Monthly Archives: March 2011

Target is nicer and cheaper than Wal-Mart !

I think there are three types of Americans: those who prefer to find bargains at Wal-Mart, those that hunt for nicer but not-so-cheap bargains at Target, or the vast minority of those who do not care to shop at either.

Now, the pre-conception that Wal-Mart is cheaper than Target has recently been challenged by a study conducted by a retail consulting firm “Customer Growth Partners”. The findings are covered in an article published online on CNN Money.

Even more amazing is that when the Redcard discounts are included, the preferred customer card at Target, the price differential is an impressive 5.7 % on 35 “everyday products”.

Considering I was already rooting for Target, this just reinforces my preference.

Niels

IMDB Top 250: Blade Runner (1982)

My mission to watch all of the TOP 250 films listed in the IMDB site (as of March 22nd) has officially begun.

In picking the first movie of the long list of 124 films that still await to be viewed, I chose one of the few that I have always been interested in watching but never quite had the opportunity to do so. The movie is Blade Runner, released in 1982. It was directed by Sir Ridley Scott, who is also known for other great movies like Alien, Thelma & Louise and Gladiator. The film stars Harrison Ford, who was still at his prime having already been immortalized by his roles as Indiana Jones and Hans Solo in Star Wars.

It is clear from the very first scene (seen above) why this film is among the most influential motion-pictures ever made. Blade Runner relies heavily on the legacy of science fiction movies to create what was the most believable larger-than-life fictional environment in cinema’s history.

When analyzed from a purely visual perspective, Blade Runner takes many cues from Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”, conceived over 50 years prior. Both present us with a highly machinized society that thrives on monstrous corporations and social disparities. Blade Runner depicts its version of Los Angeles in 2019, a mere 8 years away now. The first picture we get is that of a heavily industrialized, dense, compacted city of unbelievable scale. As the film progresses, so does our impression of this future. We are taken from the calm, organized, clean and luxurious upper stories of the presumably gigantic Tyrell Corporation to a street level that is compacted, dirty, noisy, diverse and hectic in every way imaginable. Within a few minutes, Blade Runner explores topics that go beyond the central storyline. The movie offers a rather critical perspective of a world dominated by corporations where technology has not necessarily contributed to the betterment of life on Earth. The disparity of riches is apparent, and it is clear that the vast majority does not benefit from the extreme industrialization that the world has undergone.

As a person that is usually inclined to appreciate the visual before any other aspect of a film, I was perhaps devoting a lot more of my attention to the environment so skilfully depicted in the film than to the story itself. However, I believe this is exactly the intention of the director. The objective was not so much on the details that made up the plot, but rather on how this story would gain life within the unique environment that was created around it.

The movie communicated, like very few have, a sense of place. When you follow Harrison Ford, you get a sense you’re just another passerby in the busy streets of futuristic Los Angeles. We are offered with an “inside look” that simultaneously and continuously delivers a sense of chaos, of foul smells, of political and social decay.

It is to Ridley Scott’s credit that the overall success of the film was not severely hampered by the linearity and flawed storyline. However, if analyzed rigorously, we will find that the story lacks pace, where we find characters that seem to be a few revolutions behind the world around them. Such a discrepancy in forward-motion lessens the visual impact of the film but not the extent one would expect.

The storyline is not especially rigorous either. There is a lack of attention to detail that makes us care less about the conclusion to the plot and wonder more about what the rest of the city looks and feels like.

For the artistry behind the making of the film, Blade Runner is certainly one of the most finely crafted science-fiction movies I have ever seen (and one of the most influential), which is not to say it should be considered in any way perfect, or as great as some of its predecessors.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Niels

The 250 best films of IMDB

Continuing the theme of my previous (and first) film-related post, I have set myself a goal for the next 2 years: I will watch all of the movies that I haven’t seen that are ranked among the TOP 250 films of all-time according to the Internet Movie Database (IMDB).

