Posted by mike in Film,Reviews at 9:48 pm on September 30, 2010

With my review of The Town posted, I’m more or less caught up on my reviews, with a small exception: I’ve made the executive decision to ignore two movies I saw earlier this summer, because it’s just been too long since they were out, and I doubt anybody cares to read about them anyway. But here are really, really brief thoughts on them, in the interest of being thorough:

  • The Other Guys was a pretty funny, if standard, Will Ferrell comedy. Like most of the Ferrell-Adam McKay collaborations, it goes a too bit far when it runs out of jokes (in this case, Ferrell’s “Gator” alter-ego), but it holds its own. It actually made me feel bad for Kevin Smith, who tried for a similar type of thing with Cop Out but failed pretty miserably. The most impressive thing about The Other Guys, in fact, was that in parodying an action movie, it actually ended up having some legitimately good action scenes. It’d make for a good rental.
  • The Switch, on the other hand, was really bad. It sucks to say that, because Jason Bateman is usually such an enjoyable actor to watch, but here he’s all wrong for the role. The premise of the movie is completely ludicrous; if there’s one thing I know, it’s drinking, and this isn’t how it works. Not only does Bateman’s character get black-out drunk and yet still muster the ability to spank one out with minimal “material” to aid him, but he also somehow magically recalls what happened that night 7 years later. Throw in a terrible (though cute) child actor and Jennifer Aniston in another generically Jennifer Aniston role, and there’s not much reason to check this one out.

In more recent news, I’ve had the opportunity to put up a few reviews over at GTBP, so check them out if you’re interested:

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Posted by mike in Film,Reviews at 10:57 pm on September 29, 2010

The Town

Status: In theaters (opened 9/17/10)
Directed By: Ben Affleck
Written By: Peter Craig and Ben Affleck & Aaron Stockard
Cinematographer: Robert Elswit
Starring: Ben Affleck, Rebecca Hall, Jon Hamm, Jeremy Renner

Doug MacRay (Ben Affleck) is from Charlestown, an area of Boston known for the amount of bank robbers per capita it sports. Doug’s a prime example: his father (Chris Cooper) was a stick-up man, and Doug is following in the family tradition. There’s a scene in The Town where Doug visits his old man in prison—it’s Cooper’s only scene in the film, but he’s amazing in it, as he always is—and it really drives the point home that not only is crime a way of life for these people, but there was never really any other option to begin with. The younger MacRay was good at hockey; he even got drafted. But the lifestyle he grew up around is like a magnetic force that he couldn’t pull away from.

Doug’s best friend is James Coughlin (Jeremy Renner). Jim did 9 years for murder, and now that he’s finally out, he’s itching for action. Renner is nearly the highlight of the film in this role; he’s a cocksure, tightly-wound spring, and you’re waiting for him to burst at any moment. His performance in The Hurt Locker was no fluke—he’s an actor whose portrayals have the kind of depth that sucks you in, making you root for him even though you know you shouldn’t be.

Doug has a history with Jim’s sister Krista (Blake Lively). She’s the kind of townie girl who I wish I could say I wasn’t all too familiar with: a single mother with multiple substance-abuse problems, her kid has an idiotic name (“Shine” in this case) and you know she’s unfit to parent. Yet she, too, draws your sympathy. Blake Lively really shocked me in this role; she doesn’t play Krista as just a fine piece of ass—though she is, by all means, that—but also as a conflicted person who’s trying to find her own version of what’s right, and just can’t seem to get her sights set correctly.

There’s a theme here, and it’s no coincidence: The Town is a strongly character-driven piece, despite what its facade of being a cops-and-robbers movie might lead you to believe. It’s good at that, too, mind you—particularly with Jon Hamm heading up the side of the good guys as an FBI agent hot on the trail of Doug and Jim’s crew. But what sucks you in, what makes you care, is that the performances are across-the-board spectacular, and the characters are all so well-written that you feel like you know them right from the start, and you’ll root for them throughout.

There are three big heist scenes in the film, and they offer a nice progression. They also serve to bookend the story and anchor it in the middle with reminders of what these guys are really all about. They’re shot and edited with the virtuosity you’d come to expect from a director known for doing this type of thing, but here it’s Ben Affleck at the helm, and he owns it. Affleck loves Boston, and we all know that; there’s the expected aerial establishing shots, lovingly framed to show his home town in its best possible light. We see the Bunker Hill Bridge, and that too anchors the film, reminding us not only of the town that these characters can seemingly never leave, but also serving as a strong and effective metaphor for their plight in general.

