Sunday, December 15, 2013

Double Feature Review: Gravity and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

It's been quite awhile since I did one of these, and after I checked out a couple of newer films recently I thought it might be a good time to bring it back. So for the handful of people likely to stumble across this, here are my thoughts on these big budget blockbusters.


Synopsis: Two astronauts (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) struggle to survive after an accident leaves them marooned in orbit above Earth.

The bad news first: Though he capped them with a post insisting that he enjoyed the movie, physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has pointed out several scientific errors in the movie. Some of them are more noticeable than others. The characters are able to cover some pretty impressive distances given their limited amounts of fuel and oxygen, a feature perhaps explained away by the unrealistic way the film crowds a number of pieces of outer space real estate so close together. Sandra Bullock's character is a mission specialist and doctor, but for some reason she's popping the hood on the Hubble Telescope.

And even though the characters are mostly capable and intelligent, there are a few occasions where you have to shake your head at a particularly idiotic move. A few of the mishaps are quite easily avoidable, such as an attempt to fly a Soyuz a few moments after the astronauts note how its parachute has deployed and gotten tangled up in the International Space Station.

The good stuff: Anyone recommending this movie is always going to start by saying how visually stunning it is, and that you should see it on the big screen. It's not for some gimmicky reason like all the hype over Avatar; it's because it does a great job with its space environment, mixing the beauty of the scenery with the horror of the ongoing destruction going on around the characters. It's full of irresistable Easter eggs, inviting you to figure out which part of the planet you're floating over and packing the space stations with drifting materials ranging from hand strengtheners to Velcro-bottomed chess pieces.

The plot is pretty basic, but it works on a visceral level and keeps the story at a compact hour and a half. The movie manages to incorporate a number of fears, ranging from claustrophobia to isolation, to make for quite an unnerving narrative. It wisely chooses to avoid any Hollywood sound effects while in orbit, heightening the realism of the destruction as well as the effect of the characters' panic. Gravity appeals to astronomy nerds by bringing in everything from the Hubble to a not-yet-existent Chinese space station, then breaks our collective hearts by smashing them all to bits. The actors are charged with portraying a spectrum ranging from terrified to triumphant, and they pull it off marvelously.

Yet by the end the movie is, plain and simple, fun. It's a hell of an adventure, to paraphrase Bullock's character.

Verdict: Is it still in the theaters? Spend the extra money and go see it. But it's still well worth your time to watch it later.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire


Synopsis: The second movie in this trilogy finds Katniss Everdeen at odds with her totalitarian government after her Hunger Games victory inadvertently makes her a symbol of rebellion.

The bad news first: There are pretty much two ways to adapt a book into a movie. You can base the plot loosely on the source material, making something that tells the same story but in a unique way. Or you can keep it as close to the original as possible, which sometimes means you have to be familiar with the work to fully understand the film. Catching Fire is more in the second vein, and unfortunately some plot elements are mostly overlooked. District 13, a crucial point of the third and final book, is barely mentioned at all.

Other problems are carried over from the source material. In both, the love triangle between Katniss, her fellow victor Peeta, and her hunting companion Gale starts off as a major issue. Katniss and Peeta are charged with maintaining a facade of being head over heels in love as a way of staving off an uprising, but the importance quickly fades to a background issue. It's handled somewhat more clumsily in the movie, where Katniss' declaration that she doesn't have time for romance is undermined by a few scenes where she smooches whichever boy happens to strike her fancy at the moment. Like the book, the Hunger Games in the second half are the weaker part of the story, taking the narrative in a somewhat tangential direction.

For the most part, the acting belongs in the next section. There's one very notable exception, however. The scene where Katniss' district is taken over by harsher guards works well right up until the brutal new commander opens his mouth. He chews the scenery with such a ridiculously over-the-top gruff voice that I almost expect him to take over as the butt of all the jokes that were aimed at Christian Bale for his Batman dialect.

The good stuff: Catching Fire's strength lies in its actors. Most of the cast does an excellent job, but in particular credit is due to Elizabeth Banks, Jennifer Lawrence, Jena Malone, and Woody Harrelson. Banks, in what will probably be her last major appearance as District 12's prim and proper Capitol representative Effie Trinket, adds a healthy dose of humanity to the character. Lawrence lets us see just what kind of pressure Katniss is under, doing a masterful job in a scene where she pays tribute to a deceased ally of the Games. Malone is clearly having a ball playing Johanna, the defiant tribute from District 7. And Harrelson also brings more depth to the drunken former victor Haymitch, making him both an intelligent and grudgingly compassionate central figure.

The movie also does a good job with its scenery, ranging from the splendor of the Capitol to the squalor of the districts kept under its thumb. The American Idol-esque TV sets and hosts offer a somewhat obvious but still amusing parody of reality programming. In fact, the glimmers of hope and defiance in this film allow it to have more fun than its predecessor. Even with its naturally bleak undertones, Catching Fire has some pretty hilarious scenes.

The film, in general, does a much better job than its predecessor of being of being subtle and thought-provoking as well. A single line about the responsibilities of victors allows the audience to understand why Haymitch relies on alcohol so much. A quick shake of the head delivers a crystal-clear message. Overall, the writers have done a good job of adapting a complex, somewhat disjointed novel.

