Movie Review: Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)

March 1, 2015 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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I knew it was not going to be good. Having put myself through the novel, my motivation for seeing Fifty Shades of Grey stemmed largely from my curiosity over how much a quality Hollywood production headed by director Sam Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass’s real-life wife) could salvage an adaptation of the third worst book I’ve ever read.

The answer? A decent amount, but nowhere near enough. You can’t deep fry a turd coated in 11 secret herbs and spices and expect it to suddenly be finger-licking good.

Fifty Shades of Grey is probably the first adaptation of a best-selling novel where the dominant expectation is that it will suck because of the source material. Originating as a piece of Twilght fan fiction, the novel has sold more than 100 million copies worldwide despite universal scathing reviews. All the blessings in the world to author EL James for her remarkable success, but how this poorly written amateur effort — which was initially released by an independent Aussie virtual publisher — became a global phenomenon will surely go down in history as one of the greatest literary mysteries of all time.

By now you should know that the “erotic romantic drama” is about young, beautiful, virginal Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson — the offspring of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson), who meets and falls for the rich, mysterious and “impossibly handsome” Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). She likes biting her lower lip and he’s a sex maniac who enjoys flogging women and contractual negotiations.

The problems with the story and the characters have been, like Anastasia’s ass, flogged to death. People who have read the book would have anticipated this, but audiences fresh to this tale will be introduced to a whole new world of painfully awkward conversations, unrealistic human reactions and WTF moments of the purest kind. It’s one unintentionally hilarious moment after another, each gradually propelling the film towards “so bad it’s good” territory, but without actually getting there. I can honestly say that my wife, who never read the books, laughed louder and harder in this movie than any comedy we’ve seen in the last few years.

The film’s other drawcard, the eroticism, was surprisingly flaccid. I knew they had to pare things back to squeeze the film into an R-rating under America’s classification system, but I didn’t believe they could make the sex scenes even duller than what they were in the book. We’re talking soft-soft core; 9 1/2 Weeks and Wild Orchid it definitely is not. And I say this with an unblemished record of staunch heterosexuality (not that there’s anything wrong with that): there was not enough man-junk for a movie whose target market is young to middle-aged women. In fact, while Johnson showed off everything, Dornan’s johnson doesn’t even make a fleeting, or even accidental appearance. By the way, the S&M scenes were just horrible. Maybe you need to be into that sort of stuff to appreciate it.

So when you take out the moronic characters, a paper-thin plot and tame eroticism, all that’s left is a dull experience littered with trite dialogue, cringeworthy set pieces and tacky efforts at developing “romance” between the two leads, which is evidently difficult when the guy can only think about torturing the girl and the girl can only think about…nothing at all.

Still, you can tell they tried. The biggest issue with the movie is that the filmmakers were restricted in what they could change without angering the faithful fans of the novel — and the woman who wrote it. Apparently, James clashed constantly with Taylor-Johnson during the creative process and in the editing room. The author wanted the film to remain loyal to the source material, while the director wanted the film to be less shit. I’ve also read that screenwriter Kelly Marcel initially rehauled the embarrassing dialogue, but James vetoed her and a second writer was brought in to rewrite the original shit back in. The mess has been described as a “falling out.”

I think it’s safe to say neither Taylor-Johnson nor Marcel will be back in future entries, though they must still be credited for doing all they can to repair the damage. Taylor-Johnson does a solid job of infusing the film with a blue-grey colour scheme that’s pretty to look at, while also moulding an atmosphere that suits the tone of the narrative. Marcel’s biggest contribution is ensuring that the story is not narrated by Ana, so there’s none of that “inner goddess” garbage or her annoying soliloquies. Some of the more ridiculous facts about her from the book — such as that she’s never kissed anyone or had a boyfriend — are thankfully trimmed out. They even tried to scrape back the amount of pointless emailing and texting between Ana and Christian and all the excruciating back and forth about the contract details.

As for the performances, Johnson is actually pretty good as the mentally challenged naive Ana, the beautiful girl who has no idea men are even remotely attracted to her. Though she’s close to Ana’s age in real life — Johnson’s 25, Ana’s supposed to be 21 — I found Johnson a little old-looking for the part, but kudos to her anyway as she at least channels the book version of the character well.

Jamie Dornan is by all accounts a great actor who will go one to bigger and better things after this, but you can tell from his performance that he couldn’t believe he was in this shit, playing a piece of shit. To borrow from Arrested Development’s Bluth family, Dornan’s singular expression throughout the film said it all.

Jamie Dornan

The rest of the cast sleepwalk through their way for their paychecks. Eloise Mumford, whom I’ve never seen before, plays Ana’s best friend and roommate Kate, while veterans Jennifer Ehle and Marcia Gay Harden play Ana and Christian’s mothers, respectively. True Blood‘s Luke Grimes plays Christian’s brother Elliot and British singer Rita Ora plays their sister Mia, with the familiar face of Max Martini stepping in as Taylor, Christian’s answer to Bruce Wayne’s Alfred. Everyone involved seems to acknowledge that they’re just in it for the money and the CV-boosting publicity.

