Fri, May 29, 2009

: Up

I am breathless. This is an extraordinary film. The previews hadn’t told me much: an old guy attaches balloons to his house and floats away. But in retrospect I love that so much is left out of the previews. Too many films give away all their best material in the trailers. Much of what makes this film great isn’t in the individual scenes, but the cumulative story line. The opening five minutes, which is pretty much a montage of 70 years of a man’s life, is a complete film in itself. We see a little boy and his fascination for adventuring, his meeting a like-minded girl, their marriage and life together (through both good and bad), her death, and him becoming a grumpy old man. It’s beautiful, poignant, funny, heartfelt, and absolutely wonderful. It’s also almost entirely wordless, so the story is conveyed via the visuals. If the film had ended right there I could have gone home happy!

But the film continues, with the old man doing the balloon thing and going off on his adventures in South America — but what makes that significant is entirely due to his relationship with his late wife. Why do we care about an old man going ballooning? Because his wife dreamed of adventuring all her life but they never got around to doing it. This is his making up for a 70-year-old promise to the little girl he met, and your heart just goes out to this wonderful old man. But of course the folks at Pixar are absolute master storytellers (they don’t put a foot wrong in this movie) and we see how the old man changes and grows, due to a little boy he meets and the adventures they share. It’s magical. If you can watch this without tearing up at least once somewhere, you don’t have a heart. That’s not to say it’s a weepy film: it’s mostly comedy, but that lightheartedness just makes the tender scenes that much more powerful and emotional. The adventure itself is wild and wonderful, just the perfect mix of silly humor and real danger (the obstacles the old man faces are not for the faint of heart at all, as this film actually shows death and even blood in a couple places). The bottom line is that this is a story you will fall in love with and you’ll watch with bated breath rooting for the old man to succeed. Absolutely an instant classic, a film we’ll still be amazed with a hundred years from now.

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Thu, May 28, 2009

: Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos

This is a fascinating documentary about the New York Cosmos soccer team of NASL (North American Soccer League) back in the 1970s. I knew some of the history, but I did not realize how extraordinary it was even at the time. Today we compared soccer in the U.S. to American football here — but back then American football wasn’t nearly as big as it is today (the Superbowl and televised games were just becoming popular), and soccer wasn’t even played by kids in the U.S. (kids playing all started because of the Cosmos). The film shows how Warner Communications’ head Steve Ross got involved with the team which at that time was really only semi-professional (the players all had separate jobs to make a living) and turned it into one of the best teams in the world, regularly drawing crowds of over 70,000 to Giants Stadium (which was then newly built). Ross did this by luring Pele, the world’s greatest footballer (both at the time and all-time), for millions of dollars. I found hilarious the little montage of news reports and various people each throwing out wildly different amounts of how much Pele was supposedly paid, from as low as a million to seven million (the real amount is lost in history, no doubt). This was a multi-year deal, but what shocked me was the comparison to other sports figures at the time: the highest paid baseball player in the world was paid just $200,000 a year — so Pele getting millions really was extraordinary. Another thing I found telling was the comments that Pele came to play and didn’t complain about the conditions (horrible field, etc.) or the fact that the team initially sucked and Pele alone wasn’t enough to create a winning team (contrast that with David Beckham’s stint in L.A., where he seems unhappy to be on a losing team). To create a winning team Ross repeated the Pele formula bringing in numerous world class players so the Cosmos was essentially an all-star team with 14 nations represented. I was also surprised that this didn’t happen all at once — Pele’s Cosmos didn’t win the championship until his final year with the team, and when they won it several more times they did it with others. Since Pele is the main name you hear with the team, I had assumed he was part of all the championship teams, but he was not.

Of course the story has its downside, as the league collapsed. I wish the film had more about that (I’d love to see a documentary on the NASL itself), but of course this film is about the Cosmos. Still, some of the reasoning is explained: the league over-expanded (to a whopping 24 teams) too fast (there wasn’t enough talent for all the teams and play suffered), many of the team owners couldn’t afford losses, the Cosmos’ high spending ways created an imbalance compared to other teams with smaller coffers, TV coverage that failed, and ultimately, when Warner Communications started to struggle and the Cosmos faced cutbacks (and eventual dissolution), that signalled the end of the league. In retrospect, Major League Soccer has fixed most of the problems of NASL (MLS has a shared structure, so all owners share in the entire league’s profit/loss and no one team can outspend all the others). MLS has it’s own issues — mostly the fact that soccer here is still not as popular as other sports — but I do appreciate that MLS’ chief goal is to built a solid foundation for a league that will be around for hundreds of years, not an ill-conceived flash-in-the-pan like the NASL. Still, MLS — and American soccer — would not exist without the Cosmos, who certainly drew world attention and started a soccer foundation here in the United States. Very well done documentary.

