Dial of Destiny Fails to Turn Back the Clock

The latest and presumably last installment of the Indiana Jones franchise came out this summer. Based on previews and the early press, Dial of Destiny did not seem worthy of $15 and an afternoon at the theater during an otherwise busy summer. Now that I’ve watched the movie via Disney+, that assessment has proven accurate.

The unfortunate reality is that 80-year-old Harrison Ford is a shell of the Indiana Jones we all remember. While Dial of Destiny contains a fun mystery and some entertaining action scenes, it is largely forgettable. Phoebe Waller-Bridge is excellent as Jones’ god-daughter, Helena, but ironically, the energy and vitality she brings to her part only highlights Ford’s own slow and grump-filled performance.

Some of this, of course, is on purpose. Ford wanted to bring closure to his character and this is where he and the screenwriters envisioned Jones by the 1960s: tired, retired, washed up and washing down his contempt for the era with booze. This nicely sets-up the “one last ride” undercurrent of the film, along with a subtle redemption arc and well-earned finale with the love of his life, Marion. Still, I’m confident most Indiana Jones fans were happy remembering the beloved character as he was in the first three films: strong, resourceful, quick-witted and full of hope.

This classic version of Indiana Jones is who we see in the first twenty minutes of the film, as modern CGI is able to de-age Ford during an action-packed flashback. Parts of this sequence are excellent and beautifully executed, tricking viewers’ brains into believing we’re watching new footage of 80s and 90s-era Jones. But then the character speaks in Ford’s gravelly, modern-day voice and the illusion is lost. While many aging actors still possess their iconic voices, Ford does not. Continuing the uneasy effect, many scenes look like a video game cut scenes rather than film. Director James Mangold shrouds the sequences in a vignette, denoting a dream-like quality, but it’s not enough. We know we’re watching a fake, and by the end you wonder how some of the scenes made it into a $300 million movie.

So this is a swan song for Indiana Jones. This installments’ McGuffin, a thousand-year-old dial which tracks rifts in time, coupled with de-aging CGI, would seemingly give the filmmakers license to revisit the previous four films, to fill some gaps in Jones’ checkered past, or to relive old glories. Alas, all of that was too ambitious for this film.

There is no clever time paradox, either. If time-travel is possible, you’d think, so are many ingenious twists and turns. The main villain, Nazi scientist Jürgen Voller, is killed in an overly graphic manner during the film’s opening scenes. His return in the 1960s raises many questions. It turns out, he simply survived. Ho hum. The film’s closing act, when the Dial is finally activated, does contain a modest twist, but for the most part the Dial was truly a McGuffin all along. Its time-tracking abilities and their effects on the plot are minimal.

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is an uneven film filled with many dubious choices by the filmmakers. Perhaps this is to be expected from a movie first hatched by George Lucas in 2008 before being passed along to a litany of writers and directors until its production could wait on Ford no longer. The film had to be made and it was. In this finale, Indiana Jones has his last adventure before settling down in Harlem with Marion and their friends. I suppose it is the ending he deserves, if there had to be one at all.

A Better Book of Boba Fett

Andor is the latest Star Wars series. The first three episodes came out this week and the show looks incredible so far. As I understand it, each three-episode arch will get a new director. I’m hoping that’s a good thing. The last two series, Obi-Wan and The Book of Boba Fett were extremely uneven. The Boba Fett series in particular had some great writing and some bad writing, mixed in with uneven acting, directing and tone. Because it was such a missed opportunity, I’ve been thinking about how it could have been better.

The Problems
What were the biggest issues with The Book of Boba Fett? The first is that fans wanted to see Boba Fett kicking butt, but the show is set in the Mandalorian time-period, five years after Return of the Jedi when an older, wiser and sarlaac-pit scarred Boba Fett is attempting to build a crime syndicate. Boba seems ridiculously out-numbered. His crew is in the single-digits until late in the series when he recruits a town of reinforcements. The scale always seems off. Lastly, the look and tone don’t match the plot. Any story about a crime syndicate begs for dark, late-night encounters but this series takes place almost exclusively during the day. Instead of scenes filled with the strain and emotion of hard choices, most scenes play out as ho-hum comic book panels where the characters don’t make things happen, they just bounce to the next page.

