The Functional Hermit

musings from a homebody

Archive for August 2010

Hermit Cinema: Avatar

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I had strong doubts about this movie from all the hype I heard about it. I’m not one to think more highly of a movie on sheer technological advancement alone. (A lot of people apparently are, however. Just don’t count me among that group.) James Cameron is a movie maker with an impressive record of pushing the boundaries and capabilities of filmmaking technology on a very grand scale. When married with an original or interesting story, this is a potent combination. Avatar is not one of those cases I’m sorry to say.

Being the hermit that I am, I did not see this in 3D in a theater. But when watching, it became obvious that 3D would have added a lot of visual depth. But I’m glad I didn’t see it that way. For one, it cost more. Secondly, that’s a layer of glossy wow factor that really works very, very hard to overcompensate for the complete lack of original story or any character development.

I watched this with my brother and I kept looking at him and jokingly saying, “Tatonka,” because this movie is as close to a clone of Dances With Wolves that you can get by simply dropping it into another setting. Many have argued to me that Dances With Wolves wasn’t the most original story either. That may be true but at least that movie felt as if it’s following its own path. In Avatar, just about every character is a stereotype you’ve seen before elsewhere.

There’s Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic who is recruited to remotely control an avatar made from a combination of alien and his brother’s DNA. Jake is sent to find out more about the Na’vi, the native people of Pandora. If he does, he’ll get his spine repaired so he can walk again.

The Na’vi are a noble people who value, respect and live in harmony with nature. Surprise! He begins empathizing more with them than his fellow humans. The evil Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) wants to kill all the Na’vi for any given reason. The sinister Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), that’s right he’s named Selfridge in a not-so-subtle attempt at symbolism, is a corporate type who will stop at nothing to mine and collect a very valuable mineral. Joel Moore, Michelle Rodriguez, Sigourney Weaver and Zoe Saldana also have starring roles and frankly, I don’t have the desire or energy to tell you more about their characters.

Why? Because this movie’s script was that laughable. Jake infiltrates the Na’vi. Jake falls for Na’vi girl. Girl discovers Jake’s true identity. Jake must then win back the girl’s and the Na’vis’ trust so he can save them. Mind you, it takes nearly three hours to get through this very predictable premise.

Are you still reading? Then I’d like to remind you of the Hollywood myth that tells of Cameron having written this script years ago and waiting until technology would be able to do it justice. He should have spent that waiting time coming up with many revisions or something else altogether.

This movie was visually stunning. Does that make it a good movie? Not in my book. The fact that many people feel it should have won a Best Picture Academy Award undermines my faith in those who utter the thought.

I give this movie an overhyped, overrated C. It’s eye candy, nothing more.

Written by the bee dub

August 31, 2010 at 11:56 am

Hermit Cinema: District 9

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Racism. Violence. Corporate power and influence. This well-executed movie tackles a lot of heady themes and comes pretty darn close to pulling it all off. Produced by Peter Jackson, of Lord of the Rings fame, and directed by Neill Blomkamp, it begins in non-linear fashion; past, present and future are seen in a mixture of interviews, security camera footage and news reports. This is an ingenious way to give background on a premise not unfamiliar to most – aliens are here on planet Earth.

The backstory goes like this. An alien spacecraft arrives over Johannesburg, South Africa. It sits idle for months giving no indication what is going on within. Eventually, people cut their way into the spacecraft and find a million starving insect-like aliens. The aliens are given refuge in an area called District 9, which is heavily barricaded and guarded. Decades later, District 9 has disintegrated into something like a slum, drawing the ire of their human neighbors who derisively refer to the aliens as ‘prawns.’ Despite the low opinion most hold about them, the aliens have their own advanced technology and weapons that only works for beings with alien DNA.

Eventually, the South African government enlists Multinational United, or MNU, to relocate all the aliens to a new settlement – District 10 – farther outside the city. Our main character Wikus van der Merwe, a bumbling mid-level executive, is appointed to head up the relocation effort. Accompanied by heavily armed security-types, Wikus goes about serving eviction notices throughout District 9. During one eviction he discovers a mysterious metal cylinder which sprays a black mist into his face. The cylinder is then confiscated by MNU.

He later becomes ill, vomiting, bleeding black liquid from his nose and losing fingernails. An alien named Christopher has been collecting and distilling a mysterious liquid from alien technology parts over the past twenty years and has put it all into that cylinder. That cylinder is the key to the aliens being able to escape and return to their home planet.