The site is the largest and most comprehensive online encyclopedia of film. Much like Wikipedia, the site depends partly on the endless work of staffers that keep it up to date, and also by the countless contributions of film fans around the world that take the time to sign up for the site, grade films based on a scale of 0 to 10 and perhaps offer reviews of films they have watched for other users to read.

The IMDB TOP 250 has become one of the most quoted guides to find the absolute best films of all time. The recognition has come because it is suggested that most of the users that take the trouble to sign up to the site and give their opinions on films must have a reliable-enough appreciation and knowledge of the art of film. One of the most powerful pieces of evidence behind this assertion is that most of the movies that constitute the current TOP 250 at IMDB are widely considered by professionals of the medium as the best that have been made in the century-long history of cinema.

Now back to the task at hand.

I give myself a deadline of 2 years to explore the 125 films (exactly half !) that I have not seen in their entirety since there are several instances in which I have only partially seen a film.

Every time I watch one of the movies I will refer back to this post and offer a review of it. I am sure there will be instances in which I will completely disagree with what the broad majority considers as great, and there I will find half of the fun that comes with this mission, the other half being the actual viewing of some of the most incredible pieces of film ever produced.

I will not keep any order in how I go about watching the films. I will just randomly pick one at a time.

Bear in mind that some new films may be introduced to the list, and some might leave, which forces me to set all of the films that are there TODAY as the ones that will be part of my goal, not one more, not one less.

DEADLINE: March 22nd, 2013.

Niels

The new skyscrapers of Chicago

As the birthplace of the skyscraper and the center of many of the technological and aesthetic innovations in the field, Chicago still remains an architectural encyclopedia of modernity.

Chicago has enjoyed several construction booms ever since the dramatic rebirth that ensued after the Great Chicago Fire at the end of the 19th century. The disaster allowed the city to improve, providing an almost blank canvas for talented artists and professionals. The so-called “best generation of Chicagoans” produced not only the skyscraper, but it also pushed Chicago to the forefront of architecture.

The second boom happened decades later, around the 1950s and 60s, as the country’s economy picked up after WWII. During this period the city saw the rise of other great talents and iconic high-rises. Bruce Graham and Fazlur Kahn from SOM combined to produce masterpieces such as The Sears Tower, The John Hancock Center and the Inland Steel Building. The legendary Mies van der Rohe made Chicago his home and, with that, modernism was brought to the limelight with great projects like The Federal Center, 860-880 Lake Shore Dr. and The IBM Building. There were many others projects deserving of recognition, such as the great Marina City by Bertrand Goldberg or Lake Point Tower by George Schipporeit.

The latest significant construction boom came about at the turn of the millennium. The housing bubble that caused the last (and current) global economic crisis helped, at its peak, to fund the construction of a wealth of high-rises (mostly residential) for those who saw the urban life as desirable, especially in response to high gas prices and ever longer suburban commutes. While most of what was constructed lacked the ingenuity and pizazz of the past masterworks, there were a handful of projects that deserve further analysis:

The Aqua Tower (Studio Gang) – residential/hotel: without any previous high-rise experience, Jeanne Gang produced a new landmark for the city. The building starts from the basic modern box form that is broken up by a 9-inch concrete slab that is curvaceous and sensuous, cantilevering beyond the rectangular frame from 4 to 15 feet. There is an interesting duality of rigidity and dynamism that makes the building a very successful aesthetic statement. However, the impact of the duality lessens the further you are to the building since the slabs mesh with the rectangular frame in an indistinguishable and plain and dark glass box.

Another great feature includes a massive green roof over the podium that defines the first 3 stories of the building. The roof provides the residents amenities that include a running track, 3 swimming pools, cabanas and plenty of greenery. Structurally, the building simply relies in a concrete core and peripheral columns that allow for the slab to cantilever and for the building to withstand lateral loads.

