December 15, 2013

A thought on The Desolation of Smaug

Its stunningly unfaithful to the book. He stuffs as much of Middle Earth Arcana into the story as he can.

I suppose Jackson realizes he is never going to get to film a story about Beren and Luthien, or Turin Turambar, and so incorporating as much of the myth of the LOTR universe as he can, even if it fills "The Hobbit" to bursting, is his way of getting the next best thing.

The movie feels a lot less schizophrenic in tone than Unexpected Journey, though.

Posted by Jvstin at 7:49 AM

December 4, 2013

Pompeii Trailer

Posted by Jvstin at 6:13 PM

December 15, 2012

Brief thoughts on the Hobbit

I decided to go see The Hobbit today. For the technically minded, I decided to see it in 24 fps, 2-d, since I am not a fan of 3-d movies. As an aside, my plan to see an early viewing of the movie was quashed because that showing was sold out by the time I got to the theater (with about 20 minutes to spare).

The movie takes it sweet time introducing us to Bilbo in the time frame of the movie. We see Ian Holm and Elijah Wood interact, and Elder Bilbo narrates a heaping infodump--we see the Dwarven kingdom of Erebor at its height, and its fall to Smaug (cleverly, we don't see the dragon, rather we see the dragon's damage. Jackson is using the Jaws approach here). With the fall of Erebor out of the way, we finally get to the time frame of the movie. Gandalf comes knocking at a skeptical Bilbo's door, and the book's matter begins in earnest...

Until we get an aside involving Radagast the Brown, the Greenwood/Mirkwood, and Dol Guldur. I am not sure the movie needed to linger on Radagast's efforts to revive a beloved hedgehog. (yes, really). This sets up a crucial scene where Radagast meets Gandalf and the Dwarves...

Yes, the movie takes liberties with the book. Radagast does meet the company. Galadriel and Saruman make appearances in Rivendell. Azog, who is mentioned in the book as having killed King Thror (Thorin's grandfather) has been promoted to a actionable character who is obsessed with destroying Thror's line. I have a very strong suspicion that they are going to basically fold the character of Bolg (who in the book was at the Battle of Five Armies) in with Azog as one person, and have him be Thorin's nemesis throughout the three movies.

Gollum is one of the best things in the movie, and the Gollum-Bilbo interaction is one of the best scenes in the movie.

There are a lot of callbacks, visually and musically, to the Lord of the Rings movies.

The acting is okay for the most part. McKellen, Weaving, Blanchett and Lee could do these roles in their sleep. The real acting chops come from Martin Freeman as Bilbo, who manages to make Bilbo the same sort of everyman he made Arthur Dent in the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy movie.

The tone of the movie has some problems. The movie clearly, clearly wants to be Lord of the Rings Volume 0. It tries so very hard to do this. There is nowhere near the level of humor and levity that the book has, and one key scene plays VERY differently in tone than the book.And yet there are scenes where the humor comes out in force, just like the novel. It's a frustrating mess. I'm not sure what the movie was trying to be. The Trolls come off as humorous as they do in the book. The Goblins in the Misty Mountains? Mostly not, although that tone wavers even in the middle of that scene. I was left scratching my head.

And there is the three movie thing. The movie ends with the rescue of the Eagles. 6 chapters of the Hobbit, and that's it. And this thing is 3 hours long. I think it could have been trimmed. The movie does not leave The Shire until an hour has passed. That's way too long. And The Shire itself does not feel as inhabited or alive as in the LOTR movies. However, there are plenty of really good looking set pieces, including Erebor and Goblintown. And the New Zealand Tourist board will be very happy, again.

So is it worth it? If you are coming to see The Hobbit, you are going to be confused, and very disappointed. If you want Peter Jackson Presents: Middle Earth Episode 0.1: The Hobbit, then you are going to have a much better experience.

Posted by Jvstin at 4:28 PM

October 29, 2011

Short take on In Time

Short take on _In Time_:

The movie was relatively entertaining, although a bit too didactic and a little too much of hammering the morals and the theme a little too relentlessly at the expense of plot, characterization and setting.

Cillian Murphy is far and away the best thing in the movie.

The cinematography is good even if most of the movie is an extended chase scene.

While an intriguing premise on the surface, the movie is somewhat lacking for a couple of reasons:

The worldbuilding needed another go around. The basic concept is fine, but the director seems to not have to thought out the consequences of using time as a currency and an implanted one at that without any safeguards. I didn't find that believable especially since its implied you can steal time from someone who is sleeping.

The security of banks and other places seems awfully weak and easy to break.

There is the hints of a strand of plot involving Cillian Murphy's character and Justin Timberlake's long-ago-dead father that really isn't resolved or dealt with in an effective fashion. It feels like that development arc got cut.

Amanda Seyfried has no real chemistry with Justin Timberlake and, no surprise in Hollywood, has a underdeveloped character.

In Time is a movie long on premise but disappointing on the execution.

Posted by Jvstin at 4:23 PM

May 8, 2011

The ladder scale of Superheroes: Thor, a movie review

There is a power scale to superheroes and the threats that they face. Different superheroes have different levels of abilities, and thus the opponents they usually tangle with vary in scope and ability as well. Daredevil, for instance, usually takes on criminals and other low-powered types. Iron Man and the X-Men team much more formidable dangers. And generally these rules, with some variation, remains in place. You generally don't see Cyclops going after muggers, and Kato and the Green Hornet, in the DC universe, do not go hunting after Darkseid.

Spiderman breaks these rules, as he always does, as comic book writers seem to love to have him punch far above his weight class. Similarly, the Joker, ostensibly not a dangerous threat to the more super powered denizens of the DC Universe, also breaks the rules as being an antagonist that even Superman takes very seriously.

Thor, the superhero featured in the latest movie, is near the top of the scale of ability and power. He's a certifiable deity, and a major one at that. The power he and his hammer wields are vast and varied. And thus, making a movie with Thor as the protagonist is a challenge. There are two major tacks that comics take when using Thor. Either give him truly cosmic challenges to overcome, challenges that few other superheroes can take on directly, or, depower him, cut him off from his power and abilities and force him to deal with matters without having nearly unlimited strength. The Thor movie uses both approaches to its titular hero.

Thor starts Chris Hemsworth, as the titular Norse God/superhero, as directed by Kenneth Branagh. After a brief opening scene with Natalie Portman's astrophysicist Jane Foster, who literally runs into Thor, we flash back to find out how Thor wound up on Earth. The scenes in Asgard and Jotunheim, done with the latest CGI are gorgeous, and establish the Shakespearean family dynamic of Odin and his two sons, Thor and Loki. Once Thor is stripped of his power and exiled to Earth for breaking the peace with the Frost Giants of Jotunheim, the story truly starts to get in motion. Mostly.

As I said above, Thor stories usually have him either depowered or facing cosmic threats, and in this movie, we get both. Thor's time on Earth is nothing more than as a pretty talented mortal, but he is not a world-beater by any stretch of the imagination. The overarching story, as Loki's villainy develops and his plan comes into focus, IS a cosmic threat, and Thor, when powered up again, IS facing a threat equal to the vast powers he has when at the height of his abilities. In this regard, Thor the movie gets it exactly right.

However, Thor, as a movie, does not rise to the level of the top tier superhero movies for the simple reason that it feels as if it was designed as a clothesline between previous films and new ones. At 2 hours long, the movie is, I think, a bit too short to really get a handle on all the characters. Branagh does try, hard, and it does work for an extent with the family trio listed above. But the rest of the characters do not far anywhere near as well.

It's a pity, too, because the potential is there. Portman's Jane Foster seems to be far more capable than most Jane Fosters in the comics (I can think of one who picked up the Hammer herself, but she is an exception). The movie does pass the Bechdel test, by cleverly giving Portman a female assistant (Darcy, played by Kat Dennings). Stellan Skarsgård plays Foster's academic advisor, and resource for information on Norse mythology. And as for Thor's quartet of martial friends from Asgard, Sif and the "Warriors Three" of Volstagg, Fandral, and Hogun? We learn very little about them. I amused myself, inspired by a friend of mine, to recast them as characters from a fantasy novel, and thus give them an artificial depth of character not really present in the movie.

There are a few nice touches of humor in the movie here, and there, ranging from Thor learning that smashing cups in a diner is NOT a sign of respect, to the humorous attempts at New Mexico locals to try and pick up (or even move) Thor's hammer, Mjollnir.

What the movie does very well, for better or worse, is to tie into the shared universe Marvel is trying to build in its films. Some might even say that the entire point of the Thor movie is to continue to string the "Marvel Cinematic Universe" along. The obligatory credit cookie scene at the end of Thor features Skarsgård 's character and suggests that there is more to him than meets the eye, but it is little more than a teaser and a revelation of who the villain of the Avengers might be. There are also appearances by Hawkeye and most notably, Agent Coulson of S.H.I.E.L.D. Wikipedia actually has a webpage to keep all of this straight:

As entertainment, despite its weaknesses, the movie entertains and there are worse ways to spend $10 and 2 hours of your time. I saw the movie in 2-D myself, and can't imagine, personally, it being worth any extra money to see it in 3-D. Branagh's direction, and a story co-created by J. Michael Straczynski don't rise above the bar of mere entertainment though, as I had hoped they would.

While Thor the comic book superhero, God of Thunder, is in the top bracket of superheroes, this movie, unfortunately, is not. I wish it was, I really do. It's not Iron Man or the Dark Knight, instead Thor is a second-tier superhero movie, serviceable, but nothing more.

Posted by Jvstin at 2:05 PM

February 28, 2011

Movie Review: Daybreakers

My friend Felicia has pneumonia, and wasn't enthused by the idea of watching the Oscars. Instead, we decided to watch Daybreakers on Netflix instead...

Daybreakers is a movie with Ethan Hawke, Sam Neill and Willem Defoe

It's the near future. A rapidly dwindling resource is causing increasing disruptions to society, with the have-nots suffering from increasing disruptions of a supply that once seemed infinite, but now is proving all too fragile. The creation of substitutes is big business but there are those who want the original, and the substitutes are not working as well as one might hope. Society is unraveling on the edges and something has got to change, something has to be done, or else societal collapse is a very real threat.

So what is the resource? Oil? Water?

Not exactly.

In Daybreakers the commodity is blood and the population of the Earth is now primarily...vampires. The vampires have taken over the planet, with humans an valuable commodity and a dwindling resource all the same. Companies like Bromley Marks (run by an oily Sam Neill) where our protagonist Edward Dalton(Hawke) is employed works on substitutes and also farms regular humans in machines designed to get every last drop of that precious blood. Animal blood is mentioned as a common substitute, but even that is a dwindling resource, too.

A chance encounter between Hawke and some humans on the run (led by Willem Defoe) leads Dalton to a discovery that could change this precarious situation. But some, including Hawke's brother, like things exactly the way they are...

Daybreakers isn't a groundbreaking vampire fantasy movie, and its at times only serviceable and shopworn. There are some interesting conceits and thoughts put into the film as to how a society full of vampires would adapt. Cars with tinted windows and cameras to allow for daytime driving, underground passageways to allow movement in cities (sort of a dark twin to Minneapolis skyways) and more. I appreciated these touches.

On the other hand, for all of this enthusiasm in worldbuilding, the movie falls down in some of that worldbuilding. Hints in the corners of the picture suggest that a bat caused the plague to turn the world into vampires. That suggests a biological vampirism a la I am Legend. However, the vampires react to sunlight in a dramatic way as if they were supernatural vampires. Later in the movie, we see that stakes through the heart do the same thing. So which is it--supernatural or biological vampires? Also, the ending is a bit too pat, although perhaps I need to remember the MST3K mantra and realize that an uplifting ending is the rule, not the exception, in Hollywood.

The acting is good, the leads do a decent job, and the script gives us just enough to understand where the characters are coming from. Even Sam Neill's Bromley, as the antagonist, gets enough character development to allow the audience to understand why he acts the way he does. There seems to be a truncated or missing scene that causes a major event in the movie to become a tell instead of a show, which disappointed me.

Overall, though, I was entertained. Daybreakers is not a groundbreaking movie, but its a decently crafted movie. Its not worth a purchase, but is okay as a rental.

Posted by Jvstin at 7:25 AM

December 26, 2010

2010 Roundup of Books and Movies

In 2010, I finished reading 39 books and saw many movies...

I read the entire Void trilogy this year, finished Kenyon's four volume Rose and Entire quartet, read the last of Stross' Merchant Princes series, and discovered new writers, both to me and to publishing in general. With an I-Pod, I also started to enjoy podcasts ranging from Strahan and Wolfe's Coode Street, to SF Signal's talented gaggle of writers, to ancient history of Rome, Byzantium and the Normans.

Favorite Genre Movie: Inception
Favorite Game: Borderlands
Favorite Podcast: The History of Rome
Favorite Book: I'm going to give a pass, too many choices.

All Books read:

39 Sizing up the Universe J Richard Gott, Robert J Vanderbei
38 Ink and Steel Elizabeth Bear
37 All that Lives Must Die Eric Nylund
36 The Cardinal's Blades Pierre Pavel
35 The Evolutionary Void Peter F Hamilton
34 The Temporal Void Peter F Hamilton
33 Template Matthew Hughes
32 The Spiral Labyrinth Matthew Hughes
31 Transition Iain Banks
30 Palimpest Catherynne Valente
29 Prospero In Hell L Jagi Lamplighter
28 Hull Zero Three Greg Bear
27 Sheet Music Tibby Armstrong
26 The Mermaid's Madness Jim Hines
25 Trade of Queens Charles Stross
24 Lucky 13 Sommer Marsden
23 Got a Minute Alison Tyler
22 Torn Alison Tyler
21 Empire in Black and Gold Adrian Tchaikovsky
20 The Dreaming Void Peter F Hamilton
19 Land of the Burning Sands Rachel Neumeier
18 Allison's Wonderland Alison Tyler
17 Fast Girls Rachel Kramer Bussel
16 Lord of the Changing Winds Rachel Neumeier
15 Much Fall of Blood Mercedes Lackey, Eric Flint, Dave Freer
14 Stories Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrontonio
13 Dragon Keeper Robin Hobb
12 The Dream of Perpetual Motion Dexter Palmer
11 Star Finder Poul Anderson
10 The Van Rijn Method Poul Anderson
09 Starfinder John Marco
08 The River Kings Road Liane Merciel
07 The Stepsister Scheme Jim Hines
06 Prince of Storms Kay Kenyon
05 Into the Looking Glass John Ringo
04 The Quiet War Paul McAuley
03 Servant of a Dark God John Brown
02 Cursor's Fury Jim Butcher
01 The Edge of Physics Anil Ananthaswamy

Posted by Jvstin at 8:44 AM

July 4, 2010

Knight and Daye

Felicia and I went to see Knight and Day, starring Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz. Watching it has helped me formulate a theory of movie success in this economy.

A light frothy action-comedy, the plot revolves around Roy Miller, who at first uses Diaz's June Havens, and then his complicated double-dealing spy life keeps intersecting with hers.

It's nothing innovative, especially if you are a fan of, say, Alias. What works is the chemistry between the leads, the comedy mixed in with the action.

Other things work a little less well. There are a couple of thin points in the plot (June gets knocked out alittle too often so that she can be moved around the world), but overall it was funny and engaging, and the direction is well done. For once, an action movie was not dominated by hand held cameras and incomprehensible ADD style cinematography.

The movie, however, is flopping at the box office, and I think I know why.This dovetails into a conversation on an email list I was having recently regarding movies.

Movies today succeed or fail if they appeal to the one high-going movie demographic: teenagers. If a movie doesn't have appeal for teenagers, it is doomed in America. It can certainly appeal to other demographics, but if it doesn't have something for the 12-21 market, the movie will fail.

If Knight and Day came out in 2000 instead of 2010, it could have been a hit for the summer. As it is, Diaz is "too old" and not as young looking as, say, Kristen Stewart. And Tom Cruise is now more well known for jumping on couches than his earlier movies. Despite the movie's virtues, Jane and John Teenager have little interest in seeing this movie. And so its box office is pitiful.

According to Box Office Mojo, last weekend:
Distributor 20th Century Fox's research showed that Knight & Day's audience had an even split between genders and that 56 percent was over 25 years old.

I rest my case.

Posted by Jvstin at 7:26 AM

May 10, 2010

Iron Man 2

I went to see Iron Man 2 yesterday

The first Iron Man movie was a movie that vastly exceeded my modest expectations for it. An upbeat superhero movie, with brooding out, and all-American comic book action in, Iron Man works much better as a popcorn movie than many in the genre (I'm looking at you, Dark Knight).

Iron Man 2 doesn't exceed the inflated expectations for it. It still manages, however, to be entertaining all the same.

The opening credits take place at the same time as the end of the first movie, where we see a poor father and son in Russia watching Stark's end-of-the-first-movie press conference. The father dies, leaving the son a legacy of blueprints of a Denko-Stark arc reactor...and thoughts of revenge on those who have reduced them to a piteous state.

The Stark family.

And so we are off in Iron Man 2, introducing Ivan Denko. Although we are never told his "superhero name", Ivan Denko, has elements of his comic book counterpart, Crimson Dynamo, as well as another Iron Man comic book foe, Whiplash. Armed with electric whips, Ivan Denko intends a painful retribution and revenge upon Tony Stark.

In the meantime, Tony Stark is dying because the palladium in the arc reactors keeping his heart alive are slowly poisoning him, Justin Hammer, weenie defense contractor wannabe is nipping at his heels,. the US Army and a Senator (played with relish by Gerry Shandling) want the Iron Man suit turned over to the US Government. His old friend Rhodey (now played by Don Cheadle) no longer trusts him as he once did. Tony Stark's new assistant (Scarlett Johansson) is more than she appears, and Pepper Potts has just about had it with Tony Stark.

Such is the stew and matter of Iron Man 2.

Three Good Things:
Robert Downey Jr's Iron Man: I think some edges of his plot could have been improved a bit, but he owns this character.
Mickey Rourke as Ivan Denko. Without his performance alongside Downey's, this movie falls apart.
The Final thirty minutes of the movie are better than the rest combined, as we get to see all of the combatant-capable characters in action.

Three Things that could have been improved:

The women. Paltrow and Johansson do the best they can with what they have but I get the feeling their roles were trimmed in the final cut.
The movie takes a little too long to get going.
Don Cheadle is no Terrence Howard. Changing actors of such different temper in the end, i think, did not work, and so I couldn't buy in the rapid changes in the Tony-Rhodey relationship. It hurt the movie's narrative arc.

Overall, not as good as the first (possibly because of inflated expectations), but solidly entertaining.

Posted by Jvstin at 5:14 AM

April 3, 2010

Movie Review: Clash of the Titans (2010)

I went to see the new version of Clash of the Titans (in 2D) yesterday...

Perseus and his team are riding in a howdah on a Giant Scorpion

"I hate riding these things. They make me sick"--Argo soldier

"You should trying being *in* one"--Perseus

I've loved Greek Mythology for as long, or perhaps longer, than science fiction and fantasy.

It's really very simple. Take a bunch of all-too-human Gods and Goddesses with cosmic powers, squabbling, arguing, striving. Add in a raft of demigod children, fighting monsters, adventuring, doing great deeds. Mix together and, viola! An endlessly fresh world that can be interpreted, reinterpreted, rebooted for all time.

It also sounds like my favorite fantasy universe/role playing game, too, doesn't it? It's no wonder that many of my Amber characters, be they NPCs or PCs, are derived from Greco-Roman Mythology or sound like they could be: Lorius,Cadmus, Asteria, Castor, Pollus, Hadrian...

Anyway, there hasn't been any real "Sword and sandal" movies in Hollywood for awhile. Troy, which idiotically chopped out the supernatural aspects of the movie in favor of Brad Pitt's hair, was the last real attempt to mine this evergreen subject matter.

In the last couple of months, we've had the modern take on the Olympians, Percy Jackson, and now we have a remake (really a reboot) of the 1981 Clash of the Titans movie.

The resemblance between that first movie and the new one are thinner than one might think. Both involve Perseus, bastard son of Zeus. Both have many of the same monsters (including the Kraken, Medusa, Calibos). Both have a Pegasus.

And there the parallels end.

In the reboot, Perseus (Sam Worthington), raised by his second stepfather after his first tries to drown him and his mother (and succeeds with the latter) is a fisherman, ignorant of his heritage, living a simple life. A rebellion against the Gods (the toppling of a statue of Zeus) by the soldiers of nearby Argos (which stands in for the original's Joppa, here), results in a very negative reaction by Hades (Ralph Fiennes, who is *very* definitely channeling Lord Voldemort in his interpretation).

With his stepfather, stepmother, and stepsister killed, Perseus winds up in Argos just in time for the city to be given a horrible choice--suffer the destruction of their city and everyone in it, or sacrifice Princess Andromeda to the Kraken. Hades also casually names Perseus as Zeus's son. and after some reluctance (and a brief imprisonment), Perseus is off to try and find a method of stopping the Kraken.

The Perseus-Andromeda romance here is non-existent. In fact, Andromeda's role in this movie is thin as a reed. Instead, most of the female speaking lines (yes, this movie fails the Bechdel Test go to a new interpretation of Io (Gemma Arterton) as a cursed priestess. She isn't a cow in *this* movie. (Explaining the classical interpretation of Io to the Olsons after the movie led to a lot of "moos" and jokes about cows).

Perseus, Io and his team head off, God of War style, to face monsters, taking on Calibos, Giant Scorpions, the stygian witches, magic wielding desert djinn made out of wood, and of course the Medusa, before the climatic battle with the Kraken. But what is Hades really up to? And will Perseus, who has as little use of the Gods as the impious citizens of Argos, use his abilities and claim his heritage, or will he fall, as the witches confidently predict? And what about that crazy religious nut in the city? What is HE up to?

Watch the movie and find out.

So what did I think? Well, I deduct a quarter star from my rating because of the cavalier way this movie calls back to Bubo in the first movie. I happen to *like* Bubo, but its clear the creators of this version do not. As far as the changes from the first movie, as I said at the beginning of this review, I've been reading Greek Mythology for a long time. I know that there are a myriad versions of nearly every myth and legend, and this movie is just another version for these characters, is all.

The action scenes are very, very good (although one scene makes the tactical situation far less clear than it should be. Perseus and Io, as well as Zeus and Hades, are the only real characters here with any depth, although some of Perseus' team have a few moments. Worthington does seem to have catapulted himself into "new action star" status based on this and on Avatar. As far as Atherton...well, let's just say that her presence in the forthcoming Prince of Persia now makes me more interested in seeing that movie, after seeing her here.

There are some (okay, many) deficiencies in the script. Only one God besides Zeus and Hades gets a speaking role, for example. While I like the reinterpretation of Calibos, they didn't play the angle and use the reinterpretation (no spoilers!) as well as they could have. With the relationship map focusing on Perseus and Io, Andromeda and her family are underwritten as well. And we never get a real reason why the royal family of Argos are so anti-Olympian (as well as half the people in this world).

Still, I dig the classics, and I am always up for Sword and Sandal action goodness, and this movie scratches that itch very nicely for me indeed.

I hope that this movie does well if for no other reason than we might get more Greek Mythology movies in the future. It's an evergreen vein of material that I hope Hollywood will come back to in full force (and do it properly. I'm looking at you, Troy).

I saw the movie in 2D (mainly because the 3D was post processing rather than native). You don't need to see it in 3D to enjoy and appreciate the movie.

Posted by Jvstin at 6:46 AM

March 9, 2010

Iron Man 2 Trailer

Via Sf Signal and many others...

Yes, I'll have some.

Maybe, just maybe, if we are lucky, Iron Man 2 will be to Iron Man as, say X Men 2 was to X Men or Spiderman 2 was to Spiderman. And considering how good Iron Man I was...

Posted by Jvstin at 5:21 AM

February 3, 2010

Thoughts on the 2009 Oscar Nominations

Thoughts on the 2009 Oscar Nominations

"Avatar" James Cameron and Jon Landau, Producers
"The Blind Side" Nominees to be determined
"District 9" Peter Jackson and Carolynne Cunningham, Producers
"An Education" Finola Dwyer and Amanda Posey, Producers
"The Hurt Locker" Nominees to be determined
"Inglourious Basterds" Lawrence Bender, Producer
"Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire" Lee Daniels, Sarah Siegel-Magness and Gary Magness, Producers
"A Serious Man" Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, Producers
"Up" Jonas Rivera, Producer
"Up in the Air" Daniel Dubiecki, Ivan Reitman and Jason Reitman, Producers

As you have heard, the Oscars went to 10 Best Picture choices this year. What you may not have heard is that the voting for nominations (and the voting for the actual award) this year is Ranked Choice voting. This is the same type of voting system used by a few communities (like the City of Minneapolis) and the Hugo Awards. It basically means that voters have to rank their choices.

So If I was an Oscar voter, my ballot for best Picture could look like this:

1. Up
2. Avatar
3. Inglorious Basterds.

Now, say, in tabulating the votes, Up got the least amount of votes, and no movie got a majority. Up would be eliminated, and everyone, like me, who voted for Up would have their second place votes count as their new first place votes. So my vote would then go for Avatar.

MPR has a nifty video on the subject of ranked choice voting.

Anyway, this makes it difficult to predict who will win the Oscar and who should.

My guess is that the movies who don't have one of the five best director nods will NOT win. And out of those five...I want Avatar to win. II suspect the little-seen The Hurt Locker will actually win.

"Avatar" James Cameron
"The Hurt Locker" Kathryn Bigelow
"Inglourious Basterds" Quentin Tarantino
"Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire" Lee Daniels
"Up in the Air" Jason Reitman

Usually, the Best Picture=Best Director. There are exceptions of course. So, I am rooting for Cameron, but Bigelow will get it.

Jeff Bridges in "Crazy Heart"
George Clooney in "Up in the Air"
Colin Firth in "A Single Man"
Morgan Freeman in "Invictus"
Jeremy Renner in "The Hurt Locker"

Everyone and everything I have read says that the statue already has Jeff Bridges' name carved on it. Any other winner would be a big upset.

Sandra Bullock in "The Blind Side"
Helen Mirren in "The Last Station"
Carey Mulligan in "An Education"
Gabourey Sidibe in "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire"
Meryl Streep in "Julie & Julia"

Streep deserves another Oscar after all of this time, but I suspect that it will go to maybe Mirren, possibly Sidibe.

Matt Damon in "Invictus"
Woody Harrelson in "The Messenger"
Christopher Plummer in "The Last Station"
Stanley Tucci in "The Lovely Bones"
Christoph Waltz in "Inglourious Basterds"

I have heard that Waltz' name is being carved on the statue. And he is the first and best reason to see Inglorious Basterds. One of the best villains in movie history.

Penélope Cruz in "Nine"
Vera Farmiga in "Up in the Air"
Maggie Gyllenhaal in "Crazy Heart"
Anna Kendrick in "Up in the Air"
Mo'Nique in "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire"

Hard to tell. Will Bridges pull his co-star Gyllenhaal along with her? Will Mo'Nique's perfomance in Precious win out. I think Mo'Nique will take home the statue.

Posted by Jvstin at 5:27 AM

January 24, 2010

The Book of Eli

I went to see "The Book of Eli" yesterday with my friend Felicia.

It's been thirty years since civilization collapsed. A few communities struggle here and there, and others live, isolated and afraid. Hobbesian dynamics are in full force. The road is no place for travelers who are not prepared. Bandits and thieves ("hijackers") abound and make travel dangerous.

Across this blasted, water-deprived landscape (the lack of potable and washing water is a strong theme throughout the movie), a man (Denzel Washington) wanders. He's not writing wrongs, as we see early when he allows a pair of fellow travelers to fall to bandits. He has a deeper mission, "going west", carrying a very special and very rare book. The same book, in fact, that Carnegie (Gary Oldman) is searching for, and wants to use to expand his one-town hydraulic empire.

And the identity of that book...would be telling.

The Book of Eli surprised me. I thought it would be at best a modest post-apocalyptic movie, good for some okay entertainment but nothing else. Instead, the Hughes brothers have produced a very good post-apocalyptic movie. I knew I would like this movie with one small detail about a third of the way in. Eli (whose name at this point we still don't know) is enjoying the forced hospitality of Carnegie. His room has a movie poster on the wall as the main decoration.

The movie poster is of another post-apocalyptic movie, A Boy and His Dog. When I saw that, I understood the Hughes brothers had done their homework.

The cinematography, with a heavy use of desaturated shots and a sense of bleakness, especially from high up, is on the high end for these sorts of films.

And, to quote TV Tropes, In addition to Denzel Washington's Eli and Gary Oldman's Carnegie, the movie has Tom Waits, Jennifer Beals (if you remember, she and Washington were in a previous movie together: Devil in a Blue Dress), Ray Stevenson (Titus Pullo from the Rome series), Michael Gambon (Dumbledore himself) and a cameo by Malcolm McDowell.

With a good amount of acting talent, good direction and cinematography, and darned entertaining, its a wonder this movie was released at this time of year, the graveyard of movies. Why wasn't this movie released in September, as counter programming to the end of Summer blockbusters.

Unfortunately, I think I know why, and it has to do with the nature of the book and some of the themes in the movie that stem from it. This interview on NPR with the Hughes brothers does spoil what the book is and what those themes are.. I think they have a point as to why this movie hasn't won over the critics.

As for me though, with some kick ass action scenes, great actors and actresses, and a well filmed vision of the world after the apocalypse, my friend Felicia and I were well satisfied by The Book of Eli.

Posted by Jvstin at 7:13 AM

December 27, 2009

Movie Review: Thoughts on Sherlock Holmes

I decided to go and see Guy Richie's take on Sherlock Holmes today.

In the future, the late years of the first decade of the twenty first century will be seen as a time when Hollywood, both on TV and on the big screen, was obsessed with reboots. Not only remakes of iwell established franchises and universes, but reimaginings of those franchises and universes, taking often radically new approaches to those properties.

Battlestar Galactica. Star Trek (which is a reboot AND a sequel at the same time). Batman Begins. The Incredible Hulk. James Bond's Casino Royale. Doctor Who (which is a hybrid like Star Trek, too).

And, now, Sherlock Holmes.

Sherlock Holmes, the creation of Arthur Conan Doyle is a character instantly recognizable to audiences of all ages. He has become part of our cultural DNA--the perfect logical detective. Basil Rathbone is considered to have done the definitive Holmes, but there are plenty of other models, imitations, and homages. Star Trek: The Next Generation did a couple of episodes with Data as Holmes; The Doctor Who episode The Talons of Weng-Chiang dress the Doctor up in a deerstalker hat. The movie Young Sherlock Holmes imagines Holmes and Watson first meeting as schoolage boys.

And, now, Guy Richie has brought us a reboot of Sherlock Holmes with Robert Downey Jr, Jude Law, and Rachel McAdams.

This Holmes IS the deductive detective that can piece together information from the tiniest of clues, much to the surprise of his opponents, but this Holmes is also extremely different. As you might expect from a Richie film, this Holmes is a pugilist of the first order, one who beats his opponents by careful pre-encounter planning in his head. We get to see, a couple of times, Holmes detail for the audience, in slow motion, just how, cleverly, he will beat his foe, and then, at regular speed, do it. This Holmes also seems to *enjoy* bare knuckled fighting for just the hell of it.

He's not a cocaine addict (perhaps that is not palatable in our heroes these days). His vice in this reboot is transferred to alcohol.

Watson in many Holmes adaptations is less an audience substitute and more of a bumbler (which is quite unlike the stories). Jude Law's Watson IS no bumbler. He tries to balance his attempts to get married with his complicated, bickering relationship with Holmes.He's fully competent, and in the skirmishes he and Holmes have with their foes, is as equally capable as Holmes in the physical arts.

The third corner of this movie is a supporting role from Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler, who appears in one Holmes story (and I think mentioned in a couple of others) as the only person ever to beat Holmes. I wasn't completely convinced by her performance and script that she was *that* good, but she is no useless damsel in distress, either.

Despite it being a reboot, there are bits and pieces of the Holmes Canon. We even have Detective Lestrade, and (mild spoiler) a Moriarty in the Shadows. He's not the major focus of the plot, though. The plot, such as it is, involves a Victorian occultist trying to take power in England, and beyond, one seeming to have a supernatural advantage over our heroes.

Richie's trademark cinematic styles are in full force here, and the cinematography is very good. A lot of the film is dark, but not dark in the sense of being muddled. I was able to buy myself being transported to a Victorian London where Tower Bridge is being built (and a visual shout out to that turns out to be a Chekov's Gun for the finale)

This is Holmes and Watson as scruffy Victorian Secret Agents. James Bond, meet Sherlock Holmes.It's not the Holmes of old by a long shot, but its damned entertaining. I enjoyed it.

Posted by Jvstin at 3:17 PM

December 23, 2009

The Best Genre-Related Books/Films/Shows Consumed in 2009

Sf Signal has been asking luminaries in the SF field what they considered the best Genre Related books, films and shows they consumed in 2009. Note that the material does not necessarily need to have come out in 2009, they just have had to consume it.

Unlike Gaul, the Sfsignal article is divided into four parts:

Behind the cut, my own choices!


I read over 50 books this year, many of them in the genre. The ones I liked best were:

Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honor of Jack Vance
There was no way that this tribute anthology to Vance's work would miss being on this list. A real treasure.

Furies of Calderon (Codex Alera, Book 1). I've come late to the Calderon party. I listened to the first book and a half of the Codex Alera series on vacation, read the remainder of the second book, and now am going to tackle book three. Epic Fantasy done right, and with more than a little Roman flavor.

Three Unbroken (Novel of Celestial Empire). I really like Chris Roberson's work, and this is the latest novel in his Celestial Empire universe, where China and the Aztecs duel over the planet Mars...


It was a good year for SF films:

Star Trek (Single-Disc Edition). Star Trek is a reboot done right. Even with that darned overuse of lens flare, Star Trek lives again!

Back to the Future - The Complete Trilogy (Widescreen Edition). I picked this up this year. I recall being less than enthused, back in the day, with the third film. On this watch through, though, I have come around to its charms. And the first movie is a classic, period, full stop.

Up. I should be shot if I didn't include what might be the best Pixar movie yet.

Avatar: Sure, the story is weak, but the technical aspects of Avatar put it on this list. You must see this film and see what Cameron's use of technology has wrought. You simply must.


Doctor Who: The Complete Fourth Series. The last fourth season of the Doctor, and how! From Pompeii to the Medusa Cascade, another trip of a lifetime, with a heartrending ending to boot.

Sanctuary: The Complete First Season. Although I didn't really like it at first, watching episodes at my friends house has warmed me to this series. And certainly, on cable, it has less of the tsuris that, say, Dollhouse has gotten itself into.

Doctor Who: The War Games (Story 50). This classic episode, the last of the Troughton era, was recently re-released on DVD. A perfect swan song for the Second Doctor, Zoe and Jamie.

Posted by Jvstin at 11:49 AM

Alternate Interpretation of Avatar

Reading an entry on Kallisti Press' blog about Avatar, I now have a fully formed alternate interpretation of what we see in the movie Avatar.

I wouldn't read more unless you saw the movie, because this is by definition, full of spoilers.

This post on Kallisti Press about Avatar got me thinking along its lines. (Go ahead and read it first).

What do we see in Avatar? Ostensibly technologically primitive aliens--who just happen to have biological USB cables that allow them to interface with a variety of other creatures on the planet.

A hippy dippy Gaiaesque religion of the natives--which just happens to be correct. Before Grace dies in her failed upload attempt, she says to Jake "I am with her". Also, the end battle. "Eywa heard you!"

I said in my earlier review that this movie reminded me in some ways of Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, except with a much more lush ecology and not one based on fungus. Continuing that thought, an alternative explanation of Pandora is as follows:

It's a post singularity world! At some time in the past, a powerful intelligence arose on the planet and began reshaping it to its desires. Let's call it Eywa. Life forms were resculpted, and designed to work together (those biological USB cables). The Na'vi, the post singularity descendants of the Eywa Makers, were also sculpted as well. A sustained ecology was put in place. Eywa herself became a biologically based superintelligence, living within the neural network of the entire planet as a whole.

She remains connected to the organisms on the planet via those biological USB cables,Uploading and downloading of memories and knowledge and "souls"...Eywa acts more like a sentient biologically based computer than an Earth Goddess.

I bet a lot of that computer runs on automatic, though. Paying attention to an entire planet is a difficult business. Even for a superintelligence, Eywa has a lot to manage and do. Probably not only the ecology, but I bet the climatology, hydro-geology and more are under her management and care.

Is it any wonder that it takes Jake *shouting* at her to finally get her attention and help? After all, consider the sense of scale. The humans are attacking one small portion of Pandora, and manage to destroy just one Hometree and threaten one Well of Souls There are certainly many more Hometrees throughout the planet (we see glimpses of other hometrees when Jake rallies the Na'vi).I think its naive to think there is just one Well of Souls, too. So all things considered, at this stage, until Jake gets her to care, Eywa doesn't even notice.

It takes Jake's shouting to get Eywa to turn her attentions from managing a planet to focusing her attentions on a small portion, where the humans technology is running rampant and intervene.

Now, I will bet that if the humans had managed to destroy the Well and continued their plunder of the planet, even without Jake, Eywa would eventually have taken notice before things had gotten completely under control. This brings up the late game Sid Meier Alpha Centauri scenario, when the fungus arises and starts trying to destroy your cities and units.

What Jake did, then, was accelerate this inevitable process. He wasn't essential to the planet's defense of itself and its creatures, but he (and possibly Grace's upload) helped accelerate and focus Eywa's attention on the problem.

I'm certain that this is not Cameron's interpretation at all. But I like it and it makes sense given all that we see.

Posted by Jvstin at 7:17 AM

December 21, 2009

Movie Review: Thoughts on Avatar

So I went to see the much hyped Avatar yesterday with my friend Felicia (of My Friends The Olsons™)

The money Cameron spent is on the screen, not in the plot.

Using a new 3D technology, Avatar is a visual masterpiece. Felicia and I agreed: This movie deserves Best Cinematography. Even without the 3D (which did not give me a headache, and was used well, rather than gimmicky), the movie is a feast for the eyes. Pandora is a fully realized world. For 160 minutes, you will forget your troubles, the economy, and the world outside the screen, and be immersed in a very alien planet. (Technically, alien moon--Pandora is much like Endor, the moon of a larger planet).

The plot and story are far less groundbreaking.

"Dances with Wolves in Space" is a cheap shot, but its not an entirely inaccurate one. The Noble Savage in tune with Mother Nature fights against the Goddessless rapacious white moneygrubbing oppressors that have high technology and no morals. White Man falls in love with Native girl, goes native himself and helps the Natives Fight Back.

As I said, the plot and story are not exactly new.

In the details, though, I detected some ideas in the plot and the nature of the movie from a variety of sources. Not only previous films (such as the Alien franchise) but I was even reminded of Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri computer game (very appropriate, too, since Pandora is in the Alpha C solar system).

Like the plot, the acting was nothing to write home about. The actors did fine with what they were given but the characters needed work from the scriptwriter, I think). The fact that I far more easily remember the visuals and eye candy than any bit of dialogue or characterization is telling.

Overall, though, I was impressed by what was committed to film here. I am thinking of how I can go and see this again in the theater. I want an reimmersion into the Pandoraverse, even given the tired nature of the plot.

The technology to imagine nearly any book I've ever read now exists with the CGI I saw on that screen.

The question is: What will Hollywood do with such CGI power?

Posted by Jvstin at 6:01 AM

November 25, 2009

Roger Ebert on "The Road"

The irrepressible and still-going Roger Ebert has a review of The Road today, the adaptation of the Mccarthy novel starring Viggo Mortensen.

I haven't read the novel but I have a general idea of the plot and themes of the movie. Still, even just reading this review is enough for me to think that this movie is painted only in the darker shades of grey and black. Ebert is a fan of McCarthy, has read the book, and so I trust his judgement on how good an adaptation of the novel the book is. Ebert gives it 3 1/2 stars out of four.

I saw the movie a second time at a press screening on Oct. 27 in Chicago. I see festival films again whenever I have the chance. I find the second viewing makes the good ones better, and the bad ones worse. Such is the case with "The Road."

Still, I am sure that "The Feel good movie of the year" is one tag phrase that is NEVER going to be used for this movie.

Posted by Jvstin at 7:46 AM

November 23, 2009

Nine poster and trailer

I'm not a giant fan of musicals.

That said, I think Nine is a musical that I can get behind!

Look at that poster and tell me that I wouldn't want a piece of THAT. And the trailer is pretty good too. Kate Hudson in a music heavy movie again. Nicole Kidman. Penelope Cruz. Marion Cotillard. Sophia Loren. Daniel Day-Lewis is the male lead. Someone who can act!

The movie is being done by the guy who did Chicago, which is one of those exceptions to my "not giant fan of musicals" rule.

So put me down for Nine!

Posted by Jvstin at 4:31 PM

November 20, 2009

"I'm mean, sour, nasty and cruel..."

I've mentioned Warner Bros' practice of releasing movies in create-dvd-on-demand format before, with a number of interesting minor movies available (ranging from Doc Savage to She to even some failed Gene Roddenberry pilots.

Now, though, they have some new ones for the season, including one that has stuck in my brain because of one song.

Yogi's First Christmas

I remember this movie because it was a musical episode of Yogi, with a number of songs, including the song that introduces the hermit antagonist. (The hermit hates Christmas, you see...) His song begins "I'm mean, sour, nasty and cruel. That's my disposition as a general rule..."

Its not high art and I'm not really tempted to buy it, but its gratifying and amusing to see it come to DVD at last.

Posted by Jvstin at 7:40 PM

November 15, 2009

Reimagined movie plots in terms of actor's other characters

I've seen this idea somewhere, but I can't tell you for the life of me where. But I am going to create a meme for it and let it loose for you the reader to play with in your blog, in your mind or wherever.

The idea is to reimagine a synopsis of a movie in terms of the other characters played by the actors in the movie. I think I came across this in terms of thinking about some of the high powered casts of Superhero movies, but you really can do this for any range of films.

So, a few examples for you to get started.

Grand Moff Tarkin explores the African desert, and find a city ruled over by Bond Girl Honey Ryder and her henchman Saruman.

In Medieval France, the Joker, Wash,and Silas the albino monk team up to win jousting tournaments.

Rick O'Connell gets the help of Silas the albino monk in taking on Gollum, who is seeking to bring an even greater evil than he into the world.

Now President of the United States, Indiana Jones has a new personal terrorist enemy--none other than Sirius Black, seeking to hijack the titular plane.

Aragorn, living the life of a restaurant owner, reveals to his wife that he has secret skills in killing people when Major Koning comes calling on the behalf of Aragorn's brother, Inspector Frank Bumstead.

Agent J, Data, Lone Starr, Lester Marlow and Dr. Ian Malcolm take on aliens invading the Earth on the titular holiday.

Posted by Jvstin at 12:57 PM

November 13, 2009


I saw 2012 with my friend Felicia today.

Does the name Irwin Allen ring a bell? The Poseidon Adventure? Earthquake? The Towering Inferno? (which, believe it or not, managed an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture in 1974)

Roland Emmerich, with Independence Day, Godzilla, Day After Tomorrow, and now 2012, is our modern day Irwin Allen. Big screen Disaster movies, large casts, people die, big things happen.

Roland blows up the Earth real good. The science on why the Earth is going to pieces is absolute bunk and the film doesn't spend much beyond the opening scenes on *why* the Earth is going to hell in a handbasket. This is good, since we get to focus on the characters and the fates that befall them.

Although John Cusack (who plays a failed SF writer!) seems to get top billing and is in a plurality of scenes in the movie, the real heart and soul of the movie is Chiwetel Ejiofor, whose Dr. Adrian Helmsley is not only the science heart of the film, but its spiritual heartand conscience as well. Strangely (and to good effect), he plays off very well against the cold and callous Oliver Platt (in a brilliant bit of anti casting).

Washington D.C, Los Angeles and Las Vegas are the three cities we see wiped out, in classic Irwin Allen cum Roland Emmerich fashion. Unlike the frentic jump cutting of a lot of directors these days, Emmerich lets us fully appreciate on widescreen the magnitude of the disasters befalling the Earth.

Its not high art. It's not a good movie. The science and engineering is abysmal, but that's on par for Emmerich. (Remember in Day After Tomorrow, Emmerich had his characters try and outrun "cold"!)

But is it damned fun to watch? If you enjoy disaster movies, you bet. Go and see it.

Heck, I even give Emmerich points (sad to say even in this day and age that I have to, but I give him props for doing it because too many directors don't give a damn) for having the primary romantic thread in the movie be the one between two African-Americans. (In addition, showing additional international sensibility, its NOT an American who first discovers what is going to happen.)

Felicia and I, who like this sort of movie, were more than reasonably entertained.

Posted by Jvstin at 9:45 PM

September 26, 2009

Brief thoughts on the movie Surrogates

I went to see Surrogates today, starring Bruce Willis:

A short take on the movie.

Starring Bruce Willis, Surrogates takes a well-worn SF trope, the idea of virtual bodies, and puts in a pinch of speculation and development of the ramification and implications.And action. Lots of action. Really, the movie is much more of an action thriller than a SF movie, much to my chagrin.

Willis plays an FBI agent in a world where most people spend most of their outside-their-house interactions and life in virtual bodies that they control from control consoles and chairs. There is a significant minority of people who refuse to use these surrogates. On the other hand, the wide use of these bodies has cut down on violent crime and has apparently increased quality of life for many people.

Until Willis and his partner discover that the murder of a pair of surrogates has managed to, against all known knowledge of how surrogates work, killed the operators at the same time...

While the action sequences are well done, they are unfortunately too much of the movie. There is a lot of room for exploring the concept, and this is regrettably underdone. We see hints of the potential of the concept--how the operators can be very different than their models, even to gender, the sociological implications of a world where physical interactions with real people are denigrated, and so forth. But they aren't explored. I wanted to see more of these implications. For instance, in a world where people only go out in virtual bodies and bring back things for their physical bodies, does this mean that restaurants (except takeout) have died?

The other problem I have is the ending. I don't want to give it away, but I do want to say is that the screenwriter, like the lack of exploring the concept, didn't think through the implications of the finale. (The fact that the actual climax event was as painfully unrealistic, technologically, as Live Free or Die Hard is another problem altogether).

If you can shut off your brain better than I can, you might enjoy the movie better than I did.

Posted by Jvstin at 5:42 PM

August 23, 2009

Inglorious Basterds

Since Indiegamers canceled at the last minute, I went to see Inglorious Basterds on the spur of the moment.

To start this review, I am going to quote the first paragraph of Roger Ebert's review:

Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" is a big, bold, audacious war movie that will annoy some, startle others and demonstrate once again that he's the real thing, a director of quixotic delights. For starters (and at this late stage after the premiere in May at Cannes, I don't believe I'm spoiling anything), he provides World War II with a much-needed alternative ending. For once the basterds get what's coming to them.

IG is a violent movie. Its typically Tarantino esque in many ways. Its playing with time and space. Stylized action sequences. Discursive excursions in dialogue. Characters that are created and inhabited to a capital "C".

Like many good movies, the center of this film is not the protagonists. Not Pitt's Lt. Raine, not Melanie Laurent's Shoshonna Dreyfus, a Jew who escapes the villain in the opening sequence to construct a revenge as ambitious as the Basterds'.

No, the center of this movie is the villain. Christoph Waltz as Col. Hans Landa, SS. "The Jew Hunter." He describes himself as a detective. He is charming, subtle, charismatic, a monster, and everything you would want in a movie villain. He is a memorable character created by Tarantino and inhabited by Waltz.

Yes, there are some weaknesses in the movie, and like many Tarantino films, there are portions here which don't quite jell with the others. I think Pitt is probably one of the weaker castings in the movie, for instance. And the movie is wincingly violent.

There are many strengths in the movie besides Waltz. Much of the non-Pitt casting is excellent. Tarantino gets to do riffs in his classic style. (I had no idea about the flammability of old nitrate prints!). The movie remained more than entertaining throughout. It was definitely immersive.

This is not really a war movie starring Brad Pitt. It's something different, and more. Detractors and those who have disliked Tarantino's previous work are not going to be convinced by this movie, I think his fans and those perhaps agnostic on Tarantino's work are going to appreciate and enjoy it.

Posted by Jvstin at 4:09 PM

August 19, 2009

Nasa List of Media on the ISS

A FOIA request has produced a list of the items that Nasa has stocked in terms of media available to the astronauts on the International Space Station:

A fair amount of SF books along with the action movies are listed:

A Roll of the Dice, Catherine Asaro
The Apocalypse Troll, DAvid Weber
Barrayar, Lois Bujold

The Harry Potter movies
Star Wars
Star Gate SG_1, seasons 1-5

And more!

Go read the entire thing

Posted by Jvstin at 2:59 PM

July 19, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

I went to see Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince today.

Directed by David Yates (who did Order of the Phoenix and will do the last two movies), this is the sixth movie in the series.

While the novel is very much a character study, the movie diverges from that to present more action. There are a couple of intense action scenes and events, one very early in the film and one near the midpoint, which are strong divergences from the books.

As far as the acting, Broadbent does a great job as Slughorn. This series of movies has been a virtual British Actor Employment Act. While Radcliffe and his younger companions do okay in their roles, this movie makes it clear that, in the end, they cannot and do not hold a candle to Smith, Rickman, Coltrane, Gambon, Carter (who has gleeful fun in her role) and the others who portray the adults in the film. They are the real stars.

The movie has a washed out palette, but the cinematography is strong and practiced. The film is especially good when it frames and depicts the conflicted, brooding Draco.

I think the pacing of the film, though, is a bit off and perhaps the script could have used a second look. (I suspect that the midpoint action scene, not in the novel, was inserted in an effort to try and ratchet the tension. It does help.)

A lot of stuff in the movie, though, is there for the sake of continuity and if you haven't paid attention to the previous movies and novels, you will miss it. Minor characters get short shrift, some sadly underused. There are, literally blink-and-you-will-miss appearances from some minor characters like Wormtail and even the explosion-prone Seamus. Neither is even named in the movie.

The film focuses on Harry, and to a lesser extent, Ron and Hermione. The movie downplays the Ron-Hermione Ron-Lavender and Harry-Ginny romances to focus on other things. It must be admitted that HBP is a big book and a lot had to go. Still, some choices were baffling to me.

Ultimately, though, the movie's characters and milieu feel familiar, and I would not dream of dissuading anyone who has read the novels and/or watched the previous movies from watching this one.

Posted by Jvstin at 7:14 PM

July 8, 2009

Movie Reviewers should not be expected to read the book

A bit of a rant here.

On Scifiwire, a posted review of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince movie stirred a few negative comments because the reviewer admitted he had not read all of the novels.

This is wrongheaded.

A movie should stand or fall on its merits, not on the merits of the source material. It is somewhat beyond the point how the movie relates to the source material, and its definitely beyond the point if the reviewer has never read the source material.

Should a reviewer of Total Recall be required to read the Philip K Dick story it is tangentially based on, for instance? Is reading Pride and Prejudice necessary to review the Bollywood remake Bride and Prejudice?

I say no. While its a nice benefit and addition, in the end, the movie should stand and fall on its cinematic triumphs and lows, not on how it relates to its book. My issue with the movie Troy, for instance, was not the liberties taken with the narrative of the Iliad, but rather the make up of the universe and the blatant anachronisms.

Posted by Jvstin at 3:13 PM

June 24, 2009

Ten Best Picture Nominees next year?

You've probably seen this announcement by now:

The 82nd Academy Awards, which will be presented on March 7, 2010, will have 10 feature films vying in the Best Picture category, Academy Motion Picture Arts and Sciences President Sid Ganis announced today (June 24) at a press conference in Beverly Hills.

"Having 10 best picture nominees is going allow Academy voters to recognize and include some of the fantastic movies that often show up in the other Oscar categories but have been squeezed out of the race for the top prize," said Acad prexy Sid Ganis in announcing the shift. "I can't wait to see what that list of 10 looks like when the nominees are announced in February."

Clearly they are trying to shake things up, given declining ratings and the atomziation of consumer interest in media overall. We have so many choices, the individual share of anything is smaller than it used to be. I suppose this is an attempt by the Academy to get interest in movies in general and the Oscar telecast in particular to rise.

I agree with the Monkey See blog, though: This probably will make the Oscar telecast longer.

In a good and strong year, this change wouldn't be a bad thing. There have been years where a deserving 6th and 7th movie might have been added to the list, or at least would be there alongside a weaker nomination. The Dark Knight last year, for example.

In a weak year, though, this change would just lead to even weaker offerings than usual being touted as "Oscar Nominee!"

Posted by Jvstin at 3:08 PM

May 14, 2009

Star Wars Prequels--are they really a Reboot?

Here's some food for thought.

If you have seen the original Star Wars films, and then the prequels, you will undoubtedly notice a lot of things don't match up. Things Obi Wan and Yoda say don't jell with what we see in the "new" Episode I-III films.

So, in the wake of the Star Trek reboot--what if the Star Wards Prequels were really re-classified as a not-entirely-successful Reboot of the Star Wars franchise and universe. This would help explain away a lot of differences between the IV-VI films retelling of prior events, and the events as depicted in the I-III films.

What do you think?

Posted by Jvstin at 8:09 AM

May 10, 2009

Star Trek: A movie review

A review of the new Star Trek movie, directed by J.J. Abrams. There are spoilers...

I have not read the prequel comic, although I think I might have appreciated the villain a little more if I had.

The Star Trek movie stars Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, and Simon Pegg.

I came to this movie from the perspective of someone who has watched Star Trek for most of his life. First the original series in re-runs, then the feature movies. (Heck, the only time I ever cut class in High School was so that some classmates and I, on the day of the Prom, went to see the premiere of Star Trek V.). The other series followed in turn.

The first SF convention I ever attended was a Star Trek one, with GOHs Marina Sirtis and George Takei.

The last couple of movies though, especially Nemesis, just didn't do it for me. So it was with a mixture of anticipation and dread that I heard that Abrams was going to reboot Star Trek.

The movie is an alternate universe created by the villain's antagonist, Nero (Eric Bana) going back in time and interfering with the early life (as in his first few moments) of James T Kirk's life, causing the death of his father in a spectacular opening action sequence. Without his father, the Kirk that grows up is very different than the one in the series and the films backstory, a punk who steals a car as a kid, and gets into drunken brawls with Starfleet cadets.

Captain Christopher Pike, recognizing him in the aftermath of the brawl, challenges Kirk to join Starfleet. HE does so, quickly running into Dr. McCoy, fleeing a bad divorce. Uhura, he met in the bar scene, where he unsuccessfully tried to pick her up.

We also get a major lump of backstory for the other half of the K/S relationship, Spock. For reasons not made entirely clear, the upbringing of this Spock is an especially hard one, with his halfbreed heritage a source of tension amongst his peers and the leaders on Vulcan.

The characters all meet and connect, partially thanks to Nero. Nero strikes again, attacking the planet Vulcan and mandating a scrambling of cadets to man badly needed ships to try and stop his destructive plans...

To say much more of the details of the plot would definitely go into spoiler territory. There is a future spock (played by Nimoy) involved, and Winona Ryder has a small role as Spock's mother Amanda.

So, did I like it?

I was surprised (and I am trying hard to avoid spoilers here) that the reset button was not pressed. I was sure that events would be undone, and we'd get the timeline that we knew and love. Instead, this movie ends with a quite changed Kirk, Spock and Federation for that matter.

As far as the portrayals and the characters, I think that Urban's McCoy is the closest to the original series portrayal. Mannerisms, tone of voice and inflections are all there. Although the character is very different than the original, I also liked Quinto's Spock as well. I thought Pine's Kirk was a distant third, but he, and the rest of the cast do an okay job. Some of the roles are better thought out and detailed than others. Uhura, for example, I think is very underutilized as a character on her own, for example.

The action sequences and cinematography are what you would expect in a modern box office blockbuster. This movie is diametrically different than Star Trek: The Motion Picture, for better and worse. I didn't like Abram's extensive use of lens flares. Its almost as if he had just discovered this film technique and so had to use it literally dozens of times.

There are lots of plot holes, some of them large enough to drive the USS Kelvin through. Still, the narrative power of the story Abrams created propelled me through. At its best and with a few exceptions, Trek is action adventure pulp fiction space opera set in an optimistic universe. This movie gets that, and gets that right. In spades.

I would definitely watch a sequel and see what happens now that the crew is assembled and they can truly "boldly go where no one has gone before."

Posted by Jvstin at 5:42 PM

April 27, 2009

Battle for Terra?

I had first really heard about this movie, at The Source. The last time the Indiegamers met, the proprietor of the store had posters for this animated movie, coming out this Friday, available for the taking. I didn't take one.

Reading more about it, it looks like this movie might be in the vein of Titan A.E. I had missed the goodness of Titan A.E. until a very good friend introduced me to it.

Maybe this movie will have the same sort of strength. There aren't a whole lot of big scale SF movies which aren't tied to existing franchises or properties. Maybe the animated route is a cheaper way to try and introduce *new* universes and characters.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:25 AM

April 18, 2009

Inside 'Hollywood's Attic': Warner Opens Its Vault

NPR's Weekend Edition had a story about the old films that Warner Bros is making
available from their extensive archives.

I knew about this for a while, since I've somehow wound up on Warner Bros. mailing list and they sent an email to me about it.

The extensiveness of what's there is amazing.
These are also the sorts of films that showed up on Channel 9 and 11 in NYC: "Million Dollar Movie!" "The 4 O'Clock Movie" and "The Saturday Night Movie" and other such programs. I even remember one or two of this films, fondly, mainly from the more recent ones, like Doc Savage, Man of Bronze!--the last film George Pal did.

Posted by Jvstin at 9:55 AM

April 14, 2009

Obscure SF Film Meme

Obscure SF Film meme

Via SF Signal.

Bolded ones are ones that I've seen.

A. Alphaville [1965]
B. Brainstorm [1983]
C. Charly [1968]

D. Destination Moon [1950]
E. Enemy Mine [1985]
F. Frau im Mond [1929]
G. Gold [1934]
H. Harrison Bergeron [1995]
I. The Incredible Shrinking Man [1957]

J. Just Imagine [1930]
K. Krakatit [1947]
L. Lifeforce [1985]
M. The Man in the White Suit [1951]
N. Night of the Comet [1984]
O. On Your Mark [1995]
P. Panic in Year Zero! [1962]
Q. Quatermass and the Pit [1968, a.k.a. Five Million Years to Earth]
R. Robinson Crusoe on Mars [1964]
S. Soylent Green [1973]
T. Them! [1954]

U. The Ultimate Warrior [1975]
V. Village of the Damned [1960]
W. The War Game [1965]
X. X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes [1963]
Y. Yosei Gorasu [1962]
Z. Zardoz [1974]

Posted by Jvstin at 6:11 AM

March 8, 2009

The Watchmen

Although I have not read the graphic novel (something I've been excoriated for by numerous parties), I went to see the Watchmen movie with Felicia of My Friends The Olsons™ Saturday.

The Comedian, a retired crime-fighting hero, is foully murdered by persons unknown in an alternate 1985. His former teammates meet and unite and, with the prodding of Rorschach, try and uncover the truth behind the mystery of the Comedian's death, and the larger machinations behind that death.

That's the basic, spoiler free plot of The Watchmen that I can make it, but the movie is far, far more than that. The Watchmen

"I suppose I was just thinking, 'That'd be a good way to start a comic book: have a famous super-hero found dead.' As the mystery unraveled, we would be led deeper and deeper into the real heart of this super-hero's world, and show a reality that was very different to the general public image of the super-hero."
--Alan Moore on the basis for Watchmen

While a movie cannot capture the density of a novel or a graphic novel, the movie is jam packed with stuff that flies by on the screen in order to do this. The opening credits, for example, gives us a history lesson of this alternate world in miniature, giving newcomers like myself enough knowledge to understand that this is an alternate world.

As for the movie itself? I cannot comment on how faithful the movie is to the graphic novel, or what is left out. The themes of the graphic novel are familiar to me because in the two decades since its publication, those themes have influenced, infected and informed the genre--deconstruction of Superheroes and what would Superheroes be like in the real world.

The movie isn't that deconstructive, and I suspect the graphic novel gets a lot more in than the movie ever could. Still, its made clear that the Watchmen universe is a dark gritty one, and not one in which you want to live. I suppose the graphic novel shows this even more, but the movie does pretty well in displaying its dark world. The world is at the edge of Nuclear War, the streets are not safe, Richard Nixon is President for the fifth time.

But what about it as a movie? I found the movie wildly uneven and pulpish. There are really good scenes and things in this movie. I mention the opening credits. The opening fight scene, the murder, is brutal but very well done. The pathos and tragedy of the arc of Doctor Manhattan, the man who became a god and now risks losing his humanity.

And for every good point, there is stuff that made me wince, groan and shake my head. The soundtrack, for example. An excellent soundtrack raises the bar of a good movie to exceptionally great. Conversely, poor use of music can reduce the overall quality of the movie. Unfortunately, I feel that the Watchmen movie is in the latter quality. It's not necessarily that its bad music. It's just as subtle as a sledgehammer. The funeral of the Comedian, for example, has "The Sounds of Silence" blaring in the background. An awkward sex scene between two characters who have fumbled toward this intimacy with each other, uses "Hallelujah". And so it goes, throughout the film.

And then there is the acting. With the exception of Billy Crudup, and Carla Gugino, the movie is populated with unknowns mostly has a B level cast. (This writer completely failed to recognize Matt Frewer, for example, in a small but pivotal role. D'oh!). Possibly, these actors and actresses were chosen for their appearance and resemblance to the characters more than anything. Still, with such a cast, the acting results are mixed at best. Not only does the quality of the acting vary widely from scene to scene and actor to actor, but even the same actors and actresses' performance runs up and down throughout the film. It was extremely frustrating to range from scenes of real emotion and passion, to scenes where it felt to me like the actors and actresses were reading lines off of a teleprompter.


Let me mention something that works without reservation in this movie. The visuals. From those opening credits, to the fight scenes, to Nite Owl's lair and ship, to Manhattan's retreat on Mars, to the location of the final conflict, the visuals of this movie are a strong point that I cannot knock in any way. Snyder has taken pains to fully engage us into this alternate world by means of the visual medium, ranging from the blink and you miss newspaper headlines, to a strong visual style for the characters, to "interesting stuff going on in the background". Case in point--Zeppelins. I have joked before that you can always tell you are in an alternate history, if you look up and see Zeppelins. (even Doctor Who has played with this trope. Also, see this entry from the Television Tropes wiki.I'm not the only one to think of this.).


It's a pulpy mix and mess of a movie. I don't regret seeing it. I suspect that a reading of the graphic novel and a re-watching of the movie (especially a director's cut) in conditions where I can pause and look at things at my leisure might tease out things more and I might appreciate it more than I did.

On the other hand, I will never be able to watch the original Shrek again, without the "Hallelujah" scene in the movie flashing me back to the sex scene in THIS movie. Soundtrack dissonance!

There. I don't think I've spoiled the plot. Go forth and see it, or not. I am extremely curious as to what you, my friends, readers and acquaintances, think of this film--*especially* if you are more familiar with the ur-text than I am.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:08 AM

March 2, 2009

Bruce Campbell on Wait Wait Don't Tell Me

Bruce Campbell, an actor no stranger to a swath of my friends list, showed up on NPR's news quiz show Wait Wait Don't Tell Me. (They have a guest each week to play a game called "Not my job" when the person is asked questions about a topic they probably know nothing about:

He was made of awesome. As usual.

