Nagle. Hribar. Oscars.

Who doesn’t enjoy a little friendly competition? Like last year, my friend @nagle and I made our Oscar predictions. The final score:

Nagle: 20
Hribar: 20

Below is a breakdown of each category with the winners in bold. Until next year!

BEST PICTURE
Nagle: 12 Years a Slave
Hribar: 12 Years a Slave

ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE
Nagle: Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)
Hribar: Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)

ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
Nagle: Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club)
Hribar: Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club)

ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE
Nagle: Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)
Hribar: Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)

ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
Nagle: Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave)
Hribar: Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave)

ANIMATED FEATURE FILM
Nagle: Frozen
Hribar: Frozen

CINEMATOGRAPHY
Nagle: Gravity (Emmanuel Lubezki)
Hribar: Gravity (Emmanuel Lubezki)

COSTUME DESIGN
Nagle: The Great Gatsby
Hribar: 12 Years a Slave

DIRECTING
Nagle: Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón)
Hribar: Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón)

DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
Nagle: The Act of Killing
Hribar: The Act of Killing
Neither: 20 Feet from Stardom

DOCUMENTARY SHORT SUBJECT
Nagle: The Lady in Number 6
Hribar: The Lady in Number 6

FILM EDITING
Nagle: Captain Phillips
Hribar: Gravity

FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
Nagle: The Broken Circle Breakdown
Hribar: The Great Beauty

MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING
Nagle: Dallas Buyers Club
Hribar: Dallas Buyers Club

MUSIC (ORIGINAL SCORE)
Nagle: Gravity (Steven Price)
Hribar: Gravity (Steven Price)

MUSIC (ORIGINAL SONG)
Nagle: “Let It Go” from Frozen
Hribar: “Let It Go” from Frozen

PRODUCTION DESIGN
Nagle: The Great Gatsby
Hribar: The Great Gatsby

SHORT FILM (ANIMATED)
Nagle: Get a Horse
Hribar: Get a Horse
Neither: Mr. Hublot

SHORT FILM (LIVE ACTION)
Nagle: Helium
Hribar: The Voorman Problem

SOUND EDITING
Nagle: Gravity
Hribar: Gravity

SOUND MIXING
Nagle: Gravity
Hribar: Gravity

VISUAL EFFECTS
Nagle: Gravity
Hribar: Gravity

WRITING (ADAPTED SCREENPLAY)
Nagle: 12 Years a Slave (John Ridley)
Hribar: 12 Years a Slave (John Ridley)

WRITING (ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY)
Nagle: Her (Spike Jonze)
Hribar: Her (Spike Jonze)

And the Oscar for Best Picture Goes To

After 12 Years a Slave to arthritis, Philomena, once an accomplished ballroom dancer, succumbed to the Gravity of Her situation and stopped dancing. Today, though, she was feeling the itch to dance again as she journeyed from Nebraska to the Dallas Buyers Club of New and Used Dance Shoes to meet some old friends.

Acquainted with the aged former star, the pilot of the flight she was on exclaimed as she boarded, “Why if it isn’t The Wolf of Wall Street on my flight today.” (She earned her nickname because the dance studio she belonged to was in the financial district and competitors said the unassuming woman who dominated the competitions was like a wolf in sheep’s clothing.) She replied, “Oh, Captain Phillips! So nice to see you again.”

After the flight, he asked for a dance. As they spun around while dancing the American Hustle, she started leading him. Noting his surprise, she whispered in his ear, “I’m the captain now.”

Once again this year, I did my Oscars homework and watched each of the films nominated for Best Picture prior to the Oscars telecast. And like last year, I posted a review on Letterboxd after viewing each film.

Here are my reviews of the nine nominated films ranked by my level of enjoyment of them.

9. 12 Years a Slave:

A well-made, difficult-to-watch look into this dark and disgusting chapter of American history. Well made, but not something I ultimately enjoyed. The cast—particularly Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, and Lupita Nyong’o—was superb.

One point in particular, though, left me wanting. After being subjected to horror after horror, I wanted something more substantial in an ending. While Solomon’s actual story may have been this anti-climactic, I felt the resolution seemed too enabled by a deus ex machina in Brad Pitt’s character.

Other aspects, while not leaving me wanting, left me puzzled. For example, the woefully miscast Brad Pitt. I understand he was a producer on this film, but what was he doing in the film. The scene with Alfre Woodard seemed like it didn’t belong in the film. Was it the content of the scene? Was it the scene stylistically didn’t seem to fit? Several places during the film, the camera held on something or someone for just too long. Is this just Steve McQueen’s style? Was this to make a point of something? Was it to make the audience uncomfortable? And there’s Hans Zimmer’s score. I didn’t think the score was effective, and I am dumbfounded regarding the praise it has received. The score is barely there and barely musical, and the parts that are approachable are a(nother) rehash of his score for The Thin Red Line.

Ultimately, the film was a mixed success for me. As a film exploring this repulsive time in American history, the film succeeds. As an acting vehicle for Ejiofor, Fassbender, and Nyong’o, the film succeeds. But as a cinematic story and experience, too many elements kept me from fully embracing the film.

8. The Wolf of Wall Street:

As mentioned before, I have difficulty enjoying films that in any way sensationalize or trivialize the debauchery and douchebaggery of Wall Street. This film was no exception. Add to that the plodding nature of this film—and the ridiculous runtime—and you get a film I did not enjoy.

7. Dallas Buyers Club:

Another Best Picture nominee where performances in the film outshine the film itself. This film is all about Matthew McConaughey’s performance with a bonus in Jared Leto’s. Both are surely deserving of the accolades that have come and will be coming their way.

6. American Hustle:

A stellar, electric cast in a stylish-and-frenetic-but-sometimes-dragging caper.

5. Nebraska:

The message I took from this bleak-yet-funny film: get to know your loved ones while you still can.

4. Captain Phillips:

Knowing the outcome of this story arrested some of the suspense, but not knowing or forgetting many of the details boosted the suspense. And the end. Well done everybody.

3. Philomena:

Heartwarming and bittersweet. Dame Judi was a treat. (I’ll avoid any commentary on the Catholic Church because I have nothing nice to say.)

2. Gravity:

Wow.

Beautiful yet frightful. Expansive yet sparse. Vast yet claustrophobic. And all around, a visual masterpiece.

And might it be a sonic masterpiece as well? Both the sound effects (no sound in space until POV shots where we hear what the characters would hear in their suits) and the score were superbly rendered. Before I heard Steven Price’s excellent score, he was unknown to me, but now I look forward to hearing more from him.

Both the film and the score will be present on my end-of-the-year favorites list.

1. Her:

What defines love? Who determines who or what is capable of love? Or capable of being loved? These questions and more are posed by Spike Jonze’s terrific film. Both introspective and extrospective, the film is firmly rooted in all things melancholy—never does it become sappy, but never does it become depressing. But that melancholy is contrasted (complemented?) by the warmth of the production design (it’s almost like the these contrasting feelings are a play on Louis CK’s “Everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy”). And, much to its credit, never does the film overtly take a stance on our technological fate: the film doesn’t make technology the savior nor the destructor.

What the film does, though, is examine relationships of all kinds—coworkers, friends, strangers, lovers—and posit we all are looking to connect to someone—or something—else. How do we find that connection? How do we keep that connection? Where do we go if we lose that connection?

These are the questions I found myself asking after seeing the film. But I suppose the biggest question I came away with was where do I download the Samantha voice for my iPhone?

Unlike the last two years, my favorite film of the year—Her—is amongst these nine nominees, but I still want to point out one of my favorites which you should all see:

The Way, Way Back:

My first 2013 film I can describe as thoroughly charming. And let me throw in heartwarming and comical. Sam Rockwell was a definite standout of this film. But Allison Janney was my highlight. The first several minutes of her performance exemplify why I love watching her.

And while I did love watching her and watching Her, it will be a film I did not love watching that will win Best Picture today: 12 Years a Slave. While I did not enjoy it, I can’t argue it is both worthy and well-made.

My Top-Five Eight-Favorite Film Scores of 2013

As 2013 comes to a close, I present to you my annual end-of-the-year list of my favorite film scores of the year. As with my previous lists, these scores likely won’t be considered the best scores of the year (and only three of these will receive an Oscar nomination next month for Best Original Score), but they’re the scores I had on repeat throughout the year.

And if you’re so inclined, here are my favorite scores of 2012 and my favorite scores of 2011.

