Tagged in: movies

Three Things That Enervated My Decrepit Bones Last Week

1. Birthdays. I celebrated mine with a lovely dinner out with my beautiful wife. The evening was great. but didn’t entirely stave off the existential dread of realizing that I have been walking this earth for thirty-two years and still feel lost and clueless when it comes to dealing with adult problems (i.e. something beyond not being able to collect all of Ben Franklin’s draft pages in Assassin’s Creed III). Do all adults deal with this much doubt and worry? Did my parents have as little an idea of how to handle this stuff as I do now? Yikes.

2. Movie Trailers. Last week made me excited about the 2013’s film prospects, especially in the sphere of science fiction, comic book-y movies that let me stave off death by feeding my adolescent power fantasies and maintaining my arrested development. That sounds like a somewhat mature self-critique but on the other hand, GIANT ROBOTS! PUNCHING MONSTERS!


And, KHAAAAAN! (maybe?)

3. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. 

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey … one embargo to bind them.

If the worst thing you can say about a movie is that it isn’t as good as The Lord of the Rings, then I guess it wasn’t that bad. Peter Jackson leads another expedition to Middle-Earth with the film version of the early adventures of Bilbo Baggins. Somehow, he has turned the lightest and breeziest of J.R.R. Tolkein’s tales into a six hour epic on par with the LOTR  films in terms of ass-numbing theatre seat occupation. While the earlier trilogy was a nearly flawless adaptation of a genre-defining work, The Hobbit  shows some serious seams where the source material was stitched together to create a trilogy worthy whole. Maybe it was because Jackson and his fellow screenwriters had to look at things to cut for the Lord of the Rings films and were forced to stretch the The Hobbit into a trilogy, but this movie dragged. There were several high points, but despite the enthusiastically varied showcase of beard-ery, axe-based ass-kicking, and people riding animals that are not ordinarily used as mounts (eagles, rabbits, reindeer, etc.) the movie felt like it could have lost about an hour of run time and still been packed with incident. The effect is somewhat surprising because in the previous trilogy, the film makers showed an admirable ruthlessness when it came to cutting parts of the story that had no place in a compelling, breathless on-screen experience. Things like the Tom Bombadil story were excised from The Fellowship of the Ring while there are many scenes and plot lines that should have been cut from The Hobbit. (I’m looking at you, entire sequence with Radaghast the Brown, Middle-Earth Middle-Managers Quarterly Report, and Troll chef trickery.) Still, the Riddles in the Dark sequence is appropriately off-putting and there wasn’t anything on-screen that I hated. There was simply too much of it.

Three Things That Realigned My Electoral Demographics Last Week

X-Com: Four to Six Alien-killn' dudes.

1. XCOM Enemy Unknown

This game dug it’s hooks into me in a way that few games in recent memory have. I’m talking “stay up until 5:00 am because I need to play just one more mission and then I’m back at base and maybe I should just finish researching that one weapon tech, but oh no the global satellite alert just kicked in and sectoids are attacking Sao Paolo so maybe I should just real quick play that one too, only I have to restart that mission because my support dude from South Africa walked face first into a thin man ambush….” The turn-based nature of the game makes you feel like a tactical genius as you lay your forces out in an unstoppable line of crossfires and over-watching ambushers. That feeling lasts about as long as you go without encountering the enemy, as the game is intensely punishing at the harder difficulties and losing even one man can make it impossible to finish the mission. Things spiral out of control quickly and the wrong placement of a heavy gunner can mean the difference between victory and six dead dudes. That’s not even getting into the long term strategy of building out your base, researching alien technology, and training soldiers. You have a finite amount of resources and failure to use them wisely means that the countries that bankroll your alien-fighting unit will pull their funding. Launch more satellites!

2. Cloud Atlas

This movie is an adaptation of an unadaptable book. Love it or hate it, you have to admire the sheer craft that went in to creating such a dense narrative that interweaves six completely different narratives. The result is something that you can definitely see the seams on, but the fact that it holds together at all is amazing. From the creepy buck-toothed grin of Tom Hanks’ 18th-Century poisoner to the just-a-little-too-much patois of his post-apocalyptic shepherd every inch of the film is imbued with a stark attention to detail that honors David Mitchell’s novel even while it completely reworks the structure. Clocking in at three hours, the film does challenge you to keep all the separate threads straight but it is worth the effort.

