Thursday, December 29, 2011

In Time



In essence, In Time is a sci-fi movie that aims high but fails to make itself exceptional. This does not prevent it from being entertaining, though, and I found it pretty enjoyable. But the spanner in the works for me was the very premise itself.

Now perhaps it is the mark of a writing or sci-fi elitist to analyze In Time's premise and get frustrated over how illogical it was. Perhaps I should have just been able to sit back, let it all wash over me, and be carried away by the action. But that isn't me; I couldn't do it. I spent much of the movie dissecting the setting, the characters, and raising many an eyebrow in skepticism and frustration.
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The Valuation of Time

In Time presents the premise of a world that has found a way to trade years, months, days, minutes of your life among the population of the world. For no particular reason, at the age of 25, a timer on your arm appears and activates, counting down one more year of your life before you die. This remaining time can be subtracted or added to without limit as a currency. Justin Timberlake finds himself with over a century's worth of time and resolves upon himself to overthrow the system (this is not a spoiler, as you can gather this clearly from any trailer for the movie).

Avast! Spoilers ahead! Yarr.

Let me try and explain everything that is messed up with this system.

- The entire economy is based on the currency of time, which is absolutely insane. Not only does it make you wonder how on earth this ever got established and who thought this was a good idea (never explained), but the prices are mind-boggling. 5 minutes of your life for a shitty hamburger? A couple months to travel across time zones? A freaking year to buy a swanky sports car? God only knows what the cost of a house is... How on earth does insurance work?  These absurd questions lead directly into my next point...

- Because the world is so onerous, why does it take so long for people to overthrow it? Sure, it's a nice thought that one could live forever, but when it is so bad that you walk past corpses every day and have to toss away hours of your life just to ride on a bus for ten minutes, you'd expect people to get just a little upset, to put it lightly. Instead, everyone seems rather chill with it. Hell, one of the characters is given a free decade at one point and receives it with the same emotion that one feels when you finish an errand for the day. Price hikes are treated with grumbles but nothing more. What's wrong with these people?
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- And it isn't like much is stopping them from changing it either. The timekeepers (essentially the police) are singularly incompetent. In one of the scenes, the head timekeeper (Cillian Murphy) knows where the good guys are going to be and so, naturally, decides to ambush them completely on his own without reinforcements by driving up nearby, pulling out his gun, and marching over to where they are, smugly pointing it at them, as if nobody will notice. Naturally, after at least a minute of him strolling over when he could have killed them both multiple times, the good guys notice and take him down no problem. Talk about idiot villains.

- Not to mention that nobody seems to fear the timekeepers whatsoever, as evidenced by people making fun of them to their face when left to their own devices. Why have they not rebelled before if the police force in charge of them are treated as an ineffectual joke? Also, why the hell are the timekeepers crippled in efficacy by keeping them on the cusp of dying all the time? They never seem to have more than a few hours available to them; god forbid their assigned investigation turns out longer than expected. Naturally, the idiocy of this policy is encapsulated by Cillian Murphy's anticlimactic death at the end; right as he finally successfully apprehends the good guys, he realizes he's out of time and keels over dead. Nice planning, dude.

- Let's not even get into how rash and thoughtless Justin Timberlake acts throughout the movie. Actually, let's. He takes his century of life, full knowing that he'll be hunted for it, and brings it right into the heart of the society's upper class to binge it all on gambling? Aside from the obvious stupidity of, "What the hell are you doing gambling away hundreds of years for?" he does this where he is most likely to be recognized as out of place and located immediately. The incompetence of the timekeepers is the only thing that saves him.

- Amanda Seyfried looks like an alien and sounds like a 6-year old. Nothing more needs to be said.
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Conclusion

There's probably more ways I could rip into it, but I'm going to stop there. Because, even though the premise and sci-fi background of this movie is hopelessly flawed, the movie still managed to be entertaining. Despite his ineffectiveness, Cillian Murphy manages to provide a great performance that reminded me of Javert from Les Miserables. The movie is stylish. The cinematography great. And, even though it felt treated on a somewhat surface level, the theme of daring to take a risk and make a leap was a good one.

 But this definitely isn't an intellectual movie. Though it had movement and kept my interest enough to watch it all the way through, it felt... superficial. It felt like it had been dumbed down; every scene of dialogue was followed immediately by an action scene as if afraid that the audience would fall asleep. It felt like it was calibrated to the lowest common denominator of movie goer; perhaps this is why the premise was so neutered and implausible? And everyone in the movie was beautiful (besides the alien). I'm not complaining, but it seems another indicator of the movie's effort to appeal to everyone and make a lot of money.

So is it worth seeing? Up to you. But I don't think I'll recommend it unless it is accompanied by a drinking game over premise imperfections. Every time you see a plot hole, drink!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Portlandia

by DionysusPsyche

Opening Statement
I grew up in Portland and later moved away. So upon finding out there was a show made to commemorate and incapulate my hometown, I was gung ho. To promote it, Fred Armison and Carrie Brownstein did an SNL skit/song and dance about Portland. This is the place where “the '90's are still alive,” and you can just “stick a bird on something and call it art.” Also, “Where young people go to retire.”

When I learned that Portlandia's first season (guest stars include Steve Buschemi, Aubrey Plaza, and Kyle McLachlin) was on Netflix, I queued it up for some hometown goodness. Like food, except more visual and less nutritional. It is a series of sketches strewn together with the theme being Rip City, although this reminds me of something equally kitchy, my improv class from community college back home.

Episodes
One: “Farm”
OMG, I know these people. I went to school here and learned about Organic Farming. The idea of knowing “how organic” a food item is and what that entails. To an every average Joe in any other place across the USA, organic is organic, but Portland is weird, and they plan on keeping it that way (even if that tagline started in Austin). Our way of eating is rather cult-like, and there are numerous vegetarians and vegans scattered throughout the urban sprawl. I do feel like the lesbian bookstore owners are misrepresented. Random weird fake sports teams are created here. This is where their womb is. The Hide-and-Seek team is real...I think.

