Friday, December 19, 2014

Movie Review: "Exodus: Gods and Kings"

Schlock like an Egyptian.

It should tell you something that after I saw Exodus: Gods and Kings on opening weekend, I went home and watched 1998's DreamWorks animated The Prince of Egypt on Netflix ... and had a much better time.  I would have watched Cecil B. DeMille's monumental 1956 production of The Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston as Moses and Yul Brynner as Ramses, but - alas - it wasn't streaming.  Then when I sat down to write a movie review, I seriously contemplated framing it all as a "I'm sorry, please take me back, I love you!" letter to Chuck Heston.

Come on, babe.  You know it's always been about you.

OK, OK, let's get to Exodus: Gods and Kings (and why in the world do we need that colon and its little subtitle?  Isn't Exodus enough?)   All cards on the table: I wanted to like this movie.  I wanted to like it a LOT.  There's no disappointment quite like dashed hope.  I almost entitled this review Exodus: All Washed Up.  In fact, it would probably take the entire Red Sea to wash all the guyliner off Bale and Edgerton ... though I suppose I must give some kind of grudging acknowledgment of an entire movie in which the men wear more makeup than the women.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Bamboo Ceiling: Asian Students Sue Harvard and Chapel Hill Over Affirmative Action Policies

It's not the first lawsuit in educational circles, and it won't be the last.  Remember, higher ed is the place that told me to my face, "You don't count as a minority."  In all honesty, I don't want different standards; I want to compete on level ground with everybody else - I will go toe to toe with any white guy you please in this field (and I have).  Nevertheless, it is neither fair nor right when the gatekeepers pick and choose the "minorities" that they want (and exclude the ones that they don't).

LOL: SNL vs. Obama's Immigration Executive Order

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Movie Review: "Interstellar"

Close encounters of the deferred kind.

First things first: You must go see Interstellar on the biggest screen available, on IMAX if possible.  The special effects are incredible, from depictions of a luminous black hole lashed with gleaming ribbons of light to starkly beautiful alien planetscapes filled with sea and icy desert.  In fact, the epic visuals are by themselves worth the price of admission.  This is certainly a plus, for the rest of the movie proceeds as if it were brothers Christopher and Jonathan Nolan's answer to hypothetical questions that nobody asks: "What would happen if Shyamalan and Spielberg made a movie together?" or "What kind of movie would you get if you crossed Signs, Gravity, Inception, and 2001: A Space Odyssey?"

Well, the answer is an overstuffed, rather too indulgently ambitious 3-hour-long excursion to the stars that somehow manages to entrance the eyes without truly engaging the emotions or the intellect.  Don't get me wrong: Interstellar does have its moments of orchestrally bombastic heartstring-pulling (at one point or another just about every notable character bursts into tears with varying degrees of credibility).  Some of the performances are quite good, even moving.  Still, I could not shake the feeling that Nolan was more interested in giving us a puzzle to solve (or see solved) than a coherent, emotionally honest journey.  It is a grand puzzle, to be sure, but giving the audience the OCD-ish pleasure of seeing it come together is not same thing as giving it actual profundity.

Interstellar does emphasize the loving but strained relationship between test pilot-turned-farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaghey) and his precocious, temperamental daughter Murphy (played in childhood by Mackenzie Foy and in adulthood by Jessica Chastain).  Still, the film's overall treatment of emotional ties struck me as problematic, especially with a scientist arguing at one point that a subjective personal love is as valid as any other rationale for choosing a planet to explore.  (I'm sorry, but that simply isn't so, having an otherwise stolid scientist arguing about the transcendence of personal romantic love over time and space seemed cheesy in the moment and I feel stupid even writing that clause now, and the Nolans' insistence on inserting an almost hokey sentimentality into their space epic is a questionable choice at best.)

The basic premise is this: sometime in the future, Earth is quickly becoming uninhabitable as crops fail and dust bowls blow over the plains.  In fact, the only crops that will grow at all are corn and okra (so I guess the entire world is eating this).  Anyway, NASA mounts a desperate effort to find another livable planet.  As the plot would have it, a wormhole fit for just such a search has opened up next to Saturn, and Cooper is the pilot that the mission needs.  Here time becomes an issue, specifically the passing of it.  From theories of relativity and time dilation to the device of cryo-sleep in space travel to the fear that the mission will not find a new planet before everyone on Earth is dead, time stalks the movie.  Cooper is obsessed with returning to Earth and his children, and the endless frustrating deferrals and setbacks push McConaghey's acting to the limit (he acquits himself well).