Having said all this, Fifty Shades of Grey is not one of the worst films I’ve seen by a long shot. It’s better than the book, which doesn’t say much but must count for something. By all means, watch it to satisfy your curiosity or so you can crack jokes at it with your friends.

The film leaves audiences hanging like the novel, and judging from its box office success — smashing several opening weekend and R-rated film records — it appears at least two sequels (they’ll probably split the last book into two films) are headed our way. That’s not good, because the only two books I’ve read worse than Fifty Shades of Grey are — you guessed it — Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed.

1.75 stars out of 5

What’s awesome and what sucked at Oscars 2015

February 24, 2015 in Best Of, Entertainment, Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

NPH

Another year, another Oscars.

As with the last two years, I had a blast consulting for Taiwan’s TV broadcast team, who continue to awe me with their superhuman skills and awesomeness. Last year was a breeze with Ellen hosting, but we knew things would be tougher this year with Neil Patrick Harris doing his extravagant song and dance numbers. As it turned out, it wasn’t too bad, with the majority of the event going according to script.

Anyway, here’s what I thought was awesome about this year’s Oscars and what I thought sucked about it.

Awesome: My predictions

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I correctly predicted the winners of 15 categories:

-Best Picture (Birdman)
-Best Actress (Julianne Moore)
-Best Director (Alejandro González Iñárritu)
-Best Supporting Actor (JK Simmons)
-Best Supporting Actress (Patricia Arquette)
-Original Screenplay (Birdman)
-Animated Feature (Big Hero 6)
-Original Score (The Grand Budapest Hotel)
-Original Song (Selma)
-Documentary Feature (CitizenFour)
-Production Design (The Grand Budapest Hotel)
-Visual Effects (Interstellar)
-Sound Editing (American Sniper)
-Sound Mixing (Whiplash)
-Makeup and Hair (The Grand Budapest Hotel)

Even more awesome than getting these right is that in two categories the film I thought should win rather will win actually took home the gong:

-Best Actor (Eddie Redmayne) — I thought Michael Keaton had it in the bag, and judging from Batman’s reaction (and aggressive gum-chewing) it appeared he thought he had it in the bag too
– Adapted Screenplay (The Imitation Game) — I thought they’d give it to Whiplash, to be honest

My misses turned out to be:
-Editing (Whiplash)
-Cinematography (Birdman)
-Costume Design (The Grand Budapest Hotel)
-Animated Short (Feast)
-Documentary Short (Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1)
-Foreign Language Film (Ida).

In hindsight I should have gotten at least a couple of the first three right (the others were just wild guesses) but stupidly thought the Academy was going to give us some surprises.

Sucked: Boyhood not winning Best Picture or Best Director

I picked Birdman for both, but it doesn’t mean I’m not salty that Boyhood missed out on Best Picture and Best Director for Richard Linklater. Technically, Birdman is a brilliant film, but if we’re talking about the most revolutionary film, the most emotionally resonant film, the most memorable film, then Boyhood wins hands down. It’s not even close.

Damn, even that song they played every time they discussed the movie during the ceremony still gave me the chills every time.

The snub is worse than Forrest Gump beating Shawshank in 1995, or Crash’s highway robbery of Brokeback Mountain in 2006. This kind of moronic shit seems to happen every decade or so, where the Best Picture winner might be a very good film in its own right but doesn’t hold a candle to the film that should have won when you look back years later.

As for Best Director, I can see why Iñárritu won. Birdman is exceptionally directed, and in any other year I wouldn’t complain. But man, Linklater spent 12 years on this movie, and managed to turn 12 years of footage into one coherent, well-paced, and moving drama. The ambition, the foresight, the planning and the skill required to pull something like this off is unparalleled in the history of cinema, and yet Linklater somehow managed it. For me, that deserves the win.

Can’t decide if awesome or sucked: NPH as host

I can’t lie. I thought NPH was going to be the best Oscars host EVER, or at least the best since Billy Crystal. The track record was too good to ignore and his Tony’s performance was jaw-dropping.

But for whatever reason, whenever anyone hosts the Oscars they seem hamstrung by the occasion and end up producing something less than what they’re capable of. Last year Ellen was too safe. The year before, Seth McFarlane was too crass. And do I even dare mention the disaster that was Anne Hathaway (not her fault) and James Franco (all his fault)?

NPH’s opening number was solid — good supporting acts with Anna Kendrick and Jack Black plus some impressive special effects. But it felt like he was holding back.

NPH’s jokes were largely deadpan, with a few eliciting chuckles but others falling flat. I think he’s the type of charming performer who does best in planned situations, because let’s face it, his improvisation could have been a lot better. The Birdman underwear stunt was a good idea, I suppose, but it generated more shocks than humour. On the whole, however, he was perfectly adequate.

I’d give NPH a solid B- on the Oscars host scale, where Billy Crystal at his best is an A+ and James Franco is an F.

Sucked: NPH’s prediction box

NPH getting Octavia Spencer to look after a glass box containing a brief case with supposed predictions he wrote several days in advance probably seemed like a good idea on paper. A bit of magic. An elaborate set up. However, the great reveal at the end — which was supposed to be NPH’s final hurrah — turned out to be a shithouse dud. Maybe he had to rush because they were running over time. Or maybe the writers couldn’t come up with anything witty backstage. But man, what a downer to end the night. He probably should have closed with another musical number if time had allowed it.

