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Monday, February 13, 2017

VIZIO Crave 360 Wireless Speaker Review

SmartCast speakers and soundbars can be connected wirelessly throughout the house. Photo: VIZIO.

Are You Craving More Wireless Music?

It's hard to find an audio company that isn't producing wireless speakers these days. Even companies traditionally known for video products are branching out into the world of wireless speakers. There are now more choices of wireless speakers than there are flavors of Baskin-Robbins ice cream (trust me, I counted). So if you're going to make something for that category, your product had better stand out.

VIZIO is doing that with the Crave 360, a new wireless speaker. The product is part of the company's SmartCast speaker lineup, which is designed to wirelessly put music into every room in the house.

Competitively priced at $249.99, the Crave 360 has a lot of the features you'd expect from a wireless speaker, including a few extras. Made for use in, around, and even outside of the house, it comes with a wireless charging base that will provide up to 8 hours of portable playtime on a full charge. It includes both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth support, as well as the option to use Google Cast. This is a nice perk, since it allows you to fling all sorts of audio from your favorite Google Cast-enabled apps and devices.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Samsung's 2017 QLED Ultra HD TVs Are Brighter and More Colorful, Even from the Sides

Two years ago, Samsung set its highest performance televisions apart with the letter, "S." "S-UHD" was the Samsung moniker for their brightest, sexiest and highest perfoming LED/LCD TVs. This year they've taken two steps backward - in the alphabet that is. 2017 is the year of the "Q."

The Q stands for "Quantum" as in Quantum Dots: the technology behind Samsung's color reproduction system, used in their high-end LED/LCD televisions. The full brand name of the category is QLED - Quantum dot Light Emitting Diode. Fundamentally, these are still LCD TVs, but they used LED backlighting, enhanced with Quantum Dots, to mitigate some of the traditional weaknesses of LCD TVs.

The Space Between Us Review

If it's possible for a planet to achieve celebrity status, Mars seems to have reached that tipping point of late. The Red Planet shared top billing in Matt Damon's 2014 crowd-pleaser "The Martian", the ESA's Mars Express mission is still going strong, and National Geographic Channel's "Mars" miniseries dramatizing the scientific and human impact of future colonizing endeavors debuted at the end of 2016 to positive reviews. Given all of this, "The Space Between Us" would seem poised to make the most of the current interstellar zeitgeist:  with DNA borrowed from Robert Heinlein's 1961 novel, "Stranger In a Strange Land", "Space" tells the story of Gardner Elliot (Asa Butterfield, "Ender's Game") who's born on Mars and and as a teenager makes his first foray to Earth.

"Space" touches on the classic storytelling trope of providing fresh views of our own world through the eyes of a stranger, but such moments, while compelling when they occur here, are overshadowed by a teen-angsty storyline seemingly yanked out of the Screenwriting 101 section on "(literally) starcrossed romance". There's also a McGuffin-y mission plotline that sets the young protagonist on the run and clumsily fritters away story momentum. In short, "The Space Between Us" presents an intriguing notion but undercuts it with inconsistent execution.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

The Founder Review

Small Fry

When "The Founder" opens, Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) is a travelling salesman with a product he feels passionate about - or at least does his best to sell. He has a tool, which will allow restaurants to make several milkshakes at one time. He's got the pitch, the energy and all the right gesticulations that would allow any restaurant manager to believe they need his product.
Kroc hears a lot of "no" when trying to make a sale but it doesn't stop him from calling his wife (Laura Dern) and letting her know that everything is fine. He can't even keep track of all the sales that are coming in, he tells her. Sure, it's all lies but it's also an opportunity for Kroc to do his best to turn things around.
He receives a call from Dick McDonald (Nick Offerman), who wants eight machines for his restaurant, which he owns with his brother, Mac (John Carroll Lynch). Kroc is in shock and complete disbelief at the size of their order, which prompts him to drive to their restaurant and see what it's all about.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

