Saturday, August 19, 2017

The Matrix Reloaded (2003)

WARNING:  I give away major details about the movie here.  If you haven’t seen it and don’t want the movie spoiled, you may want to wait before reading.

I’ve found that there is a direct correlation between the quality of a sequel and the proximity of planning of said sequel to the writing of the original material.  There are exceptions to the rule.  Back to the Future was planned as a one-off movie, although the sequels were done well.  (This did give rise to a few issues, like Jennifer being brought along for the ride, despite there not being much room for her in the DeLorean nor there being much for her to do.)  When the first Matrix ended, we were left with a bit of a cliffhanger.  We know that Neo is supposed to fulfill a prophecy, but we don’t know much about it.

Here, we get all the details.  The movie takes place six months after the original.  Morpheus, Neo and Trinity are awaiting word from The Oracle.  Agent Smith, who had been destroyed at the end of the first movie, is back and he has a new ability.  He sends Neo a message in the form of his earpiece, indicating that he’s no longer an agent of the system.  When Neo meets The Oracle, Neo realizes that she’s a program, herself.  She also confirms that Smith refused to be deleted, making him a rogue program.

It’s Neo’s mission to find The Source, as in where The Matrix came from. To do this, he has to find The Keymaker, who is held by the Merovingian.  The Merovingian doesn’t want to let The Keymaker go, leading to an epic battle.  The Keymaker is able to give Neo the necessary key before dying.  This allows Neo to meet The Architect, the one that designed the Matrix in the first place.

It’s revealed that there have been other iterations of The Matrix.  The early ones were unsuccessful.  The version seen in the movie was stumbled upon by accident.  It’s nearly perfect with the only flaw being a cumulative set of errors resulting in The One.  It is the purpose of The One to prevent a catastrophic failure of the system.  When the time comes, The One will return to The Source, allowing his code to be used to reboot the system.  (Neo is the sixth such failsafe.)

The Architect gives Neo a choice:  Return to The Source and save humanity or go back to the Matrix and allow the system (and, with it, humanity) to crash and burn.  Neo, of course, returns to the Matrix to save Trinity.  He tells Morpheus of what he’s learned.  The only hope to save humanity now is to destroy the machines en route to destroy the liberated human population.  Alas, that’s for the third movie.

The movie is, for the most part, an action movie.  While it does advance the mythology considerably, much of the story is spent on fighting.  (For instance, Neo has to take on several dozen copies of Agent Smith.)  It’s really this that I found a little odd.  The sole purpose of The One is to reset The Matrix.  Why make it difficult for him?  You might say that The Merovingian is fighting to get The Keymaker back, but The Merovingian comments on having to fight Neo’s predecessors, meaning that this is probably part of the plan.

It’s necessary for Neo to return his code to The Source.  I don’t know if he can do this if he’s dead, so why use deadly force?  The only explanation is something that The Oracle’s guardian said: You never really know someone until you fight them.  Had Neo not been the one, it wouldn’t have mattered.

For that matter, why kill The Keymaker?  Wouldn’t he be necessary for the next Neo?  I suppose that another Keymaker could be created.  As The Oracle said, programs get replaced all the time.  Still, why make it difficult?  If The Keymaker had died before making the key for Neo, Neo would have no way to meet The Architect and presumably return to The Source.  If Neo had died in battle, there’s no guarantee that he would be of any use in rebooting the system.

One big question, though:  How did humans survive deep under the Earth’s surface?  It’s got to be pretty hot there.  Furthermore, if the machines can dig that deep, can’t they access and utilize the heat from the Earth’s core?  Wouldn’t that be easier?  I know I’m not the first to point out the inefficiency of using humans as batteries.  Being that Neo is the sixth One, this means that the machines have probably had several hundred years to find and implement a better method of getting energy.

It’s still a good movie.  I feel like that annoying kid that keeps raising questions.  The movie is meant to be an story about man versus machine.  There are bound to be issues, some of which resolve themselves.  Like some machines, maybe they’re even necessary.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Dead Again (1991)

Wouldn’t it be great if you could get the details of a 40-year-old murder by talking to the victim?  Mike Church is about to stumble in to just such a case.  A woman finds her way to an orphanage run by Catholics.  She’s mute with the sole exception of screaming when she has nightmares.  Father Timothy won’t let the woman stay, but knows just the guy to handle it: Private Detective Mike Church.  Father Timothy lays on the guilt and Mike accepts.