Posted by Jvstin at 4:31 AM

February 23, 2009

Oscar Nominees--which ones have I seen? (Meme)

Self Originated Meme. (In an attempt to make myself feel better)

I will keep the meme short. This is a list of the last 13 Oscar Winners. Did you see it? Did you see it in the theater? Did you see it before the Oscar win? Did you see it before it was even Nominated?

2008 Slumdog Millionaire --saw it in theater before Oscar Nominations
2007 No Country for All Men --saw it on DVD
2006 The Departed --saw it in theater before Oscar Nominations
2005 Crash --saw it on DVD
2004 Million Dollar Baby --saw it on DVD
2003 Lord of the Rings: Return of the King --saw it in theater before Oscar Nominations
2002 Chicago --saw it in theater before Oscar Win
2001 A Beautiful Mind --saw it in theater before Oscar Win
2000 Gladiator --saw it in theater before Oscar Nominations
1999 American Beauty --saw it on DVD
1998 Shakespeare in Love --saw it in theater before Oscar Win
1997 Titanic --saw it in theater before Oscar Nominations
1996 The English Patient --saw it in theater before Oscar Win

How about you?

Posted by Jvstin at 6:18 AM

February 22, 2009

Ghost Town

Ghost Town

A small film starring Ricky Gervais (The Office), Greg Kinnear, and Tea Leoni.

Ricky Gervais plays a misanthropic dentist, Pincus, who despises the company of his fellow man. Kinnear plays a recently deceased man whose ghost is still hanging around; Tea Leoni is his widow. When Pincus briefly "dies" during a routine colonoscopy, he gains the ability to see ghosts like Kinnear. Ghosts have unfinished business and problems (We who have played World of Darkness call them "fetters"), and since Pincus can see the Ghosts, they, led by Kinnear, want him to solve their problems. Kinnear wants Pincus to break up his widow and his too-good-to-be-true social lawyer fiance.

So the movie tracks back and forth between comedy and romance, not at whiplash speed but enough to have the joins show in the plot. It has the requisite happy ending, and a pretty standard story arc for a movie of this time complete with a false dawn and a false failure. (A pretty spectacular one, too). Within that template, though, the three leads do fine and the movie definitely improved my sour and depressed mood.

I enjoyed it.

Posted by Jvstin at 5:20 PM

February 16, 2009

The Man from Earth

Somehow, I don't remember the exact chain, I came across the existence of this little movie written by Jerome Bixby (of Twilight Zone fame). It's a small "conversation" movie revolving around a group of friends who are seeing off one of their fellows who is moving away suddenly...and who reveals a shocking secret.

John Oldman poses what seems to be first an intellectual exercise. What if a man born in the Upper Paleozoic, 14,000 years ago, never died and lived to the present day. How could that work. What would he have seen? What would he be like?

As John spins out the idea and his friends listen and respond, John reveals that this IS the case--he was born 14,000 years ago, and has somehow lived to the present day.

The reactions range from disbelief, to shock, to outright denial, especially when John reveals some of what he has seen and done in those millennia.

The filming and cinematography are relatively poor (or perhaps it was just the DVD transfer). The acting itself is rather wooden (even the more experienced actors, like John Billingsley and William Katt) and not very evocative. However, even given those two major flaws, the movie works and thrives on its premise. What if a caveman DID live that long. Not a genius or Superman but just an ordinary guy?

So the movie is not really so much science fictional as it is philosophical and meditative. It was thought provoking and works through the implications of the premise. On those grounds, I highly enjoyed the film and recommend it to all of you.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:05 AM

January 23, 2009

Oscar Nominees--which ones have I seen?

You've all seen lists of Oscar nominees by now.

This list highlights which movies/performances that I've seen. I've got a lot of catching up to do!

Best Picture
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"
"The Reader"
"Slumdog Millionaire"

Best Director
David Fincher, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"
Ron Howard, "Frost/Nixon"
Gus Van Sant, "Milk"
Stephen Daldry, "The Reader"
Danny Boyle, "Slumdog Millionaire"

Best Actor
Richard Jenkins, "The Visitor"
Frank Langella, "Frost/Nixon"
Sean Penn, "Milk"
Brad Pitt, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"
Mickey Rourke, "The Wrestler"

Best Actress
Anne Hathaway, "Rachel Getting Married"
Angelina Jolie, "Changeling"
Melissa Leo, "Frozen River"
Meryl Streep, "Doubt"
Kate Winslet, "The Reader"

Best Supporting Actor
Josh Brolin, "Milk"
Robert Downey Jr., "Tropic Thunder"
Phillip Seymour Hoffman, "Doubt"
Heath Ledger, "The Dark Knight"
Michael Shannon, "Revolutionary Road"

Best Supporting Actress
Amy Adams, "Doubt"
Penelope Cruz, "Vicky Cristina Barcelona"
Viola Davis, "Doubt"
Taraji P. Henson, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"
Marisa Tomei, "The Wrestler"

Best Adapted Screenplay
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"
"The Reader"
"Slumdog Millionaire"

Best Original Screenplay
"Frozen River"
"In Bruges"

Best Animated Feature Film
"Kung Fu Panda"

Best Foreign Language Film
"The Baader Meinhof Complex"
"The Class"
"Waltz with Bashir"

Best Documentary Feature
"The Betrayal (Nerkhoon)"
"Encounters at the End of the World"
"The Garden"
"Man on Wire"
"Trouble the Water"

Best Art Direction
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"
"The Dark Knight"
"The Duchess"
"Revolutionary Road"

Best Cinematography
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"
"The Dark Knight"
"The Reader"
"Slumdog Millionaire"

Best Costume Design
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"
"The Duchess"
"Revolutionary Road"

Best Film Editing
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"
"The Dark Knight"
"Slumdog Millionaire"

Best Makeup
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"
"The Dark Knight"
"Hellboy II: The Golden Army"

Best Music (Original Score)
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"
"Slumdog Millionaire"

Best Music (Original Song)
"Slumdog Millionaire"
"Slumdog Millionaire"


Best Sound Editing
"The Dark Knight"
"Iron Man"
"Slumdog Millionaire"

Best Sound Mixing
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"
"The Dark Knight"
"Slumdog Millionaire"

Best Visual Effects
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"
"The Dark Knight"
"Iron Man"

Best Documentary Short Subject
"The Conscience of Nhem En"
"The Final Inch"
"Smile Pinki"
"The Witness - From the Balcony of Room 306″

Best Short Film (Animated)
"La Maison de Petits Cubes"
"Lavatory - Lovestory"
"This Way Up"

Best Short Film (Live Action)
"Auf der Strecke (On the Line)"
"Manon on the Asphault"
"New Boy"
"The Pig"
"Spielzeugland (Toyland)"

Posted by Jvstin at 6:16 AM

January 19, 2009

Movie Thoughts: Slumdog Millionaire

So on a day off from work, I went to see the Danny Boyle directed movie Slumdog Millionaire.

Modern Dickensian Oliver Twist story with a kid from the slums of Mumbai, India as the protagonist.

The frame story is Jumal's night in a Mumbai police station, after his first night on the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Against all odds, he has reached the final question, to be resumed tomorrow, worth 20 million rupees. Naturally, how could a poor kid from the teeming slums of Mumbai possibly have gotten this far without cheating or something of that sort?

Jumal tells us his life story, broken up in how those vignettes relate the answers to the questions that carry up further and further along in the show. Three different actors and actresses play the roles of Jumal, his older brother Salim, and Latika, the girl that enters their lives when they are children.

The movie was far more intense than I expected, but I should have expected it, given the nature of the director's work. It's also an old fashioned movie. Yes, there is a happy ending, although there is darkness and pain along the way. We get to see India from the point of view of a "slumdog"--ranging from Mumbai's slums to the life of a fake tour guide in the Taj Mahal, and back again.

Sure, there are a few implausibilities (not so much that the movie rises to magic realism) but the power of the narrative, direction, acting, cinematography and soundtrack all work together very well. For the duration of the film, I was swept along, wanting to know how he would know the answer to the next question.

I enjoyed it, a lot. I don't think that its the type of movie that wins Oscars nowadays. However it is the kind of movie that I think that many readers will enjoy seeing.

Posted by Jvstin at 7:09 PM

January 15, 2009

The plane has arrived for him

The other passing yesterday, of course, was Ricardo Montalban. Best known for his roles as Mr. Rourke on Fantasy Island, and Khan on Star Trek, he knew how to deliver a line. As the NPR blog says "divinely controlled, insanely charming, vaguely diabolical delivery "

I lament that my Geek cred is diminished a bit by the fact that I do not own Star Trek: Wrath of Khan. While I do have episodes of the Prisoner (and screened a couple yesterday in honor of McGoohan's parting), I find that, sadly and tragically, I do not own any movies or shows that he was in.

It might be a moral imperative to pick up Wrath of Khan, just to watch an actor who could, and did, match Shatner's capacity for overacting. Khan is one of the greatest Trek villains ever, and I would argue, one of the best villains anywhere. And it is Montalban's depiction and acting that make that happen.

Posted by Jvstin at 12:17 PM

January 14, 2009

He was never a number, he was a free man.

Patrick McGoohan has died.

Genre fans will best remember him for his creation and starring role in the 60's TV show The Prisoner. (coincidentally, a remake is being filmed starring Jim Caviezel). He won two Emmys for roles in Peter Falk's Columbo TV movies (as a villain!), and also was in movies such as Braveheart (as Edward Longshanks, my model for Oberon in my Amber games) and as a ghost in The Phantom..

Posted by Jvstin at 12:25 PM

January 11, 2009

Movie thoughts: Eagle Eye

I decided to rent and watch Eagle Eye. The movie stars Shia LeBoeuf, Michelle Monaghan, Billy Bob Thornton and Rosario Dawson. Beware of spoilers.

The movie begins oddly, with a ripped-from-the-headlines approach as members of the armed forces debate a possible strike on a not-completely-identified terrorist at a funeral somewhere in Central Asia. Despite the objections of an unseen advisor, the strike takes place.

Later, bits and pieces and snatches of news suggest that this was a horrible mistake, since the blowback against American embassies and assets abroad shows no signs of abating.

In the meantime...

Jerry Shaw is a slacker. Underachieving, especially in comparison to his twin, he scams his co workers at the Copy Cabana for a few $ to keep his landlady off of his back.

Rachel Holloman is a divorced mother whose ex-husband is unreliable, and struggles to get her son on a train to D.C. for a concert at the Kennedy Center.

Jerry's brother dies, and Jerry's life is turned upside down in short order. Trying to deposit a check from his estranged father, he discovers his depleted bank account now has $750,000. Returning to his apartment, his landlady complains about all of the packages he has received today...packages containing a host of weapons and bomb making materials.

Rachel in the meantime is trying to blow off the stress of her life and simply relax with her girlfriends in a restaurant.

And a dulcet voice on a phone calls them both and directs them with unknown purpose, even as two agents, Agent Zoe Perez and Agent Thomas Morgan, pursue them with Javert like dedication...

The movie was marketed as a thriller and sounds like one (maybe like the Colin Ferrell vehicle Phone Booth). It's something more, though.

It's a SF movie. It emerges that the voice (whom I recognized as Julianne Moore, even if she isn't in the credits) is the voice of a computer. As part of its function to work for national security, it has decided to act autonomously, even when those actions would never be accepted by the Secretary of Defense and the rest of the staff. It's the Vingean Singularity, a Skynet-level computer which has reached intelligence!

And yes, Jerry's brother Ethan's death. and recruiting Jerry, is a big part of her plans.

The movie is not quite as successful as I would have liked. The build up works well, and the pieces fall in place slowly that we're dealing with an AI here, but one scene makes a big break in the movie for me.

At one point, almost North by Northwest style, our heroes are on a road in a field in the Midwest. A truck, drove by yet another person "activated" by the computer arrives. The truck driver has had enough of the mystery orders, and leaves on foot.

He is killed by a sudden snapping of high-tension electrical wires which electrocute him. While previous actions with automated control of cranes, cell phones and the like might be vaguely plausible, having the high tension wires snap and attack on command broke the fig leaf of plausible SF for me.

The denouement of the movie, too, doesn't work. Much like the ending of Collateral, the end game should have been fatal to Jerry, and yet he manages to survive against highly trained opponents. I think that for dramatic purposes, he should have died and sacrificed his life, the ending as written is too artificial and "hollywood happy" (although I understand an alternate ending on the special edition undercuts this ending).

It's a pity that the movie wasn't better than it was. It has some interesting ideas but pisses them away. And if I were the producers I could have and would have cut a very different trailer that would have played up the movie's strengths better.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:42 AM

January 10, 2009

DGA nominees as preview of Oscar nominees

Oscar watchers know that some of the nominees for the other awards announced before the Oscar nominees themselves can inadvertently reveal what Oscar voters are thinking. There is considerable overlap for the voting pool for some of these awards, and others influence people's thinking.

The DGA, the Director's Guild of America, for example, has put out its nominees for Best Picture. It's an indication that 2-4 of these films will also get an Oscar nomination for Best Picture:

Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire.
Christopher Nolan, The Dark Knight.
Gus Van Sant, Milk.
David Fincher, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon.

So I would be surprised, and you should be surprised, if out of these 5 films, at least two aren't nominated for Best Picture when the Oscar nominees are announced on January 22nd.

Posted by Jvstin at 7:34 AM

January 8, 2009

The Box

A small wooden box arrives on the doorstep of a married couple, who open it and become instantly wealthy. Little do they realize that opening the box also kills someone they do not know...

Sure, it was a 1980's Twilight Zone episode (and one of my favorites, this one inspired a debate between me and my brother at the time). Apparently, it is also going to be a movie this fall with Cameron Diaz and James Marsden. The screenplay and direction is by Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko), so I suspect that the movie will be surreal...

Can the concept last an entire movie as opposed to a 30 min episode of the Twilight Zone? We shall see!

Posted by Jvstin at 4:29 AM

January 4, 2009

Roger Ebert speaks his mind

Have you been reading Roger Ebert's journal? Say what you will about the weaknesses of blogs, it seems that cancer survivor Ebert, who no longer has his trademark show (he and his partner both left it when Disney decided to frak with the format and they balked), has decided, in his blog, to vent on many subjects. Often these have to do with movies.

The most recent entry linked above, Ebert lays into the idea of tearing down actresses, of how the media deals with Tom Cruise, and of the insanity on how box office works:

If David Lean were in business today, he'd be out of business. American opening-weekend audiences are driven by gossip and "box office winners." Not enough people trust their instincts. Which family movie would you rather see? An epic set in Australia, or one about a crazy dog?

Read the entire thing, as they say. When Ebert pops up in my RSS feed, reading what he has to say is always a priority for me these days.

Posted by Jvstin at 7:15 AM

December 27, 2008

Television Tropes Wiki

Have you heard of the Television Tropes Wiki?

I think I came across it via I09 or Sf Signal. It's basically a wiki which deconstructs genre conventions in television (and by extension) other media as well.

It's a big wiki, and not as formal as Wikipedia, but its a lot of fun to read through--and its given me ideas for things to netflix.

I was thinking that some of my RPG characters fit into these tropes rather well...

Some examples:

Hadrian of DuMarque,currently an NPC in Strange Bedfellows has elements of the Naive Newcomer. He's young, new to Amber, and not yet proved himself.

Zavier Harrison of Exodus has some elements of that. He's also a Cunning Linguist(with a taste for French). He (and most of my characters for that matter) are The Smart Guy

Scipio, until he died, in my Exalted game, managed to be Affably Evil. (He was an Abyssal Exalted, after all). He also might be a Magnificent Bastard.

Cazaril is a BigBrother Mentor to Alex in Strange Bedfellows.

Lorius. My favorite character in any medium. I often play him as the Plucky Comic Reliefwith his over the top antics. I think its the floating. People just key on that.

Did I tell you all that in the Exalted game I run that he is trying to invent Baba Yaga's Hut? As a spell? (He was tired of being dragged around by the PCs and camping out all the time. So he's decided to fix this problem in the classic Lorius way. Magic.) Yes, Lorius is always Too Clever by Half in any medium.

And there are many others.

Posted by Jvstin at 10:25 AM

December 26, 2008

Land of the Lost One Sheet debuts

Via Cinematical,a teaser poster for next summer's Land of the Lost movie.

Consider me neutral on this, as I have mentioned before.

The original series had some good moments, even given lousy production values. They had real science fiction writers (including Larry Niven) penning episodes. It's a good *idea* once you tease out the entire concept from the various episodes.

On the other hand--aren't there any new ideas out there? Is Hollywood so bankrupt that we need yet another series-turned-movie? Land of the Lost might have had some good ideas--but how do you sustain it for an entire movie? What tack do you take so that a modern audience of 18-34 year olds will see it? I could certainly do a treatment myself, but it probably wouldn't be "commercial" enough.

Will Farrell. Sure, he can be extremely annoying, but he has done some okay work. I was pleasantly surprised by the Bewitched movie--which was a movie about a tv series remake of the original series. But, then, I am a sucker for Nicole Kidman, and the movie has Michael Caine in it as well. He also did well in Stranger than Fiction and Anchorman. So, given the right director and script, Farrell actually can do well.

The question is, as said above, what do they do with the material?

So there we are. It probably WILL be a butchery of my tv viewing youth, but maybe it will actually be worth watching. We shall see.

Posted by Jvstin at 9:38 AM

December 24, 2008

Mind Meld Participation

Mind Meld.

The fine folks at SF Signal occasionally do a little project they call "Mind Meld", when they ask SF authors and others questions on various topics. They've been doing a several part series on "The Best Genre Related Books/Films/Shows/Games Consumed In 2008".

In their latest installment, Part III, despite me being a fifth(sixth? nth?) rate blogger, they decided to ask, amongst other people, ME.

Go and read how I answered the question!

Posted by Jvstin at 5:49 AM

December 17, 2008

Iron Man is even more of a genre movie than you think

Being laid up with a sprained ankle, I've had a lot of time to watch movies with my foot propped up.

One of the DVDs I watched is the recent Robert Downey vehicle, Iron Man.

Something occurred to me as I watched it...

Sure, its a comic book movie, but its also a science fiction movie.

Consider what we see, and all the stuff that Stark invents (or presumably has invented). Not only the obvious ones like the suit, the weapons and the Arc reactors (both the big one and the small ones:

Jarvis, his house computer, could pass a Turing Test, I think. And its even portable enough that it can be uploaded into the Mark II suit. The robots in his lab also have some degree of sentience. I am pretty sure that Stark is responsible for the design of the robots and Jarvis. Thus, Stark has invented a software AI.

Stark/Iron Man is as much a science fiction hero as he is a comic book hero. And while there is darkness and tragedy in his story, Iron Man is fundamentally more upbeat than The Dark Knight. Laid up with a sprained ankle, Iron Man was far more appealing as entertainment.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:35 PM

December 6, 2008

Roger Ebert's best films of 2008

Ebert, now on his own, and blogging, post-surgery, has been weighing in on all sorts of topics beyond those of cinema. In this entry, though, he goes to the heart and center of what he is: what he considers the best movies of 2008.

I've seen a few on his list, and enjoyed them: Iron Man, The Dark Knight, The Fall. Others I managed to miss and have regretted it (W,Wall-E). A couple are only coming out now and I've heard excellent things about (Slumdog Millionaire, Synedoche NY). Others are not yet out in wide release.

Go take a look at his complete list. Agree or disagree with his opinions, Ebert's opinions, in this day and age of a sound and fury of a 1000 voices, are informed opinions.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:05 AM

November 26, 2008

This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship...

It was on this day, November 26, in 1942, that the film Casablanca had its first showing. The event took place at the Hollywood Theater in New York City.

Although I have at least one friend who doesn't like it, its definitely in my personal top ten movie list.

In a fair amount of movies that I've rented lately, there has been an anti-piracy ad which used clips from Casablanca and implied the characters' troubles were also about pirating DVDs. The ad was amusing the first couple of times I've seen it; now its just annoying.

Posted by Jvstin at 4:33 AM

November 14, 2008

Movie Review: Quantum of Solace

I went to see Quantum of Solace, the latest James Bond movie, with Daniel Craig as Bond.

The Good, the Bad, the Verdict...

The Good:

Character development. The movie is, a first for the Bond movies, a direct sequel, following directly on the events of Casino Royale, and featuring a couple of characters and actors from that movie. As a result, I think this is the first time that Felix Leiter has been played by the same actor in multiple JB movies. So we see Bond continue the path that leads from the death of Vesper in the first movie. And M and Bond continue to develop their relationship

Hints of a metaplot and another evil Agency: This movie makes it clear that there is another secret agency out there, a la SPECTRE. Its equally clear to me that the agency is going to be around for multiple movies, since Bond only stops one plot of theirs in this movie.

I liked the shootout during Tosca sequence. It reminded me of the "Opera and fight" sequence in The Fifth Element.

The Bad:

The cinematography is too Bournish. I felt like I was watching a JB, Jason Bourne Movie, rather than a James Bond movie. Part of the point of Bond films is seeing the action in beautiful places. Here, there is a car chaser along a beautiful road near Siena, Italy...and we never really get a sense of space or the beauty of the landscape. Its all lost in jump, ragged cuts of two-second shots.

A lot of what makes Bond movies Bond movies are missing. I don't expect a paint-by-numbers, but there are distinctive things you want, and expect. No Moneypenny. No "Bond, James Bond.". Heck, even the bedding of the Bond girl seems very off tone and perfunctory. The movie is short, never lets up and never lets Bond have "time off". Every Bond movie that I have seen has let us see "Bond at rest" or "at play" (often with a Bond girl). Here? Nada. The movie is never fun. Never.

Bond is too thuggish. Sure, Connery's Bond could be rough and tumble, but he had a veneer of civilization to him. This Bond? Thug, Thug and Thug. Worst of all, there is a moment where the character breaks for me. An incident occurs and as I watched the movie, I said to myself. "Bond never would have done that. Never."

The Verdict:

If this wasn't JB and a JB movie, it would be a perfectly reasonable and acceptable action hero movie. As it is, it doesn't *feel* like a Bond picture. If I watch most of the older movies, and that includes (by the end anyway) Casino Royale, I can feel that I am in Bond's universe.

This movie? No. It never feels like Bond. Its not just because this is Brooding Bond, its the entire tone the series has taken. Jason Bourne could have done this movie with minimal changes and that is just wrong.

I may be a novice at James Bond as compared to many of my friends, but I was disappointed. For a JB experience, I'd rather rewatch From Russia With Love, For Your Eyes Only, or Tomorrow Never Dies.

Posted by Jvstin at 10:58 PM

September 7, 2008

Movie Review 2008 #72: Virgin Territory

Virgin Territory is a wannabe medieval sex comedy starring Haydn Christansen and Tim Roth.

Intending to inhabit the same territory as Casanova and a Knight's Tale (both starring the late Heath Ledger), this is a moderately entertaining (intentionally?) anachronistic teenage sex comedy. The plot is pointless to describe, involving a woman betrothed to two men, Haydn as a playboy who winds up hiding in a convent with sex-crazed nuns, gratiutious nudity, and a not-in-this-world Russian count who seems to have the only firearm in Florence.

It is all very silly, sillier I think than even the intention of the producer and director. The direction itself is lackluster, the fighting scenes not very well done.

There is a fair amount of luminous young female beauty in the movie (and I suppose the male leads might appeal to those of the fairer gender). Aside from that eye candy, there is not much else to commend watching this film.
It wants to be as good as the movies cited above, but it doesn't manage to do it.

Posted by Jvstin at 4:27 PM

September 5, 2008

Movie Review 2008 #71: Fifty First Dates

Another Adam Sandler movie, with some of its weaknesses, but also hidden strengths not found in his cruder films.

Adam Sandler plays Henry Roth, Hawaiian zoo marine biologist with committment issues. In point of fact, he's mastered the art of seducing tourists for short stands, breaking off contact just before they return to the States.

His happy world is turned upside down when he meets Lucy (the luminous Drew Barrymore). Lucy has a problem with her memory. In a very cinematicized version of a very real condition, Lucy cannot retain any new memories more than a day. Her family has arranged her life to make her believe its always the same day she expects it to be.

Henry's intrusion into his life changes her...and it changes him, too.

Aside from the cruder aspects of the comedy, Fifty First Dates is truly a sweet little comedy set in gorgeous Hawaii. Barrymore is always an impish, enchanting presence on the screen, and she works well with Sandler. Sandler does well as a romantic lead here, better than I would have expected given his major reputation (Happy Gilmore, rather than Punch Drunk Love)

It's an inoffensive movie that won't change your life, but its an entertaining way to spend your time.

And, this movie managed to give me a craving for the one thing Minnesota and Hawaii have in common--Spam.

Posted by Jvstin at 12:20 PM

Movie Review 2008 #70: Wolf

A slightly different werewolf movie from the 90's starring Michelle Pfeiffer, James Spader, Christopher Plummer, and in a meaty starring role, Jack Nicholson.

"I'm just marking my territory"

While I might slightly prefer vampires to werewolves, done right, werewolves can be a lot of fun in a cinematic sense. Wolf gives us a somewhat different story, setting it in the modern day, and making the focus of the action the relationships and effects that a werewolf bite has on the main character, Jack Randall, a washed up book editor (Nicholson).

Randall is being pushed out of a job, from above (Plummer) and below (Spader). With his job in a shambles, a werewolf bite is exactly what Randall needs to get some new life. He's drawn to Plummer's daughter (Pfeiffer) and pursues a relationship with her. He begins to fight back for his position and the people in the book business he cares about. All of this, even as he comes to terms and struggles against what has happened to him...

While the set up for the denouement with a fight between Spader and Nicholson seems contrived and out of tone with the rest of the movie, even with that slippage, the characters make this movie work, not the special effects of werewolf transformations.

Posted by Jvstin at 12:05 PM

August 18, 2008

Movie Review 2008 #69: The Faculty

A little horror movie set in the frightening world of high school, with some pre-stardom roles for Famke Janssen, Elijah Wood, Jon Stewart, and Josh Hartnett amongst others.

With a decent cast, the movie takes a familiar Body Snatchers plotline and makes it a a good and fun popcorn movie. Only a set of outcast students at the school start to guess what is going on, as the discovery of a strange organism on campus progresses to a full on horror movie as converted students and teachers start taking over everyone.

There is a lot of derivative scenes and ideas in the movie, from obvious "twists" to scenes practically lifted from previous movies of this type. You probably could run a drinking game based on this movie and get yourself hammered easily.

Still, even with that, with good actors, a lot of sins can be forgiven, and I do. I was entertained by the film. If you like (teenage) horror movies, the Faculty is certainly better than many of the paint-by-numbers "Scary Movie N" movies that seem to dominate the genre these days. There is an actual plot and characters rather than a clotheslines for pop culture references.

I enjoyed it.

And who wouldn't have wanted Jon Stewart as their HS Science teacher, eh?

Posted by Jvstin at 6:31 AM

August 3, 2008

Movie Review 2008 #68: The Dark Knight

So I finally got to see the Dark Knight, the second movie in the rebooted Batman series by Christopher Nolan. With Christian Bale, Morgan Freeman, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and of course, the late Heath Ledger.

Dark. Complicated. Amazing.

I don't want to discuss the details of the plot. Instead let me tell you what you want to hear. That Ledger's performance is so self-encompassing that its difficult to remember that you are watching someone play the role, he inhabits it so completely. That the movie really isn't so much Bale's as it is Eckhart's, and Oldman's, and Ledger's (as Dent, Gordon and the Joker). Sometimes, Bale's Wayne/Batman seems to be more of a reactive than an active force in Gotham City.

The cinematography and directing are excellent. Nolan knows how to direct, and how to plot (he co-wrote the screenplay, and it shows). The action sequences work hand in hand with the more expository and character-development scenes.

Its not a perfect movie, though. I think this movie looked too MUCH like the Chicago in which it was filmed. Batman Begins felt like Gotham, with the geography and structure of the city. The Dark Knight's city feels much more like it was set in Chicago. I think this made the events more palpable for the viewers but made the mise en scene less mythological.

I think the use of music could have been better. I have said before in a previous review that you sometimes only notice how important music is to a movie when it is lacking. In the Dark Knight, the music was somewhat lacking. Some of the action scenes could have been improved with better music (and a few of those scenes lack music entirely.) I do wonder if this was a deliberate choice, trying to make the events more palpably real--since life doesn't often come with a soundtrack.

The movie is dark and disturbing, and has a downer of an ending. This is not a happy movie by any means, even as Batman defeats the Joker. It's a hollow victory, which has much more than a taste of ashes.I enjoyed the movie a lot, though, but an anodyne of a more positive, uplifting movie afterward was needed on my part.

And I am glad I am not riding any ferries anytime soon.

Posted by Jvstin at 5:46 PM

July 12, 2008

Movie Review 2008 #67: Hellboy II the Golden Army

So what turned out to be a very stormy night, I went with a co worker after work to see "Hellboy II: The Golden Army", directed by Guillermo Del Toro and starring Ron Perlman and Selma Blair.

The movie makes a few concessions to people who may have seen the underestimated previous entry, sketching in who and what Hellboy is, a demon from another dimension working for the not-very-secret Bureau of Paranormal Investigations. A misfit in a group of Misfits, Hellboy wants to fit in, be recognized, be loved for what he does: thumping those who go thumping in the night.

This time, instead of Rasputin and Gods of Chaos, we have an Elf Prince as the antagonist. A bedtime story by Hellboy's discoverer in a flashback tells us the tale of the Elves and their Golden army, an unstoppable force that is put to slumber for a long time--until Prince Nuada decides that humans have raped and pillaged the Earth enough, and will even kill his father for the chance to start up the army again. And then there is his twin sister, who opposes his plan, but is bound to him all the same...

With a surprising amount of pathos, regret, and complexity to the storyline and the conflicts, Hellboy II hits on nearly every cylinder, every time. Dealing with a rampaging forest god, the last of its kind, gives a surprisingly poignant tone, for example.

Del Toro shows his penchant for fantasy creatures, too, with a Goblin Market which is the fantasy equivalent of the Mos Eisley cantina in the sheer number of strange creatures. The Bureau team, including Hellboy himself, look completely unremarkable in this amazingly detailed space where I couldn't possibly catch everyone and everything happening on the screen.

Love, hope, sacrifice, rollicking action, and a healthy dollop of humor, the cinematic experience of the movie was a treat for both me and my friend from work. As a story and a film, its not quite as good as the superb Pan's Labyrinth, but as a comic book movie, it gives Iron Man a real run for its money.

I liked it a lot, and I will definitely buy it on DVD. I think the movie is enhanced for seeing the original, but its not strictly necessary to do so.

Posted by Jvstin at 11:58 PM

July 2, 2008

Movie Review 2008 #66: Wanted

I just missed the start time of Wall-E on Sunday, so I went to see this.

I am pretty sure that I should have waited for the next showing of Wall-E.

There are some good things to the movie. Great set-action pieces. I enjoyed the director's work in Night Watch and he plays with that sort of stuff here, too. Not all of the action is equally good, there are some scenes with some muddle and confused shots.

Although she is freakishly thin, Angelina Jolie puts in a good performance. Freeman...well, this role reminds me of his role in Dreamcatcher or Hard Rain: he's better than the material around him. Ditto for Terence Stamp.

And then it gets ugly. A lot of this plot is just a mess, to say nothing of the moral issues, which the movie doesn't seem to decide what it wants to believe. And I am not sold on a reveal that causes a re-evaluation of earlier events. Looked in a linear fashion after the fact, I don't buy the plot.

And then there is the misogyny. It was odious how this script treats its female characters. (And there are, besides Jolie's dominatrix-as-trainer, only two, plus a walk on). I have female friends who I wouldn't blame for walking out of this movie.

I was hoping for something as turn-off-brain-and-enjoy-the-improbable-action along the lines of Shoot Em Up. I didn't get it.

Posted by Jvstin at 5:55 AM

June 17, 2008

Movie Review 2008 #65: Fifty Five Days at Peking

Another classic epic movie, revolving around the Boxer Rebellion in China, starring Charlton Heston, David Niven and Ava Gardner.

Part of the stream of epic movies from the 50's and 60's, Fifty Five Days at Peking shows the Boxer Rebellion mainly from the point of view of the diplomats and staff pinned in Peking as China writhed under tumult of the xenophobic Boxers.

Sure, its a dramatization and simplification of the history and the issues. (We only get bits and pieces of the history on *why* the Boxers have a grievance, and a reasonable one, at what has happened to China). The movie works as a straight epic adventure, with Heston as an American army officer leading the defense of the diplomats, and getting a bit of romance with the Russian Baroness played by Ava Gardner in the process. Feats of heroism, derring do in an exotic environment against long odds and a a massive faceless enemy. Yeah, you may have seen this before. But isn't it refreshing to see this sort of movie *without* CGI?

I have a weakness for this sort of movie, but I suspect the slow pacing will throw off a lot of modern viewers. Still, I especially liked the leads performances.

I wish they would give this movie a proper reissuance on DVD--the quality of this release was mediocre at best. That's the worst thing I can say about this movie.

Posted by Jvstin at 7:28 PM

Movie Review 2008 #64: Police Academy

I decided to see if this 80's comedy still held up after a quarter century. Starring Steve Guttenberg and a young Kim Cattrall.

The plot is simple (and was repeated in many sequels and knockoffs). The Police Academy is asked to broaden their selection criteria, and so wind up with a bunch of misfits.

Guttenberg plays Mahoney, a wiseacre of a recruit who is practically at the Academy against his will. Along with him are Florist Moses Hightower, a mountain of a man who likes to tend flowers and Larvell Jones (Michael Winslow) has the ability to imitate the sound of virtually anything (He was later in Spaceballs). Also in the academy are guy-magnet Debbie Callahan (Kim Cattrall), squeaky voiced Laverne Hooks, gun loving Eugene Tackleberry, and Leslie Barbara, a cadet who has been picked on one too many times.

The Academy staff seeks to wash out these unorthodox recruits, as they make their way through the training program. And of course, when trouble rears its head, its the unorthodox recruits who find themselves on the firing line...

Dumb 80's comedy, although by the standards of a lot of comedy these days, its pretty average, or even a little more intelligent. Granted, that's not a high bar, and there are plenty of better comedies from the period. And while I have no desire to see it again anytime soon, it made me laugh.

Posted by Jvstin at 6:58 PM

Movie Review 2008 #63: Anchorman, the Legend of Ron Burgundy

Another movie lent to me by the same co-worker who lent me Cloverfield, Anchorman... stars Will Ferrell, Steve Carrell and Christina Applegate.

Ferrell plays the titular character, a news anchor in the early 80's in San Diego, Master of his Domain. Carrell (amongst others) play his tight-knit crew, a male bastion and preserve. The arrival of ambitious Veronica Corningstone (Applegate) threatens both the camaraderie and the sexism rampant in the newsroom and the industry. And the plot of the movie, with lots of jokes of sometimes questionable taste, flow from that simple premise.

Okay, its stupid comedy, but it was funny as hell. I've slowly warmed to Ferrell over the years, and he does well here as Ron. The rest of the cast does well too. The directing is good, capturing the feel of 80's television very nicely.

There is even a cameo by Tim Robbins as a Public Television anchor, in an extremely funny "comic fight scene" between rival news casts.

I liked this movie far more than I had any right to.

Posted by Jvstin at 5:58 PM

Movie Review 2008 #62: Cloverfield

Thanks to a co-worker, I got to see the DVD version of this movie which came out early this year, about a monster attack on NYC

With a cast of unknowns, Cloverfield documents a monster attack on NYC. The central conceit of the movie is that everything is seen through the videocamera that one of the characters, Hud, employs throughout the film.

What this means is the movie is an exercise in "shaky-cam" style, but at the very least there is a justification for it. I could probably not have watched this movie in a theater without getting nauseous; on the small screen the shaky-cam style was more palatable.

As far as the movie itself, the movie does all right. I appreciated the New York milieu (although their sense of geography is very compressed). While the characters do act stupid in some situations, those actions do seem to flow from understandable choices. The young unknown actors do okay in their roles, but nothing spectacular. The material they are given is middling.

The movie doesn't try to explain everything, and I think that obfuscation works for this movie. It's a moderately entertaining movie, which, being short, doesn't outstay its welcome.

Posted by Jvstin at 5:40 PM

May 27, 2008

Sydney Pollack, RIP

Movie director Sydney Pollack has died of cancer at age 73.

He directed a number of Oscar winning movies, including Tootsie and Out of Africa. He also did a bit of acting now and again too.

My best memory of his work though, is a DVD extra on the DVD of his movie The Interpreter. On it, he decries, and deconstructs brilliantly the idiotic process of "panning and scanning" a movie to fit on a 4X3 television. He shows, in patient detail, just how much is lost out of a movie, especially movies with complex visual cues such as in his movies.

Posted by Jvstin at 4:29 AM

May 24, 2008

Movie Review 2008 #60: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

So after my trip to Minnehaha Park, I went to see the new Indiana Jones movie...

After Indy has impressed Mutt with his physical skills and abilities

Mutt: "You're a teacher?"
Indy: "Part Time"

Even the Original Trilogy of the Indiana Jones movies had problems (Temple of Doom, anyone?) but I am not sure why Spielberg decided to do this one, twenty five years after the fact, save for the word that is the answer to 99 out of 100 questions. "Money".


The year is 1957. The Red Scare grips America (I thought I was watching Good Night and Good Luck early on. The KGB has infiltrated Nevada to try and get something out of a mysterious warehouse. Their unwilling accomplices are two kidnapped men--Dr. Jones and his friend Mac (Ray Winstone, showing he acts better than when not covered in CGI like in Beowulf). The Russians are not taking Indy to find the Ark of the Covenant (although it gets a cameo shot). Instead, these Russians (led by the mysterious Irina (Blanchett) are after something in a magnetic coffin. And so the movie is off and running...

The structure of the movie is the old formula. Opening action sequence, followed by time at the college, long trip to the final destination with a stop or two along the way, and then the final locale and action sequences. Along the way we meet Mutt (Shia Lebouf), Professor Oxley, the only man to have been to the mysterious city tied in with the titular skull, and back from Raiders, Marian (Karen Allen).

Lots of references and homages to the three films, and even a reference to the Young Indiana Jones series. The movie gets far on nostalgia. This is good because overall, the movie lacks a bit of punch after all this time. Don't get me wrong. It's a perfectly entertaining summer blockbuster, with good special effects, exotic locales, and action adventure goodness. It's just not up to the standard of Raiders or Last Crusade. (It's definitely better than Temple of Doom though).

I think the movie could have used a rewrite to get some more juice in, remove some of the more annoying things, and clear up some lacunae. Indy only uses his bullwhip in the beginning, for instance, and after making a big deal of taking a motorcycle all the way to Peru, Mutt never uses the thing once they get there. Indy is way too capable, physically, for his age or even a reasonable pulp movie. (Surviving a nuclear blast and the refrigerator he is in shot hundreds of feet through the air. Um, no.) Plus, Irina's supposed psychic powers are underplayed and not utilized. Lastly, the finale lacked emotional heft.

More Marian and (especially) Irina, and less Mutt would have been good. I think Irina would make a wonderful casting call for a Faiellan in an Amber game, especially since she has a fetish for wearing and using a sword.

I was entertained. Not as bad as it could have been--but its not the first or third movie. Live with that, and go see it. You know you want to.

Posted by Jvstin at 4:47 PM

May 18, 2008

Movie Review 2008 #59: Iron Man

I took myself to see Iron Man in the theater today.

Iron Man is a comic book origin story starring Robert Downey Jr in the title role, with Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts, his able and willing assistant, Terrence Howard as Col. Rhodes, his military-oriented friend, and Jeff Bridges as his turncoat friend and colleague Obidiah Stone.

Iron Man is admittedly one of the mid-majors in terms of the Marvel superheroes. He doesn't have the cachet or name brand recognition to the general public of Spiderman, or the Hulk. Sure, he's been one of the Avengers, the "flagship" superhero team in the Marvelverse, but even there, Captain America is usually the hero.

So, Iron Man was an unusual choice for a superhero movie.

With his own personal problems with addiction and the pressures of stardom, Robert Downey Jr is an inspired choice to play playboy Tony Stark. It's one of those pitch perfect castings that will be very difficult to successfully recast years from now, just as Tobey Maguire has probably given us a Spiderman difficult to top, and Christopher Reeve is still THE movie Superman.

The story is taken from some of Iron Man's origins, updated to the 21st century. Stark is a playboy/weapons magnate, who gets captured while showing off his toys in Afghanistan. Set to building weapons, and plagued with shrapnel buried close to his heart, Stark invents both a new power source, and a exo-skeleton suit to escape his captivity. Upon returning from this, his desire to end his business' darker aspects leads him to conflict with Stone, who doesn't see anything wrong with "ironmongering."

We get to see all aspects of Stark's life, from the glamour to "the toys". We believe that Stark really could build v1.0 of the suit in a cave in Afghanistan, especially when we can see what he can REALLY do when he has the full resources of his own factory-cathedral in his home.

Iron Man isn't quite as good as Spiderman II, the Incredibles, or X-Men II, but its pretty damned good. I think its only real weakness is a consequence of choosing Iron Man as a superhero--the lack of a true nemesis. Sure, having Obidiah put on a suit and fight Iron Man works as a final antagonist, but Iron Man (in this movie) doesn't get to face a nemesis like Magneto (The X Men) or Doctor Octopus (Spiderman), etc. It's a fact of life that superhero movies reach the pinnacle by having a villain worthy of the adversary. Iron Man doesn't quite have that in this movie.

And yes, the physics are "comic book" physics. Stark probably should have died several times over in this film. I dealt with it.

Iron Man is a very, very good superhero movie that I fully intend to purchase on DVD.

And yes, the credit cookie is a lot of fun.

If you have any interest in superhero comic book movies, or even just action movies in general, you owe it to yourself to go and see Iron Man.

Posted by Jvstin at 7:39 PM

May 9, 2008

Movie Review 2008 #58: Atlantis the Lost Empire

One of the last old school Disney animated films, with voices by Michael J Fox, James Garner and Claudia Christian.

Like the Kingdom, the movie I reviewed previously today, this movie starts off on an odd note. In this case, it starts off with a prologue which is, of all things, subtitled. Depicting the fall of Atlantis, we are set up before the opening credits for the idea of Atlantis before we flash forward to the early 20th century. There, we meet bookworm nebbish Milo Thatch (Fox), orphan, isolated, and misunderstood in the bowels of a Museum in Washington D.C. This archetypal Disney protagonist believes in the existence of Atlantis, although his fumbling attempts are derided by the academic community. However, he comes to the attention of a mysterious benefactor, who has an offer the disgraced Milo can't refuse--join an expedition to Atlantis...

Wait, you've seen this movie before, haven't you, when it was called Stargate. I found the parallels between the two movies startling once I thought about it. Milo and Daniel Jackson are first cousins, cinematically. Strange location that is difficult to get to, with hazards and dangers. Translation of an ancient language that only the protagonist knows how to read, whose translation is key to the plot. A romance/relationship with one of the natives (Kida and Sha'ri, respectively). Hidden agendas on the team that the protagonists are accompanying (although Garner's character here is a full on antagonist unlike Colonel O'Neill in Stargate).

The Disney movie is a step or two behind Stargate in the characterization and plot elements though. We barely get to see the Disney steampunk sub before it crashes, we barely get to know Milo's companions, or even Atlantis itself, before things ramp up into conflict. Still, especially because it parallels one of my favorite movies, and features the epynomous mythic civilization, I enjoyed Atlantis the Lost Empire.

Posted by Jvstin at 6:14 AM

Movie Review 2008 #57: The Kingdom

An action thriller set mostly in the epynomous kingdom of Saudi Arabia, with a powerhouse cast starring Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Garner and Chris Cooper.

After a terrorist attack to an American housing compound in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where families and the spy Francis Manner are murdered, FBI agent Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx) is unhappy that Saudi Arabia is not keen on the idea of American help in the investigation.

He blackmails the Saudi Arabian consul to get five days of investigation in the location, with a small team including Chris Cooper, Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman. And as strangers in a strange land, they arrive in Saudi Arabia. The US Ambassador doesn't want them there roiling the waters; the group is wary of local customs and mores, and their only ally seems to be a Saudi Arabian Colonel equally devoted to finding the terrorists.

And then the action really starts.

The movie starts off with a political/history lesson in the form of computer graphics giving a thumbnail sketch of what Saudi Arabia is, in history and on the world stage. Its a slow way to start the movie; however the movie cures any threat of slowness by jumping to the terrorist attack. Similarly the rest of the movie runs like clockwork, with exposition and political dealings punctuated by action sequences.

While the camera work for the action sequences is that hand-held style that seems all the rage today, I have to admit that its all well done. In addition the movie manages the tricky balancing act of showing an investigation in Saudi Arabia without devolving into stereotypes on either side.

I am a little surprised, now having seen it, that the movie didn't do as well as it did at the box office; there is decent acting and good action here to be found. The directing, by Peter Berg (better known for his acting) is not bad (except for that silly camera work affection).

It makes for a good popcorn movie that has a little bit more of thought to it than a typical action movie. I think the critics (including my new favorite, Kenneth Turan), were a just a tad too harsh on it.

Posted by Jvstin at 5:47 AM

April 27, 2008

Movie Review 2008 #56: Scoop

Another Woody Allen movie with Scarlett Johansson, and also starring himself, and Hugh Jackman.

Johansson plays Sandra Pronsky, a American journalism student visiting well-to-do friends in England. During a magic show run by Sid Waterman (Woody Allen), she inadvertently encounters the ghost of Joe Strombel (Ian McShane) a recently deceased reporter. While on the ship of the dead, Strombel has learned who might be the tarot card serial killer, and his attempts to bring this news back to the land of the living have brought his shade to the attention of Pronsky.

Excited by the possibility of the story, Pronsky with Waterman's reluctant help seeks out the son of Lord Lyman, Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman), the possible killer fingered by Strombel. In the process of investigating him, though, Lyman falls for her, and more to the point, Pronsky falls for him Is she really falling for a killer?

It's a fairly typical and simple Woody Allen movie. Allen plays his usual role, with self-depreciating humor. He does seem to like to film Johansson, who doesn't come across here as glamorous as she normally does, but beautiful enough that we can see why Jackman's Peter Lyman would fall for her, easily.

The twist in the movie is fairly predictable, but this movie relies on characters and dialogue more than actual plot. Its not the greatest movie in Allen's career, but its certainly entertaining enough for those who like his work. And I do, and I did.

It's amusing that this is one of two movies that year that not only both have Jackman and Johansson in it, but involve magicians and are set in London. (The other, of course, is The Prestige).

Posted by Jvstin at 9:11 AM

Movie Review 2008 #55: Mannequin

Yes, I decided to go for a blast to the past for this 80's movie starring a young Kim Cattrall, 80's teen movie star Andrew McCarthy, James Spader and Estelle Getty.

I saw this movie innumerable times on TV and otherwise in the 80's, and a re-watching shows that I still nearly know the movie by heart. Despite it being an average movie on any sort of objective grounds, its one of those movies that has gotten into my head and never left.

Cattrall plays Ema Haire, "Emmy", an Egyptian woman who longs for a more interesting life than being married to a camel dung merchant. Granted her wish by the Gods, we later learn she appears in subsequent times and places. Where she appears now is in the body of a Mannequin painstakingly created by McCarthy. He's a frustrated artist who can't hold a job...until he inadvertently saves the life of a department store owner (Getty), who gives him a job in appreciation. And then he learns the mannequin he created can come to life, but only for him...

Yes, the movie has something of a Pygmalion vibe going here. There are other subplots, too, involving a takeover attempt on Getty's company, a flamboyant artist (Meshiach Taylor), and a unhinged security guard.

The movie plays to stereotypes in a somewhat benighted 80's manner. The only character who treats Taylor's sexuality and love life with any sort of respect is McCarthy. The way other characters treat "Hollywood" was cringeworthy and wouldn't work in a movie made today. An oversexed co-worker of McCarthy's ex-girlfriend is also an exaggerated stereotype whose conduct is more than borderline sexual harassment.

Beyond that, though, the movie still was amusing, especially since I knew it by heart. Sure, there is zero character development. the direction is only okay, but the leads do a good job in their relationship to each other. And it has a funny and funky animated opening credits sequence.

If I saw this movie fresh for the first time today, I probably wouldn't get it and wouldn't like it, but since its part of my cultural DNA, I still have a fondness for the movie, despite its strong drawbacks and weaknesses.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:49 AM

Movie Review 2008 #53: The Insatiable

I saw a bit of this on the Sci-Fi Channel and decided to rent it to see how bad it could be

Sean Patrick Flanery plays schlub Harry Balbo. This worthy, after another day of quiet desperation at work, runs into a violent crime in an alley.

He believes that he has seen the Head Ripper serial killer, except that it's a gorgeous female vampire who can rip the head off a man. His co-workers laugh at him, the Police do not believe him. Strangely obsessed by the woman, soon contacts a neighbor named Strickland, which is a vampire hunter, for help.

Instead of killing her, though, Balbo captures the vampire, and then, unable to finish her off, is driven to efforts to keep her alive...

Even though the movie has Michael Biehn in it, he can't quite redeem this low budget production. While the movie does start to try some interesting ideas, it never really goes anywhere with them. And the tonal shifts in the movie don't quite work. The movie isn't sure if it wants to be a comedy, a deliberately unfunny comedy, or a dark meditation on a lonely man and his vampire.

I did like the ending, though. I will give it that.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:13 AM

Movie Review 2008 #52: Bridge on the River Kwai

A movie I have only seen bits and pieces until now, starring Alec Guinness and William Holden.

"Madness, Madness..."

One of David Lean (who also did Lawrence of Arabia amongst other movie's) epics, and adapted by a novel from Pierre Boulle (who wrote the book that became Planet of the Apes), Bridge on the River Kwai is set mostly in a Japanese POW camp in Southeast Asia during W.W. II. Sessue Hayakawa plays Colonel Saito, whose goal is to get the prisoners to build the titular bridge. Guinness plays British Colonel Nicholson, who had been ordered to surrender to the Japanese, and is willing to play along--if the Japanese follow the rules of war and prisoners properly. Holden plays American Major Warden, who believes that the first duty of a prisoner is not to cooperate, but to escape.

Warden soon escapes, and Nicholson's ramrod stubborness and sense of honor starts to convert the project into an operation run and led by the British prisoners. But when Warden arrives in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), his real identity is discovered. And then he is given an offer he can't return to the camp and destroy the bridge that Nicholson and the remaining prisoners are so painstakingly creating...

Great cinematography. Great acting and the unwinding of the two threads of the plot (in the camp and Warden's flight and return). Kwai won 7 out of the 8 Oscars for which it was nominated, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor for Guinness. (This IS the movie that cemented Guinness' reputation. Its arguable that this is the movie that, later, would help give him the role of Obi-Wan in Star Wars.

Hayakawa lost as Best Supporting Actor to Red Buttons for Sayonara.

Its a movie epic and great enough that, along with Lawrence of Arabia, it gets a mention in "We didn't start the fire" by Billy Joel. While I think Lawrence is just slightly better work, Kwai is a fine example of the movie epic. Rent it, and see why.

Posted by Jvstin at 7:46 AM

Movie Review 2008 #51: The Good Night

A movie about lucid dreams and how that life intersects this one, but shot in a straightforward manner, starring Martin Freeman, Gwyneth Paltrow, Simon Pegg, and Danny Devito.

The movie starts in a puzzling manner, and never gets its footing afterwards. The movie begins with what feels like a memoriam, with several characters talking about a musician and his life and work. The movie jumps back a couple of years to see that musician, to discover he is Gary, a sad-sack commercial jingle writer (Freeman) who is dissatisfied with his relationship with his girlfriend (Paltrow), and just about everything else.

So when Gary starts having recurring dreams about a mystery woman (Penelope Cruz) who seems to offer more and more of herself to him every night, they act as a catalyst and inspiration for Gary. He takes an active interest in lucid dreaming - the act of becoming aware of and even controlling one's dream state - getting all sorts of tips from a New Age-y, self-styled expert (Danny DeVito).

And his obsession with that starts unraveling his real life relationships with his girlfriend and everyone else. And then a real life version of his dream girl appears...

The movie seems to want to mix the fantasy and real life worlds, but there is a lot of actors and stuff here, which doesn't hang together all that well. The movie starts off on that odd tone and never really finds its footing afterwards. Much of the movie is simply dull, and the direction is amateurish at best. Devito does gamely with his role, but there isn't much life otherwise in this movie.

There are much better movies with these themes out there. This, unfortunately is a waste of talent.

Posted by Jvstin at 7:33 AM

Movie Review 2008 #50: Sands of Oblivion held a contest giving away a few free copies of this movie originally made for the Sci-Fi channel. I didn't win that contest, and decided to Netflix the movie anyway, especially since it stars two Firefly/Serenity veterans (Morena Baccarin and Adam Baldwin)

I need not have bothered.

The movie answers of the cinematic historical mysteries. Before he re-made the movie in a color edition, Cecil B DeMille made a silent movie rendition of the Ten Commandments, constructing a huge set on the California desert coast. After the movie was completed, instead of dismantling, or leaving it in place, the set was deliberately and consciously buried.

This movie purports to explain was to secretly bury an ancient evil which had come over with the Pharaonic Egyptian artifacts on the set. Now with the rising sea threatening to flood the area forever, a group led by an archaeologist (Baccarin) seeks to unearth the lost set, not knowing what they will unleash. Baldwin plays the grandson of one of the workers on the set, having independently come there for sentimental reasons with his grandfather.

Evil is unleashed, people start to die, and its a struggle to survive.

It's bad. Some of the baddies created are literally two-dimensional cutouts from the set, in a fight scene which is deliberately funny. Aside from the terrible special effects, the story is weak, and worse, we don't get a sense of the evil and what it wants to do, besides just killing people. No motivation or real background for the evil is given.

And the worst sin of all...the acting is poor. Baldwin, who played Jayne in Firefly/Serenity, is a wimp here. The anti-casting simply doesn't work, just like everything else in the production.

Avoid. Avoid. Avoid.

Posted by Jvstin at 7:22 AM

April 19, 2008

Movie Review 2008 #49: The Forbidden Kingdom

Like a couple of friends in various parts of the country, I went to see this movie at the Theater, starring Jet Li and Jackie Chan, together for the first time.

The plot is relatively simple and revolves around American Jason Tripitikas. Obsessed by kung fun action films, his friendship with a Chinatown pawnshop owner is an entree, with his getting mixed up in a robbery attempt to that very same store, to the land of mythic China by means of a magical staff. I thought the framing story in the present was weak and not much effort was placed on it.

Once he is in mythic China, the story more appreciably improves, as he gathers a band of allies, Lu Yan (Jackie Chan), Golden Sparrow, and, after a classic misunderstanding, a warrior Monk (Jet Li). The plan is simple--get to the Jade Warlord's palace, and free the Monkey King to whom the staff really belongs--and who can get Jason home.

While the movie contains numerous references and motifs taken from other martial arts films (ranging from Drunken Master to the Bride with White Hair) this movie really is "Martial arts movie for dummies." With a 14 year old American as the protagonist, the point of this movie is clearly as a gateway/introductory movie for that age group. That said, while the movie isn't anywhere near as good as modern Chinese epics like Hero or Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, its an okay movie at a Matinee price.

And it should be required viewing for Exalted players and GMs.

Posted by Jvstin at 9:40 PM

Movie Review 2008 #48: The Madness of King George

An Oscar nominated film about the Regency Crisis of 1788, with a cast that features Nigel Hawthorne in the title role, Helen Mirren as Queen Charlotte, and also starring Ian Holm, Rupert Everett, amongst others.

Americans have so much trouble with their own history, as I mentioned in a review of To Kill a King, that asking them to understand the history even of their parent nation, Great Britain, is often asking far, far too much.

Even I, reasonably educated about British history, didn't know about this episode of British history. Before the formal Regency of 1811-1820, King George III had a bout of madness that threatened his reign in 1788. The Madness of King George (which I had originally thought was about the formal Regency period) is actually set in this time frame.

The movie itself is about many things. The portrait of a King whose grip on sanity is slipping through his fingers. The machinations of power around him, as Parliament and the family wonder just what to do with a living, but clearly non functional, monarch. The ambitions and chaffing of a son whose relationship with his father, poor when the father was in good health, steadily decline as the mental health of the King declines.

The Madness of King George mixes these political questions with broad humor. I found out after the fact that Hawthorne played the title role on stage for months before putting him on film. And it shows. Hawthorne (nominated for an Oscar) *owns* this character. He infuses the King with a vitality and a fullness of performance that makes me wonder just how the hell Oscar voters passed up this performance in favor of Hanks' Forrest Gump. Mirren was nominated for an Oscar, too, although I think her performance is very good (but simply not as good as Hawthorne). The rest of the cast does ably as well.

And with great use of sets and good cinematography, the film ably transports the viewer to late 18th century Britain.

I enjoyed it.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:32 AM

April 11, 2008

Movie Review 2008 #47: Atonement

A movie nominated at the Oscars for Best Picture, starring Keira Knightley and James McAvoy.

Knightley plays Cecilia Tallis. McAvoy plays Robbie Turner, the son of a servant of the noble family. We watch them flirt, and fall for each other. Narrating and watching it all is sister Briony.

As the movie unspools, its clear that she notices the attention that her sister is getting. In point of fact, she witnesses an act of passion between the pair. And so, when a crime of sexual assault strikes the estate, she fingers Robbie (falsely) as the culprit.

The word of the daughter of a noble counts for more than an older servant's son, and so he is sent to jail, and subsequently to France for the Second World War. We watch as he retreats across France toward Dunkirk, with the promise of seeing Cecilia again in London...

The movie jumps between the three locations and time periods, the full story and motivations of the characters only coming to full fruition and light in the denouement.

I didn't cotton to this movie at all.

The reason is that, without spoiling it too much, is that when we learn what really occurred, it emerges that Briony is a highly unreliable narrator. Worse, her character and her motivations were repulsive, selfish and damning.

With her as the real center of the movie, the movie left me with a strong distaste. I don't deny there is good acting here, and good cinematography and direction. (The scenes at Dunkirk for example were particularly well done). But its all a facade, fake and when I learned what really happened...I had the same sort of moment one has with hurling a book across the room. I wanted to hurl the movie across the room.

Posted by Jvstin at 6:36 AM

April 6, 2008

Goodbye Charlton Heston

Charlton Heston, the Oscar-winning actor who achieved stardom playing larger-than-life figures including Moses, Michelangelo and Andrew Jackson in historical epics and went on to become a best-selling author, a contentious Hollywood labor leader, an unapologetic gun advocate and darling of conservative causes, has died. He was 84.

Heston died Saturday at his Beverly Hills home, his family said in a statement. In 2002, he had been diagnosed with symptoms similar to those of Alzheimer's disease.

While The Ten Commandments is probably his best known role, I remember Heston for other characters, too. The titular character in Ben-Hur (for which he won his one Oscar). Taylor (Planet of the Apes). Rodrigo Díaz (El Cid). General Gordon (Khartoum. Great film!). Detective Thorn (Soylent Green). Most definitely the Cardinal in the Three/Four Musketeers.

He even had a small role in In the Mouth of Madness as a publishing house head.

Rest in peace, Mr. Heston.

Posted by Jvstin at 11:24 AM

April 1, 2008

Movie Review 2008 #46: The Jackal

A remake of the 1973 movie about an assassin for hire and the men arrayed to stop him, starring Richard Gere, Sidney Poitier, and Bruce Willis.

Bruce Willis plays the title character, an assassin for hire. After a joint US/Russian operation in the former Soviet Union against a crime boss, the crime boss in turn hires The Jackal to get revenge on the United States for the temerity of participating in the operation.

The Jackal is a faceless assassin at the top of his game. In order to beat him, FBI Deputy Director Preston (Poitier) springs Declan McQueen(Gere), an IRA sniper who has a connection to the Jackal, in order to stop him before he finds and kills his target. But just who his target might be is an open question...

It's a pretty good action film, with some decent performances from the leads and secondary characters, highlighted by a small humorous role for Jack Black. In particular, Willis plays a good bad guy for a change of pace from his usual protagonist roles. I'm not completely happy with how the denouement plays out, though. I think the endgame could have been done better.

Posted by Jvstin at 7:49 PM

Movie Review 2008 #45: The Invasion

This remake of The Body Snatchers stars Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig.

I have a thing for Nicole Kidman, and it is for that reason, mainly, that I decided to see this remake of the Body Snatchers, with a medical twist. Also, both of the leads later starred in The Golden Compass (although not meeting) and I wanted to get a sense of their chemistry if they ever make more of the Pullman novels into movies.

And I have a thing for Nicole Kidman, but I repeat myself.

Anyway, the Invasion is a remake of The Body Snatchers using an alien virus brought to earth by a shuttle disaster. Kidman plays Carol Bennell, a psychologist estranged from her ex-husband, a now single mom who has the buddings of a relationship with her colleague Ben Driscoll (Craig).

As it emerges that more and more people are acting strangely...and that the turnover occurs during sleep, Bennell desperately tries to protect her son, and herself, with the former possibly having the key to a cure.

It's a mishmash.

The movie starts off promisingly as a psychological thriller, but it devolves into a zombie movie mentality, complete with chase scenes and action sequences. The tone of the movie, promising in its opening act, is completely and utterly lost, and not for the better. Worse, there is zero chemistry between Kidman and Craig. And its a bad sign when some of the minor characters come across as better and more interesting than the main ones.

The cinematography is okay...but I could tell that the movie had been edited and changed, a lot. The flow was completely off. It seems to me that it did badly in a test screening, and it got changed. And not for the better.

I was highly disappointed.

Posted by Jvstin at 7:29 PM

March 30, 2008

Movie Review 2008 #44: Soldier

A trippy low budget movie about future soldiers on alien planets in war, starring Kurt Russell.

Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson (who directed) Soldier is the story of Todd, who has been trained and used as a soldier his entire life. The opening sequence shows us in brief snippets his upbringing and his missions, as he has grown to become the best soldier in his unit.

When a new breed of genetically bred super soldier makes Todd obsolete, and dumped on a garbage planet, Todd's story takes a classic plot twist when a group of squatters/refugees takes him in, just in time for the same super soldiers who made him obsolete come calling for a fight. The "obsolete" Todd has to fight the same soldiers who beat him once already.

With Kurt Russell as Todd, can you expect anything except victory?

While the movie is solidly in its execution of the fighting and action, there are a few things in the movie that raise its score in my book. First, the subtleties of the movie were not lost on me. References in dialogue and on screen make it clear, to me, that the movie takes place in the same universe as Blade Runner. While Todd is not Roy Beatty, he is still a figure who, deep down, wants to be more than what he has been all of his life.

Even more unusual is the deliberate choice of Todd's personality. Although he is on screen for more than three quarters of the time, his dialogue is minimal. His lack of communication reinforces his isolation and his strange nature.

The minor characters, both in the refugees and in the military command that Todd is driven from and later faces, do well with their roles for the most part. The movie makes good use of Sean Pertwee, Connie Nielsen, Jason Isaacs and especially Gary Busey. I don't think Jason Lee as Caine 607, Todd's nemesis, is quite the right casting--but it might just be that Russell, even silent, has far more charisma as an actor than Lee does.

I liked the movie more than I expected I would. It's not a great movie, but its a decent one.

Posted by Jvstin at 10:11 AM

Movie Review 2008 #43: I, Robot

An action/police procedual movie "inspired" by the work of Issac Asimov, and starring Will Smith.

