2017-10-15

Blade Runner 2049 Review

I found Blade Runner 2049 to be positively captivating. It was long and slow but very immersive and I enjoyed almost every minute of it. Villeneuve deftly walked the line between paying homage to the tone and style of the original and exploring new, interesting territory. It is brilliantly directed, very well acted, and realized spectacularly through cinematography and score.



***WARNING: THERE BE SPOILERS BELOW***

The Good

  • The story is solid. There is a point of view out there that this movie looks pretty but has a weak plot; I don't buy it. I found the story - while not perfect - to be very compelling. It has elements of a classic hero's journey but it also has twists that subvert viewer expectations, thus rendering the mystery more . . . mysterious. I didn't see the primary twist coming at all and I really enjoyed how it wasn't a climactic twist (a la The Sixth Sense) but instead marked a huge shift in the arc of the protagonist. This way I could enjoy not just the twist itself but its implications in the third act.
  • The characters - even the minor ones - are interesting. I especially enjoyed that, although characters from the previous film are present here, this movie really isn't about them. Pre-existing characters are part of the context but this story belongs to the next generation.
  • Acting and directing are on point. This film isn't devoid of dialog but there is a lot of "white space," shots in which characters have to convey information through emoting and blocking rather than through speech. With rare exception, the entire cast acquitted itself with aplomb. I'm no fan of Ryan Gosling because it seems like all he ever does is brood on screen, but that approach worked really, really well here. And any time you can get Harrison Ford to throw himself into a role these days, it's a win.
  • This sequel asks the same philosophical questions as the first film - but it asks them differently. What does it mean to be human? What is love? What is life? Where are the boundaries between what is artificial and what is "real?" The original Blade Runner was hardly the first sci fi film to ask these questions but it did so in a way that captured the imagination, touched the heart, and incited decades of debate. 2049 asks the same questions but through different enough "lenses" as to be just as captivating and thought-provoking.
  • Viewers will be rethinking, analyzing and debating this film for years. Not only the abstract, philosophical questions but also the specifics of the plot and characters invite post-facto discussion. Some details become apparent later in the film but some weren't obvious (to me, at any rate) until hours of thinking about it and discussing afterward. For example, while watching the film, I wasn't terribly moved when K discovers that he isn't Deckard's child. Only afterward, while remembering how earnestly he questioned Deckard about Rachael (believing her to be his mother at that time), did the revelation really hit me in the gut. I imagine that this film - like its predecessor - will benefit from rewatching.

The Bad

  • There is some clunky exposition. For all the tightly woven narrative and artfully shown (just enough)-not-told plot and character points, there are a few moments when the film beats the viewer over the head with overt exposition. I don't know if this was due to low confidence in moviegoer intelligence (probably justified) or sacrifices to reduce the run-time (in which case I can't wait to see an extended director's cut) but each of these moments stick out as wholly incoherent with the rest of the film. They actually pulled me out of the film in those instances but, due to the competence of the rest of the movie, I quickly found myself sucked back in
  • The science of some key elements is questionable. I know, I know, you're supposed to suspend disbelief in sci fi but, when something goes against the basic laws of physics, it's hard for this scientist/engineer not to object. Once again, though, it's a credit to the quality of the rest of the film that it could pull me in regardless of my incredulity.

The Amazeballs

  • The cinematography and sound are simply outstanding. They aren't just pretty to look at and nice to hear; they conspire to create a truly immersive cinematic experience. There were moments in this film when I felt positively hypnotized, floating along wherever the director wanted me to go; it was sublime. Deakins (cinematography) and Zimmer (score) are the "it" people in their respective fields and this film showcased exactly why. Excepting for the few moments that I was pulled out of the film (See above.), I thoroughly enjoyed being immersed in this world - and that is saying something after 163 minutes!
  • The film captured the tone and style of Blade Runner but extended them enough to offer something truly original. Blade Runner 2049 incorporates enough of the past to honor its heritage but also offers enough new to be interesting. It is more than an homage and less than a copy - more like a variation on a symphonic theme. Doing anything with a movie as beloved as Blade Runner risks alienating fans but I think 2049 hits as close to the mark as can be done. Kudos to the entire team for the care that was taken with this precious IP.

I have been increasingly impressed with Denis Villeneuve's work. Most recently I found Arrival to be a refreshingly different type of sci fi movie - much less action-centric and more cerebral than other big budget Hollywood films in the genre. Indeed, Villeneuve's style was a perfect match for Blade Runner, which was itself a slower and more pensive sci film in a time when Star Wars had turned the genre into a special effects arms race.

