Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Gone Frontin’

September 29, 2008

I went to an MC Frontalot concert Saturday night with a friend and had an incredible time. Let me preface this all by saying that I am not a concertgoer: I don’t enjoy crowds, am not a people-watcher, prefer studio-produced music, and am a cheapskate. The only concerts I have ever paid for was Public Enemy and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy twice; aside from that, I’ve either gotten free tickets or the concerts were entirely free. I do, however, love music and spend plenty of money buying it on CD, through iTunes, or, lately, Amazon MP3.

I’m a longtime fan of the Front and went to his concert last year when he came to town. He puts on a great show and so I just had to go. Plus you can’t beat the price at $10. Also appearing were the Minibosses and MC Lars, whom I had heard of but never heard.

I knew it was going to be different this year as soon as we pulled into the parking lot. There was a line stretching through the entire strip mall and we were half an hour early. We passed the time joking about the various misfits we saw and most revolved around these weirdos with long hair who were wearing black jumpsuits with yellow pentagrams and dripping with fringe. They looked like Satanic disco goers.

Turns out those freaks were the unannounced opening act, Totally Radd!! (which they weren’t, incidentally). I won’t waste valuable electrons fully describing their set since they were really not worth mentioning.

The Minibosses were next. Apparently, they’re a local band; their schtick is covering video game theme songs like Super Marios Brothers or Castlevania. Like last year, I appreciated their skill but couldn’t identify of the video games they were re-creating. I had a Colecovision and a Nintendo in my childhood, but they never made a lasting impression on my because I wasn’t very good.

The biggest surprise of the night was MC Lars. After listening to his set, I was annoyed that I had never listened to anything of his. The songs he played—“Mr. Raven,” “iGeneration,” “Download This Song,” “Generic Crunk Rap Song,” and “Hot Topic is Not Punk Rock”—were awesome and his stagecraft was perfect. He had his laptop powering two projectors and he amazingly never lost synchronization with their presentations.

MC Frontalot was excellent, as always. He even improvised for a bit while his guitarist changed instruments. He had a new drummer since his last tour and I didn’t like him as well. The only bad thing I can say about his set versus last year’s is that I think his vocals were sometimes overwhelmed by the band. He performed three songs from his new CD but due to the music I wouldn’t have known what he was saying if I hadn’t listened to the songs previously. It could be that he was just really tired since he didn’t start until after midnight and finished around 1:30 AM.

If you ever have a chance to go to one of his concerts, I’d recommend it highly: $10 for four bands and 4½ hours of entertainment is an astounding value. I don’t know how they make much money but they obviously do—they’ve earned it!

Review Nuggets

September 18, 2008

Time for some more Netflix queue reviewin’ (long overdue from the looks of it):

