Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Some More Summer Movie Reviews

The Hangover

"I was disappointed that it wasn't like Memento"- Fpendl.

The Hangover is a pretty typical man-comedy of the Judd Apatow school: seemingly simple plot, bizarre and often surreal occurrences, bromantic undertones, casual drug use, witty pop culture references, sharp one-liners, cardboard female characters, cameos from the extended Frat Pack/Jew Tang Clan. The storyline follows the previews almost exactly: bunch of guys wake up after a wild bachelor party, only to find that the bachelor is missing and there's a ton of weird stuff going on. Like a tiger in their shattered hotel room. And a baby.

As Judd Apatow comedies go, it's pretty good. There are a lot of zingers, mostly delivered by Zach Galifianakis as the creepy and inept brother-in-law-to-be. There are enough good sight gags (the baby, the ring, the tuxedo "delivery") to make up for the sea of terrible ones. There are the obligatory cameos (Jeffrey Tambor steals every scene he's in as the father-in-law). There are the offensive racial stereotypes.

I saw it in a packed theater with college students and it received a roaring laugh track, although not as much and not as consistent as Pineapple Express, and of course not touching Superbad, the greatest Judd Apatow film of all time. Yet perhaps because I've seen so many of them and the formula seems so worn- you know Ed Helms will dump his too-evil-to-be-anything-but-a-movie-girlfriend lady, you know the bride and groom will make up, etc. etc.- I felt a little jaded afterward. My sides hurt from laughing but more from visceral impact than anything else.

The Hangover is by far the best comedy I've seen this summer, but not in the same class as The 40 Year Old Virgin or Superbad. It's a "rent" movie.

4/5 overall

The Taking of Pelham 123

More remakes. I've never seen the original film; all I know about it is that it was the inspiration for the codenames in Reservoir Dogs. Tony Scott, the director, is obsessed with visual spectacle and iconic images, much like Zack Snyder and so what could be an otherwise decent technothriller-type film is ruined by lots of spinning cameras and slow-motion.

Denzel Washington, as always, gives a good performance as a slightly chubby Everyman having a really bad day; John Travolta looks like he's having fun for the first time in years. There are serviceable character actors in the rest of the roles, but they're servicing a script that is passable at best, and includes such howlers as the hijackers getting a wireless signal in a subway tunnel by putting a router outside the car, Denzel taking a bribe for a paltry amount of money, nobody knowing about the secret exit, and, of course, the final third of the movie, which turned a passable thriller into a laughable action film.

Not worth the time or the effort or the talent of everyone involved.

Overall 2/5

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Clay Shirky and the Spittle of God
(And other stories)

So I've been a little lax in blogging lately, but that's because I've been very busy. Here are just a few of the things I've done:

-Seen Niagra Falls
Although my original conception of Niagara Falls involved it being an idyllic lakeside summer campground with maybe a creepy motel or two in the background, it actually resembled nothing more than the Canadian Las Vegas, or maybe the Year Two intro to Grim Fandango. Giant hotels? Check. Giant (government-run) casinos? Check. Long lines of people waiting for healthcare? Sadly, no.

That reminds me: on the way back there was a huge backup of cars on the interstate as one of the lanes was closed for repair. My father grumbled about how Obama's stimulus plan was creating traffic and I retorted by saying "At least people will get some jobs". His reply? "Do you see anyone working?" We drove by about three miles of empty, closed-off road before we saw one lone highway worker sitting in a steamroller smoking a cigarette.

Anyways, when we were in Niagara we decided to take the Maiden Mist tour, and suddenly I'm on a boat going to sail, or paddle, or whatever nautically-themed verb is considered appropriate, to the very foot of the Falls. The SS Maiden Mist was actually a *Canadian*-chartered vessel, which means that in lieu of life vests or any kind of safety instructions we were instead given plastic ponchos that resembled transparent Jedi robes and directions to crowd as close to the front of the boat as possible. Or that's what it felt like, with 400 tourists pressing in around us, including a Korean group whose guide sneered at my family when we posed for pictures and said, (in loud, clear Korean that everyone in my family could understand) "Look at those dumb@$$ Japs who just want photo opportunities".

