May 2008


In preparation for the new Indiana Jones movie, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, I spent a Saturday watching the first three films in the series. Here is what I learned: They are great fun, but not great films. They are an ode to pulp novels, which are: great fun, but not great literature. The first three Indiana Jones films were a series of wonderful set pieces and great chase and adventure sequences led by a pure red-blooded, rough and tumble, brilliant, everyman. These movies are good popcorn flicks–nothing more. I have read a good many reviews on this new Indy, and some don’t recognize this real heritage of the film and give it overly poor reviews, and others recognize its true nature, but let it off the hook for the mistakes it makes because it is meant to be a fun, frivolous ride, and give it overly good reviews. Let us talk about why this is a film that ultimately does no disservice to the series, but doesn’t add a great deal to it either.

 First, there is not much in the way of plot here. This does not bother me much, though it would have been nice had the ‘legend’ (every Indy is based around a legend) that is being uncovered been related to all the attention paid to how old Indy and his cohorts have become. I suppose there is a lose connection dealing with wisdom, but this is weak. As I think about it, it is unfortunate that the third Indy film had already used the fountain of youth as its legend because it would have worked really nicely in this new film. Anyway, what bothered me more than the lack of plot was the convoluted story based around the legend. This is similar to the problem facing the worst of the first three films, The Temple of Doom. The legends surrounding the ark and the fountain of youth are familiar tales to us in the Western Hemisphere, making the basing of a story around these legends much easier to unfold. There is much less or no familiarity with either a temple of doom or a crystal skull, and so much more explanation is needed and in both cases both films suffered for it. I do like, and I will try not spoil anything even though it is really obvious very early in the film, what the crystal skull ultimately stems from–it fits well with pulp set in the 1950s–I just wish they could have found a different, simpler way to get there.

Second, Harrison Ford was only intermittently Indiana Jones. This was never a problem in the first three films, but in Crystal Skull he was about half Indy, half Harrison. Luckily, he was mostly Indy in the second two acts of the film.

Finally, and this is an odd statement but, there was too much action. It almost got boring. After the initial 30-45 minutes of the film where there was a balance between action and acting, it was all action for the last hour and fifteen minutes of the film and it really wore thin. Some of the action was classic Indy and great fun; other action sequences were tedious (I did not have the problem with all the CGI that many a reviewer has had. I did hate it when they used with animals though.). This problem obviously relates back to the failings in story and plot, but the action still should have stood better on its own.

These are the problems with the film, but it is still definitely worth checking out. It is nice to see some old familiar faces (I wish there could have been more; I especially missed Marcus Brody), there are plenty of fun references to films past to pick out, and when Indy lands one of his classic quips or performs another death-defying act a good chuckle or a collective awe is sure to be  heard throughout the theatre.     

My score…61

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In the wife and I’s first ‘dinner and a movie’ exploration of Levee food, we went to Aoi, and loved it. For our second trip, we wanted to go back to Aoi, but the integrity of the reviewer in me won out and we tried Aoi’s competition, Pacific Moon. Stupid integrity.

Pacific Moon is everything that Aoi is not, and none of it is good. Before even talking about the food, what is up with the decor? I felt toward the end of dinner, the tables were going to be magically swooshed to the side, disco balls were going to lower down from the ceiling and a club was going to break out. The whole place was a weird mix of turquoise and gray with an industrial, ‘exposed’ feel, none of which says ‘get your fine Japanese/Asian cuisine here’. But, hey, I have been to many a place where the quality of the decor does not match the quality of the food, so there is still hope right?

No.

The wife and I have been into sharing meals recently, especially when sushi is involved, so we started with a shared bowl of chicken hot and sour soup. The soup base was fair; more sour than hot, with the hot sinking to the bottom. The real problem with the soup was the chicken. It managed to be extremely dry and chewy, and would have added nothing to the soup even if it had been prepared well.