  • Pride and Prejudice (Netflix): a great adaptation of Austen’s most famous novel. Keira Knightley is pretty good, but I was most impressed with Donald Sutherland’s acting.
  • Baby Mama (Netflix): I really liked this movie, but I’m predisposed to that on account of being a huge Tina Fey fan. Amy Poehler was much better than I expected and I found myself actually caring about the characters.
  • Kiss the Girls (Netflix): good enough thriller. The plot was interesting but there were many distracting (and glaring) holes. Like, who allows a victim to participate in apprehending a serial killer? Come on.
  • City Lights (Netflix): Charlie Chaplin’s last silent film. I know plenty of people will defend silent movies as just as good as talkies—I’m not one of them. I’ve watched enough of them to have an informed disdain—except Buster Keaton, who gets a pass because his films are still hilarious.
  • The List (Netflix): I like Wayne Brady. Wait, I liked Wayne Brady. This piece of crap belongs on Lifetime or the Hallmark Channel. The acting is terrible, the plot is predictable, and the characters are shallow. Awful—but seriously worth buying through my Amazon affiliate link.
  • Shenandoah (Netflix): James Stewart is a Virginia farmer who vigorously tries to avoid the Civil War occurring around him. But then one of his five boys gets taken prisoner mistakenly and he’s one pissed off actor. Very good, maybe a little slow, but plenty of wonderful lines.
  • Trust the Man (Netflix): David Duchovny plays a sex addict—hmm—in this relationship movie. It wasn’t bad though rather pointless. I did like Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character.
  • Hairspray (Netflix): excellent movie irrevocably marred by John Travolta in drag and fat suit. Seriously, I have no idea why they cast him as the wife of Christopher Walken. He was painful to watch and would have been perfect without him.
  • Balls of Fury (Netflix): I had extremely low expectations going into this movie. I hoped that Christopher Walken would be funny—he was—but I found myself laughing hysterically often and drawn into the story. It’s lowbrow, don’t get me wrong, but high-quality slapstick.
  • Mad Men Season 1 (Netflix): this came highly recommended from a number of sources. I watched one disc worth and had enough. The first couple episodes found me really wanting to like Don Draper, but then it got slimy and smarmy. Maybe a 60s advertising agency was like that, but it left me cold. I’m not a prude; I just don’t like watching affair after affair after affair.
  • Gone Baby Gone (Netflix): decent thriller about the kidnapping of a four-year-old that ends up being a lot more complicated than at first. I liked it but I don’t need to ever watch it again.
  • Be Kind Rewind (Netflix): Terrible. The preview made it look stupid but I thought it would be one of those “so stupid it’s funny” movies. Nope, just stupid.
  • Sunshine (Netflix): unique science fiction movie about a mission to re-light the sun, which is nearing burnout. I love the premise but then they had to mess it up with a horror twist that was wholly unnecessary. The race against time and technological limitation was compelling enough as it was.
  • Sex and the City Season 1 (Netflix): entertaining fluff to watch. I can see why so many adored the show, but it didn’t grab me. Again, maybe I just don’t enjoy watching whiny, promiscuous women.
  • Raise the Red Lantern (Netflix): incredible and beautiful film about polygamy and arranged marriages in China. The period is ambiguous. It focused on the interplay between the wives; I would have liked to see more about the master.
  • Deadwood Season 1 (Netflix): I rented this once before and never got into it, which is surprising since I will watch any Western that crosses my transom. It’s gritty and vile, making it perhaps more authentic to the real Deadwood.
  • Assume the Position with Mr. Wuhl (Netflix): comedian Robert Wuhl channels Howard Zinn for the benefit of some NYU students. There’s definitely a liberal slant here, but it is funny as hell nonetheless.
  • Mrs. Henderson Presents (Netflix): Judi Dench decides to invest in a theater in World War II-era London, hiring Bob Hoskins as the manager. They turn the show into a continuous burlesque while conforming to the strict standards of the time and become a sensation. Hoskins is great and the movie is worth watching.
  • August Rush (Netflix): This one was just a little too pat for my tastes with a resolution that was both utterly predictable and a horrible groaner. It could have been so much better, but they blew it.
  • P.S. I Love You (Netflix): a husband finds out he has a brain tumor and writes a series of letters to his wife in an posthumous effort to help her through the grief. Very sweet, tender, and believable movie. I’d recommend it.

If you want in on my Netflix friendship (hey, buddy!), feel free.

A Little Longer Review of The Dark Knight

August 26, 2008

In my off-the-cuff quick review of The Dark Knight, I said that I would write up a lengthier one after I had seen it a second time and could focus on a couple of points that confused me originally. I saw it again a couple of weeks ago and it really didn’t hold up well the second time.

Most intriguing the second go round were The Joker’s villainous experiments in game theory. The one involving Harvey Dent and Rachel Dawes tied up in warehouses full of explosives but on opposite sides of town didn’t originally strike me as anything special originally, but it was more obvious this time that Batman actually went to save Rachel and that The Joker had consciously switched the addresses. That meant that picking one over the other meant that the one chosen is the one that dies. Much more dastardly than I had originally thought and it also made it understandable why Batman “chose” to save Harvey Dent.

The ferry experiment, in which The Joker loaded two ferries with explosives and then gave the other boat’s detonator to each set of passengers, was much more disgusting the second time. Originally, I thought that the convict’s taking of the detonator and throwing it out the window was a moral statement that they should have refused to play The Joker’s twisted game. Further, I thought that the other ferry’s wavering and refusal to push the button at the last minute was a wrestling with a difficult decision and opting to not partake of it.