Two: “A Song for Portland”
There are birds on everything in certain areas and a decent portion of pride is dedicated to our local craftsmen (there is a skit involving this that is pretty hilarious). Yeah, the mayor (hey everybody! It's Kyle McLachlin from Dune and Twin Peaks) is right, Portlanders are biased against Seattlites (the real mayor, Sam Adams, plays the mayor's assistant). Hipsters hate on non-hipsters who like/enjoy the same things they do. Non-hipsters don't care as much, but in the cycle, they inevitably become hipsters, which is just a byproduct of living there (which is only accurate a percentage of the time—usually they just move away or change political associations).

Hi, we'd like to sell you something--anything--with a bird on it. Or put a bird on it FOR you.

Three: “Aimee”
One of the details that makes the place I call home tick is the catch phrase “green.” There are many examples of this, recycling, emailing instead of using paper, and the #1 option—bicycling. You may know it as a sport, something Lance Armstrong does, and the observation that occasionally there are marathons or people in the park own these smaller, metal alternatives to vehicles. Portland takes biking to an extreme by making it a way of life. Angry bicyclist yelling at cars and pedestrians? It's one guy, and he's all over the place—the place being any lane and also all around town. He's also accompanied by the guy or gal yelling back at him (but not in a New York City kind of way—the subtle, windows rolled up type).

Oh right, and now for the plot of this episode! Bands from Portland can be seen around town, and a majority of city's inhabitants have more than one job. Aimee Mann is not from Portland, but she very well could be.

Assessment
It's Portland's wackiest and weirdest in their element doing what they do best or worst. The first episode was awesome, and the third was pretty great as well, but when the town shows its dark side—its most annoying and ridiculous—well, it hurts. I can't really compare it to anything, except potentially Curb Your Enthusiasm meets Parks & Recreation. P&R I like, CYE I don't. Topics relating to Portland I'd rather hear about are as follows: craft breweries, local coffee companies, my family.

Conclusion
It reminds me of everything (mostly around town hot spots and my friends/family) I miss and everything I will always loathe. I may be too close to the material to be truly objective. Watching the show felt the same way when you work at a book/movie store and slobs/monsters love the same things you love. You feel like a cretent and start an inner monologue about whether you are as cool as you thought you were and what the hell you are doing with your life.

I'd also like to make a statement to outsiders considering this a vacation spot in the Pacific Northwest to either visit or drive through.

  1. This is only a specific control group of Portland—our wildest and most eccentric that would guarantee the widest array of laughter and horror from audiences. We're not all like that and certaintly not all the time.
  2. It's rarely this sunny in the actual City of Roses. If you do want to visit us, please do some research on the best times to travel there. Sun and temperature never guaranteed, but mountains, hills, valleys, and the beach are still good places to go all within a short distance of each other.
At its best, it's entertaining. At it's worse, it's the guy on the bike who flips over a car and lands on the cement. I'll be giving it another shot in the future, but for now, I feel like I've had enough.

Recommendation
If you want to see a show with better plots, writers, and coherent non-sketch storylines but still a gorgeous town, consider Grimm and Leverage.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Grimm vs. Once Upon a Time

by DionysusPsyche

These two similar shows aired roughly around the same time. You might be saying to yourself at this very moment the same thing I did, "Which one should I choose to watch?" Thankfully for you, you don't have to choose either! They both revolve around the fairy tale/fantasy world, but each has a totally different approach. Maybe you'll like one or the other. Hopefully both.


Once Upon a Time is about a small town called StoryBrooke that is blanketed by a curse as explained to Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison). The curse has been implemented by an evil queen to restrict the once-storybook cast from making connections with each other thereby realizing their identity and breaking the curse. Okay, that's an exaggeration. I don't technically know the explanation of how to break it yet, but it's something to that effect.

I'm only including this trailer, because Grimm's trailer is the entire first episode


It's both romantic and mysterious. While every episode contains within it several life lessons to extract, the flashbacks are done in out of consecutive order so that the audience has to piece together parts of the puzzle. It provides many moral dilemmas, and it's hard to disagree with many if not all the choices that the benevolent characters make.

The episodes bounce back and forth between the past lives of our characters Snow White, Prince Charming, and Pinnochio, to name a few. One of the charms of the show is being introduced to new characters in the modern world and trying to recognize who they used to be (my spouse and I have fun betting over this). OUaT is for fans who liked 10th Kingdom, Lost (2/3 of the writers were co-producers/writers on Lost), or the comic book series Fables. My favorite characters so far are Rumplestiltskin who leaves the greatest room for intrigue and appeal (probably like Ben Linus).


Grimm is darker—a fantasy cop drama comparable to The Dresden Files, X-Files, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Cold Case. Nick Burkhardt (David Giuntoli) is the last living member in a family with a history of bad luck, the Grimms. Correct, like the Bros. Grimm. This family has a particularly unusual genetic talent for hunting monsters. Burkhardt meets up with a reformed monster (Munroe, played by Silas Weir Mitchell) who helps him with his good cop/bad cop routine. Coincidentally, Munroe is my favorite character-”I meditate now!” If you watched Buffy, he becomes the Giles to Burkhardt's Buffy (or when Spike is being kind instead of a piece of scum/love interest). With a recent uprise in television cop dramas, this adds a nuance and twist that others have been unable to bring forth.

If you're juggling multiple jobs/responsibilities, you can watch an episode at a time and not feel like you're missing much (so long as you're undivided during that one episode). They can be viewed individually, although you will probably want to continue watching them.

