Sunday, April 13, 2014

Greatest Thing of Anything: Cafe Nomad

I credit - or blame - my love of coffee entirely on a corner shop in rural Maine.

Somehow, I made it through my late teens and early 20s without developing much of a taste for the stuff. I never needed it to get through a college all-nighter or hangover, or as a morning pick-me-up. It wasn't until Cafe Nomad opened its doors that I really got to appreciate a good brew and, perhaps more importantly, the coffeehouse atmosphere.

Part of the reason the cafe appealed to me so much was, quite simply, the lack of businesses in Norway, Maine, that really had any appeal. It's not to denigrate Books N Things, the excellent bookstore across the street from where I lived for three-and-a-half years, or the Maine Bookhouse, which was packed with used and rare volumes. But they were about it for local attractions at the time. The rest of the main drag seemed to be an odd mix of rooming houses, lawyers, accountants, and "baubles 'n crap" type thrift stores.

When I first moved to Maine, I lived a short walk away from a brightly colored corner building where Cafe Nomad would soon be located. Signs in the large picture windows fronting Main Street announced the imminent arrival of the business, though the predecessor in my job warned that the promise had been up for months. She warned me not to get my hopes up.

But as it turned out, the promise was genuine and the cafe would open its doors not long after. The owners had been taking a cautious approach, buying the building and taking their time to renovate the interior. By the time it was complete, it boasted a central kitchen space, a brightly lit sitting area overlooking a small stream, and a library of titles belying owner Scott Berk's adventurous and globetrotting lifestyle. It was well worth the wait.

Cafe Nomad soon became a regular Saturday destination for me, typically in the bitterly cold winters but occasionally in summer as well. I would bring along a good book, or take my laptop to be the typical (or, for rural Maine, atypical) coffeehouse writer. I wasn't the only one who found the cafe to be a welcoming spot. Business took off right away, and in its first year the Oxford Hills Chamber of Commerce gave them an award for a valuable newcomer business. And indeed, it was a tried and true model in a new market; before Cafe Nomad, the nearest place to get a coffee and relax was 25 miles away.

They have enormous mugs, and if you were sitting in you got one free refill. They get their joe from Carrabassett Coffee, which is based in northern Maine, and most of the blends are pretty strong. I joked that you needed to add cream and sugar to make it black.

And the food is pretty amazing, too. Soft, fluffy pancakes are a weekend treat that comes with real maple syrup. The chef always seemed to be experimenting with new sandwich specials, so there was usually some delicious option to tempt you.

A couple of years ago, I took a vacation to see some old friends in Maine. They're scattered in a few different places, but I spent the longest time in the Oxford Hills. Going back to Cafe Nomad was a sweet reunion. Quite literally. I got a maple oat scone with breakfast one day, and it was one of the best things I've ever tasted.

Cafe Nomad was starting to host a regular wine tasting by the time I left Maine, and it looks like the place has been successful enough to add more hours and a dinner menu. It deserves all the recognition it gets. The business provided a warm, inviting spot for visitors and locals alike. In some way, I think it helped kick off a wider transformation of Main Street in Norway. Other start-ups never caught on (I could never understand why someone would think their particular Baubles 'N Crap would take off when so many others had failed before) but the Cafe Nomad was followed with more innovative places like a bike and ski shop, games store, and fiber studio.

New London has three coffee houses and a few more cafes with delicious food and bottomless cups of coffee. But I'll always remember Cafe Nomad fondly, and they can count on a customer whenever I pay a visit to western Maine.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Double Feature Review: World War Z and Pacific Rim

World War Z

Synopsis: Former UN investigator Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) races to find a way to combat growing hordes of zombies as a plague causes the world to descend into chaos.

The bad news first: I think I'm going to make an unprecedented statement here, so prepare yourself. Ready? The biggest similarity between World War Z and the book on which it is based is the title.

All right, so maybe that's been screamed ad nauseum from the raw throats of millions of angry fans of Max Brooks' phenomenal take on an undead pandemic. In truth, I wasn't overly concerned that the movie didn't do a Ken Burns style oral history to bring Brooks' work to the screen. There are plenty of movie adaptations that have been excellent and memorable stories despite straying from the original source material. Jurassic Park is a beloved adaptation of Michael Crichton's work, but it charts a much different path from the novel while keeping the core characters and premise of a dinosaur zoo intact. But World War Z really does abandon far too much of the original material to make it a decent adaptation.