Mike takes her back to his place for the time being and starts calling her Grace.  He has his friend, Peter, to run her picture in the newspaper along with his contact information.  An antiques dealer named Franklyn approaches him soon after, claiming to be an amateur hypnotist.  Mike says up front that he can’t pay, but Franklyn says he’ll do it in hopes that her loved ones might.  Under hypnosis, Grace recounts her life in the 1940s.  We see a couple, Roman and Margaret, who bear a striking resemblance to Mike and Grace.  (Mike and Roman are both played by Kenneth Branagh whereas Grace and Margaret are both played by Emma Thompson.)

Grace recounts the Roman and Margaret meeting through work.  She played in an orchestra and he was a guest conductor.  They eventually married and live in his house where he was working on an opera.  She was killed one day with him as the prime suspect.  It comes as no surprise that he was convicted, as this is revealed early in the movie.  (The movie starts with headlines to that effect.)

Mike wants a second opinion on the whole thing.  Past lives sound a little crazy to him, so he meets with Cozy Carlisle.  Cozy used to be a psychiatrist until he was caught sleeping with a patient.  He’s able to tell Mike that past lives are a real thing and that karma can be cruel.  What we do in our past lives can haunt us in the present one.  We may be doomed to forever suffer the consequences of our past misdeeds.

Since this is a thriller and the suspense is a good part of the movie, I’m not going to give you any of the twists and turns.  I will say that the buildup takes up a good part of the movie.  We spend a lot of time hearing the story of Margaret and Roman and their life together.  Even under hypnosis, Grace doesn’t remember her current identity; Peter finds her information late in the movie.

The movie does require suspension of disbelief.  We have a hypnotist that can send people back to past lives.  Even the psychiatrist believes; he cured a patient by finding a hundred-something-year-old trauma.  At least it doesn’t seem forced.  The movie is able to use it effectively.  I’ve always thought that using the same actors for the past lives was a bit odd.  Even if we accept reincarnation, what are the odds that you and your spouse will both look the same in the next life?  With only two reincarnated characters, it wasn’t really necessary.

It’s definitely a 1990s movie.  The tone and plot are about what you would find in other movies released around that time.  There were a few aspects that I thought were over the top, but it was overall a good movie.  Fans of Seinfeld will recognize Wayne Knight as Peter.  I instantly got a feeling that that Franklyn, played by Derek Jacobi, looked familiar,   Sure enough, he was Professor Yana on Doctor Who.   I was able to watch the movie when my parents rented it from Netflix.  I’m not sure I would have rented it myself, but it is something I might have watched streaming.  If you’re into the whole past-life murder-mystery thing, I’d say go for it.

IMDb page

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Phenomenon (1996)

George Malley is an ordinary man.  He has a job as a mechanic and has trouble understanding how a rabbit keeps getting in his garden.  The night of his 37th birthday, George sees a bright light approach and engulf him.  He gets knocked to the ground, but appears unhurt.  In fact, he’s able to beat someone at chess.  That night, while lying awake, he figures out his rabbit problem.

George is able to read and retain increasing amounts of information.  He learns Spanish quickly, for instance.  He builds an engine that runs on (and smells of) manure.  He learns functional Portuguese in 20 minutes so he can help find a boy.  He even cracks a code used by the government, which gets him in trouble.  It comes at a terrible cost, though, and I’m not just talking about being ostracized.

The movie is a cross between Forrest Gump and The Twilight Zone.  It’s not too heavy on the science-fiction aspect.  It’s not really explained how he’s able to do stuff like telekinesis.   everyone attributes it to the aliens that George saw, but George insists that he never said anything about aliens.  Even with the learning, there’s not so much as a mention of the 10%-of-your-brain myth.  His abilities just grow.

Instead, the movie is more about the relationships.  His friend, Nate, is also interrogated when the FBI brings George in.  George’s cracking that code was impressive and the government wants to tap that ability, but George wants no part of it.  Instead, he wants to go home.   He wants to go back to his repair shop.  International espionage isn‘t really his thing.  When he gets back to the repair shop, George finds that Hell really is other people.  Since they won’t come by, he can only imagine what they must think of him.

This is one of those movies that I kind of forgot about after it first came out.  It’s not the kind of thing I would see on the basic-cable channels.  If it hadn’t come on Netflix, I might have gone anther ten or twenty years without watching it.  I think the problem is that it tries to appeal to two audiences without doing either really well.  It’s not pure science fiction and it’s not anywhere close to what I would expect with romance.

It almost seems like someone’s idea for a TV show that couldn’t quite make it a full season.  This is the kind of story I could see spending the pilot episode on George fixing up his farm.  We could have an episode or two dealing with the espionage angle.  We could have one about the earthquake.  Instead, the movie tries to pack all these amazing feats into a two-hour film.

