NSFCCDP Movie Reviews: Interstellar (2014) – Gravity with real actors and a better plot

Fimagesive of us went to the movies last night to watch Christopher Nolan’s latest scifi thriller, Interstellar starring the amazing Matthew McConaughey. As usual, I will avoid any spoilers here. The quality of the cinematography is excellent – on the same level as Gravity with that same spooky silence during scenes of high tension but happening in the void of space. There is some crazy physics here with wormholes and blackholes so geeks will have a field day. I am not a physicist so I cannot attest to the science here – most of the premises seem plausible, but there are several moments where I found it a bit challenging to suspend my disbelief. Perhaps that belies the Achille’s heel of Nolan who is trying to say so many things and cramming them all into three hours. This one comes off much better than the disappointing Dark Knight Returns, but does not have a Heath Ledger to place it next to the Dark Knight, and yet it still holds its own. In terms of recent science fiction, it is certainly superior to many of the recent bombs (Elysium, 2012, Battleship, etc). The acting here is far superior to that of Gravity (I’ll take Anna Hathaway any day over Sandra Bullock!) and the storytelling kept me involved for the entire movie (I wasn’t looking at my watch as I was in Oblivion after an hour and a half). My friends were all impressed with this one. Mr Twitter loved it and apparently even 24h later was still telling his wife about it. 2112.net, m.poulet and phi all enjoyed it as well – as the traditional post-screening beer discussion proved. We all found that there were some homes in the plot that we felt did not (fortunately) take away from the overall experience.

As for the plot of the film, it had pieces of originality but also had many homages to other classic SciFi: many sequences reminded me of 2001 and of course Gravity. The premise of a dying earth and a massive escape pod has been done before (the aforementioned horrible 2012 notably) so doesn’t strike me as incredibly original. The thing that sets it apart is the cocktail of physics and special effects along with the extraordinary performance of McConaughey. There is even the tiny possibility for a sequel at the end. I know, no spoilers! :)

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Paris Fall Art Expositions: Hokusai at the Grand Palais (until mid-January 2015)

hokusai_paysage_0There are quite a few big expos in Paris this fall, the most interesting, for me anyway, is that of Hokusai at the Grand Palais. I saw this one twice actually – once on my own and once with my daughter’s preschool class. It was very interesting to see the expo through my own eyes and then through the eyes of 21 5-year olds. It is a huge exhibit (like most of them at the Grand Palais) and more frequented right now than that of Nikki de Saint Phalle (in the other large exposition space at the Grand Palais around the corner). It was absolutely packed both times I was there. My daughter’s teacher said that a week earlier, the queue was over 3h long! Yes, Hokusai brings out the crowds. Is it the iconic “Wave” drawing that brings them out in droves or just Ukiyo-e in general? Has anyone really heard of the artist Hokusai or are they just drawn to Fuji-san like flies to the fire? It is hard to say. In any case, the exposition does a good job of surveying his entire career – with a massive collection of his drawing notebooks – the original manga – and naturally the infamous wave and Mount Fuji wood cuts. There is an excellent film in the atrium between the two floors of the exhibit about how the wood cuts are made and how the drawings are pressed. As I said earlier, the crowds are ginormous so head there early or arm yourself with courage and patience in order to really enjoy it. The catalog (50€) is excellent and a great way to go back over the images because there are SO many things to see in this expo. So many, in fact, that the entire exposition (with the notable exceptions of the wave and Fuji-san) will be changed in mid-December to expose the other half of the collected works. In other words, it is a good idea to go now and then in a month or so to get a grasp of the vast work represented here. There are few artists that were as dedicated to their art and the transmission of the techniques to later generations as Hokusai and this expo does an excellent job of demonstrating this. I can vouch for it in both an individual visit and with the kids but probably with a spouse or girlfriend it would also be excellent food for thought.


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Book Review: Reading Jazz edited by Robert Gottlieb (1999) – Worthwhile anthology of Jazz

2010780After year’s of receiving their accusing stares from my bookshelf, I committed to myself that I would finish both Visions of Jazz by Gary Giddens and Reading Jazz. The latter is an anthology of Autobiography, Reporting, and Criticism from the major jazz musicians, reporters and critics of the 20th century. Like Visions of Jazz, it is a bit short-sighted in its coverage of music after the 60’s (nothing about Keith Jarrett or Wayne Shorter or Joe Henderson among others), but for the period it covered, it had some essential writing. Here you have selections by Louis Armstrong about his arrival in Chicago to meet up and play with King Oliver in 1922, from Mile’s autobiography about his time with Cannonball, Trane, Bill Evans and later with Charlie Parker, interviews with Duke Ellington and Milt Gabler…all fascinating reading. This is truly a unique collection and pushed me to explore the biographies of my favorite musicians further. The reporting was fascinating as it was almost like being in the crowd at shows of Dizzy Gillespie or Fats Waller. I think there is a movie script in the chapter about the International Sweethearts of Swing. Lastly, the criticism section rounds up the major critical essays and even one classic one disparaging jazz criticism in general by the legendary Orrin Keepnews. I think that the school of thought that unites Giddens and Stanley Crouch against fusion and other last 20th C jazz phenomena was over-represented here and I would have appreciated a more open, inclusive approach. We all know that it will be hard to match Bird, Diz, Miles, Trane, Duke, Satch, etc but music did not end with In a Silent Way or Crescent. Jazz is a living, breathing thing and anthologies of this sort should be more even handed as to the developments in jazz of the 70’s through the 2000s.

