Star Wars' 40th Anniversary

May 25th, 2017

Star Wars is 40 years old today. The special edition came out in January 1997, just over 20 years ago. So the special edition is now older than the original was the the special edition was released. Greedo shooting first and Han stepping on Jabba’s tail have been with us for the majority of Star Wars’ history.

Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford in _Star Wars_

Appallingly, there is still no convenient, accessible way for modern audiences to watch the original version of the film. As nerds and fantasy fans around the world celebrate the anniversary of one of cinema’s most important franchises, most of them won’t even be able to do so by watching the movie that came out on that day.

Mayim Bialik on science and religion

May 9th, 2017

Actor and neuroscientist Mayim Bialik recently recorded a video in which she defends her religious beliefs and their apparent inconsistency with her work as a scientist:

It sounds like Ms. Bialik thinks atheists don’t “have a tremendious sense of gratitude and humility for our place in the natural and scientific world.” She asks, “Do you ever get that feeling like ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe we exist’?” I do, and it instills in me a profoundly humbling sense of awe. But of course it would be wrong to think that’s evidence for the divine. In fact that’s such a common error that there is a specific name for it.

She goes on to name all of the ways she benefits from her religious beliefs (among others, she’s “inspired by the notion of a responsibility to a universe that is governed by something bigger than me”), and of course that’s a personal value judgment that is completely valid and which no one can discount. But that has nothing to do with the scientific question of whether those beliefs are true, so in that sense, I think she fails to reconcile her belief in religion with her practice as a scientist. Yes, religion and science are compatible “in the trivial sense that both attitudes can be simultaneously embraced by a single human mind.” That’s a testament to the power of compartmentalization, and has little to do with the ability of religion’s emprical claims to withstand scientific scrutiny.

A new low in obnoxious Internet advertising

March 23rd, 2017

Yesterday I was reading Dispatches from the Culture Wars, one of my favorite blogs, when I encountered a strange error. The page appeared to load fine initially, but after only a second or two was replaced with a “page cannot load” error message:

Patheos

The site had obviously already loaded (and its title was still displayed in the browser tab), so what exactly was the source of the connectivity problem? My suspicions were heightened by the error message itself, which (a) didn’t look like any Chrome error message I’d seen before, and (b) conspicuously focused on ad blockers as a potential source of the problem.

For context, Patheos (“the premier online destination to engage in the global dialogue about religion and spirituality,” according to their about page), the site which hosts Dispatches, is one of the worst offenders when it comes to obnoxious Internet advertisements, so I’ve always used an ad blocker when browsing it. In fact, Patheos is the main reason I bothered to install an ad blocker in the first place. It’s similarly the main reason I switched from Chrome to Firefox as my mobile browser, as the Android version of Chrome does not support extensions like ad blockers.

So I did a little digging and confirmed what I suspected—that error message is fake. Patheos is using JavaScript to replace the entire web page with an <iframe> containing the message, hosted on an external domain. I presume it includes a check for the use of an ad blocker, though the code is obfuscated and I didn’t look closely enough to determine how that works. I simply disabled JavaScript for patheos.com in my browser and all was well again. The main downside is that Patheos uses Disqus for its comment system, and Disqus relies on JavaScript. So I won’t be able to see comments on any posts. Some might argue that’s a good thing.

I’m sympathetic to the argument that advertising pays the bills, and that bloggers like Dispatches’ Ed Brayton rely on ad revenue to keep the lights on. In fact, I paid for an ad-free subscription to Freethought Blogs back when Dispatches was hosted there. But I have no patience for intrusive ads, and those on Patheos are among the most intrusive I’ve ever encountered from a “legit” site. They hijack your browser, take up bandwidth, automatically play video & audio, and generally make browsing the site an unpleasant experience. This fake “page cannot load” message represents a new low, flat-out lying to users in an attempt to manipulate them into disabling ad blockers altogether, and yet is completely in line with the contempt Patheos already shows to its users.

It’s sad how integral advertising has become to everyday internet browsing, and how many otherwise useful sites become virtually unusable due to obnoxious advertisements.