It was entertaining the first time, but that was because you didn’t know what to expect.  Once the story has played out, there’s no replay value other than to pass the time.  I might watch it again in a decade or two, if we’re still using streaming.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Hidden Figures (2016)

A lot of things happened before I was born.  I’ve always known small computers that could do calculations at a rate impossible for a human.  Before iPhones, there were machines that would fill a room.  Before those machines were human calculators like Katherine G. Johnson.  She, along with Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, worked for NASA when NASA was trying to put a man in orbit.

Everyone knows John Glenn.  He’s the man that America put into orbit.  Not everyone knows the team that put them there.  There were buildings of scientists trying to figure out the math necessary to not only put John Glen in orbit, but get him back safely.

There was a very narrow window with which they had to work.  Too steep and angle and he’d burn up on reentry.  If his descent was too gradual, he’d bounce off the atmosphere and go back into space.  There was also the issue of making sure he landed in the ocean.  Given the magnitude of what they were doing, the smallest of errors could be catastrophic.  This is assuming they can even figure out the math necessary to do the calculations in the first place.

Being that the movie is based on historical events, I’m not ruining anything by stating that John Glenn completes his mission safely.  Being that it’s a movie, I don’t think I’m giving away anything by stating that some liberties were taken.  Yes, Glenn specifically requested that Johnson be the one to verify the computer’s calculations.  Word is, though, that this was actually done well before his mission.  You don’t risk someone’s life like that unless you’re certain.

The movie isn’t so much about the history that everyone knows.  It’s about the people that never really got the credit that they deserved.  Johnson was both a woman and a person of color when culture didn’t favor either.  It still doesn’t necessarily favor either, but the movie shows Johnson having to run to a separate building to use the ladies’ room.

Jackson wanted to become an engineer, but had to go to court just to be allowed to take the courses necessary to even be considered.  Likewise, Vaughn was trying to become a supervisor.  She was already doing the work of a title that she was repeatedly denied.  She also saw the writing on the wall when the IBM computers were being installed.  She took it upon herself to learn FORTRAN for the job security.  (She also took it upon herself to get the machines working.)

All three women have to go above and beyond just to get noticed.  They are all fortunate to have superiors that eventually listen to reason, or at least recognize that the women are correct.  Vaughn might not have been taken seriously had she not actually gotten the computers to actually work.

The movie, like the women, walked a tight rope.  In several scenes, they have to curtail their anger.  Instead of getting mad, they get better.  There are moments when they’re told no, but they’re also eventually told yes.  They do make permanent progress, not only for themselves, but for others.  The one scene that may best exemplify this is Jackson telling a judge that she wants to be the first female engineer, just as he was first in a lot of respects.  The judge is impressed enough to grant her request.

I’d recommend watching it if only to learn who the people were.  I find it odd that it took more than fifty years for a movie to be made about this.  The Apollo and Gemini missions have been shown in film.  Those instances have usually focused on the people who went up into space.  There’s so much more to the story.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Darkman (1990)

When a movie is released straight to video, that’s not a good sign.  What does it say, though, when a movie has a theatrical release, yet spawns sequels direct to video?  Another ominous sign is when main actors and/or  production staff don’t return for the sequels.  Take Darkman.  What little I remembered of it was good.  When I watched it again recently, it was still entertaining.  I’m not sure if I’m viewing it as Sam Raimi envisioned it.

The movie is about Peyton Westlake, a scientist trying to create artificial skin.  It would be great for burn victims to have their face again.  Or any face, for that matter.  Peyton can generate a synthetic version of any face, provided he has pictures of the entire face.  There’s one drawback  The faces last only 99 minutes.  One second longer, and they disintegrate.  He and his assistant come to realize that the synthetic skin is sensitive to light.  It has an indefinite shelf life, provided you keep it in a dark place.  Peyton keeps at it having to use a series of faces isn’t good enough.

Fortunately, his attorney girlfriend, Julie Hastings, is understanding.  She has problems of her own.  She’s found evidence that a developer hasn’t been playing fairly.  That evidence ends up at Peyton’s lab.  Somehow, the developer finds out where it is and burns Peyton’s lab to the ground, leaving Julie to assume that both her boyfriend and her evidence were lost in the fire.

All that was found of Peyton was an ear.  That’s because the rest of him washed up on shore.  With no ID and an inability to speak, he’s labeled John Doe and assumed to be indigent.   He has a brief stay in a hospital, at least in movie time, where we find out that he was experimented on.  The nerve allowing him to feel pain was cut, leading to greater strength.   The emotional toll is too great for any human to bear.  It drives him crazy, setting up the rest of the movie as a revenge story.