Though it takes some inspiration from the book, the movie fails to incorporate its plethora of fascinating characters, imagery, and humor. Everyone waits around patiently for Brad Pitt to solve everything, offering some token assistance here and there, so the strength of the supporting characters is pretty much nil. The movie also takes itself a little too seriously in its portrayal of a worldwide emergency, depriving it of the satire so often present in the zombie genre. This tone is further undermined by the portrayal of the zombies as literal waves of humanity.

World War Z also suffers from a severe wind-down in its pace. It gets frantic start, spanning giant swaths of the globe, only to give way to a glacial climax where Lane's biggest challenge is getting past a single zombie who might best be described as a lab coat with novelty chattering teeth.

And, as a more minor nitpick, the movie makes the transparent effort to keep things within the realm of a PG-13 rating. Which means that the blood spatter and gore that practically defines this genre is sanitized to the point of distraction.

The good stuff: The initial scenes of the zombie outbreak in Philadelphia are very well-done. There's a slow buildup as the panic sweeping the city slowly reaches Gerry and his family while they're stuck in traffic. There's a good mixture of human kindness and brutality on display, a blending of the desire to help out someone in need (even if an entire city is in peril) and "everyone for themselves" attitudes. Arguably the best scene in the entire movie involves Gerry's encounter with a gun-toting young man in a pharmacy. His motives and actions leave enough unsaid that he's an endearingly mysterious character.

Some scenery and aspects of the story clearly reflect inspiration from the book. The ragtag evacuation fleet in the Atlantic, with the flagship holding civilians and military and a pile of rescued items of particular significance, shows just how quickly a refuge had to be thrown together. The particularly disturbing detail of North Korea removing the teeth of all of its civilians isn't in the book, but it's in a similar to the atmosphere of Brooks' globe-spanning tale. So is a shot of dozens of airliners scrambling to leave a Tel Aviv airport as zombies pour onto the runway.

The movie also deserves some credit for adding a unique spin on the zombie genre. I won't spoil it, but it manages to add a believable defense against zombies that adds another layer to the usual "shoot 'em in the head" strategy.

Verdict: This falls far behind 28 Days Later and the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead in its more serious handling of a fast zombie/infected outbreak. But if you don't go in expecting a carbon copy update of Max Brooks, you'll probably still enjoy it.

Pacific Rim

Synopsis: After a devastating series of attacks by monstrous aliens (Kaiju), mankind fights back with an army of giant robots (Jaegers).

The bad news first: You go into the movie knowing full well that you're in it for the fun and creativity of watching giant robots fighting big monsters. The movie makes the wise decision to open with a thrilling sequence based around this premise: an explanation of how the first Kaiju attack devastated San Francisco, the badass deployment of a Jaeger to face a Kaiju threat, and a no holds barred beatdown between the two.

But then it runs out of steam for quite some time. You have to scoff at the sudden switch in strategy from "Let's build awesome giant fighting robots" to "Let's build a totally ineffective wall," and the fact that this bit of the story seems like little more than a way to shoehorn in a bit of immigration symbolism makes it even more out of place. The movie churns out a long line of action movie cliches, ranging from the intra-team rivalry to the latent demons one character must overcome. There are a few scenes that stress the fine line between paying homage to Independence Day and ripping it off, like the inspiring speech before the big fight or the devour-all-the-resources-and-move-on comment.

Beyond that, you have Charlie Day pretty much playing Charlie Kelly as an eccentric scientist feuding with a snooty British academic about studying the Kaiju. It gets a little annoying.

The good stuff: It has ROBOTS PUNCHING MONSTERS. The on-board computer is voiced by GLaDOS from Portal! Even if you're not one of the unabashed nerd to whom these features are clearly meant to appeal, it's impossible not to be wowed by the Jaeger vs. Kaiju fights in this movie. Every second is awe-inspiring and creative.

