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.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

The Black Widow by Daniel Silva (♦♦♦♦♦)

Gabriel Allon is in Jerusalem, giving the finishing touches to the Caravaggio altar piece that he recovered in The Heist. He is days away of assuming the directorship of the Office. But once again, world affairs take center stage in his life, for a series of attacks on Jews in France have the Jewish population on edge.

To compound things further, a truck bomb has just destroyed the influential Isaac Weinberg Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism in France in the heart of Paris, and ISIS, “the most violent terrorist organization the world has ever known”, has attributed the deed. Hannah Weinberg, the owner of the van Gogh painting that facilitated the reeling in of Zizi al-Bakari in The Messenger, has just been killed in the attack.

Hannah Weinberg has bequest her van Gogh to Gabriel, but the government of France, and Paul Rousseau—the head of a very specialized anti-terror unit—want Gabriel’s services in exchange for the painting. With the cooperation of four intelligence agencies, a net is cast on an elusive ISIS mastermind known only as Saladin. A Jewess of French provenance, under the cover of a black widow, travels to the caliphate and infiltrates the network. But is she a precious piece in the chess game that follows, or just an expendable pawn?

Wow! Today’s world seems to have spun out of control, and the events related In The Black Widow are just reflections of that. The Black Widow is a page turner of the highest order, a combination of great sense of humor, with more laugh out loud moments than ever before, but it also details the most chaotic and lethal deeds that terrorists may be able to conceive and carry out. Ever since The Defector I had been looking for my next peak in the Gabriel Allon saga, and this novel is just that, though in several respects it left me wondering if this is the final entry.

Some of the events detailed in The Black Widow have come to pass; others hopefully will never come to be. Daniel Silva has been prescient before—he was so regarding Egypt in The Secret Servant, about the state of affairs in Russia in Moscow Rules and The Defector, and about terrorists dealing in antiquities in The Fallen Angel—but this time, reality caught up with fiction so to speak, for he was writing this book about ISIS as an attack on Paris’ soil unfolded.

The fact that the investigation spilled out to Belgium, both in the book and real life, is not a coincidence. Daniel Silva states that “Belgium has earned the dubious distinction of being Western Europe’s largest per capita supplier of manpower to the Islamic caliphate”. He takes no pleasure in being prescient, he says; I wouldn’t either if I were him, but the state of world affairs suggest that one has to be very naïve or very stupid to ignore the dangers that radical Islam poses to the western world, and he is neither.

Europe has been seized by a wave of appeasement that in no measure has discouraged these attacks. Politicians the world over are either in denial or in a convenient state of denial about the modern world being at war. Terrorists don’t believe in appeasement; they revel in chaos and deaths…the more the better. Those who fail to acknowledge these threats may hurt foreign policies beyond repair, in America as well as the rest of the world.

Favorite quotes:

‘Again, Gabriel tilted his head to the left. “We hoped the problems of Syria would remain in Syria, but I’m afraid hope is not an acceptable strategy when it comes to national security. While we’ve been twiddling our thumbs, ISIS has been developing a sophisticated terror network with the ability to strike in the heart of the West.”’ (Location 1270, 17%)

‘“…But are we truly to blame? We, the humble secret servants who stand with our fingers in the dike? Or does the blame lie elsewhere?”
    “In Washington, for example.” Rousseau set off along the embankment. “The invasion of Iraq turned the region into a cauldron. And when the new American president decided the time had come to withdraw, the cauldron boiled over. And then there was this folly we called the Arab Spring. Mubarak must go! Gaddafi must go! Assad must go!” He shook his head slowly. “It was madness, absolute madness. And now we are left with this. ISIS controls a swath of territory the size of the United Kingdom, right on the doorstep of Europe. Even Bin Laden would have never dared to dream of such thing. And what does the American president tell us? ISIS is not Islamic. ISIS is the jayvee team.” He frowned. “What does this mean? Jayvee?”
   “I think it has something to do with basketball.”
   “And what does basketball have to do with a subject as serious as the rise of the caliphate?”’   (Location 1431-1438, 19%)