Jordan Peele’s Get Out

March 16th, 2017

I watched Jordan Peele’s sleeper hit Get Out last night, and I really enjoyed it. The central character is Chris, played by Daniel Kaluuya, a young black man anxious about meeting his white girlfriend’s parents for the first time. They spend the weekend at her parents’ rural home, and while the parents at first seem good-natured but awkward, Chris comes to suspect that things are not as tranquil as they seem.

The movie’s genre is a mixture of comedy and horror, which seems odd at first but turns out to serve the film well (think Scream or The Cabin in the Woods), with the lighter parts being laugh-out-loud funny (especially Lil Rel Howery as Chris’s best friend, a bumbling TSA agent, which sounds dumb now that I type it out but actually works really well) without watering down the genuine horror. There are creepy, unsettling moments, and the plot that unfolds is deeply disturbing.

Daniel Kaluuya as Chris Washington

I had a few minor reservations about the film. One of the film’s central mysteries is in the strange, Stepford Wives-esque behavior of certain characters throughout the first half. The audience expects that the explanation for their peculiar manners will be revealed, and there is a big reveal in the film’s climax, but it doesn’t really seem to fully explain the events from earlier in the film.

I was also slightly put off by the seeming lack of connection between Get Out’s important racial elements and its suspense/thriller plotline. At one point late in the movie, the protaganists flat-out asks one of the villains why they target black people. The response was basically “who knows?” and a shrug. Maybe that was the point—that so much of racism today is not overt and explicit, but subconsious and incidental—but I think the film’s critique of racial bias would have been that much more effective had it been more organically integrated into the main plot.

I think the film would have benefitted from sticking with the original ending, which would not have directly addressed this concern but would at least have underscored the racism angle and drove the point home that much more strongly.

If I’m focusing on the film’s negatives, that’s because so much has already been writing about how great it is (it currently holds a 99% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes). I completely agree with all of it. Get Out is worth seeing, and I recommend doing so.

Best Picture Showcase 2017, Day Two

February 26th, 2017

Yesterday was day two of the Best Picture Showcase, and featured back-to-back screenings of the remaining five Oscar-nominated films: Moonlight, Lion, Hacksaw Ridge, Arrival, and Hidden Figures. (I previously reviewed the first four films.)

Moonlight follows a young man living in a poor neighborhood in Miami though three vignettes occurring at different stages of his life. I understand this is probably the next-most-likely victor after La La Land, and I understand why. It was an interesting character study with strong performances.

Lion stars Dev Patel as a young Indian man who was adopted by an Australian couple as a young child following the failure of all attempts to track down his family after he becomes separated from them. 25 years later, he uses modern technology to try locating them again. It’s based on a true story, and while I don’t know how faithful it is to the actual events, the ending credits feature photos and footage of the real people portrayed and I was struck by how similar the actors portraying them looked.

I am very sentimental and I found Lion’s story to be very emotionally affecting; I was in tears at the end of it. I thought there were a few strange editing choices, and some character’s motivations were hard to scrutinize in a few scenes, but it was still very good overall. Incidentally, it reminded me a great deal of Pixar’s Finding Dory, also released last year, and which also had me bawling.

Hacksaw Ridge is Mel Gibson’s war movie about a conscientious objector during World War II who saves the lives of many fellow soldiers despite his personal refusal to carry a weapon. In many ways, it was a quintessential Mel Gibson movie: jingoistic, brutally violent, and featuring a deeply religious main character. While the violence was extremely graphic, I did not think it was gratuitous; it was in service of a point about the brutality of war. However, I did feel the movie had other flaws: I usually don’t have a good ear for detecting phony accents, but Hugo Weaving’s American accent was completely distracting every time he appeared onscreen. The dialogue was ridiculously hokey, though that’s most apparent during the beginning of the film; it actually turns around a bit once Vince Vaughn appears as an over-the-top drill sergeant, a genuinely funny character. Probably my biggest criticism is the cartoonishly simple and stereotypical portrayal of the Japanese soldiers. I suppose on some level I should expect that from an American film about World War II, but I would also expect an Oscar-caliber film to have more nuance and thoughtfulness.

