Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Let's Talk About The Tree of Life...

(Caution: May contain spoilers and spoiler-like substances.)

You may or may not have heard of this one. Those of you who follow Cannes would have. It won the Palme D'Or this year, but the crowd reaction was that of loud boos and raucous cheers.

I have to admit, I didn't quite know what to make of this one. For the first half hour, nothing really happens. Then it goes into this sequence about the origins of the planet and evolution, and there's this bit with dinosaurs…it goes on and on and on and on, and I was fast-forwarding and thinking "Oh my God, this will never end!" The plot did get going eventually, and progressed nicely right up until about 45 minutes left, and then it virtually screeched to a halt again. I couldn't quite figure out what the kid's problem was anyway.

There are ties to the story of Job also that I couldn't quite get at first. Sure, the film is partly about the grieving process and why bad things happen to good people. This is brought together at the ending, when it seems that grace wins out over nature, but I think A Serious Man did a better job of navigating this theme. "Receive with simplicity everything which happens to you."

There's quite a bit of raw emotion in the screenplay. I kind of felt bad for the actors because the characters are virtually unplayable. Sean Penn has said so himself: "The screenplay is the most magnificent one that I've ever read but I couldn't find that same emotion on screen. [...] A clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film without, in my opinion, lessening its beauty and its impact."

From a technical standpoint, the cinematography is incredible. I haven't seen anything quite like it, except in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Alexandre Desplat's score, although a bit high-brow, also brings it together nicely. And readers of my movie reviews know that screenplay, score, and cinematography are the three main ingredients to a good film. So, needless to say, I'm counting myself among those who enjoyed it. But, Terrance Malick also takes being poetic and preachy to a whole new level, so be forewarned.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Vancouver Island Beer Championship

So three weeks ago, I visited Victoria, B.C. for four days and during that time, I tasted 61 different beers in pursuit of the very best that Vancouver Island had to offer in terms of local beer.

Keep in mind that this competition should be taken with a grain of salt for many reasons, including:

1) Some beers were tasted on site and others were tasted using market samples, and often in differing packages

2) Beers tasted were in different sample sizes, glasses, and temperatures.

3) Only beers good enough to be identified as finalists were revisited later

4) I don't normally taste very much craft beer, but I know what I like.

That said, here are the competitors:

Canoe Brewpub, Marina & Restaurant

Beaver Brown Ale

Red Canoe Lager

River Rock Bitter

Siren's Song Pale Ale

Summer Honey Wheat Ale

Driftwood Brewery

Crooked Coast Amber Ale

Driftwood Ale

Farmhand Ale

Fat Tug IPA

White Bark Ale

Gulf Islands Brewing

Salt Spring Island Heatherdale Ale

Lighthouse Brewing Company

Beacon IPA

Lighthouse Lager

Race Rocks Amber Ale

Riptide Pale Ale

Phillips Brewing Company

Amnesiac Double IPA

Blue Buck

Centennial IPA

HopCircle IPA

Hoperation Tripel Cross Belgian IPA

Instigator 2010 Doppelbock

Krypton Rye PA

Longboat Chocolate Porter

Raspberry Wheat

Service 1904

Skookum Cascadian Brown Ale

Slipstream Cream Ale

Wheatking Hefeweizen

Spinnakers Gastro Brewpub

Blue Bridge Double Pale Ale

Casked Nut Brown Ale

Discovery Ale

Extra Special Bitter

India Pale Ale

Jameson's Scottish Ale

Lion's Head Cascadia Dark Ale

Northwest Ale

Peach Hefeweizen

Summer Ale

Tsarist Imperial Stout


Appleton Brown Ale

Arctic Ale

Buckerfield's Extra Special Bitter

Extra IPA

Oatmeal Stout

Old Towne Lager

Pandora Pale Ale

Raspberry Ale

Riley's Scotch Ale


The Moon Under Water

Lunar Pale Ale

Moonlight Blonde Ale

Summer Ale

Tranquility IPA

Vancouver Island Brewing

Double Decker IPA

Hermann's Dark Lager

Honey Ale

Phoenix Lager

Piper's Pale Ale

Sea Dog Amber Ale

Spyhopper Honey Brown

Vancouver Islander

Fortunately, there was no beer in that list which was bad enough to be singled out as undrinkable, but there can only be one winner. Here are the finalists:

