Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Necessary Roughness

USA Network strikes again.  They have rolled out another entertaining series with another likeable lead character in Necessary Roughness.  Characters welcome, indeed.

Callie Thorne from Rescue Me is charming and fun, if not a bit on the ditzy side, as recently divorced psychotherapist Danni Santino.  She has to deal with her unfamiliar singleness plus she has to cope with two teenage children who seem pretty normal to me.  Santino also has a new job – working with the problems of professional football players and their egos.

Santino technically works for the team and their shadowy, yet unseen owner.  She fiercely defends her patients’ confidentiality, even when threatened by the team henchman, Nico.  Her main patient is a petulant, childish, selfish, troubled, highly paid, yet talented, wide receiver named Terrence “TK” King, played to the hilt by Mehcad Brooks.  Viewers should really dislike TK but Brooks and the writers have shown us enough peaks into his fragile personality for us to be sympathetic.  He has definite issues with boundaries that make me cringe but his blossoming friendship with Santino’s son is endearing.

A lot works with Necessary Roughness, namely Thorne, who has a history of playing quirky, if not downright crazy, characters.  Here, she is sane but flighty and she shows us just enough quirkiness to keep us on our toes.  Thorne has real chemistry with most of the actors on the program.  Sexual tension is palpable with the team trainer, Matt Donnally, (Marc Blucas), as they struggle to ignore their mutual attraction because Santino is working with Donnally’s players.  Thorne and the young actors who play her children also are believable as teenagers trying to test their boundaries with their suddenly single mother.  She also has some great scenes with her best friend, Jeanette, played by the every perky Amanda Detmer.  Thorne also works well with Brooks as her therapist works to solve his character’s many issues

There are a few things that don’t work.  I could do without Santino’s mom.  Grandma has a serious, life long gambling problem and she eavesdrops on her daughter’s sessions with her patients.  I’m not a fan of the fact she still receives patients in her home.  Get an office for crying out loud.  She complains about TK’s relationship with her son yet doesn’t hold TK to her rules or move her office.  Nico, the team “secret agent”, skulks around, gathering personal information on Santino and her family to use against her. This character seems unrealistic and is there just to manufacture conflict.  I also think Santino needs to expand her patient base.  The problems of football players and other athletes who work for the team owner are going to get old quick and it leaves Santino vulnerable relying one just menacing client.

These problems are fixable, probably in season two.  The chemistry is terrific and Thorne is delightful.  She really deserved a lead character of her own and this show, with a little tweaking, should join USA’s pantheon of enjoyable and entertaining programs.  If only USA’s parent company, NBC, could match their success with good programming.

Necessary Roughness on USA on Wednesdays at 9pm CST

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Saturday, July 23, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger

Marvel Comics rolled out yet another superhero this weekend in the form of the red, white, and blue-cloaked Captain America.  This seems to be the summer of the superhero and, not being a fan boy, I have enjoyed the all of the movies thus far.  A friend of mine, who grew up reading these comics, has not liked them very much, but I haven’t had much issue with them.  They all have entertained me and that is all I ask for in a movie.

Captain America: The First Avenger is not a big fan of historical accuracy and I don’t how closely it follows the comic creation of the patriotic superhero.  Keeping in mind it is a movie about a scientifically enhanced super soldier and not a World War II documentary,  I tried to forget the rewriting of history and just enjoy the movie.

Good action and a cool villain (The Matrix’s Hugo Weaving), plus decent special effects kept the film moving along.  Chris Evans in the title role was a bit stiff and stuffy but his character was easy to cheer for.  Stanley Tucci’s mad scientist was a big enough role for the talented actor.  He provided most of the film’s humor in his brief stint and veteran Tommy Lee Jones added his talents as the crusty army commander.  The lovely Hayley Atwell is the love interest, although her character’s presence isn’t fully explained. 

As with Thor and Green Lantern, I have few complaints with this beat-the summer-heat offering.  The plotline broke few barriers for originality and wasn’t hard to follow.   As with the previous superhero films, there will be no awards won by cast and crew.  As with the others, it is set up to have a sequel, ending very abruptly.  It wrapped up the main story line but had every intention of not answering some key questions.  Marvel Comics has been intent on setting up the Avengers, so I see a big movie involving all of these heroes in the next summer or two.  As with all super hero movies, enjoy it for what it is.  It is better than Thor and Green Lantern but it is no Spiderman, Dark Knight, or even Iron Man.

I attended the early Saturday afternoon show and the theater was nearly full.  It surprised me a little because I went to the same show last week for Harry Potter and wasn’t near as full.  Evidently, Captain America is bigger than I thought.