Arrival was the movie I was most looking forward to, and it did not disappoint. It’s a science fiction film about a linguist recruited to help in communicating with an alien race following the arrival on Earth of several extraterrestrial crafts. It’s based on the Ted Chiang short story “Story of Your Life,” which I actually read last year in anticipation of the then-upcoming film adaptation. While the story is nominally about alien contact, there’s a much deeper personal story about the linguist, played in the film by Amy Adams, which I dare not say anything about lest I spoil the joy in allowing viewers to discovery it on their own. I’ll note only that, after reading the short story, I was skeptical that it could be faithfully adapted for film, and I am in awe of how effectively the makers of this film did so. Even the elements that were changed for the film, such as the increased focus on international tension, were done in service of the story and did not feel artificial or forced. Arrival is captivating, complex, and rewarding. I suspect it also holds up to multiple viewings—having read the short story, I picked up on various elements of the film’s story that would have come across differently to a viewer without that foreknowledge. While I don’t expect it to actually win the Best Picture Oscar, Arrival is my personal pick for the best film of 2016.

Finally, Hidden Figures is the story of the black women who worked at NASA as mathematicians, playing crucial roles in several critical missions during the Cold War space race, a time when people of color were highly marginalized. It was a good movie about an important subject, but I couldn’t help but feel it was a shallow, sanitized “Hollywood” version of events. There’s an early line of dialogue which references the year in a very self-conscious way, and another scene in which one of the women blows up at her boss over her treatment. She’s completely in the right, of course, but it’s hard to imagine such a scene playing out that way in real life at the time—it seems more like a moment contrived to elicit cheers from modern viewers. Maybe I’m wrong—as with Lion, I don’t have a good idea of how accurately this film portrays the real events—but it doesn’t feel genuine to me. Again, it’s a good, enjoyable film, but I see little in it that raises it to the level I would expect of a real Best Picture contender.

On the whole, 2016 was a good year for films. Even if I thought some of the nominees were not quite worthy of the honor, I enjoyed all nine of them.

Best Picture Showcase 2017, Day One

February 26th, 2017

The Oscars are this weekend, which means that AMC Theatres is holding its annual Best Picture Showcase, a two-day marathon of the contenders for the top honor. Day one was last Saturday and included screenings of Manchester by the Sea, Fences, Hell or High Water, and La La Land. I’d seen none of them before, and enjoyed all four.

Manchester by the Sea tells the story of a man’s strained relationship with his nephew, whom he is placed in charge of after the death of his brother. Casey Affleck plays the main character in a performance that is itself Oscar-nominated, but I was unaware of the praise it had garnered and thought he was a bit stilted. Nevertheless, the movie was poignant and charming, and the revelation of the Affleck character’s background was moving and effective. I enjoyed the film.

Fences, starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, is about a black garbageman in mid-20th century, and the pain he causes his family. Washington is a great actor, of course, but Davis completely stole the show with a powerful performance as his wife, one which I hope earns her the Best Actress Oscar Sunday night. The movie as a whole was pretty good, but extremely dialogue heavy and tended to drag in parts, particularly at the beginning. I enjoyed it but thought it could have benefited from some judicious editing.

The biggest surprise of the day was Hell or High Water, which I knew nothing about beforehand. It’s about two bank-robbing brothers in rural Texas, and the Texas ranger who’s after them. The case was uniformly excellent, but Jeff Bridges was the highlight as the ranger (another Oscar-nominated performance). The characters were well-written and relatable, and while the climax was a bit intense, the movie was surprisingly funny overall.

Finally, La La Land is the apparent frontrunner to win Best Picture. It’s a musical about a down-on-his-luck jazz musician and an aspiring actress who fall in love, and it very consciously evokes the classic Hollywood musicals. It was very fun, and I particularly enjoyed one important scene which prominently featured the ’80s classics “Take On Me” and “I Ran.” I’ll be vague so as to avoid spoiling it, but the ending was unexpected, and will probably disappoint some viewers, but I found it very realistic, relatable, and moving.