Verdict: Reading the book is practically a prerequisite, but excellent actors and directing make this worth a visit.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

I Make Fun of State Quarters: Califonia

So I missed Arkansas and, um, the most populous state in the entire country in this series by accidentally fast-forwarding to Colorado. Today I'm finally closing that gap with California. Almost a year later. I need to pick up the pace on this series...

It almost seems like a foregone conclusion what's going to be on this one: the Golden Gate Bridge. What else are you going to go with? The Los Angeles smog? A giant redwood, shrunken into insignificance? That bridge is an American icon. It ranks maybe fourth or fifth in the list of bestselling brands of America Sauce to serve on your flag-shaped apple pie for Fourth of July.

The worst selling brand of America Sauce is Confederate Flag; reviewers complain, "This tastes like some bland, failed experiment in non-America" (Source)

So lay it on us, California. The Golden Gate will look great! Sure, it'll upstage the bridge on the West Virginia quarter a bit, maybe even two bits. The Rhode Island quarter is just going to look stupid by comparison. But you've earned it, with an engineering triumph that has become a source of pride not just for your state, but for this great nation.

Or...yeah, just go with some guy. Who's about to get his eyes pecked out by a condor.

Somehow, the Golden Gate Bridge didn't make it as the final design. There are other instances where major icons were excluded in the final design, know what, no. There aren't. New York has the Statue of Liberty, Arizona has the Grand Canyon, South Dakota has Mount Rushmore. What are you, too good for glorious patriotic symbols? Why do you hate America so much, California quarter?!?

Fittingly enough, there was pretty much a 50-50 chance that the bridge would be the final choice. In an Internet poll of submitted designs, 10 of the 20 finalists had it in there and five of those were pretty much fully devoted to the span. When the Mint drew up a few options for its top five, however, only two of them had the Golden Gate in its design.

Still, that's got a pretty good chance of winning, right? I mean, look at lineup. Who knows how the water one even got in there; it looks like the set design at some bad nautical play. The one where the condor is pretty much the size of a 200-foot redwood presents an obvious problem. Heck, the Yosemite Valley design is just shunted over in the corner, next to the ugly one that just crams a bunch of stuff into the available space around the guy who ruined his life in a futile hope of panning riches out of California's rivers. At this point, the main question seems to be whether to include the Hollywood sign next to the bridge or not.

Sure, the Golden Gate Bridge design isn't perfect. They shoehorned in some redwoods, so it looks less like the actual site and more like the bridge would appear after The Fall, when man fell back into pre-industrial times and nature crept back into the cities. They could put in a tiny dying Ish lying against an abandoned car on roadway if they really wanted to complete the picture.

So who does this choice fall to?

Oh. The exercise enthusiast from Austria. Well, that might explain why we got a picture of a Scottish immigrant climbing a mountain. You could have gone with one of the pinnacles of American civil engineering, but no...

All things considered, though, the scene - dreamed up by Garrett Burke and engraved by Alfred Maletsky - isn't too bad of a design. John Muir was a dedicated conservationist, helping to establish the Yosemite National Park and serving for many years as the president of the Sierra Club. The minimalism works pretty well, with the detail of Half Dome and the ledge upon which Muir stands inviting you to imagine the majesty and splendor of this vista. It's a rather fitting tribute to Muir and his work.

If only they could have built the Golden Gate Bridge into the scene, maybe as an easy way to go to Half Top. Muir really looks like he wants to get over to that mountain, and I'm worried he's going to try to hop a ride with that bird.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Whatever Happened To: The Cast of Angus

I grew up during the 90s, so I spent both my childhood and adolescence in that decade and reaped all the pop culture benefits that entails. One movie from 1995, Angus, is more of a cult film. I first saw it in the latter part of elementary school, and rediscovered it in my teens. It held up surprisingly well, as both a decent comedy and a more dramatic portrayal of high school troubles. It's on Netflix if you want to check it out, and someone also uploaded the whole thing to YouTube.

The plot focuses on Angus Bethune, a freshman who is unexpectedly elected as king of the freshman Winter Ball alongside his longtime crush, Melissa LeFevre. Unfortunately, the vote has clearly been rigged by a bully, Rick Sanford, in an attempt to embarrass Angus. But with his family and best friend supporting him, Angus is encouraged to take advantage of the opportunity to sweep Melissa off her feet.

So what happened to the main cast of the film?

Charlie Talbert (Angus Bethune)

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Angus, in his own words, is "a fat kid who's good at science and fair at football." Throughout the film, he's taking steps to attend a science school where he hopes he won't be tormented like he is at the public school. He's something of an outcast, with few friends. He sometimes responds to his bullies with violence, but Angus also shows resilience and strength in facing challenges.

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Charlie Talbert, now 35, landed the role in Angus after joking around with the movie's director at a Wendy's in Illinois. Talbert has stayed in acting and has continued making films to this day, though the list suggests that they have been mostly on the low-budget end. He last played a tuxedo store manager in Geek USA and, according to his LinkedIn profile, life imitates art since Talbert has worked as a store manager at Jos. A. Bank Clothiers since 2008 (do you have one in plum?). He still lands some roles, including One Night Alone now in the filming stage, and does some stand-up comedy as well.