For the second course we ordered some basic sushi, a tuna roll and a spicy tuna roll. It came out to the table after the rest of our food, however. Things are going downhill quickly. Both the wife and I agreed, this was some of the worst sushi we have had in town. The tuna tasted old and fishy and had a mushy texture. On top of that, the rice was undercooked. We didn’t even finish the two rolls. How bad does a roll have to be not to be finished?

Finally, the wife and I shared an order of orange faux ribs. The sauce was overly sweet, but decent. The accompanying vegetables were steamed to a respectable, edible level. The big problem here were the faux ribs. Some pieces were crunchy–too crunchy; clearly over-fried. Other pieces were soggy, with no crunch at all. If you want orange faux ribs, I would definitely head to Shanghai Mama’s; not Pacific Moon.

Overall, Pacific Moon was a real disappointment. With Aoi a hundred feet away, the wife and I will never go back to Pacific Moon.

Score…38.    

As I was about to ‘publish’ chapter 4 in my attempt to write a first draft of a novel, I decided to look back over chapters 1-3. I found that I left off the ending of chapter 2. Endings tend to be kind of important. So to anyone reading this, sorry. You should probably go back and read chapter 2 again before reading chapter 4. You can even read chapters 1 and 3 again if you want to; they are all short, so it should not take too long.

Oh, and don’t worry, not everyone’s ‘story’ is going to be so damn depressing.

The Story of Gabrielle, Mother to Maria, Grandmother to Anna

Gabrielle could barely sit still. She tapped her feet, pressing forward every few beats to peer her eyes over the seat in front of her, not looking at anything in particular. She pushed her thumbs against each other until one bent and then the other, moved them up and down together, swirled them faster and faster around each other. She picked up the in-flight magazine, breezed through every page, seeing bright colors flashing before her eyes but never registering a single word, put it back in the seat pocket, then picked it up again as if she had never seen the thing before. Maria, seeing her mother’s nervousness and knowing it had nothing to do with being on a plane, tried to talk to her. About Miami. About all the new opportunities for the whole family there. Getting Anna into a good school, sending her to college someday, all things she had brought up a thousand times before. Gabrielle usually went along with her daughter’s fancy even though she had more pressing matters on her mind, popping in with ideas like running a little café that specialized in empenadas with many, many various and wondrous fillings. Today, though, she barely knew her daughter was there. Only nodding and mumbling affirmatives when she noticed pauses in her daughter’s speech. Today was the day she had waited for, been moving toward for oh so long, and she could think of nothing else. She played all the possibilities out in her thoughts, her nervous ticks, their outward voice. Anna, sitting on her mother’s lap, giggled at her silly Gran. It went on like this the entire flight to Caracas.

Gabrielle asked Maria if it would be okay if she visited the grave alone. She had never known this man and yet she owed everything to him. He had given her life. His death before she was old enough to crawl, before her mother had moved them back to Barquiesimeto in the winter of 1942, had shaped who she would become. That and all her mother’s stories. He was such a wonderful man, she would say, so thoughtful and giving, not like all the other young men running the streets of Caracas. There was one story her mother loved to tell. Her aunts always groaned when her mother got those weepy eyes of hers, sighed and started in on the tale, but she would tell it just the same.

“Ah, Trinidad,” she would start, “Your dear, sweet Papa. He was a very poor boy when I met him. Running the streets with all those other fools, but he knew better. He was just young and having fun with mischief as boys are want to do. He had a good head though; would have done great things. And sweet. You know what he would do? When he was courting? Not just at first either, but all through? Well, I worked at a little shop just off the square. I assisted the apothecary with his measurements and keeping track of inventories; we also sold salves and other healthful items. Anyway, everyday, without fail, the time might change, but everyday, your sweet Papa would bring me a single flower, smile and then run back out that door. It was a real flower, too. I always have liked paper flowers, but he insisted. He said I was too good for paper. Daisies, lilies, roses. Everyday a new flower and a smile. I never knew where he got them, but…”

And she would trail off. Her eyes that much more weepy for the story, and the groans that much louder from her aunts. For this story and others like it, Gabrielle, loved this Papa she had never known. She lived to please him. His memory. All of her actions were geared toward pleasing him, for she knew he must be watching, and she knew that all of her movements were leading back to him, to his grave. Where she could sit with him for a time and tell him everything, just as she had every night of her life, since she was but a small child, in her prayers. She would sit on the grass covering his grave, lay a single flower at his stone and feel right, feel complete.