If you have the stamina and want to really learn about jazz from its inception at the dawn of the 20th C through the 60s, this is a necessary book in your jazz library. Just do not stop there and explore beyond the limits of this book the more recent developments in jazz as well.

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TV Series: The Leftovers S01 (2014) – Interesting and Involving despite a slow pace

leftoversThe premise of a post-rapture suburban New York might seem a bit hokey, but the recent HBO show The Leftovers did a credible job of portraying it. Through its ten one-hour episodes, we see the way that people are driven slowly crazy by the mysterious departure of 200million of their friends and family. Some go as far as to create a creepy cult that dresses in white, is completely mute, and chain smokes called the Guilty Remnant. Some persist in maintaining a semblance of normalcy like Justin Theroux’s character Kevin Garvey (interesting choice of name given the Max Roach classic song Garvey’s Ghost based on the story of African separatist Marcus Garvey) but even his sanity is called into question. The performances of Liv Tyler as Megan Abbot and Amy Brenneman as Kevin’s estranged wife were both spell-binding. The plot moves slowly and as an audience we have to trust that the producers will make all the build up pay off and to a great extend this is the case in both episode 9 (the pre-Sudden Departure reveal of how everyone was before) and episode 10, the finale. There was a bit of Fight Club in the Kevin Garvey character which I found a bit distracting but I did appreciate the tobacco-spitting mystery man Dean (who may have been the equivalent of Brad Pitt, or not). But other than that, the show was highly original. The soundtrack was excellent with loads of classic rock tunes that I hadn’t heard in a long time although the brooding, foreboding theme music got on my nerves from time to time. Overall, an interesting and thought-provoking show that does make you question how you would cope should you be one of the Leftovers…

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TV Series: Boardwalk Empire S05 (2014) – Fitting but regretful ending to a classic show

bswm-ssiyaablls-largeI can’t believe that we won’t be seeing Al Capone or Nucky Thompson next year. Or Lucky Luciano and Bugsy creating Las Vegas. Yes, Boardwalk Empire came to a series end last Sunday with a bang. With only a few more weeks in Sons of Anarchy and the last Justified lingering on the horizon, it is time to pay some tribute to this incredible show. The show featured the only look back into the past of Nucky (and Gillian) and (aside from the too-obvious dental apparatus) these younger versions of Steve Buscemi and Gretchen Mol were excellent and insightful as to the characters we came to love over four previous seasons. This final season sees several major cast members bit the bullet (no spoilers), but there are no compromises here. Many complained of the 7 year leap forward, but I concur with several podcasts I listened to that this was an appropriate way to bookmark the show – the beginning of prohibition in S01 and the end of it in S05. Most of the cast favorites were back and were awesome (who wasn’t impatient to see Van Alden and Chalky) and some fascinating new characters were introduced (Matt Letscher was an unexpectedly great Joe Kennedy and Paul Calderón was a badass Archimedes, Nucky’s bodyguard). The action starts in Havana with Patricia Arquette‘s excellent Sally, but quickly moves back to New Jersey-New York-Chicago as the gangwar builds up to its explosive conclusion. The 8 episodes cover a lot of ground but do not condescend to the viewer and let us enjoy the characters with growing regret as we realise that these are the last 8 episodes of this show, ever. As for the conclusion, it had a great reveal right at the end and was a fitting finish to this show. I would say that it was on par with the ending to Treme or Weeds but still not as power-packed as the finales of Breaking Bad or Six Feet Under. If you never watched Boardwalk Empire, you should and if so, start from the beginning and have Wikipedia handy if you are not already familiar with the history. If you did watch it, let me know what you thought of the finale in the comments.

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TV Series: Gomorrah S01 (2014) – Great adaptation of the book and the movie