Fix Number One: Three Stories
One thing the series does well is to tell two stories: the story of the crime syndicate and the story of Boba Fett’s recovery and rehabilitation among the Tuskan Raiders, which we see in flashbacks when he’s resting in his bacta tank. The Sand People segment is both well-written and touching and shows us the reasons that Boba Fett has become kinder, gentler scum. Or has he?

My fix: weave three stories instead of two. Obviously, you can cut the inexplicable Mando-only episodes out of the middle of the series to save run-time. The third story, which we’d also see in flashbacks while in the bacta tank would be of a bounty hunter mission from Boba’s past. Presumably it’s a mission that goes terribly wrong. He’d display the cunning badass persona he’s famous for, as well as total ruthlessness. This would contrast with the Sand People storyline of redemption. The question going into the final series climax would be this: Can a man like Boba Fett really change or will the pressure of his predicament push him back to his ruthless ways?

Fix Number Two: The Crime Syndicate Story
The “present day” story is a mess. Characters are introduced but never developed and Boba never seems to have an adequate crew or plan. I’d restructure it as a series of problems and solutions. Each time, his reward is more allies. First, he negotiates with the Hutt Twins, then he manages to win over the Trandoshans. The whole time it’s clear his chief rival is Shaiz but we also learn the Pykes are coming. A storm is brewing and he’s out-manned. His next hurdle is winning over the Wookiee bounty hunter Krrsantan. It’s a big win, but when he tries to recruit Cobb Vanth’s town we see that the Pykes have recruited Cad Bane. Checkmate. Only as a showdown becomes inevitable does Boba Fett turn to his ace-in-the-hole, the Mandalorian. There’s a big fight of course, with different factions facing off, but Boba eventually triumphs. Shaiz is defeated and at his mercy. The question is whether Boba will delivery vigilante vengeance or true justice. Has he really changed?

Fix Number Three: Less Phantom Menace, more Rogue One
As I mentioned earlier, the bright, comic book look and tone of this series doesn’t match up with the expectations of a show about an infamous bounty hunter forming a crime syndicate. Read that description again and tell me if you see sunshiny days and smirking faces. With the introduction of the bounty hunter mission storyline, which could take place in dark city streets somewhere, the tone of the series immediately gets better. Add in some Mos Espa night scenes where bad things happen. Throw in a lightning storm. The day scenes work better as slow-burning suspense if we know that each night there will be a reckoning.

Overall, Boba Fett was both fun to watch and full of problems. Star Wars fans can be a tough crowd, but that doesn’t excuse lazy writing and uneven craftmanship. The Book of Boba Fett was a missed opportunity, but based on the first three episodes, Andor looks like a smash hit.

The Alone Finale

The finale for the History channel’s popular new reality show Alone will air this Thursday, August 20th at 9pm CST. Here’s a recap of the season (major spoilers) and my thoughts on what might happen on the last episode.

Week One
On the very first night, Josh tapped out after being accosted by a family of bears. It was bad luck that he was dropped off near an active bear den, but it also sounded like Josh was done the second he hit the ground. For some guys, the reality of what they agreed to do must have been tremendous.

On the second night, Chris heard a bunch of wolves howling, got scared and quit. Apparently he had a childhood fear of dogs. Chris looked to be out of shape and was uncomfortable in the woods without a firearm. In my opinion, he was not a worthy competitor. Next up was Joe, who lost his firestarter and, realizing he wouldn’t last, decided to go home sooner rather than later. I felt bad for Joe because he was doing well and was very comfortable in the wild. He could have gone far.

The bears ran off Wayne next. Brandt drank salt water and became ill. After a major storm, Dustin decided to call it quits too. None of these three were equipped for the long haul. After one week, only 4 men remained.