For the most part, the movie never tries to take itself too seriously. It knows this is an incredibly silly premise and that we're not expected to care too much about San Francisco and Hong Kong and the rest getting smashed up as they become impromptu arenas for these battles. Much has been made of few plot holes, but the narrative doesn't get too lost in the fact that people bought a ticket to see a robot beat a giant creature with a freighter. From the first scene, you're wondering why they don't just seal off the evil monster portal; the movie addresses this question in a believable way.

Pacific Rim places itself only a few years into the future, so it's also quite enjoyable to spot existing technology from scene to scene. My favorite is the use of the Crawler, the giant movable platform used to bring Saturn V rockets and the space shuttle to the launch pad, in a new role as a Jaeger deployment device.

Verdict: ROBOT-MONSTER FIGHTS! If that sounds like something you'd enjoy, give it a try.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Top 10 Strangest Pre-Breaking Bad Roles of Breaking Bad Actors

Breaking Bad concluded in September, but some of the buzz around the show has continued. The popularity of the final season inspired plenty of people to watch it, and a spinoff around character Saul Goodman will be starting up this fall.

At this point, I'm probably going to limit my blog posts on Breaking Bad to two more posts: one more "defining moments" post on the last eight episodes and this idea, which grew out of the various jokes about the previous roles of the actors (one of the best suggestions linking Walter White with Bryan Cranston's other famous role has Breaking Bad as a prequel to Malcolm in the Middle).

So with no further ado, here are the top 10 strangest pre-Breaking Bad roles of Breaking Bad actors.

10. RJ Mitte: Jock on Hannah Montana

Mitte's first on-screen role was a background, non-speaking part on the hit Disney Channel show that starred Miley Cyrus back before her tongue went all Venom-y. He's credited only as "School Jock," wearing a letter jacket in one scene. A few years later, Mitte started playing Walter White Jr.

9. Anna Gunn: Jerry's Girlfriend on Seinfeld

This is probably one of the better known examples. In her pre-Skyler White days, Anna Gunn was one of the 57 girlfriends Jerry has in the course of Seinfeld. She plays this role in the episode "The Glasses," in which George thinks he sees Jerry's girlfriend Amy making out with Jerry's cousin.

Anna Gunn has been in the film and TV industry since 1992, when she appeared on an episode of Quantum Leap.

You may have also spotted her in the 1998 thriller Enemy of the State, playing a character named Emily Reynolds.

8. Aaron Paul: Johnny Knoxville Wannabe on The X-Files

A few years ago I watched all episodes of The X-Files and tallied up a body count of all the people, aliens, and creatures to die over the course of the popular show. I also checked the IMDB page on each episode and made a note of any before-they-were-famous types to make an appearance.

One of them happened to be Aaron Paul, giving us a glimpse of what Jesse Pinkman may have been like in high school. He plays David "Sky Commander Winky" Winkle, a student who puts together videos on teenagers doing stupid things for a project he dubs The Dumb Ass Show. He also antagonizes a classmate with a variety of insect powers, earning him a retaliatory back rash.

If you were home sick at the right time in the year 2000, you may have also seen him make it all the way to the Showcase Showdown on The Price is Right using his birth name of Aaron Sturtevant.

7. Matt Jones: Deep-Frying a Turkey on Gilmore Girls

According to his IMDB page, Matt Jones didn't really come onto the scene until he began playing Brendan "Badger" Mayhew in Breaking Bad. But he does have a single role from 2002: a fellow named Morgan in an episode of Gilmore Girls. He apparently doesn't have any lines; Morgan doesn't appear in a transcript of the episode, though Jones is part of a family that deep-fries their turkey for Thanksgiving.

6. Steven Michael Quezada: "Mexican" in Beerfest

Before Albuquerque's film industry became especially prominent with Breaking Bad, the city hosted the comedy troupe Broken Lizard (best known for Super Troopers) as they made the 2006 comedy Beerfest. Steven Michael Quezada won a small role, credited only as "Mexican," as one of his earlier roles prior to playing Hank's partner Steven Gomez.

