Thursday, July 31, 2014

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey

Note:  This review was originally posted to my Epinions account.  
Celebrity often comes at a price.  There are many actors and musicians that can’t walk down the street without being stopped for an autograph.  Occasionally, you have people whose work doesn’t lend itself to being recognized.  Every knows Elmo, especially if you were around in the 1990s.  Unless you watch Sesame Street, you could be forgiven for not knowing that Kevin Clash is the voice and personality behind Elmo.

Being Elmo shows how he started making puppets at age 10, starting with his father’s coat.  This led to a job at a local TV station working a puppet.  He was eventually hired to be on Captain Kangaroo and another TV program.  After both shows were canceled, he got a job on Labyrinth, working with his idol, Jim Henson.  This led to him working on the show that inspired him in the first place:  Sesame Street.

One day, Elmo’s puppeteer was frustrated with the character.  He handed the puppet to Clash, who played around with the concept.  Clash came to the conclusion that Elmo should be all about love and friendliness.  The rest, as they say, is history.

I’m 38.  I haven’t watched Sesame Street in a long time.  I don’t recall what prompted me to add this to my Netflix queue.  I think I may have seen Clash on The Daily Show with John Stewart.  (Several of the scenes in the documentary look familiar, so I’m pretty sure I saw something on TV.)  I’m one of those people that could probably pass any of the show’s current actors and not recognize them, despite the show being so popular.

It is interesting to watch the movie.  Clash grew up wanting to know how the Muppets were made.  Clash could never figure out how to hide the exterior stitching.  (Henson used felt.)  This is someone who knew what he wanted to do and was fortunate enough to meet the right people.

Clash took on a lot of responsibility, meaning his personal life suffered.  He had to make time to see his daughter.  He even filed for divorce.  Interestingly, Clash was accused of inappropriate relationships with minors.  (This was all after the documentary was made.)  From what I can tell, he was cleared of everything and has since come out as gay.  The Sesame Street web site lists him as the puppeteer for Elmo.  (I’m not sure if Clash will be rejoining the show or if he was never taken off the site.)

This is where Netflix’s streaming service is good.  Most of the movies aren’t great, but ones like this are at least interesting.  You don’t realize what a big production the Muppets is.  Seeing one person go from watching the show to being on it and contributing in such a major way is a good way to spend 90 minutes.  Elmo tends to be a love-him-or-hate-him proposition, though.  Either you’re going to be a huge fan or you’re going to dread the next 90 minutes.  (Don’t worry.  They don’t blast his voice that much.)

I’d be interested to know more about what happened in the intervening years.  Even though I’m not sure what will become of Kevin Clash, I don’t think Elmo’s dead.  I could see this documentary maybe getting a sequel one day.  I have to wonder how differently history would have played, though, had Kevin Clash’s father had gotten mad about the coat. 


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

I remember seeing these mock coming attractions for a movie based on Where’s Waldo.  It was pretty clever.  They had Waldo as someone trying to evade several groups like the mob, if I recall.  The police may have been after him, too.  There was even another mock trailer for a movie from someone else based on Minesweeper.  It struck me as odd that you could essentially make a movie from any source material.  (I think the Minesweeper trailer may have been implying that Hollywood was doing just that.)

Then, one day, I saw a trailer for Battleship.  Except this one wasn’t a mock trailer.  It was an actual trailer for an actual movie called Battleship.  I asked myself if it was the same Battleship that I used to play as a kid.  Turns out, it was.  I had to see this just to see what they had done with the premise.  Instead of seeing it in the theaters, I waited for it to come out on DVD.

The most obvious reference to the board game was the name.  Since there were no characters or real plot in the game, most of the rest of the movie is new.  It starts with the announcement of an Earth-like planet being found far, far away.  A signal being sent to the planet in hopes of making friendly contact.  Meanwhile, Alex and Stone Hopper in a bar celebrating Alex’s birthday.  Alex has an interest in the beautiful Samantha.  Alex nearly gets arrested trying to impress her.  Stone gives him the option of joining him in the Navy instead of going to jail, which Alex accepts.  You see, Samantha’s father is an admiral.  This should impress her to no end.