Guilty Pleasure of the Year:
The Lone Ranger
Hans Zimmer and Geoff Zanelli

As usual with a Zimmer score, there are cues that were obviously mail-ins that have no originality or brains. But then there are several cues that drip fun as they either pay homage to western scores of yore or aptly plow forward with the steady, propulsive determination of a locomotive.

And then there’s the cue “Finale” from Geoff Zanelli. This cue, which is easily the most fun cue of 2013, is a rollicking ten-minute arrangement of Rossini’s “William Tell Overture” infused with Zimmer and Zanelli’s themes from the film. Tremendous.

5. The Book Thief
John Williams

A no-nonsense Williams score showing off what he does best. Nothing novel here, but great to hear new Williams material—and a score that doesn’t eschew proper orchestral and thematic developments—in his semi-retired state (especially for a non-Spielberg film).

5. Escape from Tomorrow
Abel Korzeniowski

Abel Korzeniowski has been producing some gorgeous scores in the last few years, and Escape from Tomorrow is one of them. What’s interesting about this score is the sort-of classical approach the music takes on for a film that’s somewhat experimental.

4. Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World
Brian Tyler

I wrote last year lamenting over the lack of musical cohesiveness between the Marvel films and the disappointing thematic representation of the characters.

Enter Brian Tyler. For both Iron Man and Thor, Tyler not only created a theme that aptly represents the characters but crafted a score that kept up with the film. Starting with a solid orchestral foundation (something not always present in previous Marvel scores), Tyler added something extra for each: Iron Man got a slight rock edge to his theme, and Thor got a heavy dose of what can only be described as epicness. (Thor 2 also featured a delicious quoting of Alan Silvestri’s Captain America theme (a theme that pleasingly now appears in three Marvel films).)

As both scores showed, Brian Tyler’s musical style excellently suits the Marvel universe. For that reason and for the sake of musical consistency, he should be Marvel’s house composer going forward.

3. Star Trek Into Darkness
Michael Giacchino

Michael Giacchino returned to the Star Trek world with a score that’s sharper, more driving, and more percussive than his original. And once again, a highlight of the film and score involves the Enterprise rising from something as Giacchino’s main theme is unleashed in all its glory.

2. Saving Mr. Banks
Thomas Newman

For a charming, magical film, Thomas Newman created a charming, magical score. All of Newman’s usual, eclectic orchestral mannerisms and colors abound in this delight of a score.

1. Gravity
Steven Price

My surprise of the year. Prior to seeing Gravity, I had not heard of Steven Price. I went into the film not expecting much more than a typical, simplistic Zimmer-derivative score for this blockbuster. I was wrong. Steven Price delivered a masterful score that expertly charted and complemented the chaos and emotions of the film. With no sound effects for the destruction in space, the film relied on the score to ratchet up the tension. And because of the skeleton cast, the film also relied on the score to ease that tension that might otherwise have been eased through multi-character banter or interaction. All this is capped off with the final cues where Price unleashes the full force of the orchestra and his main theme to craft a powerhouse of an ending. Thanks to his Gravity score, Steven Price is no longer an unknown for me. And thanks to this score, I look forward to hearing more from him in the future.

And speaking of hearing more in the future, here’s to more orchestral magic—and some more pleasant surprises—in 2014.

Yeah, Bitch! Lists!

Prior to the start of Breaking Bad’s second half of season five next month, I wanted to rewatch the entire series to be as fresh as possible with the show’s past events as I watched the final episodes. But I didn’t get started early enough, and by now, that’d just be crazy.

So instead, I looked through several best-of lists and compiled this list of best/most-popular episodes (thanks to @nagle for checking the list and catching one I left off). And for continuity, I included all episodes of the first half of season five. This will be my watchlist in anticipation of Heisenberg’s return.

And if you’d like to work through this list as well, you have, as of today, 28 days to watch 29 episodes. Tight but doable. I am the danger (to your free time).

1.1: “Pilot”
1.3: “…And the Bag’s in the River”
1.6: “Crazy Handful of Nothin’”
2.2: “Grilled”
2.6: “Peekaboo”
2.8: “Better Call Saul”
2.9: “4 Days Out”
2.12: “Phoenix”
2.13: “ABQ”
3.3: “I.F.T.”
3.6: “Sunset”
3.7: “One Minute”
3.10: “Fly”
3.12: “Half Measures”
3.13: “Full Measure”
4.1: “Box Cutter”
4.8: “Hermanos”
4.10: “Salud”
4.11: “Crawl Space”
4.12: “End Times”
4.13: “Face Off”
5.1: “Live Free or Die”
5.2: “Madrigal”
5.3: “Hazard Pay”
5.4: “Fifty-One”
5.5: “Dead Freight”
5.6: “Buyout”
5.7: “Say My Name”
5.8: “Gliding Over All”

Ostinatos, Kryptonite, and Hans Zimmer

For a film-score fan like me, a film’s musical accompaniment has the ability to foster increased enjoyment of its film. For example, the delightful How to Train Your Dragon. Add in John Powell’s should-have-won-an-Oscar score, and it’s now the utterly delightful How to Train Your Dragon.

Of course, the opposite is true: a film’s score can tarnish or even sink the enjoyment of a film for me. In the case of the former, the later Harry Potter films with their disappointing scores lacking appropriate thematic development and eschewing musical continuity; in the case of the latter (and no pun intended), Titanic with its score’s amateurishly cheap-sounding vocals attempting to ripoff Enya and exceedingly grating overuse of that damn song’s melody.

The former is also the case for Man of Steel (coincidentally partly for the same reasons as the later Potters). The film itself was fairly underwhelming (save for a terrific cast) while simultaneously being over the top. Add in Hans Zimmer’s disappointing score, and the film struggles to earn a three-star rating from me.

Calling Hans Zimmer’s Man of Steel score a disappointment, though, is being kind. His score is overly simple, thoroughly generic, and astoundingly devoid of any intelligent ideas.

Once again, Zimmer scores the film he wants to score and ignores what other composers have established for the genre and, in this case, franchise. I’d be more forgiving of Zimmer’s blatant disregard for a film’s musical genre (see: the Pirates of the Caribbean series, Gladiator, Man of Steel, etc.) if the music were actually good (see: Pirates 3, Gladiator). Zimmer’s music used to be a novelty; now it’s just the mark of a lazy composer unwilling (incapable?) of composing anything else.

Jonathan Broxton at Movie Music UK has a thorough review that I’m in agreement with. I’ll add this:

I understand John Williams’s iconic theme for Superman couldn’t be used in this reboot/reimagining of Superman. It simply wouldn’t fit.

But given Zimmer’s affinity for ostinatos, he could have—no, should have—used the Williams Superman ostinato. Here’s the ostinato driving the main titles as arranged by John Ottman for Superman Returns:

The most frustrating part of Zimmer not using Williams’s Superman ostinato? It would have easily fit. Slow it down slightly, and it could have easily been layered underneath Zimmer’s Superman “anthem” heard here:

The track already has ostinatos underneath. Why not replace one of them with Williams’s? Here’s the ostinato paired with Ottman’s Lex Luthor theme (again from Superman Returns):

Sure, the bright-sounding trumpets wouldn’t work with Zimmer’s style for the score, but he could have kept the rhythm and changed the orchestration. John Powell in the two non-Superman superhero films he has scored used the ostinato. Here it is starting at 0:24 in this cue from X-Men: The Last Stand:

…and here it is throughout the first part of this cue from Hancock:

Why couldn’t Zimmer in an actual Superman film use it? Pride? Laziness?

Whatever the reason, Zimmer’s Man of Steel is an enormous missed opportunity and joins the increasing list of his recent scores that have lost most of the intelligence and inspiration that his past scores like The Lion King, The Last Samurai, and even Pirates 3 exhibited—scores, unlike Man of Steel, that he clearly approached not just as a job but as an opportunity.

Curiously, his score for The Lone Ranger sounds more inspired and fits the genre and franchise far better than his Man of Steel score. Not surprisingly, it’s also his most enjoyable and entertaining score in years. But will it prove to be an outlier amongst his recent bland efforts or the beginning of a course correction? Can Zimmer break free from the shackles of his kryptonite: his laziness? I hope so.

Apple “No’s” Best

Here’s a post about something Apple has done recently that isn’t regarding pastel colors or flat design. Apple’s new “Designed by Apple in California” ad:

This is it.
This is what matters.
The experience of a product.
How it makes someone feel.
When you start by imagining
What that might be like,
You step back.
You think.

Who will this help?
Will it make life better?
Does this deserve to exist?
If you are busy making everything,
How can you perfect anything?