It's also worth noting that Quezada, an Albuquerque native, was elected to a school board seat in the city in February of 2013, during the break between the first and last halves of the show's final season. I couldn't find a screenshot from his appearance in Beerfest, but that picture up top is from the ABQ's schools website.

5. Laura Fraser: "The Future" in Vanilla Sky

I never saw Vanilla Sky, the bizarre sci-fi movie starring Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz, and Penelope Cruz. It might be known mostly for a scene where Cruise's character runs through a deserted Times Square (and the movie's decision, unorthodox at the time, to not edit the World Trade Center out while many other films and TV shows in late 2001 were doing so after the buildings' destruction).

Laura Fraser, nearly a decade before playing Madrigal Electromotive's nervy and scheming executive Lydia Rodarte-Quayle, is the voice of the unseen entity that speaks to Cruise and delivers the last line in the movie. She's credited as "The Future."

4. Bryan Cranston: Villain in Mighty Morphin Power Rangers

Bryan Cranston's more recent alter ego of Hal on Malcolm in the Middle might lack the villainy that comes to characterize Walter White, and many of his other roles involve rather kind-hearted people. It's not like he never played the bad guy, though. He voiced a couple of villains who fought a group of teenage superheroes in the campy series Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.

There was also that time he walked on the Moon. Cranston played Buzz Aldrin in From the Earth to the Moon, the terrific miniseries on the early days of the space program.

And he was that one-armed officer who sends Tom Hanks et al out after Matt Damon in Saving Private Ryan.

3. Giancarlo Esposito: Big Bird's Camp Counselor on Sesame Street

Even in his first appearance, it becomes clear that Gustavo Fring's genial kindness is only the crunchy candy shell over a core of cold ruthlessness. So it's a little disconcerting to see him palling around with Big Bird, especially after his role as a meth kingpin working behind a fried chicken franchise front.


Giancarlo Esposito got the part of a camp counselor on the popular children's show after running out of options in the acting world, but admitted in an Onion AV Club interview that it was a pretty great experience. He was also one of the voices in the chorus that sang the theme for The Electric Company.

2. Dean Norris: Martian Mutant on Total Recall 

Dean Norris must have a thing for science fiction. I'm not just saying this because the guy who played Hank Schrader once played a Martian mutant named Tony in the film Total Recall.


He also played an officer in Starship Troopers.

He apparently really likes the Terminator series. He was leading the SWAT team that found a dying Miles Dyson at Skynet HQ in Terminator 2...

...and returned in the short-lived series The Sarah Connor Chronicles to play a nuclear power plant manager in a couple of episodes.

1. Jonathan Banks: Helping Girls Understand Periods

Yes, the actor behind the coldly efficient yet warmhearted fixer Mike Ehrmantraut had his first credited screen acting role as a doofy high school boyfriend  in Linda's Film on Menstruation, a 1974 public service announcement on...well, you know. Skip to 11:05 to see Banks ask if vaginas can control the weather.


I'm going to wager that Jonathan Banks is able to look back on this and laugh. He's been in comedy roles, after all, like that time he played one of the air traffic controllers in the 1980 comedy classic Airplane!

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Read These Books: The Tripods Trilogy

On each of my trips to The Book Barn, and there have been plenty, I've made a stop in the young adult section. Not just because there's usually an affectionate cat or two hanging out there, but because I was always on the lookout for When The Tripods Came, the prequel to John Christopher's Tripods Trilogy. A book or two from the trilogy was always there, but it wasn't until my most recent visit that they finally had a copy of the book available. Though it wasn't quite up to par with the original books, When The Tripods Came was still a welcome return to the world of a terrific sci-fi series that became one of my favorites in my adolescence.

The easiest way to describe the Tripods Trilogy is to say it's a re-imagining of War of the Worlds, but with the aliens triumphing over mankind instead of dying because of a bunch of pesky germs. As alien invasions go, the overlords in the series are pretty benevolent at first. The aliens limit their presence to three domed cities and routine patrols by towering, three-legged machines known as Tripods. Humans live semi-autonomously in peaceful agrarian villages and small cities. War and disease are a thing of the past.

