Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Snapshots - #12

TV shows...

Outlander (♦♦♦♦): Claire Beauchamp, a British combat nurse in WWII, is in the Scottish Highlands, six months after the end of the war, on a second honeymoon with husband Frank Randall. Frank is researching his genealogy, and this trip proves an excuse to find out more about one of his ancestors.

The night of Samhain, Claire and Frank witness a druid ritual in the site of an ancient circle of stones rumored to have magical powers. The morning after, Claire touches the large stone at the center of the circle, and is transported to the year 1743, when Scottish Highlanders are organizing the second Jacobite rebellion to depose King George II of England and replace him with Prince Charles, son of James Stuart, rightful heir to the throne of England.

Among the Highlanders, Claire is seen with a mixture of admiration and suspicion, the former due to her skills as a healer, the latter mostly because she cannot truly explain her purpose among them. When she makes a powerful enemy in the despotic captain of the British troops, her husband's ancestor, she will be forced to marry spirited highlander Jamie Fraser, who has a price on his head.

Season 1 of Starz TV show Outlander, an adaptation of Diana Gabaldon's series, is really good. The second Jacobite insurrection plays a key role in the story. The period after 1743 and its players are brought to life in all its glory. I found the time-travel angle more believable than the way Susanna Kearsley depicted it in The Rose Garden; I even accepted it as something plausible.

Despite being a historical drama with a good dose of romance—women are most likely the target audience—, there is plenty of gore and violence (amputations, floggings, attempted rape) not for the faint of heart. The love scenes are done very well, and Caitriona Balfe, Claire, has incandescent chemistry with both leading men, particularly with Sam Heughan, the actor who plays Jamie.

Magnificent photography of the Scottish Highlands, fleshed out characters that one cares for, solid acting, rich historical details, great costume designs, and traditional folktales, make the Outlander series a must-see.

The movies...

Café Society (♦♦♦♦): Brooklyn native Bobby Dorfman travels to Los Angeles in 1930s, looking for work. His uncle manages a stars’ agency. Bobby’s uncle hires him to run errands for the agency. Meanwhile, Bobby falls in love with a young secretary named Vonnie, but the romance is doomed to fail when Vonnie leaves him for an older, recently separated married man who happens to be Bobby’s uncle. Disillusioned, Bobby goes back to New York, where he settles down and co-manages the glamorous Café Society, a nightclub that becomes the place to see and be seen at.

Café Society is written and directed by Woody Allen, and it has the light touch, though slightly (just slightly) less charm than Midnight in Paris. It has that dreamy quality of Midnight in Paris, just a bit earthier, with fresh dialogs, gorgeous music, lots of 1930s Hollywood name-dropping courtesy of a movies exec and his young trophy wife, and great laugh out loud moments poking fun at the differences between the Christian and Jewish faiths, and NY City's underbelly.

The ensemble cast makes this screenplay jewel come alive. Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart, who are on a roll lately with very good performances under their belts—Eisenberg as Lex Luthor in Batman v Superman, and Stewart as Valentine in The Clouds of Sils Maria)—, are particularly noteworthy.

Nerve (♦♦♦½): What starts as a seemingly innocent internet dare game, derives into an adrenaline fueled experience that may put the lives of some teenagers at risk over the course of a night around NY City.

Nerve is a hair-rising-at-the-back-of-your- neck thriller about the dangers posed by modern technology and a follow-the-pack mentality. Dynamic camera shoots, excellent photography of the Manhattan night scene, tight editing, and good acting make this film an "enjoyable" viewing experience.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (♦♦♦♦)

Steve Rogers (a.k.a., Captain America) leads a rescue mission of hostages, taken by pirates, aboard a S.H.I.E.L.D.'s carrier. Natasha Romanoff (a.k.a., Black Widow) backups the content of the master computer aboard the vessel, which, as it turns out, not even S.H.I.E.L.D.'s director Nick Fury can access.

Furthermore, there is an attempt on the life of director Fury. Captain America and agent Romanoff team up to uncover the truth behind the premeditated targeting of their leader. At every step they meet assassins with huge firepower intent on stopping them. Unsure of whom to trust, they enlist the help of outsider paratrooper Sam Wilson (a.k.a., The Falcon) to expose a secret arm inside S.H.I.E.L.D., an arm whose beginning dates back to WWII and whose most lethal enforcer is a ghost, someone known only as The Winter Soldier.

I liked this movie very much. While The First Avenger was all about establishing Captain America as a historical character, with the corresponding appeal of a hunk in uniform, The Winter Soldier is a solid spy thriller with an edge.

The sex appeal is still there: Steve Rogers and Natasha are easy to look at, and there are moments when one may imagine them hooking up; fortunately the story is meatier than that. The humor has been toned down a bit, though it occasionally peppers the thick plot—as when Rogers tells Natasha "yeah, I bet you look real bad in a bikini"—and it's OK because this screenplay has places to go and they do it in a reasonable timeframe.

