New Year’s Day Rambling

Some of this may/will be a repeat. Such is life.

I’ve been out of the office for 12 days (using up 5 vacation days).  I’m really not in the mood to go back to the office tomorrow, so I’m doing a blog post, which helps me put off going to bed, which helps me put off thinking about returning to work.

My time off was not as exciting or event packed as one might think – I caught a cold a few days before Christmas and so mostly stayed close to home. I had been thinking about a brief Macau or Shenzhen run but didn’t make it to either of them. Also, I’ve got a business trip to the UK coming up in 3 weeks and following that, my wife will meet me in Paris for a proper honeymoon, so I might as well save my money for that.

(Brief grumble: She needs a visa for France. The French consulate web site says 3 to 10 working days for visa processing and she needs to present her plane ticket and hotel reservation with her visa application. It also says one must make an online appointment; one cannot merely show up and wait in line. So I booked everything and then went to their web site to make an appointment for her and the earliest available appointment is January 16th. This is cutting things awfully close.)

After not shooting anything of consequence in a long time, I did do one shoot at PASM that turned out rather nice. Here’s a sample:

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The girl in the photo is Faye Wan, who was the lead singer of HK indie band Hazden. “Was” because she’s just left the band to concentrate on her studies. She’s not a professional model but I knew she not only looked good but that there aren’t too many Chinese women in HK with such prominent tattooes.

I needed something new because I’ll be one of the participating photographers in a group exhibition in Soho in February. It’s called Scraped (link is to the Facebook event page, in case you’re interested) and I needed some new shots for the show.

(Note: I had this thought – having just shot Faye and now planning an upcoming shoot with Chris B from Underground HK, it might be interesting to shoot an entire series featuring tattooed women. If you’re a woman and have tattoes and are interested in having me shoot some portraits of you – or if you know someone who fits the bill – please drop me a line.)

Following that shoot, I went out with friends to one of those places in San Po Kong that every local and almost no expat knows about – 七喜粥麵小廚 –  a place with no English name and no English menu but where people were pulling up in Rolls Royces after midnight for a break. They’re famous for their crab congee – but we were there after midnight and the crab was sold out. We settled for prawn and fish maw congee, which had some amazing huge and tasty prawns in it. Usually I’m not a congee fan but this dish changed my mind – I’d definitely go back for this, or to try the crab. Other dishes maybe not so much. There was raw, marinated fish skin. Goose intestine with noodles. And something that my friends said had no English translation, just “funny fish,” which was mostly chunks of fish bone with some meat on it, tasty but not easy to eat.

So mostly what I did aside from the photo shoot (and the post-processing, which is still not complete) is work on my CD and DVD collections.

I’ve got somewhere around 2,000 to 2,500 DVDs (including Blu-Ray and HD-DVD) and have sorted out around 750 to unload. Using a Mac program called Delicious Library, I can scan the bar code for most of them, build up a catalog, and check the current value for used copies on Amazon. Of course many of them are going for $1 or less, but some are in the $30 or $40 range, and there doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason that I can figure out as to why some of these things are worth what they appear to be worth.

Then I turned to the CDs. That’s far more difficult, as I have at least 5,000 of them and a relatively small space to work in. I got them all out of boxes (I hope), then went through the task of alphabetizing them and sorting out which ones to keep and which ones to lose.  (I’ve only done Rock A-M so far.)

The “get rid of” stack grows depending on my mood at any particular second. I’ll hit some artist and be really brutal and then, for no rhyme or reason, decide to hold onto all of my Peter Hammill or Robyn Hitchcock discs.

Some discs I feel emotionally attached to for one reason or another and want to keep the physical disc, even if I ripped it to MP3 a long time ago. Maybe it’s the packaging or maybe I just feel that I have to have the actual CDs of every Bonzo Dog Band album.

And each time I put a CD into the “sell” pile, I feel a sense of defeat. I bought it once, with all high hopes, thinking it would be something I’d love, something that I’d absorb and it would become a part of my life, and then that never happened with that particular disc. Which in and of itself isn’t anything big, except when I stop to think about what I spent for it times how many I’m getting rid of equals what I might have done with that money.  Oh well. You can’t undo what’s been done, you can only learn and move on.

In the past year I’ve basically stopped buying physical CDs. There are some exceptions (like the super deluxe Velvet Underground White Light/White Heat, which comes with a marvelous book) but mostly, every time I hit a CD shop (an increasingly rare occurrence) and see something I want, I stop and think not just about the money but also about the space it’s going to take up, and more often than not put it back on the shelf.

I’ll run the CDs through Delicious Library soon. I’ve got no delusions at this point about what they’re worth. (I did note that on Amazon, if you look at the Mobile Fidelity gold disc version of Cream’s Disraeli Gears, someone is asking over US$1,000 for it. Good luck to him.)

