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Archive for May, 2011

1.  Decide that, since you’re going to be baking cinnamon rolls on Tuesday anyway, you might as well make a delicious pie.

2.  Go to the store a few days prior to pick up supplies.  You have the foresight to buy more sugar and flour, but you walk right past the cornstarch.  No one ever uses the cornstarch; there should be more than enough left for you to make the glaze for the pie. (more…)

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I’m not sure there are words that fully encompass how much I did not really care for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.  While it isn’t a bad film by any means–it’s fairly easy to follow, and the plot isn’t nearly as tangled as the previous Pirates sequels’ were–it seemed utterly devoid of all the things that made me enjoy the first three films to begin with.  It’s never a good sign when I start checking my watch during a film, and I started looking at mine (and looked at it several times more) barely forty-five minutes into On Stranger Tides.

Set some time after the conclusion of previous film At World’s End, On Stranger Tides finds Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp)’s world turned rather upside-down: he’s stranded in London without a ship.  It’s then that he hears, much to his surprise, that Captain Jack Sparrow is in London, hiring a crew for some kind of mysterious mission.   He discovers upon investigation that this impostor Sparrow is in truth Angelica (Penelope Cruz), an old flame of his who’s  bent on discovering the fabled Fountain of Youth.  Oh, and she’s also (possibly) the daughter of the infamous Blackbeard (Ian McShane), who wants to find the fountain to forestall his own death.  To top it all off, Angelica and Blackbeard aren’t the only ones searching for the fountain: the Spanish are in search of it as well, and pirate-turned-privateer Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) is hot on their trail.

Overall, On Stranger Tides is a decent film.  It’s not nearly as convoluted as its predecessors, which many might count as a strike in its favor.  The action sequences are all fairly well done, and the more fantastic elements (particularly the mermaids that appear about halfway into the film) are fascinating.  Overall, however, it all fell extremely flat for me.  I don’t know if it’s because I’m a much more cynical moviegoer than I was four years ago, when At World’s End came out, or if it’s because there is actually something very different about the construction and feel of this film.  Rob Marshall (Chicago, Nine) is the director this time around, replacing the original trilogy’s Gore Verbinski; perhaps the different “flavor” to the film is in part due to his guidance.

Mostly what I think is lacking from this installment is a sense of fun.  There were certainly a few instances where I laughed, but they were few and far between, and I found myself, early on, missing all those interesting supporting misfits that made the first three films a delight even when the main characters were being more cerebral.  Even Rush and Depp seem subdued this time around.  What doesn’t help is the fact that all those loveable misfits (such as Pintel and Ragetti) have been summarily replaced with poor man’s substitutes, almost without explanation.  (There is an implied explanation, but it’s never stated outright.)  While I think it was probably a good idea to “trim the fat,” as it were, with this next film, it still feels like the heart of swashbuckling fun that made the first three films so enjoyable has been carved right out of the franchise’s chest, a la Davy Jones.

The problem I have with On Stranger Tides, I think, is that it never, ever makes me care about what’s going on, even a little.  Things happen; then more things happen.  The first hour or so of the film almost literally played out as an alternating sequence of action sequences and ridiculously obvious scenes of exposition.  There was maybe one or two scenes where I actually felt something between the characters onscreen, some sense of development or thoughtfulness, but it would be instantly killed again by an action sequence or yet more exposition.  I spent a good portion of the movie just sitting there, staring at the screen and wishing that the movie would be close to over.  I even contemplated getting up and walking out a few times.  It felt like a rather rote film, all in all, lurching without life from one plot point to the next, only barely giving the audience a sign that we should care about the proceedings.

(Also, this is a bit of a nitpick for me as a lover of good movie scores, but: Hans Zimmer did not impress me this time around.  I’m not sure that’s entirely his fault, because he can be fantastic when he’s on a good film–see the previous two Pirates entries, Inception, etc.–but the score honestly felt like nothing but a loud, brassy rehash of themes from the other films.  There was nothing new, and the music honestly felt ridiculously out of place sometimes, as though director Marshall wasn’t quite sure what to do with it.)

