Sun, Jun 14, 2015

: I Origins

Strange and fascinating film. It involves a scientist who is into eyes, searching for “eye origin” gene, which he could use to grow a worm without eyes into a seeing creature and therefore prove Creationists wrong (since their argument against evolution is that the eye is too complex to evolve and must have been designed).

We don’t get much into the man’s motivations or why he hates religion so vehemently, but we do get some interesting debates on spirituality versus science. This leads up to the key premise of the film where his scientific research leads him into a direction that seems to prove reincarnation.

Unfortunately, we aren’t really taken to a place where the man has to confront such a thing — the findings are ambiguous — but it’s still an interesting ride. I wouldn’t call this a great film, as it is slow in places and not enough happens, but it is thought-provoking and worth watching if you like your thinking to be challenged.

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Fri, Jun 12, 2015

: Jurassic World

I loved the original and while this can’t possibly match that, it’s definitely the best of the sequels. It’s set 20 years after the previous movies and the “Jurassic World” theme park has been opened for many years. I loved that idea, and it’s great seeing a real park in operation. We see tiny kids riding dinosaurs in a petting zoo, an aquatic center with a giant dinosaur sea monster splashing the audience, and much more. The place feels real, down to the Jurassic World drinking cups and Starbucks and other franchises in the tourist trap’s main street.

Into that setting we let loose some wild dinosaurs, with chaotic results. Pretty cool.

Granted, there’s much that’s silly and generic: the idea that the scientists have to play God and create their own hybrid dinosaur is dumb, as is the stereotypical military colonel who wants to turn the dinosaurs into weapons, not to mention the strange billionaire park owner who one moment is criticizing the scientists and the next encouraging them. Even the woman who runs the park and changes character because her visiting nephews are in peril is a bit too on the nose, though it actually was my favorite part, simply because Bryce Dallas Howard is such a good actress and pulls it off. (Chris Pratt, as the heroic animal trainer, is also surprisingly excellent.)

But this series was never about deep characterization. It’s about dinosaurs, and here the film entertains. There’s lots of fun, good action, and amazing special effects. Just enjoy it and don’t think too hard.

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Fri, Jun 05, 2015

: Spy

I was leery of this because Melissa McCarthy, though I like her, tends to be in really raunchy movies. This has a bit of that, but it’s mostly in language (the F-word is used half a billion times) rather than gross-out scenes.

What I really liked is that the plot and events are realistically done. McCarthy’s character plays a CIA analyst who goes out in the field for the first time, and everything about why she has to go and how she does the job is reasonably realistic. There’s still tons of humor, including Jason Statham’s crazy ultra-spy character (which mocks every spy cliche in the book), and the marvelous villain, played by wild Rose Byrne, who stole the movie for me.

The bottom line is that though the film is vulgar, it’s tamer than most, and it has its charm and is quite enjoyable and funny. Plus the spy stuff is cool and there’s some good action.

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Thu, Jun 04, 2015

: Mad Max: Fury Road

Now this is a Mad Max movie! Awesome action from start to finish, with over-the-top sets, characters, and craziness. Just awesome.

Even the plot’s nuts: Max is caught by some weird group who turn him into a human “blood bag” (his blood keeps one of their sick warriors alive). Then one of the group’s leaders, a woman, goes rogue and it turns out she’s stolen the “breeders” (mothers). A host of warriors in crazy cars goes after her and it’s a race to the death against ridiculous odds, with Max in the middle of it all.

I can’t even begin to describe all the bizarre characters and events. You just have to see it. It’s wild and a lot of fun, and no doubt the best of all the Mad Max movies.

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Sun, May 31, 2015

: November Man

This wasn’t what I expected from the promos. I thought it was about a super-spy training a young guy in the art of spying, but it turns out that was just the opening scene of the movie. The rest of the movie takes place a decade later, and it sets up a teacher-versus-student battle as the two fight each other.

That part is pretty good, but the giant conspiracy and cover up is a bit cliche. Still, it works, and there’s a lot of fun in this: great action, intelligent behavior, and a good resolution. Surprisingly good.

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Sat, May 30, 2015

: Odd Thomas

I guess this is based on a comic book I never read. It’s an interesting take on the concept of a guy who can see dead people. In this case, our young hero uses this info to stop bad people. For instance, a dead girl leads him to her killer and he helps the police nab the guy.