The Fantastic Four
The four guys who survived week one were all badasses. Each had the skills and attitude to win it all. Lucas is an amazing guy whose strategy was to keep busy. He built a canoe, a yurt and a ukulele, but seemed to be dealing with personal demons too. His mom told him, “Lucas, please don’t go crazy.” After six weeks Lucas picked up the sat phone and tapped out.

A few days later, Mitch did the same but for a completely different reason. His mom was diagnosed with brain cancer before he left and the more he sat in the woods, the bigger his concern became over missing his mom’s final days. I think Mitch made the right decision to go home in time to see his mother for Christmas.

The way I see it, every man had an internal clock and when the alarm went off, he was ready to go home. It was incredibly challenging to survive on Vancouver Island, but each man had the skills to do so. With the exception of maybe Brandt and Joe, each man left when he simply couldn’t take the isolation and elements any longer.

The Last Episode
It’s interesting that the two goofiest guys are the last ones to leave. They’ve both struggled, but have managed to lighten things up at times and deal with the solitude. I think Alan will win. He’s been eating better than Sam and has set up a more sustainable existence. Sam’s wife has a baby on the way and he’s not been eating well. How long can Sam last?

We don’t know exactly how the show will end. Let’s say Sam taps out. Will Alan be left to stick it out in the Canadian wilderness until he breaks? Will he get a phone call? Because this is television, I think the History channel has something dramatic planned. I envision a helicopter descending upon the winner without warning. We’ll see the raw reaction of the last man standing as he’s told he’s just won the first season of Alone. We’ll all watch as he leaves the wilderness that’s been his home, $500,000 richer and crying with joy.

Alone on the History Channel

I’m addicted to the new History Channel reality show, Alone. 10 men are dropped separately onto Vancouver Island, a remote area surrounded by sea water and home to 7,000 black bears, 200 coyotes and 1,000 cougars. Each man is by himself, with no knowledge of where the other men are located, limited gear, and no water. The last man to quit wins $500,000. One man only made it one night after he pitched his tent next door to a bear den. (Spoiler Alert!)

The show makes a big deal about the guys choosing only 10 items from a list of 40, not counting clothes. Here is a list of what each man “brought.” We do not know what the original 40 items were and the men were responsible for their own gear. If someone chose to bring a knife, they could bring any knife they wanted. Also, it turns out they were provided other items, like flares, bear spray, and a flashlight. Plus, each man was left with 45lbs of camera gear to document his struggle, and some men used tarps from the camera gear to build water catches, etc.

For the record, I’d have brought: 12×12 tarp, 20m paracord, sleeping bag, 2 quart pot, canteen, gill net, fishing gear, axe, fire starter, & a knife. Read more about my choices.

Each guy also has a satellite phone he can use to call for extraction. It is unclear if he can also call to request medical assistance and keep going, or how often the crew may return to swap out camera batteries, etc.

Still, it’s a good idea and after weeding out the weinies and a couple guys with bad luck, we got down to five worthy contestants. The first goal for each guy was to find a water source, and then to figure out how to make fire in a misty rain forest. After 4 episodes, several guys have proven to be very knowledgeable and resourceful. We’ve already seen one make-shift boat. Watching this show makes you think about what you would do in a similar situation. Plus, you know some guys probably provided a bunch of good footage and others didn’t, requiring some creative editing. But as usual, why only a bunch of white dudes? Where are the ladies?

Alone is on the History Channel, Thursdays at 9pm CST. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Update: On Mitch Mitchell’s Facebook page, he answers many questions about the show in replies to comments. He also linked to a video about the extra camera gear each man is issued. (7/14/15)

The Wire to be released in remastered HD

HBO has remastered The Wire in full-frame 16:9 HD and it will be released December 26th on HBO GO. From the press release:

The entire series has been beautifully re-mastered in 16×9 Full-Frame HD from more than 8,000 reels of original 35mm camera negative, allowing for a tighter fit on widescreen TVs and computer/tablet screens. The original negatives were scanned, edited, dust-busted and color-corrected with great care and attention taken to stay true to the look and feel of the original Standard-Definition 4:3 version.