We don’t believe in coincidence.
Or dumb luck.
There are a thousand “no’s”
For every “yes”.
We spend a lot of time
On a few great things.
Until every idea we touch
Enhances each life it touches.

We’re engineers and artists.
Craftsmen and inventors.
We sign our work.
You may rarely look at it.
But you’ll always feel it.
This is our signature.
And it means everything.

Designed by Apple in California.

I cringed when I read that for the first time. Certainly not over the sentiment. Over the apostrophe. Did Apple commit the grammar sin of using an apostrophe for pluralization? No, and here’s why.

Apostrophes are used for omissions (e.g. “can’t”, short for “cannot”, or “Oakland A’s”, short for “Oakland Athletics”) and possession (e.g. “the dingo’s last meal”). Not, not, NOT for pluralization (e.g. “1900’s”, “DVD’s”, or “the Hribar’s”). So what’s going on with that “no’s”?

Turns out, if you have more than one “no”, you have “noes”. And that means the apostrophe isn’t an attempt at pluralizing “no”—it’s omitting the ‘e’ in “noes”.

So, technically, “no’s” is correct. I’m guessing someone at Apple decided “no’s” looked less awkward than “noes”.

While “no’s” still does look awkward and the line probably could’ve been rewritten to avoid the issue altogether, the apostrophe usage in the ad is technically correct.

And thus concludes your grammar lesson for the day.

Oscars Scorecard

Because I like to win things, I kept score between my friend Jon Nagle’s picks and my picks. The final results:

Nagle: 18
Me: 19

We wagered Best-Picture-nominee-themed art pieces. If I won, he would customize a Munny (like these of his) themed to the Best Picture nominee of my choice (like he did here when I tied him in his Oscars contest in 2010). And if he won, I would take and print a series of abstract photos around Hollywood representing each of the nine nominees.

I had a higher score which gave me the win, but because it was the result of a tie in the Sound Editing category, I will grant him his photo series. So, we’re both winners! Look for updates on the prizes in the future.

Below is a breakdown of each category. Winners in each category are in bold.

BEST PICTURE
Nagle: Argo
Me: Argo

ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE
Nagle: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
Me: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln

ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
Nagle: Robert De Niro, Silver Linings Playbook
Me: Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln
Neither: Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained

ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE
Nagle: Emmanuelle Riva, Amour
Me: Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook

ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
Nagle: Anne Hathaway, Les Misérables
Me: Anne Hathaway, Les Misérables

ANIMATED FEATURE FILM
Nagle: Wreck-It Ralph
Me: Brave

CINEMATOGRAPHY
Nagle: Life of Pi, Claudio Miranda
Me: Life of Pi, Claudio Miranda

COSTUME DESIGN
Nagle: Anna Karenina
Me: Anna Karenina

DIRECTING
Nagle: Ang Lee, Life of Pi
Me: Steven Spielberg, Lincoln

DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
Nagle: Searching for Sugar Man
Me: Searching for Sugar Man

DOCUMENTARY SHORT SUBJECT
Nagle: Inocente
Me: Open Heart

FILM EDITING
Nagle: Argo
Me: Argo

FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
Nagle: Amour
Me: Amour

MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING
Nagle: Les Misérables
Me: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

MUSIC (ORIGINAL SCORE)
Nagle: Life of Pi, Mychael Danna
Me: Life of Pi, Mychael Danna

MUSIC (ORIGINAL SONG)
Nagle: Skyfall, Adele
Me: Skyfall, Adele

PRODUCTION DESIGN
Nagle: Anna Karenina
Me: Anna Karenina
Neither: Lincoln

SHORT FILM (ANIMATED)
Nagle: Paperman
Me: Paperman

SHORT FILM (LIVE ACTION)
Nagle: Curfew
Me: Curfew

SOUND EDITING
Nagle: Life of Pi
Me: Zero Dark Thirty
Neither (tie): Skyfall

SOUND MIXING
Nagle: Les Misérables
Me: Les Misérables

VISUAL EFFECTS
Nagle: Life of Pi
Me: Life of Pi

WRITING (ADAPTED SCREENPLAY)
Nagle: Argo, Chris Terrio
Me: Argo, Chris Terrio

WRITING (ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY)
Nagle: Amour, Michael Haneke
Me: Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino

And the Oscars Go To

Wednesday brought my (I-wish-it-were-an-Oscar-category) Best Title Design nominees.

Yesterday brought my Best Picture reviews and prediction.

Today brings the rest of my predictions. And in some cases, I’ve noted who I would have voted for, too. Let’s see how I do tonight.

BEST PICTURE
Will win: Argo
My vote: Lincoln

ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE
Will win: Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln)
My vote: Daniel Day-Lewis

ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
Will win: Tommy Lee Jones (Lincoln)
My vote: Tommy Lee Jones

ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE
Will win: Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook)
My vote: Jennifer Lawrence

ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
Will win: Anne Hathaway (Les Misérables)
My vote: Sally Field (Lincoln)

ANIMATED FEATURE FILM
Will win: Brave
My vote: Frankenweenie

CINEMATOGRAPHY
Will win: Life of Pi (Claudio Miranda)
My vote: Skyfall (Roger Deakins)

COSTUME DESIGN
Will win: Anna Karenina

DIRECTING
Will win: Steven Spielberg (Lincoln)
My vote: Steven Spielberg

DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
Will win: Searching for Sugar Man

DOCUMENTARY SHORT SUBJECT
Will win: Open Heart

FILM EDITING
Will win: Argo

FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
Will win: Amour
My vote: Amour

MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING
Will win: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
My vote: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

MUSIC (ORIGINAL SCORE)
Will win: Life of Pi (Mychael Danna)
My vote: Lincoln (John Williams)

MUSIC (ORIGINAL SONG)
Will win: Skyfall (Adele)
My vote: Skyfall

PRODUCTION DESIGN
Will win: Anna Karenina
My vote: Lincoln

SHORT FILM (ANIMATED)
Will win: Paperman
My vote: Paperman

SHORT FILM (LIVE ACTION)
Will win: Curfew

SOUND EDITING
Will win: Zero Dark Thirty

SOUND MIXING
Will win: Les Misérables

VISUAL EFFECTS
Will win: Life of Pi
My vote: Life of Pi

WRITING (ADAPTED SCREENPLAY)
Will win: Argo (Chris Terrio)
My vote: Lincoln (Tony Kushner)

WRITING (ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY)
Will win: Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino)
My vote: Django Unchained

And the Oscar for Best Picture Goes To

After eating the last slice and musing about the Life of Pi from baking to digesting, Lincoln, noting the time was now Zero Dark Thirty, retired to his study and consulted his Silver Linings Playbook on dealing with the Beasts of the Southern Wild. “Les Misérables in the South”, he thought to himself, “went and had Django Unchained. Should I profess my Amour or tell them, ‘Argo fuck yourselves’?”

Last year, I was inspired by my friend Jon Nagle to watch each of the films nominated for Best Picture prior to the Oscar telecast. I did the same this year. And like last year, I posted a review on Letterboxd after viewing each film.

Here are my reviews of the nine nominated films ranked by my level of enjoyment of them.

9. Les Misérables:

I dreamed a dream this film wasn’t nominated for Best Picture and I wouldn’t have to watch it in the lead up to the Oscars. Alas, my dream turned into a nightmare as I sat in the darkened theater besieged by monotonous, plodding, and sometimes-difficult-to-understand lyrical talking interspersed with fleeting bursts of melody.

I imagine some producers saw Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway’s Oscar number a few years back and decided to find a big Hollywood musical to shoehorn them into. Because shoehorned they were. Tom Hooper confines most of the performances into closeups not giving the performers room to, well, perform. Perhaps this was a decision to make the depressing characters and film feel more intimate and thus more relatable, but the closeups make the characters and film feel confrontational and forced.

That this is a musical makes the film already pretty unbearable for me. Add some grating performances and highly questionable directorial decisions, and the result is a film that is, well, pretty miserable.

8. Zero Dark Thirty:

Zero (fun in a) Dark (theater for at least) Thirty (minutes too long). Even without the torture controversy, this film just isn’t that great. The film is overly long, not compelling (save for the last act during the mission), and not well acted. Jessica Chastain plays a stiff, one-note, and one-dimensional character who isn’t at all engaging.

I applaud Kathryn Bigelow for attempting this monstrous project squeezing ten years of activity into two-and-a-half hours and for not grossly and jingoistically portraying the mission, but the film just doesn’t work.