3. The U.S. Presidential Election

It’s been a long, long, long slog to the finish line and it is finally over. Whether the outcome had you dancing in the streets with joy at the thought of four more years of glorious progressivism or rending your garments and gnashing your teeth as you booked your flight to Canada to avoid the soul-crushing slide into a socialist hell, I think we can all agree that we are glad to be off the electoral roller coaster at long last. People who paid attention to the raw numbers weren’t terribly surprised by the re-election of President Obama, but election night was still a fun chance to watch CNN’s Minority Report-esque holographic projections and touchscreen number crunching. Donald Trump’s massive meltdown on twitter following the election results was my personal highlight but the best thing about the election is that (after about 3-4 days to let the anger and resentment bubble out) it will be safe to go on Facebook again.

Even More of Me

In a move that is sure to do wonders for my productivity here at Semantic Drift, I have decided to join the team over at Legal Geekery. You’ll never see a more wretched hive of scum and villainy, if by “scum and villainy” you mean “law students and writing” and by “wretched hive” you mean “awesome blog”. I’ll be inflicting my more law-related writing on the unsuspecting public over there. That should free up more of my headspace here to talk about what I ate for breakfast and which movie I saw over the weekend. Lucky you!

Anyway, my first post over there is a listing of the Most Evil Lawyers from film and television. When I found out that maybe people don’t like lawyers and there were unflattering portrayals of them in pop culture, I was shocked, shocked I say!

Go check it out.

My Masturbatory Self-Indulgence Has a First Name, It’s O-S-C-A-R

Here’s my absolutely 100% guaranteed lock of the night for the upcoming Academy Awards: It will be boring, meaningless, and a waste of time for everyone involved.

I love movies more than most people do. At this stage of my life I could use my accumulated Movie Watcher points to make a down payment on a Toyota Corolla or finance a vacation to Toronto if they would accept my AMC card. I go almost every week and I see everything from indies flicks about gay cowboys eating ice cream to broad romantic comedies where people of a certain gender may or may not be into someone of the other. I read movie blogs all the time. I can usually tell you what new films are coming out on any given Friday without having to consult Fandango.

But for all the love I have for Hollwood’s output, I have an equal amount of scorn for award shows like the Oscars. From the vapid commentary on what the starlets are wearing as they walk down the red carpet to the awkwardly phrased acceptance speeches the entire broadcast strikes me as a supreme waste of time. I’m all for recognizing outstanding work in screenplays, direction, and acting but the whole affair is such an overblown exercise in celebrity obsession. Too much attention goes to dissecting hairstyles and dresses or explaining the dating choices of the attendees and not enough on the actual content of the work that the show is ostensibly designed to recognize.

Hugh Jackman is hosting this year. While I would be hard-pressed to say an unkind word about Wolverine, I don’t know that he can successfully hold the attention of the viewer through the whole broadcast. Past hosts with extensive comedy experience like Jon Stewart and Dave Letterman have had trouble keeping the show moving forward so Jackman will be in good company if he stumbles.

But my problems go beyond annoyance with the pomp and circumstance that surround the ceremony and into the conceptual core. The Academy makes some odd choices in the way  it picks nominees, trying to split the difference between rewarding risk-taking heartfelt turns in little seen films like The Visitor and recognizing the Oscar Bait showiness of Artful Roles like Brad Pitt’s portrayal of the titular Benjamin Buttons. But nobody saw the former and the latter was as safe and conventional as it could be. That dichotomy between the unseen and the overseen lies at the heart of why the Academy Awards can never truly become a means of either recognizing the best or rewarding the riskiest.

Add to that the smug, self-congratulatory tone that can’t help but seep out of a four hour telecast of actors honoring themselves and you have a truly unbearable night of television.

Net Scavenging for the New Year, January 4th 2009

How did I spend New Year’s Eve? I drank beer.  I watched Justice League cartoons. I read Vonnegut. I fired a shotgun into the air. Not a bad way to send out 2008, symbolically speaking. Here’s some digital detritus:

  • Town Asks Kung Fu Monks for Tourism Blessings”
    “Mr. Dou found a savior 1,200 miles away, in the Song Mountains of central China, where the warrior monks of Shaolin have mastered the art of monastery marketing.” Can you get a black belt in that?
    Filed Under [religion nytimes china tourism ]
  • William Burroughs: Do Easy
    “DE is a way of doing. It is a way of doing everything you do. DE simply means doing whatever you do in the easiest most relaxed way you can manage which is also the quickest and most efficient way, as you will find as you advance in DE.” A sort of everyday zen.
    Filed Under [psychology ]
  • Daredevil: The Man Without Fear
    A resource for my favorite superhero.
    Filed Under [Comics superheroes ]
  • Abandoned London
    A Flickr set.
    Filed Under [photography flickr ]
  • A New Taxonomy of Gamers
    A thoughtful look at what we talk about when we talk about video games and the geeks (and others) who play them.
    Filed Under [Culture criticism videogames ]
  • Long Now: Projects: Clock
    “The idea to build a monument scale, multi-millennial, all mechanical clock as an icon to long term thinking.” Just having read Anathem, this sort of thing is on my mind.
    Filed Under [science technology philosophy ]
  • Choose Your Own Adventure Short Films
    Cinematical offers some short films that require a little audience participation, just like those books you remember.
    Filed Under [movies postmodernism ]
  • The Vagabond Cinephile’s Lament