Since Grimm is filmed in Portland, OR, I'm partially addicted to this show out of pure adulation in seeing my hometown on mainstream television. The woods, the slight foreboding overcast skies, and the variety of buildings/locations pushes Grimm to look unique (unless you watch Portlandia, and then not so much).

The Best of Both Worlds


Once Upon a Time
  • Larger cast of characters
  • More plot and character development
  • Better story arcs and tie-ins
  • Best quotations
Grimm
  • Better location
  • More action per episode (you can't multi-task as easily if at all or you miss something)
  • Preferred, easily identifiable guest stars
  • Funniest one-liners
  • Cooler songs
Gripes and Groans
Once Upon a Time
I'll give the writers' the benefit of the doubt for now that they're going to reveal why the primary villian in Once Upon a Time is such an evil hemmroid. She's a bad communicator and a worse mother. Her plan to keep the citizens apart is by using the police and repeatedly warning the townsfolk to avoid each other. Also, her child runs the streets like a rabid dog (this is an analogy not a hint). Training classes? Locking him up? Admittedly, this is a piece of the show that has to happen—Henry has to escape, and she has to be an axe-wound. Hopefully this won't become an aggravating chirp and particule of abscess.

Grimm
Burkhardt's wife is Buffy's mom in the first few seasons. He could warn her without telling her the whole story. Also, I want him to stop making Munroe his undercover brother. I want to protect my favorite character!

Conclusion
Once Upon a Time has to be my favorite of the two, but just barely. Characters and plots peak my interest, however I am hooked to both and hope that audiences won't pick one and not the other, because they're both very well-done. They can be viewed on Hulu or their respective TV channels (ABC and NBC).

The Hunger Games



So here's something interesting that someone might gather from reading this blog. I tend to shy away from reading books that were published recently or are outrageously popular. The Hunger Games would fall into both categories; the book is so widely appreciated by the general public that you can already see trailers for the movie. Spontaneously I decided to try and shake off my contrarian nature. I resolved that I would see what it is that everyone is talking about.

Mockingbirds and Dystopias

Perhaps the most important thing to know about The Hunger Games is that it is a young adult novel (YA). This book was not intended for me. Thus, what follows here may justifiably be regarded as unfair of me. But you have to keep in mind that just because I no longer read YA novels anymore doesn't mean that I never did. The book that The Hunger Games has most in common with is Ender's Game, and I will be going back to that comparison throughout this review.

The premise of The Hunger Games is simple. After some sort of climactic and apocalyptic event, the United States is separated into 12 Districts and the Capitol. Each year, the Districts are forced to send a teenage boy and girl to the Capitol for a giant free-for-all deathmatch, with the lone winner earning special treatment, food, and resources for his District. Given that the majority of Districts scrape by, this provides incentive for the Districts to get into the competition while, at the same time, having to give up teens for the nasty endurance match keeps the Districts in fear and in line, subservient to the Capitol's power.

Spoilers this point onward.
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Holes in the Premise

First off, I found the premise to be inherently flawed. Can you imagine giving up your child without fuss to some emotionless bureaucracy that forces said child to fight for his or her life and probably die brutally to an audience of millions (as every District is required to watch)? I refuse to believe that there weren't revolts on the spot! We've all heard stories of how mothers can lift cars to save their children; humans can be irrationally defensive of their kids. Yet the premise fails to reflect that. Never once do we see or hear of mothers or fathers stepping forth to fight for their children, even if the effort is futile. And I found this rather unbelievable.

Also, the book never explains how such a system came to be and how it is accepted even by those who live in the Capitol. The Capitol folk are portrayed as slightly ignorant but not without heart, and it seems unlikely that these people would be totally cool with a system that viciously exploits 12 regions all in the name of more luxuries. And one can't claim that they are being kept in the dark as they get to see kids murder each other on an annual basis. You'd expect at least SOME empathy and outrage over the injustice of the system but, eerily, you never see it.

Questionable Depths

One of the things that Ender's Game and The Hunger Games have in common is the fact that both feature kids being forced into situations where they have to fight for their lives, adapt quickly, or face the consequences. The difference is in the seriousness. In Ender's Game, we witness the cruel treatment and isolation of Ender, who is forged into a weapon of war to save humanity from utter destruction. All the while, we are led to question whether the ends justify the means, the psychology of soldiers, whether morality comes before survival, and more.

By contrast, The Hunger Games seems to promise a similarly intense tale, but then spends the entire book coddling the protagonist. Katniss is cast as a hardened survivor of a girl, yet virtually gets handed the victory on a platter. She is made to look like the best of them all, she constantly receives gifts from her sponsors (and even gifts from other Districts). She is protected by the boy who transparently moons after her, her skills outstrip and are more useful than those of anyone else in the competition. Whenever she seems to get into actual trouble, she is saved by other sympathetic combatants who conveniently manage to get killed before she has to do them in; gray morality is conveniently and perpetually avoided. The setting, flawed as it is, permits interesting ethical, psychological, and philosophical questions and situations that are all avoided through total absence or convenient cop-outs.
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Conclusion

However, all of this is not to suggest that The Hunger Games is bad. I just went into it with high expectations given its popularity, compared it to other YA adults that I had enjoyed, and walked away slightly disappointed. But it was definitely readable, the writing flowed well (though the author like to avoid describing setting for some reason), and the action kept me rolling along. The characters, while sometimes predictable, grew on me. And there were a number of poignant moments scattered throughout that I very much look forward to seeing in the movie.