But I fault her for being manipulative (did we really need the real-life phone calls from 9/11 opening the film? We all know why we were hunting bin Laden. And to follow that up with a torture scene as to suggest, “Remember what they did? So torturing them is okay, right?”) and confusing (can she and Mark Boal call this a “journalistic” film and then claim the right to take artistic liberties regarding torture and waterboarding and their successes? Where was the debate on using torture? Where were the failures and false positives?).

I hope the controversy surrounding the film goes beyond just the film’s depiction of torture and extends to the U.S.’s use of it; we could use the discussion and revelations. But torture aside, I apparently saw a different film than everyone else.

7. Django Unchained:

This film has style, it has wit, and it has charm. It also has a sagging second act and gratuitous violence in the third that treks deep into over-the-top territory for me. With Christoph Waltz’s stellar performance, the first act, however, was a five-star film; it sadly wasn’t matched by what followed.

6. Life of Pi:

This is easily one of the most visually masterful films I have ever seen. First, there’s Richard Parker. I don’t recall one instance in the film where I could point to and say, “Oh yeah, right there. He’s obviously digital.” Of course he’s digital. But the effects are so polished I couldn’t tell. Second, the seascapes, the clouds, the shipwreck, the storm, the jellies. Everything is absolutely stunning.

The one aspect, and I guess this is pretty important to the story, I didn’t find stunning was the religious and spiritual aspect of the film. I was left confused at the end of the film—confused as to what the story was saying about religion. Do I accept the the fantastical, embellished story simply because it’s “the better story”? Or do I accept the more logical, plausible story even though it doesn’t make for a tale for the ages? When it comes to deistic matters, I subscribe to the latter, so the parallels to religion at the end of this film made me wonder if I had just seen anything of substance.

Still, I can take the film for what it is: a visually beautiful story. A story. And nothing more.

5. Amour:

“It’s beautiful.”
“What is?”
“Life.”

So too is this film. The film is a beautifully constructed essay authentically examining love and devotion and features equally beautiful and engaging performances. The film is both heartwarming and heartwrenching, for as beautiful as the film is, it’s also exceptionally depressing.

As the film depicts a couple’s love and devotion being fiercely challenged, the film simultaneously challenges the audience to learn something by stepping into each role in the film. Perhaps we’re Eva and have parents (or grandparents) in a similar situation and should be more attentive to their situation. Or perhaps we’re Georges caring for our love and seeking inspiration to keep going. Or perhaps we’re imagining if we were Anne. Would there be a Georges in our life to wholeheartedly care for us?

That, for me, is the mark of a truly powerful film. Not only does the film exist as art, it exists as inspiration to pause and reflect on our lives. And that is a beautiful thing.

4. Beasts of the Southern Wild:

Definitely the biggest surprise for me amongst the Best Picture nominees, this film is a powerhouse of a film and a testament to humble, imaginative filmmaking with Benh Zeitlin’s superb debut direction and Quvenzhané Wallis’s captivating debut performance.

Intentionally or not, the film presents and flirts with many themes. This multi-layered film mentions the themes so you’re aware of them but never takes a stand. There’s the abject poverty, the multi-cultural community in the south never mentioning race, said community’s libertarian-esque refusal of government meddling, governmental disaster prevention and response, and global warming. While watching the film, I expected a commentary on one or more of these themes, but none came. And I’m glad.

Why? Because the film is firmly rooted in a child’s perspective of the world—rooted in the Now—social commentary would have been out of place. This film is entirely from Hushpuppy’s perspective, and reasons for why things are or why things did or didn’t happen are only given from her point of view. We’re never given a sense of when or where exactly this film takes place, a concrete reason for her mother’s disappearance, or an explanation of her father’s illness or where he disappeared to. Those answers may matter to us or to adults in the community, but not to Hushpuppy. That they are never presented makes the film more wondrous.

So too does Dan Romer and Zeitlin’s score for the film. Infused with bayou flavors and dreamy textures, the score is every bit as enchanting as the film is, and the piece leading into and playing over the end credits is infectiously delightful.

And “infectiously delightful” aptly describes the film, too, for now we all know “once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her daddy in The Bathtub.”

3. Argo:

A tantalizing blend of heart-pounding tension and knee-slapping hilarity delivered by a solidly effective cast and director. Ben Affleck is proving himself as a star director with each new film. If for no other reason, see this film for Alan Arkin and Bryan Cranston.

2. Lincoln:

Is it presumptuous of me to say this film will win a River-Queen-load of awards? From acting to directing to writing to costuming, this film, which both entertains and educates, is expertly and lovingly crafted.

Part of the expertise exhibited by Steven Spielberg is crafting a film that is remarkably restrained. Given the subject matter—the greatest American president—one might expect a grand, historical epic charting how a tall-in-stature but short-in-experience man becomes that great president and how the trials and tribulations of the events he was thrust into defined the man. Instead, we are treated to a smaller, more scope-focused, and more intimate film about how the man defined the events thrust upon him. And the film is all the better because of that focus and restraint.

Restrained, too, is John Williams’s score. Often heard are complaints his music dominates—negatively—scenes it accompanies. But in Lincoln, he, like Spielberg, gets out of the way of sorts. Large parts of the film are left unscored. And when his music is heard, it is to gently and, in many cases, elegiacally reinforce the moment on screen—until the end when the score lets loose.

That focus and restraint from Spielberg and Williams allows something else to shine through: the acting. Daniel Day-Lewis has been called the “greatest living actor” for good reason. On display in this film is proof why. From his mannerisms to his wit to the way he physically carries the character on screen, Day-Lewis is every bit as good as expected. And then some. He breathes life into a historical force we only know from photos and text in history books in a way that made me think, “Gee, I wouldn’t mind having a White House Honey Ale with this man.”

Day-Lewis’s isn’t the only great performance. Also great were Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones. Her shared time with Day-Lewis and his time apart were notable and not to be overlooked. (A side note about casting. The supporting cast is a treasure trove of b- and c-list television actors. One in particular—a certain British accountant playing a certain U.S.General—entirely caught me off guard to the point I missed everything he said when he was introduced. After the initial shock wore off, I determined I wouldn’t mind seeing him in his own film.)

What I saw in this film were parallels to our time. Besides the political horse-trading and bitter divisiveness—and abject name calling!—legislation had to be passed to course-correct the legal status of a particular set of people. Almost 150 years later, the story hasn’t changed. Furthermore, both times feature a president, from Illinois, who, as he looks at the long game, is accused of being overly deliberative and not adequately leading.

These parallels give the film an almost timeless feeling. So too does the title character. While the film takes place in a time when the United States was ruled by men of whiskers, the moral fortitude of its title character is bound by no age. And as that title character, Daniel Day-Lewis gives a masterful performance—a performance that, like Lincoln, now belongs to the ages.

1. Silver Linings Playbook:

While the story may be wholly predictable, the stellar performances are far from it. Jennifer Lawrence may have been a girl on fire earlier in the year, but here, she’s ablaze. And she’s not the only one. Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, and Jacki Weaver all deliver tremendous performances most definitely deserving of their Oscar nominations. The film tackles love, loss, and family strife in both a realistic and humorous way. This is a loving, engaging romantic comedy-drama starring Jennifer Lawrence and featuring a pleasant score from Danny Elfman. For me, what’s not to like.

Of the nine films nominated, I enjoyed Silver Linings Playbook the most. But if I had a vote for Best Picture, I would cast it for Lincoln. Come Oscar night, though, neither of these films will win Best Picture. Argo will.

And like last year, my favorite film of the year isn’t amongst these nine nominees:

Safety Not Guaranteed:

What a charming, quirky, heartwarming, and heartfelt movie. From the beginning I was enchanted as I watched these characters unfold and was left guessing as to what each character’s fate would be. Aubrey Plaza, in an extension of her Parks and Recreation role, is a partner any of us can hope for in whatever our mission is.

And speaking of Best Picture winners, here’s Nelson Carvajal’s mashup of past winners. Tomorrow it’ll be time to take off the nominees and cap the piece with Argo.

And the Oscar for Best Title Design Goes To

With the Oscars coming up this weekend, time to once again trot out my I-wish-it-were-an-Oscar-category category. A song during a film’s title sequence can be nominated for an Oscar, but the title sequence itself cannot.

In other words, there should be an Academy Award for Best Title Design.

Makeup artists, film editors, and song composers receive awards for their artistry, but creators of title sequences are overlooked by the Academy.