Given the film’s subject matter, I feel that La La Land’s likely Best Picture win is a bit self-serving on the part of the Academy, similar to Birdman’s victory a couple of years ago. Nevertheless, I think La La Land is much more deserving than Birdman was, and it was my personal favorite of the four, edging out Hell or High Water.

Why I'm Voting for Hillary Clinton

October 18th, 2016

I’ve spent the last several months torn on whom to vote for in next month’s presidential election. Donald Trump is a non-starter for a hundred different reasons I’m sure I don’t have to explain. Though I consider myself a liberal, I have decidedly mixed feelings about Hillary Clinton. The many criticism we hear from the right-wing propaganda machine, which has gone into overdrive this election cycle, are mostly baseless. They still won’t let up about Benghazi, despite Clinton being cleared by one of the lengthiest, costliets congressional investigations in history. But there are real reasons for progressives to be wary of a Clinton presidency, namely her proven record of hawkishness during her tenure as Secretary of State.

As a former libertarian, I’ve had a certain fondness for Gary Johnson throughout his campaign. Yes, I disagree with him on many issues, some of them important. But Johnson appears to be forthright and intellectually honest, and as governor of New Mexico he demonstrated that he governs pretty much as he promises. And in particular, he’s committed to scaling back–practically eliminating–America’s foreign interventions, something that’s desperately needed at a time when we kill innocent civilians by the thousands via drone strikes in foreign countries.

Gary Johnson

But Johnson’s repeated media gaffes have convinced me that he’s simply not qualified to be President of the United States. When he asked, “What is Aleppo?” it was embarrassing, but I was prepared to overlook it. After all, I consider myself a reasonably informed voter, and I’d never heard of Aleppo before Johnson’s gaffe made the news. And as a Libertarian, non-intervention in foreign nations is a major part of his party’s platform, so it’s not surprising that Johnson would be less focused on foreign affairs than his opponents.

But then, mere days later, Johnson was completely stumped when asked to name a foreign leader he admires. Apparently, the Aleppo incident was not sufficient to make Johnson realize he needed to brush up on foreign policy and international issues.

I understand that Libertarians take an isolationist view of foreign policy, but even if it were a good idea, it’s not like Johnson would be able to bring home all our troops from abroad and close down all of America’s foreign embassies his first day in office. Like it or not, working with other nations and interacting with world leaders is simply an intrinsic part of the job of President, and Johnson has given no indication whatsoever that he’s even minimally qualified to perform that job, or shown the least bit of interest in acquiring the skills or knowledge to do so.

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton is far from a perfect candidate, but our job as voters isn’t to hold out for the perfect candidate, it’s to select the most qualified from among the available alternatives. And of everyone in contention in this election, Clinton is the most qualified by a mile. It isn’t even close.

New Study Confirms Racial Bias in Use of Force by Police

July 12th, 2016

There are a bunch of articles going around social media about a new study that apparently found no evidence of racial bias in police shootings. These articles are of varying quality, including some that are very good but with wildly misleading headlines. As a public service, here’s the original paper they’re all reporting on.

Since everyone’s big takeaway seems to be “there’s no racial bias in policework, end of story,” these two passages should be of particular interest:

On non-lethal uses of force, blacks and Hispanics are more than fifty percent more likely to experience some form of force in interactions with police.

Our results have several important caveats. First, all but one dataset was provided by a select group of police departments. It is possible that these departments only supplied the data because they are either enlightened or were not concerned about what the analysis would reveal. In essence, this is equivalent to analyzing labor market discrimination on a set of firms willing to supply a researcher with their Human Resources data!

Also note that the paper has not undergone peer review or other independent vetting.

(This article was originally published on Facebook.)

