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What the Flick: The King’s Speech

December 29, 2010 Leave a comment

The King’s Speech is an understated drama interspersed with moments of wry humor, with great performances from the lead actors, Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush, as well as a supporting cast that includes Helena Bonham Carter, Derek Jacobi, Guy Pearce, and Michael Gambon.

It tells the story of Prince Albert, who reluctantly assumed the throne of England during World War II after his brother abdicated to play house with a Baltimore socialite. Albert, who would go on to become King George VI, suffered from a debilitating stutter. He hired Lionel Logue, a washed-up Australian actor with an unorthodox teaching style, as a speech therapist.

The film, directed by Tom Hooper, does a great job of making members of this royal family approachable to the common man. It also manages to bring all the pomp and majesty down to a level that actually approaches intimacy, which is why I was struck by how much it appeared to have been blocked and designed like a stage play.

Later, I did a little research and wasn’t too surprised to find that The King’s Speech had been written as a stage play, but got picked up first as a movie.

Great story, well told.

What the Flick: True Grit

December 28, 2010 Leave a comment

Some people are terribly offended by the temerity of the Coen Brothers remaking a classic western such as True Grit. But here’s the thing, folks: The original wasn’t so great.

There. I said it.

Sure, the role was written for John Wayne, and when I was a kid, well, I thought John Wayne was pretty cool. But True Grit wasn’t a perfect movie as it was, Glen Campbell didn’t make a very good Texas Ranger, and I wasn’t a big fan of Kim Darby. So, I relished the chance to see a retelling of this story by a couple of filmmakers whose work I almost always enjoy.

Their vision of True Grit didn’t disappoint. It’s darker and sadder than the original, but it also has a good deal more genuine humor, plus some fantastic visuals.

Jeff Bridges does a commendable job chewing gravel as Rooster Cogburn. Matt Damon brings some new dimensions to the role of the Texas Ranger who throws in his lot with the marshal on the hunt for Tom Chaney and Lucky Ned Pepper’s gang. Barry Pepper, who plays Ned, seems to be in the running for heir apparent Future Harry Dean Stanton. But the real star of the movie is a newcomer named Hailee Steinfeld, who plays the street-wise Mattie Ross with a sharp tongue and a keen intellect.

It doesn’t exceed Unforgiven as my favorite western of all time, but the Coen Brothers’s True Grit comes a close second, edging out 3:10 to Yuma.

What the Flick: Black Swan

December 28, 2010 Leave a comment

Devised as a companion piece to his only slightly more uplifting The Wrestler, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan only works for me if I pretend that everything that happens – and I mean everything – is just a figment of some crazy woman’s fevered imagination.

Otherwise, it simply comes across as an over-the-top and excessively literal character portrait that starts sluggishly and then takes a nosedive into laughingly ridiculous before it ends.

The movie does some things well, such as painting the portrait of the stress, strain, and sacrifices that ballet dancers make for their art. But, hey, we’d seen something much like this in The Wrestler. What’s new here? Turns out, the suffering of the central character pushes her over the edge into madness. The director of the ballet tells Nina to “lose yourself” in the role of the Black Swan and before the flick’s over, through the magic of computer graphics, we see her sprouting black feathers while she dances.

Like I said: Way too literal.

But I can almost like the movie if I pretend that she’s bugnuts crazy from beginning to end.

What the Flick: TRON Legacy

December 21, 2010 3 comments

If you’ve never seen The Matrix trilogy before, then allow me to recommend TRON Legacy as a healthy alternative: All the shiny special effects and bogus philosophical shenanigans, but in one-third the time!

I didn’t go into this movie with any great love for the original, although the visuals were impressive for their time. I’m not a big fan of Olivia Wilde. I’d never heard of Garrett Hedlund. But, hey, it had Michael Sheen, James Frain, Jeff Bridges, and CGI Jeff Bridges. It seemed like a recipe for moderately cool, man.

But it wasn’t.

Michael Sheen spent his five minutes imitating David Bowie. James Frain was a reject from Heavy Metal. Jeff Bridges’s Kevin Flynn went from ambitious computer designer to goofy zen master – the Virtual Dude. And CGI Jeff Bridges was just creepy.

I saw the show in IMAX, which at least guaranteed that I got my money’s worth from the impressive light cycle, disc battle, and light jet air combat sequences. But the premise of a race of spontaneously generated “programs” within the virtual world (TRON’s version of midichlorians, I suppose) was just preposterous. That foolishness got trumped later when one of the programs made the transition from virtual to real world.

Kevin Flynn doesn’t want to get directly involved in a revolution because his creation, Clu, is after the info disk on his back. A secondary character mentions later that it’s possible to forge those info disks. One would think that Flynn, creator of this world, would know that. So, when he inevitably gets off his zen pillow and jumps into the middle of the action, someone steals the disk off his back. I smugly suggested to my girlfriend that Flynn probably prepared for that contingency by putting a forged disk on his back.

But no. No, he was just an idiot, allowing his disk to fall into the hands of the enemy.