However, I’m now convinced that it was a sacrificial act and very repulsive. By waiting, they had effectively doomed both boats to destruction by The Joker—they did not know that Batman would save them. In the face of a serious emergency, they chose to forfeit the responsibility of a decision. It is possible that The Joker would have wired each detonator to blow up the ferry that it was on or blow them both up—it’s certainly feasible that there was a nihilistic trick up The Joker’s sleeve—but they had no way of knowing. Either way, both groups clearly did not value their own lives.

The biggest revelation with the second viewing was that it’s not nearly as good of a movie as I thought. The disjointed subplots first felt like the painful inhalation when you come up for air before being dragged down: one concluded and then another one immediately began. This time, though, I could see how they just extended the movie into discomfort. It’s as if there were a brainstorming meeting prior to the start of the script and they couldn’t decide on a single, coherent plot so they just took the top three ideas and went with them. This time, it was just tedious.

I still think it was a good movie, just not as great as I had thought.

Review of “What I’d Say to the Martians” by Jack Handey

August 17, 2008

Jack Handey’s What I’d Say to the Martians and Other Veiled Threats is easily the funniest book I’ve read in recent memory. If you’re familiar with Deep Thoughts or Fuzzy Memories from Saturday Night Live, you may be surprised to learn that Jack Handey is an actual guy who writes like that normally.

You’ll find this collection of essays, short stories, and sketches funny throughout if you like his particular style of humor, which I do. You’ll appreciate the helpful asides in “My Nature Documentary”:

Show monkey finding binoculars. Monkey learns how to use binoculars. (Have plenty of film, because this may take a long time.) Monkey climbs up tree and scans horizon. We see his point of view, which finally focuses on yes, the giraffe! He screams (BB pellet) with joy.

Or the view of self presented in “How I Want to Be Remembered”:

According to our scientists, with their electronic soul trackers, Jack is in Heaven now. And not just regular Heaven, which any jerk can get in to, but special secret Heaven that even some angels don’t know about.

There’s much to be learned about management from his essay on “The Respect of the Men”:

You don’t get the respect of the men right away. You can try, by getting down in the dirt and begging them for it, or by kissing their boots, or by doing your funny cowboy dance for them. But trust me, these are not going to work.

I especially liked the science-ish article on “The Animals Around Us”:

Or consider even smaller animals, which live unnoticed among the hairs of our private regions. They are called crabs. No, don’t worry, they aren’t actual crabs. And they certainly aren’t large enough to eat, unless you could somehow get thousands of them. But they are with us, year after year.

My favorite nugget is entitled “Attila the Hun’s Greatest Speech,” which is introduced as the source for many of the most famous orations in history and consists entirely of famous lines interspersed with motivational statements to the assembled Huns like “Caesar, tear down this wall! Or at least open the gates and we’ll tear it down for you.”

I could go on and on selecting bits from this short but hilarious work, but I’m pretty sure that I’d run afoul of copyright soon. I found myself guffawing on more than one occasion; if these quotes or his earlier work tickled your funny bone, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

A Review of OmniFocus

August 6, 2008

For years, I’ve struggled with finding a decent set of tools to practice Getting Things Done. I started with the Hipster PDA and moved on to some notepads and Zen To Done. I’ve tried just about every permutation of Web-based application. Heck, I liked GTD-PHP that I bought the domain and host the project for free.

But none of them have worked for me. The Hipster PDA was good but it suffers from all of the problems of paper-based systems: there’s no indexing or searching and you always have to carry around a pen. The notebooks were even more inconvenient; the desktop applications didn’t help if I wasn’t carrying my MacBook which I almost never do; and the Web applications had monthly fees and required a computer with Internet access to function. So I bided my time and kept on the lookout for the Holy Grail.

I can confidently tell you that I have found it! It’s OmniFocus by OmniGroup. It’s Mac-only and $79.95 but it suits me perfectly. Its power stems from the fact that the desktop application at home can sync with the desktop application at work which can sync with the iPhone application in my pocket. $79.95 (plus $19.99 for the iPhone version) is certainly expensive, but I found it invaluable after using it fully for its 14-day trial.

