Showing posts with label review. Show all posts
Showing posts with label review. Show all posts

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Movie Review: The Counselor

Last year's The Counselor had a crazy amazing pedigree: directed by Ridley Scott, written by Cormac McCarthy, starring: Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, and Brad Pitt with lots of fun cameos. It got bad reviews and didn't last long in the theaters so I skipped it. I watched it on HBO last night. Then I made the mistake of looking at IMDb message board which is just filled with dribble like "worst film ever" and "you just didn't understand it".

I've never read Cormac McCarthy. I liked the movie No Country for Old Men and found The Road too bleak. I didn't really care for The Counselor but found it an interesting failure. The plot is about a drug heist, and by plot I mean something closer to scheme than story. I could not tell you all the details of the plot, I don't think they were presented. It's interesting that what was presented was done almost entirely visually via cutaways to scenes without the main characters. Ridley Scott is certainly capable of doing that well and as far as screenplay 101, McCarthy is showing the plot and not telling it. But the story is an entirely different matter.

Michael Fassbender is the nameless Counselor. He seems well off and in love with Laura (Penélope Cruz). He has some associations with bad guys Reiner (Javier Bardem) and Westray (Brad Pitt) though we don't really know exactly what they do. We do see them talk at length about life's excesses of money and women and sometimes evil. Malkina (Cameron Diaz) is Reiner's girlfriend and is often the subject of these descriptions. The Counselor gets involved in some illegal plot. It's not clear if he's broken the law before or if this is just to a new degree. Reiner and Westray both warn him about entering a new world and about the importance of preparing for consequences (which you'd expect a lawyer to already know). He says he's in, but when things start to go bad (and you knew they would), he's unprepared.

This is the story, and it's told in many metaphoric (and if you will literary) conversations overflowing with narrative monologues. Some work, some don't. The important one is delivered by Jefe (Rubén Blades) late in the film. I'm tempted to quote some of it here but I guess that would be a spoiler. Many on the IMDb boards found it the most pretentious and boring of the film; I thought it was a wonderful nihilistic view of life that everyone could learn from (and I hated the final conversation in No Country for Old Men). Ok, here's a line:

And that is because when it comes to grief, the normal rules of exchange do not apply, because grief transcends value. A man would give entire nations to lift grief off his heart. And yet, you cannot buy anything with grief, because grief is worthless.

I think you have to respect a film with a character delivering such a line. However overall the film didn't work for me. Some of the dialog is wonderful but anything plot related is too cryptic and I was frustrated throughout the film (even though I early on figured out the ultimate resolution). The only useful commentary I found on IMDb is by flickfix and I agree, the plot isn't the point, but Tarantino does this much better. If the plot isn't the point, don't have me wasting time trying to figure it out. Maybe he was trying to express that life isn't always clear, but I think it hurt the story.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Movie Review: The Case Against 8

The Case Against 8 is playing this weekend as part of IFFBoston. Conveniently it had a screening tonight at Harvard Law School, so I got to extend to IFF by a day and avoid a conflict or two in scheduling.

The movie tells the story of the legal battle to overturn California's Proposition 8 which was passed in 2008 and defined marriage as between one man and one woman. The battle to overturn it started with someone having lunch with Rob Reiner (really) who mentioned that a brother-in-law of someone (his? his wife?) knew lawyer Ted Olson and he might be interested in the case. Olson was a non-obvious choice being one of the most prominent conservative lawyers in the country; a founding member of The Federalist Society and infamously winning Bush v. Gore. More surprisingly he teaming up with his Bush v. Gore opponent David Boies to take the case.

It started with them searching for plaintiffs. They found two couples one gay and one lesbian living in California who wanted to marry to represent. They were picked to be perfect plaintiffs, nothing wrong in the background, good families, etc. The movie follows as they prepare for and argue the case before the US District Court and then the appeal of the ruling to the US Supreme Court.

If you follow the news at all you know what happens. They win. (I really don't think that's a spoiler). So the question is how does the movie decide to tell the story. It turns out they knew this was going to be an important case for history and decided to film it from the beginning. They were a little hampered by the decision of the court to now allow the District Court trial to be broadcast (though it was apparently filmed and the film is now under seal for no great reason). So it's a legal story but it's also an emotional one so they follow the plaintiffs as they prepare for the trial, and are nervous the night before, and happy at winning and then getting married immediately after the Supreme Court decision.

Now I'm probably in the minority in this but I wish there was more law in this film and less personal drama. I'm already on the plaintiffs side and don't need to be convinced that "they're just like ordinary people" or that "letting them marry won't hurt anyone else" or that they've experienced discrimination in their lives. At 109 mins this isn't a short movie, there's lots scenes of lawyers typing and looking seriously at big stacks of paper and milling in and out of offices and cars, all to deliberately passed serious sounding music. The legal stuff is covered but there are two parts that sounded fascinating and are just mentioned.

It seems David Boies is a genius cross-examiner. At one point in the film Olson says that Perry Mason moments only happen on television and when Boies is cross-examining and it happened in this trial. The defense called several witnesses but they weren't that impressive. Their last was David Blankenhorn, a vocal advocate against same-sex marriage but not an actual expert in much. Boies apparently asked him a series of questions, and Blankenhorn gave a series of answers and by the end he was saying that the plaintiffs should be allowed to marry. The film interviews him and he says he'd answer them the same today. He's since come out in support of gay marriage. I wish the movie covered this more, in some cases they read briefly from the transcript but not much if any from this.

The other was Olson's closing statement. Boies says it's the best argument he's ever heard in a court, but we don't get to hear any of it. Now both of these happened at the District Court, after this we follow them to the Supreme Court which ends up the deciding the case on standing. That is a technicality in whether the plaintiffs of that case can show harm that happened to them giving them the basis to sue. The court decided in an unusual 5-4 grouping, Roberts, Scalia, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kagan for and Kennedy, Thomas, Alito, and Sotomayor against. The film doesn't cover that at all and doesn't address the issue that this wouldn't change any minds on the merits of the case as the District Court ruling details might.

The movie is good. I'm sure most people will be very moved by the personal journey of the two couples. At 109 minutes I think there's a fair amount of filler (and random scenes with Rob Reiner in the background) and I wish there was a little more in it that would actually convince someone that this is a real civil rights issue and is about treating people equally and fairly. The film had the opportunity, David Blankenhorn was convinced (and he is interviewed in the film) but didn't dive into it. As I read about the case on wikipedia I see there's a play called 8 that might be more to my liking.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Movie Reviews

Here's me catching up on some movie reviews from the last couple of months.

12 Years a Slave is probably the best movie I've seen this year and I'm sure will be at the top of the Oscar nominations. It's the stunning true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man from New York sold into slavery in Louisiana in the 1850s for you guessed it, 12 years before he was rescued. It's based on his memoir he started writing a year afterwards, which I'm reading now. The movie is faithful to the book and stunning in its impact. Better than anything I've seen it gets across the horrors of slavery but not in as pummeling a way as say Schindler's List. That was a magnificent movie but not one I've wanted to sit through again. While not a happy tale by any stretch, I'm looking forward to seeing 12 Years a Slave again. Director Steve McQueen has an art background and really understands composition and timing and is using the medium to manipulate your emotions. Watching it I was thinking this was like Kubrick but not boring. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong'o, and Michael Fassbender give astounding performances in difficult roles. Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sarah Paulson, and Adepero Oduye are also fantastic. It's a great film, go see it. And read this article on Steve McQueen.

My next favorite film is Gravity. As I said briefly before "it's just a completely immersive experience with stunning visuals and sounds." If you like the trailer, you'll like the film, it's basically action like that for 90 minutes with (just) a few pauses to let you catch your breath. It's worth seeing it in 3D and in a theater (I didn't see it in IMAX but that would be good too).

I just saw Captain Phillips today and I really liked it. It's directed Paul Greengrass so yes there is more shaky-cam than I would have liked but it wasn't badly done like I find with JJ Abrams. I was quite surprised that the movie kept me in suspense the whole time wondering how things would work out. Tom Hanks will probably get another well deserved Oscar nomination (as will the first time actor playing one of the pirates). I've seen some things questioning the accuracy of Phillips' actions, but if the SEAL team rescue was at all accurate, it's pretty amazing. I liked this much better than say Zero Dark Thirty.

Dallas Buyers Club is based on the true story of Ron Woodroof. A Texas bigot scraping by as an electrician, rodeo cowboy, gambler and petty thief. He's diagnosed as HIV+ and in 1985 there aren't any approved treatments. He starts getting AZT illegally but ends up working with a doctor in Mexico in getting alternative treatments for himself and ultimately selling them others. This gives him two conflicts. The first is that his customers are mostly gay men he despises, the second is the FDA who don't approve of selling drugs they don't approve of. Matthew McConaughey is great is in the of Woodroof but Jared Leto is better as his transsexual business partner. It's a solid movie with a story that moves and interesting characters. It's a little one-sided against the FDA though they certainly had issues at the time. If you're interested after the movie, WonkBlog explains What ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ got wrong about the AIDS crisis.