I enjoyed The Hunger Games and have hope for its sequels, but I don't think I quite understand why it is as popular as it is. All in all, it felt... skeletal. The premise, if fully fleshed out more, could have been spectacular. If more time were spent putting the main characters through some meaningful trials, it would've felt more genuine. I guess I'm just saddened by what could have been. Hopefully the sequels will overcome/answer my criticisms and give me that which I yearn for.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Far Cry 2


There are a few things you need to know about Far Cry 2 going into it. First off, this is nothing like the original. The first Far Cry was all about crash landing onto a tropical island covered with mercenaries and mad doctors who used the isolation to conduct Nazi-esque experiments. This resulted in a war with you, the mercenaries, and the genetically mutated monsters going at it in a picturesque Caribbean free-for-all culminating in an insane confrontation within a freaking volcano.

Far Cry 2 has absolutely nothing to do with that. Instead, whoever made this game decided that it would be a better idea to try and simulate a morally ambiguous, murky and modern African warzone. No mutants. No reference or commonality to the original in any way. At first, I found this baffling and an immense turn-off when it came to holding my interest. It was as if, wanting to rent the sequel to Sahara, I ended up with Blood Diamond.

But, after this initial sense of betrayal, I came back to Far Cry 2 years later, fully prepared to look at it as being its own animal, wanting to give it another shot.
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The Ambitious Experiment

I have to give Far Cry 2 props for trying to break the mold of what we come to expect from first person shooters. Unlike most, Far Cry 2 attempts to call attention and life to the African savannah, focusing particularly on how dark and despairing modern conflicts can get on that continent. Instead of aiming for just a straight mindless run-and-gun, this game attempts to dwell on the futility and hopelessness that tends to accompany the unending wars between tribes and clans in Africa. It seeks to highlight how, to locals, foreigners seem to swoop in just to benefit themselves and play one side against the other.

Your main objective is to find and kill The Jackal, an infamous mercenary who arrived at the conflict only to turn into an amoral monster. Echoing themes from Heart of Darkness and aping the story of Marlon Brando's Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now, Far Cry 2 proves to be quite ambitious; it is rather rare to see a video game try to make political and social points while simultaneously making references and nods to literature and film throughout.
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The Tragic Failure

But, sadly, Far Cry 2 fails to near the dizzying height for which it reaches. The Jackal, while intriguing, takes an eternity to reach and hear more of, lessening the impact. The factions warring with each other are virtually the same: unlikable, hostile, and having no empathetic qualities. The missions that you go on seem pointless, appear to have no lasting impact, and provide meaningless moral choices that have no ramifications. When all the characters feel the same, when your decisions as a player don't feel as if they amount to anything, and when you have to jump through endless hurdles for no purpose... the game's charms and aspirations fall apart very quickly.

The gameplay only contributes to this dissonance between dream and reality. Far Cry 2 attempts to add to the feel of African war by giving your character incurable malaria (to emphasize hopelessness), guns that rust and fall apart (to better simulate the nastiness of fighting in the middle of Africa), and enemy checkpoints that forever repopulate with hostiles (to reflect the feel that you can't permanently change anything). Although, theoretically, these design choices fit perfectly with the themes Far Cry 2 tries for, in practice they make for a tedious gameplay nightmare. You have to constantly stop what you are doing to retrieve more malaria medication. Having your weapons become very crappy very fast as you use them is really annoying. And having all your work be rendered pointless as every enemy respawns behind you is the opposite of fun.
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Conclusion

Though I do not recommend Far Cry 2 to anyone, I still have to say that I respect what the game designers tried to do. It is a brave move to try and create something that departs from the conventional mold. I only hope that this failure doesn't discourage others from trying new things themselves.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Debt


The Debt is what I would call a movie that manages to be quite good in spite of a glaring flaw. It is a fictional story about three retired Mossad (Israeli special forces) agents who, in the current day, are venerated and famous for their actions in bringing an infamous Nazi surgeon to justice. However, this is a framing device for a retelling of their finest hour; The Debt alternates between the present actions of the three in their old age and flashbacks of how they pursued and captured the Nazi surgeon in their youth. It manages to be a very effective way of holding the audience's attention and it certainly holds you spellbound to the screen throughout.

Sadly, I can't talk further about what I liked and disliked about the movie without veering into spoiler territory. So, if you plan on seeing this movie, I would simply advise at this point that it is definitely worth seeing if the premise interests you in the slightest. Then you can always come back and finish reading this review.
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The Sliding Scale of Altruism and Opportunism

The Debt has three primary characters. Each of them falls on drastically different points of optimism, cynicism, altruism, and opportunism.

David (Sam Worthington/Ciaran Hinds) is the quintessential good guy; he is quiet, true, and sticks to what he believes in. This can take the form of naivete, and there are a number of points in the movie where he does foolish things in the name of following his own moral compass. I highlight the positive and negative points here to illustrate that, while likable and aspirational, David is not perfect and is not necessarily the best person to follow. He jeopardizes the agents' entire mission because he perceives one of his comrades to be in danger. But, on the flip side, he spends much of his life after the mission trying to atone for what he has done instead of living a lie. If we were to put him on the scale, he would be on the far left and in the deep end of compassion, selflessness, naivete, and good.


Stefan (Marton Csokas/Tom Wilkinson) is David's polar opposite, a fact that has them at odds with each other for the much of the movie. Stefan is the leader of the crew in their mission, which is the perfect role for him. He is opportunistic, realistic, ambitious, and single-minded. He lives in the moment and bases his decisions on what benefits him, with only passing consideration to how this affects others. Given that what benefits him is a successful mission, this contributes to being an effective leader, though this does not work precisely as we expect. He is the instigator of their plan to cover up what actually happened to the Nazi war criminal, and it is the epitome of ass-covering moves. Yet he is not completely irredeemable and we see that, in old age, he has some amount of bond and sympathy for his fellow agents, as well as a melancholy distant attachment to the daughter who can never know that he is her father. Stefan would be on the far right of the scale and in the deep end of selfishness, drive, and cynicism.


