The Lego Movie

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The Lego Movie is a shining beacon in filmmaking. I say that with complete sincerity. It is pristine in its message, inspired in its casting, clever in its storytelling, and flawless in its execution. It would have been so easy for it to be a simple cash -grab of a movie. It would make a jabillion dollars regardless of quality, and would have been a “tentpole” film that the studio could build a franchise around. How could it not? Everyone loves Legos.

I once went to a lecture by Aaron Draplin, founder of Field Notes, and all-around big, lovable, talented dude. Something he said has always stuck with me. Paraphrased, it went: there is a simple rule in being a good designer. Just give a shit. I think that rule applies to any craft. Design, art, writing, movies—anything where you create—it all revolves around that concept of craft and care.

The Lego Movie has all the qualities of being a product made by a multitude of people who care—the decision to make the animation look a little bit naive, as if it were being moved around by a kid; the commitment to make everything from existing Lego pieces, even fire, smoke, and water; the way real-world objects were integrated—it was all just so, so good.

The movie is a blanket of nostalgia, wit, and wonder. My cheeks were sore from smiling. Everyone should see it, because it deserves to make a jabillionty dollars.

True Detective

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You’re all smart, so I’m going to assume that you know of, or will do some research after reading this, about True Detective, HBO’s newest original series. I’ll leave the general synopsis and cast information to the wonders of the internet. It premiered last night, and I just wanted to write down some thoughts it.

After one episode, I am enthralled. The atmosphere, the tone, the show’s structure, the acting, the cinematography—it’s all perfect. 1995’s coastal Louisiana is dreadful, sad, and mysterious—like it’s hiding something terrible in plain sight. Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey), after visiting a morgue in a run-down strip mall to look at the victim’s body, says to Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) that the whole place is like “somebody’s memory of a town.” Hart tells him to “Stop saying that shit. It’s unprofessional.”

It would be so easy for the showrunner, Nic Pizzolatto, to fall back on typical crime show tropes for these two, yet he doesn’t. The show is as much, if not more, about Cohle and Hart’s relationship as it is about whodunit. Each of their characters are slowly being peeled back, giving hints as to what’s to come and why.

The pace is slow and deliberate. It skips around from present day (2012) to the past, giving you quick hints here and there as to what it’s trying to do. It’s not until with only five minutes left in the episode that we discover that the reason Cohle and Hart are being questioned (separately) so many years later about their Dora Lang investigation is because an eerily similar murder has occurred, while the original perpetrator has been caught.

The show is structured so that we are doing our own detective work, trying to piece together what the show is trying to tell us. It’s engaging and absorbing. The anthological nature of the show also allows the story to be tight and focused. Every shot and conversation is deliberate and necessary. It creates this building sense of dread and curiosity as each layer is added. There is a scene outside a trailer where Cohle discovers something in a run-down playhouse. There is no spooky music or overly dramatized reactions. The story and pacing itself creates all the terror that the scene needs.

I love so much when shows treat you intelligently. Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Wire, so many others. And now True Detective. As hard as Honey Boo Boo is trying to pull the wool over our eyes, we are living in a golden age of television. Let’s all bask in it.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

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I saw The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Wednesday night in a preview screening. This enables two things: that I can post a quick review of it the day it is officially released; and that I can brag about seeing it before you.

TDOS is better than AUJ in that it doesn’t have to bother setting anything up. After a quick flashback to Thorin’s initial meeting with Gandalf in Bree, we are dumped right into the action. The film has a good pace and nothing feels stretched. Peter Jackson proves again a deft director of all the grand scale and complicated action sequences. The barrel-riding scene is pretty exhilarating, even with some silliness.

The movie deviates a lot from the original novel, as Azog and his orcs become more and more involved. Dol Guldur and the Necromancer are also explored much more thoroughly. If you hated all of that in the first film, you’ll dislike it even more in this one. To that, I say you’re an idiot.

This film is much darker than the first. There are no dwarven sing-a-longs or wise-cracking trolls. Knowing what’s going to happen in the third, I imagine that pattern not changing. It will tie in nicely to the LOTR trilogy and the War of the Ring. That is not to say that it isn’t funny. Martin Freeman continues to kill it as Bilbo. The man has perfect comedic timing.

A few things I truly enjoyed about the film:

The expansion of the Laketown storyline. Bard the Bowman is a cardboard character in the novel with little dialogue. Now he is a father who worries about his children’s safety with legitimate doubts about the dwarves reclaiming their homeland.

The Necromancer. WETA absolutely nailed the look. This ethereal, constantly changing, not fully-formed entity is menacing and a perfect reveal.