Sucked even more: reactions to NPH’s performance

Look, say NPH was unfunny and crap if you want to, but all this stuff about him being racist, insensitive and offensive is just plain dumb.  People either think too much or not enough; they jump to conclusions and make connections that aren’t really there. The complained about him “picking on” the black celebrities in the audience, such as getting David Oyelowo to read out a bad joke about the Annie remake in his exquisite British accent. They called him racist for getting Octavia Spender from the movie The Help, to “help” him look after his glass box. They said he made fun for fat people for telling her she can’t go off to get snacks.

Seriously, people! Get a hold of yourselves! They were jokes! Bad jokes, perhaps, but jokes nonetheless. Did it occur to you that he was just trying to diversify the ceremony given its highly publicized excess of white nominees? Maybe he didn’t even get a choice and was told to do so by organisers, the same people who ensured that there was an abundance of black presenters throughout the evening.

I’m telling you, the offense is misplaced. If you’re going to be offended, be offended because you expected better jokes from NPH, not because he was being insensitive.

Can’t decide if awesome or sucked: Spreading the wealth

For the first time I can remember, every single Best Picture nominee took home at least one award. And this is in an era when there are eight nominees as opposed to the old five. Maybe it’s a reflection of a world where everyone’s a winner these days.

Birdman was of course the biggest winner with four — Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay and Cinematography. The Grand Budapest Hotel was the second biggest winner as it took home a total of four gongs: three technical awards — Makeup and Hair, Costume Design, Production Design — and Original Score. Whiplash was next with three — Best Supporting Actor for JK Simmons, Editing and Sound Mixing.

The others had one each. American Sniper had Sound Editing. Eddie Redmayne took home Best Actor, the only award for The Theory of Everything. The Imitation Game got Best Adapted Screenplay. Selma got Best Original Song for Glory. And Boyhood had the deserved Best Supporting Actress for Patricia Arquette.

Everyone goes home perhaps not happy, but at least not empty handed. Even getting one of those Lego Oscar statuettes wouldn’t have been too bad.

Awesome: Everything is Awesome!

The most exciting part of the entire evening, and certainly the most scintillating performance in recent Oscars memory, has to be Everything is Awesome from The Lego Movie, as performed by Tegan and Sara and The Lonely Island. I knew the song wasn’t going to win, and they probably did as well, which is why they put in all their efforts in making the performance such an enjoyable one. And let’s face it, the movie should have not only been nominated for Best Animated Feature — it probably should have won it.

Awesome: Lady Gaga being normal and singing The Sound of Music medley

What’s going on with Lady Gaga? First she gets engaged, then she performs with Tony Bennett at the Grammy’s. And now she’s singing a Sound of Music medley at the Oscars? Has she become…conventional? Normal?

Whatever it is, she’s awesome. And her performance was awesome. She sounded like someone who could be singing in leading roles in Disney cartoons.

Sucked: John Travolta

I had a feeling they were going to do something to rectify John Travolta’s flub of Idina Menzel’s name (who has since become Adele Dazeem) at the Oscars last year. But that effort totally back fired with Travolta coming across like a total sleaze and mental case by touching Menzel’s face about four thousand times, or four thousand times too many.

Things got worse when people started pointing out what a douche he also was on the red carpet, when he grabbed Scarlett Johansson’s waist from behind and planted a big wet smooch for no apparent reason. The look she gave to the camera afterward said it all.

Awesome: Glory

Interesting that the musical performances, usually the most boring part of the Oscars, turned out to be the highlights of this year’s ceremony. Common and John Legend’s performance of Glory from Selma was a tour de force, bringing audiences to tears. David Oyelowo was captured with tears streaming all over his face. Oprah of course was crying. And for some reason even Chris Pine had a salty discharge running down his cheek. As my wife said, you never know with these great actors whether it’s genuine!

To top it off, Common and John Legend backed up the performance with one of, if not the best, speech of the night when they captured the award for Best Original Song shortly after. It was clearly prepared in advance, but it sent one of the two strongest messages of the night — the other being Patricia Arquette’s plea for gender equality.

Sucked: Nothing for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

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Take a good look at this photo. It is an ape. Riding a horse. With a gun in his hand. You can’t tell me this is not the best thing ever.

And yet not a single award. It even lost out on its only nomination for Best Visual Effects to Interstellar. Disgrace.

I’m hoping the Academy is doing what it did with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, when they waited for the final film, The Return of the King, to rain down the accolades it deserves. July 2016 is when the third film in the Apes series will be released, so I guess Oscars 2017 will be the year! Bwahahahaha!

At last, Mayweather-Pacquiao: Who Will Win?

