Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Millennium (1989)

Note:  This review was originally posted to my Epinions account.

Warning:  I’m going to give away major details about the movie, including and up to the end of the movie.  If you’re not into this sort of stuff, now would be a good time to stop reading.

I saw Millennium a long time ago.  It’s one of those movies where I remembered a few key scenes, but not much else.  I think I may have watched it at a friend’s house.  What little I remember, I remember having questions about, which I’ll get to later.

The movie starts with two planes colliding.  It’s scary enough to be piloting a doomed aircraft, but the navigator goes back to check on the passengers to find that they’re all burned.  This wouldn’t be unusual, except that the plane hasn’t crashed yet.

Enter Bill Smith.  He spends long periods of time going around investigating plane crashes.  This one shouldn’t be that unusual, except that the navigator was heard on the black box saying how all the passengers were dead.  Was he hallucinating from the stress of being on a doomed flight?  Maybe they heard wrong.

That alone wouldn’t be that suspicious, except that that this scientist, Dr. Arnold Mayer, is nosing around.  He seems to have a thing for plane crashes.  He investigates them hoping to find something.  In any event, they have a lot of wreckage to go through.  In fact, someone comments on the fact that they have flight attendants serving coffee.  When Smith asks for some coffee, the flight attendant he calls for runs away.

Well, it doesn’t take long for her to approach him and set up a date for that night.  They spend the night together and in the morning, she asks him not to go in to work.  They won’t miss him for a day.  Right?  He leaves for work, but realizes that he’s forgotten something in his room.  When he goes back, she’s not only gone, but the room looks like it was just made up.

It turns out that mystery woman, Louise Baltimore, is from the future.  In the future, humanity is on the brink of extinction, having run the planet into the ground.  She and her team are coming back in time to take people that won’t be missed to help repopulate the world.  The idea is that since the people are going to die on plane crashes anyway, no one will notice that they’re gone if you replace them with a dead body of similar size and makeup.

The trouble is that her team is kind of sloppy.  Not only does Louise lose her stunner for Smith to find, but a member of her team loses a stunner for Mayer to find as a child.  Yes, Mayer was the lone survivor of a plane crash.  He found a stunner and was able to keep part of it.  When Mayer and Smith meet, Mayer is able to put together a complete stunner and accidentally kill himself.  This causes a massive time paradox, which forces the future people to send their kidnapped people into the distant future to repopulate the world.  Baltimore and Smith end up going with them, presumably to live happily ever after.

I have several problems with the movie.  First, the team of time travelers don’t seem to be that good.  Yes, I realize that humanity’s population has dwindled and it’s possible that this is the best that humanity has to offer, but you think they’d at least know better than to leave technology which doesn’t belong.

Also, the movie seems to take both sides of predetermination.  Baltimore can look back into her past, but there are certain parts that are censored so that she doesn’t know what her personal future holds.  Thus, there is some sense that she’s destined to go back in time.  However, it’s still possible to screw things up royally.  You could leave parts of a stunner for someone to find and assemble only to have them cause a major paradox and destroy everything.

This leads me to the third in this chain of questions.  If it’s possible for the future society to quickly make a hotel room look like it was made up, couldn’t they have a way to track and recall their own technology?  You’d think that as Baltimore’s team was being recalled, they’d be like, “Oh, she dropped a stunner.  Let me just get that and…done.”  Instead, they set up several paradoxes that they attempt to fix, only to make things worse.

On this note, one thing that I remember wondering is how the kidnapped people were able to be sent into the future.  If you can change the past and affect the present to create a paradox, wouldn’t that mean that the entire operation would go away?  It does, which means that there would be no machine to take people from the past and no machine to send them into the future.  I can see that they’d at least take the chance, but what’s the point?  It seemed like they were certain that the people would survive.

Also, you’re sending all of these random people into an unknown situation.  At least in those hypothetical situations you had in school, you had several useful people to chose from, like a doctor and a lawyer.  Here, they’re just sending in whoever they have and hoping for the best.  Yes, I realize that it was kind of rushed.  They were probably planning on having more time and they probably were looking for particular people.  If you’re going to take one person from a doomed flight, why not just take all of the passengers?

