Friday, October 20, 2017

Hoodwinked! (2005)

Some things work only if they’re done well.  When someone tries to make it a True Daily Double on Jeopardy!, they’re a genius only if it works.  If not, they’ve got their work cut out for them.  The same goes for something like using fairy-tale characters.  If it’s done well, it’s something can be used to the movie’s advantage.  If not done well, it can turn people away.

Hoodwinked starts with the final scene from Little Red Riding Hood.  Red Puckett is at her grandmother’s house, but it’s not Granny Puckett that Red is dealing with.  It’s the Wolf W. Wolf wearing a Granny mask.   Red is no fool; she’s on to him.  Suddenly, a Kirk the Woodsman comes crashing through the window.  Cue the police, who tape off the area and start interrogating the various suspects.  Fortunately, Nicky Flippers happens to be walking along.  He’s a frog who has a knack for solving crimes.  He starts asking the right questions.

Nicky starts with Red, who works for Granny.  Granny runs a successful snack business.  Red had just found out about the Goodie Bandit, who has been stealing recipes.  Fearing for Granny, Red took the recipe book to Granny’s house, only to have several issues.  This includes meeting Mr. Wolf and Twitchy.  She manages to  lose Wolf and make it to Granny’s, only to find Wolf impersonating Granny.

Nicky then interrogates Wolf, Nick and Granny in that order.  Each interrogation adds more detail to the overall story.  (For instance, Wolf is actually a reporter, with Twitchy being his photographer/assistant.)  After Nicky is done asking questions, some secrets come out, but not the identity of the Goodie Bandit.

The use of the Riding Hood tale was unnecessary.  I get that retelling classic stories has almost become a genre unto itself, but that doesn’t mean you need to do it yourself.  It doesn’t really add anything to the plot.  Sometimes, it’s done with the intent of showing what really happened, either figuratively or literally.  Some characters, like Sherlock Holmes, were based on real people.

Some cases may use the characters to give a sense of back story.  It’s not intended as a direct sequel to the story, but rather to use the story to let us fill in details.  When SyFy did a miniseries based on The Wizard of Oz, we knew the story of Dorothy and The Wizard.  We could see comparisons between the new characters and the old.  The new story is written around the old one.

Here, we’re using the characters in name only.  You could have generated new characters and basically told the same story.  Using fair-tale characters doesn’t add anything new except maybe the chance for a throwaway joke or two.

And then, there’s the animation.  It’s not at all like anything that I’ve seen before.  This might put off anyone that’s new to CGI.  I got used to it pretty quickly, but others might not be so fortunate.  (At least with the animation, you can take a look at a trailer to know what to expect.)

I’d say that it’s low budget, but the movie at least has some recognizable names behind the animated faces.  (Anne Hathaway voices Red while Glenn Close voices Granny.)  Even with this, the actors aren’t necessarily recognizable.  I’ve seen David Ogden Stiers in enough roles that I would recognize such a distinctive voice.  It wasn’t until I started looking up the movie that I realized who it was.  If you skipped this movie, you could be forgiven.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Dark Signal (2016)

Laurie Wolf is not a happy woman.  She’s looking for a job, as she was recently terminated by a radio station.  In fact, she’s going in to do her last show.  Her technician, Ben, has invited Carla Zaza on the show.  Laurie isn’t thrilled, as Carla is a psychic.  She wants to play her own play list and just finish out her time.  (Ben eventually convinces her, as letting Carla on would anger the station’s management.)

We also have Ben’s friend, Kate.  Kate would go for the final airing of Laurie’s program except that she has to help Nick.  Nick tells Kate that he’s going to collect money from some rich guy who won’t pay up.  All Nick needs Kate to do is sit in the car and maybe get rid of anyone who shows up.  It sounds sketchy, but Kate needs the money for her son.

All of this sounds easy enough, even with a serial killer out there on the loose.  Wouldn’t you know, things go sideways.  Carla apparently makes contact with a spirit.  Laurie is skeptical at first, thinking that Carla and Ben are playing some joke, but they try again, getting better results as they go on.