I will admit, being on a boat without any flotation devices despite the possible capsizing due to the thousands of tons of water crashing about seemed to be a little edgier, a little riskier. My father went on about how in Canada the lack of a litigious society produces such pure, unencumbered experiences as this; I was just amazed by the fact that THERE WERE NO FREAKING LIFE VESTS. Oh wait, there were; they were inside a large metal footlocker welded to the top deck that was marked "Life Vests: Use Only in Case of an Emergency". That was sealed. With a giant padlock. To make sure we would *only* use them in case of an emergency. Because we use them during other times too.

As the boat approaches the base of the Falls, the gentle touch of thousands of droplets of mist floating through the air and caressing your face becomes a feeling of brutish bashing from streams exploding outwards, like smashing your face into a wall made of water over and over again, except the water is solid as a rock and there's so much of it you're wondering if you can get George Clooney to play you in the Hollywood drama version.

It was pretty much a white-out of epic proportions that obscured vision and seemed to crush the very breath out of one's lungs. Also, it was wet.

-Picked Blueberries
I've always known that immigrant laborers in this country have it hard, but never this hard. I spent a few hours picking blueberries with a white paint bucket, because picking your own blueberries gives you a greater appreciation of where your food comes from. Also, you only pay $1.40 a pound as opposed to $1.90 a pound, a huge savings, which is why I was so surprised to see the pitying looks from the truck full of farm workers that passed me by halfway through my berry experience.

And it does get to you. Despite the fact that you can eat all the berries you want (mmmmm, berries), the pickin' gives you a lickin' after a while, mainly because the best clusters of berries are down on the lowest branches. So, ignoring years and years of my father's admonitions not to settle for the low-hanging fruit, I stoop down and grab handfuls of berries, testing a few to see if they're sour (an unseasonably cold and light-less summer in Michigan has led to many fruit being un-ripe). I feel I can confidently say that that particular farm is run by people with sweet yet slightly bitter dispositions, as by their fruits you shall know them. ZING!

-Seen Clay Shirky at a Conference
Clay Shirky is perhaps the second-most-famous "celebrity" I've seen this summer (and by "celebrity" I of course mean "public figure only I and Minh have heard of"). He is a new-media-social-networks guy who is very articulate and good with the whole sound-bytes thing, which is presumably why he does well in the media despite being antithetical to their biases, and, more importantly, he looks like a bald version of Tom Hanks. This second fact fascinated me to no end during his talk, which included mention of the Facebook group titled "The Consortium of Loose, Forward, Pub-Going Women" and their campaign of peaceful protest via the mailing of underpants (or "Chaddi") to an orthodox religious gorup. It was funny.

-Tried to Start Reading Mason & Dixon
On the recommendation of those who know I liked the encyclopediac novels of Neal Stephenson I went down to the library and got myself a brick-thick copy of Thomas Pynchon's epic eighteenth-century novel Mason & Dixon, which distinguishes itself from fiction normal people read by two defining characteristics:

1) The Novel Itself is written by the Author in Marvelous and Authentick Style, using the Germanic Overcapitalization of Nouns, the Spelling Concurrent to Grammatical Trends of the Period, the Use of Unrelated Authorial Assides and Digressions at Every Possible Opportunity (Which I believe to be Delightful yet Odorous to Readers with Little Time or Attention Spane, which is Why the Practice Should be limited only to Authors who can shew their Prodigious Skill at Witticisms and Rhetoric), and the Practice and Habitt of finding Excuses Galor to insert Clauses that further confuse the Gentle Reader who will have Lost Track of What the Beginning of the Sentence Said (because of the Flexible Nature of the English Language, which allows for Dreadful Splicing of Gerundical Phrases if the Author so Chuses) of the Time Period in Which It Is Set, which makes It both Delightful and a Major Paine in the Arse to be Read.

2) It doesn't have a Plot.

Surprisingly, Point #1 doesn't bother me as much as Point #2. Part of this is because I have ample experience reading other science fiction novels set in different time periods, and read or seen different sci-fi works with different languages in use. Point #2, though, is difficult for me to deal with. There is no plot. There are no character arcs (yet). There are very few characters who actually seem to matter (yet). It's picaresque but has no structure. It reads very much like stream-of-consciousness does, but seems to meander, with entire chapters and scenes having no purpose other than to show off the depth of the author's research, or his clever use of puns, or his (admittedly) well-versed command of the English language.