‘…“We had our problems with Saddam, but we warned the Americans they would rue the day they toppled him. They didn’t listen, of course. Nor did they listen when we asked them to do something about Syria. Not our problem, they said. We’re putting the Middle East in our rearview mirror. No more American wars in Muslim lands. And now look at the situation. A quarter of a million people dead, hundreds of thousands more streaming into Europe, Russia and Iran working together to dominate the Middle East.” He shook his head slowly. “Have I left anything out?”’  (Location1899-1907, 25%)

‘“It’s true,” said Carter. “We were late to the ISIS party. It is also true that even after arriving at the party we avoided the buffet and the punch bowl. You see, after many years of attending such parties, we’ve grown weary of them. Our president has made it clear that the last one, the one in Iraq, was a crashing bore. Expensive, too, in American blood and treasure. And he has no interest in throwing another one in Syria, especially when it conflicts with the narrative.”
   “What narrative is that?”
   “The one about how we overreacted to nine-eleven. The one about how terrorism is a nuisance, not a threat. The one about how we can absorb another strike like the one that brought our economy and transportation system to its knees, and be stronger as a result. And let us not forget,” Carter added, “the president’s unfortunate remarks about ISIS being the jayvee team. Presidents don’t like being proved wrong.”
   “Neither do spies, for that matter.”’  (Location 4010-4018, 52%)

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Snapshots - #5

TV shows...

Black Sails (♦♦♦♦): Season 2 of this Starz pirate show was bigger and better than its freshman season. There were secrets and explosive revelations galore as we learned of the beginnings of Captain Flint as a naval British lieutenant who befriended an idealistic couple with dreams of making Nassau a self-sustaining paradise where pirates were pardoned in exchange for their commitment to progress.

The whole Season 2 built up to a crescendo, with the last two episodes being GOT's season finales worthy. I wonder what will happen in New Providence Island in Season 3 with the changes that none of us could have seen coming, already in motion.

The movies...

Hail, Caesar! (♦♦♦♦): A day in the life of a studio fixer is anything but boring...From the kidnapping of a major movie star by Hollywood writers turned Commies, to the undisclosed pregnancy of a cinematic darling and the hunt for a husband A.S.A.P., to twin gossip columnists chasing scoops...It's all there.

Written, directed, and produced in part by the Coen brothers, Hail, Caesar! has very great moments of social and religious commentary, though the humor is not evenly spread out through the movie. One of my favorite scenes is in which a Rabbi, a Catholic Father, an Orthodox priest, and a Protestant Minister argue about the nature of God and Jesus Christ. It is hysterical! Funny as well is the scene in which a cowboy star, who isn't used to the talkies, must repeat the lines the movie director is dictating to him.

There are very good moments in this movie and the screenplay is a gem, but above all, major kudos to the all-star ensemble cast for making it seem effortless.

The Dinner (♦♦♦♦): this Italian adaptation of the eponymous novel by Herman Koch—about two families torn by a moral dilemma revolving around two teenagers—packs some punch but it’s best appreciated by going in as blindly as possible. It is amazingly acted, particularly by the concerned adults. The open ending left me in shock, but with questions that I feel only the novel can answer (perhaps).

10 Cloverfield Lane (♦♦♦½): A survivalist man rescues a woman from a car crash, and brings her to his bunker. Meanwhile, his attitude suggests something more sinister is going on.
I have to say that I had fun with the first half of the movie, because like Michelle, I thought something weird was going on in Howard's head. I kept telling myself he was one creepy bastard, but as one realizes as the final credits roll on, this is a classic case of "is it, or isn't it?"

The claustrophobic feel of this movie—from keeping the cast to a bare minimum, to the setting being almost completely indoors, to the ambivalence of Howard's mental state—is not only palpable but quite intentional as well.

