Friday, November 14, 2014

Film Review: The Lego Movie

The Lego Movie

09Children’s movies. For those of us in our 20s and 30s, children’s movies have been a part of our lives almost since we came to consciousness. Think about it. If you were born in the eighties you lived through Disney’s greatest era, the period of Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King. At the tail end of the 1990s we got Pixar and Toy Story, not to mention other quality works like Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc., and Wall-E. In the post Pixar period Dreamworks made a name for itself with the Shrek franchise, which made its bread and butter tearing apart Disney staples.


The rise of the ‘sophisticated’ children’s film has been a necessary creation of the 20th century. Adults need a reason to stay in the seats as much as children, and ‘kids’ movies work best on two levels. While children cry about Mufasa dying, they don’t necessarily grasp the drama at work in Halmet-like fashion, between a conniving brother that murders the king and potentially rapes his nice. Yes, Scar was that bad in that movie, within the subtext of the film.


The Lego Movie doesn’t play with such dark themes. Instead, it holds up a light to capitalism and creativity and asks what are we willing to sacrifice? On one hand, the movie highly values individualism. The heroes of the film are brilliant Master Builders that can create anything from a stack of Lego, whipping together submarines, rockets and a Batwing. On the other hand, this same film states that only by working together can we rise to success. While individually we’re all quite brilliant, together we achieve even more. In the words of Barack Obama, “You didn’t build that”, at least not all on your own. The great corporations are lead by titans of industry but they get tax breaks from the government, roads paid by taxes, contracts extended to them by politicians, etc. We all build on each other.


02
Its stand against homogeneity is apparent in two points. President Business wants to build an unchanging Lego world in which there is one amazing tv show, one amazing song, and an unmoving population that is permanently in a state of illusory happiness. Literally, he wants to krazy glue them into place so that they are unchanging. 



The theoretical opposite of this is Coo Coo Land, a land of permanent happiness but where everyone has to smile all the time and always be at their happiest. Neither is a Utopia, and only in allowing characters both from Coo Coo Land as well as the normal Lego World to indulge the full range of emotions do the characters receive satisfaction.



Capitalism in the U.S. has bred, to a degree, a homogeneity, so in this way the Lego movie can be seen as not anti-capitalistic but pro diversity. Diversity is an ongoing issue in the country and there are, undoubtedly, many people walking away from the film at least partially offended. Still, for all the topics it tries to address, the movie has a solid, emotional heart.


01The overarching conflict is, of course, President Business’ attempt to krazy glue everything into permanent stasis. A prophecy states a hero will prevent this, leading to the typical hero’s quest in which Emmet, an ordinary Lego construction builder with few innovative or redeeming features, somehow becomes the “One”. Think Neo of the Matrix, here. Of course his skills are far below par and his fellow heroes, including Lego Batman, are constantly disappointed in him. The course of the film sees his development not into a hero only due to his personal skills, but in how he inspires those around him to cooperate for a greater good.






Some have said it’s just a typical action film, but typical action films don’t normally so strongly push for heroes as a collective versus the Lone Ranger archetype. The film subverts action tropes, buying into them, presenting them, but making them so outrageously over the top as to border on hilarious. The strong performances by the cast are constantly engaging, their dialogue sharp and witty and always intriguing. Peripheral character Superman, for instance, is constantly annoyed at the side kick attempts of Green Lantern to hang around with him at all moments. Batman constantly talks up his independent heroic streak, shortly before departing with Lando Calrissian and Han Solo aboard the Millenium Falcon. Time and again the movie takes on action tropes in a way that can only be done using something so absurd as Lego.


Finally, the emotional core cannot be fully addressed without ruining the film’s twist ending, but Will Ferrell’s performance here, across the board, is applaudable. Both as a bombastic and egotistical villain as well as a sympathetic character, he constantly wins the screen against anyone else he’s playing against. If people ever do fully tire of his physical film work, his future as a voice actor is guaranteed.


By the end, the film’s message to live fully, live with a streak of independence, but don’t shy away from others and cooperation from time to time, really struck a nerve. It’s a fine balance we have to strike in life, but one with a great payoff in the end.

