Tim's Vermeer

[4.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

A very good documentary about an unlikely subject: a high-tech inventor and entrepreneur, Tim Jenison, decides to duplicate a famous painting by Johannes Vermeer. And (spoiler!) does.

But the details are what makes this interesting. Jenison's background and fortune result from his innovative linking of computers and video, with his inventions in use across the world. But somehow his interest is piqued by an art-history oddity: how did Vermeer accomplish his near-photographic depictions of his subjects, unprecedented in history, and even unusual for its time?

Jenison became acquainted with the theory, explicated by David Hockney and Philip Steadman, that Vermeer was somehow using optical gimmicks to match details and color while he was painting. There's little or nothing in the historical record to back that up, but Jenison starts reverse-engineering a possible mechanism, using only materials and methods that would have been available to Vermeer back in the 17th century Netherlands. After some initial encouraging success, he decides to attempt reproducing The Music Lesson. He duplicates Vermeer's studio in a San Antonio warehouse; he buys props and pigments, and otherwise gets to work.

In the wrong hands, this could have been as interesting as watching paint dry. (Heh.) (And they make that joke in the movie too.)

The nature of Vermeer's genius (artistic or "merely" technical) is apparently still mired in controversy, but the film points out a lot of evidence in the painting pointing to optical wizardry: chromatic aberration, distortion that might have been introduced by a concave mirror in the setup, differences in illumination too subtle for the human eye to pick up itself. I was convinced, but I only heard Tim's side of the story.

The film was produced by the comedy/magic duo of Penn and Teller, with Penn Jillette (a longtime friend of Tim Jenison) providing a lot of narration and Teller directing. Hence, much of the reason Jenison's not just another obsessed geek working on an obscure project is due to piggybacking on Penn and Teller's fame. Which is fine, but makes me wonder: what about all those other guys. Do they have equally interesting stories to tell?


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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

[4.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

Pun Son and I wanted to go see a movie last Friday afternoon. For anyone interested in why the movie business isn't doing that well these days, I can offer a possible explanation: our choices were extremely limited, and we almost called it off.

IMDB reported a lot of movies playing near us. But nearly without exception: sequels to movies which one or the other of us had not seen; critically-reviled R-rated comedies; mostly-mediocre movies aimed squarely at the kiddos.

I wished Edge of Tomorrow were still around, but it wasn't.

So we settled on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes; I'd seen the previous movie, but my son hadn't. I summarized for him: well-meaning scientist develops a way to boost the mental capacities of simians, but things go poorly, and the clever apes split off from humanity to live in a remote Northern California forest.

So in this movie, it's a number of years later, and humanity has been decimated by what's called the "simian flu". A ragtag remnant lives in the ruins of what was once San Francisco. Meanwhile, the supermonkey community has thrived into a growing primitive enclave, living in harmony with nature, blah blah blah. The humans are unaware of Apedom, and Apedom suspects that the humans may have gone extinct.

Trouble brews when a small band of humans are dispatched to try to revive the hydropower generated by a small dam in the apes' territory. The humans and the apes discover each other, and quickly agree to work together to their mutual benefit.

Just kidding! Although the movie delivers generous indications as to how that happy-but-boring result could have happened, mutual distrust, suspicion, and intra-species betrayal eventually cause the situation to fly right into the crapper.

The movie does an excellent job of making all this believable and interesting. Everything works: the actors are all wonderful, especially Andy Serkis as Caesar, the noble ape leader. (I agree with this guy and anyone else who says Serkis deserves an Oscar.) The special monkey effects are jaw-dropping; or they would be if you noticed them as special effects, which you probably don't.


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The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

[4.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

I was somewhat surprised at how much I liked this movie. The overall critical reaction was mediocre. The IMDB raters have it as a ho-hum 7.4 (as I type). But (apparently) the movie plucked all my emotional strings, so there you go. It stars Ben Stiller (who also directed) as Walter, and he's dead solid perfect.

It's based on the classic short story by James Thurber. As in the story, Walter is prone to zoning out while he daydreams various scenarios where he's movie-hero brave, capable, and witty. ("Women want him, men want to be him.") In the short story, that's pretty much it. In the movie, this results in a couple hilarious scenes, but it's only the beginning.