The dynamic camera work, so characteristic of superhero movies, imparts edge-of-your-seat action, as do the multitude of well choreographed fighting scenes—I loved the one in which a pack of agents try to tackle Rogers inside an elevator; I'm sure anyone can figure out the result. Another very accomplished set of scenes were the ones on top of the flying carrier with Captain America fighting The Winter Soldier. Who can bet on either one when it is two genetically modified super soldiers fighting with all they got?

The Winter Soldier is more in the vein of a Daniel Craig's Bond movie than standard superhero fare, and the closing credits are perhaps a nod to Bond as well with the characters drawn in profile on a black and white screen. The Bond comparison is quite auspicious since this is the darkest yet most solid back-story to come from the Avengers by far.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Snapshots - #11

TV shows...

Poldark (♦♦♦♦♦): this week I watched Season 1 of this co-production between the BBC and PBS. I watched the first two episodes back-to-back, and I got so fascinated that I binge watched the remaining episodes the following night. Yes, it's that good!

Poldark is a British period drama starring Aidan Turner (the gorgeous dwarf Kili of The Hobbit fame) in the leading role. Ross Poldark, the title character, is an aristocrat with a reckless past left behind thanks to having taken part in the American Revolutionary War in which he rose to the rank of captain.

Three years after being taken for dead, Poldark returns to his native Cornwall to find his beloved Elizabeth engaged to marry his cousin Francis. With his father dead, and his inherited estate in ruin, Ross must work hard to regain a fortune, meanwhile avoiding the pitfalls of someone in dire financial need.

Poldark is amazingly acted, with gorgeous cinematography and photography that take ample advantage of the luscious Cornish coast. If the technical achievements aren't enough enticement to watch, do it for its dramatic plot, at the heart of which lies a stirring love triangle, and a roguish hero with a heart of gold.

Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman (♦♦♦♦♦): while Season 1 of this popular science show emphasized questions related to cosmology, and quantum physics, Seasons 2 and 3 (2011 and 2012, respectively) explore existential questions, right at the frontiers between medicine, neuroscience, and philosophy. Scientists from other disciplines such as computer programming and robotics also contribute their expertise to address questions such as if there is life after death, if time exists or if it's an invented concept, if there is a sixth sense, what makes us who we are, if there is a superior race, if we can resurrect the dead, if humans invented God, and other mysteries of the subconscious mind.

As with Season 1, Seasons 2 and 3 explain difficult scientific theories and concepts partly in a visual way, with prominent scientists (and sometimes rogue ones) highlighting their contributions to their fields in an accessible way. If you are a science nerd, as I am, this show will be fodder for deep thoughts. If you aren't into science shows, Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman may well make a convert out of you.

The movies...

The Tiger (Daeho, South Korean), (♦♦♦♦♦): Man-duk is the last, great hunter in a 1925 Korea occupied by Japanese troops. Hunting is illegal, but poachers make a living by selling dead animals to the invaders for collecting. Of special interest to the Japanese chief is a massive tiger which is famed to be the last living specimen in Korea. Man-duk is the only person in his village to know the tiger's trails by heart, but he refuses to capitalize on the reward for the animal's capture. Soon he will have no choice.

The Tiger—an atypical man vs. nature movie about old fashion revenge—is, possibly, the best movie I have watched in years. So impressed I was that I wondered whether a five star rating truly captures its greatness. I cried bucket loads with it; I hadn't expected to be as emotionally invested or as impressed as I was.

This film is best defined as a thriller, though there are powerful dramatic moments as well. Nuanced acting, the musical score, the cinematography…contribute to an edge-of-your-seat experience that you won't soon forget.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Snapshots - #10

The movies...

The Jungle Book (♦♦♦♦): Mowgli is a man-cub who has been raised by a pack of wolves. Despite working hard to assimilate the law of the jungle, he realizes that he is a liability to his adopted family when a disgruntled tiger sets its sight on him. Little does Mowgli know that he will have to tap into his resourcefulness and intelligence to survive in a world determined to turn its back on him.

The Jungle Book is a Disney production directed by Jon Favreau (of Iron Man fame). The dynamic camera work reveals the superhero roots of its director; the sweetness—without being too overtly sugary—, the playing mood with lighting effects, the happy ending, and catchy, danceable songs are Disney studios trademark. The combination of great cinematography, special effects, and a stellar cast lending their voices to mesmerizing animals—cons and villains alike—make this film a must-see for the whole family.

Demolition (♦♦♦♦): Financier Davis Mitchell loses his wife in a car accident from which he walks off unscathed. During his visit in the ICU, he inserts coins into a vending machine that doesn't deliver the product choice. Outraged, Davis writes several letters to the vendor's customer service department pouring his heart out. Karen Moreno, the customer service representative from the vending machine company, reads the letters, is saddened and intrigued, and makes contact with Davis. What ensues is a journey of healing and self discovery for both.