And fear not, HD snobs, David Simon was involved in the process. He writes long here about the care that was given to scenes that were originally composed for the 4×3 format. Trade-offs were made, sure, but the transfer was not done haphazard.

There were many scenes in which the shot composition is not impaired by the transfer to 16:9, and there are a notable number of scenes that acquire real benefit from playing wide. An example of a scene that benefits would be, say, from the final episode of season two, when an apostolic semicircle of longshoremen forms around the body of Frank Sobotka. Fine as far as it goes, but the dockworkers are all that much more vulnerable, and that much more isolated by the death of their leader when we have the ability to go wider in that rare crane shot.

But there are other scenes, composed for 4:3, that lose some of their purpose and power, to be sure. An early example that caught my eye is a scene from the pilot episode, carefully composed by Bob, in which Wee Bey delivers to D’Angelo a homily on established Barksdale crew tactics. “Don’t talk in the car,” D’Angelo reluctantly offers to Wee Bey, who stands below a neon sign that declares, “burgers” while D’Angelo, less certain in his standing and performance within the gang, stands beneath a neon label of “chicken.”

That shot composition was purposed, and clever, and it works better in the 4:3 version than when the screen is suddenly widened to pick up additional neon to the left of Bey. In such a case, the new aspect ratio’s ability to acquire more of the world actually detracts from the intention of the scene and the composition of the shot. For that reason, we elected in the new version to go tighter on the shot in order to maintain some of the previous composition, albeit while coming closer to our backlit characters than the scene requires. It is, indeed, an arguable trade-off, but one that reveals the cost of taking something made in one construct and recasting it for another format.

Superhero Draft

On the latest episode of the Incomparable Podcast, a draft was held to build ultimate superhero teams. Not a single person drafted Superman OR Batman! I get that everyone is over Wolverine, but no caped crusader? Was the latest film that off-putting? My ultimate 7-person superhero team would be:

Superman – Every team needs a heavy and the last son of Krypton is the ultimate one.

Batman – Known as the World’s Greatest Detective, he’s also good with gadgets, rich, and has a ready-to-move-in hideout.

Professor X – He also has a great HQ, but it’s his near omnipotent telepathy that we’ll need to save the world.

Forge (X-Men) – I’ve always loved his ability to build really awesome guns to shoot at people. Plus, Cable is too moody.

Hulk – Smash. Hulk smash.

Spiderman – He may not be the most powerful, but he’s smart and will bring some levity to the morning status meetings.

Black Widow – My team needs some feminine charm and who better than a top-secret spy that looks like Scarlett Johanson? TEAM COMPLETE!

More TV Premieres

The sixth season of Mad Men started last Sunday and for big fans of the show, it was like a big juicy cheeseburger. So good. This Sunday HBO’s Veep, one of the funniest shows on TV, starts its second season. I’m also intrigued by NBC’s Hannibal which started a few weeks ago. A couple shows I need to catch up on are Netflix’s House of Cards and the Sundance Channel’s Top of the Lake starring Elizabeth Moss of Mad Men. Full circle!

2013 Tech Podcasts

My three favorite tech podcasts from last fall have been taken from me. John Siracusa shuttered his geek-minded podcast Hypercritical in December and Marco Arment did the same with Build & Analyze. Earlier in the fall, John Gruber moved his podcast The Talk Show away from the 5by5 network and host Dan Benjamin to go it alone. In a great example of how chemistry and tastes can change on a dime, I’ve never found his new podcast, where he is the main host with a rotating sidekick, to be as good.

I tried Andy Inhatko’s podcast for a while, but as much as I like Andy as a guest on other shows, his own show didn’t hold my attention. I also tried going back to Leo Laporte and the TWiT network, but those shows feel too produced and shiny to me now.