Wikus isn’t merely ill. The liquid seems to have begun transforming Wikus into an alien. That makes him a very valuable commodity, especially to the diabolical types at MNU, as they hope it can open the doors to the use of the very advanced alien weaponry.

From here, we follow Wikus try to elude MNU, befriend Christopher and return himself to fully human form. This movie is well conceived and executed. I was especially impressed with the aliens themselves. The way they look, move and communicate is done in a way that never undermines their credibility as an alien life form. That’s hard to pull off.

Unfortunately, this movie suffers from one very major and nearly fatal flaw. Wikus’ character is just stupid enough to make him entirely unsympathetic. It saddles the whole movie with a layer of frustration that cannot be overcome. That’s a shame. Otherwise, this is a fine and enjoyable movie. It’s worth watching but never lives up to its obvious potential.

To me, that makes it a somewhat disappointing B-minus.

Written by the bee dub

August 19, 2010 at 11:27 am

Sunday Dinner: Vegetarian Enchiladas

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Continuing on our easy, convenient theme from the previous Sunday, this weekend we fired up our vegetarian enchiladas. By vegetarian enchiladas, I’m not talking vegetable enchiladas with a magical blend of seasoned veggies inside. (Though that is something we’re on the hunt for.) These are vegetarian enchiladas in the sense that these are filled with fake meat-like vegetable protein. Mmm, delicious.

Like many great things in life, it starts with two chopped onions, sauteed in a generous amount of olive oil until translucent.

Then, add your fake meat. Mmm, fake meat.

It good to stir this as often as possible. Additional olive oil may be called for. This stuff sticks to a pan with reckless abandon. It’s a good idea to brown this mixture as much as you are comfortable with. The fake meat/veggie protein seems to get more meat-like the more well it is cooked and crisped on the outside.

Now it’s time for seasoning. I added a generous amount of hot sauce (sorry honey), a tablespoon of chili powder, a teaspoon of cumin, plenty of fresh-ground pepper and some salt. The salt, like always, can always be supplemented later if the end product is too bland.

I mixed this well and then added a can of stewed tomatoes and its liquid. (From here you’ll notice that the batteries on my external flash went dead and had to go with the on-camera flash for the next several photos.)

I mixed well again and then I cover it and lower the heat to a simmer. At this point I realized, “Holy shit, I forgot the roasted garlic.”

I added it all in and then stirred well again. Then covered and kept at a low simmer. This thickens up the mixture after fifteen, twenty minutes or so.

Now it’s enchilada assembly time. I warm up some canned enchilada sauce (one day I’ll learn how to make some homemade stuff), dip a flour tortilla in it to make it more pliable, then fill it with however much filling I feel is appropriate. I learned long ago that a little filling goes a long way.

Then I cover the assembled enchiladas in cheese and a little more enchilada sauce. Then they’re ready for the oven.

After 25 or 30 minutes at 350 degrees, they’re ready to be munched.

Top them with some sour cream if you like. Sometimes I do. Sometimes I don’t. That way my wife never really knows what’s going on with me. Like almost everything else I make, this is a great partner for a cold beer. I’ve been cutting back lately so have one or three for me, will ya?

Written by the bee dub

August 17, 2010 at 5:07 pm

The FH iPhone 4 Review (or why it’s much like Quentin Tarantino & the NY Yankees)

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Quentin Tarantino exploded onto the movie screen and the industry hasn’t been the same since. But a funny thing happened along the way. People seem to want every single movie to be something just as revolutionary as Pulp Fiction. It’s unrealistic and if you asked me, I’d say Quentin has done quite well for himself, creatively speaking. It’s just that people’s expectations are so, so prepsterously high every time he puts out a new film.

The Yankees are the most successful franchise in all of professional sports. Any season that they don’t win the World Series is seen as a failure. They have the biggest payroll. George Steinbrenner, their dictatorial owner, demanded excellence and championships. As a result, the Yankees and the recently deceased Mr. Steinbrenner have a loyal legion of über fans and über haters.

Apple and Steve Jobs have a lot in common with Mr. Tarantino, the Yanks and George Steinbrenner. Apple delivers products that set new standards in usability and design. The demanding Jobs is able to whip up a mad, crazy frenzy of anticipation and buzz for their products well before they’re released. People will wait in line to get their hands on one of their new products without even knowing anything about it.