The last movies I watched ranged from okay to pretty good – Saving Mr. Banks, Don Jon, Prisoners, Riddick, The Butler and American Hustle.

Also, I re-watched Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, now that Criterion has released it on Blu-Ray (and the image quality is amazing). I remember watching this in film school, it was my first Bergman film, thinking it was really perfect. I think at the time I saw my parents in it. This time I wondered if it was me.

And mostly I’ve been playing Springsteen’s new album, which leaked out on the net a few days ago. It’s a real odd grab bag – covers, studio versions of things previously only done live, a new version of Ghost of Tom Joad, some stuff from the archives with Clarence and Danny. Mostly it works for me.

Anyway, Happy New Year everyone. 2013 started off shitty for me and seemed for awhile as if it would only get shittier. Then I got a new job that doesn’t suck and also got married. Let’s see what 2014 has in store …

Does Anyone Still Watch HD-DVD?

I suspect most people don’t even remember the HD-DVD format. Blu-Ray was developed by Sony, HD-DVD was developed by a bunch of companies led by Toshiba (Toshiba was the co-developer of the original DVD, along with Warner Bros.). The two formats went head to head in the market and some said that HD-DVD was the superior format. Then Sony bribed Warner (and maybe Fox) to go Blu-Ray only and the format war was over as all of the other studios quickly fell into line.

While the format is dead, HD-DVDs still work just fine, as long as you have a player that plays them – an add-on HD player for the XBox360 or a stand-alone unit. They do not play in Blu-Ray players, PS3’s or standard DVD players. There are no new players made for them.

Anyway, the reason I’m mentioning this is that I’ve got 32 of the suckers. Stuff like the Ultimate Matrix 4 disc box set, Big Lebowski, Monty Python, couple of the Bourne films, Blazing Saddles, Casablanca and more.

While I could still play them (because I have an XBox), I don’t. They’re just taking up space on a shelf.

If anyone reading this wants them, let me know. If I have to schlep them to you or ship them to you, there’s gonna be a charge. If you can come get them from me, just take them.  Drop me a note at hongkietown at gmail dot com if you’re interested.

A New Home Video Format is Coming

This is the first year in at least a decade that I paid zero attention to the new product announcements coming out of the annual Consumer Electronics Show.  It’s due to lack of interest, it’s due to lack of budget – if I don’t see the stuff, I’m not tempted.

So yesterday, when I was driving to HK island via the Eastern Harbour Tunnel and saw billboards advertising a new Sony Bravia 4K TV, I knew what it was but I was surprised it was here.

It’s the new UHD – Ultra High Definition format.  You knew it was coming, right?  You didn’t think that everything was going to stop at HD?

Currently, when people think of HD resolution, they’re thinking 1080p, which translates out to 1920 X 1080 pixels per frame.  UHD is roughly 4350 X 2175 pixels per frame.  Here’s an image I grabbed from C-Net that illustrates the difference.

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As with any new format, the price of entry is insanely high.  I’ve read of exactly one 4K disc player coming out so far, at a retail price of US$1,500.  And I’ve heard that the price of UHD TVs is currently in the vicinity of US$25,000.  Of course, should the format prosper, the cost of all this stuff will come down in a few years.

There are very, very, very few movies available in 4K format.  Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is one.  The recent (and admittedly superb) Lawrence of Arabia restoration was done at 4K.

But there are no UHD discs yet and I don’t know when they will be available and I don’t know if the technology is even there for them yet.  A Blu-Ray disc of a single movie runs roughly 25-50 gigabytes in size.  I haven’t seen firm numbers for how much data is required for a UHD disc but one estimate I came across was 10 terabytes.

Does anyone have a disc technology capable of holding 10 terabytes on a single disc?  I don’t know.

And what kind of internet connection would you need to have to stream a 10 terabyte file to your TV from, say the iTunes store or Hulu?

But looking beyond the technological capability, what about consumer desire for this?  I can’t say that I have done any research around this but I did work in the home video industry for a major studio for nine years.

The fact is that the current HD format, Blu-Ray, has never achieved anywhere near the popularity that DVDs did, and probably never will.  The majority of the world doesn’t care about 480p vs 720p vs 1080p.  And the world is moving towards streaming video rather than building up home libraries.

Five or ten years from now, when we all have fat pipes for streaming and downloading, who will buy movies on disc any more?  (Okay, maybe 5 or 10 years is overly optimistic.  If you live on Hong Kong island, you can get fiber to the home and 1 gigabit per second internet connections for around US$25 per month.  Though where I live it’s more like 8 megabits per second.)