Movie Walter is not Thurber's henpecked husband; instead, he's a middle-aged schlub working as a "Negative Assets Manager" for Life magazine. There's a play on words there, but what he does is take care of the photographic negatives in the Life archives.

Walter has no nagging wife, but has other problems: Life (in this sorta-alternate universe) is about to publish its last dead-trees issue. Legendary photographer Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn) has submitted what he claims is the perfect photo for the final issue's cover, but the negative (O'Connell is a dinosaur who still shoots on film) has gone missing. The boss appointed to oversee Life's demise is a sneering bully and makes Walter personally responsible for getting the picture.

Walter is also infatuated with new employee Cheryl (Kristen Wiig); he has a complicated plan to arrange a "meet cute" through a computer-matching site, but the total lack of anything interesting in his life is defeating the site's matching algorithm.

Walter gulps hard, and sets out on a mission to track down the elusive O'Connell and his missing picture. This turns out to present awesome globe-trotting challenges, and Walter must use his (previously only fantasized) bravery and wits in real life.

Bottom line: very funny, but also quite touching.

I have to mention this sentence from movie's the Wikipedia entry:

Later sequences set in Stykkishólmur were actually filmed in Seyðisfjörður.

… lest you be misled.


Last Modified 2014-07-11 5:37 AM EDT
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The Lunchbox

[4.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

A very nice little Indian movie; Netflix correctly predicted I'd like it. It's built on a romantic comedy premise, but the structure is mostly dramatic. Although there are some very funny bits. Got that? OK, let's proceed.

Saajan is a widower, old, lonely, a bureaucrat on the verge of retirement from his soul-deadening job processing insurance claims. Ila is a housewife with a young daughter and neglectful husband. One day she puts an extra effort into making hubby's lunch, an array of tasty courses, packed into a tiered tiffin.

Apparently this is a thing in India: a service (called a Dabbawala) delivers your lunch to your desk. But wires get crossed somehow: Saajan gets the tiffin meant for Ila's husband, and Ila's husband gets the tiffin from Saajan's provider. When lunch is over the service works in reverse, returning the tiffin to its origin.

The mixup persists over time, and Saajan and Ila start corresponding through notes placed in the tiffin. Perfunctory at first, but they soon start to exchanging personal details and confidences.

In addition, Saajan's impending retirement gets him a trainee, Shaikh. Shaikh is initially your worst racist stereotype of the unctious Indian. (But it's OK, because… well, I'm not sure why it's OK.) Saajan initially treats Shaikh with ill-concealed contempt. But there's more there than meets the eye, and their relationship develops interestingly as well.

Interesting: many of the actors shift between speaking Hindi and English within a scene. I guess this is also something Indians do? At least according to this WSJ blog post, that's the "conversational style of many urban Indians". As you might guess, the there's a controversy.


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Lone Survivor

[4.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

I don't think I've ever made a recommendation like this: every adult American should see this movie. In a democracy, we are ultimately responsible for sending young men to foreign countries to engage in deadly, dangerous activities; we should know something about who they are and what they do. You won't easily find a better learning experience than this movie. The IMDB parental guide uses the phrase "hard to watch" four times; that's exactly why you should.

The title (and the movie's opening scenes) tell you everything about how this movie ends: Marcus Luttrell, played by Mark Wahlberg, is the only one in his Navy SEAL unit who returns alive from a 2005 mission in Afghanistan.

The SEALs are a close-knit team, and we're shown how that happens: training that's close to torture, new-guy hazing, physical competition, zero privacy. Nobody's a loner, everyone gets advice on stuff like what color to paint the kitchen back home, or whether a prospective groom can afford to buy his fiancée a fancy horse as a wedding present.

Marcus and three comrades are picked to locate/capture/kill a particularly dangerous Taliban commander, Ahmad Shah. They're dropped in at nighttime from a helicopter, and they make their way to an outlook above the village where Shah is suspected to be. Through sheer bad luck they are discovered by some civilian goat-herders. Rules of combat say: let 'em go, and they do. Communications are flaky enough to prevent a quick exit from the area, and the team is quickly located by a lot of Taliban.