The Trump Tower and Hotel (SOM) – residential/hotel: this is a building that does exactly what is supposed to do. It utilizes the site very efficiently and it was shaped and proportioned to respond to the specific views you would get from and towards the building from different vantage points. Neither structurally nor aesthetically does the building provide uniqueness or inventiveness. In fact, the proportions seem to be off, making the building rather stocky and short, asking to be significantly taller, as it was originally planned. What The Trump Tower sacrifices in height and inventiveness it makes up partly on the quality of the materials used and the attention to detail that a firm like SOM is known for.

The Chicago Spire (Calatrava) – residential/hotel/office: this massive project by Spanish architect and engineer Santiago Calatrava fell victim to poor timing and the crash of the housing bubble. The construction had barely gotten started when the economic crisis reached its zenith. All that remains is the immense hole made for the foundation work and the several conceptual iterations that were produced during the approval process. As a result, Calatrava can only be judged in paper, knowing that no one will quite grasp the effect the building might have had once completed.

It was, without a doubt, a daring and highly complex building. Calatrava adapted an idea he had already explored and completed in a little-known high-rise in Malmo (Sweden) in one of the most successful efforts of his career. The Chicago Spire was to twist as it got taller, with a rotating floor layout that slowly got smaller as the building rose in height. As it is to be expected with Calatrava, the core of his idea was rooted in a daring engineering form. Calatrava produces works that are objects that stand out by themselves and that often represent a stark contrast to its surroundings. The tower would have been the tallest structure in the United States, with far smaller neighbors in the near vicinity. In order to accomplish height and slenderness, the first conceptual iterations of Calatrava sacrificed floor area, rendering a few upper floors completely unusable. In order to make a more realistic project, Calatrava had to subsequently sacrifice some height (even then the tallest structure in the US) and slenderness. The tower’s twist was also to become more gradual in an effort to make the building cheaper to construct. Aesthetically, these changes made the building less successful, and the rendering produced seem to have been inspired by a phallic object.

Despite these interesting entries into the extensive high-rise library of Chicago, the city and most of its American counterparts seem to have fallen behind Asian and European cities that continue to push the boundaries of what is possible structurally and aesthetically.

In the next “architecture post” I will continue on this theme with a series that will be titled “Searching for the perfect Chicago Skyscraper”

Niels

Best movies of 2010 sans The King’s Speech

It is, like every random list you might find in the web, subject to personal taste. It is also a list that is impaired by the absence of some of the films that were considered among the best in the last full calendar year of movies among which are titles like The King’s Speech (Oscar winner for Best Picture) and True Grit. However, I can assure you that my analysis is based on a passionate interest in film, having spent an infinite amount of hours watching countless amounts of movies, reading film criticism, listening to interviews made to some of the best exponents of the medium, and having spent enough time to interpret and dissect what I had the pleasure (or displeasure) of watching.

My rating system will be based on a scale of 0 to 5. The higher the number, the better the movie.

A score of 5 will be extremely rare as it is reserved to those movies that I consider “fantastic” and pretty much “flawless”. Less rare but still very difficult to come by will be those with a score of 4.5 which would be just a step bellow, in the realm of “masterpiece”. The great and really good movies will mostly fall under a score of 4 to 3.5. Scores falling between 3 and 2.5 will be considered acceptable and average respectively. Once we hit 2 and 1.5 we are talking about movies with very few redeemable qualities that are poor in various aspects. Anything bellow that, well, it’s simply horrible.

Here are my picks for the ten best pictures of 2010 and a brief summary of what made them so great:

1. Inception (4.5) : a highly complex story that surprises, entertains and stimulates all of your senses. It is not only highly original material, but it’s a blockbuster that does not over-rely in the usual niches of action/thrillers. The film moves with amazing pace. It’s restless, emotional, intense and incredibly smart. The product could have been awful, but instead it was the finest work Christopher Nolan has ever produced.