Even Kate has her scary moments.  A man knocks on the window of her car and offers to help her out.  Kate tries to get rid of him, eventually telling him that her boyfriend noticed some escaped livestock on a neighboring property.  She knows that Nick is withholding information.  If that’s not enough, he stops answering his phone.  Oh, and there’s one too many faces in Kate’s selfie.  (That’s not even the scary part.)

I’ve never really liked scary movies, per se.  I’m not the kind of person that likes scares.  Those that aren’t scary tend to be hokey, so it’s nearly impossible for me to win.  However, I wanted to watch a scary movie or two in anticipation of a possible Halloween rush.  I’m not even really certain what I expected here.  Part of it was that I recognized the actor playing Ben, Gareth David-Lloyd from Torchwood.

I think part of it is that it’s not quite a thriller and not quite a horror movie.  It has supernatural and paranormal elements, but not to the point that it’s a true paranormal movie.  There’s not a real mystery element, either.  The serial killer is mentioned early in the movie and all but forgotten about until the end of the movie for the big reveal.  Instead, we get a few mild scares that you can sort of see coming.

This is kind of like a campfire story you might tell your friends.  It’s entertaining, but it’s not the kind of thing you watch if you were looking for big frights.  It’s more like the supernatural and horror elements are simply plot elements.  This isn’t to say that it’s bad.  I don’t recall ever being bored with the movie.  With a little reworking, it might even resemble a decent Twilight Zone episode.

The other thing is that there are two stories that don’t really work well together.  It’s like it came from two separate stories that couldn’t quite hold their own as a movie.  We get the sense that they’ll both come together, but there’s no real need for that.  Had these stories been done as part of a TV series, each could have worked separately.

It’s kind of hard to place this film with an audience.  It’s not the kind of film that’s meant to give you nightmares unless you’re frightened very easily.  Then again, it’s hard for me to judge someone’s tolerance for scares if I’m not meeting them face to face.  Those that don’t like horror are probably going to stay away from this and I don’t blame you.  It’s still maybe something you’d want to avoid right before bed.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

13 Demons (2016)

Many years ago, back when Dungeons & Dragons first started, people didn’t seem to understand it.  Younger people seemed to like playing it and older people seemed to read something sinister into the game.  There were implications that it was satanic or caused suicide.  At some point, there was a rumor that people that played it had detached themselves from reality, either before or after starting the game.  Like autism and vaccines, there was no causal link.  Dungeons & Dragons had not loosened anyone’s grip on reality as far as anyone could prove.

13 Demons takes its plot from that basic premise.  What if there were a game that could somehow cause people to think that they were living the campaign?  Three friends start playing a game called 13 Daemons.  The basic rules are what you’d expect of such a game.  Each player moves a token around a board per several arbitrary rules.  (You’re not allowed into red areas unless you roll a certain number.)  The game has a strange smell, further compelling the friends to do something else.  They do eventually get into the game, only to go further down the rabbit hole.

We know that they go all the way because the movie starts in a police station with two of the friends being interrogated.  I’ve always hated that plot device because it either means that the movie is giving away the ending or its setting us up for some strange twist of events that let the characters get out of their mess.

In this case, knowing the history of role-playing games, I don’t expect the main characters to be that smart.  They’re all stoners that don’t seem to have much else to do.  In their first session, they play the game straight through until morning, possibly longer.  Over several weeks, they really get into the game.  They do eventually have their psychotic break in the form of a strange laser show.  A news report implies that they may have killed someone, an assumption backed up by the police interrogation.

Most of the movie takes place in the one room.  We don’t even know if it’s the parents’ basement or if one of them somehow managed to hold a job long enough to get their own place.  This leads me to another problem I had with the movie:  We don’t really develop a bond with any of the characters.  They’re all losers and we basically go into the movie expecting them to kill someone.  Granted, marathon sessions aren’t unheard of, but you’d think one of them would mention needing to get to work or to procure some food.

There’s no reason for us to develop any empathy for the characters.  The whole thing is like some cautionary tale your mother might tell you when you first show an interest in such games.  Is the writer trying to show how silly the whole thing is?  Is this what parents believe will happen to their children if they get into the dark, evil world of D&D?  Or is it written by someone who thought they could make a decent movie out of it?  It’s implied that the cause of the mental break was mold or some other actual agent.  However, the three friends are no less delusional and the game was no less banned several decades ago.

