Movie Review: Fury

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 4/5 stars

Bottom Line: War is hell.

You know what kind of movie you’re getting into right away with the opening sequence.  A lone German cavalryman picks his way through the aftermath of a large battle.  He passes by one of many dead tanks and Staff Sergent Collier (Brad Pitt) jumps from the tank, knocks the soldier off his horse and stabs him dead through the eye after many other stabbings through the chest.

The plot of “Fury” revolves around a tank commander and his crew as the welcome a new and very green recruit to the crew.  It follows the recruit’s loss of innocence and every soldier’s loss of humanity.  There are two choices when thrown into war; lose your humanity or lose your mind.  With the former, you have a better likelihood of coming out alive and you just hope that you can regain your humanity after surviving the meat grinder that is war.

“Fury” has some of the most effective battle sequences I have ever seen since “Saving Private Ryan”.  They are realistic, tense, and absolutely brutal.  Add to that the fact that much of the action takes place in the compartment of a cramped M4 tank and you have all the makings of a great war film.  What makes “Fury” effective beyond just the battle sequences is how it also shows the de-humanizing aspects of every day life when that life is a life of war.  Cleaning remains, including a partial piece of a face, from the inside of a tank.  Plows pushing a pile of bodies into a grave.  Trucks piled high with bodies.  Roads, fields, houses, and lamp posts, strewn with the corpses of trucks, tanks, soldiers, civilians and horses.  A body run over by a tank for probably the hundredth time.  War is hell.  We need to be exposed to that fact a lot more than we currently are.

One thing that “Fury” seems to do different than other movies is its portrayal of the chain of command.  Yes, the chain exists, but it’s more like a flowing ribbon that gets tied in knots than it is a solid chain.  Young officers are treated with almost open contempt even though their orders are still followed.  Even SSG Collier, who is the tank commander, only has nominal control of his crew when they are anywhere else except driving the tank.  This behavior strikes me as much more realistic than what you usually see in movies about war.

“Fury” is not for the faint of heart, but if you have a strong stomach, you should go see it.  It pulls no punches.  My only minor quibble is with the final epic battle scene which I thought didn’t make much sense for the Germans to throw so much useless firepower at the lone tank stuck in the crossroads, but maybe that shows the desperation of the Germans at the tail end of the war that they would throw wave after wave after wave at the killbots, er, tank, for even the minorest of victories.

Movie Review: Dracula: The Untold Story

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 2/5 stars

Bottom Line: Classic horror story turned to drivel.  Some kind of cool special effects that don’t make any sense whatsoever.  There are the threads of a good story here, but they apparently forgot to hire a writer to write the story.

The idea of Dracula is burned into the global consciousness.  One book about one undead man has spawned multiple franchises which each garners millions of fans.  There’s something about Dracula that speaks to generations.  Then there’s this movie which speaks to no one.  Promising to tell us “the untold story”, this movie lets us in on how Vlad became Dracula.  And, boy, does it not make a lick of sense.

It starts out pretty well with your basic Vlad the Impaler story but with a catch that Vlad is actually a decent sort that had to do terrible things in times of war.  Believable enough.  It then goes on to show that he’s a just and fair ruler in his realm just trying to protect his people from the 800 pound gorilla, the Persians.  Again, ok, I’m on board.  So instead of paying a dear price of thousands of children, including his son, to the Persians, he kills the emissaries that come to collect his son.  A little 300-ish, but understandable, family and all.  Now at war with an army he has zero chance of defeating, he decides to become a vampire so he can…something.  *record scratching noise* The movie is now off the rails.

The vampire that turns Vlad is condemned to live his entire un-life in a cave that Vlad happened to come across while tracking some Persian scouts.  He cannot leave the cave.  Yet the floor of the cave is littered with bones.  How does that work exactly?  All Vlad knows for sure about the vampire is that he is pretty fast and can kill a couple of humans pretty easily.  Knowing only this, Vlad decides he wants the vampire’s powers so he can defeat the Persians.  The vampire explains that Vlad can have his powers for three days and if Vlad can refrain from drinking human blood in those three days he will simply return back to normal.  If Vlad does drink, the vampire goes free and Vlad becomes his slave or something.  I’m a little unclear about the last part.