One big thing was why they had to go so far back.  I guess they wanted to make sure that they had people well before any catastrophic event that decimated the planet, but they had to replace the people with bodies that were genetically the same and probably even had the same fingerprints and personal items.  How did they know?  How were they able to get DNA to create a clone?  How did the get fingerprint records?  Did they have to make another trip that we never saw?

The movie is based on a short story, which may explain some of this.  I’d have to read it to know for certain.   This is one of the few cases where I could see a remake being an improvement.  It has some interesting aspects, like getting people from planes to repopulate the planet, but doesn’t put them together all that well.  It’s one of those things that would have been better if more had been explained. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Style Wars (1983)

Note:  This review was originally posted to my Epinions account.

When I was a kid, I remember associating New York City trains with graffiti. That seemed to be one of the images presented on TV and in media, fairly or unfairly. Then again, it was just paint to me back then. I thought people were just taking spray paint and putting up random images on the trains. Not only has New York City has cleaned up their image since then, but I have come to learn that the images are more than random.

Style Wars goes into what the images mean and shows who’s making them. Those doing it, who sometimes call themselves bombers, want to get their name out among others that are doing it. If you get your name on enough trains, you can be seen all over New York City. There are detractors. Those interviewed called it a quality-of-life issue, comparing it to prostitution or picking someone’s pocket. Many people didn’t like it. There’s also a pretty heavy price tag associated with getting rid of the paint.

New York City eventually cracked down on it, which is probably why I don’t associate graffiti with the trains any more. The documentary showed this campaign that the city had involving celebrities. There is a certain reverence paid to the graffiti artists, though. The crackdown is shown in a somewhat negative light, almost like the end of an era. The graffiti artists had to move on to other means of expression.

The movie didn’t so much put graffiti in a positive light, though. It was mostly showing who did this and maybe even why. There was one kid talking about it in front of his mother, who just didn’t get it. There was another guy who had only one arm, yet managed to do graffiti anyway. Despite complaining from the public and the best efforts of the transit authority and Mayor Ed Koch, people still found a way in to mark the trains. Everyone that did it had some way in.

There was one kid that was saying how he could get away with $50 or $100 in spray paint. Once he had a trench coat, all he had to do was wait for a couple of black or Hispanic kids to come in and he could stuff the trench coat was the limit. There was another kid trying to explain why he did it with his mother in the background. She kept rolling her eyes whenever he would say something like how he would never get caught.

The documentary focused mostly on the graffiti, but showed other aspects of life that went along with it, saying at one point that rap was the spoken word and graffiti was the written word. It seemed like the rap and break dancing were filler, though. It was almost like the producers didn’t have enough graffiti to go around and needed something a little more.

The movie really wasn’t as interesting as I thought it would be. Even at 70 minutes, it seemed long at times. Part of it was that the film quality wasn’t that good. (That has to do not only with the movie being 25 years old, but also with the producers using smaller, more portable video cameras which have lower quality.) When I was done with it, I ended up returning it to NetFlix pretty quickly. (I’m beginning to think I should have watched some of the extras.)

I read that there was a follow-up documentary done recently, but I don’t know if I’m going to watch that. This was more of a three-star movie. If I have the time and I’m running out of movies on my NetFlix queue, I may get it. As for this movie, I think I’d recommend the same thing to you. Don’t waste a lot of time getting it, but if it comes on while you’re watching PBS or something, go for it. 

Monday, October 24, 2016

Oz the Great and Powerful (2013)

Note:  This review was originally posted to my Epinions account.

When I first saw coming attractions for Oz the Great and Powerful, I knew I wanted to see it.  I had been reading some of the books and had seen the 1930s movie.  I had a sense that this hadn’t used any of them as direct source material, instead creating a new story about how Oz came to a land called Oz.  The original movie is still under copyright protection, but the books have fallen into public domain.  Still, there are some references to the original movie.