Smaug. Benedict Cumberbatch was a perfect voice for the dragon. He is immense, cunning, and terrifying. He is everything I imagined. WETA deserves all the awards.

Tauriel. Tolkien purists will balk, as she is a complete fabrication of Peter Jackson. However, I thought her mindset and attitude were a breath of fresh air for Middle Earth. Much like Eowyn in the Lord of the Rings, she is strong-minded and thinks for herself. I think she will be very important for Legolas’ character development.

Middle Earth politics. I enjoyed all the resentment and distrust between races and people. The elves and the dwarves hating and distrusting each other. The people of Laketown’s general unhappiness with life after the fall of Erebor. There is so much animosity lurking under the surface. It’s nice to see that visualized knowing what is coming in the future for Middle Earth.

The One Ring’s effect on Bilbo. It’s not just a magic trinket in this story. You can see the effect it has on the young hobbit.

The spiders’ language. They came up with quite a clever way to have them talk as they do in the novel.

The film ends on a cliffhanger, which I also love. Though I can certainly already hear all the groans once it cuts to black. A year-long wait for the third film, There and Back Again, is going to be a test in patience.

Gravity

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I like to think of myself as a decent writer. In a casual way, at least. I enjoy putting words to paper (or screen). I am proud of my syntax and its ability to convince people that I’m not a complete idiot. However, once I decided to write down my thoughts about Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, the only term that kept running through my head was: holy balls. It’s a great feeling to have about a movie.

I loved it.

Seriously. How a film got me to enjoy Sandra Bullock, I have no idea. Usually so grating, she’s great in this. You slowly learn more about her as the film progresses—she starts as this overly nervous, uptight, can’t-handle-her-shit type of person—and by the end are actively rooting for her character to grow and succeed. George Clooney is wisely used as a voice of reason and encouragement (literally).

The entire movie is built on Bullock’s performance. When I walked out of Cast Away, I remember being blown away how Tom Hanks essentially carried an entire movie by himself. Bullock does the same here. She perfectly conveys that complete feeling of hopelessness and emptiness that occurs when you are overwhelmed. The plot is straightforward and crafted well. All of the exposition feels like natural dialogue, most of it being used in the story as panic-management tactics.

And my goodness, the visuals. This is a film that needs to be in 3D. I’ve often thought about how big space is, but never seen how big it is. Cuarón uses the 3D to show you how vastly immense and terrifying it is. The opening shot is a 20 minute (or so) single take, with the camera slowly moving around the characters as they are repairing the Hubble Telescope. It immediately envelopes you in that setting. You feel like you are in space, serenely and infinitely falling at thousands of miles an hour.

Despite Neil Degrasse Tyson’s valiant effort to be the ultimate science troll, the science in Gravity is well done. The fact that it gets so much right is a marvel for cinema. My view of Star Wars or Trek has been tainted forever. R2D2 would have been burnt to a crisp every time Luke entered Dagobah’s atmosphere—the little shit. Quit muggin’ on my boy, Yoda. Dude just wants a twinkie, damn.

So much of what I enjoyed came from the visual immersion. It’s a fantastic film regardless, but it will be interesting to see how much I enjoy Gravity without the 3D and on a smaller screen.

Alfonso Cuarón managed to make a science fiction movie that was (mostly) scientifically correct, hand-sweatingly suspenseful, with fantastic acting and storytelling. It currently has a 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and broke the October box office records.

Science is neat. Go see it, dummy.

My Name Is My Name

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I’ve made it no secret my love for Push. Clipse is my favorite group ever. I still hold Hell Hath No Fury as one of the best hip hop albums ever. Apparently that coke rap speaks to me. When it was announced that Pusha T and No Malice (who are brothers) would no longer be pursuing music as a group, I was devastated as much as a white boy living in Salt Lake City could be about that. After years of mixtapes and singles and delays, MNIMN finally dropped, re-affirming my years-long state of bonership.

I don’t think that the album completely lives up to Pusha’s own braggadocio of “album of the year”, but it’s damn close. (That title goes to Pusha’s mentor and collaborator, Ye, with Yeezus). MNIMN is fantastic, but there is one song, Let Me Love You, featuring Kelly Rowland of all people, in which Pusha all of the sudden has Mase’s flow and cadence. It’s a confusing R&B poppy song that seems hamfisted into the album. That is my one real complaint. Stick with the VA coke game, homey.