    I am a movie guy, which should come as no shock to anyone that’s known me for more than five minutes. I like almost every genre, and I like previews, I like popcorn, and I like that delightfully squicky feeling you get when the rubber sole of your sneakers gets more traction than it should on the coke-splattered floor. I normally get to the theater at least once a week.

    At least when I’m home in the U.S. and can rely on at least a few options rolling out every week.  But alas, I also like travel and that can clash with my cinephilia. On short jaunts abroad it’s not really a problem because I’m so busy trying to squeeze in the sights and sounds of a foreign place that I don’t need the familiar experience of a theater (although I do kind of like to see movies in strange places too). But when I’m in someplace for a longer period, I start to miss the trickle of watchable films that give me something to do every lazy Sunday afternoon.

    Say what you will about the Hollywood machine, it is consistent. And while the vast majority of films that find wide release in the U.S. are vapid and culturally bankrupt at best (Hello, Disaster Movie!), at least they are part of a wide enough sample that awesome films slip through. And though my body is abroad, I still read all the same film blogs and review sites that I did back home, so I am well aware of the pace of American releases.

    Here in Sydney, it seems like the big blockbusters come out not too long after their U.S. release (thanks to the time zone difference, I actually got to see The Dark Knight earlier than I would have backhome. Greetings from the Future.) which was a pleasant surprise, but otherwise it seems like they trickle out anywhere from a few weeks to a few months after their initial American release. This is not as bad as when I used to live in Cape Town and it seemed like only the most juvenile and family-friendly of films made the trip across the Atlantic, and only then at a glacial pace. The usual turnaround time was about 5 months, which wasn’t so bad after I had been there long enough for the lag to catch up. Sydney is quicker, but I still find myself wanting to see all the real new releases.

    I have tried to fill in the gaps by watching more Australian films, but the pace of the Aussie film industry seems much more subdued than its American counterpart. There just aren’t as many Australian films coming out in Australian theaters. I have (mostly) liked the ones I did manage to see. I only wish there were more of them. At all the Sydney theaters the fare is almost entirely American films. This true of even the more indy ones, although there is also a healthy sprinkling of foreign (meaning neither American nor Australian) films. But every week, the opening of new films is a trickle compared to the American gush. The output of South African film-makers, which I thought was sparse makes Australia’s seem like slackers.

    Another thing that bothers and confounds is me is the insistence of assigning seat numbers when you buy movie tickets. Why? What purpose does this serve, other than to slow up the lines at the ticket counter? I don’t need to pick my seat out before I walk into the theater. My seat choice is a calculus based on a complex range of factors, including but not limited to: number of people in theater, proximity to screen, proximity to children/likely talkers, not sitting next to a stranger if I can help it, etc. By making choose beforehand, I am pretty much guranteed to end up with a seat wedged in between two families of garrulous bathroom users with collicky babies. And God help you if try to sit somehwere other than your assigned seat. If someone shows up with that other seat, they act like you are trying to steal their car and I end up bouncing around before the ushers come in and force me to my hastily chosen seat.

    It’s one of the little, intensely personal alienating effects of living abroad. In the long run, the rewards far outweigh the costs. Don’t get me wrong, I would much rather have the adventure of being here than the comfort of trotting out to the local AMC. But still…

    Beer Brand Beer

    I want to go out drinking at the Generic Movie Bar. I’m not sure where it is, but it must be out there somewhere because it seems like every time characters in a movie go to a bar its the same place. Sure, the decor and ambiance may differ from romantic comedies to weepy drams, but the bars all have the same quirks that I have yet to see in any real-world ale house.

    The lights aren’t up full blast, but it’s still bright enough to see from the door to the bar. It’s a kind of tasteful half-glow and there’s no stupid black lights or rotating neon disco balls, just some unobtrusive ambient illumination. The air is clear but I instinctively blink a few times to compensate for the cloud of smoke that isn’t there. I sweep my gaze across the crowd, ample enough make the joint look busy but thin enough to easily move across the dance floor, which isn’t crowded with blinged-out guidos grinding on unsuspecting co-eds from behind and splattering hair product and tanning oil around as they pump their hips in time to the music.