We cut to the present day.  Alex is still a screw-up, but now he’s a lieutenant.  He’s serving aboard the USS John Paul Jones.  Stone is the commanding officer of the USS Sampson.  The two brothers and their respective ships are set to do training exercises with a Japanese ship.  Samantha’s father is there.  He’s the admiral running the training exercises.  While underway, five alien ships show up.  One crashes into a satellite and destroys a good chunk of Hong Kong in the process.  The remaining four end up in the Pacific Ocean not far from the training exercises.

The aliens set up a force field encompassing Hawaii and the surrounding ocean, cutting the Sampson, John Paul Jones and a Japanese ship off from the rest of the world.  Alex is sent over to have a look at one of the alien ships.  When Alex touches the ship, the aliens very quickly destroy the Sampson and the Japanese ship, leaving some survivors.   When Alex makes it back to the John Paul Jones, he finds out that the commanding and executive officers are both dead, leaving him in command.  It’s up to Alex to defend the Earth.

There weren’t many references to the board game that I caught initially.  In fact, Alex points out that actual battleships have been retired.  (The modern-day portion begins on the USS Missouri, a battleship that‘s now a museum.  The three active-duty ships are all destroyers.)  There is one line where someone says something to the effect of, “They’re not going to sink this battleship.”  The aliens also fire something similar to the pegs used in the game.  Other than that, it wasn’t until I started looking at IMDb and other sites that I realized the other references.

I came into the movie not really expecting much.  I knew that the connection to the board game would be thin.  I just had to see what they did with it.  That being said, it was a pretty decent action movie.  What do you think you’ll get from a movie called Battleship?  It’s mostly fighting with the story being about a kid who goes from wasting his talent to leading a crew to victory.

Yes, there were plot holes.   For starters, how did Alex go from getting in trouble at every chance to not only being a lieutenant, but the commanding officer of a ship?  I’ve heard of people being given the choice of military service as an alternative to jail hoping that the service will straighten them out.  Usually, it does.  However, right before the main action, Alex starts a fight with the captain of the Japanese ship, which does not impress Samantha’s father.  In fact, Stone informs Alex that he’ll likely face court-martial upon their return.

It actually surprised me that they used a board game.  It could have gone horribly wrong.  At least with something like a comic book, you have a well-structured universe in place.  This isn’t to say that the movie was spectacular.  The movie seemed to be more a vehicle for the CGI and some in-jokes related to the game.  The movie was at least enjoyable.  There are worse ways to spend 131 minutes.  I’m just not holding my breath for Scrabble:  The Movie.

 Battleship Movie - trailer HD

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Craigslist Joe (2012)

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

My mother told me about Craigslist Joe.  It sounded like a movie that I wouldn’t mind missing, but she thought I would enjoy watching it.  The movie is a documentary about a guy named Joseph Garner.  He sets out one December to see if he can live for an entire month using Craigslist to find everything he needs, including food and lodging.  He even finds the project’s cameraman through Craigslist.  He brings no credit cards or cash and has just the clothes on his back and a laptop.

It’s difficult for him at first.  The first day, it took him almost the entire day to get food and shelter.  Things get a little easier for him.  Once he gets the hang of it, he’s usually able to find lodging.  (He only has to go one night without a bed to sleep on.)  Food ranged from a bag of fruit to home-cooked meals.  He also makes it from the West Coast to the East Coast and back with some effort.

I have to give the guy credit for trying something new.  He wasn’t out to prove anything.  He just wanted to see how kind strangers would be.  Here’s the thing, though.  The cameraman and his equipment are able to fit into a car, but people have to know their being filmed.  I have to wonder how many people offered help knowing they’d be in the movie.  (For that matter, how much are we missing because someone refused permission?)

When posting requests for help or looking for listings, Joe doesn’t seem to mention the cameraman, but it does have to be dealt with at some point.  You don’t see any overtly mean people, which may have to do with mean people not giving permission to be seen on film.  (The worst case is a couple of women that at first refuse lodging, but eventually come back to allow Joe and cameraman to spend the night.)