When a Blade Runner sequel was announced, I was skeptical. It didn't seem to me that anyone was clamoring for more Blade Runner, especially not after Ridley Scott's Final Cut left the film in such a good place. When Villeneuve was attached to the project, I dared to hope but still tempered my expectations. Now, having experienced the final product, I find myself surprised and frankly, elated. Given all of the misses in attempts to reboot or revisit old, beloved franchises, perhaps Blade Runner 2049 will serve as a reminder of just how high the ceiling is if you can get it right.

2017-10-09

Enchanted by Ireland 1

Katie and I had a lovely trip to Ireland with her family! After a week and a half, we are positively enchanted by the Emerald Isle and will hope to return soon.


Our trip actually began in Paris for the annual Jimmy Buffett concert. Because we would only be in Paris for 24 hours, we chose to walk around and enjoy the great city rather than queue up for a prime spot at the Saturday show. This was just fine, though, as there isn't a bad seat in the house for these small concerts and we still had ample opportunity to catch up with our Parrothead friends after the show.

Sunday we took a flight to Dublin, where we were greeted at the airport by ads for Guinness - a refreshing change from the luxury watch ads that usually greet us at European airports! Katie's parents, sister, and brother-in-law picked us up at the airport (They had already been in Dublin for a couple of days.) and we were off to Galway. I hadn't realized how small Ireland is geographically but it only took two hours to drive from Dublin (East coast) to Galway (West coast).

Upon arrival in Galway we headed immediately for the Galway Oyster Festival! It was a big tent with, wait for it, oysters! And beer! Specifically Guinness! My first Guinness in Ireland was really lovely. People claim that Irish Guinness tastes better and it may well do but I would need a side-by-side blind tasting to test that claim. Taking it on faith, though, I just drank every Guinness I could get my hands on throughout the trip! I love Guinness on its own but it goes very well with seafood as well, including the Kelly(!) Oysters (from just a few km away), the mussels and clams, and the fish n' chips there at the festival.

That evening we went to The Quays, a local pub/bar/music venue/restaurant for dinner. The food (fish n' chips and beef and Guinness stew - which we ordered every chance we could on this trip) wasn't great but they let you add four oysters alongside any Guinness for a small additional fee so we liked that deal. The music was pretty nice too so it was a good start to the evening.

After dinner we attended Trad on the Prom, a show of traditional Irish music and dance. It featured unique Irish singing, instruments, and Riverdance-style dancing. It was sort of hilarious in that, every time the emcee would introduce a performer, he would remark that that performer had won X number of world championships. I'm not sure exactly how many competitors there are in the "world" championships of traditional Irish dancing but it would seem that the majority of them were there performing that night! This became a running joke of ours for the rest of the trip; with every performance we saw we wanted to know how many world championships had been won by the performers!

Our Monday began with a run along Galway's Prom[enade]. It was cool, foggy, and oh so green - exactly as I imagined Ireland would be! We followed this up with recovery nutrition at Dungeons & Donuts, a hybrid donut shop and tabletop RPG parlor. The donuts weren't amazing but the flavors were creative and the atmosphere was unique!

After a visit to Katie's Chocolate Shop (Both Barrett sisters' names were well represented by Galway food service companies!), we drove around Galway Bay to our next destination. En route we stopped for tours of Hazel Mountain Chocolate, a local artisanal chocolatier, and Dunguaire Castle, a 16th-century tower house located on a huge bog that feeds into the bay.

First impressions of Ireland were enormously positive. The people were - as they would say - lovely, the landscape was green upon green upon green, castles and ruins were ubiquitous, and the Guinness flowed like water!

2017-09-16

Family and Hurricanes and Terminators, OH MY!

We did a great deal more after our eclipse trip last month but multiple hurricanes distracted me from blogging about it!

After the eclipse in Charleston, we spent a couple of days at the beach in Hilton Head. It was a bit hot and humid but it still always does my heart good to feel the sand between my toes.

This midweek diversion was the prelude to a weekend trip to visit my brother and his family in St. Petersburg, Florida. The primary purpose of this trip was to meet the new addition to his family but we (I) planned it to coincide with the theater release of Terminator 2: Judgment Day!


The rest of Nick's family conspired with me to keep the visit a surprise from him so, when we showed up at his door Thursday evening (with movie tickets already in hand!), he was pretty taken aback. T2 was a favorite movie of ours when we were teens and we watched it over and over again on video. It was a real treat to see it 26 (!) years later in the theater again.