Philomena is getting a lot of buzz for Judi Dench's performance as an older catholic who starts searching for the son she was forced to give up 50 years prior. She was put into a convent when she became pregnant out of wedlock, then to pay for the child's care she was forced to work and only allowed to see her child for one hour a day until the child was adopted without her consent. Steve Coogan is the jaded journalist who decides to tell this human interest story and helps her track down her son. Part of this is a road trip with a mismatched pair but the film avoids cliches and there were a few surprises. This is one of those films that I wouldn't have seen without an (expected) oscar nomination and I'm glad I did see it.

Nebraska is a little independent movie that's about family. Bruce Dern is an old man in Billings Montana who's a bit senile and of course stubborn. He wasn't a great father but now his sons (Will Forte and Bob Odenkirk) and they have to drop their own struggles to deal with keeping him safe. Dern misinterprets a magazine sweepstakes and now wants to go to Nebraska to collect his $1 million winnings. Eventually Forte concedes to a short road trip and they stop over in the small town they're originally from and stay with family they haven't seen in years. It's a good movie, touching at times and funny at others (though not uproarious). It's filmed in black and white so it's trying to be somewhat serious. The dialog is slow enough that I'd like to cut out about 20 mins of pauses but others in the group I saw it with said that's just the way they talk there.

All is Lost is a shipwreck movie with Robert Redford. He's sailing the Indian Ocean alone, his yacht is damaged and there's almost no dialog. We watch as he tackles one problem after another in efforts to save his ship and survive. It's good and it's an impressive performance but the film give no background info at all. I saw it with a group and people got different emotions out of it based on different assumptions about him. Was he arrogant sailing alone and not taking more precautions? Was he competent and efficiently dealing with a deadlier and deadlier situation? I suppose that's interesting, but it's not really what I want from a film. I'm ok with some ambiguity. For example, if it fully explores two possible outcomes but leaves what does happen to the viewer to fill in, but if you're not giving me any details and asking me to fill in all the blanks, you can set up that premise in a 5 minute short rather than a 90 minute feature.

In Prisoners a six year-old girl (and her friend) goes missing. Jake Gyllenhaal is the cop looking for her, Paul Dano is the creepy suspect and Hugh Jackman is the father upset about how slow things are going and wanting to take matters into his own hands. It was billed a taut thriller which raises serious moral questions and really strong performances. I mostly agree with that but at 2.5 hours it felt overly long and it didn't raise anything new for me on the morality front. The plot is fine and has appropriate turns and Jackman does well in his non-Wolverine, non-singing everyman role. It's better than average summer fare and it's not quite Oscar bait, so its September release was I guess appropriate.

Inside Llewyn Davis is the Coen brothers' latest film about the folk music scene of Greenwich Village in 1961. It follows a down-on-his-luck singer who's lost his partner and is staying on friends' couches and barely squeaking by. It's a character study and in a Q&A with the star Oscar Isaac I saw he said "they added a cat because they needed a plot" which seems exactly right. Some odd characters and interesting performances, but it's all following an anti-hero. It's mostly a series of performances but since I'm not particularly interested in folk music the film didn't do that much for me.

Catching Fire fixed a lot of problems I had with the first movie. The books are all about Katniss' inner monologue but the first movie had no narration and IMHO didn't do a good job making up for it. I really liked the world building that happens in the earlier parts of this film. The suffering that was visible, the effects on the characters and the conversations they had all allowed much more emotion to be conveyed. Also, way less shaky-cam. At 2.5 hours the movie is long, but the second half still felt a little short in the characterizations of other tributes and the big action piece.

Enough Said is an out of the ordinary romantic comedy. First off the stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini are 50 years-old. Both are divorced and have kids heading off to college. There are interesting supporting characters, particularly Catherine Keener and Toni Collette. It works. It's entertaining and it's touching and it's more true-to-life and a lot quieter comedy than the average Aptow-inspired things I've seen lately. I really appreciated that different characters had different opinions on something and the film doesn't feel the need to define one of them as right. It's sadly one of Gandolfini's last roles and I had heard great praise about his performance, but I found it just good not amazing.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Home Theater Upgrade

I watch a lot of TV and movies but I don't upgrade my home theater equipment very often. My TV was 11 years old. An expensive (at the time) Panasonic 42" Plasma TV. I had a Denon A/V receiver I got a couple of years later and a Panasonic DVD player. My TiVo was a Series 3, about 7 years old. I got my money out of the lifetime service option (I think I managed to transfer that over from a previous TiVo) but I did replace the hard drive once and it was starting to act up again (a few reboots and pauses).

There were some limitations. The TV and receiver didn't support HDMI connectors so everything was using component video and digital audio cables (I think all were optical). That was fine. I have a Wii and an AirPort Express to stream audio from my mac and iOS devices. But that meant I couldn't use an Apple TV or some other newer devices. Many blu-ray players now just have an HDMI connector. Also, while the TV was HD, it had a resolution of 1024x768 which meant the best it could do was 720p. Higher resolution 1080i and 1080p were beyond it.

So I was thinking of upgrading and then TiVo finally announced their new Roamio and I was interested. After my Series 3 then rebooted on its own, I ordered one then I started looking at home theater equipment reviews in The Wirecutter. I was very happy with their articles, picking the best device in a category and explaining the choices and selection process. I was thinking of buying some of their step-up choices but the more I researched the more I agreed with their best picks. So I ended up getting their picks for Best TV, Best A/V Receiver and Best Blu-ray Player. Here's some of my thinking.

The TV is clearly the best reviewed TV around (some say ever). There are even higher end ones, but this has a great picture for not crazy money. From Amazon I got the 50" version for $1000 (seven times less than I paid for a 42" plasma 11 years prior). I looked at their Best $500 TV choice but it was limited to 720p, didn't have as a good picture (I like rich blacks for old movies) or as a good an anti-glare coating (I've been known to watch movies during the day) and didn't do 3D. I don't have much use for 3D now, but if I keep this TV as long as the last one, some future proofing seemed nice. This one also had network features (aka a "smart tv") and the cheaper one didn't. I didn't see a need for the smart features but I suppose they're worth something (and could be upgraded over time). Also I was saving some money on expectations for a receiver so it seemed reasonable to put it in the TV which I'll be looking at. I'm not a hardcore gamer so the one issue of some video lag didn't bother me at all. I expect to keep this TV until it's time to upgrade to 4K video (if that ever happens).

The TV picture is gorgeous. While the screen is 8" bigger, the bezel on this model is smaller than on my old TV. The picture looks both bigger and better and yet fits right in where the old TV was. It's nicer, but not overwhelming. The image is bright and the colors vibrant. I pulled out my old Toy Story DVD because it has a THX Optimizer on it with some image patterns to help you set up the video controls. I even remembered I had ordered the free THX blue glasses and where they were. So I set that up was and was happy. Then a friend mentioned he looked up the settings that some experts post on a forum. I found this for my TV and was surprised to see that there are a set of slides to download to a sd card to run in slide show mode for 100 hours to break in the TV before configuring the video settings. Yeah I'm not doing that. An alternative is to watch regular TV for 250-300 hours. Fine, after Halloween I'll try out these settings, in the mean time I'm pretty happy.

My last receiver was about $1000 so seeing The Wirecutter's pick was $250 surprised me. Shifting to HDMI means many fewer cables and I'm sure simpler insides. It supports 4 HDMI inputs and I had plans for all of those so I thought about future proofing and getting a step up pick with more inputs, but as I researched, it seemed less necessary. At $250, if I need a new receiver in a few years I'll upgrade. I agree with the review that many features on a receiver aren't necessary. I want it to have good sound and switch inputs. Since I've moved all video to HDMI I don't need it to up-convert or anything like that. The one thing I looked out for was that it passed through 3D so that a 3D blu-ray would play on the 3D TV if I ever wanted that.

As for sound, I didn't really use the DSP stuff on the old receiver so this Yamaha had plenty. I'm surprised but I have used a few of the "sound programs" like "Sports" and "The Bottom Line" (a Jazz club effect) and now regularly watch TV with the "Drama" setting. The Wirecutter said that Dynamic Compression was the one useful sound feature and I have used on occasion when watching something late at night. I have surround sound but not a subwoofer (I have neighbors) so 5.1 was just fine. For radio, sure some FM reception is nice, but mostly I want to stream audio from a computer or iOS device (iTunes or Spotify or whatever). The thing it was missing was builtin AirPlay but I have an AirPort Express already and I'm sure I'll eventually get an Apple TV so it didn't need to be builtin. And whatever was builtin would only stream audio and I'd eventually want to stream video too so I'd be looking at an Apple TV anyway.

Since I was going with HD everything it seemed reasonable to get a blu-ray player too and they're just $100. Their pick from Sony seemed fine, particularly on sale at Amazon for $95. It's supports 3D and the Yamaha Receiver will pass it through to the TV, so I'm good to try an Avatar 3D blu-ray or something eventually.