4 / 5 Stars

Film Review: Captain America - The Winter Soldier

9captain-america-the-winter-soldier18Patriotism is a difficult thing. There is nothing wrong in taking pride with your country, after all, but there’s a line between patriotism and blind ‘rah rah’ for everything your country does. Over the past century the U.S. has lived in a relatively glorious era in which it emerged the worlds most dominant superpower, but not without its flaws. Its citizens can take pride in its glories, as well as acknowledge its faults. Racism, gentrification, discrimination against the poor, all are topics we discuss and debate into the modern day. That does not mean we are any less proud. Name me a perfect person, and you’ll find none. The same is true of nations, because they are not made of perfect people.

I write all that to drive home one of the fundamental points of Captain America: Winter Soldier. Laced throughout its script is a character in Steve Rogers, former World War II hero turned superhero, that takes pride in what he fought for. He acknowledges the compromises he made in his own era, takes no great pride in them, but feels that those compromises were brief and meant to create a population of free people. The fundamental question of the film, then, is what is freedom?

It’s interesting because Steve, in World War II, fought against a domineering, powerCaptain-America-The-Winter-Soldier-Chris-Evans-Scarlett-Johansson1 hungry organization in the Nazis and, more covertly, Hydra. In the modern era, Steve finds it hard to differentiate between good guys and bad guys, and how could he? Multiple parallels are drawn between Hydra and the military organization S.H.I.E.L.D., who he serves under the direction of Nick Fury, due to the organization’s own covert nature. It develops weapons and threatens military action before a threat can fully surface. As Steve wonderfully questions, how can it be freedom if its bought by placing a gun to every citizen’s head? The price of freedom is living in a world that will always be a little insecure. As Benjamin Franklin once stated, “They who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” The topics the film addresses are especially pertinent in an era in which we’ve just uncovered the depths of the N.S.A.’s dragnet and the threat preventive military action can pose on our own citizenry, should we allow the government such incredibly invasive power.

I’ve always said the Captain America films have the potential to be the greatest of Marvel’s franchises, and I believe I can safely say Winter Soldier validated my expectations. It is second only to Iron Man and, perhaps, the Avengers. Yet Winter Soldier is a much more timely film in the materials it tackles. Beyond that, Rogers is incredibly relatable as a figure, a man of good character and conscience. Not a booze hound like Tony Stark, the movie finds ways to portray a good, average man trying to make his way in this world. The plight of a war veteran distanced from the world around him is so like the world many of our real life vets come home to, and that point is hammered home in the meetings Rogers visits, witnessing testimonies from those suffering from P.T.S.D. Meanwhile, his relationships to everyday people are full of hesitation, in defiance to this physically dominant character.

It’s a tribute to the writing, which is top notch. It’s filled with witty dialogue that’s right there with the original Iron Man and combined with an intriguing plotline. At times you’re not sure if you’re watching a superhero movie or a script written by Tom Clancy. The intrigue runs deep, and holds your attention until the final moments of the film. It is among the most sophisticated plotlines of all the Marvel films, and ambitious. I cannot give the writing and plot more praise.

Captain-America-The-Winter-Soldier-Captain-America-and-Batroc
It does falter in some respects. Rogers’ traumatic relationship to his lost friend Buckey suffers slightly, the emotional core lost to some degree, and thus the payoff as well. Still, it’s strong enough that in the end, Captain’s actions are so poignant, so meaningful, that I was wrapped up in his courage. The direction is well paced and the actions scenes incredibly done, requiring a deft hand to handle multiple agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. as they fight against overwhelming odds. Yet the direction and cinematography during normal scenes isn’t particularly inspired. 

On the other hand, it takes a completely different form of inspiration to properly handle all these incredible CGI set pieces alongside incredibly brutal hand to hand combat. Still, those lost elements add up, and even Captain’s flashbacks to old glory days aren’t handled with enough touch to sell the emotional element, and the film deserved better than that. It needed more time to develop its heart, and was so good I would have gladly sat through another half hour. Which is really the highest compliment, isn’t it?


