Monthly Archives: April 2011

Untimely Reviews – The King’s Speech

kings speech poster

This movie is about a king’s triumph over the embarrassment of his speech impediment and makes for a very entertaining and inspiring story. That George the Sixth could overcome his childhood traumas (comparable to no less than shell shock)), his speech impediment, and the crippling fear of public speaking, which is the number one fear of most movie goers, is a royal achievement that we can all feel good about. If you like this movie, or want to like this movie, you might not want to read the the paragraphs that follow.

At the end of “The King’s Speech”, my wife marveled at the ironic life of the royals. They live in opulence and luxury not given freely. Those few of royal blood must sacrifice their freedom and happiness to sit upon the throne. Think of how Diana was hounded by the tabloid press, to her death, long her status as princess ended. Compared to life in the 21st Century, George the Sixth had it easy. All he had to deal with was radio. Had he lived today, his every mis-utterance would be recorded by cell phone and broadcast across the world. Then again, had George the Sixth lived today, he might not have faced the psychological trauma in his childhood that led to his stuttering. Compared to the barbarians of the late 19th and early 20th century, we modern people are much kinder and gentler toward shy lefties.

Because we are so moved by George’s triumph over his fear of public speaking, the one fear that most of us share, we find it fitting that after his first successful speech, his Australian elocution coach, his family, his subjects, and even Winston Churchill cheer him on. Yet I was thinking of how small all that was considering the setting. England had just entered World War II. London would be destroyed in the Battle of Britain. The English forces in Europe would be decimated at Dunkirk, those returning to England in defeat lucky to to be alive. England would lose its empire and end the war as an impoverished starving nation. They way everyone carried on at the end of the film, you would think George’s speech won the whole damn war

This film reminds me of another recent historical dramas that was overshadowed by historical events. “Frost/Nixon”, for example, is set up as an epic interaction between an Australian and a ruler. Wait, am I confusing “Frost/Nixon” with “The King’s Speech”? Oh, that’s right, the ruler in “Frost/Nixon” is former president Richard Nixon and the Australian is television personality David Frost. We are led to believe the admissions of guilt that Frost coaxes out of Nixon is enough drama for an entire movie. “All the President’s Men”, which by the way is about only the very beginnings of the criminal investigation into Richard Nixon, is enough drama for an entire movie. “Frost/Nixon” is barely enough drama for 40 minutes of television. Nevertheless, “Frost/Nixon” and movies like it are entertaining enough and profitable enough to get made. That is how I feel about “The King’s Speech” only instead of being entertaining enough, “The King’s Speech” is awesomely entertaining.

Objectively, “The King’s Speech” could have been better had the filmmakers flipped the focus from the putative king to his Australian elocutionist, played by Geoffrey Rush. Performance is not the issue. The king was played exquisitely by Colin Firth, who most of know as the guy Bridget Jones chose over Hugh Grant. Mr. Firth deserves every ounce of his Oscar for his performance but the king himself is quite boring. He seems friendly enough and like I wrote above everyone can empathize with his fear of public speaking. The king, though, was born to his duties. We are just watching him going through the motions. The Australian elocutionist on the other hand, is a man who made his own life and helped give voice to the voiceless. Plus, the elocutionist was played by Geoffrey Rush, an actor so popular that Disney brought his character back from the dead for its “Pirates of the Caribbean” series. Perhaps highlighting Colin Firth’s character is all in good fairness. Mr. Rush already had his time to “Shine”. Just imagine though, a story about an average actor who teaching elocution to kids, performs miracles for Great War vets, and saves England from the terrible speeches of its boorish king. And that is about all I had better write about that.

Untimely Reviews – Citizen Kane

Citizen Kane poster

Here are some of my contemporaneous thoughts while watching “Citizen Kane” a few weeks ago: a must watch for anyone who claims to like movies; ahead of its time; great techniques like showing the action from the perspective of a reflection off a glass ball; non-linear storytelling; assumes the audience is smart; and terrible acting. Yes, I thought that the acting was, for the most part, terrible. Is it wrong to speak ill of the dead actors? Perhaps the point is moot. The film is a treasure and every film society highly recommends it. Orson Welles himself was incredible as the protagonist in flash back and this is the performance you will remember most, not just because his is one of the few good performances in the film, but because his is one of the greatest performances of all time. But How much better would the movie be had Orson Welles cast better actors to perform with him? And not to dance on the director’s grave, but a shot for shot remake in widescreen, in color, and with some awesome talent would be fantastic. It would be like “The Social Network” only about newspapers. Certainly I cannot be the first person to think of this?