The tone is more quirky and fun, though there are some gory death graphics. The main plot is about trying to stop a mall bombing. There are a few “twists” which aren’t surprising at all, and in that respect the film’s disappointing. But the plot’s not that bad, and the film really does shine in the clever banter between the main character and his girlfriend.

I wouldn’t say you need to go out of your way to see this, but it has a bit of charm.

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Fri, May 29, 2015

: Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

I knew this was a flop in theaters, but I wasn’t sure why. Now I know. The Jack Ryan character is supposed to be a desk jockey, an analyst, but the film tries to turn him into an action hero. It’s implausible (despite him supposedly having a military background).

Supposedly he’s recruited out of college and he works a cover job on Wall Street for ten years as a CIA mole, reporting back financial irregularities that might lead to terrorist organizations. The plot of the film is about him figuring out a Russian bad guy’s up to something, so he goes to Moscow to learn more. Then someone tries to kill him, his clueless fiancé shows up and becomes a hostage, while he tries to rescue her and stop the plot to destroy the US economy. It all goes horribly over-the-top and is ridiculous, with several “not quite done yet” endings.

Tedious and boring for the most part, it has a handful of really excellent moments (like when the girlfriend and the bad guy are talking), but mostly this is utterly forgettable.

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Thu, May 28, 2015

: The Machine

I wanted to like this, as I’m a big fan of artificial intelligence movies, but this one didn’t work for me. Either I didn’t understand it too well or it didn’t make sense. It’s about a lab trying to produce AI robots for use in war, but when a genuinely self-conscious machine is created, the authorities want to destroy her because she’s too dangerous. Ultimately it devolves into a sort of action film, but it’s not very good at that, either. Mildly interesting, but don’t expect much.

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Wed, May 27, 2015

: Mad Max

This is the original 1979 film. I thought I’d seen it ages ago, but if so, I’d forgotten it. Much more in my memory were the sequels, which had a lot more action and a better setting. This one is not far enough ahead in the future and the world feels ordinary. It’s basically just a story about a bunch of drugged out biker maniacs go around killing innocent people and the cop who takes them on. It’s good, but it didn’t feel at all like a Mad Max movie to me, and that made it disappointing. Just not enough action.

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Mon, May 25, 2015

: Tomorrowland

This was a totally awesome movie! I had high hopes going in, but this exceeded them. Not only is it visually interesting and well-acted, but it’s got a great story!

I was a little leery when a part of the story seemed to be about how the world is so terrible right now (global warming, wars, famine, etc.) as it seemed an odd distraction, but it turned out to be a key part of the plot. And I loved the resolution which was simple but not flippant.

It’s hard to describe much without giving anything away, but I’ll try. The movie theorizes that many years ago all the great scientists of the world created Tomorrowland, a place in an alternate dimension, where they could create and invent in peace. Supposedly we were all supposed to be invited in once the new world was ready, but something went wrong and that never happened. The main story’s about a teenage girl who discovers a pin that temporarily takes her to Tomorrowland, leaving her wanting more — and she tracks down an eccentric inventor and tries to get him to take her there. She’s apparently broken laws going to Tomorrowland and so bad guys are after them both, trying to execute them.

The film is face-paced, full of adventure and wonder, and really captures the whole idealistic view that the future was supposed to be better, not the end-of-days. What’s really impressive to me is that the film does this in a realistic fashion: all the “magical” stuff is explained (more or less) and the events in the story are plausible. So much of the time in movies like this the authors take liberties and shortcuts and the plot really doesn’t make much sense.

If I had to make one criticism it’s that very little of the film actually takes place in Tomorrowland — I wanted so much to see more of it! We catch intriguing glimpses, but the bulk of the story is about how to get back there, not actually being there. Just a bit of a bummer, but maybe that will open the door of a sequel.

In the meantime, go see this one. It’s really wild and fun.

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Tue, May 19, 2015

: Ex Machina

This is by far the best film of 2015 so far. It’s amazingly deep with a lot of subtle depth that requires repeated viewing to grasp it all. The premise is simple: a young programmer has been selected by a reclusive billionaire inventor to come to his home/laboratory and perform a Turing test on an android and see if he can prove she’s actually a conscious artificial intelligence.