In closing, I want to praise, again, the courage of the plot, which addresses real issues we’re dealing with in our country today. However I must also say that the dialogue between Captain, Black Widow and Falcon was just genius. The pacing between action and comedic bits, the banter on why Captain finds it hard to date (in between moments that he and Black Widow are beating the living daylights out of enemies), and Captain’s war veteran relationship to Falcon are truly nuggets of gold. Finally, and I don’t want to become a shipper, but Captain America and Black Widow need to be a couple. I wouldn’t have said such a thing before this film, but the chemistry and snappy dialogue between Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson was, quite simply, amazing. I want more of Captain America and Black Widow together. His stoic, clean guy image against her irreverent, slightly shady one brought marvelous results. I am already begging for a Captain America 3.

Film Review: Gravity

013-D Films, by and large, are dreadful. Well, perhaps that deserve qualification. The use of 3-D is dreadful, and very often little more than a way to drive up the ticket price. In many cases the movie is not even filmed natively for three dimensions but instead converted to be 3-D, lessening the quality. 

In the end the final result is rarely worth the price of admission, with a little needed third dimension added for gimmicky moments in which characters zoom toward the screen, and headaches acquired from the badly done conversion process. Almost to a one, three 3-D films should die a quick death, because most films do not need to be seen in 3-D.

Gravity is not one of those films.


02
I’m almost at a loss to understand how the particular effects achieved in this movie could be done without a third dimension. The issue is not merely that the movie unfolds in space. No, if that were it, then it wouldn’t require three dimensions by virtue of that fact alone. Many good movies have used the isolation and deadliness of outer space as a setting, and to good effect. What Gravity does goes beyond simply the isolation of space. Instead, it presents us with moments that require 3-D to be as completely effective as they end up being.

 In many instances the movie takes place from the first person perspective, with the protagonist, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), whipping about, the earth spinning into view, then out, then the space shuttle passing into view before giving way to a sight of the sun. Circle after circle is flipped in which the added sense of depth puts a churning into your stomach. When Stone flies toward the shuttle and grabs desperately for a handhold, you feel you’re the one grabbing it. That’s why three dimensions was needed here. It was a film that demanded it.

What makes a good movie, though? Could Gravity get by on the strength of its effects alone? Perhaps, if it were aiming to merely be a thriller. In fact, many times the film veered on the edge of being just that, a movie content to indulge in its gut churningly impressive views of space as Stone tries to make her way to safety. Accident after accident happens it what can only be described as ‘accident-porn’. Think you’ve seen the last of a cloud of space debris hurtling toward our hero and threatening to kill her? Just wait, you’ll see it three more times, alongside explosions, fires, and escape pods hanging on the edge of destruction.


03It was almost tiresome, but the movie was impressive enough that it could have danced on the precipice of being a C-Grade, or low B-Grade film. What was difficult was investing into Bullock’s character. What seemed to be throwaway lines about her having a child that died and having nobody on Earth that might miss her if she died, seemed at first to be ways of forcing the audience to care, faux-sentimental moments drowned by wave after wave of accidents threatening her life.



And then, Stone finds herself struggling to survive, trying to pilot a craft she has little training in, and listening to a radio transmission from earth. Then, in that one scene, the movie came together. Patience was rewarded. Gravity is not about Bullock’s attempt to survive in space; no, it’s about her attempt to survive the act of living. Childless, friendless, what is there to give her reason to survive? Why should she even try? Director Alfonso Cuaron addresses these questions using space as the scene, and these lonely moments hammer home the things that Stone misses, wants, desires, and how those give her the willingness to face life. In finding the courage to face life, truly the greatest challenge for us all, she also finds the willingness to fight back against a relentlessly uncaring void of outer space. The answers she finds in herself give her the answers she needs to battle against her predicament.

Aided by composer Steven Price’s wonderful soundtrack, which evokes typical tense moments but, more critically, captures isolation, loneliness and the thrill of survival, the movie surges toward a harrowing and triumphant ending. The sound direction, as well, needs complimenting. It’s one of the few cases of stereo sound done right, with incoming radio signals touching your left ear, then your right, as if you were inside a space suit yourself. Finally, the most powerful moments are graced by George Clooney’s character of Matt Kowalski. Obsessed with setting the space walking record, he’s an ever calm presence in quickly deteriorating circumstances. Not only a source of peace and wisdom, Kowalski and Stone share such a powerfully moving moment that I all at once understood what the film was trying to convey.

Life is for the living.
4 / 5 Stars. 

