Sunday, April 04, 2021

Movies: 2021 Oscar Nominees Triple Feature

I've been watching the Academy Awards since high school drama class, and some years have better "Best Picture" nominees than others (in 1994, Forrest Gump, Pulp Fiction, and The Shawshank Redemption were all nominated, and I'd argue all three movies have become classics). 

With all respect to the filmmakers, this year's slate isn't terribly impressive, perhaps because of the pandemic. I saw most of the nominees anyway, though, and here are my takes on three of the frontrunners:

Minari

Steven Yeun's career really took off after he left The Walking Dead10 years ago, he was slumming it with yours truly at a fan convention, now he's the first Asian-American to be nominated for "Best Actor" in Minari:


The film follows a family of Korean-Americans starting a farm in rural Arkansas. Yeun plays the patriarch Jacob, a headstrong man whose sometimes-unreasonable optimism about growing Korean produce reminds one of Jean de Florette. It's an okay movie with good acting, but there isn't much plot or tension.

Rating: 7/10


Nomadland

I like Frances McDormand's performances as much as the next guy, but even a two-time Oscar winner can't hold up Chloé Zhao's weightless drama, Nomadland:


The movie is a year in the life of a van-dwelling widow (McDormand) after the Great Recession and the death of her husband and her town. Zhao depicts some heartbreakingly gorgeous vistas of the Southwest and gets surprisingly good turns from famous van-dwellers playing themselves (Bob Wells actually has the most emotional scene in the movie). But there's no story here, and almost no conflict, so the 108 minute runtime feels like a slog.

Rating: 6/10


Promising Young Woman

At this point, the revenge thriller is an old genre (I Spit on Your Grave came out over 40 years ago), so it's disappointing that writer/director Emerald Fennel's Promising Young Woman misses the point of these films:


Yes, it's a revenge movie in the #MeToo era, and it's about as contrived and tedious as you might expect, with evil caricatures in place of characters. Now, to be clear, date rape is a despicable crime, rape victims shouldn't be "blamed" for being otherwise sexually active, and institutions have sometimes been complicit in aiding the perpetrators. But there's a difference between a movie and a message, and Carey Mulligan's protagonist is way too sterile and blameless in a genre that demands the audience not sympathize with the lead character too much. After all, is there a "good guy" in Death Wish?

Rating: 5/10

Saturday, March 20, 2021

TV: Community

It's been about a year since the COVID-19 shutdowns, and enough time has passed for everyone to reflect on the early days of the pandemic, when almost nothing was open and our lives seemed to be grinding to a halt. In that first month, I queued up Hulu and leaned hard on one particular show that I had never seen before - Community:


Created by Dan Harmon (who almost got himself cancelled due to his gross and unprofessional behavior towards a writer), the show focuses on a study group attending community college and their zany adventures. The rub here is that the group's misfit members have little in common and would have never met but for attending the same classes, which makes for fun personality clashes. Often entire episodes were turned over to parodies or pastiches of famous movie genres, such as the Apollo 13-esque "Basic Rocket Science":


Community was famously on the edge of cancellation for years, but eventually lasted six seasons and 110 episodes, almost fulfilling the slogan "six seasons and a movie" recited by one of the show's characters.  Well, there was never any movie, but there was a nostalgic Zoom table read a couple months into the pandemic that was almost as good:

Music: La bohème

COVID has had a catastrophic effect on the performing arts, so it was nice to see live music again at the Palm Beach Opera's 2021 festival, performed al fresco at the South Florida Fairgrounds Amphitheatre:


We watched some major league talent sing La bohème, sort of the opera equivalent of McDonald's: comfort food that maybe isn't the most complex experience musically. The concert-style staging and socially distanced blocking were smart concessions to the pandemic, but also made the plot fairly incomprehensible if you weren't previously familiar with the opera.


Still, everyone could tell the performers were giving it their all, and in some ways, the minimalist production was suited to La bohème's working-class setting. It was a unique experience and a lot of fun - let's just hope we don't have to do the same thing next year.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Miscellany: Tissot Chrono XL Classic watch review (Reference T1166171104701)

They say anything is better with a good story, and life gave me a doozy of one for the Tissot Chrono XL watch my parents got me for Christmas. On its own, it's a perfectly nice but not extravagant watch, sort of the adult version of the old Swatches I used to have in grade school. While I know there are multi-kilobuck Omegas and Rolexes out there, to me, a $400 watch was an awesome gift.

Then it got stolen.

A burglar hid in a closet in our office and ransacked the place overnight, stealing personal effects from almost everyone. I had left the watch on my desk, not wanting to wear it after a sweaty workout at the end of the workday. When we learned about the break-in the next morning, I thought that I would never see my watch again.