3rd Place:

Summer Ale - The Moon Under Water Brewpub

This one has only been out for a few weeks. I come never to expect greatness from a seasonal beer, but this one is different. You can never go wrong with Saaz hops, they have a place in any beer. It's a bit wheaty at first, but that goes away after the third or fourth sip. It's also just a little mouthcoating and the bitterness lingers a bit more than I would expect from something which is supposed to be a light beer. However, with a 4.2% ABV, you'd have no problem putting away 3 or 4 during the summer. The unfortunate bit about The Moon Under Water is that it's a bit out of the way and closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, but the food and the beers are both good.

2nd Place:

Driftwood Ale - Driftwood Brewery

Driftwood is a place that's serious about its beer. It's a lot smaller in scale than its more established neighbours over at Vancouver Island Brewing and Phillips Brewing, and it seems they don't do as many tours either. But Kevin and Tim over there were nice enough to show us around, even though it looked like there was a lot going on at the time. Their flagship brand, Driftwood Ale, has a nice aroma of fruity hops and good quality bitterness that lingers slightly on aftertaste. Aside from that, it's fairly clean, clears quickly, and pretty dry. Something that's refreshing and easy to drink.

1st Place:

Farmhand Ale - Driftwood Brewery

Honestly, I've never had a bad Belgian ale. I'm convinced that the secret to this gem is good yeast. It reminded me of Unibroue's La Fin Du Monde at first...it doesn't kick your ass, take your name, and get you drunk like La Fin Du Monde, but it is still a little stronger than most at 5.5% ABV. You'll get oranges/coriander and cloves/spice on the nose which might convince some of you amateurs that it's closer to Rickard's White or Hoegaarden. It's more grainy/more wheaty than those two and clears more quickly as well. Maybe a little heavy for the style, but I think it works for them. Very slightly drying on the finish. I think this one will satisfy the trendy beer drinker who enjoys all the weird fruit-infused shit that passes for craft beer these days, and the beer snob/Bavarian purist of 1516 at the same time. That means this one's a winner.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Let's Talk About Cars 2...

In just six days, we'll be treated to the twelfth feature film produced by the studio that makes critical and financial hit after hit. I'm talking, of course, about Pixar Animation Studios, and its latest work of art: Cars 2.

Last year, when I was doing my countdown of Pixar's feature films, I was asked if I could pick one from the library to watch, which one would I watch? Well, I chose Cars. I said it had a children's literature charm to it, despite not being terribly insightful and having braindead voice acting. However, I picked out a few more themes since then: the contrast of small town vs. big city values and some social commentary on transportation infrastructure, to name a couple. But, in short, I like it because it's fun.

I have some questions about what goes on in the Cars universe. Since many of the places in Cars resemble real settings (Peach Springs, AZ = Radiator Springs,) and the characters resemble real car models, my theory is that the characters live in a parallel dimension which is ruled by sentient machines. The machines control fully automated factories which produce the cars. How, then, are the insects portrayed as VW bugs, and why are there children? How do cars grow up? Why are the tractors and farm equipment portrayed as farm animals? These are the questions I ask myself as I lay awake at night.

Anyway, in my blog post last year, I speculated as to whether or not Pixar had jumped the shark, based on the success of Toy Story 3. Now, I have some reservations about the Cars 2:

1) In my review of Cars, I said "That Mater character really grated on my nerves by the end." Mater was around a little bit too much when I felt more of the focus needed to be on Doc and Sally, but he was still a supporting character. The way I read Cars 2, however, is that Mater is central to the plot, and it looks like Lightning is the supporting character. If this is true, it's going to drive me nuts. Your comic relief CANNOT be central to the plot and he cannot be one-dimensional. Otherwise, you end up with a Star Wars Episode One Jar Jar Binks disaster. Dan L. Whitney is the perfect voice for a backwater hick, but I have to question whether he has the range to carry a Pixar film. And while we're at it, let's talk about Owen Wilson, who was just as bad. I don't so much mind Lightning as a character, but it seemed like Owen was just going through the motions. Just listen to every time Lightning laughs; it sounds so forced. In fact, Mater actually carries Lightning through more than a few scenes. Granted, Owen was going through a serious bout of depression at the time...