February 22, 2015 in Best Of, Boxing, Sport by pacejmiller

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About six years ago, I jumped the shark like everyone else and thought the fight of the millennium between Floyd Mayweather Jr and Manny Pacquiao was going to happen. We all know how things turned out that time, and the time after, and the time after that. And so I was not holding my breath amid recent renewed speculation after Pacquiao knocked down outgunned challenger Chris Algieri six times in November en route to a shutout victory. But at last, the word — which came from Mayweather via his stupid app — is official: the fight is happening. No more false starts. No more childish posturing. No more excuses. May 2, MGM Grand, Las Vegas. Lock it in.

You can read all about the excruciating details of the negotiations and how it’s going to smash every boxing revenue record ever — elsewhere.

In short, it’s going to be a joint PPV by HBO (who has the rights to Pacquiao) and Showtime (who has the rights to Mayweather), the first since Mike Tyson took on Lennox Lewis in 2002. Mayweather dictated the terms and Pacquiao basically agreed to everything, including a 60-40 split in Money’s favour, the date, the venue, the gloves, who will enter the ring last (Pacquiao), and even the order of the names of the promotion (“Mayweather-Pacquiao”).

The random blood testing for performance enhancing drugs, which broke down negotiations the first time, has been agreed to, with Pacquiao claiming that he insisted anyone failing a drug test must pay the other party US$5 million. Analysts estimate that Mayweather will take home around US$150 million, while Pacquiao will come away with US$100 million.

Thanks to everyone involved in making it happen, I will now finally get to explore something just about everyone has had an opinion on for six years: who will win?

Who’s the favourite?

For the record, Mayweather (47-0, 26 KOs) is a strong 70-30 betting favourite at the moment, and there’s a very good reason why. He has never been defeated in 47 fights against 45 opponents (he fought Jose Luis Castillo and Marcos Maidana twice each). The defensive maestro has never been seriously in danger of losing a fight, having only been rocked a handful of times (he was “buzzed” by DeMarcus Corley back in 2004 and had his legs momentarily turned into jelly by Shame Mosley in 2010), though to his credit he always found a way to hang on and adjust his way to victory. He’s never even been officially knocked down (though he his glove definitely touched the canvas when Zab Judah hit him with a good shot in 2006).

Pacquiao (57-5-2, 38 KOs), on the other hand, has been knocked out three times overall and lost two consecutive fights in 2012 — a controversial split decision against Tim Bradley (since avenged) and a one-punch KO loss against nemesis Juan Manuel Marquez — before reeling off unanimous decision victories in his last three.

Both guys have slowed down at slight but noticeable levels. Mayweather will be 38 later this month, while Pacquiao turned 36 at the end of last year. Mayweather’s last KO came against Victor Ortiz in 2011, but that wasn’t a legit knockout because Ortiz was too busy looking in the wrong direction after becoming embarrassed by a blatant headbutt. Money’s last genuine KO actually dates further back to 2007 against Ricky Hatton. Pacquiao hasn’t had a KO since Miguel Cotto in 2009, the last in a streak of four consecutive stoppages.

Tale of the Tape

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Common opponents

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Strengths and Weaknesses

Styles make fights, and there’s no styles better matched than that of Mayweather and Pacquiao. One is a defensive specialist with once-in-a-generation reflexes, a supreme counterpuncher who knows how to adjust to any opponent and pick his spots offensively to frustrate anyone he’s ever faced. The other is the most exciting boxer-puncher of his era, a relentless offensive tornado with endless energy and destructive power in both hands who can throw accurate multipunch combinations in the blink of an eye from awkward angles.

While we won’t really know how the matchup will play out until May 2, there are a few relatively objective facts that can help us assess what could happen. For starters, we know that despite being the naturally bigger man, Mayweather will unlikely press the offense, though it remains to be seen whether he will allow Pacquiao to stalk him around the ring because he’s shown more willingness to go toe-to-toe in recent years (Maidana, Cotto, etc).

Here’s how I think the individual attributes of the fighters stack up:

matchup

Why Mayweather will win

There are some people out there who believe Pacquiao will be an “easy” fight for Mayweather.

First of all, Mayweather is naturally bigger and has a five-inch reach advantage. He’s a technically superior boxer. He has the defensive moves to neutralize Pacquiao’s punching power and aggression, and he’s also just as fast. Most of all, he’s a supreme counterpuncher, and we know Pacquiao struggles with counterpunchers. The argument is: if Pacquiao struggles so mightily against Marquez, who could barely win a single round against Mayweather, just imagine what Mayweather will do to Pacquiao!

The scenario that would unfold if the above turns out to be true would see Mayweather taking two or three competitive or even losing rounds to feel out Pacquiao before adjusting and dominating the rest of the fight. He would continuously beat Pacquiao to the punch with accurate right hands and pot shots to the stomach, shoot off sharp counterpunches, jump out of harms way before Pacquiao could set his feet to launch combinations, and use the shoulder roll to deflect punches that do land. He’d frustrate Pacquiao to no end and dance his way to a dominant unanimous decision. Mayweather would be too cautious to go after a knockout, but if Pacquiao gets careless or too reckless like he did with Marquez, there’s a good chance Mayweather might knock him out.

Why Pacquiao will win

Those who believe Pacquiao will end Mayweather’s unbeaten record are convinced that the Filipino has all the tools necessary to give the American trouble, especially now that Money has shown more willingness to stand his ground and engage.