    The music is something else… It fills the background with a steady supply of rock, the perfect volume to create an ambient background but just quiet enough to carry on your conversation without having to lean in close to your companion and scream at the top of your lungs so that they can hear you over the 5th rendition of a remixed Usher song that the DJ has played that night. Or maybe its the local live band that usually keeps you from conversing over a quiet pint, erroneously convinced that every one in the bar has come to witness their private concert and obligingly cranked their speakers to 11 as they unveil their thrash-punk version of “Margaritaville.” (Every live band must play Margaritaville. It’s a universal law.)

    But not in the Generic Movie Bar. It’s a place where you can belly up to the bar and the guy behind it will be absentmindedly polishing a glass, regardless of how busy or quiet the bar is.  He’ll (it’s always a He) immediately come up to you and ask what you want. You can just order a beer, or a scotch. You don’t need to specify a brand of either, because apparently they proudly serve Beer brand beer and Scotch brand scotch. Don’t worry about telling the bartender how you want it (on the rocks, etc). It doesn’t matter unless you’re ordering a Martini and you work for British Intelligence in which case you know how to order.

    You also don’t have to worry about starting a tab with your credit card, or otherwise paying for your drink. I guess they’re not too worried about that sort of thing in the movies. You can see why places like that would appeal to me. Someday I’ll just have to open my own.

    Bear Fight! And Atheism… The Golden Compass Review

    golden compass armored polar bear iorek

    This past Saturday, I got a sneak preview showing of The Golden Compass. Based on the first book of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, this film is a pretty clear attempt to launch a young adult fantasy franchise of Potter-ian proportions. Unlike the Potter films, which I kind of like without ever having read the books , I love the source material and entered the theater with that protective attitude that all true geeks have when seeing their favorite stories translated to a new medium. I vastly prefer Pullman’s series to Harry Potter because they are deeper, subtler, and more beautiful. It’s a difficult transition from book to film.

    The story is set in a parallel world where technology has advanced only to a steampunk/Victorian level. Zeppelins float through the sky and crystals carry photographic images. There is also a race of flying witches and a tribe of armored polar bears. Its a lot to take in, and movies can’t spend the time filling in the blanks about the intricacies of this fantasy world. Most problematic is the concept of daemons. In the world of The Golden Compass, people’s souls live on the outside of their body anthropomorphized into talking animals that follow them around. It’s an interesting idea, and the movie sets about explaining it in the opening narration but it is so central to the story that a more nuanced explanation of the concept would have been nice. The movie has to kind of throw the viewer into the deep end and let them pick up the subtleties and intricacies of the world as they go along. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but overall the film succeeds in translating the story.

    nicole kidman coulter golden compass

    Our hero is Lyra, a young girl with a penchant for mischief who finds herself swept up from her Oxford home and dragged into a grand quest involving kidnapped children, pirate kings, witch prophecies, and royal intrigues in the polar bear court. Generally, I abhor movies with children as protagonists. They annoy me and my annoyance grows exponentially with the precociousness of the lead. But I will make an exception for Lyra. She is tough and resourceful but not over the top about it and never cutesy. Her main strength is that she is a liar, a trickster. All the performances are strong, especially Nicole Kidman oozing evil sex appeal (the best kind) and some relatively brief appearances by Daniel Craig. The two play researcher/adventurers who have an interest in something called Dust and in Lyra. Sam Elliot plays an airship pilot and my strong desire to take him about for a beer increases with every movie I see him in. It started with (the Big Lebowski).
    Perhaps the coolest character in the books who I was worried about on film is Iorek Byrnison. He is a panzerbjorn, or armored bear. Which is just as bad-ass as you imagine it would be. I mean polar bears are already death machines, but when you wrap them in metal it makes them unstoppable. There is an extended set peiece of the film where two armored bears battle each other ursino a ursino and it was visceral and awesome.

    The Golden Compass deals with questions of faith and spirituality and the conceit of the daemon as soul is important. It’s caused a fair bit of controversy from religious groups because the His Dark Materials trilogy was very much a work against religious authority. The movie has dialed that down a notch, softening the edges of the autocratic Magisterium that rules the world of the Golden Compass by turning them into a more generic Evil Empire and a less explicitly religious Evil Empire of Catholicism and General Religious Dogma. The fact that people are always running around talking about “demons” probably won’t score the film any religious endorsements either.