Chris Owen (Troy Wedberg) 

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Angus met his geeky best friend Troy when defending him from Rick in elementary school. Troy, a dentist's son, is unabashedly geeky and claims to be knowledgeable in what's cool and how to get the ladies. In one of the movie's sadder scenes, however, he says he's like Angus in that he often wishes he was somebody else.

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Chris Owen, now 33, is good friends with Talbert in real life, with the two co-starring in several movies. Owen had something of a breakout role as Chuck Sherman ("The Sherminator") in American Pie and its sequels and spinoffs. He also had a lead role in October Sky and guest roles in a number of TV shows. Although his IMDB profile suggests Owen is still making movies, this site says he's also working as a waiter in a sushi restaurant.

Ariana Richards (Melissa LeFevre)

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Melissa has been Angus's love interest for years, ever since he saw her take on someone who insulted her at a roller rink. Although she starts dating Rick, Melissa is kind and clearly doesn't care for his behavior. She is secretly bulimic and, much to Angus's surprise, nervous about what other people think of her.

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Ariana Richards might be best known for her role as Lex in the blockbuster Jurassic Park, which was released two years prior to Angus. She also had a number of roles as a child, starting with a spot on Golden Girls, and played Mindy Sterngood in Tremors. Now 34, Richards has earned a B.S. in Drama and Fine Art from Skidmore College and won acclaim as a portrait artist (you can see some of her work here). Richards still makes forays back into acting, including a reprise of her original role in the 2001 film Tremors III.

James Van Der Beek (Rick Sanford)

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Rick has bullied Angus since kindergarten, and Angus has replied on numerous occasions by breaking his nose. Rick and Angus are on the football team together, but it hasn't exactly brought them closer together. Rick is constantly looking for new ways to embarrass Angus, who loathes Rick  but also envies him for his popularity and the fact that Melissa is his girlfriend.

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Angus was Van Der Beek's return to acting after a voice-acting roles in the 1986 anime Castle in the Sky and an episode of Clarissa Explains It All. He got his big break in 1998 when he was cast as the title character in the teen drama series Dawson's Creek, which ran through 2002. He had bit parts in a number of other TV series and plays a fictional version of himself in Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23. Van Der Beek, now 36, has also done a few comedic shorts on the website Funny or Die.

George C. Scott (Grandpa Ivan)

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Grandpa Ivan is always trying to get Angus to believe in himself, having a life philosophy of "Screw 'em! Who cares what anybody thinks?" Such a belief has led him to get engaged to a much younger woman, much to his daughter's chagrin. Angus looks up to his grandfather, but is also fond of verbally sparring with him and waking him up from naps with a record of "Reveille."

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Scott was already a renowned actor at the time of his role in Angus. He is probably best known for his Oscar-winning performance in Patton as well as Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. His turn as Grandpa Ivan would be one of his last credits, although he would appear in five TV movies and the film Gloria before his death in 1999 at the age of 71.

Kathy Bates (Meg Bethune)

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 Meg Bethune is Angus's mother, who has raised him on her own since his father died of a heart attack. She works as a trucker (with the CB handle of "Bruiser") and is excited about the possibility that Angus will get into a science school. It's also suggested that Meg faced bullying herself when growing up.

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Kathy Bates was also well-known at the time the movie came out, winning an Oscar for her portrayal of Annie Wilkes in Misery and starring in Fried Green Tomatoes and Dolores Claiborne. Her credits after Angus include Molly Brown in the mega-hit Titanic and recurring roles on Six Feet Under and The Office. Now 65, Bates is finishing up work on the movie Tammy and starting work on one called The Great Gilly Hopkins.

Salim Grant (Mike)

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One of Rick's two cronies, Mike joins the trio in tormenting Angus and Troy. He pokes some fun at Rick as well, commenting that Rick is a lousy dancer. Mike is not quite as determined to humiliate Angus as Rick, occasionally acting more good-natured toward him and trying to get Rick to ease up when he physically assaults Angus near the end of the movie.

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Grant, now 36, got his start as a child actor who appeared in three Barney and Friends videos and the 1990 movie Ghost Dad before appearing in Angus. He also played R.J. "Hollywood" Collins in Saved by the Bell: The New Class as well as a suspect in L.A. Confidential. His roles grew more scarce after that credit, but he did several short videos in 2012. Grant has pursued a music career as well, working with Snoop Dogg and performing under the stage name Autobotic, and currently owns the company Rising Platform Productions.

Kevin Connolly (Andy)

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Andy is another one of Rick's cronies and a little more willing to take part in the pranks orchestrated by Rick. Nevertheless, he applauds Angus when his dance with Melissa goes well and seems to have gained more respect for him by the end of the movie.

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The same year that Angus came out, Connolly started playing Ryan Malloy in the series Unhappily Ever After, appearing in 100 episodes. He began to appear in films after this series concluded, including John Q, The Notebook, and He's Just Not That Into You. Connolly also played Eric Murphy in the HBO series Entourage, which concluded in 2011. Now 39, Connolly will appear in the 2014 movie Reach Me and is rumored to be in an Entourage movie to come out the next year.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Defining Moments Of Breaking Bad, Part 2

On August 11, Breaking Bad will start its final run of eight episodes and bid farewell to the airwaves. It's been a long wait, following the show's somewhat aggravating decision to split its last season in half and air the first eight episodes almost a year ago. But good things come to those who wait, and fans will finally get closure in just a couple of weeks.