I had thought my enjoyment of the film would be hobbled by my knowledge of Rosebud. The film opens with a dying Charles Kane uttering the one word, “Rosebud”. What or who is Rosebud? The film tells the life of Charles Kane through the stories of the people he knew, never forgetting that Rosebud is, at least on the surface, the films prominent mystery. Due to Orson Welles clever and progressive filmmaking, sometimes we know how the stories end before they begin and other times one story picks up where another leaves off. The puzzle, or tapestry depending on how you like your metaphors, is put together, or weaved, brilliantly. At the end of the film the camera pulls back on Charles Kane’s enormous collection of art and statues. Yet we know that none of his bought treasures filled a longing he held deep in his heart heart, a longing that is summed up in one word, “Rosebud”. That final shot of the film gave me chills. Yes I already knew the secret of Rosebud but I did not know the secret of Charles Kane’s heart.

Orson Welles was so adept and prescient a movie maker that the truth of many scenes are not uttered. Any idiot with a camera can have the actors, a narrator, or a bit of text tell us what is going on in a scene. Orson Welles had the bravery and vision to show us. Looking back, we can see that Orson Welles was a pioneer who unlocked the potential of film as a art form. He shows a sleeping woman breathing heavily in bed. An empty pill bottle sits on here nightstand and we hear men calling for her. Her bedroom door shakes violently. Where a lesser filmmaker would have some stooge tell us the woman was trying to commit suicide (and the traditions of lesser filmmakers continue to this day), Orson Welles had enough respect for the audience to leave those conclusions to us. He was telling the story with sound and pictures, using camera angles and music to affect our emotions. This is not a book or a play on film, this is bona-fide motion picture and Orson Welles showed everyone how a movie works all the way back in 1941. The shame of the motion picture industry is that too many filmmakers seemed to have learned nothing from it.

At the very least, if you see “Citizen Kane”, you will finally have something to talk about with film historians more impressive than “Weekend at Bernie’s”.

“My” New Work Laptop

new

Don’t get me wrong, I’m pleased as punch to have a new computer at work. Stuck with Windows XP and an Intel Pentium processor for the last decade, I have awakened like Rip Van Winkle to Core i5 and Windows 7. My home computer might be kitted out with the latest Mac OS updates, but at work I use whatever computer the office gives me. Finally the shackles of a hand-me-down work laptop with an aged OS and a dead battery have been removed. On this day of freedom, when I should be saying "wow", I feel that Windows 7, the redeemer of Vista, is not all its cracked up to be and I wonder how a computer called a "notebook" in 2011 can be so thick.

takbar

The new Windows 7 taskbar is stylish, for Windows.

There is some wow factor to Windows 7. The look is great compared to my old Windows XP computer. The new taskbar looks clean, the transparency is awesome, and the window resizing is automagical. Windows 7 also makes work life easier, and kudos to Microsoft for that. Of all the improvements my favorite is the not so cleverly named

Snipping Tool

Snipping Tool , a feature Windows should have had in Windows XP. Connecting to Wifi is much, much easier (although not exactly Mac OS X easy) as is file searching and installing printer drivers. Windows 7 will also attempt to resolve issues liked dropped wifi and USB drive errors for me, although frankly I would prefer the issues not pop-up in the first place. The best feature of Windows 7 can be found in the calculator. The built in date and loan calculators are the office equivalent of finding a basket of candy on Easter morning.

confusing options

As nice as the Snipping Tool and Calculator are in Windows 7 are, Mac OS X on my MacBook, in my opinion, is still better looking, easier to use, and has more tricks. Regardless of personal taste, All of the improvements in Windows 7 really just reminds me of how old my Windows XP computer was. Perhaps that is the point. With the market share Microsoft has, all they need to do for money is make their repeat customers happy.

And jeez, why is so much of what I hate about Windows still there? Why does Microsoft insist up these outdated check box lists for system customization? Look at the folder options. You have to hit Alt-T just to get to the folder options menu and then when you are there, you see a list of near ly meaningless descriptions. The labels on the items in the Control Panel in particular are a mystery wrapped in a riddle and hidden in an enigmatic window. To Microsoft’s credit, I have not yet been blue screened, despite the several application crashes in the last few days. The oddest of oddities occurred when Windows 7 spontaneously dropping all of its fancy Aero effects for no apparent reason. Without Aero Windows 7 is just Windows XP with a clipping tool and a nicer calculator.

control panel confusion

The newest version of Microsoft Office is especially flummoxing. Considering the Windows taskbar is twice as thick as before, the bloated menu bar in Office (dubbed the "Ribbon") is an outright assault on vertical screen space. Here’s a tip to user interface developers, most displays are wide screen now. Seriously, the Office menu bar takes up a fifth of my display. Fortunately I found the option for hiding the Ribbon and moving the menu options options I actually use onto the title bar. I have discovered many user interface fixes since upgrading to Windows 7.

menu mess

I guess I really didn’t need the top fifth of my screen anyway.

menu fix

This is how you do a menu right.