It starts in black-and-white Kansas circa 1905.  Oscar Diggs is a second-rate magician at a traveling carnival.  He seems to have a way with ladies.  That is to say, he has one routine he uses to charm a girl in each town.  When this comes back to bite him, he finds the nearest balloon and proceeds to get lost as quickly as he can.  He travels directly into, of all things, a tornado that takes him to the Technicolor land of Oz.

The first thing he does is meet the beautiful Theodora, who tells Oz that she and everyone else in Oz would be saved by a great and powerful wizard bearing the same name as the land.  Along the trip back to The Emerald City, they meet Finley, a talking, flying monkey.   Finley pledges his life to Oz until he realizes what that might entail.  Oz is a bit reluctant, himself.  He knows he’s no great wizard.

Promises of the royal treasure does help persuade him.  Theodora’s sister, Evanora, tells Oz that in order to get the treasure, he has to kill a wicked witch.  Along the way, he meets China Girl, a ceramic person whose village was destroyed.  (Yes, that is the name listed on IMDb.)  Oz fixes her, so they head off to find this witch, only to find out that she’s the good witch Glinda.

It’s up to Glinda, Oz, Finley and China Girl to defeat the two wicked witches.  Mostly, it’s up to Oz, who seems to bear the brunt of this prophecy.  He doesn’t really start to take things seriously until late in the movie, when he devises a plan.  Not everyone knows what’s going on, as he keeps most of it a secret.  (On this note, it is a prequel.  As such, you know what will become of most of the characters.  I don’t think I’ve really revealed much in the way of surprises.)

There are a few references to the 1939 movie you may catch.  One of Oz’s love interests in Kansas says she’s going to marry a man named Gale.  There are a lot of Oz-based characters that resemble Kansas-based characters.  Other than the characters, that’s where the similarity seems to end.  If you’ve seen the original movie, I don’t know if James Franco would be your first choice to play the man who would become The Great and Powerful Oz.  (It does look like there will be a sequel to this movie, so we may get to see how he transitions.)

L. Frank Baum created characters that wanted most what they already had.  (The scarecrow wanted intelligence, but already seem to possess great skill and cunning.)  In this sense, this movie holds true to the books.  Oz wants to be a great magician.  What he doesn’t realize until coming to Oz is that he has the ability to do great things.  He just has to use his considerable skills to his advantage.  With some help, he’s able to pull this off.

Those coming into the movie without having read the books or seen the other movies will probably miss out on a lot of the references.   We get to see the flying monkeys, which are very dark in this movie.  They’re used mostly for brute force here.  (In the books, they were capable of dialogue.  If I recall, they tied to a hat which would grand the user three wishes within the monkeys’ power.)

I had wanted to see the movie in theaters, partly because of the 3D aspect.  I didn’t feel like paying a lot of money for that.  (I don’t think theaters give any sort of special discount on 3D for early birds.)  I ended up getting it through Redbox with a free code.  I wasn’t able to watch it in 3D, though.  (I’m not even sure how they’d do this.)  If I could see it in 3D, I’d probably consider doing it.  There were a few scenes that would have been great for that, but I’m not holding my breath. 

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Pi (1998)

Note:  This review was originally posted to my Epinions account.

Max Cohen is either crazy or a genius. He basically sits at home all day and looks for patterns in the stock market. Max also suffers from severe headaches and delusions. In most cases, he’d be dismissed as some math freak in need of some serious medical attention. He must be on to something, though; two groups seem to be interested in him. He keeps getting calls from an investment firm, but Max keeps trying to get rid of them. He’s not even sure how they got his number. Then, there’s a group of Hassidic Jews who are looking for patterns in the Bible. Both are interested in a 216-digit number, but for different reasons. Both groups agree that Max is the man to get what they want for them. Once he does, he doesn’t want to give it up. It’s not easy being Max.

You don’t have to be some math genius to understand the movie. Much of what goes on in the movie is explained in some detail. For instance, there’s a brief explanation about what kinds of codes are being sought from the Bible. (There really is a Jewish numerology based on the Torah.) You may not understand every last detail, but you don’t really have to. I didn’t understand some of it, myself.

