Category Archives: Columns

Miles of Movies: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

by Miles Barber (CE ’18)

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is about Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a wizard with a particular fondness for the magical creatures, some of which he keeps in an enchanted suitcase. Newt arrives in 1926 New York City in the midst of turmoil; strange occurrences are threatening to reveal the wizarding world to the non-magical community as it seems there are dark forces at work. Could the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald be involved? Newt gets his magical case mixed up with a very similar non-magical suitcase belonging to Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), which results in some of the creatures getting loose and the exposure of the wizarding world to Jacob. Tina Goldstein, a former auror (like wizard police), also gets involved through Newt’s unregistered arrival to New York. Meanwhile, Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), a high-level auror, is trying to recruit Credence (Ezra Miller) to help him find out what is causing these strange occurrences; Credence thinks it might be an orphan child under the care of Mary Lou, a magic-hater.

There is quite a lot going on in this film and quite a few characters to keep track of. Surprisingly, the film does a good job of balancing everything. I’m not sure if it will be more difficult for someone unfamiliar with the Harry Potter books or films, but it was easy to follow most of the time. That doesn’t stop there from being some pacing and tonal issues in the middle of this film. There is a scene in this film involving a floating chair that just seemed out of nowhere and rushed. On top of that, the mixture of the different stories isn’t always that smooth. For example, the main story of Newt and finding all of his magical creatures that were let loose is pretty light and fun in tone. But the “behind-the-scenes” story involving Graves and Credence is very dark and sometimes confusing. It shows the brutality wizards face at the hands of people who want to burn them in creating a “New Salem.” Mary Lou, along with a few other characters in the film, is incredibly cruel to anyone sympathizing with magic. There is some dark content implied in this story that just doesn’t mix very well with the lighthearted fun of Newt searching for his creatures.

Still, there are a lot of great things to talk about. For one, the acting is great in this film. Eddie Redmayne seems perfectly cast in the role of Newt Scamander, an awkward wizard whose eyes light up when he’s interacting with his creatures. The music adds a few layers to this feeling as well. Composer James Newton Howard has always been good at producing scores that feel wondrous. The main theme for this film is no different. The film also does a great job at showing everyone what it’s like to live in this world. There are so many cool things that I wish were real in the wizarding world like clocks that tell you where certain people are and trunks with enough space inside to fit an entire zoo. Jacob Kowalski is like us; he gets exposed to all of this magic and reacts to it with a mixture of fear, bewilderment, and then excitement. This provides quite a lot of situational humor that added some more levity to Newt’s story.

Overall, I really enjoyed Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. It has some great acting, a good score, likable characters, and tells an entertaining story. There are a few tonal and pacing issues in the film, particularly in the middle, and the story may not be easy to follow for someone not familiar with at least the Harry Potter films. But I still had a great time with it and would recommend checking it out. ◊

Grade: B

Miles of Movies: Doctor Strange

by Miles Barber (CE ’18)

Doctor Strange, the latest superhero film from Marvel is about Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), an arrogant surgeon who crashes his Lamborghini on the way to a conference. When surgery fails to heal his hands, he heads to Tibet in hopes that some Eastern form of healing can do what Western methods could not. He meets The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) who shows him a spiritual world in a psychedelic, world-bending scene of visual beauty. He is also alerted to a spiritual threat about to be unleashed by Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a former student of The Ancient One. As jumbled and rushed as all of that is in the film, I prefer to start with positives, so let’s talk about how entertaining and visually dazzling this film is.

Right from the start, the Marvel Studios formula is in full effect as we’re introduced to a cocky character, a brisk pace, and a fair amount of humor. The story operates as a mixture of familiar stories, notably those of Ant-Man and Iron Man (who are remarkably similar characters to begin with). It’s a good time with a lot of fun moments and good performances all around—Benedict Cumberbatch seems perfectly cast! I wouldn’t say it’s more fun than Iron Man and Ant-Man, but it was still an entertaining time.