But the real center of attention is the main character, Rachel (Jessica Chastain/Helen Mirren) who spends the entire movie flip-flopping between the two extremes. She is, in essence, a blank slate upon which David and Stefan try to, in their own way, write their philosophies. And she is attracted to both, as can be evidenced by her marriage with Stefan yet constant yearning for David. The entirety of the story balances upon the knife that is her choice to go with one or the other, a choice that is forced by their decision to hide what actually happened on their mission long ago. With this, she has to decide to either hide the truth and live her life on a comfortable bedrock of lies (Stefan's choice) or try to confront what actually happened and redeem herself (David's quest).

I found this juxtaposition between characters and the tension between them to be the crux of what made The Debt enthralling to watch. Such a complex character dynamic isn't what you'd expect within a spy thriller, and this put it above the mold for me.
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The Endless Stream of Idiocy

But, on the flip side, The Debt is tainted by one enormous glaring flaw. In real life, Israel's special forces, the Mossad, are perhaps the most dangerously effective and capable military group that the world has ever seen. They ascribe to Israel's defensive philosophy that, in order to survive in a world that wants to exterminate you, you must be the best of the best. Failure is not an option. Consequently, Mossad agents train endlessly and are passionate believers in dedicating themselves utterly to Israel and the mission, making them incredibly deadly and skilled.

So why are the Mossad agents in this movie so damned incompetent?

The Debt is full of moments where you wonder if the main characters have ever watched a spy movie in their lives. Their actions are an unending litany of idiocy that the audience, who aren't spies trained by the best of the best, want to shake the screen and yell at the characters to get their shit in gear. The examples are countless, but here are a few of them.

  • Rachel not only fails to properly drug the Nazi surgeon, but administers the shot in a face-to-face confrontation when it would have been far easier to stick him when he was unaware.
  • David bungles the entire freaking mission by starting a full-blown firefight in the train station instead of trusting in Rachel's ability to get out of a situation that didn't even look that dangerous.
  • The entire team idiotically allows the Nazi surgeon to talk with them and psychologically drive them slowly out of their minds when allowing your prisoner such power is a painfully stupid thing to do. Which, of course, in the end allows the prisoner to escape.
  • In the final confrontation between Rachel and the Nazi surgeon (years later), Rachel, instead of using her unarmed combat experience to take him down in seconds, inexplicably decides to walk right next to him and allow him the opportunity to stab her repeatedly. For the record, she essentially gets her ass kicked and nearly killed by a 90+ year old man who looks like he's about to have a heart attack throughout the entire confrontation.

And more. If The Debt were a conventional spy thriller without the saving grace of an intense and complicated character dynamic, it would be one of the stupidest movies of the genre I've ever seen. It honestly made me feel bad for the actual Mossad agents out there who watched this and probably spent the entire time trying not to wince or shoot the screen in frustration.
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Conclusion

But is that flaw enough for me to suggest avoiding the movie entirely? Not so much. Because the crucial focus of the film is on the characters and Rachel's own growth, the incompetence of the agents is merely a mildly irritating sideshow. And perhaps I don't give it enough credit; I've never been a secret agent behind enemy lines with a hostile captive. Perhaps in such a stressful situation, some harrowing of the nerves and stupid decisions become far more regular and expected.

But, rationally, I kind of doubt it.

Regardless, I do recommend The Debt. It is very much worth seeing, and all the characters are acted brilliantly. I wouldn't be surprised to see this movie featured prominently at the Oscars. I'd just be curious to hear if others thought the same thing of it that I did.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Shape of Things


This is a movie so bizarre that I had to watch it twice. On the surface, it looks like just another romantic comedy. What The Shape of Things truly contains, however, is one of the most insane, painful, and intense twists I've ever seen in a movie. It is so overwhelming that I just can't write a review about it without the twist and the reveal of it being part of my writing. Consequently, if this sounds at all intriguing to you, stop reading this review right now and go watch it. You'll likely be as floored as I was and I also went into it ahead of time knowing there was some sort of twist. But nothing like this.

Spoilers from this point onward.
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Seeing Both Sides - Adam
If you feel it, it's not stupid.”

When I watched this the first time, I was crushed. It seemed like there was nothing more hateful or sadistic someone could do than enter into a relationship and have the whole thing be a sham, a falsehood designed specifically to, what, ace a goddamn senior thesis? Everyone puts their all into their relationships, particularly their romantic ones. To be so used and manipulated seemed the ultimate travesty and the worst possible thing you could do to someone.

Consequently, my sympathy lied with Adam. Sure, he made mistakes along the way, but he, at Evelyn's pulling of the strings, twists himself into something he would not have normally, all in the name of love. Though he hints at other encounters/relationships with women, it is painfully aware that this is Adam's first intense and serious relationship. He is nauseatingly awkward and so earnest as to make you want to slap him in the face. But he goes into it with the utmost determination to make it work, no matter the odds.

With that sort of resolve, it was incredibly awful to watch as Evelyn, at the end, reveals that all of it was a sham and a mockery of everything he put into the relationship. This is a man whose social life crumbled and who was forced to lay aside his friends in order to stay with Evelyn. When he curses at Evelyn for everything that she has done, you can't help but put yourself behind every vicious profanity.
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Seeing Both Sides – Evelyn
Don't worry about 'why' when 'what' is right in front of you.”

Watching it the second time provided a more mixed conclusion. It is interesting to watch that, in her own way, Evelyn hints at what is going on the entire time. Cleverly hidden in her dialogue are blatant and direct statements of what she is doing to him and what she plans to do. It is hard to gauge how fair this is, however. How could Adam possibly guess or gather that she's faking a relationship with him in order to prove a point to society? Doesn't that make her sadistic? Emotionally toying with the uncomprehending Adam? However, as a consequence, Adam can't claim precisely that she never said what she was all about. With the benefit of hindsight, one can see that she was honest with him. The tragedy is that he never gathered what was going on until it was too late.