In other words, it's like James Joyce's work, except that it's (grudgingly) funny. I haven't decided whether it will be worth it or not.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Some Summer Movie Reviews: Public Enemies, Star Trek,

(note: hopefully I will have more reviews for The Hangover and The Taking of Pelham 123 later)

Public Enemies
"Public Enemies" has fared in a most mediocre way with both critics and The Girlfriend, so of course I had low expectations going in, but was pleasantly surprised by it. To help clear up expectations, let me reiterate what it is not: it is not "Heat" in the 1930s. It is not "The Untouchables" writ small. And it is not "The Dark Knight". It is the (supposedly) true-to-life story of John Dilinger (Johnny Depp), a bank robber who gets caught, breaks out of jail, goes back and robs banks, and then gets caught and shot at the end. It is also, though, an interesting mediation on the media's influence on crime and police work, and a glimpse at the birth of the modern FBI.
Although he follows his standard cops-and-robbers plot structure, Michael Mann steps away a little from his typical existentialism vs. determinism vs. nihilism themes, although he can't help throwing in a few lines from John Dillinger about how "We're having such a good time today we can't think about tomorrow" and the free-as-a-bird myth that these gentlemen like Pretty Boy Floyd and Baby Face Nelson subscribe to. We see J. Edgar Hoover, played by an almost unrecognizable (and short!) Dr. Manhattan himself, trying to put together a saintly, Jesuit-educated interstate police force, which was a novelty at the time when bank robbers could cross a state line and become immune to everything. We see his right-hand man, Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), becoming frustrated by the incompetence of the accountants and lawyers Hoover supplies him with, most of whom either get shot or commit acts of torture and other clear violations of suspect rights (although, to be fair, Miranda rights didn't exist until the 1960s, well after this movie was set).

And then we see Purvis requesting more experienced men, Texas Rangers, and getting his hands dirty. These two men are shown as being similar but not quite alike, and the performances of Bale and Depp reflect that. Depp, who is best known for playing slightly more flamboyant, off-kilter characters, creates a different persona here. Dillinger is portrayed as a brooding, intense, calculating individual. You can see it in his eyes during the prison break, or during the bank robbery as he checks and makes sure everything is going to plan. You can see it in his body language, his facial expressions as he plans his "takedown" of Billie Frechette, a girl he sees dancing at a club.

It is the introduction of Frechette (Marion Cotillard, in a nicely understated role) into his personal life, and Purvis into his professional life, that starts to break him down. Depp allows the briefest of smiles, of sighs, and smug half-grins to penetrate his facade of cold intensity once he is with Frechette, their duration and frequency increasing througouht the film, culminating with the moment towards the end of the film where he breaks down in the car and we watch a man struggle with long-repressed emotions in a silent, brilliantly-played moment. And the narrative reflects Dillinger's breakdown as well: his bank robberies become sloppier and more desperate; his gang is eliminated by Purvis' incompetent but relentless department; his friends, allies, and safe houses all shun him or betray him.

It's a shame we don't get any background on Dillinger other than his breathless twenty-second recounting of his life to Frechette, which only serves to highlight what an efficient criminal and human being he's become. With characters like Jack Sparrow, Depp layers various surface aspects- rougish charm, cockiness, craziness, quirkiness, selfishness- around a core of vulnerability and insecurity that makes the audience empathize; with Dillinger, we have only the suggestion of an inner persona, a well-portrayed suggestion but just a suggestion nonetheless.

Purvis, as Dillinger's foil, is similarly enigmatic. Bale doesn't show us doubt or fear, just professionalism; the professionalism to repeatedly and determinedly ask for better agents from Hoover, the professionalism to turn his back while someone is getting tortured in the background, the professionalism to stay silent and unmoved while Dillinger attempts to rattle his cage when they meet in prison. The movie's epilogue notes that Purvis left the FBI and killed himself in real life after capturing Dillinger; it's a shame the film doesn't give us any clue (other than a hint or two) as to why.

