Warhorse: Horses are People Too?

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I love horses. They are big beautiful animals and have contributed greatly to human development. But they are not human and projecting human qualities on them won’t get them any closer. Still, Spielberg knows how to work cinematic magic and hit all the right buttons to make us laugh, cry, cringe and even cheer once in a while. Warhorse is pure sentimentality. I guess that was to be expected with a Christmas release. Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan are not in the holiday spirit, in most people’s minds. The audience enjoyed the movie. The visuals are wonderful, the effects adequate and the acting topnotch as you’d expect. But I expected more.  The inaccuracies of the war scenes disturbed me, especially after the painstaking detail Spielberg took in Saving Private Ryan. The Great War shaped Europe and set in motion all the bad, ugly and good that came with rest of the 20th century. As the back drop of this story, details are probably not that important, but as the last veterans of WW I die, there will be no more first hand accounts of that horrific conflict. Spielberg, obviously, is following a standard formula for a feel good film and a boy and his horse adventure is a pretty formulaic. The silhouette shots at the end reminded me of Gone with the Wind and scenes from The Searchers. Spielberg hasn’t made a classic, but it will probably make enough to let him make more serious pictures that I’ve come to expect and look forward to.

Thor 3D: What Comic Book Hero is this?

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Forgive me, but I thought bringing a comic book super-hero to the big screen would expose the super-hero to the wonderful mythology some of us grew up with. Thor isn’t a bad movie. Kenneth Branagh couldn’t make a bad movie and giving him about $150 million to work with meant we were going to get a pretty good feature. The acting is fine and the story by itself isn’t bad. The effects are good and some of the visuals are actually stunning. Chris Hemsworth is Australian and this is his first really feature role. Why Natalie Portman is here, I don’t know. There must be a better part for her in the Avengers movie now in production. So, we have a good movie that will entertain almost anyone and I’m not satisfied. What’s the problem? Technically the movie wasn’t shot in 3D. The added 3D isn’t intrusive or really distracting, but you can kind of tell it’s an afterthought. My biggest complaint is that these movies don’t stick to the comic book script. I can accept some changes or things left out, but wouldn’t a good story line be that Thor doesn’t remember he’s Thor? He’s Donald Blake, Surgeon, who is led to a cane that transforms him into Thor, so he can save the day. The mortal life is what we identify with and then we, I mean he, discovers super-powers. I’m getting old, I know. I just don’t like people messing with my super-heroes. Don’t mind me, you’ll enjoy Thor. Just see it in 2D and save a few dollars. Maybe buy a comic or two.

Atlas Shrugged: No, he really dropped the ball.

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Reading Atlas Shrugged for the first time in high school was an epiphany for me. It told me to be myself and not worry about what all the other kids thought was cool. Logic and rationality could solve almost every problem that comes your way. Now I can look at the work objectively and see many flaws, but the theme still resonates with me. Individual achievement is to be honored and is essential to human growth. Rand was a poor philosopher and only a slightly better novelist, but she had a real influence on me and and what I am today has been shaped by her works. Turning the book into a movie has been talked about for decades now. It would be an epic undertaking and, obviously, the Hollywood system would not get behind a film with such politically incorrect plot lines. So somehow someone got enough financing together to make a 3 part trilogy. Part one condenses a great deal into a two hour picture and introduces the major characters. The movie is simply horrible! I was embarrassed by the screenplay, the acting and even the production values. It was an, evidently, amateur project. You may recognize a couple of nameless character actors, but no one with a real career would touch this film and sitting through the horrid dialog makes me understand why. It seems someone highlighted some key lines from the book and some screen writer was tasked with linking them together. There is no flow or continuity in the dialog and subsequently no interest in it. Ayn Rand had a great deal of influence on folks in the 1950’s and her books were best sellers. This movie does her a disservice. If you can’t do it right, maybe it shouldn’t be done at all. Skip the movie. Read the book!

Roku XD: Who needs Cable or Satellite anymore?

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TV watching on the internet is growing rapidly and is on the verge of breaking out into the mainstream. The old VCR and the new DVR showed people they weren’t tied to scheduled broadcast times and annoying commercial breaks. Youtube, Hulu and Netflix have introduced the masses to online content that mirrors what they get over the air or through their cable/satellite providers. Virtually anything you see listed in TV Guide can be found online somewhere and the majority of it doesn’t even violate the evil Digital Millenium Copyright Act. The bottleneck to accepting online content seems to be the setting we’re used to viewing these things. Computers are ‘lean forward’ devices and generally require more direct interaction in that people use search features and scroll around pages clicking on links to view multi-media content. TV viewing is traditionally a ‘lean back’ activity where a couple of clicks on a remote get us what we want. Many folks are not keen to hook a computer to their TV and navigating with a keyboard/mouse is viewed as more trouble than it’s worth. This has led to a number of set-top boxes that stream internet content to the TV via Wi-Fi or an Ethernet connection. Roku, Apple, Logitech, Western Digital, D-Link(Boxee Box), and others sell these devices. They all work pretty much the same way and differ mostly in their interface and what services they have lined up.