I’m probably what some would consider to be the ultimate old school collector – I still prefer to buy atoms rather than bytes.  But as crazy as I am, which is pretty darned crazy, I never felt the need to “upgrade” my existing DVD library to Blu-Ray.  With the exception of certain key titles (mostly releases from Criterion), I have rarely bought a Blu-Ray disc of something that I already own on DVD.  I certainly have no intention of replacing my thousands of DVDs and hundreds of Blu-Ray discs with UHD discs.  Hell, I still know people who are happy with VCD quality.

So if the numbers for Blu Ray are substantially lower than they were for DVD, I suspect that the potential for UHD is even lower than it was for Blu-Ray.

In other words, in my opinion this format is not being driven by consumer desire or consumer need, it is driven by consumer electronics manufacturers and movie studios that need to have new product to sell.  I think the format is destined to be a niche product – for corporations, bars & restaurants, the ultra-rich, the fanatic.

What about you, my readers?  Is this new format of interest to any of you?  Do you see yourselves investing in it any time soon?

James Bond Blu-Ray & DVD Sale

I just noticed that Amazon’s got the upcoming James Bond 50 box sets for 50% off.

This is a massive boxed set containing almost every James Bond film.  (It does not include the Peter Sellers/Woody Allen comedy version of Casino Royale and it doesn’t include Sean Connery’s Never Say Never Again.)  9 of these films are available on Blu-Ray for the first time.  The set includes over 130 hours of bonus material, including some stuff pimping the upcoming Skyfall.

The Blu-Ray set is 23 discs and normally lists for $300 but for I-don’t-know-how-long Amazon’s pre-order price is $149.99.  Get it by clicking this link.

The standard DVD set is just 22 discs and contains no bonus features.  But it is cheaper, listing for $200 and right now on sale for $99.99.  Get it by clicking this link.

The only reason I haven’t ordered it myself is that I already have 8 Bond movies on Blu-Ray as well as an earlier limited edition boxed set of all the movies pre-Craig on DVD.  Even so, it’s tempting.  I have no idea how long they’ll be selling it at this price so if this is interesting to you, click the above links (please) to order one for yourself.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

There’s something about sushi that’s almost religious for me.  I think it’s the purity of the food and the experience, at least when it’s done right, when you’re sitting there at a counter, when the person on the other side is someone who has trained for 10 years, dedicated his life to it.

When it comes to sushi, I’m lucky.  Back when I was dating the woman who would become my second wife (and second ex-wife), she was living in Malaysia and one of her friends was a Japanese man who was a classically trained sushi chef, running the sushi bar at a 5 star hotel.  He taught her everything about sushi and then he taught me as well.  Not about the preparation but about the consumption – how to tell good from bad, how to eat it properly, all that kind of stuff.  Over the years, I’ve been to Tokyo at least 50 or 75 times, almost always on an expense account, almost always getting taken out to some of Tokyo’s finest restaurants.  I’ve become somewhat snobbish about the whole thing.  I can’t enjoy the food at Hong Kong’s ubiquitous cheapo sushi chains.  When we go out for sushi, we’re going to go someplace where dinner will cost at least HK$2,000 for two, the type of meal that I can’t afford too frequently any more.

Anyway, Jiro Dreams of Sushi.

Jiro Ono is 85 years old and every night can be found behind the sushi counter of his restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro, in the Ginza section of Tokyo.  It is perhaps the best sushi restaurant in the entire world.  It has ten stools at a counter, a meal starts at 30,000 yen (roughly US$380) and you can only eat there if you get a reservation at least one month in advance.  Sukiyabashi Jiro has 3 Michelin stars and Mr. Ono is in the Guinness Book of World Records as being the oldest chef to receive 3 stars.

Jiro has been doing this for more than 60 years.  His life is devoted to sushi perfection, a quest that he feels he has still not achieved.  He has two sons.  The oldest son is 50 years old and has worked under his father for 30 years, waiting for his father to retire so that he can inherit the restaurant.  The younger son apprenticed under his father and then, since he wouldn’t inherit the restaurant, opened his own shop (a mirror image of his father’s) in Roppongi Hills.

The title of this documentary is meant to be taken literally.  Early in the film, Jiro tells us that he does indeed dream of sushi at night, of finding the perfect flavors and balance.  We meet Jiro, his sons, another chef who apprenticed under Jiro, a food critic and Jiro’s suppliers. Jiro only buys his tuna from someone who specializes in tuna.  He only buys his shrimp from someone who only sells shrimp.  His rice dealer refuses to sell the special rice that Jiro buys to the Grand Hyatt, or anyone else.

