Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Review: Ad Astra

The beautifully crafted space drama that defines the father and son relationship between Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) and Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is essentially a story of a workaholic father who is willing to sacrifice everything in order to pursue a goal that he deems to be his life's purpose.

The computer generated imagery is beautifully sublime, letting the audience experience the void of space in all its glory, as well as the void of a father who was never really there for his son. Make no mistake, unless you own your personal movie projection room, this one is for the theater going experience and not for the personal streaming.

The common thread throughout this space odyssey are the consistent psychological evaluations, performed by an AI computer and supplemental biosensor, of the central character played by Brad Pitt. In his desire to live up to his larger-than-life father, Brad Pitt's character is so in control of his body that his beats per minute previously never exceeded 80 in all of his missions on the International Space Antenna. He is as close to a machine as he can come, always making the logical decisions instead of emotional ones. The station, a scientific collaboration between world's nations, is designed to reach out deep into space in order to make contact with intelligent extraterrestrial life.

Beyond this point, you will find movie spoilers. If you haven't seen this movie, which I highly recommend you do, you may want to take a rain-check on reading the rest of this post.

Upon suffering a fall due to a mysterious power surge, he is summoned by the Space Command representatives on earth to embark upon a top secret mission to Mars. The Space Command believes Tommy Lee Jones' character Clifford is alive, leaving his son Roy as the best hope of communicating with him. That is in essence his task, to communicate with the Neptune vessel, which was the principal vessel of the Lima project.

The Lima Project was supposed to be the pinnacle of Tommy Lee Jones character's achievement in its attempts to make contact with intelligent alien life. But the vessel was believed to be lost with all crew aboard, up until the mysterious power surges began originating from Neptune - the final stop of the Lima project,

Brad Pitt's character soon discovers that his father is not the man he believed he was. After getting a jump drive of a classified communique from his father's former co-worker (played by Donald Sutherland), he soon learns that his father's obsession with discovering alien life drove him to do the unthinkable - murder his crew members who didn't share his passion.

On Mars, Brad Pitt's character attempts several times to send a scripted communication to Mars, but to no avail. When he finally goes off script and sends an emotional plea to his father, it appears as though the Space Command operators captured a response from Tommy Lee Jones' character, but nothing is mentioned. Instead, he gets a job well done from the officers and is told that his further involvement in this mission is terminated due to his emotional connection.

He finally fails a psychological evaluation and is sent into a comfort room to regain calm and control. Through a lower ranking Space Command official (who also had parents on the Lima project vessel), he learns that the rocket he hitched a ride on to Mars is actually meant for the final destination to Neptune and carries nuclear munitions. Connecting the dots, Brad Pitt's character realizes that this was a mission to terminate the Lima Project vessel. Furthermore, with his successful transmission exchange with Tommy Lee Jones' character, he pinpointed the target for the Space Command.

Using an underground pipeline, he is able to become a stowaway on the rocket to Neptune, but in their attempt to kill Brad Pitt's character, the rest of the crew perishes. When he finally arrives at the destination coordinates at Neptune Brad Pitt's character finally makes contact with his father, only to come to a heartbreaking realization - Tommy Lee Jones' character never really cared for his son or his wife. Clifford McBride's only purpose in life was to discover new corners of the universe and to ultimately discover intelligent alien life.

Nevertheless Roy McBride still tries to save his father, after planting nuclear bomb on the Lima space vessel. At this point, Clifford forces Roy to let go of him, as he'd rather die in space. Begrudgingly obliging him, Roy returns to his ship and sets a course back to earth - using nuclear detonation as his propellant.

The final psychological evaluation Roy goes through, shows him in touch with his emotional side. Willing to love and be loved, letting go of the void left by his father who was never there to begin with.

The movie is a wonderfully crafted tale that I give 4.5 out of 5 stars. I highly recommend this movie to anyone that loves space movies and strained father-child relationship flicks. Dating back to a movie a few years earlier, I would say if you loved "Interstellar", you will love "Ad Astra".

Until next time, grab your popcorn, milk duds, turn off the phone, and enjoy the movie. 