That sounds simple in principle — but proving something isn’t just mimicking intelligence is far trickier than it sounds.

Thus the plot is full of wonderful pretzel twists, turning over on itself. The film is remarkably similar to Moon in many ways: a tiny cast, claustrophobic atmosphere, and a bit of reality-bending. Soon you are questioning everything you’re seeing, just as the characters in the movie are doing. Is everyone lying? What are the real motives of each person?

The ending is absolutely fantastic: wicked and wonderful. This is a film that will have you thinking about reality, the nature of consciousness and intelligence, and so much more. So many films that portray supposedly super-intelligent people fail because the characters do such dumb things, but here the smart people are believable. They make mistakes, sure; but those mistakes are key parts of their personalities (we’re all blind to certain aspects of our flaws).

I just loved this and will definitely have to see this again many times. I can already tell it’s one of those movies that will just get better each time I see it.

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Mon, May 18, 2015

: Avengers: Age of Ultron

While I liked this, it is disappointing. There are just too many Avengers and the plot’s way too overblown: nothing makes much sense and there’s too much going on for anything meaningful to happen. The fight sequences are nothing but blurs; perhaps impressive on a technical level, but numbingly boring.

The story’s bizarre: Ultron’s an artificial intelligence Tony Stark creates that’s supposed to be a peacekeeper; for reasons never explained, it’s “evil” and wants to destroy humanity. While the special effects are crazy-good (an entire city is uprooted and raised into the sky), it doesn’t feel spectacular — it feels awkward and unrealistic. The solution is even dumber (another being is created).

The script tries to give each Avenger their own story, but all fail; there’s just too many. I’d have loved an entire movie devoted to the Hulk-Black Widow romance, for instance, instead of just the cheesy snippets we get here.

Ultimately, this still a fun superhero movie, but it has little of the heart that the original Ironman so good. The plot’s so convoluted that it requires far too much time to explain it all (and even then it makes little sense), and in the end, everything gets short shrift. Watch this for explosions, cool special effects, and glimpses of favorite characters, but expect little else.

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Sun, May 10, 2015

: Vampire Academy

Normally I might not even write about such a terrible movie, but this one clearly had real potential that I find it a fascinating exercise in bad decisions.

The premise is decent: a school where vampires send their children. But these aren’t bad vampires — they’re mostly harmless, though they have magical abilities. There are two other races: the bad vampires (which are pretty much like the evil vampires in most legends), and a race of protectors, which are sort of like the good vampires’ bodyguards.

The story is mostly about one of these bodyguards, a girl, who tries to protect her friend, a vampire princess. They tire of school rules and run away but are hunted down and returned, while real threats from bad vampires loom. Eventually we uncover a conspiracy to kidnap and kill the princess, yada yada yada.

What’s great about the film is the bodyguard character. She’s a hoot, a sassy, smart-mouthed fighter who leaps before she looks. Unfortunately, that’s about the only thing good in the movie. Everything goes downhill right from the convoluted start, where we begin a year after the girls have run away from school. They’re hiding out on their own, which all has to be tediously explained (as do the various magical races), but then they’re caught very easily by school guards and returned. So how did they survive for a year if it was so easy to catch them?

From there the film just goes downhill. The exposition is terrible, with narration to explain vampire society to the viewer, and while those details are critical to the plot, they’re presented in such a backwards manner that it makes them artificial. Let me give you just one example.

Early on in the film we’re shown the princess sucking blood from her bodyguard. This is presented as routine between the two of them. Later we learn that this is forbidden behavior for vampires, with the two girls mocked upon their return to school for engaging in such naughtiness. But this is all backwards: we see the behavior first, out of context, and only later are we told it’s not kosher. And it’s never very clear exactly how “bad” a thing this is. Is it merely rude, scandalous, or criminal? There are few consequences shown, so it’s very confusing. Ultimately, even though this turns out to be an important part of the plot, it feels silly and unimportant.

The whole movie is filled with stuff like that. Everything’s backwards. It’s like key details being filled in via flashback, except the flashback isn’t even interesting, it’s boring narration. Just terrible.

The basic idea isn’t bad at all and this could have been a decent flick, but the raw ingredients are put together in such a disjointed, awkward fashion that nothing in the film really works. Such potential wasted. Very sad.