I think you get the idea.  In 81 minutes, you’ll find out almost everything about Jiro, his sons, his staff (his wife is mentioned just once in the film and never seen) and the amount of work they put into choosing and preparing the fish, the rice, the seaweed; the thought that goes into how people are seated at the counter (he positions the sushi differently on the plate if he notices a customer is left-handed); the order in which items are served.  If you watch closely, you’ll see that there is no little dispenser for soy sauce, there is no bowl of wasabi – each piece is perfect the way it’s served.   The only thing you won’t get to do is taste the food itself, although watching this film will not only give you an appreciation for what goes into the tiny bit of fish sitting on top of a clump of rice, it will also make you very hungry.

I wouldn’t say this is a truly great documentary (despite the 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes).   It doesn’t truly rise above its subject matter to the point where it could be enjoyed by someone who has no interest in its subject matter.  It tries.  You don’t get to be 85 years old and be acclaimed a national treasure without having some philosophy and lessons of life to share, and we get Jiro’s thoughts on that, on the benefits of hard work, on loving your work, on succeeding despite growing up ignored by an alcoholic father and failing at school.  I also liked that towards the end the filmmakers devote some time to the sustainability of sushi, how some types of fish are increasingly rare because they’re being over-fished, how the quality has gone down over the years.  It may not be a transcendent documentary for the ages.  But I think Jiro has some lessons to impart to all of us along with some seriously tasty fish.

 

The Deer Hunter

I tend to take it for granted that everyone has seen the cornerstone films from the past – perhaps because most of my friends are big movie lovers – but I know that’s not really the case.  And very few current films move me to write about them, let alone give them much thought once the end credits have rolled.  I watched The Deer Hunter today.  It’s been at least a decade since I’ve last seen it and now it’s stuck back deeply into my head again.

There were two reasons it was on my mind to watch.  The first reason is the recent release of the film on Blu-Ray (hey, it’s only $10 bucks on Amazon right now!) – I’ve seen this on VHS, laser disc and standard DVD and this Blu-Ray edition is the first to do justice to Vilmos Zsigmond’s Oscar-nominated cinematography.

The second reason was because I’d recently watched the HBO documentary short I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale.  Actually I watched it twice because it’s so damned good.  (It’s on DVD, find it at Amazon. The bonus features look so good that I might have to buy it eventually.)Who would believe that this was produced by Brett Ratner?  (Fortunately he didn’t direct it.)  Cazale was in only 5 films.  All 5 of those films won the Academy Award for best picture.  Godfather 1 & 2, Dog Day Afternoon, The Conversation, The Deer Hunter.  The documentary does an amazing job in a short time of getting into the craft of acting and explaining just what it was that made Cazale so special.  But I digress.

There are so many reasons that The Deer Hunter is a great film.  Well, we can start with the cast.  Robert De Niro, John Cazale, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep, John Savage, George Dzundza, Shirley Stoler.  But it’s not just the cast.

And it’s surely not director/co-writer Michael Cimino, who’s almost equally famous for destroying United Artists with his next film, Heaven’s Gate (which, by the way, is much better than people gave it credit for at the time).  Okay, I admit, I like his first film, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot.  Year of the Dragon is an extremely guilty pleasure.  After that, he didn’t do much and none of it was worthwhile.

No, I suspect it’s that “secret sauce” – a coming together of all the right creative elements in the right space and time.  And it’s a film very much of its time, the 1970s.  It could never be made today, at least not in the same form.  The focus is on the characters.  The story telling itself is almost jagged, with some very abrupt transitions.

Let’s face it, in the first hour of the 3 hour film, nothing happens (and yet everything happens).  You’ve got a western Pennsylvania steel town and a group of friends.  They are preparing for a wedding.  Then there’s the wedding and the wedding party and then a few of them go out deer hunting.   And then BAM! More than one hour in before you get to the Vietnam scenes that are so justly famous.

But despite the intensity of the Russian roulette sequences, it’s that first hour that draws you in, when there’s almost no attention paid to plot.  It’s just great actors working together so well that you don’t feel as if you’re watching acting.  There’s an honesty here.

And it struck me that it’s so different from most current cinema.  Today, all movies are the same:  they start with a big bam over the top action sequence because they feel they need to get your attention immediately.  Usually after that sequence there will be a title card saying “two weeks earlier” and then the film gallumphs along at a plodding pace until it returns to the action stuff.

The Deer Hunter is different.  I think one reason that the second two thirds of the film work as well as it does is because by that point you really care about these people.  You don’t care about them because they’re played by big name stars and you’re expected to.  You care about them because you know them.