I also found myself hoping that the real world plot, about the machinations within Flynn’s company ENCOM, would somehow get tied into the virtual world plot. But no. The one sighting of the ENCOM board was just to establish with clunky exposition that the company had moved on from Flynn’s altruistic mentality.

And, finally, there’s TRON himself, relegated in this story to the role of junkyard dog who turns against Flynn and serves Clu until the plot contrives for him to change alliances without any decent explanation.

I won’t call this movie an insult. I think an insult would have required more effort. It’s just a shiny bottle of noise and light. Enjoy the visuals, but don’t look for anything meaningful.

The Road to World Conquest: Allowing a Little Anger

December 20, 2010 1 comment

For the most part, I’ve successfully followed my own advice about quietly resolving the hard feelings that emerged in the aftermath of my layoff from Icarus Studios.

It’s something that became much easier to manage, of course, when another job came along in short order. How hard is it, really, to shrug off a setback like that when it’s quickly followed by a safe landing?

However, taking the job in Huntsville isn’t without a price. It’s that price that frustrates and angers me.

Catherine and I have been together for just three months. She’s part of a successful law practice in Durham and she has strong roots in the community. Her crowded open house party on Sunday demonstrated without a doubt that she has become a vibrant fixture in the area. Before the layoff, I’d been planning to relocate to Durham too.

Now? We’ve gotten attached. We care about each other a great deal. And, as she jokingly asserts, I’m about to abandon her to take a job that’s hundreds of miles away in Alabama.

She understands that I tried to find work here in North Carolina. The market just doesn’t seem to be there for me. If I were more of a programmer? Maybe. If I wanted to change careers? Possibly, but that’d take time and money that just aren’t a luxury for me. Or, God forbid, if I decided to settle for a job in retail? Almost guaranteed to land a job, but I’d be miserable and that wouldn’t do us any favors as a couple.

Huntsville’s a closer – and better – alternative than most of the others that I’d been finding. It beats moving to Boston, Seattle, or the UK.

That makes it less frustrating, but it doesn’t make everything fine. We’ve got challenges ahead of us. She’s going to buy airline tickets so that she can fly down to Huntsville to visit. When possible, I’ll spend a week here and there working from her apartment in Durham. We’ll see how things go with us, with my job, and where it all might lead.

She’s open to the idea of joining me there in time, and I’m glad about that, but neither of us is blind to the fact that it would mean her giving up a lot for the chance to be with me while I’m working in an industry that’s already proven to be volatile and unpredictable.

So, about this added stress and expense for both of us, about this new source of worry, yeah, I’m going to be mad about that.

Categories: Social Networking

The Road to World Conquest: No dying!

December 16, 2010 3 comments

Maybe I spoke a little too soon about no longer being terrified of doctors.

Within days of getting a flu shot last week, I was flattened by flu-like symptoms. On Monday, I pulled a muscle in my back, probably from a violent sneeze. Tuesday night, I couldn’t sleep due to a horrendous case of heartburn.

The general theory right now is that I’ve been under a lot of stress and these problems might have something to do with that.

Stress? Maybe so. In the last few months, I’ve started a new relationship, dealt with a sick cat, lost a job that I really liked, found a new job with huge potential, and started the process of getting moved hundreds of miles away to a new town.

On Tuesday, trying to get ahead of any bad news that might surprise me, I called the doctor’s office to ask about my blood work results from the previous week. The nurse explained that the results were in and the cholesterol numbers weren’t good. In fact, she said, they were “well beyond the number” at which the doctor starts a medication regimen. Hrmph. Old me, the me that doesn’t want to hear bad news and really just wants another chicken wing, thanks, just wanted to pretend he hadn’t heard that. New me immediately made an appointment for the next day to talk to the doctor, review all the results, and get the medication started.

On Wednesday, I was back in the clinic. Blood pressure checked out fine without having to get a second reading and I guess being sick had a side benefit: I lost two pounds. Then I got ushered into an exam room. The nurse closed the door. For about 45 minutes, I sat with my iPhone, checking email, goofing around on Twitter, and playing Angry Birds. The phone ran out of juice, though, so I finally opened the door and stepped outside to harass someone about the delay. That’s when I saw the doctor and she told me that she’d be right in.

The numbers on my blood work, overall, weren’t bad. They were largely normal. Sodium and sugar levels were fine. Protein could be a little higher, but nothing alarming. Liver looked good. The Low Density Lipoprotein (LDL – the bad cholesterol) results provided reason for concern, though. That number – 206 – was basically off the charts. If that doesn’t change, I’ll remain at high risk for heart attack and stroke as I get older. I really don’t want that to happen. The other numbers in my blood test suggested that it wasn’t necessarily my diet that was the root cause of the problem. Instead, it’s likely that I’m just genetically predisposed to having a lot of crappy cholesterol. That doesn’t mean I’m off the hook for fixing it, however. Diet and a lack of significant exercise certainly exacerbated the problem.