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Mon, May 04, 2015

: Guardians of the Galaxy

Not at all what I expected from the promos. I thought it was about space idiots who happen to do something heroic, but they’re actually pretty competent people (and creatures) who come from criminal and other backgrounds.

Some great action, fun dialog and characters, and a decent-enough plot. A bit strange in places, and not always consistent, but overall it works quite well and is a blast.

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Sat, Apr 25, 2015

: X-Men: Days of Future Past

A clever time-travel plot gives us a look at both eras of X-Men (prior to X-Men and after), with Wolverine being sent back in time to stop something bad from happening. Overall very good, but it still felt too show-piecey, as the writers try to give each character their moment in the sun. A nice entry in the series, but not enthralling, memorable, or original.

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Thu, Mar 26, 2015

: Chappie

I had such high hopes for this flick. Coming from District 9 director Neill Blomkamp, I thought he’d do something amazingly realistic and awesome.

Unfortunately, it’s clear in the first few minutes that Neill knows next to nothing about robots and artificial intelligence. While the humanoid robots look mildly interesting, they’re nothing remarkable (very similar to the robot in the 80s comedy Short Circuit), and they’re full of nonsensical items such screens on the back of the neck that stay on all the time, running the robot’s battery down for no purpose.

The plot was also not what I expected. I knew it was about a robot that becomes sentient, but it turns out the robot’s “adopted” by a band of moron criminals who proceed to teach the “baby” their questionable morals and ways. While that could have been interesting, the way it’s done is depressing: we don’t really like the bad guys and watching a robot swear like a gangster just isn’t as amusing as Neill seems to think.

The film just has tons of serious flaws. The title is stupid and awkward (there isn’t even a creative way the robot gets the name), about half of the movie’s dialog is delivered in severely accented South African English that’s difficult to understand, and there are dozens of bizarre and puzzling aspects. For instance, the “rich” robot corporation looks like a dump with crappy cubicles for their top engineers and even the CEO has an average-looking office, and I didn’t why on earth the kidnappers just let the kidnapped scientist go home after stealing his robot.

Almost all the characters are cheap stereotypes, from the gun-toting ex-military madman to the Indian programmer, and even the more interesting people (the weird-looking drug dealers) are never defined outside of their profession. You’d think the titular robot would at least be fun, but even it doesn’t have much personality.

Even worse are all the scientific inaccuracies and absurdities, from the way software is written (the compiler reports no errors so presumably the program is perfect though even a first year programmer knows that 99.9999% of bugs are only revealed through empirical testing), to a lot of jargon that means the nothing or the opposite of what the writers think. That’s all magnified by an absurd ending with even more over-the-top implausibilities. In comparison, Short Circuit is a marvel of scientific accuracy!

What’s really sad is this movie had so much potential: while the idea of a sentient robot is nothing new, one that emerges as a naive baby and learns about life from criminals is innovative, and it would have been cool to see moral conflict and emotion from the robot. There was also a lot of room in the film for exploring the differences between artificial intelligence robots and robots controls by human means (like drones), but while that was touched upon in the plot, it was never explored. I wouldn’t even recommend this to robot fans. Sad.

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Sun, Feb 15, 2015

: The Fifth Estate

I vaguely heard about this movie about Wikileaks in theaters and wanted to see it, but the negative reviews killed my enthusiasm. I figured it was like most Hollywood attempts at showing technology where they muck everything up and didn’t want to see that.

But it turns out most of the negativity was from fans of Julian Assange, who didn’t like how he was portrayed. Apparently the film is based on material from his ex-partner after they had a falling out. But I didn’t feel it was that negative. Sure, it paints him as an eccentric genius, difficult around people, and incredibly arrogant, but I suspect those things are probably true. I also felt the debate over whether he should release secret material without redacting names of people who might be in danger was worth exploring (and there really isn’t a right answer as both sides are correct).

In terms of story, they did a good job. I found it compelling and interesting. There’s a bit too much emphasis on certain kinds of artificial drama (arguments and personal bickering) and while the film hints at spies and black ops shadowing and such, there it feels phony, like it’s just there for the film. There’s also not nearly enough technical info about exactly how Julian hides his identity and travels without being followed and such, which I found weird. If he’s really worried about being followed, shouldn’t he be taking measures against that? Yet we’re not shown any of those, just his paranoia and mentions of tech like “cryptophone” as though that solves everything.