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Review: Cold War

This Cold War era love story by Pawel Pawlikowski is loosely based on his parents' relationship that in real life spanned the entire timeline of Cold War from beginning to end. It is evident by the product that he has put his heart and soul into this picture.

The movie itself is in black and white in its native Polish language with English subtitles. But that alone does not diminish the raw emotion of this work of art. The relationship at the heart of this film is between the music director of a folklore group and one of its performers.

There are plenty of tactical silences in this movie, which accentuate the dialogue and its characters ability to act without saying a word. It also is in contrast with the musical folklore group that the movie begins with. Its theme runs counter to the traditional Hollywood love stories and stays true to its Eastern European storytelling roots. WARNING: Beyond this point, you will read spoilers.

The movie begins several years after World War II, with the music director Wiktor (played by Tomasz Kot) and his subordinates traveling through Poland in search of its most talented performers in order to assemble a Polish Folklore Group. He comes across Zula (played by Joanna Kulig) who wows him with her... assets despite not having the most pure voice. He lets her into the folk group and they begin their torrid affair off stage.

As time moves on, the political forces in charge force Wiktor and the Folk Group's management to add to its performances a more Communist Promotional angle, which angers Wiktor and slowly leads him to consider defecting to the West. As in the 1950s Berlin still had no wall, while on tour Wiktor convinces Zula to escape across the line of demarcation in Berlin after their scheduled performance. At the last minute, Zula decides to stay, feeling that she doesn't have the stomach nor the talent to make it in the West, while Wiktor walks across the line and eventually settles in Paris.

Both characters seemingly move on, but on a chance encounter a few years later they are magnetically drawn to each other again and the passion displayed by both actors here is undeniable mastery in performance. They attempt to live together in Paris, but ultimately cannot. Jealousy, suspicion, and resentment build up to a boiling point and Zula runs back to Poland. Wiktor attempts to follow her back, but is arrested on suspicion of espionage.

They meet again in Poland, with Zula now having another husband and children. Yet the very same magnetism they have for each other is still strong as ever. They get back together for one final rendezvous and perform the very act that the Communist State denies them - a church wedding. It is not a formal wedding - the church is a crumbling ruins, there is no priest, and the only thing that makes this a proper wedding are the candles and their vows.

A good measure of a dramatic tour de force performance for me is whether or not a story lines draws me in and makes me care about the characters enough so that for that hour and a half (or more) I vicariously live through their experiences. In this case, the movie succeeded. I give this movie 4.5 out of 5 stars. It really shows that classic cinema is alive and well.

P.S. If you love this genre of Cold War era love stories, there is a 1988 movie that stars Daniel Day Lewis, Juliette Binoche and Lena Olin that is excellent - "Unbearable Lightness of Being"

Monday, March 18, 2019

Their Thoughts Are Flat

We, the inhabitants of this earth, usually attempt to improve our knowledge and understanding of the world around us. We do this through research and experimentation, using the scientific method that most of us learned about in Junior High School. Throughout history, there has always been a group of people that have attempted to preserve the status quo - either out of conservative religious or close-minded stubborn reasons. But what we're seeing today are a new breed of people who are attempting to reverse centuries of scientific progress by demanding that their opinions be respected as facts.

I call this group of people the Flat Thinkers, as they tend to dismiss science and tend to view their opinion above all. Let's take the Flat Earth theory for example. Flat Earthers believe that the world is flat, despite centuries of evidence to suggest otherwise. It is amazing to me that in this day and age, when we have had manned space missions since 1961 that provide photographic evidence that the Earth is round, some people still choose to dismiss facts for their opinions.

In fact we can go all the way back to Ancient Greece around 2200 years ago when a mathematician, Eratosthenes from Alexandria, proved that the earth is round with nothing but a stick and sunlight. He had observed that in the city of Syene a stick planted in the ground at 90 degrees at noon casts no shadow. He attempted the same experiment in Alexandria, planting a stick in the ground at 90 degrees and at noon, he observed a shadow at 7 degrees variation. That meant that the curvature of the earth was causing the variance. Using this information and the distance between the two cities, he went on to calculate the first even known circumference of the earth.   