Prospect Sports Bar


Prospect Park

20140309 78Weekend festivities are always the beck and call that summon me from the home, though this time of year is the absolute worst on my pocketbook. Basketball season is in full swing, and the siren call of the NBA has me out more and more often. So, to no surprise, I found myself heading out to Prospect Park. Built on the bones of the old Scott Gertner's Sports Bar, my intent was to take in a Rockets game, sample the decor, the food, and most importantly the drinks.

The first, most striking element of this spot is, of course, its size. A spacious patio and interior almost always assure standing room, though seating may become difficult as the place fills. Couches line the exterior as well as interior, while televisions glow brightly in the comfortable lighting. Two flame torches line the entry with a touch of class, while the back wall is carpeted in ivy vines while a blazing sign announces "THE PARK" to all stepping within. As far as appearances go,  Prospect Park is among the best.

I preferred the immediacy of the bar, and the bartenders were friendly and attentive. A few even stuck around to treat out of town guests of mine, the good gentlemen out of Manhattan, and I was glad to see the service provided to us. That said, Prospect Park shoots short of the goal in a few key areas. Let us pray to the heaven that remains my only sports related metaphor in this review.

20140309 79Food runs the gamut of sports bar fare, but the standout is, as it was with Scott Gertner's, the Buffalo Wings. These are jumbo sized, grilled or breaded, and delicious. At a dozen, their size justifies the ten dollar price on the menu. In fact, ten dollars can be the expected price for many of the items on the menu, which might be justifiable if the food stood up to scrutiny. For instance, the wings themselves will ignite your taste buds, with both flavor and heat, but they're not particularly difficult to make. While I cannot say whether they're pre-breaded or created in the restaurant (I'd suspect the former), what I can say is that the quality did not transfer over to their fries or hamburger. For the night, I chose what seemed would be a delicious BBQ hamburger with fries. Nothing too complicated, yet what i received back were undercooked fries and  an overcooked meat patty. It was as if the fries were pulled out too early, so that they had a potatoey texture. Worst, they were bland, with little seasoning to make them exciting. Yet as a side item I could excuse the fries, if the hamburger itself was delicious. The patty, though, was a charred mess. It was so overcooked the interior of the patty was a dark brown, with nothing of lightness. 


The meat wasn't tough but there was no moisture, and without the liberal dousing of the BBQ sauce, it would have been a singular disaster. All cooks know that when you resort to such methods when you've not prepared a good dish. There's no need for A1 sauce, for instance, on a nicely cooked steak. The flavor and juice are preserved by the skilled chef. With hamburgers, there shouldn't be blood, but there shouldn't be a patty you can slap against the wall, either. On a final note concerning the meals, I can say that drinks are priced on par with other middle scale locations in Houston, with Jack and Cokes running around eight dollars and the beers from four to six. If you're coming to avoid the fries and hamburgers, you'll do well with the drinks and wings.

Still I have to be the sixth man here and interrupt Prospect Park's game on account of a particularly troublesome incident. Simply put, I must address the lack of professionalism exhibited by the ownership of this location. At the time of my visit, I was addressing a young woman who turned out to be a former employee. I did not know this at the time and was simply trying to see if she'd done former modeling work, given my own role in the business. Suddenly we were assailed by one of the owners, berating her, working himself into a fury and generally acting in as unprofessional a manner as I could possibly imagine. If this was an owner/employee dispute, that is to be handled away from your customers, not directly in front of them. Good stewardship of a restaurant insists that you provide the highest presentation to your customers at all times, and I was frankly shocked by the breach of decorum. Restaurants sell an experience, and the one I received in that moment was of an irate owner, a wealthy man shouting down a young lady thirty years his junior. In short, it ruined my night.
The lack of professionalism on the part of the ownership was astounding, and the only average performance of the food doesn't place this within the upper echelons of sports bars as of now, though it has the potential. The many televisions sprinkled throughout the restaurant guarantee a view of the big game, and the drinks are decently priced, but it must raise the quality of its service. When it finally does succeed, the Park will be a home run.