While the movie experience was fun, nothing can compare to spending time with the people we love. We enjoyed meeting our new niece and spending time with our rapidly growing nephews as well. It was a relaxed weekend of family, food, and fun.

Unfortunately, during this same time, Hurricane Harvey was wreaking havoc on the Texas Gulf Coast. We stayed in close contact with our friends in Houston and were pleased that, after all was said and done, everyone was OK. Some of our friends were unscathed, some had some property damage, and some effectively lost everything - this was a real doozy! Fortunately, though, even those who experienced great loss of property survived physically and are now recovering. 

It will take years for Houston to recover from Harvey but it was amazing to see the "everyday" acts of heroism even during the first days of the disaster: neighbors helping flooded neighbors evacuate, good Samaritans rescuing stranded animals, and volunteers pouring in from all over the country to help with recovery efforts. Sometimes in times of strife we see the worst of people but, in this case, we really saw the best of humanity.

I was particularly proud of my alma mater, Rice University. It weathered the storm well and, rather than resting on that privilege, more than 2,000 students, faculty, staff, and alumni spent the following week out in Houston helping those less fortunate to recover. Losing a week of school is a major blow to a 14-week semester but the "real world" education these students received through their community engagement trumps anything they would have learned in a classroom.

From the eclipse to family trips to hurricane devastation, it has been a roller coaster of a few weeks. We are fortunate to be OK but our hearts go out to those who were less lucky.

2017-08-23

Dear Mr. Potter

Recently I have been listening to a Harry Potter podcast that I really enjoy and highly recommend called Dear Mr. Potter.

As I've been getting into podcasts (Yes, I know I'm late!), I've been seeking out content about topics I really enjoy - which most certainly includes Harry Potter! Unfortunately the vast majority of Harry Potter podcasts are just superfans gushing, gossiping, and speculating about JK Rowling's next tweets - not really what I seek to fill my limited time! Instead I look for podcasts that provide a keen new analytical angle to content with which I'm already quite familiar.

Enter Alastair Stephens, host of the Dear Mr. Potter podcast. Formerly under the StoryWonk brand but recently renamed to Point North Media, Alastair is a professional expert on stories. He teaches classes on writing and storytelling, he offers services to review/critique manuscripts of stories-in-progress, and . . . he podcasts.

He is progressing through the Harry Potter series at the rate of one book per season, one season per year. He divides each season into ~8 episodes that progress chapter-by-chapter through the book, taking a deep dive into the characters, narratives, and general story craft of those sections. At the end of each season, he also analyzes the movie adaptation of that book.

I. love. it. It's like a book club except much more detailed and led/hosted by someone who knows more than I do about story craft - which is something that this Ravenclaw appreciates! He is in his third season (Prisoner of Azkaban) but I'm still catching up through Chamber of Secrets.

Looking through his site, he also has podcasts on the stories of Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and many one-off episodes about various movies and books so I still have lots of content through which to make my way.

The podcasts aren't perfect (for me). He records them live with followers asking questions in real-time. Because I listen to them post-facto, I then have to wallow through some dead spots during which he is reading and processing questions. At first this was a turn-off but my podcast app lets me skip ahead a few seconds easily, which I find gets past most of that. And, who knows, once I catch up, perhaps I'll even be tempted to participate in real-time too.

For anyone who enjoys Harry Potter, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, etc., I would recommend giving Alastair's content a try. If you enjoy it, consider making a one-time donation or becoming a patron (periodic, recurring donation); it's important to reward the content we love so that its creators can sustain it for the benefit of all!

2017-08-22

Total Eclipse

Yesterday we experienced a total solar eclipse and it was spectacular.

Sunday we drove down to Charleston, South Carolina, where we had reserved a room many months ago. Charleston was one of the few major US cities to be in the path of totality so it was packed full of out-of-towners coming in for the event.

Sunday night we went downtown and, at the recommendation of some dear family who could not join us, we dined at Amen Street, where we had delicious seafood - some raw, some baked, some fried! And chocolate cake, of course. :-D These family members made reservations for us weeks ago, which turned out to be necessary; our table by the door witnessed walk-ins being turned away over and over again all night.

Monday morning we [of course] sought out the best donuts in Charleston. Our research led us to Glazed Gourmet Doughnuts and we were not disappointed! We tried eight of the 13 donuts they were offering that day and all of them were at least very good; a few were even excellent. Their Solar Eclipse donut (glazed with custard then partially obscured by a "moon" of chocolate chips" was really special.

