Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Simpsons Movie: Worth the Wait?

After nearly two decades on television, everyone's favorite yellow family has made its way to the big-screen, and I can safely say, as a longtime fan of the series, that The Simpsons Movie lives up to any and all expectations.

You see, I'm hardly what one would call a "casual" fan of The Simpsons. I own the first 8 seasons on DVD, an expansive collection of the merchandise, and way too many of the t-shirts. Needless to say, I was amped (and concerned) when they announced that a movie was finally on the way.

Allow me to explain my skepticism. While there's a decent new episode on TV now and then, the show hasn't been anywhere near the quality of its glory days: Seasons 4 through 8. I figured that, while it was going to be great to see these characters I've known nearly all of my life grace the big screen at the local multiplex, I was ready for a bittersweet realization that they should have done this film years ago.

My concerns melted away like rich creamery butter (mmmm...butter) just moments into the flick. The writers have managed to bring back the former charm of the series, pelting the audience with rapid-fire gags and one-liners. It's far more consistent than, say, other toon-to-film transitions such as South Park: Bigger Longer and Uncut.

A plot summary is useless for a movie like this, so I'll just let you know that Homer does something incredibly stupid and puts the entire town in danger. It's up to him, Marge, Lisa, Bart and Maggie to set things right. That's the basic framework, and all you really need to know at this point.

You'll see your favorite supporting characters, with memorable contributions from Ralph Wiggum, Mr. Burns, Otto, Comic Book Guy, Kent Brockman and countless others. There's a new villain from the Environmental Protection Agency voiced by series favorite Albert Brooks, who played Hank Scorpio in the episode "You Only Move Twice." He's basically "Scorpio Lite" here, but he's a good villain with some choice dialogue.

While some choice moments have been shown in commercials and trailers, such as "Spider-Pig" and Bart's nude skateboarding, but rest assured: there are plenty of surprises. The film takes advantage of its PG-13 rating, I'll say that much.

There's really no reason not to love The Simpsons Movie. Chances are, you've seen and like the show, and if you haven't: what's it like living under that boulder? Should I say it? I'll say it. Best. Movie. Of. The. Summer.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Beer and Donuts...Together At Last!

It's safe to say that anticipation for The Simpsons Movie, coming to theaters on July 27th, is at a fever pitch. 11 7-Eleven stores across the country have been converted to Kwik-E-Marts, Vermont has been named the official Springfield to premiere the film, and now Ben & Jerry's have announced a special ice cream flavor to celebrate everyone's favorite fat yellow, loveable oaf, Homer Simpson.

For one day only, residents of Springfield, VT can treat themselves to "Duff & D'oh-Nuts," which will combine the tastes of chocolate donuts, and, well, beer. Unfortunately, this match made in ice cream Heaven will never be available again, so you're going to have to make that trek to New England if you want a taste of Simpsons history.

After spending much of yesterday watching old episodes on DVD, Friday can't come fast enough. See how excited I am in the above pic?

759 pages and two nights later...

...and I've just completed Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. You won't find any spoilers here, since half the fun of the series is finding out what happens next, but I will say this: You won't be disappointed. For readers that have stuck with the series since the beginning, this seventh book is a fitting, bittersweet end to the Harry Potter story. It's also the best in the series.

Maybe it's because each book matures along with the characters, maybe it's because J.K. Rowling has grown as a writer, but Deathly Hallows has the most gripping narrative of any of the books, with a great deal more action and twists and turns that will make you rethink just about every plot point in every previous book. Not to mention the fact that it's dark as hell, with major characters getting killed off or maimed left and right. Again, I won't spoil a thing.

The final chapters were reminiscent of the final scenes in other fantasy epics: Lord of the Rings: Return of the King and Return of the Jedi immediately come to mind. Mark my words: it's gonna make for a fantastic movie.

My one gripe? At one point in the book, the plot devolves into Harry, Ron and Hermione tracking down two possible groups of magical objects. That's too many MacGuffins. Of course, the dual quests for Horcruxes and Deathly Hallows resolves itself in the end, but it overcomplicated the plot a bit, and the fact that it takes a whole chapter toward the end of the book to explain all the connections was kind of a letdown.

With two more movies to come, Potter-mania shows no signs of slowing down. And for someone who came into the series pretty late in the game, I'm glad that I got the chance to catch up on what I missed and see it through to the end. It's hard to ignore a phenomenon that's introduced so many children to reading, while at the same time has reintroduced so many adults to a world of childlike wonderment that is often, although we hate to admit it, quite difficult to find these days.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

The World's Gone Potter Crazy!

It's a good week for Harry Potter, the bespectacled boy wizard created by J.K. Rowling. With a hit movie topping the box office and a new book that's selling like, well, a Harry Potter novel, kids and adults alike have become, dare I say it, enchanted.