Pizzeria Solario

05A jaunt through the Greenway on a crisp Friday evening took my wandering feet to a hidden gem just off the avenue. I was looking for a bite while sifting through the hour before my movie began, and I needed something filling but not heavy. After all, I’d been on the run throughout the day, with my attention called to Baytown and back to Houston and one concern after another tugging at my collar. Before I realized it, I’d gone from sunup to sundown without a single meal. Not bad for those on a diet I suppose, but it left me ravenously hungry and I knew I was in danger of over indulging in one of those all too familiar moments we all experience. We all know it, that second when our hunger overcomes us and, in a moment of weakness, we consume our entire day’s worth of meals in one sit down over a burger dribbling with grease or a six course meal meant for two and eaten by one.

There are a number of restaurants across the street from the Edwards Greenway Grand Palace Theatre, but I was in no mood for chain dining and Mexican food, good as it is, wasn’t quite the taste I was looking for. So, what should I see, to my surprise, but a sign. Like all good things sent down from Heaven, it called from the sky, though I suppose the good Lord never sent a message written in neon light with the words Vino + Pizza.

03 A few stumbling miscues greeted me at the front. While people seemed to be seated and enjoying themselves both outside on the patio and inside the restaurant, there was no front of house, nobody to greet you, and it made staying a chore. A register off to the right was in use, but was I supposed to place an order there? Was someone supposed to greet me and seat me? I shouldn’t have to play guessing games on my seating arrangement after all, and having to pull someone aside and ask them where I was to sit made me feel much like the uncomfortable eight year old getting on the local bus for the first time.

I was instructed to the bar. After all, I was alone, no need to take up an entire table to myself. The energy was high and because of the small area, conversations were flowing with tidbits floating through the air. With such comfort and ease it was no problem striking up a quick chat with those on my left and right, with everyone commenting on the other’s food and how delicious it looked. Really, half of Pizzeria Solario’s charm is its size. It allows you a moment to be part of something social, taking you out of the sterility of restaurants that adorn themselves with too much pomp. For a casual Friday evening, this was just what I was looking for. Their chalk drawn boards gave it a real cafe feel and everything came alive with that ambiance one needs to feel reinvigorated.

01Which made an unfortunate contrast to the menu, which obsesses itself with unneeded foppery. I challenge the owner of the restaurant to tell me how many of his customers are genuine Italians. I’d venture not many. So why insist on naming your entrees in Italian? It doesn’t sell the dish. Fortunately, the ingredients do, as did the bartender. Upon recommendation he highlighted the Parma 600, given my aversion to anything too heavy. It was a popular choice by all appearance, as both the couple on my left and right chose it as well.

There’s a reason for that. The light crust is moist but firm on the interior with a lightly crisped crust that isn’t burnt. It is decorated in arugula lightly dressed in white truffle oil and sitting upon thin layers of cheese, all made that much more delicious by the wonderful choice of prosciutto. Now this is an unusual choice for pizza at the more common locales, but prosciutto brings just the right type of flavor to highlight the cheese. The arugula forms a filling that gives the pizza an extra punch and that sensation that you’re eating something truly substantial. Ah, the wonders of vegetables. Truly, though, the blend of cheeses and the prosciutto mix wonderfully with the truffle oil. It’s a light pizza, not loaded with layers of meat and cheese, but just enough to send your senses sailing. Alongside my two glasses of light Moretti beer, it made for a perfect dinner. Not too heavy, just enough to fill, and wonderfully tasty.

After a rough start, the restaurant closed out well. I’m still not a huge fan of the two drink minimum on wines, especially those on the lower end of the price range. Give your customers more choices, rather than constraining them. Still, the food’s the thing, and it was delicious. Besides, there’s little compared to the wonderful energy that Pizzeria Solario exudes. More than content with my experience, I boxed half of my food to go before stepping back underneath the neon lights of Vino + Pizza. Ah, Solario. Bellissimo.

Time to Wake Up

I'm back. That might not mean too much to everyone. But I'm back.