It is clear that the director's sympathy is with Evelyn. She is the only character with any true complexity. Her philosophy permeates the movie and her personal bone to pick with the world is in the very title of the movie. And the scary part is that she's right. We, as a culture, are perpetually absorbed with how people appear to be and how they portray themselves. We may wonder endlessly about who somebody is truly, deep inside, but the truth is that we are inculcated to be interested only in what we expect to see.

Another facet of Evelyn's (and, by extension, the director's) point is that those people who most closely provide a reflection of what society wants to see are those who are in the best position to take advantage of it, and they often do. This is evidenced in how Adam, who is the epitome of “good” at the beginning, becomes more willing to make morally ambiguous decisions when Evelyn coerces him into looking more attractive. While it is never proven, it is heavily implied that Adam cheated on Evelyn with his best friend's fiancee, something that would likely have never happened with the Adam we see at the beginning of the film. The Shape of Things provides an unusual twist to the old adage that power corrupts; with the power of surface appeal, Adam gives in to the temptation to use it, even to the detriment of what, to him, is a perfectly great relationship.
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Seeing All Sides – Phillip
I just hope the next time we pass each other, I recognize who the hell you are.”

One easy thing to miss is that Adam's best friend, Phillip, is perhaps the greatest example of this message that the director is trying to bring across. Though his first few scenes cast him as an incredibly annoying and shallow asshole, he strangely becomes the most sympathetic character of them all by the end of the movie. The truth is that, more than anyone else, Phillip recognizes that Adam is warping and changing himself in unusual ways for Evelyn when really he should just be himself and be true to that. Phillip's method of confronting Adam is often abrasive and confrontational, but it is loyal and honest. And Phillip never stops trying to reach him, even when Adam lies to his face repeatedly for much of the second half of the movie.

This makes Phillip incredibly admirable and helps to illustrate that, despite his surface appearance of the uncaring asshole jock, Phillip is, on the inside, not a bad guy at all. What's funny is that this didn't hit me until the second time I watched the movie; the first time I dismissed him as an annoying prick and left it at that. Do you see what happened there? I fell for it. The “shape of things” or “surface of things” was that Phillip was an asshole and so I automatically turned off any effort to look beyond that. That very action and instinct is precisely what Evelyn opposes. The culture of superficial judgment.
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Conclusion
He is now a living example of people's obsession with the surface of things.”

The Shape of Things... I still am not sure what the hell kind of movie this is. It sure isn't a romantic comedy, but neither does it feel like a drama. It is highly unique, incredibly poignant while simultaneously repugnant. It makes you wince with how awkward it can be and yet keep you completely glued to your seat, watching in rapt attention and disbelief. Rachel Weisz pulls off the most quirky, bizarre, and “off” girl I've ever seen. Paul Rudd creates the most awkward yet genuine guy ever. And the supporting cast easily holds their own without getting overshadowed.

The Shape of Things is a movie that makes you think and ascribes to a very powerful message that we don't hear often enough. I highly recommend this to anyone who can stomach wrenching emotional disturbance in the name of learning something true about yourself and the society around you.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Name of the Wind

Written by Joe the Revelator






This 800+ page behemoth is the first in a new series by Patrick Rothfuss. It's imaginative, it's quirky, and it nearly gave me fits. It's taken about a month to recover after reading Name of the Wind. Before now, anytime I tried to explain the premise to anyone I found myself focusing on the minutia- rambling about the psychology of the characters, the mad reasoning, the many details...

I think the easiest way to explain this book would be to describe the main character as such: an INTJ playing at fantasy hero. (INTJ, as in the Jungian archetype designation) Or another way to put it: being inside the mind of a mad scientist who fancies himself a mage.


What's in a name?

The story is set up like a Tolkien novel met Arabian Nights in a bar. A curious scribe learns the true identity of a humble bartender, Kvothe the king-killer, and demands his life story. After some cajoling Kvothe obliges, and thus ensues the first installment, which covers his birth to his mid teens. This may sound like a boring setup but it's handled masterfully, and the author demonstrates why this story-within-a-story format worked for so long.

Most of Kvothe's childhood is spent explaining to the reader how the world in Name of the Wind is built; its hierarchy, its history and lore, and the way magic works. Kvothe is a remarkably bright child, having been raised in a wandering actor's troupe. He can memorize complex subjects with the speed of a savant. Math, literature, history, chemistry, magic...people with photographic memories would be jealous of this kid. It's reminiscent of the brilliant children from Orson Scott Card's books.

But brilliant doesn't always mean lucky, and a series of cruel and unfortunate incidences leaves him orphaned and beggared. Kvothe's struggle for survival in the slums is fierce and brutal, and the extremes he's willing to go to are astonishing. For example: dousing a bully with liquor and dropping a lit match on him.

Ultimately Kvothe's efforts take him to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, or the equivalent thereof in the world of Patrick Rothfuss. Kvothe enrolls to learn the secrets of magic, and eventually the identity of his parent's murderers, and in the meantime manages to make several enemies.



The Name of the Chump

My issue, and what I imagine is the burr that rubs other readers sore, is Kvothe's choice in women. The female protagonist, and the love interest whom Kvothe pines over endlessly, is a harlot.

Call a jack a jack, a spade a spade, and a prostitute a lady. This was the advice Kvothe's father gave him near the beginning of the book. I thought it was an interesting piece of advice, but I had no idea it would be foreshadowing for later. Kvothe's girl shows up with a different man every scene she's in, sometimes with the sole purpose of making Kvothe jealous.

Yet the main character still brings her gifts, takes her on dates, saves her from peril... With the reasoning that, although she's with other men, spending time around her is still better than nothing at all. Never have I read a fantasy adventure which the hero spends the entirety of the book caught in the "Friend Zone". He literally saves her from poison and rescues a village from a firebreathing dragon, and in the next scene she introduces Kvothe to her potential fiance'.