Based on some research into these products and their reviews, I chose to spend some Christmas money on the Roku XD. It is the mid price product in the line with 1080p output and a better remote and slightly more capable Wi-Fi than the $60 basic model and really only lacks the USB port of the $100 higher end product. The beauty and ultimate success of these devices centers on their simplicity. Geeks will complain of the lack of this or that, but to get penetration into the homes of folks who mostly use computers for email, banking and Facebook, these things have to be, not idiot proof, but mother/father/grandmother/aunt/uncle proof. The Roku XD is pretty simple to get working out of the box. If you have a newer HDTV with HDMI, then one cable (sadly not included) carries video and sound from Roku to TV. Older TV’s will have to use the supplied composite video/RCA stereo cord. Plug the unit in (remember to put the included batteries in the remote) and follow the on-screen directions. You have to decide on wired or wireless connection. A wired Ethernet connection will be the fastest, but depending on your broadband speed and router connection, it may not be noticeable and running a wire across the room may be aesthetically unacceptable to some. Once connected to your network the most complicated thing is linking your Netflix and other accounts to your Roku. It’s not hard, but tedious to go back and forth from your computer to the Roku entering codes. I suggest having a laptop on hand, so you don’t have to run from one room to another. Once set up, the Roku just works. There is an eclectic mix of channels that provide content from all over the world and you will have fun exploring them. The basics are Netflix, Youtube, PodTV, and the Internet Archive for me. There are lots of news, sports and educational channels. Most are free, but some offer premium subscription content too. The user interface is simple, but effective. The remote navigates you mostly up/down and left/right through the channels and shows on them. It’s pretty easy and it works. I can get a number of local channels with an indoor antenna and now with the Roku I can get almost everything else. Of course in my bedroom I have my big computer and full access to the same thing, but sometimes you just want to lean back and watch TV.

Right now you can get a $20 credit off the Roku XD on Amazon by spending $5 in their VOD area. Amazon-Roku XD dealYou have to spend the $5 by January 3, 2011 and buy the Roku by February 5th.

Really Cool & Useful Apps for the iPod Touch or iPhone

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Touch Mouse by Logitech  is a simple app that makes your Touch a trackpad/keyboard to control a computer via wi-fi. You download the app to your Touch/iPhone and install a small applet on your computer available from Logitech.com. This is perfect in my living room for switching between Windows Media Center, Hulu, YouTube, and the History channel website. Most wireless or bluetooth keyboards won’t work beyond a few feet from the computer and who wants a keyboard mixed in with their remotes anyway. I cancelled my DirecTV and get all my TV from the Internet now. I stream audio and video to my AV receiver and old SD 32″ TV while my PC sits in the other room. I was stuck in Media Center which is fine for Netflix and IPTV selections Microsoft offers, but that is still pretty limited. Now I can switch applications and manipulate the screen from my comfy chair like I was in front of the computer. It’s free, simple to set up, and can work on Windows or Mac.

If you listen to audio books, you probably are a member of Audible.com and if you aren’t, you should be. Audible released it’s iPhone/iPod Touch app this week and it’s great. The Touch or iPhone will play audio books through it’s media player and it’s fine. The Audible app gives you more flexibility with the playback by letting you go backward and forward in 30 second increments and allows you to bookmark a spot for future reference. It allows you to access  your Audible library through wi-fi, so you can get away from iTunes , wonky syncs, and the whole computer, if you choose. Just open the app, connect and download anything from your Audible library online. Of course it also knows what is already on your device and you can play it from the app. There are stats on usage and some silly social badge things you can earn. I don’t really care about that stuff, but others might think it cool. It has the ability to tweet and post things to facebook and twitter and hooks into YouTube for videos of Authors and readers. I see I have 26 books and listened for 3 hours 29 minutes today ( I had to drive to Harrisburg). Another cool app for my Touch. I like it!

Documentaries on Netflix

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This is a great film capturing a slice of the legendary Earl Scruggs’ life in 1972 when he was going through a musical change of life. This focuses really on his sons and  his family. We see them playing with Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, The Byrds and most amazingly Doc and Merle Watson as well as the Morris Brothers and Bill Monroe.  This is a 1970’s  low budget documentary that really captures a strange period of time when rednecks and hippies came together to make some great music. The fashions displayed are wonderful too. I remember us all dressed that way.