Mayweather is said to have trouble with southpaws — Corley, Judah, etc — because the shoulder roll is designed for orthodox fighters, and Pacquiao will be the most dangerous southpaw he will ever face. Mayweather apparently hates southpaws so much that his father asked Top Rank (when he was promoted by them) not to match his son against a left handed fighter.

Pacquiao will be the fastest guy Mayweather has ever faced. He will probably be the most experienced fighter Mayweather has ever faced. He is the probably most relentless puncher Mayweather has ever faced — and with the power to hurt him. He will throw the most combinations Mayweather has ever seen. He has a Hall of Fame trainer who has studied Mayweather for the past six years while trying to come up with the perfect game plan. And unlike so many other guys Mayweather has faced, Pacquiao won’t run out of gas. This won’t be like Judah, who faded after a fast start. It won’t be like Cotto, who had the right attitude and power but not the speed or combination punching. And it won’t be like Maidana, who applied the necessary constant pressure but not the skill or ability. For the first time in his career, Mayweather will be facing someone who combines all the attributes — at least on paper — required to beat him.

The scenario for a Pacquiao victory would see him attack Mayweather from the opening bell, peppering him with non-stop combinations and lightning-quick power punches from all sorts of angles. Mayweather would block a lot of the shots, but not all of them, and his tendency to conserve his energy on offense will work against him with the judges. As the fight goes on, Pacquiao will wear down Mayweather, who doesn’t possess the requisite work rate to win rounds consistently or hold the power to turn things around with a single punch. In the end, Pacquiao will either knock out a weary Mayweather or batter him around the ring en route to a decision victory.

Verdict

Six years ago, I believed Manny Pacquiao would hand Floyd Mayweather his first defeat. Mayweather’s reluctance to throw punches, coupled with Pacquiao’s devastating power and tendency to throw a lot of punches every round, suggested to me that Pacquiao would simply overwhelm Mayweather with quantity over quality in capturing a close but comfortable decision win.

Six years later, it seems to me that Pacquiao no longer as the power to knock Mayweather out. He is also more susceptible to getting hurt after that brutal KO at the hands of Marquez, and is perhaps now less willing to take the risks he needs to pressure his opponent in every moment of every round.

Mayweather also seems to have lost a step and doesn’t have the wheels he used to have, meaning Pacquiao won’t have to chase him around as much. And can he get out of corners quick enough to avoid Pacquiao’s combination punching?

The beauty of boxing is that no one knows what will happen. For all those claiming they know what will transpire when these two men step into the ring — and will no doubt gloat if they turn out to be right — even the most educated guess is just a guess. And so my guess is that Pacman will have Money’s number on May 2, for the reasons above, but also for the reasons below.

While Mayweather deserves to be the favourite, it feels almost fated that his first — and possibly only — loss will come at the hands of Pacquiao. Despite all the talk of Pacquiao’s KO loss to Marquez and whether Mayweather has waited until Pacquiao has lost enough of his natural speed and power to take him on, it appears to me that perhaps Mayweather has slowed down even more based on his last few fights.

My prediction goes beyond simply that hunch though, as I also genuine believe that Pacquiao has a psychological edge. “Scared” is perhaps too strong a word, but there is no denying that Mayweather has been super wary of Pacquiao since the latter beat De la Hoya and flattened Hatton all those years ago. If he were so confident against Pacquiao back then he would have taken the fight head on, rather than impose — however reasonable they are — the strict drug testing protocols that weren’t around at the time. And bear in mind, Pacquiao did not flat out reject random blood testing — he just wanted there to be a cut-off date. Further, Mayweather was forced to settle Pacquiao’s defamation suit against him for the doping allegations, suggesting he has nothing concrete;plus Pacquiao agreed to Olympic-style drug testing in the subsequent negotiations years ago. To say Floyd didn’t want to fight Pacquiao just because he suspected his opponent was doping is missing the bigger picture.

Wanting to stick it to his hated ex-promoter Bob Arum seems like a more suitable reason, but even that becomes an excuse when hundreds of millions and your entire legacy are on the table. There’s a prevalent school of thought that Floyd only accepted this fight because he was being boxed into a corner. His PPV sales are down. People are not just asking — they’re demanding that he fight Pacquiao wherever he goes. Everyone’s saying his legacy will be tainted if he doesn’t fight Pacquiao and fight him right now.

Further, the nonchalant attitude he displayed towards the negotiations suggests to me that he doesn’t really want this fight. Pacquiao’s side was admittedly desperate in trying to push things along, but Mayweather appeared to be stalling at every possible turn. First it was the unreasonable demand that the PPV be on Showtime only, then it had to be the May 2 date in Las Vegas, then it was the 60-40, the gloves, and the rest. But this time, being the weaker negotiating side, Pacquiao simply agreed to everything. And when the networks said they would work things out for a joint PPV, the writing was on the wall. Even then, Mayweather was still caught up on the petty little stuff like ensuring that he’d be the one to announce the fight, and getting mad when Pacquiao’s side was leaking info after the contracts had been signed for a couple of days. That doesn’t sound like someone truly focused on the fight to me.