We got lucky, though. There was security footage of the assailant, and evidence that he didn't have a car, so I cruised around the city looking for him. Amazingly, I found him within 15 minutes and called the cops. He was caught red-handed with our stuff, and, in a week, I had my watch back.

Now, this watch embodies a memory, and it means a lot more to me than even six- and seven-figure Swiss watches that are more jewelry than timepieces. The phrases tempus fugit and carpe diem come to mind, very literally.

Movies: Drive-In Massacre


Movie theaters have been hit hard by the pandemic, especially small venues like Movies of Lake Worth. It's one of my folks' preferred destinations for seeing arthouse flicks, and they've been trying to limp along by selling concessions at free drive-in screenings of old movies in the parking lot. That's what led local horror movie club Shock A Rama to show the public domain B-movie, "Drive-In Massacre":


It's a terrible movie, a piece of low-budget cheese that barely hits feature film length despite interminable conversation scenes. The plot involves a series of serial killings at a California drive-in theater; the killer is hunted by a hilariously incompetent duo of police detectives. "Drive-In Massacre" would be a prime MST3K flick, since the special effects never rise about student film level and the chase and shootout scenes are less exciting than your average car commercial.

All that being said, the film gained something by being viewed late at night in a dimly lit parking lot, with a bag of popcorn and my tinny handcrank radio supplying the in-car soundtrack. A drive-in creates some natural distance between you and the movie, allowing your attention to wander to the audience outside and the people milling to and fro. In that respect, the screening was an unqualified success.

Rating: 4/10 (8/10 for the experience)

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Books: "The Science of" Double Feature

Most movies and TV shows have a cavalier attitude towards the laws of physics ("So what if John McClane would've been maimed or killed by jumping off a building tethered only by a firehose? It looked cool as hell!"). Vince Gilligan's Breaking Bad and Christopher Nolan's Interstellar are two exceptions to that rule, however, and today's post reviews the entertaining books explaining the science behind those productions.


The Science of Breaking Bad


Breaking Bad's conceit - milquetoast high school chemistry teacher Walter White transforms into a meth-making drug lord - doesn't immediately call for MacGyver-esque antics, but the show delivered in spades. Each season, Walt and his cohorts would get out of sticky situations using the power of science: an improvised battery to start the engine of their RV-turned meth lab, hydrofluoric acid and giant magnets to dispose of incriminating evidence, and, of course, cooking up Walt's signature crystal meth, "Blue Sky."  

The show's science advisor, chemistry professor Dr. Donna J. Nelson, wrote this neat book with science writer Dave Trumbore. As the official advisor, Nelson gives some fascinating behind-the-scenes insights into the writers' room, including the practical and dramatic reasons for some choices on the show (a particular chemical might be used simply because it's easy for the actors to pronounce). As a professor, Nelson makes the book surprisingly pedagogical, and it'd be a fun companion to a college chemistry course.


The Science of Interstellar


Plenty of movies hire science advisors, but Christopher Nolan went all-out and recruited Nobel laureate and Caltech professor Kip Thorne to parse the physics of his sci-fi epic Interstellar.  In consulting on the movie, Thorne attempted to eliminate or minimize physically impossible elements (like travelling faster than the speed of light) and also helped the special effects crew model the appearance of a supermassive black hole (which even led to a scientific paper).

The Science of Interstellar functions as a crash course in the strange (and sometimes theoretical) astrophysical phenomena in the movie, including an artificial wormhole and a planet with deadly mile-high tidal waves. As you might expect, the book is strongest when Thorne is within his physics expertise (discussing gravitational singularities and time dilation) and weakest when he has to explain other sciences (the movie's depiction of suspended animation systems and planetwide crop-killing blights). All in all, it's a great read and a must-have for science-minded fans of the movie.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Guns: The Tacticool Remington 870 Wingmaster, Part 4 - Sling and Final Test

I converted my vintage Remington 870 Wingmaster into a modern home defense shotgun. In Part 1 of the series, I swapped out its barrel. In Part 2, I swapped out its stock and foreend. Part 3 covered a mag tube extension and sidesaddle. 

Today, I'm finally finishing up the series (yup, just took two years, Remington's bankruptcy, and a once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic to get me off my keister). Let's look at some sling options and the final test:

Sling

I'm one of those guys who doesn't typically put slings on home defense shotguns, but understands their utility. Having a sling allows you to keep the shotgun on you when you need both your hands, whether it's for drawing a secondary weapon or slapping on a tourniquet. On the other hand, slings do tend to get in the way, especially for a pump shotgun.

