Sunday, April 13, 2014

Matt’s Week in Dork! (4/6/14-4/12/14)

    Mostly just movies this week, but good times, none the less.  I love living in the greater DC area.  The options for seeing movies, movies you just don’t get to see on the big screen elsewhere…It’s the berries.

The Raid 2: Berandal:  The Raid was a pretty intense, violent, and action packed little movie.  It has, essentially, the same story as Dredd, but set in Indonesia instead of MegaCity 1 (pick your urban hellscape).  With the sequel, the world is greatly expanded, with several factions of organized crime, corrupt cops, various heavies, and all kinds of horrible places to die.  As far as the plot goes, there’s nothing to write home about.  It’s the usual "cop goes undercover to infiltrate organized crime, using the headstrong, screw-up scion of a major crime family" story you’ve seen dozens of times.  But the cast and the action are what make the film stand on its own.  This is, straight up, one of the most violent films I’ve ever seen, and almost certainly the most violent film I’ve seen that somehow managed to get an R rating from the MPAA.  Of course, we know, you can show almost all the violence you want, so long as you don’t talk realistically about sex (or show a penis).  But even so, I’m shocked this was able to get an R.  If anything I’ve seen warrants and NC-17, it’s this film.  The action and violence are extremely well done, and in spite of a lot of handheld work, I never got frustrated and annoyed by it like I do in most of our modern ‘shaky-cam’ action scenes.  The meat-hook brutality of the combat is at times grueling.  But for action/martial arts fans, this one is well worth seeing.  So.  Dang.  Violent.  Probably the biggest surprise is that the extremely cliché character of the head-strong son of the mob boss isn’t horribly annoying.  I actually like him and his Asian Bruce Campbell cool.

12 Years a Slave:  “I don’t want to survive.  I want to live.”  I know the basics of the history.  I know how economic and religious ideas came together (with a dash of scientific quackery) in a horrible partnership that created the national shame that was the enslavement of large numbers of Africans in the early Americas through the 1800s (let’s skip the post Civil War awfulness for the sake of this discussion).  I’ve read the books and I’ve seen the movies.  But I don’t get it.  I don’t understand how it could be so widely practiced and accepted.  I know that it was.  And I know that similar things go on today, be it genital mutilation and enshrouding of women or colossal oppression of a people by their government, or whatever.  I know that it happens.  I see it.  But I don’t get it.  How did it take so long to stop what was so obviously a horrible and disgusting practice?  I don’t know.  That’s what I kept thinking through watching this movie.  How did so many people let it happen, keep it going, revel in it?  The movie itself is beautifully immersive, capturing the beauty of the land, while not shying away from the horrors visited brother against brother, sister against sister.  The story is compelling and the acting fantastic.  There’s good reason this was up for all the awards.  But it is a brutal viewing, no doubt about it.  If I have one critique of the film, it’s that I never got the sense of passing time.  I feel like part of the horror of Solomon Northup’s journey was how much of his life was lost.  But the movie felt like it took place over a matter of weeks or months.  Still, it’s a heck of a powerful movie.  Thinking about it over the course of the week, what made this movie more effective for me than some others on the same subject may be that Solomon Northup started the film as a free man, minding his own business, who gets kidnapped and taken to a hostile land.  I can relate to that more than the usual story of a person who grew up under the boot heal of slavery.  It makes things less abstract.

Particle Fever:  This movie made me want to go out and do Science! for a living.  I know that’s not in the cards.  I’m too old, and I suck at math.  But for an hour and a half, I felt like I could be part of all this wonder and the expansion of Human understanding.  Through the eyes of a handful of interesting physicists, we see the final stages of the construction and early tests of the Large Hadron Collider, a machine designed to smash particles together and see what comes out.  Some of these people had theories that were decades old, with no ability to test them until this massive machine was built.  The movie does an excellent job of showing what life on the inside of this particular fishbowl was like, while showing the passions of the people involved.  I also like that it prominently and positively featured women in science without being about women in science.  Typically with a movie like this, if they were going to have one of the key protagonists be a woman, they’d spend 10 or 15 minutes talking about the challenge of being a woman in a male dominated field.  Something that would almost certainly be off-putting for young women looking to get into that field.  Instead, we see women working right alongside men in the office, in the classrooms, and in the construction of the machine, and running the overall project, just as it should be.  No, it’s not like it was a 50/50 split.  But the mix is a heck of a lot better than a couple decades ago.  And if we stop scaring our daughters off of male dominated fields by driving home how challenging they’ll be, maybe that split will decrease more in the coming years.  A movie like this is going to be a heck of a lot more inspirational than one that focuses on the negative.  And inspirational is how I’d describe it.  I’ll admit, there were several times, when the music swelled, the camera moved  over the machine, or we watched one of these scientists’ dawning awareness of new revelations, that I got a bit misty.  Watching the work of so many people come together.  Watching the power of the Human mind to unlock the secrets of the universe, even if only in a small way.  And of course, knowing that science transcends culture and border, becoming the collective effort of our whole species to better know the nature of reality, without the weight of our hatreds and fears.  Is uplifting.