With that in mind, I thought it was time to follow up my last roundup of Breaking Bad awesomeness with a second entry on its most memorable moments, encompassing the fourth season and first half of the fifth season.

"Get back to work"

After some speculation that Jesse hadn't killed Gale, the fourth season opens by letting us know that yes, he totally did. The opening episode makes it seem like it may have been for naught, however, as both Walt and Jessie are detained in the superlab and one of Gus's goons proves that it doesn't take a genius to follow Walt's meth recipe.

At least until Gus brutally slashes the goon's throat for failing to prevent Gale's assassination and calmly orders Walt and Jesse back to work. The scene perfectly exemplifies that Gus is willing to get his hands dirty and will be a formidable adversary to Walt, all while keeping Gus's trademark collected demeanor. No wonder Giancarlo Esposito got an Emmy nomination.

The return of Hank

Hank was the hero of what may be the most intense scene of the series: the parking lot shootout with the Cousins in the third season. The only drawback was that the serious injuries he received in this battle reduced him to a jaded mineral enthusiast in the subsequent season.


But as the show proceeded, Hank proved that he never lost his focus on ridding Albuquerque of the scourge of Heisenberg's blue meth. From his first suspicions of Gus to his relentless crackdown on those surrounding Walt, it was good to see Hank back in form as a rather brilliant DEA agent.

"I am the one who knocks!"

The midway point of the season is not really a good time for Walt. He's gone from an independent drug lord to an important but disposable component in someone else's machine, and he's got a target on his back. There's also the fact that Walt's pride makes him virtually incapable of resolving any problems unless it's on his own terms.

This is what leads to the memorable confrontation between Walt and Skyler, who has become a reluctant co-conspirator in her husband's drug activity but worries about the risk it presents to her family. After Walt's declaration here, it's clear that Skyler realizes her husband has become something new and terrifying.

Gus destroys the cartel

Even after the murder mentioned above, Gus is still a pretty sympathetic character. Especially after a flashback where we see the cartel murder his brother (the other half of Los Pollos Hermanos) right in front of him.


After a few confrontations with the cartel during the fourth season, he finally makes a peace offer to the same man responsible for killing his brother 20 years ago...and promptly manages to get revenge in one of the most unexpected and satisfying ways possible.

Walt's scream

Bryan Cranston had more competition at the last Emmy Awards and his chain of Best Actor awards was finally broken, but that doesn't mean he didn't earn his nomination. This might well be Walt's most hopeless moment. His options for protecting his family and himself have seemingly run out, and for once he's at the end of his rope. Add to it the phone call from Marie where she fears for Hank's safety and it seems like things couldn't get much worse.

Walt IEDs Gus

For a good portion of the fourth season, it seems like Walt is in a losing battle with Gus. Even if he managed to save his skin by having Jesse kill Gale, Gus is clearly maneuvering to undermine Walt and turn Jesse against him so that he can finally be rid of him. The show keeps showing us ways that Walt is more than capable to get himself out of a difficult situation, though, and this cat-and-mouse game concludes Walt's own attempt to turn his former enemy, Hector Salmanaca, against Gus.


The audience realizes why Salmanaca's bell seems off at about the same time Gus does, and Gus's nonchalant exit from the nursing home room adds one last touch of dignity and fortitude to his character before you understand why they titled the episode "Face Off."

Lily of the Valley

I've seen some fans comment on how incredible it is that the show can give so much weight to such ordinary or minor things. The end of the fourth season takes a similar route, ending not on a visually spectacular sight such as Gus's death or the destruction of the superlab but rather a Lily of the Valley plant that brings a few points together.


It comes right on the heels of Walt's cold answer of "I won" to Skyler's question of what Walt had to do with Gus's downfall. With one shot, you realize that Walt's morality has degraded to the point that he'll hurt a child and manipulate a partner if he thinks the situation calls for it. And it's one more secret he's keeping from Jesse that might well come crashing down on him as the series wraps up.

Walt's lonely 52nd birthday

Breaking Bad is known for a number of intriguing opening scenes, and the last season gives us a great one to ponder as the series heads for a conclusion. Walt is 52, two years older than the start of the season. He's eating alone in a Denny's, with a New Hampshire driver's license, a cough, and no wedding ring. The cancer could be back. Perhaps his family has left him. Maybe they haven't even survived the series. If nothing else, it's clear that Walt's on the run from someone.


And apparently needs an M-60 machine gun to fight them off.

"Yeah, bitch! Magnets!"

Even back in the pilot, Jesse's idiocy was balanced with a healthy dose of cleverness and common sense. He introduces Walt to a few safeguards to avoid getting caught, such as the show's iconic RV that acted as a mobile lab for awhile and his method of spreading out his meth component purchases so as not to raise suspicions.


It's interesting to see how he's been able to build on this knowledge even as the operation gets larger. In this scene, he tests a theory for wiping a laptop from outside a police evidence locker to destroy surveillance footage of him and Walt working in the superlab.