I'm having such a great streak with movies this year, that I don't know if lately the quality has increased along with the amount, or if I'm being more selective and getting lucky. Either way, I have rated three and a half stars or higher more movies this year before award season than in the past. Among the last film-lot I saw and liked very much was Demolition starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts, and Chris Cooper in the leading roles.

Gyllenhaal's performance in Demolition is one of the best ones I have seen from him. He is a recent widower on a mission to reestablish honesty in his life, so he starts by admitting to a stranger that he didn't love his late wife, and goes from there. It is in his "destructive" journey where the power of this movie lies, for he seems disconnected from his emotions and sets on a path to breaking things (literally) to understand how they work. The movie is not a comedy but it made me laugh out loud almost to the end, when he ends up discovering that he had more of an emotional connection with his late wife than he ever realized. Supporting characters deserve accolades as well, but it is really Jake Gyllenhaal that makes this production a must-see.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Alchemy of Air by Thomas Hager (♦♦♦♦♦)

A Jewish Genius, A Doomed Tycoon, and the Scientific Discovery that Fed the World, but Fueled the Rise of Hitler

Ancient farmers discovered the advantages of composting human, animal, and botanical wastes to fertilize their lands. The ancient Chinese perfected the system of crop rotations to maximize land productivity. By the nineteenth century, however, most people were migrating to the cities as consequence of the Industrial Revolution. Suddenly there were fewer farmers to feed the ever increasing world population. In addition to that, available arable land was ever limited. What would happen when farms could no longer produce crops due to the land losing its productivity? It was clear that something had to be done.

Between 1840 and 1860, Peru exported the bird guano from the Chinchas Islands, thus becoming one of the richest nations on earth because it was the most powerful fertilizer that nature could offer. Solely in the 1850, the import of guano by the United States, Britain, and France had tripled despite the increasing prices. But by the end of that decade, the Chinchas Islands were empty. The search for the next best natural fertilizer looked south of the Chinchas to the Atacama Desert's—then property of Peru—mineral rocks known as caliche from which sodium nitrate (salitre), also called nitrate, was purified.

Towards 1870, the naturally occurring sodium nitrate from the Atacama was being used as both, fertilizer and for component of fireworks. Early attempts to introduce sodium nitrate as fertilizer in England had failed, but when chemists realized that by substituting sodium with potassium they could obtain "true saltpeter", the main component in gunpowder, salitre became popular. Soon, England, Germany, and France had taken claims in the Atacama, as well as thousands of Chileans that came to work in the desert. By the end of the decade, Peru realized that the Atacama area had been essentially colonized by foreigners.

In 1879—as result of the Bolivian president raising taxes on the salitre extraction from their portion of the desert, combined with a secret alliance between Peru and Bolivia against Chile and its fearless navy—the War of the Pacific, also called Nitrate War, erupted. Chile won the war in 1881 and two things happened as result: Bolivia lost its access to the sea, and Peru gave up its claim on the Atacama Desert.

By then, Europe and the United States were dependent on nitrates, as fertilizer, and as starting material for explosives. By 1900, Great Britain and Germany were among the world's biggest buyers. While Britain had colonies the world over that could grow crops, Germany—an infant nation in its modern form (c. 1871)—did not, thus having to grow its own food on poor soils, and sustain its rather ambitious military aspirations.

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Fritz Haber was a German Jew. Despite Germany being more accepting of Jews than other European countries—there weren't pogroms in Germany, and Jews could occupy important posts in many civil areas, though not in the military—, Haber converted to Christianity to make his assimilation as a German complete.

He obtained a PhD in Chemistry and worked in several industries before accepting a teaching and research position at a university. His ammonia research started when he was working for an Austrian company. In 1905, Haber published his first findings on the synthesis of ammonia, but his yields were refuted by calculations made by prominent physical chemist Walther Nernst. Instead of giving up, Haber brought on board an assistant to help him figure out the set up of his machine.

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To break the triple covalent bond that holds both atoms in a nitrogen molecule together (NΞN), at least 1000 °C are needed. Once the nitrogen atoms are free, they can combine easily with three atoms of hydrogen to form ammonia (NH3). This latter step generates more heat, which decreases the yield of ammonia by evaporation. Less heat is needed, however, by increasing the pressure and incorporating an effective catalyst to the reaction chamber.

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By 1908, Haber and his assistant Robert Le Rossignol had started pushing the limits of high pressure chemistry, running ammonia synthesis between one hundred and two hundred atmospheres—pressures found about a mile beneath the ocean—, in experiments funded by BASF, Germany's preeminent chemical company. Those pressures were high enough to burst any reaction chamber, but Haber and Le Rossignol used thick-walled tubes made of quartz encased in an iron jacket. Working with higher pressures allowed them to decrease the temperature of the reaction down to 600 °C, which in turn increased the amount of ammonia produced. In the spring of 1909, Haber and Le Rossignol found out that osmium, a rare element, used as a catalyst, shot up the yield of ammonia to levels that could be commercially viable.