Vlad, of course, takes the offer and then proceeds to slaughter 1,000 Persians single-handedly.  A silly, but kind of cool fight.  He then does nothing for two days despite knowing that a very large Persian army is on its way to crush him.  Wait, what now?  You have three days and you go on the defensive?  Brilliant strategy, general.  So there’s a final battle, lots of bats, a whole bunch of WTF moments, and Vlad ends up drinking the blood of his dying wife to save his son.  Ugh.

This is the kind of movie that thinks its audience is stupid.  It expects us to gloss over the massive inconsistencies and use of the most exploitable awe-factor special effects and come to the conclusion that this was a good movie.  Wow, I just realized something…this was just like a Michael Bay film.

You’re The Best!

I “play” the piano.  Play is in quotation marks because I can not by any stretch of the imagination be considered even remotely good at said instrument.  Nor will I ever be considered remotely good without dedicating a good amount of time improving myself.  I started piano way too late, don’t spend nearly enough time practicing, and don’t have the drive to improve myself much beyond my current ability levels.  I will forever be relegated to pecking out simple songs out of those 88 magnificent keys.  But you know what?  I am one of the best piano players in the world!  You may scoff at the hubris of such a ludicrous statement, but have you ever attempted to play the piano?  I thought not.  Yet another person I’m better at piano than.

Trying new things is hard.  It’s scary.  You have to leave your comfort zone.  You have to meet new people.  You have to expose yourself to embarrassment.  All these things and more prevent us from getting out there and doing something new.  But if you can overcome that, if you can simply get out there and just try, that simple act of trying makes you better than almost the entire planet at what you’re trying to accomplish.  All because you tried and they didn’t.

So, go on!  Get out there!  Try!  You’re the best!

Movie Review: Gone Girl

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 4/5 stars

Bottom line: A long movie that didn’t feel like it.  Even though I knew the twists from reading the book, the movie kept my interest due to great acting and an excellent musical score.

When I reviewed “Gone Girl” the book, I said that I was looking forward to seeing the movie even though I thought the book was mediocre.  This was because I recognized the hooks in the book that would make for interesting silver screen storytelling.  I am happy to report that I am right.

The movie is pretty faithful to the book, with only minor departures from the source material.  Just like the book, the movie does a really good job of introducing you to the main characters and makes them all feel human, if not humane.  That’s part of what’s enjoyable about the movie.  There are no good people.  Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy (Rosamund Pike) are the storybook couple gone completely off the  rails.  Ben Affleck does a great job portraying a ruggedly handsom everyman with a penchant for showing the wrong emotions at the wrong time.  Rosamund Pike is fantastic as Amy and even makes a pretty stunning physical transformation half way through the movie.

What really makes all of the elements of the movie stick together and brings out the emotions of the characters is the fantastic musical score done by none other than Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor.  Reznor, as you are probably aware, has a very industrial sounding mix to his music and he plays that up in this movie to maximum effect.  As the big reveals approach, we are treated to a melodious clanging cacophony that heightens the experience wonderfully.

Yep, this one is worth seeing.  It’s a long one at 149 minutes so be sure to empty your bladder beforehand.  If you liked the book, you’ll be very happy with the transformation onto the screen.  If you haven’t read the book, get ready for a roller coaster and enjoy the ride.

Game Review: Starcraft II: Heart Of The Swarm

A new series in which I review games that came out years ago.  I rarely play video games anymore.  So when I do, it’s guaranteed to be a game that I can get for cheap.  Which also means that it’s going to be years old.  Thus, “Heart of the Swarm”.

As I precursor to playing “Heart of the Swarm”, I also replayed the excellent “Wings of Liberty” human campaign that came out even more years ago.  Story wise, I think I liked “Wings of Liberty” better, though both have an entertaining storyline.  My biggest problem with the “Heart of the Swarm” storyline was Kerrigan’s voice acting.  It came off as kind of one-dimensional to me, which is normally fine, but here we have a woman going through a pretty big transformation and driven by hatred but still mostly talks in the same steady voice without a hint of inflection.  A small point, but bothersome to me.