I was reluctant to see this movie for a long time, until my friend Bridgette convinced me that it was worth watching. My reluctance came from the fact that the movie is very unlike the original Asimov stories, with only the Laws of Robotics and a few names making the transition.

The movie stars Smith as Del Spooner, Chicago police officer who has a real grudge against robots. This is hinted at in the opening title sequence, and is later explained in full detail just why Del has a problem with robots that no one else seems to share or understand. His boss at the precinct can't control him, his beloved grandmother chides him for his attitude, and he rubs everyone and everything raw, especially when it comes to the mechanical entities which now dominate Chicago and the rest of the U.S. in 2034.

So when Robot inventor Dr. Alfred Lanning (played in holograms by James Cromwell) dies in an apparent suicide, but asking for Del in his death message, Del's dislike for robots is put to the test as he visits the gargantuan building that holds US Robotics. Del's abrasive personality and style are matched against the cool and collected Dr. Calvin (Bridget Moynihan). It seems at first that Del's presence is useless and worse than useless. However, the apperance of Sonny (Alan Tudyk) and evidence suggesting that Lanning could not have committed suicide starts a chain of action sequences and investigations that reveal an audacious plan involving the latest model of robot to be released...

While the movie is 65% action and police procedural, and 30% science fiction, the movie does have a small dose of philosophy and the spirit of the original Asimov work As a minor spoiler, I will reveal here that, while not put directly in those terms, the movie's plot revolves around the "0th law". The first time I saw the movie, I recognized this immediately, and on this re-viewing, I appreciate that Proyas (who also directed Dark City) subtly inserted this distillation of the three laws. Proyas is a great director even if this movie, with its car chases and pyrotechnics does not play to his greatest strengths.

Cromwell does fine as a hologram, Moynihan does okay as Calvin. Tudyk provides a human face to Sonny the robot. Still, this movie, like many of his movies, belongs to Smith's Del Spooner. Smith is as always a protagonist which the viewers can follow. Even if, unlike many of his roles, Del's personality and history have a dark edge that (until this movie) Smith had never really explored before in movie roles. I note wryly that this is the second SF movie he has been in that he has been a police officer. (Men in Black being the first).

The movie IS a summer blockbuster type movie, but definitely in the upper tier of that subset of movies. The movie doesn't fail to entertain and I enjoyed it a lot.

Posted by Jvstin at 9:38 AM

March 28, 2008

Movie Review 2008 #42: Dangerous Crossing

Another descent into film noir, starring Jeanne Crain, Paul Betz and Michael Rennie

Crain stars as Jeanne Crain Ruth Stanton, now Ruth Bowman. Recently married in a whirlwind courtship and sudden marriage to Betz' John Bowman, the newlyweds are going to celebrate their new marriage with an impromptu cruise. Mr. Bowman has made all of the last minute arrangements, and everything seems perfect as the couple boards the ship.

When John disappears shortly before the ship sails, howeverm things take a turn for the worse for Ruth. What's more, the stateroom she and John reserved is empty, she has no ticket of her own, and there seems to be no evidence of John on board whatsoever. The crew is justifiably suspicious of her and her story.

Did she imagine her marriage? Is she crazy? Are the phone calls she is getting from John, hiding on the ship real, or all a part of her delusion? Or is something even more sinister going on? Michael Rennie plays Paul Manning, the ship's doctor, and possibly the only person that Ruth can trust...or can she?

Dangerous Crossing is a great example of 50's film noir. Crain plays a convincing protagonist, whetber or not we believe what is happening to her is real, or all in her mind. Her performance could easily have gone into histronics; Her performance, however, is nuanced, engaging and solid. Dangerous Crossing films her well and keeps our interest in her plight and her struggles to find out what is really happening. Rennie does well as Dr. Manning, the person who seems to be the only person on Ruth's side as the convoluted series of events unfolds. The rest of the cast does fine by the movie as well.

It's not a major work of Film Noir from the period, but its a good representative sample of what the genre is like (with more than a touch of Hitchcock to the plot). This new DVD release shows how beautifully the movie was originally filmed; the cinematography is technically excellent and enhances the viewing experience.

I liked it.

Posted by Jvstin at 5:53 AM

March 23, 2008

Movie Review 2008 #41: To Kill a King

A dramatic rendition of the story of Oliver Cromwell and his friend Sir Thomas Fairfax, in the lead up to the deposal of King Charles I in the 17th Century. To Kill a King stars Tim Roth, Rupert Everett and Dougray Scott.

Americans have a limited view of their own history, and so it would not surprise me if a poll of Americans would reveal that the majority of Americans have no idea that England has had several civil wars. As for me, even before reading the history, I first was introduced to the Roundheads and Cavaliers in a Choose Your Own Adventure book, of all things.

So I know a little bit about the story of Cromwell going into this dramatic rendition of the events that lead up to the death of Charles I and the establishment of the brief English Republic. The movie centers around Sir Thomas Fairfax (Dougray Scott) General of the Puritan army and friend to Cromwell. Roth plays Cromwell, the heart and soul of the Puritans.

Everett plays Charles I, the king whose self-confidence and excesses threaten to remove the crown from his head...and his head from his body.

I was somewhat disappointed. The movie has a strong Royalist bias, for one thing.

Cromwell is painted early and often as a psychopath. (The choice of Roth to play him was not lost on me). Early on, he nearly kills a man senselessly and needlessly. This characterization continues throughout the movie. The movie, too, depicts the trial of Charles in a short and perfunctory manner, which dilutes the performance of Everett in the role. He's simply not given a lot to work with here, as the movie focuses on Fairfax and Cromwell. And the center of the movie, Fairfax, is portrayed by Scott in only an average performance.

Even as there were so few female performances in the movie, I thought Olivia Williams did all right as Lady Fairfax.

The direction of the movie, I thought, was poor to middling. Especially when the movie does anything other than characters talking or conversing in a room, the cinematography reveals itself to be underdone at best. (One scene of Fairfax rushing through his house is particularly bad but its only one of the more egregious examples).

The movie does gets points in my book for tackling subjects and characters which don't get much cinematic depiction. Still, this movie doesn't rise much above the level of an average made-for-tv movie.

Posted by Jvstin at 3:33 PM

Movie Review 2008 #39: Bulletproof Monk

Next, a martial arts action movie vaguely resembling Remo Williams or Big Trouble in Little China with its mixture of seriousness, action and humor. Bulletproof Monk stars Chow Yun Fat and Seann William Scott.

The movie begins in Tibet,as Chow Yun Fat plays an apprentice monk ready to be better than his master, and take his place in protecting a scroll which provides the reader with enormous power. Escaping an attack by an obsessed Nazi, sixty years later, still young by the power of the scroll, the monk with no name discovers a "rough gem" in Seann William Scott's pickpocket Kar, who has raw talent of his own.

And, elderly, the Nazi still schemes to get his hands on the scroll, even as Kar and the Monk's path also tangles with the daughter of a Russian Mafia head, who may be equally worthy of education...

It's not great cinema by any event. And I can see how some people might be put off with the tonal shifts, which I think are fine except when they come too fast and furious. Its a mildly entertaining movie which isn't particularly offensive...or memorable for that matter. It doesn't rise (or sink) to the level of guilty pleasure or cult classic.

Posted by Jvstin at 3:09 PM

Movie Review 2008 #38: Sinbad Legend of the Seven Seas

It's so good to have a working DVD player again!

Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas is an animated feature with the voices of Brad Pitt, Catherine Zeta Jones, Joseph Fiennes and Michelle Pfeiffer.

For those who have seen Stardust, one of the best parts is Michelle Pfeiffer's portrayal of the witch. When I first heard that she was going to play that role, I was excited, because that character shares much in common with her character here.

In Sinbad Legend of the Seven Seas, Pfeiffer voices Eris, Goddess of Discord. And discord is what she does as she meddles in the life of Sinbad (Pitt). This Sinbad is a pirate and freewheeling mercenary rather than the more traditional hero of the Arabian Nights. Too, Sinbad's base of operations have been westernized to the city of "Syracuse".

The story follows Eris' manipulations to prevent the city of Syracuse from keeping a magical book which promotes peace and harmony--anathema to Eris. With Joseph Fiennes as a princeling of Syracuse and Catherine Zeta Jones as his fiancee who stows away on Sinbad's ship, there is even a love triangle of sorts for adults. Mostly, though, the movie is a quest tale, as Sinbad goes in search of the book, beyond the edge of the world.

It's not in the A-list of animated features, but it supports an impressive cast who do well with their roles, and its entertaining. And yes, there is a message, although its very gently given.

I liked it.

Posted by Jvstin at 3:01 PM

March 8, 2008

Movie Review 2008 #37: The Darjeeling Limited

The last movie I've gotten to watch on my now dead DVD player, the Darjeeling Limited was directed by Wes Anderson and stars Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman.

Wes Anderson films are known for their quirkness, their unusual camera shots and pans, interesting soundtracks, and (oftentimes) roles large and small for Bill Murray and Angelica Huston.

The Darjeeling Limited, the story of three estranged Whittman brothers who try to bond with each other on a long train trip across India, is no exception to any of these generalizations. The story of Francis, Peter and Jack,their trip goes awry almost from the start, as they keep secrets from each other, and have misadventures with pharmaceuticals, poisonous snakes and other hazards on their long journey that Francis, the impresario for this trip, reveals is to find their mother, who has joined a convent.

With edgy relations between the brothers, quirky and often dry humor, strange situations and strange characters, The Darjeeling Limited is an enjoyable movie. The soundtrack, I don't think is up to the fae madness of the Portugese rendition of Bowie songs in Life Aquatic..., but it holds up well.

The DVD also included the short film Hotel Chevalier, starring Schwartzman as his character Jack, and Natalie Portman as his girlfriend. (She is seen in the briefest of cameos in the feature film). The events of Hotel Chevalier are alluded to in the main film, too, showing that they are clearly set in the same movie universe.

Director Wes Anderson seems to, in terms of theme and mood, likes to hit similar chords in his films, but he manages those chords well in The Darjeeling Limited. I enjoyed it.

Posted by Jvstin at 5:40 PM

Movie Review 2008 #36: Troy (Extended/Director's Cut)

The Extended/Director's Cut of the rendition of the epic directed by Wolfgang Petersen and starring Orlando Bloom,Eric Bana,Brad Pitt and Peter O'Toole, amongst others.

I completely disliked the original cut of this movie, which I went to see in theaters in 2004. Based very loosely on the Greek Myth about what happens when ambition and wife-stealing collide.

So why, do you ask, would I bother watching the extended cut?

Well, readers will recall that I recently reviewed a book by Barry Strauss on the real Trojan War. I was induced, by positive comments in the book and the knowledge that there was a director's cut of the film, to give it another try.

It's not perfect, but it's far more reasonably entertaining than the dreck of the first film. This cut adds about a half hour to the film. In addition, the movie is re-scored and in some cases, the color balance of the film is improved. So its longer, re-sounded and looks brand spanking new.

The new footage comes in drips and drabs, adding much more color and character to the main characters. Odysseus, for instance, is introduced in a much better manner in this version of the film. With the extended cut, the anachronistic pro-atheistic stance that the original film has is much less evident. No, we don't have any divine interventions or divine entities as characters. But at least this time, the movie doesn't have that strange anti-religious tone anywhere near to the same degree. And we actually get to really see Troy get sacked in this cut rather than the "breeze over" in the original movie.

The movie is not *strong* in this new cut, but for me, anyway, it was far more palatable and made the movie better.

Posted by Jvstin at 5:22 PM

Movie Review 2008 #35: 10000 BC

I still have a couple of reviews to catch up on, but since I went to see this movie in the theater today, I decided to review it next.

10000 BC has no major stars save narration by Omar Sharif, and is directed by Roland Emmerich.

Creator of some SFish movies such as Stargate, Godzilla, Independence Day, and the Day after Tomorrow (as well as movies like the Patriot), Roland Emmerich hasn't directed a movie since the Day after Tomorrow.

He returns to the director's chair in 10000 BC, a movie which heavily throws back to movies like 1 million BC, Quest for Fire, Conan the Barbarian, The Scorpion King, and liberal borrowings from other films, including his own Stargate. The movie has characters with apostrophes in their names, invented language for the antagonists (the protagonists speak intelligible language), and mishmashed anthropology, history, and biomes.

The story revolves around D'leh, a hunter in a mountain valley tribe who hunt mammoths. The herds have become less frequent and reliable over the years, and the tribe's shaman, Old Mother, has predicted change coming to the tribe, and danger.

After D'leh proving himself in a mammoth hunt and endearing himself to his woman,Evolet, who came to the trip while just a young girl, an attack by four legged demons (horsemen) set D'leh off on a quest to rescue the captured members of his tribe. Those captured members include, of course, the lovely Evolet.

And so D'leh and his companions go on an epic journey, having adventures, meeting allies, and dealing with fearsome creatures on their way to discovering the ultimate origin of the horsemen--a pyramid building civilization using slave and mammoth labor, and ruled over by a god-king. In the course of D'leh trying to free his tribesmen, he and his allies are faced with the forces of this civilization arrayed against them.

The events in this movie could not have taken place on the Earth that we know. D'leh and company deal with Mammoths, terror birds(!), a sabertooth tiger sequence straight out of Androcles and the Lion, and the civilization at the end suggests that the God King and the world he has built here is a descendant remnant of lost Atlantis. So from all of those perspectives, its a complete mess.

As pure fantasy fiction taking place on another world, once I decided this was not the Earth we knew, the movie was actually decent. I didn't have high expectations but the movie managed to exceed those very low expectations. The CGI was okay, the acting (especially since it was all unknowns) was okay. The story was a simple and direct mythic one, straight out of the Hero with a Thousand Faces. Even with the plot holes and other problems, it managed to entertain me for a couple of hours.

Posted by Jvstin at 4:43 PM

March 6, 2008

Movie Review 2008 #34: Interview

With my DVD player broken, I should catch up on the reviews that I "owe", eh?

Next up is a small independent view starring and directed by Steve Buscemi, "Interview". The other lead in the movie is Sienna Miller.

A character movie with characters who actions and motivations in the end are ultimately unbelieveable, Interview wastes an opportunity to truly explore issues and characters between a reporter and a starlet.

Pierre (Buscemi) is a fading political reporter, assigned to write a fluff piece on Katya (Miller), a young blond starlet who acts in slasher movies and a Fox show about single girls in the city. The interview, at a restaurant, goes badly: she's late, he's unprepared and rude. After leaving, he bangs his head in a fender bender and she takes him to her loft to clean the wound. Lubricated by alcohol and competitive natures, the interview resumes. She takes phone calls from her fiancé, Pierre reads her diary on her computer. They discuss wounds, he expresses concern, father-daughter feelings arise. Out come camcorders to tape their darkest secrets.

I thought it would be a juicy exploration of these two characters, but the script doesn't quite pull it off. The characters are too different, too abrasive to each other. and too unlikeable. The pacing and actions seem weird and off--why Buscemi goes ahead and starts browsing Katya's computer, for example is never really clear. Or the mindgames Katya plays are not really well thought out.

And there is a twist at the end which is less of a sting in the tail than a final nail that we really didn't get to know these characters at all.

The relationship between the two is humanly awkward, but its not very good cinema. I didn't care for the movie.

Posted by Jvstin at 3:18 PM

March 4, 2008

Movie Review 208 #33: The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao

An amazing fantasy created by George Pal, and starring Tony Randall as the titular characters, and a pre-I Dream of Jeannie Barbara Eden.

The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao harkens back to a simpler time in movies, with simple special effects and makeup sitting in for the more usual CGI and elaborate displays of more modern movies. In this sense, and the gentle nature of the fantasy, it reminded me strongly of the Adventures of Baron Munchausen.

Seven Faces stars Tony Randall in early 20th century West, visiting the tone of Abalone, Arizona. With an uncertain water supply, and a robber baron seeking to buy the town outright, Abalone doesn't seem to have much of a future. Even a newspaperman doesn't seem to be able to stop the inevitable buy-out.

Dr. Lao's arrival, however, is a catalyst for the townspeople to see themselves in new ways, with their encounter with Dr. Lao's circus of characters (all amazingly brought to life with makeup, costumes and the acting ability of Randall). (William Tuttle, who did the makeup, won an honorary Oscar for his efforts).

Dr. Lao's circus consists of , besides himself, Merlin, Pan , the Abominable Snowman , Medusa, a sentient Giant Serpent and the fortune teller Apollonius of Tyana. Various members of the town (including the robber Baron Clint Stark) meet these characters, and are subtly changed, thereby.

And so too, does Dr. Lao and his circus change the town.

More than just being a "Throwback" fantasy, Dr. Lao does have parallels to Munchausen. A mysterious visitor to the town. Inhabitants of the town entertained and enlightened by that visitor. An adversary in a position of authority and power over the town who is defeated by wits rather than brawn.

If you think that Tony Randall's acting begins and ends with the Odd Couple, you owe it to yourself to see this charming little film.

Posted by Jvstin at 4:41 PM

February 28, 2008

Movie Review 2008 #32: All About Eve

Joseph L. Mankiewicz's classic tale of ambition in the Theater, starring Bette Davis as the aging theater star Margo Channing and Anne Baxter as Eve.

One of those classic movies that I've never seen before now, All about Eve tells the story of its title character, Eve Harrington. Besotted and charming her way into a circle of theater friends around an aging actress, her charm and self depreciation hide a sinister plan of manipulation. People slowly come to see Eve's manipulation for fulfillment, but her machinations are soon well in hand...

Betrayal, manipulation, ambition and more, the movie is a classic character study of Eve, Margo and the others in their circle. The movie relies on us being invested in watching these characters react to each other and especially the young ingenue in their midst, and just how far she is willing to go in the pursuit of her signalminded goals. The casting is great, especially the leads, and there is even a small role for Marilyn Monroe.

The movie won six Oscars, including Best Picture. Both of the leads were nominated for Best Actress; neither won. (The winner that year was Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday).

I enjoyed it.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:31 PM

Movie Review 2008 #31: Tron

I was inspired to rent this classic from the 80's, although a viewing proved that I didn't remember it as much as I thought I did. Starring Jeff Bridges, David Warner, and Bruce Boxleitner.

Computer Users and Programmers team up to prevent the Singularity by stopping the plans of a rogue amalgamation of software called the MCP.

That's the short, geeky version of the plot. The movie revolves around a sentient piece of software, the Master Control Program (MCP). With dominance over a pre/non Windows cyberspace, its influence into the real world is through its original creator, Ed Dillinger.

Jeff Bridges plays Kevin Flynn, former ace programmer. His efforts to stop the MCP in the verite world gets him literally zapped into the computer environment, and forced to play games that he is not only expected to lose, but die in the process. Fortunately, he soon meets Tron, a program created by fellow programmer Alan Bradley, oddly looking much like his creator, and the two together set off to escape the games and stop the MCP in its tracks.

Tron has been described as the "first Matrix" and there are definitely parallels, playing with levels of reality, computers as entities, and more. Although the graphics are primitive today, the story and the breadth of imagination are still top notch, and the movie is shorter than I remembered. It's a bit slow until we get Kevin into the computer world, but the movie picks up wonderfully at this point.

I remember fondly playing videogames based on the movie, and watching lightcycles, tanks and disc throwing in the movie brought back not only previous viewings to mind, but those games as well. I had forgotten or never really recognized some of the details and commentary that this movie showed on this viewing. For instance, there is a strong spiritual element to the movie, on both the virtual and verite levels. And the music is very good, too.

The technology of the computers in the verite world are primitive by today's standards--dumb terminals, no signs of Macs, Windows or even Linux. However aside from that, the movie is still damned fun and entertaining. A landmark Science Fiction film.

I wouldn't mind owning this movie in my DVD collection.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:12 PM

February 26, 2008

Ebb and Flow of Movies

The Ebb and Flow of Movies: Box Office Receipts 1986 - 2007 - The New York Times

"Summer blockbusters and holiday hits make up the bulk of box office revenue each year, while contenders for the top Oscar awards tend to attract smaller audiences that build over time. Here's a look at how movies have fared at the box office, after adjusting for inflation."

Take a look at it, play with it!

Posted by Jvstin at 7:00 PM

February 24, 2008

Movie Review 2008 #30: The Brave One

A thriller about a woman who turns from meek to vigilante in the wake of a brutal attack that claims the life of her fiance. Starring Jodie Foster.

Foster plays Erica Bain, a popular host on a public radio program in NYC. She has a loving fiance (Naveen Andrews) who works as a medical professional. Life is good.

Her idyllic life is shattered during a brutal attack in Central Park by a trio of men. Her fiance is killed, her dog is lost and she is left for dead. When she finally recovers herself from the attack, finding little help from the police, she buys an unregistered handgun.

And when she finds call to use it on a armed robber in a bodega a few days later, she begins a new career, one of an avenging vigilante...

Aside from the transformation from meek victim to firearm wielding vigilante, the movie is a average thriller with a good performance from Foster. The cinematography is good, and the performances from the supporting cast are decent.

The movie does fall short in a couple of areas for me. The initial transformation of the character is a bit hard to take. We get no sense whatsoever that she would be interested in an illegal handgun and suddenly, soon, she owns one to protect herself. (A deleted scene from the movie makes the transition in the wake of her injury a little easier, but its cheating to include that in the narrative of the movie). Also problematic is one of the other deaths in the movie that Erica undertakes, being a very different tone, method, reason and motivation than the others.

And, finally, the ending, when the detective pursuing her (Terrence Howard) acts in an extremely unprofessional and atypical manner that helps gives the movie a Hollywood-esque ending. However, in the process, I think the ending to an extent breaks the character of Detective Mercer and makes things far too pat for Erica.

Overall, it was a disappointment.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:36 PM

Movie Review 2008 #29: Lawrence of Arabia

The epic story of Colonel T.E. Lawrence and his efforts to unite Arab opposition to Ottoman rule during World War I. Lawrence of Arabia stars Peter O'Toole,Alec Guinness, Omar Sharif, and in one of his last roles, Claude Rains.

"...Lawrence of Arabia, British Beatlemania..."

Lawrence of Arabia tells the based-on-the-life-story of the title character, a complicated British officer. The movie is told in flashback, we open the movie with his death in a motorcycle accident in Britain, and then moves back in time to 1916 Cairo. Lawrence, an intelligence officer attached to the British forces there, is given a mission to discover what the Arabs are doing in their chafing under Ottoman rule.

And so the movie really begins.

Gorgeous cinematography, beautiful desert, striking vistas. Lawrence meets the head of one of the tribes, and, in a wide interpretation of his orders, proceeds to attach himself to the Arabs, helping them strike at the Turks. We get full scale on attacks, raids, attacks on train lines and other such shenangians. We see Lawrence's relationship develop with his new friends, mainly embodied as Guinness' Prince Feisal and Sharif's Sherif Ali. And of course his complicated relationship with his own command, who have their own ideas of what the post WWI Middle East should look like...

Lawrence was a complicated figure both in real life and as depicted in the movie. Hero, patriot, opportunist, sadist, and a man with complicated and contradictory impulses and loyalties. The movie does an excellent job showing that Lawrence was far from a simple man. Its one of those long epic films (over three hours, and featuring the now disused trio of Overture, Entr'acte and Exit music. Its not a movie to watch, savor and enjoy without the time to do so.

Lawrence of Arabia won 7 Oscars, deservedly so. However, Peter O'Toole failed to win, losing to Gregory Peck's depiction of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. O'Toole's depiction of Lawrence is a bit overwrought, and while it is not a travesty that he lost the Oscar, it is a pity that he has not managed to win since, either.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:12 PM

February 21, 2008

Movie Review 2008 #28: You've Got Mail

The romantic comedy from the 90's, starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, with Greg Kinnear, Parker Posey, Jean Stapleton, David Chappelle, and Dabney Coleman.

Watching the movie again, I enjoyed it, even if its somewhat dated in terms of technology, and I deduced a sort of creepy aspect to the entire romance between the main characters.

Ryan plays Kathleen Kelly, owner of a small children's bookstore has an email penpal relationship with a mysterious and unknown friend. Hanks plays Joe Fox, scion of the Fox Books superstores, who is about to open a branch right across the corner from Kelly's little store. A harbringer of doom for the little bookstore which can't afford a coffee bar or to discount books as Fox does.

What Kelly and Fox don't know (at first for the latter) is that they are the falling-for-each-other penpals as well as the business rivals...

The movie is funny and poignant, in the "romcom" sort of vein. The characters do talk about fate and destiny and other such natterings that frankly annoy the more cynical and practical.

The leads and their supporting cast do a very good job. Ephron knows how to get good results out of her cast, especially Hanks and Ryan.

Where the movie falls down a bit, I think, is in two aspects.

First, the romance between Joe and Kathleen as themselves (as opposed to their online personas) seemed somewhat short and didn't quite work for me. I could see Joe's side of it, since (a bit of a spoiler) he becomes aware that Kathleen IS his penpal. I just don't quite see how Kathleen manages to fall for Joe, especially because of the business animosity.

The second bit is that, once Joe does find out who Kelly is, he does seem to play with her as regards to her online penpal. It seemed slightly cruel the way he talks about him in the third person. I see where Ephron was trying to go with it, but it felt a bit creepy on this viewing.

Still...with a good cast, snappy dialogue, and wonderful chemistry between the actors (not just Ryan and Hanks mind you), the movie seems destined to hold a place for when someone is in the mood for unabashed, romantic comedy. At least, it does to me.

Posted by Jvstin at 12:38 PM

Movie Review 2008 #27: The Rocky Horror Picture Show

And now time for the late night, science fiction, double feature, picture show...starring Tim Curry and Susan Sarandon.

It's just a jump to the left and a step to the right.

I'm not sure how to review the movie. Nearly anyone who reads this has seen it in one fashion, venue or form or another. Many probably own a copy, or know someone who do.

It's been a few years since I saw it last, so I did get to see it with fresh eyes. The silliness, the camp, the costumes, and of course the musical numbers. The plot is a clothesline on which to hang the music and the wackiness. Its very silly fun.

And the movie brought back memories, mainly through the music. On nearly the last night I saw Lisa alive, we were driving back from Fresno to Bakersfield. The sky was a gorgeous quilt of stars, undimmed by light pollution. And the music we listened to was the soundtrack to the Rocky Horror Picture Show.

It brings a tear to my eye to think about it.

There are probably three kinds of people in the world--people who love the movie, people who can't stand the movie, and people who have somehow missed it. I don't think a movie like this allows for much of a middle ground.

Posted by Jvstin at 12:36 PM

Movie Review 2008 #26: The Merchant of Venice

A recent adaptation of the Shakespeare play, with Al Pacino as Shylock, and also starring Jeremy Irons and Joseph Fiennes.

The Merchant of Venice is a difficult play, and the reason is the character of Shylock, really the center of the film.

Is the play anti-semitic? Is Shakespeare indulging in the attitudes prevalent at the time? Is it an enlightened play, showing how Shylock is driven to his actions and attitudes because of the environment in which he must dwell?

For that reason, its not as popular a play as other works by the Bard, and so this recent movie adaptation is a chance to see it and see what and how a director and cast interpret the material.

I was not disappointed.

Michael Radford (who directed Il Postino) seems to take the view that the play is really an indictment of anti-semitism and the consequences to what it leads to. This is highlighted by Pacino's portrayal of Shylock. We see him early on, spat on and treated foully by the citizens of Venice. When Irons' Antonio stakes a loan to Shylock on behalf of his friend Bassiano (Fiennes) so that he can win the heart of Portia, we feel sympathy for Shylock. Here, because he has to make a living, is in the position of loaning money to a man who just treated him like dirt just days ago.

And so when Shylock sets his awful terms (a pound of flesh) if the loan is defaulted, Shylock's attempt at revenge makes him seem less like a common criminal than someone who is trying to "fight the system."

Aside from the powerful portrayal by Pacino, the rest of the actors and the players do a decent, if not spectacular job. I found Portia and the suitors to be a middling subplot. I didn't buy how Portia and Bassiano fall for each other, though. And while Irons is a great actor, he seems of the wrong generation to be the best buddy of Bassiano to put up the stake of his own flesh to begin with.

The movie is filmed beautifully, evoking nicely the setting of early 16th century Venice. Radford does a good job with the cinematography and knowing when to show us the grandeur of spaces, and when to focus and let the actors fill up the screen.

Still, to see Pacino eat up the screen as a Shylock who knows he deserves better than what Venetian society is giving him made the movie worthwhile to see. Sure, Shylock gets his comeuppance as per the play, but until and when he does, we can see that Pacino as Shylock has made his point, in full.

Posted by Jvstin at 12:34 PM

February 16, 2008

Movie Review 2008 #25: A Clockwork Orange

A movie that knocked me on my a$$ the first time I saw it (enough that I rushed out to get the soundtrack), and watching it again, it still manages to do it.

McDowell plays Alex, a teenage sociopath whose nights consist of getting buzzed on pharmaceutical laced milk, assault and battery, a touch of rape, and always the "ultra violence." His cheerfully brutal existence takes a turn for the worse when he accidentally commits a murder, and having estranged his companions, is set up by them to take the fall.

In prison, however, he gets a chance to be a terrible price.

Based on the Anthony Burgess novel, the movie has unforgettable images, startling musical counterpoints (Beethoven!) and of course McDowell's performance going for it. I don't think "like" is the right word to describe a reaction to a movie of this power and brutality. It is similar to "liking" a deadly creature which you are engaged with, on a real level. You can't ignore it, fail to appreciate it, respect it, and pay rapt attention to it.

A Clockwork Orange was nominated for 4 Oscars, including Best Director and Best Picture, but won none. (It lost to, in all of those categories,the French Connection).

If you can stomach it, you should see it at least once.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:00 PM

Movie Review 2008 #24: The Haunting

Another movie based on Hill House, this time using the theme of a psychological study run by Liam Neeson, and also starring Catherine Zeta Jones, Lili Taylor and Owen Wilson.

It starts off promisingly and then falters.

Neeson's Psychologist Dr. Marrow recruits three subjects who are told they'll get help for insomnia, and installs them in the ornate and gloomy gothic pile, where alarming, but not quite scary, things start to happen immediately.

The three patients are played by Lili Taylor, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Owen Wilson. Prof. Marrow is joined by two assistants, but in one of the screenplay's several clumsy moves, one of them is injured during the first night, the other takes her to the hospital, and that's the last we ever see of them. Taylor's Nell, is the key figure in the film and its center for reasons revolving around the plot.

The problem is, the characters are very underwritten. Much more could have been done with the characters after their initial, promising arrivals on screen. Even Taylor's Nell, the center of the film gets saddled with a very clumsy script, dialogue and direction. (It's telling that Taylor's best scenes are when she is talking to herself, by herself). And the movie doesn't quite scare me.

It's a pity. The House is a wonderful place to film a movie and some of what the movie does right is in showing us that. Jones' Theo calls it "Charles Foster Kane meets the Munsters" and she's right. With such a locale, its a shame the script doesn't hold up to the potential.

Posted by Jvstin at 7:29 PM

Movie Review 2008 #23: The Last King of Scotland

Forest Whitaker gives an Oscar-winning performance as Idi Amin in this story of a Scottish Doctor (James McAvoy) who comes to know the brutal, charismatic dictator of Uganda.

My friend Mike strongly recommended this to me, and I am glad he did.

The center of the movie is McAvoy's Dr. Nicholas Garrigan, a Scot who comes to Uganda and after a chance encounter with Amin, becomes a personal physician, advisor and confidant to the brutal dictator. Spoiled, rich and blind, the story of the movie is about his awakening to the realities and brutalities of Amin and his regime.

At least, that's the way the movie is written and how it is intended. And McAvoy does a decent job with his role. Not spectacular but solid acting.

Yet, all of this is thrown into eclipse by Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin. Every moment on the screen he is on works, and once he makes an appearance, the movie suffers when the movie shuffles him offscreen. He takes over the role and the movie in a real and palpable way that cannot be denied. His Amin is by turns magnetic, charming, charismatic, brutal, dangerous, and insane. Whitaker captures each of these in turn, changing his mood in an instant, and it never, ever feels false.

Whitaker was nominated for (and won) an Oscar for this role, and now that I've seen it, I can confirm that it would have been a miscarriage of justice had he not won. It's a good movie...but its a stellar performance and one worth watching for Whitaker's role alone. It is a brutal film, though, once the violence and dark nature of Amin's regime, always lurking, comes out on the screen in full. Definitely not a film for kids.

Posted by Jvstin at 7:12 PM

Movie Review 2008 #22: The Age of Innocence

Martin Scorsese's first attempt at an "Oscar bait" period epic, starring Daniel Day Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder as upper crust socialites in 1870's New York City.

Gorgeously filmed, wonderfully acted and subtle in the way that many of his other films are Gross, The Age of Innocence is a very atypical picture for Scorsese. There are no action scenes, no violence, nothing of the sort. Its a slow period picture.

With the occasional voiceover to help as a scorecard, the Age of Innocence tells the story of Newland Archer, successful lawyer and fiancee of Ryder's May Welland. All is peaceful in their genteel world, until the arrival of Pfeiffer's Duchess Ellen Orlenska, estranged American wife of a Polish Duke, now back in New York and seeking to carve a new life. Unaware of just how much she is flouting social conventions, its not until Archer's intervention that Ellen has a chance at happiness...

But what about Archer's happiness? And May's?

Before he tore up the screen in Gangs of New York, Lewis provides an excellent center for this trio of actors. I have no idea how he managed to avoid getting a nomination at the very least...although a check of the records show that he was nominated (and lost) for a different picture that year--for In the Name of the Father. Ryder's role shows hidden depths to the character, and Pfeiffer is luminous and complex. There are plenty of smaller roles for actors like Sian Phillips and Jonathan Pryce as well. The movie relies heavily on all of these performances. The movie could easily have been overwrought, or underdone, or ponderous if the performances were not pitch perfect.

And the cinematography is excellent, too. We buy into the 1870's view of New York (and a few other locations) completely and utterly.

The Age of Innocence was not nominated for any major awards like it clearly was designed to do, save for a Best Supporting Actress for Ryder (she lost to Anna Paquin for The Piano). Still, its an enjoyable movie and an excellent part of the director's body of work. I enjoyed it.

Posted by Jvstin at 6:49 PM

Movie Review 2008 #21: Mission to Mars

Brian De Palma's attempt at a space epic, starring Gary Sinise, Tim Robbins, Don Cheadle, Jerry O'Connell and Carrie Nielsen.

In the 2020's, exploration of space has proceeded apace. With an improved space station leading the way, a Mission to Mars is planned and sent. Disaster strikes the first visitors to the Red Planet, as an anomalous formation lead the crew into a deadly encounter. With only one member of the crew known to be alive, a second mission is launched to rescue him, and to find out just what happened.

This rescue crew features a husband and wife crew, a young scientist, and a pilot who should have been on the first mission save for a tragedy in his past. Now, the rescue mission provides a second chance for him to prove himself...

Mission to Mars is not a complicated movie. And really the center of the movie is Gary Sinise's Jim McConnell, ace pilot and Mars expert. I don't think its entirely a spoiler to say that one of the four crew perish on the rescue, leaving McConnell as the leader of the mission as he was always meant to be.

The movie is somewhat derivative. The dialogue is weak and the science is in some places very suspect. (The DNA and genetic stuff really rubbed me the wrong way) The talents of the actors are, frankly, underutilized.

The visuals are good, and the movie makes a halfway decent attempt to show "daily life" on a ship bound for Mars. The movie does present some SF ideas effectively. Still, the movie could have been much more and much better, and in the end comes up short.

Posted by Jvstin at 6:33 PM

February 11, 2008

Movie Review 2008 #20: House on Haunted Hill

Another remake (yes, a pattern..) of a classic movie, starring Geoffrey Rush, Taye Diggs and Famke Janssen.

The movie starts off with Janssen watching a "In Search of" ripoff featuring a story about a fictional Mental hospital in Los Angeles, closed after a devastating fire and patient riot. The head of the hospital was revealed to have been a mass murderer, having done horrible things to his patients. Closed but not torn down, the hospital has remained on its hillside location ever since...

What a place for a birthday party for the wife of a amusement park mogul, eh? Rush plays the amusement park mogul husband of Janssen who makes his money scaring people to death. He fulfills his wife's request for a party, but decides on a guest list different than the one she wants.

But when a small group of strangers to both of them show up for the party instead...its clear that something else is at work. And after the hospital goes into lockdown and the husband, wife and their guests are trapped inside, and the murderous acrimony between Mr and Mrs Price is clear, it soon becomes evident that the night is going to be a long and deadly one.

Sure, its a relatively average horror film from first viewing. And yet it has decent actors amongst the cast, and aside from one thing at the end, has pretty good art direction and production values. The movie plot is not complex and is pretty standard, but its perhaps a bit of a spoiler in that one of the ultimate survivors is, in a clear reversal of the pattern, usually the type of person who gets killed off first in these movies.

One annoying thing, though, is that the end of the movie has a sun rising over the Pacific Ocean...something impossible to see in Los Angeles! Even given these nits though, the movie is entertaining and fits well within its genre.

Posted by Jvstin at 5:44 PM

Movie Review 2008 #19: The Stepford Wives

A remake of the original, starring Nicole Kidman, Matthew Broderick, Bette Midler, Christopher Walken and Glenn Close.

Kidman plays Joanna, a high powered executive at a TV network with a string of hit shows. In the presentation of the upcoming season, a murderous participant from one of the pilots shows up, and his attempt to kill Joanna as well as his previous victims leads her to be fired by the network.

Broderick, her husband, moves her and their family to the eerily perfect upscale community of Stepford, Connecticut. There the women are strangely perfect and mannequin like, and the men enjoy things behind the doors of the Stepford's Men's Association. Joanna tries to fit in, and then tries to figure out what's really going on with the help of Bette Midler's Barbie Markowitz...

The movie is a mess though. While there are neat comedic bits, there is a large disconnect between what the nature of the Stepford Wives really are. The movie contradicts itself on their nature. One scene implies and shows the women as robots; whereas the reveal in the finale shows them as merely being controlled and still human. Deleted scenes show that the original direction the movie was taking seems to be the "robot" idea, and somewhere along the line, they changed the reveal in the ending..and cut out the scenes which implied robots,.but left in one scene which still shows a robotic wife.

Its a pity. With an appealing cast, I wanted to like the movie. This very sloppy approach ruins it for me, though.

Posted by Jvstin at 5:23 PM

Movie Review 2008 #18: Pirates of the Caribbean At World's End

The third of the POTC movies, in addition to the returning Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Geoffrey Rush and Johnny Depp, the movie also stars Chow Yun Fat.

Its not quite as good a climax as one might hope for in the trilogy, although its fairly entertaining. The movie starts off with almost ridiculous grimness as we are treated to a public execution commanded by the real antagonist of the piece, Lord Cutler Beckett. From there, we join our heroes as they make a desperate play into Singapore to obtain a map that will lead them to Davy Jones' Locker...and the lost Jack Sparrow. There, they tangle with Chow Yun Fat, one of the pirate captains who squats in his den like a deadly spider.

And from there...well, the plot is convoluted and long and it forces you to remember and pay attention to events from the previous movie as well as this one in order to keep it all straight. Lots of double dealing, alliance switching, and conflicts, one of which descends into comedy and self parody.

The action scenes and special effects are well done. There is lots of eye candy.

As far as that convoluted plot...There are a few missteps, in my opinion, especially given the "with a whimper" fate that befalls the mighty Kraken (and off screen no less). The movie goes to perhaps too much excess on every front (including the extravagence of having Keith Richards play Sparrow's father in a brief cameo).

And the movie makes a huge mistake, as far as I can see, and perhaps someone can correct me. At the Brethren Court, we see the nine Pirate Captains...including Jack (who had to be rescued) and Barbarossa. But...wasn't Barbarossa only a captain after he stole the ship from Jack in the time before the first Pirates movie? And if he was a captain, why was he serving under Jack on the Pearl in the first place? Is the first movie retconned thereby?

Thus the problems of an overcomplicated plot, and its this over-cleverness that is a hallmark of the movie along with the special effects.

The movie entertains, but its not without its problems.

Posted by Jvstin at 4:49 PM

February 3, 2008

Movie Review 2008 #17: The Gameplan

Another Movie lent to me by my co worker, The Gameplan stars Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.

Johnson plays Joe Kingman, a hotshot, playboy, bachelor quaterback for a Boston team which has had some success, including the playoffs, but has never managed to get to the Championship game (no NFL name rights were given, so all of the teams are generic). His plan for this year to make that happen is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of his eight year old daughter,Peyton Kelly, a daughter he never knew he had. Its a fish out of waterstory as Quarterback Joe has to become Dad Joe too for a month...

Yes, its a Disney movie, and the setup is implausible, the action is gentle family fare, and there are morals aplenty.

Given that, and in that context and genre, The Gameplan does okay. Sure the entire scenario is implausible and it can be difficult to get past that. However, this is the sort of movie that a family can watch with an 7-9 year old and know precisely and exactly that its going to be harmless and entertaining fare.

I enjoyed the cameos from Boomer Esiason and Marv Albert playing themselves as sports commentators. Like "Lilo and Stitch", the movie also makes decent use of Elvis as an icon, although I thought more could be done with this. There also seems to be a quasi romance between Kingman and Peyton's ballet teacher.

An amusing bit about this movie is the championship game set up as how it relates to the Superbowl this year. Its probably not a spoiler to reveal that Joe does lead his underdog Boston team to the championship game, against a heavily favored team that has won three of the last four championships.

And that team is from...

New York.

Posted by Jvstin at 2:21 PM

Movie Review 2008 #16: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

The latest in the movie adaptations of Rowling's novels.

The frame of the story of the movies is now clearly a simpler version of the novels' story, as the ever thick novel in Rowling's story is pared to a bare bones movie of 138 minutes. While 2 hours and 18 minutes is not a short movie, it is short by the standards of the material in the book.

The plot you likely know by now. Harry deals with an attack of Dementors on him and Dudley, and escapes being expelled by a congregation of wizards at the Ministry only to find the Ministry meddling in Hogwarts affairs in the personage of Dolores Umbridge.

And Voldemort's plans continue apace...and another link between the Dark Lord and Harry is documented.

The directing is okay (although I am more of a fan of Alfonso Cuarón's directing Azkaban the best). The problem with the movie is that while its entertaining, too much of it is in reference to things only in the books. We see Tonks and Kingsley, and Kreacher, for example, who are designed for the Potter readers to go "Aha!". Non readers, though, who do watch the movie, are going to miss out. And the characterization of the characters we know and love best is sadly diminished from the book. (Neville in particular comes to mind here)

There is some good stuff here, from wordplay to the satire and social commentary on the educational system. And the special effects and conflicts are well done and displayed, especially the battles at the Ministry.

I suppose my grumblings about the shortcomings of the movie are protesting a bit too much. The movie could have done much worse, and focused on less crucial scenes from the book and done less effectively.

Posted by Jvstin at 2:02 PM

Movie Review 2008 #15: War

Lent to me by a co worker, Rhonda, War is an action movie starring Jet Li and Jason Statham.

An action movie about treachery and revenge, War tells the story of FBI Agent Jack Crawford (Statham). Driven by the desire to find a mysterious assassin for hire, Rogue (Jet Li), his quest gains poignancy early when his partner is killed in an attempt to nab the assassin.

Several years later, Crawford is divorced, and enthused by the opportunity to nab Rogue, who has surfaced again to participate in a feud between a Japanese Yakuza magnate, Shiro Yanagawa, and a Chinese gang leader, Li Chan.

And the playing out of that feud, and the principals reactions to each other, is the sum and total of the movie. The movie is not that long on character development, preferring to throw an action scene every few minutes to keep the audience from being bored. So critiquing the acting is somewhat difficult, since its mostly in the context of the action scenes.

With that said, since Statham and Li are usually fighting, getting interesting character development is through the people between them. The actors who play Chan and Yanagawa do a decent job. I was very amused to see Devon Aoki ("Deadly Little Miho") in the movie as a ruthless daughter of Yanagawa. Indie actor Luiz Guzman also has a small role, too.

The movie has a plot twist at the end which I didn't buy, frankly. It's unbelievable. It diminishes the overall value of the film, such as it is. From an action point of view, the movie is entertaining, but the plot twist, especially, diminishes its overall value.

Posted by Jvstin at 1:22 PM

February 1, 2008

Movie Review 2008 #14: Joe versus the Volcano

A now cult-movie starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan(in three roles)

I was one of the few people to see this in theaters, and I remember it fondly. Hanks plays Joe Banks, a hypochondriac from Staten Island who works in a dead-end job in an office attached to a medical supply company.

A diagnosis of only six months to live, and an offer from a mysterious tycoon, liberates Joe to live life as he hasn't. In the process, he has dinner with a co worker he's barely talked to for years (Ryan) and meets two half daughters of the tycoon (both played by Ryan, too). And a trip to a South Seas island to plunge into a volcano as a finale to his life...

It's a silly little film that plays off the chemistry Hanks and Ryan have. The humor is sweet-hearted, from the strange nature of the Waponi, to the ultimate luggage outside of Pratchett, the movie makes me smile throughout.

Hanks and Ryan would go on of course, after this flop, to be paired again in Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail, showing that despite the box office flop of this movie, the chemistry between the leads got someone's attention, eh?

Posted by Jvstin at 10:36 PM

Movie Review 2008 #13: The Number 23

I decided to give this movie a try again after my negative review last summer.

Starring Jim Carrey and Virginia Madsen.

Jim Carrey stars as animal control expert Walter Sparrow. Married to a beautiful wife, with a son, although his job is often dull, he has a decent life. All of this changes, though, when, late in meeting his wife, she picks up a strange little book in the bookstore "The Number 23, a Novel of Obsession by Topsy Kretts" as a gift for Walter.

And so this book, once Walter starts reading it, draws Walter into obsession regarding the book in specific, and the number 23 in general. He sees the number everywhere, in its original form and reversed. His waking thoughts are wrapped around the number, just like the main character, Fingerling, in the book (also portrayed by Carrey) also has become infected. Carrey continually sees more and more parallels between himself and Fingerling. And when Fingerling commits a murder, Sparrow becomes convinced he will do a murder himself.

In the midst of this his wife attempts to keep Walter mentally afloat, but, and not very well established, his son begins to share the obsession, too.

I am not going to belabor what else I said then.

I was less hostile to the movie this go around, although the movie still has weaknesses. I think the biggest flaw in the movie, watching it this time, is the denouement. Even if you follow along without too much critical thinking, the endgame feels tacked on. Once we learn the secret, there is a too-long period when we learn Fingerling's real story.

It's a movie that, as I said then, I really want to like, but I can't quite manage it. Its a pity and a shame.

Posted by Jvstin at 10:24 PM

Movie Review 2008 #12: Species


What movie contains Two Academy Award winning actors, an actress who has won an Emmy, and a couple of additional highly respected actors?

If the cast is Ben Kingsley, Forest Whitaker, Marg Helgenberger, Michael Madsen and Alfred Molina, then the movie is Species.

Natasha Henstridge hasn't really done much with her career after this, but this movie introduced her to movie audiences with her depiction of Sil, half human, half alien, and all dangerous.

The movie is a superior b-movie, enhanced by a great cast who aren't really slumming but are actually acting to their potential. And then there are the wonderful visuals inspired and derived from H.R. Giger. The plot of course is pure b-movie pulp, with Sil on the loose in Los Angeles, and the team assembled by Kingsley charged with stopping her before she creates lots more Sils. The movie switches from a number of set pieces from a science lab to police style procedural to the climax fighting Sil underground effortlessly.

I did and do enjoy the movie, even if the sequelae are best avoided.

Posted by Jvstin at 10:08 PM

Movie Review 2008 #11: Dungeons and Dragons

Based on the roleplaying game, and featuring Thora Birch, Marlon Wayans and Jeremy Irons.

Okay, with this on top of Batman the Movie I was in a mood for average fare. The D&D movie is not set in any of the standard D&D universes, and instead creates one sui generis, a Mageocracy where dragons are the arm of the most powerful sorcerers, where a pair of thieves (Justin Whelan and Marlon Wayans) get caught up in a plot by a mage, Profion (Jeremy Irons) to wrest control of the realm from a progressive Queen (Thora Birch).

The acting is pretty bad, the special effects nothing special, the story relatively forgettable. Whereas Jeremy Irons in Eragon is the only one who acts decently, here, his performance is over-the-top. Still, its better than most of the other performances in the movie. And poor Marlon Wayans proves that even in a fantasy universe, black protagonists can have a short life expectancy.

It's been pointed out to me, and I checked the movie just to make sure. Richard (Rocky Horror) O'Brien from and Tom (Doctor Who) Baker both make cameos in the movie.

The movie is bad enough that you might want to watch to see it on that basis alone. Otherwise, its pretty forgettable and you can live your entire life happily never touching the DVD.

Posted by Jvstin at 9:49 PM

Del Toro to direct the Hobbit films

Del Toro to take charge of The Hobbit | News | Guardian Unlimited Film

Guillermo del Toro has officially signed up to direct The Hobbit, according to reports leaking out from a film premiere in France. The Pan's Labyrinth creator will oversee a double-bill of films based on JRR Tolkien's fantasy adventure, which paved the way for The Lord of the Rings. Peter Jackson, director of the Oscar-winning Rings trilogy, will serve as executive producer.

I really liked PAN'S LABYRINTH, and HELLBOY, too. I think he could do a pretty good job with the Hobbit. Certainly I have high hopes for the spiders of Mirkwood and Smaug based on this.

Posted by Jvstin at 1:20 PM

January 29, 2008

Movie Review 2008 #10: Batman the Movie

This is the Big-screen translation of the campy 60's TV series, with Adam West as Batman, Burt Ward as Robin, Ceasar Romero as the Joker, Burgess Meredith as the Penguin, Lee Meriweather as Catwoman and Frank Gorshin as the Riddler.

Some days, you can't just get rid of a bomb!

The movie fully and completely embraces the campiness of the TV show, and in fact plays much like an extended episode of the TV series. In point of fact, the first time I saw this, years ago, was in the time slot of the TV show, since I remembered one scene and one tag line from the movie. At one point, Batman is carrying an improbably large bomb, seeking a place to dispose it. Continually frustrated (but in a silly way--he's unwilling even to risk harm to a few ducks), Batman exasperated, says. "Some days you just can't get rid of a bomb."

If you don't like the series, then watching the movie will be a similarly bad experience. If you can enjoy the style, aesthetic and feel of the series, then the movie is merely a fairly good example of an extended length episode of the series. Thrills, chills, near death experiences, silly gadgets and jargon, and all of the rest. There is even the attraction Batman usually has for Catwoman, in her "undercover identity" as Kitka.

I enjoyed it anyway, for the nostalgia value alone.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:22 PM

Movie Review 2008 #9: He Was a Quiet Man

He was a Quiet Man stars Christian Slater, William F Macy and Elisha Cuthbert.

He was a Quiet Man tells the story of Bob. Bob is a nebbish of an office drone, who has two way conversations with his fish, is generally put upon by all around him, and leads what can charitably be described as a pathetic and pitiable existence. His life is a mess, and he has fantasies about shooting his co-workers and himself.

As you might expect, being such a nebbish, Bob lacks the guts to actually accomplish his plan. On yet another day when Bob is pushed around, another co-worker's rampage provides Bob the unexpected opportunity to be a hero...

So begins "He was a Quiet Man", a movie which is a compound of motifs and other movies in an uneasy jumble. Despite an unlikeable protagonist, Slater's performance is very unlike most of his previous characters. We do get a sense of just how put upon Bob is in his life. Elisha Cuthbert, William F Macy and the minor actors in the movie do decent jobs.

Still, the movie isn't cohesive. Talking fish, a nebbish protagonist, and strands of several plots just don't add up to a whole. It feels like pieces of several movies put together.

The ending of the movie is an twist which causes you to re-frame most of the events seen. It doesn't feel like a cheat, however, and given what we had seen of Bob, it fits in with his personality. It does bring the movie together somewhat in the denouement.

He was a quiet Man is an alright movie. The parts don't jell together as well as they might, but its a okay night's viewing.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:01 PM

January 25, 2008

Movie Review 2008 #8: Stardust

I saw this in theaters last year, and watched it at the Olsons (to whom I gifted it as a Christmas present). Now I've seen it on DVD at home and that merits another look.

I'm less unhappy with Claire Danes' performance as I was in the movie theater. While I think another actress might have done better with the role, I am less harsh in my view of her performance, seeing it again on the small screen.

And while De Niro's role is really an extended cameo, I truly relished Michelle Pfeiffer's role as Lamia the witch. I've remembered and recalled similar roles she has done--Titania in a Midsummer's Night's Dream, the voice of Eris in Sinbad, and even (remember!) a role in The Witches of Eastwick. She was born for the role, and she does it well.

The brothers of Stormhold, both alive and their ghosts, are lots of fun, too.

Its a pity that the movie didn't do as well as it might have. Unlike, say, Beowulf, whose flaws are irksome, this movie is charming and fits nicely in my DVD collection.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:41 PM

January 24, 2008

Why did I wait so long... Meme

Have you ever read a classic novel (of any genre) and had the realization, mid-novel "Why did I wait so long to read this?"

Or perhaps it was a classic movie that, in the midst of it, you had the same reaction? Or even a music album of some sort?

I'm having that reaction right now, reading Alfred Bester's THE STARS MY DESTINATION.

What stories do you have to share of similar experiences?

(Or do it on your own blog/LJ. Think of it as a meme)

Posted by Jvstin at 7:18 AM

January 21, 2008

Movie Review 2008 #7: Black Book

A foreign-language Paul Verhoeven (Total Recall, Starship Troopers, Basic Instinct) film telling the story of a Jewish woman trying to survive at the end of Nazi control of Holland in World War II. In Dutch, German and a bit of English.

Verhoeven's penchants for violence and nudity are probably well known to anyone who has seen more than one of his films. In this film, they are in full force as he tells the story of Elle Van Stein, a Jew in hiding in Holland during the latter part of the Second World War. Normandy has already happened, and in fact Operation Market Garden has just failed.

And so, the Nazis are still in firm control, and its still very dangerous for Jews. So much so that Elle seeks escape from Holland, to liberated territories. Her attempt to do so with a group of fellow refugee disastrously fails, with the loss of her family in the process. The sole survivor, she finds her way to the Resistance, and even more so, comes to the attention of the German Gestapo, in the personage of Ludwig Müntze...

The movie has lots of violence, nudity, and brutality. Some of it is gratutious, another charge with some merit. Some people have argued that Verhoeven is misogynistic, and certainly Ellis (whose real name is Rachel) goes through many trials in an effort to survive. She winds up deeply embedded in both sides, juggling a double, even triple life.

However, with betrayals and the forthcoming liberation by the Allies, and framed as really working with the Nazis to kill her fellow Jews, Ellis soon winds up on the run as a fugitive, trying to find out the real betrayer...and survive.

The movie is not dull. When the movie seems to flag, an action scene, or a flash of nudity seem to be inserted just to make sure the audience keeps paying attention.

I think Verhoeven does a good job showing how complicated, for lack of a better term, life under Nazi occupation really could be, especially for someone having to live a double life like Ellis. I saw historical inaccuracies (especially on the timing of events as regard History) which are used for dramatic effect, perhaps. Still, these didn't bother me overmuch.

Carice van Houten makes a sympathetic protagonist, and the rest of the cast, with which I am equally unfamiliar, do an equally good job. I liked the film, even given its faults.

Posted by Jvstin at 3:26 PM

Bruckheimer films and the Hero with a Thousand Faces

On a comment on the SF novelists site, Elf Sternberg said:

On the other hand, if you want to teach a complete beginner how to
write a story, you really can't do much better than a Jerry
Bruckheimer film. Take the Campebellian "cycle of the hero" and write
each stage across the top of a sheet of paper. For every character
(and I mean every) in a Bruckheimer film, write down his or her name
and then check off which stage of the cycle he or she is in. In
Armageddon, every single man on the shuttles goes through the
Campbellian cycle like clockwork. It's amazing, from a story point of
view, to watch how deft Bruckheimer is at weaving them all together.
He has the actoin/adventure formula down: eight to ten emotional
highpoints per character, each one involving the reversal of one of
the character's major personal values, and if he kills off a character
before the cycle is done he does it when the reversal is of the value
introduced in cycle step 1, reinforced throughout, and on a note that
delivers maximum emotional impact.

So I decided to watch National Treasure with this in mind.

First a quick review of the Monomyth might be helpful:

1. The Call to Adventure

In NT, the Grandfather Gates tells Ben the story of the Gates legacy as the call.

2. Refusal of the Call

Not in this case. Ben is ready from the word go. Or, perhaps, it can be interpreted as the father Gates saying its all nonsense

3. Supernatural Aid

The Elderly Gates gives Ben the first clue "The Secret Lies with Charlotte"

4. The Crossing of the First Threshold

Ben, Riley and Ian journey into the Arctic to find the Charlotte.

5. The Belly of the Whale

Ben and Riley in the hold of the ship as it explodes. This makes them ready for the adventure ahead--getting the Declaration.

6. The Road of Trials

This can be thought of the adventures Ben and Riley go through involving the acquisition of the Declaration and the other clues. Abigail joins the quest here too, first as unwilling helper.

7. The Meeting with the Goddess

This can be seen as the developing of the relationship between Abigail and Ben. They kiss in the depths below Trinity Church

8. Atonement with the Father

Eventually, Gates and his father reconcile, first at his house and then more fully beneath the Church after Ian has departed.

9. Apotheosis

The endgame, as it seems there is no Treasure after all.

10. The Ultimate Boon

Ben and his Dad find the Treasure!

11. Refusal of the Return

Not really in this case. They want to get out of that basement!

12. The Magic Flight

In this case, the staircase is on the far side of the wondrous Treasure room.
13. Rescue from Without

The group get out of the treasure room.

14. The Crossing of the Return Threshold

Back up in the real world and the sobering aspect of what they have done. The final scene with the FBI agent.

15. Master of the Two Worlds

Bargaining with the FBI agent over the fate of the Treasure.

16. Freedom to Live

Gates donates most of the Treasure, and he, Abigail, and Riley live happily ever until the next Movie.

Well, Sternberg does seem to have a point, eh?

Posted by Jvstin at 2:32 PM

January 19, 2008

Movie Review 2008 #6: Pittsburgh

A quirkly little mockumentary starring Jeff Goldblum, Ed Begley Jr, and Ileana Douglas as themselves.

The actors play themselves in a slightly detached reality from this one, where Goldblum's romance with a Canadian actress, and her attempts to get a green card lead him to agree to do a 2 week production of the Music Man, in Pittsburgh.

A name actor doing regional theater in his hometown, with an apoplectic agent aghast at this career choice for his client, the sideplots of his quirky friends, and the stresses of stepping into a role (Harold Hill) completely unsuited for the actor's talents is a source of stress and drive for the movie. In not even 90 minutes, the movie goes through the process of Goldblum impetuously accepting the role, and then working through the consequences of living up to expectations.

From Goldblum obsessing that being demoted to "Second guest" on the Conan O'Brien show is a permanent mark on his career status, to Douglas' ill fated (and fictitous) relationship with Moby, to Begley's work with renewable energy sources, the movie gently pokes fun at itself and the actors that inhabit it.

Its not as stunning and sharp as other mockumentaries but it was a pleasant diversion.

Posted by Jvstin at 10:02 AM

Movie Review 2008 #5: Shoot Em Up

An unapologetically over-the-top action movie with Clive Owen, Monica Bellucci and Paul Giamatti.

The movie has no redeeming social value whatsoever.

Let me say that straight up first and foremost. This movie does not make the world a better place, and watching it is a guilty pleasure. The movie is implausible, and over-the-top.

And yet its a lot of fun.

Owen plays a nameless drifter (whose only name given is "Smith") who witnesses gunmen pursuing a very pregnant woman. Against his better judgement, he intervenes, and sets off a chain of events that gets him into a series of gun battles with men led by the wicked Paul Giamatti, who eats up his villain role with gusto. Smith's attempts to save the baby (the woman does not last long) leads him to Quintana, an Italian hooker with not quite a heart of gold (Bellucci) and so endangers her as well as the antagonists relentlessly pursue them both.

The leaps of logic and deduction to determine what's going on seem forced. And the physics of some of the gun battles would make my friends who know more of such matters scream in frustration. I think the implausibilities are part of the point of the film. The reasons why people are chasing Smith and Quintana and the baby aren't important. While we learn bits and pieces about these characters (and Giamatti makes a great villain), Action is clearly all.

A couple of the deleted scenes show that they were considering being even more implausible than they ultimately ended up to be. I do think that pulling back a bit was clearly the right choice, since one of the scenes breaks the suspension of disbelief even more.

Still, as I said before, despite the unlikeliness of it. I enjoyed this film.

Posted by Jvstin at 9:23 AM

Movie Review 2008 #4: The Tailor of Panama

A spy (but non Bond) movie starring Pierce Brosnan, with Geoffrey Rush, Brendan Gleeson, Catherine McCormack and Jamie Lee Curtis, involving British espionage in Panama.Based on the novel by Le Carré (and getting a screen writing credit)

Harry Pendel (Rush) is the eponymous character, a tailor to the rich and powerful in the small country of Panama. An unimportant country, geopolitically, save for the canal that runs through it. Which makes it perfect for disgraced spy Andrew Osnard to get into the good graces of his superiors once he is posted there. He finds out a nasty secret of Pendel's, and uses it as leverage to get Pendel to introduce him to the halls of power.

Pendel, a bigger man in his mind than in reality, starts telling tales in order to keep Osnard's financial support, badly needed, coming. Those tales, though, start attracting the attention of those higher and higher up in matters geopolitical. And in the midst of it, Osnard is looking for a retirement fund out of the deal. And the hands of the diplomats at the British embassy where Osnard works are not all clean, either...

And I had forgotten that Daniel Radcliffe is also in this movie, as Pendel's son! (His first movie role, as a matter of fact) He and Gleeson would reunite, of course, in Goblet of Fire.

Overall, Tailor of Panama is a fun little diplomacy-heist movie that was inspirational for my diplomat PCs. Espionage, tall tales, beautiful Panamaian locations, and a good cast of leads. The movie's ending is ambivalent and muddled and not "upbeat" (and perhaps is part of the reason why the movie did not do as well as it might have)

Posted by Jvstin at 9:03 AM

Movie Review 2008 #3: Clash of the Titans

I was in the mood for such things, and so I went back to a movie I first encountered not by watching it, but by seeing a comic book adaptation of, back in the day: Clash of the Titans, starring Harry Hamlin as Perseus, and featuring Laurence Olivier as Zeus.

The effects are awful and primitive by today's standards, and look it. The acting can be wooden and stilted. Sure, you have 80's hairstyles in Mythic Greece. And yet, this movie has something that the more recent Troy does not have: Heart, soul and a lot of fun.

Clash of the Titans tells a version of the Perseus story: Prince of Argos, abandoned to the sea along with his mother by his jealous stepfather, coming to live on a desert island, journeying to find his fame, fortune, name and the lovely Andromeda. He meets friends, fights foes and saves the girl.

Who could say no to that? The movie not only has Olivier as Zeus, but it also has Burgess Meredith as a thespian ally, Maggie Smith(from Harry Potter) as the goddess Thetis,
Ursula Andress as a gray haired but still beautiful Aphrodite, and Siân Phillips as Cassiopeia, Andromeda's mother.