The complication to this story—the rub, as it were—comes when Doug falls in love with the manager of the bank his crew robs in the film’s opening sequence. Claire (Rebecca Hall) is what the locals call a “toonie”: an out-of-town yuppie who’s come to Charlestown and doesn’t fit in, not that she’s really trying to. Doug sees her as his chance at escape, an opportunity to find a different life and to have somebody to find it with. For the character to work, you have to sympathize with him, and it’s hard not to: Hall plays Claire not as a naive country girl, but as a savvy and likable woman who just happens to have had some bad luck, and is willing to give something different a shot as a result. She’s not terribly far removed from Vicky, but Rebecca Hall is a versatile enough actress to use the same sort of down-to-earth charm we saw Woody Allen draw out of her so well, and add some additional depth to it.

Affleck the director loves Hall, too—maybe not as much as he loves Boston, but pretty close. He’s infatuated with shooting her in close-up, accentuating her toothy smile and drawing the audience in to the appeal his character sees in her. It’s an effective directorial style, and even if he does overuse it a bit, seeing Hall’s pretty face fill the frame provides for a nice contrast to the more chaotic action sequences.

I thought that Gone Baby Gone was a well-crafted film featuring great performances from a terrific cast; it’s impressive that Ben Affleck has already been able to progress even beyond that achievement with The Town. It’s another well-crafted film, one that also showcases the work of an extremely talented collection of actors. In their sophomore effort, though, Affleck and co-writer Aaron Stockard (working from a screenplay by Peter Craig) have upped their game; the story is more ambitious and more cohesive, and Affleck’s direction has risen to the challenge. This time he casts himself as the star, too, as if we needed any further evidence that the guy can do it all.

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Posted by mike in Drinking,Food,Sports at 8:31 pm on September 25, 2010

For week 2, we visited McTeague’s Saloon in what is generally considered Nob Hill, but it could also be the Tenderloin, or Civic Center/Downtown—it’s sort of right in the middle of the 3 (or 4) neighborhoods.

I’ve often said that Pete’s, our destination last week, is the only place in San Francisco that I’d consider to be a genuine sports bar. McTeague’s didn’t disprove that theory, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t enjoy ourselves.

Location **.5

McTeague's entrance McTeague’s is sort of in a no-man’s-land of public transportation. We took the BART to the Civic Center stop, but that only gets you halfway there. Our options were then to take a 20-30 minute walk, ride a bus up Van Ness, or take a cab. Wanting to ensure that we arrived before kickoff at 10:00am, we opted for the latter option. (After football—and a full 5-6 hours of drinking—to get home, we didn’t mind walking back to the BART stop.)

While it was a little less than convenient to get to, especially for those of us coming from outside of the city, once we arrived in the neighborhood McTeague’s started to score points. On and around the same block of Polk Street are multiple other bars, small restaurants, and quaint little shops. The biggest disappointment from the surroundings came when we found that the crepes place across the street was closed.

Layout and Coverage *

McTeague's layout McTeague’s is not very well laid-out for NFL Sundays. As you walk in, on the left is the bar, with several modest-sized LCD TVs above it, and on the right are tables and chairs. In the rear is a separate back bar, with a couple more TVs—two fairly large ones in the corners and two small ones behind the bar—as well as a couple of tables in the middle. This is where we situated ourselves.

They do have Sunday Ticket, and make a token effort to have all of the games on. When we settled in the back area, the bartender took notice of our attire (most of us are Bears fans, but this week one of our party was a Cowboys fan) and put the Bears-Cowboys game on one of the larger screens for us. Being in the smaller back bar, we were only able to keep tabs on 3 other games besides the main one we were watching, but they did have other games on out in the main bar area.

There were a couple of problems with the game coverage. First, as the Bears game was the local Fox game of the week, it was blacked out on the Sunday Ticket channel. It took a few minutes to locate the bartender and get him to change the channel once the game had started. This seems like something the employees and the establishment should be more on top of. Then, during the first half, a guy came in who seemed like he owned the place and started changing the channels around. He eventually put our game on the other of the two large screens, but it was annoying nonetheless. I feel like if he had a strong preference on which games were on which screens, then he should be there prior to kickoff. Otherwise, don’t screw with the TVs while your customers are watching them.

Finally, at one point it seemed that the DirecTV feed went out, and all of their receivers reset themselves. This is something I’m all too familiar with, unfortunately; whether it was the bar’s fault or not I can’t say, but it resulted in 10 minutes of nothing to watch on any of the screens in the middle of the second half of the early games.

Crowd **

Part of the reason we chose to go to McTeague’s this week was because the Bears were playing the Cowboys, and this is sort of a Texas bar. We thought it’d be fun to go into enemy territory, as it were.

While there were a handful of Cowboys fans there, it was clear that this wasn’t a big place to watch Cowboys games, which we found disappointing. (McTeague’s is a University of Texas bar, it turns out—they have Longhorns signage all around, and apparently having Texas fans doesn’t necessarily translate into also having Cowboys fans.)

