Syriana (***)

Posted on December 27th, 2005 in Movie Reviews by EngineerBoy

First of all, be prepared to pay attention. If you’re not in the mood to stay focused and track details and make logical jumps and not be spoon-fed the typical, ham-handed, Hollywood hoopla, then skip this movie and go see King Kong. However, if you’re in a thoughtful mood and want to be challenged, educated, and entertained, then go see Syriana.

It also helps if you have an interest in geopolitics and a healthy skepticism that causes you to wonder what the differences are between what the government says, what the news reports, and what reality is. Syriana tells a complicated story by following several key characters and showing their points of view as they interact, intersect, or pass in the night.

The backdrop of the story is the oil bidness and how the trillions of dollars involved end up causing oil companies to act as nation-states, and also causes the disenfranchised of the world to direct their hatred at the oil companies in the same way they hate fat, comfortable western nations.

The movie is a fictionalized story based on a non-fiction book by a former CIA agent who worked the Middle East beat back in the 80’s. The book is called “See No Evil”, by Robert Baer. I have not yet read the book, but plan to do so very soon.

The story borders on being opaque, and I had to lean over to Mynagirl more than once and whisper stuff like “Which brother is he?” and “Is that somebody we’re already supposed to know?”. But it gives you just enough of the story so that even though the blanks aren’t all filled in, you’re able to get the gist of it. I like that in a movie…challenge me to keep up and don’t feel you have to have some character exposit everything for the audience.

Along with its intricate plotting the film also has great acting and directing. George Clooney disappears into his role as a the CIA agent, sporting a full beard and a few more pounds that make him seem much more Everyman-y and much less Clooney-y. Then there’s Christopher Plummer – yes, that Christopher Plummer, from The Sound of Music – turning in a chillingly effective performance as a behind-the-scense string-puller. Matt Damon is also effective as the eager and idealistic consultant.

If you’re comfortable having a black-and-white view of the world, and you don’t want that worldview challenged, you should skip this film. Everything and everybody in this film is some shade of grey and while some of the characters are truly bad, none are truly good in the typical Hollywood sense. But if you have an open mind and are energized by challenges then this might be the movie for you.

McCain’s Market: Gourmet in the Houston Heights

Posted on December 10th, 2005 in Houston by mynagirl

McCain’s Market

Heights Blvd at White Oak (6th)

Houston, Texas

I had been waiting. The fancy new stone shopping center put up in the Heights had been empty for almost two years, except for an antiques store that came and went. Then I was watching — coffee cups and cappucino machines appeared in the window. Finally! A good coffee place in the Heights! Maybe a Starbucks? Then a few days later, a Boar’s Head deli sign on the wall was visible… clearly this place was going to be more than just a little corner coffee shop.

Finally it opened! It took us about a week to get in there, but we finally stopped in today. Wow, what a place! Gourmet spaghetti sauces, Napa Valley buttermilk pancake mix with exotic syrups (boysenberry merlot!), a great cheese case, a few choice bits of produce (shallots!), fancy teas, chocolates (fabulous dark Parisian chocolate with orange peel!) unbelievable olive oil and fresh bread, and a deli case with… Prasek’s sausage from Prasek’s Hill Country Smokehouse in Hillje, Texas. This place is on the way to Engineerboy’s hometown of Port Lavaca and a regular stop for us when we drive there. The place is an authentic Czech wonder, with their famous sausage and true Czech kolaches (fruit kolaches, not meat). Alas, Jason, the proprietor at McCain’s informed us that they haven’t figured out a way to bring those kolaches up to the Market yet. But it was a great treat for Engineerboy to find the hometown delicacy of the sausage right here in the Heights.

The place is everything that new retail in the Heights should be — small and neighbor-friendly, with an unbelievable selection of fancy goods. I could easily migrate to a European model of stopping at the market on the way home every night for fancy yummies — tonight’s fare was a baguette, infused olive oil for dipping, fresh apples, and some incredible aged Wisconsin cheddar — along with Pomegranate soda and a decaf cappucino. Oh, and that dark chocolate with orange rinds in it. Yum! Engineerboy feasted on Prasek’s and buttered noodles along with Raspberry tea sweetened with cane sugar. Suffice it to say we were imminently pleased with dinner. And knowing that the place is open at 7 am on weekdays might make it a regular on-the-way-to-work kinda place.

I suspect they’ll be seeing a lot more of us.