One feature to consider in all of these components is networking. Streaming services for video (Netflix, Amazon) and audio (Pandora, Spotify) are pretty nice. You can get TVs, receivers, blu-ray players, etc that all offer these features but you really don't need them in all your components. This was the one downside I found to The Wirecutter's strategy of picking the best of each device rather than also having a Best System. So my TV and blu-ray player have various streaming options but I'm probably never going to use them since my TiVo has them too. Still I connected them all up with ethernet cables which are more reliable than wifi (and my router was right next to the TV stand) and found they all downloaded and installed software updates when turned on (which was kind of nice). Another network feature is DLNA which lets you stream stuff (video, pictures, audio) from computers. It seems more prevalent for windows but there are some apps for iOS that are supposed to work. The Apple alternative is AirPlay via an AppleTV. Again to use this you only need support for this it in one device, I have it in both the TV and blu-ray and this redundancy makes the choice of skipping networking features in the receiver seem much better.

The last system-wide feature I learned about is called HDMI Control or CEC. With HDMI cables being digital and with devices getting more complicated the industry looked to do more with the digital connections. So if your TV is streaming Netflix for you, you want some way to send the audio back to the receiver to send to the surround speakers. You could use another cable but HDMI Audio Return Channel (ARC) lets this happen on the same HDMI cable you use to output video from the receiver to the TV. CEC lets the different remotes control the related devices. So turning on the TV will turn on the receiver and the blu-ray player and the volume controls on any of the remotes will affect the receiver. This is another nice benefit of using HDMI cables that I didn't anticipate, but it wasn't easy to get working.

While HDMI CEC is an industry standard, all the venders had to implement it and they have some differences and they all seem to have rebranded it to something else. So Panasonic calls it Viera Link. I do have a universal remote I've used but the remote that came with the new TiVo is quite nice. It's uses radio instead of infra red so it doesn't need to be pointed at the TiVo and it's designed well and has a few unique buttons. One problem is that it's not a learning remote. You can enter codes for different equipment to make TV power and input buttons and volume and mute buttons works with a receiver, but there are no macros and no Receiver power button. HDMI CEC would mean I could the one TV power button to turn on/off my receiver too. My problem was that when I did this, the sound came from the TV and not the receiver. Googling led me to this answer. It seems the Panasonic TV has all the HDMI control options in the setup menu which was easy to find, but there's another option to be found in one the networking apps called VIERA Link and that has one setting for "Speaker Output", change it from TV to Home theater and it all works fine.

So the main device I interact with is the TiVo Roamio. I got the Pro model just to be decadent. I've had it about a month now and am very happy. WIth six tuners I never have a conflict (though I have wanted to record six things at once a couple of times, Sunday has a lot of good TV) and with a 3TB drive I'm not going to run out of room for years, if ever. The picture looks great and I'm having it output everything at 1080p. I got it before the new TV and even hooked up to the old TV using 720p the picture looked much better than my old Series 3. The new HD interface is mostly great and familiar. I like that all movies have their year appended to the title (so you can tell it's a movie) and that almost all TV shows have the season and episode number in their descriptions. Also the guide now shows icons for things that are scheduled to be recorded and new series episodes have a NEW icon. It doesn't manage to show more information on the screen though, the extra real estate is taken up with some ad-like things at the top and a thumbnail picture of what's playing (which I've grown to like over the previous system of overlaying the guide info on top of the full-screen picture).

There are some little things that have annoyed me. Sometimes the clear button will return you to full-screen video, sometimes it won't. It took a while to figure out that the zoom button always works to return to full-screen video. I think I used to be able to use the channel up/down buttons to scroll through a wish list's upcoming show details and now I can't. I also feel like to the rate a show (with thumbs up/down) I have to click more to get to the details description. Right-arrow while watching TV brings up a screen with a few tabs showing info about what's playing, whats being recorded on the other tuners, closed captioning information, and alternate sound tracks. For some reason these tabs are in a different order if you're watching live TV or a recorded show. So that makes a macro to turn on/off closed captions is impossible.

I upgraded from an old TiVo and that process was always start over completely. There was no way to move channel lists, favorite channels, show ratings, season passes, wish lists, or web video subscriptions. Now at least you can transfer season passes via their web site but that wasn't as smooth as it could be. The order of the passes wasn't preserved and auto-record wish lists didn't come over either. Some passes came over but the show is on hiatus and there are no upcoming episodes in the guide; these are displayed as "Corrupt - delete me" which isn't what you want to see. It's also wrong, the correct thing to do is leave them and wait for new episodes to appear in the guide and then they will fix themselves (I've seen this happen in a couple of cases).

There was an issue with certain FiOS cable cards so I was sure to pick up the right model numbers. Cable card install was easy enough, you put it in the TiVo and call an automated FiOS number and read a few codes to active it; but the HBO and Cinemax channels didn't work. FiOS encrypts those and I had problems when they started doing so. I called FiOS, the tech was nice, admitted he hadn't done this before, but got it working within 15 minutes.

The Roamio has a big new feature that it can download and stream video to an iPad or iPad via the TiVo app. I've tried streaming to the iPad once and it was quite nice. It picked up right were I left off, but when I went back to the TV I had to manually advance to the new position. I've just used this on my home network but apparently as of today it will work out of the house too. I can definitely see using this when traveling and it being very useful in a household of several people.

Even though the TV and blu-ray have streaming features, I'm probably going to stick to using the ones in the TiVo. They have good netflix support which is the one service I use now. There's also Amazon Instant but I never understood how that's different from what I get via my Amazon Prime subscription and don't use it much. It is nice that these services are integrated into the search functions of the TiVo. So it will tell you if something is on the device, listed in the upcoming guide or available via Netflix or Amazon.

The only game console I have is a Wii. I used component cables to connect it to the receiver but the Yamaha isn't capable of converting that signal to HDMI so I'd have to run component cables to the TV and switch the TV input to use the Wii. That's not horrible (that's what macros on universal remotes are for) but not ideal. Then I found this device that converts the Wii output to HDMI for just $20 on Amazon. It seems to work perfectly and makes the connections and use a little easier.

I bought five different color High Speed HDMI Cables with Ferrite Cores from Monoprice for about $27 and got a pack of five ethernet cables from Amazon for under $14.

Overall I'm really happy so far.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Movie Review: Gravity

Next to the documentary The Act of Killing, Gravity is my favorite movie of the year. See it in 3D. It's gorgeous. It's a 90 minute thrill ride in the vein of Apollo 13. I think I got less oxygen than Sandra Bullock's character did during this movie. It's not profound or anything like that, it's just a completely immersive experience with stunning visuals and sounds.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Summer Movie Reviews *Spoilers*

I've been disappointed with all the summer blockbusters thus far and I've been remiss in reviewing them. Here are some thoughts. Maybe I'm getting old and cranky or maybe I've just seen too many movies but I find they're all making the same mistakes. They're either mindless action sequences riddled with inconsistencies strung together with a moronic plot delivered by bad writing or they just fail to get the the tone right.

Iron Man 3

I already reviewed it here Movie Review: Iron Man 3 Spoilers

Star Trek Into Darkness

I think I enjoyed myself in this film better than I did the first one, but I'm not sure why. I thought the first had captured the characters well but had a dumb plot centered around an underdeveloped villian and had horrible visuals based on shaky-cam and lens flares. The creators might have actually read my complaints and tried to address them in this film. The villian is well developed, there's a plot which is a metaphor for our response to 9/11 and there's less shaky-cam and lensflare. Win! Right?

Well not quite. This film made the choice to focus on the Kirk-Spock relationship at the expense of the other characters. It's a valid choice but they have less of those interesting characters they had in the first film. Second they get Kirk wrong. All that maturing that happened in the first film, gone. In the original Kirk was the middle between Spock's logic and McCoy's emotion. Now he's just the Stephen Colbert persona, doing everything based on his gut, and they contrast that with Spock.

Everyone else is stupid too. Remember in Star Trek when Khan quoted Moby Dick (which the plot also referenced). In this film there's literally a scene where Kirk yells "What was I supposed to do!" and the Admiral yells back "I'm not listening to you, you don't listen to me!". No he didn't have his hands covering his ears while saying "nah nah nah I'm not listening to you" but it was remarkably close.

Kirk fires Scotty in this because Scotty has some morals. Then this happens and I don't think the stupidity needs to be explained:

  • Kirk: "Chekov, you were once in engineering right?"
  • Chekov: "Yes, sir"
  • Kirk: "You're now chief engineer, get a red shirt"

There's another scene where Spock literally calls Old Spock to ask what to do.

But really, overall it just makes no sense. The villian's scheme is overly-complex to the point of being ridiculous. Apparently there are no security forces anywhere on or near earth, let alone at Star Fleet. And then you get to the end. They need Khan's wonder-blood to save Kirk so Spock has to chase him, alone, on foot over flying cars throughout San Francisco. Meanwhile McCoy, having discovered wonder-blood, takes another person with said wonder-blood out of a cryo-unit to put Kirk in it. I just don't understand how anyone could watch (let alone write) this and not moan at the stupidity.

But the worst sceen was just before and was worse not because it was dumber plotwise, but because it was horrible movie making. They copy the most famous scene in all of Star Trek and have no idea what emotion they want or how to get it. In Star Trek II they kill Spock in act of self-sacrifice and friendship and it's topped off with an over-acted scream that's been parodied countless times. This film copies the scene and oh look, they swapped roles, how clever and ironic or something. But the death was obviously not real because they had just shown McCoy bringing the tribble back to life. Kirk and Spock are barely friends in this reboot so there's much less resonnance. And moments before dying Kirk was realigning the warp core by literally swinging from rafters and kicking it with both feet like a gorilla. I honestly didn't know if I was supposed to be crying or laughing.