2. Toy Story 3 (4.5): the very emotional end to the saga that defined and created the most consistent studio of the last 15 years: Pixar. It is a fit ending for a trilogy that connected with audiences of all ages because its message relates to everyone who has ever experienced friendship and camaraderie.

3. The Social Network (4): a fascinating story about the rise and fall of the minds behind the biggest social networking site in the world: Facebook. The script moves ahead with audacity and intensity. The casting was bold and inspired. Most importantly though, the movie resonated with moviegoers and critics alike for its raw and sometimes tragic portrait of a generation so consumed by technology that it has started to forget what makes us human.

4. Black Swan (4): despite being a very predictable story, this film delivers constant thrills. Visually, the movie has a stunning mysterious and tragic aura that greatly enhances the effect of the story. The acting was, without question, sensational, elevating the film with every gesture and every detail.

5. Scott Pilgrim vs The World (3.5): Hilarious. Visually rich and extremely original.

6. Salt (3.5): explosive, incredibly intense and with enough twists and turns to keep you at the edge of your seat. Angeline Jolie once again shows her unmatched ability to play an action heroine in a role that thrills and engages.

7. The Fighter (3.5): great acting, very emotional and moving story. Christian Bale steals the show.

8. Let me In (3.5): a remake that does not feel like a remake. A quiet, slow-paced but incredibly suspenseful film that shows that vampire movies can be of great quality when done right.

9. Date Night (3.5): it is predictable in its formula, but Tina Fey and Steve Carrel have a comedic ease and chemistry that elevates the movie to hilarious levels. In its ridiculousness and over-the-top antics, the movie still manages to portray a believable couple trapped in the middle of an unbelievable series of events.

10. 127 Hours (3.5): an acting tour-de-force by James Franco. The movie is almost 90 minutes of agonizing desperation, tragedy, nostalgia and physical pain, but the crafty and talented directing together with the amazing acting give the movie a power that inspires.

Honorable Mention – Kick-Ass (3.5): it received mixed-reviews when it premiered and is, perhaps the only film in this list that has not received the acclaim of the rest I have touched upon. However, there is an absurdity and outrageous quality to this film that makes it interesting, entertaining and excitingly controversial.

Final thoughts:

It wasn’t a particularly good year for movies I believe. There have certainly been better years in recent memory such as 2007 when we got classics like There Will be Blood and No Country of Old Men (two of the best movies ever made) in the same year.

No movie, in my opinion, deserved to receive a flawless or perfect score for I believe they were all flawed in some way or another. Inception could have been well-served with a more twisted and less linear quality to the “dreams”, while Toy Story 3 could have relied a little less on typically grandiose Hollywood scenes.

I promise to review the other notable exclusions in the near future when I have the opportunity to see them.

Niels

Best documented disaster in history

I thought I would delay what I had planned for my next post in lieu of the major disaster that is still rocking Japan, almost a week after the first major earthquake hit the island.

What is happening in Japan is, without a doubt, one of the most incredible and heartbreaking disasters I have ever seen. The images and videos that come out of Japan seem like they have been extracted from a big-budget disaster Hollywood movie. In fact, I don’t think there has been any other major disaster that has been as well-covered and documented as this one, which perhaps contributes to the great interest people have shown in it all around the world.

There are certainly many pieces of unbelievable footage, but I think the following link uniquely captures the extent of the devastation in a very modern and interactive way:

http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2011/03/13/world/asia/satellite-photos-japan-before-and-after-tsunami.html?ref=world

Niels

The King of Limbs

After a couple of weeks struggling to get my computer back to work (after my hard-drive was corrupted for some strange reason), I finally managed to download (legally from their website) the new Radiohead album: the King of Limbs. It is their 8th studio album of new material, and the 8th one I own.