What follows is horrible.

Director/writer Peter Berg made this movie after reading Luttrell's memoirs; although he clearly means to honor the servicemen and their sacrifices, he scrupulously avoids politics, letting the situation and the events speak for themselves.


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20 Feet from Stardom

[4.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

This movie won the latest Best Documentary Oscar. We enjoyed it too. I'm not sure how it would go over with someone outside the Boomer demographic, but it resurrected a bunch of fond musical memories.

It looks at the world of the backup singer. Mostly female, mostly African-American. (Indeed, there's a bit of borderline reverse-racist slams at soulless white-girl singers. Oh well.) There's a lot of archive footage of performances and interviews, and a number of women are tracked down to what they are doing nowadays.

Shocker: Claudia Lennear, who was the inspiration for "Brown Sugar" by the Rolling Stones. Ex-Ikette. Performed and hung out with an array of superstars. Had a Playboy pictorial. What is she doing now? As the movie documents, she teaches Spanish in a dingy classroom. (Revealed after a bit of Googling to be Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut California, where she also teaches French, English, and Remedial Math.)

I believe I said "Whoa!" at this point in the movie. I did not see that coming.

Also appearing are other backup singers you've no doubt heard, if not heard of: Darlene Love, Táta Vega, Merry Clayton ("Gimme Shelter" would be unimaginable without her), Judith Hill, the Waters family, and more. Talking about backup singers: Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Sting, Stevie Wonder, …

I was somewhat surprised by how eloquent and insightful most of these wonderfully talented women were revealed to be: not just on their own careers, but also the nature of the music biz, fleeting fame and fortune.

It's a tad long. That's my only microgripe.


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Instructions Not Included

[3.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

Multicultural night at Pun Salad Manor: a Mexican movie which (according to IMDB) is the "highest-grossing Spanish-language film released in the United States." Although I wasn't as wild about it as the Netflix algorithm thought I would be, it was decent. It is tough to classify, since it starts out as a slapstick comedy, and then turns into a courtroom drama, eventually morphing into a tear-jerker.

It was directed, co-written, and stars Eugenio Derbez, who plays Valentín. He's initially an Acapulco beach bum whose sole purpose in life is to lure American female tourists into the sack. That works well, until one of his previous conquests, Julie, shows up on his doorstep with baby Maggie, claiming that Valentín is Maggie's father. It's a Three Men and a Baby scenario, except that it's missing Tom Selleck and Steve Guttenberg. And, er, Ted Danson not speaking English at all.

Valentín decides to track Julie back to the USA. But his plans to give Maggie back are derailed. Instead, they quickly bond, and Valentín decides to properly care for Maggie, getting good work as a movie stunt man. (This provides a lot of laughs.) But then, years later, Julie reappears, and we are quickly into a Kramer Vs. Kramer scenario.

Consumer note: mostly in Spanish, with subtitles. The original title in Mexico was No se Aceptan Devoluciones, which translates (according to the Google) as "No Returns are Accepted". Fun stuff, but note what I said above about tears.


Last Modified 2014-06-27 1:39 PM EDT
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The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

[4.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

We watched this movie (in which Martin Freeman plays Bilbo, the nebbish hobbit turned into courageous hero) sandwiched between the last two episodes of the Fargo miniseries (in which Martin Freeman plays Lester, the nebbish human turned into sociopathic murderer). It's a little weird to see the same actor, using some of the same acting tics (double takes, peeved exasperation) play two so-totally-different characters.

Otherwise, an action-packed installment in the Hobbit trilogy; we waited for the DVD instead of seeing in the theatre. It suffers a bit for being the middle entry: you're supposed to remember the characters and their goals, and you're also pretty sure things won't be wrapped up by the end of the (very long) movie.

So: the gang of thirteen dwarves plus Bilbo continue their quest to reclaim the kingdom and treasure lost to Smaug, the evil dragon that took over years back. Smaug's bad enough, but on the way to him, they are beset by orcs, a huge bear, and giant spiders. (Gandalf might be able to help out, but he spends most of the movie wandering on errands of his own.)