Someone please call Ronald D. Moore to write the next Star Trek film.

Man of Steel

Superman was exactly what I feared it would be once I heard Christopher Nolan was involved. While he did a great job on the Batman films, he used the same tone for his Superman movie and Superman has always been a different character and the contrast between him and Batman has been a staple of the comics for decades. If you accept the film on it's own terms, and I realize that you're supposed to, it's not bad. But I had a hard time doing that, it just wasn't Superman to me.

In my world, Pa Kent doesn't tell Clark to let a bus of school kids (his friends!) die in order to keep his secret. And in my world, Superman tries to save innocent people whenever he can and he doesn't kill his enemies no matter how bad they are.

It did the effects pretty well even it did copy the alien designs from other films. I thought the 3D view screens were pretty neat. The fights between Kryptonians never looked better and the destruction they would cause was spectacular. I also liked that Lois was smarter than she's ever been, but while I love Amy Adams there wasn't much chemistry between them (the script didn't develop it) and the kiss was completely unearned.

A few weeks after seeing it, i barely remember it. How Man Of Steel Should Have Ended is pretty good.

A few days after I wrote the above I saw Film Critic Hulk's analysis and it's long (19,000 words!) but good, THE IMPORTANCE OF DRAMATIZING CHARACTER and has a 6,000 word followup A FEW CLARIFICATIONS ON HULK’S MAN OF STEEL ARTICLE

World War Z

I've not read the book but I kind of want to. It apparently treats the notion of a zombie apocalypse very seriously but it separate oral narratives so it's hard to adapt to a film. The movie added a main character and a bunch of quests to send him around the globe.

That's all fine but I hated the way it looked. Lots of shaky-cam running with lots of closeups. I was unfortunately sitting in the second row so that might have influenced what I thought, friends sitting further back really liked it. Shaky-cam has it's place to give a scene a sense of confusion and immediacy, but I don't see the point in a whole film being that way. It gets redundant. I was thinking about walking out but it turns out I'm glad I didn't. The last set piece was the best part of the film. It's also the ending added at the last minute, and filmed differently so that it was about tension and suspense.

It did start with stupidity. It was one of those scenes where otherwise thoughtful characters meet and are suspicious of each and barely talk so they just become more suspicious. I actually said out loud "Just use full sentences and be done with this". It's just bad writing, forcing an emotion for no logical reason. And the ending was just groan inducing, though better than the original one planned. Honestly, they just should have written the family out of the film and it would have been much better.

Pacific Rim

This was the best of big action flicks I've seen. Guillermo del Toro is remarkably gifted at bringing something improbable to life and making it look good (e.g., Hellboy and Pan's Labrynth). Pacific Rim is giant robots vs giant monsters and it definitely delivers that. I wish at least one of the fights was in sunshine so you could see things better, but it's easier to hide things in the dark and rain. Still it wasn't shaky-cam and you could see what was going on.

I didn't watch any trailers for it beforehand and didn't know much about it other than it was taking its premise seriously. I had heard there was a plot and real characters. I was a little disappointed that it was a cartoon plot and anime characters. The governments just shut down the robot program for an ineffective wall so the marshall has to go it alone. Soldiers with daddy issues and needing a retired soldier because there's an old robot. The worst are the scientists, breathlessly getting out as many words as they can very Speed Racer style and acting completly unlike real scientists and for some reason without any government backing. There's a lot about the soldiers bonding via a neural connection, but I think the relationships in Top Gun look like Hamlet in comparison.

Ron Perlman is fun, as always. There's an extra scene in the middle of the credits, stay for it (though I was expecting it to happen earlier in the film).

I want a T-shirt that says "The kaiju want the little dude"

Update: Drift Compatible goes into some details of the genres that Pacific Rim was maneuvering.

This is the End

How would Hollywood celebrities faces the apocalypse? Some of this was funny, particularly the various cameos and some of the (what I hope are fake) characterizations, particular Michael Cera. Some bits went on way too long, but if you inclined to see the film, it will probably deliver enough so that you'll enjoy it.

20 Feet from Stardom

So far this is the best film I've seen this summer. A documentary about backup singers. Great music and interesting stories. It seems that like 5 woman have sung every song you've ever heard. And you'll never listen to Gimme Shelter the same way again.

Monday, June 03, 2013

Back to Morimoto's

IMG 1214

Way back in the first year of this blog I wrote about a trip to Iron Chef Morimoto's restaurant in Philadelphia. Last I week I went back with some friends. We did the $80 Omakase. I was good about taking pictures of each dish but it was harder taking notes on the descriptions (turns out that's easier with a pen and notebook then with an iPhone).

IMG 1525

It's a pretty place. All the blue you see, slowly changes color throughout the evening. My friends father did the electrical work in the restaurant.

1 Tuna tartare with scallop flakes

Our first dish was the same as last time. The Tuna Tartare with scallop flakes in a soy mirin sauce. It's fabulous. You put a little wasabi on your spoon and then get some tartare and sauce with each bit and it all melds together perfectly.

2 Hot oil carpaccio Suzuki striped bass

Second was Hot oil carpaccio of Suzuki striped bass. We all thought these first two dishes were the best.

3 Tuna Sashimi Salad with Mixed Greens

They called this course Tuna Sashimi Salad but I think it's described on their menu as Mixed Greens Tuna Tataki in a Shoyu dressing. Also very tasty.

4 Violet soda palate cleanser

The Fourth course was a palate cleanser and I'm not sure a palate cleanser should count as a course. This was violet soda and it did its job.

5 Seared Scallop in a Red Miso glaze

Fifth was a seared scallop in a red miso glaze with marinated vegetables. I'm not a huge scallop fan but this was good, particularly if you could manage to get all the parts together in one bite (not easy with chopsticks).

6 Roast duck with pineapple sauce

Sixth was a roast duck with a pineapple glaze. The two small squares are pineapple and I'm not sure if they were grilled or roasted. This was really good duck, not very fatty.

7 Sushi tuna yellowtail fluke flying fish squid

Seventh was sushi. From left to right starting at the top: tuna, yellowtail, fluke, flying fish, squid. The squid had a little texture to it but wasn't chewy, the others all melted in your mouth. I think the flying fish was my favorite.

8 Bavarian chocolate

I'm not sure what this desert was. All I got in my notes was bavarian chocolate. It had some layers, the green sauce was green tea and there were chocolate bits next to the square. Tasty, not amazing.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Movie Review: Iron Man 3 *Spoilers*

This review is full of Spoilers

I seem to have a minority opinion of Iron Man 3, but it just didn't work for me. I liked some of the ideas and character development but I thought the action sequences didn't make much sense and the villain's scheme was at the level of the Underpants Gnomes business plan. Writers have to remember that was a joke and not duplicate it in a non-comedy.

I did like what they did with Tony Stark. I like the idea of PTSD after the events of The Avengers. It's a good substitute for the classic alcoholism stories in the comics and it connects it to the other Marvel films while still allowing this to be a film about just one character. It should also be relevant to the nation today, but I think it doesn't treat it seriously enough to get much credit for that. I've seen a number of documentaries about the issue and a lot of people in the country are dealing with the effects of PTSD (directly or indirectly) and I think Iron Man 3 just treats it as a plot excuse. Also, I think it's not at all resolved at the end of the film. The final battle, where he thinks he loses Pepper for a while should keep him dealing with such issues for a long time. Update: Here's everything you ever wanted to know about Iron Man and PTSD.

Robert Downey Jr. is of course a great Tony Stark. The script gives him lots of banter, a few different emotions (instead of just arrogance) and lots of time both with and without the armor. I've seen complaints that there was too little Iron Man in this film but I don't think that's the case. While I did laugh a number of times, I thought the banter was too forgettable (I can't remember any line that made me laugh). There's a stretch where he works with a young boy and while the boy was fine, I think Tony's snarkiness when directed at a child, came off as offensive rather than entertaining (e.g, "Dads leave. No need to be such a pussy about it.").

As for the other characters, well there are lot of them so I felt they all got too little screen time. The repartee between Tony and Pepper is always a highlight of Iron Man (even in The Avengers) but there wasn't a lot of it. There are five different villains that have enough time that they're differentiable. Most of their time though is spent setting up their plot twist. I do give them lots of credit for stunt casting Ben Kingsley as The Mandarin only to have it be a fake out. Once he revealed himself to be an actor, I kept waiting for him to reveal himself as the real mastermind. It kept me interested.

I'm surprised but I found the terrorism stuff a bit disturbing. Maybe it's because of the recent Boston Marathon bombing, but ok, terrorism is supposed to be disturbing. At least my theater didn't do anything stupid like this one in Missouri.