The film rewards patience.  And it rewards repeated viewing – as any great film does – because each time you watch it you can focus in on a totally different aspect or actor. It’s multi-layered.  It doesn’t spell everything out for you.  (Here’s a simplistic example: when De Niro returns to Vietnam and finds Christopher Walken still playing Russian roulette and Walken’s acting damned strange (even for Walken), at one point De Niro pulls the guy’s arm out and it’s filled with hypodermic needle tracks.  There’s no conversation around this.  There’s no “what the fuck are you doing on heroin man?” dialogue.  There are of course more complex examples of this as well.)

The Deer Hunter won 5 Academy Awards (film, directing, editing, sound and supporting actor for Walken) and it’s one of those best picture winners that actually deserved to win.  (And it was up against some tough competition that year – Coming Home, Heaven Can Wait, Midnight Express, An Unmarried Woman.)

Another reason that I liked Deer Hunter so much was because the previous film I watched was Safe House and it was absolute bollocks.  I love Denzel Washington.  He’s a consistent actor and most of his films are at the very least solid entertainment (even though he does seem unusually attached to working with Tony Scott).  This one could mark the moment where his career jumps the proverbial shark.  And I say that despite the relatively strong rating it currently has on IMDB (6.9) – I think the 54% on Rotten Tomatoes is much closer to my opinion.

On paper at least, it looked promising.  For a Denzel Washington film, it has an unusually strong supporting cast.  Ryan Reynolds (who has more screen time than Washington), Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson, Sam Shepard, Ruben Blades, Robert Patrick, Liam “Sir Davos Seaworth” Cunningham.  The director is Daniel Espinosa – half Chilean, half Swedish and apparently seen as an up-and-comer in Sweden.  It’s got the same DP and editor as the Bourne films.

It should be good.  It isn’t.  About ten minutes in you find out there’s a leak in the CIA and I promise you that anyone who has ever watched a movie at some point in their lives will know who the source of that leak is and after that, it just kind of spins out by the numbers, albeit with some vaguely decent actions scenes.  Mostly it’s cardboard characters in predictable situations and the 115 minute running time seems more like 115 hours.  Maybe the blame goes to screen writer David Guggenheim – this is his first feature film after one TV film.

Oh well.  With lots more rain predicted for this week, looks like I’ll have lots more time to watch movies.  I hope there’s gonna be at least a couple of good ones.

Winter Is Coming

Yeah, that’s right, Game of Thrones season 2 starts on April 1st.  The latest trailer for the HBO series can be found here.

Although we’ve already watched Season 1 of the series, I bought the Blu-Ray set this week and we’re watching it again, 1 episode per night, to refresh our memories and get psyched.  And without even having watched any of the bonus features yet, I have to say that the 1080p transfer is gorgeous.  The colors and the clarity of the image are amazing.

(That’s both good and bad.  We watched Episode 3 tonight and in one of Emilia Clarke’s many nude scenes, it was pretty obvious that she should have removed her bra a bit longer before they started filming the scene.)

I’ve read the first 3 books in the series and I’ve just started the 4th one.

Meanwhile my mom, who as far as I know has never read a science fiction or fantasy novel in her life, has read the first 4 books all within a single week and is now into the 5th and is totally in love with it.  She’s so in love with it that she sent me an email today asking me to write to George R.R. Martin on her behalf.  Martin does provide an email address on his web site and while he says he doesn’t have time to respond to every email he receives, he also writes:

That’s not to say I don’t read it all, however. A few of the letters are cranky and a few are just, well, strange. The vast majority of them are wonderful, however. Believe me, after decades laboring in the sort of anonymity that is customary for most authors, it’s great to hear so much enthusiasm for my work.

What did she ask me to write?  She wanted me to let him know that she’s going to be 91 years old in 3 months and that at the rate he’s writing, she may not live long enough to see the 6th book in the series let alone the 7th (and presumably final) book.  She wanted me to ask him to write faster.  Failing that, she wanted me to ask him if he could share with her how he plans to end the series and that if he clues her in, she promises not to share the details with anyone.

So yes, I have days when I try to be a good son.  I’ve written to him.  If I do get a reply, I’ll let you know.

 

Some Recent Films I’ve Watched

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted anything related to films I’ve watched.  That’s mostly because most of the ones I’ve seen have been extremely unremarkable.  Here are brief reviews and I’m saving the best for last.

Last night we went to see David Fincher’s remake of Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.  I remember watching the original Swedish film and thinking that the story was okay but that the film itself was artlessly made, ran far too long (this was before an extended director’s cut edition was made available) and was poorly paced.  When I heard that David Fincher would be doing an English language remake of the film, I was dismayed that he was doing a remake and revisiting what for him would be old territory.  Yet I was certain that he was the one director who could turn this into greatness.