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Wed, May 27, 2009

: Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith

Author: Shane Hipps

This is a remarkable book. The author is a former advertising executive who examines media at an unusual level, exploring how it shapes society and religious faith. As a technologist and a Christian (and amateur sociologist), I found this fascinating. The basic premise is the concept of “the medium is the message,” a phrase you’ve heard but probably not understood. Shane breaks it down to reveal things like how printing (and phonetic language) change the way people think. For example, printed material by its nature encourages linear thinking, and it creates a different culture than an oral society. Today we’re awash with new communication methods, from radio to TV to the Internet, email, blogs, podcasts, cell phones, instant messaging, Twitter, and who knows what to come. If the medium is the message, what is the message? And how does technology influence your faith? Great questions.

For answers, Shane shows how technology has influenced things in the past. For instance, the telegraph dramatically changed the speed of information, but that itself changed the value of it: instead of information’s value coming from its quality or depth, its timeliness became the most important thing. (You can see similar things happening today with blogs being valued over well-researched books.) There are profound lessons there.

I want to point out that while this is a book about the religious aspects of media, it’s not overly religious: I really appreciate that the author doesn’t come across as preachy. Instead he merely tells great stories and provides examples and information about his perspective. I would recommend this to anyone, even skeptics, because it’s all about how the medium influences your thinking and the lessons learned can be applied to anything in life.

My great-uncle sent this book to me and I started reading it the moment I got home from the post office this afternoon — I couldn’t put it down. I read it cover to cover in one sitting! I can’t remember the last time I’ve done that with a book (not since childhood, that’s for sure).

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: Executive Privilege

Author: Philip Margolin

This is a breezy read, a thriller about a President who might have committed several murders. While there’s not much depth here, and nothing truly surprising happens, it’s still quite compelling and very pleasant. The author, while not a master, is competent and puts together characters and scenes and action in such a way that you speed from one chapter to the next, eager to confirm what you think is going to happen. There are some twists, but nothing that dramatic, and though the book deals with grave topics, it doesn’t feel at all series. Fun.

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Sat, May 23, 2009

: Wall Street

Director: Oliver Stone

I haven’t seen this classic since the 1980s and I’d forgotten how good it is. Especially in light of the recent financial meltdown of Wall Street, this film takes on a new meaning (we haven’t yet learned our lesson). It’s somewhat predictable — young guy gets his big Wall Street break but must sacrifice his ethics to do so — but the setup and excecution is excellent, as is some of the dialog. The film has got too much of an anti-corporate message to be balanced, but some of the film’s most important lessons are even more relevant today (such as the bit about Gekko, the corporate raider villain of the film, not making anything but gaining incredible wealth through owning and selling). Worth a rewatch if you haven’t seen it in ages. Some of the stuff is very 80s, though, especially the hilariously primitive computers used by millionaire stockbrokers.

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Fri, May 22, 2009

: Doubting Thomas

This is a kids film about a kid who’s always telling stories (lies) when he uncovers a plot to kidnap the president’s daughter (who is scheduled to visit his school) but of course no one will believe him, so he has to stop the plot himself. It’s got some surprisingly good stuff — the main kid cast is excellent (it includes the girl from Bridge to Terabithia who is awesome) — and could have been terrific except that there are several adult characters overacted so badly that they come across as cheesy and childish. I’m not sure why aspects had to be dumbed down like that: I guess it’s adults who think that kids need to be talked down to, and it’s very odd in this since the main kid characters are quite adult-like (the boy is smarter than most of the adults). The bottom line is that the film is silly fun and very family friendly, but unfortunately to uneven to be great.

