Thursday, January 26, 2017

After the Apocalypse: Life in Trump's America

Donald John Trump, the 45th President of the United States, has been in office for only six days, and everyone - except his hard-core supporters - is extremely worried about America's future.

I know that many people who come across this post probably think that I'm either a "liberal sore loser" who dislikes President Trump because he beat the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, back in November. Or that I'm an anti-American, unpatriotic, bleeding heart idiot who can't admit that Mr. Trump will make America great again.

It is true that I don't like the current occupant of the Oval Office, but not for merely partisan reasons. I have never been a member of either the Democratic or Republican Parties; when I registered to vote back in 1984, I told the Department of Elections person who handled my paperwork that I wanted to register as an Independent. I hate extremism, whether it is from the Right or the Left. I am leery of any movement that calls for ideological purity. I am, and always have been, a guy who prefers a middle-of-the-road approach to politics and didn't want to be beholden to any political party or philosophy.

So, no. My antipathy for Mr. Trump doesn't stem from the fact that he is a Republican President. I've voted for Republican presidential candidates in the past. I may do so again if - and that's a big if - the GOP ever comes to its senses and stops being the Party of the Rich and the Angry Whites. (In other words, probably not in my lifetime.)

Why don't I like President Donald Trump?

For starters, he is probably the least Presidential individual ever to make it to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. He makes Warren G. Harding, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and even Bill Clinton look like Boy Scouts. He is narcissistic, thin-skinned, egotistical, rude, outspoken, misogynistic, and out-and-out bigoted. He claims to love the United States and claims that he - and he alone - will Make America Great Again.

I don't think so, folks. This Administration is going to set this country back 100 years if Mr. Trump is not impeached or forced to resign.

Why do I say this?

Let's see. In the first six days of his Administration, President Trump has:

  •  announced the unilateral American withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership
  • placed gag orders on various U.S. government agencies (NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Park Service, Health and Human Services, the Food and Drug Administration, and U.S. Department of Agriculture) and forbidden them to disseminate scientific data on climate change or any other topic that doesn't jive with conservatives' world views. 
  • ordered the building of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border (and says Mexico will pay for it)
  • green-lit the Keystone Pipeline, which the Obama Administration had stopped for environmental reasons
  • promised to defund the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and 14 other institutions
  • pitted his followers against "mainstream media" by claiming that his Inauguration didn't have smaller crowds than those present at President Obama's in 2009 or 2013
  • promised to increase defense spending
And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Worse, I fear, is to come. 

Thursday, January 19, 2017

As seen on Examiner: 'Die Hard with a Vengeance' movie review

Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995)
aka Die Hard 3
Directed by John McTiernan
Written by Jonathan Hensleigh
Based on certain original characters created by Roderick Thorp
Starring: Bruce Willis, Jeremy Irons, Graham Greene, Colleen Camp, Larry Bryggman

John McClane: I'll tell you what your problem is, you don't like me 'cause you're a racist!
Zeus Carver: What?
John McClane: You're a racist! You don't like me 'cause I'm white!
Zeus Carver: I don't like you because you're gonna get me killed!

In the spring of 1995, 20th Century Fox released director John McTiernan’s Die Hard with a Vengeance, the third film in a series featuring Bruce Willis as hard-to-kill cop hero John McClane.

As in Die Hard (1988) and Die Hard 2 (1990), Willis’ character is once again “in the wrong place at the wrong time.” This time around, the reluctant hero is in New York City, where he faces off against  a mad bomber (Jeremy Irons) who has a personal score to settle with McClane.  

Simon: Is there a detective named McClane there?
Inspector Cobb: He's on suspension.
Simon: No, Walter, he's not. Not today.
Inspector Cobb: Who is this?
Simon: Call me Simon.
Inspector Cobb: What do you want?
Simon: I want to play a game.
Inspector Cobb: What kind of game?
Simon: "Simon Says". Simon's going to tell Lt. McClane what to do, and Lt. McClane is going to do it. Noncompliance will result in a penalty.
Inspector Cobb: What penalty?
Simon: Another big bang in a very public place.

McTiernan (The Hunt for Red October)  and screenwriter Jonathan Hensleigh (Armageddon, A Far Off Place) literally begin Die Hard with a Vengeance with a bang as a bomb goes off in a Manhattan Bonwit Teller store. Within minutes, a man calling himself“Simon” makes a phone call to Inspector Walter Cobb (Larry Bryggman) of the NYPD’s Major Case Unit.  Simon tells Cobb that another bomb will go off unless a suspended Detective McClane is reinstated and takes part in a deadly version of the game “Simon Says.”