Nourished as we were, we finally set out to view the eclipse. It began ~13:15 local time, although totality wouldn't come until 14:45. For the first hour the cloud cover made it really hard to see (through eclipse viewing glasses, of course!) anything at all. With a non-trivial chance of rain all afternoon, it was entirely possible that we wouldn't be able to see the total eclipse when it happened.

Fortunately, as we neared totality, the clouds parted, and we had a great view of the eclipse. Here it is, shortly before totality, as viewed through the eclipse glasses:


When totality finally arrived, it was spectacular. Very quickly everything became very dark (and cool!) and there was a ring of fire in the sky that could be viewed with the naked eye:


The auto brightness of my phone's camera belies how dark things were. It is true what they say, that there is a huge difference between 99% and totality. I didn't notice it as much when everything was becoming dark but afterward, once the sun began peaking around the moon again, it was really impressive. At that point the light came rapidly and demonstrated the stark contrast with the total eclipse. Concentric rings of clouds lit up in rapid succession as the light of the sun returned.

We only had totality for around two minutes in Charleston but wow, what an incredible two minutes. It was otherworldly, an experience that I will never forget!

We left shortly after the eclipse and managed to avoid predicted heavy traffic. While we were on the road, the heavens opened up on us so we were really glad that the rain delayed just long enough for us to experience totality! Although we were only briefly in Charleston, it is clear that we need to return and spend some time getting to know that interesting town. We know there is more to it than just seafood and donuts!

2017-07-06

Hiking in Switzerland

A friend of mine recently asked me for hiking recommendations in Switzerland but, for better or worse, I spent most of my time running along the lake rather than hiking up into the mountains when I lived there. Finding myself woefully unable to advise him, I sought out hiking recommendations from my Swiss friends. Here they are below and many thanks to everyone who contributed!
  • Go up the Grammont and you can see the lake (Lac Leman): 
  • Val d'Anniviers would be my recommendation! Base yourself out of Zinal and there are plenty of beautiful hikes from there: 
  • Tour des Muverans!!! Faaaabulous! Did it with school, so ideal with kids! 
  • Check out Saas Fee. Not too far a drive, beautiful village and lots of good alpine hiking trails! 
  • A great resource for hiking and climbing routes is hikr.org. You can filter by location. Routes are graded, so you can filter based on the level you're looking for.
  • Zugspitze near Garmisch (near the German-Swiss border) 
  • Interlaken and the Grindelwald area are definitely worth a try!!
  • Mont Joly and Jonction (French Alps near the Swiss border) - both around Chamonix - are incredible! Definitely my favorites nearby Geneva. And Lapaz in Les Houches has awesome views of Mont Blanc on a nice day. 
  • We are using a tour company, New Experience Holidays. They have hikes in many countries—guided and self-guided. We are taking a self-guided hike called Bernese Highlights West (Hotel to Hotel) 7 nights. Approximately 5 to 7 mile hikes per day (hopefully only half day hikes). 
And there you have it - I hope these recommendations are helpful for my friend and for any other readers who come along. As for me, well now I have new bucket list items for my next Swiss visits!

2017-06-05

The Paris Agreement

Much has been said recently about the US pulling out of the Paris Agreement and the vast majority of it has been highly politicized by people who have never even read the agreement. Opinions are quite polarized, ranging from "It was a perfect agreement and, now that we have pulled out, the sky is falling," to "It was a bad deal that would have cost hundreds of trillions of dollars and killed our industries." I have read the agreement (It's only 27 pages!) and both of those hyperbolic reactions are inaccurate. I would encourage everyone to familiarize yourself at least with the summary (even fewer pages!) but below are my key takeaways:

GOALS

  • Curtail the rapidly increasing global temperatures (mitigation)
  • Do so by reducing global green house gas (GHG) emissions
  • Recognize that climate change is happening so become better at dealing with it (adaptation)