As for major complaints, I don't want to go into details lest I completely spoil the movie.  (I honestly thought the ending was preposterous.)  I will say, though, on a nitpicky level that the dialogue is often stilted to the point of inanity; naming a black hole "Gargantua" makes it sound like a busty Spandex-clad villainess from a cheap comic book; everyone misconstrues a Dylan Thomas poem and then refuses to stop quoting it ad nauseam until it turns into schlock; and I absolutely could not take Anne Hathaway seriously in her role as a prickly scientist.  I am also going to reiterate my long-running complaint that Nolan doesn't really know how to write complex, psychologically textured (and believable) women.

For all Interstellar's flaws, though, I do fully expect Oscar nominations for special effects (TARS the robot is quite remarkable too aside from the spacescapes), and I do have to give props to the Nolans for even attempting this movie.  They dared boldly to create a new sci-fi epic on a grand scale, and if their reach ultimately exceeded their grasp, what else is ambitious, daring, Hans Zimmer-scored filmmaking for?

Mad Minerva gives Interstellar a grade of B.  If it helps, just ignore the plot details and feast your eyes on the astounding tableaux like the ship Endurance spinning like a tiny pinwheel in the vastness of space or the looming beauty of Saturn's rings as Cooper and company speed toward the wormhole.  Still, it's not the sort of movie that I can see myself rewatching often (unlike, say Apollo 13).

RottenTomatoes gives the movie the bona fide Fresh rating of 75%.

Interstellar runs 169 minutes and is rated PG-13 for some violence and intense action.

Here is the trailer:

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Midterm Elections 2014

I'm back! 

Well, even though I was exhausted at the end of the day, I dragged myself to the polling place yesterday because of principle.  Not lofty idealistic principles of democracy and the exercise of civic duty, per se, though I suppose they were floating in my subconscious somewhere.  No, I'm talking about a much more practical principle: If you don't vote, then you don't get to b*tch about the process or the people who get elected.  

OK, a colleague of mine complained that all the candidates suck and that he wasn't going to vote at all because of it.  Fine, but by not participating, you are more or less ensuring that the very worst candidates go by ... because they're the ones whipping up their bases to actually show up and cast ballots.  Besides, if you wait until you get a good candidate, you'll probably never vote at all.  Politics is an absolute cesspool (which is exactly why we should give politicians as little power as possible), but as Churchill said, "It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried."

(Or maybe this guy?)

Frankly, I am more amused by the post-election left-wing howling (a friend of mine called it "a poo-flinging temper tantrum") than I have been by any amount of politicking leading up to yesterday.  For weeks leading up to the midterms I've had to put up with the tedious combination of arrogance, condescension, sense of entitlement, mudslinging, fearmongering, and campaign BS everywhere; social media has been absolutely flooded with increasingly shrill (and, in retrospect, increasingly desperate) personal political screeds.  (Oh, and protip: "I've completely changed my mind on an important issue because you yelled and screamed on social media and said people who disagree with you are troglodytes," said nobody ever.)

So we get a blowout and today I had to go around trying to keep a completely bland expression amid the weeping, gnashing of teeth, wearing of sackcloth and ashes, cursing, doomsaying, and total emotional incontinence on the part of people who really ought to know better than to act like a toddler deprived of a toy.

I am unsympathetic.  I remember the sort of behavior they indulged in when they were on top, and the loudest of them were as immature in victory then as they are in defeat now.  So this is basically my response to all the moaning and wailing now:

I am, though, pretty pleased with the slate of GOP women who were elected and re-elected, including minority women.  Let the leftists try to run on the noisy demagoguery of the nakedly fearmongering "War on Women" meme.  Their mascot Wendy Davis (way past her 15 minutes of pink-sneakered fame) got trounced in Texas, even by the female demographic there.  Meanwhile watch the party that's supposedly composed only of old rich white sexist racist dudes elect and re-elect a ton of women to office including Hispanic, Asian, and African-American women like Susana Martinez, Nikki Haley, and Mia Love.  Don't forget Joni Ernst of Iowa, the first female combat veteran in the Senate, and Elise Stefanik of New York, who at 30 is the youngest woman ever elected to Congress (and an 18-year-old named Saira Blair who ran her campaign from her college dorm room is now West Virginia's youngest state lawmaker).