I managed to catch the new film, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix this week. It was the first time I would be seeing a Harry Potter film after reading the book, so I knew I'd be looking for each and every deviance from the original story. And boy, are there deviances. But this isn't always a bad thing. I'd even venture to say that Order of the Phoenix is the second best Potter film after Alfonso Cuaron's brilliant version of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

I wasn't always a fan of the books or the movies, I should mention. It always felt like something I just didn't get, despite being enamored with just about every fantasy property known to man. The movies were entertaining as kiddie-fair, but the first two books were pretty underwhelming for me at first. I didn't understand the adult fascination in the series until I dove into the rest of the books. Around halfway through Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, I found myself truly caring about the characters and the world that Rowling had created. With each book she raises the stakes and further develops her mythology. I've since garnered a far greater appreciation for both incarnations of the series, and can find merit by looking at them as both an adult with a strong literary education and as a child who just happens to be 23 years old.

The film version of Order of the Phoenix is basically a Cliff's Notes version of the book. It's a highlight reel, which both adds and detracts from the narrative. At this point in the series, Rowling was in dire need of a better editor, with the stories running a bit long and rambling in places. However, I kind of missed a lot of the rambling on film. There's no real way to remedy that, save for making the film far longer. It complemented the book nicely; I just don't think the uninitiated (let's call them Muggles in this context) would appreciate the scope of the story.

Performances were a lot better this time around from the three principals: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson as Harry, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger. You can tell that these young actors, who have grown up together on-film, have also grown into their characters. Director David Yates, although a relative novice director, coaxed strong performances out of everyone involved. Welcome new additions were Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge and Helena Bonham Carter as Bellatrix Lestrange.

If you're a Potter fan, you already know the story and will have a lot of fun seeing it on the big screen (IMAX, if it's available). You might be miffed about the deletions, but everything included is well done. It's one of the best Harry Potters yet, and is by far the most exciting. Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got to finish reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Here's a spoiler:

J.K. Rowling is RICH!

Flea Market Montgomery - Long Version

Living rooms, bedrooms, dinettes...Oh yeah!

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Explosion in Midtown

If your Sterling senses have been tingling, it's because I've decided to break some of the previous formalities of The Wort Report with less structured, day-to-day posts intermingled with my usual critical musings about movies and such. I hope that you, the reader, enjoy the changes as I bring you semi-daily doses of geeky goings-on. I say "reader" because there surely couldn't be more than one of you. Could there?

Today was a pretty normal day at work. I'm never one to complain about being too busy, but I am juggling a few projects at once and things are hectic. Upon hitting the Midtown, NYC streets at around 6 o'clock, all that was on my mind was unwinding: cracking a cold one on the train, plugging myself into my iPod and drifting away for 40 minutes watching the last remnants of a summer rain storm batter the window beside me. It's the little things, sometimes, that bring you back to life at the end of a stressful day.

And sometimes it's the big things. The scary things.

As I hurriedly walked through Grand Central Terminal, I was greeted by a sea of humanity running frantically toward me from the Lexington Ave. entrance. Surely, I thought, these people are rushing to some late-arriving train. Little did I know that this was going on just outside: a steam pipe had exploded, killing one person and wounding more than 20 others as of this writing.

Of course, we're all much wiser as to what exactly happened, at the time people were panicking and putting together their own stories. I heard a few women discuss the possibilities of terrorist involvement, which surely fueled the hysteria of passers-by.

I'm not going to lie: It was pretty frightening. I got on the train, talking to the other passengers as we all tried to get a grip on the situation. We knew it was an explosion, some of us had seen the steam leak firsthand. One man was covered in soot. After discussing what had happened, we calmed down, and things proceeded as normal. Afterwards, it hit me: this was the first time that I had a conversation with a stranger on a train that lasted longer than a few seconds.

Like I said, sometimes it's the little things.

My thoughts and prayers go out to everyone affected by the incident.

Monday, July 16, 2007

A Case of the Mondays

Another week, another Monday. Tearing myself away from my two-day womb of sleeping in, mid-afternoon trips to Dunkin' Donuts for a blueberry iced coffee (I can't drink it during the week. It's my "serenity now" beverage), raiding my massive DVD collection and watching a full animation block on Fox on Sunday night followed by Adult Swim on Cartoon Network. Little do you know it, but I secretly judge how cool you are based on whether or not you like Robot Chicken. Really I do.

But with the workweek and daily train commute comes an opportunity to indulge in some great literature. My new thing? Discovering an author and going through their catalog book by book. My latest is Kurt Vonnegut.