The film does, however, portray the way the media affects the chase, though all too briefly. In a wonderful scene in a movie theater, Dillinger and his associates see themselves onscreen as the MovieTone announcer tells everyone "They may be in this very room" (at which point one of them tries to leave). The way Hoover is constantly followed around by a publicist, rather than an agent or an administrator, and his constant playing to the cameras, is clearly pushed forward at the same time Dillinger is turning an arraignment and later a trial into a press conference and a lampoon, respectively. People more learned than me have suggested the influence that Clark Gable's gangster movie has on the film; I suggest you go talk to them about it. My only reflection on that aspect is that, like Reservoir Dogs, it appears that most of the thieves in the film (with the exception of Dillinger, the consummate professional) have learned their trade by watching movies of elaborate shootouts (see Baby-Face Nelson's exit) and tough-guy shop talk.

The cinematography, direction, effects, and costuming are all effective enough that you don't notice them and focus on what's going on, but are nothing particularly spectacular. This is partly because of Mann's tight-fisted direction; as opposed to opening with crane shots of the Depression-era set built for the film, we focus mostly on the people, standing out starkly even against a massively built Michigan City prison entrance set.

Public Enemies is an excellent "gangster movie" and a well-crafted piece of art, but it falls shy of the potential of the rich, made-for-the-screen people it tries to depict.

Overall, 4/5.

Star Trek

Never bet against J.J. Abrams, I have learned. As much as I love Lost and MI:3, I thought that the prospect of Abrams- a self-described "Star Wars guy" trying to reboot the Star Trek franchise was a bit...er...well, dumb. 40 years of cinema and television history isn't to be rebooted easily, and I kept hearing all these awful rumors: it would be a buddy flick set at the Academy. It would be a war movie. It would be a Romulan movie. It would be about James T. Kirk's dad. It would be an Enterprise movie.

It's none of that. It is, in fact, a great film, and a successful reboot.

Let's get the casting out of the way: yes, everyone looks about five to ten years younger than they should, with the except of Karl Urban's McCoy. Hardcore fans have already derided the show as "the Muppet Babies version of Star Trek", so I won't go there. And yes, Sylar (a.k.a. Zachary Quinto) as Spock is not up to par. It's truly unfortunate, because Quinto takes a very difficult part and does it very well, but the problem is about halfway through the movie (*spoiler alert*!!!) we meet Leonard Nimoy's Spock, and the moment he speaks Nimoy's gravitas completely annihilates Quinto's hormonal-teenage-Spock performance, and to make things worse, Abrams & co. then have Quinto-Spock and Nimoy-Spock meet face to face, which is about the dumbest thing they could have possibly done because it makes Quinto look whiny and hollow and unable to follow up on one of sci-fi TV's greatest actors (/*end spoiler*). And yes, to quote one reviewer, Zoe Saldana as Uhura is a "stone cold fox", but, in one of the Great Decisions of Cinema History, they gave her both a character *and* an important skill to apply to the plot, which poor Nichelle Nichols never got in the original series.

In a predictable yet delectable way, the writers structure the film to bring together all the main characters of the original series. The main Schtick is about Quinto's Spock and Chris Pine's Kirk going through their Campbellian hero's journeys and eventually becoming friends, but each of the supporting cast characters from the Original Series (McCoy, Uhura, John Cho's blunt Sulu, Simon Pegg's amusing Scotty, and Anton Yelchin's nerdy Chekhov) gets their own moment to shine. The always-solid critic Alexandra Dupont, of the website Aintitcool.com, notes how the producers try to slip a little nod to the idea of destiny in their parallel-lives of their rebooted universe, but if you don't know much about the Original Series you'll just have to dismiss a bunch of highly improbable coincidences/gaps in logic, smoothed over by enjoyable action and a fair amount of wit in the dialogue.

The atmosphere is what really sells it, though (as much as atmosphere can exist in the airless void of space). As much as I hate to be the nth person to rag on a show's poor production values, Abrams' film has great F/X, costuming, set design and so on, which really helps the suspension-of-disbelief factor, while the musical score and constant use of audio cues from the Original Series (elevators, radar pulses, transporters etc.) brings back nostalgic memories without the memories of how cheesy and cardboard the old show used to be. I mean, it's almost painful to watch the series (or any of the series') after seeing the movie.