The rest of the album is full of hard, on-point production and some of the smartest lyrics and best word play in rap. In No Regrets: My mind wanders on a PJ/my momma brought up in the PJs/In the club sippin’ P&J/On the same arm as my Piaget. Hip Hop is many things, but it certainly isn’t homonymophobic.

The album has a menagerie of guest stars, including Rick Ross, Kendrick Lamar, Big Sean, Kanye, Jeezy, 2 Chainz, Pharrel, etc, etc, etc. It’s a party. Of all of them, Kendrick (no surprise there), brings the most to the table on Nosestalgia. His raspy drawl is the perfect compliment to Pusha’s flow. He really does want to go hard on everyone.

With his first major label solo release, Pusha T shows that he can keep that Clipse feel going, even if No Malice isn’t a part of it anymore; and that’s all I really want.

12 1/2 thumbs up.

iOS 7

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Apple debuted its newest iteration of mobile software a few weeks ago at WWDC. Of course with Apple being Apple, it was huge news and there was a lot of hyperbole from haters and lovers alike. The biggest thing about this release was how different it looked. The original iOS look was certainly starting to look dated. It has looked relatively the same since it was introduced with the original iPhone in 2007. Steve Jobs (and the recently ousted Scott Forstall) were strict proponents of making digital things look like their physical counterparts. Buttons looked tactile, a notes app had to have a ripped page border, etc. Since then, Android (and Google), Microsoft, and even Palm (when it existed) got their design teams together and actually made some beautiful UIs—UIs that didn’t require these faux-physical attributes.

Apple still, in my opinion, has the most intuitive UX of any of those, but the skeuomorphism (how I’ve learned to hate that word) and the heavy handedness of the visual design had started to bog it down. Users know how to use a touchscreen phone now. We’ve grown up and learned. A great many of the criticisms of the new iOS seem to miss the ‘learned behavior’ aspect of it. One of my biggest pet peeves with voicemail in general is waiting for the robot lady finish telling me to wait for the beep. We all know to wait for the beep. It was necessary originally, but I think we can move past that now. The original user experience of the iPhone is still alive and well. It still works the same and just as well. And if I can paraphrase Steve Jobs, “Design isn’t how a thing looks, it is how it works.”

There is a home button that you click to go back to the home screen. You double tap it for multitasking options. You swipe down from the top for your notification center. The back button is still in the top left of all applications. There are a few new gestures, yes, but all in all, it’s the same. They’ve simply let the actual user interface grow up. The typography is more mature (though certainly with a bit more maturing to do in some places), the spacing better. Everything has been given room to breathe. The colors are lighter and brighter. Instead of the screen abruptly turning on and off, it fades in and out.

What they’ve really succeeded at, in my opinion, is defining the concept of how iOS works. They’ve done that by making all these UI elements flat, but placed on all these different planes. There’s an immense depth to the whole thing now. Your photos or background is that bottom layer, and text or other elements are on top of that with space between. There is a physics engine involved now that uses the gyroscope and accelerometer in your phone to simulate a parallax motion to really sell the idea. And it doesn’t come across as visual candy either. There’s a reason for it. Your notification center and control center will slide from the top or bottom respectfully, and blur what’s beneath them with a frosted glass effect. It allows you to understand where you are in the user interface at all times. Photos, apps, everything, change the way it all looks because of this transparency. Android users will scoff, but it’s almost like a built in customization.

Apple has always had fairly playful, friendly, engaging software. The original iPhone accomplished this with all these luscious buttons and textures and subtle animations. iOS 7, with refining everything, keeps that concept alive with all the colors and animations. When you unlock your device, your apps zoom into view as if you yourself flew into view of them. (Tastefully, might I add.) It helps reinforce the depth of the UI, as if everything is living in space, which helps the user make sense of where they are. It’s these necessary animations that keep this software engaging and fun and inviting.

There are still a few things that could be done better about iOS 7. Things like the control and notification arrows on the lock screen. Or the some of the icons. But those are fairly superficial problems that can easily be fixed by simply changing some spacing or a graphic or two. It is still a beta. As a whole concept, I think iOS 7 is a huge success and I am incredibly excited for the future with Apple software finally growing up and (mostly) matching the sophistication of their hardware.

Long live Ive.

Prometheus

Prometheus was a film that set out to answer some questions and ask some even bigger ones. Namely, what was that thing in the spaceship that was discovered in the original Alien; where did the xenomorph come from; and furthermore, where did we come from?