MV5BMTQ4NDM0MjI5NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTE2MDUxMjE@._V1_SY317_CR14,0,214,317_AL_Roberto Savianno has got to be one of the bravest people on the planet. Having taken on the Camora (the Naples mob) in the book and movie of the same title (both of which are excellent) and having been assigned two bodyguards by the Italian government due to threats on his life from criminal groups, he continued his fight with the creation of a 12-episode TV show. The show portrays the brutal, gripping story of the Savastano mob family of Don Piedro, his powerful and uncompromising wife Immaculate, his immature and joy-loving son “Genny”. But the real protagonist is Ciro “The Immortal” who starts the show as Genny’s best friend and sees his position as the right-hand man slowly erode due to Genny’s self-delusionary power trip following his father’s imprisonment. OK, I am getting ahead of myself and even risking some spoilers so I will be more careful. The show is all shot in the ghettos and nightclubs of Naples where the Camora is still in power with non-professionals and has an even more realistic feel to it than the shows it has been compared to, The Wire and The Sopranos. Entirely shot from the perspective of the gang, it is uncompromising in its violence and it does not condescend to us as an audience. It is a highly articulate critique of our modern times where criminal power has become so entwined with business and politics that it is our own modern society cancer. It lies invisible but ever-present in the underworld and rarely comes to light but for the occasional brilliance of brave souls such as Savianno. As far as acting, Marco D’Amore does an amazing job as the complex character Ciro for whom we really want to cheer but as in the best shows, he makes it such a challenge. A must see.

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Chi Ming and Marcus Miller in Shanghai

1I lucked out today in Shanghai. After arriving unseasonably early at 5am and crashing at my hotel until 9:30am, I headed out with a few friends to enjoy the beautiful weather, have a few suits tailor-made (less than $200!), visit the bird/cricket market and the wonderful Minsheng Museum. It is deep in the Pudong but totally worthwhile – the tea shop is excellent (make sure to try the fermented tea – the price is 68 RMB for all-you-can drink of 3 different tea varieties)


The museum has just temporary exhibits and until October 31, there is a great small expo of Chi Ming, a local painter. Mostly self-portraits, they were touching in their honesty, the cross-over style somewhere between expressionism and post-impressionism. I liked how he depicted what seems to be a failed past relationship. in Floating Heart to the left, he seemed to have crossed paths with the woman in the white dress and sandals, but being as he is on the train tracks and thus unable to change paths and unwilling to look back, she fades from his memory. All the paintings had this sort of melancholy but not in a heavy or overbearing sort of way. I found the expo refreshing.

3There is also a great sculpture museum in an old steel mill in the same complex and an outdoor sculpture garden. Definitely worth the detour to 570 Huahai West Road in Puxi, Shanghai. Actually, there are about 10 or 15 art galleries in there in addition to several restaurants and artists’ studios. And there is a Starbucks just a little further on the same sidewalk in a small shopping center. Note that to use the free wifi – as usual in China – you need a friend with a Chinese phone to get the access code by SMS. Sometimes the friendly employees will do this for you as well, you just need to ask.

4Anyway, as I walked out of the museum, I noticed a large poster advertising the 10th annual JZ Festival and remarked that Marcus Miller was playing only a few hours later! After a slight adventure in trying to find a wifi to get the address in Chinese for a taxi driver, my friend Seb and I headed over to the site of the World Expo Shanghai 2010 for the show. It was only 280 RMB (36€) and we arrived about 20 min early – time to scoot almost up front and wait for Marcus to appear. He is traveling with a sextet: Marcus Miller – bass, bass clarinet, Alex Han – saxophone, Adam Agati – guitar, Brett Williams – keyboards, Lee Hogans – trumpet, Louis Cato – drums. The band was TIGHT! My iPhone died so I couldn’t write down the setlist. After a hot and funky intro, the band settled into a few funky numbers and then cooked with Dr Jeckyl and Mr Hyde. It was awesome. I had never seen Marcus live and to watch him jam on bass so close up was spectacular. I saw Avishai Cohen on standup bass earlier this year which was amazing, but the raw energy of Marcus (who despite being 55 does not look or act a day over 5)  and the way he coaches and encourages his young band was remarkable. Alex Han started out with some humble solos but Marcus approached him and this seemed to set him on fire. On Dr Jeckyl, Marcus started playing bass clarinet while Alex switched to soprano sax and it was beautiful. I found it interesting that Marcus was wearing a pork pie hat and sounded very much like Pre on the bass sax and the Alex solo here was blistering. The Chinese crowd exploded in cheers and hurrahs. Adam Agati on guitar in his Nirvana t-shirt was occasionally subdued but on Dr Jeckyl exploded with a great solo complete with distortion, harmonics and some nifty fingerwork. Brett Williams was awesome – he may be the youngest guy in the band but whether comping behind the band or soloing (there was an early piano solo on, was it Detroit or Run for Cover?) which was particularly outstanding. Lee Hogans did a fantastic job on trumpet as well – even nailing the Miles Davis’ solos on Tutu before the encore. I really liked how Marcus would approach all of these young virtuosos during their solos and dance to their playing or comp behind them or just cheer them on. It seemed to me that he was carrying on the old jazz tradition of bringing up the next generation just as Miles did with him some 25 or 30 years ago. Louis Cato was solid on the drum kit showing some consistent chops. The encore of Come Together brought the house down – everyone soloed their butts off and we were screaming out in the crowd. I think the only things I regretted here were that Brett only had the one solo on piano (despite his synth solos being excellent in and of themselves) and that Louis never got a solo. In any case, watching Marcus jam is one exciting and fun experience. Marcus treated us to an intensely fun and rewarding 2h show.

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