Who amongst the many great title sequences of 2012 could be nominated? Here are my nominees:

The Avengers
Designed by: Method Design
Watch it.

Beauty is Embarrassing
Designed by: Neil Berkeley
Watch it.

Crave
Designed by: Raleigh Stewart
Watch it.

Silent Hill Revelation
Designed by: Kook Ewo
Watch it.

Skyfall
Designed by: Daniel Kleinman
Watch it.

Since I’m picking nominees, I might as well pick a winner, too. The Oscar goes to… Daniel Kleinman for Skyfall. This was Kleinman’s sixth Bond title sequence. As usual, he takes a central aspect of the film and constructs a magnificent title sequence around it using ideas and imagery from the film. The striking images, the driving forward motion, and the superb connection to the film make Kleinman’s title sequence this year’s best.

For more kick-ass title sequences, check out my Letterboxd list of some of the most outstanding title sequences for film.

Now, if we could only find out who wins for Best Title Design on Sunday….

Favorite Film-Score Cues of 2012

We’re already 11% through 2013, and I’m just getting around to posting something 2012 related. Oops.

Anyway, for your enjoyment, I made a playlist of my favorite film-score cues of 2012. The tracks are sequenced for musical flow (they aren’t ranked in any way). You can head over to the playlist’s page on YouTube and press the “Play all” button or press play on the embed below to listen to the playlist. Enjoy.

The track listing:

  1. “Sab Than Pursues the Princess”
    John Carter
    Michael Giacchino
  2. “Grand Bazaar, Istanbul”
    Skyfall
    Thomas Newman
  3. “Saving New York”
    The Amazing Spider-Man
    James Horner
  4. “Imagine the Fire”
    The Dark Knight Rises
    Hans Zimmer
  5. “Re-Animation”
    Frankenweenie
    Danny Elfman
  6. “The Premiere”
    Hitchcock
    Danny Elfman
  7. “Cristeros”
    For Greater Glory
    James Horner
  8. “Cleared Iranian Airspace”
    Argo
    Alexandre Desplat
  9. “The Peterson House and Finale”
    Lincoln
    John Williams
  10. “Tsimtsum”
    Life of Pi
    Mychael Danna
  11. “Life”
    Prometheus
    Harry Gregson-Williams and Marc Streitenfeld
  12. “Apotheosis”
    Journey (video game)
    Austin Wintory
  13. “Time Machine”
    Safety Not Guaranteed
    Ryan Miller
  14. “With a Beat”
    Silver Linings Playbook
    Danny Elfman
  15. “A Promise”
    The Avengers
    Alan Silvestri
  16. “Mysterious Island Main Titles”
    Journey 2: The Mysterious Island
    Andrew Lockington
  17. “Calling the Guardians”
    Rise of the Guardians
    Alexandre Desplat
  18. “Merida’s Home”
    Brave
    Patrick Doyle
  19. “Cloud Atlas Finale”
    Cloud Atlas
    Tom Tykwer, Johnny Klimek, and Reinhold Heil
  20. “Once There Was a Hushpuppy”
    Beasts of the Southern Wild
    Dan Romer and Benh Zeitlin

 

My Top-Five Eight-Favorite Film Scores of 2012

Updated 31 Jan 2013 to add Beasts of the Southern Wild to the list

Here we are at the end of 2012—which means I present to you my now annual end-of-the-year list: my favorite film scores of the year. Like last year’s list, these probably wouldn’t be widely considered the best scores of the year (only one of these will receive an Oscar nomination), but they’re the scores I had on repeat the most this year.

(One note: some of these embedded tracks are a little long if you’re just looking to breeze through some samples, but I tried to pick out the best, most-representative tracks from the scores.)

Here we go.

5. The Dark Knight Rises by Hans Zimmer

I loathe what Hans Zimmer has done to the film-score industry: the over-simplification of music, the jettisoning of unique thematic identities, and the proliferation of ghost writers. And he’s become lazy: several of his latest scores—even, to an extent, this one—make him seem like he’s just out to collect a paycheck (see especially Pirates of the Caribbean 4). But, yes but, when he puts forth even some effort, the results can be enjoyable. As they are here. Last year, my guilty-pleasure-score-of-the-year went to one of Zimmer’s goons. This year it goes to him.

4. Safety Not Guaranteed by Ryan Miller

If you told me at the start of the year this list would include the sophomore film score from the lead singer of an alternative-rock band, I would have thought you were crazy after my, umm, distaste of a certain Oscar-winning (ugh) film score from the lead singer of another band. But, here it is. Miller’s score is just as quirky and charming as the film. I just wish there was more: the score is only about 15 minutes long. Still, an unexpected and enjoyable effort. Rarely do I finish watching a film and feel compelled to immediately purchase the score. That happened here.

4. The Avengers by Alan Silvestri

This score is a definite improvement over his Captain America: The First Avenger score, but it lacks the same punch that made, say, Back to the Future and The Mummy Returns so enjoyable. Don’t get me wrong; this score is still enjoyable, but it’s borderline Alan Silvestri on autopilot—though Alan Silvestri on autopilot is still better than a slew of other composers doing their “best” work.

What could have made this a better score are themes for the individual Avengers. This is more of a complaint against Marvel than it is Silvestri, though. In the five films leading up to The Avengers, there were five different composers with five different musical styles (Iron Man even had a different theme in both his films). As cohesive as the films were from character to character and director to director, there should have been more cohesion with the music. If the same composer couldn’t have scored each film, then at least a similar musical style should have been used. And with that similar musical style, each Avenger should have received a strong theme. Then, in The Avengers, when the character was introduced and did something heroic, their theme could have played. Instead, only Captain America (since that was Silvestri’s project) and Black Widow (I guess since she was such a strong character in the film) have individual themes. And when these two characters do something heroic, their theme plays. The other characters, though, have no individual musical identity here. Curiously, Thor had a strong theme in his individual outing, but it isn’t used in The Avengers. And lastly, after Silvestri’s back-to-back scoring duties for Marvel, I thought he would become their resident composer, but Iron Man will receive his third composer for his third film—and likely his third theme. Anyway, I’ve gone off on a tangent. Back to the list.

4. Beasts of the Southern Wild by Dan Romer & Benh Zeitlin

Speaking of charming scores from newcomer film composers, Dan Romer and Benh Zeitlin’s score for Beasts of the Southern Wild is a late—but welcomed—addition to my list. Even with some buzz throughout 2012, somehow this score escaped me. But after the film was nominated for Best Picture, I checked out the score, and I’m glad I did. Infused with bayou flavors and dreamy textures, the score is enchanting and even a bit uplifting. And the last track (embedded above) is infectiously delightful. I haven’t seen the film yet, but I hope it’s every bit as splendid as its score.

3. For Greater Glory by James Horner

Gone are the days where I would berate and bemoan James Horner for self-plagiarism. Here’s a score that is littered, peppered, and otherwise filled with self-references, recycled ideas, and his damned four-note danger motif he’s been using since his Willow score in 1988 (in this regard, his scores are sometimes the musical equivalent of taking the ingredients of a taco and making an enchilada instead: something different, but still kinda the same thing). But it all comes together in a surprisingly refreshing way—refreshing not in the sense Horner is doing much that is new, but refreshing in that here’s an “old school” film composer still creating evocative orchestral film music.

3. The Amazing Spider-Man by James Horner

Apparently I have something wrong with me. This list not only includes more than one “non film composer”, but it includes TWO James Horner scores. Whoa. Where For Greater Glory is something of a greatest hits for Horner, The Amazing Spider-Man is something unique—and, again, refreshing—in his filmography. Horner clearly had fun with this score. Not only are there very few self-references (maybe just one?), his main theme (at 6:32 in the clip above) excellently mirrors Spider-Man as it ascends and descends just like the character swinging through the city.

2. John Carter by Michael Giacchino

Most of my favorite film composers started composing far earlier than when I started listening, but with Michael Giacchino, I’ve been able to follow along with his growth and rise in the film-score industry. Listening to his evolving sound and his quest to find his own musical voice has been enjoyable. In his earliest scores, he evoked other composers (John Williams in Medal of Honor (video game), Ron Goodwin in Secret Weapons Over Normandy (video game), and John Barry in The Incredibles), but thanks to his work on six seasons of Lost, he found his own voice. And that voice is on full display with this score that’s filled with orchestral adventure and fantasy. His work on Lost may be his biggest achievement in terms of the amount of music and themes, but his work here may be his biggest achievement in terms of the level of symphonic epicness. Too bad the film did so poorly because this score deserves some greater recognition.