Of course, none of that will matter if Mayweather is simply better than Pacquaio. What makes this fight so intriguing is that an argument can be made that Pacquiao is custom-built to defeat Mayweather but also that Mayweather is custom-built to give Pacquiao fits. No matter which theory is correct, I’m banking on a great fight. Pacquiao won’t allow it to be boring. Mayweather seems to be the first opponent the ordinarily want-to-be-friends-with-everyone Pacquiao genuinely wants to punish in the ring. Mayweather has also shown that he can rise to the occasion in the face of adversity, and he knows what a dominant performance here will do for his legacy.

At this point, I don’t really care what happens. I just can’t wait to see it all go down.

Movie Review: The Babadook (2014)

December 25, 2014 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

babadook

So everyone was urging me to see this cool new Aussie horror flick called The Babadook. I didn’t think it would be particularly good, to be honest, but the 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes managed to persuade me in the end.

And wow, what a great horror movie. What a great Aussie movie.

The story, at least from the trailer, seemed kinda cliched. A mother (Essie Davis) starts to become terrified that the titular monster depicted in a pop-up children’s book she reads to her son (Noah Wiseman) might actually be real.

But fortunately, The Babadook is nothing like the typical boogeyman, monster-under-the-bed horror I had expected. While there is a handful of “boo” moments, the majority of the scares in this movie are psychological. It’s that eerie, uncomfortable feeling that creeps up on you and makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. There’s not much blood, and there’s very little use of computer-based special effects, and yet The Babadook is definitely up there as one of the scariest films I’ve seen for a very long time.

Another thing that sets The Babadook apart from most horror films in recent years is that the characters are actually well developed, meaning that you actually worry about them when something bad is happening to them. Essie Davis delivers a marvellous performance as Amelia, whose sanity appears to be hanging by a thread as her energy and patience is ground down to nothingness by her troubled son. Anyone who has had to deal with troubled children, or even normal children, will be able to appreciate what she’s going through and sympathise with her impossible predicament.

The way things begin to unravel for Amelia is executed with impressive skill, as one incident after another piles onto her despair, exhaustion and feeling of helplessness. She’s terrified not just of the Babadook, but of her own son, and even herself — or at least what she might do to him. That’s the brilliance of the film — for the most part, you don’t know whether the creature is a supernatural being, a real manifestation or her fears and anxieties, or just a figment of her imagination.

With this stunning debut, writer and director Jennifer Kent has set up what should be a career to look out for. It’s clear she knew exactly what she was going for from the very first scene, and the sombre color scheme she adopts really brings out the melancholy of the film’s tone.

What also stood out for me was the way Kent manages to un-Australianise the film. Not that there’s anything wrong with Aussie films per se, but the lack of strong accents and ambiguous settings do help open the story up to a wider audience and offer something that is more relatable to international viewers.

I don’t want to overstate the scariness of the film, because as we all know, bloated expectations can ruin even the best movies. My wife, for example, thought it was scary, but not that scary. Others have said they actually get more freaked out by cheap scares. That’s why I recommend checking it out so you can decide for yourself.

4.5 stars out of 5

NaNoWriMo Update 3: Hijacked by Serial Podcast

November 24, 2014 in Best Of by pacejmiller

Serial-2

It’s been a little while since my last unofficial NaNoWriMo update, and there is a good reason for that. After being derailed by work and whatever else last time, my progress has been more or less halted by my latest distraction/addiction: Serial.

If you haven’t heard of it, I’d recommend that you stop whatever you’re doing right now and check it out. I’m not a podcast guy. It’s not that I don’t like them, it’s just that I haven’t found much time for them — until now. Following several recommendations, I decided to check out this weekly spinoff from This American Life, where host Sarah Koenig explores a 15-year-old murder mystery, one aspect of the cold case per show.

I started listening to it under the presumption that the whole thing was a radio play, where everything was scripted and performed by voice actors. Even then, I was captivated by the Koenig’s storytelling and the way the case unfolded before my ears. When I discovered that the case was actually real, and that the recordings I heard on the show were real — hory shet, my mind was blown.

You should find out for yourself what the fuss is all about, but in short, the case revolves around the murder of 17-year-old student Hae Min Lee back in 1999. Her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was convicted of the crime and sentenced to life imprisonment, but he continues to maintain his innocence. It’s one of those bizarre cases where nothing really seems to make sense — witnesses are shady or unrealiable, the defense may have been inept, the police may have been corrupt, and memories are contradictory or non-existent — and yet there’s nothing concrete that can prove Syed’s innocence. There are ample arguments for and against Syed, and from what I can gather the opinion is split right down the middle. I’ll give my 2 cents on the case below.

Adnan

I ended up breezing through the first 8 episodes of the show, finding time to listen to it on the run and during exercise (OK, and during work too). I recently listened to the 9th episode and will be eagerly anticipating the 10th, the release of which has been delayed an extra week because of Thanksgiving. In the meantime, I’ve gone back and re-listened to some episodes to see if there are some things I may have missed.