Which is why when Maria began to speak more and more of the possibility of moving to Miami, Gabrielle did not deter her. Gabrielle’s mother had never wanted to go to the grave, though Gabrielle had asked her to many times. Gabrielle assumed it was because her mother had already said her good-byes, and there was no use in bringing up that pain again. But Gabrielle needed her time, and this seemed like her chance. It is true that Gabrielle would have preferred to live out her days in Barquiesimeto, but the thought of seeing her father in Caracas on the way to Miami, was well worth the chore of moving. She even thought that he would be proud, being so selfless as to move away from the only place she ever knew, so that her daughter and granddaughter could have more opportunities. She knew it was what he would want; what he would have done.

Maria agreed, nodding with her big eyes closed as Gabrielle walked slowly away from the running taxi. Inside she wanted to run, but her body had long since stopped such behavior. Her eyes filled the urge. Darting and scanning every tombstone she passed. She exhausted the engravings, names, dates, kind words of honor to and from past loves and children and friends. After fifty or so yards and around a craggily half-leaved tree, her eyes relaxed then went wide. She trembled briefly at the foot of the grave then fell sharply to her knees, bruising and cutting them badly on the unkempt mess of gravel and weeds that covered the bones of her dead father. Small exasperated gasps made it to Gabrielle’s lips then went back down and up again. She crumpled farther to the ground until she was a fetal ball sobbing, her head inches away from the tombstone that read simply:

Trinidad Vargas Requena

1923 – 1964

As she lay there, almost convulsing and hyperventilating, small but growing thoughts made it into her mind, all concerning her Mother. Had she made up everything? Were any of her stories real? Or had they been hopes or wishes? Or just taken from those stupid romance novels she used to love to read? She began to pray rapidly, over and over, for understanding, for meaning, but there was no longer belief behind her prayers. These thoughts, these lies, her empty cadence, consumed her quickly, and the wonderful Gabrielle that I had only known briefly, was gone forever.

Maria, had seen her Mother collapse, and rushed over to her crumpled mass. She began to ask what was the matter when she saw the tombstone and cut herself off. This possibility or the possibility of something like this had not escaped Maria, and she gathered her Mother up quickly saying all the things we say when there is nothing good to say. After several minutes, Maria was able to get Gabrielle to her feet, brush her off, and walk her unsteadily back to the taxi. They had a flight to catch.

Nothing changed for Gabrielle in Miami. She prayed relentlessly; empty, catatonic prayers at all hours of the day, sitting alone in her small, back bedroom or with Anna playing at her feet in the main room. She rarely ate or bathed, only doing so when Maria’s pestering grew too loud for her to concentrate. She wasted away to where even her hair became sparse and brittle. Then, on April 30, 2007after about eighteen months, on the eave of another hot Miami summer, Gabrielle gasped mid-prayer, fell to the floor and died.

This is another one of those movies that came out around award season, and I just couldn’t quite pull the trigger on seeing it in the theatres. Was I right to save the thirteen bucks (I am a sucker for some Swedish Fish)?

Charlie Wilson’s War is the story of how Congressman Charlie Wilson clandestinely helped Afghanistan wage a war against Russia, ultimately leading to the defeat of Russia and the ‘end’ of the Iron Curtain. The film, at least for the first two-thirds, focuses on Wilson’s hard-charging life of drinking and women, how he got invested (emotionally) in the plight of the Afghan people and how he got Congress and others to foot the bill for the weaponry needed to properly fight the Russians. I was enthralled by this part of the film. The writing by Aaron Sorkin was quick and smart, circa early West Wing. The acting was by and large fantastic. Tom Hanks, as Charlie Wilson, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as his CIA lead, were almost magical together. Julia Roberts as a religious conservative who was pushing the Afghan tragedy publicly was fair. Amy Adams was good as Charlie Wilson’s assistant. I loved the history lesson. I loved the intimacy in which Charlie Wilson’s War began to be waged, but there were signs of trouble.