It's not exactly an ideal setup, however. The aliens saddle all humans with mesh caps to inhibit their brain activity at the age of 14. The process halts free thought in its tracks, keeping technology stalled at a level where the clock is the most advanced invention. The world's greatest cities lie in ruins. And it soon becomes clear that the alien "Masters" aren't as kind as they might seem.

Christopher (the pen name for writer Christopher Youd) never talks down to his readers, meaning the books are an enjoyable read for both adults and teens. The advanced vocabulary, not to mention the fact that the trilogy was penned by an English author, might prove a little daunting to young American audiences. I gave up on the series when I first tried it out, but devoured the books in the course of a week when I picked them up again.

The first book, The White Mountains, follows a group of boys as they undertake a dangerous journey to join an anti-Tripod resistance movement in the Alps. This is followed by The City of Gold and Lead, which focuses on a resistance effort to infiltrate one of the alien cities. The trilogy concludes with The Pool of Fire and a climactic effort to defeat the Masters and regain human independence. Christopher wrote the prequel some time later to clarify the question of how the Tripods managed to take over the world.

The books carry on a spirited adventure story, from the pleasure of wandering the countryside with friends to life-or-death battles against a powerful enemy. But the trilogy isn't just a dime store yarn. Christopher packs the narrative with a number of substantial themes to reflect on. The protagonist questions whether society is any worse under alien control, a theme reflected in Christopher's query on how well humanity can cooperate, Masters or no Masters.

The trilogy was written in the 1960s, and to some extent it's a product of its time. This blogger, writing an entry on Christopher's death in 2012, notes how the handful of female characters who appear in The White Mountains generally present obstacles to the boys' efforts to join the resistance. No women at all show up in the next two books. There's also a certain amount of casual racism, in particular Christopher's reference to the "little yellow men" who lead a resistance movement in Asia.

The Tripods Trilogy was popular enough that it spurred a BBC series, but this petered out before it ever reached a conclusion. There has been buzz about bringing the trilogy to the big screen for years, but unfortunately this hasn't amounted to anything. But the books are a memorable experience for anyone who comes across them, and a fast enough read to complete in a few dedicated sessions. Read them with War of the Worlds for the full Tripod invasion experience.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Top 5 "Mainsteam" Ways I Found Out About Terrific Musical Performers

There are some things that are better kept secret. When I was living in Maine, it took a few years for some friends to let me know about a beautiful waterfall out in an isolated stretch of woods, one where you could take a thrilling leap into a deep pool. The peacefulness of the location was what gave it its charm; if every tourist was packing into the place, it wouldn't be the same.

For some reason, this attitude sometimes seems to permeate music. With all the rage over how successful some terrible crooners are, there's a sense that being a part of a close-knit fanbase is the best way to go, and that your favorite band loses some of its luster if they become popular. Much as I love WEQX, I've noticed that they have a bad habit of dumping songs from their playlists as soon as they make it far enough up the charts to attract Top 40 radio attention. And then there are those who whine about floods of new fans who come in after a song appears on a TV show or movie, bitterly lamenting how they knew about this music before everyone else and now it's just ruined.

That's hipster bullshit. Learning about a band or musician in this way is perfectly acceptable; for me, these are some of the more noteworthy examples:

5. Abandoned Pools - Clone High

OK, so this is something of a special case since Clone High probably has a bigger cult following than the Abandoned Pools. I only came across the show after paying a visit to a roommate while he was watching the show, and as a history buff and complete goofball I was sold once I learned it was about reanimated historical figures going to high school together with an evil principal accompanied by a robot butler. The show ended after a year, joining the collection of quality MTV animated offerings that ended too soon (see also: Undergrads).

The band apparently had a pretty close relationship with the show's creators or producers or whatever. In addition to show's main theme, they provided background music for some episodes and made a cameo in the finale. The song that sold me was "Start Over," appearing in both the pilot and the devastating finale; it was enough for me to buy the 2001 album "Humanistic."

It's a bit of a misnomer to describe Abandoned Pools as a band, given that it's the solo project of Tommy Walter. He's been active on the music scene since 1995, when he was a founding member of the Eels. "Humanistic" was his first go as Abandoned Pools, released about a year before the premiere of Clone High and gaining some popularity before then with the single "The Remedy." Walter has been active in this role since then, releasing three more albums including "Somnambulist" in 2013.