What was the villain trying to do? He said he'd have the world's most powerful leader and terrorist in his hands and be able to play one off the other. Huh? The Mandarin was a sham, so who exactly did he have there? Maybe it was just to sell tons of weapons to the US government to fight a sham, but AIM was already selling lots of weapons to the government. Why did he need to go through all those crazy machinations to achieve his goals? He apparently bribed the Vice President with a promise to grow back his daughter's leg, but I guess just having the VP in his pocket isn't enough, so he needed to kill the president and make the VP become president. So with a superpower like turning into molten whatever, he has to... make the president call him during an on-air hostage situation (which seemed completely pointless), blow up Air Force One, but first secretly kidnap the President to put him in the Iron Patriot suit hung over a dock to have him killed while no one is watching (cause then wouldn't SHIELD just show up and rescue him)?

My biggest problem was with the action sequences. Maybe I've seen too much Mythbusters, but too often they just didn't make sense. I don't see how Happy survived the explosion given where he was and that he was hiding behind a cart that was blown away. I didn't buy everyone falling in slow motion and dealing with the house falling apart how it did or how his glove flew off and pulled him out of underwater wreckage (with jets facing the wrong way). In Miami he's waiting for his armor to fly from Tennessee and a glove and boot make it, but the rest is trapped in the locked barn. So how did the two pieces get out and why couldn't the others? And why couldn't the rest break through a window or wall? (And why couldn't he fly one of the other 41 suits to him like he did later).

My favorite fight was the one with Tony in Tennessee against the two underlings. I wish it was shot a little slower but it worked, and Tony used his brain. Contrast that to the rest of the Iron Man scenes.

Twelve people fall from a plane, I'll accept comic book physics to say they're fine until impact, but Jarvis says Tony can only carry four of them. Tony somehow manages to carry all twelve by having them hold hands and electrocuting their hands (not them). Because I'm sure the issue about only carrying four was nothing to do with weight but more to do with grasping.

And then for shock value Iron Man is hit by a truck and the armor falls apart (it doesn't do that when hit by the Hulk) and it turns out Tony was controlling it remotely, just to make you go wow. Maybe they do it to explain how Tony has advanced the technology, but we saw even more automatic control back in the house. And if he can control it remotely, why ever fly in it?

Then there's the big finale. While it wasn't shaky cam, it was constant quick cuts and the action didn't make much sense. First there's the idea. Having 42 suits of armor fly in and attack is kinda cool, and there are nods for comics fans to various suits, but they're all treated generically. So now we have fully autonomous suits and I suppose that's to be expected in the age of drones and with the capabilities of Jarvis that's always been in these films, but if that's the case just why does Tony need to be Iron Man? Maybe it's because Jarvis is not a strategist. You have Pepper and the President as hostages, so the suits just go in, attack and blow things up around them. I'm sure that's going to help. In fact the suits just ignore the hostages so that Rhodey and Tony need to do the rescuing. And then they're not good at it. Rhodey's rescue of the president is accidental at best. Tony doesn't rescue Pepper and doesn't defeat the bad guy (Pepper does both). Tony evens seems to put Rhodey at extra risk by not giving him a suit. He says it's only keyed to him (which I believe because in the beginning we see him give himself injections) but we see him give one to Pepper (twice) and then one to Killian!

There's one shot that sums up what I hate about the fight scenes and how they make no sense. In one shot, the Killian turns his arm into a sword (I think) and slices an Iron Man suit in two. The slice is from top to bottom and both halves fall away to the sides. He went through the whole suit. And yet, Tony was in it and is uncut, just suspended in the mid air as the suit falls away (until I think he falls into another suit). How did he cut through the front and the back, with one sword and not cut Tony in half?

Tony Stark won the final battle in Iron Man I because he outthought his opponent ("How did you solve the icing problem?") I don't even think he won the final battle here, Pepper did, with fighting skills that came from nowhere.

The closing credits are in the style of the credits of a 70s TV show (Charlies Angels, Swat). Why? Iron Man was created in the 60s and the movie treats 1999 as the distant past. In spite of the fact that there are some trappings of deep themes, too much of this film just made no sense.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

New Toy

My main computer was a 15" MacBook Pro I bought in March 2008. At five years old it's getting a little long in the tooth. Before that I had a PowerBook that I got shortly after retiring so that only lasted 3 years. I was very happy with a laptop as a single machine. I could travel with it, I could use it at a desk or on the couch, and I didn't need to sync files with another machine. One thing I didn't like was trying to use it while referencing a book. When trying to use it to learn to code on a mac, I kept the laptop connected to a 23" monitor, mouse and external keyboard in a tray under the desk. A book fit nicely on the desk just above the keyboard. And I loved all the screen real estate.

My MacBook Pro has stayed connected to the monitor for a couple of years. I really liked the screen real estate. And now that I have an iPad, I have something to use on the couch or to bring while traveling and sync'ing isn't a problem. The iPad can't do everything the mac can do, but I don't need it to.

So, time for a new machine, and I've been debating what to get for a long time. I decided on a desktop machine (and yes it was only going to be a mac). I don't need the portability and I liked a big monitor (mine was getting a little wonky and the laptop couldn't drive the monitor unless it was plugged in). I also wanted a better graphic card to play the occasional game (I had Diablo III in mind, but tried StarCraft II when it came out and I could only run it on the lowest graphics settings). So a Mac Mini was a little under powered for games and a Mac Pro is both more than I need and at this point a little under powered (new models are expected soon). So that leaves an iMac.

New models were announced in November and were available in January. They're nice. I still had doubts about getting an all-in-one machine. I expect the computer to last 3-5 years but I think a monitor should last longer than that. Why replace the monitor with the computer? But then, that's what you do with a laptop (though there's a big difference between a 15" laptop screen and a 27" monitor). I'd really wish Apple would come out with a desktop machine with about the same guts as an iMac but with an external display. That hasn't been in the cards but there are rumors now that the Mac Pro is getting a remodel.

The iMac has a couple of knocks against it. It's really thin but that kind of has no point and just removes the internal optical drive that would otherwise fit. I don't use mine much, but I do occasionally to rip a CD or install something (like StarCraft II). Also they are notoriously difficult to open and repair. To replace a hard drive you need to have a professional do it. You need a pro to upgrade memory in the 21" model but in the 27" model there's a user accessible panel. But I realized, that's about the same for the laptops. I've gotten all too good at replacing a hard disk in my TiVo but I wouldn't attempt it on a mac laptop.

So after much debate yesterday I bought a 27" iMac. I roughly maxed it out getting a model available in the local Apple Store. 3.4GHz quad-core i7, 8GB RAM, 1TB Fusion Drive, 2GB GTX 680MX, Trackpad, and Wireless Keyboard. The fusion drive is a nice compromise between the speeds of an SSD and the capacity of HDD. Apple is really expensive for RAM, so 8GB is what I wanted. It's twice what I had in the laptop and I can buy 16GB at Crucial for $125. I had a wired keyboard and magic mouse so I opted for the trackpad and wireless keyboard. The keyboard I figured I might use with the iPad. I already love the trackpad and OS X has incorporated useful gestures into many apps.

I also got a thunderbolt to firewire adaptor. Apple has a migration assistant that copies over all the data from an old machine to a new one. Thunderbolt is the new fast connector and to move 200GB I wanted as fast as I could get. But the best the 5 year old laptop could do was a FireWire 800 port. I use that to backup the machine to an external drive. Researching online I could migrate with Gigabit Ethernet but that process was a little more involved. I couldn't just connect the two machines directly and a router wasn't nearby. So the adaptor looked fine though there were some reports that it was slow with an unpowered drive. So I migrated from the mac while it was plugged in. Holding down the T button on the laptop while booting puts it in Target mode so the iMac will see the drive on the laptop as just a drive.

I got it home and opened it up. It's a big box but not that heavy. It's a little awkward to unpack but overall pretty easy. There's no documentation in the box. The trackpad, keyboard, and a thunderbolt to firewire adaptor all came with (pointless) documentation, the iMac, none. I connected the laptop and put it in Target Disk mode. I plugged in the keyboard and booted the iMac. It came on with a background and one window that switched between drawings of a trackpad and a mouse each with an arrow pointing to their power buttons. I pushed the button on the trackpad and saw it's green light come on and occasionally blink. The iMac however didn't change. I knew it was trying to pair the bluetooth connection but it wasn't happening. I turned the trackpad on and off several times but no luck. I tried the same with my magic mouse but again no luck. I thought maybe the bluetooth in the iMac was defective. I'm not sure why it occurred to me but I held down the button on the trackpad and then it eventually connected. The mac needs a better diagram on this screen or maybe some words (horrors, they would need to be translated) that explain hold down the freaking button.

But after that everything went well. It connected to the wifi and asked for permission to enable location services and figured out timezone. It got to the Setup Assistant and I knew to select to read from a drive rather than a mac, it found the laptop drive and started the migration. The progress bar started at about 6 hours but that came down quickly to 3. It made good progress and then it's estimates jumped as high as 20 hours and as low as 2. It settled down and made steady progress and finished in about two hours. I have to say the migration was perfect. Everything came up and it was exactly like my old machine. All the passwords were remembered, the printer was found and configured, etc. It just freaking worked.

The new machine is really fast. Everything just happens immediately. Spotlight indexed in just about 15 minutes. I didn't' realize it was so slow on my laptop, now it's instantaneous. The slowest thing seems to be Numbers when accessing the large spreadsheet of movies I've seen which is stored in iCloud and has a thousand row table tons of graphs. Other spreadsheets are zippy. All the screen real estate feels luxurious. It's silent, no fan and the speakers are good (though I have some cheap Cambridge Soundworks speakers connected, they have more bass).