By the second quarter of the game, though, the crowd had filled in, and was a fairly rowdy bunch. Many people gathered in the back area where we were sitting, standing around to watch the games that were shown there. We had some fun back-and-forth with one particularly boisterous Cowboys fan, which was exactly what we were looking for. The poor layout of the bar in general made it difficult to get to the bathroom or to go outside during commercials, but the fun in this whole endeavor comes from sharing in the football-watching with strangers, and we did accomplish that.

Food and Drinks *.5

Lone Star beers The good thing about McTeague’s being a Texas bar is that they serve Lone Star beer. Not because the beer is any good, but because it’s $2 all day every day, which suited us quite well. Additionally, on NFL Sundays, they have Coors Light bottles for $2. Between the two, we were well-covered in terms of being able to drink beer all day without spending much money.

They also had some pretty cheap food specials. These, too, weren’t exactly what I’d call “good,” but for the money they were a good deal. $2 tacos is the special for football, so that’s what we went with. We also got a plate of nachos for the table. The best part of this meal was the nacho cheese sauce on the nachos: it was that kind of unholy glowing-yellow sauce that you normally find in a convenience store, except it was more creamy and thus even better. The tacos were serviceable; they were filled with a good amount of meat (most of us got pork, as they were out of steak), although there was no cheese on them, which I found disappointing.

The theme of the food and beverages seemed to be “low-class,” which fits with my mental stereotype of a Texas-style bar, but also fits well with my propensity to over-indulge. We definitely spent significantly less money than we did in week 1, and that’s a good thing.

Intangibles **.5

Gold Tooth The #1 reason McTeague’s was high on my list of places to visit is because it’s named after the seminal 1899 Frank Norris novel. Literary references always score big points in my book, regardless of where they show up. Fittingly, the bar had a gold tooth hanging out front, just as the title character’s Dental Parlors on Polk Street sports in the book. They also had a smaller gold tooth hanging inside, which I thought of as a fitting stand-in for a disco ball. Both teeth were sort of shitty-looking, as if the owner made and spray-painted them in his garage, but I still liked the touch.

Coffin lid decor The decoration gets a little weirder, though. Behind the bar, hanging from the ceiling, are hand-painted coffin lids of deceased musicians and other figures (such as Hunter S. Thompson). I took an admittedly blurry picture of the Rick James and Kurt Cobain coffin-tops, which you can see at left, but you can see a couple of better examples at Yelp (Cobain and Thompson, for instance). I didn’t get an explanation for these. They seem to be somebody’s art project, and the collection is pretty random, other than the fact that most of them are musicians (another one I recall was Janis Joplin).

While the bar itself was nice enough, and fairly clean, the bathrooms were dingy and not well-kept. They did have paper towels, at least. Like the rest of the bar, they weren’t very well laid-out, making for a couple of awkward moments. On the plus side, the restrooms were located in the back near the rear bar where we were seated, so we had easy access to them.

Shots on our table The best option when spending a whole day in a bar is to befriend the bartender, and while we were focused on the games and didn’t spend a lot of time chatting, we definitely got on the good side of ours. He commented multiple times on how we were his “best drinkers” that day, which I suppose is a complement. We’ve definitely found that our Midwestern enjoyment of excuses to drink during sunlight hours is not something you commonly find out here. While this means it’s harder to find people to join us in such endeavors, it does have the upside of making our antics seem a bit more impressive and unusual. So I guess we stand out. At any rate, during the later games, the bartender offered to buy us a shot, and poured them generously. I selected Jameson, and you could say that we enjoyed it.

Summary

We found McTeague’s to be a decent bar, although nothing special. For NFL-watching, it’s definitely not ideal, but we made do. When we arrived, they still had EPL games finishing up, and apparently it’s a good soccer bar in general. Our friends said that it’s a place they’ve enjoyed on many a Friday or Saturday night, but we found that for Sundays it’s not the best. Still, we had a good time, and I’m glad to have seen it.

Next week, as the Bears play on Monday Night Football, we’re going to do something a little different. We’ll take Sunday off, and I’ll actually try to get my money’s worth out of the Sunday Ticket package.

Location: **.5
Layout and Coverage: *
Crowd: **
Food and Drinks: *.5
Intangibles: **.5

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Posted by mike in Internet,News at 10:42 pm on September 16, 2010

For about a week and a half now, I’ve been moonlighting at another blog called Get the Big Picture. I’m contributing daily articles on movie news, and starting tomorrow you’ll be seeing the occasional review of mine showing up there as well.

While I’m excited to be writing for a much wider audience, my hope is that I don’t neglect my own blog because of it (at least, not any more than I already do). There’s a writing staff at Get the Big Picture of 5 or 6 people, and I’m really a tertiary reviewer at this point, so the primary source for my reviews will still be right here at 1000 Monkeys. I’ll still link any reviews I post there from my reviews database, so searches will result in write-ups of every movie I see no matter where it’s posted. I intend to post a link here any time one of my reviews goes up over there, too.