Where this film definitely stands out is in its visual style. As I mentioned before, this film deals in spiritual worlds, which can look like anything. This film capitalizes on those infinite possibilities here by presenting manipulations of our world and entirely new worlds. Both are mind-bending, but the most spectacular was definitely in the “entirely new worlds” parts; these just explode with beautiful neon colors. The standout scene for me in terms of visual effects was definitely towards the beginning of the film, when The Ancient One first shows Strange these worlds for the first time.

The film’s problems lie in its pacing and length. Doctor Strange bears a lot of similarity to Iron Man in terms of its story structure but is almost fifteen minutes shorter. So much of this film is exposition that, given the film’s shorter runtime, compromises the exploration of themes and character-building. Iron Man had a much fuller character transformation at the end of Iron Man than Doctor Strange had at the end of this film, mainly because Doctor Strange just doesn’t have enough time to get into these things.

My favorite scene in the entire film is in a slower moment when a particular character reflects on life and how short time is. The villain’s entire motivations have to do with the shortness of time and mortality. This is an important theme in the film that needed proper exploration! It would have given the story more focus, clarity, and depth. The difference between a decent superhero film and a great one is in how much time it dedicates to character and themes. It’s why I’ve discussed the character conflict behind the entire premise of Captain America: Civil War countless times to different results and never once discussed anything about Iron Man 2 because it just doesn’t have much character conflict.

Overall, Doctor Strange was another fun addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It had a unique visual flair that produced some really standout scenes. But the shorter runtime limited the film’s potential by rushing the story at the expense of character development and exploration of themes. ◊

Grade: B-

Miles of Movies: The Accountant

by Miles Barber (CE ’18)

The Accountant tells the story of Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck), a forensic accountant with a unique upbringing as a result of his autism; his father had Christian and his brother Braxton trained in numerous forms of combat to be able to defend themselves against the inevitable bullies Christian would face. Now an adult, Christian uses his training and aptitude for math to do accounting for drug lords and crime bosses, trying to keep his identity a secret. Still, he’s been photographed near his clients, which attracts the attention of Raymond King (J.K. Simmons) at the Treasury Department. If that weren’t enough for Wolff to worry about, his current accounting job at a Robotics Company is proving to be quite a puzzle.

The result is a thoroughly entertaining film with plenty of twists, a fair amount of mystery, and even some humor. The humor is mostly from Christian Wolff’s awkwardness, which Ben Affleck perfectly executes. Beyond this entertainment, however, The Accountant doesn’t have all that much to offer for a few reasons.

The first is that the story is a bit too complicated for its own good. Even without the flashbacks to Christian’s upbringing, this film would still be struggling to keep its narrative as simple as possible. So it should be no surprise that parts of this film consist almost solely of exposition, most of which comes from Raymond King. In fact, if you removed this Treasury Department storyline from the film, I don’t think anything would change—more reason to believe that it’s only there to reveal critical information to the audience.

That leads to the biggest problem with the story: it’s just not creative enough. The Accountant had a good enough premise but doesn’t really deliver a good story. With more focus and attention to certain scenes, this film could have been great. The writing just couldn’t come up with better reveals for the twists in the film and couldn’t execute some of its best scenes. What could have been a really suspenseful thriller centered on a mysterious character became a standard film that explained everything to you instead.

Still, The Accountant was entertaining. It featured a good performance, some surprising humor, and effective action. The story was a little muddled and the film should have found better ways of revealing information, but I still had a good time watching this movie. I just wish it had lived up to the potential I’m sure it had.  ◊

Grade: B-

Museum Review: The Cooper Hewitt

by Gabriela Godlewski (CE ’19)

Photo by Gabriela Godlewski (CE ‘19).
Photo by Gabriela Godlewski (CE ‘19).

Peter Cooper was known as a philanthropist for his dedication to the advancement of science and art in our society, a goal immortalized in our institution. What few people know is that his goal remains alive outside of our school in a beautiful museum tucked away in the Upper East Side: the Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum. The Cooper-Hewitt is a unique museum dedicated entirely to design and its implementations in both modern and historic contexts.