I know, it's sad that I've never read him before, but he's easily one of my favorites at the moment. I started with Slaughterhouse-Five and I'm almost finished with Breakfast of Champions. I just love his literary voice, particularly in Champions. He's so self-aware as a novelist, and his writing never seems to get stale. He's great to wake up to during the morning commute, and is the perfect remedy when I wake up to find my iPod dead. So it goes.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

A Beautiful Day for Video Gaming!

As it happens, I haven't had the luckiest week. Venturing to Jones Beach last Saturday left me horribly sunburned for the better part of the last few days, with yesterday being the first day I didn't feel like a broiled lobster. Since I work in The Big Apple, I hid my stupidity by wearing my trademark oversized aviator sunglasses for the entire duration of my trainrides: half to hide my shame, and half to avoid eye contact with people giving me the "you're a f*ckin' idiot" look.

Lesson learned (SPF 50 is a must for fair-skinned folks), I'm leaving behind a trail of skin flakes wherever I go (gross). Today I settled in for a safer and less carcinogeous form of recreation: video games. I know, it's just an excuse to be lazy and avoid going outside, but I had a Gears of War craving and needed desperately to shoot something. I also tore into Guitar Hero 2 on my new career mode with my newly created band: Womprat. A vague Star Wars reference from James Wortman? Do you even know me?

Part of my Xbox 360 jonesing has been due to E3 '07 currently taking place. For the uninitiated (and probably more attractive and popular), E3 stands for Electronic Entertainment Expo. It's basically a way for game developers to show off their goods to the gaming media (there's a gaming media? You bet your ass there is) and give people a chance to test out upcoming games and generate early buzz. This year, the event is much smaller, with no access to the general public and less "bells and whistles" as far as the actual event goes. It's a stripped down trade show, so-to-speak.

What am I most excited about? Funny you should ask, my 3 loyal readers. Super Mario Galaxy looks promising, as does the new Super Smash Bros. game, both of which are for the impossible-to-find Nintendo Wii. Heavenly Sword for the PS3 looks pretty slick, despite being little more than God of War with breasts. But in this case, the breasts are heavenly, so I guess that makes it OK.

On the Xbox 360 front, we've got Halo 3, which I'm admittedly already sold on since I played the beta last month, and then there's Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock which has me amped. See what I did there? I love puns.

It's quite the exciting time to be a game nerd, and things just keep getting better. Games are getting slicker, more innovative, and more interactive with the online multiplayer boom and services such as Xbox Live. No longer mere playthings, video games have garnered significant legitimacy, and I can't wait to see where this rapidly growing medium takes us.

Happy Saturday, Wortmaniacs!

Friday, July 13, 2007

Transform and Roll Out!

I'm diggin' the love that Optimus Prime and the gang have been getting over the past week and a half. It seems that despite some mixed reviews and the general air of skepticism surrounding the release of the film, Michael Bay's Transformers has grossed over $186 million domestically since its July 3rd release, gunning for $300 million worldwide. Not bad for a movie based on action figures.

But what is the reason for this success? All popcorn-greased fingers point to the fact that people genuinely enjoy having fun at the movies. While most blockbusters these days are bogged down by droopy-eyed mopiness (Spider-Man 3) and bloat (Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End), Bay's Transformers moved along at a brisk pace, introduced us to some colorful characters and blew our minds with impressive visuals.

It's safe to say that this summer has turned itself around, with the solid Knocked Up, Live Free or Die Hard, Ratatoille and now this. Will Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix be another passenger on the late-arriving Summer-of-Not-Suck Express? Stay tuned.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Transformers: In Defense of the Dumb Blockbuster


Was it a good movie in disguise? Was it more than meets the eye? Can I think of a more unoriginal way to tie Transformers catch-phrases into a review of the new Michael Bay film?

I caught Transformers last night and enjoyed the hell out of it. That's right. While I admit that the characters were largely shoddily drawn caricatures and the plot was thinner than the walls of my college apartment, I had so much fun with this film that none of that really mattered.

You see, I judge movies based on what they set out to accomplish and whether they reach that goal by the end of the film. In this case, Transformers delivers. It's giant alien robots that turn into Earth vehicles, based on a Hasbro toyline and cartoon from the 80s. Sure, there's a plot revolving around the good robots (Autobots) hunting down a cube called the Allspark (which basically brings life to anything with a circuit) before the bad guys (Decepticons) get their metallic claws on it and enslave humanity, but that's really just an excuse to cause digital property damage in a Cybertronian smackdown, while we sit with stupid grins on our faces while munching on popcorn.