2) I have to wonder if they made this film to renew all the merchandising licenses. I called Cars "Pixar's shill film," and even if you go into a Disney Store today, you'll see Cars shit everywhere. Literally, everywhere. And literally, shit! They sell Cars potty chairs and Cars diapers at the Superstore by my place. I'm dead serious. Do you see WALL-E diapers anywhere? No, you don't, even though in the grand scheme of the film, it kind of makes sense! Even Up has diddly dick for merchandise. (Granted, nobody wants to play with misanthropic old man action figures.) Cars merchandise had sales of $1 billion a mere 5 months after the film was released, so who can blame them for trying, right? They also need to promote a new theme park.

3) I think this movie panders to a small demographic. Cars was made five years ago, and its target audience was boys age 1-10. That means a sizeable chunk of Cars' original audience may be too old for this one. The Toy Story franchise was so successful because there were a lot of things to keep the adults into it, and the 3rd film also had nostalgic value for many. Cars, on the other hand, is a good movie to park your kids in front of to keep them busy for a couple of hours while you did something else. However, since the merchandise has managed to hold its own, that leads me to believe that the franchise has renewed its audience through DVD sales.

4) Doc Hudson is not in this one, and that's going to hurt this film more than you can imagine. Doc was the voice of reason who kept this film down to earth. Otherwise, it's just a bunch of over the top car jokes and a big race at the end with no emotion. Cars would have been an epic failure without him. I suppose Slinky was back for Toy Story 3 despite the noticeable difference in voice (Jim Varney vs. Blake Clark), so who knows.

5) John Lasseter was brought on as co-director very late in the game. This leads me to believe that this one suffered from the same quality issues that Toy Story 2 initially suffered from. I suppose that Toy Story 2 became infinitely better once Lasseter took over, but at the same time, Pixar could use the fresh blood. I think a lot of people thought that Lasseter was too complacent with Cars, and in some ways, it comes off as a pet project. And since Cars 2 was conceived by Lasseter when he was in Europe promoting the first Cars, this one could also have that pet project feel. Besides, the guy doesn't even need to direct anymore...he's the head of two animation studios. Why not hand it over to the next director in line?

6) The setting is one of the most appealing aspects of the film, and the real heart of the film is with the bygone town on Route 66. Radiator Springs will be mostly gone in Cars 2, as the settings include 3 different countries. So it's still very much a story of setting, but the focus will be more on the culture shock aspects. Who knows, they might find a way to make it work, but you certainly can't rest on the characters, like the Toy Story sequels did. Woody and Buzz have become timeless, classic characters. Lightning and Mater? They're more like flavours of the week.

So there you have it. The expectations for Cars 2 are very much dialled down, and I hope to be pleasantly surprised. Contrast that with Toy Story 3, where the expectations were sky high and were exceeded. Fortunately for the Pixar awards shelf, Dreamworks is putting forward Kung Fu Panda 2 and Warner Bros. is sending out Crappy Feet 2. Not exactly the best of efforts from either studio.

I'll be back with my review in a week or two.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

83rd Academy Awards Predictions

Last year, I was 16/24. My all-time record is 20/24. "Should win" picks are who I would vote for if I was a voting member of the Academy. "Will win" picks are who will actually take home the hardware.

Best Picture:

Should win: Toy Story 3

Will win: The King's Speech

My Pixar bias is clearly showing (or maybe that's animation bias…How To Train Your Dragon was the second best movie I saw all year and clearly Dreamworks Animation's finest work.) If you look below at my other picks, you'd think I'd have The King's Speech as my "should win." It has all the ingredients I place high value on (screenplay, score, and cinematography) and has great acting on top of that. However, I still think TS3 was the best film of the year, maybe just because I grew up with the first two films, and because it is so well-written.