I was wrong.  Okay, we get the star power of Daniel Craig – to which I say, why?  He has almost nothing to do here and exhibits about the same level of charisma as Michael Nyqvist.  The changes from the previous film are mostly subtle and it still runs too damned long.  Yes, they had to keep this in Sweden – especially for reasons that become more apparent in the following films – but it’s distracting to listen to all these people speaking English in Swedish accents (and all written material displayed on screen is in Swedish).  Tech credits are solid but overall I found the best thing about the film to be the score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross and the performance by Stellan Skarsgard (one of those guys I just love to watch onscreen).

Rise of the Planet of the Apes – Simply put, I wanted to hate this, I expected to hate this, I should have hated it – but I didn’t.  It may be faint praise to say that this is the best of the 7 Planet of the Apes films but it is.  It probably works well if you haven’t seen any of the others but it’s even better if you’ve at least seen the original.

Drive is a low budget crime film that just oozes style.  It’s not quite as good as its admirers will tell you; it stands out mostly because 2011 was such a shitty film year.  Ryan Gosling stars as a guy who works as a mechanic, drives get-away cars in heists and occasionally works as a stunt driver in films.  Gosling’s pretty good but it’s the supporting cast that’s worth mentioning here – Albert Brooks in particular is so completely convincing and so different from any other role he’s ever played, I can smell Oscar nomination here.  Bryan Cranston’s quite okay but is there some new rule in Hollywood that says he has to be in every picture made now?  Christina Hendricks is wasted, Carey Mulligan isn’t given too much to do, Ron Pearlman stands around and acts scary.  At its best moments, it seemed the film was reaching to be on the level of Michael Mann’s magnificent Thief but it never quites get there.  Even so, it’s an entertaining diversion and director Nicolas Winding Refn is clearly someone to watch.

The plot of Warrior is so over-the-top preposterous that you keep waiting for someone to tell you it’s based on a true story but it’s not.  A family split apart by the actions of an alcoholic father, two brothers who haven’t spoken to each other in years both fighting for the UFC championship.  It seems like something a 12 year old might write and who would think that a “sport” like UFC could yield an Oscar caliber film – and yet that’s what this is.  Start with an amazing comeback performance from Nick Nolte (although his character seems to fade into irrelevance in the final third of the film) and a nuanced and controlled performance from Tom Hardy.  Then there’s the script which manages to rise above its B-movie material in the way it looks at the disintegration of the family, the ravages of alcoholism, the way Americans are coping with the 21st century.  The fight scenes are appropriately brutal, the editing is tight – on the other hand the open 20 minutes or so are more than a little clumsy in terms of exposition and the film runs long.  Nolte will probably see an Oscar nomination (if he manages to stay out of prison and the gossip pages) and director Gavin O’Connor has a real winner here.

I loved Moneyball even though I really couldn’t give a shit about baseball.  Maybe it’s because I’m a computer geek but I found myself actually caring about something that I don’t ordinarily do – this tale of a baseball manager trying to figure out how to build a winning team by using computers and statistics.  Brad Pitt gives a great performance but even more surprising is the chemistry between him and Jonah Hill.  Philip Seymour Hoffman is excellent and the script comes from two Hollywood heavy hitters – Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian – and it’s one of those films that manages to transcend its subject and is worth seeing even if you don’t understand anything about the game.

Probably the best movie I’ve watched in the past month is Margin Call.  Taking place mostly in a single night, an analyst at an investment bank discovers just how leveraged the bank is.  The senior staff meet through the night trying to figure out what to do.  First of all, this is the best that Kevin Spacey has been in years.  And the two scenes in which he goes toe to toe with Jeremy Irons are about as good as film acting seems to get these days.  Paul Bettany and Zachary Quinto also turn in great performances, smaller roles filled by Demi Moore and Stanley Tucci are also well-handled.  It’s the debut feature film from J.C. Chandor, who also wrote the original script.  The script is brilliant in the way that it allows every character to get his or her moment in the spotlight and the way in which all sides are presented relatively fairly.  Irons’ character may be monstrous and yet he is almost sympathetic and when he explains why he’s about to destroy the economy of the world in order to save his company, you can at least understand his motivation.  This is the first great fiction film covering the financial meltdown of 2008 (Inside Job of course being a great documentary on the subject).  There’s only one minor flaw here – these are all insiders talking to each other.  They all know what these financial terms mean and there’s no one “on the outside” whom they have to explain it to.  I worked for investment banks in the 90s and I know this stuff all too well but others might have a hard time wading through the jargon.

The Tree of Life

Warning, there may be spoilers ahead, not that this is a movie with a conventional plot that could be spoiled.