Some Highlights from Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt

June 29th, 2016

Here are some highlights from Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the recent Supreme Court ruling striking down Texas’ anti-abortion TRAP laws:

Returning to the District Court record, we note that, in direct testimony, the president of Nova Health Systems, implicitly relying on this general fact, pointed out that it would be difficult for doctors regularly performing abortions at the El Paso clinic to obtain admitting privileges at nearby hospitals because ‘[d]uring the past 10 years, over 17,000 abortion procedures were performed at the El Paso clinic [and n]ot a single one of those patients had to be transferred to a hospital for emergency treatment, much less admitted to the hospital.’ In a word, doctors would be unable to maintain admitting privileges or obtain those privileges for the future, because the fact that abortions are so safe meant that providers were unlikely to have any patients to admit.

Supreme Court building in Washington, DC

Nationwide, childbirth is 14 times more likely than abortion to result in death, but Texas law allows a midwife to oversee childbirth in the patient’s own home. Colonoscopy, a procedure that typically takes place outside a hospital (or surgical center) setting, has a mortality rate 10 times higher than an abortion. Medical treatment after an incomplete miscarriage often involves a procedure identical to that involved in a nonmedical abortion, but it often takes place outside a hospital or surgical center. And Texas partly or wholly grandfathers (or waives in whole or in part the surgical-center requirement for) about two-thirds of the facilities to which the surgical-center standards apply. But it neither grandfathers nor provides waivers for any of the facilities that perform abortions.

We add that, when directly asked at oral argument whether Texas knew of a single instance in which the new requirement would have helped even one woman obtain better treatment, Texas admitted that there was no evidence in the record of such a case.

As everyone already knew, these TRAP laws were never about making surgical procedures safer. That was only a pretense for restricting access to abortion. The Supreme Court rightly saw through the ruse.

(This article was originally published on Facebook.)

Unicomp "Spacesaver M" Keyboard Review

May 23rd, 2016

The Unicomp “Spacesaver M” I ordered last week came in today. It’s the Mac version of Unicomp’s buckling-spring keyboard, based on the old IBM Model M and apparently manufactured using some of the original equipment (Unicomp bought the rights from Lexmark, which used to be part of IBM). The Model M is known for its loud “clicky” keys and strong tactile feedback.

Unicomp

This Mac version is actually based on Unicomp’s “Ultra” product line which has a smaller housing than the original Model M. They sell a full-sized PC version as well, but the Mac line is only available in the smaller housing. The actual keys have the same full-size keyboard regardless of the housing.

The original Model M is a big, heavy monster of a keyboard. This Unicomp model is noticeably lighter in comparison, but it still has much more heft than any everyday keyboard manufactured today.

Because of the era in which they were manufactured, most Model M keyboards have a PS/2 connector. The Unicomp uses USB. Unlike the original Model M, the Unicomp’s cord is permanently attached to the keyboard. I consider that a minor downgrade from the Model M’s removable cord. Especially given how standardized USB is, it would be nice if the cord were removable, so that it could easily be replaced if it became frayed or damaged.

Unicomp

The keyboard seemed reasonably well-packed for shipping, but five or six of the keys had popped off by the time I opened the box. They snapped back on easily, so it was not a big deal.

The original Model M had 101 keys, with no “Windows” or “menu” key, and a small gap between the “Ctrl” and “Alt” keys. Unicomp’s PC model has 104 keys, adding a “menu” key and two “Windows” keys, and reducing the size of the space bar to accommodate. The Mac version is based on this 104-key version, but with the slightly different modifier key layout used by Apple.

It has all the same secondary options—brightness, volume, etc.—on the Function keys. However, the actual icons it uses for them are pretty ugly. The delete key—the one that corresponds to a PC keyboard’s delete, not backspace—is especially bad.

Like the Model M, the keycaps on the Unicomp’s keys are removable and replaceable. Unicomp sells a full set of blank keycaps, which I’d like to eventually purchase, as my previous work keyboard was the Das Keyboard with blank keys, and I loved using it, partly for the novelty.