There’s also a staged feel to it.  There was one scene where they were having trouble getting a car started.  The cameraman stayed out to film the car going away, meaning they had to stop to let him back in.  I also noticed that on IMDb, there are several people that were in other movies.  (One woman had a bit part in Home Alone 2.)  I do think it would have been different if it were done as a hidden-camera type of documentary, although I understand why that couldn’t be done.  There would be too many other issues.

The movie was occasionally entertaining, but the for bulk of the movie, I felt like getting up and walking out.  I think if I had been watching it alone, I would have.  For this reason, I don’t recommend it.  Even at 90 minutes, it seemed way too long.  It came off as a long commercial for all of the wonderful things you can do with Craigslist with few apparent negative aspects.  How easy would it have been to take advantage of the guy? 

IMDb page

Adobe Photoshop Elements 6

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

I take a lot of pictures.  I used to use a lot of different versions of Photoshop and other picture-editing software.  (I used to love to see how many free versions I could get.)  When I started posting pictures to Flickr, I decided it was time to get a paid version.  I knew Photoshop the best, so I decided that I'd buy from them.

I went with Elements because I didn't really need a fancy version.  I needed something that could do color correction and maybe cropping a few pictures as needed.  Most of the free programs I used couldn't do what I wanted.

To give you an example of how little I need, I have an SLR, but I don't even shoot in the RAW format.  I usually shoot in jpeg because I don't really want to spend a lot of time editing photos.  (I'm also limited to 2GB per card, which makes file size a big concern.)

For the most part, Elements does what I need.  I've had problems with the free versions, such as the programs not retaining a lot of the metadata.  Photoshop seems to retain much of the important data, such as which camera the photo was taken with, but doesn't seem to retain lens information.  (I have yet to find a program that retains everything.  It's simply a question of how much and exactly what is lost.)

As for the editing, you can do a quick color balance which seems to work most of the time.  There's also a Smart Fix that allows you to correct several things at once, such as color and contrast.  You can choose any whole percentage between 0 and 100, which gives you a good amount of control.  Sometimes, I'll play around with the actual colors in the picture because the shortcuts don't work, but this is pretty rare.

Cropping is pretty easy.  There's a specific tool you can use which allows you to rotate the crop area and even resize it once you've selected an area.  I find this useful mostly when I'm taking pictures for eBay auctions.  A lot of times, getting just the right crop means having to rotate it a little bit either way until I can get it just where I need it.  I can almost always get it in one crop.

I've rarely run into a problem using Elements.  The only time that this has happened was when I wanted to try something called tilt shift.  This allows you to make a photograph of a full-sized object look like it was a miniature.  Most of the instructions are geared for the full version.  When I try to follow them, there's usually some part of the instructions that either doesn't work or doesn't make sense for my version.  I have yet to find instructions that allow me to do this with Elements 6.

Fortunately, this is the only major limitation I've had with the software.  This is the version you want if you need some software, but don't plan on doing enough that you want to shell out a lot of money for it.  You should be able to find the latest version of Elements for under $100.  If you have any software meant just for viewing photos, keep it.  Photoshop takes a while to load and isn't really meant just for looking at stuff.  For this reason, I still use the photo viewer that came with my computer.

 Adobe Web site

Monday, July 28, 2014

Rubik's Cube Key Chain

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

Rubik’s cube is a very popular toy. It’s spawned all sorts of things including a key chain. The original Rubik’s Cube is a 3 by 3 by 3 cube made up of smaller cubes that rotate around a central mechanism. Each side has a different color. Either you or someone else mixes them up and you have to move them back into the original configuration. This key chain is simply a smaller version of the cube with a key ring attached. (I’ve put a link to the original cube at the bottom of this review if you want more details.)

In school, this was a popular prize to give out for contests. I actually won a few, but I didn’t seem to be able to keep them that long. The problem was overuse. While the cube does work like its larger counterpart, the pieces eventually pop out. You can put them back, but they’ll keep popping back out. I remember ending up with just the central mechanism a few times.