This I’ve witnessed myself. A few years ago, I got in line at 4:30 am for the new iPhone 3G the first weekend it was released. I was shocked to learn that some folks I was in line with had no idea what the new iPhone did or had to offer. All they knew is that plenty of people were dying to get one and they wanted in. This was strange but living proof of the mastery Steve Jobs and Apple have over human psychology.

Now we have the iPhone 4. This may just be the most controversial product Apple has released in decades. Take a look on the Apple discussion boards and you’ll find entries whose sole purpose is not only to decry someone’s hatred of the product, but also an attempt to recruit fellow haters. It seems that in the last week or so Apple has begun enforcing its own Terms of Service for the discussion boards and has deleted many of them. But for the first few weeks the iPhone 4 was available, I was shocked by what I saw.

I can’t imagine a product creating so much hatred. You know Apple will always have their loyalists but I’ve never seen this other extreme so widespread. Why would someone care so much to try and enlist other people to join their hatred?

Couple this with the fact that the press seems to smell blood and be all over this story. But that’s the role the press plays today, build you up when things are good and jump onto the pile when you’re down.

Anyway, I finally got my hands on my own iPhone 4 several weeks ago. My 3G was not cutting it anymore so it was time to upgrade. I was a bit worried by all the reports of reception problems. Here’s where I net out on Apple’s latest iPhone. Most of my points of comparison are with the iPhone 3G since that’s what I used previously.

The two phones are very similar in size. In shape, the new version doesn’t have the rounded back and is a bit slimmer.

The plastic backing of the 3G is now a flat, glass surface similar to the phone’s front face. Notice the new LED flash that accompanies the new higher quality still and video camera lens.

Otherwise, much is the same. All the ports and buttons are in the same spot and work the same way.

On the iPhones left side, notice the area near the bottom with the small black stripe across the metal. That’s the much-maligned area where contact can reduce and interfere with your reception. I have found that on my phone, it does reduce reception but never to the point where I have dropped calls. I just received my free Apple bumper as well so now I never come into contact with that area- problem solved.

I would note that I do find it slightly ridiculous that this happens, but I knew about it and if I had a huge issue with it, I wouldn’t have bought one. If that will bother you, don’t buy one. Or buy one and then post twenty different threads on the Apple discussion boards declaring how ridiculous it is. Whatever floats your boat. At this point however, this issue has been so widely reported that if you get one and then complain, I’d argue that the problem isn’t with the phone but with yourself.

So how does the new model stack up against my old 3G?

The unit feels more solid than the previous model, though they are similar in weight the new one is a tad smaller. I do miss the feel of the curved plastic backing but not so much my hand hasn’t adapted to it very quickly.

The main benefit in my eyes is that it is so much faster. It’s important to note though that when the 3G first came out, the fact that you could download apps AT ALL was revolutionary. A couple years later, things have really changed. I had reached the point that I tired of the lag and lack of responsiveness when using an app or the keyboard. With the iPhone 4, everything is instantaneous. Press a button and what you expect to happen, happens. Pronto.

Downloading a video, email or file also seems to be faster. I didn’t do side-by-side comparisons but anything that requires load or download time happens noticeably faster.

The new Retina display is very impressive. Movies look amazing. Text is noticeably sharper and easier to read. To my eyes, the display is also much brighter. All are nice steps forward.

There are now two cameras you can use. One is on the rear and can utilize the built-in LED flash. The other one is on the front. The rear is much higher quality – 5 Megapixels. I’m disappointed to tell you that I found the LED flash fairly useless. Technically, it works. It adds light, but I found the results to look unacceptable. Overall though, the new rear camera is a big step up from what was in the 3G.

The lower quality front camera is what most people would use when using the new Facetime video conferencing feature, so you can be ‘speaking’ face to face. But it’s pretty cool that you can also switch to the rear camera and show someone what you’re looking at, and back and forth from one to the other. Anytime you’re taking a picture you can also choose which camera to use and whether to use the flash. Pretty cool.

The rear camera is capable of shooting in 720p HD video. Not bad. Seems to be of similar quality to many of the Flip cameras I’ve seen. One thing to note here is the release of the iMovie app. The fact that you can edit video on the phone itself strikes me as fairly amazing. The app is somewhat limited. You can’t trim clips with it. But you can edit a video together and then upload it straight to YouTube and the like. If you want to upload HD however, you have to load it onto your computer and do it from there. That makes sense as uploading a huge HD video through your 3G connection would be painfully slow.