And, as is typical for Abrams productions, there are a couple of set pieces that resonate emotionally without compromising the big-budget action values, most notably the opening ten minutes, which includes setting up the plot, two different heroic sacrifices, and the birth of Kirk, all mixed together with flashes of action and chilling shots, like how the sound suddenly cuts out as someone is sucked into the silent vacuum. Of course, my more logically-oriented friend asked after a few minutes, "Why the HELL is there a married couple on a warship...in fact, why is there a PREGNANT WOMAN on a warship!?!?" but that was after the damage was done.

The whole movie follows this pattern: enormous, gaping flaws in logic that are presented in such a way that you're too busy caring about the characters and the conflicts to notice until long after the impact has already hit you. You spend too much time admiring how dead-on Karl Urban looks, acts, and sounds like DeForest Kelley, while at the same time channeling his own peculiar Southern-country-doctor-mojo, or chuckling at all the classic lines they work in (usually) organically (the first time McCoy says "Damnit Jim" is especially good), or feeling the hair on the back of your head stand up while watching Kirk and Sulu and a redshirt (!) silently skydiving with just the sound of a sensor ping in the background, or feeling the delicate simmer Quinto places around Spock's emotions being expertly prodded by Pine's overtly smug Kirk, or , or , or , and you get the idea.

Hardcore fans who pick apart the flaws of the film (and it does have many flaws; the science, the continuity, the whole Academy-cheating-Kobayashi Maru section, and again, WHAT IS A PREGNANT WOMAN DOING ON A WARSHIP!?!?) are really missing the point. The Original Star Trek Series was never about having things like original plots or internally consistent ideas; instead, it was a vision of an optimistic future that was vastly different from the grim determinism of H.P. Lovecraft or Rod Sterling or the later cynicism of cyberpunk and deconstruction. Is the future of Star Trek shiny and unrealistically iPod-like? Yes. Do we want it that way? Yes.

Overall, 5/5

Thursday, July 09, 2009

The Great Game of Golf
The other day my grandfather offered to take me to play golf "at 6:30", by which, of course, he meant AM, not PM. This is slightly earlier than my typical wake-up time, but for the sake of having some quality time with Grandpa, it was worth it.

I have to clarify some things about the situation. My grandfather is a great golf player, and still competes in local semi-pro tournaments (and not the senior citizen tournaments either). My knowledge of golf is limited to an infamous episode of "My Name is Earl" and films starring Adam Sandler. I have been to a driving range a couple of times, but never gone golfing-golfing, and was curious about how it might go.

Let's put it this way: it didn't go well. My Grandpa went and spent an obscene amount of money on brand-new golf shoes for me, and that day was the first time I was wearing them. Note to self: *always* break in new shoes before you go golfing. So between the early hour, the shoes cutting into my heel through the paper-thin socks I was wearing, the icy coldness of the predawn morning and then the oppressive 70-degree heat of the sun, and the fact that I ate a delicious Croissant-wich for breakfast, the situation was already bad enough.

Then we actually started playing golf, and my level of skillz can be quite easily implied through two different anecdotes:

-Grandpa told me I needed a "pitching wedge". I was able to identify the proper club, because it had a "P" on it. I think. I had originally assumed this was the "Pirate" club, but I didn't tell anyone.

-The scorecard read something like this:
Hole 1: Par 4
Grandpa: 5
The Author: 12

Hole 2: Par 4
Grandpa: 4
The Author: 15

Hole 3: Par 4
[left blank, like every other hole afterward, to save me from embarrassment]

After we had struggled through the most painful 9 holes since Curtis James Jackson got shot, my grandpa took me aside next to the James Bond Villain Henchman's electric golf cart we had rented and looked me in the eye. With broken but carefully measured English, he said, "I know you feel pressure, this is first time. But don't worry, don't worry. I am play golf for very long time, and I feel pressure too. Everyone feel pressure."

I smiled and suddenly everything was right again, even if it had taken me 10 strokes before I was able to get back on on the fairway.

Then we went to the 10th hole and another gentleman was waiting there with his golf cart, chomping on a large cigar and looking for all the world like Mike Ditka. My grandpa got out and started talking to him all friendly-like, then he waved over at me and asked if I was beating "my old man". I laughed and said no, and he laughed and told me I should be.

Grandpa said something along the lines of I was 18 years old and a student at $t.X, which is not entirely true. But the man's eyebrows went up slightly. Then my grandpa went, tee'd off, and hit a beautiful drive that arced through the air and landed like an artillery shell about a foot away from the big yellow flag stuck in the hole, on a little peninsula jutting into a water trap.