Assuming that the cube stayed together long enough, there was also the problem of the stickers peeling off. When this happens, you’re left with a cube that has six black sides. Sure, you can try to glue the stickers back on, but it’s just not the same.

I don’t think I ever had a Rubik’s key chain that lasted more than a few weeks. Between my using it and the normal wear and tear of being a key chain, it takes a lot of damage. The normal cubes seem to last a while. I guess no one ever figured out how to translate that into a smaller unit.

Still, I had fun with them while they lasted, although I never really used them as a key chain. It was just great to be able to have a Rubik’s Cube that I could carry around with me and occasionally sneak into class. Later, I decided that it would be better to attach it to my backpack and not use it. Doing so would allow the key chain to last longer. (I think I may even have one or two still laying around.)

In retrospect, I think the Rubik’s key chains were meant more for novelty or display than for use.


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

One of the things about having a limited income is that you tend to look for free things.  There’s nothing wrong with getting a book from the library if you can’t afford to pay the $20 to buy it new.  Likewise, if you can find an interesting movie on demand for free or on a cable channel that you’re already paying for, you might as well watch it.  I had heard of Cyborg a long time ago.  I knew that it starred Jean-Claude Van Damme and that involved a cyborg, but that was about it.  When it came on one of the Encore channels, I decided to record it for later watching.

The movie takes place an unspecified amount of time in the future.  Humanity has been all but wiped out by a plague called the Living Death or Walking Death or something.  A man and a woman are sent to New York City from Atlanta to retrieve a cure for the plague.  Shortly after retrieving the data, they’re surrounded by a gang.  She manages to escape.  He’s not so lucky, though.

Enter Jean-Claude Van Damme as Gibson Rickenbacker, who’s basically a gun for hire.  (They’re called slingers.)  He comes across the woman, one Pearl Prophet.  Turns out that she’s the titular cyborg.  She’s been enhanced, although it looks like she’s just a robot.  She’s captured by the gang, who manage to get away from Rickenbacker.  The gang’s leader, Fender Tremulo, wants the cure for himself.  He kind of likes the world the way it is and wouldn’t mind the power he’d get from controlling the cure.

So, off they head to Atlanta.  Rickenbacker meets up with another woman, Nady, who wants to save Pearl and, by extension, the rest of humanity.  Rickenbacker just wants to see Fender dead.  So, off they head to Atlanta, hoping to catch up with Pearl and Fender.  Several fight scenes ensue with Fender and his gang almost all killed.  The threat is eliminated and the day is saved.  Rickenbacker heads back out to help anyone he can.

If you’re not in to fight movies, this one doesn’t offer too much.  Even if you are into fight movies, this movie may not offer too much.  There’s almost no plot except as a backdrop for all the fights.  Most post-apocalyptic movies have some background, however brief, about the decline of humanity.  Here, all we get is how there’s a virus and how the lead bad guy likes it that way.

Also, Rickenbacker and Nady are able to catch up with Fender, even though Fender is on a boat and Rickenbacker is on foot.  Plus, Rickenbacker has to fight some bad guys, further delaying him.  I found it very odd that they were able to get what appears to be an eight- to twelve-hour lead.  Granted, the boat was slow, but I’d think that it would still have an advantage over two people that are walking and not necessarily in a straight line.

The special effects look so bad that I was left wondering if they looked bad even by 1989 standards.  There are a few instances where the use of a green screen was obvious.  In the final fight scene, it looked like Fender was standing, even though he was hanging from a meat hook.  (He should have been slacking.)  It may just be that the film quality has degraded in 20 years, but the movie quality doesn’t look so good.

The movie is marginal at best.  Nothing is really great or horrible.  The writing was among the worst that I’ve seen.  There were parts that were confusing, such as flashbacks explaining Rickenbacker’s past.  We get that Fender tormented Rickenbacker’s loved ones, but it wasn’t immediately clear who survived and who didn’t.  All we get is that Fender is a homicidal pervert who likes to torment people.  You may also notice that many of the names come from guitars.  (Fender and Gibson were the most obvious to me.)