The gameplay for “Heart of the Swarm” is solid, but incredibly easy.  I played through the entire thing on normal difficulty in a weekend with each mission taking on average well under 20 minutes.  Never once did I feel like there was a danger of me failing.  The Zerg is incredibly unbalanced in its favor.  The game introduces this concept of evolution for each of the zerg units which I think is the unbalancing factor.  You mean I can choose to make zerglings both able to respawn and able to jump up cliffs?  Yes please!  You don’t need any strategy at all.  Just build a bunch of zerglings with a bit of air support and go.  And it should be noted that I am NOT a terribly good player.  As an example of how easy the game is, I replayed the final mission in order to score me some extra Kerrigan achievements and I decided to play it with only Kerrigan and zerglings.  I completed all objectives in 25 minutes.  With no air support under my control.  That’s kind of ridiculous and what made me decide to write about the game.

Another problem with the game is the achievements.  In “Wings of Liberty”, many of the main gameplay achievements are actual achievements as opposed to getting them all just for playing the game.  “Heart of the Swarm” tends towards the latter.  First off, you can play on normal mode and get all of them.  “Wings of Liberty” had some hard mode achievements thrown in.  That’s fine and all, want to make the achievements more accessible to more casual gamers, but I was able to get a vast majority of the achievements without much effort at all.  The handful of achievements that I didn’t get in the first run through were ones that you really needed to know what they were first in order to get them.

All in all, despite my complaints, the game is pretty awesome.  I don’t think I will ever tire of watching a zergling rush in action.  It’s so pretty.  One thing that I will say about “Heart of the Swarm” that I didn’t experience when playing “Wings of Liberty”, I finally have an itch to play multiplayer.  I’m not sure I want to go down that rabbit hole.

All The Leaves Are Brown And The Sky Is Grey

I looked outside my window yesterday and was greeted by two trees already showing their spectacular yellow color.  Yep, autumn is here already.  It seems a bit early for the colors to change, but I seem to recall thinking in previous years that the leaves were turning later than usual so maybe this is the actual normal.  Remembrances of specific events that happen once a year is a tricky thing to do.  This is partly why it’s so difficult to get people to believe that climate change is happening.  Things happen in gradations instead of all at once.

But that’s not what I want to talk about.  I want to talk about colors!  Or colours for the one person in the U.K. that reads my blog.  Leaves change color in the fall.  Duh.  But why do they change different colors?  The answer is science!

Green – You all know this from your basic biology course, I’m sure, but leaves turn green because they’re filled with chlorophyll (a word that I’m sure has denied many a student a spelling bee championship).  Chlorophyll is what plants use to help them absorb light which they use to perform photosynthesis which converts light to energy.  Yes, plants eat light for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  Yum!  But chlorophyll is kind of like a mask that hides the true color of the leaves.  In the fall, as trees prepare to hibernate for the winter, the chlorophyll slowly drains away and the plant’s true colors shine through.

Yellow – The “true” color of most tree leaves. Year round, most trees produce carotenoid which is responsible for the vast array of yellow colors you see in trees during the autumn.  During the spring and summer, the yellow color is just overridden by the green of the chlorophyll.  What color of yellow a leaf appears in the fall is a result of differing amounts of carotenoid in the leaf.

Red – Some of the most beautiful trees are those that turn a brilliant red (or purple) color.  Like chlorophyll, though, the red color is due to a special production of the chemical anthocyanin.  Scientists don’t know for sure why anthocyanin is produced in some trees.  One theory is that anthocyanin is produced in because it helps protect the leaves from the light so they can continue producing food for the plant a little while longer.  Another is that it’s a warning sign for insects to let them know that they probably don’t want to choose this tree to live in for the winter.  Many trees that turn red will turn another color after the anthocyanin production stops.

Orange – If you know your colors, you know what’s coming here.  The orange of leaves is a mix of both anthocyanin and carotenoid.  So when you see an orange leaf, you know that there’s a bit of anthocyanin being produced but not enough to override the yellow of the carotenoid.  As with the red leaves, you will often see orange leaves change to yellow before falling off the tree.

There you have it, science!

The Greatest Peacetime Challenge The World Has Faced

Those are the words of the World Health Organization (WHO) director as he talks about the Ebola pandemic in West Africa.  A bit hyperbolic, perhaps, but the statistic are shocking: over 6,000 infected and almost 3,000 deaths, across 5 countries.  That may not seem like a lot, but in comparison, all the previous Ebola outbreaks combined do not add up to these totals.  And the scariest thing is this outbreak shows all signs of just getting started.  The WHO predicts over 30,000 confirmed cases by the end of October.  There is also lots of evidence that the number of cases may be underreported by a factor of 2.5 times because of the stigma associated with the disease, among other reasons.  The Center for Disease Control (CDC) says that if this pandemic continues at its current exponential growth, we could be looking at 1.4 million infected by January.