I'm not going to come in here and complain like I always do that the crop of movies this year really sucked. I was quite surprised that TS3 didn't pick up the Golden Globe nomination, seeing as how the slightly inferior Toy Story 2 actually won the damn thing, even beating Being John Malkovich.

As usual, we eliminate everything that wasn't nominated for film editing (127 Hours, Winter's Bone, Toy Story 3, True Grit, The Kids Are All Right) and we pick one from what's left. Black Swan is too bizarre, Inception was released too early, and The Fighter had good acting, but not much else. That leaves The King's Speech and The Social Network. And really, it's as close as I can ever remember it. So The Social Network possesses the Globe and the NBR award, along with most of the awards in the critics' circles, but The King's Speech has SAG, DGA, PGA, and BAFTA power behind it. While BAFTA is inherently biased toward the British films and have made some really screwy picks for Best Film over the years, the Producers' Guild has been on the same page as the Academy for the last three years and 14 of the last 20 years. Roger Ebert said it best: "A British historical drama about a brave man struggling to overcome a disability and then leading his people into World War II looks better to the academy than a cutting-edge portrait of hyperactive nerds." I'm going against the Vegas odds and leaving the 3:2 favourite on the table in exchange for the 5:2 film: The King's Speech.

Best Director:

Should win: Tom Hooper

Will win: David Fincher

Well, if I can't have Lee Unkrich, that makes it a tough call. I really wanted to pick Darren Aronofsky, just because of how much Black Swan scared the shit out of me. I pick Hooper because he has three actors in the film with legitimate shots of winning. But my prediction is that Fincher's name will be called. Maybe I'm just hedging my bets a little bit since I'm unsure of Best Picture. It has only happened three times in the last decade where a director won and their film lost. (Ang Lee, Roman Polanski, and Steven Soderbergh) Fincher winning wouldn't bother me at all…Fight Club is one of my favourite movies of all time. Still, the smart money is definitely on Hooper since he won the DGA.

Best Actress:

Should win: Natalie Portman

Will win: Natalie Portman

Natalie Portman for that white hot lesbian scene. That's all I can say. Playing a dual personality role can be tricky, so she deserves it. I howled when Bening lost to Swank in 2000, denying American Beauty the Big 5, so I'd be happy if she got some redemption. But I do think Julianne Moore was better in Bening in The Kids Are All Right.

Best Actor:

Should win: Colin Firth

Will win: Colin Firth

It's Firth's to lose, clearly. I dare say it was the finest male performance since Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood three years ago. James Franco overacted, nobody could understand Jeff Bridges, and nobody saw Biutiful. I could watch Firth's final speech scene over and over…it's hard to imagine being on the edge of my seat for five minutes of monologue, but that is exactly what happened. Potential upset is Jesse Eisenberg. He's not entirely undeserving, but he'll only win if it so happens that the Academy is heaping praise onto The Social Network. But I don't think they will.

Best Supporting Actress:

Should win: Hailee Steinfeld

Will win: Melissa Leo

I think the category is weak this year. Hailee Stanfield belongs in the leading category. Nobody saw Animal Kingdom. My pick for Leo is risky, because for some stupid reason, people nominated for the same film split the support, even though Amy Adams deserves no votes at all. Helena Bonham Carter was just kind of there…I think she was upstaged by Rush and Firth.

Best Supporting Actor:

Should win: Geoffrey Rush

Will win: Christian Bale

This is risky. I believe that the Academy may not vote for Bale because of his tirade against some poor cinematographer while filming Terminator: Salvation, but maybe I just think that because I don't like the guy. But I never let things like that get in the way. I'm partial to drug addict loser performances, although Bale's kind of weakened in the second act. I prefer scummy characters with no redeeming qualities. Geoffrey Rush could win…we know the Academy likes him. I think he benefitted from a great screenplay more than anything.

Best Original Screenplay:

Should win: The King's Speech

Will win: The King's Speech

I'd be really surprised to see anything else win. The Academy loves a biopic, and so do I. It's pretty tricky to write stammers into a screenplay…only the Coen Brothers do it better. David Seidler is a 73 year old guy who hasn't really written anything else, but looking at the other four nominees, I don't think he has anything to worry about.