While most of the ‘whats’, ‘hows’, and ‘wheres’ are answered in Prometheus, throughout the film, you might be asking yourself why these things are happening. Ridley Scott leaves most of these questions to us, thankfully. A film as dipped in intrigue and existentiality as this one shouldn’t answer everything. How could it? Though to be fair, some of the character motivations could have been explained a little better. I could see a director’s cut of the film helping in that regard.

The movie isn’t perfect by any means. There were a few cliche Hollywood moments in it—characters far too willing to sacrifice themselves far too fast, some cheap dialogue. But these moments standing out shows how well done the rest of the film is.

The cinematography is beautiful. The framing is grand, and the Icelandic landscapes look other-worldly. (Duh.) Everything is shot in this crisp, cool color palette of grays and blues while these warm ambers, yellows, and reds are allowed to jump out at you. It is lovely.

The effects are fantastic. There was never a time where I was thinking about them. When the Prometheus (their spaceship) is descending into LV-223’s atmosphere, all I thought about was how beautiful the shot was, not that it was impressive CGI or model work. As with design, good effects should be invisible.

I give Prometheus 7 1/2 tentacles out of 9.

PS. Thanks, Ridley, for the cesarean phobia!

Adventure Time

Adventure Time is an animated tv show on Cartoon Network that follows a human, Finn, and his magical dog, Jake on all kinds of surreal adventures. It’s set in the land of Ooo, which is essentially a post-apocalyptic Earth where magic has come back. It’s seriously incredible. I wish I could hug this show. After seeing GIFs and pictures all over the internet, I finally saddled up and started watching it. Now, I’m in deep, man. It’s all I do. Just ask my girlfriend. Thankfully, she loves it too.

The art direction and writing is top-notch. The characters are all wildly imaginative and even self-aware. The voice talents work together just as well as they do in Archer. It all seems so un-forced and natural. There’s a great fart-to-smart humor ratio as well.

Below the fold are a few clips to let you pick up what I’m puttin’ down.

gimme some mo →

I Am Love

I watched Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love last night. While not without its faults, it was beautiful. The film starts with an elaborate 20 minute scene of a dinner party being prepared for the fabulously wealthy Recchi family. Every shot is framed so it is as if you are seeing all of this through the eyes of the house and environment. Two people will have an interaction, and then the camera will linger for just a second too long after they’ve left the frame, accentuating this feeling. This is the introduction we get to Emma Recchi, played by Tilda Swinton. She is Russian-born, married into an Italian family living in Milan. She isn’t unhappy, but not fulfilled either. She is caught in this world. So begins her journey towards freedom.

The movie is about the old and new; about following tradition or your heart. From the opening scene onward, you start to see these cracks and breaks in the old—a grand daughter gifting her dying grandfather a photograph instead of a painting; a son wanting to start his own restaurant, using radical invented recipes, against his father’s wishes of continuing the family’s; a daughter leaving a boy for a girl; the family business being sold to foreign investors. You start to notice the changes in Emma as well, as she meets her son’s friend and becomes infatuated. Her make-up, her demeanor, her attitude towards the help—it all starts to loosen. The whole movie builds this idea slowly, piece by piece, until this frantic, sweeping, sudden climax.

I Am Love doesn’t get it all right, though. There are times where Guadagnino is a little heavy of hand with the symbolism (a dove finding its freedom out of a church window comes to mind). But I am more than willing to forgive these little details. The cinematography, the setting, the colors, the acting, even the title and credits—it’s all gorgeous. It makes you think about what it means to follow your heart, and the consequences of doing so; the tragedy and fulfillment of chasing your most primal urges and feelings.

A Steadyclappin heads up: Tilda Swinton gets naked. So prepare your eyeballs for that.

Drive

I finally got around to watching Drive the other night. I had some friends who loved it and some friends who hated it. The more I think about it, the more I fall into the first category. It is refreshingly minimalist and has a great electro pop soundtrack.

Ryan Gosling plays a character that says very little, doesn’t even get a name in the movie, and is still somehow compelling. He is mysterious, charming, compassionate, and vicious all at once. Referred to only as ‘the driver’ or ‘the kid’, he seemingly spends the entire movie staring, smirking, or stomping someone’s head into jelly.

There aren’t any hidden layers in this movie a la No Country For Old Men. I don’t think that the kid symbolizes anything. It’s just a film that oozes cool. Scenes are methodical and slow and the music is so great, creating this incredible atmosphere. You feel this movie as much as you watch it.

I can see why some people didn’t like Drive. They probably wanted more car chases, more Baby Goose with his shirt off, more mob action. But Drive is a film that takes its time. It’s a simple story that is made many times better because of it. It is what it is and it’s cool with it. As am I.

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