20th Century Women Review

Much has already been written about Annette Bening's Golden Globe-nominated performance in "20th Century Women" - so much so that audiences coming to the film armed with this background might initially wonder what all the fuss is about. But this essay on 1970s feminism and the changing role of women in American society is absolutely anchored by Ms. Bening's turn as headstrong divorcee Dorothea Fields, who's raising a teenaged son while simultaneously mothering a tribe of friends and characters who enter and exit her bustling, bohemian household.
Dorothea initially seems to be a collection of character traits: she's quirky, opinionated, inquisitive, and fiercely protective of her son. By the end of the film Ms. Bening has melded this mosaic into an unforgettable portrait which seems to transcend the boundaries of the film.
Writer Mike Mills crafted "'20th Century Women" as an homage to his mother, so anecdotal moments - such as the intro when Dorothea reacts to the family car catching fire by inviting the responding fire crew to her birthday party that night - feel sweetly honest as well as providing an astute look into this woman, whose instinct is to open her arms and her home and find a place for everyone. But she's more than just a homebody; she's also pioneered a place as the only female engineer in an all-male workplace, and she schools her son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) on the management of a stock portfolio.
In addition to Dorothea, Jamie is deeply influenced by two other women in his life: punky photographer Abbie (Greta Gerwig, "Frances Ha"), who rents a room in their house, and his best friend Julie (Elle Fanning, "Maleficent"), with whom he is not-at-all-secretly in love. For a male role model Jamie could turn to their other boarder, William (Billy Crudup, "Spotlight"), who's helping to fix up the house as part of his rent. But when Dorothea senses that her influence as a parent won't be enough to help Jamie mature and become a well-rounded person it is not to William but to Julie and Abbie that she appeals.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Split Review

James McAvoy is the Reason to See 'Split'

"Split," while entirely imperfect, is a continued leap in the right direction for M. Night Syamalan, the mind behind "The Sixth Sense," "Signs" and "Unbreakable" (and a few other things we would like to forget about or have already forgotten). In 2015 he made a mild comeback with "The Visit," and now with "Split," Shyamalan wants us to know he still has a few tricks up his sleeve.

There are surprises in his latest but Shyamalan doesn't seem to be running at full speed towards the "gotcha!" moment, as he has done in the past. Here, he is focused on mood and atmosphere, creating uncomfortable tension as the film progresses. It's what he used to do best before creating a series of stinkers and mindless spectacles.

The film begins at a party for Claire (Haley Lu Richardson from last year's wonderful "The Edge of Seventeen"). Her father is picking her and her best friend Marcia (Jessica Sula) up and he insists on giving Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), who was invited to the party out of sheer pity, a ride home.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Live By Night Review

"Live By Night", the latest from actor/director Ben Affleck, has a solid Boston pedigree, as it's based on a novel by prolific local writer Dennis Lehane, who also penned the source material for "Mystic River", "Shutter Island", and "Gone Baby Gone".  It also showcases the rise of the city's Italian-Irish mob war that's been examined more fully in such Hub-focused fare as "Black Mass" and "The Departed".  And, of course, Mr. Affleck himself is a product of the "Athens of America".  He's explored these roots to great effect both as a screenwriter ("Good Will Hunting") and a director ("Gone Baby Gone", "The Town", "Argo").  In "Live By Night" Mr. Affleck is front and center as lead actor and director, and with this release he has also added "producer" to his impressive list of credits.

So how does "Live By Night" align with Mr. Affleck's body of work thus far?  Well, it's an interesting step forward, though something of a mixed bag.  Joe Coughlin (Affleck) is a disillusioned WWI veteran-turned-criminal in 1920s Boston, and the first 30 minutes of his tale provide an opportunity to hit a number of the usual Beantown crime-story beats: ethnic gangland rivalries, star-crossed lovers, and an ill-fated bank robbery leading to a hurtling car chase down pedestrian-crowded streets.  He's fallen in love with Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), the salty, sultry sweetheart of a merciless Irish mob-boss, but their plan to run away together goes spectacularly awry, as does Joe's brazen daytime attempt at bank robbery.  Long story short: a few years go by, Joe pursues revenge by aligning himself with mafia don Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone), and he finds himself en route to Florida to corner the Gulf Coast rum market for Pescatore.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Silence Review

"Silence", the new film from Martin Scorsese, explores the history of Catholicism in medieval Japan and would seem to be something of a departure for a director known primarily for hard-hitting gangster movies ("Goodfellas", "The Departed") and gritty depictions of desperate New Yorkers ("Mean Streets", "Taxi Driver").  While Mr. Scorsese has rarely foregrounded religious themes in his work - 1988's "The Last Temptation of Christ" is an obvious exception - there has often been an undercurrent of spiritual struggle in his work.  By contrast, in "Silence" he actively explores Christian theology, the concept of martyrdom, and the nature of religious faith.  It's a dazzling, difficult film that offers a journey that not all viewers will be ready to take.