On the other hand, what impressed me the most was a better understanding of just what Wikileaks is and how it was created. I knew little about it other than it was a way for whistleblowers to anonymously post secrets on the web. I never realized the incredible amount of work it took to make that happen. I just figured people used an anonymous email account and emailed in documents, but it’s not that simple.

For one thing, Wikileaks had to verify all the sources and info, so they acted like editors. They didn’t just post whatever they were sent, but checked it over throughly to make sure it was accurate and truthful.

For another, it’s one thing sending a website an anonymous tip about the next Apple iPhone, but it’s quite another posting the secrets of governments. That requires some amazing encryption and obfuscation to mask the identities of the sources. I didn’t realize that Julian was a mathematician who create his own encryption techniques just for the website, nor did I think about the difficulties of hosting a site that many governments all over the world want shut down.

In the end this is a cool story: dramatic and interesting, a bit grandiose, but revealing an important new type of journalism. It provokes thinking and debate and it worth viewing. It doesn’t quite live up to The Social Network in terms of quality of story, but it’s similar and I enjoyed it. Perhaps it is biased, but I didn’t find it that negative. I came away feeling that Julian is a real hero.

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Sat, Feb 14, 2015

: Donovan’s Echo

Fascinating little movie from a few years ago. It stars Danny Glover as a former physicist who was involved in the Manhattan Project when his wife and daughter are killed by a drunk driver. Thirty years later and he’s still mourning their deaths when he starts to think that history is repeating itself.

His neighbor is a woman and her daughter, who happens to have the same name as his daughter, and he starts having psychic visions that convince him that the two are going to die just like his wife and daughter. The weird thing is that he had similar visions 30 years ago. Now he’s terrified that if he doesn’t do something, he’ll lose the neighbors just like he did his own family.

I’m not usually much into movies about psychic phenomena, but this one is kind of cool. I love the idea that the visions are so confusing that when he had them thirty years ago, he couldn’t tell they were about the distant future. That’s because so many of the events are parallel: when he saves the modern girl from a falling object he remembers having that vision 30 years earlier and trying to save his daughter the same way, only nothing happened back then. Everyone just thought he was crazy since no object fell. Now he realizes the vision was about the modern girl, not his daughter.

Because his visions are confusing, and so many of the parallel events seem like coincidence, he comes across as a crazy person. No one believes him.

Overall this isn’t a great movie, but it is compelling. I was just going to watch a few minutes to see what it was about and I got hooked. Glover is excellent, as is the rest of the cast. The film is low-budget and not that much happens in the story — but enough does to make it interesting, and the conclusion is pretty good. Worth watching if you’re into this kind of movie.

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Fri, Feb 13, 2015

: Kingsman: The Secret Service

Fun film that’s somehow both a throwback to classic “gentlemen spy” films of yesteryear and a modern retelling of such movies. It involves a super-secret organization of spies independent of any government. A street ruffian is recruited to join and has to pass dangerous tests to qualify. Meanwhile there’s a billionaire bad guy who’s got a plan to “save” the planet by eliminating most of the population.

Yeah, the plot’s simple and familiar, but what works here is the style. The action is fantastically cool, the characters awesome (best is the acrobatic killer lady with deadly swords on her artificial legs), and the dialog clever. The violence is an odd combination of super-deadly and cartoonish, so we see everything from a guy cut in half to teeth floating through the air after a punch to the jaw.

I also really liked the novice’s character development: it wasn’t rushed, and the changes in him were appropriately subtle. Even as a newbie he had hints of greatness, and by the time he’s fully trained, we believe he’s really capable. Excellent casting.

There’s plenty of humor and silliness, but it’s mixed with subtlety, which is a fascinating blend. Overall, thoroughly enjoyable. It’s not going to strain your brain, but it’s not an insult to it either.

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Fri, Feb 06, 2015

: Jupiter Ascending

I couldn’t make head or tails of this from the promos, but it looked like it might be cool. It is fun, but sadly the plot is bare. It’s simultaneously too convoluted, however they managed that!

Basically the story’s about an anonymous girl who cleans houses who suddenly finds out she’s alien royalty and “owns” Earth. Other aliens want the Earth, so they’re all trying to kill her or manipulate her.