Scaling up Haber’s machine was going to pose challenges. No quartz rock was big enough for a reaction chamber of industrial size. Among the BASF chemists and management who went to see Haber's machine in action was the head of the nitrogen work at BASF, Carl Bosch, who as it turns out, was good with metals and machines.

In 1910, upon the publishing of his ammonia research, Fritz Haber gained wealth and fame. In 1911, he left his university post behind, and moved with his family to Berlin, where he had been offered to serve as founding director of the in-the-works Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry in the heart of Dahlem, a sort of Mecca for the study and research of chemistry.

The first prototype ammonia factory started producing in 1911 under Carl Bosch's leadership. In September 1913, the second factory opened at Oppau. With Oppau, BASF pioneered the field of high pressure chemistry.

Then WWI erupted. Fritz Haber volunteered for service as a scientific advisor. He wrote to BASF to inquire if there was a way that the ammonia machine could be converted to produce nitric acid, starting material for the production of gunpowder and high explosives like TNT and nitroglycerin.

Carl Bosch agreed with the government that BASF could produce sodium nitrate as an intermediate step to obtain nitric acid, if the government paid for the expansion and retrofitting of Oppau. That's how Oppau became a defense industry. As the war went to the air and the Allies started bombing Oppau repeatedly, it became clear that another factory had to be built away from the Rhine, at Leuna. It took less than a year to build. Leuna was a marvel of technology that no one could replicate, a city-sized factory.

In the spring of 1918 Germany's allies began giving up. Inside Germany, the political climate boiled over spurring revolution and forcing the Kaiser to abdicate and flee to Holland. In November, Germany surrendered without the fight ever taking place on German soil.

With the end of the war, Germany was thrown into anarchy. A centrist Weimar Republic was formed but without much popular support. Meanwhile, French troops occupied the Rhineland. BASF's Ludwigshafen and Oppau plants were in that area, and were of importance to the Allies because they were part of Germany's war machine. Soon, French troops began appearing at Oppau with the objective of reverse engineering the machinery. BASF's lawyers managed to keep them at bay.

With the looming Versailles peace negotiations, talks of millions of marks in reparations, and imminent dismantling of Germany's war machine and its military, Carl Bosch secretly brokered a deal to earn royalties from a Haber-Bosch plant he would help the French to construct. In 1920, the French pulled out. Carl Bosch was made head of BASF.

In November 1919, Fritz Haber was named a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry for his work on ammonia synthesis.

During the early 1920s, Germany went from one crisis to the next. In 1923, due to hyperinflation, Germany suspended reparation payments and the French returned; they collected their payment in goods, moving out again by 1924.

In 1925, Germany's biggest chemical and dyes industries merged into what became known as IG Farben. Carl Bosch was named its director. From 1926 and on, Bosch directed his chemists' attention towards the production of synthetic gasoline. Farben became more of an international conglomerate than a German company. Deals with other chemical companies in Britain, the United States, and other European countries interested in building Haber-Bosch plants, supplied capital for Leuna's expansion.

Then, the U.S. stock market crash of 1929 came, sending the world into recession. Germany was hit hard. American loans had kept the economy afloat, but with the crisis repayment was demanded. Unemployment became rampant, opening the way to radical groups taking hold of national politics, Adolf Hitler's ultranationalist Nazis among them.

In November 1931, Carl Bosch was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work on scaling up the ammonia synthesis.

In January, 1933, Hitler was made chancellor of Germany. A mysterious fire in the parliament in February sent Germans into a frenzy. Hitler was given dictatorial powers. The first anti-Semitic policies rolled on in April.

Haber's Kaiser Wilhelm Institute was hit hard because of the large concentration of Jewish scientists working in it. Forced to fire his Jewish employees due to the non-Aryan decree, Haber decided to resign his post as head of the institute, while secretly helping them secure jobs outside of Germany.

In October of 1933, Haber, disillusioned and shocked with the direction of Germany’s politics, moved to England. He died in poverty in Switzerland, in January 1934, of massive heart attacks.

In December 1933, the Nazis agreed to buy all the synthetic gasoline that Farben could produce. Higher tariffs were placed on imported fuel.

In 1935, the Farben board made Carl Bosch its board manager, separating him from Farben’s day-to-day decisions in an attempt to silence his then increasingly anti-Nazi pronouncements. Also in 1935, Hitler announced that "he was no longer abiding by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles and that he had secretly rearmed Germany during the past two years, tripling the size of its army and building a twenty-five-hundred-plane modern air force."

In the years leading to his death, Carl Bosch expressed his concern that he had, inadvertently, aided Hitler's policies. And it was true. In 1939 Hitler invaded Poland. On late April 1940, Carl Bosch passed away.