Overall, On Stranger Tides is an okay film.   It’s not great, it’s not terrible.  It is a thing, and to be honest, it is a thing that isn’t really my cup of tea.

2/5

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I Love Portal

I realize that I am extremely late to the Portal party–the original game came out in 2007, though it has reentered the Internet’s consciousness thanks to the recent release of Portal 2.  I found out about “the cake is a lie” back when it was actually a new meme, and even back then I thought the concept of the game was pretty neat.  I’ve fiddled around with the Flash version a time or two, and I’ve had “Still Alive” on my iPod for over a year now, I think.  But I still didn’t really bother with actually tracking down the game so I could play it myself.

This is partly because I am not a video game person.  Yes, I own a Nintendo DS, but I only have four games for it: Brain Age and three different versions of Pokemon.  And the thing I love about those games is that they don’t require a lot of button mashing or hand-eye coordination, which are two things that always trip me up in “regular” games.  I’m even kind of crappy at MarioKart because I can’t drive in a straight line.  (Thankfully this doesn’t cross over to real life. Thankfully.)  I’ve tried my hand at Zelda a couple of times (Ocarina of Time and Wind Waker, for the curious), but I’m still REALLY BAD at video games.  I tend to die a lot, mostly because I can’t stop flailing around long enough to actually beat the bad guys, and I must admit that I find all of the button-mashing necessary to beat said bad guys to be more than a little intimidating.

So what does this have to do with Portal?  Well.  This is actually kind of a long story, but I think it starts with my brother linking me to “Want You Gone”, the ending song from Portal 2.  It’s kind of spoilery, so I won’t link it here, but it is another fantastic effort from Jonathan Coulton (who will never not be awesome).

I think it’s prudent to mention at this point that I am a fan of the Vlogbrothers on YouTube.  They’re two brothers–YA author John Green, and environmental blogger/Internet entrepreneur Hank Green–who’ve been making videos back and forth for four and a half years now.  Very awesome, I highly recommend.  Hank recently started a Let’s Play channel, Hank Games, and he recently played through Portal and is currently playing through Portal 2.

So a couple weeks ago, while I was still in the throes of finishing up my classes and getting ready for finals and all that jazz, I sat down on a Thursday afternoon and, on a whim, started watching Hank’s playthrough of Portal.  I ended up watching the whole thing, and I watched through what he had up of Portal 2.  I basically thought it was all fantastic, and that it furthermore looked like something I could do without dying a whole lot.

I wibbled for a few days on whether or not I should actually buy the game, and then on the following weekend, I found out it was only $10 as a download on Steam, and the rest, as they say, is history.  I started playing the game last Saturday, and beat it this past Sunday night.  It was a very triumphant moment for me, mostly because I don’t beat video games.  The whooping cheers I let loose as I watched GLaDOS fall apart were pretty similar to the cheers I let out last summer when I finally beat the Elite Four and Lance in Pokemon SoulSilver.  I am not a video game person; the fact that I can beat a video game–ANY video game–without handing the controller over to someone with better aim, hand-eye coordination, and button-mashing skills than myself is an ENORMOUS ACCOMPLISHMENT for me.  So I really loved that Portal was not only easy enough for me to grasp and actually play with some degree of skill, but also easy enough for me to BEAT.

Which isn’t to say that I didn’t die–I did die a lot, especially in the later parts of the game.  But it never stopped being fun, and it also never stopped being absolutely fantastic.  It’s a really delightful blend of fun and creepy; even though I spent much of the second half of the game metaphorically looking over my shoulder but feeling very realistically freaked out.  Granted, this might partly be because I tend to get way too involved in any media I’m engaging myself with, whether it’s a book or a movie or a video game.  But even so, I think it’s a testament to the atmosphere the game creates as you move from one arena of play to another.  Everything’s mostly okay for the first half of the game–the only really creepy things are the sense that GLaDOS isn’t all there and the turrets (FREAKING TURRETS)–but once you move out of the test chambers, it falls over into full-on creepiness, which is amazing, if extremely unsettling for an easily disturbed person like myself.