Unicomp

I’m typing this review on the original Model M that I have hooked up to my home desktop PC. It was manufactured in 1991, and is still in perfect working order—that’s how robust these keyboards are. I’m really excited to put the Unicomp through its paces at work tomorrow, and just hope the noise won’t be too bothersome for my coworkers.

(This article was originally published on Facebook.)

In which I review the other four Best Picture Oscar nominees

March 4th, 2016

Last weekend the local AMC hosted the second part of their “Best Picture Showcase,” presenting the remaining four of this year’s eight Best Picture Oscar nominees back-to-back.

The first film was Brooklyn, a charming story about Eilis, a young Irish woman who immigrates to the United States on her own in the 1950s. She struggles at first, but eventually manages to build a fulfilling life for herself. But when she returns to Ireland temporarily after a family tragedy, she becomes torn between her homeland and the new life she’s built for herself. Saoirse Ronan plays Eilis, and her performance was rightly nominated in the Best Actress category. The movie was enjoyable, but somewhat insubstantial compared to several of the other nominees.

Next was Spotlight, which would go on to actually win the Best Picture award. It dramatizes the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team of journalists’ brilliant investigation of the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal in the early 2000s. It follows in the footsteps of other journalism films like All the President’s Men and Zodiac, and it easily stands with the best of them. It was exhilarating and while it would not have been my personal pick for the Best Picture award (I liked Room a little better and I think Bridge of Spies and The Big Short were about on par with it) I think it’s Oscar win was completely justified.

The day’s third film was The Martian, Ridley Scott’s tale of a stranded astronaut, based on the popular book. I had read the book, loved it, and already seen the movie once before. The movie is very faithful to the book, and holds up to repeated viewings. I enjoyed every moment of it and recommend seeing it, but like it’s fellow nominee Mad Max: Fury Road, it’s pretty lighthearted and I’m not sure it belongs in the same category as some of the year’s harder-hitting dramas. Still, it’s a worthwhile, eminently enjoyable picture.

Closing out the day was The Revenant, the film that would finally see Leonard DiCaprio receive a well-deserved Best Actor Oscar. It’s a brutal, harrowing tale of Hugh Glass, a 19th-century frontiersman left for dead by a fellow trapper after he is mauled by a bear. But Glass survives the attack, and attempts to make his way back to civilization and enact revenge on the man who left him to die. I understand all the accolades this film has received, but it was not my cup of tea.

I would actually have predicted The Revenant to win Best Picture, but was happily surprised on Sunday to see it go to the more-deserving-in-my-opinion Spotlight, one of several nominees I would have been perfectly happy to see take home the prize.

With The Revenant being the least satisfying of the films to my personal taste, this year was nevertheless a very good one for films overall, with an unusual number of films that stood out above the competition. As usual, I’m glad to have had the opportunity to view so many of the year’s best in one go and can’t wait to do the same next year.

In which I review four of the Best Picture Oscar nominees

February 22nd, 2016

This past Saturday was first day of AMC’s “Best Picture Showcase,” a two-part marathon of the films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.

First up was Bridge of Spies, a Steven Spielberg film in which Tom Hanks plays James Donovan, an American lawyer defending accused Soviet spy Rudolf Abel during the Cold War. The justice system treats Abel’s guilt as a foregone conclusion, and Donovan is initially assigned to the case only to give the appearance that Abel is given a fair trial. But Donovan takes his duty seriously and serves his client to the best of his abilities, sparing him the death penalty. Later, the CIA attempts to exchange Abel for a captured American pilot, and Donovan travels to Berlin to facilitate the exchange.

I felt that the first part of the story, about Abel’s trial and Donovan’s defense of his civil liberties, was more compelling that the second, about the exchange. But the entire movie was enjoyable and everything came together strongly in the end. The best scene was one in which we see the American pilot being sentenced in a Soviet court following his capture. After many scenes of intense debate in Abel’s American trial, this single shot conveyed a lot of information in a very brief, powerful moment, as the audience realizes that the pilot must have gone through a parallel experience.