Here’s a couple of the first videos I shot while playing around with it.

Considering the 3G didn’t shoot video at all I’m psyched about being able to capture stuff on the fly since I usually have my phone with me.

Other than that, there are a lot of features that are new to me that come with iOS 4 and a 3GS if you install it. (Multitasking seems to be a big deal for people.) I installed iOS 4 on my 3G and it was a disaster. Everything was so much slower than before. So I searched around the internet and found a way to downgrade. But since those features aren’t specific to the phone, I’m not going to get into those.

All in all, I’m very happy with the new phone. I do wish the reception issue wasn’t there but it’s really only annoying knowing it’s there. It hasn’t affected me in terms of dropped calls or not being able to access the internet. Frankly, I know that is happening to some people but most people are just freaking out by being able to see your bars go lower if you ask me. I received my free bumper from Apple and since I don’t plan on taking it off, it’s a non-issue.

(Most of my issues are with AT&T’s network, which has been pretty crappy for me with the three different phones I’ve used on it. For some reason, my house seems to sit in a weak area of coverage so that’s always been an issue for me.)

If you can get over the reception issue and are interested in this iPhone, dive right in. If the reception issue is going to bother you, or you’re not willing to use a case with your phone, don’t waste your time and money. Unless you want to waste your time and money and have something to hate, then by all means get one immediately.

But this is a nice upgrade to my 3G. I picked it up the moment it arrived and haven’t looked back.

Written by the bee dub

August 13, 2010 at 11:42 am

Hermit Cinema: Green Zone

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I’ve become a big fan of Paul Greengrass. In my mind, he is a master manipulator of movie tension. I’ve come to this conclusion based on three films; the latter two Bourne franchise installments and Bloody Sunday. The two Bourne movies he helmed were both quite good, with a constant flow of action that kept the viewer engaged and on the edge of their seat. Bloody Sunday was more like a very large pot of water slowly, but inevitably, coming to a roiling boil.

Now comes Green Zone and the now familiar pairing with Matt Damon. This movie was proof of Greengrass’ mastery behind the camera as he makes much more of a movie than the material deserved. It sort of felt like Jason Bourne had detoured into Iraq. Damon doesn’t play much of a different character at all, nor does the script ask him to.

This is one of those fact-based exposé kind of films. Here we explore the nature of the WMD claim that was the basis for going to war with Iraq. A couple of characters seem to have real life counterparts. Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear) is a Paul Bremer/head of the Coalition Authority character who is the film’s ‘villain.’ Lawrie Dayne (Amy Ryan) seems a clone for Judith Miller, the disgraced New York Times reporter, as she seems to take whatever Poundstone tells her as fact only to realize she may be losing credibility as a result. Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Damon) heads a squad of WMD hunters and becomes frustrated and suspicious of the faulty intel they are getting about supposed WMD sites.

He meets CIA man Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson) who confirms the lack of real intel behind Miller’s assignments and also warns him of the factionalized nature of the U.S. presence, ending Miller’s belief that they were all on the same team. General Al Rawi (Yigal Noar) is an ex-Iraqi General who may be connected to a highly classified intelligence source codenamed Magellan who has been feeding Poundstone information that confirms the presence of WMDs in Iraq.

As Miller tries to get to the bottom of this mess, he comes across a cooperative Iraqi he called Freddie (Khalid Abdalla) who agrees to help Miller and act as his interpreter. Meanwhile, Miller finds himself butting heads with Special Forces Operative Major Briggs (Jason Isaacs) who follows direct orders from Poundstone.

Miller tries getting to the bottom of it all and ends up getting in way, way over his head. This movie is predictable and most of the characters never really develop beyond typical stereotype. Yet Greengrass keeps the action coming in an enjoyable way which never overcomes the movie’s faults, but does make the movie watchable.

This is probably a below average movie that is directed with enough skill to add several layers of popcorn-flavored glossy coating. That shiny veneer is enough to keep me interested in anything else Greengrass is involved in, but not enough to give this movie anything more than a C-plus.