My appreciation of Radiohead’s new album comes with a certain bias. I am an absolute Radiohead fan ever since I decided to buy their acclaimed “OK Computer” in my freshman year of college. It was a happy accident since I had barely heard any of their music. I had just seen a special on tv about the best alternative albums of the 90s and Radiohead featured pretty high on the list. There was something in the snippets of music that they played during the special that caught my attention and I ended up wanting to hear what all the fuzz was about. It was probably around that time in my life when I started appreciating the work of professional critics, and the art section in the NY Times has just started to become a part of my weekly reads.

Now…back to the King of Limbs.

The album, like most of their precedent work, is at first, second or third listen very elusive. It hardly ever provides a catchy hook or riff, the lyrics are not straightforward and they do not narrate a particular story. Radiohead becomes understandable and profound once you have given their songs a chance to sink in.

Whenever fans and critics alike think Radiohead will once again arrive back at their more traditional rock roots, the band delivers work that could be considered experimental and unfamiliar. The King of Limbs, like Kid A in 2000, is an electronic departure, where guitars almost entirely disappear and the drumming of Phillip Selway comes to the forefront to add some rhythm to an otherwise “beat-less” sound. The album does not excite and it does not thrill in any easily-defined way. The songs talk about deceit, about the desire to escape conformity and being unable to do so. Interestingly, all of the members of the band have two children each, with either long-time girlfriends or wives, which would lead you to think their music might be coming from deep desires to start over or to have taken different routes.

I do feel, however, that the King of Limbs fails more often than any of their previous albums. While Kid A was excitingly difficult and interestingly rich in variety, their latest effort seems more flat, an experiment that works at times but that also fails at others. The strangeness of Kid A lent itself to happy accidents scattered throughout the album such as “Idioteque”, a dancy/techno sound that despite being unequivocally rooted in the aesthetic of Kid A, it was also different enough to the rest of the songs to make it stand out on its own.

There are exactly three incredibly worthy songs in The King of Limbs: Feral, Lotus Flower and Separator.

Feral is bizarre, with a quick drumming and a rather eclectic sound that is never simple to follow. Feral is one of those experiments that work because it sounds different not just to sound different, but with a melodic purpose that is fresh and rich.

Lotus Flower is the catchiest in an album deprived of catchy songs. That is not to say it is anywhere close to what we find in any mainstream pop song, but it is certainly a much-welcomed relief to an album without any other relief.

Lastly, but certainly not least, is Separator, the true jewel of the album. The song has stunningly haunting vocals, gorgeous lyrics and a far simpler melody that features the only guitars in the surprisingly short 37-minute long album. Everything about the song seems to promise a return of Radiohead to more traditionally great rock records like The Bends or OK Computer. The guitars appear distant but accessible, the vocals remind us of a more approachable Yorke, and of a time when Radiohead could do different without trying so hard.

To enjoy the video for Lotus Flower follow this link:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cfOa1a8hYP8

Niels

Note to self and Stanley

This is a blog to communicate my ideas, my opinions and my feelings upon anything that I deem of value or interest.

This is a space in which I will try to bring my artistic side to the fore. I spend a lot of time thinking about architecture, film, music, poetry, fiction/non-fiction novels, pop culture and, of course, my passion: soccer, which to me and many others around the world is very much an art form. All of these will probably define this blog, which is to say, I will do my very best to leave my personal life private.

I will attempt to update this site as often as possible and, as a forewarning to anyone who will ever read a line in this blog, I could possibly ramble at times, often losing myself in a subject I explore.

I tend to thrive on sarcasm and not taking life too seriously. Only those very dear to me have the capacity to hurt me, and I would encourage anyone who reads to not take anything I say personally if my views offend you in any way. As they say, the truth is too complex to be absolute, it is always subject to interpretation and context.

I will end my first post by referring to an article I have just read in www. rollingstone.com that dates back to 1987. It is an interview they made to one of the great, if not greatest, film director of all time, Mr. Stanley Kubrick. Enjoy:

http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/news/the-rolling-stone-interview-stanley-kubrick-in-1987-20110307?page=1

Niels