    The Golden Compass ends at a point way before the book does, which is problematic. I guess I understand the need to end a (relatively) upbeat moment and hope for the sequels, but there are some very character-defining plot points in the section of the story that the film-makers chopped out. Presumably, they will pick up where they left off for The Subtle Knife but leaving out the things they did really changes the way people view certain characters. (I’m thinking about Daniel Craig’s Lord Asriel here).

    daniel craig golden compass lord asriel

    Movies are not books. They can’t be. Adaptation creates a different animal. Taken on its merits, I think The Golden Compass is a good film, if not great. The strange world of Lyra’s Oxford and the Arctic wastes is very pretty and director/screenwriter Chris Weitz handled the problem of merging the mundane and the fantastical with a deft hand. Which is impressive, considering he also brought us American Pie. Certain things get lost in the translation and that is to be expected. Certain other things like Pullman’s overt anti-religious overtones are noticeably played down if not completely abandoned. But his story shines through. Lyra’s quest engages the viewer and I think it will encourage them to accept the more outlandish fantasy elements. It probably won’t drive hordes of young people to atheism and it may or may not draw potential new readers in to the world of His Dark Materials. I know it made me want to reread them.

    Scripters of the World, Unite!

    So it looks like the the music makers and the dreamers of dreams are taking it to the streets. The WGA is striking and couch potatoes across the country are freaking the hell out. No one seems to know how long it will last, but it’s a certainty that the networks will be foisting more reality television on us.

    I’m more of a movie fan (even though I do watch a a lot of TV) so it’ll take a little while before I really feel the effects because the studios have stockpiled a mountain of scripts to get themselves through the labor action. Hopefully they’ll get everything sorted out before I have to stop going to the movies because there literally isn’t anything to see.

    I am a little bummed that the Daily Show and the Colbert Report will have to go into repeats, because there won’t be any writers to turn the events of the day into topical sketches. The only thing left to watch would be the interview, which is my least favorite part of the whole affair. I will also feel the pain once Heroes runs out of ready to produce scripts, but the way the season has been progressing so far, it’s a loss I think I can bare.

    My first thought when I realized that the strike was a reality was “Oh well. Now I’ll have even more of a chance to catch up on old shows from Netflix.” I’ve got about a million seasons of a thousand shows in the backlog. I may even up my discs per month until the strike plays out. Which really is kind of the point of the whole strike.

    When Not in the Office, He Lusts for His Brother’s Girlfriend: Dan in Real Life Review

    dan in real lfe steve carell dane cook

    Dan in Real Life is one of those movies that doesn’t swing for the fences, and is much better off for it. I love Steve Carell, (even if the last few episodes of the Office have been slight misfires) but I was a little worried that he might be headed into slump after Evan Almighty tanked. Thankfully, the man seems to be back on his game in this emotionally complex and funny film.

    Carell plays the titular Dan, a columnist who dispenses slightly cliched Dr. Phillian common-sense family advice even as the widowed father finds his relationship with his daughters straining under the weight of teenage rebellion and the advances of paperboys. The movie plays out over a long weekend family gathering, when Dan takes his three daughters to the bustling lakehouse where the entire family comes together. On the first day, Dan has a bookstore meet-cute with the exotic Marie (Juliette Binoche). He opens up to her over coffee and a muffin, and although she seems a little conflicted, he ends up getting her number before she runs off. He soon sees her again when his brother (played with surprisingly un-annoyingly by Dane Cook) introduces her as his new girlfriend.

    The film follows the discomfort and awkwardness as Dan and Marie try to repress their attraction to one another and hide their connection from the rest of the extended family. Dan in Real Life is a comedy, but its not the ostentatious kind of showy humor that makes you laugh out loud at films like Knocked Up or Wedding Crashers. It’s more understated than quips and quotable one-liners. It grows from the interaction of the characters and the emotions that they have trouble keeping under wraps as the plot progresses.

    The humor feels organic and pleasant because it relies on empathy and an understanding of the family dynamics we can read into the way Dan’s mother talks to him, say. But this no weepy schmaltz-fest, either. You feel a real pathos for Dan and just how lonely and sad he feels, but it never gets too mushy or overly sentimental. The balance between the drama and humor is effortless. It would have been easy for a lesser director to drift into farce or melodrama, but Peter Hedges does a wonderful job of Keeping Dan in Real Life grounded. But you still know that when you see Steve Carell playing football on the lawn, he will be smacked in the head with a flying pigskin. And I’m okay with that.

    The film has a compressed feel to it, taking place largely in a single location and playing out over a long weekend. This gives it a very stage-y feel (in a good way). I suspect Dan in Real Life started out as a play, and at some point made the jump to the big screen. I’m glad it did.