I have to warn you that there’s a high gross-out factor to this movie. (I really wish Epinions had a separate bar for that, along with suspense and quality of special effects.) For starters, Max often gets bloody noses. It gets much worse from there. If you’re squeamish, this isn’t your movie. I’d say that as for age range, this is definitely a movie for adults. Even then, I know a lot of adults that wouldn’t be able to handle it.

Another thing is that there are a lot of themes that might not be suitable for children. It’s not unsuitable in the sense of adult or vulgar themes. It’s just that many younger children might not be able to understand everything. Had I seen this while I was in middle school, I probably would have though it was just some bizarre movie about this weird guy that has problems. Now that I’m an adult, I can appreciate much more of it.

There’s also a low-budget look to the movie. That might have something to do with the fact that there was actually a relatively small budget, but I don’t feel that it takes anything away from the movie. In fact, it works well. The story has a very dark feel to it, given that Max has so many people interested in him. (It also works well because Max wants to see things in black and white.)

The only problem that I had was when Max referred to the Golden Number as theta. I’m pretty sure that it’s called Phi. It’s not a major problem, but Max does go into some detail about it and seems to know quite a bit about it.

I’d give the movie five stars. At 84 minutes, it’s a very short movie, but it’s paced just right. The acting, direction and script were all done perfectly. I’m recommending the movie, but again, I want to remind you that it’s not for everyone. 

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Hotel Transylvania (2012) = A Nonlethal Varsity

Note:  This review was originally posted to my Epinions account.

I don’t know why, but when I get free stuff, my standards seem to be a lot lower.  This applies even when I have a wide range of selections to choose from.  Take Redbox.  Occasionally, I get codes for free movies, but the codes have to be used that day.  One of the problems with Redbox is that I can’t always get my first choice.  Sometimes, I can’t even get my second or third choice.  Since I’m already at the kiosk, wasting the code seems like a bad idea.  Even if I don’t like the movie, I’ll get a review out of it.

Hotel Transylvania was such a title.  I’m not a huge fan of Adam Sandler.  I knew going into this that he voiced Dracula, but he was at least tolerable in Click, so I figured that I’d give Hotel Transylvania a chance.  If you’re reading this, it means that I’ve gotten my review out of it and have commenced forgetting about the movie.

The story is that Dracula wants to protect his daughter, Mavis.  He hasn’t had the best of luck with humans.  Most monsters are of similar mind, so Dracula opened Hotel Transylvania.  The idea was that he’d build it someplace that humans wouldn’t know about and would set things up so that they wouldn’t want to go there even if they stumbled upon it.

Well, everyone’s coming over for Mavis’s 118th birthday celebration and wouldn’t you know it, a human named Johnny happens to stumble upon the hotel.  (Actually, he follows some monsters back from Dracula’s ill-advised attempt to trick Mavis into staying at the hotel.)  Anyway, Dracula notices Johnny before anyone else does.  Killing him outright is out of the question.  He can’t have him stay, though, for fear of upsetting the guests.  Sneaking him out proves problematic, so Dracula tries to hide Johnny as a long-lost relative of the right arm of Frankenstein’s monster, Johnny Stein.  Every attempt to deal with Johnny causes further complications, eventually leading to Johnny meeting (and falling for) Mavis.

This is what makes up most of the movie’s 91 minutes.  It’s Dracula being an overprotective father and making a few mistakes along the way, then having to fix them in the end when he realizes what it will really take to make his daughter happy.  Along the way, you have a lot of familiar monsters, at least in name.  You have Wayne the Wolfman, Frankenstein’s Monster, Eunice (a.k.a. Bride of Frankenstein), Quasimodo, the Invisible Man and so on.  I don’t think any of them act the way that they did in the movie.  Frankenstein is very friendly, for instance, even if he does fall apart on occasion.  Wayne is also normal father that tries to provide for his wife and many children.

It was a good movie, but it wasn’t great.  The one big drawback was Fran Drescher.  Had I known she was in the movie, I probably would have rented something else.  As with Sandler, I’m not particularly a big fan.  She wasn’t bad in this movie, but knowing that both were in this movie probably would have killed it.  There were a lot of people that I did like, such as Steve Buscemi, CeeLo Green and Jon Lovitz.