Based on the acclaimed novel by Japanese writer Shusaku Endo, "Silence" tells the story of two young priests, Fr. Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield, "The Amazing Spider-Man") and Fr. Garrpe (Adam Driver, "Star Wars: The Force Awakens") who leave Portugal for Japan in the mid-1600s to search for their mentor, Jesuit missionary Fr. Ferreira (Liam Neeson, "Taken").  A long-delayed letter smuggled from the east indicates that Ferreira, a victim of religious persecution, has committed apostasy, i.e., denounced his Christian faith, then changed his name and adopted Japanese culture. The younger Jesuits protest in disbelief, recalling how Fr. Ferreira's powerful faith led them to their avocation, and they set out to learn the truth.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

A Monster Calls Review

The Power of the Imagination

Grief has been tackled in so many ways on the big screen that we are at the point where it's hard to tell if a film is even being sincere in its intentions. The line gets blurred if a movie cares about its characters or if it simply wants your tears and will work overtime to get them. Spoken like a true cynical critc, I know.
Make no mistake, "A Monster Calls" wants your tears and should you surrender, it will be well-earned. Director J. A. Bayona ("The Impossible," which I loved) adapts the novel by Patrick Ness, who also serves as the screenwriter. It's a visionary tale about young Conor (newcomer Lewis MacDougall), who must face one of the hardest moments of his life; his mother (Felicity Jones) is dying of cancer. This is hard for anyone, no matter what stage in life you are at, but as a pre-teen, Conor is forced to deal with emotions beyond his years.
The movie never lets us forget that Conor is still a kid and needs to be looked after, especially when his mother can no longer care for her son. He moves into his grandmother's (Sigourney Weaver) house, even though the two don't always see eye to eye.

Patriots Day Review

'Patriots Day' is Thrilling, Respectful

We all remember where we were on that day in April 2013. I was at work during the breaking news coverage when the explosions first went off at the finish line of the Boston Marathon and later in a restaurant, where everyone fell silent because we were glued to CNN. In "Patriots Day," director Peter Berg brings us back to those tragic days in tense and thrilling fashion.
Only three years have passed since two brothers altered the lives of so many, and many moviegoers might not be ready to relive the heinous and senseless attack. Berg treats the material carefully and respectfully but not without relishing in some of the more visceral moments of action, as he often likes to do.
This is his third collaboration with Mark Wahlberg, who stars as Sgt. Tommy Saunders. After the great "Lone Survivor" and the much less great "Deepwater Horizon," Berg and Wahlberg are quickly conquering the docudrama market.

Rules Don't Apply Review

Broken Rules

Warren Beatty is back in the director's chair for the first time since 1998's "Bulworth." It's also his first time up on the big screen since 2001, when he appeared in the clunker, "Town and Country." What has brought him out of his semi-retirement is "Rules Don't Apply" - a major project devoted to capturing the essence of the enigmatic Howard Hughes, with Beatty playing Hughes. And to cut to the chase, I believe it's a contender to be the worst major film of 2016.

Even though it's about Howard Hughes, for some reason, it's primarily concerned about two much smaller people within the orbit of planet Hughes. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this approach. You can tell a lot about a person by seeing the effect he has on others. But here, it just doesn't work. 

Bad Santa 2 Review

This Santa Brings Little Cheer

"Bad Santa" is one of my very favorite Christmas movies. It's not your typical Scrooge redemption tale or a warm, feel good one like "Miracle on 34th Street". "Bad Santa" introduced us to Willie Soke (Billy Bob Thornton), the boozing criminal who posed as a store Santa during the holidays, while planning a robbery. 

When not committing a criminal act, he could usually be found cursing at kids or chasing large females, or throwing up somewhere. Marcus (Tony Cox) is his equally foul-mouthed sidekick and the elf to his Santa. Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly), the young nerd is also back, now as an awkward twenty-something.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Manchester by the Sea Review

'Manchester' is a Crowning Achievement

Kenneth Lonergan's "Manchester by the Sea" sounds like a whisper but echoes like a thunderous roar. It's quietly and deceptively powerful, featuring a screenplay that avoids histrionics in favor of well-earned and deeply felt emotions.
It shouldn't be a surprise that this is the case with Lonergan as the writer and director. His previous films - "You Can Count on Me" and "Margaret" - dove deep into the souls of the characters, which are constructed to feel like everyday people we may know. There has always been a striking authenticity to Lonergan's work and "Manchester by the Sea" might be his crowning achievement.
At the forefront is Casey Affleck, who stars as Lee Chandler. He lives a simple life in Boston as a custodian, keeping to himself and everyone around him at a distance. There's a sadness and an untapped rage brewing deep below the surface in Lee and for a while we are never quite sure why.
One day, Lee receives a call that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) passed away from heart disease. Lee is forced to return to his hometown to deal with the loss of his brother. Joe left behind a teenage son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), who Lee now has to care for. Lee isn't all that excited about the idea of spending a prolonged amount of time in his hometown and drudging through the past. He runs into his ex-wife, Randi (Michelle Williams, who will break your heart in the mere minutes she has on screen). The two have not had much contact since their marriage ended.