My compromise? An el cheapo $35 Blackhawk! Dieter CQD sling that I throw on when I feel like running a sling:


You can use it single or two-point thanks to the included dual alligator clip hardware; for my shotgun, I just hook both clips into the Magpul SGA mount. Is it the best sling out there? Heck no - the Vickers Sling from Blue Force Gear blows it out of the water. But for the price, and the intended occasional use, it does just fine.

Range Report

If you're reading this blog, you are probably in the tiny minority of shotgun owners who bother to pattern with different buckshot loads. It's such an important task that so few people do; unlike a pistol or rifle, the point of impact and spread of any given shotgun barrel/00 buckshot combo can vary dramatically.

Check out this group of 5 shells of cheap, roll-crimped Rio Royal 00 at 15 yards - while the pattern is generally centered around my point of aim, there are lots of pellets off target:


In contrast, here's 5 shells of Federal Flite Control. While it shoots a hair to the left in my hands, all 45 pellets are exactly where I want them - the critical triangle formed by a person's nose and nipples that you need to hit to stop an attacker.


To round out the testing, I also tried some common hunting-style slugs at 25 yards, a very long and unusual shot in a home defense situation. Again, some loads, like the Federal Power Shock, were just inherently more accurate from this particular shotgun barrel. Note, however, that even though the Winchester Super X might have turned in worse groups, they might be a better choice because of reduced muzzle flash or better terminal performance.



Well, the old Wingmaster is now fully transformed, and we've finally closed the book on this series. In today's times, with pistols and rifles at a premium, a shotgun might be a good choice for defense - just make sure to test it first with your preferred loads!

TV: WandaVision

The first year of the House of Mouse's streaming service was hit and miss, but 2021 has given Disney+ its best show to date - the wonderful WandaVision, created by showrunner Jac Schaeffer and starring Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany:


It's hard to say anything about WandaVision without spoiling it, but suffice it to say that the show pays tribute to the history of TV sitcoms while also introducing the next phase of the MCU, jampacked with mutants and multiverses. As someone whose childhood revolved around watching I Love Lucy and Bewitched on Nick at Nite, WandaVision was right up my alley - heck, there's an entire episode pastiche of Full House, the show made famous by Olsen's older siblings Mary-Kate and Ashley. I guess my only caveat would be that WandaVision doesn't have big battles or snarky quips to draw in non-comic-book-fans; if "House of M" and the "Young Avengers" don't ring a bell for you, you will miss a whole lot of references in this one.

Music: Love Story (Taylor's Version)

Taylor Swift is re-recording her first six albums after a nasty split with her old record label, and the first of these new-old songs is her breakout country-pop crossover hit, "Love Story":

The track is fascinating, both in terms of copyright licensing gamesmanship and musical artistry. It sounds almost identical to the 2008 version upon a casual listen, which is the point of the whole exercise - by vetoing any use of her original masters, Taylor can force TV and films to use her new records and diminish the value of the old songs. Artists have tried this gambit before with middling success, but "Taylor's Version" is so close to the original track that most people couldn't tell one from the other.

Listen closely, though, and subtle differences emerge. The production values are higher; the original track was cut when Swift was just another up-and-coming Nashville star, whereas now she's one of the richest musicians on the planet. But the biggest change is in Swift's vocals: older, more natural, and with the wisdom that years of high-profile failed relationships (romantic and professional, and sometimes both) bring to the table. For a songwriter who trafficks in nostalgia, it's a neat effect, and hopefully will apply to most of Swift's back catalog ("Fifteen," "Tim McGraw," and "All Too Well," to name just a few).

Friday, February 05, 2021

Books: The Sixth Gun

One good thing about the pandemic slowdown is that it's given me time to catch up on books that I've always meant to finish, like The Sixth Gun:

In my defense, The Sixth Gun is massive - an epic 50-issue Weird West comic series written by Cullen Bunn, with art by Brian Hurtt and colors by Bill Crabtree. It finished way back in 2016, and the giant hardcover Deluxe Editions loomed on my bookshelf like tombstones for years.

The books tell of six guns, each with dark mystical powers. One strikes with the force of a cannon shell, one spreads the very flames of Perdition, another grants eternal youth and the ability to heal from even fatal wounds. The most powerful of them all is the Sixth Gun, which can see into the future. If all six guns are ever brought together, they can destroy the world...or worse. 

When the Sixth Gun falls into the hands of a simple farmgirl, Becky Montcrief, she and a mysterious rogue, Drake Sinclair, become embroiled in an age-old battle for all creation. It's Lord of the Rings meets Two Mules for Sister Sara meets Call of Cthulhu, with pulpy artwork that feels like an EC Comics rendition of Zorro's Fighting Legion. I thought it was a lot of fun, though it does start to run out of ideas by the last ten or so issues.