So, I’ll start cholesterol management medication – Pravastatin – this week. That’ll help bring the number down some, but the rest is going to rely on a lot of work and discipline from me. I’ll have to walk more. Run more. Work out. I’ll have to shop smarter, cook smarter, and eat healthier when I’m out and about.

I’m glad I went to the doctor and that I’m dealing with the problem head-on. I plan to live a while longer. This should help!

The Road to World Conquest: Cataclysmic tidings!

December 11, 2010 Leave a comment

Obviously, the end of the world is nigh: On Wednesday, I went to the doctor for my annual physical.

I don’t like doctors. Nothing against all you doctors out there – it’s totally irrational. I’ve never been diagnosed, but it feels like borderline iatrophobia. I think it comes from the fact that I hate hearing bad news and past experience has suggested that, more often than not, when one visits the doctor, one doesn’t come away with good news.

On the other hand: Preventive medicine is a good idea. I’ve still got a few weeks of Icarus-provided insurance left. And Catherine would like to make sure that I don’t die anytime soon.

So, I went to the doctor on Wednesday.

The first two things they did: Weighed me and took my blood pressure. I’m still hovering around 215 pounds – about 30 pounds to go before I’m absolutely happy with my weight. Blood pressure reading made me panic, though: 145/95. That’s in the neighborhood of hypertension. Well, there you go, I thought. The bad news starts.

The doctor didn’t say much about that at first. We moved on. I got a flu shot, then she checked my heart and lungs. Made me say “ah.” Looked up my nose and in my ears. Eventually, when I seemed relatively calm, she re-took the blood pressure for a follow-up reading. This time: 124/80. Much better!

After that, she gave me nothing but good news: Heart and lungs sounded fine. Nothing bad, skin-wise. No suspicious lumps or potential malignancies.

Then I went down to the lab and gave three blood samples for metabolic and cholesterol testing. As of Saturday, I haven’t heard any bad news from those tests so far.

Maybe I won’t be so terrified of doctors anymore.

***

World of Warcraft released its newest expansion, Cataclysm, on Tuesday. I’ve been playing through the new content.

On the first day, I spent much of my time in the new goblin starter area with a character on the Earthen Ring server named Gizmik. The goblins bring some much-needed whimsy to the Horde side of things. They’re tacky, trashy, and reckless. They blow stuff up with alarming regularity. They ride rockets as mass transit. What’s not to like?

The next day, I took my Level 80 tauren, Stamp – the only character I’ve ever gotten to the former level cap – out to the underwater high-level zone.

The day after that, I created a new worgen named Dillahunt so that I could experience the new Alliance werewolf content.

All three experiences echoed with one striking similarity: At a time when many MMO players are calling for more “sandbox” content as opposed to linear storylines, WoW is taking the linear storyline model to a whole new level using the phasing technology that they introduced in the Lich King expansion. For me, it mostly works because the devs are creating a more immersive and personal experience, while keeping some sense of serendipity and surprise with quests that pop up, seemingly at random, while you’re out playing in the world.

Things I liked (Goblin Edition):

* The tacky sprawl of the goblin town of Kezan.
* Getting a car right off the bat to zoom around the starter town.
* The moment when Deathwing makes his appearance over the island.
* The repeated use of familiar characters from Kezan in later goblin content, giving a greater sense of your persistence and impact on the world.
* The goblin rocketway in Azshara.
* The raptor rescue quest in the Secret Labs, where you end up covered in hissing and growling baby raptors. Glorious!

Things I didn’t like (Goblin Edition):

* More poop quests? Really? Granted, it doesn’t come until Azshara, but the big reveal about where those shiny crystals come from made me roll my eyes.
* The faux Jersey accent.

Things I liked (Stamp Edition):

* The sense that the world changed and evolved based on what I did as the missions progressed. I enjoyed this feature in WotLK. In Cataclysm, they just amped it up everywhere. It’s quite an accomplishment, making an MMO feel personalized. It’s something that I thought Lord of the Rings Online did quite well, and Blizzard seems to have taken some cues from what worked for the Hobbits.
* Quick travel option with the seahorse mount in one of the early underwater quests.
* The “astronaut” run animation along the sea floor.
* Huge whale shark!
* Getting chomped on by a grouper.

Things I didn’t like (Stamp Edition):

* Felt like I was in an aquarium, not the deep blue sea.
* The Jaws/Pirates of the Caribbean quest. Sorry! I think I’m just burned out on quests that just blatantly draw off pop culture. It felt lazy.

Things I liked (Worgen Edition):

* Enjoyed the starkly different mood of the worgen starting area, with its Victorian style and gloomy forboding.
* The “Running Wild” ability, which makes it possible for a worgen to be their own fast transportation.
* The option of switching between human (albeit without combat abilities) and worgen form.
* The new and improved murloc-killing quest in Darkshore, where you use a special robot to blow the hell out of the annoying critters.

Things I Didn’t Like (Worgen Edition):

* The opening storyline that takes the player from Gilneas to Darnassus seems to drag on a bit long after a while.
* In the beta, worgen didn’t need special knives to skin creatures – their claws were good enough! Now, even worgen need knives.