;)

Friday, September 6, 2013

Belvedere

1131 Uptown Park Blvd
Houston, TX 77056
Neighborhood: Galleria/Uptown

Labor Day Weekend. Too many parties, too much drinking, too much ratchet,  too much crazy. However, you have to go out on a high note, and it had been a while since I'd been to Plan B. Slightly drained after a few days of partying, I felt I could depend on Belvedere. Sundays they advertise free entry for everyone until eleven, they've got parties going on outside on the patio and inside the main rooms, and the place looks classy. The Professor, though, is not happy. Want to know why? Read on.
The start of a good night?
Let's get the technicalities out of the way. Belvedere is in a great part of the city, located in the Uptown area nearby a wonderful shopping and dining area. For the casual sports viewer there's a Champps close by, the paths between the stores look like quaintly lit European streetways, and the clientele and esthetic is relaxed and classy. There's parking as far as the eye can see, and Belvedere itself is lit up like a Miami Night, with a sleek interior, a lovely White Room at the rear, plenty of reserved seating, a lengthy bar, and a spacious patio. There's so much to love about the place.
It looks really nice.
The DJs are always on top of their game. Fridays they have what they call International Nights, which blend hip hop, dance numbers and reggae under the watch of one of Houston's most well rounded DJs, DJ Shinski. Sunday night they had hip hop and reggae on the patio blending with classic hip hop and 80s New Wave tracks for a diverse dance experience. Inside it was absolute hip hop, cycling through numbers by 2 Chainz and others, your expected urban hip hop experience. The club was absolutely packed, with people lining the bar, every VIP section bought up, and the patio area moving and flowing. Sounds like a great night, correct?
The night was going strong.
It is. It normally is. I just have one, huge complain, that has nothing to do with the club. I want to be clear, the staff of Belvedere is exceptional and incredibly friendly. Any one of the men or women working the bar and pouring your drinks is professional, courteous, speedy and helpful. A bottle of beer will run you five dollars, slightly higher than Houston's standard but expected in an area with this level of demand, clientele and experience. The same goes for their Jack and Coke, which runs nine dollars, which is just about the ceiling for that drink in Houston. I've got no problems with those prices, in this area, with this sort of crowd and service. Really, no complaints about either the wonderful service or the drinks, which have a strong pour. They've even got a massive wall of four large tvs to help watch any number of games on that day.
A view from the bar.
 What earns my ire is the false promotion used for their Labor Day party. The experience you want to deliver is one of consistency, quality and happiness. The promoters for Sunday night were Lisa Rogers and Steve Rogers, who traditionally take a 20 dollar cover at the door after eleven. That's something to be aware of if you're coming in for a visit. Man or woman, you will pay 20 if you're coming in late. But if you come in earlier, you're fine. No cover. That's the expectation of Plan B, the party they hold on Sundays.
Four tvs for you sports nuts.
What earns my ire is the false promotions. I like to carry cash with me so I know how much I'm spending, so I drew out my normal amount for an evening like this and proceeded to the club. Guess my surprise when I arrived, shortly after ten, to find out that Lisa and Steve had falsely promoted the night as being free before eleven. Look, I get that it's the Labor Day weekend. I know this is your chance to make extra money. I don't have any problem with that. In fact, that was common at a number of places around town. What I don't want is for you to lie on your flyer just to draw in a crowd, because if I can't trust your promotions here, why should I trust them at Sugar Hill, or the rumored Scott Gertners that Steve is supposedly attached to?
It was packed.
Be honest with me. Don't lie. Now look, I've never had problems with the Rogers and their promotions before, so maybe there was some sort of mix up on their flyers. I don't know, so I'm not going to hold it against them too much. But the one thing I need from a club, a bar, a promoter or an owner is trustworthiness. If I could separately rate Belvedere apart from Steve and Lisa for my experience Sunday, I would. As it is, the deception really bothered me and still does, because I get around far and wide in Houston. I expect a quality experience and a fair sale, nothing more. So despite how much I love Belvedere, for this night I can't rate it higher than average. I talked to lots of women, had good drinks and loved the music, but the promoters really need to get their game straight. I consider this a first strike, so I'll re-rate Belvedere after a future visit. Also, if I might mention, the story right now is the Sunday night has been on a steady decline. The bump this Sunday was from the Labor Day crowd. So, with increased competition abounding on Sunday nights, I'd advise Steve and Lisa to be upfront with their promotions in a future.

The Final Call:
Facilities: 5/5
Staff: 5/5
Service: 1/5
Drinks: 4/5
Food: N/A


Overall: 3/5 (A rating of my overall positive or negative feelings on the night.)