My real goal for this site is to get back to it being more of a personal blog, with a wider range of topics covered. I think having a separate, purely movie-related outlet that I post to should help with this.

The Big Picture uses a different ratings scale than I do, so I’ve developed a handy equivalence chart for easy reference:

Big Picture Rating 1000 Monkeys Rating(s) Brief Description
Five Damn Dirty Apes **** Phenomenal
Four Damn Dirty Apes ***.5 Great
Three Damn Dirty Apes ***
**.5
Good /
Pretty Good
Two Damn Dirty Apes **
*.5
Okay /
Not Very Good
One Damn Dirty Ape *
.5
Pretty Bad /
Bad
No Damn Dirty Apes 0 Really Bad

Note that the Damn Dirty Apes really belong to Colin, the sole writer for The Big Picture up until a couple of weeks ago (who has moved on), so we’ll be changing to something new soon. The zero-through-five scale will most likely remain the same, though.

You can see all of the articles and reviews I’ve posted at Get the Big Picture here. Feedback remains the best reward for any sort of writing, so check it out if you get a chance and let me know what you think.

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Posted by mike in Drinking,Food,Sports at 11:33 pm on September 13, 2010

This is our third NFL season spent in the Bay Area, so we’ve decided it’s time to get out of the house a bit and find the ultimate San Francisco football bar at which to watch games on Sundays. Megan and I, along with some friends, are planning to spend each Sunday this fall exploring a different bar, and I’m intending to report on and rate each one. Our primary goal is to find a Bears bar, but we’re open to anything that makes for a good place to watch football in general.

Being as this was opening week, we didn’t want to stray too far into the unfamiliar while establishing our new Sunday routine, so we stuck with something we know: Pete’s Tavern in Mission Bay, right across the street from AT&T Park. Pete’s is familiar to us not only as a favorite Giants pre- and post-game hangout, but also because 66% of our group (two of the three couples) lives in the Avalon apartments just a couple of blocks away.

I’ve devised a set of 5 criteria that I’ll use to judge the places we visit: Location, Layout and Coverage, Crowd, Food and Drink, and Intangibles. This being week 1, I’ll explain what I mean by each of these along the way. Because I’m lazy, I’m using the same star ratings here that I use for my movie reviews, but obviously my explanations don’t apply here; what’s important to know is that it’s a 4-star scale.

Location ***

There are two main factors that contribute to my judgment of how good a bar’s location is. First, since Megan and I live outside of the city, and because we’re going to be spending all day drinking there, it needs to be accessible by public transportation. Second, it needs to be in a good neighborhood; by this, I don’t mean an area without much crime (although that’s nice too), I mean somewhere with a lot of like-minded people, as well as other options for bar-hopping in case our primary choice doesn’t suit our needs. Having options for places to eat in the vicinity is a plus, too.

Pete’s is conveniently located 2 blocks away from the 4th and King St Caltrain stop. This makes it really easy to get to for those of us coming from outside of the city. The only downside is that the Caltrain only stops in South San Francisco (where we’re coming from) once an hour, so in order to arrive in time for kickoff, we have to catch the train at 9:08am. While this makes for an early morning, it puts us at the bar in time for them to open the doors at 9:45am.

The neighborhood is a little lacking in other options, but Pete’s is a known quantity, and when we go there the odds of having to come up with a backup plan are low. So it mostly gets a pass on this point, even though if we chose to leave Pete’s and go somewhere else, it’d likely involve a short cab ride.

Layout and Coverage **.5

Being as our primary purpose here is to watch football—and given that I’m wasting the $300 I spend annually on Sunday Ticket by going to a bar in the first place—any location we try has to have every game on. This means they must have many TVs, they better all be HD, and they need to have a barstaff that’s savvy enough to make sure every game is viewable. (I can’t tell you how many bars I’ve been to in the Bay Area where the employees have no idea how to find a game on TV when requested—never mind that a true sports bar should preempt the need for such a request in the first place.) On NFL Sundays, the more games I can see at once, the better—I’ve got a lot of fantasy players and various bets that need monitoring.

Pete’s has a fantastic setup for watching sports in general. They have two huge projection screens, and several large LCDs well-distributed throughout the bar. Everything is in HD. The horseshoe shape lends itself well to providing good viewing angles for several screens at once. They have Sunday Ticket, and their bartenders are knowledgeable sports fans who know enough to make sure that every game is on at least one screen.

They get docked points for only having a single TV with the Bears game on it, despite our group’s protestations to the contrary. They chose the Patriots-Bengals game to get the primary projection screen and the PA system, which I found to be a surprising selection, but not necessarily a bad one. Most other games were on two screens at opposite sides of the room, meaning everybody present had a pretty good chance of being able to see the game they most wanted to watch.