4. Gary Jules - Donnie Darko

And this one, well, this is one where I might be one of those high and mighty people who can claim early privilege to this artist since I saw Donnie Darko before it got too popular. A montage near the end of the movie is accompanied by Gary Jules' cover of Tears For Fears' "Mad World," a hauntingly beautiful song which unarguably improves upon the original. I was surprised to hear the tune making its way to the top of the charts about a year later, presumably to correspond with  the slow but steady spread of Richard Kelly's debut film.

But if you really wanted to be all snide and snooty, you could say you were a fan of Gary Jules three years before Donnie Darko. His first album, "Greetings From The Side," came out in 1998. "Trading Snakeoil for Wolftickets," the album with "Mad World" on it, came out shortly after Donnie Darko but took its sweet time getting popular, nearing the top of the UK charts in 2004 and cracking the lower half of the Billboard 200 the same year. The song probably had a domino effect of popularity by appearing in dozens of TV shows as well, with Jules' other tracks starting to show up as well. He released two more albums and an EP afterwards, but hasn't had a new release since 2009.

3. Steve Earle - The Wire

Ah yes, The Wire. If you didn't hear about it while it was still on, you probably heard about it a few months ago when everyone was comparing it to Breaking Bad as that show came to a close.

In terms of musical offerings, The Wire generally limited its songs to the opening credits (getting a new performer for "Way Down in the Hole" every season) and a montage song at the end of each season. Someone on the show was a big fan of Steve Earle. In addition to using "I Feel Alright" as their second season closing song, the show had Earle sing the fifth season theme. Oh, and he appears as the minor character Walon throughout the show's run.

Hopefully you can forgive me for not being all up on Steve Earle's music when he first hit the scene, given that I was a toddler when his first album came out in 1986. That record, Guitar Town, was enough to top the country charts and several of his albums went gold or platinum in ensuing years. Even if Earle is lumped in with country artists, his music is a cut above as it incorporates a number of rock and alternative themes; it's a bit like the later Johnny Cash stuff. He's more likely to sing about coal trains than porch swings, but frankly that always makes for better music anyway.

2. The Mountain Goats - Moral Orel

I missed one notable appearance of the folk band The Mountain Goats in 2005, when the song "Cotton" appeared in an early episode of Weeds. So they didn't catch my ear until 2008, when the song "No Children" replaced the regular opening theme for Moral Orel. It was a fitting opening for what would be a dark and depressing final season, albeit one with a faint undercurrent of hope that triumphs in the end.

The Mountain Goats have actually been around long enough that their first album was released on cassette, way back in 1994. They've put out 14 albums altogether, and Moral Orel featured another two songs of theirs before the series concluded. If you're a fan of The Colbert Report, you may have also spotted them as a musical guest back in 2009.

1. Elbow - Southland Tales

Another credit to Richard Kelly for this one. The first Elbow song that caught my attention was "Forget Myself," on the trailer for the 2006 movie Southland Tales. The band is based in England, where they're popular enough to have made it nearly to the top of the UK charts. Their first album came out in 2001.

Despite their popularity across the pond, Elbow hasn't caught on here. And it's not like the preview for an obscure and not too well-received movie is the only place they've shown up in something available over here in the United States. The song "Grounds For Divorce" showed up on the soundtrack of the video game Left 4 Dead, and in the trailer for Burn After Reading, and a JCPenney commercial, and an episode of Rescue Me. And "One Day Like This" was played during the closing ceremonies of the 2012 Olympic Games.

But good luck finding Elbow on the radio over here. What the hell, America? Give them a chance!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Double Feature Review: Gravity and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

It's been quite awhile since I did one of these, and after I checked out a couple of newer films recently I thought it might be a good time to bring it back. So for the handful of people likely to stumble across this, here are my thoughts on these big budget blockbusters.


Synopsis: Two astronauts (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) struggle to survive after an accident leaves them marooned in orbit above Earth.