Those are some scary statistics and it’s easy to get worked up in fear over such numbers, but we here in the U.S. are pretty much assured of the outbreak never reaching our shores.  With a modern health care infrastructure, Ebola is fairly easily contained even if a handful of cases do reach us.  That’s been the biggest problem in West Africa this outbreak.  Most Ebola outbreaks were contained in isolated villages, but this one made it into population centers and a combination of slow initial response, poor infrastructure, distrust of Western medicine, and burial rituals which help spread the disease all came together to make this the disaster that it is today.

There is something you can do to help.  I’d recommend donating to Doctors Without Borders.  They do great work in areas that are severely underserved and are doing some top-notch work in this pandemic.

Movie Reiew: A Walk Among The Tombstones

Jean-Pau’s Rating: 3/5 stars

Bottom Line: A taut storyline with a high creepiness factor.  Interesting, complex characters and good acting.  A little slow at points and some selective editing would be nice.

“A Walk Among the Tombstones” is bases off of a book by the same name, which itself is part of a series of books by Lawrence Block featuring pseudo-detective Matthew Scudder (Liam Neeson).  Matt is a very complicated character and this movie does his character justice.  Some of his motivations don’t quite make sense, but how would you deal with accidentally killing a girl in a shootout?  Getting to know Matt also leads to a bit of slowness in the film, but that is forgivable given how well we know Matt by the end.  We don’t see stuff like this in movies very often and it was a pleasure to witness.

Another pleasure of the movie is how well crafted the storyline was.  Normally, your detective thriller genre movies have these little nagging details that detract from the enjoyment of the movie.  This one had none of that.  Everything seemed to fit in place.  The killers?  Well, they’re just crazy.  How they targeted their victims made sense.  The red herrings that Matt followed made sense.  How Matt finally made it on their trail made sense.  The denouement, if somewhat unsatisfying, also made sense.  What we have here is a very well crafted movie.

The creepiness factor for the movie was also quite high.  Everyone in the movie exudes barely contained violence.  I guess that is to be expected when the villains are a pair of serial killers and the victims are the wives of drug dealers.  But still, it’s rare for a film to find just the right actors to pull it all off.

So why only three stars?  Well, the movie could do with a bit of editing.  There are way too many scenes of Liam Neeson walking, Liam Neeson staring, Liam Neeson searching.  There is also an empathy problem with the movie.  You don’t really feel anything for any of the characters except the homeless black kid with sickle cell, T.J. (Astro?, that’s what his byline named him, apparently he’s an X-Factor contestant or winner or something) whom Matt sort of adopts as his assistant detective.  And I understand that this is a feature, not a bug, but stuff like this works out much better in printed form than on the big screen.

Oh, and as a parting aside, my brother and I were having a discussion about the title of the movie and we both came to the conclusion that the movie should have been called “A Walk AMONGST the Tombstones”.  This, in turn, led do a discussion on whether “among” and “amongst” are interchangeable with the conclusion that, yes, they are interchangeable, but “among” should be struck from the english language because “amongst” is just way cooler sounding.

Ah, Texas, That Bastion Of Gay Rights

Wait, what did I just say?  I think I’m going to chalk this one under even a stopped clock is right twice a day, but it’s still pretty awesome.  And also VERY Texas.

A gay couple decides to have a baby together so they get a surrogate mother, one donates sperm and voila, a baby!  One of the men (the sperm donor) then decides that homosexuality is evil and breaks up with the other and marries a woman.  The newly god-fearing couple then sue for sole custody of the child while the other poor guy just wants joint custody.  This goes on for four years and goes to a jury trial which finally gives the still gay guy full custody of the child!

Texas is apparently the only state in the nation that settles child custody cases by a jury trial.  That’s weird.  Also, the judge had to kick five jurors off the case because they so strongly opposed homosexuality that they couldn’t make a judgement according to the rule of law and evidence.  But still, a Texas jury ruled against a married couple, one of whom is the biological father of the child, and gave sole custody of the child to the still gay father because the jury was convinced that the married couple would not be acceptable co-parents in a joint custody relationship.

See?  Texas got it right!