It's a great cast. Sure, the special effects are poor, but the characters and the actors clearly are enjoying themselves.

And I loved the mechanical version of Bubo, the mechanical counterpart to Athena's owl. I think that he was likely put in as a counterpoint to r2d2 (given his method of speaking and his role in the plot and the release date of the movie).

One of the reasons I watched this is the announcement that Stephen Norrington (League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) is going to direct a remake in a couple of years. Let us hope he watches this original so that the remake isn't a complete travesty.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:52 AM

Movie Review 2008 #2: Land of the Pharaohs

A Howard Hawks epic starring Joan Collins, Land of the Pharaohs is a big budget 50's look at intrigue surrounding the creation of the Great Pyramid.

Land of the Pharaohs, from Howard Hawks, and with a script co-written by William Faulkner, tells the story of Pharaoh Khufu, who seeks immortality in the form of an impregnable tomb with which he intends to meet the afterlife. His desire to "take it with him" entwines the lives of those around him--Vashtar, a slave who is raised high since he may be the architect capable of building the perfect tomb, Hamar, Pharaoh's loyal and perhaps only friend, and Nellifer (Collins), a princess from a foreign land, who becomes Pharaoh's second wife, and seeks a far larger role in the kingdom.

Sedately and stately paced, the action takes place over several decades, starting with Vashtar's arrival in Egypt following his capture and enslavement, and ending at the culmination of the reign of the mighty Pharaoh. The movie has a cast of lots of extra, and provides a non-alien, non-psionic, no nonsense hypothesis on how the Great Pyramid could have actually been built.

The real meat of the movie are the intrigues and social relationships between the characters. We get to see them age, change and head toward ends which, after the movie is over, have the inevitability of a stone block sliding down a passage to its final resting place. Lots of gorgeous costumes and sets make it fit in with movies of the period. Sure, the dialogue can be stilted and wooden, but the movie looks really good.

And Collins' Nellifer is really evil.

The slow pacing might put off a lot of viewers, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:42 AM

Movie Review 2008 #2: Land of the Pharaohs

A Howard Hawks epic starring Joan Collins, Land of the Pharaohs is a big budget 50's look at intrigue surrounding the creation of the Great Pyramid.

Land of the Pharaohs, from Howard Hawks, and with a script co-written by William Faulkner, tells the story of Pharaoh Khufu, who seeks immortality in the form of an impregnable tomb with which he intends to meet the afterlife. His desire to "take it with him" entwines the lives of those around him--Vashtar, a slave who is raised high since he may be the architect capable of building the perfect tomb, Hamar, Pharaoh's loyal and perhaps only friend, and Nellifer (Collins), a princess from a foreign land, who becomes Pharaoh's second wife, and seeks a far larger role in the kingdom.

Sedately and stately paced, the action takes place over several decades, starting with Vashtar's arrival in Egypt following his capture and enslavement, and ending at the culmination of the reign of the mighty Pharaoh. The movie has a cast of lots of extra, and provides a non-alien, non-psionic, no nonsense hypothesis on how the Great Pyramid could have actually been built.

The real meat of the movie are the intrigues and social relationships between the characters. We get to see them age, change and head toward ends which, after the movie is over, have the inevitability of a stone block sliding down a passage to its final resting place. Lots of gorgeous costumes and sets make it fit in with movies of the period. Sure, the dialogue can be stilted and wooden, but the movie looks really good.

And Collins' Nellifer is really evil.

The slow pacing might put off a lot of viewers, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:42 AM

January 12, 2008

Book Review 2008 #5: Now in Theaters Everywhere

As I said in the previous review, I've grown to trust Kenneth Turan's reviews. This volume is called Now in Theaters Everywhere. A Celebration of a Different Kind of Blockbuster.

Unlike his previous foray into book-collected reviews, Now in Theaters Everywhere is not intended to introduce unknown movies to its readers. With listings for movies ranging from Absolute Power to Training Day, American Pie to There's Something About Mary, this book is not about the movies you haven't heard of.

This book is about the movies you have heard of. Turan points out that there is a perception that Hollywood derived movies are all crap, that there is no difference between Mystic River and Pearl Harbor. And that's just plain wrong.

As Turan says "Although it may not be fashionable to do so, these films need to be celebrated...the best of the lot are tremendously entertaining."

And so he celebrates the blockbusters and big Hollywood movies which are worth your time and rental money. He doesn't softpedal the weaknesses of the movie.

I don't quite agree with all of his picks--The Mummy Returns, for example, although my hostility to it was lessened after a re-viewing in light of reading his review of it.

Still, this book is useful for picking out big Hollywood movies which you have skipped and are having second thoughts about checking out. This book gave me some of the impetus to try Mr and Mrs Smith, Kingdom of Heaven, Chicken Run, Million Dollar Baby, and undoubtedly, more in the future.

And like his previous book, Turan's style is easy to digest but intelligent all the same and I recommend the book like the previous one as a good guide to finding movies to rent.

Posted by Jvstin at 7:35 PM

Book Review 2008 #4: Never Coming to a Theater Near You

A combination of Roger Ebert's illness and a new appreciation for National Public Radio has introduced me to a movie review/critic whose opinions and perceptions I have come to respect: Kenneth Turan.

Never Coming to a Theater Near You is a compilation of reviews (and a few essays) on movies which are off the beaten path from the usual Hollywood fare.

Turan claims in the introduction that his goal and intended use of readers for the book is "...a way to read up on and then catch up on the great but less visible films you always intended to see but never got around to and now can't remember."

He ranges from standard English box office films, through independents, documentaries, and a healthy dollop of foreign language films as well. He also looks at some classics from the past.

Although I already had come to respect his opinion on NPR, I started looking at the movie reviews by looking at movies I'd already seen--12 Monkeys, The Iron Giant, and Groundhog Day for example. Turan's observations I felt were on the mark.

His writing is clear and lucid, and he loves to tie in the history of the style of the film, or the director, or movies of the type in which he is reviewing. It gives a sense that the movie's review hooks into the tapestry of cinema, rather than a soundbite of an up or down vote.

And so I have read about many other movies, some of which have made it onto my Netflix queue--The Third Man, To Die For, State and Main, Birthday Girl, and others. I look forward to dipping in this book in the future for ideas for more off the beaten path movies to try. I commend the book to those also looking for a source of new movies to try, with solid scholarship on what makes the movies listed worth watching.

Posted by Jvstin at 6:55 PM

January 6, 2008

Movie Review 2008 #1: Transformers

2008 brings up a new year of movies and my views on them. I think that I will limit myself to reviewing movies that I haven't reviewed previously unless I have something really new to say on the subsequent viewing.

Housesitting and watching episodes of TV on DVD have slowed my movie viewing down a lot recently.

So let's start 2008 with a movie I missed in theaters, but a co-worker (not the usual suspect, Mike, either) lent me: Transformers, produced by Michael Bay.

Although the movie stars the young Shia Lebouf, Jon Voight and John Turturro, the real stars of the movie are the CGI created autobots and decepticons.

The movie's Macguffin, "The Cube" is a powerful artifact which has been a bone of contention between the two Transformers types. Having crashed to earth long ago, and featuring in the history of Lebouf's Sam Witwicky, this is the set up for both kinds of Transformers to emerge on Earth.

The action revolves around several groups, ranging from Lebouf's teenage troubles, to a group of Persian Gulf soldiers, to a group of would-be NSA hackers. All three groups encounter the titular robots in various ways, with the action ramping up quickly.

While character development is a little thin in the movie, I did appreciate how the movie managed to make what the humans do matter even given the power and strength of the Transformers themselves. What the humans do is crucial and important and while for eye purposes the Transformers dominate the screen, as characters, they don't completely upstage the humans.

Some of the scenes are absolutely silly, with an almost Clifford-the-dog like silliness to Transformers hiding in suburbia, for example.

However, Michael Bay usually manages to make his movies entertaining and Transformers works on that level. While I don't think this is quite up to the level of the Island, Transformers is still eye action candy goodness, with comic relief to leaven the bread. I probably wouldn't buy this at full price, but if I saw this for sale at a bargain price, I would add it to my DVD collection. Sometimes watching giant robots duking it out with each other and human armies is EXACTLY what you want to see.

Posted by Jvstin at 6:12 PM

December 29, 2007

Movie Reviews 2007 #171-172: BTTF II and III

Yes, my pace of watching movies have ground to a halt.

Watching Netflixed and owned TV series has contributed to that, as well as housesitting.

However, to complete the trilogy, I've watched the second and third Back to the Future movies.

After seeing them in quick succession, I am convinced that the two movies really are halves of a larger story, a story which is a sequel to the original BTTF movie.

The plot overarches both movies. Taking off of the end scene of the original movie, Doc Brown takes Marty and Jennifer to the wondrous future of 2015. However, we quickly learn that future is not wondrous, and to fix it, Marty and Doc will travel to an alternate 1985, 1955, and even 1885 before their travels are done.

I remember disliking the third movie intensely the first time I saw it. I think this is probably because I dislike Westerns. This time, I was much less hostile to the third movie, and in fact I appreciate some of its charms, and its ties to the second movie. A few throwaway references in the second movie manifest as plot points in the third. I still think that the second movie is the stronger piece, and is my favorite. The entanglement with the first movie, the time travel, the dark alternate future: all of these are interesting.

Yet, though, upon seeing these two movies, there is a core pair of problems.

The two movies make heavy use of a character flaw of Marty's that we saw nowhere in evidence in the first movie. It feels tacked as a character development device out of nowhere.

The other is the character of Needles. Important as the revealed catalyst for Marty's unsuccessful future in 2015, he, too, feels tacked on, and worse falls outside the character set of the rest of the movies.

The rest of the main characters are the McFlys, the Tannens and Brown. We see all of these characters in all of the time periods: 1885,1955,1985,1985 (alt) and 2015.

And then there is Needles. Such an important character in Marty's history comes out of nowhere. What's more, Marty has to know about him in the original, original timeline (before Marty goes back in time in the original movie).

With the issue of Needles aside, though, although the two movies aren't quite as rip roaring good as the first movie, the second and third movies in the trilogy are entertaining nevertheless.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:11 PM

December 14, 2007

Movie Review 2007 #169-170: Shrek the Third and Meet the Robinsons

Although I don't normally review movies I catch at the Olsons, I thought these two movies presented an irresistible contrast.

Shrek the Third is the weakest, IMO, of the Shrek Franchise.

The first movie was a very amusing skewering of fairy tales and disney movies, complete with a red haired "Princess Fiona". The second movie is a bit weaker, but still a lot of fun. I own both, and both have decent soundtracks, too.

In the third movie, however, the franchise runs out of gas. There are some amusing bits here and there, but its overwhelmed by a lackluster soundtrack, a lack of cohesion in the plot, and logical flaws that are too glaring to be ignored. (eg: If Shrek is married to Fiona, why is he the heir to Fiona's father?). And some parts of the movie are just plain dull or underdeveloped and rushed. Its a pity, since there are some ideas here.

It was a disappointment and I have no intention or desire to pick this one up on DVD.

Meet the Robinsons.

A deliberately retro-future movie is somewhat undercut by its packaging and marketing, and yet, unlike Shrek, knows that the point is to have fun.

The movie starts in the present with Lewis, an 12 year old orphan who fills the orphanage with his attempts at scientific progress. His inventions are wacky, interesting...and don't work. His luck changes though with the arrival of Wilbur Robinson, who claims to be from the future, and pursuing the thief of another time machine. Soon Lewis is traveling to a gloriously realized retro future in the efforts to counter the "man with the bowler hat", even if all he really wants is to meet his mother.

The movie's plot slows to a crawl when we hit that future, and the movie is mostly a series of character vignettes until the plot returns. Still, the movie has an wacky and zany sense of humor, even if the results aren't always logical.

Like most time travel movies, lots of things don't make sense with its rules of time travel. Still, the movie kept us all entertained, with some parts laugh out funny (the dinosaur, for example). A much more entertaining movie than Shrek the Third.

Posted by Jvstin at 9:26 PM

Movie Review 2007 #168: Back to the Future

The first in what would become a time travel movie trilogy, starring Michael J Fox, Lea Thompson, Crispin Glover, and Christopher Lloyd.

What if you could go back and see your parents as teenagers?

The movie is amusing today not only for its depiction and skewering of 1950's fashions, mores and society, but now, 20 years after its release, it shows itself as a product of the 80's.

With strong performances from Fox and Lloyd, just to name two, the cast is also served by a strong script filled with poignancy and a lot of humor. The humor ranges from the subtle to the gross, from the physical, to the visual cues and references. (As an example, the comparison between the Texaco stations in 1985 and 1955).

I did find it interesting that the plot device of Doc getting plutonium from Libyan terrorists probably wouldn't go over well today in a script pitch today. I can accept it as a cultural artifact now, but in the "Post 9/11 era", it would never work.

Still...its a very funny and touching movie.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:58 PM

Movie Review 2007 #167: 2001: A Space Odyssey

One of Kubrick's better films.

Yes it begins slow, without dialogue at the "dawn of man" sequence. The pacing is somewhat inconsistent. Some consider the movie boring. And sure, the ending is trippy as all out. And we didn't get this future, with AI, a Hilton and Howard Johnsons on a space Station, colonies on the moon, and manned ships to Jupiter.

Still, its a cultural touchstone of our time, with its visuals and vision of mankind in space. And of course, the strongest character in the movie--Hal, is a classic. And the music in the movie is much more than just "Also Sprach Zarathrustra" (The movie, like many epics of the period, has an Overture before the opening credits and an Intermission. The latter is something I think many epic contemporary movies could use these days.)

One of my favorites.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:38 PM

COTT Remake??

Via Chris Roberson.

Norrington To Clash With Titans

Steve Norrington will direct Clash of the Titans, a remake of the 1981 mythical adventure that is best remembered for Ray Harryhausen's special effects, Variety reported.

Warner Brothers and Legendary are plotting a production start next year.

Basil Iwanyk will produce through his Thunder Road banner. In his first such effort since The Empire Strikes Back, Lawrence Kasdan rewrote a script by Travis Beacham.

Norrington hasn't directed a film since 2003's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.


And, gentle readers, there are good reasons wby Norrington hasn't directed a movie since LXG. If you want to lose two hours of your life, rent LXG and find out why. Wasted Potential all around.

So not only an unnecessary remake, but with a terrible director at the helm.

Posted by Jvstin at 11:57 AM

December 9, 2007

Movie Review 2007 #166: The Golden Compass

I went to the theater to see the Golden Compass today.

The Golden Compass stars Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Dakota Richards, Sam Elliott, Eva Green, and features the voice of Ian McKellen as Iorek.

Based on the bestselling British fantasy Philip Pullman's novel, the Golden Compass opens with a description of Dust, and a view into Lyra's world in a way that readers of the second novel will appreciate as a visual clue.

From here, we quickly delve into the Victorian Steampunkish world of Lyra Belacqua, foundling at Jordan College in Oxford, England. A world where souls manifest as creatures, a world of Gyptians (water-loving Gypsies), Witches, armored bears, and zeppelins. And of course the mysterious and malevolent Magisterium, here a much more secular institution devoted to stopping the researches of Lyra's uncle Lord Asriel.

The ragamuffin Lyra's life at the college is upset, though, by the return of Lord Asriel, the arrival of the alluring and dangerous Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman in a role she was born to play), and a trek to the furthest north to find missing children, and the secret of the strange substance called Dust.

The good:

The visuals are top notch. Daemons are wonderfully visioned, and done within the rules of the books. We get to show, not tell how they work. The tech and the alternate world that Lyra inhabits. Dakota does a good job with Lyra, with what she is given.

The neutral:

Lots and lots of changes from the book, and the movie ends before the book does. The movie thus ends with a "happier" ending, since a tragedy that occurs in the last chapters of the novel does not occur. I can see why this was done (marketing reasons) although I am ambivalent as to its success. The Magisterium is made nearly completely secular. There is only one slip up, if if it is that, that suggests that the Magisterium has anything to do with religion whatsoever. Without this anchoring though, it makes the point and the role of it in society much harder to fathom.

The bad:

The movie moves at a rich sedate, stately pace of world building and then rushes around in the final reel toward resolution. That last reel is a bit of a hash, with events from the book changed and definitely out of sequence (even above and beyond the ending situation). Ian, bless his heart, sounds too old to play Iorek...Iorek is not an "elderly" bear, which is what McKellen's voice gives as a false impression. Too many things, too, are touched on way too lightly and scenes are rushed. I understand that a big book is hard to distill in a screenplay. The movie clocks in at 113 minutes and probably should and could have used another 20-25 minutes. There does seem to be in a number of locations where cuts were made, and the editing is not always seamless. Lyra picks up on how to use the Compass far too easily and quickly, especially since its mentioned in the movie a couple of times that others seem reluctant even to try to use it.

Giving Christopher Lee and Derek Jacobi no name roles purely to make the Magisterium more sinister is a criminal abuse of their talents.

Overall? I wanted more than I ultimately got. Its like a cake which has a beautiful presentation, but the taste doesn't quite live up to its appearance, more's the pity.

Wait for the DVD and rent it is my advice.

Posted by Jvstin at 5:35 PM

December 4, 2007

Movie Review 2007 #165: Vampire Effect

Wuxia plus vampires (and a cameo by Jackie Chan) sum up to this light movie, starring Asian pop stars Charlene Choi and Gillian Chung.

Vampires running around an Asian city. A vampire prince falls for a human girl, unaware that her brother is a famous vampire hunter. It's Underworld meets World of Darkness, with an Asian theme, and lots of Wuxia action.

The pop stars play the Vampire prince's love interest, and the girlfriend of the love interest's brother. And, in the end, in true girl power fashion it is they, rather than the Prince, or the Vampire Hunter, who in the end take the fight to the Duke, who is cutting a swath through the Vampires of the city in a bit of World of Darkness diabiliere.

Its a fun, but harmless movie without much redeeming value whatsoever.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:17 PM

Movie Review 2007 #163: happy Accidents

A time-travel(or is it?) romance, starring Marisa Tomei and Vincent D'Onofrio.

Tomei plays Ruby Weaver, a young woman whose fortune in romance has to been to find men to "fix", and fail in fixing the string of losers. So, when she runs into the sweet Sam, it seems at first that she's broken her luck.

However, Sam's eccentricity soon begins to grate, and when he claims to be a time traveler from five centuries in the future, it seems that her luck has struck again. Because, of course, Sam Deed, even given the strange lacunae in his knowledge, and odd habits, couldn't possibly be from the future. Could he?

It's an unabashed romance, complete with a sappy, happy ending. In getting there, though, we get a good character movie, with Tomei and D'Onofrio giving good perfomances as the principals in the relationship.

It's unusual to see D'Onofrio play a protagonist, even a creepy one, in a movie. Still, he makes Sam Deed work, and we can buy into the plausibilty of his unusual character. I do think the movie does wrap up things too neatly, but the movie is a romance and clearly flags its going to be a happy ending.

Still, it was enjoyable and a bit different.

Posted by Jvstin at 7:53 PM

Movie Review 2007 #162: The Pink Panther (2006)

This is the reboot of the franchise from 2006, with Steve Martin as Clouseau, Kevin Kline as his adversary and rival in the search for the lost Pink Panther diamond...and to solve a murder as well. The movie also features Jean Reno, amongst others.

Not precisely a remake of the original, this movie posits Clouseau as a provincial French police officer who is brought to Paris by chief of Police Dreyfus (an oily Kevin Kline) as a stalking horse to distract the public from the real search for the murder of a soccer coach and the loss of his prize possession, the Pink Panther diamond. Jean Reno plays the assistant Dreyfus assigns Clouseau in order to keep track of the Inspector.

In his bumbling way, Clouseau is blissfully unaware of his role-to-be, and despite his stumbling and bumbling, cuts a swath from France to America in his search for a killer and the lost diamond. And he's cleverer than he looks. Martin's Clouseau is not Sellers creation, rather being a reimagining of his own design, and on those terms, its enough.

One of the best sequences in the movie though goes to Clouseau's meeting of a character played by an unbilled and uncredited Clive Owen. It's particularly appropriate that Clive's character is unbilled and uncredited, given that "he's not supposed to be here."

Still, overall, the movie is a harmless enough film and mildly entertaining. There are certainly worse movies I've seen,and recently. I understand there is a sequel in production, and I'm pretty sure that if I don't catch it in a theater, I would be inclined to rent it.

Posted by Jvstin at 7:42 PM

Movie Review 2007 #161: Big Fish

Like Baron Munchausen, I was inspired to watch this thanks to an entry in Jay Lake's Livejournal

Big Fish stars Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, Billy Crudup and a variety of others.

Big Fish is a story about stories and myths and the relationship between a tale-telling father, dying (Albert Finney in the present, McGregor in the past) and his son (Crudup) who finally comes to understand his father through the fantastic stories he tells of his life.

And so we get to see a Baron Munchausen like backstory for the elder Ed Bloom. While it is revealed in the end that every story that he tells has a basis in fact, we get to see these stories in their mythic form. Ed Bloom has a colorful life, ranging from meeting a giant to visiting the perfect town, to rescuing a pair of Siamese twins.

There are lots of small roles for a bunch of actors in the film. Danny Devito, Helena Bonham Carter, Steve Buscemi, and Jessica Lange help fill out the cast as the dying Bloom tells his son the myth of his life story. And for it being myths rather than straight facts, the young Bloom does indeed come to understand his father and the life.

It's a storytelling movie. I didn't warm to it the first time I saw it. This time, though, I grokked the movie much more fully, and enjoyed it a lot.

Posted by Jvstin at 7:27 PM

November 29, 2007

Movie Review 2007 #161: The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

Although Gilliam considered it a failure, and it was a box office flop, this is one of the more successful Terry Gilliam films. It stars John Neville in the titular role, as well as roles for Uma Thurman, Eric Idle, Jonathan Pryce, and Oliver Reed.

Jay Lake recently mentioned this movie in a post on his livejournal, and I couldn't resist watching it again after its evocation.

As I watched it, I was struck by how much this movie has in common with a recent movie, Stardust. Themes of wonder, of a world beyond the ordinary and mundane...a somewhat episodic structure with quirky characters...small roles for great actors and actresses. A love of the fantastic grounded in the ordinary world. Treasures both subtle and gross.

The parallels are not perfect, however, I believe they are there, and that people who like one of the movies will enjoy the other in equal measure.

As far as Munchausen, the movie tells the story of his exploits (there is some deliberate confusion whether we are merely watching the Baron tell a story, or if the events are happening and unfolding in a sincere fashion). The power of storytelling is a strong one, and Munchausen explores that theme to the utmost.

As a friend of mine said. "Modest danger to misfit heroes"

And really, how can you argue with a movie that casts a young Uma Thurman as Venus? I can't and I don't. I just enjoy it.

I hope that the movie eventually gets a revised and improved DVD edition over the bare bones edition I own. (there is no commentary by Gilliam, for instance) I certainly think it deserves it, and I would buy one.

Posted by Jvstin at 6:33 AM

Movie Review 2007 #160: Robocop

Following the "daisy chain" rule, you can get from my previous viewing, Total Recall, to this movie either by means of the director, Paul Verhoven, or by Ronny Cox, who here plays a black hat just as dark hearted as Vilos Cohagen is in Total Recall.

Robocop stars Peter Weller.

"I'd buy that for a dollar"

With lots of darkly humorous social commentary layered with the violence and action, Robocop is a successful depiction (which has spawned lousy sequels) of a violent, anarchistic future Detroit dominated by a capitalism-run-amok super-corporation.

It's not such a great world, even beyond the borders of drug and crime ridden Detroit. News anchors report on bad things happening throughout the world, including a city state under siege threatening to detonate a nuclear weapon. Commercials show the abasement of popular culture.

And in this world like a colossus strides OCP, a military-industrial powerhouse whose contract to provide robotic law enforcement goes wrong, and as a backup plan, a cyborg is created of Peter Weller's Murphy, young cop who winds up close to death after stumbling unprepared into a crime kingpin's lair.

Robocop tells the story of its newly dubbed titular hero, as memories of who he was clash with his programming and desire for justice and upholding the law. Lots of violence and action, in an over-the-top manner.

In the context of a violent, action movie it explores a lot of ground and themes, in a substantial way. Capitalism, violence, societial values, crime, economics, corporations...there is a lot of fodder here, packaged in a way that provides broad appeal and viewing. The movie simply works on a lot of levels.

It's a great movie. "I'd buy that for a dollar", indeed.

Posted by Jvstin at 6:12 AM

November 25, 2007

Movie Review 2007 #159: Total Recall

Probably my favorite Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, with Michael Ironside, Sharon Stone and Ronny Cox and directed by Paul Verhoeven.

Ultra violence and sex. Bad planetary science. Plenty of action. Schwarzenegger one liners.

And Mars. It mostly takes place on Mars.

Even better, like the Truman Show, its strongly influenced by Philip K Dick, built off of a minor story of his called "We can Remember it for you wholesale.". Schwarenegger plays Douglas Quaid, construction worker whose dreams about Mars actually seem to be repressed memories of a life there as "Hauser". And when he starts digging into that life...trouble follows.

Sure, the movie has never heard of bulletproof glass. And sure, there is the "Ten second Mars Terraform method". And lots of other silliness that if the movie was weaker, would sink it completely. However, the movie never lets you pause and think about the silliness while you are watching it, with a double scoop of the flavor of the day: action.

I have a soft spot for the movie, although I imagine that many of my friends and acquaintances probably think I am nuts for liking it.

Posted by Jvstin at 7:32 PM

Movie Review 2007 #158: The Truman Show

The movie that showed me that Jim Carrey could really act. Also starring Laura Linney, Noah Emmerich and Ed Harris (as Christof) Directed by Peter Weir.

I didn't like Carrey much as an actor before this movie, which I bought into and hard. Its an intriguing premise that derives from a lot of science fiction, including more than a dollop of Phil K Dick. Carrey plays Truman Burbank, married insurance salesman, who has no idea that his entire live is a 24 hour a day TV show. When things start going wrong, he begins to question his existence and what really is going on.

Carrey shows a range of emotions and styles from comedy to drama in his role as Burbank. Ed Harris is perfectly cast as Christof, the man egotistical enough to turn someone's life, from birth into a television show. The other performances are good too.

And I love the soundtrack. I have a weakness for Philip Glass and there are a number of pieces by him in the soundtrack, which, as you might expect, I also own.

One of my favorites.

Posted by Jvstin at 7:18 PM

Movie Review 2007 #157: Shadow of the Vampire

A little movie starring John Malkovich as F.W. Murnau, director of the seminal silent-era vampire film Nosferatu, and Willem Dafoe as Max Shreck, who is playing the vampire, perhaps with more authenticity than anyone realizes...

A little gem of a movie (and short, too, at 92 minutes), Shadow of the Vampire centers around the obsessive Murnau's attempts to complete his film, at any cost. Chief among those costs is giving Shreck (Dafoe) a lot of latitude in his "method acting" of Count Orlock. Especially when he starts salivating over members of the crew...

Its a fun little movie that likes to use a lot of the camera tricks and techniques that were pioneered and used in the era, by directors like Murnau. In a sense, its a predecessor to a movie like The Illusionist in that regard, with the added bonus that this is a movie about making a movie.

The movie also shows us the conflict between commerce and art, as Murnau jukes and jives to try and keep his movie on track no matter what is thrown at him. And the difficulties of filming on location, and the need to find the "right shot".And most of all, Dafoe's most unglamorous vampire. In WW terms, he is definitely a repulsive Nosferatu, the antithesis of the "seductive and suave" vampire. This vampire is a repulsive monster.

Dafoe was nominated for a supporting Oscar for his portrayal of Shreck/Orlock, and he subsumes himself completely in the role. With the heavy makeup, and his convincing, full body performance, its difficult to tell that Orlock is being played BY an actor, Dafoe and otherwise.

I liked the movie, quite a bit, and it helped wash out the taste of my previous two cinematic disappointments nicely.

Posted by Jvstin at 6:58 PM

Movie Reviews 2007 #156: The Myth

A movie that looked interesting in Target...but I decided to rent it instead of buying it sight unseen. (And I glad that I did). Starring Jackie Chan.

Jackie Chan plays a dual role, of a Ch'in era General and a modern Archaeologist in this complete mess of a movie. Jackie plays Jack, who has recurring dreams of a former life as General Meng Yi, who was sent to escort a Korean Princess, Ok-soo, to the Emperor to be a favored concubine.

Soon, to pursue his dreams, Jack teams up with a physicist friend to find out more, winding up in India, running into a beautiful Indian martial artist, and eventually going to an ancient tomb where the answer to the events in his dreams, and the people behind his friend's backing collide.

Incomprehensible plot, poor characterization and cardboard characters are major weaknesses of the movie. Sure, there is plenty of action, but the movie is a very bad clothesline for these sequences. Mallika Sherawat as the Indian martial artist is perhaps the best thing in the movie, and she is not on screen long enough. Now *she* would have been a great focus for the film. The princess is all right, but nothing really special.

And I may not be a rocket scientist, but the egregious violations of science (and I am not even talking stunts) really annoyed me.

And worst of all, the ending was a complete let down given everything that had been set up before.

Highly Un-recommended.

Posted by Jvstin at 6:44 PM

Movie Review 2007 #155: The Ninth Gate

One of those rare Johnny Depp movies with no Tim Burton in sight, The Ninth Gate also has Lena Olin and Frank Langella, and is directed by Roman Polanski.

Somewhat failing in execution, the Ninth Gate lets down its intriguing premise and protagonist with a lackluster performance and execution.

Depp plays Caruso, a rare book dealer/finder/investigator. He authenticates rare books for a living, and is drawn into a web of intrigue surrouding Langella's Boris Balkan, who has recently come into possession of a book said to be co-authored by Lucifer. Balkan is not sure he has the "right" copy and hires Caruso, with the promise of a fat fee, to investigate the other two copies. Olin plays Liana Telfer, recent widow of the man who sold Balkan his copy, and may want the book back at any cost...

With lots of intrigue and investigation and a bibliophile feel, I had high hopes for the movie. Unfortunately, Depp's performance is flat, uninteresting and unengaging. With such a protagonist, its difficult to like the movie. Worse, (and I am trying not to spoil the ending), the ending is a complete cop out, a fade to white before we get to see the fruits of Caruso's efforts. While it might be argued that it could be left to the imagination, after a long build up, a pay off is indeed necessary and expected. And without one, an already flat movie simply fizzles.


Posted by Jvstin at 6:34 PM

November 21, 2007

Movie Reviews 2007 #148-154

I watched a bunch of movies while laid up with a virus the last several days. Being stuck in bed has allowed me ample time to watch a bunch of movies, which I will comment on in one large post here. My perceptions of the movies might be a bit skewed, however.

The Movies:

The Three Musketeers (1948 version)
Blood and Chocolate
Mr and Mrs Smith
Superman Returns
Dawn of the Dead (2004 version)
The Name of the Rose

The Three Musketeers (1948 version)

Starring Gene Kelly and Lana Turner (as Milady), this version is not quite as strong, IMO as the 1973 version. It doesn't have the camp factor of the Disney version.

The movie rises and falls on the strengths of Kelly and Turner's performances. Turner makes a Milady every inch the one that Dunaway does. Kelly makes a good D'Artagnan. However, the movie falls down when it comes to the Three Musketeers. Athos (Van Heflin) gets good play because of his history with Milady. The other two Musketeers, though, get less screen time and are much less detailed. Too, the movie focuses strongly on D'Artagnan's skills and abilities to an unreasonable degree, IMO.

Vincent Price plays Richelieu. Strangely, though, the movie changes him from a Cardinal to just a "Minister". He's as power hungry for the throne as Curry's version, but he doesn't seem to have any religious office in this version.

Overall, I don't think this is as strong a version of the story as the 1973 version.

Blood and Chocolate

A teenage werewolf movie set in Bucharest, the best part about this movie is the visuals and the settings in that lovely, medieval city. Everything else is forgettable. Vivian is a girl born in Bucharest, raised in America for a time and now lives in the city making chocolate. She's also part of the community of loup-garoux, werewolves. Conflict erupts when she has to choose between the leader of the pack for a mate, and a young human graphic artist who is visiting the city. I thought the story and characterizations and acting were weak. I didn't care for it at all.

Mr and Mrs Smith

The "Brangelina movie", with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie as a domestic husband and wife couple who are each, really, living a secret life as an assassin. They've kept this from each other to the point of a boring life, until their commissions intersect, and then result in being the target for each other. Can this family feud end in anything except a big bang?

The movie is light entertainment, and even has Vince Vaughn as the "buddy" of Pitt's Mr. Smith for comic relief. It takes the "True Lies" formula to the next logical step, and its a lot of fun to see the two leads try and kill each other, and others. The movie has no other real redeeming features and it entertained me for two hours.

Superman Returns

Bryan Singer passed on X-Men 3 (much to our loss!) to direct the return of Superman, starring Brandon Routh as the man of steel, and Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor. Although Superman II is not referenced directly, the movie makes it clear that this movie takes place after that movie in the "Superman movie" timeline, as Lex takes a trip to the Fortress of Solitude in order to use the technology of Krypton to amass the form of creating a brand new continent, at the expense of world devastation.

And then there is of course Lois Lane, her long suffering fiance, and their son. Or is he Superman's son instead...?

Singer shows his taste and abilities for twists and turns and a knotty, lovely movie.


The only on-screen pairing of Laurence Olivier and Charlton Heston is the story of General "Chinese Gordon (Heston) and the Mahdi (Olivier) in 1880's Sudan. A story involving two characters with two very different but passionate views of God, epic battles, and the tangles of history, imperialism and conflict.

While the choice of Olivier for the Mahdi is a politically incorrect choice today, (I think a remake would do well with someone like Alexander Siddig), having two strong actors meet in this movie is something special. These two characters are foes...but they are foes who can sit and talk, before being driven to unavoidable conflict. The other major weakness in the movie from today's standpoint is that this is a boys club movie, with no female characters of any consequence. While that's accurate from a time period and story point of view, it is a weakness compared to more modern fare.

Still...I love this movie for its grand vistas, strong characters and its illumination of a period of history and a place that doesn't get that much airtime.

Dawn of the Dead (2004 version)

This is the remake with Ving Rhames and Sarah Polley, one of the recent crop of "fast zombie" zombie movies, featuring zombies which are not undead, and are more dangerous than the slow shambling corpses seen in most movies of the type. These zombies are fast, and infect their victims with a bite. Polley and Rhames are among a small group of survivors who manage to hole up in a shopping mall, with a giant horde of the zombies waiting outside.

So we get to see the characters under pressure, from the outside and with each other, in classic horror fashion. There is blood, there is gore, there is plenty of violent action.

One of the best things about the DVD besides the movie (which I happen to like) is the feature starring the late Richard Briggs (Dr. Franklin on B-5) which has him as a network news anchor reporting on the progress of the infection across the country as the country disintegrates.

The Name of the Rose

Starring Sean Connery, a young Christian Slater and F. Murray Abraham, The Name of the Rose is a long exploration of dark doings in a Monastery in Northern Italy during the Avignon Papacy. Connery plays William of Baskerville, a Benedictine Monk known for his powers of deduction. These powers are put to the test when he arrives just in time to be confronted by an increasing number of strange murders. Throw in an old foe of Baskerville (F Murray Abraham's Bernando Gui) and other goodies, and mix well. The movie is nowhere near as complicated and subtle as Eco's novel, but its a lovely puzzle of a movie. It gets the gritty, grotty nature of the life of the 14th century well.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:15 PM

November 17, 2007

Beowulf Dissected

This is a spoiler-filled ramble about the Robert Zemeckis version of Beowulf.

I urge you not to read it unless you have no desire to see the movie whatsoever, or even better, have seen it already.

My friend commented to me that at numerous times through the movie, my face contorted in strange and unusual ways. And we did discuss some of what I am going to share here afterwards.

Beowulf the movie is not the epic poem by a long shot.

I may only be exaggerating slightly here when I say that the movie could be called "Mother of Grendel.". It is Angelina Jolie's Grendel's mother (and really, if they were going to make her the plot driver for the whole film, why not invent a name for her!) who is the center of this film. The action, characters and plot all revolve around her.

There is a strange Freudian sort of symbolism in this movie.

We discover in the movie that Grendel did not come from nowhere. In fact, he is the son of Hrothgar and Grendel's Mother.

Even odder, there are references to the King being unable to sire an heir of any kind on his young, pretty Queen. Its as if,having engendered one son by her, he is unable to sire any more children.

Beowulf comes along, kills Grendel. (Tearing his arm off, just like the story--although the reason why he fights him barehanded is NOT satisfactorily explained)

He's given Hrothgar's heirloom, a special drinking cup in the shape of a dragon. This becomes useful since for reasons that aren't entirely explained, he takes it with him to the lair of Grendel's mother after she wreaks revenge for her son's death. He also takes a heirloom sword from Unferth.

The cup proves to be a light source, and it proves to be a bargaining chip when Beowulf meets Grendel's Mother. I loved Jolie's GM. I'd love to use her as a scion of an aquatic Chaosian House.

After failing to land a blow on her (and destroying that sword), Beowulf seduces/is seduced by GM, and gives up the cup as a token to keep her off the rampage. Beowulf returns, claiming that GM is dead, and carrying only Grendel's head, and no physical proof of GM's death. He explains away this, and the loss of the cup, and the loss of Unferth's sword glibly, and people lap it up.

Hrothgar names Beowulf his heir, and promptly commits suicide. So, Beowulf becomes King...of the wrong country.

Time passes. The horn reappears in the marsh suddenly, and with it, comes a new threat...a dragon. It's a great battle and great effects. However, if you've seen the pattern are going to guess that (and you'd be right):

1. Despite a pretty young thing, who loves to warm his bed (and intimations she is not the only one who does), Beowulf has no heirs, legitimate or otherwise. His relations with Weathlow (who became his Queen) are frosty.

2. He names someone unrelated as his heir (loyal Wiglaf)

3. It turns out that Beowulf does have a the form of the Dragon. Beowulf does give his life to kill the dragon, his son.

Beowulf is put on a burning boat, and sent out to sea as Wiglaf watches. And as the dead Beowulf burns on the boat, GM appears again, for what seems to be a farewell kiss. And the movie ends with GM and Wiglaf facing each other, one in the water, the other on the beach.

As you can see, this strain goes throughout the whole movie, and almost seems to be the point of the movie. We even hear Beowulf utter the phrase "Sins of the Fathers."

Going into this movie, I had no expectations of it showing up, and it shocked and surprised me throughout the viewing of the movie. Now, a day later (and with a bit of a fever on the brain), I am less upset about it than I was. In fact, its more depth than you normally see in movies
of this stripe. I'm more baffled than anything by what the screenwriters were trying to do. I still don't know what the cup is supposed to represent. It's an important macguffin, but why does GM want it? What does it really mean?

And again, with GM as such a central role in this new version of the story...she deserved a name of his own.

Posted by Jvstin at 3:51 PM

Movie Review 2007 #147: Beowulf

On Friday, I went to see the Robert Zemeckis version of Beowulf, starring Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Angelina Jolie and Robin Wright Penn, done entirely in CGI.

I am going to give a mostly spoiler free review here, and in a subsequent entry, go into far more, spoilerish detail.

Beowulf is done entirely in CGI, including the actors, in a technique premiered in movies like The Polar Express. Some of the creepier aspects of this technique have been improved, although I don't think its perfect as yet. Still, a lot of books difficult to film in standard techniques might reasonably be done with these methods now. (A Princess of Mars, for example.)

The movie Beowulf only loosely follows the epic poem Beowulf. The screenplay, written by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary makes a lot of changes, and not just for the sake of the PG-13 demographic either.

In Beowulf the movie, Hrothgar's raising of the mead hall Heorot brings the ire of Grendel, a nearby monster who cannot stand the sounds of merriment from the mead hall. He makes his displeasure known by coming to ransack and slay those who offend him so. The darkness of Grendel's blight brings heroes to Hrothgar's kingdom, including the title character.

And even as Beowulf prepares to face off against the monster, things are set in motion that will keep Beowulf there, as King himself...

I was of mixed feelings about the story. There are numerous divergences from the original, and I speak not only of Angelina Jolie as a seductive, demonic "Grendel's Mother". There are subplots and intimations nowhere present in the original, and I suspect there are aspects of this that perhaps even the screenwriters didn't intend.

So, going into the movie, yes, there are confrontations with Grendel, Grendel's Mother and the Dragon (at the end of Beowulf's life). I think, since its clearly meant to be the "screen stopper", the fight with the Dragon comes off the best. Even if the Dragon is really a fire-breathing Wyvern, given that its only two legged. ;)

The visuals work well. I didn't see any obvious anachronisms and in point of fact, the movie looks like it went out of the way to make it look like 6th Northern Europe, from weapons and armor to the buildings. With the CGI, it did look a little videogame ish, but it was an immersive experience in that environment.

My friend and I didn't see the 3-d version. However, numerous times through the movie, I could see where the 3-d effect would have been. I don't think that this really added to the film, and these tricks could have been left out.

As far as the acting, well, subtle facial expressions and nuances are still not the forte of this medium. So it is difficult to rate the acting other than the voices, and dialogue. Its good to see old Ray Winstone get to play an action hero again. The other actors are a mixed bag. Hopkins' Hrothgar is a drunken lout. I wasn't too happy with Malkovich's Unferth, either. Penn's Weathlow is a little wasted in this movie, too. Gleeson's Wiglaf does pretty well as Beowulf's right hand man. Jolie's character is strong. Enough so that I will discuss her in my other post in depth.

One note of caution though. The movie is rated PG 13, and I don't understand how, unless the reviewers felt CGI allowed them to lower the rating. There is a lot of violence, and a surprising amount of nudity (and again, I am not speaking solely of Angelina Jolie).

Overall, from an action adventure standpoint, Beowulf delivers. On that alone, I recommend it. Its just NOT the original tale. Accept that, and you may enjoy it.

Posted by Jvstin at 2:54 PM

November 14, 2007

Movie Review 2007 #146: They Live

Another guilty pleasure movie, John Carpenter's They Live stars wrestler Roddy Piper.

Roddy Piper plays a nameless itinerant homeless worker, whose arrival in Los Angeles and contact with a homeless camp across the street from a bunch of kooks in a church basement sets into motion his discovery that the world is being controlled by aliens, who have lulled the world into a trance, which can be broken by means of special sunglasses.

The movie does and is somewhat silly based on that description. And with somewhat suspect casting, the subversive message that the movie delivers is somewhat diluted. The overlong alley wrestling fight sequence is overdone and kills narrative momentum.

And yet the movie works for me. Replace a few references in the movies (change commies to terrorists, for example) and this movie is not dated one iota. If anything, the movie is prescient and forward thinking in its indictment of modern society.

Posted by Jvstin at 7:51 PM

Movie Review 2007 #145: Nightwatch

Made in Russia, Nightwatch is a fantasy movie much in the mold of a White Wolf game and is based on a trilogy of Russian SF novels.

A sensation in Russia, Nightwatch is a fantasy movie involving a secret war between two types of special metahumans called the Others. The Light, "Nightwatch", and the Dark "Daywatch", keep themselves in a wary state of truce as they go about their lives. These others often make living in history as shamans, sorcerers, vampires, and blessed soldiers, and are usually invisible to all except those of similar nature.

White Wolf, anyone? :)

However, this precarious balance in modern day Moscow is unbalanced as prophecy suggests that the appearance of an Other more powerful than any in centuries, and the appearance of a superstorm suggests that the end times for the Others is near...

The movie has a lot going for it. An intricate plot and mythology. Interesting characters. Creative cinematography, metaphorical imagery, and even a very creative use of subtitles makes this a most interesting movie to watch. I liked it, and given the opportunity will buy it.

I understand the sequel is out now, and I have put Daywatch on my Netflix queue, too.

Posted by Jvstin at 7:30 PM

Movie Review 2007 #144: American Gangster

On Monday, I went to the theater to see the new Ridley Scott film, American Gangster. It stars Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington.

At over 2 and a half hours, American Gangster chronicles the rise and fall of Frank Lucas, unlikely heir to a Harlem gangster's empire, and improves upon it, becoming a Heroin kingpin to rival any of the mafia crime bosses. Denzel Washington shows once again he is one of the best actors working today in portraying Lucas as a family man, a man with a strict sense of ethics and a code, and a man who can be absolutely, ruthlessly brutal when he deems it necessary.

Crowe plays Richie Roberts, wannabe lawyer, working as a cop, dealing with a fragmented family life, and his own problems with being too ethical in a sea of crooked cops. Circumstance allows him to get into a position to investigate the flow of illegal drugs into the country, and he slowly begins to realize that it is not the Italian mafia, but rather an unlikely harlem crime lord who is the true kingpin of drugs...

The movie is a slow and patient portrayal of the lives of these two men in the late 60's, and early 70's. We do not see the two of them onscreen together until late in the movie (much like Pacino and De Niro in Heat). I do think Washington has the better of it. Crowe is a good actor, but every time the movie cut to his story, I couldn' t quite wait for it to return to Washington's portrayal of Lucas.

Still, the movie rewards a viewer without ADHD, and tells a complete story. I think parts of the denouement feel a little off to me. Still, for fans of movies like Goodfellas, King of New York, and Casino, American Gangster stands very well amongst them.

Posted by Jvstin at 7:14 PM

Movie Review 2007 #143: The Englishman who went up a hill...

For a change of pace, a Waking Ned Devine-esque comedy starring Hugh Grant, The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain

The place is Wales, 1917. Hugh Grant plays Reginald Anson, former infantry soldier turned surveyor, along with his superior, George Garrad. Their mission is to survey mountains, starting with Ffynnon Garw, "the first mountain inside Wales." When it seems that their mountain doesn't quite qualify technically as such, the village, despite its divisions and rivalries, rallies together to fix the situation...

It's an amusing little, touching, comedy, in the basic "fish out of water" sort of genre, along with the virtues of small town life. Its not a world-changing movie. However, the characters are nicely drawn, and the movie entertains.

Posted by Jvstin at 6:46 PM

November 9, 2007

Movie Review 2007 #141: Dr. Strangelove

A much more successful Kubrick film, and pretty much neck and neck with 2001 for my favorite Kubrick film, Dr. Strangelove stars George C Scott, but mainly features Peter Sellers in several roles in this dark comedy about the end of the world.

A mad general gets his finger on the nuclear button, and sets off a squadron of bombers to start a hot war with Russia. Unbeknownst to him, this would not lead merely to a nuclear exchange, as he predicts, but rather the end of the world thanks to a doomsday device the Russians haven't gotten around to telling anyone around yet...

Dark comedy is the order of the day, with lovely cinematography which really comes through on the version of the film I watched. While Kubrick did in the original print change the aspect ratio a couple of times in the film, only an old laserdisc version ever tried to replicate that. This version of the movie keeps everything in 16x9 and I think it does a very good job in showing Kubrick's vision.

Sellers has three roles, as a British officer on the base of the mad general, as the President, and as the title wheelbound character. It's hard to pick out which one is the best. Sellers makes each character very different, and yet very believable. He is far and away the best thing about the film, although there are precious few weaknesses anywhere, IMO.

Dr Strangelove was nominated for several Oscars, including Best Actor (Sellers) and Best Picture, but it won none of them.

Posted by Jvstin at 10:53 PM

Movie Review 2007 #140: Adaptation

A movie working on several levels, starring Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper.

The movie is nearly too clever for its own good.

Charlie Kaufman wrote the screenplay for this movie. He is also a primary character in this movie, played by Nicolas Cage. Cage also plays Charlie's brother Donald. The movie details Kaufman's attempts to adapt an "unfilmable book", the Orchid Thief, into a movie. Streep plays Susan Orlean, writer of this fictional book about John Laroche (Chris Cooper), a lover of Orchids in the point of grand larceny.

And so the layers of the movie get tangled up, as do the lives of Charlie and Donald with Orlean and LaRouche. These metagames are very clever, and it gets even better. In the midst of the movie, Charlie has trouble writing the script. As his brother (an aspiring screenwriter, too) already did, Charlie attends a seminar by Robert McKee, who tells him the things to avoid in screenplays. Many of these things, however, we've already seen in the movie we are watching, like voice over narration. Other things McKee warns against, we also see in the denouement of the movie.

So the movie reminds me of a cross between "The Player" and Kaufman's earlier "Being John Malkovich". The movie tip toes up to the line of being too clever for its own good, but it doesn't quite cross it. I liked it.

Chris Cooper, by the way, won a Best Supporting Actor for his role as LaRouche.

Posted by Jvstin at 10:40 PM

Movie Reviews 2007 #139: In the Land of Women

A wannabe Garden State, starring Adam Brody and Meg Ryan

Adam Brody stars as Carter Webb, writer of screenplays for porn novels, who breaks up with his model girlfriend in the opening to this movie which reminded me strongly of Garden State. He gets an opportunity to go from LA to Michigan to spend time with his ailing grandmother, and in the process runs into a dysfunctional family of women headed by Meg Ryan. The movie explores his times with his grandmother (Olympia Dukakis) and the Hardwicke family.

Its not great shakes. The acting is lackluster, and I didn't buy into the characters. The husband in the Hardwicke family seems to be, by design, to be a cipher, and that bugged me no end, even though it seems to be a feature, not a bug. While I do like Meg Ryan as an actress, she has done much more appealing work. And the protagonist's life crisis just didn't gel for me.

It wasn't worth my time, and probably not yours either.

Posted by Jvstin at 10:30 PM

November 2, 2007

Movie Reviews 2007 #136-138

A trio of movies at once for your reading pleasure.

Masked and Anonymous

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

28 Weeks Later

Masked and Anonymous is a dreamlike entree into an alternate, or future North America which has more than a passing resemblance to a third world nation, or perhaps a Central or South American nation. Extreme variances in wealth between rich and power, one-party politics, armed rebellion...its an even darker future than current political life today.

In front of this backdrop comes Bob Dylan's "Jack Fate", a character much like himself, a singer of ballads which, as it so happens, all are Bob Dylan songs. His manager (John Goodman) springs Fate from prison for a benefit concert, and a variety of characters weave in an out of a often allegorical, dream like narrative.

It's really a movie for the opportunity to see Bob Dylan perform more than any real narrative or story.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was a real disappointment.

Directed and starring Branagh as the titular character, this version of the classic tale does take more from the novel than most adaptations. However, very poor cinematography, not least restricted to a full frame presentation of a widescreen movie made the action difficult to follow. When it wasn't difficult to follow, the talents of Branagh, De Niro (as the creature), and Helena Bonham Carter (as Frankenstein's lover) are horribly wasted. The actors don't bring their A game to the picture, and I was never sold on their motivations or actions. Branagh, too, has done far better as a director than in this movie.

28 Weeks Later is a sequel to the horror movie 28 Days later.

This movie has a far more political bent, where the US Army starts the recolonization of Britain 7 months after the events of the first movie. The country is depopulated of humans, save for an enclave in the "Green Zone" in the Isle of Dogs in London.

A fateful and illegal excursion out of the green zone by two young residents brings them in contact with a survivor, their mother, who while not showing symptoms of the "zombie virus", is a carrier for it. And when she gives the virus to her husband, who had abandoned her months before, the stage is set for another outbreak and those caught in the maelstrom.

In addition to the Green Zone, we get indiscriminate use of weapons on targets, friendly fire, paranoid reactions, and other subtexts. And on top of all that, we get a pretty good zombie movie. The zombies of the "twenty eight" movies are fast, and deadly, and there are a number of good evocations of their terror in this movie.

And the end of the movie, no spoiler, leaves things open for a third movie. I'd watch it.

Posted by Jvstin at 10:04 PM

October 20, 2007

Movie Review 2007 #135: Next

Based on the Philip K Dick story "The Golden Man" and starring Nicholas Cage, Jessica Biel and Julianne Moore.

Nicholas Cage plays Cris, who uses a special talent to see two minutes into the future as a prop to his magic act. While his ability ends at two minutes into the future, it seems to have one major exception: he has a vision of a future meeting with a mysterious young woman (Biel) in a diner. And so in between magic acts, and cheating at cards, he stalks the diner in hopes of meeting the woman of his future.

And then there is Julianne Moore, who, instead of looking for a lost nuclear weapon set to be detonated in the US, is obsessed with the idea that Cage's ability could be used to find it.

Where to begin?

Cage's performance is lackluster and the voice over he does is inconsistently done throughout the movie. Biel has a thankless role as the love interest who, when she learns that Cris really is creepy, should take her previous advice spoken from earlier in the movie and get far far away from Cris. Instead, she falls for him. It's useful for the plot, but it makes no sense from the perspective of character. Poor Moore has no character. She's obsessed with Cris' ability to see the future, even as a nuclear bomb threat looms. WHY, exactly?

It's a movie that is less than the sum of its parts. Cage's ability is frustratingly inconsistently portrayed and used, and we barely get a sense of how it works before he winds up on the run as the clock is ticking. Throw in terrorists who strangely have decided that Cris' abilities are real and dangerous, and the movie has a lot going on at once. It just doesn't work.

And the twist at the end can't work according to the rules, however violated, established earlier in the movie. It might be successful in the Devil's Advocate, which does something similar, but it doesn't work here.

It's a movie I wanted to like, and I couldn't. It just doesn't hold itself together.

Posted by Jvstin at 9:30 PM

Movie Review 2007 #134: Laws of Attraction

To feed my crush on Julianne Moore, I decided to go with another romantic movie, this one about feuding divorce lawyers who inadvertently find themselves married. Pierce Brosnan plays Moore's opposite number.

Julianne Moore plays Audrey Woods, the best divorce lawyer in New York. Poised, perfect and supremely confident, the daughter of a divorced mother who chases eternal youth, she is thrown off her game when new competition comes to town in the personage of unorthodox Daniel Rafferty (Pierce Brosnan). Dealt an unexpected loss by Rafferty's tactics, and despite her protestations that she is not attracted to him, the two start up a love/hate relationship. That relationship ratchets up to a new level when they take opposite sides of a high profile divorce case between a fashion designer and a rock star, and together go to Ireland to deal with the one item that the two can't live without.

And while there, the two divorce lawyers flirtation, banter, and drinking leads the two to get married...and the necessity of keeping up appearances...

The movie flopped at the box office, and it doesn't quite work as well as it should. While it has appealing leads, and good performances from the minor characters (Parker Posey and Michael Sheen as the feuding divorce participants, particularly), I think the movie is misfiring a cylinder in a v8 engine. Sure, the movie runs, but it doesn't work quite as well as it should or could. The movie is a romantic comedy from Woods POV. We learn much more about her than we do about Rafferty. The deleted scenes do help somewhat, but even with them, I don't think its quite enough.

The movie is okay and inoffensive. It's a disappointment that it doesn't work better than it does. (It reminds me strongly of America's Sweethearts in that regard, although its closer than AS to being a good movie).

Posted by Jvstin at 9:04 PM

Movie Review 2007 #133: Love, Actually

A hybrid between the Ensemble Movie and the Romantic Comedy Movie, with a wide cast including Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant, Colin Firth and Bill Nighy.

The movie is a long ensemble movie with a variety of interconnected characters, with rambling plots and opportunities for various characters to meet and cross paths in London.

Unlike movies like Short Cuts or Magnolia, though, this ensemble movie's theme and mood is romance. While there are some poignant moments, the movie in general is very light, and usually doesn't stray far from humor.

Explaining the plot, given the number of characters, would be laborious. Needless to say, the characters, ranging from a lonely Prime Minister (Grant), an aging rock star (Nighy), a writer (Colin Firth), a widowed father (Liam Neeson) and others explore romantic relationships. Like any of these ensemble films, some of the stories work better than others, and the characters are of uneven interest.

Still, for what it is and what it wants to do, Love Actually does succeed. Some of the stories are unrealistic and clearly fantastic (such as Kris Marshall's Colin, who goes to Wisconsin and finds romance with impossibly hot young Americans). Others, like Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson's couple, have a much more poignant story.

I liked it.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:50 PM

Movie Review 2007 #132: The Island

A Michael Bay hybrid SF/Action film with Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson.

I think I have mentioned before that The Island is two movies in one, that don't quite join together. The first half is a dystopian SF movie, where our heroes, Lincoln Six Echo (McGregor) and Jordan Two Delta (Johansson) are amongst the residents of a colony of survivors of a catastrophe. A somewhat unnerving psychologist (Sean Astin) and some other residents round out the cast in this strange world.

However, events soon start to peel the veneer behind this world, and with the help of Steve Buscemi's amusing turn as McCord, McGregor and Johansson escape from their world, and discover their true identities and indeed, their nature. Their escape, of course, is not unnoticed by their keepers, and so the movie changes from SF dystopia to chase movie.

This switchover in theme doesn't quite come off as well as it might. However, the two pieces of the movie work together on their own very well. We get to see a Potemkin village of a future, and then (albeit through the lens of a kinetic race for their lives) the "real" future.

McGregor and Johansson do very well with their roles. My friend Deb has extensively screencapped McGregor's performance in this movie. And as it is often is in these sorts of movies, the smaller roles, such as Buscemi's, hold the movie together.

Not a perfect movie. But an entertaining one nevertheless.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:33 PM

October 15, 2007

Movie Review 2007 #131: Elizabeth the Golden Age

A sequel to the 1998 Oscar nominated film, ETGA has Cate Blanchett and Geoffrey Rush recapitulate their roles as the titular Queen, and her spymaster Francis Wallingham, and also has Clive Owen as (Sir) Walter Raleigh.

Elizabeth picks up a few years after the first movie, and tells the story of Elizabeth's dealings with the Spanish, culminating with the launch of their Armada, and the dashing Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen, in a meaty role).

The movie is sumptuous, with costuming that is a notch or two above what we saw in the previous film. The movie could be watched solely for the costume changes Elizabeth and her court undergo as the movie progresses. The cinematography, when it stays in and around the Court is excellent, wonderful, and like its predecessor, gives an excellent view of what 16th century palace life is like. The acting is decent, although I think Blanchett and Rush don't do quite as well as they did in the original. Owen, though, plays Raleigh as much more of a swashbuckler than Raleigh was in real life, and he is clearly having fun on screen.

The history as seen in the movie definitely distorts events to cinematic advantage. Some of the events happened, although things are changed and condensed for dramatic effect. Raleigh was NOT the hero of the battle against the Spanish Armada in real life, although his relationship with Bess Throckmorton really did happen. There is the slightest mention of Francis Drake in the film, in a throwaway line during the battle. I didn't think the cinematography of the naval battle was as good as at the Palace. Perhaps I have been spoiled by "Master and Commander", or the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

While I was entertained by the Golden Age, I don't think it reaches the heights of the first film. I can see the movie straining toward greatness, but in the end, its merely a pretty good film.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:21 PM

Movie Review 2007 #130: Death Proof

I never got to see "Grindhouse" in theaters. However, my friend Mike did, and has bought one of the two halves that has been released on DVD, Death Proof.

Death Proof stars Kurt Russell, Rose McGowan, and Rosario Dawson

The movie is a deliberate throwback homage to 70's films and to be appreciated, has to be seen in that context.

Death Proof tells the story of Stuntman Mike, a stunt man with a taste for using his Dodge Challenger to terrorize women. The movie divides into two parts, as Mike menaces a group of young women in Austin (featuring McGowan) in Austin Texas, and then, later, a second group in Lebanon Texas featuring Rosario Dawson.

As you might guess from films of this genre, Mike's successful terrorism in the first half is repaid by the more competent and equipped group of women in the second movie. And you would be right. The first half of the movie is a horror flick with lots of Tarantino like padding of discursive dialogue. The second half is much more action packed, with an wonderful, long car chase as Stuntman Mike realizes he has, this time, tangled with far more dangerous prey than previously.

The movie's acting is all right, I think the discursive dialogues are a bit too long, but the second half of the movie forgives many of these sins.

The quality of the movie, in keeping with the "Grindhouse" feel, has many deliberate quality errors, ranging from fake movie film artifacts to an fake "splice" of the "film."

There are lots of references to other Tarantino films, too, including a mention of "Kahuna Burger" and some of the choices for actors. Tarantino himself has a small role.

It's not a perfect movie by any stretch of the imagination, and its not as good a Tarantino film as many of his others. Seen as homage to 70's films, though, I think it works on those terms.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:20 PM

Movie Review 2007 #129: It Happened One Night

One of the movies recommended to me back when we were discussing AFI top 100 films that I had not seen, It Happened One Night stars Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert.

IHON reminded me much of His Girl Friday, with whip-smart dialogue, strongly drawn characters, and great writing.

IHON tells the story of spoiled girl Ellie Andrews (Colbert), daughter of magnate Alexander Andrews. On the run from her father because of her impulsive, forbidden marriage to a pilot, King Westley (Jameson Thomas). While on the run, a washed up reporter, Peter Warne (Gable) runs across her, and realizes that her story may be the key to reclaiming her career. And as they are subjected to a series of unfortunate events, perhaps something more might develop between them...

The movie is intelligent and shines on the dialogue and interaction between the characters. It occurred to me, as I was watching a scene involving a a blanket and a line dividing a shared hotel room, that a modern remake probably wouldn't use the walls of Jericho or make reference to Joshua, because the director might not trust the audience to get the reference. IHON is confident that the audience will keep up with the characters.

I ate it all up.

It Happened One Night cleaned up at the 1935 Oscars, winning Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Gable), Best Actress (Colbert) and Best Writing. It won those awards for very good reason. See it, and find out why.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:19 PM

Movie Review 2007 #128: Bull Durham

One of the great Baseball movies of all time, with Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins.

I'm not a big baseball fan. I'm a football fan.

And yet a few things can invoke an inner baseball fan to life. Paradise by the Dashboard Light. A particular episode, respectively, of The Simpsons and Deep Space Nine which focused on the game. And a few movies.

This is one of those movies.

Bull Durham centers around Annie Savoy (Sarandon) professional fan of the Durham Bulls, a minor league baseball team. She seduces one player a year (monogamous during that season) to teach him about life. Her candidates this year are major league prospect Nuke Laloosh (Robbins) who has a million dollar arm but not much brains. The other is Crash Davis (Costner), a world weary veteran of the minor leagues. To complete the triangle, Davis has been picked up by the Bulls specifically to nurse and mentor Laloosh before his inevitable trip to "The Show".

And if this triangle of personalities were not enough, we get to see life through the eyes of minor league baseball. Other minor characters, the nature of the game and life itself, and a wall to wall infusion into the world of baseball makes this a treasure of a movie.

The movie is poignant, funny, and a great showcase for its actors, major and minor. If you like romantic comedies, or sports comedies, I think you will love Bull Durham.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:18 PM

Movie Review 2007 #127: As You Like It

Watching DVDs of Cosmos, and Babylon 5 have slowed down my movie watching, and I've gotten a little behind. Let's fix that.

As You Like It is the adaptation of the Shakespeare play, done by Kenneth Branagh for HBO, and starring Bryce Dallas Howard as Rosalind, and with Alfred Molina, Kevin Kline and Brian Blessed.

Its a bit of a strange, curious adaptation, in the same sort of way that his (IMO) unsuccessful setting of Love Labour's Lost in the 30's was. AYLI is set in 19th Century Japan, in a fictional Western Enclave. So, while we do have mostly Western characters, we also get Japanese architecture, sumo wrestling and even a Ninja attack.

As far as the play itself and its depiction, its a pretty good adaptation. Branagh knows when not to get in way of the words of the Bard, and he allows his actors and actresses room and time to give us Shakespeare's words.