How do you make a documentary about Led Zeppelin and have no Led Zeppelin music in it? Obviously, someone couldn’t get or couldn’t afford some permissions.  What a let down. I’m glad I didn’t pay to  rent this. To be fair, there is some  interesting content from producers,  managers, and groupies that give some  insight into the individual personalities of Plant, Page, Bonham and Jones. There is various interview footage of the band members from a variety of sources pieced together to give a sense of credibility, but overall this is a waste of streaming time.

The Last Airbender:Where’s the slime?

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M. Night Shyamalan is  avisionary director. Hitting us with smart and memorable films like The Sixth Sense and Signs. He has earned the trust of Hollywood and can make any movie he wants. So, what happened here? He wrote and directed this massive turd. The marketing machine did it’s job with this one. The trailers and commercials promote an adventure in a mystical world. Good versus Evil and all that. Nowhere did I see mention of Nickelodeon Movies. So a kids TV network has a film branch, could it be that bad? Yes it could. I was vaguely aware of the story. The book series is supposed to be pretty good and the animated series is very popular. I don’t get it. This Aang the Avatar kid(Noah Ringer) is fairly good at Wu-shu, but may be a worse actor than Will Smith’s son in The Karate Kid. Dev Patel should have stayed a slumdog. This won’t be on his future screen credits list. I’m sure M. Night told him it would be alright and who could believe Shyamalan would turn out a turkey like this. May be the worst part is the sequels they have set up. Hopefully, this won’t make enough for the producers and they’ll kill any more of this crap. Unfortunately, the kids this is aimed at will probably wring enough money out their parents around the world to pay for the future disasters this film predicts. I feel like a bucket of slime has been poured on my head by seeing this movie.

Knight and Day: Better than I expected.

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The spy vs. spy movie is nothing new and Summer action movies have been hit and miss. So. I had rather low expectations going into movie. I actually like Tom Cruise and know he puts a lot of effort into his projects. Cameron Diaz I’m not too fond of and the thought of the two together had me worried. Well, I was pleasantly surprised and rather entertained by the entire production. This is a simple innocent  girl bumps into a spy story and we are not supposed to know is really the bad guys until the end. There’s lots of actions and guns (look for the cameo appearance of the Taurus Judge revolver )and explosions and car chases and motorcycle chases and exotic locales. Everything you expect and have seen before. What makes this work is the chemistry between Cruise and Diaz and the humor injected through Cruise taking his character over the top without becoming a parody. This isn’t an Oscar winning movie with Oscar nominating performances. This is simple action/adventure that is entertaining and clever enough to make you smile and chuckle between gun battles and chase scenes. Knight and Day is worth a look.

Summer Hiatus

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The group finished with The age of Wonder and several interesting discussions. The impact of science and technology has changed Man’s place in the universe and that has lead to all kinds of metaphysical and philosophical debates over the centuries. The Conversation continues.

After our summer hiatus we will take up The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today by Mark Twain (and Charles Dudley Warner) since 2010 is the centennial of his death. We shall see if his views have any relevance for us now.

Jonah Hex: Cursed and like being in the belly of a whale.

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Josh Brolin is turning into a pretty good actor. I loved him in No Country for Old Men. John Malkovich is one of our greatest actors period. Megan Fox shouldn’t be allowed on film and playing a whore may not be a stretch for her, but she doesn’t do a good job at that. Movies based on cultish comic book characters are all the rage lately and Jonah Hex is not a bad character to start with. However, this movie is just a mess. The opening minutes try to relay the origin of Jonah Hex and it is virtually incomprehensible. The subsequent plot is absurd and really embarrassing. Brolin does his best to sell it and carries the film the best he can. Malkovich gives a lackluster performance and Fox made me almost burst out laughing she is so horrible. Don’t waste your time or money on this cursed movie.

MacGruber: Exactly what you might have expected.

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Lorne Michaels has made millions from SNL and has launched the big screen careers of a number of cast members. Some are rather successful like Dan Ackroyd, Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Eddie Murphy, Adam Sandler, and some not as in: Joe Piscopo, Tim Meadows, Rob Schnieder, Chris Farley, Seth Myers and Molly Shannon. Where will Will Forte fall? Probably not in the success category, but let’s not be too judgemental. MacGruber is an extended parody of a sketch parody of Macgyver that recurs on SNL. It is really just a reinterpretation of Inspector Clouseau from the Pink Panther movies. This movie is so over the top with it’s bits and SNL cast cameos that you wonder if anyone in the production ever made a movie before. Now there are some off the wall funny scenes, if you like crude sophomoric humor. Everyone, but Forte, is the straight man and that is the only way to play it in this type of film. Val Kilmer is the villain, Powers Booth the general and Ryan Phillipe the competent side kick. How they got these guys together for this film must be a case study in Hollywood deal making and studio greenlighting. Will Forte has some comedy chops and displays them, but the final product isn’t up to the caliber of some of those mentioned earlier.