"After the war... [a Nazi expert] testified that if the Allies had done nothing but destroy Leuna and the other synthetic fuel plants by bombing them day and night, the war would have been over in eight weeks."

Disclaimer: while Thomas Hager extends his book beyond WWII to more recent times, and beyond socio-economics, to possible environmental impact around the world of the Haber-Bosch nitrogen fixation cycle, as well as going more in-depth about the lives and times of Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, I have chosen to emphasize how the discovery of industrial nitrogen fixation (along with unsettling socio-economic climate and political unrest) gave rise to Nazism.

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The Alchemy of Air is chockfull with valuable historical information. I read the book twice, back-to-back, to grasp its scope and to try summarizing it as best as I could. In the end, I chose to follow the chronological narrative for this review.

The Alchemy of Air chronicles:

1) events surrounding four wars—the Guano War, the Pacific War, and both World Wars—, as well as providing a year by year (not always in a linear fashion) account from 1840 when the Guano trade started, to the end of WWII.

2) Chairman Mao Tse Tung's Leap Forward in 1958, China, thanks to which thirty million Chinese died from starvation and malnutrition.

3) the birth and development of Germany as a nation in its modern form, in all its political and military zeal.

4) the birth of chemical engineering as a scientific discipline, and the rise of BASF as an international conglomerate and a pioneering chemical company.

5) the discovery and advancements made by Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, their lives, and their relationships with close relatives and other scientists of the era.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Snapshots - #9

TV shows...

Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman (♦♦♦♦♦): in Season 1 (2010) of this utterly addictive series from the Science Channel, the latest theories and discoveries in science are explained in layman's terms. We are explained about the nature of Black Holes, if time travel is possible, if there is a creator and the nature of belief, what lies in the darkness of the universe, etc. Wonderfully explained by scientists in every branch of scientific knowledge, Through the Wormhole is a condensed way to attend college lectures without the stress of preparing for exams and making it to classes on time.

The movies...

Fathers and Daughters (♦♦♦♦): Pulitzer-winning author Jake Davis loses his wife in the car accident in which he receives brain trauma. Struggling with a deteriorating mental illness, he checks in for treatment at a hospital for seven months, leaving his daughter Katie in the care of his sister-in-law's family. Only after Jake comes back to pick up Katie, their extended family tell him that it's best for her if she stays with them. Managing seizures and manic psychotic episodes while raising his daughter isn't ideal, but they make do. Twenty five years later, Katie, as an adult, has problems connecting to people on an emotional level.

This movie is drama heaven. Gorgeous musical score, and beautifully acted by the top notch ensemble cast, but especially by Russell Crowe—in his best performance since the overlooked American Gangster—, and Amanda Seyfried—her performance so emotionally wrenching that is on par with her portrayal of Linda Lovelace in Lovelace, her best yet.

This is easily one of the best movies I have seen so far this year. Not to be missed!

Love and Friendship (♦♦♦♦): Lady Susan is a flirtatious and cunning, young widow with something of a reputation for playing men like fiddles. Since she is virtually penniless, she stays for long periods at the estates of distant relatives and friends, hoping that she will make the acquaintance of a well off suitor who is willing to marry her. Her daughter has an idiotic, wealthy suitor, but she thinks she can do better, or that teaching is a preferable way to make a living.

This film is adapted from Jane Austen's novella Lady Susan. When it started I thought it was going to be a boring period drama starring Kate Beckinsale who is not exactly known for these roles. I rolled my eyes too early perhaps. Love and Friendship is acutely funny, thanks mostly to Beckinsale as Lady Susan, who caused such complications and had all men wrapped around her index finger. Cunning was the name of the game and she was a master at it, in fact, it seems almost everyone had trouble keeping up with her.

Dark Shadows (♦♦♦½): Barnabas Collins refused the love of a lady in the 1700s, and was forever cursed. He became a vampire. An angry mob chained and buried for two centuries, until he was accidentally found and freed in 1972. What else to do but help his descendants regain their fortunes while battling it out with his old flame?

I enjoyed this Tim Burton film, though I have to say it's not for everyone. There are quirky vampires, family curses, a strange mixture of the old and the contemporary.

Dark Shadows is an adaptation of a TV series from the 1970s, and I had a blast watching it. Eva Green (Miss Vanessa Ives of Penny Dreadful fame), more or less reprised this role in Penny Dreadful.

With the right dose of spooky and the supernatural, and vibrant music from the 1970s, Dark Shadows is fun, better enjoyed on Halloween.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Snapshots - #8

The movies...

I have been on a roll lately revisiting movies I have rated three stars and I now like very much, thus, I decided to give Deadpool another try.

Deadpool (♦♦♦♦): I heard two movie critics on television agree that Deadpool was among the best films of 2016 thus far, and that made me think that perhaps I had missed something. Apparently I did.