1. Lincoln by John Williams

Last year, I said Williams’s War Horse was his best dramatic score since Schindler’s List, but this score supplants it. The film was terrifically spotted. Large parts of the film were left unscored, and many parts with music were accompanied by a restrained score, but when the film needed that classic Williams lyricism, the score expertly rose to the occasion. From the period-inspired theme to the folksy, jaunty piece to the masterful dramatic swells, he writes at a level both technically and lyrically unmatched by his decades-younger peers. About War Horse last year, I wrote, “No other score reached the emotional and orchestral heights both in and out of the film like War Horse did. I hope to say the same about Williams’s Lincoln this year.” Well, I can. Without hesitation.

And like his two scores last year and Giacchino’s John Carter and Horner’s The Amazing Spider-Man this year, this score serves as something of a giant middle finger to Hans Zimmer and the film-score industry as it drifts toward the Zimmer-ification of film scoring. Eschewing Zimmer tendencies, these scores harken back to the grand symphonic romps of yesteryear. And for someone like me, that is indeed quite a treat.

Here’s to more orchestral magic in 2013.

Shot and Killed

(I posted this on Twitter earlier and am cross-posting it here.)

In the last day and a half…

Two firefighters were shot and killed responding to a fire in West Webster, NY.

A 30-year-old man was shot and killed in a bar in Bellevue, WA.

A 48-year-old man was shot and killed in York, PA.

A man was shot and killed in Placentia, CA.

A man was found shot and killed in a car in Washington, DC.

An 18-year-old woman was shot and killed by her friend who was “recklessly playing” with a gun in West Dallas, TX.

A teenager was shot and killed after a restaurant fight in Poughkeepsie, NY.

The NRA would have you believe these people would all still be alive if they, too, were armed.

Because the only solution is more guns.

So more money flows to gun manufacturers.

And the NRA.

And more people are left dead.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Improving iTunes 11 Expanded View

After installing iTunes 11 this past weekend, I quickly developed a sour opinion of the design of the expanded/open “folders” of TV shows. Bothered enough by these issues, I attempted to fix them. (Click any photo below for a larger view.)

This is what an open folder for content purchased on iTunes looks like:

And this is what an open folder for content that was digitized and imported (sorry, Library of Congress) looks like:

Here are some of my issues:

  • What’s with all the colors? I’m sure an iTunes engineer is extremely proud of the algorithm he or she developed to lift colors from album art and assign them to text and backgrounds (and rightfully so), but yikes! iTunes preferences offers a checkbox to disable the colors, but then you lose the big album art.
  • Speaking of album art, yikes! Why the edge fades and decreased opacity?
  • Why are the season buttons tucked away in a corner almost blending into the album art? As they serve a kind of important function (you know, showing more content), shouldn’t they be in a more prominent place?
  • Why why why when switching seasons does the album art for that season not display? In this expanded view, only the art for the first available season of the show is displayed.
  • Is the close button really necessary? And why is the spacing to the right of the season buttons different than the spacing to the left of the close button?
  • How about all that text? For imported content, there’s not much, so compared to purchased content, the text is drowning in negative space. And those horizontal divider lines between episodes? They’re so transparent they might as well not even be there.
  • Purchased content displays the episode’s air date between the episode number and episode length. But for imported content, this data cannot be entered (so far as I know), so we’re left with a hole between the episode number and length.

What I propose: chuck the colors, move the season buttons, create a better album-art display, and reformat the text.

Imported content would look like this:

Switching seasons would display the proper art:

Purchased content would look like this:

I think these changes offer a cleaner, better organized display of content. And the design elements here (the bars, “3D” album art) fit in with existing iTunes design elements. (Thanks to Neven Mrgan for inspiring the art.)

In addition to design nitpicks, I have a functionality nitpick, too, with TV shows. Season two of Breaking Bad in its current iTunes display looks like this:

When you scroll down, you lose a way to quickly identify what you’re looking at:

What season is this again? When you scroll down, why not have the show/season header lock to the top of the screen until the last episode pushes it out of view? Just like headers in scrollable lists on iOS devices work.

The redesigned Breaking Bad season two:

What it would look like after scrolling with the title/season bar locked to the top:

In addition to giving a quick visual identifying what season you’re browsing, you can also quickly switch seasons. That episode you were looking for wasn’t in season two? No problem. Click another season in that locked header, and iTunes would scroll to the top of the expanded view and switch to that season. In the current setup, you’d have to scroll back up yourself and find those tucked-away season buttons over by the album art to switch to another season.

Overall, the expanded views of TV shows feel like they were rushed to completion. The design needs improving, and there are numerous bugs when viewing and editing info in seasons other than the show’s first available season (in building these examples, I experienced many WTF moments in iTunes). Here’s hoping we get some improvements soon.

(P.S.: Yeah, I like the Golden Girls. Thank you for being a friend and not judging me.)

Pull-to-Refresh in iOS Safari

Based an idea my friend Jon Nagle tweeted, here’s a mockup of how pull-to-refresh could work in iOS Safari:

(And for those times where obsessive refreshing is necessary, this would certainly be more fun than feverishly tapping a tiny button.)

Hroad Trip Photos

I finally got around to uploading some photos from my Hroad Trip from OH to LA a few months back.

You can view them on Flickr.

Enjoy!

Lincoln

Is it presumptuous of me to say this film will win a River-Queen-load of awards? From acting to directing to writing to costuming, this film, which both entertains and educates, is expertly and lovingly crafted.

Part of the expertise exhibited by Steven Spielberg is crafting a film that is remarkably restrained. Given the subject matter—the greatest American president—one might expect a grand, historical epic charting how a tall-in-stature but short-in-experience man becomes that great president and how the trials and tribulations of the events he was thrust into defined the man. Instead, we are treated to a smaller, more scope-focused, and more intimate film about how the man defined the events thrust upon him. And the film is all the better because of that focus and restraint.

Restrained, too, is John Williams’s score. Often heard are complaints his music dominates—negatively—scenes it accompanies. But in Lincoln, he, like Spielberg, gets out of the way of sorts. Large parts of the film are left unscored. And when his music is heard, it is to gently and, in many cases, elegiacally reinforce the moment on screen—until the end when the score lets loose.

That focus and restraint from Spielberg and Williams allows something else to shine through: the acting. Daniel Day-Lewis has been called the “greatest living actor” for good reason. On display in this film is proof why. From his mannerisms to his wit to the way he physically carries the character on screen, Day-Lewis is every bit as good as expected. And then some. He breathes life into a historical force we only know from photos and text in history books in a way that made me think, “Gee, I wouldn’t mind having a White House Honey Ale with this man.”

Day-Lewis’s isn’t the only great performance. Also great were Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones. Her shared time with Day-Lewis and his time apart were notable and not to be overlooked. (A side note about casting. The supporting cast is a treasure trove of b- and c-list television actors. One in particular—a certain British accountant playing a certain U.S.General—entirely caught me off guard to the point I missed everything he said when he was introduced. After the initial shock wore off, I determined I wouldn’t mind seeing him in his own film.)

What I saw in this film were parallels to our time. Besides the political horse-trading and bitter divisiveness—and abject name calling!—legislation had to be passed to course-correct the legal status of a particular set of people. Almost 150 years later, the story hasn’t changed. Furthermore, both times feature a president, from Illinois, who, as he looks at the long game, is accused of being overly deliberative and not adequately leading.

These parallels give the film an almost timeless feeling. So too does the title character. While the film takes place in a time when the United States was ruled by men of whiskers, the moral fortitude of its title character is bound by no age. And as that title character, Daniel Day-Lewis gives a masterful performance—a performance that, like Lincoln, now belongs to the ages.

Skyfall

At one point during the film, James Bond quips his hobby is resurrection. That may be true for the character, but it’s even truer for the franchise. Now going on 50 years, the James Bond franchise has gone through twenty-three films (a few of them remarkably terrible), six actors in the title role (some better than others), a changing—and shrinking—world stage (not to mention the changing technology), and the influence from other film franchises (most notably Nolan’s films and the Bourne films).

Yet the franchise lives on. Whenever one might count Bond out, he comes roaring back louder than the MGM lion preceding his adventure. A hokey Diamonds Are Forever gave way to Live and Let Die and an uncharacteristic role for Bond. A tired A View To a Kill gave way to The Living Daylights and an uber-serious Bond. A weakLicence to Kill (and a six year hiatus) gave way to GoldenEye and a fresh, new direction. An atrocious Die Another Day gave way to Casino Royale and its refocused, reinvigorated approach to the character and franchise.