The bad news first: Though he capped them with a post insisting that he enjoyed the movie, physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has pointed out several scientific errors in the movie. Some of them are more noticeable than others. The characters are able to cover some pretty impressive distances given their limited amounts of fuel and oxygen, a feature perhaps explained away by the unrealistic way the film crowds a number of pieces of outer space real estate so close together. Sandra Bullock's character is a mission specialist and doctor, but for some reason she's popping the hood on the Hubble Telescope.

And even though the characters are mostly capable and intelligent, there are a few occasions where you have to shake your head at a particularly idiotic move. A few of the mishaps are quite easily avoidable, such as an attempt to fly a Soyuz a few moments after the astronauts note how its parachute has deployed and gotten tangled up in the International Space Station.

The good stuff: Anyone recommending this movie is always going to start by saying how visually stunning it is, and that you should see it on the big screen. It's not for some gimmicky reason like all the hype over Avatar; it's because it does a great job with its space environment, mixing the beauty of the scenery with the horror of the ongoing destruction going on around the characters. It's full of irresistable Easter eggs, inviting you to figure out which part of the planet you're floating over and packing the space stations with drifting materials ranging from hand strengtheners to Velcro-bottomed chess pieces.

The plot is pretty basic, but it works on a visceral level and keeps the story at a compact hour and a half. The movie manages to incorporate a number of fears, ranging from claustrophobia to isolation, to make for quite an unnerving narrative. It wisely chooses to avoid any Hollywood sound effects while in orbit, heightening the realism of the destruction as well as the effect of the characters' panic. Gravity appeals to astronomy nerds by bringing in everything from the Hubble to a not-yet-existent Chinese space station, then breaks our collective hearts by smashing them all to bits. The actors are charged with portraying a spectrum ranging from terrified to triumphant, and they pull it off marvelously.

Yet by the end the movie is, plain and simple, fun. It's a hell of an adventure, to paraphrase Bullock's character.

Verdict: Is it still in the theaters? Spend the extra money and go see it. But it's still well worth your time to watch it later.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire


Synopsis: The second movie in this trilogy finds Katniss Everdeen at odds with her totalitarian government after her Hunger Games victory inadvertently makes her a symbol of rebellion.

The bad news first: There are pretty much two ways to adapt a book into a movie. You can base the plot loosely on the source material, making something that tells the same story but in a unique way. Or you can keep it as close to the original as possible, which sometimes means you have to be familiar with the work to fully understand the film. Catching Fire is more in the second vein, and unfortunately some plot elements are mostly overlooked. District 13, a crucial point of the third and final book, is barely mentioned at all.

Other problems are carried over from the source material. In both, the love triangle between Katniss, her fellow victor Peeta, and her hunting companion Gale starts off as a major issue. Katniss and Peeta are charged with maintaining a facade of being head over heels in love as a way of staving off an uprising, but the importance quickly fades to a background issue. It's handled somewhat more clumsily in the movie, where Katniss' declaration that she doesn't have time for romance is undermined by a few scenes where she smooches whichever boy happens to strike her fancy at the moment. Like the book, the Hunger Games in the second half are the weaker part of the story, taking the narrative in a somewhat tangential direction.

For the most part, the acting belongs in the next section. There's one very notable exception, however. The scene where Katniss' district is taken over by harsher guards works well right up until the brutal new commander opens his mouth. He chews the scenery with such a ridiculously over-the-top gruff voice that I almost expect him to take over as the butt of all the jokes that were aimed at Christian Bale for his Batman dialect.

The good stuff: Catching Fire's strength lies in its actors. Most of the cast does an excellent job, but in particular credit is due to Elizabeth Banks, Jennifer Lawrence, Jena Malone, and Woody Harrelson. Banks, in what will probably be her last major appearance as District 12's prim and proper Capitol representative Effie Trinket, adds a healthy dose of humanity to the character. Lawrence lets us see just what kind of pressure Katniss is under, doing a masterful job in a scene where she pays tribute to a deceased ally of the Games. Malone is clearly having a ball playing Johanna, the defiant tribute from District 7. And Harrelson also brings more depth to the drunken former victor Haymitch, making him both an intelligent and grudgingly compassionate central figure.