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: Night at the Museum: Battle at the Smithsonian

I was surprised at how much I liked this. The first one was fun but I wasn’t sure where they could go for a sequel, but this one succeeds by moving most of the action to a different museum so there are fresh characters brought to life and a bigger stage. It’s still absurd but has a pleasant heart. A few places are surprisingly slow with odd exchanges of dialog that doesn’t quite work, but for the most part this is quickly paced with non-stop fun. Amy Adams is delightful as Amelia Earhart who joins our hero in his quest to save his friends. There’s nothing brilliant here (though the special effects are effective and pervasive) — you certainly won’t strain your intellect, but it’s fun and harmless.

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Thu, May 21, 2009

: Terminator Salvation

I wasn’t going in with the highest expectations, but I really enjoyed this film. It’s non-stop action from start to finish, with the rebel heroes continually getting out of the most incredible jams when it seems the odds are totally against them. The story isn’t too complicated, but complicated enough: it’s in the future during the war against the machines and John Connor is trying to find and save the man who will be his father (in the first movie). What I really liked is that the film tells the story of several groups of people and it does it in a non-rushed manner (most films give short shrift to secondary storylines). Another positive is the wide variety of machines we get to see: underwater snake-like machines, motorcycle-bots, giant multistory Transformer-like robots, and of course, a number of Terminator models. With such variety, the action sequences feel fresh and different, and the ways the humans escape death come out of the situation and tools at hand and don’t feel forced like in some flicks. There’s definitely a ton of explosions here: they must have spent half the budget on dynamite, though there are some other excellent special effects. All this is not to say the film’s perfect: in a couple places the acting/writing/editing felt off, just awkward, but that’s minor. For the most part the cast is great (though unknown) and the story fits in well within the Terminator lore. I wouldn’t describe this film as being innovative the way the original and sequel were, but that’s a tall order and this one is certainly better than the third film, maybe even better than the first. Definitely a great summer action movie. Go see it!

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: Traitor

Pretty good spy flick about an American Muslim who goes deep undercover to stop some terrorists, so deep his own government doesn’t know he’s a double and is trying to stop him. Unfortunately, that double agent aspect is clear from the title (I expected it) yet the film sets everything up as though that’s a surprise somehow. That weakens things, but it’s still a good film even though there aren’t many surprises. Excellently written and acted, and there are hints at the debate on faith though the film doesn’t get as deep as it could. It’s a little too serious overall, quite somber, but has a good ending.

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Wed, May 20, 2009

: Mother Night

Author: Kurt Vonnegut

Fantastic novel, very different from Kurt’s humor stuff. This one is the story of a purported Nazi criminal from WWII told first person from his prison cell in Israel where he awaits trial and execution. As his story unfolds, we learn new pieces of information about the guy that make him sympathetic (i.e. he might have been a double agent working for U.S.). We learn about the good things he did as well as the bad, and he’s quite willing to accept the blame for his faults. There are a number of little twists in the story, which keeps it moving, but the main thing that makes it work is the personality of the narrator. It’s a remarkable story. It gets a little convoluted toward the end, but the ending itself is thought-provoking and makes you wonder question absolutism.

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Tue, May 19, 2009

: Chapter 27

This is a strangely claustrophobic film. A fat Jared Leto stars as Mark David Chapman in the days before he killed John Lennon, and the film is mostly him muttering insanely to himself and acting bizarre. I knew little of the story other than knowing that Chapman killed Lennon, so I was curious about the film, but I sadly did not come out knowing much more. The most enlightening aspect was Chapman’s apparent reluctance to kill Lennon: he was a fan and was arguing with himself over the killing, apparently unsure he wanted to do it but hearing voices and urges to do it. Of course I take that info with skepticism as I’m not sure how accurate this bio-film is, but if it’s true, it is something I didn’t know. We also get a glimmer of insight into Chapman’s reasoning: he felt betrayed by Lennon, someone he worshipped. Unfortunately, too much of the film feels overindulgent and self-important, with weighted words and dramatic pauses, as though we’re supposed to feel the profoundness of the thoughts and comments. Perhaps ironically that is the same mistake as Chapman himself, who mutters nonsense that is supposed to be profound; the film falls into the same trap. Ultimately, just read an article about the crime: you’ll save yourself 85 minutes and learn more.