The problem is that in the first half of the movie we don’t undersand what’s going on so nothing makes sense (and the girl seems far too relaxed about seeing aliens and everything wild that’s happening around her). Once we figure things out, the second half of the movie has no surprises and is too simple.

To cover all those flaws in story, we have a lot of ridiculous action. Some aspects of it are cool — there’s some nice tech and special effects — but most of the action is so high-speed it’s a meaningless blur and there’s zero tension. We can’t even tell if the heros do anything heroic because everything happens too fast!

Despite all that, though, the film’s not terrible. It has no depth, but it’s just a popcorn flick, with fun visuals and action and pretty people. There are some funny moments (watch for a Terry Gilliam cameo), some tender moments, and decent performances. My favorite aspect of the film was the psychological manipulation of the girl by creepy villains. I wish there’d been more focus on that.

By and large this isn’t a classic, but it’s better than most scifi films and it doesn’t take itself too seriously (its universe reminds me a lot of the silly one in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).

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Fri, Jan 30, 2015

: Project Almanac

The concept of teens inventing a time machine was intriguing, but there’s so little science here it might as well be magic. There’s minimal realism, and several odd time machine side effects that aren’t explained and make no sense at all. (Like when you go back in time and run into yourself, both versions of you vanish.)

But the worst crime is that it takes forever for anything to happen. It’s halfway through the movie before the time machine is ready, and almost the end before the bad side effects start to happen. And then the resolution is far too simple and weak, wrapped up in thirty seconds like a cheap sitcom.

Despite all that, however, the movie is still a lot of fun. The cast is pretty good, and there are few glimmers of good ideas in the cool stuff the kids do with the time machine. (My favorite was buying expired VIP backstage passes cheap on eBay after the concert was over, then going back in the time to the concert and using them to meet the band.) There’s certainly nothing profound or innovative about this picture, but if you go in with extremely low expectations, it’s entertaining.

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Sun, Jan 25, 2015

: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

I finally stopped watching the TV Show Agents of SHIELD because it got too annoying (all the good guys turning Benedict Arnold and SHIELD disappearing), but lo and behold, that’s pretty much the plot of this movie.

If I’d known that, I wouldn’t have watch the movie, but it turned out it didn’t bother me the way it does on the show. Here it made more sense as that is the plot. It didn’t work at all on TV, where it felt like the show was going in the wrong direction. (How can the show be called Agents of SHIELD when SHIELD doesn’t exist? Stupid. I think they started writing the series before they learned the direction of the movie and had to rapidly — and incompetently — change course.)

This movie isn’t as good as Captain America, but it’s not bad. Too long and the action is over-the-top, though I do find Captain America’s fighting more interesting as the shield he uses both as a weapon and as a defense is unusual. But the whole “keep the identity of the ‘Winter Soldier’ bad guy a secret for as long as possible and then have him stop wearing a mask” was just silly. Nothing makes that much sense, really, but it was fun and there are some good set pieces. Still, I wish Hollywood would put the kind of effort they put into these popcorn flicks into real movies.

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Sat, Jan 24, 2015

: Automata

Interesting low-budget Spanish-produced science fiction movie about robots. It has some big stars like Antonio Banderas and Dylan McDermott and Melanie Griffith, but I’d never even heard of it (and it’s a 2014 release so it’s not old).

The story is about an insurance investigator looking at why some robots are repairing themselves — supposed to be against their programming (the bots follow rules similar to Asimov’s three laws) — and he basically uncovers artificial intelligence. That part is very weak, as everything is implied and we don’t really see the impact of anything. There’s no good reason given as to why robots shouldn’t be allowed to repair themselves (the theory is that they’d quickly advance beyond our understanding), making me think it’s all just a way for the manufacturer to keep charging for repairs.

Supposedly the setting is in the future after sunspots destroy all but 21 million people and leaving the planet heavy with deadly radiation, so robots are made to help rebuild civilization. Except I kept trying to figure out how such a devastated society could build robots we can’t build with all our technology today!

The bottom line is this is a gimmicky film. It has interesting visuals and the story sounds intriguing, but there’s little depth and nothing much actually happens. There’s weird conspiracy side story which brings action and violence into things, but I found that strangely out of place and tedious. I didn’t care about any of the characters (except maybe the one robot). But it was still an interesting film for robot and Asimov fans.