You don’t see many of the murderous acts, but this is not a movie for children.  It’s evident what’s going on, at least to an adult.  At the very least, a small child would probably be confused by the movie, especially if they have no concept what an RPG is.

The funny thing is that this kind of movie is what I had hoped to specialize in here.  It’s the kind of movie that’s bad, but not so bad that I can’t sit through the whole thing.  Keep in mind, though, that I’ve managed to make my way through a lot of bad movies.  I watched Abraxas: Guardian of the Universe.  I watched Future War and Star Crystal.  I even sat through Winterbeast.  This isn’t quite like any of those, but it’s still bad.  I’m actually debating over whether or not I should put this on a ten-worst list.  If I have a need for a specialized list, like Ten Movies in  Need of a Massive Rewrite, this would make the list.

That’s seriously all it needs.  The effects and the acting are at least passable.  I can forgive a low budget.  (IMDb reports that this one had a budget of $1,000,000.)  However, this looks like the theatrical version of a homework assignment rushed at the last minute.  This movie is a short 1:20.  A little more meat and we might have had something.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

American Fable (2016)

Sometimes, we find ourselves with a difficult choice.  The correct option isn’t always immediately evident. Gitty, an 11-year-old girl, finds herself in that situation when she finds a man in a silo.  The silo happens to be on her family’s property.  The man is named Jonathan.  He’s well dressed and wants help, but is hesitant to let Gitty get her father, Abe.

What’s she to do?  The easiest solution is to find the key for the lock and to get some books.  She can’t find the correct key, despite bringing with her any key she can find.  She does get some books from the library, which she leaves for Jonathan to read.  They spend the next several weeks talking to each other.  We initially assume, correctly, that Abe is involved with Jonathan’s captivity.

You might wonder why she doesn’t get help.  I still wonder that.  Martin may be her brother, but he’s still a major jerk, for lack of a more-polite term, so he can’t be trusted.  She finds out that the family farm isn’t as safe as Abe had been letting on.  Her parents are maybe not the best option, either.  She at least brings food to Jonathan and keeps him company until Martin finds out about it.

By this point, little is done, although we know she has options.  Gitty has rope to get herself in and out of the silo, although no attempt is made by Jonathan to get out this way.  She eventually finds an axe, although no attempt is made earlier in the film; only when it’s imperative that Jonathan get out.  She also makes no attempt to use the axe on the outside of the door, which would be easier than the inside.

The situation reminds me a joke about a preacher who finds himself surrounded by rising water.  Before the flooding begins, the area receives several warnings over TV and radio, which he hears.  Convinced that God will protect and save him, he stays.  As the waters start to rise, a man in a canoe comes by and offers to take the preacher to safety.  Again, the preacher is convinced that God’s protection is all he needs.  After the waters have driven the preacher to the roof, a helicopter comes along and offers to take the preacher away.  Again, the preacher refuses, adamant that God will rescue him.

The preacher subsequently dies and ascends to the pearly gates.  When he meets St. Peter, the preacher demands to speak with God right away.  The preacher asks why God did nothing to save the preacher’s life.  God responds, “What are you talking about?  I sent you a warning, a canoe and a helicopter.  What more did you want?”

It’s stated that Jonathan and Gitty have spent several weeks getting to know each other.  I can’t believe that she made no attempt to get Jonathan out.  She could easily have called for help, either by phone or through several other characters we see.  There’s that old gimmick of sending a letter that never gets sent or is somehow misdirected.  We don’t even get that.

The problem is very subdued.  Neither Gitty nor Jonathan seems to be distressed by the situation.  Ok. So the movie is called American Fable.  Maybe there’s supposed to be some sort of allegory going on.  I would take several issues with this characterization.  First, a fable tends to have all sorts of mystical elements, like talking animals.  The movie had none of that, despite what the description may have said.  Second, fables tend to have an obvious moral lesson.  American Fable was almost the opposite.  I didn’t really know what I was supposed to get from this.  Am I to assume that not liberating Jonathan was the correct thing to do?  Is it even fair to put this choice on the shoulders of a child?  The movie didn’t really deal with any of this.  Yes, the farm is relatively isolated, but there were other things she could have tried.