While the stars of this film are its title characters: the mute yellow Camaro named Bumblebee, the heroic Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen from the 80s toon), and the assortment of Decepticon baddies, the human cast works pretty well. Shia LaBeouf plays nerdy Sam Witwicky who wants to get it on with high school hottie Mikaela (the so-hot-she-must-be-genetically-engineered Megan Fox). Of course, he also gets a beat up Camaro that just happens to be a 30-foot alien robot intent on getting him laid when not fighting for the fate of the universe. The scenes with Mikaela, Sam and Bumblebee ground this movie in Spielbergian fashion (he executive produced the flick) and give us someone to root for in-between the military "urgency" early on, which mostly consists of Jon Voight making pissy faces while an unrealistically hot Australian hacker chick (again, must have been created in a lab) explains to him that we're being attacked by giant space robots.

You can't talk about this movie without praising the effects. At no time are you aware that you're watching computer generated imagery when the 'bot are onscreen. It reminded me of the first time I saw Jurassic Park in theaters, how the dinosaurs seamlessly blended in with their surroundings. Throughout Transformers, I just had this overwhelming sense of "they can do that now?" Things get even crazier when the Autobots and Decepticons are at each others throats (do they have throats?) in dizzying displays of robot-on-robot brutality. While these scenes are always exciting and really draw you in to the action, Bay still has difficulty keeping the camera in one place for too long, particularly in the climactic end battle, which makes it difficult at times to figure out what's going on.

There are plenty of folks out there on the Interwebs blasting this movie for being a big, stupid commercial, and I am forced time and time again to explain that this is a TRANSFORMERS MOVIE. It's cheese. Everything has a product logo stamped on it, whether it be Hasbro, GM, Mountain Dew, XBox 360....hell, eBay is a central plot point. It's an example of movie-as-business, more a product than anything one would consider a "film." But as a product, it's ridiculously entertaining. You'll groan with the rest of the audience at the cheesy one-liners, laugh at a few of the jokes (Sam's parents are hilarious), and cheer during the action scenes (which there are a lot of). If fun movies that set out to be fun movies aren't your cup of tea, then I honestly feel sorry for you and your inability to find joy in unadulterated entertainment. Pure spectacle is the one saving grace of the theatergoing experience, even moreso when it's done right.

Now, spectacle can be a terrible thing (Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, I'm looking in your direction), but Transformers pulls it off quite nicely. Flawed? You bet your ass it is. You could drive Optimus Prime through some of the plotholes. But the day that I overanalyze a movie about giant transforming robots is the day I set up shop in my parents' basement for good. Get over yourselves. It's huge action, hot chicks, camp humor and a great night at the movies.

Transformers
is the type of summer movie we haven't seen in a good long while. If you grew up with the Autobots and Decepticons or never grew up at all, it's escapist fun for kids of all ages.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Die Hard is Very Much Alive

Live Free or Die Hard is easily the most fun I've had with a movie this summer that wasn't Knocked Up. It delivers everything I expected from the series (aside from a few things, which I'll get to in a minute) and never slows down once it gets moving.

Here we are, 12 years since Die Hard with a Vengeance, introduced to an older (and decidedly hairless) John McClane (Bruce Willis), who is an analog man in a digital world. After all he's been through, the last thing he's ready to handle is a cyber terrorist (Timothy Olyphant) who technologically cripples the entire country in an attempt to rob it blind.

In the beginning of the film, John is dispatched to pick up a young hacker named Matt (Justin Long), who was one of the tech-geeks conned into helping the bad guys. Not being of further use, these guys are getting blown up left and right, and Matt is next on their hit list. What follows is your standard mismatched pairing: a techie and a computer illiterate. Could be a lame buddy comedy, but remember: This is Die Hard. Have faith.

Well, it's sorta Die Hard. See, the rest of the series has been stamped with a hard R rating, with plenty of bloodshed and cursing to justify it. To ensure a bigger opening weekend, Fox edited Live Free or Die Hard to a comparatively limp PG-13, and you can certainly tell. None of the people (aside from John) seem to have any blood in their bodies whatsoever, and have also mastered the art of making their mouths not synch up with the words they are saying. Yep, the editing is that obvious.

Criticisms aside, this is a solid entry in the series. It doesn't touch the original, which remains one of the best action films ever made, but it's just as good as the sequels. It's far better than Die Hard 2 and about as entertaining as Die Hard with a Vengeance. Without saying f*ck a lot, John McClane is still John McClane. He still spouts the one-liners and can still throw a punch, particularly in his fight with bad-girl Mai Lihn (the hot-as-hell Maggie Q). The action gets a bit cartoony at times, but director Len Wiseman keeps the adrenaline pumping throughout. Especially considering that the movie could have become boring with all of the techno babble. It's still there, but we can at least relate to John: he doesn't know what the hell they're saying either.

Sorry to say it, but it's been a weak summer. Movies have run the gamut from God-awful to decent, with Knocked Up being the season's first true surprise. But in the action arena, John McClane is still the man. It's a lot of fun catching up with this character, partly because Bruce Willis seems to be having so much fun playing him. Yippee ki yay, mother(gunshot).