Skyfall continues the trend of resurrection. Not only does the film do penance for the sub-par Quantum of Solace, it sets up the franchise for many more films to come. And while the film looks to the future, it makes sure not to forget the past with several nods to staple Bond elements.

That future-and-past theme appears throughout the film. The future of MI6 is tested while Bond’s and M’s pasts surface. The first two acts were superb with their expected action and unexpected amount of sleuthing. Dame Judi Dench is marvelous as M in a very expanded role, and Javier Bardem is wicked, wily, and tremendous fun (Anthony Hopkins’s Hannibal Lector and Heath Ledger’s Joker meet Julian Assange and Anonymous). Had the third act contained the same amount of vigor,Skyfall would have easily found a spot in my top-five Bond films. But the third act fell apart for me as it descends into a more generic action film that feels considerably less Bondian than the two preceding acts (and there’s a preparation montage during which all I could think of is Home Alone). The first two acts have so many people and so much going on that the third act seems desolate and disconnected. And afterward is an epilogue of sorts that, given the events of the third act, seems almost tacked on and inappropriate—but it was necessary to complete the franchise’s resurrection.

What else is disappointing about the film is the role females play. The female role achieved a high-water mark in Casino Royale with Vesper being a strong, intellectual equal to Bond and with M being a smart, capable leader. But in Skyfall, the female roles are, umm, resurrected to their “traditional” roles.

Not disappointing is the work from director Sam Mendes. Mendes isn’t known for rollicking action sequences, but with Skyfall, he proves he’s no slouch either. He deftly handles the action as well as he does the more dramatic side of Bond.

With Mendes comes his sometimes cinematographer Roger Deakins. His work inSkyfall is unquestionably my favorite part of the film. The use of light and shadow and the abundance of striking silhouettes throughout the film is inspiring.

And along with Deakins comes Mendes’s composer of choice: Thomas Newman. When Mendes was announced as director, I was curious if his usual collaborator would be brought on to score the film or if David Arnold, who scored Tomorrow Never Dies through Quantum of Solace, would remain. When Newman was announced as composer, I was one part frightened and one part intrigued. Frightened because at the time nothing in his past suggested he could pull off a high-octane action score. Intrigued because everything in his past shows he has enormous talent. And the end result is something quite satisfying. As with his director, Newman proves he no slouch at action either. All the familiar Thomas Newman mannerisms are present. But so is a new, and welcomed, side of Newman.

Not welcomed is the absence of a generous amount of interpolations of the title theme throughout the score. As what usually happens when the film’s composer is not involved in creating the title song, the song disappears after the title sequence ends. When given proper treatment, the song’s melody becomes more than a disjointed musical addendum and serves as a unifying identity for the film. Adele’s terrific and very Bondian song is beautifully quoted to accompany the mesmerizing visuals as Bond arrives at the casino but is otherwise absent from the film. This wasn’t the case with Casino Royale as David Arnold co-wrote the title song with Chris Cornell thus allowing him to weave several orchestral fragments of the song throughout the film.

So to enjoy Adele’s song (which is probably my second-favorite part of the film), we have to look to the title sequence. And that sequence is designed by series regular Daniel Kleinman who returns—thankfully—after being noticeably absent fromQuantum of Solace when Marc Forster brought along MK12, his title-sequence creators of choice. Kleinman’s Skyfall sequence expertly mirrors the film with imagery and symbolism carefully plucked from events in the film. And at the same time, it mirrors the franchise. Throughout the sequence, there’s a constant forward motion. The sequence propels forward unfazed and unhindered—just like the franchise does.

And that’s what the franchise will continue to do—especially after an entry that will be seen as successful as this one where the directing, acting, story, music, and visuals all come together to create one hell of a Bond film. There are faults with the film but not enough to derail the franchise’s forward motion. And certainly not enough to derail the franchise’s resurrection. You picked a good hobby, Mr. Bond. Here’s to 50 more years. But let’s fix those faults.

The Nightmare Before Christmas

(This was my first time seeing this film. I know. I’m a terrible person.)

I hate musicals. Let me get that out of the way. All the spontaneous, choreographed singing? Hate it. I mean, how realistic is it that all the towns folk of Halloween Town simultaneously burst out into song and…oh…Halloween Town. A skeleton man. A living rag doll. And a ghost dog. Right. This is a fantasy world.

Yes, a fantasy world. And a remarkable one at that. The imagination and creativity that went into the character and set design for the film is astounding. Immensely inventive. (And the stop motion adds a special quality not achievable if this were a traditionally animated film.) If Halloween actually had its own town, this is exactly what it would look like.

Is this what it would sound like, too? I don’t know, but I can’t imagine The Nightmare Before Christmas sounding like anything else. Danny Elfman’s work for this film is absolutely spectacular. Strong themes, sharp lyrics, and terrific performances—including Elfman as Jack Skellington’s singing voice—really make this film into the classic it is. (That Elfman never took on a similar project is somewhat disappointing. No other film project of his has matched the level of musical variety and creativity achieved in this film. The closest he came was for Charlie and the Chocolate Factoryand its four highly varied and highly enjoyable songs for Augustus Gloop, Violet Beauregarde, Veruca Salt, and Mike Teavee.) From the opening song “Halloween Town” to the film’s highlight song “What’s This?” to the summation of each theme in the end credits, Elfman adeptly supplied the film’s striking visuals with striking music that perfectly matched Tim Burton and Henry Selick’s eclectic vision.

The film itself is probably a three-star or perhaps a four-star effort. Things I was curious about weren’t explored (like why was Oogie Boogie a gambling man or why weren’t the portals ever discovered by someone in any of the holiday worlds). But Danny Elfman’s work makes up for the film’s shortcomings.

And one of those shortcomings is that the film’s still a musical. And I hate musicals. But The Nightmare Before Christmas is so much more. A charming concept. Monsterous visual creativity. And a stellar Danny Elfman soundtrack. If only more musicals were made like this one.

Launch Center Pro

I started using Launch Center Pro by App Cubby several months ago, and since then, the app has become indispensable for me. Rarely does an app disrupt my dock arrangement, but Launch Center Pro did. Perhaps the app isn’t for everyone, but below I’ll share how I use it and what for.

What is Launch Center Pro? Through custom URL schemes, developers can allow users and other apps to deep-dive into features or sections of an app. For example, with the tap of a single button, you could search in the Yelp app what restaurants are nearby instead of finding the app, launching it, bypassing the occasional splash screen, tapping the Search tab, typing in “restaurants”, and finally hitting the search button.

The same idea applies to Messages. Rather than launching Messages, possibly having to back out of a message thread from someone else, searching through the list of message threads to find the person you want to send a message to, selecting the thread, and then typing and sending your message, Launch Center Pro can use a URL scheme to send a message to a particular person much faster.

Here’s Launch Center Pro in action:

The speed at which I can accomplish normally-several-step actions is what makes Launch Center Pro so useful for me. And that the app is completely customizable (including what icons are used) makes it useful for many, many workflows. Here’s mine.

When I launch the app, this is what I see:

The app supports “Groups” and “Actions”. Groups are folders of actions. Actions are the specific task to perform (whether it’s launching an app or calling someone).

Tapping the Edit button (the pencil in the upper-right corner) places the app in edit mode (love the blueprint theme) where you can add, delete, or rearrange groups and actions. Tapping on a group enters that group for editing.

My main screen has five actions and eight groups. Here’s what the actions do.

Tweet
This launches the OS-level tweet sheet to compose and send a tweet. Most of my tweeting that isn’t a reply to someone else’s tweet happens here. I don’t have to launch an app, wait for it to load, and then post a tweet. (Why am I not using the tweet button in Notification Center? Because my workflow for getting places in apps is tied to Launch Center Pro, and I decided to include tweeting in that. I consolidated.)

New Birdhouse Draft
birdhouse://draft?text=[prompt-twitter]

This shows a window inside Launch Center Pro where I can compose—with the Twitter keyboard—a tweet draft and save it to Birdhouse app. Launch Center Pro supports Apple’s custom keyboards; when composing an action, you can select the default keyboard ([prompt]) and add the additional directive.

New Instagram Post
instagram://camera

This deep-dives into Instagram’s camera. Rather than launching the app and tapping the camera button, this is a shortcut to bypass loading my feed.