Marathon: The Patriots Day Bombing Review

Emotionally compelling HBO documentary is a winner

I happen to be from Massachusetts, not too far outside of Boston, and when you talk to local folks about the 2013 Boston Marathon, the bombs that exploded at the finish line, and the tense days and sad weeks that followed, recollections are still close and raw.  If they weren't there on the course themselves that day, either as a runner or a spectator, chances are that most Bay Staters still have some personal connection to the 117th running of the iconic marathon: "My sister ran it", "My neighbor was watching near the finish line", "I remember the manhunt, when they shut down the city."
It's doubtful that the Boston Marathon bombing will ever really fade from anyone's memory, but for those who don't live with daily reminders through personal impact or geographic proximity, as well as for the many who do, HBO's new documentary, "Marathon: The Patriots Day Bombing" will bring it back with an immediacy that is almost breathtaking.  Directors Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg ("Knuckleball", "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work"), in association with HBO and The Boston Globe, have produced a film that unflinchingly replays the moments of the bombing and the immediate aftermath, but that's only the beginning of the story.

Passengers Review

Movie Goers, We Have a Problem

"Passengers" is an experiment in star power. Is pairing two of the biggest and most charismatic stars in the world enough to get people to the theater? Does it guarantee a good movie? The answers are maybe - and not really.
Director Morten Tyldum (the Oscar-nominated director of the snoozy historical drama, "The Imitation Game") follows up that critically acclaimed film with this decidedly different tale. "Passengers" offers big ideas and is infused with moral complications, but does too little to expound on the thematically interesting plot set-up by screenwriter Jon Spaihts. It seems that the folmmakers just want us to keep looking at Pratt and Lawrence and hope that everything will be okay.
Jim Preston (Pratt) is aboard the starship Avalon, which is carrying 5,000 other passengers and is headed for Homestead II, a new world in need of colonization. He wakes up 90 years too early, which could complicate his future on Homestead II. Jim wanders the ship in awe but soon realizes a solitary life for the next 90 years could be unbearable. His only form of contact is with robot bartender, Arthur (Michael Sheen), who is always eager to pour him a glass of whiskey with a smile. (Watch their scenes together and try not to think of "The Shining.")

The Edge of Seventeen Review

"The Edge of Seventeen" is on the verge of greatness

The ad campaign for the new teen dramedy, "The Edge of Seventeen" has been unabashedly eager to showcase glowing early reviews that herald the film as a new classic in the vein of "Sixteen Candles," "Juno," and "Say Anything."  This onslaught of cheery self-promotion might ordinarily provoke wariness in the marketing-weary moviegoer, but in this case?  Believe the hype:  "The Edge of Seventeen" is, to borrow a phrase, some kind of wonderful.
The beauty of "Edge" is less in its plot, more in its characters and execution, but here are the basics:  Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld, "True Grit") is a self-described high school nerd, garrulous and brainy, socially awkward, and mostly a loner except for her lifelong friendship with Krista (Haley Lu Richardson).  Her quasi-functional family consists of neurotic mom Mona (Kyra Sedgwick) and popular jock brother Darian (Blake Jenner, "Glee").  Nadine's history teacher Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson) provides a periodic lifeline as they trade complicated barbs and he dispenses prickly wisdom.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them Review

Decent Franchises and How to Start Them

For those looking to fill the Potter-sized whole in their heart, I'm curious to know if "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" will actually do the trick. While watching the film, all it did was make me long for the day when I had seen the first "Harry Potter" film for the first time; I wasn't nearly as excited for the dawn of a new franchise as I was back in 2001.
Don't get me wrong - there's plenty of razzle dazzle in David Yates' latest imagining of J.K. Rowling's latest entry to her wizarding world (Yates directed the fifth through the final "Harry Potter" films and Rowling is making her screenwriting debut). The film makes effective use of the IMAX format, which most films use to increase ticket prices. Yates' stunning attention to detail and Rowling's imagination immerse us in this world but as an entire experience, "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" doesn't add up to much more than a shrug and maybe a smile.

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