What prevented me from giving this movie a higher rating was that wacky ending, that though fitting, I didn't like too much.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Real Neat Blog Award

A million thanks to Lynn @ Books and Traveling with Lynn for always thinking on me for her awards. As soon as I read the questions for this “neat award”, I knew I wanted to participate and give my two cents. I’m not going to nominate fellow bloggers because last time most didn’t want to take part, but if the questions appeal to you, feel free to nominate yourself on my behalf.

The rules…
  • Thank and link the blogger that nominated you.
  • Answer the 7 questions that the nomination has provided you.
  • Create 7 questions for your nominees.
  • Nominate 7 other bloggers.  

The questions…
  1. If you could meet any author, from any time (past and present), who would that be and what would be your most pressing question?
I would like to meet three, one from the past, who is my absolute favorite: Jorge Luis Borges—I so would like a lengthy conversation on any topic he chose if I could bring him back to life…Gosh, I would like to be his lowly assistant just to breathe the same rare air as he.

And two from this era: Frederick Forsyth and Daniel Silva—the things I would like to learn from both!

  1. Who is your absolute favorite character, ever?  I know you’re probably groaning and rolling your eyes but there must be one character that springs to mind immediately – probably followed by a host of others – but, I want that first knee jerk reaction please and why!
I have three: Esteban Trueba from House of Spirits by Isabel Allende, and Ari Shamron from the Gabriel Allon series by Daniel Silva, for their political beliefs, of course.

  1. What is your favorite series out of all the books you’ve read?  The series you would recommend without hesitation.
I have started a few series, but the only one that has gotten my undivided attention from beginning to the present is the Gabriel Allon series by Daniel Silva.

  1. What’s your preferred reading format, book or e-reader?
I used to be staunch supporter of printed books, but between my eyes getting the best of me and the convenience of e-readers, I am now a firm convert to e-readers, to the point that I have gotten in the habit of buying e-books of the printed books I own. Another thing that I am terribly attracted to, and I can’t resist, are the sales on e-books.

  1. The book you were most looking forward to but ended up being really disappointed with?
I don’t remember a book disappointing me that badly to be memorable. I try to go as open minded as possible about reading any book that fits my tastes. One thing though, I seldom depart from my reading tastes precisely because I may end up disappointed.

  1. Blogging – what do you love/not love – any embarrassing moments?
I love everything about blogging, from the writing process to compose a readable (and hopefully likable) post, to interacting with fellow bloggers and being able to recommend books/movies given their tastes.

  1. Most anticipated book for the remainder of 2016?
The Black Widow by Daniel Silva

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Snapshots - #4

TV shows...

The Casual Vacancy (♦♦♦♦): the death of an idealistic and quite popular councilman in the village of Pagford, England, sets in motion a strange chain of events, for the fate of Sweethouse Estate--a property used for the rehabilitation of local drug addicts--is at stake. Upon the death of councilman Barry Freebrother, three more men, including his up-to-no-good half-brother, vie for the council position and the opportunity to be the deciding vote in the future of the community.

This HBO/BBC miniseries is an adaptation of J.K. Rowling's novel The Casual Vacancy. I can't say whether it is faithful or not to the source material because I haven't read the novel yet, but I liked this miniseries a great deal and found myself quite invested in the characters. Typical British dramas are usually about class differences, but this community focuses on common people with real problems, and that is a welcomed departure from British literary tradition.

The Casual Vacancy is well made, with excellent photography and superb ensemble cast. What surprised me, though, is that it ended on a sad note; I wasn't expecting that at all.

War and Peace (♦♦♦♦♦): The first impression I got from the first episode of this co-production between Weinstein Co. and BBC, an adaptation of the eponymous novel by Leo Tolstoy, is that it was too British to be Russian, but then I watched the next five episodes back to back and by the time I reached the Tsar's Ball and the blooming romance between Natasha Rostova (Lily James) and Prince Andrei Bolkonsky (James Norton), I was hooked.