They also have a sizable upstairs area with additional screens, but this was blocked off for a 49ers party (which, presumably, started around 1:00pm). By the time the afternoon games rolled around, I didn’t notice whether anybody was up there or not, but for the first 3 hours we were there it definitely seemed like a waste of space.

Crowd ***

A good football bar crowd is hard to find: there’s a fine balance that must be achieved. It’s fun to have representatives from many teams present, and in a city like San Francisco where there are so many transplants, this part is almost a given. While it’s enjoyable to have people rooting for every team (or close to it), you don’t want any one group of fans to overpower the others, unless you’re at a place that explicitly identifies itself as a bar for that team’s fans. As far as capacity goes, while half the fun of going to a bar to watch games is experiencing NFL Sunday with strangers, I don’t like the place to be too packed. A good layout has a lot to do with this, too, but a place that packs people in is going to get docked significantly—as is a place that tends to attract overly-boisterous assholes.

Being right across the street from AT&T Park, Pete’s is in an area that tends to live and die by the baseball season, and more specifically the Giants’ schedule. Since the Giants were in San Diego this weekend, there wasn’t a lot going on around the ballpark when we arrived. A small crowd (maybe 15 people) was gathered out front waiting for the doors to open, so we were able to have our pick of seats at the bar without having to feel like we were the only ones ordering beer in public at 10 o’clock in the morning.

We were pleasantly surprised by the number of Bears fans who filed in, taking up a large table on our side of the bar. This gave them a great view of the single TV dedicated to our game, but it also made the decision by the barstaff to not put the game on another screen more questionable. There were even a few Detroit fans there, and yet for some reason our game got the same status as the Miami-Buffalo game (which I’m pretty sure nobody was actually watching, aside from the occasional check on fantasy and gambling implications it might’ve had).

There were fans from several other teams, as is to be expected, and they were all courteous and friendly from what I saw. The overall ambiance was that of a general-purpose football party. I’m sure being the first week of the season has something to do with this, since nobody (other than Saints fans, maybe) has much justification to be overly cocky or boisterous. Still, though, the crowd was consistent with what I’ve seen every time I’ve been to Pete’s: passionate sports fans who are nonetheless fun to be around, even if they’re rooting for a different team than you.

Food and Drinks ***.5

As it’s a bar we’re going to, it should come as no surprise that we’re there to drink. Well, watch football, and drink. It’s really a 1a-1b situation, and I’m not sure which is which. So having a good selection of drinks—beer in particular—is important. Being a Midwesterner, I’m partial to Miller Lite. I think the old “Great Taste/Less Filling” slogan rings true: it tastes good, and I can drink it all day. But on the West Coast it’s sometimes hard to find my beer of choice, so that’s a big criteria for me. Cost is also a consideration, but this being San Francisco, it’s pretty safe to assume that everything will be expensive. Additionally, since we’re going to be there for several hours, food is an important factor. We’re most likely going to be looking for bar food, but quality bar food, and the service needs to be acceptable. Price is a consideration here as well, naturally.

Pete’s scores high marks on all counts. They have somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 beers on tap, and many more available in bottles. Most beers are about $4, including Miller Lite (which they only have in bottles). This is surprisingly reasonable for the area (across the street during baseball games, you’ll pay $8.25 for a pint). They were also serving mimosas, the breakfast drink of choice for many, and while our party didn’t order any of these, many people around us did, and all seemed to really enjoy the option.

The food is fantastic. On Sunday mornings, Pete’s offers breakfast, and everybody I saw opting to go this route did not regret it. I had the huevos rancheros, and it was probably the best such plate I’ve ever eaten. They deep-fry the tortillas, making it a sort of breakfast-Mexican pizza. It was awesome. Megan waited a little longer and got the Western burger, which she reported was also terrific—and its grilled-beef smell was enjoyed by everybody in her immediate area, too. For additional dining options, there’s also the adjoining cantina (owned by the same people), Pedro’s. (The two establishments are connected, which has the added benefit of providing twice the restroom capacity.) Prices on food are quite reasonable; the average meal was about $10-11.

Intangibles ****

This category is for anything that’s not covered by the other four already mentioned above. It can include anything from quality of bartenders to cleanliness of the bathrooms.

In terms of intangibles, Pete’s can’t be beat. Partially due to the fact that the others in our group are regulars, but also simply as a general manner of course, we got impeccable service. The six of us sat at the bar and were never wanting for drinks. Our bill was surprisingly low when we finally left around 4 in the afternoon, and we had fun bantering with the ladies behind the bar the whole time we were there. They’re welcoming and friendly, and they know their sports.