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Mon, May 18, 2009

: The Broken Window

Author: Jeffery Deaver

This is another Lincoln Rhyme detective novel, with Rhyme up against perhaps his most formidable foe yet. This time he’s going against an information guru, a guy who knows everything. He’s an identity thief who uses computerized info about people to commit crimes and set up the perfect fall guys who are convicted of the crimes so he’s never caught. Since he knows everything about people, his frame-ups are amazingly air-tight, but in this book he makes the mistake of setting up Lincoln’s cousin, which brings Lincoln into the investigation and of course that sets up his downfall. The book is quite thick and long, as Deaver’s books usually are — this one moves pretty well but feels too long and it should have been about 75% of its length. For the most part I enjoyed the action, and the computer/tech stuff was, except for a few odd errors, pretty accurate and interesting. A large part of the novel centers around the debate over consumer privacy, and the book raises a lot of good concerns (not the least of which is the killer’s ability to know everything). Unfortunately I was not as big of a fan of the ending of the book, which has too much of Deaver’s typical manipulation (just tell us the story and stop trying to be clever and screw with our minds), and the climax is pretty much a big fight which is anticlimactic. I would have preferred a more tech-oriented ending, something more worthy of the intelligence of the opponent than a mere fight. But all that said, this is an above average Lincoln Rhyme novel, and worth the read if you’re a fan.

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Sun, May 17, 2009

: The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep

Basically this tells the mythical story of the Loch Ness monster’s origin, about a little boy in Scotland who finds an egg which hatches into a “water horse.” It’s a decent film, beautifully photographed and acted, and I loved that it’s set in the past (the events happen during World War II) as that adds unusual elements. The digital creature effects are also remarkable. Unfortunately, the story itself is nothing surprising — boy befriends creature, creature is threatened, boy tries to protect creature, boy’s life threatened, creature saves boy, etc. It’s the same plot as E.T. and dozens of other movies. Decent, fun, harmless, but nothing classic.

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Fri, May 15, 2009

: Angels and Demons

Director: Ron Howard

I will begin by saying that this film is not as bad as the book, and it’s much better than the first film. Of course, those were so bad that is not saying much. Still, this has some compelling action, and the science-versus-God debate is kept at a neutral-but-still-interesting level. It still has many of the flaws of the book, but they are not as noticeable in the film. It follows the book’s plot pretty well, as near as I can remember, with terrorists planning on blowing up Vatican City while a new pope is being elected. Robert Langdon, the professor character from other book, must decipher ancient clues to figure out where the bomb is located and stop it. The puzzles he solves go by at such a pace they are almost irrelevant, which is fine, but director Howard generates surprisingly decent action from such expository material. It does start to feel long toward the end, however, and just like in the book, the ending is one twist too many and unravels everything built up so far. Still, it’s fun, and too dumb to warrant any controversy.

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Thu, May 14, 2009

: Penelope

This is a modern fable about a rich girl cursed to look like a pig until she can find a blueblood like herself to love her unconditionally. It’s a fun premise and I remember fleetingly seeing something about this film when it came out, but it sure disappeared fast. I thought it must have been awful, but it’s not at all: it’s quite well-done and a lot of fun. The twist with the cure for the curse is brilliant, and there are other surprises. The problem is the make-up job is too good. Christina Ricci is one of my favorite actresses and she just looks breathtakingly adorable in this, even with a pig’s snout! That’s a problem because the main premise of the film is that she’s supposed to be so hideous that she can find no suitor. Basically the first half of the film doesn’t really work because it’s unbelievable that so many men can’t see that she’s gorgeous (the pig’s nose is so well-done and natural it’s hardly noticeable). Later, when the world finds out she exists (she’s lived in seclusion her whole life), the world loves her, which makes the first half even more of a puzzle. But beyond that little flaw, the film’s fun and quite delightful. It’s not quite a classic, and there are some odd scenes that don’t quite work, but it’s got a wonderful cast and the story is quite pleasant. Recommended.