It has a bunch of nice touches: parallel or sequential task lists, quick entry that really is, the focus modes. It’s a competent implementation of GTD—the incidentals of the UI aren’t important. But the syncing is worth every penny of the cost. When you’re away from a computer, you have access to your projects and contexts. Check something off and it’s synced to your home and work computers. It just works—you never have the problem of managing database files and shuttling them between the computers in your life.

And that makes getting things done the focus rather than maintaing your system.

Quick Review of The Dark Knight

July 21, 2008

I saw The Dark Knight on Friday morning but I don’t feel comfortable reviewing it just yet. I want to see it again just to make sure of a few salient points. I plan to see it again in a week or so at an IMAX theater to get the full experience. Until then, let me just say that I think it is the best Batman film ever. I loved Batman Begins and this one was much, much better.

Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker was amazing. He played the nihilism perfectly. Michael Caine as Alfred describes him thus: “Some men just like to watch the world burn.” Ledger makes you believe that that is his exact motivation. I think he really stole the show and would deserve any Oscar that he’ll surely be nominated for—even though the Academy would just do it because of his untimely death.

In the end, I highly recommend that you see this movie if you like Batman at all. It’s audacious, visually stunning, and exceedingly well-acted. I’m seeing it twice and I can’t remember the last movie I saw twice at the theaters.

Review of Wall-E

July 14, 2008

I expected Wall-E to be an anti-materialist, anti-capitalist, and environmentalist piece of tripe that I was going to regret seeing or exposing my children to. But I have not found a Pixar movie yet that I didn’t enjoy to some degree. (The Incredibles was my favorite followed by Ratatouille and A Bug’s Life. Least favorites: Monsters Inc. and Finding Nemo.) I had these expectations because the liberals I follow raved about it and the conservatives I follow despised it. I think that means that the actual meaning of the movie is deeper than it appears, which allows viewers to see on the surface what they would like.

The movie, in case you’re not familiar with the basic story, is about a small robot that’s been left on Earth to clean up its trash for the last 700 years. The robot, Wall-E (who is given voice by Ben Burtt, the same guy who did R2-D2), develops something of a personality as he scours the trash for interesting items. One day, a spaceship lands and emits another robot called Eve, a probe robot (designed by Jonathan Ive, the guy behind the iPod), who is on Earth looking for signs of plant life. She was sent there by the captain of a ship containing the entire population of Earth. The humans, having consumed Earth right into inhospitableness, abandoned the planet and left robots to clean up the mess in preparation for their eventual return.

So you can see why both groups see the movie as they do. For the liberals, it’s a parable of humanity’s future if we don’t Do Something. For conservatives, it’s a propaganda piece put out by Hollywood liberals completely out of touch with reality. On a superficial level, I think they’re both right. The future in the movie is run by a single corporation that provides everything for the people; the luxury spaceship that they live in is completely automated and they needn’t lift a finger; and the Earth is so uninhabitable that nothing grows there for centuries. That’s pretty damning stuff, a sort of hyperbolic An Inconvenient Truth.

But it’s not the central theme of the movie. For me, the core idea of the movie is summed up by the captain, who exclaims “I’m tired of surviving, I want to live” when faced with a choice between continuing life aboard the ship or returning to Earth and starting a new Jamestown without all of the resources or helpful Indians. In that moment, the captain has realized that life is about values and the struggle to achieve them. By having everything handed to him and letting his life be run on autopilot (literally in his case), he’s missed out on a life proper to a human being. Furthermore, in a deliciously ironic twist, the robot is the value pursuer and it inspires the captain to reclaim his dignity.

For me then, the movie was about working for what you want and accepting responsibility for your life. There is always a temptation for us to take the easy way out: to let others do our thinking for us, to let others pander to us and become our masters, to let others provide for us. But that is not the good life: it is a betrayal of our very humanity. Sometimes it takes an unusual source to remind us of that.

(NOTE: It was Jennifer Snow’s review that made me decide to give the movie a shot. Thank you, Jennifer!)

[UPDATE: My wife reminded me of one of the best parts of the movie. Whenever Wall-E, who was solar-powered, got his morning charge and started up, the chime is the Mac startup sound. I’m so proud of her!]