And despite the fact that the game freaked me the hell out on numerous occasions, I still loved it.  It’s got a wonderfully snarky sense of humor in GLaDOS, and once I (mostly) got the hang of the controls and the first-person shooter style of the game itself, things worked out pretty well for me.  It’s fun, and I like very much that it’s a game that a Non-Video Game Person like myself can play and enjoy.  I’ve only played through it once so far, but I imagine I’ll keep playing it far into the future.

Though another playthrough will probably have to wait until after I’ve made my way through Portal 2, which I ordered this weekend.  (Thoughts on Portal 2 will likely be forthcoming as I make my way through it.  Wheeeeeee.)

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Review: ‘Thor’

I will admit right here at the start that I was a little underwhelmed by Thor.  That’s not to say it’s a terrible movie, though–it’s actually highly entertaining, and I have to give Marvel Studios some credit: since they started with Iron Man in 2008, they’ve yet to release a film that is a bona fide stinker.

Back to Thor, though: directed by Kenneth Branaugh, Thor is about the headstrong god of thunder (played by Chris Hemsworth), who lives in the realm of Asgard with other famous figures from Norse mythology, namely his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston).  To be brief about it, Thor does something rather stupid at the start of the film that puts Asgard in danger of entering war with another of the realms.  To punish him, Odin strips him of his power and banishes him to the realm of Midgard, otherwise known as Earth.

It is on Earth that Thor meets astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), and the film basically follows them as Jane tries to work on her scientific research, Thor tries to find a way back to Asgard, and Loki is, to put it bluntly, up to several kinds of no good.

As I mentioned above, Thor is a highly entertaining film, but it isn’t what I would call perfect.  The visual effects aren’t anything to write home about, though the big sweeping shots of Asgard were pretty breathtaking at points.  I think my issues with the film largely arise from the construction of the narrative, which feels oddly disjointed as the film progresses.  The characters aren’t working towards any sort of immediately pressing goal that binds the film together as whole, as is usually seen in films like these.  I think maybe part of the reason the narrative bothered me was because it doesn’t follow the usual narrative structure of superhero films like these: rather than seeing the hero gain his power and figure out how to use it, we’re seeing a hero who has power, loses it, and spends a good part of the film trying to get it back.  As for the disjointedness, I think it might arise from the fact that the film is constantly switching between Earth and Asgard, which is a little bit jarring since the Asgard scene feel more like something out of a fantasy epic, while the Earth scenes are far  more grounded and modern.  And since the plots in the two realms are only very distantly related to one another, it sometimes felt like I was watching two different movies that had accidentally been spliced together in the editing room.

However, Thor is saved largely by the strength of its cast and their performances.  Hemsworth does an excellent job as the titular character, instilling him with just enough arrogance that the audience thinks he’s an idiot, but not enough to make the character completely unlikeable.  He also handles Thor’s character development as the film progresses quite well, and in the end creates a character that is worth rooting for.  I also thoroughly enjoyed Portman’s performance as Jane–she’s an Awesome Science Lady doing Awesome Science Things, but she’s still a little adorably dorky at times.

The secondary characters are excellent as well.  I really enjoyed Kat Dennings’ performance as Darcy, Jane’s college intern assistant, and I was delighted to see Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson crossing over from the Iron Man films.  (I have adored Coulson since the first Iron Man, and it’s always really fun to see him being all soft-spoken and awesome all over the place.)  There are many more secondary characters I could mention here, but I’d be in danger of going on forever if I did that, so suffice to say that they are all excellent, and they do a great job of helping to hold the film up.

Overall, Thor is an enjoyable start to the summer movie season.  It’s not totally spectacular, but it’s still a solid piece of film, and another well-made entry in Marvel Studios’ filmography.

3.5/5

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