Peyton is able to reestablish his lab well enough that he can create a synthetic face for himself from old photos.  He’s also able to impersonate those that wronged him and their associates well enough that he can get back at them.  He visits Julie, but comes to realize that he may not be fit for polite society any more.  (All he wanted was a pink elephant for Julie.)  Will revenge be enough?

The story goes that Sam Raimi wanted a superhero movie, but couldn’t get the rights to an established character.  The solution was to create his own.  Darkman doesn’t have x-ray vision, but he does have increased strength and the ability to change faces 99 minutes at a time.  (I found that odd.  Why exactly 99 minutes?  Is anything in nature that exact?)

It also wasn’t clear how the document get to Peyton’s place.  Maybe I missed it.  I think it’s implied that Julie left it there accidentally.  If so, how was the developer (or his henchman) so certain that Peyton had it?  A lot of the story seems like it’s just there to move the story along.  The evidence is little more than a plot device meant to hurt Peyton.  The explosion and Peyton’s work feed in to the revenge story.

Many of the scenes were very dark.  In one scene, a man is thrown out of a window with the express wish that he enjoy his flight.  This is in addition to people being brutally tortured and killed.  You know how some movies get an R rating and you’re not sure why?  This isn’t one of those movies.  It deserved an R rating.

In that regard, I don’t know how many of the scenes were meant to be humorous.  I’m hesitant to say it’s dark humor because I don’t know if it was intended as such or if I’m just viewing it that way.  The movie was released decades ago, so the context has changed a bit.  I have to wonder what it would look like if it were made today.

Monday, August 14, 2017

The Matrix (1999)

Plato’s cave is an allegory about how perception versus reality.  A group of people facing a wall in a cave can only think in terms of the shadows.  It isn’t until they turn around that the realize what’s going on.  However, people will be reluctant to turn around, as they have no real reason to.  The people in the cave will continue to think in terms of the shadows until they break free.

Likewise, a person living in a computer simulation would have no means by which to conclude that there’s any other reality.  If we were living in a computer simulation, as Elon Musk has said is probable, we would have no means by which to even question a higher existence.   This is the start of the premise for The Matrix.

Thomas A. Anderson, better known as Neo, is a regular guy in a regular job, or so he thinks.  He’s contacted by a group of people who know the truth.  Everything around him is a construct of computers.  It’s all a simulation.  If he takes one pill, he can go back to his normal life and forget everything.  Take the other pill and he can exit the simulation and start to fight it.

Neo takes the second pill and finds himself violently disconnected from the system.  He finds himself on a ship, surrounded in part by the people that rescued him, including Morpheus, who runs the ship, and Trinity.  Most of them have been disconnected from the simulation, although a few were born outside The Matrix.  They mostly fight the system, but also find others to disconnect.

Normally, someone is only disconnected as a child.  Most adult minds can’t handle being separated from The Matrix.  Neo is a special case, as Morpheus believes Neo to be The One, as in the one who can bring down the entire system and free everyone.  It’s a heavy burden to carry, but Neo seems up to the task.  He seems to be able to assimilate most of the training materials in short order.

The hard part is learning that the laws of physics mean nothing in a simulation.  After a while, you can leap between rooftops and run up walls.  This, of course, leads to all sorts of special effects on steroids, a few of which have long since passed into the public awareness.

The movie does seem to be driven mostly by effects, but does have enough of a story to bring them all together.  I was recently looking at some of those basic story lines that are accurate in a very vague sense.  If I had to apply that here, I’d say that it’s a futuristic movie, set in the present, about humanity having been beaten back into the stone age.  This movie sets up the trilogy.  We get an explanation of what happened to humanity that it ended up like this.  We also see Neo’s transformation from an office worker to possible savior of the species.

I should warn those that haven’t seen the movie that it is kind of dark.  It seems like the entire movie was shot at night.  Even the office scenes are somewhat dark.  I’d put the age level in the mid-teens.  High school and up should be able to handle it.  Yes, there is some killing and it’s not pretty.  Consider that the movie is rated R.  To say it’s because of the violence would be an understatement.