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Wed, May 13, 2009

: CJ7

Director: Stephen Chow

Quirky little Stephen Chow action-comedy. Like all of his stuff, this is best described as a live-action cartoon. This is one is a bit more magical than some of his films, with much less martial arts (he, in fact, doesn’t do any). Instead the film focuses around a young boy (Chow plays his father). The boy’s dad is incredibly poor but sacrifices everything to send his kid to private school where he is mocked for not being wealthy. The boy and the dad don’t always get along, which is done in a surprisingly realistic fashion (considering other aspects of the film are a bit fantastic). One day the boy’s dad finds a strange rubber ball at a junkyard and brings it home for his son. It turns out this “ball” is really an alien creature left by a spaceship and it morphs into a sort of alien dog that is able to do magic. Or is it? The boy wants to use the “dog” (which he names CJ7) to help him out at school (cheat on a test, win at sports, etc.) but things don’t quite work the way he expected. I won’t spoil the ending but let’s just say it’s very good. The alien dog is CGI, of course, with clever and fun digital animation tricks as typical Chow. My favorite was in a school fight scene when a bully gets beat up a fat girl — she punches him and he goes flying like 100 yards and when he lands and screeches to a halt, his shoes leave rubber tire marks! Overall this is a fun and quite wonderful and touching film. It’s not E.T., as it’s got silly cartoony elements, but I liked it a lot. The most delightful thing was when the characters didn’t act stereotypical as you’d expect, but did surprising things instead. That’s very unusual for this kind of film. Fun!

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Tue, May 12, 2009

: Little Children

This is a fantastic film. They had a free HBO preview this past weekend and this was one of the films I recorded. Though neither the title or the plot summary sounded familiar, I saw it had Kate Winslet and Jennifer Connelly and that sounded interesting and I didn’t realize which film it was. This was actually a film I really wanted to see when it came out, mostly because I’d heard such rave reviews of actor Jackie Earle Haley’s performance (warranted). The description of the film about two married people having an affair with each other didn’t interest me much, but I must say, this is exactly the kind of film about that I’ve wanted my whole life to see. In most films when people have an affair it’s all about the sex or the illicitness of it — we never get a picture of how the affair started, the hows and whys, the doubts, the longings, the self-denial that you’re doing anything wrong. This film does it in an awesome way: the affair isn’t consummated until halfway through the film: prior to that we are learning about the characters. It’s a realistic look at the way an affair blossoms, by decent people who wouldn’t normally be tempted by such a thing.

The other great thing about this film — my favorite thing, in fact — is the narration and tone. The narration sets this up as though this were a “Wild Kingdom” episode and we’re studying the human species in its natural habitat (in this case, a modern suburban neighborhood). The narration is perfect: not overdone, but frequent enough to keep the tone, and always done to provide us with valid insight into what characters are thinking. The narration empowers every scene, it doesn’t distract or annoy or provide boring exposition: it’s more like analysis and commentary.

Of course with the affair not getting hot and heavy until halfway through the film, there needs to be some other stuff happening, and that’s where this film becomes fascinating: mixed in the middle of this affair we have the entire neighborhood on alert because a “sexual deviant” (Jackie Earle Haley) has just been let out of prison and is moving back into the neighborhood (he’s moving in with his mother). Like everything else in this film, even this is not cut and dry: the deviant’s character is sympathetic and tragic, as is his doting mother, and we’re kept at edge over whether or not the public’s outrage is justified or not. The deviant’s story weaves in and out of the couple having the affair, and two seemingly unrelated events actually have a lot in common: tragedy, accusation without proof, guilt, etc. It’s fascinating.

When I started watching this film I thought I would only watch a few minutes as it was long (2+ hours), but I was hooked from the first scene which was electric with tension and import and I just could not stop watching until the film was finished. Amazing. Highly recommended. Not always easy to watch, but definitely emotionally moving and intellectually riveting.

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Mon, May 11, 2009

: The Brave One

This is one of those unfortunate films that seems to give the entire plot away in the trailer: a woman’s fiance is brutally murdered and she becomes a vigilante killer, hunting down criminals and hiding from the police. It turns out there’s more to the story than that, as the detective hunting the vigilante befriends her, making for some interesting scenes with the two of them. Unfortunately, except for that aspect, everything else is pretty much by the book in this one, a paint-by-numbers piece. Not bad, not great, just routine. The ending wraps things up nicely with a bit of a nice twist, but it’s not enough to raise the film above average.