Movie Reviews, Twitter-Style

July 10, 2008

Here’s the latest installment of my quick reviews, slightly larger than normal because I had forgotten to do this sooner. For a change, let’s limit the review to a maximum of 140 characters—à la Twitter:

  • Duck, You Sucker (Netflix): Proof that even Sergio Leone made stinkers. I wouldn’t have thought so had I not seen this. Absolute waste of James Coburn.
  • The Lives of Others (Netflix): Absolutely great movie about the corrupting influence of the Stasi, for both the people and the Stasi themselves. Five stars, two thumbs up.
  • Tom Green: Inside & Outside the Box (Netflix): Do not consume too much in one sitting. It will seriously distort your perspective. If you don’t already like Tom Green, sit this one out.
  • Sullivan’s Travels (Netflix): Hokey 40s movie about whiny director who wants to get in touch with the common man. Best part: reminded me how far we’ve come in movies.
  • The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Netflix): Rambling, dawdling, meandering, and self-important epic that concentrates too much on Jesse James as folk hero and Robert Ford as idolator.
  • The Siege (Netflix): FBI can’t stop terrorism. Army seals off Manhattan and imposes martial law. This is how Hollywood views us: chomping to intern them Muslims.
  • The Onion Movie (Netflix): The Onion cashes out. Watch the podcast, it’s better. This generation’s Kentucky Fried Movie? Perhaps. Best part: http://xrl.us/Cockpuncher
  • The Bucket List (Netflix): Damn it, you made me enjoy Jack Nicholson. Maudlin but mesmerizing. Sappy but sentimental. Ending is dreadfully, utterly predictable.
  • Death at a Funeral (Netflix): At funeral, kids find out dad was having an affair with a midget, who wants money to keep quiet but gets killed. You-know-what ensues.
  • My Beautiful Laundrette (Netflix): Ambitious guy steals drug money to renovate laundromat. Hires school chum turned tough. Screws same in back room. Why did I rent this?
  • Mad About You: Season 1 (Netflix): This is the reason why Helen Hunt was on my list for so long (and why I own Twister). Mercifully M.A.B.E.L.-free.
  • Duck Soup (Netflix): “Marx Brothers at their sidesplitting best.” I’d hate to see their worst. Making fun of Hitler shouldn’t be this bad. Couldn’t finish.
  • Pacific Heights (Netflix): Michael Keaton rocks as a creepy renter who just won’t leave. Good subplot involves oppressive San Francisco government and cost of housing.
  • Battle Royale (Netflix): Japanese bad kids dropped on island with weapons and only one can survive. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were a true story, which it isn’t.
  • The Americanization of Emily (Netflix): James Garner and Julie Andrews. That was enough for me, but the wacky plot kept it interesting and the anti-war rant wasn’t overblown.

If you’re interested in being Netflix buddies, feel free to follow me. I’ve rated a lot of movies.

The Long-Awaited Indiana Jones Movie

May 23, 2008

I just got back from a midnight showing of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Overall, I liked it. It is primarily action-oriented and Shia LeBoeuf wasn’t nearly as bad as I feared. By the time the credits started rolling, I was decidedly ambivalent.

I get that Indiana Jones is larger-than-life, that he’s a swashbuckling professor/explorer. I think the first three movies did a great job of situating him squarely within our reality—though it varied slightly from movie to movie. This latest version borders on the preposterous a few too many times: Dr. Jones isn’t a superhero and the Amazon isn’t a fantasy land. Now I know that this isn’t supposed to be accurate or even possible, but previous installments were realistic except for (maybe even in spite of) their fantastic central premises: the Ark of the Covenant, an underground cult, and the Holy Grail.

And it didn’t have to be this way. Amazonian ants that carry people away? Come on. KGB agents seemingly swarming throughout America at will? Give me a break. Indiana surviving a nuclear bomb test by hiding in a refrigerator? Nuts. An ancient temple that reconfigures itself as if the monumental blocks were Legos? Puh-leez. Shia LeBouef swinging through vast swathes of jungle on vines? No way. But in each of those situations, Spielberg (or the writer) could have opted for a more realistic resolution. That he didn’t is perhaps a Spielberg touch.