Cobb knows McClane is not fit for duty. The hero of the incidents at the Nakatomi Plaza and Dulles Airport is separated from his wife Holly and has a drinking problem that affects his career as a NYPD detective. But the inspector has no alternative and orders Detectives Kowalski (Colleen Camp) and Lambert (Graham Greene) to bring McClane to the precinct.  

Simon orders Cobb to leave McClane in the middle of Harlem wearing a sandwich board with an offensive racist slogan. Predictably, a group of angry young black men spots McClane and the offensive sign. They attack McClane, but their attempt to kill him is thwarted when a store owner named Zeus Carver (Samuel L. Jackson) reluctantly intervenes,
Zeus: Why you keep calling me Jésus? I look Puerto Rican to you?
John McClane: Guy back there called you Jésus.
Zeus: He didn't say Jésus. He said, "Hey, Zeus!" My name is Zeus.
John McClane: Zeus?
Zeus: Yeah, Zeus! As in, father of Apollo? Mt. Olympus? Don't f--k with me or I'll shove a lightning bolt up your ass? Zeus! You got a problem with that?
John McClane: No, I don't have a problem with that.

Angry that McClane survived his first challenge, Simon drags Zeus into his deadly cat-and-mouse game. The seemingly omniscient bomber then sends the unlikely partners on a cross-city quest in which they must solve difficult mind-games, or else more bombs will go off in the Big Apple.

My Take
Inspector Cobb: [to Simon] I can appreciate your feelings for McClane. But believe me, the jerk isn't worth it. He's stepped on so many toes in this department, by this time next month he's gonna be a security guard. His own wife wants nothing to do with him, and he's about two steps shy of becoming a full-blown alcoholic.
John McClane: [whispering] One step, one step.

Of the first three films in the long-running series, Die Hard with a Vengeance is perhaps the least impressive, even though it gets props for casting Samuel L. Jackson in a strong supporting role and taking the action to a larger canvas than a skyscraper or an airport.

At first glance, the movie seems to be an improvement over Renny Harlin’s meaner, more violent Die Hard 2.  Bruce Willis and Jackson have great onscreen chemistry, and screenwriter Jonathan Hensleigh gives director John McTiernan a serviceable script full of fast-paced action sequences and witty exchanges between McClane and the mysterious Simon.

Die Hard with a Vengeance also follows the template of the previous two films, including a villain with a hidden financial motive and can-you-top-this action sequences that feature dangerous stunts and impressive special effects.

And yet, as entertaining as this movie can be, it is less emotionally satisfying than either the first two Die Hards or the two that followed it in 2007 and 2013.

Part of the problem is that Die Hard with a Vengeance is so generic. In the 2001 DVD’s audio commentary track, screenwriter Hensleigh admits that the script originally was not for a Die Hard movie. Instead, it was first an original screenplay titled Simon Says, then it was considered (but rejected) as the basis for one of the Lethal Weapon movies. Hensleigh used  the first half of Simon Says word for word for Die Hard 3’s first half. He only changed the characters to make them fit the needs of a Die Hard movie.

But the core problem with Die Hard with a Vengeance is its lack of any strong personal motivation for McClane to be a reluctant hero. In the first two installments, Willis’ character puts his life on the line to save his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia). In Live Free or Die Hard and A Good to Die Hard, McClane’s two now-adult children are the ones in harm’s way.

Here, while Holly is mentioned and briefly heard as an offscreen voice on a pay phone, she is on the West Coast and  far from Simon’s grasp.

Though Willis turns in a reliable performance as the quippy and resourceful McClane, the true star of the movie is Samuel L. Jackson. As Harlem shop owner Zeus Carver, Jackson channels his inner Malcolm X and practically steals every scene he is on from the lead actor.

Academy Award-winner Jeremy Irons is all right as Carver and McClane’s bomb-planting nemesis, Simon. Although he shares some character traits with Alan Rickman’s heavy from the original film, Simon is not as compelling to watch as Rickman’s silky, snaky Hans Gruber. Worse, he doesn’t appear on screen for half of the movie’s running time, and his amazing omniscience is never explained satisfactorily.

Die Hard with a Vengeance is not one of the worst action adventure movies ever made, but it could have been much better.