I can handle it...

If the sequel, Wise Man's Fear- now in hardback, doesn't include a set of balls for Kvothe, I'm going to burn my copy of Name of the Wind and eat the ashes. Maybe then I'll regain some of the dignity this book sapped out of me.

Despite my grievances I would still recommend this book to anyone interested in fantasy. Patrick Rothfuss is a great writer and his world-building is powerful and compelling. I believe he could potentially become as prolific to the genre as George R.R. Martin is now. But on a personal note, I hope he stays stuck in the "Friend Zone" until he's in a retirement home, where they won't allow him to keep the skeleton of his dead mother.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Terra Nova

Written by Joe the Revelator



A new show has cropped up about the end of the world; Our depleted, overpopulated, husk of a world, as it dries up like an old raisin. And like many works of fiction the answer isn't to fix our world, it's to send colonists to new, ripe worlds. Except for this go-around it's a quest to colonize Earth yet again. A do-over. Back in time. With dinosaurs.

A quick note about the end of the dinosaurs, even though the show's era is Triassic (single-continent world), about 200 million years ago, and not hardly the end. Many evolutionary scientists agree that the death of dinosaurs was a good thing, as it allowed mammals, like us, to thrive and take over the world. With dinosaurs for natural predators, we wouldn't be here. So unless the plan is to find a natural equilibrium between carnivorous lizards and homo-sapiens, one death by T-Rex for every two human births, I'd imagine sending a colony to live with dinosaurs would be the last thing the government would ever want to do.

So future dying Earth starts a lottery, which selects an inordinate amount of attractive people, so they can be sent to populate the giant food bowl known as Terra Nova. They are joined by engineers, military personnel, scientists, and a ton of red-shirts.


Spaghetti Western + Dinosaurs

The truth of Terra Nova, thus far in the first season, is that the dinosaurs are incidental to the story. You could replace them with landsharks, vampire bats, or sandworms, and the show would be the same. Terra Nova is a frontier town, struggling with issues of frontier justice, infighting, and hands-on-your-gun politics. The dinosaur attacks are brief and analogous to any other natural disaster, which keeps the plot interesting and character driven. Timmy didn't fall down a well, he got treed by a raptor.

The colony is led by Commander Taylor, played by Stephen Lang. If you've seen the movie Avatar you'll know him as the cookie-cutter marine hardass. He seems to have gotten lost on his way back from Pandora, and stumbled into the old CGI folders from Jurassic Park. As an actor he's solid and keeps the show moving, not quite stealing every scene, so much as bludgeoning it and using it to wipe off his combat boots.



The Young and the Useless

I have to wonder if young men (14-22) will find this show vaguely insulting. If you're paying attention, all the male characters who aren't grizzled veterans or hardened cops with families are portrayed as useless twits. I'm not saying this isn't accurate to life. But it's been ten episodes and hardly one has gone by without an adolescent male being knocked out, beaten, or banished from the colony for his stupidity.

Would I recommend this show? Yes, but only with the warning that it's a middle-step between Jurassic Park and Land of the Lost. At this point Terra Nova has that 'new show' smell, but it's teetering on the edge of using time travel to explain plot holes. I'm afraid that soon the viewers will be inundated with time paradoxes and dimensional portals, and mysteries so deep it'll keep the suckers watching for six seasons (I'm look at you, Lost.) But if you get on board now, you'll have a basic grasp when the plot gets so twisted around it feels like a T-Rex ate a physics lab and shat it on your television.

Monday, November 28, 2011

A Shout-Out to Other Blogs


I wanted to create a post on this blog where I can link and call attention to the blogs of others. Be they my friends, family, or simply blogs that I enjoy a lot, I like the idea of being able to share their amazing qualities with others out there.

I expect I'll come back to this post in the future to edit and add blogs, but for now I only have one I want to call attention to:

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http://classymodernista.wordpress.com/

Maintained by a close friend of mine, this blog is a collection of her musings on life and all of its myriad ways. Just recently she talked about the webcomic "xkcd", a specific comic from it, and how thought-provoking it was. I look forward to reading further posts from her in the future!

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To those others who write on this blog, feel free to let me know if you think there are some others who deserve attention and praise.

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Tomb

Written by Joe the Revelator



Supernatural detective novels have become a fad of late. Some are marketed as thrillers or horror, or fall into the ever-expanding sub genre "paranormal", right next to vampires and little gray aliens.

For being a supernatural, paranormal, detective thriller...thing, The Tomb does a wonderful job of downplaying the supernatural aspect. In fact, the author, F. Paul Wilson, drops tidbits of clues and glimpses into the eerie weirdness of the case with subtlety, as not to distract from the plot. The effect is impressive.


Repairman Jack

Calling Jack a private investigator wouldn't do him justice. Nor would hitman, bodyguard, or con-artist be accurate. Jack is a repairman, in the sense that he repairs sticky situations for a substantial fee.

Lose a precious family heirloom? Jack can get it back. Been cheated out of your wages by a deadbeat boss? Jack can trick him into paying it off, and then some. Looking for vengeance against a mugger who assaulted your aging grandmother? Well, Jack isn't afraid to get his hands dirty. If the price is right and the job fits his strict moral code, Jack will "fix" just about anyone.

Jack's only real issue, aside from his addiction to shopping for Victorian furniture and movie memorabilia, lies in his off-the-job relationships. Jack's had a hard breakup recently. His fiance' happened to be dusting his apartment when she stumbled across his hidden cache' of guns and knives, and various other tools of his trade. Convincing her to take him back proves to be as tough as any case he's worked yet.



A one-armed Indian walks into a bar...