One podcast I’m enjoying now is the Accidental Tech Podcast with Siracusa and Marco. It’s no surprise I’d like it with those guys. In fact, I’ll check out anything with Siracusa (except Anime!). Marco runs the discussion, Siracusa talks off the cuff, and there is a third guy who chimes in occasionally (and I guess is running the equipment?). The three cover what’s new every week in tech and it scratches the itch. I’ve also recently started listening to Debug with Renee Ritchie and Guy English. The production values aren’t great but the conversation with iOS and web developers is fascinating. At first I was a little off-put by Guy’s obvious lack of podcast experience, but he has a degree of charm and does the most important thing an interviewer can do: he stays out of the way.

I also enjoy occasional episodes of Jason Snell’s The Incomparable geek podcast. Add into the rotation the hilarious Flop House bad movie review podcast with Dan McCoy, Stuart Wellington, and Elliot Kallan and you’ve got a solid slate of replacements.

Game of Thrones: Season 3

Game_of_Thrones_title_cardGame of Thrones: Season 3

The third season of Game of Thrones premiered Sunday night. The episode, titled Valar Dohaeris, wrapped up a few loose-ends and moved the chess pieces around a bit. It also showed us a darker side of Tywin Lannister. In the most moving scene of the episode, he completely dresses down series favorite and season 2 hero Tyrion Lannister. After neglecting to visit his injured son, Tywin leaves no stone unturned in his insults, and eviscerates any hopes the younger Lannister had of proper inheritance or succession. Later, Rob Stark and company come upon the remnants of Harrenhal, where hundreds (thousands?) of northerners have been massacred at the hands of Lannister’s henchman, the Mountain. The war is turning ugly.

In an equally dark scene, Daenerys Targaryen (the dragon lady) contemplates hiring an army of slave warriors. The seller demonstrates the warriors’ resolve and lack of human emotion by slicing off one of the man’s nipples. Ewww! It looks like she may not need the slave warriors, though, because she meets up with Barristan “The Bold” Selmy aka the oldest badass around. It will be interesting to see what he brings to her side. I suspect he has many old secrets to share.

We also see more of John Snow, who meets the King beyond the Wall and pledges his loyalty. And of course, even way out there they know he is the bastard son of Ned Stark. Poor Johnny can’t ever seem to get out of dad’s shadow. The much anticipated Season 3 premiere re-set the table for another fun season of scheming and plotting. Game of Thrones is on HBO Sunday nights at 8pm CST.

More: GoT producers tell Entertainment Weekly season 3 will be the best yet. Why HBO says record pirating of GoT is a compliment. The Atlantic holds a round table discussion on the season 3 premiere.

Oscar Wrap-Up 2011

From his interview during the pre-show, it looked like James Franco was going to bomb as co-host of the Oscars. The super-laid back guy always looks high. Put him next to the hyper Anne Hathaway and you’re asking for trouble. Indeed, the lovable Franco had a tough night, reading his lines robotically, often looking like he didn’t want to be there, and generally being unfunny. There was even one stretch of twenty minutes where Hathaway went it alone, leading many on Twitter to wonder if he’d been fired. While the opening produced bit was good, there was not a legitimate laugh on stage until Kirk Douglas showed up. He’s 94 years old.

Overall, the awards show contained a few surprises in lesser categories but for the most part went according to prognostications. The King’s Speech and Colin Firth took 3 out of the 4 top awards. Natalie Portman won best actress and won over the entire crowd with her honesty and sweetness. It’s now a toss-up between her and Sandra Bullock for the most beloved starlet in Hollywood. Melissa Leo dropped an F-bomb, Christian Bale seemed to forget his wife’s name, and the makers of Inside Job reminded us that, still, no one in Wall Street has gone to jail for the economic tom-foolery of 2008. The Academy is still struggling with how to present the best songs of the year. This time, they inserted two medleys into the middle of the show. I personally prefer 5 grand performances spread out across the broadcast.

Finally, we have to wonder who Corey Haim must have pissed off to not be included in the 2010 memoriam to deceased personalities. The Lost Boys star made over 40 movies and TV shows and, while he battled with serious drug issues and never was able to clean himself up, he deserved better. The guy dies and he still can’t get a quick headshot in a 5 minute montage. Ouch. Let’s hope James Franco doesn’t end up like that one day.