Van Damme was the only actor that I recognized and he’s known more for his fighting than acting.  This was especially evident in this movie.  He looked like he was told to tone it down so many times that he was practically trying to sleepwalk through many of the non-fight scenes.  Fender, on the other hand, is just so darned hyper that he’s about to explode at times.

The movie could have been more interesting if there was more background and information.  Why did Pearl have to go all the way to New York City to retrieve the data?  I would think that something that important would be stored closer to the CDC in Atlanta.  Also, why did she have to be turned into a cyborg?  Even in 1989, we had some concept of portable media.  If it were me,  I would have kept the data very close and in multiple locations if possible. I’d have sent as many teams as I could to get the data from wherever it was so as to avoid everyone being captured.

On that note, why did Fender have to take Pearl all the way back to Atlanta?  I can see that Atlanta would have the production facilities to make and distribute the cure, but you can’t tell me that there was no way for him to at least retrieve the data between NYC and Atlanta, then transmit it back.  The writers could have at least given Fender someone technologically proficient enough to give a weak reason why.  (“Looks like they have a security encryption.  We’ll have to go to Atlanta to get the code.”)

This is one of those movies that if they were playing it while you were waiting for jury duty, you’d probably wish you had brought a book.   I can’t quite bring myself to not recommend it, but I’m going to have to say no just because it’s not really good enough to seek out.  If it comes on TV and there’s nothing else, give it a try.  Otherwise, don’t bother.

Detroit Motor City = Trot To Mediocrity (Detropia movie review)

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

A while ago, my brother and I were talking about Detroit and how it was possible to buy property for $100 or less.  The down side was that you could very well have had to sink six figures into repairing or building a house.  I don’t know how serious he was about doing this.  I think it was just something he was looking at out of passing interest.  However, this was recent enough to be taken as a sign of the city’s current troubles.  Detroit has been on a downhill slide for years now and has filed for bankruptcy.  Well, someone decided to turn a camera to the streets of The Motor City, resulting in Detropia.  It’s not a pretty picture.

The movie starts with the demolition of a house; one of the demolition men saying how there’s no shortage of lists of similar houses.  He finishes one list and goes back for another.  This seems to be the only boom industry in the city.  (Yes, the bailout of the car companies saved millions of jobs, but we may have serious competition from abroad.)  Detroit went from being the fastest-growing city in the world in 1930 to the fastest shrinking city in the U.S. in 2010.

This leaves a big problem for Mayor Bing.  There are a lot of blocks that are either entirely vacant or have just one house.  He wants the residents to consolidate so that services like fire rescue and mass transportation will have an easier job.  The people living in those houses aren’t willing to move, though.  Mayor Bing points out is that there’s not going to be a pot of gold waiting for those that are holding out, but it may not be that easy.  Some of the people have grown up in that area.

There’s also the cost of moving to consider.  There’s the president of a UAW chapter, George McGregor.  He’s shown telling the members that the plant wants to cut wages.  This could mean a loss of $20 to $150 per week, depending on the person’s job.  The workers are hurting so much that one moves to not even vote on it.  (If they can’t afford to stay where they are, how are they going to move?)

Another person featured in the documentary was Tommy Stephens, owner of the Raven Lounge.  He was able to buy a cheap house, for I think $6,000.  (It did look like he was going to have to do some renovation.)  He’s able to hang in there, but a lot of people aren’t.  He was commenting that a lot of the houses on his block were vacant.  One was even set on fire.

I get the impression from this documentary that Detroit is in trouble, but I know that from reading the newspaper.  I think we all know that.  The documentary just shows the level of decay that the city is in.  We get to see an abandoned train station.  There are also gutted apartment buildings that were probably nice at one time.  This is where the movie is interesting to watch, if you’re in to that sort of stuff.

There really aren’t any solutions offered.  Yes, it’s a complicated issue.  It’s not like anyone has some sort of magic wand they can wave over the city to fix everything.  The movie doesn’t really even seem to point at any one cause of the decay.  There’s a sense that your city could be next, but there’s not much to be learned.  It’s not like if you do A, B and C, you’ll go bankrupt.