There’s a family. And a messenger arrives and delivers a telegram and runs off.  Clearly the telegram says that someone has died.  The woman, likely the mother, is overwhelmed by grief.  And then …

Then we get a 15 minute sequence with very minimal dialogue that asks very basic questions.  Questions about god and life and death.  And a sequence that shows the creation of the universe, the creation of the earth, the dinosaurs, the asteroid crashing into the earth that changed the climate that killed the dinosaurs.  It’s amazingly, achingly beautiful, and one of the wizards behind this is Douglas Trumbull, the man responsible for the special effects in the final sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey, to which this bears some resemblance.

And just when you think it’s going to go on like this for two hours, the film shifts gears.  A baby is born and grows up.  The father is Brad Pitt, the mother is Jessica Chastain.  The boy, who eventually has two younger brothers, will eventually grow up to be Sean Penn.  And it takes two hours but you realize that what’s happening is that Penn has received word of his brother’s death and is pondering the Meaning Of Life.  He remembers back to his childhood, a very normal childhood in Waco, Texas.

Memory is a funny thing.  You don’t always remember the things that people think are going to be significant.  It’s the little things that shape us; those are what we recall.  The boys have a domineering father.  It’s the 1950’s of Eisenhower and Life Magazine.  The father dominates the family.  The boys are taught to obey, to call him sir.  He imparts the lessons of life to them but sometimes these are hard lessons because life has often let the father down.  A failed musician and a failed inventor, he works in a factory and as he gets older, he sees his dreams slip away.  These kids go through all of the normal childhood stuff and it’s all mundane and yet it’s fascinating to watch because it is common to almost all of us and it is so beautifully presented.  The film ends, inside Sean Penn’s head, everyone reunited again and happy.  (I’m try to remember; I don’t recall Penn having a single line of dialogue and I think his total screen time ends up at under 10 minutes.)

That’s essentially the whole film.  What that synopsis doesn’t convey is the stunningly beautiful cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki.  The absolutely seamless editing, credited not to one person but a team of 5 in alphabetical order.  The lush soundtrack by Alexandre Desplat that merges perfectly with a large selection of classical music.  (Berlioz’s Requiem figures heavily in the finale.)

Tree of Life is, of course, written and directed by Terrence Malick.  It is only the 5th feature film he has created since he debuted with Badlands in 1973.  (The others are Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The New World.)  This is the film he’s been building up to.  It is, on some levels, kind of insane while on others it’s pure visual poetry.  There are perhaps heavy psychological meanings as the dynamics of the family relationships are presented.  None of the big questions are answered because, well, they’re unanswerable.

I suppose the movie might sound boring and many people probably won’t have the patience for it.  I remember when it hit HK theaters, I showed the trailer to my gf and she said she didn’t see anything special about it.  But she watched the film with me last night and she was transfixed.  Every time her phone rang, she didn’t take the call.  She didn’t once ask how much longer there was to the end.  And … she told me this morning, she dreamed about her father.

For me, I think I made a journey from “what the fuck is going on here?” to “I think this is a movie I’m going to pull out and watch again and again,” one of those films where I’m going to get something more out of it each time I watch it.  It made me think about my own childhood, my own relationship with my parents.  It made me think.  Apparently it had the same effect on others – not just an 85% rating on Rotten Tomatoes but also the winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year.

I’ve read several reviews of Tree of Life.  I think Mick LaSalle came closest to capturing how I feel about the film.

If someone gave you, as a gift, a bag of diamonds and rocks, you would not see it as “a mixed bag.” You would see it as a bag of diamonds with some rocks that can be easily pushed aside, and you would be happy to be rich. In the same way, Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” is at times trying and perplexing, but it also contains some of the most psychologically insightful and ecstatic filmmaking imaginable.

Malick shows you the world that you know, but he shows it in such a fever that you see it, not differently, but completely. It’s a vision so alive to the mystery in everything that the simple depiction of a man walking into an office building feels like a feast of limitless possibility and geometric variety. To see “The Tree of Life” is to wish you could go through life seeing things in this way. There would be no fear of death because each moment would be so full as to contain lifetimes.

From the first moments, Malick presents his film as a contrast between two ways of understanding human existence. There is the way of nature, which sees only struggle and looks for reasons to be unhappy, and there is the way of grace, which is in touch with love and the broad movements of the universe. The way of nature is embodied by Brad Pitt as a hard-charging husband and father – it’s a lovely performance from Pitt, whose control-freak facade never completely hides the vulnerability motivating it. Jessica Chastain, as his wife, embodies the way of grace. They live with their three children in a Texas suburb in the 1950s and are seen through the memory of their eldest son, Jack (Sean Penn), looking back from the present.

As in “The New World,” voice-over narration, to the accompaniment of subjective shots of trees and sky, gives us the characters’ inner thoughts. These produce a unique effect. It’s as if we’re seeing a dream of the past and hearing mental vibrations that, either randomly or because of their particular strength, happened to survive time. The feeling is one of privilege, to be picking up on precious currents of consciousness, seemingly lost to the world.