Written by the bee dub

August 11, 2010 at 10:10 am

Sunday Dinner: Turkey Tacos

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Sometimes you need to take a step back and simplify. Last night’s dinner was one of those times. I had grown tired of coming up some something big, grand or intricate for our Sunday dinner. It was time to keep it simple. It was time for turkey tacos.

I busted out two things into this recipe I had never done before. Both were worthy additions to the mix. The first was a clove of roasted garlic that I had sitting in the refrigerator. I’m going to try and remember to add this to my tacos from now on.

The second new ingredient I’ll tell you about later. The whole thing starts with some sauteed onions, cooked until translucent.

I cooked the onions a little bit more well done than I would like, but an onion cooked to any degree is better than no onion if you ask me. To this I added 1 1/4 pounds of lean ground turkey. The stuff I used had a 7% fat content.

After the turkey browned, I drained what fat that I could. Then I added the roasted garlic, 1 tablespoon of chili powder, 1 teaspoon of cumin, plenty of fresh ground pepper, a bit of salt (you can always add more later), a touch of garlic powder and some hot sauce (sorry honey). Oh and there’s my new, secret ingredient – cinnamon. I didn’t add much. Just a sprinkle. (I thought I was being all sneaky cool and shit but my wife could taste it right away. It definitely added something to the experience.) Mixed that all together and then added 1/4 cup of water. Cooked over low heat, covered until it thickens up, about ten minutes. Then I removed the lid and let most of the water evaporate.

Then I was in business. My wife wanted soft tacos and I’m not one to disappoint her. She steamed some flour tortillas and then all I did was add plenty of Texas Pete Hot Sauce and some grated cheddar cheese.

There’s not a lot to these tacos and in this case, that was a great thing.

Written by the bee dub

August 9, 2010 at 5:19 pm

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Hermit Cinema: Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

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This was a very interesting, offbeat movie. It’s also very, very similar to another movie titled Bad Lieutenant starring Harvey Keitel, though the director of the newer effort, Werner Herzog, claims it’s not based at all on that.

In Bad Lieutenant, the 1992 effort, Harvey Keitel plays a gambling, drug-taking, morality-compromised police detective investigating the brutal rape of a nun. That is, he is investigating when he is not taking drugs off of perps for his own use and exploiting rich, young kids knowing they’ll do near anything to avoid having their parents know about their transgressions.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans stars Nicolas Cage as a gambling, drug-taking, morality-compromised police detective investigating the brutal executions of African immigrant drug dealers. That is, he investigates when he isn’t gambling, confiscating drugs for his own use and exploiting rich, young kids who will do near anything to avoid having their parents know about their transgressions.

See, these movies really are nothing alike, right? All sarcasm aside, this movie marches to the beat of its own drummer and is a worthy way to spend a couple of hours. I just wish they had come right out and said from the beginning they were paying homage to the original.

Enough with the drama and background though. I’ll just focus on the movie as it is executed. The movie begins with Hurricane Katrina as a backdrop and continues in then chaotic aftermath that followed six months later. Terence (Nicolas Cage) and Stevie (Val Kilmer) are in their abandoned police station as the floodwaters roll in. They realize a prisoner may have been left behind. The prisoner is up to his neck in water, locked in his cell. Terence and Stevie ruthlessly mock the desperate prisoner from above and then surprisingly, Terence saves him.

That’s a great microcosm for Terence – morally corrupt, impulsive, unpredictable. Months later Terence is assigned to solve the brutal multi-murder of African immigrants turned heroin dealers. The prime suspect is Big Fate (Alvin ‘Xzibit’ Joiner), the local drug lord who didn’t like the Africans selling on his turf.

Terence works the case whenever he’s not ripping drugs off of perps, gambling, and carousing with his escort girlfriend Frankie (Eva Mendes) or ripping off her clients for drugs and money. It’s a life barreling out of control or is it? Is Terence a corrupt cop with a heart of gold? A man flying by the seat of his pants? A doomed man flying off the rails towards an inevitable, yet well deserved, unfortunate end?

The answers are left for the viewer to decide. This movie has a lot of familiar actors that I won’t mention, with the exception of the underused, rarely recognized Shawn Hatosy as a fellow police detective. This movie has an unusual style, and it’s hard to know what’s going to happen next. Sometimes that all I really ask from a movie. Based on this movie’s execution alone, I give this movie a solid B.

Written by the bee dub

August 4, 2010 at 2:43 pm

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