Being a 19th century novel, it is all about suffering and the human condition. Being mostly about the young nobility, it is mostly about idealism, particularly exemplified in the character of Count Pierre Bezhukov (Paul Dano). There is also love, lust, betrayal, and death—a lot of it, due to the Napoleonic Wars. What emerges throughout is a vivid tapestry of the Russian people defying insurmountable odds, and their wills to survive despite so much suffering.

Beautiful locations, costumes, and excellent performances make this miniseries a must watch.

And now the movies...

Eye in the Sky (♦♦♦♦♦): A joint operation between Kenyan, American, and British military in Kenya, is supposed to capture several most wanted radicals in East Africa meeting in a house, according to human intelligence. Two of them are British citizens, one carries an American passport. But when a drone detects the presence of suicide vests and explosives in the house—suggesting an imminent suicide attack—the mission changes to "must kill". However, a nine year-old girl selling bread in the street, outside the compound, stands in the way of the drone pilot carrying out the order.

Eye in the Sky is a taut military thriller about the complexities—moral, political, and legal, of collateral damage—in modern warfare.

Nuanced performances and great case in point make this thriller a must see.

Favorite quote:
General Benson: "Never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war."

The Giver (♦♦♦): In a utopian society in which sameness has been attained by weeding out uniqueness, a young man is tasked with being the “Receiver of Memories”. Only when he meets "the Giver", the man who is to pass on the memories to him, he experiences the wonders of bygone humanity and the world as it once was.

The Giver is an adaptation of the eponymous worldwide phenomenon by Lois Lowry. If you ask me, the movie is quite mediocre, except in those moments that convey what it means to be human, and the wonders of the natural world surrounding us.

I thought the concept of sameness was intriguing but poorly executed. This may be one of those instances in which the book is way better than the movie.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Avenger by Frederick Forsyth (♦♦♦♦)

I could never do justice to Frederick Forsyth in summarizing his plots. The following blurb of Avenger has been taken from Barnes & Noble:

Attorney Calvin Dexter hangs his shingle in a quiet New Jersey town, has a reasonably successful practice, and takes the hills strong while triathlon training. But Dexter is no ordinary man.

The summer before he goes to college, Ricky Colenso travels to Bosnia to volunteer as an aid worker. A few weeks later, he disappears and is never heard from again. A family grieves and is offered little hope—in the fog of that horrible time and place, the killer, too, has vanished.

Or so it would seem. For in a world that has forgotten right and wrong, there are few like Cal Dexter who can settle the score. And so, years later, a worldwide chase is on and Dexter begins to draw a net around the killer. But this time CIA agent Paul Devereux must find a way to stop Dexter before his quest for vengeance throws the world into chaos.

Avenger has a more modern feel than some of Forsyth's earlier works I have read, such as The Fourth Protocol and The Fist of God. While the latter two have a very complex structure of storytelling, Avenger is an easier to read and to follow, though still multi-layered, thriller gem.

I never stop marveling at Forsyth's talent for spinning a great story, particularly one which does both, entertain and inform the reader at the same time. Forsyth talks about conflagrations the world over and several countries' political intricacies (i.e., the four Guyanas) with the depth of a master. In Avenger, he covers the Vietnam War, Cambodia, and the Serbo-Croatian conflict in painstaking detail. The result is a very polished work of fiction that will make you wonder repetitively, what if...

The ending is as intriguing as it is surprising.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Snapshots - #3

TV shows...

Penny Dreadful (♦♦♦♦♦): Several months ago, I discovered the Showtime series Penny Dreadful, featuring archetypal horror characters such as Victor Frankenstein, Dorian Gray, Van Helsing, Dr. Jekyll, a werewolf, witches, and vampires. Season 1 was about devil possession and the harboring of dark secrets. Season 2 was based on witchcraft and its power to do evil. Season 3, the one currently available, deals with vampires. All evil forces aim to win the soul of Miss Vanessa Ives—a young woman conflicted about her past and her belief in God. Will Vanessa surrender this time to the charms of no other than Dracula? Or will her friends be able to save her?