The second film was Room, a drama about Joy, a young woman who was kidnapped and held prisoner in a single room for seven years. Imprisoned with her is Jack, her five-year-old son, whom her captor fathered. Like Bridge, Room is divided into two distinct parts. The first shows what life is like for Joy and Jack, culminating in their escape. In the second, they attempt to adjust to everyday life after such a traumatic experience.

I thought both parts of the film were equally compelling, and they seemed to present a realistic picture of what this kind of horrific experience must be like. It was especially moving to see the ways in which Joy shielded Jack from the worst of the horrors, and the film had several surprisingly lighthearted moments as a result. Joy’s escape plan seemed a bit far-fetched and too reliant on their captor’s incompetence, but it played out in a believable way and was only a minor flaw in an otherwise outstanding film.

Next was Mad Max: Fury Road, the fourth film in George Miller’s series, coming thirty years after the third installment and with a new actor (Tom Hardy) in the title role. This film received a surprising amount of critical acclaim upon its initial release last summer, focusing mainly on its strong female characters and feminist themes. I saw it at the time and while I enjoyed it, I felt that it did not live up to its hype. While there were a lot of strong women in the film, it was nevertheless mostly mindless action with little story or character development. Watching it again this weekend with a better idea of what to expect, I enjoyed the film a lot more. It might not have the most compelling story of the bunch, but it paints a fascinating picture of the future with outlandish makeup, costumes, and landscapes. It was fun to watch, though I still think it’s of a distinctly lesser caliber than its fellow nominees.

Finally was The Big Short, the more-or-less true story of the financial crisis of 2007–2008. It followed several real-life investors who apparently foresaw the whole thing and followed their mounting incredulity as Wall Street continued to let things get out of hand. The film did an amazing job of presenting the details of the housing market in an easily-understandable way, with characters explaining things to the audience directly in short, funny vignettes. The whole film was much more hilarious than I expected, but while underscoring the seriousness of the economic crisis it chronicles.

I thought that all four films were enjoyable, and that Bridge of Spies, Room, and The Big Short were truly excellent. I’d probably give the edge to Room of the four of them for telling a unique story unlike any I’ve seen before, but there are four more nominees coming up next week in part two of the marathon. I plan to review them as well, though my schedule will probably preclude me from doing so before the Oscars on Sunday.

Best Picture Showcase 2014, Day 2

March 2nd, 2014

Yesterday was day 2 of AMC’s best picture showcase, a marathon screening of the remaining five of this year’s nominees for the Best Picture Oscar: Nebraska, Captain Phillips, Her, American Hustle, and Gravity.

Nebraska was a funny, quirky movie about an elderly man, played by Bruce Dern, who believes he has won a million dollars in a mail-in sweepstakes and has his son take him on a road trip to collect his prize from the sweepstakes headquarters. It was very funny, and the acting was excellent, particularly Bruce Dern, who is rightly nominated for Best Actor. It was shoot in black-and-white, which gives the picture a quaint feeling that suits the material.

Captain Phillips, which tells the true story of the captain of an American cargo ship taken over by Somali pirates, was very thrilling and suspenseful. Is especially impressed by the way the ending shows the aftermath of such an episode. Not surprisingly, Tom Hanks was superb in his role as the title character.

Her takes place in the near future, and is about a man who falls on love with his computer’s artificially-intelligent operating system. It creates a plausible vision of the future, and tells a thoughtful story of how people interact with technology. The characters were relatable and the plot believable, given the premise. It is my personal pick for best movie of the year.

American Hustle is about a con man and his female partner helping an FBI agent in a sting operation after he busts them. It’s plot was actually somewhat difficult to follow. The ’70s aesthetic was charming, and the music was great, but I didn’t think the movie was anything special otherwise. It also uses that annoying technique I complained about last week, opening with a scene from the middle of the story before flashing back to the beginning. At least in this case, the filmmakers used the opportunity to dive the Christian Bale character a memorable introduction.