Yelp Search
yelp4:///search?category=[prompt]

Like the new-draft action, this launches the keyboard prompt where I can enter a search term and jump right to searching that term in the Yelp app. If you always wanted to search for a specific thing—like “restaurants”—in the example URL you could replace “[prompt]” with “restaurants”.

PhotoForge2
Launches the app so I can edit a photo.

Those are the five main-level actions. Here are what I have in each of my groups. To open a group, you tap and hold on the group to reveal its contents and drag your finger to the action to launch it. As a result, I keep my more-frequently-used actions closer to the group’s center (if you were wondering about my arrangement inside each group).

New
This group contains actions to create a new event in Agenda (my calendar app of choice); create a new email in Mail; create a new note in Simplenote (my note-taking app of choice); create a new timer in Timer; and add an app, movie, album/song, or “other” to Recall app (useful for when someone says, “Hey, you should see ‘Reservoir Dogs’”, and I don’t want to forget).

The URLs:
agenda://event?title=[prompt]&location=[prompt]
mailto:?subject=[prompt]&body=[prompt]
simplenote://new?content=[prompt]&tag=Home
launchtimer://[prompt-num]
recallapp://apps?search
recallapp://movies?search
recallapp://music?search
recallapp://other?add

Apps
This group contains shortcuts to launching apps. These actions give me easy access to apps I use but don’t use often enough to warrant them not being buried inside a folder. No special URLs here; just URLs to launch these apps.

Bookmarks
This group contains Safari bookmarks for sites I might want to quickly jump to.

Search
This group contains actions to search or translate text I enter in the keyboard prompt.

Tweetbot
This group contains actions to jump to specific sections in Tweetbot (my Twitter app of choice).

FaceTime
This group contains shortcuts to FaceTime specific contacts.

Call
This group contains shortcuts to call specific contacts as well as a keypad button and a contact-search button.

Message
This group contains shortcuts to send a message to a specific contact as well as a generic new-message button (I use this when composing a message to multiple recipients; Apple doesn’t have a URL scheme for a multi-recipient message).

So, that’s my Launch Center Pro workflow. If you only use a few apps or call/message a few people, perhaps this app isn’t for you. If, though, you enjoy having quicker, easier, and more efficient ways to perform frequent actions, give Launch Center Pro a try. After using it since July, I can’t be without this app.

Get Launch Center Pro on the App Store for $4.99.

The Old New iPad

Apple broke the rules today. Well, Apple broke its rule today. Since the release of the original iPhone, Apple followed a yearly release cycle with both its iPhones and iPads. Apple had an unwritten rule stating consumers were safe to purchase an iOS device knowing the next model wouldn’t be released for another year.

But that ended today with the refresh of “the new iPad” that was released in March. Seven months after it was released, it was not only made obsolete, it was retired. It didn’t become the cheaper, previous model for sale; it was dropped entirely.

How is that supposed to make those of us who bought “the new iPad” feel? Angry? Confused? Duped? I feel all of the above. I’ve read numerous tech writers exclaim I have no right to be upset that Apple released something better and I have every right to buy that new thing or not.

I don’t think this situation is that simple. Again, the “old” “new iPad” is no longer for sale. Gone. Apple is selling the iPad 2, the iPad 4, and the iPad mini—not the 3, 4, and mini. The 3 is dead. Apple sold us a device they had every intention of discontinuing several months after it was released.

So here’s what I propose. Just months after the original iPhone was released, its price was dropped $200 for the holidays. Early adopters, rightfully upset at this, were given a $100 credit. Apple should do something similar for iPad 3 owners—whether they bought it seven months ago or last month. Perhaps an Apple or iTunes credit isn’t the best route. So how about the option to trade in iPad 3 for iPad 4 plus an upgrade fee? I’d pay $100-$150 to upgrade my iPad. Plus, Apple could then sell my iPad 3 as a refurbished device. Everyone wins!

Wishful thinking. I know. Especially since there hasn’t been, to my knowledge, much uproar over this situation. In his letter after the original-iPhone incident, Steve Jobs wrote, “We need to do a better job taking care of our early iPhone customers as we aggressively go after new ones with a lower price. Our early customers trusted us, and we must live up to that trust with our actions in moments like these.”

Apple should extend that same spirit of goodwill to iPad 3 owners.

Microsoft Acquires Perceptive Pixel

Microsoft today announced the acquisition of the multi-touch-pioneering company Perceptive Pixel. This is a big get for Microsoft. Couple this with Microsoft now producing its own hardware, and these are exciting times for the company.

This news was striking to me because of my connection with Perceptive Pixel. While at ESPN, I worked with Perceptive Pixel multi-touch technology for three-and-a-half years creating broadcast touchscreen graphics for SportsCenter. On the SportsCenter set is a 103-inch multi-touch touchscreen for anchors and analysts to use during live broadcasts.

So why is this a big get for Microsoft? Two reasons: technology and customers.

First, the technology. When company founder Jeff Han gave his Perceptive Pixel demo at TED back in 2006, multi-touch technology was groundbreaking. The iPhone and its multi-touch technology wouldn’t be unleashed until the following year. And remember CNN’s Magic Wall during the 2008 presidential election? That was Perceptive Pixel technology.

Jump to 2012, and Microsoft is lagging behind Apple in the consumer space. Acquiring Perceptive Pixel marks a more concerted effort by Microsoft to keep up—not necessarily catch up—with Apple. No doubt the Surface will make use of Perceptive Pixel technology—if it already doesn’t. Why should Microsoft sink money and time into developing their own—perhaps not as good—multi-touch technology when they can use tried, tested, and successful technology from a company dedicated to producing said technology.

Second, the customers. Take a look at Perceptive Pixel’s customer list. The big industries on that list? Government, broadcast, and education. Microsoft just gained huge inroads with all those industries.

Microsoft hasn’t yet announced what their plans are for Perceptive Pixel, but the acquisition alongside their new hardware ventures make for interesting speculation. If nothing else, Steve Ballmer can take notes from Jeff Han on giving presentations.

Hroad Trip: Zion

The list of favorite places I’ve been to has a new member: Zion National Park. Red sandstone canyons, turquoise snow-melt waters, imposing mountains, and grand vistas. While we didn’t have time to see and do everything, this park with much to offer is worthy of a return visit.

We spent most of our day hiking the Zion Narrows following the Virgin River through the canyon. There is no trail on this hike; the river is the trail.

For about 70% of the hike, we were in water anywhere from ankle deep to waist deep.

I don’t like to describe things too often as amazing or awesome because those are two overused words, but hiking the Zion Narrows was both.

360° view of the river (click for larger version):

And what visit to water would be complete without this:

Afterward, we toured some of the stops along the scenic drive. The view under the Weeping Rock:

Evening shadows:

If you ever have a chance to visit Zion, do it. You won’t be disappointed. We weren’t.

Today, we’re headed to Los Angeles. One more state, one more time zone, and one more destination.

Hroad Trip: Bryce Canyon

With only a couple hours to spend in Bryce Canyon National Park, we took the auto tour. No hiking yesterday. Here are a few shots:

Panorama (click for larger):

Hey hey, I’m in a photo:

And today, we’ll be exploring Zion National Park:

Hroad Trip: Arches & Hikes

arch (noun)
a curved symmetrical structure spanning an opening and typically supporting the weight of a bridge, roof, or wall above it.

hike (noun)
a long walk, esp. in the country or wilderness.

pooped (adjective)
exhausted

Those three words described Day 7 of the “Hey Joe, Where You Goin’ With That Camera In Your Hand” Hroad Trip as we hiked 15+ miles around Arches National Park in Moab, Utah and its magnificent sandstone structures.

We started the day with Double Arch:

Inside:

Outside was a lone, little prickly pear cactus. So of course I took a picture:

Or two:

Out hiking:

…to Broken Arch:

Underneath:

We hiked the 4-mile-round-trip “trail” to Double O Arch:

I say “trail” because most of the trail is climbing up, down, and over rocks and steep paths with drop-offs on both sides:

A break from the arches:

Back to arches. Partition Arch:

We ended the day with perhaps the most famous arch in the world and the arch I wasn’t leaving the park without a photo of: Delicate Arch:

People lined up (me included) to take turns going under the arch. When one couple took their turn, the guy dropped to one knee and proposed to his girlfriend under the arch for all of us to be a part of.

Today was exhilarating—and exhausting. But all the miles and all the sweat were worth the magnificent sights we saw.

Tomorrow, we’ll have a little rest as we drive to Zion National Park by way of Bryce Canyon National Park. And more picture taking.