The Cooper-Hewitt Museum was founded in 1897 by Peter Cooper’s three granddaughters, Amy, Eleanor, and Sarah Cooper-Hewitt. It was originally an extension of the Cooper Union located in the fourth floor of the Foundation Building. In 1967, the Smithsonian Institution absorbed it as the design branch in their extensive museum network. Shortly after in 1970, the museum and its exhibitions were moved into the Andrew Carnegie mansion on 91st and 5th overlooking Central Park where it remains open to the public to this day.

The museum is open every day from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Since it was once a part of the Cooper Union, the Cooper-Hewitt offered free admission to students. However, when the Cooper Union began charging half-tuition, the Cooper-Hewitt also began charging for student admission. Don’t let that deter you from visiting, though. Just flash your Cooper ID at the ticket booth and you get access to all the incredible exhibits for $9.

Traveling from our natural habitats in the casual East Village to the more upscale Upper East Side compliments a museum outing perfectly. Breathing in the fresh air from Central Park, I arrived at the Cooper-Hewitt and bought my ticket. With my ticket, they gave me a large stylus: one end worked as a pen for drawing on tablets spread throughout the museum and the other end saved favorite exhibits to a personal library accessible online. This stylus and library were integrated in the museum experience to make the exhibits more interactive, further distinguishing the Cooper-Hewitt from other museums.

The Cooper-Hewitt houses many interesting exhibitions but a few were particularly notable. The first exhibit I saw, entitled “Scraps: Fashion, Textiles, and Creative Reuse,” showed the work of three designers who were inspired by sustainability to use discarded PVC and fabric scraps to make clothing and accessories. Other exhibitions include treasures from the Hewitt sisters’ personal collections, a room full of mirrors and shoes painted silver, notable examples of interior design pieces throughout the 20th century, and a collection of Louis Comfort Tiffany glassware. There is also the famous Immersion Room, which has become very popular on social media. The room features two interactive walls that visitors can design by drawing on the tablet in the middle of the room. The result is the drawing projected onto the walls, making for a great design lesson and photo op.

Notably, the third floor is entirely dedicated to exhibiting the design process as it integrates in our daily life. The exhibit, “By the People: Designing a Better America,” presents ingenious inventions made by average people and architecture plans for sustainable homes. It not only highlights the social and economic inequality that exists in our society, but also demonstrates how thinkers, when presented with a problem, can design a solution through architecture and engineering.

A personal favorite was the Process Lab, a room that guided the viewer step-by-step through the design process. First we were asked to choose a sticker stating a theme we were interested in, such as family, technology, or resilience. Then we were asked to find a problem relating to our central theme. After sifting through inspiration cards we were asked to design a possible solution to our problem that would address the theme and then submit the final design to be a part of the exhibit. People of all ages were discovering the same type of design process that everyone attending the Cooper Union learns and implements in their projects.

I strongly recommend taking at least a few hours off from studies or projects to go to see what the Cooper-Hewitt has to offer. What I love most about this museum—especially in the eyes of a Cooper student—is that there are exhibitions that anyone in our school can enjoy. The inventions featured on the third floor are perfect for an engineer and budding entrepreneur. Architects can enjoy and draw inspiration from the various plans and models on display. Everything featured in the museum is a work of art that artists and everyone else can enjoy. The Cooper Hewitt is a testament to Peter Cooper’s legacy that can and should be appreciated. ◊

Music Review: 22, A Million

by Noah Fechter (CE ’20)

Photo by Cameron Wittig & Crystal Quinn.
Photo by Cameron Wittig & Crystal Quinn.