The problem the first time was that I was expecting a traditional superhero movie, but Deadpool is more spoof than standard superhero fare, and a very good one at that. It is surprisingly and acutely funny, courtesy of a very smartly written screenplay. And Ryan Reynolds...he rocks in this role, so my apologies to him for not giving him enough credit the first time around. I keep my fingers crossed for a sequel as witty as this one.

If you think most superhero movies are alike, you may want to give this one a try.

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (♦♦♦♦♦): pure adrenaline ride in the tradition of Black Hawk Down is this Michael Bay's production. John Krazinski, as a Special Op contractor for CIA, gives his best performance ever, followed closely by the one in Promised Land.

If the movie is nearly true to what happened in Benghazi, it poses many questions. Perhaps the most important of all, is how high up the command chain was the order to do nothing to stop those freaking terrorists (a whole city's population by the looks of it) from taking the ambassador compound and attacking a CIA base so covert that apparently hardly anyone on our side knew it existed. Frankly the movie left me in awe at those SIX (!!!) Special Op contractors that held up for 13 hours repelling wave after wave of COORDINATED heavily armed attacks.

Don't be too squeamish. Every American should watch this movie and ask him or herself a few hard questions.

Born to be Blue (♦♦♦½): In 1950, trumpeter Chet Baker was at the pinnacle of his career after pioneering West Coast Jazz. Consumed by a heroin addiction and a stint in jail, his days as a renowned artist were pretty much thing of the past by 1960. Thanks to a sobering love affair, Baker cleaned up his act and by mid 1960s he was staging a comeback. Only his newfound fame didn't agree with his latent drug addiction.

This movie is one of the reasons why I enjoy artsy dramas. Born to be Blue has many elements that make it worth watching. It has great introspective music, which I thoroughly enjoyed even though I'm not too fond of jazz. Ethan Hawke is amazing in the leading role, being equally brilliant both high, or in his normal state—his performance has been described as that of a virtuoso. Last, is the lasting effect of the film for it leaves you uneasy, with the wheels of your mind working over-time. It left me questioning, for example, why are drugs so prevalent among highly creative people in the arts?

I highly recommend Born to be Blue, as you may be watching one of the best acting performances of 2016.

The Man Who Knew Infinity (♦♦♦½): In 1914, mathematics Fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge, G. H. Hardy, invited Indian genius Srinivasa Ramanujan to Cambridge to work on mathematical proofs to his theories. Their combined groundbreaking work over the next five years would forever alter the face of mathematics.

The Man Who Knew Infinity will mainly appeal to scientists and enthusiasts, though everyone can enjoy it due to the wonderful performances by Jeremy Irons, Dev Patel and Toby Jones in the leading roles.

The subject matter is bittersweet as Ramanujan died not long after those events at the age of thirty two. It can be debated that if he had not been to England he wouldn't have died as young as he did, but he would have denied the world his contributions.

Monday, September 5, 2016

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (♦♦♦♦)

The Dwarves have finally conquered Lonely Mountain, but now the survivors of Lake Town, and the Woodland Elves, have come to cash in on Thorin's promises. War is imminent as Thorin seems possessed by his treasure. He refuses to share his birthright. As armies of Dwarves, Men, and Elves prepare for battle, Orcs, commanded by Azog the Defiler on behalf of Sauron, march in by surprise, and all the inhabitants of Middle-Earth come face to face in an epic battle of good versus evil.

I rated The Desolation of Smaug three and half stars, but The Battle of the Five Armies was a solid four. Its pace was dynamic. Not only there was never a lull in the action, but there were several subplots to follow along. The movie had a bittersweet ending on several fronts: a relative peace was won; the Dwarves got their revenge, and Bilbo Baggins returned to the Shire. The adventure ending as it began.

The signature elements of this trilogy—epic world building, stellar special effects, photography, cinematography, musical score, and great acting—were present in this installment as well. There was also a masterful command of lighting to convey the nature of good and evil. That technique is typically used by the Studios Disney to great effect, but not so much in other productions. In The Hobbit trilogy it was used to maximum advantage; even Gandalf seemed to commandeer light to his benefit.

Like most people, I thought that making a trilogy was a gimmicky way for the studio to make more money, but seeing it as a whole, it was very well done yet respected the essence of J.R.R. Tolkien's work.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (♦♦♦½)

"The Lord of the Silver Fountains,
The King of Carven Stone...
The King Beneath the Mountain
Shall Come into His Own!
And the Bell Shall Ring in Gladness
At the Mountain King's Return,
But All Shall Fail in Sadness
And the Lake Will Shine and Burn."
Prophecy of the House of Durin

The twelve dwarves led by Thorin, heir of the House of Durin—son of Thrain, son of Thror—, and Bilbo Baggins, have reached Mirkwood, the forest that borders the lands of the Elves of the West, for that is the shortest route to Lonely Mountain. Giant spiders have taken hold of the forest, and our entourage will have to contend with those, only to encounter not very welcoming elves when they leave it behind.