Ian Mckellen, in an interview on MPR about his depiction of Lear in the Guthrie, maintained that Shakespeare was wasted on those who merely read it. To see it acted, depicted and brought to life brings Shakespeare's words alive. And so it is with AYLI, which is not one of the "Great" plays, IMO. However, seeing it on film as opposed to reading the words, brings it to life, especially with Alfred Molina, Kevin Kline, a small role for Brian Blessed, and the focus of the play, Bryce Dallas Howard's Rosalind.

It's much better than Love Labour's Lost IMO, although not quite to the level of Much Ado About Nothing. (I haven't seen Henry V or Hamlet yet to judge those). I liked it.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:16 PM

October 3, 2007

Movie Review 2007 #126: Eyes Wide Shut

A Stanley Kubrick film, starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman

This is a difficult movie. Kubrick as an auteur put his imprint on every film he did, and Eyes Wide Shut is no exception. EWS is not an easy movie to love. Its not titillating so much as it is a slow exploration of consequences. A pivotal night sends Cruise's Dr. Harford onto the streets of Manhattan, for encounters culminating in the infamous orgy scene.

There is nudity and sexuality in EWS, but its hardly a movie that is erotic in any real sense. Harford's adventures explore the man's one night fall from the grace of fidelity. The password for the orgy, fidelio, seems to tie into this theme.

In terms of technical aspects, "Eyes Wide Shut" is a pure Kubrick film, an exemplar of his glorious cinematic style: having dreamlike quality, bizarre narrative structure, lots of vivid colors, exquisite reverse & forward tracking shots and impeccable use of lights and wide angles.

And inescapable slowness of story.However, there isn't much, if any, meat on the bones of the film's story.Its a movie that I wanted to like and immerse myself in more than I was actually able to do so.

I find myself frustrated, more than anything, with Eyes Wide Shut.

Posted by Jvstin at 7:12 PM

Movie Review 2007 #125: Twelfth Night

This is the most recent movie version of the play, starring Helena Bonham Carter and Ben Kingsley.

Twelfth Night, the play referenced at the end of Shakespeare in Love is one of Shakespeare's comedies, featuring mistaken (and gender-mistaken) identities, and lots of laughs.

Twelfth Night is the story of two twins, Sebastian and Viola, who, shipwrecked on a distant and hostile shore, cause calamity and confusion with their identities as they try to fit in with their inadvertent home. Add in a frustrated romance between the two noble principals, Orsino and Olivia (the latter played by Carter), a low story featuring Ben Kingsley, and mix well. All comes well in the end for everyone.

Its a lot of fun. Nunn's direction is very well done. You can tell he is a stage director given his tight use of the camera and the stage like set ups of scenes. However, this is not much of a handicap, if any, and the stars do well between the lines set by Nunn.

And Ben Kingsley as Feste even sings!

It's not a world changing movie, but its great entertainment, especially for fans of the Bard. There are other versions of Twelfth night on film; I happen to think this one is the best. This movie functions well as a double feature with Branagh's version of Much Ado About Nothing, or Hoffman's version of A Midsummer's Night Dream.

Posted by Jvstin at 7:01 PM

September 26, 2007

Movie Review 2007 #124: An Ideal Husband

A little gem of a movie, starring Rupert Everett, Julianne Moore, Cate Blanchett and Minnie Driver

Based on an Oscar Wilde story (and in a clever bit of meta work, there is even a brief shot of a production of Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest), An Ideal Husband revolves around the life of lackabout Lord Goring. His life of idleness is due to end due to the machinations of his old flame Mrs Cheveley (a wicked Julianne Moore), who has a scheme against Goring's friend Sir Robert Chiltern (Jeremy Northam), a rising political star, married to Cate Blanchett's Gertrude.

Add in decadence, wit, humor and even romance, and the mix of actors and actresses is a effusive and interesting one. The actual plot takes a backseat in reveling in life during "The Season", as Minnie Driver's Mabel, sister to Robert, fends off unwanted marriage proposals, and whispers of scandal enliven any party or gathering.

The cinematography does well to show late 19th century England, as well as giving room for the actors to do their thing. Julianne's Moore depiction of her character was a motivation in me casting her as my Fiona in Strange Bedfellows. The other players do very well, too.

A friend turned me onto this movie, and I am very glad that she did.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:35 PM

September 23, 2007

Movie Review 2007 #123: All the President's Men

Recommended to me by Arref, I plugged a lacunae in my cinematic education with this Oscar winning story of the reporters who broke the Watergate coverup. The movie stars Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman.

Its a very good film that I think has something of a weak ending and climax.

I am not going to recount the history of the Watergate break-in, and the movie spends little time on the mechanics of what happened. The heart of the movie is the story of how Woodward and Bernstein unravel the coverup, with good old fashioned diligence and reporter savvy. As such, it depicts newsroom politics, clandestine meetings, and walking tightropes to get a story done. The leads do very well in their roles, becoming completely believeable as they face trials and setbacks in their quest to see what the frayed thread of inconsistencies of the story of a simple break in unravels.

The movie has a weakness in my opinion and that is the ending. It is true that the story of the reporting on Watergate ends a significant amount of time before Nixon's resignation. That gap is patched over at the very end in a perhaps too-subtle manner, and I think the movie in general glides to a stop at the wrong place in any event, since it ends just after a major missstep by the reporters.

Aside from weaknesses in the ending, I enjoyed the movie. I can see, from my recent viewing of Zodiac, how much that movie was influenced by this one.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:27 PM

Movie Review 2007 #122: Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy

An incompletely successful movie adaptation of the late Douglas Adams' universe.

I still think its a somewhat wasted opportunity. Even once you grok that Adams' work was a constantly evolving process, from radio show to novel to tv miniseries to Infocom game and now to movie, it still seems to fall short of expectations.

I don't quite know why. There are some clever bits and re-imagining of things, like the factory floor of Magrathea. Other things, though seem to be shortened things taken from previous incarnations, and feel incomplete, unfinished and undone. John Malkovich's character and his subplot, for example, seems to trail away. On the other hand, I liked this version of Zaphod more than previous versions, as the perfect unholy union of channeling Bill Clinton and George W Bush.

Maybe, with a last rewrite, this could have been special, perhaps even the beginning of a franchise. (There certainly is enough material in Adams' canon to do it). As it is, it just sits somewhere north of mediocre and south of good.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:09 PM

Movie Review 2007 #121: 300

I reviewed this movie earlier this year when I saw it in theaters.

I stand by what I said in my earlier review. Its a movie which is a video-game interpretation of a depiction of the events leading up to the battle of Thermopylae, complete with a narrator who misrepresents the events in a propagandistic manner for his own purposes. Oh, and all of this is done in a graphic novel style.

With all of that said, the movie still stands as it is. Its entertaining, even for all of its implausibilities and its problems. We get to see how a phalanx works (and unfortunately, get to see what amounts to a Spartan video game)

Even with all of the subtexts involved, if you can manage to turn off your brain, its an action film that manages to do ok. Its a movie that, even for the weight it tries to bring, knows how to have fun. (unlike, say, Troy).

Posted by Jvstin at 7:44 PM

September 20, 2007

Movie Review 2007 #120: The Mouse That Roared

A satire about a tiny European country who declares war on the United States, starring Peter Sellers in multiple roles, along with a"Doctor" (William Hartnell) and a "No.2" (Leo Mckern)

The Duchy of Grand Fenwick is in a bad way.

A tiny independent Duchy in Europe, its one export, a type of wine, is imitated by a California wine grower. Faced with this disaster, the Duchy comes up with a plan--declare war on the United States, lose, and reap the rewards of the massive rebuilding aid that is sure to follow. Considering how backward the tiny Duchy is, the government practically salivates at the prospect of lots of American aid.

The only problem is, Tully Bascombe (one of Seller's roles), sent to the United States to have his forces fight and be captured, is more effective than expected, when, with his forces wandering around a deserted NYC, he stumbles upon a scientist who is developing a new type of atomic bomb...

A light and frothy satire, the movie truly does hail from another era, with a subject matter that, today, would never be green lighted. Its an amusing little film, and short (it wisely does not try to extend the joke too long), but I don't think its Sellers best movie by far.

Posted by Jvstin at 6:42 PM

Movie Review 2007 #119: The Shadow

Another pulp action movie from the 90's, this time starring Alec Baldwin as the titular character, Penelope Ann Miller, Tim Curry and Ian Mckellen.

A movie that is less successful than it should be, or could have been, in terms of the box office, the Shadow is a brooding movie which, substance wise may be lacking, makes up for it in style.

The movie begins with a prologue in Tibet, where Alec Baldwin's "Ying Ko" is the terror of Asia. He learns better, however, at the hands of a Tibetan man, the Turku, who turns him from evil to using his darkness to fight evil. With his new sense of purpose, the Shadow returns to New York and lives a double life as socialite Lamont Cranston, and the titular Shadow.

The plot of the movie revolves around Shiwan Khan, descendant of Genghis Khan, who has ambitions to reach and exceed his ancestor's victories, with a daring plan involving an invention of McKellen's Dr. Lane...

Like the Phantom, or Sky Captain, this is a movie that was born to be played in a Spirit of the Century game. The protagonist and the antagonist have a variety of encounters, with duels of wits as well as by force. And of course, plenty of just in time heroics.

Sure, there are holes in the plot and some of the acting is hammy and over the top (much like the Phantom in that regard). Still, the Shadow entertained me.

The copy of the movie I watched was lamentably a full screen pan and scan version of the movie. Although I think it unlikely, if the movie were ever re-released on DVD in a widescreen version of the film, I would buy it.

Posted by Jvstin at 6:11 PM

September 16, 2007

Movie Review 2007 #118: The Player

My first ever Robert Altman film, starring Tim Robbins, and with many, many cameos and small roles for lots of early 90's Hollywood cognoscenti.

A movie for people who love the art of movies, The Player tells the story of a Hollywood producer (Robbins) who, despite being an unsympathetic character, nevertheless engages our interest as the center of a widescreen turmoil of actors, actresses and power brokers swirling around him. Poison pen postcards sent to him disturb him enough to find the perpetrator, and confront him...

The murder mystery is beside the point, even if Whoppi Goldberg and Lyle Lovett do very well with their roles as the police detective. The movie does best and shines when it lifts the rock Hollywood lies underneath, and shows us the power politics, backstabbing, and more.

Even better, and the reason why I really loved this movie, is the meta commentary on movies and filmmaking that the movie continually makes, writ large and small. The subplot of "Habeas Corpus", for example, which starts off in its pitch as a dark, intense film and by the time its shown at the end is very different. Two characters begin talking about cinematography in movies, and the rarity in modern movies of scenes without a cut in the action, even as their conversation, and the next few minutes of the film, engage in the very practice that they are talking about as being dead. And there are tons of movie references, from "Freaks" to "The Bicycle Thief" to Ghostbusters.

One of my favorite movies, it introduced me to Robert Altman's work. He was nominated but did not win for Best Director for the film (the movie itself was not nominated for Best Picture--although I think its stronger than one or two of 1993's nominees for Best Picture)

Posted by Jvstin at 8:37 AM

Movie Review 2007 #117: King Arthur

A pseudo-historical look at the King Arthur story, starring Clive Owen and Keira Knightley.


The movie uses the "Sarmatian Hypothesis" and twists it around to posit that the story of King Arthur and his Knights is really the story of a Roman commander of a group of Sarmatian warriors from the steppes of Russia, fighting one last fight before they can be free to go back to their homeland.

Clive Owen stars as Artorius Castus, the said commander. We get a barbarian Guinevere (Keira Knightley), a Sarmatian knight Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd), a Merlin (Stephen Dillane) who starts as an enemy and becomes an ally-by-necessity, and Stellan Skarsgård as the antagonist, Cedric (based on an actual historical character, but moved in time)

The battle scenes are okay, the cinematography of life in early dark age Britain are fine. The acting is mediocre, with only a few good scenes and lines (Skarsgård gets one of these). It's the plot and the basis of the movie that are complete poppycock. Why would a Roman family, especially in late age Britain, settle north of Hadrian's Wall? What's a King Arthur movie without a triangle between Arthur, Gwen and Launcelot? And even if you accept the Sarmatian Hypothesis, the use of it here in such an ahistorical matter, is like writing a novel that gives Robert E Lee an AK-47, without the benefit of AWB time travelers.

The movie is not worth your time.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:09 AM

Movie Review 2007 #116: Primer

A microscopically budgeted movie about time travel.

The movie was made on a shoestring, nearly all of the footage shot was shown, the production values are poor and the acting (with one of the film's creators as the lead) is average at best.

So why did I like this movie?

Abe and Aaron are two mechanical engineers who have a sideline with their friends with projects in their garage. One of their crazy projects, however, bears fruit, and experimentation with a weird effect they discover leads to one of the icons of science fiction.

Time Travel.

The time travel is limited to the point that the time machine is turned on, and the movie is rigorous in exploring the possibilities of such a limited time machine. For example, suppose you wanted to make a killing on the stock market today, as Abe and Aaron do early in the proceedings. You turn on the machine in the morning, you wait until evening, getting the information on the best performing stock for the day. You enter into the machine, and when you emerge, its at the turn-on time for the machine, in the morning. Now, you can use the information and make a killing.

Such schemes, though are only the beginning of what Abe and Aaron do. With such a do-over, the possibilities to re-arrange matters to their liking is irresistible, and the movie explores how the use of the machine changes the two characters. Along the way, we slowly realize, with the voiceovers and re-viewings of the same scenes, that things are more complex than they first appear.

For the value of the rigor of the time travel presented in the movie alone, I think the movie is a valuable view for SF fans. Its dense, complex, and even as I write this review, a few days after seeing it, a small piece of something that I've seen but did not understood, just clicked into place.

People not interested in time travel and scientists and can give Primer a pass and live on your lives.

Posted by Jvstin at 7:58 AM

September 12, 2007

Movie Review 2007 #115: Slither

A relatively low budget horror movie lent to me by my friend from work, starring Nathan Fillon.

The plot is a typical b-movie plot. Aliens from space invade a small town, and only a few plucky inhabitants stand in the way of the creature being unleashed on the entire world. Nathan Fillon plays the no nonsense sheriff, Bill Purdy.

After the parasitic alien crash lands outside of town and infects and transforms one of the townsfolk, causing him to spread the annelid like aliens into other people, making them zombie-like, the movie is a series of set pieces and chase scenes as Bill and a few other survivors attempt to avoid infection themselves, and find a way to stop the plague.

Its quite a bit gory and slimy, and there are some obligatory and necessary plot twists in the movie in order to make the plot work. It sometimes gets too cute for its own good. However, when it stays solidly as a b-movie, the film (directed by the same director who remade Dawn of the Dead) works on that level. Fans of that genre will like the movie, although all others will definitely want to take a pass.

I probably wouldn't want to watch the movie again, although I was reasonably entertained.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:40 PM

Movie Review 2007 #114: Vanilla Sky

Another movie that deals with changes to reality and its nature, Vanilla Sky stars Penelope Cruz and Tom Cruise.

I had to warm to this movie and didn't like it the first time around. Now, I have a much higher opinion of it.

The reason is that the movie has a reveal toward the end which changes the genre of what we have seen. I thought, the first time I saw the movie, that it was an unfair and unexpected genre shift and was too abrupt.

Vanilla Sky tells the story of David Aames, young inheritor of a publishing empire who has the world as his oyster. The idylls of this king end, though, with the meeting of Sofia (Cruz), the would-be girlfriend of his best friend, played by Jason Lee, and the possessive jealousy of his casual friend with benefits, Julia Gianni (Cameron Diaz). As events play out, David suffers a tragic aftermath, but its only the beginning of his long, dark road.

The movie hints at what has happened to David, shifting back and forth in time, as we learn just why he is in a jail cell, with Kurt Russell playing his lawyer. Things get stranger and stranger, until David learns the truth of just what is happening.

Its a wonderful companion movie piece to Eternal Sunshine in that respect. It has its own strengths though, with a strong grounding in pop-culture references (hundreds of them),and a strong use of music to set tone, mood and the drama of the movie. It's not an easy movie to like, but its a rewarding movie to watch twice. The second (and subsequent) times through, the artistry of Cameron Crowe's work really shines. A casual one time viewing, though, may disappoint, as it did me the first time I saw it.

I'm very glad I gave it a second chance.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:27 PM

September 11, 2007

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

SF Signal: Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull

Well, we now have a title for the new Indiana Jones Movie. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

A bit longish for a title, I think. Still, one can hope it will be more like the first and third movies and less like the second.

Posted by Jvstin at 7:01 AM

September 8, 2007

Movie Review 2007 #113: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

A movie introduced to me some time ago by my dear friend Amber, and starring Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Kristen Dunst, Elijah Wood, Tom Wilkinson, and Mark Ruffalo.

One of those small Focus Features movies featuring strange technology but at the heart a movie about relationships, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind has a tangle of a timeline, as Joel and Clementine meet on a train, but neither realizes its not for the first time. After this initial meeting, the movie jumps back, and by exploring Joel's memories, we learn the story of their relationship, as well as those of the Lacunae people involved in the process.

While the movie won an Oscar for screenplay and keys off very well on the twisty, looping script, the movie has strong visuals and cinematography. Visual clues are strong in the movie, and then there are the amazing performances. Winslet's Clementine is a strong and indelible character (Winslet was nominated but didn't win an Oscar for best actress), although the rest of the cast gives good performances too, all around.

The movie is of my favorites.

Posted by Jvstin at 9:00 PM

September 7, 2007

Movie Review 2007 #112: Men in Black

Men in Black stars Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones.

The premise is a turn on an old favorite: There are aliens who live among us, secretly. From My Favorite Martian to Third Rock from the Sun, the concept has been around in media for a long time.

Men in Black gives a cinematic treatment to the idea, using a NGO, non governmental agency, as the point of contact for aliens seeking asylum on earth.

As Kay (Jones) points out so succinctly, Earth is "like Casablanca, except no Nazis". There may not be Nazis to worry about, but the business of managing 1500 aliens on the planet Earth, many of them in and around NYC is a tough one. Tough enough that Will Smith's Jay gets recruited to help out. Tough enough that when an arthropod with a nasty temper (In the body of Vincent D'Onofrio) comes to Earth, it will take Jay, Kay and the services of a coroner (Linda Fiorentino) to stop his plans that will invariably mean Earth's demise

And do all this without the public knowing about it, of course.

It's a brilliant movie that rarely hits a false note. The leads work very well together, and the visuals of seeing a variety of aliens trying to make their way in their Galactic Casablanca is a funny one. Lots of side comments, visual eye candy, and banter provide for a full featured cinematic treat. Its a movie with very broad appeal and with good reason. I especially like the strong use of NYC landmarks in the film.

The movie spawned a short, vastly inferior sequel which I will not be watching and reviewing. This first movie is diminished slightly by the existence of that sequel. But if you haven't seen the first, do rent it. Its highly unlikely that you will dislike it.

Kay puts on a tape of Elvis in the car as they drive upside down in the Queens Midtown Tunnel
Jay: "You do know Elvis is dead."
Kay: "Elvis is NOT dead. He just went home."

Posted by Jvstin at 9:45 PM

Movie Review 2007 #111: The Phantom

A pulp movie from the 90's starring Billy Zane as the titular hero, Treat Williams as Xander Drax and in her first role of any consequence, Catherine Zeta Jones as an air pirate.

Most pulp-oriented movies do try and be Indiana Jones and don't hit that bar in terms of quality or box office. There are spates of them now and again, ranging from Allan Quatermain to the Shadow to Sky Captain. In that tradition is the Phantom.

The Phantom tells the story of the latest Phantom's efforts to stop Xander Drax, and the San Brotherhood, a group of pirates, from getting a hold of magical skulls that promise the wielder enormous power. Throw in an old girlfriend of the Phantom (Kelly Swanson), a henchman of Drax who killed the previous Phantom, a Pirate Lord, an Air Pirate and a scene-chewing villain, and you have all of the elements of a pulp classic.

Is it as good as Indiana Jones? No, its a few notches below that in quality, but not as many as you might think. We even have Patrick McGoohan, in one of his last on film roles, as the ghost of Phantom's dad. Lots of pulp action and adventure. Heck, my Spirit of the Century game that I ran from the IndieGamers is a first cousin to world-spanning action and adventure as seen in this movie.

If you did like Indiana Jones, or Sky Captain, and are in the mood for something in that vein, try The Phantom.

Posted by Jvstin at 9:43 PM

September 2, 2007

Movie Review 2007 #110: The Ghost and the Darkness

A movie that one of my Exalted gaming group urged me to see, this story of man-eating lions in Africa stars Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas.

An alternate movie title for this could be, if one wanted to be a wag, "Bridge over the River Tsavo". The movie is based on true events surrounding the building of a bridge over the river Tsavo in what is now Kenya during the height of the race for colonial domination in Africa.

Val Kilmer plays engineer Col. John Henry Patterson, who is hired by Tom Wilkinson's Robert Beaumont to build a railway bridge across the river Tsavo in five months. What is already a difficult project for Patterson is compounded by attacks by a pair of man eating lions, which (pardon the pun) derails the project, and outside help is needed to deal with this unusual problem, in the personage of former Confederate Charles Remington, as played by Michael Douglas.

A suspenseful thriller, The Ghost and the Darkness (the name of the movie is the names given to the two lions) builds up very well as an action-adventure film in an exotic locale. The pair of Remington and Patterson are mirrored by their pair of antagonists. Both pairs are most effective when they work together as a team. Cinematically, though, Kilmer's Patterson is the main character and he holds up very well in the role.

The movie does tend to be bloody and gory, though, and gets its R rating for very good reason. You won't want young children to see this movie, as it does show, without reserve, the depredations of the twin terrors.

Posted by Jvstin at 10:41 PM

Movie Review 2007 #109: Interstate 60

Another movie urged on me by a good friend, this hard to describe Indie movie stars James "Cyclops" Marsden, Gary Oldman, Amy Smart, Chris Cooper and many others. It was directed by Bob Gale, who wrote the Back to the Future movies.

Road Trip? Parallel universe movie? Extended Dream sequence movie?

The movie, like its protagonist, only engenders lots and lots of questions. James Marsden stars as Neal Oliver, whose birthday wish on his 22nd birthday leads him on a journey on an imaginary interstate highway 60, meeting strange people in strange towns along the way. This is a movie where the journey is as important as the destination.

Its a low budget film that reminded me of Big Fish, and very much in that mold. The strange stories that revolve around Oliver's journey have a wide variety. Humor, poignancy, social commentary, and tragedy. The movie is a joy to watch, especially with all of the small bits and roles that populate it. Chris Cooper as a maniac hater of dissembling in all of its forms. Gary Oldman as a Trickster spirit who grants wishes capriciously. Christopher Lloyd's mysterious Ray. And many others.

The movie was not released to theaters, and I can't understand why. Sure, its low budget and small and definitely a niche movie, but I found it charming, and interesting. The cinematography isn't quite as good as the script and story, but its not that bad.

Overall, I enjoyed the movie, and I wouldn't mind owning this on DVD.

Posted by Jvstin at 10:20 PM

Movie Review 2007 #108: Gulliver's Travels

A miniseries rather than a movie, I am breaking a bit with tradition to add it to my list of movies reviewed. Gulliver's Travels stars Ted Danson, Mary Steenburgen, and has small roles by a number of actors ranging from Alfie Woodward to Omar Sharif.

I remember seeing this years ago on TV, and really liking it. I finally have gotten to see it again, on DVD.

When I say Gulliver's Travels, what is the first thing that you think of? I would wager "Lilliput." In fact, for a long while, thanks to bowdlerized children's versions of his story, that was what was Gulliver's sum total of his adventures for me. I imagine that for many people that is as far as Gulliver's story goes, too.

Later on, I learned that Gulliver had other adventures, although it was more through references to them in places as diverse as Silverlock (the Houyhnhnms) and Larry Niven (the Struldbrugs Club). I hadn't really known what they were about, until I saw this miniseries.

Despite taking liberties with that text and with a unique format, the Gulliver's Travels Miniseries shows all four voyages of Gulliver. From Lilliput, to the giants of Brobdingnag, to the flying island of Laputa and the Struldbrugs island and finally the Houyhnhnms. The action switches back and forth between Gulliver, imprisoned in an asylum after his voyages, and sometimes hallucinatory, to the recounting of his story. I thought this was a unique and clever way to depict Gulliver's voyages.

Besides Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen as the Gulliver's, the various characters that Gulliver meets are all well depicted. The miniseries entertains very well, and as I said before, although liberties are taken with the original text, this is still the best way on film to see all four of Gulliver's voyages.

Posted by Jvstin at 9:56 PM

Movie Review 2007 #107: The Fifth Element

The over the top European-sensibility SF story set in the 23rd century, with Bruce Willis, Milla Jovovich, Ian Holm, Gary Oldman and Chris Tucker.

I love this film.

An alien evil planet entity, a greedy capitalist who would sell the world to make a buck, a special force agent turned cab driver, a priest with a secret, an over the top radio star, and of course the eponymous Fifth Element. Such are the characters that inhabit the one-of-a-kind looking 23rd century depicted in the film.

Along with the unique characters, the movie's strong point is with the visuals. From a busy flying carscape, to piles of garbage in the spaceport due to a strike, to clever uses of limited apartment space, to the opulence of a flying cruise ship, the movie has a visual language and iconography which is one of a kind.

As far as the plot, well, it works well enough. The butchery of science is an annoyance (there IS no such thing as -5000 degrees temperature), but other than that, this movie never fails to entertain me.

My favorite sequence in the film has to be the (Space!) Opera piece, with the cutting back between the Diva singing, and Leeloo's fight sequence with the Mangalores. Even given that, there are many other wonderful bits.

Posted by Jvstin at 9:39 PM

Movie Review 2007 #106: The Constant Gardener

With an Oscar winning performance from Rachel Weisz, the Constant Gardener also starts Ralph Fiennes in this story of a Diplomat, his wife, and a medical conspiracy in Africa.

The movie, with its non linear storytelling, tells us the story of Tessa, whose marriage to a taciturn and reserved British diplomat, Justin Quayle, leads her to Africa. Her investigation of medical tests in Africa possibly leads to her death. And so Justin is roused from his gardening to find out what happened to the woman he loved. Along the way, we learn how such an unlikely couple met, and the story of what happened to bring Tessa to her end.

Playing a diplomat in a RPG has led me to want to watch movies with diplomats as protagonists lately, and this is no exception. Fiennes does decently as the diplomat reluctantly roused to action, but it is the passionate Weisz who shines here. It is her performance, as the passionate and irrepressible Tessa that makes Justin's actions believeable, and drives the film to its inescapable conclusion.

Even with its slow build up, the movie maintained my interest. I wondered halfway through if the movie would lead itself to the conclusion that it seemed to be leading up to, and I was not disappointed.

Posted by Jvstin at 9:17 PM

Movie Review 2007 #106: The Constant Gardener

With an Oscar winning performance from Rachel Weisz, the Constant Gardener also starts Ralph Fiennes in this story of a Diplomat, his wife, and a medical conspiracy in Africa.

The movie, with its non linear storytelling, tells us the story of Tessa, whose marriage to a taciturn and reserved British diplomat, Justin Quayle, leads her to Africa. Her investigation of medical tests in Africa possibly leads to her death. And so Justin is roused from his gardening to find out what happened to the woman he loved. Along the way, we learn how such an unlikely couple met, and the story of what happened to bring Tessa to her end.

Playing a diplomat in a RPG has led me to want to watch movies with diplomats as protagonists lately, and this is no exception. Fiennes does decently as the diplomat reluctantly roused to action, but it is the passionate Weisz who shines here. It is her performance, as the passionate and irrepressible Tessa that makes Justin's actions believeable, and drives the film to its inescapable conclusion.

Even with its slow build up, the movie maintained my interest. I wondered halfway through if the movie would lead itself to the conclusion that it seemed to be leading up to, and I was not disappointed.

Posted by Jvstin at 9:17 PM

Movie Review 2007 #105: The Road to Wellville

A quirky comedy set in Battle Creek Michigan at the turn of the 20th century, starring Matthew Broderick, Bridget Fonda, Anthony Hopkins, and John Cusack amongst many others.

Broderick and Fonda play the Lightbodies, a well to do couple who travel to Battle Creek at the beginning of the 20th century in order to visit the Sanitarium, run by Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (Hopkins), brother to the creator of Kellogg's corn flakes. His unusual and eccentric theories of health attract the sick like the Lightbodies, as well as the avaricious Cusack, and a host of other unusual characters. Dana Carvey, for example, plays the estranged son to Hopkins' Kellogg.

The movie itself is an indictment of fadism, amongst other things, set in the confines of the Sanitarium. The movie plays off of the quirky and unusual characters as they spend a few weeks undergoing the odd and unusual treatments. The movie's humor goes from wordplay ("do you masticate?") to bawdiness, to physical comedy, to the personalities of the odd characters themselves. The cast is top notch and there isn't a weak performance to be found.

The only problem I really had with this movie is the DVD itself. For reasons I cannot fathom, the DVD available (which I Netflixed) only featured the widescreen picture in a full frame format. I have lamented such butchery of movies many times before, and its the only detraction from a very funny movie. Other than that, I liked it.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:59 PM

August 29, 2007

Movie Review 2007 #104: UHF

Urged to watch this by a friend, this comedy of a low-rent TV station in the days before cable became popular stars "Weird Al" Yankovic, and in a pre-Seinfeld role, Michael "Kramer" Richards.

Yankovic's George Newman is a Walter Smitty like character whose imagination runs away from him, to disastrous results.For instance, the movie begins with a reimagining of the opening sequence to Raiders of the Lost Ark, with Newman as the hero.

Newman finds his niche when his uncle puts him in charge of a low-rent, ailing UHF station. At first, he flops at working at this as he has every other job. However, he finds a talent in Richards' Stanley Spadowski, a janitor by heart, but also a wonderful host for the children's show. And so, building on this success, Newman's station grows in popularity, much to the chagrin of the major network affiliate...

UHF's strong plot is not the plot, however. Its really a clothesline for a series of sight gags, jokes, setups and comedic bits. More of these work than don't, and the movie has the sense and timing to know when to move to the next one. The sight gags, though, make this movie, and they often are on the margins of the screen. In this, the movie reminded me strongly of Airplane! and The Naked Gun movies rather than more modern comedies in the same vein.

This anarchic approach to movie comedy is, I suspect, very much a matter of taste. I happened to like it, laugh out funny. Your mileage may very much vary.

Posted by Jvstin at 4:32 PM

August 25, 2007

Movie Review 2007 #103: Pan's Labyrinth

Pan's Labyrinth, or more correctly, Laberinto del fauno, is Guillermo Del Toro's dark fantasy adult fairy tale, in Spanish with English subtitles.

Set during the Spanish Civil War in 1944, Pan's Labyrinth tells the story of Ofelia, a young girl moving to the country with her pregnant mother to meet her very wicked stepfather, an officer in the army trying to deal with the rebels plaguing the backcountry of Spain. Ofelia's imagination, or perhaps her heritage, however, allows her to unlock a secret world of magical creatures, and a possible escape from the grim reality of her surroundings into a wondrous destiny.

PL is a dark fantasy fairy tale that counterpoints the mundane events in the movie with the fantastic events and doings of its heroine beautifully. The question of whether Ofelia is really seeing, experiencing and interacting with this fantasy world is kept purposefully vague. It is clear that, real or imagined, that while it is an escape from the brutal reality around her, it is not an escape into a sweetness and light world, as she must undertake dangerous tasks at the behest of the mysterious Faun.

And brutal is the right word. This is an adult fairy tale even more so than, say, Stardust, since it is extremely dark. Casual murder, torture, and sadism are the rule of the day for Capitan Vidal, her stepfather, and the movie pulls no punches in showing the dark side of merciless power. It is no wonder to the viewers that, even when facing things like the Pale Man, Ofelia's heart lies in the fantasy side of things rather than the dark fact of her mundane existence.

The commentary and special features are interesting insofar as it really shows that Del Toro understands fairy tales and how to use them to present his story in their context. He also does reveal in the commentary the answer to the question of how real is what Ofelia experiences with with the fantasy side of her existence, and I strongly recommend that you watch the movie without the commentary, first, so as not to prejudice your own opinions and views of the movie.

Aside from the subject matter, the acting is well done, and the parallel stories weave very well together. We buy into both sides of the film as presented and the characters, while drawn simply and are not very complex, come off very strongly as a result of their simplicity. One might say they border on the iconic. The cinematography and visuals are striking and arresting. Del Toro is an artist who likes to draw out his characters and scenes in advance, and the attention to detail is evident, especially in the fantasy half of the film. However, the "real" story is not skimped upon, either.

Pan's Labyrinth is one of my favorite movies from 2006 and is very properly a part of my DVD collection. If you have any interest in fairy tales, especially dark adult-oriented ones, I strongly urge you to see Pan's Labyrinth.

Posted by Jvstin at 10:18 PM

August 21, 2007

Movie Review 2007 #102: 12 Angry Men

One of those classics I had never seen before and was recommended that I do, starring Henry Fonda, Jack Klugman, and Ed Begley, amongst others.

This film does not have action sequences, car chases, people jumping out of windows or moving trains, clever stunts, excessive swearing, special effects or dramatic fight scenes.
Instead what we have is drama, with 12 men, almost none of who we learn the names of, but we learn much about the men as they inhabit a jury room, deciding the fate of a young hispanic boy accused of murdering his father. The original lone holdout to a unanimous guilty verdict, Fonda's architect, provides the impetus for the 12 men to examine the case, their own beliefs, and each other.

Minimalist to the extreme, the movie except for two short sequences never leaves the jury room or its bathroom, and the viewer feels penned in with the men. As the men debate the case, so too comes themes from society, ranging from prejudice to social justice. The movie is not didactic, though, although if the movie has a message, it is that reason, not emotion, should hold sway in court and in life.

Although what Fonda's architect does (no spoiling!) would probably be grounds for a mistrial, it does provide the crack that allows the 12 men to consider the case fairly, and finally come to a unanimous decision.

TNT may say that they know drama, but this movie definitely knows Drama, and shows it, with characters, personality traits, and very subtle cues throughout the movie.

Very well done indeed. It was nominated for Best Picture, but lost out to Bridge on the River Kwai.

Posted by Jvstin at 9:01 PM

Movie Review 2007 #101: The Last Legion

A movie not screened for critics, The Last Legion stars Ben Kingsley, Colin Firth and Aishwarya Rai.

And not screened for good reason.

The movie is a strictly B affair which butchers history, has mediocre production values and shows the limitations of its budget. Even with The Most Beautiful Woman in the world, the movie is pretty thin fare.

The Last Legion tells a fictionalized story of Romulus Augustus, the last Emperor of the Western Roman Empire. Set in 460, a full 16 years before he was forced off the throne, our boy hero (not played very well by Thomas Sangster, has the typical encounter with the real hero of the film, Colin Firth's Aurelius, without the latter aware of the boy's identity. That soon changes when Romulus is crowned Emperor, and days later, is deposed by Odoacer the Gaul.

Banished to the island of Capri, along with his teacher Ambrosinus (Ben Kingsley in Gandalf mode), Romulus finds a legendary sword of Julius Ceasar, just in time as Aurelius mounts a rescue mission with the help of a mysterious warrior from Constantinople who doesn't show their face until they decide to take a bath and emerge from the water...

Our heroes are maneuvered into heading to Britain to find the "last" legion, unaware that it has its own dangers in the form of the warlord Vortigyn.

As you can see from the names, the movie is "Historyesque", borrowing names and ideas from history without a sense of context, timing or what the actual people were really like. The movie suffers from very bad production, you can see the matte paintings, and the fight scenes are poorly done. The big battle sequence at the end shows just how many extras they could...and couldn't get for the movie.

There are a couple of nice bits here and there, but its very thin gruel in a movie which isn't bad enough to be cult classic bad, but not good enough to be really worthwhile.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:48 PM

Movie Review 2007 #100: Mr Baseball

And now for some much lighter fare, a comedy from the early 90's starring Tom Selleck, Mr. Baseball.

There used to be a spate of movies about the culture clash between Americans and Japanese, ranging from Gung Ho to Black Rain to this and Rising Sun. Some were for laughs, others for drama.

Mr. Baseball is strictly for laughs. Selleck plays fading Yankee Jack Elliot, who gets traded to a Japanese team and, in fish out of water style, has to find his groove, adapt to Japanese society, help his new mediocre team challenge its rival, and win the girl.

It's pretty mild stuff. By baseball movie standards, its certainly no Field of Dreams or Bull Durham, but it does okay with the mechanics of the game. Its not as deep and abiding as Lost in Translation in showing life in Japan, but we do get the sense of alienation and loneliness that Jack feels, with only a couple of expat Americans, and his japanese love interest, to get him through the rough spots.

The movie follows the bases of these sorts of movies with rigor, including the predictable climax, but the formula is reasonably entertaining.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:38 PM

Movie Review 2007 #99: The Prestige

One of the best movies of last year, and one of two involving turn of the 20th century magic, the Prestige stars Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale as the competing magicians, and also has Michael Caine and Scarlett Johansson, as well as David Bowie.

A friend mentioned that a turn off for this movie is the unsympathetic characters. Granted, the two magicians engage in an oneupmanship which can and does turn deadly, and neither character is anything but a shade of grey at best.

That said, the Prestige is a well crafted, twisty film based on the award winning novel by Christopher Priest. Two magicians, driven to rivalry by a magic act gone tragically wrong, compete against each other in turn of the century London, with a trip to America to meet David Bowie as Nikola Tesla in the bargain. In between we have magic tricks, ciphers, double dealing, gambits and a high stakes test of wills between the two main characters.

Unlike the Illusionist, which focused on one magician and used a distinctive cinematography and style, the Prestige is much more mainstream in its production--at least for a Christopher Nolan film. We do see flash backs to previous shots in the movie, reinterpreted and enlightened by new knowledge as the twists and turns come out. The limits to which each man, once locked in this struggle, are willing to go is painfully clear. The film pulls no punches in its tragic climax.

I really enjoyed the film.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:24 PM

Movie Review 2007 #98: Gosford Park

I've let a pile of movies build up without reviews, so let's clear the decks, shall we?

First up is Gosford Park, a Robert Altman film with a strong British cast that includes Michael Gambon, Helen Mirren, Clive Owen, Derek Jacobi and many more

The movie focuses on a murder mystery at an English country estate early in the 20th century. Interestingly, the movie spends as much or more time with the servants of the various nobles and wealthy who are at the estate as it does with their masters and mistresses.

Gosford Park is a typical Altman ensemble film, with a strong cast and the movie much more about the characters and their relationships than the actual plot of the murder mystery. The performances are standout across the board as secrets are revealed, relationships highlighted and developed, and the social web constructed wonderfully. Gamers looking to see how a r-map might be constructed would do to study the characters in this film.

I decided to see this movie because its an Altman film and because of Clive Owen, and neither disappointed. That said, this is a movie which is not going to be of much interest to those who aren't fans of the director, or the subject matter. The film can be dry at times, but the screenplay (which won an Oscar) is well written all the same.

I liked it.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:12 PM

August 11, 2007

Movie Review 2007 #97: Memoirs of a Geisha

The last movie for tonight, and catching up on the reviews completely, is the adaptation of the best-selling novel of the same name, starring Ziyi Zhang, Michelle Yeoh and Gong Li.

Memoirs of a Geisha tells the story of Chiyo (Zhang), a fisherman's daughter who is sold at a young age to a geisha House. Envious of her status, Hatsumomo, the head Geisha (played with relish by Gong Li) makes Chiyo's life a living hell. However, a chance visit by one of Hatsumono's rivals, Michelle Yeoh, gives Chiyo the opportunity to blossom in the same life herself, even as the world changes around them all and threatens to take it all away...

Especially given Hollywood's recent tendencies, this is a rare movie which relies almost exclusively on its female characters to work. Sure, Ken Watanabe and Cary Tagawa do well with their roles, but this a movie of female characters and it rises and falls on their performances, against a backdrop of elegant beauty. The three female leads accomplish this with excellent grace and precision and performance.

I admit its extremely strange to see three Chinese actresses in Japanese roles but I suppose given the budget and the Hollywood production values required, they wanted the best bang for their buck. And even so, I thought the three of them played their parts very well.

I am well aware the movie is only a pale shadow and imitation of the novel, but I enjoyed it.

Posted by Jvstin at 10:16 PM

Movie Review 2007 #96: Little Children

With Academy Award nominated performances by Kate Winslet and Jackie Earle Haley, Little Children is a story of a group of 30 something married couples, whose lives intersect on the playgrounds, town pools, football fields, and streets of their small community.

I have a fondness for Kate Winslet, and so rented this movie on that basis. Winslet plays Sarah Pierce, a young mother who really isn't that proficient at mothering. Perhaps out of boredom, she winds up in an affair with "the prom king", Brad Adamson (Patrick Wilson) a stay at home dad (married to Jennifer Connelly's Kathy Adamsonm), struggling to pass the bar exam. Other major characters include Haley's sexual predator whose presence in the neighborhood causes disruption and dissension, and Noah Emmerich's Larry Hedges, who has a dark past of his own.

The movie follows the day to day lives of these characters, ranging from the poignant to the banal. In this, the movie reminded me strongly of American Beauty, another movie with strong characters set in suburbia.

However, like to an extent American Beauty, the movie's voiceover was somewhat offputting and off tone with the rest of the film, and it made the denouement somewhat preachy, in my opinion. Worse, it was not one of the characters, like it was in AB, and so felt false and too clinical.

While Winslet's performance is good, I wasn't entirely thrilled with the movie overall, especially the lack of a decent resolution in the denouement.

Posted by Jvstin at 9:16 PM

Movie Review 2007 #95: Yankee Doodle Dandy

Recommended to me by a friend, and starring James Cagney as George M Cohan, born on the fourth of July.

Yankee Doodle Dandy follows the pattern of biographical pictures from the 40's and 50's by telling the story of its main character in flashback using a framing device of some sort. Spirit of St. Louis, for example, tells Lindbergh's life story through the framing device of intercutting with his famous flight across the Atlantic.

Yankee Doodle Dandy uses the framing device of an elderly Cohan meeting President Roosevelt in 1942, and babbling his life story in a meeting that Cohan is at first convinced is meant to slap down his latest theatrical work which portrays the president in a comical light.

Cohan's life spans from the 1880's, where he is the youngest of his performing family "The Four Cohans", and follows his life as he struggles to be known as a performer, lyricist, dancer and director. This gives Cagney lots of opportunity to show how light on the feet he is, with musical numbers that show just how memorable and durable Cohan's work is, even today.

Cohan's story IS the Horatio Alger story in much of his work, rising from humble beginnings to becoming an American icon of music and entertainment, and the movie conveys Cohan's story well, even if (of course) takes liberties with his actual story and career path.

I think I have seen bits of this movie before, somewhere, because parts of it were hauntingly familiar. Even funnier, though, is the realization, now, that an episode of Gilligan's Island borrowed from one of Cohan's songs and changing the name. "Gilligan, that's me".

I liked the movie. While Spirit of St. Louis was somewhat long and boring, the musical numbers in Yankee Doodle Dandy keep it fresh and lively.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:27 PM

Movie Review 2007 #94: Stardust

So I took myself out to see Stardust today, based on the novel by Neil Gaiman and starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Claire Danes and Robert DeNiro.

Stardust is the story of Tristan, a young man in love with the town beauty (Sienna Miller as Victoria). Outdone by a romantic rival, Tristan makes a rash promise to Victoria that he will cross the mysterious wall that the village is named for, a Wall that is a border to a faerieland, and retrieve a falling star they witness one night.

In the meantime, others, on the far side of the wall, want the falling star for themselves. Several brothers, sons of a late king, need the falling star to claim their inheritance as the new king of Stormhold. And three witches want the magic of the falling star, to restore their power and beauty.

What the falling star wants, and this is a rational thing since she takes the form on Earth of Claire Danes, is simply to go home...

Its a very busy grown up fairy tale of a movie and not everything quite comes together as well as it should. To discuss some of it would be plot spoilery and I eschew doing that whenever possible. Despite a few flaws in how it turned out, those flaws are perhaps my mind being hyperactively looking for the bad things in the movie.

Michelle Pfeiffer does very well as Lamia, Witch Queen. In some respects she is the best thing about the movie. Although his appearance is something of a deux ex machina, Robert De Niro as Captain Shakespeare is a treat on screen, especially when we learn his secret (which is not as secret as he thinks). Slightly less effective are the Stormhold brothers, although we do get a cameo by Peter O'Toole as the dying king.

I was just slightly disappointed in Claire Danes as the Star, Yvaine. She's got the luminosity needed for the role, but I think a strong actress would have sold the character a little better. Charlie Cox's Tristan does all right, but I think he would have done better paired with a slightly different actress. This is clear to me because he does, for example, up his game in his scenes with De Niro's Captain Shakespeare.

I think its on a par with Princess Bride. Perhaps a notch or so below Baron Munchausen, but its definitely in that sort of weight class, terms of style and quality. I think its better than, say, The Brothers Grimm.

Would I like to see it again? You betcha.

Posted by Jvstin at 7:41 PM

Movie Review 2007 #93: Flash Gordon

The 1980 Cult Classic, starring Sam Jones as Flash Gordon, with Max Von Sydow, Topol, Timothy Dalton, Ornella Muti and Melody Anderson.

Hard to find on DVD until recently, Flash Gordon fits all of the definitions of a cult classic. It also fits the definition of a movie I couldn't bear not seeing again. Thanks to the soundtrack which I own, I've had a mental play of the movie in my head for a long time.

The DVD transfer not only holds up, but confirms a long thought suspicion--I've never seen this movie in widescreen before!

With a European psychadelic approach to special effects which are mainly matte paintings, strange costumes and scenery, and a strictly tongue in cheek pulp feel to it, Flash Gordon captures the spirit of the earlier serials, and puts them on the big screen for all to see. Flash Gordon, Dale Arden and Dr Zarkov travel to Mongo to stop the Emperor Ming from destroying or conquering the Earth, fighting and making allies all along the way.

I noticed a few things I didn't remember from the last time I saw the movie, over a decade ago. Little things, like Ornella's "pet" is named Fellini, a clear nod to the famous director. I slo-moed through the opening credits, which have a ton of images from the Flash Gordon comic book. Little bits of dialogue and reaction shots are lots of fun.

As I have said elsewhere, this is a movie for people who loved The Fifth Element. Or more precisely, the Fifth Element is for people who loved Flash Gordon. The special effects are not Star Wars, the story really is a series of cliffhangers and twists in the serial style, and there is overacting and non acting everywhere.

Still, I love it, I do.

Posted by Jvstin at 7:24 PM

August 7, 2007

Movie Review 2007 #91: City Slickers

An Oscar winning role for Jack Palance in this story of three friends who wrestle with themselves and each other on a cattle drive. Also starring Billy Crystal, Bruno Kirby and Daniel Stern.

City Slickers won Palance an Oscar years after his first one (for Shane) as he plays "Curly", the boss of a team of cattle drivers as vacation activity. Crystal, Stern and Kirby play three lifelong NY friends Mitch,Phil and Ed who every year seek purpose for themselves in ever increasingly stupid ideas (like running of the bulls in Spain). This year, for Mitch's 39th birthday, his friends have signed the three of them up to be cowboys. Perhaps this will provide the solutions to the midlife crises that each of them (Mitch's problems at work, Phil's martial problems and Ed's problems in general) are saddled with.

When I first saw this movie in the early 90's, I saw it mainly as a comedy and enjoyed it on that level. Now that i have seen it again, I do see the serious, dramatic side, and the life lesson that the movie tries to teach about knowing what to hold onto, and finding oneself as one ages. It was more poignant than I remember, and bittersweet. It's a very much a male bonding movie. I did see a gap or two in the script that didn't work, but overall I enjoyed it.

And yes, it is still funny to me.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:24 PM

Movie Review 2007 #90: Breach

A thriller set in the FBI and based on the true story of Robert Hanssen, starring Ryan Philippe, Laura Linney, and Chris Cooper.

Based on a true story, and starting with his capture, one might wonder how you can generate tension and suspense in a movie where the end result is known. The viewer, even if they are unaware of the case, learns at the beginning that the target will be caught. There is no suspense in that.

However, its the manner, the method, and the prices that Eric O'Neill, the would-be-agent played by Philippe who is in the center of the attempt to nail Hanssen, will pay that make the movie. O'Neill, is carefully handled and put into a position where he can spy on his new boss, Hanssen, but the cover story he is given, as well as other details about why a 25 year old career FBI agent would be targeted for scrutiny don't add up.

When O'Neill,learns the truth however, he is already deeply wrapped around Hanssen's life, and the strain takes a toll on him and his wife, Juliana is part of the core of this movie. The movie does very well in showing the crises of confidence, the pressure and the tension that Eric undergoes as the case against Hanssen builds.

The movie is not an action thriller by any means, but is rather a slow pressure cooker, showing the effect on the case on all of the principals. With some fine performances, this is drama not of the action-adventure sort, but, paradoxically, a character drama, showing how these characters in a tightening situation act and react to each other.

I liked it.

Posted by Jvstin at 7:36 PM

August 5, 2007

Movie Review 2007 #89: Deja Vu

An action movie with time travel elements, starring Denzel Washington

Deja Vu takes place in post-Katrina New Orleans, where ATF agent Doug Carlin is called in after a horrible explosion aboard a river ferryboat, killing hundreds of people. Quickly determining that this was no accident, Carlin's skills bring him to the attention of a group of agent/investigators featuring Val Kilmer's Agent Pryzwarra, who have a device that allow one to see 4 days and 6 hours into the past. Strange discoveries and events around Carlin, however, point toward a more active use of the device than merely seeing into the past to find the perpetrator Carroll Oberstadt (played very well by Jim Caviezel) but perhaps to stop him, and to save Claire Kuchever, apparently Oberstadt's first victim...

The movie works very well as an action movie. Denzel once again shows he is a bankable action star that fills the screen and gets the audience to follow along with him. Kilmer and his group of investigators are well drawn in their varying personalities. Caviezel as said before does well in his role, and Paula Patton makes a luminous Claire. Things have been rigged for maximum action and adventure, from a "split-screen chase across time" to desperate actions to stop Oberstadt's horrific plan.

The time travel is not as well thought out, however. We see hints before it happens that Carlin is going to go back in time, but some of the things we see do not compare or correlate with what happens in the timeline. I suppose you can make it all make sense with a lot of timelines and the idea that Groundhog Day style, that Doug goes back several times to get things right, the movie is a bit of a cheat that way. (One suggestion I saw has at least 4 timelines to make all of the events in the movie make sense).

Besides the time travel inanity, though, the movie delivers on an action popcorn level and if you watch it with solely that intent, you will likely enjoy Deja Vu.

Posted by Jvstin at 11:51 AM

Movie Review 2007 #88: Curse of the Golden Flower

More Drama than Wuxia, Curse of the Golden Flower stars Gong Li and Chow Yun Fat.

Chinese history is something that one of these days I am going to have to study in detail. Far from being a series of static Emperors and Dynasties, there are interregnums, eras of competing kingdoms, intrigues, and conflicts.

Curse of the Golden Flower takes place in the last throes of the Tang Dynasty, and centers around the Emperor (Chow Yun Fat), his Empress (Gong Li) and the Emperor's three sons. The Crown Prince, Wan, is having an affair with his stepmother the Empress, the Emperor has plots in motion involving his second son Jai, and his ailing wife, and as the Chrysanthemum festival approaches, these and other threads are drawn together toward conflict.

Although there are action scenes, and large scale fighting at the end, Curse is really a drama set in the Chinese Court. And that drama is both blatant and subtle, perhaps too subtle for American audiences in some cases since we sometimes hear of things rather than seeing them outright. This results in a movie that rewards and mandates paying attention to dialogue and body language. The affair between Empress and Wan, for example, is never explicitly shown.

The cinematography is what you would expect if you have seen the director's previous works. Sumptuous costumes, gorgeous rooms, excellent use of camera angles, lighting, mood and filming in general make the movie beautiful to watch.

Overall, the movie is not bad. I don't think its quite as strong as House... or Hero mainly because the intrigues in the Chinese Court don't translate as well to foreign audiences as they might. I don't see how Yimou could have Westernized this and made it work better. Still, watching it for the visuals alone makes it worthwhile. Its not the place to start with this director, but if you have liked his previous work, Curse will not disappoint.

Posted by Jvstin at 11:29 AM

August 1, 2007

Siskel and Ebert Reviews Online

Here's some great news!

The various incarnation of Siskel & Ebert & Roeper represent about more than 1,000 TV programs, on which the three of us, and various guest critics, reviewed more than 5,000 movies. And now at last an online archive exists with all of those reviews.

Starting Thursday, Aug. 2, visitors will be able to search for and watch all of those past debates, including the film clips that went along with them, plus the “ten best” and other special shows we did. The new archive will be at, and will be the web’s largest collection of streaming reviews.

Like early episodes of Doctor Who, though, a lot of the early material in Siskel and Ebert's reviews, from 1975 to 1985 are lost. They did save them on various tapes, but those tapes were erased, overwritten or destroyed.

I look forward to delving through this archive.

Posted by Jvstin at 6:45 AM

July 28, 2007

Movie Review 2007 #87: Zodiac

Through the office and kindness of a coworker and friend, Mike, I finally got to see this movie about the Zodiac killer, as seen through the lives of several SF inhabitants who live through his reign of terror. Zodiac stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards and Robert Downey Jr.

I had complained that Carrey was the wrong person to portray the obsessed Walter Sparrow in my review of The Number 23.

Here, the director and the actors get it *right*.

Gyllenhaal plays Robert Graysmith, a cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle who is and becomes the center of events as the Zodiac murders start to unfold in the Bay area in the late 1960's. Robert Downey Jr. plays Paul Avery, a columnist who taunts and teases the Zodiac, and contributes in his own way to the efforts in breaking the Zodiac's cyphers, and solving the mystery of his identity. Edwards and Ruffalo play a pair of inspectors (detectives) also wrapped up in the cases.

The movie is a little less about the events around the Zodiac, and much more about these individuals and their relationship to each other, the killings, and how it changes them. We see how the obsession and drive and pressures of the Zodiac's murders puts each of the four principals in a pressure cooker, with different results. The main character, and our viewpoint for much of the movie, is Gyllenhaal's Graysmith, who becomes obsessed to an extreme with finding the identity of Zodiac, even when others have given up, moved on, or have been burned out by the killer's spree. His obsession really is what the movie is about, and its arguable that if we really knew the mind of Zodiac, rather than the fragments we see, we would see that his story, too, is one of obsession, but of a darker sort.

The director wisely lets the actors take center stage, both in small details (Ruffalo's love of animal crackers gave me a craving for some!) and the larger, more important scenes. The movie is long, at 2 and a half hours, but I think that the length is necessary given that the events take place over years. We are not only continually updated on the timeline by cues on the bottom of the screen "three months later" or a given date, but we also, numerologically, get cues such as anniversaries and birthdays to show the passage of time.

Also, we get to see the limits of technology available at the time and how legwork and coordination with police forces was truly hit-and-miss at the time because of logistics. As a police procedural showing the (often) bumbling police who are handicapped by a lack of information, it hits that note very well, too.

I am thoroughly convinced that if Gyllenhaal had taken the place of Carrey in the Number 23, that would have been a much better movie. This is a movie about obsession and its ultimate fruits that, unlike that movie, works and works well. While this is Gyllenhaal's movie, in the end the entire cast, from the main leads to the bit parts (played by stalwarts such as Brian Cox and Chloe Sevigny) do very well with their material.

I'm not sure why this movie didn't do better at the box office. I liked the movie plenty fine, and I recommend it wholeheartedly if you like thrillers, police procedurals, or know about and are interested in the Zodiac story.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:23 AM

July 26, 2007

Movie Review 2007 #86: The Man Who Would be King

The perfect pairing of Michael Caine and Sean Connery in the adaptation of the Kipling story, with Kipling himself as a minor character (portrayed by Christopher Plummer)

I wanted to watch something reliably entertaining after the disappointment of my previous movie experience, and so I turned back to this tale of two British msifits who bamboozle their way to power and tragedy. And like the previous times I have seen it, TMWBK delivers.

The story begins in late 19th century India, where Plummer's Kipling meets two fellow masons, Daniel Dravot (Connery) and Peachy Carnehan (Caine), who, after Kipling rescues them from the folly of their latest scam, get information and study maps for their greatest adventure yet, a trip into wild "Kafiristan". The last westerner to go in and come out alive and hale was Alexander the Great, 2 millenia ago.

"Anything a Greek can do, we can do." declares Peachy, and so the two are off. With hazards both natural and man made, the pair make their way, with guns, into the barbaric land. At first content to use the guns to set themselves up as warlords, a fateful battle causes the populace to regard Dravot a God, the son of Sikander (Alexander). And so, an even bigger dodge and potential opportunity results for the pair...

Old fashioned Hollywood Epic is on full parade here. While the cinematography is excellent, why this movie works, exactly, is the chemistry between the two leads. This movie fails unless we believe in Carnehan and Dravot and their relationship. Caine and Connery deliver, in spades.

The only flaw I have is not with the movie itself, which doesn't shy from the ending in the original story (I somehow suspect today that, if remade, the ending would be the first thing to go), but with the quality of the DVD. Its a poor copy, with the movie split on two sides of the disc for no good reason. This movie deserves a rich, new special edition, perhaps with commentary by the leads. I certainly would buy it.

In the meantime, though, if you want old fashioned action and adventure, with characters who are far more than cardboard cutouts, if you haven't seen The Man Who Would Be King, you should rush out and do so.

Posted by Jvstin at 6:04 AM

Movie Review 2007 #85: The Number 23

A movie starring Jim Carrey and Virginia Madsen.

My birthdate is October 5, 1971. 10+5+7+1=23!

I wanted to like this movie. I do like Jim Carrey, ever since he moved away from the goofiness of his early career and started trying things different. And who doesn't love the original Princess Irulan? And a movie featuring numbers. I thought that despite the very negative reviews (8% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes. Ouch!), I might like this movie.

I was so very wrong.

Jim Carrey stars as animal control expert Walter Sparrow. Married to a beautiful wife, with a son, although his job is often dull, he has a decent life. All of this changes, though, when, late in meeting his wife, she picks up a strange little book in the bookstore "The Number 23, a Novel of Obsession by Topsy Kretts" as a gift for Walter.

And so this book, once Walter starts reading it, draws Walter into obsession regarding the book in specific, and the number 23 in general. He sees the number everywhere, in its original form and reversed. His waking thoughts are wrapped around the number, just like the main character, Fingerling, in the book (also portrayed by Carrey) also has become infected. Carrey continually sees more and more parallels between himself and Fingerling. And when Fingerling commits a murder, Sparrow becomes convinced he will do a murder himself.

In the midst of this his wife attempts to keep Walter mentally afloat, but, and not very well established, his son begins to share the obsession, too.

There are some things to like about this movie. As the threads within the book and real life begin to merge, their very different cinematography begins to merge, as if Walter is entering Fingerling's world. Madsen does a fairly good job.

However, the center of this movie cannot and does not hold. Carrey does not convincingly portray a man descending into madness. His descent is inadvertently funny, and this kills a lot of the dramatic momentum. A better actor who could handle a descent into madness, say, Sam Neill (eg In the Mouth of Madness, Event Horizon) would have vastly improved this movie. With the center so badly miscast, the movie just does not hold up. The plot twist at the end is fairly predictable, but, again, once its revealed, the histories of Sparrow and Fingerling just don't add up. We're left with more questions than answers.

I so wanted to like this movie, but I couldn't quite manage it.

Posted by Jvstin at 5:47 AM

July 22, 2007

Movie Review 2007 #84: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

I went to see the new HP movie today, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (HPOTP)

I was somewhat disappointed in it.

How do you turn an 800 page novel into a movie?

You don't.

Instead, this is a distillation of that novel into a movie. The average movie script is 160 pages, and so a lot of a book as long as HPOTP is going to be lost.

Still, I think better choices could have been made.

HPOTP takes place on the heels of the previous movie and book. Voldemort has returned, killing Cedric Diggory in the process and nearly killing Harry. However, since these events occurred out of the sight of others, there are many, especially Fudge, Minister of Magic, who don't believe (or *want* to believe) they really occurred.

And so the set up for the new year. With Potter at best disbelieved and worst thought of as a liar, and Dumbledore much better, not even a Dementor attack on Harry and Dudley in suburbia is treated by the Ministry by anything more than another lie.

And then there is Dolores Umbridge, who comes to the school under the guise of being the new Defense against the Dark Arts teacher, but has an agenda of her own...

There are several problems with the movie and they begin with the direction. Newcomer David Yates' filming is uninspired, ordinary and lackluster. Certainly Columbus, or Cuaron were much better directors of the material than Yates. They had vision, style and a stamp they put on their movies. Yates simply doesn't have the skill or perhaps the experience to really handle the material well.

Let's talk about that material itself.

There are lots of scenes from the books in the movie, some in altered form. There is a lack of cohesion to these scenes, though. A lack of an orderly story rather than a succession of events weakens the movie overall.

What really hurts, though, is that the movie doesn't stand alone and doesn't stand up for itself. Certainly with things changed from the book, you would think that the story would be a parallel, individual track from the books, but that is not the case. In point of fact, the movie is an appendage, an appendix, a supplement to the books rather than a self-entity. For example, there are some new characters mentioned and very very briefly shown that, from a purely cinematic point, make absolutely no sense to present. Tonks, for example, has too small a role for a real film character. She seems there, and we see her shift form, for the purpose of the fans. Another character is identified as Kingsley Shacklebolt, but has no real role beyond being named as such.

Old characters have similar problems. Percy, for example, has no real role in the movie. We see him standing by Fudge throughout, but with no real speaking lines, or even identified, he is just there for fans to go "Oh, that's Percy." Lupin, similarly, shows up in a couple of situations without being identified, either.

The battle at the Ministry, while visually wonderful (although, again, I wished for a real director) , isn't right from a character point of view, especially poor Neville. Neville is really supposed to grow in this movie/book and he doesn't quite manage it.

The acting of the principals with what they are given is fine and good. The new actress who played Luna Lovegood captured her fairly well, and Grint, Radcliffe and Watson did well as the "Three Musketeers" of the HP verse.

However, a final, trumping sign of how the movie doesn't live up to the previous movies is in the credits. The credits have *none* of the inventiveness and artistry of any of the previous movies. They are flat and lifeless.

And so it goes.

Posted by Jvstin at 6:24 PM

July 18, 2007

Alternate Endings for Movies

The Blog Slacktivist has a good entry, with lots of comments, about "alternate" endings, twist endings, and endings in general in movies. The discussion ranges from the twists in Shyamalan's movies to many other films.

A lot of the comments and the entry itself contain spoilers up the wazoo, though, so be warned beforehand. My own comment about the movie A.I. tried to be relatively spoiler free.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:30 AM

July 17, 2007

Movie Review 2007 #83: The Fountain

A film by Darren Aronofsky and starring Rachel Weisz and Hugh Jackman

The Fountain, even at its short length (~100 minutes) is not an easy movie to understand. Taking place in three time periods and with three parallel stories, the Fountain is a movie of repeated images and imagery, repeated dialogue, and heady ideas revolving around immortality.

The central story seems to me to be the future one, where a bald Hugh Jackman travels in a spaceship with a dying tree toward an impending nova. This story informs and flashes back to the present day, where Jackman's researcher looks for a cure for the cancer ravaging his wife, Izzi. And that in turn heralds back to a story set in the 16th century where Jackman plays a conquistador seeking eternal life for his Queen.