I also don't want to hear any BS from leftists about how GOP women in office somehow "don't count," that the only time women in office matter is when they're Democratic women.  That's BS, and everybody knows it.  (I also really want to add libertarian women into this conversation, though technically we're not winning office as Libertarian Party candidates, which is just as well because the official capital-L Libertarian Party is a mess and hopelessly associated with that old crackpot Ron Paul.)

While I'm at it banging my drum about visible inclusivity, note that Tim Scott of South Carolina is the first African-American senator to be elected from the South since Reconstruction.  Scott's win also makes him the first African-American to be elected to both houses of Congress.

Oh, and even in victory: GOP, DON'T GET COCKY.  You still need to work - and work hard - on outreach to ....well, everybody, but especially women and minorities and libertarian-minded independents.  You should not tolerate nut case candidates that make the entire party look stupid.  You seriously need better messaging.  I am also not on board with some of your loopy social-con fixations, and the fact that I don't want the Dems telling me how to run my life doesn't mean that I want you or anybody else telling me how to run it either!

One more completely obvious thing.  That brand is getting toxic.  I am, though, bemused at some lefty spin doctors insisting that the crushing midterm GOP victories don't mean a mandate or anything at all.  That's right, man.  Millions of people voted out/against your favored candidates because we like them, their policies, and what they stand for.  Riiiiiiiight.

Watch out, Cleo.  Someone else wants to be Queen of Denial.

So to close: Congratulations and good luck, midterm winners.  We will be watching, and we will be holding your feet to fire and calling you out if and when you screw up ... because that's a civic duty and responsibility every bit as important as voting.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Movie Review: "Gone Girl"

I am aliiiiiiiiiiiiive, but desperately busy.  Still, I promised La Parisienne a review of Gone Girl, so here it is, very late and several weeks after I saw it, but finally posted!

The female of the species.

Director David Fincher's Gone Girl, the psychological thriller/crime drama, is based on the best-selling novel of the same name (a book that I have not read), and author Gillian Flynn also wrote the screenplay.  The result is a film that did something that no other film has managed to do for a while: keep me guessing about what was going on and what was going to happen next.  Gone Girl has its flaws (some of which are significant), but Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck (yes, La Parisienne, behold my actual, sincere praise for Affleck's acting!) will keep you riveted by their performances as Amy Dunne and her husband Nick, the two halves of a decaying marriage.  When on their fifth wedding anniversary Amy disappears from their home, suspicions of foul play soon swirl around Nick.

I can't give you much more detail of the plot because I would ruin the movie viewing.  As the storyline begins to unspool, you have to pay attention.  This is because of unreliable narrators, or at least biased accounts: both Amy and Nick soon emerge as deeply flawed people, their marriage a tale of the slow rot setting in after a passionate (almost too passionate) start.  We see Amy's perspective as a series of voiceovers: we soon realize she is reading aloud from her diary, the entries handwritten in curlicue letters with a feathery pink pen.  After a while, the swooping swirls of that almost too-girly pen start getting to you, or at least it did to me.  Hearing Pike's disembodied voice, slow, calm and sometimes verging on the creepily melodic, is like hearing the voice of a phantom.  

We see Nick's point of view from watching him in the aftermath of Amy's disappearance, and this is where casting Ben Affleck was a stroke of genius for this character.  Affleck somehow always seems a little shifty, a little (or a lot) insincere, a little untrustworthy no matter what character he's playing.  There's something off about that squint and that handsome, lopsided grin, and the movie plays this to utter advantage.  The rumple-haired, clearly nervous Nick Dunne soon begins to rub you the wrong way ... but (and this is crucial) is he actually capable of cold-blooded murder?

The movie then dives headlong into satire with its depiction of the ever-increasing, ever more insane media circus, right down to Missi Pyle as bleached blonde cable demagogue Ellen Abbott, an obvious caricature of shrill pseudo-news harpy Nancy Grace (wait, is it even possible to caricature someone who is already a caricature?).  She's counterbalanced by agelessly elegant Sela Ward as a more respected but still emotional string-pulling Barbara Walteresque interviewer. The media angle is even further abetted by the publicity efforts of Amy's overbearing parents.  The message is pointed about the role of the sensationalist media in both reporting a news story and then, with its obsessively ravening desire to dig up the dirt, transmogrifying an initial incident into the nearly unrecognizable howl of a mob.  