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Fri, May 08, 2009

: Star Trek

Director: J.J. Abrams

The good news: several times during this film I sat back in my chair thinking, “Now this is Hollywood at its best.” This is the spectacular thrill-ride you can only get from a big budget Hollywood picture, and every required element — action, sympathetic characters, subtle nods to the Trek fans, inside jokes, classic scenes redone, space battles — is included as though checking items off a list. It’s certainly not boring, it’s tons of fun even if you don’t know the Trek universe, and if you do, unless you’re a really anal purist with no sense of progress, you should be delighted with what they’ve done here. It’s simultaneously an homage to the original yet it breaks new ground, making old characters feel fresh and new. They really should have called this “Star Trek: Reboot” because it definitely feels that way, especially the ending which brilliantly reopens the Trek world for new adventures with these characters without them tromping on the existing Trek history. That’s quite a feat.

The bad news: well, the climatic battle ending is pretty muddled (I’m still not sure what happened), and unfortunately not a lot of plot happens in this: it feels a bit like a TV pilot where all the characters have to be introduced and the story gets short shrift. Still, that doesn’t make it bad: it only means that now I really want see the next one! Like, right away. Next week.

The other interesting thing about this film is that the audience at the matinee I saw included a much older crowd that I expected. Sure, there were a lot of young people, but I saw lots of couples in their sixties. That’s fascinating. It makes sense since the TV show is over 40 years old, but it’s neat those people are still such fans they’d come out to a matinee on opening day! I had wanted to see the IMAX version of this but it was sold out, so I saw it on the regular screen, which was fine. (I may rewatch it on IMAX — I did that with Watchmen and that was pretty cool. I’m also curious how this stands up to repeated viewings: meeting Kirk and Uhura and Chekov and Sulu and McCoy and Scott and Spock and the others for the “first” time was a wonderful experience, but would it feel boring on the second viewing?

Speaking of those characters, I must say the casting and performances are brilliant. They went very young, almost too young, with many of their choices, which had me worried prior to seeing the film, but it turns out it works. Because they are so young they are similar but appropriately different from the characters we know. For instance, “Bones” (Dr. McCoy) mimics a lot of actor Deforrest Kelly’s mannerisms and voice, but it’s not so much as to be annoying or distracting: it’s just a hint, and they perfectly captured the birth of his curmudgeonliness, which makes far more sense than having him be the same character as on the original TV show (he needs decades to grow into that old geezer). The same for Scotty and others. There may be the odd casting choice you disagree with — it is too much to hope that everyone loves the entire cast — but I am very impressed and pleased overall. There are very few wrong notes here. Chris Pine, the young actor who plays Captain Kirk and whom I’ve never heard of, is actually quite good. He reminds me a great deal of Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars films) — not the best actor, but his very newness and occasional awkwardness comes across as part of the character (James T. Kirk was not a hero overnight). I still need to see him in a real Trek film rather than a set-up vehicle like this one to see if he can really hold his own, but I think we just might have found a new William Shatner (and say what you like about Shatner, he is unique and special). Spock, of course, is arguably even more important than Kirk, and Zachary Quinto (the guy from Heroes) unbelievable. (In the scene where he and Leonard Nimoy are together it is astonishing how much they look alike.) I feel like I could have Star Trek without Kirk and just enjoy Spock, but this film actually reminds us how important a character Kirk is — Spock is emotionless and incomplete, too predictable, and Kirk provides the ideal foil.

Overall, it’s a terrific job: a fantastic reboot of the series and I sure hope they make a bunch more films with this cast.

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Thu, May 07, 2009

: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Author: Robert Heinlein

Though I’m a huge Heinlein fan, this was not a book that ever caught my interest. I’m not sure why: it turns out the plot is fantastic. It’s about a moon colony launching a rebellion against their masters on earth and is filled with history, politics, technical information, psychology, and more. Sometimes it gets tedious and slow (it’s a long novel), but I loved the whole underdog story and it’s amazingly realistically presented. A few things are funny from the modern perspective: for instance, they have a lot of advanced technology, but still use wired phones and print newspapers. That’s a minor nitpick and doesn’t interfere with the story. Excellent.