Due to the NL West playoff race going on, there was a nice segue from the early football games into the Giants-Padres game, which got equal screen estate with the 49ers-Seahawks game. The crowd and atmosphere adapted into a decidedly San Francisco setting in the afternoon, and it’s fun to enjoy the games with the hometown fan base.

The final point in Pete’s favor is their bathrooms: while they’re downstairs, making for potentially dangerous stumbling on your way there and back, they’re extremely clean and have plenty of capacity. Whenever I’m at Pete’s, I find myself surprised and impressed by the clean, glistening chrome-handled sinks, and the preponderance of high-quality paper towels on and around them. It’s things like this that really make for a comfortable and enjoyable bar experience for me.

Summary

I already knew Pete’s as a great place to watch games, and NFL games are now included in that reputation. They have lots of screens and they know how to use them, the crowd was just about right, and the food, drinks, and service were all great. They’re not going to be our Bears bar of choice, but as a general-purpose football-watching bar, Pete’s is a definite winner.

Location: ***
Layout and Coverage: **.5
Crowd: ***
Food and Drinks: ***.5
Intangibles: ****

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Posted by mike in Film,Writing at 11:32 pm on September 9, 2010

I’ve got a couple of catch-up reviews to get to, but before doing so I wanted to revisit a couple of the thoughts I’d previously posted on Christopher Nolan’s Inception, in light of some insights I’ve gained from reading the shooting script.

  • I’d mentioned, in my confusion of how the dreams work, that Arthur tells Saito it’s his second-level dream they’re in. Arthur is shot, and yet the dream continues. This seems to have been a case of me incorrectly recalling the specifics of what was going on; in the script, it’s actually Nash who tells Saito they’re in his dream. This makes more sense, of course, as it is Nash who screwed up the detail of the carpet, and subsequently gets punished for it.
  • I was also unclear as to how the roles of dreamer and architect work and interact with each other. In fact, during the planning stages of the mission, Nolan mentions on two separate occasions that Ariadne is showing the details of her design to the dreamers in the background, while Cobb is explaining the mission in the foreground. The first instance is in New York (Yusuf’s dream):
    EXT. NEW YORK STREETS—DAY
    
    The team are in the middle of a DESERTED intersection.
    Ariadne is showing Yusuf aspects of the geography.
    
    			    EAMES
    	We could split the idea into emotional triggers,
    	and use one on each level.

    And the second is in the hotel (Arthur’s dream):

    INT. DESERTED HOTEL LOBBY—DAY
    
    The team sit on the steps of the large marble lobby,
    debating. Ariadne is showing Arthur the lobby.

    This was either lost in editing, or it was so subtle in the finished film that I completely missed it, but it does explain a bit, and fills in a gap that was annoying me. (Now the only thing that annoys me about the above is how Nolan, a Brit, uses collective nouns: “The team are…”)

  • I agreed with an opinion piece I’d referenced that the bizarre narrow alleyway in Mombasa may have been the clearest sign that the entire movie occurs within Cobb’s dream. While Nolan doesn’t spell it out explicitly in his screenplay, he does describe the way the crowds look at Cobb as he runs through the streets of Mombasa in the same manner he describes the “projections” looking at Ariadne during her dream-tutorial. On the folded streets of Paris:
    As they walk, Ariadne notices more and more of the
    projections STARING at her.

    Then on the bridge:

    People crossing the bridge STARE at Ariadne.  Several of
    them BUMP her shoulder as they pass.

    And finally:

    Cobb says nothing.  He stands there, staring at Ariadne.
    PEOPLE around her stop and look at her, hostile.
    
    			  COBB
    	Look, this isn't about me—
    
    Cobb reaches for Ariadne's arm, turns her to him–
    
    			 ARIADNE
    	Is that why you need me to build your dreams?
    
    A passerby GRABS Ariadne's shoulder–
    
    			  COBB
    	Leave her alone—
    
    More of the crowd join in, PULLING at Ariadne, holding her
    arms open– Cobb PULLS people off– the crowd PUSHES him
    away– 

    By comparison, when Cobb escapes from the cafe in Mombasa:

    Cobb stands up, PUSHES into the crowd– faces PEER at him–
    he moves, trying to blend– a SECOND BUSINESSMAN is there.

    And finally, when Cobb finds the alleyway:

    Cobb LOOKS left, right... CUTS LEFT into a narrow, CROWDED
    alley– the alley NARROWS TO A DEAD END.  Faces in the
    CROWD start to watch Cobb– PEOPLE start to SURROUND him–
    Cobb looks back the way he came– the two Businessmen are
    there, GUNS DRAWN–

    Maybe I’m looking too hard at this, but to me both sequences have the same tone of writing. Particularly in Mombasa, it seems Nolan is going to great lengths to draw attention in his script to the behavior of the crowds, which is the same as the behavior of projections that “feel the foreign nature of the dreamer” and attack “like white blood cells fighting an infection.”