The entire apparatus comes across as being addicted to every sordid, disgusting detail it can find ... or insinuate without proof or simply make up.  The media becomes almost a living creature, a monstrous screeching vulture with an ever-widening gullet for gleefully gulping down indiscriminate filth and vomiting it back out over a larger and larger radius.  You can't help but feel that somewhere in all this Nick's actual story and any pretense at objective reporting are lost as Abbott and her ilk push their chosen narrative of sweet innocent vanished Amy and wicked dirtbag husband Nick.  The thing turns into a witch hunt.  There is a fascinating scene of celebrity lawyer Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry in an incredible turn) coaching Nick before an interview.  When a slimeball attorney who (famously!) specializes in getting guilty people off is the only sensible one in the room, you're pretty much screwed whether you're actually guilty or not.

Pay attention also to fine performances by Carrie Coon as Nick's harried twin sister Margo and Kim Dickens (recently of Sons of Anarchy) as the detective on the case.  Neil Patrick Harris also appears, though somehow that particular casting choice did not sit too well with me, however much I like Harris. Part of the action with him almost descended into camp, but that is not a complaint confined only to him but to the third act as a whole.  Still, with Fincher in the director's chair, it's very stylish, evocative camp that looks and feels better than its substance might actually deserve.

In fact, Fincher's direction and the art direction elevate the movie to what will probably be award-winning levels, even if - if you get right down to it - the premise of vanished pretty wife and shifty husband-suspect in a whited sepulcher of a marriage is really a genre trope and a melodramatic one at that.  Still, Flynn and Fincher push the genre to the limits and - one could well argue - break it in the end.

Mad Minerva gives Gone Girl a grade of B+ . Points off for a messy, often excessive third act and for the fact that this is the kind of movie you watch once.  You can't ever recapture the thrill and suspense of wondering what will happen next. 

RottenTomatoes gives the movie the bona fide Fresh rating of 88%.

Gone Girl runs 149 minutes and is rated R for violence (there is one particularly graphic scene), pervasive language, nudity, and some sexual situations.

Here is the trailer:

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Quote of the Day: The Strategic Value of Threat Deflation

From a lengthy essay by a professor of national security comes this thought:
... the rhetoric about ISIL has given the group prestige it does not deserve. Washington may inadvertently help ISIL’s recruiting efforts by hyping its capacity for mayhem.   
... The group has already proven adept at propaganda; it does not need our help and we should not give it.  
What say you?

Holy Movie Review Pretending To Be Asinine Commentary, Batman!

Apparently Thomas Friedman is now quoting from The Dark Knight in an attempt to explain ISIS and Boko Haram.  An entire quarter of  his "analysis" is just lines from the movie. Dude, seriously?

Still, here's a retort worth repeating:

Just Another Day's Work For the US Coast Guard

Check out the photo!

Quirky Asia Files: Eating Autumn Leaves in Japan

Yeah, it's a thing.  Those fried leaves look good, though!  I wouldn't mind trying them.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Couch Potato Chronicles: "Walking Dead" Season 5 Premiere Oct.12

So of course I'm busy marathoning the show on Netflix as a way to get ready.  If you've never seen it and don't mind some occasionally gory (but not too gory) zombie action horror thrills, you might give it a try yourself. Maybe one has to be in the mood.  Some days I want Pride and Prejudice, some days I want Parks and Recreation, some days I want Star Trek, some days I want Justified, some days I want Copper, some days I want Doctor Who (but less and less these days because the current season's plotlines kind of suck), and some days I want The Walking Dead.  (Look, I have to have something to watch now that Breaking Bad is over.)

Oh, sure, I would probably last about 3 seconds in an actual zombie apocalypse, and I hate the undead (though Shaun of the Dead is a hilarious movie and World War Z a far better book than flick).  Still, there's a lot to love in a show that has a Korean American pizza delivery guy turned action hero (Steven Yeun), a taciturn African American woman (Danai Gurira) who wields a mean katana (!), and a crossbow-toting, squirrel-hunting redneck who manages to steal the show even though he doesn't get all that much screen time (fan favorite Norman Reedus as Daryl).  The ostensible lead, small-town cop Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), sometimes seems almost beside the point.

The Walking Dead also refreshingly set in a place other than New York and Los Angeles: the show starts off in Atlanta and takes off into other spots in Georgia where it's filmed on location.  So check it out if you're in the mood for a zombie apocalypse, and remember: you have to stab/shoot/bash the zombies IN THE HEAD or else they'll just keep coming.  Also remember: you can never have too much ammo during a zombie invasion, so stock up!

MM in the Kitchen: Apple Tart

It's apple-picking time, so here's one thing you can do when you get home: make a honeycrisp apple and browned-butter tart.