Slowly over time, the links between these three stories become clear, or at least more clear. The movie is full of repeated camera shots, dialogue, and imagery that seem to form a rebus that I was unable to quite decipher and understand. The exact relationship between the three versions of Tom, Jackman's character, is debating even after I finished watching it.

The movie is cinematically well done. I am not so sold on the acting, I think Jackman and Weisz have each done better movies, but the direction and the vision are powerful, even if I don't pretend to understand it. I suppose I will have to watch the movie again, and perhaps if not discover that death is the road to awe, better understand a strange, complex, and unique film.

I can see why, though, given what I know of his tastes, that my friend Chuck Ivy likes it.

Posted by Jvstin at 7:29 PM

Movie Review 2007 #82 Children of Men

Another movie I saw in theaters, early this year, starring Clive Owen, Julianne Moore and Michael Caine, amongst many others.

Its tame by the standards of SF novels, with a premise we've seen before in other permutations. As a straight movie which is infused with SFnal elements, its a breath of fresh air and a veering away from much of the dreck that passes as science fiction movies.

That is to say, the movie is actually about something. Not long from the present, the fertility of the human race plummets to zero. No new babies are born. Eighteen years later, the movie opens with the unexpected death of the youngest person on the planet, "Baby Diego", aged 18 years and some months. Our Virgil in this hellish future is Clive Owen's Theo, who barely escapes a coffee shop bombing moments after the news about Diego goes out.

The movie makes it clear that while Britain has turned into a fascistic police state which rounds up illegal immigrants in a way that is Tom Tancredo's wet dream, the rest of the world is perhaps in even worse shape, with references to things like "the siege of Seattle.". This reminded me of the dark future in "V for Vendetta", where, again, fascistic Britain was doing well compared to an America writhing in anarchic civil war.

Theo comes to the attention of "the Fishes", a group fighting for immigrant rights, and led by Theo's former mate, Julian (Julianne Moore). Their request for Theo to procure travel papers for a young fugitive goes horribly wrong, and it is soon revealed why the group considers Kee so important.

She's pregnant.

Children of Men's dystopic vision and superb cinematography are strong pillars for the movie. With Michael Caine as a aging hippie friend of Theo's, and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Luke, the man who would see the Fishes follow his vision rather than Julian's, the cast is strong. Claire-Hope Ashitey does well as Kee, caught in a maelstrom of events and competing forces she doesn't understand. And Theo shows character growth, going from a shoulder-shrugger walking through the ruins of life to taking an active part in something, and rediscovering who he is.

I liked Children of Men, and I recommend it.

Posted by Jvstin at 7:11 PM

Movie Review 2007 #81: Casino Royale(2006)

This is the new version of Casino Royale, a reboot of the franchise starring Daniel Craig as 007.

I'd never really been a Bond fan. Sure, I've seen a couple of Bond movies, and pieces of others, but compared to some of my friends, my depth of experience with Bond was painfully thin.

So, I thought a "reboot" of the franchise would be the perfect opportunity to acquaint myself with the character. I've seen this in the theater, and now on DVD as well.

I use the term reboot to describe this movie because, unlike previous Bond movies, this one does not build upon previous films. Instead, this film brings us to the beginning of Bond's career, imagining his career starting now, in the tumultuous and complex 00's. After a black and white beginning which shows us how he gets his double oh status, the movie launches us into the action and we are off and running.

Daniel Craig's Bond is, in M's words, a blunt instrument. And throughout the movie, we see him starting to put together the Bond of Sean Connery, or Roger Moore, or Pierce Brosnan. We see him create his signature drink. His taste for an Aston Martin, too. And Eva Green as Vesper Lynd cleans him up, giving us the way forward for him to eventually be suave and debonair. Lethal, he already has.

This Bond has skills earlier Bonds don't, as far as I know. This Bond is very tech-savvy and doesn't need a Q to hack into a computer, for instance, he does it on his own and very well. His game, too, has changed from Baccarat to Texas Hold'em Poker.

I think the movie might run a bit long, and the torture scene is perhaps unintentionally funny, but overall, I was well pleased with the movie on a second viewing. The action is not as implausible as some Bond movies trend toward.

Bond is back and Bond will return, and I will not hesitate to go and see the next installment in the franchise. With Daniel Craig, the character of the world's most famous secret agent is in good hands.

Posted by Jvstin at 6:59 PM

July 12, 2007

Movie Review 2007 #80: House of Flying Daggers

My eightieth movie of the year is House of Flying Daggers, starring Ziyi Zhang, Takeshi Kaneshiro and Andy Lau. It was directed by Zhang Yimou.

A followup to his very good Hero, House of Flying Daggers is another triumph of style over substance. But what style! At its heart a love triangle. House of Flying Daggers dazzles the viewer with gorgeous, Oscar nominated cinematography, wonderful fight scenes, and beautiful locales. From the opulent Peony Pavilion to wonderfully filmed outdoor scenes in various primary colors, the film is very pretty to look at and the direction takes advantage with arresting action in these scenes, from the ballet of the "Echo game" to a fight within the bamboo forest.

The actors and their characters are interesting, ranging from Ziyi's Mei to Lau's to Kaneshiro's Jin. I think the plot has a few holes in it, and a few things seem illogical after the fact.Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon's plot, even with its odd ending, was a better overall movie. Hero (done by this same director) is somewhat harder to rank against Flying Daggers, since it shares many of the same strengths and weaknesses.

Still, I watch House of Flying Daggers not for its plot but rather for its visual splendor and wonderful fight scenes. It never fails to entertain me.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:16 PM

July 8, 2007

Movie Review 2007 #79: Looking for Richard

Next up, a documentary by Al Pacino on Shakespeare's work, as seen through the prism of the play Richard III, Looking For Richard.

I saw this in the theater 11 years ago and it never left me, and I've been waiting for it to be available on DVD ever since to see it once more. Its available for sale only as part of a quartet of films directed by Pacino, but the movie is available individually for sale on Netflix.

And so I rented it.

Looking for Richard is very much Pacino's project through and through, as he talks to fellow actors ranging from Kevin Kline to Derek Jacobi, and the general public about his love of Shakespeare, and the challenges of conveying that to modern, American audiences. Pacino's tack on cracking Richard III is a good one. Rather than simple dry text, he stages scenes from the play, with actors like Alec Baldwin and Kevin Spacey playing key roles to Pacino's Richard III Gloucester. His group gets together and hammers out interpretations and ideas on how to work the play.

It's like stepping into Pacino's "Actor's Studio" and watching him and some friends at work with a text, taking possession of it, making it their own. We see scenes staged in the Cloisters in New York. We get to see Pacino visit England, to see Shakespeare's birthplace, and the Tower of London. We watch Pacino try to ask people ranging from actors to ordinary people about what Shakespeare and Richard III mean to them. Pacino keeps the movie going with a running narrative that lets us see into the actor's mind in an intimate, personal way.

So as such, the documentary doesn't have a narrative ,although it follows the course of the play as Pacino makes choices, tries out ideas, and we get to see how actors and producers must come to grips with a crowning play of one of, if not the, most important Western author in history.

The documentary, then and now, not only gave me a greater appreciation for Al Pacino the actor, Shakespeare in general, and Richard III, but for the cinematic and theatrical arts in general. Any and all of my friends connected with that who haven't seen Looking for Richard, in my opinion, should, and if you have the slightest interest in Shakespeare, this film is for you.

It's also perfect for New Yorkphiles who would get a kick out of seeing Pacino "working" New York.

If this movie comes available separately from the other three movies its currently sold with, I would buy it without hesitation.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:19 PM

Movie Review 2007 #78: Went the Day Well

Went the day well?
We died and never knew
But, well or ill.
Freedom, we died for you
Went the day well?

A bit outside my usual genre, a British WWII film actually filmed in the midst of the Second World War, about a prelude to a fictional invasion of England as seen by a small village which are the Germans first target...

I watched this movie because a friend of mine used elements of its plot and ideas for her fabulous Galactic Renaissance game at the Black Road in 2006. So I wanted to see the source material.

The movie uses a framing device of a narrator relating the events after the fact. While this takes away a bit of the suspense (we know the villagers are going to defeat the Germans in the end), it does not take away from the sacrifices the villagers of Bramley End will need to make to recognize, resist, and help defeat the enemy.

The plot revolves around a group of Germans who visit the village posing as Home Guard (National Reserve) units on exercises. Their real purpose and plan is to coordinate with a local spy, and to prepare the way for Operation Sealion. Slowly, slip ups by the Germans reveal to the villagers that they are facing a threat, one they have to resist.

While the events and suggested events (the movie was made in 1942 and suggests a failed full scale invasion) make this something of an alternate history, it can also be seen a bit as a propaganda film given its release in the midst of the war itself. This propaganda is not very heavy handed, fortunately and doesn't detract from the film itself. I liked it. At the time I can see its use to reassure and bolster the English people. Now, its cracking entertainment with real drama.

I can see why Mel jumped at the idea to adapt this for a game scenario. I enjoyed it very well.

Posted by Jvstin at 2:18 PM

Movie Review 2007 #77: The Departed

I saw this movie last year in the theater, and now have seen it on DVD.

The movie that gave Scorcese an Oscar at last, this remake of the Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs is a great deal longer than its inspiration, I am given to understand.

It has a top notch cast, with Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon, Leo DiCaprio, Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg. Vera Faminga, with whom I was not previously familiar, is the woman who is torn between between Damon and DiCaprio's mirror image double agents.

The plot revolves around an agent for Nicholson's crime lord (Damon) posing as a cop, and DiCaprio's "disgraced" state police trainee who comes to feed information to the cops on Nicholson's doings. The story of the two men twist and brain around each other as the movie progresses. It is a cop drama, but wonderfully twisted and with clear and distinctive multidimensional characters. This movie hinges on the believability of those characters, and while Nicholson's crime lord might be somewhat over the top, its not so much as to spoil the movie. Quite to the contrary.

Themes of family and paternity, which seem to want to be the major point of The Departed, are somewhat diluted even given the running time, but thats a relatively minor flaw. While this may not have been Scorcese's best movie and he might partially have gotten the Best Director and Best Picture Oscars for his body of work, the Departed is a lot of fun and entertaining. And the rocking, Irish-themed soundtrack, is top notch.

I like it a lot.

Posted by Jvstin at 12:59 PM

Movie Review 2007 #76: Waking Life

Richard Linklater is much more famous for "Before Sunrise" and "A Scanner Darkly" than this little movie, in which he pioneered the rotoscope style he used in the latter movie.

The unnamed protagonist, played by Wiley Wiggins, passes through a series of his dreams, as he attempts to wake up. The movie is very talky. In point of fact, the movie might be usefully described only as a series of conversations on topics that swirl around the idea of dreams, from existentialism to human evolution to the nature of dreams themselves.

Slowly, Wiggins realizes that he is stuck in this series of dreams, and of course, seeks an out.

Each part is done in a different animating style, which are all recapitulated in the credits. Its as much fun to see what's going on in the background and to the characters as it is to listen and think about the ideas.

The instrumental music in the movie is another plus. Variants on the main themes occur again and again throughout the movie. And, Linklater even has the musicians who do the music for the film show up in a couple of scenes.

Its not a movie for everyone, and the animated style can rub a lot of people the wrong way, but I do like Waking Life.

Posted by Jvstin at 12:49 PM

July 3, 2007

Movie Review 2007 #75: Last Man Standing

It was suggested to me that, after watching Miller's Crossing, to watch Last Man Standing, a similarly themed and plotted Bruce Willis movie, and I decided to rise to that challenge.

LMS is, like Miller's Crossing, set in Prohibition era America, although its set in a small, nearly deserted Texas town. Unlike LMS, Bruce Willis' John Smith drifts into town rather than already being an integral part of the society that Byrne's Reagan was.

Still, Willis' Smith, like Byrne's Reagan finds himself in the middle of a turf battle over rival factions, with an ineffectual law enforcement and the scattered remnants of the population caught in the middle. Smith deftly flips from aiding David Patrick Kelly's Doyle and Ned Eisenberg's Strozzi and back again.

And like, Miller's Crossing, a woman is at the center of the maelstrom that alters Smith plans...

I think the movies compare together well. MC has, in my opinion, better dialogue between the characters. The Coen brothers ear for bon mots is missed in LMS. The characters in MC, too, I think are better developed than this movie. Tom Reagan and those he interacts with are far more iconic and memorable as characters than Willis' John Smith and his opponents. Even Christopher Walken's character didn't quite resonate for me.Still, though, although the story supposedly hews closer to Kurosawa's original, LMS' story is not as well told as Miller's Crossing is.

However, as far as the action aspects, I think LMS has a definite edge. Willis cashes in on his reputation as an action hero, even if he is hardly a hero here. We believe it fully when he outshoots the competition again and again, even when he is facing long odds. So for the purely action aspects, LMS Is a much more entertaining movie than MC

I was entertained by Last Man Standing, and if you are intrigued by watching an amoral protagonist go to down in Prohibition era West Texas, then I heartily recommend it.

Posted by Jvstin at 10:49 PM

Movie Review 2007 #74: Pirates of the Caribbean At World's End

Before I went to TBR, I saw Pirates of the Caribbean in the theater, but I neglected to review it until now.

Third and presumably final in the Pirates movies, At World's End is the other half of Dead Man's Chest, finishing the story arcs and adventures of Jack, Will, Elizabeth and their allies, hangers-on and enemies.

At three hours long, the kitchen sink is in here in terms of the sheer volume of stuff thrown at the viewer. Asian pirates, spectacular battles, a trip to the Otherworld, and much, much more. It's almost too much, I think, since in the frenetic pace to throw things in the convoluted plot, many of the better bits are far too short--such as Chow Yun Fat's Pirate, Captain Jack's father, and much, much more. The plot is tangled and convoluted as various characters scheme, plot against each other, and continually switch sides.

The movie bugs me somewhat, despite wonderful and sumptuous visuals that make the universe depicted come alive. Some holes in that byzantine nest of plots bug me, but such things always pick at me anyway. (Such as, not much of a spoiler, near the beginning, the main characters are in Singapore looking for a ship...but how did they get there in the first place??). The fate of some plots and characters from the second movie, too, felt a little underwhelming. (The Kraken comes to mind)

I think its worth a rental or a matinee price, but not worth full admission price to the theater. I will likely see it again on DVD.

Posted by Jvstin at 10:32 PM

June 26, 2007

"Dave" and "Aladdin" as parallels to the modern administration

Have you ever seen Dave,, starring Kevin Kline and Frank Langella, where Kline plays a temp agency manager who is gulled into impersonating a sick president, so that Langella's chief of staff can run the country behind his back.

All the talk lately about how autonomous and autocratic Dick Cheney has been in this administration's White House reminds me strongly of that movie. If you have been paying attention to the news lately, it seems that Cheney seems to have done what he wants, when he wants, and has had the president's ear on every major decision. Really, Bush is much more of a figurehead, it seems, than anyone realizes. A Buffoon in Chief.

Or, perhaps, to riff on Aladdin, Bush is the Sultan and Cheney is the Vizier.

The only problem is, unlike these two movies, Bush doesn't have the will that Dave does to stand up to Cheney, and we don't have an Aladdin to make Cheney suffer the consequences of his power grab. We just have a cowed, apathetic American Public which is more interested in Paris Hilton's visit to the LA Penal System.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:05 AM

June 19, 2007

Movie Review 2007 #73: The Good German

I seem to be doing actors in pairs these days. This is another George Clooney movie, with Steven Soderbergh directing again...his attempt at film noir, The Good German.

The movie also has Tobey McGuire and Cate Blanchett.

Soderbergh deliberately filmed this movie in 4x3, Black and White, with the techniques and style of 1940's cinema. It shows, but I don't think its a completely successful experiment.

The Good German tells the story of Geismer, a War Correspondent assigned to Berlin after the fall of the Nazis, while the War in the Pacific grinds toward its conclusion. There, he runs into Tully (McGuire), a hustling motor pool soldier with more schemes than Bilko. Tully's schemes, though, entrap Lena (Blanchett), a German whose dead husband is not so dead, and has an old relationship with Geismer.

The movie has all the elements of a period piece, transplanted to the modern day, but it doesn't quite work, and I think its the acting. While the cinematography looks and feels right, the acting is off tone and wooden and not very believable. I never really bought into the Geismer-Lena relationship, and I definitely didn't buy into the Lena-Tully one at all. McGuire can and does act better than this, here he comes off all wrong to me.

And with not so great acting, across the board, the movie just doesn't hold up. A shame. I wanted to like this movie, and I couldn't see my clear to do so.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:30 PM

Movie Review 2007 #72: Solaris(2002)

Jumping back to cheerier subjects, the next movie up is the Steven Soderbergh remake of Solaris, starring George Clooney and Natasha McElhrone.

Stanislaw Lem derided this film version of his novel as "Love Story in Space", since it focuses so tightly on Kelvin and Rheya, as opposed to the original novel (and film)'s emphasis on a wider variety of characters.

Still, this version of the story of the psychiatrist who goes to the space station orbiting the mysterious planet/entity and is reconnected with his lost wife is, in my opinion, well served in this version. The movie does have a slow cadence to it, but its not as mind numbing as the original can be. The score is excellent, and by focusing and focusing deeply on Kelvin and Rheya, the Solaris experience is tightly set.

I loved the score and the visuals to the movie, and the performances are all right. I have learned that the movie was chopped in the editing process, and the movie does come up a bit short in characterization. Still, I really did like this version over the original, even if it is a bit of "Love Story in Space".

I decided to cast a (dead) mother for a PC based on McElhrone's performance. Her portrayal of Rheya made her a perfect wife for Brand, I thought.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:17 PM

June 17, 2007

Movie Review 2007 #70: Dangerous Liaisons

The other movie I watched for long lost Pascal was Dangerous Liaisons, starring John Malkovich (again!), Glenn Close, Michelle Pfeiffer and Uma Thurman.

Lust. Seduction. Betrayal. Revenge.

This is a character movie, with meaty characters who double-deal with each other, engage in illicit actions, and maneuver for advantage. Its a lot of fun, and the principals take the source material, originally an epistolary novel from the 19th century, and turn it in a straight story. Close and Malkovich play the Marquise and the Marquis, the widow with appetite, and the notorious rake respectively. Pfeiffer and Thurman play their pawns in their long standing amusements. Keanu Reeves has a role too as a shy teacher intended to be maneuvered into deflowering Thurman's Cecile even as Malkovich's Rake seeks to seduce Pfeiffer's happily married wife of a Judge...

Glenn Close and Pfeiffer were nominated for Oscars for their roles, but all of the performances, except the wooden Keanu Reeves, are uniformly excellent. The movie itself had other nominations, including for Best Picture (but lost to Rain Man).

Juicy and delicious! Valmont covers the same territory with different emphasis and acting, but both are worth watching.

Posted by Jvstin at 5:50 PM

Movie Review 2007 #69: The Man in the Iron Mask

One of the reasons why I was slow in getting the reviews in was that two of the movies I watched were to help inspire me for that game I sadly crashed and burned out of.

First of these is The Man in the Iron Mask, starring John Malkovich, Jeremy Irons, Gerard Depardieu, Gabriel Byrne, and Leonardo DiCaprio.

This is the movie that the Disney movie version of the Three Musketeers wishes it could be when it grows up, a modern, nineties take on Dumas with an all star cast. I think the stronger cast here helps improve matters.

The story revolves early in Louis XIV's reign, where the young King (DiCaprio) war in Holland has led to a disgruntled and starving populace. The Musketeers have moved on in their roles and lives, to the head of the King's Guard (D'Artagnan--Byrne), a priest (Aramis--Irons), a father (Athos--Malkovich) and a dissolute (Porthos--Depardieu). The King's attentions on the fiance of Athos' son leads to a series of events, and the revelation that there might be an alternative to the tyrannical King...his own double.

Bravery, action and adventure and "one final story" for the Musketeers make this an irresistable movie. Sure you can argue that after years in the Mask, the King's double should not look so good...but that's a minor nit as well as the other small anachronisms.The sets are great, the actors are all "on", and the movie is satisfying overall.

I liked it.

Posted by Jvstin at 5:45 PM

May 25, 2007

Movie Review 2007 #65-68: Harry Potter and...

In anticipation of the release of the fifth HP film and the last HP book, I decided to, over a period of days, watch the four movies extant.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

Its difficult to separate the experience of the books from the experience of the movies. One informs the other, and the cross pollination, conflicting visions, missing material and other changes makes watching the movies a complex experience.

I tried to pay attention to some more details these times and let myself decide what I liked and didn't like about the decisions in the movies.

The first movie, I think, works well in introducing the wonder of magic and the magical world to us. Harry's eyes are wide as he discovers the hidden world of wizards and witches, and so we are, too. The cinematography supports this, and its a strong vision for it.

The second movie, though, falls down. The movie and world are supposed to be darker, with kidnapping, more peril, more danger, and more subtleties in the world we have been shown. The visuals, though, don't quite match that, it feels a bit off, in my opinion. Its possibly also an example of Rowling's Sophomore slump as she began to realize "I'm writing a real series here".

Prisoner of Azkaban brings in a new director who reinvents Hogwarts visuals entirely. Cuaron (who later directed Children of Men) is probably the best technical director of the quartet. The visuals and imagery range from the blatant to the the changes of seasons shown by the Whomping Willow scenes, for example. He's also well positioned to handle the time travel elements seen in the movie as well. Where the movie lacks, and its not Cuaron's fault entirely, is that by this point, large chunks of the novel had to be jettisoned to fit into a reasonably long movie. It's clear, though, on the screen that we are simply missing things, again and again. There's information on backstory and characters that seem to inform the present but we never get a good dose of it for ourselves.

Goblet of Fire does a little better in choosing what to cut, even if the losses do make it a lesser experience than the novel itself. However, here, the director is not as technically competent as Cuaron and I think it could have been handled a bit better. Sure, there are some really good action scenes here, but I kept thinking when I watched this that I would have had someone else directing it. The epilogue feels somewhat weak, too. It doesn't convey the urgency of the situation that the novel clearly lays out for us.

So, in my opinion, Sorcerer's Stone is strong on the wonder and introduction to the Wizarding World. Azkaban has the best technical direction. Goblet of Fire does the best it can with a long novel's many threads in choosing what to eliminate. Chamber of Secrets, in my view, is the weakest of the four. It's not a bad movie, mind you, but I think Stone is a much stronger movie out of Columbus than Chamber.

I look forward to the new movie although I am nervous with yet another new director, one who doesn't have a large body of work behind him.

Posted by Jvstin at 10:59 AM

Star Wars and Me


Today is the 30th anniversary of the original release of Star Wars. I celebrated today by playing a bit of Lego Star Wars II...

Unlike many of my compatriots, I didn't see the original Star Wars in a theater. I didn't see the Empire Strikes Back in a theater, either...

The first SW movie I saw in a theater was Return of the Jedi, and that was because my older brother was now old enough to bring me, and my younger brother to the movies with him. My mother and father were not movie buffs, so it fell upon my brother to fill the gap. Return of the Jedi, as it so happens is the second movie I ever saw in a theater. The first, showing my brother's taste, was "Metalstorm 3-D: The Return of Jared-Sin."

But between that and SW, there was no chance that with my reading habits that I wasn't going to get hooked on SF cinema, especially once I became old enough to go on my own to movies.

I finally did get to see SW in a theater, during the Re-release tour in the 90's. That version of SW, although its the one I own on DVD, annoys me for reasons that you don't need me to rant upon.

Posted by Jvstin at 10:12 AM

May 21, 2007

Using Subtitles

Via the MPR weblog Movie natters, an article on "">British viewing habits.

Like ME, Britons seem to use subtitles even when they aren't hearing impaired or watching foreign television--just like I do with DVDs.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:58 PM

May 16, 2007

Amazon's Sleepers and Keepers

DVD Sleepers & Keepers

Via Amazon's new movie blog, a list of their 200 perennial selling DVDs. Not bestsellers which rise and fall, but the consistent DVDs that give them sales over time.

It's an interesting list. Some highlights of the top sellers from my POV:

#1 is the Star Wars Trilogy
#2 is Firefly
#6 is Pirates of the Carribean
#13 is the Indiana Jones Trilogy
#21 is the Princess Bride

Posted by Jvstin at 8:25 AM

May 15, 2007

Movie Review 2007 #64: Stranger than Fiction

I saw this movie last fall in theaters, and now on DVD.

Starring Will Ferrell, Emma Thompson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman and Queen Latifah.

I stand by my thoughts upon seeing it in the theater last year.

Like "Adaptation", "Stranger than Fiction" explores the boundary between reality and literature, as Harold Crick, played by Will Farrell, discovers one day that his life is being narrated by an disembodied voice of an author...and that the author has slated him to die.

STF reminds me, too, of The Truman Show, a movie where another comedic actor, Jim Carrey, was given a role where he could be somewhat humorous, but on the other hand, given some dramatic possibilities. Farrell gets the opportunity to show he is more than a comedic goof, although I think that the Truman Show was slightly more effective at this. STF plays a lot more for humor than drama.

Still, STF is a highly entertaining movie, especially to those of us who write characters and love books and literature. The five main leads are all top notch, from Gyllenhaal's baker to Thompson's writer, to Hoffman's literature professor, to Latifah's "secretary". And then there is Ferrell's Crick, an IRS agent living an uncomplicated but routine and unthinking life.

I think the movie is somewhat short of being a great movie. It doesn't fire on all cylinders all of the time and it misses some opportunities. For example, Harold's "GUI" of how his OCD like personality sees things, could have been used more consistently. Watching it again, it looks like they cut this back for some reason. Me, I loved it as an insight to the precise and orderly nature of Harold Crick's life.

Still, its worth a rental IMO, unless you are one of those people who Ferrell rubs the wrong way. The movie probably won't change your mind about him, although I've warmed to him in some of his more recent roles (this, and Bewitched)

Posted by Jvstin at 7:36 PM

Movie Review 2007 #63: Miller's Crossing

An early Coen brothers movie, a thirties era gangster film starring Gabriel Byrne.

Byrne plays Tom Reagan, advisor to Albert Finney's Prohibition era crime boss, who after years of being on top is facing strong competition and threats. The crossfire comes in literally and figuratively with Marcia Gay Hayden's moll, girlfriend to Finney's boss and secret lover of Reagan, John Turturro plays her brother who is a crux of the crossfire, and Jon Polito plays Finney's would be replacement on top. The characters are multisided, very human and very believable.

With double crosses, hidden agendas, and back dealing, the movie captures the frentic, fluid and dangerous times of gangster crime in 30's America very well. The dialogue is sharp and very funny, the visuals are very good and the movie hums along nicely. Byrne dominates the movie and holds it up as the fulcrum point between the warring factions and agendas of the other characters.

Verna: You think you've raised hell.
Tom Reagan: Sister, when I've raised hell, you'll know it!

Posted by Jvstin at 7:14 PM

Movie Review 2007 #62: Bedazzled

Until I got a message from that it was going to be released on DVD, I had no idea that the Brendan Fraser movie Bedazzled actually was a remake of a 60's movie starring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. So I decided to rent the original and see it.

Its an interesting movie.

Unlike the remake, the original Bedazzled is much more a movie of equals, with Dudley Moore as the hapless Stanley and Peter Cook as the Devil, aka George Spiggott. Set in 60's Britain, Stanley, after a failed suicide attempt, sells his soul to the Devil for seven wishes, so that he can obtain the girl of his dreams.

However, even with this episodic story,the movie is as much about the Devil's attempts to get into the graces of God again as the scenarios Moore gets into with his wishes that he has sold his soul for. The movie has a sixties vibe, look and feel and it feels very much like a movie of its times.

The performances are good, and Raquel Welch has a cameo as one of the Deadly Sins, Lust. (Lilian Lust to you and me). Its a fun little movie.

Posted by Jvstin at 7:03 PM

May 11, 2007

Movie Review 2007 #61: The Mummy (1969)

The Hammer films take on the Mummy, with Peter Cushing, and as the Mummy, Christopher Lee.

A breezy typical movie of the Hammer films oeuvre, The Mummy splits its action between an prologue set in Egypt, a narrated flashback to the past, and action in an English village several years after the Egyptian expedition, as the Mummy is used as a weapon to wreak revenge for violation of the sacred tomb in Egypt.

Things get interesting when the Mummy gets initiative and goals of its own, when it turns out that Cushing's daughter bears an uncanny resemblance to the Princess the Mummy was in love with and was eternally set to guard. The dramatic tension once the Mummy has Isobel/Ananka as an object of affection and aspiration makes the movie strong in its character tension. Although he is behind bandages the entire time, Christopher Lee shows its possible to act with just his eyes, and with clumsy body language.

Its a short and sweet way to spend an hour and change. No CGI effects, a simple, straightforward story, the Mummy doesn't reach for the stars, but its certainly not in the mire, either.

Posted by Jvstin at 9:16 PM

May 8, 2007

Movie Review 2007 #60: America's Sweethearts

A romantic comedy with Billy Crystal, Catherine Zeta Jones, John Cusack, and Julia Roberts.

A relatively harmless piece of fluff, America's Sweethearts lightly skewers the culture of moviemaking by depicting the tumultuous press junket of the latest and possibly last movie by estranged Hollywood couple Gwen Harrison (Jones) and Eddie Thomas (Cusack). Julia Roberts plays Kiki, Gwen's loyal and long suffering sister-assistant and Billy Crystal, who also directed, plays Lee Phillips, the publicist who is trying to keep their film from being a bomb and completely killing their on-life-support careers. Their estrangement has hurt them both emotionally, and at the box office, and both need a hit.

It doesn't help that Gwen is a self centered egotist that probably isn't too much of a parody, and Eddie is still hopelessly in love with her, and yet Kiki waits in the wings, if only he would see her. Throw in Christopher Walken as the crazy director of the film who won't let anyone see it, Hank Azaria as Gwen's Spanish boy toy, and Stanley Tucci as the studio head.

The resulting film, though, is less than the sum of its parts. The movie simply just doesn't have any substance. Its only mildly amusing, and doesn't really work as a romantic comedy, either. It's just there and it sits on the screen, limply. A waste of talent and time.

Not recommended.

Posted by Jvstin at 9:08 PM

Movie Review 2007 #59: Cleopatra

At the time the most expensive movie ever made, starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Rex Harrison, and in an antagonist role, Roddy Mcdowall.

Its perhaps somewhat long and overdone, but Cleopatra tells the story of its titular heroine, and Taylor holds command on screen for every moment she is on it, from being unwrapped from a rug, to her final death at the hands of an asp.

In between she deals with the two loves of her life, Julius Ceasar and Mark Antony on equal terms. The movie never forgets and never lets the viewer forget that the focus is on her, and on Egypt. The scenes not set in Egypt, or on the Egyptian Barge seem almost deliberately a notch less sumptuous than the scenes in Cleopatra's demesne.

Sure, the dialogue is wooden and clunky and the acting can be uneven at best, but the movie knows that its an epic and goes for broke, literally, trying to fill those shoes. Cleopatra doesn't completely succeed, especially at its cost, and it might provide numbness of the posterior regions, and it has problems with its history, but its still worth the time to watch at least once

Posted by Jvstin at 8:59 PM

May 6, 2007

Movie Review 2007 #58: The Mummy (1999)

The Brendan Fraser action-adventure movie, directed by Stephen Sommers.

Despite the weaknesses of his subsequent films (The Mummy Returns, Van Helsing), Sommers gets it right with The Mummy.

Brendan Fraser stars as Rick O'Connell, with the square jaw and action hero credentials to make him the perfect hero for an unabashedly pulpish movie. With Rachel Weicz (now an Oscar winner) as Evie, and John Hannah as the disreputable Jonathan, they form an action trio to go up against Arnold Vosloo's titular antagonist's plans to reconstitute himself and cast the world into darkness...oh and to resurrect the love of his life into Evie's body, willing or no.

The movie has been useful as a source of casting inspirations. Not just me (This IS the Delwin!GA movie) but also others have well have taken from the images and visuals and character archetypes of this movie for very good reason.

"Rescue the girl, stop the bad guy, save the world."

With one liners, action sequences, gorgeous filming, and a sense of fun, the Mummy does what Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade gets right. Its a tried and true formula, and its no wonder that Spirit of the Century cites it proudly as an inspiration.

While the sequel doesn't hold up for a variety of reasons, the original stands proudly and owes nothing to previous Mummy movies. A bullseye!

Posted by Jvstin at 12:15 PM

Movie Review 2007 #57: Marie Antionette

The Oscar nominated Sofia Coppola story of the titular Queen of France, starring Kirsten Dunst.

Sofia Coppola, unlike her father, still doesn't know how to plot.

Like her previous Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette suffers from a severe lack of plot and drive for that plot. Instead, the movie relies on beautiful cinematography and to a lesser extent, character study to make its way. It doesn't completely work.

Dunst plays the titular character, starting life as a naive Austrian princess who is handed over to the French and her new waiting husband...and the decadence of the French Court at Versailles, as well as its political dangers.

The movie was filmed partially at Versailles, and the movie lingers over the beautiful setting in which Marie finds herself. Every room is more opulent than the last, and it was my first real view of Versailles outside of a few static pictures. The intrigues and politics of the French court appealed to me as a roleplayer, factions, cabals, backbiting and sexual politics.

Still...for all of that, the movie lacks a driving plot. We see Marie's life, but it wanders along until the day of her downfall, without a real coherent narrative. We see plenty of characters come in and out, and things happen, but there is a real lack of structure here, just like in Lost in Translation. It's a pretty movie, and gorgeous to look at, but there is a severe lack of driving plot narrative, and that hurts the film overall.

People who disliked Lost in Translation for these weaknesses will likely dislike Marie Antoinette, too, although the subject matter might give it a larger audience willing to forgive its faults.

Posted by Jvstin at 11:52 AM

Movie Review 2007 #56: The 13th Warrior

Based on Michael Crichton's Eaters of the Dead, and starring Antonio Banderas, a cameo by Omar Sharif, and an cast of unknowns.

The 13th Warrior to me suffers from the same problem that Kingdom of Heaven does, but lacks the "extended edition" to make it right. The 13th Warrior is a cut down movie of an Epic screaming for the blood loss. It's still a worthwhile movie, but clearly there is much more that was left on the cutting room floor that would make the movie a much better film.

The 13th Warrior tells the story of Ahmed Falahan, a poet in a Baghdad Court during the height of the Caliphate in the latter years of the first millenium AD. Life is good for Ahmed, until an indiscreet look at a powerful noble's daughter gets Ahmed a new job--Ambassdor to a distant, northern land.

Along the way, Ahmed runs into a band of Northmen who soon themselves are brought news of trouble back in their distant homeland. Ahmed is led by prophecy to join this band to journey to their barbaric land, and fight an ancient evil.

The movie is remarkable in that its hero is not the typical action hero--he's an ambassador, a diplomat, not much of a fighter. And yet we mostly see things from his point of view, and get a fish out of water story. I enjoyed the refreshing change from the usual main character in this regard. We even get an excellent scene where we see just how Ahmed learns the language of his new comrades.

Still, there is a romantic subplot which is badly truncated, and there are factional politics which are also similarly cut short. These things, which could have fleshed out characters and the world even better are a terrible loss and drag down the overall rating of the movie.

Still, the action scenes are different and interesting, and despite the shortening of the movie, it still is a worthwhile view.

"I am an Ambassador, dammit. I am supposed to talk to people!"

Posted by Jvstin at 11:30 AM

April 28, 2007

Movie Review 2007 #55: Soylent Green

One of the reasons why the link on Making Light to the interesting a href="">Paleo-Future blog was so resonant with me is that, yesterday, I watched a classic movie showing a dystopic future: Soylent Green.

Its more than just "Soylent Green: It's People!", although many people who have never seen this movie know that line and plot twist.

The movie, Edward G Robinson's last, really focuses more on Heston's Detective Thorn, a corrupt cop in an overcrowded and decaying New York City in a dying 2022. Pollution, Overpopulation and Global Warming(!) have done a number on America and the World, and things truly are falling apart. Real food is impossibly expensive, and even Detective Thorn takes the opportunity to snatch some on cases when possible.

And the population doesn't know the half of it. Investigating the murder of a powerful board member of the Soylent Food Company gives us, and Thorn an entree into this unhappy world. Things are breaking down, power and resources scarce, and New York looks like a modern Calcutta in this grim film. Women that come as part of expensive apartments. "Furniture". Its a nasty, unhappy, depressive movie.

And yet it is a classic. Why? Heston is pretty good as the corrupt cop who isn't above stealing food from a dead rich man's apartment, or even a spoonful of strawberry jam (understandable at $150 a jar!). Robinson is a tragic, pitable figure who remembers the world as it was--and laments what the world has become. The female lead, Leigh Taylor-Young, is luminous as Shirl.

But, maybe, the classic status the movie has is because the movie in the end doesn't make compromises with itself or the audience. A modern remake probably would miss the point and have the hero save the world.But Soylent Green isn't meant for the hero to save the world, its meant as a cautionary tale, for us. Our world, where Global Warming and Climate Change finally are sinking into people's brains, is the target of the movie. Do something, or else this is our future, or a possible future. As it is, the movie and the book (Make Room! by Harry Harrison) miss some tricks. In such an overpopulated future, disease, I think, would be even more rampant, given the unsanitary conditions many people live in.

Not just to see Heston's histrionic "Soylent Green is people!", but in general, its worth a look.

Posted by Jvstin at 10:11 AM

April 27, 2007

Movie Review 2007 #54: Brokeback Mountain

The Oscar nominated movie starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger, with the addition of Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway.

My good friend Deb urged me to see the movie and I did want to see what the fuss was all about. Was it in fact a good movie above and beyond the controversial subject matter--a forbidden, clandestine, tragic homosexual relationship between two men in the West who meet one year while sheepherding.

It is.

Brokeback Mountain charts the tragic story of Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist. Both of them not in the best shape, financially, leads them to together take a relatively low job herding sheep on Brokeback Mountain one summer. Being all alone with just each other, sheep, and a weekly delivery of goods leads to the development of a relationship between the two men that eventually turns into an affair.

The rest of the movie unspools the consequences and aftereffects of that one summer on Brokeback. The men marry, try to make lives for themselves, but are constantly drawn back to each other. They fight, argue, play, enjoy their brief moments of happiness together, and most importantly hide their ongoing affair from their respective families as best they can. The sheer intensity of the emotional aspects of the relationships of the film, I think, is one of strong aspects of the movie and a reason why it was nominated for Best Picture. The tragedy of the inevitable ending that the story has to have, given its times and place, will make any but the most flinty hearted of people wince.

I think overall its a stronger movie than the Oscar winner for that year, Crash, and one well worth watching. The performances make the movie and sell it.

Posted by Jvstin at 7:47 PM

April 23, 2007

Movie Review 2007 #53: Dune

The original theatrical cut of the David Lynch adaptation of the Frank Herbert novel.

I thought I had seen this years ago. I was wrong.

What I had seen and remembered from TV was the "extended edition" that was disavowed by David Lynch and added a lot of stuff, some of it out of order, and vastly increasing the length of the opening narration, starting the movie with a lack of momentum.

This is the original theatrical version of the movie, and when I sat down to watch it to find that it wasn't what I thought, I was surprised. Sure, it misses a lot of things and skips many things that the 2000 Miniseries covers in more detail. And, darn it, it takes too long to get TO Dune, too much of the movie is set on Caladan and the trip to Dune.

Still, this movie, at least, has the Fremen armed with better weapons than the miniseries, where, as far as I could tell, the advanced Atreides weapons are dropped as a plotline completely and the Fremen attack with just hand weapons.

And this movie does have some decent acting talent, from Patrick Stewart to Sian Phillips. And Virginia Madsen could read a cereal box and make it sound compelling.

Still, the movie is too short by far to give the book any justice, and I suspect the less you know about the complex, rich tapestry of the book, the better off you will be with the story of Paul Muad'dib Atreides in the movie Dune.

Posted by Jvstin at 7:25 PM

Movie Review 2007 #52: Kung Fu Hustle

A wacky over-the-top Martial Arts Movie from Hong Kong.

Short on character but long on fun martial arts, Kung Fu Hustle is set in 1940's China, in a nameless city dominated by the ferocious, but well dressed Axe Gang.

Stephen Chow directs the movie and also plays Sing, a wannabe Axe Gang member who, along with his large but often sleepy companion Bone tries to shakedown a poor slum by posing as an Axe Gang member. This plan backfires, as the slum proves to house martial artists of amazing skill, who take umbrage at the shakedown. When the real Axe gang gets wind of this, the stakes escalate, as do the battles and combats, until the Axe Gang gets the services of the insane master of Kung Fu who has been locked in an asylum, and unleashes this Beast upon their opponents...

The characterization and plot are weak in the movie and frankly are beside the point. While Sing does have a story and an arc, its relatively slight, and his character growth, while it is there, is hard to see. What this movie does excel at and does well, as the action and the martial arts combats and the slapstick action.

Over the top, epic, unbelievable martial arts that border on the cartoon-y rule this movie. From the Lion's Roar to the building smashing Buddhist Palm technique, to assassins who use musical instruments to launch deadly missiles, this is not a 70's Bruce Lee Film.

The movie, too, is filled with references to American films and media, from Wile E Coyote to the Untouchables. This does reinforce the movie as simply a string of encounters and battles, but it did make me smile. There's even a Blues Brother's reference in the personage of the two musical assassins, who proclaim, "Strictly speaking, we're just musicians."

For light entertainment with over-the-top action, Kung Fu Hustle was entertaining.

Posted by Jvstin at 7:07 PM

April 20, 2007

The Sheriff of Nottingham's Blog

Via Andrew Wheeler...the Sheriff of Nottingham (from the new BBC production of Robin Hood) has a blog of his own...

Posted by Jvstin at 7:14 AM

April 17, 2007

Movie Review 2007 #51: Out of Sight

An early Steven Soderbergh movie, starring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez, amongst many other talented actors.

A small little movie with Clooney as a gentleman bank robber Jack Foley, and his tangled relationship with a Federal Marshal, Karen Sisco (J-Lo), the movie is inhabited by interesting characters whose relationships are complex, quirky and interesting.

The actual plot, which is somewhat tangled in time in the movie with cuts and jumps back and forth in the timeline, involves a plot to relieve a former prisoner of a Florida Penitentiary of his uncut diamonds. But the plot is a small part of the movie. The movie centers arounf the characters, their encounters, reactions, and development. With a cast including Dennis Farina, Don Cheadle, Albert Brooks, Ving Rhames and Luiz Guzman, the movie does very well in drawing these characters out and letting them play off of each other.

Soderbergh definitely works well with Clooney, as witness the other movies he's cast him here. The direction and cinematography here are good two, especially in scenes involving the two principals.

Although the movie turns violent at the end, the movie overall is an entertaining piece and I enjoyed seeing it, finally.

Posted by Jvstin at 7:22 PM

Movie Review 2007 #50: Night of the Comet

A blast from the 80's, starring Catherine Mary Stewart, and long before he was Chakotay, Robert Beltran.

A parody of horror movies released in the mid 80's, Night of the Comet has a very few survivors from a comet's pass near earth face off against zombie-like former humans who didn't completely turn to powder like most of humanity, as well as a band of desperate scientists looking for a way to slow, stop or reverse the process.

Mainly, though, its a lighthearted parody of earlier movies, with a few chills and thrills mixed in with dollops of comedy. "Daddy would have gotten us Uzis."

Its an apocalypse movie more than a zombie movie, and the movie never, ever takes itself too seriously. I remember fondly seeing it back in the 80's, and seeing it again was a blast from the past. The movie is definitely a relic of those times, with 80's hair, music, fashions and sensibilities throughout the film.

It may not be worthy of multiple re-viewings, but the movie was a fun trip.

Posted by Jvstin at 7:06 PM

Movie Review 2007 #49: The Three Musketeers(1993)

The Disneyified version of the Dumas Tale, with Charlie Sheen, Oliver Platt, and Kiefer Sutherland as the titular characters, and Chris O'Donnell as D'Artagnan.

Dumas is spinning in his grave, I grant you that immediately. The plot of this version of the movie has only the barest outlines of the novel or the previous movies.

And yet, the movie is fun. The cast, which also includes Tim Curry (as the Cardinal), Rebecca De Mornay (as Milady de Winter) and Julie Delpy (as Constance) has a lot of fun with the movie, and this enthusiasm is infectious.

The plot, wildly divergent from the books and previous movies involves an attempt by Richelieu to gain the throne of France by having the young King assassinated and a deal worked out with the Duke of Buckingham. With the Musketeers Corps disbanded save for the trio, D'Artagnan's arrival is a timely one to help foil plots and save King and Queen alike.

The four protagonists, though, have personalities which are at least moderately resembling of the original characters. The story and plot is much simpler and more black and white than the other Musketeer movies, of course, especially because this IS a Disney production.

On the other hand, one strong point is the telling hand of Bob Anderson, sword master. The swordplay is exciting, cinematic and entertaining, even at the expense of them being quite period. The physical comedy in this movie is a little different than the 1973 Musketeers, where D'Artagnan started off as a clumsy oafish baboon. Here, there is plenty of physical comedy, but its usually at the expense of the villains rather than the Musketeers.

Still, the movie doesn't fail to entertain, even if it has little to do with the actual story, or the actual history.

"I want them dead or alive! I prefer dead."

Posted by Jvstin at 6:46 PM

April 5, 2007

Movie Review 2007 #48: Rounders

A little film about card hustling and the descent into the underworld that it can bring, with Matt Damon, John Malkovich, Gretchen Mol, and Edward Norton.

It's a card short of the straight flush of a movie that it wants to be.

Damon plays Mike Mcdermott, a law student and card player who gets in over his head in an illegal card game with Teddy KGB (a scene stealing Malkovich). He tries to swear off the game and go straight, but the release of his old partner from prison (Norton) leads him further and further, deeper and deeper into gambling debt and trouble.

The movie is strong on showing how poker works, and how the top players play the other players, rather than the cards. The action at the table is as intense and exciting as, say, the game in Casino Royale.

Where the movie falls down is that its a little underwritten along the edges, especially at the end. The denouement of Norton's and Mol's characters feel weak and forced. I think the last act of the script could really have used a rewrite. It is a pity, because there are two thirds of a pretty good movie here, with strong performances and a decent script, but the weak final act brings down the grade to an overall okay.

Posted by Jvstin at 7:30 PM

April 2, 2007

Movie Review 2007 #47: The Impostors

An "Actor's movie" that is a throwback to 30's screwball comedies, with Stanley Tucci and Oliver Platt and many other actors.

I mean it when I say this is an actor's movie. The direction is okay, the script is not that strong, with the plot really a meandering series of scenes.

The acting, however, is king, with over-the-top characters that you will either hate passionately for being unrealistic, or you will adore and get into for being bold archetypes by performers very happy to put themselves fully into their roles.

I find myself in the latter camp. Describing the plot is somewhat silly, but it revolves around Maurice and Arthur (Platt and Tucci), two starving actors in the 30's who are on the edge of desperation. Circumstances involving running afoul of a big Broadway actor, Sir Jeremy Burtom (Alfred Molina) and accidentally winding up on a cruise ship bound for Paris. There, they run into an assortment of zany characters played by the likes of Tony Shaluoub, Lili Taylor, Hope Davis, Steve Buscemi, and even Isabella Rosellini. Everyone has secrets, especially Maurice and Arthur, who are forced into a succession of ever wackier disguises to stay one step ahead of Molina.

Oh, and there are other subplots but its all excuses for physical comedy, wordplay, and farce. Its a cream puff of a movie, but the actors have a lot of fun, the movie is lighthearted, underrated and very very funny.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:47 PM

Movie Review 2007 #46: This Film is Not Yet Rated

A documentary that tries to expose the murky, hidden world of the MPAA rating system.

Part series of interviews with filmmakers and actors, part expose, This Film... is a study of the rating system of the Motion Picture Association of America.

The film rating system in this country is governed by a secret panel created by the major film studios at the end of the 1960's, headed by the now retired Jack Valenti.

Since its inception the MPAA ratings board has functioned as a sort of 'black box' where movies go in one end and a rating comes out the other, with absolutely no transparency or public accountability of the process. TFINYR tries to shine a light into that black box.

The movie follows two threads, giving interviews with filmmakers and people in the industry brave enough to speak out against a system that is reportedly mandatory, but in reality has enormous control over the art of films. The ideas of censorship, of stifling creative expression are repeatedly hammered again and again. The membership of the ratings panel is secret, the process is obscured, and the power wielded is enormous.

A parallel thread to these interviews and views is borderline legal detective work, where Jack Kirby, the director and creator of the film, employs a detective agency to find out the names of members of the ratings board, of the appeals process and anything else he can learn about the process. I felt a bit uncomfortable about the exposure of these people...until who and what they are clashed with the lies and deceptions given out about the make up of this panel. For example, the PR agent of the MPAA claimed that the ratings board's goal was to rate films especially for families with children, and yet few of the board members had anything but adult children. The appeals board has two members of the clergy present, ostensibly there as silent witnesses, but the detectives learn that they are active voters.

The travails of when Kirby submits the film itself to the board, is given an NC-17 rating (there is a lot of sexual content in the movie admittedly), and then the appeals process just highlights the secretive nature of the process. The documentary's goal is to make it clear that the ratings system is not designed for the benefit of the public, or filmmakers, but rather it exists for and is the creature the benefit of major studios.

I think it makes that case very well. Again, while the PI work made me queasy, the revelations of just how crooked and secretive a process rating films is was an eye opener.

Recommended for cinephiles.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:21 PM

April 1, 2007

Movie Review 2007 #45: Zardoz

The strange and bizarre 70's movie starring Sean Connery and directed by John Boorman.

I am not sure how to review this movie. Its one of the more bizarre, turgid, and inconsistent movies I've ever seen, and I've watched enough David Lynch to give it a run for the money.

But long before the weirdness of Lynch, Boorman produced, on a miniscule budget, a vision of the future where rich immortals live isolated from the post-apocalyptic barbarism outside. Connery plays "Zed", a Brutal whose job is to cull the population of the primitives who live in the wastelands. Zardoz is a "god" invented by one of the Eternals as a means of controlling the population. But when Zed finds his way into the Vortex and encounters the immortals, he's a catalyst to change their decaying, static world.

The visuals are cheap, the movie is frustratingly digressive, and lots of ideas get tossed in the mix with minimal development. Civilization's end, immortality, genetic manipulation, artificial intelligence, psionics, and even the suggestion that these decadent immortals invented space travel, too.

But with some laughingly bad dialogue, gratuitous nudity, bad plotting, and a strange ending, the movie is a very strange beast. What else can you make of a movie whose dialogue includes the admonition. "The Gun is Good. The Penis is Evil."

Posted by Jvstin at 2:53 PM

March 25, 2007

Movie Review 2007 #44: Conversations With Other Women

A strangely titled movie starring Aaron Eckhart and Helena Bonham Carter that would be
an ordinary relationship movie save for the unusual manner in which it was filmed.

The entire movie is filmed in split screen. In a small segment on the DVD, the director, explains why. Hans Canosa explains that it lets him show reactions between the two, unnamed protagonists, some alternate presents, some flashbacks and other tricks as the narrative drives forward.

The movie itself without these things would be an ordinary but well acted "one night's stand" that feels like a lifetime, as two people at a wedding meet, and we quickly deduce they have met before. The movie is set around their conversations and their discussions of their past, and their present, and perhaps their future. So while, like, say, Before Sunrise, the movie takes place in a single night, the focus is tightly on the characters. The two characters come alive to each other and us in the confines of the movie and not everything about their prior history is spelled out, leaving the viewer to tease it out.

Eckart and Carter do have chemistry, and that makes the bittersweet ending all the more poignant but given everything, its a good ending and a good movie. I think the movie would be less significant if it was conventionally filmed, and I think the more cinephilic readers will want to see it for those aspects.

Posted by Jvstin at 7:23 PM

Movie Review 2007 #43: Quills

Quills is a movie about many things: Sex, writing, dark desires, madness, creativity, sex... in 19th century France.

It has an Academy Award nominated Geoffrey Rush as the Marquis de Sade, Kate Winslet, Michael Caine and Joaquin Phoenix.

Another of my favorite movies, because of, not even despite, its tremor of darkness. Quills tells the story of the Marquis De Sade within the sanitarium at Chareton, and those around him--the Abbe (Phoenix) who gently tries to "cure" the Count of his dark thoughts, the winsome maiden servant (Winslet) drawn like a moth to Rush's flame, and the Doctor (Caine) who is brought in when the Abbe's methods prove insufficient and sterner methods must be taken. But the use of those causes a chain reaction of events that turn very grim indeed.

Its lighthearted in parts, and wickedly funny, perhaps surprising given the source material, but there is also very dark material here--whippings, torture, imprisonment, rape, and death. The movie is relatively uncompromising in its theme that creativity must not be stifled, or else serious consequences will result. Its a provocative movie in that way, and its themes and its position is one that many people in this country would seriously disagree with.

The dialogue is top notch, the acting is first rate, and the vision of a 19th century sanitarium is a complete and holistic one (it got an Oscar nomination for Art Direction), with great direction, too.

I think it ranks with the movies that were nominated for Best Picture that year (Gladiator, Erin Brockovich, Chocolat, Crouching Tiger, and Traffic). It never had a real chance of getting a nomination itself, but I think that it should have, in an ideal world.

Not for everyone, or the squeamish, but I really liked it. I need to screencap Rush writing to use as an icon at some point.

Posted by Jvstin at 6:54 PM

March 11, 2007

Movie Review 2007 #42: 300

I went to see "300" today, based on the Frank Miller graphic novel and starring Gerard Butler as King Leonidas, Lena Headey as Queen Gorgo, Dominic West as Theron and David Wenham as Dilios.

(NB: Howard Waldrop and Lawrence Pearson give their own, more detailed, review on Locus' website)

Gladiator +Troy +2 ( Sin City)=300

Twice removed from historical events, 300 tells the story, sort of, of the Battle of Thermopylae, 480 BC, where a small force of Spartans, three hundred in number, together with some Greek allies used the constricted environment of the pass to delay the force of King Xerxes of Persia, inflicting heavy losses and delaying Xerxes' plans enough that he was later defeated, at land and sea.

300 centers on the story of King Leonidas of Sparta, leader of the men doomed to die. With an early look at his formative experiences, Leonidas is shown as a leader of the City, a family man with his wife Gorgo, and son, and most importantly as a leader of men in battle.

Cinematically and stylistically, the movie has a unique, strong vision that is unrelenting. It was a bit hard to take for two hours, but its gorgeously done in strange palettes not usually seen outside of a photoshop plugin. The movie is extremely violent. If you do not want to see men die, and die violently, then you should avoid this movie. There are a couple of scenes of prurient interest. The action scenes vary from a very realistic use of a Hoplite formation to more LOTR-like superheroics. LOTR was clearly an inspiration for some of the action and visuals of this movie.

The movie also likes the idea of showing monstrosity. From the deformed traitor Ephialtes, to the Immortals leader, to the priestly Ephors, the movie likes to depict monstrosity in a number of forms. One might say that the ultimate monstrosity depicted in the movie is the slavery represented by the Persians.

I cannot write this review, however, without mentioning the depiction of the Persians. I am disquieted by the way the Persians are shown. Certainly, Xerxes' forces were diverse, ethnically in real life. However, Xerxes' army did not have any real numbers of Africans. Xerxes's army also did not use Rhinos and Elephants, either. The fight scenes involving them reminded me of Lord of the Rings.

In addition, Xerxes himself is referred to and depicted as a God-King. The real Persians did not go in for such things. Also, the Persians did not use slave soldiers to the extent that the movie shows. In point of fact, Xerxes used a lot of mercenaries, paid soldiers. I understand that the movie uses this to draw a simple parallel. Persians=Slavery Greeks=Freedom. But its inaccurate and the movie would have been better if it had been more faithful.

The sexual overtones, though, are more offensive than inaccurate. The Persians are depicted as hedonists who blur the boundaries between genders, from Xerxes (who looks like a more feminized version of one of the Southerners from Return of the King),to his concubines (a few transsexuals are listed in the credits as performers!). Compared with the hyper-masculinised Spartans, its easy to see the implication that the Persian way of life is considered bad.

On the other hand ,the movie doesn't seem misogynistic. Despite a view of a sibyl, background characters (including Persian concubines), Gorgo is the only real female character in the movie. Even so, and fortunately, she is ably depicted as a strong character, a woman who not only stands by her man, but uses her strength for the good of her city.

So do I recommend this movie? There are very definitely demographics who would run from this movie like the plague. And probably should. The movie feels like a video game for boys and men, and perhaps those who want to linger on the forms of the Spartan men will enjoy the movie. From a stylistic point of view, from an action point of view I enjoyed it. The themes of honor, sacrifice, loyalty and courage are good ones. And yet the inaccuracies and disquieting depictions bug me.

I give the movie a neutral overall rating and leave it to the reader of this review to decide if they want to see the movie or not. I probably will see it again on DVD...if for no other reason then to get David Wenham in Spartan garb screencaps for my character Diomedes.

Posted by Jvstin at 6:47 PM

Movie Review 2007 #41: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Until, perhaps, if the rumored Indy 4 really does happen, this is the capstone of the Indiana Jones chronicles, bringing Sean Connery in as Henry Jones, Sr in the quest for the Holy Grail.

Indy's third movie is a return to what made the first one great. No more nonsense with infuriating female characters, Indy being willing to sell artifacts, or kid sidekicks. Instead we get a beautiful treacherous Nazi, villains to hate, challenges and puzzles as devilish as any in Raiders, and a rollicking adventure.

The late River Phoenix starts us off with a look at young Indiana Jones, and we learn why he's afraid of snakes, and where he got the hat, and got a taste for using a whip . Cut to the present and the disappearance of his father in searching for clues to the Holy Grail, and we are off on another whirlwind adventure.

Venetian tombs! Zeppelins! The City of Petra! Great dialogue and banter. "I should have mailed it to the Marx Brothers!" The movie consistently hits high notes. The movie even hits a couple of themes in the midst of all of its action and adventure. Reconcilation. What is important in life? And knowing when to stop before obsessions consume you completely.

But, in the end, what can you say when a movie has its two main characters, who have both drunk of the water of Eternal Life, ride off into the sunset?

Long live Indiana Jones!

Posted by Jvstin at 6:22 PM

March 10, 2007

Movie Review 2007 #40: Borat

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

It stars Sasha Baron Cohen as the titular character.

Borat is a strange beast.

SBC stays completely in character as a Kazakhstan reporter named Borat who travels to America on behalf of his nation. He interacts with US citizens common and uncommon, from NYC subway riders to former Congressman Bob Barr.

His character is filthy by our standards, funny, irreverent and irrepressible as he and his producer travel across America. He is a living cartoon, who holds up to America their own sometimes unbelievable prejudices and attitudes. Some of his adventures, as he stays firmly within the concept of the dim bulb Borat, work better than others. And I am not that thrilled with the end game, as Borat heads relentlessly to find and marry Pamela Anderson, object of his desire. Still, Cohen has a natural talent for melding into character and his Golden Globe award is well deserved.

The movie is guaranteed to make you uncomfortable because of the equal opportunity targets. There will be something here to make you squirm and the movie is definitely not for children and many people can happily live their lives without seeing the film.

Still, if you want a taste of bleeding edge comedy, then try Borat. I am in no great hurry to see it again, or to own it but I don't regret getting a dose of it.

Posted by Jvstin at 4:43 PM

Movie Review 2007 #39: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

The weakest of the three Indiana Jones movies, Temple of Doom brings back Harrison Ford in a prequel to the events of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The movie has some good things going for it, but a few weaknesses mar the experience and bring it down from the stellar heights of the first movie.

Temple of Doom tells the story of Jones inadvertent trip to India, and stopping a cult of Kali Ma from esoteric domination of India, and, eventually the world. This movie, along with a few others, is directly responsible for the creation of the PG-13 rating since it is very dark for a PG rating--with people sacrificed to fire pits, and hearts removed from chests.

The dark visuals and the untapped potential of the region and story are pluses. The opening scenes, with a mad fight for a diamond and a poison antidote, through the escape of a plane set to crash, match anything in the other two Indy movies.

And then there are the weaknesses.

First, no offense to Kate Capshaw, but her character as written and depicted is annoying. Give me Marion Ravenwood or Ilsa Schneder over this annoying lounge act. She got tiresome after a while.

And then there is the classic blunder, the one other than not starting a land war in Asia. Adding a cute kid and making that kid a focal point never works. It doesn't work for a baby for a TV show. It didn't work for Scrappy Doo. It didn't work for Gremlin, the annoying creature added to the Flash Gordon cartoon. It didn't work for the Mummy Returns.

And it doesn't work here. Oh, I think I know *why* Spielberg did it--to give a character that kids can relate to. Short Round is hardly a bystander in the movie, and takes an active part in Indy's adventures. But this detracts from Indy as a hero, rather than enhancing it.

Still, with things like the Mine Car chase and leavening of humor, while Temple of Doom is the weakest of the three movies, it still is far more fun to watch than many of its pale imitations, thematic and otherwise.

Posted by Jvstin at 4:10 PM

March 3, 2007

Movie Review 2007 #38 Inside Man

A movie which inspired an NPC I created for Time Under Chaos, Inside Man is a Spike Lee joint starring Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Jodie Foster and Christopher Plummer.

"My name is Dalton Russell. Pay strict attention to what I say because I choose my words carefully and I never repeat myself."

Clive Owen begins the movie in this way as he lays out the "perfect" bank robbery, using clever techniques to confuse and blur the barriers between hostages and bank robbers.

Arrayed against him and his team are Denzel Washington as Det. Keith Frazier, a detective with a cloud over his head which might be removed or at least delayed from raining with a successful end to the robbery/hostage crisis, and Chiwetel Ejiofor plays his partner.

And with agendas of their own are Jodie Foster as fixer Madeleine White and Christopher Plummer as the bank founder with some very dark secrets.

Even knowing the twists and turns, and you get a sense of how the hostage drama is going to end soon into the movie anyway thanks to the storytelling techniques, the movie for me holds up on multiple viewings. The performances are all first rate, the soundtrack is good, Lee's cinematography is very good too.

And, as I alluded before, I liked the movie so much that I decided to have Owen as the casting call for my next Amber character--and I brought along Jodie Foster as a NPC tied to him, based on the strong performance she gives here, far removed from her usual roles. The Mayor describes White as a magnificent c--t, and Foster clearly loved playing her.

I highly enjoy this movie, and it even has a couple of homages and links to another movie about a NYC bank robbery, Dog Day Afternoon.

Posted by Jvstin at 7:15 PM

Movie Review 2007 #37: Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark

One of my desert island movies, Raiders of the Lost Ark stars Harrison Ford and is directed by Steven Spielberg.

I had forgotten some of the early details in this movie before Indy heads on his way to Tibet and fate, but otherwise this movie still held up for me, even if I knew every plot twist and set piece coming.

You know the story and the character, Indiana Jones, the archaeologist who teaches at a University during the day, but is secretly a world-spanning adventurer of archeology. From fighting in a on-fire bar in Tibet, to scoping out the Ark of the Covenant, to tackling Nazi bad guys, Indy is a true hero.

The movie is homage to the old serial cliffhangers, and it has many set pieces where Indy's fate lies in as dire peril as the heroes of those old serials. And, of course, with luck and skill, Indy always comes through.