As with all others of this genre of film, it carries a PG-13 rating.  It does so for a reason.  It does contain a couple of rather grisly scenes and the villain, Red Skull, could frighten younger children.  If you are a fan of this genre of film, I can’t imagine not having fun with this one.  It definitely is less alien, more human, than the aforementioned hero films of the summer.  Chris Evans is not as likable as Ryan Reynolds or Chris Hemsworth but he is adequate enough.  As with all the other super hero movies this summer, lean back, grub on some popcorn, and just let go.  Have fun everyone.  The super hero genre has not run out of gas yet.

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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Lego Brick Sculptures on Display

Sometimes something comes along that really exceeds all expectations.  When my wife suggested we drive to Topeka to see a Lego sculpture exhibit, I was lukewarm, at best, about the idea.  Legos?  Really?  I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The Mulvane Art Museum on the Washburn University campus in Topeka, Kansas, is displaying Nathan Sawaya’s surprising sculptures.  Surprising because all of Sawaya’s works are made solely from Lego bricks.  That’s right.  Those annoying little plastic bricks we made little houses and airplanes out of when we were kids.  The same bricks that are scattered about the floor of our children’s rooms that we step on constantly.  I don’t really know what I was expecting but it wasn’t what I got.

There is no childishness to Sawaya’s sculptures.  One thing I really liked was that he didn’t create just one type of artwork.  There were several pieces that involved just one easily recognizable, everyday item.  Like a life size cello.  That’s right.  A cello, bow included, made completely out of Lego bricks.  And it looks just like a cello.  How about a four foot tall chess queen?  Or a pawn?  They were incredible.  There was even an item that was the sun and the nine planets (the placard explained that the artist still considered Pluto a planet) stacked on top of each other in order.

Then there were several portraits.  Paintings created with Lego bricks instead paint or charcoal or water colors.  Most of these were easily recognizable as portraits but one stood out.  At first glance, it looked like an odd abstract – nothing really fit or made sense.  A museum host suggested I take a few steps back and tilt my head a certain way.  Viola!  A woman’s face magically appeared and then I saw nothing else.

There was a theme, though, that was more prevalent than anything else.  I would guess maybe half of the pieces dealt with human emotion.  These were the items that I most connected with.  Most of these pieces were of a man showing some inner fear or emotion.  Many were life-sized.  Consider a moment the work involved in creating a life-sized man completely out of plastic toy bricks.  Now combine that plastic man showing a gut wrenching emotion.  Most were fears or emotions we all feel as human beings existing in the real world.  Not terror or horror, but raw emotion.  Things we feel when we are stressed or at wits end.  Many of these grabbed my attention and spoke to me, and I am not a guy who has art talk to me very often. 

I came away thoroughly impressed and amazed.  If I consider art at all, I want to be able to recognize what I am looking at.  I want to be amazed.  I’m the kind of person who likes great photos and sports memorabilia – that’s what I usually consider art.  Nathan Sawaya’s pieces showed me what a true artist could be.  To be creative and original is to be an artist.  To do it with children’s toys is to be great.  This may be the ultimate example of thinking outside the box.   To look at some of the pieces, one might think anyone could create such things.  Most of us played with Lego bricks at some time or another and maybe we could have come up with such things.  The point is that we didn’t create these pieces – Nathan Sawaya did.

If you live within driving distance of Topeka, I strongly recommend you make the trip.  The exhibit is at the Mulvane Art Museum until September 18.  Admission is free and the exhibit is not cumbersome for children either.  Thirty to forty-five minutes will be all the time you need.  The artwork is displayed in three small galleries and the placards are minimal.  I won’t write many posts on museums or artwork but I felt this deserved the time and space. 

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Friday, July 15, 2011

Farewell, Harry Potter

It has been nearly a decade and a half since a scrawny, bespectacled, 11-year old wizard really first entered our lives, first on the printed page and then on the big screen.  Who knew at the time that Harry Potter would become the most famous literary character of our time, or any other, for that matter?  I considered calling the Harry Potter series this generation’s Stars Wars, but that simply isn’t enough.  George Lucas’ space sage was legendary in the theaters and the toy section of our stores but it never gained the same status on the bookstore shelves.

Not true with Harry Potter.  It is first and foremost a literary phenomenon.  The last two books alone sold 20 million copies combined in the first 24 hours they were released.  They have ruled the best sellers’ list for over a decade.  Harry Potter will forever be an iconic literary figure, if not the biggest. 