My biggest problem is that I started seeing the plot holes rather than the story itself.  For instance, Gitty kept bringing Jonathan things.  It’s hard to imagine that no one in her family noticed.  Granted, she was probably taking stuff back with her, but she probably left the books for Jonathan to read.  One would assume that either Abe or someone else would have checked in on Jonathan and noticed the books or some other item that Gitty had left.

For that matter, I don’t think it was explicitly stated whether or not Abe was feeding Jonathan.  Abe was working with someone else, so it’s possible that there was a miscommunication, but Jonathan might have starved without Gitty’s intervention.  She’s not bringing him snacks.  She’s bringing stuff like bread and water, for which Jonathan seems grateful.

As for the library books, Gitty states that she has them for two weeks.  If I’m interpreting the timeline correctly, Jonathan has them for about that long or maybe longer.  (There was a line where Jonathan says, “These past few weeks” to  Gitty.)  No mention is made of Gitty trying to get them back to the library or the library calling about them.   This would have made a great way for Gitty to be found out.

I did enjoy the movie, but it required a small amount of suspension of disbelief.  The entire kidnapping aspect seemed too easy and too underplayed.  The entire movie is understated to the point that it almost seems implausible.  We even have a final scene that seems to throw on a level of ambiguity.  Upon seeing the final scene, I could only wonder what it was that I had just watched.

Monday, October 16, 2017

O Menino e o Mundo/The Boy and the World (2013)

Cuca is a young boy.  He lives on what appears to be a farm with various animals to play with.  Also present are his parents.  One day, his father leaves on a train to find work, which understandably upsets Cuca.  He eventually tries to see where his father went only to end up being rescued by an old man.  The man picks cotton for a living, but is eventually sent home when he’s too sick to work.  Cuca then travels some more and sees people working in a factory.  Cuca gets to see the city and all its many residents, but seems to stick to one resident in particular.  Cuca has an epic adventure, witnessing parades and even a battle between musically generated birds.

When I first started watching the movie, I was a little worried because I couldn’t see the captions.  I knew the language wasn’t English, but I wasn’t sure if the captions weren’t working of if I couldn’t see them against the white background.  It turned out that what little dialogue the movie had was reversed Portuguese.  Instead, the movie relies on it’s distinctive animation style to tell the story.  There is a little bit of live action towards the end of the movie, which fortunately isn’t that distracting.

There’s also a lively soundtrack with many of the notes being represented by little dots of color.  (This is how we end up with a fight between the two birds.)  With most movies, the music is in the background.  Here, it’s almost like a companion for Cuca, who uses a particular tune to remember his father as much as he uses a picture of him and his parents.

During the opening credits, I saw Gkids.  I almost shut it off until I realized that children’s movies aren’t off limits.  I’ve enjoyed lots of animated movies that were probably meant for children.  The movie has a PG rating in the United States, but there’s very little that would be inappropriate for children.  I think the worst of it might be the son being separated from his father for most of the movie.  Cuca has a sense of adventure and wonder, but there are times when despair shows through.  Things are simple at home, but become more complicated when more people are around.  It’s easy to become lost in a crowd.

I’m glad I stuck around to watch the end.  I would say that overall, it’s an upbeat movie.  It has its moments of distress, but what good story doesn’t?  What kind of movie would we have had if Cuca had just stayed on the farm?  If anything, it probably would have been a short one.  The fun of the movie comes in seeing Cuca react to and deal with his new environments.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Powers of Ten (1977)

The new Philip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science opened a few months ago.  Back before it moved to its current location, it was located right at the southern end of I-95.  I remember going there as a child a lot.  One of the things I remember was this dark room with a film called Powers of Ten, made by Charles and Ray Eames.

The concept is simple.  It starts out in  Soldier Field in Chicago with a couple having a picnic.  The filed of view is a square with text on either side.  On the left shows the distance, vertically, in numbers.  (We start with a square one meter by one meter.)  On the right side is the same information, horizontally, in powers of ten.  (Instead of 1 meter across, it’s shown as 100 meters.