Fast forward to today, and the Flat Earther group known as Globebusters were so convinced in their belief that the Earth is flat, that they decided to prove it once and for all with an experiment. They set up two identical boards with equidistantly placed holes in each, placing them some distance apart, with a camera at one board's end, and a light farther away from the other board's end. If the earth were flat, compensating for sea level, the light emitted at one end using the same height as the camera would be clearly seen through both boards and directly observed by the camera. This did not happen, until the person holding the light elevated it enough to compensate for the curvature of the earth.

So, just like Eratosthenes' experiment, the Globebusters proved yet again that the earth is round. And in the process, they disproved their own group's beliefs. Let's stop treating erroneous beliefs with white gloves. Let's stop considering opinions as facts without a shred of proof. And let's stop the regression of centuries of scientific progress on the whim of the uneducated and the fearful.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

James Dolan and the Knicks

A lot can be said of the incident between a fan and the New York Knicks owner, James Dolan, earlier this week. The incident took place after an uninspired performance by the Knicks at Madison Square Garden. As the game was winding down, a fan said to James Dolan "Sell the team", which irked Dolan and prompted him to ban the fan from the Garden, responding to the yet to be identified fan "Enjoy watching them on television". 

Now, this fan appears to have planned the incident all along. He began video recording with his phone before the exchange, and immediately sold the video to TMZ after the incident. Regardless of the fan's conduct, a professional should have a thicker skin, as the fan didn't say anything directly offensive to the owner. James Dolan owns two sports franchises in New York, and given how much the fans are charged for tickets and concessions at Madison Square Garden, he should allow a little more leeway. 

The biggest problem I have is the aftermath with the New York fans who wish for James Dolan's departure, taking to social media to put pressure on the owner. I am personally not very fond of James Dolan and his decisions through the years with the New York Knicks or the New York Rangers. However, he has been known to spend money to attempt to win, and has found some degree of success with the Rangers. And with the landscape that contains penny pinching owners (just ask the New York Mets fans), New York can do a lot worse than James Dolan. 

If you truly want him to sell the team, don't put pressure on him through social media, don't bring signs to the arena, and don't verbally confront him. James Dolan stated that the team does not belong to the public - it belongs to the shareholders and it is a business. As such, the only pressure a business understands is the loss of profit. So dear Knicks fans - if you want James Dolan to sell the team, make a statement by NOT buying the Knicks tickets, by NOT buying the overpriced Madison Square Garden goods at its concession stands, by NOT buying any Knicks apparel or memorabilia, and by NOT tuning in to watch them on television or online. 

Only once you hurt James Dolan's bottom line, will he even consider selling the team. 

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Independence Day

As we celebrate another 4th of July in the United States, I cannot help but think back to the first 4th of July I was a part of, in 1990. I was in this country for exactly 5 months, 11 years of age, and understood English only to the degree the network cartoons and 2 months of public school could teach me. I had very little knowledge of American history, and honestly was mainly drawn in by the fireworks.

As time passed, I learned a lot more about Independence Day, my English improved, and this country that welcomed my family and I with open arms became my own. I was proud to become a citizen of this great country and understood that its system of government was far better than the country where I was born.

This country was born out of the desire to break through oppression from an overseas ruling party and an idea to govern better, with the majority of the country's population playing a factor in how it is run. It is this spirit of defiance, perseverance, and self-improvement that we celebrate on this day.

Our system of electing public servants may not exactly be categorized as a Democracy. In fact, with the electorate college, two party split, and the electoral college system that comes with it; we would be more correct to call it a Polyarchy. By Polyarchy we mean the elite few, who represent the many, making decisions within our government regarding how our country is ran. Nevertheless, it has held a standard for some time since its establishment on how modern Democratic style governments function.

Within the past few decades the system, which I have proudly been a part of since that first 4th of July back in 1990, has become more immobile, ineffective, and inadequate; for the American people to even consider it a representation of the United States population. In effect, the only thing this system of government performs well is create career politicians that are within the fiscal fishing nets of the American corporations for the duration of those careers.

As a result, the elected officials have no desire to serve the people, but just appear to do so enough to get elected and re-elected. We need a better way. In honor of the country I love and care about, I suggest the following basic points to reform our government to return it to its stated form: "...of the people, for the people, and by the people".