Broken (see review for rating)

Posted on December 4th, 2005 in Movie Reviews by EngineerBoy

The producers of the short film clip “Broken” were nice enough to send me a review copy on DVD. There’s an interesting story behind this short film, as it was produced by independent film makers on a shoestring to serve as a demonstration of their film making skills, a sort of artistic audition, if you will. The difficulty on judging this piece stems from trying to figure out if it should be judged in the realm of Hollywood films (to which it aspires) or in the realm of shoestring, independent films (which it is). My only choice is to rate it both ways, so here goes.

Shoestring Film Rating (***½, grading on a curve)

If I had been shown this short film without having previous knowledge I would have assumed that it was from some schlocky new UPN/WB television series about spies. It’s got sort of an Alias-meets-Consipiracy-Theory-meets-Xena-meets-Seven kind of feel to it, but with cornier writing and acting. For a network television show or a Hollywood film, that would be faint praise. However, for something done in the manner of this short film, it’s actually very good. So, from the perspective of a couple of normal folks spending their own money to put something together, this film rocks.

Absolute Film Rating (*½, no curve)

However, if we ignore the origins of this piece, it comes in at a bit below average for Hollywood/network TV fare. The dialog and acting are sometimes okay, usually corny. The artistic direction is a bit trite with all the characters affecting the most obvious trappings of their stereotype. For example, the main bad guy’s schtick is he plays a harmonica, and the various henchpeople are tattooed, muscled, pleather-wearing, and/or cartoonishly menacing depending on the particular well-known caricature being attempted.

Overall Rating (**, combined rating)

So, if I put that all together I say that this is overall an average piece, but with flashes of talent, imagination, and drive that clearly demonstrate that the people behind it could probably step up to the major leagues. I think that was the purpose the producers had for this film, and in that I think they have succeeded. Consider that they went out of their way to locate this website, contact us, send us the DVD gratis, and continue to communicate to elicit feedback. They clearly want people to see and review their work.
They’ve even gotten a mention from Roger Ebert. They have also put a lot of work into their web site, where you can read more about their production of this film and its effects, and even buy a copy of you’re interested. In particular, if you have an interest in the making of film, the information on this site and on their DVD is incredibly interesting and entertaining.

For me, as a film aficianado, seeing people creating works like this is like a breath of fresh air. Yes, the film aspires to

Why Movie Theatres are Losing Patrons

Posted on December 3rd, 2005 in Commentary,Entertainment,Movie Reviews by mynagirl

Nobody Goes to the Movies Anymore

There’s much ballyhoo and boo-hoo in the press these days about how movie theatre revenues are declining. Nobody “goes to the movies” anymore. DVDs are too prevalent and come out so quickly. Moviegoers just aren’t as excited about going to the movies.

One possibility is that the movie quality is declining. I know Engineerboy feels this way, at least in part. Make good, interesting movies that people want to see, and they’ll go to the theatres.

But that’s not entirely true. Sure, a theatre packed with Syrianas and When Harry Met Sallys and Full Metal Jackets would be great, and you might see more people — although some potential moviegoers may want more Dukes of Hazzards instead (which actually wasn’t a bad movie…). But the truth is, at least for people like Engineerboy and me, going to the movies is largely about the experience as much as it is the film content itself. Granted, if the only offerings at the Googleplex were Deuce Bigalow Three through Thirty-Three, we might take a pass. However, we’ll go to the movies even for a mediocre offering just to have a nice social afternoon escaping from reality, snuggling next to each other in the seats, and munching on treats.

But our urge to go for even a mediocre offering dims in the face of the waning experience that is “Going to the Movies”. Movie theatres could do SO much to improve the experience and pull people in, almost regardless of the quality of the film itself.

What the Hell are Squinkles?!

First off, improve the concessions. For some of us, this is almost the whole point of the “Going to the Movies” event… the fresh popcorn, the Milk Duds, the fountain Cokes. But movies no longer have “traditional” candy, I was informed… No Milk Duds, no Whoppers, no Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. About the only recognizable offering among the weird disgusting-looking candies were M&M’s. I’m sure somewhere at the corporate level a bean-head decided that evil alliances with sub-par candy providers were a good financial decision, and it may have looked really attractive on paper. But what 35-to-40-year-old has great memories of Squinkles at the theatre when they were a kid? I bet you if they just bought from the various vendors without regard for alliances and simply bought with the immense buying power they wield, they’d have a fully stocked display case of REAL candy that might make people actually want to come to the movies. But it’s a long-return payoff to improve the bottom line, unlike simply slashing your “treat” providers to UnknownCandyCo.

And improve the popcorn… I mean, the stuff they put on it isn’t even labeled as “Butter Flavoring”. It’s “Golden Flavoring”. If that doesn’t scare you, it should. It’s just flavored oil. Eww. There’s a classic theatre here in River Oaks from a boutique chain (Landmark Theatres)