Finally, Gravity, about two astronauts stranded in space after their shuttle is destroyed by debris, was as thrilling as they say, and was technically very well-made. It was also filled with a lot of very typical Hollywood-style nonsense science, at least some of which would be obvious to any viewer, regardless of their level of scientific literacy or familiarity with spaceflight and physics in particular. I don’t always find this sort of thing distracting in a mindless action picture, but it should preclude a film from being considered one of the years best and so I’m a bit puzzled that Gravity was even nominated.

Overall, I enjoyed all nine of this year’s best picture nominees, several of them a great deal. I think this was one of the better years in recent memory in that respect, and as always I’m glad to have seen all the nominees.

Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine

February 26th, 2014

Though it was not nominated for Best Picture, Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine was up for several other Oscars and so I decided to watch it recently. Despite the lack of a Best Picture nomination, Blue Jasmine has been highly praised as one of the year’s best movies, a view of the movie which completely eludes me.

The characters were mostly unpleasant, were mired in unhappy situations, and made bad decisions. The story was dull, and I was totally uninvolved in anything that happened to anyone on screen. I have not seen very many Woody Allen movies, but I did see Midnight in Paris, which was nominated for Best Picture two years ago, and I really enjoyed it. In contrast, Blue Jasmine was just difficult to sit through.

Even the acting seemed uninspired. Cate Blanchett, who plays the main character, is nominated for Best Actress, and while she was good in the role, nothing about her performance really stood out to me in a way that says, “this is possibly the best performance in the movies this year.”

If anyone who really enjoyed Blue Jasmine wants to share what they enjoyed about it, I’d love to hear it. My personal recommendation is to pass on it.

Best Picture Showcase 2014, Day 1

February 24th, 2014

This past weekend, I watched four of the nine movies nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, as part of AMC Theater’s annual “Best Picture Showcase,” in which all the nominees are screened during two consecutive Saturdays. The four movies featured during this first day of the marathone were Philomena, Dallas Buyers Club, The Wolf of Wall Street, and 12 Years a slave.

All four were excellent. Interestingly, all were based on true stories. The first two, Philomena and Dallas Buyers Club, I knew virtually nothing about before watching. Philomena in particular was excellent. It tells the story of an elderly lady, played by Judi Dench, trying to track down her long-lost son with the help of a journalist who wants to write a story about her experience. Judi Dench was funny and charming, and the story was affecting and sad without seeming overtly manipulative. I even cried a bit during some especially moving scenes.

Dallas Buyers Club was also very good, telling the story of an HIV-positive man fighting the medical establishment for medicine he believes could save his life. It turns out to have been filmed locally (in the New Orleans area), and I recognized a lot of places onscreen. The story was interesting, but I was somewhat uncomfortable with what I think was an unfair demonization of the medical indistry in general, with a seeming contempt for the practice of science as it pertains to the controlled study of the efficacy of drugs.

The Wolf of Wall Street was outrageous and fun, but it was also rather shallow. It’s certainly one of those films to have benefited from the recent increase in the maximum number of nominees from five to ten. It was enjoyable, but I didn’t really think it was anything special and I don’t think it was quite on the same level as the other movies in contention.

Finally, 12 Years a Slave was extremely good. It could have been the best of the day if not for a couple of confusing narrative points. Notably, it indulges in a pet peeve of mine, which is to begin the movie with an out-of-context scene from the middle of the narrative, then flash back to the beginning of the story. This is a fairly common technique, but it feels lazy and unnecesarry to me. I can think of a few movies that use this specific structure (including The Wolf of Wall Street), but none whose story benefitted from it. I’m not opposed to non-linear or otherwise unusual narratives, but this just seems like a lazy way to give a movie an attention-grabbing opening with no real effort. But maybe I’m making too big a deal out of what was honestly a relatively minor criticism in an otherwise excellent film.

Of the four movies I saw on Saturday, Philomena is my pick for the best so far, though there are five more (Nebraska, Captain Phillips, Her, American Hustle, and Gravity) to come next week. I’ve already seen two (Her and Gravity), but I’ll save my thoughts on them until I re-watch them with the other nominees on Saturday.

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