I also wasn’t a big fan of the style of animation.  It was a little exaggerated for me.  As I said, I was renting this for free, so I figured I’d at least try it.  However, animation is already a strike for some people.  Even for those that like animation, they may not like this style.  There were also a few scary moments when Dracula tried to intimidate Johnny.  It wasn’t wet-your-pants scary, but I was caught off guard and thought that it was a little out of place for a comedy.  We’re talking a few shots, a second or two each.

Ultimately, I have to learn to be more selective the next time I go to Redbox.   I think part of the problem with Redbox is that I tend to feel a little rushed and given the limited selection, I usually get the first thing that seems safe rather than take my time to find something I like.  Getting a movie like Hotel Transylvania is the result.  It wasn’t a horrible movie, but it wasn’t a great movie, either. 

Friday, October 21, 2016

Nikon Speedlight SB-600 Shoe Mount Flash for Nikon

Note:  This review was originally posted to my Epinions account.

When I first got a Nikon D50, there were a few things I wanted to get. One thing I new I needed was a flash. This becomes evident mostly when taking indoor pictures. My cat would often get those green eyes commonly associated with pets. Pictures of rooms were yellowish or blurry. Even with the flash, they weren't great. There were also times outdoors when things would be backlit. I have a lot of pictures that would have benefited greatly from a flash.

My three choices were the SB-400, SB-600 and the SB-800. The SB-400, I'm told, is very basic. You can't even swivel from left to right with it. The SB-800, I'm told, is more expensive, but not worth it if you don't have one of the higher-end cameras. The only big difference between the 600 and the 800 is in setting up several flashes. I have no need for this, so I figured I'd save myself a hundred dollars or so and go for the SB-600.

If you do decide to get the SB-600, you'll need to buy four AA batteries. I've had a set for a while now and they've lasted a while. I would recommend keeping a spare set, just in case. I haven‘t had this one go out yet, so I have no idea if the power reduces or if the flash just stops working. (Note: Like most devices that use batteries, be sure to remove them when not using the flash, as they will eventually leak.)

You put the flash on using a hot-shoe adapter. Your camera should have a hot-shoe protector, which you'll need to take off before putting on the flash. Once on, the flash has a locking mechanism to help keep the flash on. I have actually left the flash unlocked only to have it slide off slightly.

The SB-600 is a bounce flash. This means that you can have it pointing strait up, forward or anywhere in between. If you have a light-colored ceiling, you can use it to diffuse the flash and give more even tones. You also have the option of moving the flash to the left or right. This is something you'll have to play around with to see how well it works. I could probably write an entire article just on how to use the tilt and swivel on a flash. The important thing is that you have options not available to you with your onboard flash and those two options do make a huge difference in your pictures. (You can, technically, point the flash towards you, but I don't recommend this.)

On the back of the flash is a display showing various settings and options. The flash will adjust depending on the focal distance. (The flash does have its limits and leaving the diffuser down causes the flash to simply go to 14mm.) If you turn the camera off, the flash goes to standby. You have to turn the flash back on before shutting it off, which is a bit annoying if you're in a rush.

I can say that I have yet to have a problem with the flash. The battery life has proven to be good and my pictures are better. I have yet to get red eye (or green eye) with it. Go to Flickr and look for pictures with the SB-600. Most of the pictures I've taken with the SB-600 are tagged as such. (You'll find some nice pictures, if I do say so myself...) The flash gets four stars.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Quiz Show (1994)

Note:  This review does give away major plot points including the ending.  The movie is based on fact and probably won’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the story.  However, if you don’t like knowing a lot going in, you might want to wait before reading the review.

Herb Stempel was a hero in his neighborhood.  He had won a lot of money on a quiz show named Twenty-One.  The object was to answer questions.  Difficulty was based on the number of points, from one to 11.  The goal was to get 21 points.  Stempel had won for several weeks and seemed happy about it.  The catch was that the producers were feeding him the answers.  Enter Charles Van Doren.  His family is well known.  He’s good looking.  He’s basically more useful than Stempel, at least from an advertising standpoint.  The ratings have hit a plateau, so the producers want Stempel to take a dive.  He’s to answer a tough question incorrectly.