Many have argued if these were children’s books or adult book.  Many have lauded and criticized the literary value or the lack thereof.  I have read more than my fair share of books and I do not claim to be an expert in the greatness of specific literature, but I do know one thing.  Millions of people, children and adults alike, read these books and adored them and that makes them great.  People read them and love them and that is all that matters.  You do not have to be a fan of the fantasy genre (I am) to enjoy these works.  An imaginative world and a stirring storyline are all great but it is the identifiable characters and bonds of their friendship and loyalty that stir us. 

These books, taken as a whole, are terrific.  I have been a very outspoken critic of the last book in the series, Deathly Hallows.  I will not go on and on about it here but I still feel author J. K. Rowling did some great disservices to her legions of fans ( and characters) with Deathly Hallows but I will not condemn her to purgatory just because of my personal opinion.  I still believe this series of books will remain beloved forever, and deservedly so.

The movies, in my opinion, haven’t been as good, in general, as the books, but that is hardly surprising.  The books are quite long and you can only show so much in a movie.  Major storylines were ignored in the film versions for almost every book.  The first two films probably followed the printed works the closest.  Christopher Columbus did a very good job of being patient with the material and keeping as close to the books as possible (I was extremely frustrated and perplexed that he didn’t do the same for the first Percy Jackson film).  Alfonso Cuaron helmed the third installment and it is, in my opinion, the weakest film.  Mike Newell took over for the 4th movie and it is one of my favorites.  David Yates directed the rest and did an acceptable job (still don’t know why changed and watered down the ending of The Half-Blood Prince).

Warner Brothers released the final chapter this weekend.  My 11-year old son and I went today and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.  I actually liked the 2-part movie translation better than the book because it curtailed much of the inexplicable, never ending, traipsing through the forest, away from the action, bore fest that was a giant part of the book (sorry, couldn’t help myself).  The movie maintained the emotional tone of the best parts of the book and the action was hard paced.  I can’t see the criticism of this movie being any more than it has been for the previous 7 efforts.  It was an appropriate ending to the story and a satisfying wrap-up for our beloved characters.  No one should be disappointed and that is all that matters.  I can’t find it in my heart to write anything negative about the movie and I just want to say that if you loved the series, books or movies, don’t miss out on the final chapter.  We all know the outcome.  It doesn’t matter. 

And so this is it for our beloved Harry Potter, Ron Weasley, and Hermione Granger.  No more Dumbledore, Snape, or Lord Voldemort.  No more visits to Hogwarts, the school we all wish was our alma mater.  Gone are the Weasleys, Luna Lovegood, and Neville Longbottom.  The final chapter has been written and the last scene filmed.  Rowling has said she will not revive Harry and friends and even though that is probably the right thing, I am greatly saddened by the prospect.  Who knows if she will stick by that or not?  If she changes her mind, she should be careful not to damage the legacy, because right now, Harry Potter is probably the most known literary figure of all time and we want nothing to tarnish that image.   Good bye, Harry Potter.  You will always have a spot on my book shelf.

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Saturday, July 9, 2011

Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon

I wonder if the fellow who came up with the idea for toy trucks and cars to turn into butt kicking robots from outer space gets a monthly royalty check.  It is highly doubtful and I feel sorry for the poor guy.  Who knew?

Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon is the third installment of the adrenaline fueled series.  To call these films mere action flicks would be like saying the sun is a little bright.  Director Michael Bay does not stray from the successful formula that worked so well in the first two movies.  The storyline is patiently introduced and developed before kicking things into high gear.  Some time is spent getting to know Sam Witwicky’s new girlfriend and working her into the plot.  As with most of Bay’s efforts, Dark Side is all about the effects and the action.

In one of the most head scratching career decisions, Megan Fox passed on Dark Side.  She evidently forgot what she is – eye candy – and how she got there.  Instead, Sam is once again dating above his class.  Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, the former Victoria Secrets model, plays Carly Spencer.  She’s no worse an actor than Fox and no less attractive and she pulls off the damsel in distress just as easily. 

If you liked the first two movies, you will like this one.  Simple as that.  The action in the last hour and a half is non-stop.  Terrific CGI effects make the science fiction action sequences look almost real and there are few dull moments.  The plot is plainly laid out and easy to follow, with a surprise villian.  The early moon landing footage blends well as an introduction and leads into the meat of the movie easily.  LaBeouf maintains his likeability and the cast, other than Huntington-Whiteley, is veteran and top notch.  Appearances by John Malkovich, Frances McDormand, Ken Jeong,and McSteamy himself, Patrick Dempsey are added perks.  John Turturro, Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson, Kevin Dunn, and Julie White reprise their roles from the earlier films as well, although in seemingly smaller capacities. 