Fleeing from the elves, and with orcs hot on their trail, Thorin's party is aided by a smuggler who helps them cross the lake that follows the river, until they reach Lake-Town, where they promise riches in exchange for safe passage for the rest of their journey to Lonely Mountain. However, it remains to be seen how easy it will be for Bilbo to secure the Arkenstone—the gem that cements Thorin as heir to the House of Durin and as true King Under the Mountain—for Smaug has just awaken and he is in no mood to die quickly...Or quietly.

I rated The Desolation of Smaug three and a half stars because it feels longer than it has any right to be. Bilbo and Smaug, but mostly the latter, are the stars of this show. Smaug takes center stage, as the moody diva he is, and gives Bilbo and the dwarves a piece of his mind. And that diatribe is what takes forever to unfold. A few minutes would have sufficed for Smaug to make his point quite nicely.

The music, the special effects, and also the acting contribute to very good storytelling.

Friday, August 26, 2016

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Adventure, (revisited) (♦♦♦♦)

Once again, Peter Jackson has created magic in a land he knows well: Middle-Earth. Under his wizardry wand, all sorts of evil mythical creatures such as goblins, orcs, and trolls come to life. Evil always lurks in the shadows in this realm, but goodness manages to keep it at bay. Under Jackson's steady guidance, thirteen dwarf warriors of Erebor, the wizard Gandalf the Grey, and a very cautious hobbit named Bilbo Baggins, embark on a quest to reclaim the Lonely Mountain, which was taken two generations ago from the dwarves—their rightful owners—, along with its riches, by Smaug, the dragon.

Middle-Earth is again a visual feast, both heaven and hell. Despite running for close to three hours, the pace is fast as pitfalls abound. The top notch special effects that made the Lord of the Rings trilogy a smashing success also enhance this saga. A new technique that makes more than 24 frames per second gives a “you are there feel” as never before seen.

I can't praise the editing, for the movie is long, though as I said, being the one to set the tone of the trilogy, doesn't feel long at all. The musical score sets the mood for the scenes, and does so superbly. Last, but not least, this saga benefit from gifted actors in career defining performances. What more could we ask for?
Also see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey previous review.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Snapshots - #7

TV shows...

Black Sails (♦♦♦♦): in Season 2 there were many revelations, and in the last episode we experienced the mother of all pirate's attacks on the North Carolina colony as payback for its prominent citizens wanting to hang Captain Flint after a summary public trial.

In Season 3, we encounter Captain Flint again at sea, but this man is more at war with the world than he is ever been. John Silver, now his quartermaster, thinks that bad things materialize due to Flint's demons. But if that's the case, this time the crew of The Walrus will look at death in the face several times before they return to Nassau. Even then, nothing is certain, for a British governor, Woodes Rogers, has taken hold of Providence Island without a battle by giving pardons to the pirates who inhabit it. Leave it to Charles Vane and Captain Flint to raise their voices—and swords—in dissent.

After the explosive Season 2, Season 3 feels more subdued, like a transitional state between the bad and the worse to come. Don't get me wrong, plenty of exciting things happen this season, but all seems in preparation to the war between the pirates of Nassau, the British Empire, and perhaps the Spanish too.

Music Concerts...

Jackie Evancho: Awakening - Live in Concert (♦♦♦♦♦): this concert was filmed for a TV special in 2015, runs for about 73 minutes, and it was shot in Pennsylvania's Longwood Gardens. Most of the concert takes place in the Longwood Gardens Open Air Theater, while some songs are sung at other venues around the property.

Jackie Evancho's concert features songs from the album Awakening. It draws inspiration from diverse sources, ranging from classical music (Puccini's O Mio Babbino Caro, Dormi Jesú, the Ave Maria, and Rachmaninoff's Vocalisse), Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera (Think of Me), from rock, in a salute to U2 (With or Without You), and from popular culture (A Great Big World & Christina Aguilera's Say Something, Evanescence's My Immortal, and The Rains of Castamere, in a nod to Games of Thrones).

The heavenly voice of Jackie Evancho reminds me a great deal of a younger Charlotte Church, but with lesser voice acrobatics and more understandable phrasing. A commendable aspect of young Evancho, is her skill to choose a repertoire that appeals to operatic connoisseurs and more mainstream pop, while staying away of other singers' material of the same genre.

Il Volo: Live from Pompeii (♦♦♦♦♦): this operatic male trio was formed in 2009. Their 2015 world tour kick-started at Pompeii's Amphitheater, which hadn't been used for a concert since Pink Floyd used it in 1972. Filmed for PBS, this concert runs for 78 minutes and it features hits like Grande Amore, Io che non vivo, Delilah and Volare (in playful performances), Caruso, Unchained Melody, and Anema e Cuore, among others.