I started binge-watching the first two seasons of Penny Dreadful towards last year's end, and couldn't stop until I digested it whole. As you may have realized, it is very dark, gothic, but also mouth watering addictive. It isn't exactly scary, though there is a lot of gore sometimes, with just the right dose of evil to make you shudder and ask for more. If you like suspense with a good dose of the supernatural, like I do, then this show is for you.

Silicon Valley (♦♦♦♦): In Season 2, the guys deal with a lawsuit that ends up in arbitration. And Richard outgrows his good guy persona and starts making cutthroat business decisions to save his company.

In Season 3, Richard has been fired as the CEO of his own company, and as CTO, he is consulted on possible products to market, but Richard is convinced that the current CEO of Pied Piper doesn't know what is best for the company.

There was a point early on in Season 2 in which I started to wonder if the edginess of Season 1 had been lost. I needed not have worried; Season 2 and 3 of Silicon Valley are as hysterical and edgy as the freshman season. And just as crazy.

And now the movies...

The Great Gatsby (2013) (♦♦♦♦): This remake of the 1974 classic star Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, and Carey Mulligan, as Jay Gatsby, Nick Carraway, and Daisy Buchanan, respectively.

If I thought that the 1974 movie was a little subdued in acting and mood, this one is very emotionally charged. All the performances are top notch, particularly DiCaprio’s and Joel Edgerton’s as Tom Buchanan. This 2013 remake was revamped with skimpy costumes and cabaret inspired choreography at Gatsby’s parties, music courtesy of the latest and among the greatest stars in today’s musical scene, such as Kanye West, Jay Z, Beyoncé, Alicia Keys… Glitter, excess, jazz, and shady characters, it’s all there.

This movie version follows the book very closely, even the dialogues, thus I felt sad in the end. Very good watch!

Big Eyes (♦♦♦♦): Margaret, a divorcée painter with a child to support in the 1950s America, marries another painter—or is he?—to have an uncontested steady income to avoid losing custody of her small daughter. Soon enough, Margaret and Walter are painting side by side. Walter is business savvy, a fast talker, and one thing leads to another and next time we know, Walter has taken credit for the paintings of children with big, soulful eyes, his wife paints.

Big Eyes is directed by Tim Burton. As Burton’s movies go, this one is atypical. Not the usual quirky, oddball characters; these characters are more earthy, and real. It helps that it is a true story of sorts, and helped all the more by the wonderful performances of Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz in the leading roles—the latter so funny as the con painter that I found myself laughing out loud at several times during the movie.

Begin Again (♦♦♦½): I had a good time watching Keira Knightley as a song writer/singer who gets an opportunity to record an album in the streets of New York City, after her famous boyfriend cheats on her.

Keira Knightley is not much of a singer really, and none of the melodies are catchy enough to transcend the movie, but it didn’t seem to matter much for enjoyed the story and the evolution of the characters through it.

Inside Llewyn Davis (♦♦♦): Llewyn Davis is a folk singer with ambition to make it in the music world but without a good, catchy repertoire to get him there. His album, Inside Llewyn Davis, is sitting in boxes for lack of sales. Surely everything would be different if his duo partner hadn’t taken his life, would it? Homeless and crashing on his friends’ couches for a few nights, he gets gigs that barely cover his living expenses.