Skyler tells off Walt

I've perused a few reviews and message boards for the show, and there's a fair amount of vitriol directed toward the character of Skyler (and occasionally toward actress Anna Gunn). It occasionally reaches cruel levels, such as the mockery of Skyler's sudden weight gain after Gunn's pregnancy, but in general the fans who didn't like the character seemed more annoyed with either the detached nature that originally defined her or her more mundane side plots as compared with Walt and Jesse's misadventures.

Skyler has come into her own as the series progresses, however, and especially after she becomes involved in Walt's criminal enterprise. She's willing to launder money and cover up for her husband, she can't do anything to expose Walt, and she's out of options for a safe exit strategy. As the scene shows, she can only wait for the return of the very thing that motivated Walt to try his unorthodox way to safeguard his family.

The great train robbery

When Walt, Jesse, Mike, and newcomer Todd hatch a plan to steal a huge quantity of methylamine from a railroad tanker car, the episode paves the way for a good deal of fun. It follows the framework of a number of heist movies, with a risky but believable plan to steal the cargo from a train on its regular route without anyone getting hurt.

The scene ramps up the tension to the point where the audience is anxious for our anti-heroes to stage a successful theft. And you're just as relieved and thrilled as they are when they manage to do so. And then everything goes wrong.


Walt kills Mike

Walt and Mike get off on the wrong foot and stay hobbled for the ensuing episodes, although they form an uneasy partnership later in the show. As Gus's former enforcer and fixer, Mike proves himself to be a capable henchman with an unabashed soft side. In particular, he's looking out for his granddaughter and stashing away a good deal of his ill-gotten gains to go toward her future.


With the walls closing in on Walt's entire operation midway through the fifth season, Mike is one of the first people the authorities reach. It's also at that point where the conflict between Mike and Walt comes to a head, with Walt shooting Mike in a fit of anger after Mike refuses to go along with his plan to kill a number of imprisoned informants. The scene offers Walt a brief moment of remorse as he realizes how pointless his action was, and gives a tragic send-off to one of the series' most well-liked characters.

Prison attack

Throughout the first half of the last season, Walt has been scrambling to ward off pursuit by the DEA. More often than not, this has involved destroying evidence both physical and human. The biggest undertaking is also the most cold-hearted, as Walt manages to arrange the near-simultaneous murder of 10 prisoners who were part of Gus's operation and are ready to cooperate with authorities after their hush money dries up.


The old Walt, the mild-mannered chemistry teacher, died long ago; this scene just solidifies his identity as Heisenberg.

"To my other favorite W.W."

Throughout the series, Hank has overlook a number of clues to Walt's involvement in the meth ring he's investigating. From the theft of lab equipment from Walt's high school to Walt's lame excuse for deliberately causing a car accident to stop Hank from investigating the superlab's cover, there are hints of Walt's role but Hank never suspects his brother-in-law.

Walt's pride has been fortified by the success of his product and a total lack of consequences, and he's far past the point where he's just trying to make enough money to support his family. He's in it because of the power it brings, and because he thinks the success is his due. Yet when Skyler begs him to quietly retire from the trade, he concedes to her arguments. It could pass for a happy ending, and if this was still the same Walter White we met in the first season we might be glad for it; at this point in the show, we're not nearly so sure.

It's fitting that such a tiny clue, left by one of Walt's victims no less, might prove to be his undoing. That last scene offers a tantalizing clue about the flash-forward to Walt's 52nd birthday, and leaves fans antsy for the final run of episodes.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Top 5 Tolkien Nerd Moments of Stephen Colbert

Since he got his own show, Stephen Colbert's public appearances have generally stuck to the version of himself he plays on The Colbert Report: a narcissistic, hyper-patriotic conservative pundit. He's stuck to the character so closely that he's maintained it in everything from the White House Correspondents' Dinner to testimony before Congress on immigration reform.

But if there's any part of his actual persona that Colbert lets slip into his shows, it's the fact that he's a huge fan of J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy novels, namely the Lord of the Rings universe.

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And it's never more apparent than in the following examples.

5. Colbert And Back Again

The Colbert Report started a couple of years too late to do anything with the Lord of the Rings trilogy movies, so the fact that Peter Jackson and some of the original crew would be making a movie of The Hobbit (and turning it into a trilogy, no less) it must have seemed like a godsend to Colbert and the show.

Indeed, the show went all out with a week of guests related to the movie, a new intro with a Middle Earth style map of New York City (inevitably getting the biggest laugh from the "Hipsters Deep" of Brooklyn), and turning the set into The Shire. This video serves as a nice introduction to Colbert's interviews with Ian McKellan, Martin Freeman, Andy Serkis, and Peter Jackson (who declared Colbert the biggest Tolkien geek he'd ever met, much to the host's delight).

4. Sting-off With Elijah Wood

Elijah Wood's visit on this show was to discuss Happy Feet Two, but it's not like Colbert can let a Frodo appearance go by without discussing a little bit of Lord of the Rings. Especially since The Hobbit was being filmed at the time, with Wood having a minor role and Colbert getting invited to the set. Colbert is palpably eager to discuss the details of the new film with Wood after the interview given that he had to keep a lid on any spoilers.

3. Interviews with James Franco

James Franco is nerdy enough to be balancing his acting career with studies at Yale University as he pursues a PhD in English. And since Colbert obviously considers Tolkein to have some of the foremost works in literature, he quizzes Franco on some details in Lord of the Rings and winds up giving him partial credit.