I always enjoy Il Volo's live performances because they have great chemistry together. Though, at times, their combined voices are almost drowned by the music, and their individual performances are usually better than as a trio—Gianluca is the more mature voice of the three, a baritone; needless is to remind that he was the winner of the Sanremo competition where all three met and from which they came to be—, they make classics sound fresh and hip.

The movies...

The Martian (♦♦♦♦): I bought this movie last year as soon as it came out. I was unimpressed the first time I watched it. I thought Matt Damon was too stiff for the role, the music didn't go with the topic, and the only thing the filmmakers got right was the cinematography. Oh boy! It happened a few times last year that I had to watch a movie twice to really like it, and that has been the case with The Martian.

This time around I thought Matt Damon was spot on as Mark Watney, because Mark was being funny about life or death situations, and Matt Damon was hysterical but in a wry way, which was the right way to perceive his snarky comments. The disco music, which I loved, was appropriate since that's the only music Watney had available, and since there's no sound in space it would have been a very boring movie without that danceable soundtrack. They got the science right, but it was based on the book, so hopefully there was little room for error there. And the cinematography was outstanding.

Gods of Egypt (♦♦♦½): this production can boast of being visually lavish and of its solid performances. Nickolaj Coster-Waldau (Jaime Lannister of Game of Thrones fame) plays his role of outcast god Horus to a T, and how could he not when he is more or less reprising his Lannister role? Other two worthy performances are that of Gerard Butler as god Set, the usurper to the throne—in a role cut from 300—, and Geoffrey Rush as the all-powerful Ra. The screenplay—I assume the material was taken from Egyptian mythology, though I don't know if licenses were taken with the story—it’s OK, but not much more.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Snapshots - #6

I have been watching TV shows and a few of this year's movies, as you know I do, but not finding much to comment about what I have seen. Then, in an effort to spice things up, I streamed several concerts that I rented, and suddenly my muse was back.

A month ago I downloaded a 3-in-1 album with a compilation of the Greatest Hits of the British quartet Queen. All I knew from them, or so I thought, was Bohemian Rhapsody and We Are the Champions, but listening to these albums made me acknowledge that I knew more of their repertoire than I had ever realized. I fell in love with them, even losing hours of precious sleep because some songs got stuck in my head.

I read the band's profile and among the things I read was that they were never critics' darlings. Their mixture of semi-operatic, complex vocals, soaring anthems, and rich piano and guitar notes apparently weren't everyone's cup of tea.

Back in the early 1990s, my cousin's boyfriend gave her, as a present, an album of Queen. I listened to it in passing and that's how I came to know Bohemian Rhapsody. I don't think I appreciated this album back then. I wasn't into rock, or the classical crossover genres, as I am now, which make me, in turn, appreciate Queen's music in all its richness, and bombastic-ness. And love it! All that led me to watching Queen in concert this past weekend.

Queen - Rock Montreal (♦♦♦♦♦): according to the description of the video, this 1981 concert in Montreal is the only one the band ever taped. It runs for 59 minutes, and it's fantastic! Some of their greatest hits, such as We Are the Champions, Another One Bites the Dust, Somebody to Love Me, Bohemian Rhapsody, Killer Queen, Crazy Little Thing Called Love, and Play the Game, are interpreted in all their magnificence.

Freddie Mercury (what an amazing showman!) was stellar! I didn't know that besides being the incredible vocalist he was, he played the piano and acoustic guitar. What a loss to the music world his death has been!

P!nk: Funhouse Tour Live in Australia (♦♦♦♦♦): this sold-out 2014 concert runs for 122 minutes and it features some of Pink's signature hits such as You and Your Hand Tonight and Get This Party Started (in very cheeky performances); Who Knew; the troublesome anthem I Want to Start a Fight (that displays several female dancers fighting a man with pillows on top of a bed center stage), and spirited renditions of Bohemian Rhapsody and Gnarls Barkley's 2006 runaway hit Crazy.

Her heartfelt ballads is where I think Pink reflects her depth as an artist, and she delivers very intimate renditions of Glitter in the Air, Crystal Ball, Please Don't Leave Me, and I Don't Believe You, featured in Funhouse, the album that gives title to the tour.

If you are Pink's fan, this concert is a must see; if you are not, you are going to be very entertained regardless.

Björk: Biophilia Live (♦♦♦): I confess that I had never heard Björk's music. After streaming this concert, I can definitely say I'm not a fan, but I have a few things to say about it nonetheless.

What I didn't like: Björk's weird costume and makeup; her strange—leaning towards nonsensical—lyrics.
What I liked: the full immersive multimedia experience, part show of lights, with a semi operatic female choir singing in background to science videos.

In my opinion, the whole viewing experience seemed more at home in a Cirque du Soleil performance, or at museum of natural history's theater than in a concert hall, but watching this concert live must have been otherworldly, to say the least. Too bad the lyrics don’t make an enjoyable album.