I dutifully took out my driver, which I assume is called a driver because it uses electromagnets to accelerate the mainly titanium ball. Unfortunately, futuristic technology or not, I still was terrible at hitting the thing into anything other than the ground directly in front of it. Arcs were a pipe dream- at this point, I would settle for the ball flying off the tee in a straight line, for ten or fifteen yards.

Behind me, the gentleman chomped his cigar some more and said something about being a Panthers fan, and I realized how high the stakes were on this hole. The chummy man had gone to my high school's biggest and ugliest rival. Oh dear Lord, please don't make me embarrass myself in front of an 3LD3R fan!!!

I have one chance to not screw this up.

I have to keep my head down.

I have to shift my weight.

I have to swing and follow through.

The club comes down like a pendulum and makes contact with a solid THWACK sound that rings in my ears as the ball flies upward, higher, higher, higher than I've ever hit it, a beautiful arc so perfect you could use it for a polynomial graph in an Algebra I textbook, an arc that ends inside the hole.

I just hit a hole in one. O M F G. My grandpa goes crazy in the background. The guy's cigar falls out of his mouth.

No, just kidding. The ball arcs beautifully, but it soars over the splotch of green and plunks into the water. I sigh, and my grandpa laughs, clapping me around the shoulders.

"Good shot, good shot."

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Little Trouble in BigTown #10: As If I Didn't Feel Bad Enough About My Programming Skills

An exchange that occurred about three months ago:

Me: So how's [legendarily difficult programming class] treating you?
The Roommate: It's really hard because it's not very well-defined; you have to use a lot of creative skills and big-picture thinking.
Me: Uh huh. Sounds pretty tough.
The Roommate: Actually, you'd be really good at it.
Me: Really?
The Roommate: Yeah, it doesn't require any programming skill.

Then this happened:
On the way back home, I decided to reserve a cab for the one-hour trip to the airport rather than try to take a cheaper, and probably far more disastrous/entertaining, combination of trains, boats, and...uhhh...something that rhymes with "boats". My driver is a dark-skinned man, who shares "the most common first name on the planet, read a book why don't you" with a certain Islamic Prophet, but who I call Mr. Amin.

As our rollicking ride of return begins, I ask him a few questions about where he's from and he replies, in clear but highly accented English, that he is originally from Bengladesh but has lived in BigTown for 14 years. This is the entertaining part of taxi rides; I love hearing about different people's stories, from the Egyptian guy who let me know that Lebanese women are the most beautiful of all (and that the women of Jordan, Syria, Egypt, and all the other countries that tried to invade Israel in the '60's are only as beautiful as the amount of Lebanese blood in them) to the bearded grad student who thought I was from Chicago "because of yer accent" to the retired Intel engineer who was driving because he wanted to do something different.

Mr. Amin told me about how he had first come to America, leaving behind a wife and young son for four years (!) with no contact (!!!) before they could put together the proper papers for immigration. I mean, that's pretty hardcore. His son and daughter are now pretty much assimilated, with basically no memory of Bengladesh, but he still keeps up the old traditions, including singing and some form of chant/meditation called "rrackg" (sp?). From listening to him talk about the mixture of Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus in his country, you'd think everyone was some long-haired groovy hipster who sat around being mellow and chanting all day. (Mr. Amin was particularly adamant that "Muslims in Bengladesh not like Muslims in Pakistan. We are not extreme, not extreme, very calm, very happy")

He talked about his deep depression during his years alone in the US, and how he got through it with a combination of religious faith (unspecified), this rrackg chanting, and computer programming.

Say what!??!

"Yes, yes, I find computer programmer from India, he teach me See Plus Plus, I teach him how to drive."

After a combination of tutoring with his Indian neighbor, self-teaching from books and tapes, and sitting in on a few classes at a community college, Mr. Amin now is fluent in C++, C#, Java and JavaScript, php, and Perl. His goal is to learn Python this year, since he has heard it is miraculous. (According to xkcd, it is, but be careful)

We then proceeded to have a long and fascinating conversation about how people learn things and the best way to teach the precepts of programming. ("To understand recursion, you must first understand recursion").

It's funny the kinds of things you learn when you meet people.