Blu-ray Specifications

Codec: MPEG-4 AVC (28.40 Mbps)
Resolution: 1080p
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Original aspect ratio: 2.39:1

English: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (48kHz, 24-bit)
French: Dolby Digital 2.0
Spanish: Dolby Digital 2.0

English, English SDH, Spanish, Cantonese, Korean

50GB Blu-ray Disc
Single disc (1 BD)

Region A


Rated: R (Restricted)
Studio: 20th Century Fox
DVD Release Date: November 20, 2007
Run Time: 131 minutes

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

'The Hobbit: The Motion Picture Trilogy' Blu-ray box set review

(C) 2015 Warner Bros./Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios

The Hobbit Motion Picture Trilogy

Nine years after director Peter Jackson concluded his The Lord of the Rings film trilogy with the Academy Award-winning epic The Return of the King, Warner Bros. released The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Starring Ian McKellen as Gandalf, Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins, Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, and Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield, this 2012 fantasy film is the first installment of an ambitious trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 novel, The Hobbit.

An Unexpected Journey was followed by The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug in 2013. A year later, Warner Bros. closed the story arc with The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.

The Hobbit Motion Picture Trilogy is the prequel to Jackson’s adaptation of Tolkien’s three-volume novel The Lord of the Rings. Thematically, The Hobbit is faithful to the spirit of Tolkien’s book, the script by Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro is a vastly expanded version. To tell a larger and more complex story than Tolkien originally told in his 1937 children’s book, the filmmakers added material based on The Lord of the Rings’ Appendices, created new characters, and included others from the Rings cycle to link both trilogies.

Set 60 years before The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,  The Hobbit Motion Picture Trilogy follows the adventures of Bilbo Baggins, a 51-year-old Hobbit who lived a quiet and uneventful life in The Shire until Gandalf the Wizard recruits him to go on an unexpected journey to the Lonely Mountain. Bilbo’s role: to be the mission’s “burglar: as part of Thorin Oakenshield’s party of 12 Dwarves. Their goal: to take back the Lonely Mountain from the gold-loving Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), one of the last great Dragons to plague Middle-Earth.

The Box Set

For the U.S. home media market, New Line Home Video has released all three films in The Hobbit trilogy individually on Blu-ray and DVD, starting with An Unexpected Journey on March 19, 2013. Eight months later, New Line released an extended edition of the film that’s 25 minutes longer. The Desolation of Smaug was dropped on April 8, 2014 (theatrical version) and on November 5, 2014 (extended version). The most recent release was the theatrical version The Battle of the Five Armies, which hit stores on March 24, 2015.

On the same date of The Battle of the Five Armies’ debut on Blu-ray and DVD, New Line Home Video also rolled out The Hobbit: The Motion Picture Trilogy.  This 9-disc set includes the 2012-2014 feature films on three Blu-ray discs (BDs) and three standard definition DVDs, three BDs of extra features, and the code for a digital copy download that expires on March 24, 2015.

(For technical specs of this set, please see the Blu-ray/DVD specifications section below.)

My Take

Even though I wasn’t enthused about the massive alterations made to The Hobbit by Peter Jackson and his creative team, I decided to get this box set for several reasons:

  • The Hobbit is the first book in the War of the Ring story arc and preceded The Lord of the Rings by 17 years. Though its writing is geared toward younger readers, it’s the prelude to The Felllowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King.
  • I own both versions (theatrical and extended) of The Lord of the Rings, and I tend to be a completist when it comes to multi-film sagas.
  • Box sets are often a better bargain than buying each film’s home video release individually.

As with the home video releases of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, this box set has its pros and cons.

On the positive side of the scale, The Hobbit: The Motion Picture Trilogy contains all three installments of Jackson’s prequel trilogy in their original theatrical release edition. The movies are presented in glorious 1080p video resolution and digitally mastered audio in several languages. The set also includes copies of the feature films on DVD so viewers can play them on home computers or on standard definition DVD players. For viewers who want to download a digital copy for mobile devices, New Line Home Video and Warner Bros. Entertainment include a code that expires in March 2018.

On the negative side, the extra features on the theatrical release edition are not spectacular. Although the studios (Warner Bros., New Line Cinema, and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) behind The Hobbit included three special features  BDs (one for each film), these don’t contain anything truly special.

Yes, there are behind-the-scenes featurettes and interviews in those three extra features BDs, but none of them are as comprehensive as those in The Lord of the Rings: The Motion Picture Trilogy - Extended Edition box set. All of the participants in the featurettes are staff members of WETA Digital, Wingnut Films, and what have you, but director Peter Jackson and the more prominent members of his creative team (including Guillermo del Toro, the trilogy’s original director) are absent.  

Also like with The Lord of the Rings home video releases, the theatrical editions of An Unexpected Journey. The Desolation of Smaug, and The Battle of The Five Armies lack an audio commentary track by Jackson and his colleagues.