ACTIONS

  • This is a "bottom up" rather than "top down" agreement. There are no specific actions defined or required by the agreement; rather, each country voluntarily commits to its own contributions toward achieving the agreement's goals. There is no enforcement or penalty mechanism in case a country fails to meet its commitments.
  • Each country specifies targets for its own GHG reductions. For example, the US is targeting 26-28% reduction (relative to 2005 levels) by 2025 while Switzerland is targeting 50% GHG reductions (I'm not sure relative to which baseline.) by 2030.
  • Specific actions taken are meant to be compatible with economic growth, not a hindrance to it. For example, some actions might reduce the number of coal jobs but increase the number of solar jobs by many more.
  • Especially for developing and least developed nations, actions are focused on those with "co-benefits," actions that not only mitigate and/or adapt, but that also alleviate poverty, improve health, improve energy access and security, etc. A fantastic example is GIVEWATTS, which reduces GHGs but also breaks the poverty cycle, reduces respiratory illness, and improves education by distributing solar-powered lighting (replacing kerosene lamps) in off-grid schools and clinics in East Africa.
  • Countries primarily focus on reducing their own GHGs but the most developed countries have also committed to sharing resources (know-how, technology, and financial capital) with developing (especially small island developing) and least developed countries as they are hardest hit by climate change and have the least capacity to address it through mitigation and/or adaptation.
  • The developed countries have committed to making available $100B/year from 2020 to 2025 to help developing and least developed countries meet their goals. The $100B is spread across all developed countries but it is likely that the greatest GHG emitters, the US and China, will together account for at least half of it. The $100B is not an outright public grant (transfer of funds from one government to another) but rather a mix of public grants, loans, loan guarantees, and equity investments. The $100B comes from both public and private sources.
  • To date the US has committed $3B - of which only $1B has been paid - for a fund that focuses on adaptation for developing and least developed nations. The total size of the fund is currently ~$9B.
  • Beginning in 2018, every five years there will be a "global stocktake," basically an assessment of how GHG emissions are going and how much temperatures are changing around the globe. This is essentially a "management dashboard" to assess how effective the actions are in meeting the goals. It is also a chance to adjust course based on new data.

Looking past the polarizing politics and evaluating the Paris Agreement simply on its merits, I conclude that it is a good deal. It managed to bring nearly every country in the world together (No small feat that!) in common pursuit of addressing a goal that benefits everyone. No country is compelled to do anything by any other country and each country can contribute what it believes is fair and practical. It focuses on actions that align with economic growth and it recognizes the importance of adaptation, not just mitigation.

Regardless of what each individual country commits, having [almost] all countries working together to contribute something is truly laudable. The US, which [unknowingly and with no ill intent] played a significant role in generating the GHGs that have contributed to the rapid rise in temperatures, sends a really bad signal by pulling out of the agreement. It says either that we don't value the goal of addressing climate change or that we do but we want to do it by ourselves. Climate change is a global issue and it will necessarily require global solutions.

With the US pulling out, I worry about two reactions:

  1. Other countries pulling out due to, "If the US won't commit, why should we?" This could lead to a tragedy of the commons of epic scale.
  2. Other countries staying in with renewed commitment. This would be a huge blow to the US's increasingly tenuous role as a world leader. It used to be that, when the world faced devastating challenges (Nazis, natural disasters, etc.) the US led the way to the solution. Will we really just give up and relinquish that role to, say, China?
I have also heard arguments that our current president is just using this as an opportunity to "renegotiate" the deal. As you can see above, though, there is nothing to renegotiate; everything is voluntary and this is simply a framework for cooperation. I also find it highly unlikely that the president who is all but dismantling the US Environmental Protection Agency has any sincere intent to enter any agreement about climate change.

What do you think? Does this description of the Paris Agreement surprise you? Do you agree with my interpretation/conclusions? Have I made an error on any facts/figures? Let me know in the comments.

ADDENDUM

I have received many questions about China's and India's contributions to the Paris agreements so here is some more information about them:

China's targets:

  • Peaking of carbon dioxide emissions around 2030 and making best efforts to peak early
  • Lowering carbon dioxide intensity (carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP) by 60 to 65 percent from the 2005 level (~14% overall)
  • Increasing the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 20 percent;
  • Increasing the forest stock volume by around 4.5 billion cubic meters from the 2005 level.

  • To reduce the emissions intensity of its GDP by 33 to 35 percent by 2030 from 2005 level.
  • To achieve about 40 percent cumulative electric power installed capacity from nonfossilfuel based energy resources by 2030 with the help of transfer of technology and low cost international finance including from Green Climate Fund (GCF).
  • To create an additional carbon sink of 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent through additional forest and tree cover by 2030.
They estimate the total cost to achieve those targets to be $2.5T over 15 years ($167B/year on average). They will of course fund some of that domestically but they will seek financial help from the developed world as well.