Franco tries to get his own back in a second visit by pitching a trivia question about The Silmarillion. This is essentially the Bible of the Lord of the Rings universe, and is often just as inscrutable. The ease with which Colbert answers the question and his subsequent reaction are hilarious.

2. John McCain hobbits quote

John McCain's political stances have been at various points on the spectrum in the past decade or so, but despite going more to the right as the Republican candidate in 2008 he's sparred with the even farther right Tea Party wing on a few occasions since then. In one instance, he read part of a Wall Street Journal editorial critical of GOP resistance to an effort to raise the debt ceiling that referred to "Tea Party hobbits." One Tea Party representative replied that McCain could be considered Sauron in this metaphor.

It was all practically an open invitation for Colbert to have as much fun as possible with trying to compare various political figures with Lord of the Rings figures. And to show off his vast array of Lord of the Rings collectibles, of course.

1. Daily Show interview with Viggo Mortensen

Back before he had his own program, Colbert was just a lowly correspondent on The Daily Show. And way back in 2005, while Jon Stewart was discussing A History of Violence with Viggo Mortensen, we got perhaps the best glimpse of Colbert's Tolkien knowledge.

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Near the end of the interview, Stewart plays an audio recording of what was no doubt Stewart asking him to recite as much of the history of the Lord of the Rings character as he could. It turns out to be quite a bit, as Stewart eventually just cuts it off and asks Mortensen (the actor who played Aragorn in the movies) how he deals with superfans like Colbert.

Mortensen's answer? Well, for Colbert anyway, send him a gift of chocolate with Lord of the Rings characters expertly carved into them. And as Colbert mentions in the #2 clip, Mortensen would also present him with Aragorn's sword as part of a sketch on The Colbert Report. He seems like a nice guy.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Whatever Happened To: The Cast of "Home Improvement"

It's time to return again to some pop culture from your childhood (well, my childhood; and yours if you're in your 20s or maybe your 30s). Home Improvement was neatly ensconced within the 90s, with a run from 1991 to 1999. It followed the host of a Detroit-area home improvement television show in both his professional and family life. And given that this was a 90s sitcom, there was quite a bit of slapstick and family humor involved. So what happened to the people involved in this show?

Tim Allen (Tim Taylor)


Tim "The Tool Man" Taylor is the macho, slightly chauvinist lead of the show as well as the host of the show-within-the-show Tool Time. His projects typically end in disaster thanks to his constant attempts to supercharge them with "more power!" although Tim is also shown to be highly competent in auto restoration and a few other builds. Although often obstinate and selfish, Tim was also shown to be a caring father and husband.


Tim Allen got into comedy on a dare, starting with stand-up acts. This coincided with a rather unsavory start to adulthood, namely an involvement in cocaine trafficking. After he was caught with 1.4 pounds of the stuff at a Michigan airport in 1978, he cooperated with investigators to put other dealers away and wound up serving two years and four months in prison. He managed to revive his comedy career after his release, although he was arrested for DUI in 1997, near the end of Home Improvement's run, and sentenced to a year of probation. Since the end of the show, Allen has starred in a number of critically panned comedy films as well as some more memorable pictures including The Santa Clause, the Toy Story trilogy, and GalaxyQuest. Now 59, Allen is currently starring in the sitcom Last Man Standing and also has his own line of power tools.

Patricia Richardson (Jill Taylor)


Jill was the typical suburban mom that appeared in quite a few sitcoms of the time. She was usually a little frazzled by Tim's constant shenanigans and the stress of raising three sons, and slowly working toward getting a psychology degree. There was also a running joke that Jill was a terrible cook.


Patricia Richardson, now 61, earned a BFA in acting from Southern Methodist University and spent some time acting in plays. She picked up a number of minor TV roles in the 1980s before Home Improvement. She next appeared as Dr. Andy Campbell in Strong Medicine as well as a recurring role as Sheila Brooks on The West Wing. She has continued acting in a few movies and is active in an organization seeking a cure for progressive supranuclear palsy.

Zachery Ty Bryan (Brad Taylor)


The oldest of Tim and Jill's sons, Brad was best known for his relative popularity and athletic ability, including a proficiency at soccer. He struggled academically at times but still managed to earn a college scholarship near the end of the series. Despite getting in trouble on a few occasions and sometimes clashing with his parents, Brad also got along well with Tim through common interests such as auto restoration.


Zachery Bryan (he's dropped the Ty) had parts in a few family movies during his Home Improvement run, but started to transition to other roles with appearances in films such as Carrie 2: The Rage in 1999 and The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift in 2006. He graduated high school the year after the show ended. Since the end of Home Improvement, Bryan (now 31) has scored guest roles on a number of TV shows including ER, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Smallville, and Burn Notice. His last acting role was as Thor in the 2009 SyFy movie Hammer of the Gods. He founded the production company Vision Entertainment Group in the same year. He's had a producer credit on four movies since then, most recently Rogue River and The Grief Tourist in 2012. He also joined a couple of partners in opening the Hollywood sports bar "Big Wangs," although he later sued them in 2010 for allegedly using profits for personal expenses.