1. Abolish political parties - a politician must represent the people whom elect him or her, not the party money or corporate money that determine an ideology that does not resonate with majority of the American people. Multiple points of view will also force politicians to work with each other to reach a consensus, rather than the current stalemate in American politics.
2. Abolish corporate and private contributions to elected officials (or any proxies that exist for those officials). They are supposed to be officials elected by the people, not bought by the corporations.
3. Equality in elections - pass a law that gives each candidate with a certain amount (deemed significant for their home population) of signatures to be given equal amount of television, print, and radio exposure. Obligate network news corporations to provide objective equal airtime to candidates, without any commentaries, opinions, or editorials. Publicly provide the candidate's career records in the same fashion.
4. Civic Duty Holidays - introduce 4 new holidays a year (Civic Duty Days) that obligate the American population to familiarize themselves with local and national candidates and their record.  We, as the American people, should be seeking out the candidates that represent us best, and not allow the best looking image full of hollow promises to push their campaigns onto us. Each one of us must take a certain degree of responsibility for the politicians that represent us.
5. Abolish careers in politics - term limits in politics that force politicians to come back into the workforce after serving their term(s), which the laws they passed have impacted. Currently, the career politicians are detached from the general workforce, which in many ways leaves them isolated from reality.
6. Performance Reviews for Elected Officials - on the aforementioned Civic Duty Days, the voters that elected the officials into office will hold them accountable by conducting a public review of the politician's performance with respect to campaign promises made and any unforeseen decisions made. This will keep elected officials honest to the people. If the politician suffers two unsatisfactory performance reviews in a row, their seat will be vacated during the next election cycle and a new set of candidates will compete to fill it.

There are more nuances to each of these points, which I am more than happy to discuss. So leave me a comment to suggest what you think or any ideas you may have. We need to do better, and all of us must be responsible in doing so.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Digital Freedom

Our Digital Freedom is under attack. Net Neutrality is a very important set of consumer protections that we are all guilty of taking for granted. 

Many of us don't remember the early age of privatized Internet over two decades ago with AOL, Earthlink, and other dial-up internet service providers dictating the internet portals and tools its consumers had to use. In those early days, people were too mesmerized by the promise of Internet to pay attention that the very providers to whom they paid money for access, were in fact maximizing their profits by limiting their customers' options. But in the days of dial-up speeds, content was limited in itself. Therefore, these restrictions did not seem to limit any desirable content from the users' screens.

Fast forward to the present. Our networks are now flush with fiber-optic high speed connectivity, we have multiple competing streaming content providers, and the choices we often make when browsing the web may be undesirable to our Internet Service Provider's bottom line. 

Our previous US administration, for all its shortcomings, was wise enough to foresee the potential for predatory abuse and introduced the Net Neutrality protection. 

What is Net Neutrality? Essentially, it is a law that states that every Internet Service Provider must treat every Internet content its customers request equally, regardless of origin. A popular example of this is consider that you are a customer of Verizon FiOS and have a Netflix subscription. Now Verizon already offers Video On Demand content, as well as a slew of movies through its lineup of networks and premium channels. However, Netflix offers its own competing streaming video that may make the customer decline to order Video On Demand from Verizon or even cancel premium channel subscription from Verizon altogether. If Net Neutrality didn't exist, Verizon could reduce the speed with which you stream Netflix or make you pay a subscription fee to use Netflix at high speed.

The ramifications go beyond simply blocking competing content for customers and raking in additional profit. Suppose you want to start a small business that sells a product or service that your Internet Service Provider also sells directly or through a partner company. This means, that the ISP can simply block the Internet Traffic of your business and force you to either not use their service or make you pay a premium in order to allow your content. This naturally forces you, the business owner, to incur additional expense that your ISP, the competitor, does not have to. This is the very definition of monopolistic predatory practice. But without Net Neutrality, this type of action would be considered legal.