The movie also does a good job with its scenery, ranging from the splendor of the Capitol to the squalor of the districts kept under its thumb. The American Idol-esque TV sets and hosts offer a somewhat obvious but still amusing parody of reality programming. In fact, the glimmers of hope and defiance in this film allow it to have more fun than its predecessor. Even with its naturally bleak undertones, Catching Fire has some pretty hilarious scenes.

The film, in general, does a much better job than its predecessor of being of being subtle and thought-provoking as well. A single line about the responsibilities of victors allows the audience to understand why Haymitch relies on alcohol so much. A quick shake of the head delivers a crystal-clear message. Overall, the writers have done a good job of adapting a complex, somewhat disjointed novel.

Verdict: Reading the book is practically a prerequisite, but excellent actors and directing make this worth a visit.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

I Make Fun of State Quarters: Califonia

So I missed Arkansas and, um, the most populous state in the entire country in this series by accidentally fast-forwarding to Colorado. Today I'm finally closing that gap with California. Almost a year later. I need to pick up the pace on this series...

It almost seems like a foregone conclusion what's going to be on this one: the Golden Gate Bridge. What else are you going to go with? The Los Angeles smog? A giant redwood, shrunken into insignificance? That bridge is an American icon. It ranks maybe fourth or fifth in the list of bestselling brands of America Sauce to serve on your flag-shaped apple pie for Fourth of July.

The worst selling brand of America Sauce is Confederate Flag; reviewers complain, "This tastes like some bland, failed experiment in non-America" (Source)

So lay it on us, California. The Golden Gate will look great! Sure, it'll upstage the bridge on the West Virginia quarter a bit, maybe even two bits. The Rhode Island quarter is just going to look stupid by comparison. But you've earned it, with an engineering triumph that has become a source of pride not just for your state, but for this great nation.

Or...yeah, just go with some guy. Who's about to get his eyes pecked out by a condor.

Somehow, the Golden Gate Bridge didn't make it as the final design. There are other instances where major icons were excluded in the final design, know what, no. There aren't. New York has the Statue of Liberty, Arizona has the Grand Canyon, South Dakota has Mount Rushmore. What are you, too good for glorious patriotic symbols? Why do you hate America so much, California quarter?!?

Fittingly enough, there was pretty much a 50-50 chance that the bridge would be the final choice. In an Internet poll of submitted designs, 10 of the 20 finalists had it in there and five of those were pretty much fully devoted to the span. When the Mint drew up a few options for its top five, however, only two of them had the Golden Gate in its design.

Still, that's got a pretty good chance of winning, right? I mean, look at lineup. Who knows how the water one even got in there; it looks like the set design at some bad nautical play. The one where the condor is pretty much the size of a 200-foot redwood presents an obvious problem. Heck, the Yosemite Valley design is just shunted over in the corner, next to the ugly one that just crams a bunch of stuff into the available space around the guy who ruined his life in a futile hope of panning riches out of California's rivers. At this point, the main question seems to be whether to include the Hollywood sign next to the bridge or not.

Sure, the Golden Gate Bridge design isn't perfect. They shoehorned in some redwoods, so it looks less like the actual site and more like the bridge would appear after The Fall, when man fell back into pre-industrial times and nature crept back into the cities. They could put in a tiny dying Ish lying against an abandoned car on roadway if they really wanted to complete the picture.

So who does this choice fall to?

Oh. The exercise enthusiast from Austria. Well, that might explain why we got a picture of a Scottish immigrant climbing a mountain. You could have gone with one of the pinnacles of American civil engineering, but no...

All things considered, though, the scene - dreamed up by Garrett Burke and engraved by Alfred Maletsky - isn't too bad of a design. John Muir was a dedicated conservationist, helping to establish the Yosemite National Park and serving for many years as the president of the Sierra Club. The minimalism works pretty well, with the detail of Half Dome and the ledge upon which Muir stands inviting you to imagine the majesty and splendor of this vista. It's a rather fitting tribute to Muir and his work.

If only they could have built the Golden Gate Bridge into the scene, maybe as an easy way to go to Half Top. Muir really looks like he wants to get over to that mountain, and I'm worried he's going to try to hop a ride with that bird.