I ordered this drive for backups. I had had issues with Time Machine and the laptop (wirelessly to a Time Capsule), with incremental backups taking over an hour which meant they were always running. The wireless configuration is convenient for a laptop that moves around the house but they aren't as reliable as a wired connection. With a desktop machine I'll just connect a drive. I had wanted to try Thunderbolt (I'm using my USB slots for keyboard, iPad and iPhone and have nothing else to do with these two fast connections) and had settled on this drive (it allowed daisy chaining and was quiet) but as a friend pointed out it's really expensive. USB 3.0 is in practice just as fast, particularly for backups. If Time Machine doesn't work out, I'll go back to using Carbon Copy Cloner.

So far, I'm really happy.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Movie Review: Cloud Atlas

Earlier this year I was really looking forward to the Wachowski's Cloud Atlas. I didn't know the book the film is based on, but particularly this New Yorker article, Beyond the Matrix encouraged me. The early reviews were not good and I kept hearing the word pretentious associated with the film. Still I was curious and saw it, and really liked it.

At two hours and 45 minutes, it's a long film, but I was never bored and was engaged pretty much the whole time. The film tells six stories and while I understand they were nested in the book, in the film they are all told at once and cut between them. The editing is fantastic, I was never confused and most of the time there were logical (and literary) transitions from one story to another.

The six stories have many fundamental differences but even more connections between them. They're set in different times and places: 1849 in the South Pacific, 1936 in the UK, 1973 in San Francisco, 2012 in the UK, 2144 in Neo Seoul and 2321 in Hawaii. The stories cover different genres: the slave trade, musical composition, a journalist investigating corporate corruption, a comedic escape from an old age home, a sci-fi chase with fabricants seeking freedom and a post apocalyptic adventure.

The same actors play roles in each of these stories. The film stars Tom Hanks and Halle Berry but they only have the lead roles in some of them. Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, James D'Arcy, Hugo Grant and Susan Sarandon also play many roles. Hugo Weaving is a villain in each story. Probably the worst element of the film is that the makeup involved in some of these transformations is very distracting. In some I didn't notice at all, when they're buried under cannibal warpaint it's hard to tell who the actor is, but when they've just changed their eyes to be more or less asian, it's pretty bad.

But it's the thematic similarities that I really enjoyed in Cloud Atlas. I don't think it's slavish in requiring every theme to be portrayed in every story, but it is audacious in how much it covers and is willing to put in several stories. There are big chases, mysteries, overbearing corporations interested only in profit, love affairs between people that society says shouldn't be together, reasons to live, reasons to die, environmental issues, and subjugation in a variety of forms. Various motifs are repeated like bridges, keys, books, and the number six. I noticed most of these while watching the film and really enjoyed discussing them after seeing the film. There aren't that many films, particularly big budget ones, that have so much to give. What's more impressive is that it was entertaining. This isn't a ponderous film like The Master or a Terrence Mallick epic.

I assume the book used the opportunity to write the different stories in different literary forms. Some of the stories were told as letters, I'm not sure if all had voiceovers but some did. One difficulty is that the dialects used in some, particularly the post-apocalypse was very difficult to make out at times. I'm glad there weren't distracting subtitles, and I appreciate the effort to make the stories be different in as many ways as possible, but I think they weren't a little far at times.

I'm not rushing out to see it again like I did Inception, but I'll certainly be seeing it a few more times on cable or dvd. I'm also glad I saw it once in a theater. The visuals are gorgeous and I appreciated a lack of distractions while watching it.

Movie Review: Skyfall

I was really looking forward to the latest James Bond film Skyfall. I didn't read any but saw a lot of glowing reviews, saying it was the best Bond film in a long time, maybe even ever. I really liked Casino Royale and thought that Daniel Craig could surpass Sean Connery as the best Bond, but that film was an origin story and he wasn't Bond yet. Maybe the next film. Unfortunately that was Quantum of Solace. I really hated the crazy fast editing from the very beginning. The open car chase had him racing towards traffic stopped at a construction site on a mountain road and then at the last minute he turns into the mountain where miraculous a road now appeared. But worse the script wasn't there and the plot wasn't interesting. I recently learned it was made during the writers strike and they didn't have a finished script so they were making it up as the went. I also learned that while Skyfall was delayed because of MGM's financial problems, they used the nine months to continue to work on the script. A modern Bond film with a good script, that could be perfect.

About five minutes into Skyfall I had a giant smile on my face. I know because I checked my watch. The opening chase was really well done. I've seen a number of chases on the roofs of Istanbul recently but none on motorcycles. I also liked the train sequence. Sam Mendes was a fine action director for Bond. I loved a lot of the first half of the film. MI6 is attacked, M has political problems and that was all played well. I liked Q and the fact the gadgets were more Sean Connery era gear rather than crazy Roger Moore era gear and that they made fun of that bit. I also cheered when the Aston Martin DB5 appeared. Javier Bardem made a good villain Silva, a bit creepy and believably formidable. I also liked the Bond girl Bérénice Marlohe, she's given a good scene in a casino and switches from confident to terrified from just a few subtle changes on her face.

But I also had problems with the film. I thought Silva's plot was convoluted and ludicrous. I liked his backstory, motivation and goal, but anyone so smart would have come up with a much simpler plan. It's the kind of thing where the writers just went from scene to scene adding things without looking at the big picture. I thought his scheme made Goldfinger's plan to make his gold more valuable by nuking Fort Knox with all-female aerial circus seem facile. The plot spends a lot of time harping on if Bond is too old. Daniel Craig might be 44 but just a couple of films and only six years ago was his origin story. I wasn't really ready for that. There's an action scene in the middle of the film between Bond an an assassin named Patrice. As the scene unfolded I wondered why they were killing someone that way and even what the space was. Was that a building under construction? How did Bond hide behind all those walls made only of glass? For a film that supposedly had all this extra time to polish the script, I just didn't see it.

In the end, it was pretty fun. I really did have a big smile on my face for a lot of it. But a couple of days later, I can think of no memorable lines and just a couple of fun images, those motorcycles on the roofs, a scorpion, and some beautiful Scottish countryside. Yet again, at the end of Daniel Craig Bond movie I'm left thinking, maybe in the next one he'll finally be the best Bond.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Movie Reviews

Tower Heist - I caught this on cable. Don't make the same mistake. It's a comedy about a Bernie Maddoff like guy (Alan Alda). He was also managing the pensions of the apartment building's staff and a group of misfits try to steal his hidden stash. It's Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy and Matthew Broderick and some others. I had figured from the trailer and reviews I wouldn't like and I don't know why I felt the need to verify that assumption by watching it.

Onto the better movies…

Looper is a time travel movie by the writer director of Brick and The Brothers Bloom, both of which I liked a lot. In 2074 time travel exists but is outlawed so only criminals use it. Apparently it's hard to dispose of a body then so then they send them 30 years back into to killers they've contracted with to get the job done, until they kill their future selves. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is Joe and now you know where the film starts but not really where it goes. Surprisingly it's less a time twisting film (though it has that) and more a noir story with interesting characters. Good sci-fi fun.

Taken 2 - aka Liam Neeson Kills Everybody 2. The man has trained Obi-Wan and Batman, led the A-Team and the Greek gods, and killed wolves with his bare hands. Do not kidnap his family! In the genre of dumb action films, this isn't completely stupid, not like say Transformers. They at least make an effort to show how he could do what he does. It's almost plausible though not realistic. I enjoyed the first and while the second isn't as good and takes a bit to get going, it's fun ride. Good dumb fun.

Argo - On the other hand this is good smart fun. Based on the true story of the rescue of 6 hostages from Iran in 1980 this is a two hour that goes by very quickly. Ben Affleck directed, stars in and produced this and continues his streak of making good movies. Yes they changed things to make it more dramatic but only one bit felt fake to me. After seeing the film read How Accurate Is Argo? for the details. And if you want more, the original Wired article is good: How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans From TehranSeven Psychopaths is written and directed by Martin McDonagh who made the very fun In Bruges and the Oscar winning short Six Shooter. I'll let IMDb summarize it: "A struggling screenwriter (Colin Farrell) inadvertently becomes entangled in the Los Angeles criminal underworld after his oddball friends (Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken) kidnap a gangster's (Woody Harrelson) beloved Shih Tzu." It's a fun cast with Harry Dean Stanton, Tom Waits, Zeljko Ivanek, Gabourey Sidibe and more. Farrell's screenplay is called Seven Psychopaths and the stories his friends tell him turn out to be true and the film gets very meta though not nearly as pretentious as Adaptation (which I also liked). It's too bloody to be for everyone, and the story meanders a little too much and comes off as vignettes, but it's at times very very funny.