Luckily, we still have Net Neutrality and Verizon, Optimum, Comcast, et al; can only salivate at the money they can make by fleecing their customers further. But this protection may soon come to an end. The current FCC commissioner has outlined a plan to get rid of the Net Neutrality protection, with the vote on the FCC panel to commence on December 14th of this year. If this repeal passes, it may not be long until we all are subjected to the aforementioned abuses by our Internet Service Providers.

It is important for all of you, the voters, to call your local Republican Senators and Representatives and let your voices be heard. When you call, make sure to note the names of the three Republican FCC Commissioners: Ajit Pai, Michael O'Rielly, and Brendan Carr. Let your local Senators and Representatives know that if pressure is not placed on these commissioners and Net Neutrality is repealed, they will not have your vote come Mid-Term elections in 2018.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

It is quite rare, in this day and age, that I get to see a movie with an original story line that is so well written and directed, that I find myself truly forgetting that I am sitting in a movie theater. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is exactly the type of cinematic experience I recommend every movie lover and story lover enjoy.

This movie will drag you out of your seat and make you to empathize with people who are completely unlikable, laugh at things that are tragic, and make you want to hope where there is hopelessness.

Frances McDormand gives a remarkable performance of a grieving mother who cannot reconcile the past without justice. Unable to find peace, she approaches the problem just like she has approached everything else in her life - through confrontation. Her son, ex-husband, the chief of police, and an admirer; all bear the brunt of her abrasive and determined crusade to get a measure of revenge.

Woody Harrelson plays the Chief of local Police. A career lawman who has done well for himself, he is terminally ill, which is apparently the town's worst kept secret. He brings to the story the thematically relevant issue of racism among some police officers, where he shelters a deputy accused of wrongdoing. Butt he is a man of law, giving Frances McDormand's character all the latitude she is legally entitled to, despite her attack that is aimed at him.

Sam Rockwell plays the deputy who is rough around the edges. He is a brute force individual, who has been accused of racism in the past. He attempts to uphold the law and protect his boss, the chief of police at every step; even when it means pushing the envelope of what is legally allowed. He is a foul mouthed, disorganized, and nasty individual that doesn't evoke anyone's sympathy in the beginning. Yet he is key to the unfolding of the story's final chapter.

The theme of the story centers on justice and a measure of revenge. Whether it is revenge for a lost daughter, a fallen co-worker, or any other wrongdoing that a person has been subjected to; the exposure to hatred and anger are key. Throughout the entire movie, the carefully woven undertones show that if you hold on to the hatred and anger, you ultimately become the instrument of injustice - the very opposite of your initial intent.

Judging by the reaction of the theater's audience, it is my understanding that a lot of people didn't get the ending. The problem is that we, the audience, have been often exposed to movies that process everything for us right down the final meaning. It is far rarer to experience a move that leads you down the path to the finale, where all parts are aligned, and leave the finale up to the viewer's interpretation.


My interpretation of the ending is that it doesn't particularly matter whether the suspect is guilty of this particular crime or another crime. It doesn't matter whether the suspect dies or not. What matters is that Sam Rockwell's character finally found his ability to be a detective, guided by a letter from his late chief. What matters is that Frances McDormand's character knows she is not alone and that she finally has hope due to the work of a dedicated police officer. Here is what we know before the screen fades to black:

1) Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell know that the man they are chasing is not the man responsible for the death and rape of Frances McDormand's daughter.

2) They have reconciled themselves that the man they are chasing is evil because he has committed a crime.

3) They have not finalized the decision to kill the suspect. They agree to see how things play out, to determine if he will pay for his crime with his life.

The moral of the story is that the aspect of anger and vengeance that both of these characters live with is a destructive force. It made them both chase down a man who is not responsible for the specific crime at the center of the story. Just because the man must be "guilty of something", forces both main characters to come to the brink of becoming the Judge, the Jury, and the Executioner.

The only plausible poetic unwinding version of this story leads me to believe that the execution will not occur. Whether it is Rockwell's character realizing that it is wrong to take a man's life for another crime, or McDormand's character understanding that killing a man for a different crime will not bring back her daughter; the leading towards this path ultimately is foreshadowed by the doubt in their dialogue as the screen fades to black.

A highly enjoyable cinematic experience. Highly recommended.

I give it 5 out of 5 gummy bears!!!

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