They encounter allies, mostly reluctant to get involved on a dangerous mission. We get to see our old elf buddy Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and learn how he found out that dwarves, humans, and hobbits aren't as gross and icky as he had been brought up to believe. A new elf character is introduced: Tauriel, played by the luminous Evangeline Lilly. (She has a recurring purpose: showing up just in time with sword/bow/elvish medicine to save the day.)

Eventually most of the band makes it to Smaug's lair. Then their troubles really begin.


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Saving Mr. Banks

[4.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

A few days back, I noted that Nebraska was "a tad sentimental". Friends, Saving Mr. Banks is more than a tad sentimental. Bring hip waders to avoid being soaked in sentiment. Bring a snorkel to avoid being drowned in sentiment. Duck and cover to avoid being nuked by sentiment.

But I liked it.

It's the based-in-fact story of how Walt Disney (played by Tom Hanks) brought Mary Poppins to the big screen back in the 60s, just a few years before he died. His big obstacle was getting the legal OK to do so from P.L. Travers (played by Emma Thompson), original author of the Poppins books. She objects to having her creation Disneyfied, but her agent pressures her into a trip out to California, where she's promised input into the movie creation process.

This tale is interspersed with flashbacks to P.L.'s early life in early 20th-century Australia. She adores her charismatic Irish daddy (Colin Farrell), but he's an irresponsible drunkard in poor health. Her mom is overwhelmed. Eventually, Aunt Ellie shows up to bring order to the dysfunctional chaos. (You can see the seeds of inspiration there.)

Emma Thompson is wonderful as P.L., initially full of prickly British snobbish propriety, gradually worn down by the genuinely nice Disney-American people she works with, seduced by California sunshine and optimism. She objects to everything that (eventually) made Mary Poppins magical and memorable: Dick van Dyke? Horrors! Bouncy show-biz tunes? No, no, no! Dancing animated penguins? Absolutely not! (There's a hilarious bit where P.L. initially assumes the dancing penguins will not be animated: how, she wonders, do you train them to do that?)

The movie apparently takes broad liberties with history in order to make a good story with a happy ending. Hey, that's OK. I have dim memories of Mary Poppins from when I saw it in an Omaha theatre back in 1964; I'm not sure how well this movie would work if you don't have at least a basic inkling of that movie.


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Stranded

[0.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

Out of habit, I am compelled to chronicle each and every movie I even sort-of watch. But this one did not hold my interest, not even in a so-bad-it's-good way. About the only way it would be enjoyable is as an episode of Mystery Science Theatre 3000. But Joel and the robots were not around.

Since I have nothing much interesting to say about the movie itself, let me tell you the meta-details. Mrs. Salad used one of those "if you liked that, you might like this" sites to put this on the Netflix queue. I'm wondering if some other movie than this was recommended: IMDB has quite a few.

And it even turned out to be a pain in the rear to get!

  1. Netflix's first try was sent from its Salt Lake City facility.

  2. That disk was unplayable; it had a visible crack.

  3. So we sent it back and asked for a replacement.

  4. They sent (I'm pretty sure) the same darned DVD back to us as a "replacement". At least it had a very similar looking crack.

  5. OK, second try at a replacement: this time, the disk came from Oklahoma City.

  6. Success! Unfortunately, then we watched it.

So, the plot: the first manned spaceflight to Mars. Instant kvetch: Their communications with Earth are instantaneous, a neat trick given that Mars never gets closer than about 4 light-minutes from us.

No big surprise: they crash. Bet you saw that coming, given the title. The survivors talk a lot about survival strategy. Maybe a few could survive until rescue if the others committed suicide!

Trivia: the late Johnny Ramone (yes, of the Ramones) plays "Lowell". His only acting role, according to IMDB.

The biggest star is Joaquim de Almeida, who has long been a Hollywood favorite for playing vaguely-Hispanic villains (off the top of my head: Clear and Present Danger, 24, Desperado). Spoiler: he's a good guy here, and he croaks.

Also here is the wildly-inappropriate Maria de Medeiros; she's in a lot of foreign movies (it turns out), but I only remember her as Bruce Willis's squeaky bewildered girlfriend in Pulp Fiction. Here she's a squeaky bewildered astronette.


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