  • The line I couldn’t catch that Arthur mumbles after losing a guard on the Penrose stairs is, “Paradox.”
  • Perhaps the most telling thing I learned from reading the Inception shooting script comes from the introduction, which consists of an interview of Christopher Nolan by his brother (and sometimes collaborator) Jonathan. Nolan says:

    I was definitely looking for a reason to impose rules in the story during the writing process. When I saw the first Matrix film, I thought it was really terrific, but I wasn’t sure I quite understood the limits on the powers of the characters who had become self-aware.

    I find it odd that Nolan contrasts his film with The Matrix and thinks that he has provided a more clear explanation of how his world works than the Wachowski brothers did. The only conclusion I can come to from this is that Nolan must actually have all of the specifics of how the world of Inception works straight in his mind, but he just wasn’t able to adequately convey that clarity on the page or in the completed film. It’s interesting to me that he chooses the same influence myself and others have compared his movie to, but arrives at the completely opposite conclusion. Obviously he’s biased, and like I said, it probably all makes sense to him, but what’s weird is that he thinks The Matrix—which I consider to contain one of the best expository introductions to a fantasy world ever put to film—actually doesn’t do a good job of explaining itself.

So I don’t know that this will be the last I have to say about Inception, but I’m glad to have been able to clear up some of my own confusion, and also to solidify some of the conclusions I’d drawn from my own analysis of the film. I’ve always been a big fan of using screenplays to help gain additional understanding of a movie, especially when the movie in question was written by the director. Check out Inception: The Shooting Script if you have the same interest.

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Posted by mike in Predictions,Sports at 10:25 pm on September 8, 2010

Another NFL season is upon us, so it’s time to get my predictions out. This has become sort of my “psyching-up routine” (along with my annual “big league” fantasy draft). My picks from last year weren’t too far off for the regular season, although once again I was better on picking the AFC than I was with the NFC, which is weird because I watch far more NFC games. (This could, of course, be taken as yet another example of the theory that the more one thinks one knows about sports, the less one actually knows.)

For playoff teams, in the AFC I got 3 out of 4 of the division winners correct (New England, Indianapolis, and San Diego), and 1 out of the 2 Wild Card teams (Baltimore). 4-for-6 isn’t too shabby.

In the NFC, however, I only picked one division winner correctly (New Orleans), although I had the two NFC East playoff teams (Dallas and Philadelphia) picked, I just had their finishing order reversed. So only 3-for-6 in the NFC.

And of course, both of my Super Bowl teams—Philadelphia and San Diego—lost their first playoff game last year.

Time to see if I can do better. Here are my predictions for final standings and records, with playoff teams and winners in bold as usual.

AFC
North South
Cincinnati 11-5 Tennessee 11-5
Baltimore 10-6 Indianapolis 10-6
Pittsburgh 9-7 Houston 9-7
Cleveland 5-11 Jacksonville 4-12
 
West East
San Diego 10-6 Miami 11-5
Denver 9-7 New England 9-7
Kansas City 7-9 New York 8-8
Oakland 4-12 Buffalo 2-14
 
AFC Championship
Cincinnati
over
Tennessee
 
NFC
North South
Green Bay 12-4 New Orleans 13-3
Minnesota 9-7 Atlanta 10-6
Chicago 6-10 Tampa Bay 9-7
Detroit 4-12 Carolina 4-12
 
West East
San Francisco 10-6 Dallas 14-2
Seattle 7-9 New York 9-7
Arizona 4-12 Philadelphia 7-9
Saint Louis 3-13 Washington 6-10
 
NFC Championship
Dallas
over
New Orleans
 
 
Super Bowl XLV
Super Bowl XLV
Dallas
over
Cincinnati

Also as usual, I have a few thoughts to add to the above:

  • I think Indianapolis will have a hard time overcoming the Super Bowl losers’ hangover, but they’re one team that should be able to do it.
  • While Seattle really has none of the requisite pieces to win more than about 2 games in a season, don’t underestimate the New Coach Factor. They’ll surprise, but only a little.
  • The NFC West is really San Francisco’s to lose. This team reminds me a lot of the 2006 Bears: great defense, solid running game, good enough offensive line and receivers to overcome a nobody quarterback. And no other team in the division has any business sporting a winning record by season’s end.
  • I think it’s time for Brett Favre to go out with a whimper, and I’m looking forward to seeing it. I’ll give him enough credit to believe that he can will the Vikings into the playoffs, but no further.
  • It won’t surprise me if Dallas becomes the first Super Bowl host team to win the Lombardi trophy at home. But it won’t surprise me if they find a way to squander all of their talent, either. Again.
  • Coaches potentially on their farewell tours this year: Lovie Smith (Bears), Tom Cable (Raiders), Jack Del Rio (Jaguars), John Fox (Panthers), and maybe Josh McDaniels (Broncos).
  • I know it’s blasphemous to pick the Patriots to miss the playoffs, but they are just old at this point, so I figure something’ll happen to ruin their perennial hopes.
  • While I think the Saints and Cowboys will dominate the NFC, the AFC seems much more wide-open this year than it has been in recent seasons. Of course, I’m probably wrong on both accounts… as usual.