The movie does also sort of ramble a little bit.  We see clips of the Stephens at work, then going to a car show.  We also see some tourists at a coffee shop and the woman working there thankful that the opera house across the street occasionally sends her customers.  We also see McGregor fielding calls from union members asking if the have a vision (as in eyeglasses) plan, which had to be cut as part of a deal.

The documentary ends with Stephens talking about a hypothetical neighbor’s house being on fire.  He says that if you don’t help put out the fire, your house could be next.  The thing is, how do you put out a fire when you don’t have the tools?  Yes, it’s a complicated issue, but I would have liked to see more.  The movie served as a good starting point, showcasing some of the problems Detroit has, having to worry about services and even having to cut some back.  I’m wondering if there are other documentaries about Detroit out there. 

Saturday, July 26, 2014

For the Bible Tells Me So (2007)

Note:  This review was originally posted to by Epinions account.
I’ve always wondered what the big deal about homosexuality was. There are people out there that think it’s horrible, deviant behavior and equate it with molesting kids and having sex with farm animals. I’m not one of those people. I’m not gay, either, but I decided to watch this movie. Prejudice in all its forms is something that interests me and I wanted to see how people use the Bible to promote their own version of it.

The movie focuses on several people, such as Chrissy Gephardt and Gene Robinson. Robinson, the first openly gay person to be ordained a bishop in the Anglican church, tells how he realized that women did nothing for him sexually and how he knew that he couldn’t tell his friends. Gephardt, the lesbian daughter of Dick Gephardt, talks about how she first realized that she was attracted to women and wanted to be in a relationship with one.

With the Gephardts and the Reitans, the movie also shows what the family went through. Having a gay child may not be the best thing for one’s political career, but Chrissy Gephardt was able to come out and not hurt her father’s career. As for the Reitans, their son was gay and came out, but faced hatred in doing so. His mother actually found someone had written a particular slur in their driveway.

A lot of people need to see this movie, but probably won’t. The trouble with issues like this is that there are so many people that are so entrenched or are so instilled with fear that they won’t watch this movie. Those are the people that most need to see this movie. It’s entirely possible that preachers will keep their congregations from seeing it. Those that hate gays and lesbians will feel so strongly that they’ll believe that there’s no point.

If homosexuality is so obviously wrong, then what’s the harm in watching this documentary? Wouldn’t someone come out of it and still feel that they’re justified? People know that documentaries like this put a face on the groups that people hate. They tell the story of people that are put down simply because they’re one of "them". Our history has always been Us versus Them.

Which brings me back to my original point: Why homosexuality? Many people, including one in the movie have pointed out that shellfish are considered an abomination alongside homosexuality. It’s pointed out in the movie that abomination simply means different, but the point is that you don’t see people picketing Red Lobster with signs saying "God hates shrimp" and "Crayfish = Hell".

Why is homosexuality so hated? I think it’s because people simply need someone to hate. Our history includes all sorts of groups going at each other. Millions of jokes pit man against woman. Blacks, Hispanics, Asians and other ethnic groups have been looked down upon. Catholics and Protestants have been going at it long before I was born. Gays are simply one of many groups that are looked down upon and it‘s not really fair. I would encourage people to watch this movie and really try to understand it. At the very least, it will help you to make an informed decision.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

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

WARNING:  I am going to give away major details about the movie.  Most of these major details are ones that you should see coming, as the movie follows actually history to a certain degree.  However, if you don’t want to have all the details before seeing the movie, you might want to hold off on reading this review.

There seemed to be a lot of interest in Abraham Lincoln at once.  Daniel Day-Lewis starred in a movie called Lincoln, directed by Stephen Spielberg, about the President’s final months in office.  I’ve also seen a few Time special publications about him.  One movie that I found interesting was Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.  The movie roughly follows history.  It seems that many of the major characters were real people, although the move claims that Lincoln hunted and killed vampires around the time he first moved to Springfield, Illinois.