Indy has a great supporting cast, featuring Paul Freeman as his nemesis, Belloq, but also John Rhys Davies as Sallah, Karen Allen as Marion and even a small role early in the movie for Alfred Molina.

Sure, the special effects in the last piece are primitive by today's standards, but like the serials of old, this movie isn't about that--its about action and adventure. I could pick the plot holes in the movie, too, if I wanted...but they are besides the point, IMO.

If you somehow have missed seeing this gem, you owe it to yourself to correct that imbalance in the force and do so.

Posted by Jvstin at 5:51 PM

Movie Review 2007 #36: Escape from L.A.

It was suggested to me that after seeing Escape From New York, I would usefully benefit from the freshness of that in my mind when watching this.

Escape from LA brings back Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken, and also has Steve Buscemi, Cliff Robertson, Pam Grier, Bruce Campbell and Stacy Keach.

I am very ambivalent about this movie after seeing it.

I think the movie suffers from an identity crisis. It doesn't know what it wants to be. It feels like part sequel, part pastiche, part deconstruction, and part remake. With all of these hats on its head, the movie itself gets lost and muddled.

Escape from L.A. takes place a few years after EFNY. A fire and brimstone presidential candidate (Robertson) predicts L.A., center of sin, will be devastated for its impiety and be separated from the mainland. When this actually happens, he is swept into office, for life.

However, his willful, wayward daughter, holding a device capable of shutting down all electronic devices in a city, a country or even the whole world takes the device to L.A., even as the world, tired of the fascistic America's warmongering, prepares to invade.

And only the recently recaptured Snake Plissken is capable of going into L.A. and finding said daughter and device in time...

The thumbnail plot shows that it has some parallels to the original movie, but it goes further than that. The movie tries to deconstruct Plissken, by having the US Police Force well aware of his proclivities and prepared for him. On the other hand, Plissken's adventures parallel the original film: He is put under a time limit by a means somewhat different than the capsules from the first film, but it works just as well as a goad. He meets a woman who falls for him, who dies shortly thereafter, just like the original. Steve Bucsemi's Eddie is a parallel to Ernest Borgnine's Cabbie. The names even rhyme and each of them are just as knowledgeable about their home turf--and just as duplicitous.

And, like the first movie, Snake is captured and forced to play in a deadly game--one in which he is not expected to win. It is not really a spoiler to say that Plissken wins.

The movie's ending has parallels too, although I don't want to give that away. And there are other parallels too, which, having seen EFNY so recently, stand out.

So, with this mix of remake, pastiche, sequel and deconstruction, I am not sure that the movie knows what it wants to be. It makes it hard to get a handle on it. I think that the movie would have been better served by sticking to one level rather than being an amalgam. It was moderately entertaining, but in my opinion, its a very poor relation to Escape from New York.

Posted by Jvstin at 5:28 PM

February 27, 2007

Movie Review 2007 #35: Casanova

The recent 2005 telling of the legendary lover, with Heath Ledger in the title role, along with Sienna Miller, Jeremy Irons and Oliver Platt

It's historicalesque, and as historically accurate as, say, Dangerous Beauty. (Perhaps a little less so, even). Casanova tells the story of the title character, and his discovery of a woman he could truly love, in the midst of Carnevale, other suitors, a forced marriage, the Inquisition and other perils.

The movie is a comedy and plays for laughs and the actors have an easy feel for the comedy even if the characters themselves are not written as being overly complex. The movie never takes itself that seriously, employing a pig on a couple of occasions for a laugh. I was amused to see Platt in yet another historical movie set in Venice. This time, though, he plays a far less malevolent character. In truth, even the dangerous and antagonistic Bishop Pucci. He's made out to be a figure of fun. Omid Djalili, who is otherwise best known for being the warden in the Brendan Fraser version of the Mummy, is great as Lupo, sidekick to Casanova.

Turn off the brain, stop the screaming that you will want at the anachronisms and outright mistakes from history (the balloon for instance) is the only way you can enjoy the movie for the light entertainment that it is.

Posted by Jvstin at 7:15 PM

Movie Review 2007 #34: The Lion in Winter

In vain hopes of conjuring an Oscar for Peter O'Toole, I popped in one of his best performances, with a cast that includes Oscar winner Katherine Hepburn, a young Timothy Dalton, and Anthony Hopkins.

The story is familiar and favored by Amber players everywhere. It's 1183 and we're all Barbarians, as King Henry II holds a Christmas Court where he invites his three children, his estranged wife Eleanor, his mistress Alais, and the young King of France together to deal with his future...and theirs.

While the DVD is a poor edition (no subtitles in a movie that relies on dialogue!), the movie crackles and spits like a fattened pig being turned over a fire. The performances are what drive the movie, characters that any viewer can sink their teeth into.

Betrayal, suspicion, double-dealing, revelations, secrets. Just your typical family gathering, right?

I have seen the remake with Patrick Stewart...but even with Stewart and Close, it doesn't hold a candle to this one. I would love a "special edition" of this movie, with a cleaned up picture, sound, subtitles and the lot. In the meantime, there is still the version I own.

And then there are the last lines of the movie.

"I hope we never die"--Henry
"So do I"--Eleanor
"Do you think there's any chance of it?"--Henry

Posted by Jvstin at 6:45 PM

Movie Review 2007 #33: The Red Violin

Before Independent films and studios were a dime a dozen, most independent films were indeed "under the radar". The Red Violin in 1998 was part of a tradition of such films gaining wider release and attention by a sprinkling of more well known actors and more accessible themes.

The Red Violin's main stars are Samuel Jackson and Greta Sacchi.

The Red Violin tells the story of the titular instrument, a special violin, created at the same time as a tragic event in the Bussotti household. The movie revolves around two hubs, a tarot reading by Cesca, at the time of the violin's creation, which foretells its fate, and the present day, when the violin is presented at auction.

The stories span the history of the instrument and the music it makes, from gypsy players, to a violin prodigy, to a tempestous affair between a Victorian composer/player and a writer, to the Cultural Revolution in China, and finally the revelation and investigation of the revealed instrument by Jackson's Charles Morritz. The stories are all very good. This can be a two edged sword, any particular story does not last too long before we are whisked away to the next one, with the tarot reading and the auction as intercutting scenes.

The movie won an Oscar for best original score, which is fitting and proper for a movie which is based on a violin and the music it makes. The music is beautiful to listen to, since we get so many different types of violin music throughout the film, from folk to gypsy to classical.

The movie is seductive, sexy, and engages the senses.

Amber introduced me to this movie, since it was one of her favorites, and it has, since, become one of mine.

Posted by Jvstin at 6:23 PM

Movie Review 2007 #32: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is based on the existential eponymous play it is based upon.

R&G are Dead tells the story, loosely, of the two minor characters from Hamlet, with Gary Oldman and Tim Roth playing the title characters. Among other conceits in the movie is a question of identity, as in which of two is which. Richard Dreyfuss heads a group of Players that the duo meet on their journey to Elsinore, and their fateful encounter with Hamlet and the rest of the play.

The movie is not the easiest thing to get into, being much in line with, say, Tristan Shandy. The movie begins with the characters debating what a series of same-result coin tosses means in the greater scheme of things. The movie spends its time with such things, as the inevitable and unavoidable doom of the characters (unbeknownst to the characters) slowly unwinds. The "Game of Questions" for example.

The movie definitely has the feel of a movie based on a play, and that is not entirely a good thing. Although I have neither seen the play performed, nor have read it, I got the feeling, while watching the movie, that the material is better displayed in that medium, rather than a film. It's not a bad film, but I think that film is not the best way to enjoy the R&S experience. Theaterphiles, of course, should and will love this movie.

Posted by Jvstin at 5:50 PM

February 26, 2007

Oscar Winners 2007

Congradulations to the 2007 Oscar Winners!

Some of the Major Winners:

Best Picture: The Departed
Best Director: Martin Scorcese, The Departed.

At long last Martin gets his Oscars. Departed also won for adapted screenplay and Editing.

Best Actor: Forest Whitaker, Last King of Scotland.

I was hoping O'Toole would win (funny enough, I watched The Lion in Winter to try and give him some mojo yesterday) but I've heard very good things about Whitaker's performance.

Best Actress: Helen Mirren, The Queen

I hadn't heard of any serious challenges to her win ever since she was nominated.

Best Supporting Actor: Alan Arkin, Little Miss Sunshine.

I suppose the Academy couldn't give an Oscar to Eddie Murphy, or they wanted to give LMS something.

Best Supporting Actress: Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls.

Like Helen above, it seemed pre-ordained since she was nominated. She lost American Idol...but won an Oscar. Not a bad trade.

Best Animated Feature: Happy Feet.

Disappointed. I was hoping Cars would win.

Best Documentary: An Inconvenient Truth

Lose the White House, win the Oscar for Al. Not such a good trade. It also won for Best Original Song.

Best Foreign Film: The Lives of Others

How Pan's Labyrinth lost I'll never know. Pan's Labyrinth did win a Cinematography Oscar.

Posted by Jvstin at 6:37 AM

February 25, 2007

Movie Review 2007 #31: Escape from New York

The cult classic, directed by John Carpenter and starring Kurt Russell, Donald Pleasance, Ernest Borgnine and Isaac Hayes

"Call me Snake"

In a dark, fascistic, grimy 1997, NYC has been the one maximum security prison in the US for the last 6 years. Into this hellhole come two men--the President of the United States, whose plane is hijacked and forced to crash into one of the buildings in downtown Manhattan. He carries a crucial tape that might end the long standing war with Russia and China...

And the other man is bank robber, former war hero Snake Plissken, the only man capable of getting him out in time...

Sure the movie has plot holes galore, but the plot is beside the point. The depiction of a grimy, ruined Manhattan, the individualistic, nihilistic Snake Plissken is what makes this movie work and work it does. He is a captivating, strong character whose high action exploits, from landing the glider on top of the WTC, to his deathmatch fight in Madison Square Garden, are riveting. And New York City in this alternate 1997 is a character of its own.

The other performances, from Lee Van Cleef as Police Commissioner Hauk to Borgnine's Cabbie are lots of fun.

"A number one" indeed.

Posted by Jvstin at 10:37 AM

Movie Review 2007 #30: For Your Consideration

One of my friends at work is a big Christopher Guest fan (especially but not only for "This is Spinal Tap"), and on his suggestion and given that the Academy Awards are being given out today, I decided to see his latest movie. For Your Consideration gives the director a role, as well as a bevy of actors ranging from Eugene Levy to Fred Willard to Parker Posey

I was disappointed, especially after having seen much better movies about filmaking (State and Main, The Player).

For your Consideration is the story of a little film, Home for Purim, which gets caught up in Oscar hype. In the filming of the film, a hardworking, little recognized actress is casually mentioned as a possible Oscar nominee. This whips up a hysteria amongst the still-shooting film, as the director and actors deal with the possibilities of stardom and recognition for all.

The movie just seems to come up a bit short, IMO.While there are plenty of quirky characters, unusual actors, and amusing sequences, there is something lacking in this movie, a piece which is just missing. For example, and it is a bit of a spoiler, the movie, as the possible Oscar nominee buzz grows and grows, has its backers and producers suggest changes to the script to make it more mainstream. The final product is called "Home for Thanksgiving" rather than "Home for Purim."--but we don't ever get to see how it looks different on the screen after these changes. I felt quite cheated by this.

Also, the movie is played straight rather than as a quasi-documentary as so many of Guest's other movies (eg Spinal Tap) are. I think it might have worked better in that style, rather than a traditional narrative. The movie doesn't seem to like many of its actors and actresses, and its difficult to get sympathy for the plight of these hard working actors and director when they are plain unlikeable.

And so wither the characters, so goes the movie.

Posted by Jvstin at 10:23 AM

Movie Review 2007 #29: Clue

I've seen bits of it before, but finally have seen the entire film, with a cast that includes Tim Curry, Martin Mull and Madeline Kahn. I decided to rent it because we were referencing it in some emails regarding a PBEM I am in (Time Under Chaos).

You've played the board game, and here is the movie. Several strangers, all brought together under pseudonyms based on the board game pieces are brought to a mysterious house under mysterious auspices. With Tim Curry as the butler Wadsworth, the evening is soon revealed to be a revelation of old secrets and blackmail by the pun-named "Mr Boddy". Mr Boddy soon turns up dead, and its not at all clear who killed him...since all have motive, method and opportunity. As others visit the House and meet the same fate, the movie runs at a frentic pace of comedy, wordplay and fun between the actors.

When the movie came out in theaters, there were three possible endings on who did it, and theaters randomly showed one of the endings. The DVD allows you to see all three. I don't want to reveal the endings, although they are, IMO, unequal in comedic value and revelatory nature.

But who did it is really besides the point. The movie thrives on the chemistry between the actors, one liners and physical comedy making this a lighthearted and very funny movie.

To make a long story short...

"Too late!"

I highly enjoyed this movie. While not all of the actors are at equal levels, the overall quality of the performances is high. I was quite entertained.

Posted by Jvstin at 10:16 AM

February 20, 2007

Movie Review 2007 #28: Where Eagles Dare

I decided for the heck of it to watch one of the war movies Dad liked again, even though I watched it a couple of times last year in preparation for running an ACUS game based on it. How often do you get to see a movie starring Richard Burton AND Clint Eastwood?

One day Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood decided to win World War II...

Okay, that's a joking introduction to the movie I've seen on some copies of the DVD. The actual plot is a labyrinthine uncovering of double agents, starring Richard Burton as the lead British agent, and Eastwood as the American Lieutenant that is the only member of his team that he can trust. The plot revolves around infiltration of Schloss Adler, Castle of the Eagles, where an American General with knowledge of what will be the Normandy landings is being held prisoner...or is he?

The movie does, IMO, run a bit long and could have been a little tighter. Still, its great fun to see the heroes infiltrate the Castle, kill Germans, and save the day .The Germans are a complex enemy which is anything but monolithic--there are clear lines of division of factions amongst the Germans, especially as embodied by The Prisoner alumnus Alexis Kramer. He plays a Gestapo officer disliked by much of the Castle staff with great enthusiasm.

Where Eagles Dare entertains and if you like WWII war movies and haven't seen this one--you should rent it, and see one of the best.

Posted by Jvstin at 5:49 PM

Movie Review 2007 #27: A Prairie Home Companion

Another movie I watched not long ago, starring Garrison Keillor, and a fine cast of actors. It's the last movie directed by Robert Altman.

Okay, so its not The Player or one of the greatest of Altman's films, but its a very serviceable film. The film depicts the last broadcast of a "Prairie Home Companion", in the movie's universe not a big NPR hit, but a local show on a local independent radio station which is about to be bought by a big corporation in Texas.

APHC: The Movie takes us backstage, from the underemployed Guy Noir (Kevin Kline), to the sister single act of Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep (with Lindsay Lohan as her daughter). There's GK himself of course, and the radio show regulars. Woody Harrelson and John C Reilly play the singing cowboys Dusty and Lefty. Tommy Lee Jones is the corporation ax man here to see the last show before they pave paradise and put up a parking lot. And Virginia Madsen plays (literally) an angel.

A character movie whose plot is secondary to the characters and their interactions with each other, it is a very typical Altman film in that regard. The musical numbers are a mixed bag, ranging from the elegiac to the average. The fictional PHC doesn' t have news from Lake Wobegon (shame!).

And yet, the movie entertains. Now, when I hear the real PHC on the radio, when the skit for Guy Noir comes on, I can't help but imagine Kevin Kline in the role.

Altman fans, or fans of the radio show, should see the movie. Others might not want to spend two hours of their life, since the movie is not for everyone. I can think of a few people who this movie, frankly, would bore to tears.

Posted by Jvstin at 5:41 PM

Movie Review 2007 #26: Labyrinth

One of the ur-fantasy movies of the 80's, starring Jennifer Connelly and David Bowie

My review last year stands, save for having forgotten most of the movie,. since its now only been a few months since I've seen it last.

From the wizardry of Jim Henson, Labyrinth is a faerie tale come to life, and works by the rules by such. A careless wish by Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) results in her baby brother being kidnapped by the Goblin King, played wonderfully by David Bowie. To undo her mistake and retrieve him, Sarah has to explore the fantastic world of the Labyrinth, with fantastic friends and foes as envisioned by Jim Henson puppetry.

And there are songs! The Goblin King sings! Yes, by the standards of today, that seemed a bit silly, but the sincere acting of Jennifer Connelly, the scene chewing performance of David Bowie, and the bold imaginatively depicted world created by Jim Henson and Brian Froud (who was responsible for The Dark Crystal) make this movie a classic.

Sure, technology has gotten much better and I shudder to think of the CGI remake that someone might do to this movie, but do go and see it, if you hadn't already.

Through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered, I have fought my wayhere to the castle beyond the Goblin City to take back the child that you have stolen, for my will is as strong as yours, and my kingdom is as great. You have no power over me.

Seeing it again, I can see how Labyrinth is an inspiration for movies like the Neverending Story, Mirrormask and Pan's Labyrinth, although the last movie is far darker than Henson's creation.

Posted by Jvstin at 5:34 PM

Movie Review 2007 #25: Peter Pan

A wondrous, inclusive and comprehensive version of the Peter Pan story.

Most people's contact with Peter Pan, these days, is the animated Disney version. There is also Hook which depicts a grown up Peter Pan taking on his old nemesis, and of course, the original book.

This version of Peter Pan, with a mostly British cast highlighted with Lynn Redgrave as Aunt Millicent, gets the bitter and the sweet of Peter Pan's existence, as he leads Wendy and her brothers to Neverland, to encounter Captain Hook, the Lost Boys, and that crocodile...

Jeremy Sumpter, as Peter Pan, does an excellent job. The sense of perpetual arrest in Pan's growth and life is never so well depicted as it is in this movie. The visuals are strong and while there is danger to our heroes, the movie can and should take its place alongside movies such as the Wizard of Oz that works for adults and their children alike.

And this Peter Pan gets the ending right for a change. Peter's view of the reunited Darlings, along with the Lost Boys, and his own lonely return to Neverland with Tinkerbell is not supposed to be triumphant, but sad. Peter Pan is trapped, forever, as what he is, and cannot grow or change.

Wendy, played by Rachel Hurd Wood, captures the girl on the verge of womanhood very well indeed. She inhabits the role of Wendy completely. The rest of the cast does a great job as well.

The visuals are great. Neverland comes out wonderfully on the screen, from Hook's Castle to the camp of the Lost Boys, to the quotidian details of the Darlings' London.

If it is not blatantly clear, I highly enjoyed this version of the Peter Pan story, quite a bit.

Posted by Jvstin at 5:23 PM

Movie Review 2007 #24: Titus

A strange phantasmagoria of a movie starring Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Lange, Alan Cummings and Jonathan Rhys Meyers

Anachronistic, colorful, cinematic and bloody are four good words to describe this depiction of one of Shakespeare's lesser works. As a play, Titus is early Shakespeare, and somewhat weak, with an overly complicated and bloody plot which doesn't end well for everyone. I've heard it described as the "slasher movie" of Shakespeare plays.

Titus, the movie, not only keeps that feel, in keeping faithful to the play and its events, but ups the ante with its depiction. Instead of being content with a strictly Roman Empire feel, the era in which Titus is set, the movie mixes in anachronisms like motorcycles, 20's and 40's costumes and architecture as much in the 20th century as it is in the 3rd.

As far as the actors, its clear that they are put through the wringer by this bloody, difficult play. From severed limbs to cannibalism, the movie is violent, bloody minded and uncompromising to its actors. I think of the movie as the diametric opposite of the playful, light Branagh depictions of a Midsummer's Night Dream or Much Ado About Nothing. There aren't even much if any depictions of lightness and humor that even Macbeth, Hamlet and Lear offer.

The movie works better as a work of art and design than an actual narrative experience.

Posted by Jvstin at 5:16 PM

February 14, 2007

Movie Review 2007 #23 The Butterfly Effect 2

A sequel to the original movie, with a bunch of unknowns in the cast which recapitulates the premise with a new group of people.

The movie breaks very little new ground to the original BF's premise about going back and changing history, with disastrous results. We are given a tight knit group of four friends, led by Nick, who experience a tragic accident where only Nick, out of the quartet survives. A year later, starring a photograph (as opposed to the use of journals as in the first), he finds himself pulled back into the time frame and location of the photograph, a photograph taken just before the fateful accident. With foreknowledge, he manages to get the group to survive..although there are dark hints something happened in the accident that no one speaks of.

Unfortunately, the new world proves to have problems of its own, and Nick decides to try and change things again...only to continue the cycle into things worse and worse.

The movie doesn't really break any new ground except using photographs rather than journal entries to switch back in time. And while I admit that a bathroom seduction scene is pretty hot, there is nothing else, really, here, worth a view. The first movie did all of this, and much better.

Not recommended.

Posted by Jvstin at 7:39 PM

Movie Review 2007 #22: The Notorious Bettie Page

A biopic, with the usually blond haired Gretchen Mol as the titular raven-locked fetish photography icon.

A relatively short movie, The Notorious Bettie Page gives us a slice of life of Bettie Page, notorious photography icon known primarily for her appearance in fetish photography. Despite being normally a blonde, Mol does a good job in the physical appearance of Page, as compared to her old photographs.

Unfortunately, this is the highlight of the movie, in my opinion, and the movie suffers some weaknesses, mainly stemming from its superficiality. The movie only clocks in at 90 minutes, far too short a time to get to know her under the best of circumstances. The movie compounds this by making her a two dimensional character, and not in the way one might expect. I don't know the personality or what the real Page was like, but the Page depicted her is cartoonishly naive about the photos taken of her, and what purpose they serve, as well as her role as an icon. A cluelessly naive character can be a great starting point...but to maintain that naivete without ever really waking up to what she was doing results in a far less interesting character, overall.

The only other good thing about the movie is the cinematography. With judicious use of black and white, especially for the photo sessions, the movie does do a decent job of the mise-en-scene. Its a pity that the subject material itself is superficial, slight and not well developed to live up to the imagery.

Not recommended.

Posted by Jvstin at 7:21 PM

February 10, 2007

Movie Review 2007 #21: An Inconvenient Truth

The Oscar nominated documentary about Global Warming and climate change, hosted by Al Gore.

I was surprised how *personal* a movie this was.

Sure, I know Gore has been interested in the environment for years, and I even read one of his books on the subject some years ago, but this movie not only lays bare the science and problem of Global Warming/Global Climate Change, but also lays bare Gore himself. Not only do we see how and where Gore became interested in the subject, but the movie does not shy away from his own political failures, including that of the 2000 Election.

Jokes have been made about Al Gore being stiff, wooden, unfunny and unpersonable. Watching this movie puts paid to those notions. As Al explains the science and history, he is animated, interesting and funny as he goes through it all step by step. We see many sides of a man that, for reasons of campaign incompetence and media focus on his "invention of the internet",we never did see. If the American public had at large seen THIS Gore, there is no way that the current occupant of the White House would have won.

As far as the science itself, I thought that I was pretty educated on the topic. Even so, I was engaged and enlightened and educated by the film. Sure, its not as comprehensive as a book on the topic, but humans are often a visual species, and seeing for yourself just how much C02 we've pumped into the atmosphere, or seeing the snows of Kilimanjaro fade away are images that resonate and cannot be denied.

And yet, Gore knows that doom and gloom sells...but so does hope. Gore makes it clear that its not too late, and with will and effort, we can do something about the problems the Earth and all of humanity face.

Even if you think you know there is all to know about Global Warming...see this movie.

Posted by Jvstin at 10:52 AM

February 9, 2007

Movie Review 2007 #20: Inventing the Abbotts

A character movie about the 1950's relationship between three wealthy sister and two working class brothers, with Billy Crudup and Joaquin Phoenix as the brothers, and Joanna Going, Jennifer Connelly, and Liv Tyler as the sisters.

Doug and JC Holt are the sons of the widowed Helen Holt (played by Kathy Baker), who live on the poor side of the tracks for reasons that JC (Crudup) is convinced lie in the wealthy and successful Abbotts, led by Will Patton and featuring his three daughters, Alice (Going), Eleanor (Connelly) and Pam (Tyler). The movie chronicles over several years the relationships between the two brothers and the three sisters evolve, as both sets of siblings mature, and the ghosts of the past reveal themselves.

The movie's strengths lie not in plot or the revelations of the past, but rather in the development of the characters and how they relate to themselves and each other. Over the years, all the characters realize the truths they are certain of at the beginning of the movie, as their younger selves, are not as simple as they might think. While the movie is narrated by an older Doug and the movie is presented from his POV, we see multiple facets of all of the characters.

Too, the movie does a good job in capturing 50's small town life, with little touches and small scenes that immerse the viewer in the Holts and Abbotts world. While the movie does venture out of the small town, in my opinion, the movie is on its strongest ground when it stays close to home.

All of the acting performances are up to the task of the complex and evolving characters. Its not the most exciting movie ever filmed, and its light in tone, but its a worthwhile, relaxing movie.

Posted by Jvstin at 10:49 PM

Movie Review 2007 #19: Pirates of the Caribbean Dead Man's Chest

Its not the original, but, IMO, it is not without value, even if its not really a Quarter of a Billion Dollar movie in terms of quality.

It's hard to live up to the first. When I first heard Disney was going to make a movie based on an amusement park ride, I was dismissive, until I saw it for myself.

This movie I was far more eager to see...but it couldn't possibly live up to the hype machine, and the sheer out-of-the-blue nature of the entertainment value of the first one. The movie tries its best, throwing at us backstory unmentioned in the first movie, and new characters to sidle alongside our old favorites.

Depp's Jack is still a rogue, although the performance is not as fresh as it was in the original POTC movie: we've seen this before. He does throw a couple of new wrinkles here and there, but mainly, Depp is treading water. Too, Knightley and Bloom are mainly reprising their roles.

Out of the new characters, Tom Hollander's Lord Cuttler is a shade underdrawn for my taste, there is clearly a rich background there that we never quite get to see. Bill Nighy is unrecognizable under the prosthetics as Davy Jones. Stellan Skarsgård does all right as "Bootstrap Bill", William Turner's father.

The plot is silly and is really a clothesline for lots of set pieces, ranging from encounters with Davy Jones' Kraken (which I was a little disappointed in, frankly), to a cannibal infested island, to a comic three way battle for the secret Davy Jones has tried very hard to keep hidden ,and could potentially control him, and the Sea along with it. And this silliness in plot keeps the movie from being a classic...but it does keep the movie entertaining. For a movie that relies so much on comedy, it runs a bit long, and of course, there is no resolution, as the ending just simply sets us up for the anticipated third movie.

Sadly, while the first movie had fun with dialogue that was quotable, the dialogue in this movie is far more leaden.

Its worth a rental, if you have escaped the hype machine, and already seen the original.

Posted by Jvstin at 10:28 PM

January 30, 2007

Movie Review 2007 #18: The Man who knew too Little

A light comedy spoof of the spy genre, starring Bill Murray.

Bill Murray plays Wally Richie, Ugly American in Britain to surprise his brother and his British wife with an unexpected and unwanted visit, especially since James is giving an important dinner for his work clients.

To get Wally out of his hair, and a birthday present in the bargain, James signs up his brother for "Theater of Life", an improvised live action role playing set in the streets of London. Richie dives head first into the idea, not realizing that by a twist of fate, he misses the actual cue to start the Theater, and falls into a real conspiracy of blackmail, and ambassadorial murder...

The movie works best as a satire of the "ugly american" in a foreign country and Wallace's unshakable belief that he is in the show and that he is the star. With this complete confidence, and a lot of luck, Wallace comes across as an "American superman" agent who can do no wrong, against trained opponents. I've never seen such luck of a pure amateur against professionals in the genre outside of Scarecrow and Mrs King, but given Wally's total immersion in his "Role", it makes a lot of sense.

Sure, the movie is a froth and doesn't rise above the level of mild entertainment, it is an effective "light dessert course" to the darkness and complexity of Three Days of the Condor. It probably could also work as a palette cleanser for other spy movies as well, similarly.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:12 PM

Movie Review 2007 #17: A Scanner Darkly

Done in the rotoscoped style of his "Waking Life", Richard Linklater's version of the Phil K Dick novel stars Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr, Woody Harrelson and Winona Ryder.

Set "Seven years from now" in an Orange County California ravaged by a new drug menace, Substance D, A Scanner Darkly follows the lives of a few people centered around Bob Arctor, who owns the house they all hang about in...and whom he spies on as a drug agent.

The trick is, as a user of the drug himself, the abuse of it has affected his brain, and his own identity is called into question...

Hitting on themes of Government surveillance, paranoia, and drug use, A Scanner Darkly is short on action and long on talk, with dreamy, drug induced conversations and diversions that give the movie a feel somewhat similar to Waking Life.

Reeves does an okay job as Bob Arctor, but I think a better actor could have conveyed the split personality problem that Arctor faces as the movie progresses, a break between himself as agent, and himself as drug user. The real star of the movie, who dominates every cell of the movie he is in, is Robert Downey Jr as Barris. With his real life drug problems as a palimpsest upon which he can base his performance, he does very well with his role. Ryder and Harrelson do all right with their roles, especially given the layers of duplicity in some of the characters true motivations.

Showing the cumulative effects of drug use, not only on Arctor, but also on Barris and the other characters, is a strong suit of the movie. The movie comes off with a strong anti-drug abuse movie, but the movie is *not* point of fact, a preachy speech to a community group given by Arctor goes very badly.

The movie is interesting to look at, and I do think the rotoscoping was a good choice, since it did allow the "scramble suit" to be shown effectively on screen, as well as the hallucinatory aspects of the movie.

I don't think this is the best Dick adaptation (that would be Blade Runner), but its one of the better adaptations of what Dick's work is like and is all about.

Posted by Jvstin at 7:53 PM

Movie Review 2007 #16: Three Days of the Condor

A forerunner of many modern spy movies and series, from Alias to the Bourne Identity, starring Robert Redford and directed by Sydney Pollack.

I vaguely remembering borrowing and reading the novel that this is based upon years ago.

The movie is surprisingly, scarily topical, even today.

Redford plays Joe Turner, who works for the American Literary Historical Society, a front operation for the CIA. A "reader", he apparently reads everything and everything, looking for clues, ideas, and things of interest for the CIA. When he comes back from lunch one day to find the rest of the staff murdered, he goes on the run, not sure of who or what he can trust...

The archetypal paranoia conspiracy spy movie, Three Days of the Condor, aside from the 70's visuals, has a modern feel with its pacing and continual movement of pieces on the board. There isn't a lot of down time as Redford keeps on the movie, trying to figure out who killed his co-workers, and more importantly, just what is so important that they were worth being killed for.

Faye Dunaway plays a random woman who Redford kidnaps as a means of protection and sanctuary. I wasn't that thrilled with her role as written, since she goes from suspicious and tied up to naked in an unbelievably short period of time, IMO. Much better are Max Von Sydow as an assassin, Cliff Robertson as a CIA bureaucrat and the great John Houseman as a senior CIA official .

The movie is firmly grounded in the 70's and I did feel a little weird seeing scenes set in the World Trade Center, only a couple of years old when the movie came out. Still, the movie's themes are timeless. I can see how many movies and TV shows since have borrowed from this movie, or, when they have faltered, they might have done better remembering the virtues of the movie.

The ultimate reason for why Redford's co-workers had to die is stunningly topical and appropriately cynical. Its a ambiguous ending to the movie, I suspect a remake would make things a little more clear cut.

Still, Redford does a great job as does the cast in general (aside from the unbelievability of Dunaway's character). if you are interested in spy, conspiracy movies and the genre in general, you owe it to yourself to see this movie as one of the seminal movies of the genre.

Posted by Jvstin at 7:36 PM

Movie Review 2007 #15: The Family Man

I must be on an inadvertent Nicholas Cage kick, since here we have The Family Man, my third movie of the year starring Nicholas Cage, and also starring Tea Leoni and Don Cheadle.

It's a riff of "It's a Wonderful Life." Nicholas Cage plays Jack Campbell, who left on a plane to London, leaving his girlfriend at the airport. Years late,he has all but forgotten her, as he has parlayed an internship in London into the presidency of a Wall Street firm. He has casual sex with beautiful women, makes hundred million dollar deals...and works his employees on Christmas Eve and Christmas to the bone to make the American capitalist dream.

However, when he does a good turn in a grocery store on Christmas Eve night, Don Cheadle, playing a mysterious entity who shows Campbell a "glimpse", a look at what his life might have been if he had married his college sweetheart. When Jack wakes up the next morning, he awakens to a raucous house where he is married to Leoni's Reynolds, has two children, and works for his father in law selling tires.

Naturally, Campbell struggles mightily to regain his real life, only slowly and surely coming to terms with what he considers his alternate existence...

The movie works on some levels but is lacking in satisfaction of the ending, in my opinion. While it is amusing to see Campbell go through culture shock in his new life, his old life is portrayed too smoothly to make it an honest comparison. Jack's warming to being a Family Man is a little too quick and sudden to be that believable, when it does occur.

Cage is more believeable as a power executive than a would be family man, but Leoni does a great job as Kate Reynolds. The fact that the relationship between them is loving but not ideal is a good, humanistic touch. Too, the ordinary folks that populate Campbell's family life are well portrayed, particularly Jeremy Piven as Campbell's best friend.

It was an "okay" movie. I don't particularly regret seeing it, but I don't feel it was a particularly great movie, either. The movie is sweet, light, entertainment, and not much more.

Posted by Jvstin at 7:14 PM

Movie Review 2007 #14: Great Expectations

The Americanized version of the Dickens story, starring Ethan Hawke, Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert DeNiro.

Adapting a novel like GE is hard work, and Cuaron (who most recently has done Children of Men) makes a lot of choices and cuts in order to fit the novel on screen.

Most significantly, he updates the novel to modern America and changes some of the names and turns the movie into much more of a Romance. Ethan Hawke is Finnegan Bell, whose story arc we watch, from a child on the Florida coast, learning to paint, doing a good turn for a convict (De Niro), falling in love with Paltrow's Estella, and after giving up his art for years, is given the chance to paint in New York by a mysterious benefactor...and meets Estella for another chance at Estella in the process. Anne Bancroft and Chris Cooper have good roles, too, as Estella's aunt and Bell's uncle, respectively.

The movie lacks a lot of the heft and emotional depth of the novel. On the other hand, the principals do fairly well with shallower, reduced and changed roles from the book and inhabit the movie well enough even if its not the original ur-text. There are no weak performances here.

On the other hand, like in Children of Men and HP and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Cuaron's strong suit are visuals. The visuals here are not as fantasy laden as HP, and not as gritty as COM, but from beautiful cinematography on the Florida shore, to the run down mansion which still has an echo of its former glory, to the visuals in NY, Cuaron definitely knows how to show places and people on film, and well.

I particularly liked the art that Bell draws and paints throughout the movie. Its clear that they were done by a real artist, the same artist, and they add to the mise-en-scene of Hawke's Bell as a very talented painter who really does deserve an opening in a NYC Gallery. The movie's score is a good one, too.

I liked it.

Posted by Jvstin at 7:10 PM

January 28, 2007

Movie Review 2007 #13: Chronicles of Riddick

To counterbalance the intense dark fantasy of Pan's Labyrinth, I decided to rewatch The Director's Cut of the Chronicles of Riddick, starring Vin Diesel, Colm Feore, Thandie Newton, Linus Roache, and Karl Urban and featuring Judi Dench.

The greatest strength of this movie is its weakness, and why it failed at the box office, is that the movie attempts to create a sui generis science fiction space opera world which owes little, if anything, to the existing Space Opera worlds out there. Pitch Black, while a nominal precursor to the movie, did not really engage in world building, and in fact COR does deconstruct a bit of the assumptions of that movie. And, starting a world from scratch, the movie rises and falls on the strength of that world building.

The director's cut does a lot better at this than the original theatrical cut (which I did see in the theater). In point of fact, upon finishing the movie in the theater, I was quite unhappy with the film. The director's cut solves many of these sins, making the background of Riddick's life and why he is important, far clearer. It makes it a stronger film overall.

As far as the movie itself, its basic Space Opera in a pulp mode. A theocratic militaristic wave of "Necromongers" seek to travel to a world beyond this universe, by converting or wiping out all life in this one. And to combat this evil, only another evil, the amoral and physically talented Riddick, can stand against their military and spiritual might. The movie mainly eschews too much consistency of plot in favor of action. And the movie, grounded in the action virtues that made Pitch Black a success, does do quite well with fight scenes.

Another strong point are the visuals. From gritty prisons to the baroque architecture of the Necromonger ships and weaponry,to the attention paid to costumes, the movie is full of eye candy that is entertaining to watch amd its eye candy you haven't seen before. It doesn't look like a rip off of Star Wars OR Star Trek and doesn't want to be, and I admire that about the movie. Originality in movies is a rare bird indeed and while some aspects of the movie are old conventions by definition, the movie does at least give an attempt at originality.

As far as the actors, they mostly do a good job. I particularly like Thandie Newton's Dame Vaako, a straight up Lady Macbeth wife to Urban's Lord Vaako who pushes her husband to supplant Colm Feore's obsessed Lord Marshal. Judi Dench has a pivotal role as an "Elemental". There is definitely the sense in the different kinds of humans that there are many varieties of humans, many ways of being human in this world. It is only when one of these races seeks to dominate and destroy the others that the complex tapestry of human civilization seems poised to circle the drain.

I do like the director's cut enough to own it.

Posted by Jvstin at 1:08 PM

Movie Review 2007 #12: Laberinto del Fauno (Pan's Labyrinth)

On Saturday, I went to see the subtitled Spanish fantasy movie, Laberinto del Fauno (Pan's Labyrinth), in the theater.Directed by Guillermo del Toro

Pan's Labyrinth is a potent mixture of fantasy and reality, set in 1944 Spain. While the Second World War rages on (there is a throwaway reference to the Normandy invasion), Franco's Spain writhes in the midst of its Civil War, as the fascist Franco government fights against leftist/communist guerillas.

In the midst of this, a young girl. Ofelia, comes with her pregnant mother to live with the mother's new husband, an officer in the Spanish army, Capitan Vidal. While Vidal struggles against the guerillas near to the Mill, Ofelia discovers struggles of her own, in the form of a magical world and inhabitants, just around the corner...

Laberinto del Fauno intermixes the two main plots, although for a short while, I was convinced the fantasy angle was going to be dropped completely. The movie is dark and intense. Ofelia's journey and the themes of the tasks set for her are reflected in the themes of the Civil War. Reflection, obedience to authority, life, birth, and more. While a few elements of the narrative could have been worked and explicated better, I think, the movie's strength is in reflecting the two storylines and worlds.

And then there is the cinematography. I mentioned in a previous post that it is one of the five movies that is up for an Oscar in Best Cinematography. From the amazing fantasy world to the gritty and convincingly quotidian details of 1944 Spain, Del Toro's filming is spectacular and draws the viewer into both worlds.

On the other hand, before you go out to see the film, I have to warn the reader that the movie is extremely violent and intense, especially for a movie with children fantasy elements. This violence and intensity is in both reflected worlds and some aspects did make me squirm and for that reason, I do not think this movie is at all for children, even if a child is a major protagonist. (The movie is rated R for *very* good reason).

I would like to see it again, to watch it and think about the symbology and how the movie works on multiple levels.

Posted by Jvstin at 11:46 AM

January 27, 2007

Am I a Cinematography-phile?

I saw Pan's Labyrinth today, and with that, and looking at the Oscar list, I realize that I've inadvertently managed to see all of the movies nominated in one of the mid-weight categories.

Best Cinematography

The nominees are:

The Black Dahlia
Children of Men
The Illusionist
Pan's Labyrinth
The Prestige

So, I guess I am qualified to judge this category, having seen all of the nominees. Still, its a tough choice and I am not sure, if I were an Oscar voter, which movie I would vote for. Black Dahlia and the Prestige, I think, are the weakest cinematographically.

COM, Illusionist and Labyrinth are all fantastic movies, and very different movies. Illusionist does the most with sticking to an unusual and deliberately archaic style. COM has gripping visuals and Pan's Labyrinth mixes the fantastic and the real effectively. If any of those three win, I think, it would be a strong choice as opposed to Dahlia or the Prestige (which, don't get me wrong, is a great movie, but from the viewpoint of this category, is not the strongest movie IMO)

Posted by Jvstin at 10:45 PM

January 24, 2007

Movie Review 2007 #11: The Illusionist

I saw this in theaters last fall and now have seen it on the small screen, starring Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel and Rufus Sewell

Shot in sepia and employing old-style pupil scene transitions, The Illusionist has an old time feel that reminded me a little bit of Shadow of the Vampire, or the 30's era L.A.scenes in The Thirteenth Floor. Seeing it again on the small screen, that feeling is reinforced.

The movie revolves around Edward Norton's Eisenheim The Illusionist, a mysterious entertainer whose feats of illusion and conjuration become the delight of early 20th century Vienna. Paul Giametti is the Inspector who investigates Eisenheim at the behest of Rufus Sewell's Crown Prince, and Jessica Biel plays Sophie, the fiance of the Crown Prince, who seems to have known the mysterious Eisenheim when they were both children...

And therein lies the tale.

The performances are riveting and interesting and the central mystery of the movie compelling. None of the actors really over-awe each other, although Norton's Eisenheim is the focus of the movie. Having seen it now again, knowing the plot twists, the movie still holds up, I think, as a piece of cinema even shorn of the plot twists.

And I didn't even mention the music! Philip Glass does the score, and his music for the movie is wonderful and suits the film perfectly.

It makes an interesting companion piece to "The Prestige" although this movie is definitely the more "artistic" of the two. Even the credits have an old time movie feel.

I recommend the movie highly and am disappointed it didn't get more Oscar nominations than it did.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:27 PM

Movie Review 2007 #10: The Producers (2005)

Another Kris Kunkel recommended movie, this is the musical remake of the 60's Mel Brooks classic, with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick reprising their Broadway roles, with Uma Thurman and Will Farrell.

I didn't really realize it was going to be a musical, since the original movie is not. And its definitely a musical in the nonsensical tradition, with musical numbers at inopportune and non logical moments.

Aside from a few differences here and there, though, the plot is the same brilliant clothesline that the original is. Lane plays Bialystock, a schlock Broadway producer who is inadvertently given by Broderick's Leopold Bloom a brilliant strategy for making a mint on a Broadway play--get the worst possible play, hire a terrible director, poor actors, and let the play flop after a week or even a single night, and pocket the profits.

And when Bialystock and Bloom find a revisionist Hitler play, and a trashy director, and looks like they have their chance...

The movie is popcorn and doesn't pretend to be anything other than popcorn. Lane and Broderick have great chemistry. While Uma Thuman and Will Farrell don't have the musical talents of the leads, they do okay in their roles, as do the other minor characters. But this is really Bialystock and Bloom's show.

Lane and Broderick are not Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder...but they do a pretty good job, and it IS funny, even as some of it is very politically incorrect.

And, yes, there is even a credit cookie.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:14 PM

January 23, 2007

Oscar Nominations 2006

(CNN) -- "Dreamgirls" received a leading eight nominations for the 79th annual Academy Awards, but was shut out of two of the biggest categories -- best picture and best director.

The nominees for best picture are "The Departed," "Babel," "Letters From Iwo Jima," "Little Miss Sunshine" and "The Queen."

I've only seen The Departed thus far.

The nominees for best actor are Forest Whitaker ("The Last King of Scotland"), Leonardo DiCaprio ("Blood Diamond"), Ryan Gosling ("Half Nelson"), Peter O'Toole ("Venus") and Will Smith ("The Pursuit of Happyness").

I've not seen any of these performances.

The nominees for best actress are Helen Mirren ("The Queen"), Judi Dench ("Notes on a Scandal"), Penelope Cruz ("Volver"), Meryl Streep ("The Devil Wears Prada") and Kate Winslet ("Little Children").

I've not seen any of these either.

The nominees for best supporting actor are Eddie Murphy ("Dreamgirls"), Alan Arkin ("Little Miss Sunshine"), Jackie Earle Haley ("Little Children"), Djimon Hounsou ("Blood Diamond") and Mark Wahlberg ("The Departed").

I've only seen Wahlberg's performance.

The nominees for best supporting actress are
Jennifer Hudson ("Dreamgirls"), Adriana Barraza ("Babel"), Cate Blanchett ("Notes on a Scandal"), Abigail Breslin ("Little Miss Sunshine") and Rinko Kikuchi ("Babel").

Another big fat zero.

The nominees for best director are Martin Scorsese ("The Departed"), Clint Eastwood ("Letters From Iwo Jima"), Stephen Frears ("The Queen"), Paul Greengrass ("United 93") and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu ("Babel").

I haven't seen any of these except the Departed.

I suppose the "Controversy" this year is that Dreamgirls, despite a slew of nominations (including 2 acting ones) didn't get a picture or directing nod. Blood Diamond has two acting nominations and no direction/BP nod either.

Generally, I've found, movies nominated for best picture do not win unless they have an acting nomination (although they don't necessarily have to WIN). Also, while the Directing and Best Picture awards split, they generally don't.

So, that suggests that "Letters" and "Little Miss Sunshine" are doomed not to win Best Picture. It's a three horse race between Babel, the Departed and The Queen. I have to say that for sentiment's sake, the Departed (Martin Scorcese) is the prohibitive favorite to take home an Oscar at last.

Counter opinions welcome. :)

Posted by Jvstin at 8:13 AM

January 21, 2007

Movie Review 2007 #9: Mirrormask

A movie very much in the tradition of Labyrinth.

Full of symbology, imagery, and the language of dreams, Mirrormask takes the classic idea of the kid who wants to run away to join the circus, and turns it onto its head. Helena is a teenage girl, who doesn't want to be part of the small circus that her parents run anymore. She's an Artist, too.

After Helena's mother falls ill, Helena finds herself, after falling asleep, in a world reminscient of her drawings, of a city of light and dark, with strange creatures and dream like imagery.

And a pair of Queens who look like her mother...

The movie is one of those "Love it or Hate it." movies. Characterization is not the greatest, and the plot meanders, as befits a dream. But the imagery, the ideas, the visuals. Sure this has been done before (Labyrinth, anyone) but I do like this a lot. And a player in a game I am in stole the heroine as a casting call for their character. There are plenty of other ideas from the movie that I myself could mine for other things and probably will.

I recommend this movie for my gamer friends, especially the Trumpophiles, who are more likely to fall into the Love it camp.

I did buy this movie as I thought I might after renting it. I just have a lot of movies and do not often watch repeats as much as I might.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:38 PM

Movie Review 2007 #8: Thank you for Smoking

Another movie about a disreputable character, this time played for comedy, starring Aaron Eckhart, William H Macy, Maria Buello, Robert Duvall, and Rob Lowe.

Aaron Eckhart plays Nick Naylor, a lobbyist for Big Tobacco,and we see him revel in the image of a man who defends the indefensible. And yet, while he is the Michael Jordan of his career, his home life, with a divorced wife and a son he only sees on weekends, is anything but ideal. The movie follows a rambling arc, introducing the character and setting up challenges for him, culminating in testimony before Congress, and Naylor's realization that while he can choose to do what he does, he can choose to do other things.

The movie plays for laughs, even as it gently pokes at serious issues, giving a very different feel than Lord of War. While I was not a giant fan of Eckhart's performance, the movie thrives in the minor characters, with good actors providing strong supporting material. Its not a spectacular movie, and having laughs coming from this direction is an audacious idea for a movie, I was definitely entertained.

Posted by Jvstin at 7:58 PM

Shameless Paycheck grabbing roles

Via SFSignal, Entertainment Weekly has come up with a list of "shameless paycheck grabbing roles"--good actors slumming in roles and movies of dubious quality.

The 25 Most Shameless Paycheck-Grabbing Roles in History

25. Sean Connery in Never Say Never Again
24. Jason Alexander in Dunstan Checks In
23. Bill Murray in Garfield
22. Marlon Brando in Superman
21. Matt Dillon in Herbie: Fully Loaded
20. Cuba Gooding, Jr. in Chill Factor
19. Elizabeth Taylor in The Flintstones
18. Ben Affleck in Paycheck
17. Buster Keaton in Beach Blanket Bingo
16. Jeremy Irons and John Malkovich in Eragon
15. Christopher Walken in Kangaroo Jack
14. Richard Pryor in Superman III
13. Faye Dunaway in Supergirl
12. William Hurt in Lost in Space
11. Laurence Olivier in Clash of the Titans
10. Demi Moore in Striptease
9. Michael Caine in Jaws: The Revenge
8. Judi Dench in The Chronicles of Riddick
7. Orson Welles in Transformers: The Movie
6. Peter O'Toole in Club Paradise
5. Dennis Hopper in Super Mario Bros.
4. Tony Curtis in The Bad News Bears Go to Japan
3. Sir Ben Kingsley in BloodRayne
2. Richard Burton in Exorcist III: The Heretic
1. Robert DeNiro in The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle

I have a couple of additional suggestions.

Ben Kingsley and Alfred Molina in Species.
Patrick Stewart in Masterminds
Ian McKellen in the Last Action Hero

Posted by Jvstin at 9:02 AM

January 17, 2007

Movie Review 2007 #7: The Da Vinci Code

I watched this last year in theaters, succumbing to the hype even if I didn't read the book.

And now I've seen it on DVD. As you undoubtedly know, it has Tom Hanks, Audrey Tautou, Ian Mckellen, Jean Reno, Paul Bettany and Alfred Molina.

I've warmed some to the movie as compared to my cinematic outing. While I still think National Treasure did it cinematically first and better, the Da Vinci Code works best when it entertains, rather than when it (seems) to preach.

The plot involves a dire secret about the nature of the Holy Grail which is elucidated in more depth and with better research in a number of books, but Mckellen's Teabing serves very well as a "Plot info device" as well as the Janus of the piece.

Some of the twists and turns seem there only for the sake of having a plot twist--as if Brown was channeling Van Vogt for some reason. Still, when it sticks to entertaining the audience, as a chase movie, the Da Vinci Code does all right. While Hanks' Langdon and Tautou's Sophie are flat, McKellen is the real star of this movie, and every moment he is on screen is a good moment.

Also, too, Howard does a good job at showing how cryptographers and puzzle solvers do their thing, letting the audience graphically see Hanks and Tautou work out the ciphers and puzzles in the movie. And Howard's choices in showing the past in different colors, or using ghosts overlaid the present, help keep the movie from being too distracted by long ago events and keeping the narrative going.

One of the specials on the DVD reveals that there is a lot of symbology in the movie for a viewer to find, as well, in a sort of Easter Egg hunt. For example, a poster that Hanks passes by early on in the movie is of a painting called "The Boy in the Well"--which is telling, given Langdon's formative childhood experience. I appreciate a movie which is willing to throw such things for a viewer to find on subsequent viewings.

As far as the Theology and History itself...its simplified, and wrong in some instances to my limited knowledge, and I am not sure I buy the premise, but I view it as a hook for a Grail Quest movie, with Langdon as the page who becomes a Grail Knight, and Sophie as the Grail Princess.

Anyway, unless you are hostile to the theology of the movie, I recommend giving it a DVD rental. It does entertain.

Posted by Jvstin at 6:45 PM

January 14, 2007

Movie Review 2007 #6 Lord of War

Recommended to me by my friend Kris Kunkel, Lord of War stars Nicolas Cage, Jared Leto, and Ethan Hawke

The movie is the life story of Yuri Orlov, immigrant from the Ukraine to Little Odessa in Brooklyn, and his triumphs and tragedies as an arms dealer. From grenades to the durable Kalashnikov, Yuri is an equal opportunity arms merchant.

And we see Yuri rise in power and influence, and see the results of his arms dealing and amassing of power, getting a trophy wife (Bridget Moynahan) and ultimately losing her and their son when she learns just what her husband has been doing for a living all this time. Ethan Hawke plays the dogged agent who chases after Yuri for years, determined to stop his arms dealing. And then there is Yuri's younger brother Vitaly, who gets sucked in and out of Yuri's world.

Cage gives a great performance as the amoral arms merchant. I was far more impressed with him in this movie than in The Wicker Man, and the other performances work very well, including a small, pivotal role for Ian Holm as Cage's main rival in the arms business. There's even a small, cute slam on Osama Bin Laden as Yuri tells his purely practical reason why he wouldn't deal with him.

I liked the movie a lot as a well done character study of a disreputable character.

Posted by Jvstin at 4:58 PM

Movie Review 2007 #5: Idiocracy

I mentioned Idiocracy when I first heard about it in September of last year(, and now have had the opportunity to see it for myself.

It's a wicked satire.

Luke Wilson plays Joe, an ordinary soldier in the US Army who is inducted into a hibernation experiment, ostensibly for a year. Along with Rita, a prostitute, the two of them are not awakened for not a year, but for 500 years.

In the meantime, in the tradition of Kornbluth's satiric story "The Marching Morons", the average IQ of the American, and presumably the world's population, has dropped, as they simply outbred everyone else.

And all Joe wants to do is to find a reputed Time Machine and go back to 2005.

The movie pokes fun at what American culture would look like, completely dumbed down. Ass is the #1 movie at the box office, simply ninety minutes of looking at a bare, naked ass. "Ow my Balls" is one of the most popular shows in America. Starbucks still exists and serves lattes, but latte has a more vulgar connotation in this garbage-filled, broken down future.

Joe, by being of 100 IQ, is the smartest person in the world, and after a series of misadventures, soon comes to the attention of the President of the United States, and asked to start solving the problems that have piled up over centuries of neglect.

The movie's plot though is really just an opportunity for tons of sight gags and satire of a dumbed down culture. And it works very well on this level. I can see why the movie only saw the slimmest of releases, since the movie takes no prisoners and is catholic in skewering popular culture today by showing what an even more dumbed down world would look like.

Posted by Jvstin at 4:32 PM

Movie Review 2007 #4: X Men 3 the Final Stand

I watched this on DVD, after seeing it in movie theaters last year.

A disappointing end to the franchise.

X Men 3 the Final Stand follows on the second installment's high point of the series, and with a new director fritters away the series credibility and strengths of character building in favor of rock-em sock-em comic book action.

The plot revolves around a "cure" for mutants, derived from a "null" mutant--a mutant whose power is to negate other mutants. While some mutants see it as an opportunity to rid themselves of unwanted mutation, or a neutral event, others, led by Magneto, see it as a threat to their way of life and a declaration of war.

The movie simply suffers from undercharacterization. I may not write fully fleshed characters, compared to some of my compatriots, but even I could have turned in a script that provided more character building than this. Sure, there are plenty of nice action scenes and set pieces, and even a nod to the "Sentinels" of the comics, but the characters lack of depth makes it hard to actually care what happens to them. The movie missteps badly in handling the death of one character, making the revelation of his fate almost an afterthought, and another doesn't quite have the pathos that it should.

If you don't care about the characters at all--then the movie is more like watching a video game rather than actually watching a movie.

A waste.

Posted by Jvstin at 4:31 PM

January 6, 2007

Movie Review 2007 #3: Children of Men

I went to the theater today to see the new Alfonso Cuaron picture, Children of Men

It's not the feel good movie of the year.

The year is 2027, and no woman has been pregnant in over 18 years. Society is collapsing and Great Britain considers itself better off than much of the world...and yet it ruthlessly imprisons illegal immigrants and has a rather nasty home grown terrorist problem.

In this world, Theo, played by Clive Owen, gets mixed up with his ex-wife/lover Julian (Julianne Moore) and discovers a secret worth killing for--a young woman miraculously in her eighth month of pregnancy.

And so begins a plan to get her to safety, away from those who might manipulate her and her baby to be for political ends of their own.

A relentlessly dystopic and grim film, the movie is also shot fantastically well. The focus stays on our reluctant hero throughout, and I was amazed at the camera work and techniques used. A battle near the end of the film is more gritty and well done than any I have seen short of Saving Private Ryan or Black Hawk Down.

The movie has an excellent cast, from Owen and Moore to Chiwetel Ejiofor and a small role for Michael Caine, too. You have to be prepared that, however, in a movie like this, that characters are going to die, and die ignominiously.

There is some humor sprinkled throughout the film...such as seeing Michael Caine's character get high and goofy. However, most of the movie is nasty, brutish and grim. The movie is short of 2 hours long, but it feels longer, especially given the oppressive atmosphere. We get some very quick flashes, from news clips to newspapers, of just how badly this world has gone in the proverbial handbasket.

I really liked the film, its dark, intense and interesting--but I won't pretend that its an easy film to watch.

Posted by Jvstin at 9:39 PM

Movie Review 2007 #2: Bewitched

Bewitched is not a movieization of the old TV show in the strictest sense, but is somewhat more metafictional than that. Bewitched is a movie ABOUT the remake of the old TV show as a new series, and the havoc that accidentally having a real witch, played by Nicole Kidman, as the new Samantha causes.

Will Farrell plays Jack Wyatt, an egotistical movie star whose last movie has tanked so badly, that taking the role of Darrin in a remake of Bewitched seems like a good career move. In the meantime, Isabel, played by Nicole Kidman, is a real life witch whose attempts to acculturate with normal society results in a chance meeting with Jack, and the role of Samantha in the remake.

Comedy ensues.

Its not a comedic gem by any means, but I do think the movie was somewhat maligned. While, certainly, the limits and abilities of the witches (and warlocks) could have been better designed and delineated, the movie has some appealing qualities to it. The methods Michael Caine, playing Isabel's father, uses to contact his daughter are amusing, ranging from speaking from a frozen fish stick box to inserting commercials into TV broadcasts. Kidman is wonderful in a comedy role for a change, and while its hard to see what Isabel really sees in Jack, the movie is best a light diversion to laugh at and with. Shirley MacLaine, Steve Carrell, and David Alan Grier all have small parts as well, and there even is a cameo by Steven Colbert.

Who could say no to that?

Posted by Jvstin at 9:25 PM

Movie Review 2007 #1: The Wicker Man (2006)

I've decided that movies that I've not seen before are going to get the review treatment here, as they do on my LJ. So, rewatching eXistenZ for the umpteeth time won't get mention here, but renting a hitherto unseen movie, or going to the theater, will.

First up is the 2006 remake of The Wicker Man, starring Nicholas Cage

The original The Wicker Man featured Christopher Lee as the head of a mysterious, isolated island community of pagans who employ a visiting police officer as a human sacrifice because of a failed crop, with a very 70's psychadelic vibe.

The remake is much less fun. Nicholas Cage plays a police officer who is lured to a mysterious isolated island at the behest of an old flame who claims her daughter has gone missing, and foul play is implicated. Cage travels to the Pacific Northwest and with difficulty lands on Summersisle, a pagan community with a new twist--they are a Gynarchy.

The cinematography is okay, nothing spectacular. The acting is spotty, with some good bits mixed in with a lot of stuff that doesn't rise above the mediocre. The set up, though, is weak. I am much more impressed with the female-dominated society in Elizabeth Bear's Carnival than this creepy but ultimately weakly developed island in the Wicker Man. The movie violates Checkov's Law by presenting plot points and ideas which have no final pay off--such as a bee allergy by Cage's character, and dreaming sequences that seem to go nowhere. And I can't believe that the island would remain so isolated and uninvestigated by the state of Washington.

There are some cute homages to the original movie. I liked the actress who played the schoolteacher as well as the actress who plays Cage's former flame. But those enjoyable bits are lost in a sea of dreck.

NOT Recommended.

Posted by Jvstin at 9:21 PM

December 8, 2006

Golden Compass Movie site launched

Via SF Signal

A website for the movie version of Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass is now live.

Longtime readers of this blog will remember that I read TGC in October of last year, and finished the series this year. And with Nicole Kidman cast as Mrs Coulter, I have some hopes that the movie might have a decent cast and done well.

Posted by Jvstin at 4:38 AM

November 26, 2006

Deja Vu

So, I've been on a kick of seeing movies in the theater lately, and yesterday, I saw Deja Vu.

I was entertained, but I was annoyed that, upon reflection, the SF elements of the movie as presented made no sense whatsoever.

Until, this morning, at 5 am, I came up with a theory that explains everything we see. I wouldn't recommend reading this until and if you see the movie, because it WILL spoil it.

I call this the "co-signed highway theory" of Deja Vu.

Neither theory presented by the time portal users is correct. There are two branches of time, but they remain intermixed until a large event separates them out.

Linearly, what we see is Doug Carlin receiving clues from himself, already transported, which suggests that his trip back is going to be inevitable and happen. The mysterious phone number. The message on the refrigerator. The bloody bandages and cotton balls. The destroyed house and ambulance. I am going to avoid the eddy of the problem of his partner. I think he was destined to die, and the killer just changed it from being on the ferry (with his car) to being killed stalking the terrorist instead.

Now, when Carlin manages to go back in time, he starts playing these things out. He steals the ambulance and causes the wreck of the terrorist's house. He rearranges the words on the refrigerator. He makes the house lousy with his fingerprints. Claire calls his work because she doesn't trust Doug, and leaves the fateful message.

And, then comes the big "As/As Not", the explosion of the ferry itself. Up to this point we have two time streams which are co-signed and things spill back and forth between the two streams. And now, the two Time Streams split as the two co-signed highways go different ways.

In Time Stream One, the original, Doug and Claire fail, and not only does Doug die at the end, but Claire is caught and killed. This Time stream continues on with Doug coming onto the scene, and getting all the clues we've already seen and going back in time.

In the new Time Stream Two, Doug and Claire win. Doug from Time Stream One still dies, but we've switched onto the other highway at this point thanks to the big change. Claire gets to meet Doug Two, and they can go forward.

Thus, all of the clues left are not for Time Stream Two, but they are for Time Stream One, to make sure that Doug One will go back. Sure, Time Stream Two Doug will get the phone message, and see everything else, but it doesn't matter. Their world has already been assured back when the Time Streams were co-signed. Doug Two will never likely meet Agent Pryzwarra and company and they have no reason to go poking back in time. If they did, though, they would see some very odd things in the "co-signed" day of multiple time streams.

This way, it all makes sense. It should have been written better to avoid this tortured rationalization for everything, of course. Still, without thinking too hard about this stuff, the movie is entertaining.

Posted by Jvstin at 9:41 AM

November 20, 2006

Movie re-watching

Hacking NetFlix : Microsoft's Moore on Xbox Movie Rentals, Netflix

Via Hacking Netflix, an interesting comment about buying movies versus renting them and why Microsoft's Xbox only allows rentals, not purchases

Moore: We look at consumer behaviour. Of all the movies I’ve watched in my life, there are only about 20 I want to own. My wife drives me nuts. She goes to Costco and buys three movies because they’re only $16. I say, ’But we’ll only watch it once!’ For her it’s a spontaneous purchase. I have boxes of movies that we watch once and never again. We take them to Goodwill. I do Netflix. I watch it, I send it back. I don’t want it in the house.

I don't completely agree.

While I have been guilty of buying movies that I don't re-watch enough to justify the original cost, now, when I consider watching a movie, I consider if I am going to conceivably watch the movie a couple of times in the next year. If I am, or if its a movie that I want to watch on demand, I will pick it up. If not, I will let it lie and just Netflix it.

Posted by Jvstin at 9:28 AM

September 29, 2006

A Man for All Seasons Quote for our Times

Thinking about the recent stuff with the heinous bills passed in the House and Senate brings in mind this exchange from the wonderful A Man For All Seasons.

William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!

Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

William Roper: Yes, I'd cut down every law in England to do that!

Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man's laws, not God's! And if you cut them down, and you're just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake!

I really need to buy this movie on DVD.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:52 AM

September 13, 2006


Sharp, funny view of a stupid future

Via Billmon, the story of a Mike Judge (Beavis and Butthead) movie that sounds very much like a film adaptation of the cynical, satirical story "The Marching Morons" by Cyril Kornbluth.