Like Begin Again, Inside Llewyn Davis is a musical movie, except that unlike Keira Knightley, Oscar Isaac can carry a tune. Too bad for his expressionless eyes—I know they were meant to convey hopelessness, but they didn’t help this movie any—and the odd songs were rather depressive. The only good thing going on for this movie was Oscar Isaac in a career-making role. I rather preferred his performance in A Most Violent Year.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Snapshots- #2

TV shows…

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (♦♦♦♦): This BBC adaptation of the eponymous novel by Susanna Clarke, recounts the feud between the two greatest British magicians of the age: Gilbert Norrell and Jonathan Strange, who came to restore English magic as prophesied by the book of the Raven King. Only when a faire king—or is it the devil?—enchants Arabella Strange, Jonathan’s wife, and steals her away, Jonathan and Norrell join forces to bring her back and fulfill the entire prophecy.

This period drama takes place during and after the Napoleonic Wars. It is a quintessential British drama with magic as a twist. It has great (but not Hollywood style) special effects. I confess myself curious of what premium cable channels like HBO, Showtime, or Starz, would have accomplished with the same material. Addictive, entrancing and very, very dark, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is a cautionary tale for those who dabble in magic, as they may summon forces beyond their control.

Black Sails (♦♦♦♦): I've been watching Season 1 of this Starz pirate show that is filled with historical anachronisms particularly in speech, but I can't resist a good adventure. Though so far the taking of L'Urca de Lima (a Spanish treasure galleon) is still in its planning stages, it promises to be the mother of all battles to capture a humongous treasure even by today's standards. So far the action is only on land...Will Captain Flint and his crew make it to the sea? And most importantly, will Captain Flint be able to quash dissension before his crew topples him?

And now the movies... 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (♦♦♦): episode VII of the Star Wars saga, has tried to adhere to the original as much as possible; I just don't think it is that solid an installment. I took issues with several subplots such as the identity of Kylo Ren, and the fate of Han Solo, but I can't explain more without spoilers. Another thing that bugged me is who was Rey? And why was the Force strong with her? I'm sure those answers will become apparent as the saga continues, but they should have emphasized more the strength of the plot rather than rely so heavily on special effects...Just saying...

Danny Collins (♦♦♦): Al Pacino stars as Danny Collins, an aging rock star who receives as a birthday present a letter John Lennon penned to him after reading what Danny said in an interview with a magazine. Upon reading the letter, Danny Collins abandons his life of vices, and settles indefinitely in New Jersey to attempt reconnecting with his estranged adult son and his family.

Danny Collins is an OK family drama with some good moments courtesy of seven- year-old Hope, Danny's granddaughter, a child with ADHD, and lighthearted innuendo between Danny and Mary—the hotel manager of the Hilton where Danny is lodged. Don't expect much and you may well enjoy this movie.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

The Revenant (♦♦♦)

Glass is the guide of a fur enterprise in the American West. His son Hawk, a half Indian, is everyone Glass has left in the world. When, running from Indians, Glass is severely mauled by a grizzly bear, the remaining members of his expedition must carry him.

Faced with a rocky incline, the Captain offers money to Hawk and two other members of the expedition to stay behind with Glass until he meets his Maker. Only Glass refuses to die. Hawk is killed, and Glass is left for dead in the midst of a brutal winter. But he discovers that his will to survive at any cost, and the need to avenge the death of his son are stronger than any obstacle man or nature puts in his path.

I am a fan of Alejandro García Iñárritu, who directed, wrote the script and produced The Revenant. His best known movies like 21 Grams, and Babel, have a circular storyline in which characters' fates meet in the end. I like that. Lately, however, Iñárritu has abandoned that non-linear narrative in favor of more linear storytelling (e.g. Biutiful, Birdman, and now The Revenant), and it seems it's paying off.

The Revenant has a very elemental quality, from the raw characters' performances to the primeval nature of the environment in which it is shot. DiCaprio's Glass gets mauled by a bear, eats raw fish, raw bison, spends a blizzard, naked, in the innards of a dead horse, and endures the unimaginable to survive.

I have never seen anything quite like it. I heard Leo DiCaprio talk about the process of filming this movie. Apparently they endured more or less what the film reflects. That's quite gutsy if you ask me.