Jonathan Taylor Thomas (Randy Taylor)


Randy's character was best known for his intelligence, as he quickly found himself in advanced classes. He mocked or traded barbs with Brad on occasion but more often than not the two teamed up for some common cause (quite often picking on younger brother Mark). Randy was also a bit of a smart aleck and in one "very special" episode he had to cope with a potentially serious medical condition. The character was essentially written out of the last season as Randy went abroad to study in Costa Rica.


I remember there was a time when most of the girls I grew up with were in love with "JTT." Taylor's popularity helped him land a number of movie roles complementary to his time on the show, most notably as the voice of young Simba in The Lion King. His career slowed after the end of Home Improvement but he was still able to pick up guest roles on several popular series including The Wild Thornberrys, The Simpsons, and Veronica Mars. After graduating high school in 2000, he attended Harvard University for two years, studied abroad in Scotland, then took a lengthy leave from school and finally completed his studies at Columbia University in 2010. He hasn't really made any waves since then aside from remarking that he might want to get into directing. His last on-screen role was the Veronica Mars episode in 2005, followed by a directing credit for the short film The Extra in 2006.

Taran Noah Smith (Mark Taylor)


The youngest Taylor lad, Mark started off in the "cute little kid" role and as an eager assistant in Tim's shenanigans. He was also a frequent target of pranks concocted by Brad and Randy, although at times all three brothers would team up. As the actor got older (and a lot taller) Mark became more of a loner and a goth.


Taran Noah Smith, now 28, had a much rockier post-show experience than his peers. The show led to a falling out with his parents, as he accused them of misusing his earnings from the show and in 2001, when he was 17, he sued for control of that money. The same year he married Heidi Van Pelt, a woman nearly twice his age, and the two began a vegan restaurant and non-dairy cheese manufacturing business named Playfood out of their Los Angeles home. The couple divorced in 2007 and the house went into foreclosure the same year, after which it was apparently trashed by vandals. The duo went through another court battle soon after when Van Pelt tried to gain control of Playfood. Smith reportedly won control of the company but it is unclear if he has managed to keep it going. The whole affair led him to reconcile with his parents, who apparently opposed the marriage from the start. In 2012, Smith was convicted of DUI and marijuana possession and sentenced to probation, a drug diversion program, and a fine.

Richard Karn (Al Borland)


Al was Tim's perpetually put-upon co-host on Tool Time, a frequent victim of Tim's backfiring fixes as well as jokes about his beard, flannel outfits, mother, and numerous other things. Despite this, the two remain good friends. Al gets married later in the series. And for some reason, the Wikipedia entry on Home Improvement characters at the time I'm writing this particular section has a whopping five subsections for Al Borland. Someone likes their fictional TV friends/co-workers.


Richard Karn, now 56, graduated from the University of Washington with a drama degree and got his role on Home Improvement through a stroke of luck. Though the show had already cast Borland's character, Karn met a casting agent while answering a traffic citation in court and was brought on board after the original choice (Stephen Tobolowsky) had to drop out. It was the first major role for Karn, who is still appearing mostly in family comedies. After Home Improvement, his most prominent role was as a game show host, including a four-year stint on Family Feud.

Earl Hindman (Wilson Wilson Jr.)


Wilson was the friendly next door neighbor of the Taylors, typically offering advice to Tim although he spent a lot of time in his yard so he frequently helped out other members of the family at times as well. Wilson apparently acquired his wisdom through globetrotting adventures, given that he was involved in cultural studies and had a number of eccentric artifacts in his home. A running sight gag was that Wilson's face was always obscured by the fence or some other object. Wilson's full name was revealed later on in the series, and Earl Hindman joined the rest of the cast with his face in the clear for the final bows.


Prior to Home Improvement, Hindman was best known for portraying Bob Reid in over 450 episodes of Ryan's Hope. He was a villain in the original The Taking of Pelham One Two Three as well as The Parallax View. Hindman had fewer roles after Home Improvement ended, with a couple of guest roles on Law & Order and a part in the 2001 movie Final. He died of lung cancer in December of 2003 at the age of 61.

Debbe Dunning (Heidi Keppert)


Heidi was Tool Time's sexy "Tool Girl" assistant, introducing the show and helping out around the set. She occasionally figured more into a plot, experiencing a bit of martial trouble and having two kids over the course of the show.


Debbe Dunning started out in modeling and advertising before landing the role on Home Improvement. She has been married to volleyball player Tim Simmons since 2007 and, like her character, she has two children. Her first role was in the 1989 movie Dangerous Curves, with a few appearances on shows such as Boy Meets World and Baywatch as well. Her last acting role was as Hope Lorca in the series Wicked Wicked Games.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Top 10 Movies Made Better By Seeing Them In A Theater

Let's face it, sometimes it isn't quite worth it to go see a movie when it is first released in theaters. Aside from the sometimes expensive tickets and long train of pre-feature advertisements and trailers, the main issue is mostly those pesky other people who also want to see the same thing as you. Which would be fine if it weren't for the ones with the cell phones and delusions of MST3K caliber riffing talent. In the end I thought Looper was great and well worth seeing in the first run, but I could have done without the gaggle of teenagers a few rows up who considered every scene of someone getting shotgunned in the chest to be hilarity of a Chaplinesque quality.