Justin Vernon, whose band Bon Iver achieved prominence with the 2007 release of For Emma, Forever Ago, has an uncanny ability for sneaking into the spotlight. The story has been told ad nauseum: in a cabin somewhere in Wisconsin, For Emma was forged in unmitigated introspection and authenticity. 2011’s self-titled album, Bon Iver, built on the sincerity of his songwriting and helped the album catch a broader audience. At some point Bon Iver had a following so large that it started caving in on itself. The band went on hiatus.

On July 22, 2016, Bon Iver’s Facebook page posted a video with audio from the single “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” and an abstract contemporary art style. It was clear from then that this album would be another example of an artist stepping away from their fanbase. It was unclear, however, just what meaning was to be found in the flickering pop-art patterns and (vaguely satanic) religious symbols. Bon Iver had emerged from the underworld.

But why did Bon Iver go to such lengths for a new artistic direction? Pitchfork Media’s Amanda Petrusich called 22, A Million “…an unexpected turn towards the strange and experimental,” inspired by Vernon’s “hunger for true, tectonic innovation,” even comparing the change in sound to Radiohead’s 2000 album Kid A. And indeed, Bon Iver succeeds in finding a sound that is sometimes absolutely arcane. The single and opening track “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” captures a gospel quality in verses interspersed with feedback noise and a vocoder sample Vernon captured during a panic attack in recording. “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄” another single released simultaneously, is comprised of shuffling, breakbeat drums, grumbling waves of bass, triumphal vocal composition backed by horns, and a single, bleating, pitch augmented vocal sample echoing through the background. These tracks seem more closely inspired by West Coast alternative hip-hop than the four years Bon Iver spent as the purveyor of Northeastern Americana.

22, A Million still bears reminders that Bon Iver can convey immense beauty and enveloping emotions. The track “29 #Strafford APTS” is a page out of an earlier Bon Iver release, the folk rock instrumentation breathing heavily through a coating of dense chrome. The melodies, chord progressions, and timbre are so reminiscent that­­—minutes into the song—the switch to sharp vocoder vocals serrates the image as it is drawn. This track is the tour de force of the album, an imperative showing that this electronic, inhuman sound can also evoke feelings of nostalgia and warmth. “____45_____,” the second to final track, brings up the obvious Kanye West influence on Vernon’s writing. The song is comprised of another choir of vocal harmonies, a horn section put through auto-tune, and­—at the tail-end of the track—a plucked banjo with heavy reverb. It’s precariously similar to “Lost In The World,” Vernon’s collaboration with Kanye West on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The component parts of these tracks easily stand apart from one another, but the end product is in parts distant, powerful, and wavering.

There’s a lot of callback in 22, A Million, whether intentional or not. The vocoder asides that comprise the songs “715 – CR∑∑KS” and “____45_____” are nearly sparse enough to be hip-hop track interludes. The songs “29 #Strafford APTS,” “666 ʇ,” and “8 (circle)” feature more organic vocal compositions, evocative of prior Bon Iver releases. The gospel-esque vocal arrangements on many tracks reflect a popular trend in hip-hop that very prominent 2016 releases by Chance the Rapper, and again Kanye West, have spearheaded. The vocoder’s furious, breakbeat drums, ‘chipmunked’ vocal samples, and surging gospel harmonies have all been acclaimed by music reviewers everywhere. With the knowledge that Vernon is buying into these trends, then the question is surely “where is the novelty in 22, A Million?

The image that Vernon carved for 22, A Million is cryptic, goading the listener to investigate the deep and fulfilling meaning that the album has to offer. Yet, even the first listen yields an easy experience deep-seated in nostalgia and recollection. Every one of the ten tracks on the album now has a lyric video publicly available for every word to be mulled over, and the album is only fractionally longer than an episode of a sitcom. Though this album is wearing a style more beckoning, more ambitious, and more ambiguous than those before it, it’s still Bon Iver. This is still approachable, welcoming music, written in a sonic language that is well established, and naturally accepted by audiences with open ears. ◊

Miles of Movies: Deepwater Horizon

by Miles Barber (CE ’18)

Deepwater Horizon is about the events surrounding the explosion on Deepwater, a Texas oil rig owned by British Petroleum. The film follows the events leading up to the explosion and how the crew tried their best to evacuate.