Best Adapted Screenplay

Should win: Toy Story 3

Will win: The Social Network

I should note that my string of 15 consecutive correct predictions in the writing categories came crashing down last year, because for some stupid reason, I thought the academy would pick Up in the Air over Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire. So, time to start anew. Toy Story 3 has credibility as three of its four writers are past Oscar winners. Michael Arndt's screenplay for Little Miss Sunshine was one of the best in years so I'd be delighted if he were to win again. Unfortunately, there are three other all-star screenwriters nominated in this category (Aaron Sorkin and Ethan and Joel Coen.) The Coens have won twice, so maybe there's some upset potential here. But, if they couldn't beat The Hurt Locker with their script for A Serious Man then I don't know what.

The rest!

Animated Feature: Toy Story 3

Art Direction: Alice in Wonderland

Cinematography: True Grit

Costume Design: Alice in Wonderland

Documentary Feature: Inside Job

Documentary Short Subject: The Warriors of Qiugang

Film Editing: The Social Network

Foreign Language Film: Incendies

Makeup: The Wolfman

Music (Original Score): The Social Network

Music (Original Song): "We Belong Together", from Toy Story 3

Short Film (Animated): Madagascar, Carnet de Voyage

Short Film (Live Action): God of Love

Sound Editing: Inception

Sound Mixing: The Social Network

Visual Effects: Inception

Monday, February 21, 2011

Let's Talk About How To Train Your Dragon...

Hmmm...been awhile since I last wrote something. Is it a little bit odd that it's about a kid's movie? Maybe not...you may remember my Pixar series...

I watched How To Train Your Dragon because it has two nominations this year (Best Music, Origianl Score, and Best Animated Feature.) Since Toy Story 3 is a lock for Best Animated Feature, I was mainly tuned in to the musical score to see if it had any chance. If you've seen a lot of movies with me, you'll know I place high value on three things above all: the first is a good screenplay, the second is musical score, and the third is cinematography.

Let's talk a bit about DreamWorks Animations before we go on. Throughout their entire history, they've been completely hit or miss. We've seen everything from them...critical and box office disasters (The Road to El Dorado and Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas,) watered-down sell-out sequels (Shrek The Third and Shrek: Forever After,) and works which were critically acclaimed (Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit and Chicken Run.) Needless to say, I wasn't quite sure what I was going to get with How To Train Your Dragon, seeing as how Aardman Animations wasn't around to bail anyone out this time, so I decided to forego a trip to the theatre to see it and waited almost 11 months from its release to rent it.

It would appear I owe DreamWorks an apology.

What a surprise. I was not expecting anything with a sharp script, dazzling aerial scenes that must have been spectacular in 3D, and a soundtrack which gave me goosebumps and raised the film to a whole different level. Some critics have compared the flying scenes to Avatar and have labelled this film as being "Avatar for simpletons." Could they have spent more time on story and character development? Yes, absolutely. The film didn't find it's center for a long time, but when it did, that center was so good that it's easy to see why critics went crazy for it. What's different is that the dragons themselves are given a level of complexity to the extent that I was drawing comparisons between the main character and the dog whisperer (dragon whisperer, in this case.) This is what sets Dragon apart from Avatar, which was visual glitz and glitter, but emotionally shallow. And if you look at the most difficult things to do in animation, this film had them all: humans, hair, fabric, hair and fabric blowing through the air, hair and fabric underwater...

And, if nothing else, they've pre-empted Brave, which appears to follow similar themes. Recall that Antz was released before A Bug's Life, although the latter eventually pulled ahead in box office receipts.

And wouldn't you know it...DreamWorks intends to drive the film into the ground by making not just one, but two sequels and possibly more, to the same extent that the Shrek, Ice Age, and Madagascar franchises lost all their integrity. For shame, Jeff Katzenberg, for shame.

I'll be back with my Oscar picks at the end of the week...there's still some short film homework which needs to be done.