Inherent in this story, indeed, inherent in the very name of this film is a dichotomy. There is the individual (Charlie Wilson) and the universal (War). The trick of any good story that is attempting to tackle this dichotomy is matching the power presented in one side with the power presented in the other. For example, a film that comes, in my opinion, very close to addressing this dichotomy successfully is Saving Private Ryan. The first half of that film presents War as universal, and does so in such a fashion that no one who watches it can be left unaffected. The rest of the film generally focuses on the individual, and the toll of the universal on the individual. This part of the film is good, not great, as the premise is a little thematically contrived. Ultimately, you don’t quite feel the individual toll on Private Ryan (you do, however, feel it with Tom Hanks’ character; in fact, you could have taken out the Private Ryan storyline and you might have ended up with an even more powerful film.). In Charlie Wilson’s War, unfortunately, there is no balance to the dichotomy. There are a few scenes in the first two-thirds that hint at this, like when Charlie Wilson goes to Pakistan and sees the refuge crisis. Indeed, any time the set pieces got big the emotion got lost. For such a phenomenal director as Mike Nichols this failure might seem surprising, but if you look over his rather astonishing filmography, you will see that his greatest accomplishments are films of a rather personal nature, and the world of action and effects may not be within his repertoire.

The last third of Charlie WIlson’s War rarely gets back to the individual, and suffers for it. It also seems very rushed and choppy. I did appreciate that they did not back down from showing the U.S.’ failure to help Afghanistan form a functioning democracy after the war ended, which ultimately led to the emergence of the Taliban, but those few scenes were not enough to save a dud of a third act.

I would still recommend checking this film, just don’t expect greatness. If you, like me, did not see it in the theatre, you made the right call.

review…64.      

 

Last NIght: The wife was kickin it Book Club-style, no Thirty Rock was gracing the digital waves, and I had no interest in working on my dissertation, so I DVR’d CSI and On Demand’ed some ’06 flicks I managed to avoid the first go round (There is no way some one reading this twenty years ago, which happens all the time, would have any idea what this first sentence means. You have got to love language.). So how awesome were The Reaping and Rocky Balboa?

The Reaping Review

The Reaping is a tale of a lost soul-former clergy turned scientist-played by Hillary Swank who travels the world debunking potential miracles. The movie centers around Swank’s attempts to discredit a potential plagues situation that surrounds a wild-eyed twelve year old blonde girl in a small southern town called–wait for it–Haven. There is an absurd back-story explaining the lossof Swank’s faith,the obligatory priest/friend who warns her of pending doom (Can you guess who plays the priest? I”ll give you two chances. If one of your guesses was Gabriel Byrne, you are wrong, but good guess. The answer is at the bottom.), and a bunch of silly, CGI plaguishy effects. There are also twists galour and they are increasingly stupid. As for Swank and her performance, I am assuming she was going through her marital troubles with Chad Lowe during the making of this slop. Either that or she cashed the check, then read the script. Whatever. She is terrible. But so is everyone else. I did love seeing Stringer Bell show up as Swank’s best friend/assistant. His back-story is just as ridiculous as Swank’s, but I’ll let it me a surprise.

Anyway. Where am I? Doesn’t matter. Somewhere in this movie is a decent idea for a supernatural thriller. It is deep down, but it is in there. After I realized that it was not going to be decent (under a minute), I was hoping it was at least going to be craptastic. It wasn’t, though the very last twist, the last line of the film, which must have been added after the filmmakers realized what they had just created, seems to be striving for that ‘so bad and its good’ feel. Good idea. At least I finished the movie cracking up. Can I get a The Reaping II?

Score…18

Rocky Balboa Review

Summary: Rocky has inner turmoil; fights again.

This is the storyline for every Rocky film. The first one is a pretty good film, not Oscar good, which it won, but good. The rest are somewhere between or around tolerable, awful and hilarious. Really, Rocky V is just sad–no doubt the reason Stallone wanted to add another chapter–but I would watch Rocky IV right now. That is how awesomely hilarious it is.