20th Century Fox is releasing it as minimally as possible. I will have to wait for it on DVD.

Posted by Jvstin at 6:40 AM

September 7, 2006

Scathing review of the Wicker Man

Locus Online: Lawrence Person and Howard Waldrop review The Wicker Man

Lawrence Person and Howard Waldrop have a scathing review of the new Nicholas Cage remake of The Wicker Man.

It sounds like I, with little screenwriting talent or skill, could have done a better job of this. It might be worth Netflxing in a year, just to see how bad it can be (and to steal ideas for a game scenario that does the material better...)

Posted by Jvstin at 9:39 AM

September 5, 2006

The Illusionist

Shot in sepia and employing old-style pupil scene transitions, The Illusionist has an old time feel that reminded me a little bit of Shadow of the Vampire, or the 30's era L.A.scenes in The Thirteenth Floor.

The movie revolves around Edward Norton's Eisenheim The Illusionist, a mysterious entertainer whose feats of illusion and conjuration become the delight of early 20th century Vienna. Paul Giametti is the Inspector who investigates Eisenheim at the behest of Rufus Sewell's Crown Prince, and Jessica Biel plays Sophie, the fiance of the Crown Prince, who seems to have known the mysterious Eisenheim when they were both children...

And therein lies the tale.

The performances are riveting and interesting and the central mystery of the movie compelling. None of the actors really over-awe each other, although Norton's Eisenheim is the focus of the movie. I don't want to ruin the movie by saying much more, but there is a mystery, and a conflict between the major characters, and the movie slowly unfolds toward its conclusion. There is even a magic trick in the movie which is completely explained that seems to work and might win you a bet or two.

The marketing and release of the film has been slow and patient, opening in a slowly increasing set of theaters.

This is the best movie I've seen in a theater this year, and I definitely will purchase it on DVD.

Posted by Jvstin at 4:46 AM

August 22, 2006

Matte Paintings of Revenge of the Sith

:: D U S S O ::

Via SFSignal, the webpage of the lead matte painter for Revenge of the Sith. Shorn of all of the other crap in that very disappointing movie, these mattes look pretty damn good.

Posted by Jvstin at 6:51 AM

July 30, 2006

Stranger than Fiction

Stranger Than Fiction

A trailer for a movie coming out this fall about a writer whose character seems to be as real as she is. Its clearly being marketed as a comedy, and while I am not a huge fan of Will Farrell, I think he did well in the remake of Bewitched opposite Nicole Kidman. And the rest of the cast, Emma Thompson, Dustin Hoffman, and Maggie Gyllenhaal, makes this movie appealing to me.

Posted by Jvstin at 11:06 AM

June 28, 2006

Spiderman 3 Teaser

In case you have been living under a rock, there is a teaser trailer for Spiderman 3, a movie not even due out for a year.

Posted by Jvstin at 4:36 AM

May 20, 2006

Movie Review: The Da Vinci Code

The biggest movie of the year thus far, and probably the entire season, given the hype.

The Da Vinci code stars Tom Hanks, Audrey Tautou, Jean Reno, Paul Bettany, Ian McKellen, and Alfred Molina.

I have not read the book although I own a copy and so cannot judge on how accurate or faithful to the book it is. I can only judge it as a cinematic piece of art rather than an adaptation.

Tom Hanks plays Robert Langdon, expert on symbology. While on a book tour in Paris, he is asked to come look at the scene of a murder, done in a ritualistic, symbol-laden style. Soon, with Audrey Tautou as cryptologist and police officer Sophie Neveu, he is plunged into long chases fraught with secret societies, murders, and a power struggle over those who would protect a two millenia old secret, and those who would do anything to destroy it.

Its overwrought melodrama, but I knew that before walking in. Some things in the movie work much better than others. I think Jean Reno was a bit wasted in his character of the dogged French policeman convinced Langdon is the murderer, a character that seems a little too monomanical, even viewed through the lens of the explanation of his actions in the denouement. Hanks does all right as the main character, as does Tautou as the female lead. But the performances are nothing special, like, say, Cast Away or Amelie. Bettany is the evil albino monk you've probably heard about, and I think he does all right given the part he's been given. But, again, we've seen him do much better work elsewhere, in A Beautiful Mind and Master and Commander.

Clearly, far and away, the best thing about the movie is Ian McKellen as an old friend of Langdon's who turns out, quelle surprise, to have motives and an agenda of his own. He knows what sort of movie that he is in, and he plays up his character more than any other three actors in this movie and steals every scene he is in. As for Alfred Molina's character, on the other hand, his scheming Opus Dei bishop seems intriguing, but we don't learn enough about him to really get a feel for him, which is a pity.

The movie continues to manufacture ways to keep the heat on the pot of water percolating for a long while, and when that heat finally is removed, the movie slows down toward its conclusion. The problem with breakneck paces is that you have to pace the rest of the movie properly. [info]arrefmak mentions this phenomenon in a re-viewing of the Incredibles. I don't think this is Ron Howard's fault (considering how well other works of his have come out) but more a function of the source material.

The best thing about Howard's direction is his use of the visual to help us see how Langdon and Neveu do the things that they do. Its an effective technique that reminds me of the stuff Howard did with A Beautiful Mind, and it works here very well. I found myself wanting to get a long-wanted book on Code breaking (The Code Book, Simon Singh) after this movie was done.

Still, the movie has a lot of wasted potential and (except for McKellen) wasted actors. You might want to rent it, it would be worth a rental, or a matinee price at the theater if you really want to see it now.

I can see, now, why when National Treasure came out, that people compared it to The Da Vinci Code (the book). The trouble is, National Treasure is a better made movie, in my opinion, and more entertaining, perhaps because Turtletaub wasn't straitjacketed by the source material.

Posted by Jvstin at 11:07 AM

May 13, 2006

Lost Star Wars Episode IV Footage

SF Signal: Lost Star Wars Footage

Via SF Signal,a deleted scene from Episode IV (aka the Original Star Wars). I haven't seen this before, and I bet you haven't either. It has Luke talking to Biggs, with the latter apparently visiting the planet just before the droids land on the planet. (I am sure that what Luke sees through the binoculars up in the sky is the Star Destroyer going after Leia's ship).

Is it necessary to the story? No, but its cool to see nevertheless.

Posted by Jvstin at 10:01 AM

December 29, 2005

King Kong

I had today off, and after enjoying lunch at P.F.Chang's, I went to see the Peter Jackson version of King Kong

I'd seen the original King Kong again on TCM last weekend, and that definitely influenced my view of Peter Jackson's epic.

Perhaps its the short tightness of the original Kong, but I found Peter Jackson's version a tad too long for my taste. Don't get me wrong. His vision of Depression era New York City is amazing. Skull Island is a place that will resonate in my imagination. Seeing the worlds collide with Kong in the Big Apple is memorable.

But I think the movie goes on too long. It takes too long for us to get onto the ship, and to Skull Island. Skull Island itself could have been tightened, trimmed, especially a too-long battle between Kong and T-Rexes (multiple!). Even back in New York, we don't get down to brass tacks soon enough.

On the other hand, its a wild ride. The acting is top notch, especially Naomi Watts as the strong, vulnerable, sexy, sweet and compassionate Ann Darrow. I've decided to cast one of my longtime NPCs, Asteria, as Naomi Watts, based on Watts performance here. Black captures the feral madness of a movie producer with nothing to lose. Adrien Brody completes the love triangle between man, Kong and woman and sells us on it. And Kong is a revelation. Andy Serkis (of Gollum fame) brings Kong to the full level of a fully fleshed character.

I loved Skull Island, a lost world island brought to life in a way that stays with you. I've not been as impressed by dinosaurs on screen since the original Jurassic Park.

There are even a few floruishes that are homage to the original film--Denham even muses about casting Fay in his movie, only to be told that she is working on a film currently for RKO. (No coincidence I am sure, RKO produced the original Kong). In another scene, Denham films a movie scene between Darrow and Bruce Baxter, an actor who comes along on the trip. Baxter plays the first mate in the movie, and the filmed sequence and dialogue is actually a scene from the original Kong.

So, be prepared for a three hour movie experience, but even with the caveat that it could have been trimmed, go see Kong. Be amazed.

Posted by Jvstin at 10:02 PM

December 26, 2005


I saw The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe today, the first projected movie in the Chronicles of Narnia series.

Clearly plunging headlong into LOTR and Harry Potter territory, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe takes it clues from those series in bringing C.S. Lewis' children's book to the screen.

With only a couple of A-class stars, the movie falls mainly on the children, who do an adequate job of portraying Peter, Lucy, Susan and Edmond. They play the children so well that, at the end, the actors playing their older selves do not measure up by comparison.

Special effects, costuming and the imagination of Narnia work very well, from Mr. Tummus, to the beavers, to bombadier griffins(!). Aslan I think didn't work quite as well. Liam Neeson is not, alas, James Earl Jones.

Still, the best thing about the movie is the same thing that was best about the Keanu Reeves picture Constantine: Tilda Swinton. She plays Jadis, the White Witch perfectly. Not just the visuals, but the cold cruelty and haughtiness of a woman determined to maintain her power.

Funny enough, the end battle kept making me want to play Heroes of Might and Magic, as fantasy creatures face off in a battle that, while not quite up to the exalted levels of Lord of the Rings, is still well imagined.

The Christian imagery is there,and there are some changes to the plot that even I,years after reading it,recognize, but it didn't detract from the experience.

I will definitely purchase the DVD when it comes out.


Posted by Jvstin at 6:53 PM

December 4, 2005

AEon Flux

Girl Flight - Aeon Flux doesn't suck By David Edelstein

Showing that I am a typical male, in the end, I went to see the not-screened-for-critics Aeon Flux on Friday after work, with the same co-worker who has become my movie buddy.

We were underwhelmed.

Interesting sets, Charlize Theron is a treat to watch in an action pic, some interesting (if slightly implausible) ideas on cloning and ethics. Lots of future tech, biotech, cyberpunk.

On the other hand, for all of that, it didn't quite seem to have a strong vision. Mike and I agreed that a better director, with a stronger directing style. Luc Besson, for example, could have taken the material and made this movie far, far better.

And I am not even going to complain about how little the movie resembles the liquid television show. TrueFans of the show will dislike this movie.

It's worth a rental, but otherwise, I recommend you don't get caught in AEon Flux.

Posted by Jvstin at 10:17 AM

November 16, 2005

Another Movie Meme from John Scalzi

Whatever: The Comedy Canon: A Meme for You

You will remember the entry sometime back about the Essential SF Movies, as chosen by the author of the Rough Guide to SF Movies, John Scalzi.

Although he didn't write the Rough Guide to Comedy Movies, he provides us the list of them. I've bolded the ones I've seen and asterisked the ones I own.
I don't do as nearly well as the SF movies!

And How does the Princess Bride *not* make this list??!

All About Eve
Annie Hall
The Apartment
Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery
Blazing Saddles

Bringing Up Baby
Broadcast News
Le diner de con
Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story
Duck Soup
Ferris Bueller's Day Off
Four Weddings and a Funeral

The General
The Gold Rush
Good Morning Vietnam
The Graduate
*Groundhog Day
A Hard Day's Night
His Girl Friday

Kind Hearts and Coronets
The Lady Killers
Local Hero
Monty Python's Life of Brian
National Lampoon's Animal House
The Odd Couple
The Producers
Raising Arizona

Shaun of the Dead
A Shot in the Dark
Some Like it Hot
Strictly Ballroom
Sullivan's Travels
There's Something About Mary
This is Spinal Tap
To Be or Not to Be
Toy Story

Les vacances de M. Hulot
*When Harry Met Sally...
Withnail and I

Posted by Jvstin at 2:31 PM

November 8, 2005

Dark City Directors Cut?

SFSignal: SF Tidbits Part XXVIII

Via SF Signal, we can expect at some point a new, Director's Cut of the classic film Dark City. Its one of my all time favorite movies of any genre, and I am curious what a Director's Cut will bring to the table. DC's can be improvements (Donnie Darko), a wash (Alexander), or in some cases take away from the original movie (arguably, Fellowship of the Ring--some of the extended stuff is not up to snuff with the rest of the film).

Roger Ebert, as much a fan of the movie as I am, will be doing commentary on the new Director's Cut.

Posted by Jvstin at 12:24 PM

October 17, 2005

Fifty SF Movies to See before you die

Whatever: The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies -- Officially Out!

John Scalzi, author of The Rough Guide to Sci-fi movies, gives us his Canon of fifty essential movies.

I've reproduced his list, bolding the one's I've seen, and comments as necessary.

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension!

Back to the Future
Blade Runner
Bride of Frankenstein

Brother From Another Planet
A Clockwork Orange
Close Encounters of the Third Kind

The Damned
Destination Moon
The Day The Earth Stood Still
Delicatessen (This is SF??)
Escape From New York
ET: The Extraterrestrial
Flash Gordon: Space Soldiers (serial)
The Fly (1985 version)

Forbidden Planet
Ghost in the Shell
The Incredibles
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956 version)
Jurassic Park
Mad Max 2/The Road Warrior
The Matrix
On the Beach
Planet of the Apes (1968 version)
Solaris (1972 version)
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope
Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

The Stepford Wives
Terminator 2: Judgement Day

The Thing From Another World
Things to Come
12 Monkeys
28 Days Later
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
2001: A Space Odyssey

La Voyage Dans la Lune
War of the Worlds (1953 version)

I think I'd like a copy of the book.

Posted by Jvstin at 9:40 PM

October 7, 2005

A History of Violence

After work today, I went with a co-worker (Michael again) to see the new David Cronenberg film, A History of Violence

Its the most mainstream of Cronenberg's films to date.

Noted for such visceral movies as Videodrome, my beloved eXistenZ and Crash (which I could not stomach), AHOV is much more mainstream, even as it has the signature Cronenberg directing style. From the music, to the framing of shots, I had no doubt of who was directing the film, even as the subject matter was very different for him than his usual fare.

The story revolves around Tom Stall, a small town Indianan diner owner who saves his staff from two sociopaths in a violent fashion, and his publicity brings unwanted attention from individuals who claim to know the real story of his past. The rest of the movie spools out the consequences of Tom revealing his preternatural ability at committing acts of violence, from his son's sea change in dealing with a school bully, to a final confrontation between Tom and his past.

Character is important in this movie, and the questions it raises are good ones. The movie itself does not glamorize the violence in the way of, say, Sin City, it is shown brutally, unapologetically, including a scene of what amounts to a sexual assault. And yet, even with that violence, the performances of Mortensen, Harris, Hurt (in a small but key role) and the rest of the cast carry the movie.

It's not a pleasant film, but it is a good one.

Posted by Jvstin at 10:44 PM

October 1, 2005


SFSignal: I Am A Leaf On The Wind Or, Review: Serenity

The SF Site Featured Review: Serenity

Reviews of Serenity are starting to hit the 'Verse, so to speak. I myself saw it opening (last) night.

Go. See. It.

A triple length episode of Firefly (although Steven Silver disputes that idea, and he has a point), the movie is, on the whole, a piece of art, a 2 hour return to the 'Verse, Core planets and outer edge backwaters, Alliance and Reavers.

I saw it with a co-worker unfamiliar with the Firefly universe, which was useful in talking afterwards how the movie looks to someone who doesn't know the difference between Captain Reynolds and Captain Kirk.

He liked it plenty fine.

My co-worker picked up most of the essentials, even if he thought Inara, once introduced, was Mal's ex-girlfriend.

The movie is darker than the series by a good long way. Whedon shows a willingness to have bad things happen to characters we love.

Whedon doesn't change the look of the movie from the series much, one reason why this movie did not cost $200 million. There is eye candy, though, and the movie is slanted toward action-adventure. However, my companion was amazed at the well developed character comedy, a hallmark of the series.

A few missteps feel wrong in the movie to me, but overall the experience was highly positive, and I am tempted, time permitting, to enjoy it again on the big screen. For a 5 PM movie on a Friday, the theater was remarkably full.

Non Fans of the series, but fans of the genre, should enjoy a SF movie which is not Star Wars XV and has characters who are far more than cutboard cutouts and speak intelligent dialogue. Ironically, I think the movie will be harder on ardent fans than on newcomers to the 'Verse, for reasons that a viewing will make perfectly clear.

Highly Recommended.

Posted by Jvstin at 10:38 AM

September 25, 2005

You can't take the sky from me!

The Washington Monthly

Among other places and Blogs, Kevin Drum talks about a show that has come dear to my heart, too, Firefly, and the upcoming movie, Serenity

There was even evidently a promotion for Bloggers to get advance tickets to Serenity...but the time for that is long past.

I will be happy to see it on friday, after work. I have to drive in to work on friday anyhow to bring in food for a pot luck, and I figure I will see the movie downtown, afterwards.

Until Friday, I'm going to be watching episodes from the Firefly box set to re-immerse myself in its world.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:51 PM

September 5, 2005

Watching Star Wars (A New Hope)

Now that I am watching it again, I still am struck by the heart and soul that the movie holds, especially in comparison to Episodes I-III.

While the technical wizardry and special effects and action of the new Trilogy is hard to deny (especially Episodes II and III), there is more emotion and heart in A New Hope alone than the three prequels combined.

And the inconsistencies just mount the more you look. The hazards of prequels are ones that Lucas did not navigate well at all. I think he should have watched his own movies a few times.

The sequence where Luke and Obi Wan talk in his cave...keeping aside the fact that Obi Wan lies about who his father is--is Leia lying when she talks about Obi Wan serving her father? And many other questions come to mind as well. What happens in the prequels simply doesn't match up, no matter how you spin it.

I'm not saying Star Wars Ep IV is perfect...but its a hell of a lot better. And it feels like far less of an exercise in technical wizardry and a true groping to create a modern myth.

Posted by Jvstin at 4:37 PM

July 6, 2005

New Jersey? He's from Staten Island!

Science Fiction Movie and TV Reviews

The review of War of the Worlds makes a mistake in its first paragraph, nay its first line.

Ray Ferrier (Cruise), a divorced New Jersey dockworker, is not much of a father to his two children, 11-year-old Rachel (Fanning) and teenage Robbie (Chatwin). When Ray's ex-wife, the very pregnant Mary Ann (Miranda Otto), drops them off for the weekend, Ray's late, and the kids can barely bring themselves to say hello.

Actually, Ray lives in the shadow of the Bayonne Bridge, in my hometown, of Staten Island, NY. Its not much of a spoiler, but the Bridge, which is promimently seen in the early part of the movie, does wind up becoming a casualty of the alien attack.

UPDATE: I am perhaps wrong, after all. My brother, in comments, corrects the mistake, but in so doing, shows the filmmakers have an even worse sense of geography than I thought, since Farrier, to make sense of the scenes we see, would have had to drive across the destroyed Bayonne and headed south from there.

Posted by Jvstin at 6:54 PM

July 4, 2005

More Catholic than the Pope

I came across the reference by accident, browsing the web, but there is a change from the Tolkien novel Fellowship of the Ring, to the movie, that I consider to be a good thing.

In the novel, Frodo hands Gandalf the ring directly:

"Revenge?" said Frodo. "Revenge for what? I still don't understand what all this has to do with Bilbo and myself, and our ring."

"It has everything to do with it," said Gandalf. "You do not know the real peril yet; but you shall. [...] Give me the ring for a moment."

Frodo took it from his breeches-pocket, where it was clasped to a chain that hung from his belt. He unfastened it and handed it slowly to the wizard. [...]

Gandalf held it up. It looked to be made of pure and solid gold.

Pretty cheeky even for a Maiar to take hold of the Ring of Power made by a fellow Maiar, eh? In the movie, things run differently. When Bilbo drops the ring on the floor upon his departure, Gandalf touches the ring, once, and sees the Great Eye. He purposefully never touches the ring again, letting Frodo do it all. Its an envelope, remember, when he throws it into the fire, and handles it with tongs to give to Frodo for HIM to look at it.

I think this is a better choice. If the ring really is that malevolent, Gandalf very wisely should keep his hands off of it at all costs, because as he said "he would be tempted to wield the ring to do good", with disastrous consequences.

So, sometimes, the movie is more catholic than the pope, so to speak. The movie is more in the spirit of the novels than this passage in the novel itself.

Posted by Jvstin at 11:30 AM

June 17, 2005

Neal Stephenson explains Revenge of the Sith

Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out - New York Times

Neal Stephenson, writing an editorial piece for the New York Times, recalls the first time he saw Star Wars...and uses it as a parable of our times.

He also reveals, about the movie itself:

Likewise, many have been underwhelmed by the performance of Hayden Christensen, who plays Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader. Only if you've seen the "Clone Wars" cartoons will you understand that Anakin is a seriously damaged veteran, a poster child for post-traumatic stress disorder. But since none of that background is actually supplied by the Episode III script, Mr. Christensen has been given an impossible acting task. He's trying to swim in air.

Exactly. Having not read the ancillary material, I found the conversion of Anakin to be unrealistic and unconvincing.

Do read the whole thing, though.

Posted by Jvstin at 4:58 AM

February 19, 2005

Magic Kingdom for Sale--the Movie?

Sci Fi Wire -- The News Service of the Sci Fi Channel

The march to snatch up fantasy properties for movies continues. I mentioned in this blog a little while ago about the possible movie adaptation of Lions of Al-Rassan.

Now, from the link above, I hear that Steven Summers (director of the Mummy movies and Van Helsing) has been attached to a project to direct an adaptation of the Terry Brooks novel Magic Kingdom for Sale.

I am not a fan of Terry Brooks' work, MKFS is the only book of his that I could tolerate at all, and I still can see the flaws and the problems in it. I can see how it would make a "hollywood" movie--man buys a magic kingdom, and has to deal with the consequences. High concept!

I like Summers' work, so *maybe* I will go to see it. But I am not that excited about it. I still there there is plenty of better fantasy out there to pick and choose to make into movies.

Posted by Jvstin at 10:42 AM

January 22, 2005

Lions of Al-Rassan Movie?!

Sci Fi Wire -- The News Service of the Sci Fi Channel

I actually saw an email about this from the GGK website, so it is authentic. Warner Brothers has attached director Ed Zwick to direct an adaptation of Kay's LIONS OF AL-RASSAN.

Color me skeptical of how this is going to turn out. Just remember Sturgeon's Law--and with the good way HP and LOTR have turned out--there is going to be a lot more shite out there in movie land. But I do think that the fact that WB is set to do this movie is a consequence of the success of the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings movies. (That controversial adaptation of Earthsea on Sci-Fi is another byproduct of the success of the two movie series)

I'm surprised, though. I would think that the Fionavar books would be more "movie-friendly" because of the demographics of its protagonists.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:53 AM

December 18, 2004

Now he's going for the (white) gold...

Sci Fi Wire -- The News Service of the Sci Fi Channel

A movie based on Thomas Covenant? I think I will pass, thank you. I have a distaste for the novels...

It's not necessarily Donaldson himself, since I enjoyed the Mirror duology.

It's just that Covenant is such an unlikeable character, I really couldn't get into the books. The fact that Thomas rapes someone not long after getting to the land is just more meringue on the lemon pie of my discontent.

I remember an old Phil Foglio comic in Dragon magazine which satirized ham handed attempts at marketing works. Part of that satire made fun of the idea of a Hollywoodization of the Covenant novels.

"Now he's going for the gold, and no one is going to call him lefty anymore!"

Posted by Jvstin at 8:35 PM

December 8, 2004

$7,500 worth of movies DVD: The Criterion Collection Holiday 2004 Gift Set ( Exclusive)

Amazon is selling this massive collection of movies this christmas at a "mere" $5000.

241 movies, 282 discs. Yowza.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:36 PM

November 13, 2004

The Incredibles

To cheer myself up a bit, I went to see THE INCREDIBLES today.

It gives strong competition to the title of "Best Superhero Movie" of all time to Spiderman 2 and Batman. It also gives strong competition to "Best Animated Movie" of all time to things like Beauty and the Beast and Toy Story.

The story is set in a New York like city, in a world where Superheroes emerged, did their deeds, and in a postmodern twist, are now in a witness protection program. Too many lawsuits and complaints from the public have turned heroes like Mr. Incredible into insurance adjusters and Elastigirl to stay at home Moms.

And yet there is always the allure of going out, of stopping crime, of doing good.

The movie hits all the right notes and tones, and themes of the superhero genre. The superheroes even make fun of "monolouging", the tendency for villains to endlessly explain their evil plans and deeds.

Secret Identities. Villains born of an early trauma. A world sick of superheroes, except when the chips are really down. The animation of the movie is incredible, engaging, and its easy to forget that you are watching an animated movie.

An excellent review by Harold Waldrop and Lawrence Personis available on the Locus Magazine website.

Posted by Jvstin at 6:35 PM

October 26, 2004

Vampire Movies must not be that popular

According to MSNBC, their list of highest grossing vampire movies is rather surprising...

Van Helsing has the highest grossing box office of any vampire movie? (and a relatively anemic $120 mil at that).

Interview's 105 mil is pretty good since that was back in '94. But this list is so poor that the excreable Queen of the Damned, at #10 , has grossed just $30 mil.

I think DVD and VCR rentals and showings are not reflected in these numbers. I refuse to believe that, if people were polled, that Van Helsing would be the highest rated Vampire movie ever, especially since it confuses Harpies with Female Vampires. (Those who saw the movie know exactly what I am talking about).

Posted by Jvstin at 11:29 AM

October 11, 2004

RIP Superman

A little late, but rest in peace, Christopher Reeve.

It's just creepy that he was invoked at the Presidential Debate on Friday.

I admit I like him in other things than Superman too--Somewhere in Time, for example.

Posted by Jvstin at 3:31 PM

September 21, 2004

Return to Netflix

I decided to return to Netflix, reactivating my subscription.

Long time readers will recall I had a gift subscription from my friend Bridgette back when I was in California. I let that lapse when I moved from there to here, but now I've decided to reup it.

Even with around 90 movies of mine own, I wanted a steady stream of new ones to see. And, with the prevalence of TV series on DVD, I can and have put things like seasons of Babylon 5 into my queue.

Any suggestions on movies to add to my queue are, as always, well appreciated. Most of you know the things I have seen, and do see, and do like.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:57 PM

September 16, 2004

Observation of the Day

The subtitles for Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (at the very least, perhaps the others do as well) use the British (New Zealand!) spelling of armor. (armour).

With this seen I will have to look for more instances of this in the LOTR movies.

But, then, most of you know I love to watch movies with subtitles on. Just a thing of mine.

Posted by Jvstin at 6:31 PM

July 10, 2004

Mask of Fu Manchu

The other day, the Mask of Fu Manchu played on TCM. The Olsons graciously TIVOed and then burned a DVD of it for me to watch.

As you will recall from this entry. Arref casts Fiona in the ATEC Amber universe from this movie: Myrna Loy as the cool brilliant daughter of the dangerous Fu Manchu.

The movie dates from 1932 and it shows. Its pre-Code, and a little more explicit than movies from the late 30's through the 40's. There is a definite layer of racism and political incorrectness in the movie (at least by modern standards). The threat of the Yellow Peril is a card played hard in this movie.

OTOH, despite these detractions, the movie does have Boris Karloff and Myrna Loy in it, and they make it more than watchable. Myrna Loy's Fa Lo See is a femme fatale of the first order.

The various perils of the protagonists as it seems that Fu Manchu's diabolical plot will succeed is the classic pulp material that Indiana Jones would mine a half century later.

Posted by Jvstin at 9:22 AM

March 1, 2004

Oscar Sweep

Well, the Oscars are over, and Peter Jackson's Magnum Opus has garnered 11 wins, including the big pair of Best Director and Best Picture of the year.

It deserved it. I was concerned the Academy was going to anoint something much more "Academy-esque" like Mystic River.

As Dorothea points out, the winners for Foreign Language Film were relieved LOTR was not nominated in that category.

You know, maybe if they did a Sindarin language track (subtitle or spoken)for the would give David some work...

(Hey, did you know the DVD for Galaxy Quest has a "Thermian language track" on it? Of course it would be a massive amount of work, but I bet people would buy a DVD of LOTR with it dubbed or subtitled in Middle Earth languages...)

Posted by Jvstin at 4:58 PM

February 10, 2004

"Movies that must not be"

Over on Obsidian Wings, there is an interesting thread about movies which were so bad, so horrid, that it is easier to deny their existence, since they clearly would have disrupted the space-time continuum with their existence. Example...did Batman and Robin really happen? Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze? Anatomically correct batsuits? Must have been a bad dream...

Pretty funny. Although you will undoubtedly find movies brought up that you actually did like. (In my case, The Fifth Element)

But its worth a read.

Via Brad De Long's post, where he has the game running too.

Posted by Jvstin at 12:42 PM

December 12, 2003

Playing the "goggle game"

Another unmitigated disaster from a miserable failure. Did I mention that Bush is unelectable?

And I am the real jvstin


It seems that google can be tweaked, somewhat, by named links on pages. It influences search engines.

Sure its somewhat petty, but George W. Bush deserves no less.

Posted by Jvstin at 4:17 PM

October 24, 2003

Mystery spot on Jupiter baffles Astronomers

No, not the Great Red one, but a black one has shown up on Jupiter's equator. Astronomers are not sure what in the world it is.

But I've recently (a couple of weeks ago, at the Olsons) watched 2010...and I vividly remember the scene when the Black Monolith transported itself to Jupiter and began multiplying...

Posted by Jvstin at 10:52 AM

"Jesus" actor struck by lightning

You've no doubt seen this elsewhere, but Jim Caviezel, slated to play Jesus in the controversial new movie about the Passion that Mel Gibson is producing, managed to be hit by lightning, along with the film's assistant director.

He, though, had been struck already.

I don't get the casting, though. I like Caviezel, and he might actually suit for one or two of my RPG characters (especially Marcus)...but Jesus?

Sure, I know the actor is more important than the appearance...but to give you another example, would you expect Sean Connery to play Iago? Or Ice-T to play Charles Foster Kane?

Then again, as much as I like (and have a thing for) Monica Belucci, I don't think she's right for Mary Magdalene, either. Now Milli Avital (sp?), the actress who played the love interest in the movie version of SHE has the look.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:14 AM

October 20, 2003

Last weekend adventures

Last weekend was a bit odd for me, since it was the first weekend that I wasn't moving stuff from Scott's house to my matchbox, or getting something for the matchbox, or whatever.

So, I found myself at an unusual amount of liberty, since I now have a car.

So, Saturday I went and saw a movie. Yeah, alone, after all my movie buddy is still in Florida awaiting the birth of the adopted baby-to-be. I saw "Runaway Jury", even though Grisham and law thrillers are not my usual genre by a long shot.

Did I like it? Yes, although I could see a few holes in the plot, and I thought that the structure of the groups of characters were not all equal. It has a very good cast--Hoffman, Hackman, Weisz (the female lead in the Mummy movies), Cusack (aka, he who I would pick to play me in a story of my life), and even a cameo by the guy from the Practice (or was from the Practice, anyway). The plot revolves around a trial of gun manufacturers, jury picking and tampering, bribery, corruption, ethics and morals. And of course the "big secret at the end" that one side is racing to uncover before time runs out.

Besides that, I wandered over to Borders, and also Best Buy. At the latter I found something I'd only heard of and not seen--and picked that up instead of my intended purchase of the Matrix Reloaded: A Cd-rom set of every National Geographic add-in map up to the year 1999. One of my favorite things about NGO is the maps that come in every other issue or so, and this Cd-rom has all of the ones from the previous century. Best of all, it was just $20 Sweet!

On Sunday, I decided to do the male-bonding thing with Scott. I came over, put a new experimental recipe for sausage chili in the crockpot, and we watched football (with a little Good Eats thrown in as well). I'll mention the Sausage Chili in more detail in an entry of its own.

Football was a disappointment--as Scott pointed out, we went "1 for 3" today--the Packers lost to the Rams, the Giants unbelievably lost to the Eagles on a punt return in the final minute, but Felicia's Saints won and won big. It was good to spend time with Scott, anyhow, and I think he appreciated the company.

But it was a fun weekend. Next weekend, assuming I don't get wrapped up in something else, I think I am going to go a little further afield and really begin exploring the metro area. Museums, culture, parks, and more await...and its much more practical to do this with a car of my own.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:41 AM

October 3, 2003

Shades of Demolition Man

In the movie Demolition Man, Sylvester Stallone's character of John Spartan is aghast to discover the future city of San Angeles is home to the "Schwarzenegger Presidential Library", since the actor became President thanks to the "37th amendment to the Constitution."

And remember the entry where I linked off of Ginger's approval of changing the Constitution in this way?

Apparently proposals for such an amendment ARE working through the House and Senate even now. The likelihood of these becoming law in time for Arnold to possibly run for President are pretty low. Americans are generally resistant to a change in the actual text of the Constitution, even as it gets interpreted and reinterpreted over the ages. But I still think Ginger and I are right, and it *should* change.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:55 AM

September 29, 2003

LOTR Return of the King Trailer

Return Of The King Trailer

A trailer for the third and last of the LOTR movies is now up at

Warning: The large one is over 26MB in size.

Posted by Jvstin at 7:13 PM

September 26, 2003

The Classic Blunder

I was talking with my co-workers yesterday, and apparently one of them is a Princess Bride fan, and we together came up with this little gem:

Bush and therefore the U.S. fell for "the classic Blunder"...never get involved in a Land War in Asia. In fact, we fell for it twice. At least we didn't match wits with a Sicilian when Death is on the line...

So I guess the President has never seen the movie or read the book. Even if on the other hand he is, according to JMS, a fan of Babylon 5.

Posted by Jvstin at 9:04 AM

September 25, 2003

100 Movies

100 movies. Which ones have you seen from this list?

I've put the ones I've seen (in FULL, not just pieces) in boldface

I think this is swiped from the IMDB top 100 movies list, or an old variant thereof.

Via Bruce Baugh

1 Godfather, The (1972)
2 Shawshank Redemption, The (1994)
3 Godfather: Part II, The (1974)
4 Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, The (2001)
5 Schindler's List (1993)
6 Citizen Kane (1941)
7 Casablanca (1942)

8 Seven Samurai (1954)
9 Star Wars (1977)
10 Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
11 Memento (2000)
12 One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)
13 Rear Window (1954)
14 Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, The (2002)
15 Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back
16 Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
17 Usual Suspects, The (1995)
18 Amelie (2001)
19 Pulp Fiction (1994)
20 North by Northwest (1959)
21 Psycho (1960)
22 Silence of the Lambs, The (1991)

23 12 Angry Men (1957)
24 Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
25 It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
26 The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
27 Goodfellas (1990)
28 American Beauty (1999)
29 Vertigo (1958)

30 Pianist, The (2002)
31 Sunset Blvd. (1950)
32 Apocalypse Now (1979)

33 Some Like It Hot (1959)
34 Matrix, The (1999)
35 To Kill a Mockingbird

36 Taxi Driver (1976)
37 Third Man, The (1949)
38 Paths of Glory (1957)
39 Fight Club (1999)
40 Boot, Das (1981)
41 L.A. Confidential (1997)
42 Double Indemnity (1944)
43 Chinatown (1974)
44 Requiem for a Dream (2000)
45 Maltese Falcon, The (1941)
46 Singin' in the Rain (1952)
47 Bridge on the River Kwai, The (1957)
48 Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi (2001)
49 Saving Private Ryan
50 All About Eve (1950)
51 M (1931)
52 Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
53 Raging Bull (1980)
54 Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
55 Seven
56 Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000)

57 Wizard of Oz, The
58 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

59 Vita e bella, La (1997) (Life is Beautiful)
60 American History X (1998)
61 Sting, The (1973)
62 Touch of Evil (1958)
63 Manchurian Candidate, The (1962)
64 Alien (1979)
65 Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
66 Rashomon (1950)
67 Leon (1994)
68 Annie Hall (1977)
69 Great Escape, The (1963)
70 Clockwork Orange, A (1971)
71 Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The (1948)
72 Reservoir Dogs (1992)
73 Sixth Sense, The (1999)
74 Jaws
75 Amadeus (1984)

76 On the Waterfront (1954)
77 Ran (1985)
78 Braveheart (1995)
79 High Noon (1952)
80 Fargo (1996)
81 Blade Runner (1982)
82 Apartment, The (1960)
83 Aliens (1986)
84 Toy Story 2
85 Strangers on a Train (1951)
86 Modern Times (1936)
87 Shining, The (1980)
88 Donnie Darko (2001)
89 Duck Soup (1933)
90 Princess Bride, The (1987)
91 Run Lola Run (1998)
92 City Lights (1931)
93 General, The (1927)
94 Metropolis (1927)
95 Searchers, The (1956)
96 Full Metal Jacket (1987)
97 Notorious (1946)
98 Manhattan (1979)
99 Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
100 Graduate, The (1967)

Posted by Jvstin at 9:57 AM

September 8, 2003

Brotherhood of the Wolf

Felicia picked up this DVD up the other day, and I've finally had the chance to watch it.

I was impressed. There was a bit of confusion given the fact that it had been dubbed in English (and not labelled as such). I distinctly remember it being in French--and the deleted scenes are in French.

I liked the atmosphere and the sheen of authenticity of the historical time period. I especially liked Monica Belucci as Sylvia, and now I am certain that if I do "cast" my SB NPC Noys as Monica Belucci, everyone is going to be looking for a hidden agenda from her.

It's also definitely not an "American" movie--where else would a main character be in love with the Noble's daughter...and yet visit a House of (not so) Ill Repute?

The fight scenes seemed too "Matrix-like" but I guess this is the norm, these days. On the other hand, the complicated politics and alliances are definitely a level or two more complex than most fare on this side of the Atlantic.

Posted by Jvstin at 1:51 PM

August 29, 2003

Time Travel Fun

Over at Crooked Timber, one of the contributors, Brian, is apparently going to be teaching a course at Brown this coming semester on...Time Travel. He warms up any prospective students by taking on the Back to the Future Trilogy...

Modifications to my obvious misremembering of the article's argument and conversations in BTTF itself are italicized in the text. Thanks to Blacksheep for pointing some of them out. Of course his theory about merging Martys stands on its own irregardless of my goofs. Thanks!

Being a fan of time travel books and movies, I like the first two of the three BTTF movies. Number three, in my opinion, was really just "let's put Marty, Doc and Biff in the Wild West". But the first two movies are eminently watchable, and as Brian points out, as you watch them, the paradoxes don't really enter into your mind. It's only later that you begin to wonder about the logical gaps.

I recall, years ago, there were a couple of articles in a magazine , of which I can't even remember the title, that dissected the two movies in terms of the time travel anomalies.

My recollection of the article is hazy, but the author did, by necessity, take a few liberties to explain away the inconsistencies that Brian outlines in his own thesis. I'll just stick to the first movie, the second one is even more convoluted.

The basic thrust is a many-timeline universe with some modifications. Concentrating on the first movie, Marty starts in 1985, and goes back to 1955. He changes history (by getting hit by the car himself) so that, if things go on, he will not exist.

And thus, Marty begins to "fade" as we see in the course of the movie. Once his existence is assured, he returns to normality. And since he, in 1955, moved past the branching point, when he goes back to the future...he goes to his new future, in 1985.

So where IS the Marty that should be here? That long ago article suggests he went back to the past and by turns wound up on the other timeline.


The author did some handwaving to suggest that he went back to the future *before* Marty interferes with the timeline that creates the better future. He cites that Marty II probably drives better than Marty I given the fact that he owns a car of his own, and thus does not crash the car, and likely manages to turn around and get back to the present. However, when Marty II moves forward in time, he slides up into Marty I's future...because his future does not exist "yet", in 1955.

Talk about Dystopia! Doc is dead, and unless he handles the plutonium himself to reload the car, he's stuck there with his less-successful parents and life.

All of this talk about Time Travel and the conservation of stuff reminds me of the role playing game Continuum, which I would like to run someday. It does neatly handle a lot of time travel paradoxes without invoking Multiple Worlds. (In point of fact, the antagonists of the game seem to be trying to create such an environment by their attempts to change history). The unpublished companion game, Narcissist, seems to have been designed to show the side of the bad guys.

Posted by Jvstin at 10:25 AM

August 27, 2003

Two Towers redux

So, yesterday evening, the Olsons and I watched "The Two Towers".

Before we did so, we took a look at that preview of the Return of the King. It turns out not to be a preview of the movie per se, on the contrary, its a "behind the scenes preview" of the making of the movie.

So..we see a few bits of movie, we see the director and a few actors talk about the third movie, but we don't actually see much of a preview at all. What's more telling, we see absolutely nothing of "crucial" scenes that Tolkien fans are waiting for--Shelob (although we get a glimpse of the caverns), Eowyn vs the Witch King, Frodo, Sam and Gollum at Mount Doom. Peter Jackson is keeping his cards very close to his vest.

As far as Two Towers on DVD...its a good conversion. We were familiar enough with the movie (The Olsons saw it in theaters many times) that we could and did talk about choices made in the script and movie as we went along. For example...using Frodo to have a vision as a flashback to Gandalf's fall. Some of the military decisions (good and bad) during the Siege at Helm's Deep. The whole "Frodo and Sam in Osgiliath" thing.

And, we all agreed when the movie was over, that we couldn't wait for the extended edition, come November. They had a preview of that, too, on the DVD...and it does seem to fill in some significant holes between books and the theatrical cut.

Posted by Jvstin at 7:33 AM

August 26, 2003

Two Towers

Today is practically a holiday in the Olson household, since the "short" version of The Two Towers comes out on DVD today.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

It's likely going to be the viewing feature for tonight. Last night we all started watching Fellowship of the Ring...but both Scott and Felicia went to bed early, leaving me alone to continue to watch it. Eventually, I went downstairs to do email and such.

I don't think that will be the case tonight. Although this is not the extended version (which comes out in late Fall), this DVD *does* have a preview of Return of the King. Scott and I debated yesterday whether it would be better to watch the movie, or the preview, first.

Posted by Jvstin at 7:56 AM

July 13, 2003

Animated Dr. Who

Perverse Access Memory: I'd Buy That

Via Ginger, there is going to be a BBC production of Dr. Who...except this time, its going to be animated.

I didn't *mind* the Paul McGann Dr. Who...but I have a prejudice in favor of Doctors #3-5...namely because it was primarly their episodes which were broadcast on Channel 55 back in NYC.

Posted by Jvstin at 8:29 AM

June 22, 2003

Neverwhere: Miniseries

Yesterday was the birthday of a friend of the Olsons (and a member of the RPG group that Scott is a part of), so we all went to Matt's parent's house (which he was housesitting) and other friends of his, including Jeff (aka Astin) came by. There was barbecuing, there was talking, there was fun.

There was also Neverwhere. It emerges Matt had a DVD copy of the British Miniseries based off of the Neil Gaiman novel. So, he put it in and we watched it during the afternoon and evening.


It was very faithful to the book, the credits listed Gaiman as a creator of the series, so that was a good sign. The acting was good, the visuals were not the usual high American budgets, but they did the job. The atmosphere and world of Down Below was evocatively and effectively captured.

Highly Recommended, especially for fans of the book.

Posted by Jvstin at 12:28 PM

May 24, 2003

The Weird "Architect" scene in the Matrix Reloaded

For those who haven't seen the Matrix, go away. This is definitely spoiler land.

Spurred a bit by the suggestion of Black Sheep and his comments about the Matrix Reloaded, I did a little digging, and came across this unofficial transcript of the exchange between Neo and "The Architect".

It might help explain matters. But it raises as many questions about the mileu of the Matrix as it might answer...


Posted by Jvstin at 8:55 AM

May 16, 2003

A thought on casting in Strange Bedfellows

Tangential to the whole Matrix hype, one of the actresses in the Matrix Reloaded has been suggested for a particular NPC in my game. The actress is Monica Bellucci, who played the duplicitious and treacherous Persephone. The NPC in SB is Noys, Eric's daughter. Most people dismiss her as being sweet and relatively light, and thus suggestions for her "casting" (a la Arref and Ginger's sites) has been actresses along those lines.

I wonder, if I did "select" her as the face for Noys, if people might not subconsciously reconsider their assessment of her. Actors and Actresses in these castings do bring something to the role of the character in the game--that's half of the fun of selecting them in the first place.

And does Noys have hidden agendas? The Gm is sphinx-like silent on that :)

Oh, by the way, I also used this post as an excuse to experiment with the Acronym tag. Netscape and Opera users won't see it, but IE users should see a couple of uses in this post.

Posted by Jvstin at 2:06 PM

The Matrix Reloaded

The Matrix Reloaded
Starring Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishbourne, Carrie-Ann Moss and Hugo Weaving
Directed by the Wachowski brothers

"Not everyone believes what you believe."

"My beliefs do not require that they do"

Morpheus responding to one of the Commanders in Zion about his belief in Neo.

It's been four years since the Matrix burst onto the scene. Back when it came out, around the turn of the last century, the hip theme of movies was "what is reality?" Along with The Matrix, other movies exploring the theme emerged in movie theaters at that time, including eXistenZ and The Thirteenth Floor. But it was The Matrix, with its Hong-Kong like action sequences as well as a dollop of philosophy which proved to be more than a cult hit (although I truthfully like its counterparts as well)

I don't think many movie-watchers are unaware that this is the second movie in a trilogy, the third will come out in November. You may not realize that there have been animated shorts set in the milieu of The Matrix; I saw one before a movie last month.

Thus, the Wachowski brothers have been creating an entire world for their films to exist in, a world that has grown and seen changes since the last film. Time has passed, and there are references to events between the original Matrix and this film (one of those events depicted in the animatrix short I just described). Neo's status as a messiah is much more explictily paralled to Christ in this movie.

...and the threat to the humans of Zion much more pertinent. An impending massive threat to the humans of the last city is the major impetus for the plot, the skeleton upon which this movie rests.

The Good? Interesting action sequences, and a lot more world-building. We see what Zion, only mentioned in words in the first, is really like. We also get a better idea of what the Matrix is like, what secrets it holds--and that not everyone in the Matrix is a plugged in man, or a machine. We meet new characters whom I hope we will continue to see in the third movie. It would be a disappointment if they disappear from the plot entirely.

The Bad? Gratuitious fight scenes which add little to the plot. This time around, the directors seemed enthralled with the "massively many opponents" fight scene. And while they are cinematic and feels somewhat hollow. There is a lot less philosophy this time around, even though we probe the secrets of what the Matrix and even Neo might really be about. Those allusions and references seen in the first movie are much less prevalent here. There is also a skin scene which probably goes on way too long, even though it is done in jump cutting to another "affirmation of life"

The Verdict? Despite the tediousness of the fight scenes, the movie experience flows quickly, and the movie ends on a cliffhanger that will frustrate you for its precipice of an ending. I would, and likely will see this movie multiple times, and will unquestionably buy the DVD.

Rating: Four and a quarter popcorn kernels out of five.

Posted by Jvstin at 10:15 AM

May 5, 2003

Of Lots of Movies

As I mentioned in the previous entry about X-men, Felicia is the movie buff of the Olsons. Needless to say her DVD/VCR collection is decently large, combined with TIVOing movies too, and we have seen many of them since I have been here...

The list of what I have seen, with movies I've never seen before in italics.

Much Ado about Nothing
Thirteen Ghosts
LOTR: Fellowship of the Ring
Pitch Black
Lilo and Stitch
Ghost Ship
The Mummy
The Mummy Returns
The Scorpion King
Pulp Fiction
Darkness Falls
Resident Evil

Jurassic Park
Jurassic Park II
Red Dragon
The Count of Monte Cristo (my copy)
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Independence Day
Sweet Home Alabama
Planet of the Apes (Tim Burton remake)
The Three Musketeers (the c. 1992 version)
The Bourne Identity
Reign of Fire

Posted by Jvstin at 4:44 PM

X-men 2

I saw the movie today with Felicia. She is much more a movie person than Scott is. In fact, she's probably even more comprehensive than I am when it comes to movies.

Today on a rainy day, we went to one of the local cinemas to see it.

I will avoid spoilers as much as possible.

The sequel centers around a new threat to the mutants led by Stewart's Professor Xavier. This time its a government military man named Stryker, who has definite ideas about what should happen to mutants, and is not above manipulation to gain his ends. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) gets to learn more about his past, his secrets. A few new mutants are introduced, and others glimpsed. Notably, Kurt Wagner as Nightcrawler, Iceman and Pyro get some screen time.

The movie is much more action packed than the first, there is much less setup and world building, and far more action cinematics. This doesn't make the movie bad, its much more a feast for the eyes. The morality and the themes are still there, but they are much less present than the first.

As sequels go, Harry Potter and LOTR have set a high bar. I'm not sure it makes the LOTR standard, its more on the level of Harry Potter's sequel in comparison to the first. It's certainly better than, say, the steep decline from the two Men In Black movies.

And there is a storyline that involves one of the main mutants that should be no surprise to fans of the comics, and its set up to almost certainly be a major plot in the next movie. I'd say after the grosses last week, X Men III is a high probability. They have a good franchise here going, Stewart must be relieved after the crash and burn of Star Trek Nemesis to have gotten on a new vehicle. And Ian Mckellen must be a very happy man with TWO major franchises going between LOTR and X-Men.
I say no more to prevent ruining the movie, go forth and watch it.

Rating: Four Popcorn Kernels out of Five.

Posted by Jvstin at 4:38 PM

December 26, 2002

I saw LOTR TTT again,

I saw LOTR TTT again, on Christmas Eve, this time at the Irvine Spectrum.

The interesting thing about it this time? Well, I managed even to make the Tolkien expert Scott Olson jealous because, you, see, the Irvine Spectrum contains an IMAX screen--and they show "regular" movies upon it. On Christmas Eve, it was Treasure Planet (earlier in the day but I didn't see that). The "late" show, which I did catch, was The Two Towers.

It looked great! It didn't cover the entire screen, of course, the aspect ratio of an IMAX screen is not the same as a regular movie screen. there weren't any black bars, but it reminded me a bit of watching a widescreen movie on a television in that regard.

Posted by Jvstin at 10:56 PM

December 22, 2002

Movie Review Lord of the

Movie Review

Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

Starring: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Liv Tyler, Christopher Lee, Cate Blanchett

Directed by: Peter Jackson

"Gandalf didn't mean for us to go this way."
"Gandalf didn't mean for a lot of things to happen, Sam"
--Frodo and Sam, lost on their journey toward Mordor

Middle books in trilogies (real trilogies, not the Interminable Fantasy Sequence) are hard to pull off. The author has to set up the seeds of the last book, continue the threads of the first, and still complete a story within the volume. Tolkien experts will point out that the three volume division of the LOTR is abitrary, I have seen versions where it is split into smaller volumes. And the "chapters" in Tolkien's work are not called that, they are called books. So, Tolkien's Two Towers is not strictly a middle book in a trilogy.

However, the movies are a different story. This is the second movie of three, and thus must follow those rules I outlined above. After the enormous box office and critical success of the Fellowship of the Ring, the anticipation for the second movie has been uniformly high. The thing to remember is that all three movies are already in the can, so to speak, the director has done most of the work already, his vision was already in place.

And thus on a Saturday where I was feeling unwell, I sat down in a theater to another three hour epic. The movie starts off with a controversial choice, there is absolutely no setup or prologue or "what has gone on before". The information isn't even really enfolded. The movie expects that you have just finished watching the first with picking up of the second. The hypothetical person coming in cold to this movie will wonder just how Merry and Pippin were captured by Orcs, for example. Later, with brief scenes involving Elrond and Galadriel, the names of the characters are not even mentioned.

Anyway, the movie is another long epic installment, with this movie both much more martial and more focused on Aragorn. The hobbits, whom many will argue are the real center of Tolkien's universe, the viewpoint by which we see his world, frankly get less screen time than Aragorn's story arc. But what a story arc! We see Aragorn do much in this movie, tracking the Orcs who are carrying off Pippin and Merry, doing a "CSI investigation" of a battle scene to determine that, yes, Merry and Pippin survived the massacre of those very same Orcs despite initial appearances to the contrary. Gimli and Legolas, however, stand in the shadow of Aragorn, and seem relegated to bit players with just a quirk or two to distinguish them.

And the battle scenes. In the book, the defense of Helm's Deep is not really a big deal, Tolkien does not linger on it at all, describing the death of the orc horde in almost spartan terms. In the movie, it becomes the centerpiece and the main thrust of most of the movie--the evacuation of Theoden's people to the redoubt, and the defense of that redoubt against a truly massive horde of Uruk-hai. I've never, ever seen a medieval battle executed and filmed better than this one. I was going in to the movie afraid it was just going to be a senseless, monochromatic slaughter without any real angst, or terror, or polish.

I was dead wrong. We see the orcs use siege weapons (including a secret weapon I will not reveal here) and attack the fortress intelligently. Likewise, the defenders do not merely stand and die, they scheme, plan and try to foil the plans of a force which outnumbers theirs by a factor of 10. I warn you now, if you don't like watching this sort of thing, you will be disappointed in LOTR II, it dominates the movie.

It's not the only thing in the movie, of course. There is Smeagol-Gollum, the best CGI character yet created (better than Nobby, far better than Jar-Jar). The scenes where he shows schizophrenic indecision over what to do with the hobbitses are some sorely needed comic relief. Frodo and Sam's journey deviates from the book, however, purists will howl when they wind up making a detour into Gondor with Faramir. The meeting with the Ents by Merry and Pippin is very good, John Rhys-Davies gets some compensation for Gimli getting short shrift by doing the voice of Treebeard. The Ents' march on Isengard is well imagined if again not quite according to the book.

The cinematography is excellent, the CGI is top notch. In many scenes, most of what we are seeing is computer-generated, but its believeable. I finally can, for example, envision Worg riders in a way I couldn't quite before, seeing this movie. Middle Earth, as seen in New Zealand, once again looks like a real place you can visit, the landscape shots will once again blow you away.

The movie doesn't quite merit 5 popcorn kernels, because I think a couple of the contextual changes to the books are somewhat dubious in nature, and the lessened characterization of every character but Aragorn and Gandalf also hurts the movie a bit. But see it? Go, go, go. See it again? Yes.

Rating: Four and a half popcorn kernels out of five

Posted by Jvstin at 2:22 PM

December 14, 2002

Movie Review Star Trek: Nemesis

Movie Review

Star Trek: Nemesis

Starring: Patrick Stewart, Brent Spiner, Jonathan Frakes, Tom Hardy, Ron Perlman, Marina Sirtis, Michael Dorn, Gates McFadden

Directed by:Stuart Baird

And here we are at the tenth movie in the Star Trek Franchise. From Star Trek the Motion Picture to Insurrection, I have seen them all, albeit that the first one I saw in a theater was Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. I've seen all of the series, although Voyager started to flag in my interest in its last couple of seasons, but I do watch the new series Enterprise. I've been to a Star Trek Convention, in the Ambassador Hotel in NYC. George Takei and Marina Sirtis were the Guests of Honor, and I nearly ran into the former by accident in the stairwell.

So you might say that I am a fan. Like Star Trek Fans, though, I can be critical, very critical. I am well aware of the Odd-numbered Movie rule and for the most part agree--the odd number Star Trek Movies are on the balance not as well done as the even number ones. After the rather lackluster Insurrection, number nine, I was hopeful that Nemesis, even number ten, would be better.

The result is a mixed bag. As Star Trek: Nemesis opens, Riker and Troi have been finally married, and we pick up at their reception on Earth. What's more, they are soon on their way to Betazed for another marriage ceremony, in the true Betazed custom. On their way, Picard and his crew are diverted to the Neutral Zone, to discuss the Romulans' insistence that they would like to negotiate peace with the Federation, as well as the discovery of an apparent earlier version of Data. What our heroes uncover instead is the fruit of an abandoned years-long plan to infiltrate the Federation--a clone of Picard himself. Challenges, deceit, distrust, and violence ensue.

The space battles are entertaining but the last act of the movie is frankly derivative of Wrath of Khan, on several levels. When the Enterprise and the fearsome Scimitar reach a Nebula, you will start to get flashbacks, and there is a sacrifice of a major member of the crew in a Spockian fashion, complete with an obvious loophole. On the other hand, many of the crew are given disappointingly little to do. Cameos by Traveller Jr. (Wesley Crusher) and (Admiral!) Janeway were welcome, although I wondered with Troi and Riker getting married where Deanna's mother was in all of this. I think the villain's achilles heel is too potent, and although his ship was fearsome, it was implied that he had much more at his disposal. I also wondered, with all the Romulan scheming, where the Tal'Shiar was in all of the machinations. I can't believe, from a series continuity point, that they wouldn't have their fingers in pies as large as Shinzon's coup d'etat and his plans against the Federation.

In all, it was a disappointment. I don't regret seeing it, but I wouldn't see it again (in movie theaters anyway). I can sense that on some levels that they tried, but a large hole involving Data's subplot just irks me, and I don't really want to discuss it just yet because of that bugbear, spoilers. It should be obvious, though, to long-time fans of the Next Generation.

Rating: 2 and a half popcorn kernels out of five.

Posted by Jvstin at 7:18 PM

November 30, 2002

Movie Review Solaris Starring: George

Movie Review


Starring: George Clooney, Natasha McElherone, Jeremy Davies, Viola Davis and Ulrich Tukur

Directed by: Steven Sodenbergh

"And death shall have no dominion."--Dylan Thomas, as quoted in Solaris.

Solaris would seem to be an unlikely choice for a big-budget, large studio motion picture. Stanislaw Lem is perhaps one of the best well known NON English speaking SF writers, but, still, not precisely common fodder for movies. Solaris WAS already filmed before, in a 1972 adaptation by the Russian director Tarkovsky. That version, which I have not seen, is four hours long and considered controversial and brilliant. I could see an American version of Solaris, but if you told me a couple of years ago, I would have guessed it more fodder for the independent route, with mid-level actors and actresses like Armin Mueller-Stahl and Ileana Douglas.

What we get, though is George Clooney. This is the third time he has been paired with director Sodenbergh, having worked with him on OUT OF SIGHT, and OCEAN'S ELEVEN. So if any director can make Clooney work as Chris Kelvin, Sodenbergh is the guy. Clooney's counterpart, Rheya, is played by Natasha McElherone, whom I enjoyed watching in The Truman Show and Ronin. It's a good combination, a movie couple on screen which works.

The basic plot of the movie is difficult to discern from the commercials and advertisements, which seem to focus so strongly on the love story aspects of the movie that its other aspects are downplayed to the point of obfuscation. The movie opens with watching the life of a man who is clearly in the pain of the loss of his wife. We watch Kelvin go about his role as a psychatrist who seems to need to heal himself, as well as others. Its not immediately obvious that this is the future, the advances in technology are understated. Then, a message from a friend on a spacecraft orbiting a mysterious planet soon propels our protagonist on a 2001-esque sequence that lands him on the Prometheus. It is not a space station, but apparently a spacecraft which is in orbit around a ocean-dominated planet which looks to be crackling with energies of unknown proveance. Once aboard, Kelvin quickly determines that things are wrong...there are bodies of the crew, and blood on the ceiling. The station's crew, in fact, has been reduced to a seemingly stoned technician and another shut in her room. Both hint at strange doings and are extremely vague about what is going on, only that Kelvin himself will soon learn first-hand.

And first-hand he does. The weary psychologist wakes up to find his dead wife next to him, as confused as he is about the experience. It becomes clear, however, that she is not his wife, but something else, something created by the planet for reasons unknown. She has the memories that Kelvin has of his wife...indeed, she is a composite of what Kelvin remembers of her. But she is something more. The construct may be a recollection of Kelvin's memories of his wife, but she has ideas, goals and impetus of her own. But why did the planet create her? Is this the second chance that Kelvin has always wished he had? Or is she some sort of siren, indeed are all the eidolon like creatures intent on the destruction of the crew?

Solaris asks a lot of questions and does not hesitate to let the audience argue about them on the way out of the theater rather than answering them all itself. The movie is only 100 minutes long, but its pacing, its cinematography, its unravelling are slow and patient. These are not flaws, atlhough judging from many of the reviews on the internet, you would think that anything which was not hyperkinetic was dull as dishwater. Its not a perfect movie by any means. Clooney does as well as he could, although I can think of other actors which might have been more suited to the role. McElhrone does as well as she can with what she is given, much of the time, she simply has to smile into the camera, her luminous face apparently the rock to which Kelvin is ready to lash himself to once again, and do it right this time.

I admit, though, that this is one of those movies which would play better on a DVD at home than in the theater. It doesn't need the big screen of a theater in the way, say, 2001 shines. Its amazingly intimate and focused for a wide-scale hollywood release, and I have to give the director and producers extra credit for hewing to this vision as much as they do. In an age where cerebral films are as common as unicorn horns, Solaris may not succeed on all levels, but its aspirations alone rise it above many of the pack.

Rating: Four popcorn kernels out of five.

Posted by Jvstin at 9:37 PM

November 17, 2002

Movie Review Harry Potter and

Movie Review

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Kenneth Branagh, Richard Harris, Robbie Coltrane, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Warwick Davis

Directed by: Chris Columbus

"Harry Potter must not come back to Hogwarts this year!"--Dobby the House Elf.

Of course, however, after the first movie became the second highest grossing film of all time behind that flick about the sinking boat, there was no question that we were going to return to Hogwarts again. Unlike the first movie, however, I did not read the novel before seeing the movie, and so perhaps this review is a little more biased toward looking at the movie as a film rather than an adaptation of a book. I probably will obtain and read the book at some point, however.

The basic milieu of Harry Potter is likely very well known to the readers of this Blog. To recap in the shortest space possible, Harry Potter, in the first film discovered he was the child of magical parents, and the first movie documents his adventures in the first year at a boarding school that provides a magical education, Hogwarts. In this second movie, there are immediate parallels with the first movie. Harry's muggle parents try to precent him from going to school, there is a visit to Diagon Alley. The details of the second movie are different, of course, and there are a couple of interesting sequences before we even get to the school, including a look at a more seedy area of the famed Diagon Alley.

Once inside Hogwarts, which Harry has maintained time and again is his real home, things rapidly turn bad for our hero. A Quidditch game turns even more violent than usual, and Harry is the target of an apparently tampered blodger ball. Harry's rival in the first movie, Draco Malfoy, gains in power, both in the presence and personage of his father, and the fact that he has joined his own House's Quidditch team. He does seem to be Harry's counterpart now, a true rival.

We get a couple of new Professors as well, a botanist with a specialty in Mandrake root by the name of Professor Sprout, and, more notably, Kenneth Branagh as the bombastic and undertalented Professor Lockhart. The visual gags in his office, in his classroom were amusing, as well.

The basic plot of the movie is a mystery...Where is the titular Chamber of Secrets, Who can open it? and What is inside it that is apparently petrifying people in the school? I do not want to divulge spoilers here, but needless to say, at a running total of 2 hours and 40 minutes, we have plenty of time in the movie to discover and solve these questions. The length of the movie is a factor in the first the third act, the movie changes into very much an action film,and that does help dilute the running length. Its not that gratiuitous, the action sequences, although it does stand in marked contrast with the ultimate villain and his passivity in the final scenes, which I found rather strange even given his nature.

As far as the actors, Harry and his friends do well in their roles, as does their nemesis Draco. Of the older actors, the frailty of Richard Harris is evident. Maggie Smith is not given enough to do, and Alan Rickman seems bored with Professor Snape. I would have liked more contrast between Snape and the elder Malfoy, they seemed too similar for my taste.

Final rating: 3 and a half popcorn kernels out of five.

Posted by Jvstin at 6:44 PM