The performances were stellar, from minor characters like Domnhall Gleeson as the Captain, Forrest Goodluck (Hawk) and Will Poulter (Bridger), to the villain Fitzgerald, interpreted by Tom Hardy, and Leonardo DiCaprio as Glass.

Leonardo DiCaprio has extraordinary performances under his belt—The Aviator, The Departed, Revolutionary Road, Blood Diamond, Inception, J. Edgar—but in The Revenant he left his soul in the arena, so to speak.

I do not consider The Revenant a spectacular movie; it didn't take my breath away, but DiCaprio's performance is the essence of that movie, and worth watching if for nothing else.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Snapshots - 1

The title of this recurring feature was inadvertently suggested by Dorothy @ The Nature of Things. Thanks, Dorothy!

Following the format of Latest Updates 1 and Latest Updates 2, I intend to publish snapshots of movies and TV shows that I have recently watched that don’t merit a full post for whatever reason.

TV shows…

Wolf Hall (♦♦♦♦): I watched the first episode of this miniseries months ago, and I thought the narration was dry, the characters not that compelling, so I put it aside without any perspective to watch it again. This month, after watching the only season of The White Queen, I decided to give Wolf Hall another try and what difference that made! I have spent the last few weeks in the company of British royalty.

Wolf Hall, an adaptation of the eponymous novel by Hilary Mantel, chronicles the years between 1529 and 1536 in the life of Henry VIII from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell, whom, from humble beginnings, rose to the position of king’s private secretary under Anne Boleyn’s sponsorship.

The series starts with the king seeking divorce from Katherine of Aragon to free himself to marry Anne Boleyn, the split from Rome and Henry VIII assuming the reins of the Church of England, the marriage to Anne Boleyn, and Anne’s subsequent fall from grace when she failed to give the king a live male heir.

I did like Wolf Hall very much. I appreciated the maneuvering and power struggles in a court whose king got increasingly volatile as years went by. I particularly liked Thomas Cromwell, not because he was particularly a sympathetic character, but because he knew to navigate the waters of the morally complex world which he inhabited. Was he perfect? Far from it! And that was his main appeal.

Silicon Valley (♦♦♦♦): I really liked Season 1 of this HBO comedy about five nerds who start an IT company and have to develop a business plan and its company’s culture.

Silicon Valley is hysterical, so much so that almost peed my pant in a fit of laughter. The writers nailed the nerdy talk and the uncertainty of being a specialist in your field but not knowing how to follow up with a sound business plan to obtain financing for your startup company.

If you like The Big Bang, you’ll appreciate Silicon Valley even more because it is funnier, and probably truer to life.

The movies…

Mission: Impossible- Rogue Nation (♦♦♦♦): Ethan Hunt and the IMF chase an elusive terrorist organization-- constituted by rogue agents from the world's intelligence agencies who have been declared dead--spreading chaos all around. This Rogue Nation is known as The Syndicate, and to prove its existence Ethan Hunt will have to match wits with Ilsa Faust, a disavowed MI-6 agent.

Sex appeal, check. Dangerous acrobatics on the side of a plane, check. Lots of action, check. Stellar cast, check. This franchise has all the elements of a commercial success, and like its predecessors, it doesn't disappoint. Where else can you see Tom Cruise these days if not in Mission: Impossible or edgy action-sci-fi movies?

Deadpool (♦♦♦): this is not a superhero movie. It stars an anti hero who gets converted into a mutant super fighter looking for a cure for his terminal cancer.

Deadpool lands some really good jokes, even at the expense of Ryan Reynolds' good looks courtesy of Ryan Reynolds himself, but The Green Lantern should have been proof enough that he is not a superhero kind of guy. Give him some romantic movies and you may resurrect an almost dead genre.

Maleficent (♦♦♦): Lots of great special effects and a very solid performance by Angelina Jolie as Maleficent in this Disney retell of Sleeping Beauty, make this an OK watch. Expect lots of sugary drama too.