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: The Battle for Terra

It is so sad this film is not getting the publicity and distribution it deserves. It’s terrific! It’s a computer animated movie that is terrific science fiction. It is set on a peaceful alien world where we meet a few sympathetic characters, including the equivalent of a teenage girl (our heroine). She’s a bit of a rebel, liking to invent things, and doesn’t always obey authority, but she’s got a loving heart. Suddenly the planet is attacked by alien invaders and her father is kidnapped. She manages to uncover one of the aliens and we see he is human (it turns out the humans destroyed Earth and need to take over Terra to save their species). She saves his life and befriends him — and I really liked that this was not easy, for even after saving his life he’s still distrustful and thinks of her as a monster. Eventually, of course, we come to the central conflict: betrayal of species. Is she a traitor for helping the invader? Should the man try to help the aliens and betray his people? These issues, while not debated in philosophical fashion, are not dumbed down to cartoon level, either: instead we have a simple, elegant story, told with action, humor, adventure, and surprisingly genuine emotion, and the resolution is excellent and satisfying. I left amazed and impressed. Unfortunately, this film is only being shown in a handful of theatres across the country (perhaps in part because it’s in 3D format) and though it’s getting great reviews, it’s not getting the audience. I know I never saw any ads or trailers for this and I probably wouldn’t have bothered except that I heard it was really good. It is: if you can find it, go see it! It’s a terrific family movie: fun for the kids but not too dumb for the adults. The 3D is okay (nothing extraordinary or particularly needed), but the overall animation quality is impressive. The humans and creatures are okay, but I was most impressed by all the technology: the human spaceship really looks like it was assembled from space junk (it’s in bad shape after centuries of drifting through space) and all the gadgets and tools are also really well drawn. Overall, this is a fantastic film and everyone should see it.

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Tue, May 05, 2009

: The Tracey Fragments

Bizarre film about a troubled teen looking for her little brother. The story’s told in flashbacks with multiple video streams on the screen simultaneously, which is intriguing for five or ten minutes, but after an hour it just gives you a headache. It does help convey the idea that the girl’s memory (and mind) might be unreliable, and the way information is parcelled out is interesting, but it feels like a lot work for not much payout. Ultimately it’s an unusual experiment, but I didn’t really like it. Mostly compelling because it stars the awesome Ellen Page (of Juno and Hard Candy).

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Mon, May 04, 2009

: An American Crime

I saw this film show up on my movie channel and it had Ellen Page (Juno, Hard Candy) in it so I recorded it. It was about an abused teen, and as I watched I started getting the creepy feeling I’d seen this before yet I knew I hadn’t. In the film two sisters are left with a babysitter for a few months and it turns out the woman is mentally ill and locks the older girl in the basement and tortures her and allows the neighbor kids to participate. That’s just like Jack Ketchum’s book The Girl Next Door. Finally I connected the pieces and figured it out: this film is based on the same real-life murder case as Ketchum’s book — the difference is that this one is the real story, while Ketchum’s book used completely different characters. Personally, I prefer his book: I like the way he has the conflicted teenage narrator participate in the torture, so we feel his guilt and confusion. In this film, it’s just awful to watch, with no redemption for any. I did like the little twist at the end when the girl briefly escapes. It’s a very good film with excellent performances, but not pleasant, and I found it rather empty of meaning in the end.

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Fri, May 01, 2009

: X-Men Origins: Wolverine

In some ways this film delivers on what it promises: cool action and special effects. But the problem is that the film is so ineptly written and directed that the flaws outweigh the fun. The story is overly convoluted and the editing so choppy (especially in the first third) that nothing makes sense. Many storyline threads are dropped and never picked up again, leaving me unsure if that was even intentional. For instance, one key character might have died, but it was so unclear what happened that I’m not sure: perhaps the door was left opened for him to return in a sequel? Don’t we deserve an explanation as to what happened, even a hint?

Despite the problems, the movie does have a few fun scenes, and a couple tender moments that are genuinely emotive. Unfortunately, those moments are ruined by intrusive action or artificial plot twists. Even the action sequences and special effects aren’t particularly artful or interesting. I found myself bored even as Wolverine did “amazing” things like attack a flying helicopter. There’s just something dead and empty about the way the action was shot, and several sequences looked like they just didn’t turn out as good as the creators thought from the storyboard, but instead of fixing them, they ended up in the final cut. No, I’m not asking for my money back: I’m not upset at seeing this dreck, but I will say this is one of the worst movies I have ever seen. It is disappointing mostly because of its promise and potential. It purports to be about Wolverine’s “origin” but has little to say about that, with historically footage so badly put together I still don’t know what it’s about. And if anyone can explain the plot to me in a way that makes sense, please do. I’m still confused.

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