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Posted by mike in Film,Reviews at 10:34 pm on September 6, 2010

Machete

Status: In theaters (opened 9/3/10)
Directed By: Robert Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis
Written By: Robert Rodriguez and Álvaro Rodríguez
Cinematographer: Jimmy Lindsey
Starring: Danny Trejo, Michelle Rodriguez, Jessica Alba, Jeff Fahey, Robert De Niro, Steven Seagal

In 2007’s Grindhouse, I thought that Robert Rodriguez did a better job of adhering to the gimmick with his Planet Terror than Quentin Tarantino did with his entry, Death Proof. Among those two main attractions, Grindhouse also featured several fake trailers for other would-be B-movies, and one of them, Machete, was so good that Rodriguez has now made it into an actual B-movie. Unfortunately, in expanding the seed of an idea that played so hilariously well in Grindhouse, he’s shown that he too, like Tarantino 3 years ago, hasn’t enough schlock to keep up the joke.

You come into a movie like this expecting non-stop action, over-the-top gore, and ridiculous scenarios—both in terms of the plot itself, and in the way it plays out. But Rodriguez, who co-wrote the feature-length version of Machete with his cousin Álvaro and co-directed it with his frequent editor Ethan Maniquis, seems unable to hold up his end of the bargain. Don’t get me wrong; the film has many instances of the familiar B-movie tropes you’d expect, but Rodriguez also seems to have given in to the realities of A-movie marketing, and Machete ends up attempting to straddle the line between being pure exploitative guilty-pleasure trash and having an actual story to tell. The disappointing part isn’t that the story is terribly bad, but that it only serves here to get in the way of what should have been, in my opinion, a completely vacuous movie.

In a tried-and-true set-up, Machete (Danny Trejo), a Mexican federale, sees his wife and daughter murdered by drug kingpin Torrez (Steven Seagal). Rather than going on a bloody vengeance rampage, though, Machete retreats to Texas to live as a common day laborer. Rodriguez seems to think that making a straightforward revenge flick wouldn’t be enough, and so Machete must get wrapped up in not only an underground network that helps to bring illegal aliens across the border, but also in the heated political debate over the issue. The network is headed by an innocuous-looking woman named Luz (Michelle Rodriguez—no relation to the writer-director). The Texans opposing her include a gung-ho border-vigilante cowboy (Don Johnson), an overzealous state Senator (Robert De Niro), and the Senator’s assistant (Jeff Fahey). In the middle of it all is an ambitious yet conflicted Immigration agent of Mexican descent (Jessica Alba).

Machete is reluctant to involve himself in this issue-of-the-day tale, but unfortunately for him the topicality of this movie is the one thing he’s not strong enough to overcome. Danny Trejo’s stoic expressions define the character, but the character does not define the film; instead, he ends up more often than not functioning as a bystander to the politics playing out around him. When he gets the chance to get his hands dirty, Machete realizes its more banal aspirations: the action scenes are bloody and satisfyingly ridiculous. And in true fashion, Machete always has time to shed his leather jacket when one of the many beautiful ladies surrounding him needs a little extra attention, and the gratuitous violence is sparingly matched with gratuitous nudity (it’s a pleasant surprise when Lindsay Lohan is added to this tally). The sex scenes—which, like much of the rest of the movie, I found to be disappointingly tame—also allow Rodriguez a chance to show the completeness of his talents: his band, Chingon, provides the music. While it’s repetitive in its generic porniness, it helps give Machete the levity that it’s too often missing.

The movie has its moments, no doubt, but more often than not they’re buried behind its focus on a story that just tends to get in the way. Machete moves slowly at times, which is certainly something I never expected going into it. It’s fun in its ridiculousness, when it allows itself to be ridiculous, but too often it tries to be taken seriously, to make a point. Not that it’s not a decent point to try to make, but it just doesn’t fit in this kind of movie. Planet Terror had the formula right, but with Machete some key ingredients seem to have been forgotten. We do get to see Danny Trejo on a chopper with a minigun mounted on the front, and Jessica Alba gets to deliver one of the most hilariously over-the-top rally cries ever put to film, but by the time this climax comes it feels like Rodriguez is doing it reluctantly because he knows that’s why we’re there, rather than because it’s really the movie he wants to make.

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