At its most basic, “The Tree of Life” vividly replicates, in cinematic terms, the way we remember. There are general memories, moods and sensations, and then there are incidents and bits of conversation that are recalled with absolute present-tense lucidity. And so the incidents of voice-over are interspersed with straightforward scenes showing this 1950s family. Malick is trying to give us life as it is consciously experienced, the unceasing inner monologue and its interplay with the outside environment, the thoughts of the past mixing with the suspended and yet always available present.

The ambition behind such an attempt is enormous, and Malick’s success is complete. But he doesn’t stop there. In “The Tree of Life” he doesn’t only want to show what life and consciousness feel like. He wants to capture the nature of life – what life is. To this end, he films waterfalls and mountains, gives us long minutes of churning, multi-colored ooze floating in space, and even includes a brief dinosaur interlude. He is trying to give us the mind of God. No, more than that. He is trying to film God.

When he stays within the multiple minds of his various characters, Malick is working here at the level of genius. His handheld camera hovers with a sense of impending revelation. The beauty is beyond description. But when he ventures into explorations of the universe and its origins, the work becomes general and less interesting, liked warmed-over Kubrick.

Still, there is little doubt that “The Tree of Life” will stand as the cinematic achievement of the year.

(BTW, this was the second half of a double feature on Sunday.  The Double Feature From Hell. The first half was Transformers 3.  Unbelievable that this film has John Malkovich, John Turturro and Frances McDormand in the cast (and they’re clearly having a good time, perhaps thinking about what I’m sure is one of the largest paychecks of their careers.  And Ken Jeong is in it, too!  And Ken Jeong’s tongue!  Two good things to say about Michael Bay and this film:  Bay is expert at instantly setting up the emotional response he wants to get from the viewer, though often that’s done via the choice of pop song on the soundtrack – or the absence of music plus slow motion.  And there are very few directors who can combine live action and computer animation so effectively.  But the dialogue, characters and plot are squarely aimed at 10 year olds, despite the presence of the luscious Rosie Huntington-Whiteley.  The technical ambitions on this film are huge and are achieved.  The dramatic ambitions are non-existent.  But come on.  It’s a film based on a series of toys that can transform from trucks and cars into battling robots.  What else should you expect?)

Random Notes

So Harry Potter took the record for top grossing weekend in the US, with a take of $168 million, beating out the last Batman movie.  Both are WB films and a testament to WB’s crack marketing squad.  But also HP benefits from the extra amounts charged for IMAX and 3D and the ever-increasing number of screens in the US.  Internationally, it took in $307 million.  That means that the film grossed close to $500 million in just its opening weekend.  However you want to look at it, that number is staggering.

So the theatrical business remains healthy even as home video is dying because the fools at the studios wasted years debating around DRM delaying a full entry into digital distribution.  So now DVD is dying, Blu-Ray isn’t picking up the slack, legal digital is still in its infancy.  These people have no one but themselves to blame.

I want to write more about the whole Murdoch thing but haven’t had the time to fully collect my thoughts and cite sources.  I’m sure the scandal will not end at the borders of the UK.  The FBI is said to be looking into things now.  Plus, one report has it that MySpace was just sold for $32 million – Murdoch bought it 6 years ago for $580 million.  Karma is a bitch, dude.

Also wanted to transcribe some bits of this past week’s episode of Real Time with Bill Maher, one of the best episodes I’ve ever seen.  Guests included Dan Savage, Mark Cuban, Marc Maron.  Savage calls Bachmann and Palin “grifters and scumbags” – I think he was being too polite.  When they talk about the debt ceiling, about what might happen if the US defaults on bond payments, how the US is missing the boat on climate change, even the opening bit with that doctor who co-wrote The China Study talking about how the Republicans have even managed to politicize nutrition for fuck’s sake, well it’s an hour worth watching.

Anyway, here’s one statistic I remember from the show, hope I’m remembering it right.  In 1995, there was only one state in the US that had a population in which more than 20% were classified as obese.  Today there is only only state in the US in which less than 20% of the population is obese.  Why do you think that is?  It is the relentless mass marketing of garbage food.  I love my Double Stuf Oreos and Krispy Kremes as much as the next guy, maybe even more, so I’m pretty guilty of this shit, but I do try to balance it by otherwise trying to eat as much natural, unprocessed stuff as possible.  I’m not in great shape, true, but I’m just about 6 feet tall and usually weigh under 180 pounds, so I’m not doing that bad, though I could be doing better.

Anyway, long day, rainy day, Monday.  Time for sleep.