When the producers to Van Doren about it, Van Doren is a bit nervous.  He doesn’t think it’s right, so they all laugh it off.  He appears on the show and seems to do well on his own.  Then, the moment of truth comes.  He’s asked a question that he knows they know he has the answer for.  It’s the very same question they overheard him answer in the office.  He has three choices.  He can admit what’s happening on national television and risk embarrassing everyone, assuming he’s even believed.  He can quietly take a dive as Stempel did and risk losing the game.  Instead, he chooses to give the correct answer.

He goes on to higher ratings (and more money) than Stempel.  Stempel goes back to his wife and neighborhood, ashamed that he had to miss such an easy question.  Stempel tries to hit up the network for more money.  He could easily be put on some sort of panel show or something.  The network politely declines.  Stempel threatens to sue, but that leads to sealed court records. Stempel now has no one to turn to.  That is, until Dick Goodwin comes knocking on his door.

Goodwin is a congressional investigator looking for a big story.  He wonders why the court records would need to be sealed.  He eventually knocks on Stempel’s door and finds his mother lode.  Since Stempel isn’t a particularly likable guy and he is the only witness, the investigation stalls.  It isn’t until Van Doren is subpoenaed that anything happens.  The network and sponsor deny everything.  Even if they had known, none of the accused actions were illegal, per se.  It’s tricky, since the questions and answers were said to be locked in a safe, but it was never expressly stated that contestants weren’t given the answers beforehand.  The producers are left to take the blame for everything.

There is a certain irony in that those in charge tried to play off the scandal in that the game show was little more than entertainment.  The facts are meaningless.  I’m sure that liberties were taken with the story here.  There is an implicit understanding that this is done, though.  It’s not the first movie to do so and won’t be the last.  We do go to movies to be entertained.  The issue with the game show was that they seemed to go to some trouble to make it look like the people were actually competing.

Interestingly, this entire story ends up being the basis for the format of a particular current game show.  The story goes that after the scandal had broken, it would be difficult to get a network to buy into a new quiz show.  Merv Griffin was discussing it with his wife, Julann.  She suggested that contestants be given the answers and would have to respond with questions.   From what I understand, the idea had been used before.  However, the recent history coupled with low prize amounts got the network’s approval.

I did enjoy the movie, but I’m curious as to why this particular era of TV history was chosen.  I’m not saying that it’s a story that doesn’t deserve to be told.  I’m just not sure if there was a lot of interest.  If you mentioned the scandal to most people, I’d imagine that they’d find it of passing interest at best.  (There are times I’ve told people things that I’ve found very interesting only to get, “um…ok,” as a response.)

There is a morality play that’s somewhat evident.  Stempel seems comfortable with the lie.  The story starts several weeks into his run on Twenty-One.  We don’t see him prepped or vetted.  We do get to see Van Doren auditioning for another game show.  He’s someone that is presented as an honest person to start with.

We imagine that Stempel was probably honest, too.  His reasons for going along with it are understandable.  Who would turn down easy money and fame?  He wants to be more financially independent.  He likes the respect he gets from people.  It’s almost like a drug for him.  Stempel is what any of us could easily become.

With Van Doren, it’s a little different.  He’s already well off.  He already has a name for himself and comes from a respectable family.  He’s being presented with the chance to make being bookish and nerdy more accessible to the common person.  If a guy like him can make a lot of money, why not try to be like him?  The problem is that it’s all based on a lie and Van Doren knew it.  He could treat it abstractly it all he wants, but once he goes down that road, he can never go back.

Stempel and Van Doren could easily have said nothing and have walked away.  Granted, some one else would have eventually spoken up or made a fatal mistake.  Goodwin did find evidence of the deception going through old tapes, so someone would have at least known something was going on.  Ultimately, Van Doren will always be the good guy gone bad and Stempel will have to live with being the guy who missed an easy question.