It’s a fantastic concept, allowing listeners to try and solve this riveting case together. Pieces of information are added every week as the picture becomes either clearer or more muddled, and it is up to the individual to come to their own conclusions. As the popularity of the show has grown, more people have come forward with information they think might help shed light on what happened. Given that the show is recorded week by week, there are still new developments happening all the time, including recent news that Syed, now 34, is trying to get an appeal on the basis that he had ineffective legal representation.

The podcast is now listened to by millions, and it has generated unprecedented interest in the case, with new websites dedicated to compiling the available evidence. The podcast homepage is already filled with great stuff you can trawl through during or after listening to the show each week. I’ve tried to steer clear of a sub-Reddit for people to discuss the show because I have fears that I will become so immersed I won’t have time for anything else. But don’t let me try and stop you.

Anyway, I’ve gotten completely off track. What I want to say is that I haven’t been doing any of my NaNoWriMo writing at all, and that I probably won’t until next month. That is all.

Thoughts about the case

Here are my thoughts about the case. Bear in mind, I am fairly certain that we will never get to the bottom of whether Adnan killed Hae, not unless someone confesses. I also happen to flip flop between guilty and not guilty just about every week. Accordingly, these are purely my own worthless speculations based on what I have gathered from listening to the podcast thus far.

I think there are several scenarios available to us:

1. Adnan is guilty as charged, and Jay either helped commit the murder or was an accessory before/after the fact

2. Adnan is innocent, and Jay is the real murderer who framed him, either to help himself get off as part of a plea deal and/or for some ulterior motive such as jealousy of Adnan’s closeness to his Jay’s girlfriend

3. Adnan and Jay are both innocent, but Jay was coerced by police into framing Adnan out of fear they would pin it on him instead

There are other variations, but these are the basic three. Out of the three, I am inclined to believe that No. 1 is most likely. I want to believe Adnan is innocent, and I initially believed that he was. Jay’s story to the police is a completely incoherent mess that keeps chopping and changing. Nothing is really consistent in his narrative. He’s also a shady guy who has a propensity to lie.

The more I listen, however, the more I am convinced Adnan is guilty. I’m not saying the jury should have found him guilty in a court of law — I probably would vote not guilty myself because there is definitely reasonable doubt based on how flimsy the evidence is — but my gut feeling is that he committed the crime. I could write forever about this, but essentially these are the things that suggest to me Adnan has things to hide — things that cast doubt on his overall story of innocence.

– I don’t buy Adnan’s claim that he did not know Jay very well. It makes little sense that he would lend his car and brand new phone to just a “casual acquaintance,” even if they occasionally smoked weed together. It’s also not disputed that Jay often drove Adnan to track practice. Perhaps their culture is different to what I am accustomed to, but it feels like Adnan is trying to distance himself from Jay to make Jay’s story less believable. The “You’re pathetic” Adnan said to Jay before Jay took the stand could be construed in different ways (either “you framed me” or “you ratted me out”), but to me it suggests that they knew each other better than Adnan is letting on.

– I don’t buy Adnan’s insistence that he simply can’t remember anything from that day. As raised in the podcast, our memories are generally unreliable about even recent occurrences, but when something big or important happens we’re much more likely to remember that day, or at least bits and pieces of it. And the day Adnan said felt like “any other day” was the day his ex-girlfriend disappeared and he got a call from the cops about it. He said he remembers the call, but simply thought that Hae was going to be in trouble for running away. However, it’s not every day that your ex-girlfriend disappears, and it’s not every day you get a call from a cop about it.

– Adnan was supposedly still on good terms with Hae after she disappeared. And yet, unlike all her other friends, he did not try to page her after her disappearance. Not even once. That doesn’t smell right. His excuse was that he got the latest updates from friends at school, so it wasn’t like he didn’t care. But if that’s the case, he would have realized that the disappearance was serious only a few days (not weeks) after it happened, at which point it would make sense for him to try and recall if he could remember anything helpful from that fateful day, especially since he got a call from the cops. He might have been only 17, but there’s no way he wouldn’t piece the two together. Hae’s body was found 4 weeks after she disappeared. It might have be really difficult, but not impossible, if he really tried, to recall something — anything — at that stage. If I was being accused of murder, I’d be wracking my brain to remember an alibi, but he offers nothing. Sure, it was in the days before social media, but what about stuff he had written at school? Wouldn’t family and friends have been able to jog his memory? Heck, wouldn’t the call log have done that? It would be more convincing if he said he can remember some things about that day but none of it had anything to do with Hae, but to plead bad memory on absolutely everything comes across as an attempt to minimize the possibility of tripping himself up when questioned.

– I am absolutely baffled by Adnan’s lack of animosity towards Jay, at least outwardly. Jay is the ONLY reason Adnan is in prison for life, and Jay most likely knew something about the murder because he led the police to Hae’s car. If Adnan truly had nothing to do with it, then shouldn’t he feel at least a little angry towards the guy who framed him and would likely be Hae’s real killer? And yet in conversations with Koenig he says he blames himself for associating with the wrong people? That fails the smell test again. He doesn’t even appear to have wondered WHY Jay would kill Hae or frame him. If it were me those questions would be eating me up inside and I would at least try to come up with a theory of why I ended up in this predicament. Instead, of trying to build a case against Jay (“I don’t want to accuse anyone”, Adnan says), he simply says that the case against him built by the prosecution “doesn’t add up?” WTF?