In walks an Indian, an enigma of a man and emphatically traditionalist, who demands that Jack locate a stolen necklace. Jack accepts the job, in part because of the envelope of money thrown his way. In turn he quickly becomes drawn into a series of mysterious disappearances which seem to be perpetrated by nightmarish creatures with glowing yellow eyes. Ever the pragmatist, Jack refuses to believe in the night-stalking bogymen. That is until they begin to hunt his loved ones.

One of my favorite things about The Tomb is the author's realistic approach to Jack's life as a repairman. He goes into detail about the necessity of living "off the grid", as well as maintaining multiple phone numbers, dummy accounts, and a network of contacts. When Jack picks a lock to sneak into an apartment, it's not a simple *click*. He muses about the difficulty of different lock types, and the time it takes to bypass brand-name mechanisms. He goes into detail about cases he's solved, and the oddities of street life.


He's one call away.

I would recommend The Tomb to almost anyone, not just mystery enthusiasts. The writing style is accessible, full of pulp, and the characters are original. Jack's violent outbursts feel justified, especially in light of the criminals he's pursuing, and are balanced by his wit and mirth.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.


Some years ago I was introduced to the biographer, Ron Chernow, through his book on Alexander Hamilton. Surprisingly eloquent and able to articulate simply the most complicated financial issues facing a young America and that Secretary of Treasury, I was impressed enough by his writing and explanatory power to consider reading another of his biographies. Faced with a biography of George Washington, the House of Morgan (the rich Morgan bankers of the late 1800s), or John D. Rockefeller Sr., I decided to venture beyond my comfort zone.

The easy choice was Washington. As one of the few remaining founding fathers of whom I've yet to read a biography, Washington would have served that purpose nicely and easily for the political history buff that I am. But yet Rockefeller was who I settled on. Feeling it would be more personal than a biography on an entire family like the Morgan tome, I decided that Rockefeller would be my choice for the first business biography I've ever read. And even though I was out of my comfort zone in the arena of business dealings and the never-ending quest for profit, I managed to find the Rockefeller story an incredibly compelling one.
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The Ramifications of Rockefeller

I'm not going to summarize Rockefeller's life. It was long, impressive, and involved a great number of crazy events, but you can read the book for that. Instead, I'm going to talk about what I drew from the man's career, experiences, and wealth that constantly grew for as long as he was alive.

Rockefeller was a man who was near obsessive-compulsive in the pursuit of perfection. This expressed itself in his personal life, but perhaps most clearly in the business realm which he dominated. From a lowly bookkeeper, Rockefeller ventured into the oil industry, carefully overwhelmed and co-opted rivals, took over railroads so as to lower the rates they wielded against him, and eventually became one of the richest men alive at the helm of a United States oil monopoly that was competitive and powerful at a worldwide level.

The problem was that, in the innocent aims of running a business to the best of his ability, Rockefeller inadvertently annihilated competitors, crushed the hopes of small business owners of many different products, and challenged American conceptions of capitalism. Through Rockefeller and the business trusts (conglomerate monopolies) of the time, we see how the chaotic nature and ups and downs of a free market economy actually resulted, not in healthy competition, but in vast alliances of business owners who sought to bring order to the system, even at the cost of any new entrants to the field.
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The Sympathetic

Rockefeller, through the enormous trust he created in the Standard Oil Company, merely wanted to be the best at what he did. He was devoutly religious, held himself to a humble and Protestant lifestyle, and treated his employees and rivals with the utmost respect. He largely pursued his business goals in the interest of being successful within what American laws allowed. He viewed himself as a crusader seeking to bring a profitable order to the oil side of the market economy and more, benefiting everyone. He even became one of the biggest philanthropists of all time, giving away hundreds of millions of dollars to charities of all sorts across the world, making sure the whole time to avoid having his name attached to the givings, not wanting anyone to mistakenly believe that he gave to charity just to make himself look good.

But Ron Chernow also makes absolutely clear that Rockefeller seemed to be very good at not considering the social and political consequences of his actions. Every time, Rockefeller seemed honestly surprised when merchants and small business owners repeatedly tried to combine forces, just to have a chance at competition. Every time, Rockefeller felt put upon and unfairly mistreated when brought to court for deliberately seeking to undermine and overwhelm competitors of any kind. It is arguable that he never ever realized before his death how antithetical trusts and monopolies are to the United States and its economic system.
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The Ugly

Tainting the reputation of this man further and removing him from the list of businessmen to aspire to was the fact that, for someone holding himself as a proper, moral, godly and giving man, perhaps Rockefeller's greatest talent was lying to himself about the nastiness and dubious legality of much that he had done to secure his incalculable wealth. Corporate espionage, price wars, efforts to cripple competitors by buying all of their tools before they could, monopolizing transportation so that competitors couldn't transport their goods anywhere, buying land so nobody else could use it but him... Rockefeller's rise with Standard Oil reads almost as a litany of dick moves for businessmen.

On top of that, Rockefeller was king of courtroom evasion, keeping everything a secret, and reading laws "creatively" so as to keep the trust going as long as possible, defying for a long time the will of the United States government and the will of the people from taking effect. Whenever I found myself sympathizing with Rockefeller, all I had to do was remind myself of these things and realize that, for all his personal desires and view of himself, Rockefeller was kind of an asshole.
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They really had a thing for octopus motifs back then

Conclusion

And yet I sympathized with him nonetheless. Maybe it was the perception of the biographer running off on me, but I genuinely got the impression that Rockefeller believed more than anything in the world that everyone was against him simply because they wanted part of the pie. Any criticism he viewed as simply the reaction of greed, and jealousy that Rockefeller had achieved hard-earned success in a world where success of this magnitude is rare. To an extent, this had some validity. But it was an entirely self-centered view that seemed perpetually unable to understand the actual social ramifications of what he did, both with his monopolizing tendencies and unsavory business practices.