The most surprising aspect of Windows 7 is the awful Start menu and its irregularly arranged cacophony of application shortcuts, file links, and system settings. So far I have failed to find a fix or third party program that will eliminate the Start menu or at least replace it with something useful like a simple search box. On that topic, Windows relies too much on third party programs. The built in webcam and multi-touch trackpad is powered by Dell, display settings are handled by Intel, Roxio handles DVD burning, and I installed CutePDF to natively print PDF files. To put this in perspective, Microsoft has about 60,000 employees and Apple has about 37,000 employees. Yet Microsoft is the company that leaves development of core OS functions to third party developers. Why isn’t Microsoft making the best OS on earth?

The PC hardware, a hulking Dell Latitude notebook, is just as much a step up for hardware as Windows 7 is for software. There are improvements to be sure; it is just as solidly built as my prior hand-me-down IBM Thinkpad and the performance is above average for a business laptop. The Dell sports ports aplenty and even includes a backlit keyboard. (My old Thinkpad had a downward facing light built into the top of the display).

laptop thickness

Perhaps Apple has spoiled me with its unibody MacBook.The bottom portion of the Dell is thicker than my entire Macbook. The Dell unflatteringly bulges from every angle and presents a mess of vents and port openings on all sides.

bezel comparison

The bezel is thick, twice as thick as the bezel on my Macbook. The fan is too loud for a machine with integrated graphics. The multi-touch trackpad is embarrassingly small and unresponsive. Multi-touch technology is over three years old and getting it right should be as easy for Dell now as it was for Apple in 2008. I thought perhaps the Dell laptop was a cheaper model, but a quick check to Dell’s website shows that notwithstanding whatever bulk discount my office received, the spartan Dell is actually more expensive than a comparable Macbook Pro. For that much money, why isn’t the 3rd largest PC maker trying to make the best laptop on earth?

Microsoft and Dell really need to do some proverbial overclocking on their products. The failure of Windows Gadgets is telling. Despite Windows’s huge install base, there are a mere handful of good gadgets. I initially loaded up some Mac OS widgets with Kludgets but opted instead for Yahoo’s cross platform widgets. That bumbling Yahoo’s ancient widget platform has a more lively ecosystem than Microsoft’s gadgets speaks to the failure of Microsoft to inspire software developers. Comparing my work PC to my home Mac again, there is no software on my work PC that is not better on my Mac. Even the lowly calculator is better on the Mac, assuming you prefer having paper tape to a date calculator. As for Dell, they have been on a downward spiral for almost a decade. "Dude, you’re getting a Dell" is becoming the equivalent of Nelson’s “Ha-ha”.

These are all petty complaints. Of course I would rather use a Mac at my office, but the Dell laptop and Windows 7 are fine. At the very least, they are better than the old stuff and I am thankful for that.

Untimely Reviews – Winter’s Bone

parody poster
This is not the real poster, it’s just a parody. The film really is that depressing.

Winter’s Bone” reminds me of when I used to edit the drug enforcement update for state law enforcement. Meth cookers often condemn houses by blowing them up or saturating them with ether fumes. Those were the lucky ones. The unlucky ones ended up as charred corpses or amputees. One tweaker stole a thermos full of ammonia and jumped into a river to evade the police. The thermos exploded and took off his leg. And of course these were all cases where the offenders went to jail. That is where the drug enforcement updated ended and this film begins. This is what happens to the family of the meth cooker after he is arrested.

Winter’s Bone” starts out innocuous enough. Well, it starts out depressing enough. This could be the prequel to a post-Apocalypse movie. Find out what life was like before Viggo Mortensen hit “The Road“. “Winter’s Bone” is sorta’ like the lighter side of “The Road”. What a depressing double feature that would be.

another silly poster
Another parody poster, hitting the nail on the head.

Though we are kept in the dark on business end of things, all of the drama in this film is the result of the meth business. The problem with the meth business model is that cooking meth is illegal and dangerous. The input costs are low, the facilities costs are non existent, and the profits are high. On paper, making meth looks like a great home business! But when a meth cooker is in jail, his or her income stream is eviscerated. Their best bet is to launder their money into a high yielding investment to supplement their lost income while they are in prison. Also, most meth cookers are tweaked up all the time and end up with serious health problems, such as dying. Factoring in disability, long term care, and life insurance premiums, there seems to be no way the average meth cooker could ever make a long term income from meth. Just look at their lawns. Are those the lawns of successful illegal business owners?

The real hook for this movie is its authenticity. The backwoods meth mafia of the Ozarks looks authentic enough – which means ugly in the movie business. John Hawkes is especially authentic looking as the emaciated tweaker Teardrop. Because the film looks so real, I just have to assume everything is real. In the backwoods meth mafia culture, the women spend all day standing by the front door to great visitors. They also deliver beat downs. The men don’t do much of anything, except threatening the women. Everyone says they want to keep their business secret, but even though we never see a phone, they all know each other’s business. Just when you think this depressing fable is a documentary story, there is this one take, where Jennifer Lawrence says to here mother, “look at my face”, and then then the film cuts to Lawrence looking away. That one mistake was actually a refreshing reminder that I was watching a fictional movie and I can go on pretending rural Missouri does not actually exist.