The narrator explains that as we zoom out, the distance across the square increases by one power of ten every ten seconds, so that after one second, we’re at 10 meters, then 100 and so on.  After a few minutes, we make it to 1024 meters, which makes our entire galaxy no more than a distant point of light.  We then zoom back in reducing a power of ten every 2 seconds until we’re back to 1 meter across.  We then work inward until the field of view is 10-16 meters across.

The entire film is a short 9 minutes, but it imparts the sense of scale quite well.  We go form a normal size to a very vast scale, then down to a very small scale.  The movie was made in 1977, which probably would have made for a smaller upper and lower limit, but it’s still pretty vast.  The last few lines of the narration point out that the film covers 40 orders of magnitude.  It’s a bit much to comprehend, even after watching the movie.

While I grew up watching the film a lot, I don’t recall many other children mentioning it.  In fact, I only recall having a conversation about it once where the other kid mistook the narrator’s voice for the voice of Winnie the Pooh.  (To be fair, Phil Morrison does sound like the voice from the Disney films, but I don’t think he ever actually voiced the character.)  The web comic xkcd did reference it once, which I would take to mean that the film has a certain amount of prominence.  However it’s not the kind of thing I’d expect to see on TV or even on Netflix.  (You can rent this film as part of a DVD set, but I don’t think you can get it streaming.   I have seen it on YouTube, though.)

It’s worth noting that there was an earlier version, released in 1968.  I haven’t seen this one yet, although I imagine it might also be available through YouTube.  I have seen both offered on one DVD through Amazon, so I know that both versions are available.

I still think of this short every so often and go to watch it on YouTube.  Maybe one day, I’ll get around to purchasing it on Amazon.  I wonder if it was carried over to the new science museum.  If I ever get the chance to visit, I’ll have to check it out.

Official site (Eames Office)

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon? (2001)

There are a lot of different conspiracy theories.  One holds that the Earth is flat.  Another would have us believe that Elvis didn’t die of an overdose.  There’s no shortage of theories surrounding the assassination of John F. Kennedy.   One of the more prevalent is that we didn’t really land on the moon.  Instead of sending astronauts to our only natural satellite, NASA sent three people up only to bring them back down and subsequently broadcast footage from a soundstage.

This so-called documentary is sort of a primer on all of the evidence people bring up when trying to support the claim of a hoax.  For instance, there are no stars in the background of any of the pictures.  If you’ve ever tried to take a picture at night, you may or may not get stars, mostly because stars require a longer exposure to show up.  NASA had the exposures set low, meaning that stars weren’t going to show up.  Another claim is that details can be seen on surfaces that fall in a shadow.  Any good photographer knows how to play with the settings to get this effect, with or without additional light sources.

I don’t really want to go into all of the evidence people use to call the moon landing a hoax.  There are sites that can go into greater detail and list everything.  I’d be here all day responding to everything.  Instead, I want to focus more on the actual program.  As I said, it’s more of a few basic questions the producers would have you ask.  Some of these come from a lack of understanding of things like physics.  For instance, why would a flag wave in an environment that lacks an atmosphere to blow it around?  While planting the flag, the astronaut imparts momentum.  The lack of an atmosphere means that there’s nothing to stop the flag from moving around.

Some of it is convincing at first glance.  It’s pointed out that several pictures have crosshairs that aren’t fully visible.  People have taken this to mean that photos were altered.  This is explained as the emulsion bleeding between two highly contrasting colors.  Another point is made that two mountains are very similar, despite being several miles apart.  This could be a trick of the eye.  The lunar surface doesn’t have the same variation Earth does.  Very similar doesn’t mean the same.

The thing is that there’s never been any hard evidence.  There were hundreds of thousands of people involved in the mission, either directly or indirectly.  It’s also been almost fifty years.  You’d think someone would have noticed something revealing.  Someone would have come forward and said something.  Given the scope of the mission, there would be something incontrovertible.

I’ll admit that absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence.  Is it possible that the mission was faked?  I can’t prove otherwise.  However, I don’t think this documentary was meant to persuade anyone.  It seems more like it’s meant to pander to those who already believe it.  Instead of presenting something convincing, we’re instead asked how to explain what many people would perceive as an inconsistency.  (It‘s along the lines of, “Oh, yeah? Well, how do you explain this?”)   The fact that any evidence is so easily refuted would have me side with NASA not having faked the moon landing.