But there's a reason movie theaters stay in business, after all. Sometimes seeing something on the big screen or with a group makes it much more of an experience than just popping a DVD in. Sometimes it's the enhanced picture or sound that makes it that much more memorable. And sometimes there's something about seeing a movie for the first time with dozens or hundreds of other people that just seems to heighten its quality. That was the case when I saw...

10. The Dark Knight (2008)


This was probably the first movie I saw in the theater with a villain who genuinely made you uneasy. Part of The Dark Knight's success was no doubt due to Heath Ledger's untimely death shortly before the movie's release, but it's likely that he would have received rave reviews for his role as the Joker in any case. As I've mentioned, sometimes you go to a movie and people laugh at inappropriate times. In this case, you could measure the feelings of the crowd by the dead silence at most scenes and uneasy chuckles at the Joker's black humor. An entire group of people found the "pencil trick" funny, but you could tell they didn't want to sympathize with its perpetrator.

9. Forrest Gump (1994)


I would have been about 10 years old when I saw this with my parents, so I couldn't quite appreciate the historical layering appearing throughout. I guess I knew a bit about JFK and Vietnam, but it wasn't until later that I could appreciate scenes such as Forrest inadvertently kicking off the Watergate scandal. Still, the strength of the movie is more in the story. This was probably one of the first (if not the first) movie I went to with my family that wasn't in the G or PG category, and I was completely fascinated.

8. Borat (2006)


This is one of those odd things that was really popular and well-reviewed when it came out and then collapsed under its own success. After awhile, everyone got annoyed at the scads of people who thought their Borat impression was just tops or that going as Borat to the Halloween party was clever and original. But when you saw this in the theater, you didn't know about any of that and just knew this was supposed to be a funny movie. And seeing a comedy in the theater is generally a better experience since you're sharing a laugh with so many people.

7. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) / Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (1983)

Well these ones came out a little too early for me to see on their debut, but I still saw them on the big screen. I was at a writing program at a small college, and part of the entertainment included in the six weeks was the showing of a few movies. One evening was Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (the latter of which was unfortunately a bit of a letdown after the first; Life of Brian may have been the better choice). This was my first introduction to Monty Python, and the kind of humor was right up my alley. Even if the other people in the program who decided to take in this double feature were so well-acquainted with the film that they knew every line, they were still laughing uproariously. It was one hell of a way to first see the bizarre classic.

6. Saving Private Ryan (1998)


I can't remember exactly where I saw this movie. I just remember that the opening scene of the D-Day invasion was already getting a lot of discussion when I saw the film with my family not too long after it opened. You knew it was going to be violent and brutal and difficult to watch, but it was still a shock when the first wave of soldiers prepared to storm the beach and was immediately cut down by gunfire. The whole sequence was so disheartening that when the first German was finally taken out someone gave a spontaneous cheer. Saving Private Ryan is often cited as the movie that reminded people that war isn't a pretty thing, and the sensory experience of watching it on the big screen drove the point home.

5. Contact (1997)

Although flawed in a few respects, the most memorable parts of Contact were also the scenes that were incredible when seen in the theater. First there was the unexpected silence of the title screen, followed by the zoom out from Earth that gave perspective to just how small a place in the universe we really occupy. The jarring flight of the transportation device to Vega through a series of wormholes was also a visual tour de force, frightening and exhilarating at the same time.

4. 50/50 (2011)


This one sticks out for a number of reasons. For one thing, it was the first full-length movie I saw it in New London's Garde Arts Center, a historic theater with perks such as balcony seating and beer sales (both of which I took advantage of in seeing 50/50). And since the humor of comedies tends to be heightened when you see it with a group, the quick pace and wit of 50/50 got quite a few laughs. And considering the emotional power of the film later on, it's the first I'd been to with the opposite effect. Namely that one powerful scene made it clear that a lot of people were weeping.

3. The Simpsons Movie (2007) 


Given that The Simpsons had already overstayed their television welcome by several years by the time this came out, I was a little skeptical about how this would turn out. The show was nowhere near the quality of the older episodes that won it a following, so there was plenty of concern that that the movie was going to be just as disappointing. But since work on the movie dated back to that golden age, the movie was something of a callback to that period. And watching it with a room full of Simpsons fans reminded me of old get-togethers with friends, helplessly laughing at the antics of America's favorite family.

2. Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003)

I started reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy after seeing the first Peter Jackson film adaptation and was impressed to find how much of the book he'd fit onto the screen. And a little worried that he covered so little of the second book in the follow-up. So I was pleasantly surprised to find that the conclusion was arguably the best of the lot, with the final confrontation between good and evil about as flawless as it could be. And as always, such epic showdowns are that much better on the big screen.

1. The Avengers (2012)


Well what can you say about this? Plenty of movies expect viewers to have seen a film or two as groundwork for the latest picture, but with five prior pictures this was a pretty audacious undertaking. This was the first movie I went to see at a midnight premiere, joining a couple of friends who are more steeped in comic book culture. The excitement at the premiere was palpable, all the more so because just about every review coming in said The Avengers wasn't going to disappoint. It's safe to say that if you saw this at the first opportunity, you weren't just taking in a good movie in a crowded theater; you were laughing, cheering, applauding, and having a hell of a lot of fun.