Why? Because come November 2015, New Line Home Video and Warner Bros. Entertainment will release the pricier 15-disc BD/DVD The Hobbit: The Motion Picture Trilogy - Extended Edition box set. Like its 2011 The Lord of the Rings counterpart, The Hobbit’s extended edition box set will be given the red carpet treatment, with a book-like slipcover and a treasure trove of extras that film geeks want.    

Codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Resolution: 1080p
Aspect ratio: see individual releases
Original aspect ratio: see individual releases

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
English: DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 (48kHz, 24-bit)
French: Dolby Digital 5.1
Spanish: Dolby Digital 5.1
Portuguese: Dolby Digital 5.1
English: DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 (48kHz, 24-bit)
French: Dolby Digital 5.1
Spanish: Dolby Digital 5.1
Portuguese: Dolby Digital 5.1
English: DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1
French: Dolby Digital 5.1
Spanish: Dolby Digital 5.1
Portuguese: Dolby Digital 5.1

English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese

Blu-ray Disc
Nine-disc set (6 BDs, 3 DVDs)
UV digital copy
Digital copy
DVD copy

Region A (BD), 1 (DVD)

'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey' review: Was this (cinematic) trip necessary?

(C) 2012 New Line Cinema/Warner Bros. Pictures

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

Directed by Peter Jackson

Written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, and Guillermo del Toro

Starring: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee

Gandalf: Well, why does it matter? He's back!
Thorin Oakenshield: It matters. I want to know - why did you come back?
Bilbo Baggins: Look, I know you doubt me, I know you always have. And you're right... I often think of Bag End. I miss my books, and my armchair, and my garden. See, that's where I belong, that's home. That's why I came back... 'cause you don't have one, a home. It was taken from you. But I will help you take it back if I can.

Considering the success of director Peter Jackson’s epic fantasy film series The Lord of the Rings ($2.92 billion worldwide box office gross, plus 17 Academy Awards won out of 30 nominations), it’s not surprising that New Line Cinema and Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) decided to return to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth with a live action film based on his 1937 novel The Hobbit.

Initially intended to be a two-film series directed by Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy), The Hobbit was expanded into a trilogy with the addition of material derived from Tolkien’s appendices for The Lord of the Rings. And although del Toro worked for two years on the film during its pre-production stage, financial issues at MGM delayed the project. Del Toro left in 2010 and Jackson, who also served as a producer, returned to direct the prequel trilogy.  

Gandalf: The world is not in your books and maps. It's out there.
Bilbo Baggins: I can't just go running off into the blue! I am a Baggins of Bag End!
Gandalf: You are also a Took. Did you know that your Great-Great-Great-Great Uncle Bullroarer Took was so large he could ride a real horse?
Bilbo Baggins: Yes.
Gandalf: Well, he could! In the Battle of Greenfields, he charged the Goblin ranks. He swung his club so hard it knocked the Goblin King's head cleaned off and it sailed a hundred yards through the air and went down a rabbit hole. And thus the battle was won and the game of golf invented at the same time.
Bilbo Baggins: I do believe you made that up.
Gandalf: Well, all good stories deserve embellishment. You'll have a tale or two to tell of your own when you come back.
Bilbo Baggins: ...Can you promise that I will come back?
Gandalf: No. And if you do... you will not be the same.

Set 60 years before The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), An Unexpected Journey follows the adventures of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), a quiet and unassuming hobbit recruited by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) to join a perilous quest to the Lonely Mountain. Bilbo’s mission: to be the 14th member of a band of Dwarves led by Gandalf and Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), the long-exiled son of the last Dwarf King. Their goal: to reclaim the Lonely Mountain and its vast treasure from Smaug the Dragon.

But as Bilbo’s nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood) found out in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, quests such as this never take a direct path. Along the way, the 14 adventurers will encounter Orcs and goblins, wargs, trolls, and  majestic but aloof Elves. And, of course, somewhere on this unexpected journey, Bilbo will cross paths with an odd but dangerous creature named Gollum and its most precious treasure, a magic ring.

My Take

This, in a nutshell, is the basic plot of Tolkien’s original novel, which was more of a children’s book than its darker, denser sequels. The Hobbit’s 1937 incarnation is a slight volume that, if adapted directly, could have been made into a single movie.

Tolkien purists (and, perhaps, many film critics) probably wish that Jackson and his writing partners had gone that route rather than expanding The Hobbit into a nine-hour trilogy.

At first glance, the morphing of The Hobbit into a trilogy seems to be a simple money grab by New Line Cinema, MGM, and Peter Jackson. There’s gold in them thar Tolkien movies, after all, and studios love franchises because they’re usually safe and profitable investments.