– Adnan reasons for saying that he would have confessed to the murder if he was guilty don’t convince me. He says his parents would sleep better at night if they had an answer to the mystery rather than thinking that their innocent son is stuck in prison for life. He would still be their son and they would still love him knowing that he isn’t doing too badly in prison. That’s fine, but that’s also assuming that Adnan doesn’t have a problem with ending any possibility of ever getting out. He’s still relatively young, and as long as he can deny guilt there is a chance he can be set free some day, especially in light of the problems with the prosecution’s case.

– How easily Adnan has adjusted to prison life is also a potential red flag. An 18/19-year-old Muslim in the post-9/11 world in a maximum security prison full or murderers and rapists sounds like a rough deal, and yet Adnan claims he has no problems with anyone and is generally well-liked. It’s possible that he’s just been lucky, but it also raises the possibility that he perhaps really is the sociopathic manipulator prosecutors insist he is. It certainly would explain why there are people who say “the Adnan I know couldn’t have done this.”

– Jay told Chris, another friend, that Adnan killed Hae. This was independent of him telling the police, which lessens the likelihood that he concocted the story out of thin air. There was also the anonymous caller, who told police to look into Adnan. It is not believed that the call was made by Jay, which suggests other people know something about the murder.

– It wasn’t like the police didn’t have other suspects. Jay was a suspect. Mr S, the guy who found the body, was a suspect. Hae’s new boyfriend, Don, would have been a suspect until his alibi proved to be ironclad. And yet they decided to go after Adnan based on Jay’s testimony. If the testimony was so flimsy and the cops just wanted to to pin it on anyone it makes you wonder why they didn’t just pin it on Jay, given that he was obviously involved somehow and was giving them contradictory information.

– One thing that hasn’t been raised in the show so far is the fact that Adnan and Hae spoke on the phone the night before she disappeared. This is huge, because we’re supposed to believe that the breakup was relatively amicable and that both of them had moved on with their lives without hard feelings. The phone records show that Adnan called Hae 3 times between 11:27pm and 12:35am. The first 2 calls lasted 2 seconds each, meaning she likely hung up on him. The third and final call was a minute and 24 seconds, meaning there was time for words to be exchanged. What was Adnan doing calling her so many times in the middle of the night, and why did she hang up on him twice? And wouldn’t something like this have helped Adnan jog his memory?

Hae Min Lee

Hae Min Lee

My theory of what happened is rather simple. I think trawling through Jay’s witness statements and trying to make them match up with cell phone records and contradictory accounts from potential witnesses is all a waste of time. It’s all a big red herring. The reason I say that is because I don’t believe the timeline established by the police based on what Jay told them is what happened at all. Forget about the contradictions offered by the Nisha call; forget about the cell towers; forget about the library encounter with Asia — none of these things will fit because the timeline is wrong.

Based on Jay’s actions and what he has said I think it’s fairly clear that his primary aim was to cover his own ass. So he made up a version of the story in which he was not involved at all — without having thought about how all the other evidence would match. When the police tightened their noose around him he admitted to some involvement, and when a plea bargain was on the table he admitted to some more. By then it was too late to change his story, so maybe he went along with whatever police wanted him to say to build a stronger case against Adnan. But there’s little doubt that he knows something about the murder. So I agree that Jay’s story is not to be trusted as a complete version of events, but the one thing he has been consistent about through the whole thing is that Adnan did it. He’s adamant about that, even 15 years later. Unless there is something huge we haven’t been made privy to, I can’t think of a reason why he would make up this lie and stick to it so strongly and consistently.

So what I believe is that Adnan killed Hae. It may have not happened the way prosecutors say it happened, where it happened and when it happened, but the bottom line is that he did it. I also believe that Adnan and Jay are much better friends than they let the police believe, which would explain why Adnan would seek Jay’s “help.” The extent to which Jay is involved — whether he was there when it happened, whether he participated, whether he just helped bury the body — is not that important; what’s relevant is that he was involved enough to know Adnan did it. Jay initially tried to pretend he didn’t know anything when questioned by police, but he eventually caved under the pressure and gave Adnan up.

Adnan pled bad memory on everything because he didn’t want to be tripped up and he believed there was not enough evidence to convict him. He could have pointed the finger back at Jay, but he’d rather both of them get off than both of them go to prison. His lawyer, the late Christina Gutierrez, may not have done as bad of a job as we’ve been led to believe. She was a successful attorney who likely made tactical decisions to not go after certain witnesses (like Asia) and to not let Adnan testify because she knew they wouldn’t help the defense. Or maybe she knew Adnan was guilty so she threw the case. Either way, her later disbarment for mismanaging client money in my opinion is not relevant to her competency in court (as annoying as her voice is).

That’s enough rambling for now. I understand I could probably write as much about why Adnan is not guilty, but this is the way I feel about the case for the moment.

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