I love this kind of suspended reality, just plain fun, crazily action packed, summer fare.  Someone once told me they didn’t like this kind of movie because it wasn’t realistic.  Well, duh!  It’s science fiction.  It’s about alien robots that turn into cars.  Come on, people.  What are you expecting?  Grab some popcorn and settle in for a heck of a ride.  Don’t expect Sir Anthony Hopkins quoting Shakespeare - just a heart pounding pace and a whole lot of summer blockbuster fun.  Cheer for the heroes and root against the evil Decepticons and nothing else matters.  Remember, the plot, the eye-candy, and sometimes, even the actors themselves, are just backdrops to the real stars, those butt kicking alien robots.

How kid friendly is Dark Side?  Well, like its predecessors it has some inappropriate material.  The opening present day scene starts with a close up shot of Huntington-Whiteley’s rear end clad only in (Victoria Sectrets?) panties, going up some stairs.  It also seemed to me that the on-human violence was maybe a bit worse than the earlier films.  There is no blood splatter but only you know how your child will react to disintegrating bodies flying around.  It is probably all right for some of the older pre-teens, if they are used to this sort of stuff.  You may want to watch it before taking any kids younger than 9 or 10. 

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Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Land of the Lost

I’m writing this review merely as a warning to all.  I’m not usually terribly negative but I cannot help me myself this time.  Viewers beware:  Land of the Lost is absolutely horrible.        

I watched this with my son and I wished the whole time I was somewhere else, anywhere else.  It surprisingly carries a PG-13 rating, mainly for language and innuendo, but I can not imagine anyone over the age of 13 ever enjoying this waste of time and money.  My son enjoyed it enough; he found several of the scenes funny.  Even his endorsement, though, was less than ringing afterward.

I have grown weary of Will Ferrell and Land of the Lost may be the final straw for me.  He and co-star Danny McBride plod through an awful script as if they too wanted to be anywhere else.  They were as uninspiring, as unenthusiastic, as unfunny, as you could possibly imagine. 

I question how this film was ever made anyway.  Director Brad Silberling should look for a different line of work.  It was such a waste of time.  It is an hour and a half I will regretfully never get back.  Only Anna Friel offered even the slightest hint of charm and it was probably just me wistfully recalling her work on the delightful television show Pushing Daisies. 

Okay, enough is enough.  I’m sure everyone gets the point.  You’ve been warned.

I promise a review of something much better soon.

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Friday, July 1, 2011

X-Men: First Class

Unless Harry Potter is in the title, by the time a movie franchise reaches its 5th installment, it is as stale as last week’s bread.  Fortunately the X-Men movies have provided a great way to stay fresh.  The first two movies were pretty darn good, even for those of us that didn’t read the comics.  The third film wasn’t as good but it wasn’t terrible.  As this film wrapped up some storylines and characters, it looked as if that was going to be the last of the series.  Luckily, Twentieth Century Fox decides to do some prequels.  They produced a couple of films focusing on the back stories of some of our favorite characters.  First, Wolverine’s history was detailed in X-Men Origins: Wolverine and it was followed up by this latest offering, X-Men: First Class.

First Class gives a look at the beginnings of the arch-enemies, Magneto and Charles Xavier.  The story starts by introducing us to the youthful leading characters during World War II.  After this brief prelude, we jump right into the thick of things and into the early 1960’s.  With the back drop of internationally tense Cuban Missile Crisis, we see how these two go from friends to stalwarts on opposite philosophical sides.  The plot moves along quickly and the action is brisk.  It was very satisfying in the fact that First Class was very thorough and detailed in filling in holes and doling out information about the lead characters and their histories.

Many other favorites are included in the storyline, including Mystic and Beast.  These and other characters are introduced and Director Matthew Vaughn shows us how opposing sides were chosen.  Did you know Charles Xavier and Mystic were childhood friends?  I didn’t and it was a great little twist for me. 

In a surprising cast move, Kevin Bacon portrays the villain, Sebastian Shaw, and he does so with enthusiasm.  Shaw is most definitely evil and villainous but Bacon is almost gleeful in the role, obviously enjoying being an unequivocal bad guy.  Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone) is subtle but gripping as Mystic.  I am becoming a fan of Lawrence’s.   The versatile James McAvoy is Xavier and the little known Michael Fassbender is Magneto.  Fassbender may not be known by many but with 8 more projects in some stage of production,  he should be more recognizable very soon.  I found no fault in the casting and they performed admirably.

Just like the first four movies in this series, I enjoyed First Class immensely.  The movie earns its PG-13 rating and it has a couple of disturbing scenes but they are not graphic.  Most older pre-teen kids should be all right watching this film.  The X-Men franchise shows that sequels can be good if enough care is shown.   I only hope there are at least a couple more in the Hollywood pipeline because after 5 films in 11 years, the X-Men series is still surprisingly fresh.

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