Now, I’m sure that success at the box office was a factor in the filmmakers’ decision to expand The Hobbit by referring to Tolkien’s appendices and creating new characters and situations. And yet, had Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro stuck to Tolkien’s lighter, more child-friendly story, the contrast between the prequel and Jackson’s epic Rings cycle would have been jarring, to say the least.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and its two sequels, The Desolation of Smaug and The Battle of the Five Armies therefore have more battles and action sequences than Tolkien conceived in the 1930s. This does not jive with the original novel, of course, but it matches the tone of Tolkien’s later Middle Earth works, including The Silmarillion and his Lost Tales series.

There is also a great deal of exposition in An Unexpected Journey, including a prologue that introduces Smaug in a way that mirrors The Fellowship of the Rings’ introduction to the evil Sauron.

The first act of An Unexpected Journey is almost glacially slow and nearly douses the viewer’s enthusiasm for the entire Hobbit enterprise. Set almost exclusively in Bilbo’s comfortable Bag End home, it’s a talky, song-filled stretch where characters are introduced and grand, dangerous schemes are discusses.

However, once Gandalf, Thorin, and the others hit the road for their rendezvous with destiny at the Lonely Mountain, An Unexpected Journey gains its narrative momentum  - and the viewer’s attention.

Though The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey tends to focus more on the 12 Dwarves led by the bitter and obsessed Thorin Oakenshield, director Jackson’s movie finds its emotional core when it focuses on Bilbo. Martin Freeman looks like a younger version of actor Ian Holm, who returns to reprise his Lord of the Rings role of the 111-year-old hobbit.  
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’s cast includes new-to-Middle Earth actors Ken Stott (Balin), Graham McTavish (Dwalin) Lee Pace (Thranduil), Benedict Cumberbatch (the voices of Smaug and The Necromancer). They are joined by several Lord of the Rings veterans, including Ian McKellen (Gandalf), Elijah Wood (Frodo), Ian Holm (Old Bilbo), Andy Serkis (Gollum), Christopher Lee (Saruman the White), and Hugo Weaving (Elrond)  Jackson gets solid performances from his large company, thus making The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey worth watching.

Though I found An Unexpected Journey to be more enjoyable than I expected, it is not without its issues.

First, as necessary as some of the changes to Tolkien’s story seem to be, I still think that making The Hobbit into a nine-hour-long trilogy is, at best, a bit excessive.  I don’t mind the addition of darker, scarier elements to match the prequels to the Rings saga, but surely the tale can be told in six hours and with fewer plot twists.

Second, Peter Jackson decided to film and project The Hobbit trilogy at a frame rate of 48 frames per second (fps). The movie industry standard is 24 fps, and most theaters which screened The Hobbit projected the movies at the normal frame rate after a New Line and MGM conversion.

On home video, though, the higher frame rate makes everything look too sharply defined and lets viewers see some of the film’s artificial elements, including makeup prosthetics and painted backgrounds.

This hyper-reality may not be obvious on standard definition DVDs, but it is detectable on HD Blu-ray and 3D Blu-ray editions of An Unexpected Journey and its sequels.

Bilbo Baggins: I have... I have never used a sword in my life.
Gandalf: And I hope you never have to. But if you do, remember this: true courage is about knowing not when to take a life, but when to spare one.

If you are not a die-hard fan of long movies, J.R.R. Tolkien’s books or of Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, chances you may want to skip this Journey  Its 169-minute running time is a challenge even for lovers of epic fantasies, and the divergence from Tolkien’s novel will turn off many purists.

However, despite its many flaws, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey manages to tell its story of an ordinary individual (Bilbo) who accomplishes extraordinary things in spite of his fears and self-doubt. This is a universal theme in most myths from the Labors of Hercules to the Star Wars saga, and it is the core of Tolkien’s (and Jackson’s) Middle Earth legendarium.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2013 BD/DVD/Digital Copy Edition)Blu-ray Technical Specifications

  • Codec: MPEG-4 AVC
  • Resolution: 1080p
  • Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
  • Original aspect ratio: 2.39:1

  • English: DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 (48kHz, 24-bit)
  • French: Dolby Digital 5.1
  • Spanish: Dolby Digital 5.1
  • Portuguese: Dolby Digital 5.1

  • English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese

  • 50GB Blu-ray Disc
  • Three-disc set (2 BDs, 1 DVD)
  • UV digital copy (expired)
  • Digital copy (expired)
  • DVD copy

  • Slipcover in original pressing

  • Region free