Robin Hood: Epic or Epic Fail?

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How many Robin Hoods can you name off hand? Douglas Fairbanks, Patrick Bergin, Daffy Duck, Frank Sinatra, Errol Flynn, Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, Cary Elwes to name a few (for extra credit tell me the movies and cartoon) and now Russell Crowe. I like Russell Crowe. I like epic movies. I like medieval warfare. This movie has all the elements for greatness, yet it left me scratching my head wondering why it didn’t work. The Story is simple enough, but not gripping since we know the characters pretty well. The acting is pretty good. The action is not bad. Cate Blanchette and Crowe have some chemistry and they look good together. Maybe the problem is their are too many movies here and not one new one. It seems Ridley Scott, and maybe the producers, thought it would be box office gold to take other successfull movies and “Robin Hood” them. Sort of take from the rich and hope the parts added together will make one big blockbuster. Unfortunately, they stole from the good movies and gave us a poor one. Let’s see…this was Braveheart, Gladiator, and Saving Private Ryan wrapped into a mess. The invasion scene was bizarre with WWII landing craft appearing to be skinned with wood and oars added. I thought Tom Hanks in armor was going to come out of one. The editor had his hands full I’m sure to make some sense out of it all. There were obviously cut scenes/footage waiting for a director’s cut or DVD filler. It was entertaining at times and some will overlook the technical horrors and enjoy a sort of romantic story that is the main interest overall. What might have been we’ll never know. Wait for it on Netflix if you must.

Ironman 2: The second best Ironman movie.

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This is a fun and thoroughly entertaining movie. You should see it just to find the Stan Lee cameo and the secret after credits scene. Robert Downey Jr. is excellent as Tony Stark. He’s funny, sexy, and brilliant. He may have gone a bit overboard, but I’d blame that on Jon Favreau’s direction and the script more than him. I don’t really care for Gwyneth Paltrow, but she is fine as the love interest and every superhero has to have a love interest. Scarlett Johannsen is nothing but eye candy and her action scenes are well done. Sam Jackson as Nick Fury was a good invention and keeps adding to the hype of an Avengers franchise (He’s in a 9 picture deal to play the head of S.H.I.E.l.D.). Sam Rockwell is a good weaselly bad guy. The biggest disappointment is Mickey Roarke as the super villain. He is kind of wasted here. It’s a good role, but I think Favreau under utilized it. Maybe there was just too many characters and not enough screen time. The effects were great and the settings too. New York, Malibu and Monaco are quite scenic. So, it is a fine movie, just not up to the excitement and vision of the first. Let’s see if they can throw enough money at Downey to do a third and kick it up a notch.

Oceans: Classic Disney nature film

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If you grew up in the sixties and seventies, you remember The Wonderful World of Disney. The nature films were the best and really opened up new worlds for us at the time. Disney is still doing this kind of work in their Earth Day series.  Last year it was Earth, this year is Oceans and next year is African Cats. Oceans is classic Disney nature stuff. The cinematography is excellent, the footage beautiful and often spectacular. These films seem to specialize in showing animals doing things in very human appearing ways. This helps us identify with the animals and promotes environmental concern. Thankfully, the politics is downplayed in this film and I don’t remember the term “climate change” used at all. Pierce Brosnan narrates and his cultured voice is cool and friendly. I wouldn’t call this educational, but informational. They show many vignettes of the life found in the oceans, but this isn’t a documentary like an episode of The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. This is meant to visually inspire and communicate the diverse and exotic worlds found beneath the seas. You will be inspired and entertained and you might even learn a little in the experience.

The Losers: You, if you see this film.

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What a mess.  I guess they need something to make The A-Team look good when it comes out. Some special ops guys get double crossed by CIA super spook guy and they want to clear their names. Very original. They each have a special talent too. And there is an angry vixen who may be a good bitch or a bad bitch, we’ll just have to wait and see. It’s supposed to be another comic book type action story. There are some explosions and fights and gun play and all the usual action movie filler, but there is no continuity here. The editing is appalling. There are endless slow motion group walks `a la Reservoir Dogs which tells me the director and editor didn’t know what they wanted. Jason Patric is almost ok as the villain, but even he can’t bring it off. The witty banter isn’t witty and the funny character quirks aren’t funny. They left some loose ends to set up a sequel, which is painful to contemplate. Don’t be a loser. Skip this movie.