One thing that occurred to me is that many of the real people, like Neo and Trinity, seem to use fake names.  I think Neo is the only character to be given what we would consider a real-sounding name.  Likewise, many of the ‘fake’ characters, like Agent Smith, seem to have real-sounding names.   The only exception to this is The Oracle.  If I recall, this holds true more for the first movie than the sequels.  It was just something that occurred to me while watching it recently.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Star Trek: The Next Generation - Episode 152 (Descent: Part 1)

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

Distress calls tend not to be good. When the Enterprise responds to one on Oniaka III, a landing party finds everyone dead. There’s also a mysterious ship in orbit. After a little bit of investigation, Data finds something surprising: a Borg drone. However, these are no normal Borg drones. The Borg are part man, part machine. Normally, drones are part of the Borg collective, directed by the hive mind. They are intent on assimilating individuals and, eventually, entire races. The drones that the landing party encounters on Oniaka III are intent on destroying individuals and actually refer to themselves as ‘I’ and to each other by name. (Drones usually have numerical designations and refer to themselves in the plural.) What’s really bothersome is that Data has an emotional reaction. On Oniaka III, he kills a drone in anger. This is his first reaction of his android life. (If my memory and math are good, Data should be in his early thirties.)

The Enterprise is able to follow the ship through a transwarp conduit. (With a transwarp conduit, they’re able to travel many times the speed that they would be able to normally accomplish with normal warp drive.) When they arrive on the other side, the Borg ship beams two drones over, which allows the Borg ship to escape. One is killed, but the other survives.

Data has himself relieved of duty until he can figure out what caused the emotional reaction. When Data sees Counselor Troi about killing the drone, he asks her if having a negative emotion makes him a bad person. She insists that there is no negative or positive when it comes to emotions. It’s how we react to an emotion that determines our worth. Data also reveals to her that he actually felt pleasure in killing the drone, which worries both of them.

After returning to duty, the first thing Data is assigned to do is to study the surviving drone, who goes by the name of Crosis. Crosis seems to have a power over data. Using some sort of transmitting device, Crosis allows Data to feel emotion. In his moment of weakness, Data helps Crosis to escape. The Enterprise follows them to an uninhabited planet, where almost the entire crew of the Enterprise is beamed down to look for Data, leaving Dr. Crusher in charge of a skeleton crew.

Troi, Captain Picard, Chief Engineer La Forge, and an unnamed officer make up a team that eventually finds a building. Upon entering it, it appears uninhabited, but the lights are on. La Forge can’t find any power sources, despite the lighting, which indicates a dampening field. Before they can discuss it, several dozen Borg drones rush in, surrounding the search party. (And eventually killing the unnamed officer.) An android walks out and Picard thinks it’s Data, but it’s not. It’s actually Data’s brother, Lore. Data walks out a few moments later, telling the search team that he’s joined his brother in leading the renegade Borg. Here ends part one of “Descent”.

Several prior episodes are necessary for full understanding of the episode. The renegade drones are the result of actions taken in the episode, “I, Borg” where the Enterprise found a crashed Borg scout ship with one survivor. Instead of using the survivor as a weapon, they allowed the drone to develop a personality. Picard figured that this would be a better weapon against the collective than any program or virus could be. In this episode, we see the results of that action, although the extent isn’t revealed until the second part. “I, Borg” is referenced a few times, although you probably won’t be able to understand a lot unless you’ve seen it.

Those that view this episode also will need to know who Lore is. Both Data and Lore are androids created by Dr. Noonian Soong. (All three characters are played by Brent Spiner, hence the confusion when Lore walked out.) Lore was given human-like behavior, but wasn’t popular among those that he lived with. He was deactivated and replaced with Data, who was found by Starfleet officers approximately 30 years ago. (He being found by Starfleet officers was what led him to join.) Lore was eventually found by the Enterprise in the first season and reactivated. Lore later stole an emotion chip designed for Data, which is what allowed Crosis to manipulate Data. I think that’s all of the history you’ll need to understand the episode. (I could be wrong, though.)

This was the cliffhanger episode for the sixth season. (Part two is the beginning of the seventh and final season.) We get to see a great performance by Brent Spiner, who has to deal with Data’s emotions for the first time. Data questions his emotions and their role in his personality. What if anger is the only emotion that he’s capable of? If it’s not, what does it mean that anger is the first thing he experiences?

We also get to see Dr. Crusher in command of the Enterprise. Normally, the captain of a starship doesn’t go into dangerous situations. (At least, not in The Next Generation.) However, Picard does beam down to look for Data and is put in harm’s way. From what I’ve read, this was to see how audiences would react to a woman in command of a starship. (I’d like to reference TV Tome for that. You can find a link to it on my profile page.)

Even though I like continuity, it does have its problems. You have to know quite a bit to understand episodes in the later seasons. I wouldn’t recommend making this the first episode of the series that you see. As I said, there’s too much background information. This episode comes at the end of the sixth season. Even knowing what I’ve told you, you may not fully understand the episode.

I did like the episode. This episode, along with part two, ties up a few loose ends. I give it four stars.