The first half of this film features Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg), who explains how his rig works to his daughter for a school project. He uses a soda can to explain how the rig works by capping the pressure from the oil. A lot of this introduction with Mike’s family serves both as exposition and character development. Mixed in with Mike’s screen time, you get little errors happening on the rig, giving you a sense of foreboding and worry.

Though other characters are introduced when we reach the rig, Mike continues to be the main character in this film. While this half of the film is a little slower than the second half, it is still tense, as each of the little problems is so well introduced. Once Mike gets on the rig, he meets Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell), a no-nonsense supervisor who hates corporate interference which, in this film, is presented in the form of Vidrine (John Malkovich). Kurt Russell is such a force in this film and gives a really strong performance; he’s easy to get behind since he argues for safety when others don’t prioritize it. Something also worthy of praise is the sound design during the buildup, which lets you in on every creak in the rig, every little bubble of escaped pressure.

Then, the rig explodes. This half of the film is nonstop intensity, giving you no time to breathe. The camera shakes a little to make it feel real. The explosions are everywhere, as if there was nothing on the rig that couldn’t explode. The water is on fire. The makeup team makes each and every one of the characters look grimy and hurt. Everything feels like it could have happened as shown. The only thing that doesn’t quite work are the effects: some of the wide shots of the rig falling apart just don’t look realistic.

Overall, Deepwater Horizon is an effective disaster film. It’s well-acted, has good sound, and effectively presents the buildup and the aftermath of the explosion. Kurt Russell, in particular, is excellent. The effects weren’t quite as good as I might have hoped and I think the film could have been better explained at points (maybe it’s still unclear what happened) but I would recommend seeing this film if you’re a fan of disaster films. ◊

Grade: B-

Mile of Movies: The Magnificent Seven

By Miles Barber (CE ‘18)

The Magnificent Seven, remake of the 1960 film of the same name (which was itself a remake of the 1956 Japanese film Seven
), tells the story of seven gunslingers and knife-throwers who band together to defend a small western town from a ruthless capitalist named Bartholomew Bogue. The first scene in the film sets up the stakes and throws the film into motion as Bogue visits this town, leaving many dead and the rest terrified to stand up to him without some help.

They find that help in the form of seven men including Sam Chisholm (Denzel Washington), Joshua Faraday (Chris Pratt), and Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) around whom the film centers. Most of them have unique personalities that help you distinguish each one on more than just a physical level, making them more memorable. The performances, however, vary in authenticity. Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke give the only performances that felt like they actually belonged in this old-style western. Coincidentally, their characters, Sam Chisholm and Goodnight Robicheaux, are the only ones with real backstories, as they have some history in the Civil War. Chris Pratt’s Joshua Faraday seemed like he was trying way too hard to mix his “wild west” cowboy character with his character from Guardians of the Galaxy. The result was a performance that was quite fun, but just felt a little out of place in the film.

Performances aside, the film did a great job on a narrative level. Each facet of this straightforward tale makes sense as events lead into each other. The two shootout scenes in the film are very intense, featuring some truly fantastic stunts, many great practical effects, and some hilarious moments.

On a technical level, the film was also quite good. The mountainous landscape is perfectly captured in some beautiful shots that really show off not just the natural beauty of the area but also how great it looks at night. There are a couple shots of distant clouds around dusk that just make you appreciate how amazing the Midwest looks. The final confrontation is also beautifully captured in a mix of wides and closeups to show off both the stunts and the scope. Add in a great score by James Horner (sadly passed) and Simon Franglen and you have a pretty well-made western.

Overall, The Magnificent Seven is a well-made film that proves a worthy remake of the 1956 film. It adds little new content, its characters are a little thin, and Chris Pratt’s humor may be a little out of place, but the music, cinematography, and intensity of this film make it worth your time. ◊

Grade: B