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Sat, Jan 10, 2015

: The Imitation Game

This film is about Alan Turing, the Cambridge mathematician who basically invented the computer, and his efforts during WWII to build a machine to crack the Nazi’s “unbreakable” Enigma code-making device. We basically follow two stories: one during the war, and one a decade later, when cops following up on a break-in at his house figure out he was a homosexual and decide to arrest him. There are also occasional flashbacks to Turing’s school days.

That dual storyline is a little confusing — the time jump between scenes was not always well established (at least the childhood ones were clear) — but the concept did help propel the movie and provided some additional tension.

Overall, I thought this was fantastic: the performance of Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing was excellent, with just enough drama to be compelling without going over into hysteria or melodrama, and the supporting cast was also terrific. The story was good, well-paced and interesting, and the personal revelations were helpful in understanding the man.

The film is heavy-handed in overemphasizing the discrimination Turing faced (a bit “preachy”), and I really wanted more details about exactly what his machine did and how it worked. (The film is remarkably short of technical details, perhaps out of fear that it might bore viewers — but without it we really don’t understand half of what Turing is doing in the movie! It also makes it more difficult to truly appreciate his genius since we don’t know what he actually did.)

Despite these flaws, the film works. There are tons of absolutely fabulous scenes. Turning’s “job interview” at Bletchley Park is absolutely masterful in revealing Turing’s personality. I loved it when a guard tries to send Joan, a woman applying to be a codebreaker, to the “secretarial pool,” and then she solves a crossword even faster than Turing. But my very favorite scene scene was when young Turning is at school and a mate gives him a book on ciphers and explains that they are encrypted messages that everyone can see but only those with the key can understand. Turing asks him, “How is that different from talking?”

For him, you see, everyone seemed to be talking in a code he couldn’t break. He was oblivious to the hidden communication that most humans practice. (Example: a colleague mentions three times that they’re going to lunch, obviously inviting the still-working Turing to come. Finally, exasperated, he tells him this, and Turning is surprised and says: “You didn’t invite me. You merely said you were going to lunch.” Which was literally true.)

Ultimately, the film is a little sad, as Turning’s work was kept secret for fifty years and he never received the recognition he deserved. Breaking Enigma pretty much won the war for the Allies — at minimum it shorted the war by years and saved the lives of millions. I found it fascinating that a man who really didn’t understand other people could be responsible for saving so many. And Turning’s work on early computing is responsible for all the computers we have today. That’s an amazing legacy for a man almost forgotten by history simply because he was an “odd duck” and hard to work with.

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: The Counselor

What a convoluted shambles! This film has a terrific cast, an intriguing script, and a semi-interesting premise (a lawyer gets involved in the drug trade and learns the cost of that when things go wrong), but bungles it all by shrouding everything in so much mystery that it’s incomprehensible.

Things start off bad right from the beginning as we’re suddenly inside an intimate sex scene between two main characters. There’s no setup, so we have no idea who these people are, and thus the scene feels invasive, as though we’re voyeurs. Later I realized the purpose of the scene was to establish how much the two genuinely loved each other, but that completely backfired: because the initial focus was on their physical relationship, I assumed that it was just about lust and kept thinking that there would be a twist later in the film where all their lovely spoken promises proved to be just words. Instead, their love is supposed to be the heart of the entire film!

From there the film goes into the drug business and makes its second big mistake: it assumes we understand everything about the drug business. There are a dozen characters doing a bunch of seemingly unrelated things and there’s very little to connect everything.

Some of that is acceptable, of course. As the viewer I’m willing to give a film some time, but this film never does explain everything. It’s also virtually impossible to gain an understanding through the convoluted dialog — which is pretty and colorful, and sometimes interesting, but obtuse and vague and never speaks plainly.

Another problem is that several of the characters look similar to each other and the way the movie is shot — with angled views that don’t show a clear view of the character — makes that even worse, creating more comprehension problems. Few people refer to others by name, except in later conversations, so everything is quite baffling.

There are moments of interesting action and some dramatic scenes, but everything’s piecemeal. It’s like instead of the jigsaw puzzle coming together as the film continues, the pieces are just rearranged. By the end, we’re just as confused as at the beginning.

I’d caught part of this on one of my movie channels and it looking intriguing and I really wanted to like it, but it’s a wannabe, not real movie.

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