s what my favorite geeky critic, MaryAnn Johanson, has to say about Pirates:

Forget that this is based on a ride at Disney World, and a pretty sorry one, at that — know that it’s a wonderfully exhausting, refreshingly unironic, delightfully old-fashioned swashbuckler. And it’s funny as hell, the funniest movie so far this year. And it’s scary, and exciting, and prankish, with a seemingly never-ending capacity to surprise. It may even be — much as it pains me to have to admit this about a Jerry Bruckheimer production — the hands-down best flat-out, full-blooded, guns-ablazin’ adventure movie to come out of Hollywood since… since… since, she sputtered, grasping for a comparison to do the film justice… since Raiders of the Lost Ark.

I would recommend seeing it now, in a crowded theater. While I generally like seeing movies a week after they’re released, in the afternoon, in a fairly empty theater, I feel that the wonderful comedy of this movie would have been better served if I had had a couple hundred other people to laugh along with me. So don’t wait for the DVD or the cheap theaters, go see this movie now. It really, truly, rocks. Johnny Depp is insanely brilliant (brilliantly insane?), Orlando Bloom is quite a swordsman, and Keira Knightley is a beautiful pleasure.

Review

The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe

Aunt Linda took me to the excellent The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe at the Ahmanson on opening night. Lily Tomlin’s one-woman show was pretty excellent, my only complaint being that I could see at least half the jokes coming. I think the LA Times review does better then I could, but I don’t know how long it will stay online now the LAT has adopted a subscription model, so I’ve mirrored it below. Here’s what the play is about, in a nutshell:

A homeless woman named Trudy is Earth’s contact person for a fact-finding committee of space aliens. Trudy may have a questionable grasp on reality, but she understands her fellow human beings pretty well, and this makes her a good tour guide.

There’s one concept she can’t quite get across, however. She shows the aliens a can of soup, then a picture of Andy Warhol’s rendering of a can of soup. The little guys can’t seem to distinguish soup from art. Which, perhaps, proves that they are a superior life form, because soup and art are both forms of nourishment.

Tomlin, at 63, is just as vibrant and energetic as ever. Who can blame the woman, after two hours of speaking and singing and running around and dancing, if she gets a lump in her throat?

Fragility and interconnectedness became especially evident at Wednesday’s opening when, in the midst of Lyn’s story, Tomlin’s voice seized in a cough and she had to walk to the side of the stage for a drink of water. Looking out at the audience while recovering, she asked, “So, how are you doing?” The crowd united in a deafeningly happy roar.

Tomlin stopped and said she needed a drink of water, then looked at her hand, where she had been grasping an imaginary water cup. “I would drink this one, but…” Giggle.

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★★★★☆
Review

Dangerous Beauty

Rachel somehow roped me in to watching Dangerous Beauty tonight. The story is about one of those girls born into an honorable but bankrupt family and forced to find something to do. This one becomes, pretty quickly actually, a courtesan. Overnight she is the temptress of Europe, the prostitute-diplomat, and then she gets what she wants, falls in love (with no consequences, so take that Moulin Rouge!) and finds happines. Along comes the plague, and pretty quickly she is brought to trial, and gets to put up a fun defense. I say all of this, giving away most of the movie’s plot, because even more was given away in the trailer. Almost makes you think the higher ups either a) couldn’t find enough else to make a trailer, or; b) didn’t see all this “story” as the main selling point.

I liked the wit employed, I liked Oliver Platt and the other main characters, but at the same time I found much of the plot predictible. The pacing was up, getting the initial story of unattainable love out of the way quickly, but the transition to courtesan was much too fast. I mean, this girl was shy and witty, and ten minutes later she was outgoing and caustic. They stopped for some great development and a sword fight, but then it picked up again and before you knew it there was a plague with little build-up. Most of the “beautiful” Venice shots seemed fake to me, and I never connected to the city as a living entity, something that seemed important to the plot and the ending. Furthermore, the final speechifying seemed to lack some of the elegance, grace, and wit (maybe edge?) of earlier dialogues — the heroine didn’t really take the right path.

I was left wondering if I was really supposed to care for these characters. The only ones I really liked were Oliver and Moira Kelly’s Beatrice. I liked the movie, but I saw a lot of things that could have been better.

★☆☆☆☆
Review

AntiTrust

So in CS today we watched AntiTrust, perhaps one of the worst computer movies in recent memory. The first problem, of course, is that it came out after the dot-com bust, making most of the story irrelevant. The evil Bill Gates guy just doesn’t really work, and the idea that you can take over a system of satellites just by typing in their IP addresses doesn’t make much sense. That’s kinda like dialing a telephone number to break into the FBI.

The whole corporation-bashing open-source zealot thing is also stupid. Having a movie studio say that “information wants to be free!” and then encoding their DVD with CSS so that it can’t be played in Linux is a bit…how do I say this…odd. Okay, so the story sucks and the characters are awful, but what about the tech? Yeah, okay, its pretty accurate. Although my webserver can’t handle 400 pageviews a second. So, all in all, a bad action movie with okay tech and a bit of Linux placement, but a craptacular story. Don’t watch it.