The ending, which I will not detail here, was very rushed and very unsatisfying. I don’t know why they chose to do it that way. They were obviously shooting for spectacular, but fell short and ended up at puzzling. This issue doesn’t detract too much, however. I would recommend seeing it as it does follow in the tradition of the heretofore trilogy.

[UPDATE (6/18/2008): Matthew Baldwin just saw it and basically agrees, though he was much more amusing.]

Reviews A-Go-Go

May 10, 2008

Here’s the latest crop from the Queue, capsule-style:

  • Becoming Jane (Netflix): Anne Hathaway stars as Jane Austen in this biopic. I’m not sure of Austen’s real life, but I can easily see where she got her source material after watching. I’m a big fan of Hathaway’s and her portrayal of Austen as a strong, independent woman was compelling. It made me want to read a biography of Jane Austen—that’s a good indication of my recommendation.
  • Rush Hour 3 (Netflix): I had very low expectations of this third pairing of the aging Jackie Chan and the one-note Chris Tucker. It didn’t disappoint along those lines. My emotions at watching this flick ran the gamut: cringing, disbelief, disappointment, resentment, boredom, and even a touch of hostility.
  • Dan in Real Life (Netflix): Steve Carrell is excellently cast in this role, but he plays Dan as a little inept—a little too much Michael Scott and not enough Andy Stitzer. He’s a widower who finally meets the lady of his dreams but discovers that his brother is already dating her. Most of the movie is very uncomfortable in that you just know what’s coming. It turns out okay in the end, but there’s plenty of spots where you’re left thinking, “This guy’s a trainwreck!”
  • How to Steal a Million (Netflix): Audrey Hepburn plays the exasperated daughter of a master (and recidivist) art forger. He’s lent his master work to a museum to increase its value, but they need to bring in an expert to examine it for insurance purposes. So Hepburn enlists the aid of an art thief to steal it from the museum before her father is exposed. It’s pretty clever with the twists and turns.
  • The Usual Suspects (Netflix): done in flashback, this heist movie is a little too predictable for me. In fact, I’m getting a little tired of the flashback format. The film recounts the events that led up to the sole survival of the least-likely member of a gang during the commission of their big crime.
  • To Be or Not To Be (Netflix): “screwball comedy” set in Warsaw at the beginning of the Nazi occupation. I’ve never been a fan of Jack Benny, but he’s pretty good in this one. I think three years later they wouldn’t have been so apt to use “concentration camp” as a joke. I laughed more than I expected and the twists and turns in the plot are engrossing.
  • Kings Row (Netflix): rightly called Ronald Reagan’s best performance. It’s a psychological drama about an Everytown, U.S.A. at the turn of the last century where things are not as they seem. Apparently, the book was even more scandalous—I’ve already got it requested at the local library. It reminds me very much of Little Children, which I also liked a lot.
  • Witness for the Prosecution (Netflix): an adaptation of an Agatha Christie play that really throws you in the end. A possibly-philandering man is accused of murdering what seems to be his sugar mama. It seems pretty open and shut but he convincingly asserts his innocence. His only alibi is his wife, who ends up as a witness for the prosecution. I think it compares favorably to any modern courtroom drama.
  • Lifeboat (Netflix): set in the early days of World War II, a ship is sunk by a U-boat and a group of survivors are cast adrift in one of the lifeboats. Their prospects are bleak due to lack of supplies and they discover that the German they saved is the captain of the U-boat that got sunk at the same time. It’s directed by Alfred Hitchcock, but it belongs squarely in his early work.
  • Alvin and the Chipmunks (Netflix): gah. It’s a desecration of the famous cartoon trio, which wasn’t all that great to begin with. Littered with bathroom humor and topical references, the movie really isn’t appropriate for the young children that represent its target audience. But anyone older than that is far too mature to want to watch this tripe.
  • Amistad (Netflix): excellent movie about the real-life court case argued before the Supreme Court by John Quincy Adams involving a slave ship overrun at sea by the slaves. It does an adequate job of covering the case itself and a tremendous job of showing the barbarism of the slave trade. Hard to watch, but very worthwhile.