Perks of Being a Wallflower is a coming of age film set in 1991 in Pittsburg, PA. It's based on a novel, by the screenwriter-director which I had not read. Charlie is a loner freshman with some issues in his past who falls in with a crowd of senior outcasts. Patrick is gay, his step sister Sam has a past, Mary Elizabeth is the smart goth buddist. Most of the scenes like Charlie's first football game, dance, party, Rocky Horror Show, acid trip and etc. all work reasonably well though the dialog sometimes felt a little forced to me. In the second half most of those issues fell away as the emotions really resonated. Good smart film, I wish it were doing better at the box office.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Movie Review: The Master

I saw Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master last night and was unfortunately disappointed in a lot of different ways.

First, I saw it in 70mm at the Coolidge Theater. If you need an explanation read Why You Should Go Out Of Your Way To See The Master In 70mm. Basically it's a bigger film format that results in a really crisp and bright image. It's a format that's going away and this might be the last film to use it. I'm no anti-digital snob but digital isn't as good yet (though a true IMAX film is). But while the projection looked great on screen, I don't think Anderson did much with it. When I think of films I've seen in 70mm like Lawrence of Arabia, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Ben-Hur, they had big giant scenes. The Master has a couple of them, and they're short. There's a recurring shot of the wake of a boat and it's a glorious blue but...ok. There are a couple of beautiful outdoor scenes in a field or in a desert but most of this film is closeups and medium shots in normal sized interiors such as houses and boat cabins. And most of them are shown from the same vantage point the whole scene, there isn't a real sense of space that's explored at all. Now Paul Thomas Anderson knows a lot more about film than I do so I'm sure everything was deliberately composed to convey some metaphorical point and while this film does look very good, I don't see the real point in filming it in a very expensive format. The first two early screening announcements shown here are both more interesting shots than most of the actual movie.

I've seen the production design praised as well; that it brilliantly captures the period. When Mad Men does this regularly on television, I'm not sure that a few interiors and costumes qualifies as brilliant. Good sure, but not brilliant.

So what about the story? That's where the problem lies. The film opens with Freddie Quell in the South Pacific near the end of the war. A bunch of sailors are screwing around on the beach and then relaxing as they sail home. Freddie gets discharged after a rorschach test and a talk about what we now call PTSD. He's has a few odd jobs and he's an alcoholic, drinking concoctions he makes from his photography supplies or anything else he can find. He has brief sexual encounters and several fights. He's lost.

He stowaways on a boat that's run by Lancaster Dodd. He's an L. Ron Hubbard inspired character who goes by the name Master and is the leader of a cult like group known as The Cause. He takes a liking to Freddie and his concoctions and Freddie is drawn into the group going through various procedures that are meant to help him conquer his inner demons that have been building for trillions of years so he can return to his original state of perfect. Yeah, Dodd is making this stuff up as he goes along as his son eventually says. While Freddie opens up a bit he still drinks and still gets into fights only now it's with people who doubt the Master.

As I write the above it seems like it's describing more plot than the movie had. Most of the rest is repetitive, much as Freddie's processing is. There are some great scenes, with some great performances, particularly the first processing where Freddie opens up and an argument in a the prison where both Freddie and Dodd become undone, but there aren't traditional character arcs. By the end of the two hours and fifteen minutes, it really seems like not much of anything has happened. Now that may well be the point, but an enthralling moviegoing experience it isn't. The score doesn't help. It good at setting mood, but it's very monotonous and the creators apparently wanted just one mood throughout the whole film.

Joaquin Phoenix is Freddie and Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Dodd. Both will probably get oscar nominations. Their roles are big and they have great presence and play off of each other well. They shift from constrained conversation to physical rage, often on a dime. I think Phoenix overdoes it. There's a lot of physicality to the portrayal. Freddie is bent over and mannered and it's not really clear why. I kept getting an Ed Grimley vibe and that's certainly not what was intended. Also I've read a lot of descriptions calling Freddie unpredictable and riveting, but I found neither of those to be the case. He almost always ends a confrontation with violence and almost always ends a quiet scene with a drunken stupor or dream. That's the fault of the script not the actor but I still didn't find it unpredictable.

The supporting cast is also great. I'll see Amy Adams in anything and in this film she plays Dodd's true believer wife. Laura Dern is good in a small role of a follower. Jesse Plemons (of Friday Night Lights and now Breaking Bad) plays Dodd's son and he should make a career out of playing Phillip Seymour Hoffman's younger self or relatives.

I rarely read Rex Reed anymore but he hated The Master. He begins with "I never cease to be amused by the pile of unmitigated crap that gets shoveled off onto the moviegoing public by pretentious critics." and it just gets more entertaining from there.

Eric Melin's review is the best I read. He comes to this conclusion:

"The climax of The Master is unconventional to say the least. In fact, as it was occurring, I had no idea it was occurring; that this was the turning point for these characters. In The Master, there is no catharsis. Here’s what I realized later: Even when real people are presented with choices, they don’t always work out. That essential turning point—the moment that movies thrive on to give audiences the satisfaction of knowing they’ve seen something important; that something life-changing was accomplished—can come and go in real life. The opportunity could be either ignored or have simply run its course. Essentially, nothing has changed. That’s what The Master reveals. This character study is complex, difficult, and nuanced, and it posits a message that’s wholly antithetical to the moviegoing experience: The core of who you are does not and cannot change. It remains the same throughout your existence, no matter what outside forces you come in contact with."

I don't believe that as a philosophy and it's a generous explanation that that's what Anderson was trying to get across, but it's at least thoughtful. Jeffrey Overstreet goes over the story practically scene by scene in A Long Post-Viewing Conversation. Much as I felt above it gets much more out of the story by thinking it through at length than you do while watching it. I saw the film with a group of nine and it's a more interesting conversation than we had after it.

Given the structure of the film and the title, the important line seems to be: “If you figure a way to live without serving a master… then let the rest of us know, will you? You’d be the first person in the history of the world.” Freddie and Dodd are contrasted but they're very similar. Both have violent streaks that they try to control. Both need each other, one as follower and one as leader. Both make no apologies for who they are but at least put on airs about being something else. You can argue if either lives on their own or follows some master. For Freddie this could be Dodd, himself, or drink. For Dodd it could be himself, his cult, or his wife. I don't think it matters. I don't find the question that interesting and the film didn't make it more interesting to me.

I've seen a couple of interpretations of the last scene. Either it's showing Freddie back in his original state, unchanged by everything or it's showing him improved, happy to be on his own and able to laugh at what he's been through (which at one point Dodd says is the secret of everything). Personally I just though it should have ended with him saying "I was cured all right!"Update: Criticwire collects The Best 'The Master' Reviews So Far.

From that I found this review by Jim Emerson: "While working on this post, I read that, at the Venice Film Festival press conference, Anderson described a work process (not "processing") that resembles Malick's: he wasn't sure what he had, or what the movie was about, when he got into the editing room, but wound up stripping away almost everything that didn't have to do with the relationship between Freddie and Dodd."

Dana Stevens watched it a second and third time. I've only seen it once but I agree with this sentiment:

"But ultimate meaning aside, what made revisiting The Master such a joy was the nuts-and-bolts details of it, the way the film’s many moving parts shifted each time. Scenes that had seemed inscrutable on the first go-round blossomed into sense. Formerly insignificant moments migrated to the foreground, while other scenes that had felt integral suddenly seemed extraneous. This kaleidoscope effect isn’t some magical quality inherent to The Master, of course—it’s what happens when you revisit any work of art that’s formally inventive and thematically rich. But the truth is that such works don’t come along all that often, and part of the fun when they do is to keep on turning the kaleidoscope to see what new patterns emerge."

She then goes into detail about the party scene and what more she got out of repeat views and I'm not impressed.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Movie Review: The Bourne Legacy

I liked the first three Bourne movies. I didn't care for all the shaky cam with all the crazy fast cuts and during the Manhattan car chase in the third I kept wondering where the traffic was, but still I liked them. They had good action scenes, a plot, reasonable acting, all good.

I was looking forward to the fourth in the series. I really liked the cast and while the early reviews were mixed, many of the things I saw described as weaknesses, sounded like improvements to me. Turns out, not so much.

I like Jeremy Renner, I just which directors would let him act in his films. He's actually good at it. Think, The Town, The Hurt Locker and Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol. Yeah MI:4 had a more interesting character. I like Rachel Weiss a lot too, but again she only gets to be a real character in a scene or two.

Oddly this film takes place concurrently with the third film. While Treadstone (Bourne's program) is being exposed and shutdown, Edward Norton scrambles to shutdown another related program before it is exposed. Guess which program Renner is in? So Norton talks in a lot of different scenes to a bunch of different higher ups, but in the end it doesn't add anything to the story. It's just motivation, they're after Renner. Either just setup the motivation and don't waste time or add something interesting to that element of the story.

It's a Bourne film, so there should be good action sequences. There are only three and really only the middle one is good. I'll talk about them below but first a comment about the shaky cam. It wasn't too bad in this film and while there were a couple of really great shots, there was a lot of counter-productive moving camera.

A moving camera is supposed to make a scene more exciting. Visually there's more going on so that adds to the excitement of the scene. If there's a scene of boring talking heads, swinging the camera around them isn't going to help. It's still just boring talking. If the point is to actually be boring talking, that is the point is to show something mundane before a big action scene, then moving the camera around just defeats the purpose. Guess what happens in this film?