Alexandria The Greatest City:  Over the last decade or so, I’ve become quite the fan of Bettany Hughes and her passion for history.  This exploration of Alexandria is cursory, but interesting.  It makes a good deal of use of clips from the Alexandria set film Agora.  There’s not a lot to this one, but Hughes always makes it interesting, and makes me want to read more.

Lizzie Borden Took an Ax:  No, no, no.  I didn’t think this was going to be what we might traditionally think of as ‘good.’  But as soon as it started, I had that Quantum Leap ‘Oh, boy’ moment.  It’s shot like crappy TV.  It’s written like crappy TV.  It’s crappy TV.  Everyone in this should know better.  I don’t know what the idea was in using modern Black Keys wannabe music for the soundtrack.  But it was bad.  A bad idea.  On a purely shallow note, Christina Ricci did look extremely cute in the period costumes.  I wish she could have stepped out of this movie and into a good Western or whatever.

Battle of the Darned:  Dolph Lundgren teams up with killer robots to fight zombies?  Sold!  Actually, this movie is better than I expected, but that might be to its detriment.  If it was worse, it might have been more fun.  It’s not good enough to recommend.  It’s OK.  The kind of thing that if you find playing while you’re flipping channels, you could do much worse.  The camera shakes way to much (it is an action movie made after the Bourne franchise) and the CG on the robots is wonky in places.  But it’s OK.  I liked the scenes with Dolph and the robots back to back.  I’d have liked more of that.

Engineering Ancient Egypt:  Another documentary presented by Bettany Hughes, this time on two of Egypt’s most successful pharaohs, Khufu and Ramses II.  By examining the whys and wherefores of building the pyramids first, and the temple at Abu Simbel, she gets into the belief systems and key historic events that shaped the two men and their times.  As often happens, taking the time to look into history produces information that doesn’t jive with generally held beliefs.  One of the primary things I grew up with, that has been rather soundly trounced is the idea that slaves (generally thought to have been Hebrew slaves) built the pyramids.  Hughes’s documentaries are always entertaining and informative, though frequently only introductory.  They’re good starts for further research.

    On Thursday night Brad and I, and a couple others from our graphic novel group, all headed out to the Alamo to watch a VHS projection of that classic, 3 Dev Adam, one of the best Captain America films ever made.  Awesome.

3 Dev Adam (aka Turkish Captain America):  What can one say about this film?  The plot is totally unintelligible, and I don’t know if that’s because of the subtitles or the editing.  The villains have a plan, I guess.  The heroes have a plan, too.  Or something.  They fight sometimes.  In the middle of fight scenes, they often cut to people walking.  Throughout most of the film, it sounds like there are nervous horses on cobblestones, which I think is supposed to be the sounds of footsteps.  I’ve got no idea.  But it was all awesome.  A film to share with friends, for sure.  Plus, who doesn’t love an awkward puppet moment during sexual coupling?

A Touch of Sin:  I went into this film knowing nothing about it at all, beyond the poster image of the guy sitting on his motorcycle in front of a crashed fruit truck.  I recommend going into it the same way.  I won’t give away story or character.  But I’ll say this about the film; it’s beautifully shot and well acted.  It has a slow pace, but isn’t ever dull.  There are some gorgeous images of China, even when they’re of various ugly things or environments you’d never want to live in or possibly even go to.  The film feels extremely contemporary, and not just because it features a lot of people staring at their cell phones.  And if I was left with any message, it’s ‘don’t go to China.’  Very worth seeking out, though.  Know in advance that there is some rather graphic violence.

The Raid:  Having watched The Raid 2 a few days back, I decided to revisit the first one.  It’s a heck of a violent movie.  Not much in the way of plot, but that would have gotten in the way of the horrible, bone-cracking action.  Anyone into brutal action movies needs to see this one.  Good camera work, nasty violence, and excellent gun and hand to hand choreography.

Nova: The Vikings:  This documentary from 2000 does a pretty good job of reintroducing the Vikings, putting the sword to some commonly held misconceptions.  I’m always fascinated by our evolving understanding of those who came before.  This is a very cursory examination of the subject, but still managed to have some interesting bits for me to look into, especially with the Vikings in Russia.

Ninotchka:  When three bumbling Soviets in Paris screw up a deal for the Reds back home, Moscow sends along a hard-line agent to kick things into shape, in the shapely Greta Garbo.  French playboy Melvyn Douglas sets his sights on melting her heart, unleashing the charming woman hiding beneath the utilitarian comrade.  Ernst Lubitsch crafts another supremely funny, cheeky, and surprisingly sexy comedy.  It’s funny how timeless the issues of the film, then quite topical, remain.

Orca: The Killer Whale:  Obviously made to capitalize on the huge success of Jaws, this Ahab Vs. Killer Whale film looks pretty good, but is mostly just silly.  I love the cast and Michael Anderson knows how to make a good looking film.  But it’s so hackneyed.

I just wanna watch the world burn!

    I’ve been doing a bunch of reading, but from a bunch of different books, none of which I’m all that close to finishing.  Dang, Lord of Light is a dense read.


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