I don’t mind that this last Rocky follows the classic pattern. In some loose, loose way it is Greek. That is fine. In fact, in my humble opinion, this is the second best Rocky film made. Does that make it good? No, I wouldn’t go that far, but it harkens back to much of what made the first one good, personal struggles of loss, pride, ego, faith and respect. That is, before it goes a little II-V toward the end (ok. periodically throughout; the whole computer generated fight is Mr. T good). Stallone is not much behind the camera and clearly effects have passed him by, but he is still a good enough writer to pull at some of the basic heart strings, sociologists and their Myth of Meritocracy* be damned. It was a satisfying way to end my night of ridiculous TV/Movie watching.

Score…54

Answer: Stephen Rea!

*This myth confronts the ideal that if you work hard enough, you can accomplish whatever you set out to accomplish. This ideal completely disregards the biases and the effects of those biases surrounding race, gender, sexual orientation and socioeconomic status that are prevalent in our society. 

  

I make the wife go to a lot of movies. I love movies. Love ’em. I love picking apart the bad ones and dissecting the good ones. My wife has undoubtedly seen countless films that she had no interest in because she loves me…and because I dragged her to them. As the best theatres to see movies happens to be at one of the more annoying places around the Nati, I feel like I am really piling on my poor wife with every film. In an attempt to not actually change anything about myself, but make the overall movie experience a bit more enjoyable for the wife, I figured let’s make it dinner and a movie. It’s like a really, really original date. I don’t know why anyone hasn’t thought of this before.

But where to go? Newport on the Levee is a real mix bag. There is a lot of crap down there. And as much as we love Dewey’s, you can only eat it so many times without turning into a giant doughball. In an attempt to find a new place to enjoy before the next summer blockbuster, we have started sampling the other restaurants on the Levee, beginning with the two sushi/Japanese joints, Pacific Moon and, today’s review, Aoi.

To give Aoi the full treatment the wife and I ordered a number of different dishes and shared the whole lot of them. We started with a dry sake, suggested by the waiter, served hot, that was as good a sake as I have had, though I am a neophyte in the sake world and my palate is only beginning to notice the differences in all the ones we have tried. We started our meal with a tempura calamari off of the specials menu. As I have stated before, if calamari is on the menu, I am trying it, and I liked the idea of the tempura twist. I was not disappointed. The calamari may have been just the slightest bit underdone, but it tasted very fresh and the tempura coating had good flavor and was not heavy at all. An excellent start to our meal.

Next out, was our sushi. We kept it simple, working under the assumption that if a restaurant is any good it should be able to do the basics very well, ordering a basic tuna roll and a spicy tuna roll. Neither was the tightest roll, but I half felt this was on purpose. The quality of every ingredient, however, was exceptional. Perfectly cooked rice with the slightest hint of vinegar meshing well with the salty sweetness of the wrap, and both serving as excellent accompaniments to ample portions of the freshest tuna we have had in town. The aioli on the spicy roll was good; spicy, but not overpowering.

We finished up our meal sharing a plate of beef and asparagus in a ginger sauce. Again, everything was cooked to perfection. It is easy to overcook stirfried beef, but here it was tender and juicy. The asparagus was fresh and crispy. The ginger sauce was appropriately subtle, as ginger could easily overpower beef and asparagus, but was always present, dancing around in the corners of your mouth and lingering happily after every bite (I know that last sentence was ridiculous, but that is really what it was like). It was a perfect way to finish the meal.

A note on the decor: pleasing; not overbearing or out of place (I am looking at you Pacific Moon).

A note on the service: absolutely fantastic! Our waiter was one of the nicest waiters my wife and I have ever had, in our lives together or before. Helpful, never in your face, unbelievably courteous. This guy should teach proper waiting techniques.

Our first attempt at making the movie experience a more well-rounded affair began with Aoi and should probably end there. We had a great time with wonderful food, and what do you know, Ironman was a pretty decent flick to boot.

Score…80.   

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