There's a lot of that in this film, defeating the purpose. At one point, Renner is confronted by three standard security guards. It's just a quick throw away scene, you know he's going to take them out quickly. The point is to show he's really out their league and to move the plot along a little showing they have some time pressure. So he takes them all out in a couple of seconds. It's shown with a couple dozen ridiculously short shots of a fist moving, something spinning, something else happening, etc.. Basically, it's a blur and then Renner is the only one standing. It's a waste. We knew the outcome, wouldn't it have been fun to actually see a choreographed fight showing how he took them out?

Spoilers below.

The whole opening setup with Renner is him on training mission in Alaska. Gorgeous scenery and I guess it gets across that he can take care of himself in the middle of nowhere. And when wolves attack. Then he meets up with another agent and it's not clear what their relationship is. Will they help or kill each other? At one point it looks like he's throwing Renner out and then in the next scene they're just hanging out together, and then the story just jumps someplace else. Why couldn't Renner have been on a real mission at the beginning?

The middle action scene at a large old house was pretty good. There was one really great camera move. Renner comes out of a basement, scales the outside of a building and goes in through a second story window. The camera follows behind him in a single shot going up and into the building. It's not too close so you just see the back of his head, it's far enough away you can see him scale the building for real. It's really nice. I wish the rest of the film was this good.

The chase in Manilla at the end is ridiculous. Renner is on a motorcycle weaving through cars stuck in traffic. The cars aren't moving yet he's being chased by a car that somehow is keeping up with him. It's not clear where the car is or how it manages to move since it's all closeups with quick cuts. A shot of a fender, the driver, a swerving camera blur. There's a crash and then he's next to the motorcycle, which is moving so he must be moving too, but that can't be. It makes absolutely no sense. Then they move him to a motorcycle which he should have been on in the first place, but then the motorcycles start doing ridiculous stuff. It was really disappointing.

During this scene I remember wishing Stanley Kubrick had filmed a car chase so that every other director could have an example of how to do it. As it stands they should all just refer to John Frankenheimer's Ronin.

The closing shot while the final credits role, was really pretty.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Movie Reviews

Yet again I've been negligent about reviewing films. Some films recently in theaters.

Dark Shadows - I never watched the original soap opera, but if I had, apparently I would have gotten a lot of plot references in this Tim Burton/Johnny Depp version. Without that, this film was just a mess. A few hundred years ago Depp lost his love, became a vampire and pissed off a witch (Eva Green) who buried him. He wakes in the 70s, finds his descendants still living in the family's mansion though they are now on hard times in the small town's fish industry. Green heads the rival and currently successful company. So there's a kooky family, cast well (Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter, Jackie Earle Haley, Chloë Grace Moretz, and Jonny Lee Miller, but they are given almost nothing to do. This film is filled with plot points but not much plot. In almost 2 hours lots happened but mostly in montages. There's a big long party scene that basically does nothing to advance anything. The only character the film explores at all is Depp and he's mostly just shown as a fish out of water in the 70s. Some of that is very funny and I really enjoyed the music but this film never figures out its tone. It isn't a comedy as there isn't enough of it but as a drama it's pointless without characters or a plot of significance. I think the last Tim Burton film I really liked was Batman. Mars Attacks and Big Fish had some redeeming qualities and I'm not sorry I saw Sweeney Todd, but I think I have to give up on him.

Moonrise Kingdom - is from another director with a signature style, Wes Anderson. I really liked the Fantastic Mr. Fox and think animation really suits him, but otherwise I'm tired of the same basic film over and over again. My theory is you like the first few films you see of his and then the rest less and less. The first I saw was Rushmore and I really liked that. Moonrise Kingdom is about a pair of tweens who run away together on a small New England island and then the search for them. Sam (Jared Gilman) runs away from his scout troop so scout leader Edward Norton must find him. Suzy (Kara Hayward) meets up with Sam after running away from her parents, Bill Murray and Frances McDormand.They have a strained relationship and she's having an affair with the police chief Bruce Willis. I really enjoyed the quirkiness and the wonder for the 45 minutes or so, but after that it wore on me. Anderson has his actors speak in a controlled or mannered way. It's not emotionless at all but it's a very matter-of-fact delivery. By the end I just didn't care about any of the individuals, their predominant characteristic was their oddness and they would remain odd at the end of film so I was just waiting for it to end. Still a lot of people really loved this film and if I had been able to connect with the characters just a little more I probably would have too.

Best Exotic Marigold Hotel - I'm surprised but I really enjoyed this film. It reminded me of Love Actually, a British film following a lot of characters all going through similar experiences that's just fun. In this case it's retirees figuring out the next stage in their lives that for one reason or another all move to a hotel in India that's far more rundown than it's described in the brochure. This is a dream cast: Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy , Penelope Wilton; and each brings a humanity and a genuineness to their character that sucks you into the film and makes the two hours go by quickly. This is the kind of film I could have seen with my mother and we would have both really enjoyed.

Beast of the Southern WIld - This was the darling of Sundance and Cannes this year and gets a limited release next week. It's so far my favorite film of the year. Hushpuppy is a 6 year-old girl living in "the bathtub" which we're told is on "the other side of the levee" in New Orleans in abject poverty with her alcoholic father and a handful of neighbors. Then a Katrina like event occurs. Sounds great right? What's remarkable is that it's told from Hushpuppy's point of view (she narrates it) and is captures a childlike sense of wonder and adventure. She just accepts that what she sees (both real and imagined) is part of the world she's in and she has to figure out how to navigate it. Where the Wild Things Are made me feel like a 9 year-old, this is a little more grounded and doesn't quite do that, but it did let me see the world through a 6 year-old's eyes. It's a remarkable piece of filmmaking.

Prometheus - This is Ridley Scott's much anticipated Alien prequel and I went in knowing as little as I possibly could. There's a lot about this movie to love; it's gorgeous, it's goes big, it has some wonderful sequences and sets, and Michael Fassbender is great. There's sadly one big thing that ruined it for me, all the humans are stupid. The opening scene is a little out there, but it had me. I wasn't at all expecting anything like that and it reeled me and I thought that at the time and wondered where this film would go. It goes to some familiar territory but that's not all bad, but about halfway through I realized that I just kept being annoyed that everything these characters did was dumb. I kept hearing an adult with a child in an expensive store just saying over and over "don't touch that". But it wasn't in a squirmy horror movie kind of way, like when everyone screams at Lila Crane to not go down to the basement in Psycho. She had reason to do that and the audience had reason to fear it. In Prometheus, characters do one thing after another that no reasonable person would do. And that is really odd, because that didn't at all happen in Alien. The story is a little vague but that didn't bother me at all, the stupidity did. I'm really torn on this because the film is so well crafted and there are a few scenes that I'm sure will become iconic, but there's a lot to hate too. I walked out thinking one or two stars (out of five) and find myself now thinking three and possibly four and having to remind myself that it's really one or two. On balance it's probably worth seeing and the 3D was subtle and immersive. Prometheus did make me want to rewatch Lawrence of Arabia and that's certainly worthwhile.

I've seen a few older films recently too:

Larry Crowne - Tom Hanks co-wrote, directed and starred with Julia Roberts in this standard romantic comedy from last year. And I mean standard in the worst possible way. This film is completely bland. Everyone (but Roberts) is nice and all the strangers are nice and friendly and helpful and happy and scooter-riding and one-dimensional. Roberts is also one dimensional but that dimension is bitter. Guess how it ends. It's not funny and the characters are so weak it's not romantic so it's a very bad romantic comedy. Avoid it.

Everything Must Go - is that rare serious Will Ferrell film that's surprisingly good. Ferrell is Nick Halsey, an alcoholic that loses everything, his job and his wife. He comes home to find all his possessions on the lawn and the door locked. Drunk and depressed he decides to stay there. Fortunately it's in Phoenix so the weather is good. He meets a few neighbors, particularly a chubby teen and a pregnant newlywed and hangs around. This isn't a comedy and the film meanders a bit, well a lot, but it has good performances and real characters with real troubles. The film doesn't present cliches but the ending doesn't live up to the promise.

Super 8 - I saw this last summer under less than ideal conditions and reviewed it. I watched it again on cable and found my opinion didn't change. I liked the kids a little better the second time around, but these are shells of characters with ridiculous action scenes. J.J. Abrams was trying to make an homage to his idol Steven Spielberg. But even Spielberg hasn't been able to recreate the magic he achieved in the seventies and eighties.

Rififi - I pretty regularly scan the TiVo for interesting movies. In this case I came across a four star suspense crime thriller from 1955 that I had never heard of. Record. It's a black and white French film with an American director, Jules Dassin. He's most known for The Naked City, Night and the City and Topkapi. This is a heist film, where a small group of crooks break into a jewelry store. It's famous for the 20 minute sequence of the heist itself. It's wordless and tense and I think the first instance of this heist staple. The ending scene was even more tense and pretty unusual and I think I liked it more. As a film, everything works well, characters, plot, suspense. Apparently there were a rash of crimes following this that copied the techniques shown in the film. Sadly that's one place where it shows its age. The criminals are up against state of the art security in 1955 but it's nothing compared to what is common now. It was much easier to steal then. I'd love to see a remake, updated for today.