The story goes that his mother was killed by a vampire.  Young Abraham witnesses the murder and seeks revenge as soon as he’s old enough to get a gun and some bullets.  Problem is that it’s not so easy to kill a vampire.  All he does is enrage his mother’s killer, who now turns on her son.  Fortunately, Henry Sturgess saves Lincoln.  Lincoln convinces Sturgess to train him to kill vampires, which he reluctantly does.

He makes Lincoln understand that hunting vampires has to be his only pursuit.  He can’t have friends.  He can’t have family.  He can’t have a life outside of doing what Sturgess tells him to do.  This suits Lincoln just fine until he meets Mary Todd.  He’s able to hunt and kill vampires for a while longer, but eventually proposes to her and they marry.

It turns out that Sturgess has a secret.  Once revealed to Lincoln, he abandons his hunt and goes into politics.  He wants to abolish slavery, but it might come at a price.  The South is home to a lot of vampires and those vampires use slaves as a source of food.  Take away slavery and they may revolt.  When Lincoln becomes president, the South splits, eventually leading to the Civil War.

Vampires don’t hold political office, but they do contribute money to make sure their interests are protected.  They even enlist in the war, as they have a better survival rate than normal humans.  Lincoln does have a few tricks up his sleeve and is able to defeat the vampires and win the war.

As I said in the warning, the movie uses history as a guide.  The movie is not meant to be historically accurate to the last sentence.  It’s more like different motives are assigned to historical characters.  It should come as no surprise that the South goes to war with the North.  It should come as no surprise that the North wins.  The surprise comes in how the North does it.  There is some suspense in how.  These are the details I don’t want to give away.  (In the last few minutes of the movie, Mary Todd Lincoln is calling to her husband that they’re going to be late to the play.)

I figured that the movie was going to be one of those stories about how you didn’t know all these things about our 16th president.  It was more of an alternate history where vampires exist.  Yes, they’re kept hidden from people and use large amounts of sunscreen to go out in daylight.  Still, the main draw of the movie is the action sequences.  There’s one where Lincoln is fighting a vampire in the middle of a horse stampede.   In another, Lincoln and his allies are fighting many vampires.  Both sequences are very well done.  I’d say both are worth renting the movie for if you’re into action movies.

The movie is definitely worth watching.  This was one of those movies I wanted to see, but not enough to pay full price for it.  The movie was released in 3D, which would probably have been worth it.  It’s just that I’m not working full time right now and have to make choices.  I’d rather get the 2D version from Redbox with a free code than pay to see it in 3D.  I just wish that more movies would release the 3D version on DVD.  (I guess it’s too difficult to distribute special glasses with the movie.) 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A Day Without A Mexican

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

I had heard about this movie when it first came out, although I don’t think that it ever got much publicity. A Day Without a Mexican is a movie about what might happen if everyone of Hispanic descent disappeared from California. In the movie, a mysterious fog surrounds the state, cutting off any access to the outside world. Around that time, any Hispanic person disappears. This causes the economy to shut down.

No one has any idea what happened or where they went. A comedian jokes that his burrito is missing. Someone else holds up a sign for his missing Chihuahua. An expert notices that sombreros are shaped a lot like flying saucers and concludes that when we say ‘aliens’, we’re actually talking about aliens from outer space.

There is hope, though; one Hispanic woman remains. She allows herself to be tested in the hopes that something might be found that could bring everyone back. Meanwhile, the economy is in shambles since there isn’t anyone to pick fruit, clean houses, or do any of the other support jobs that are needed.

The movie gets its name from the fact that people in California use ‘Mexican’ to refer to all Hispanics. Ihave noticed that a lot of people don’t seem to have much respect for nationalities other than their own until they go missing. (There’s a senator with an aide that notes that hating immigrants got him elected to senator. Now, loving them may get him elected president.)

The one big problem with the movie is that it relies very heavily on one subject and that subject is showing how important one group of people is to California and, by extension, the rest of the nation. The movie is funny in a lot of places and it only drags in a few places. However, there’s this big focus on just one topic.

I found it hard to believe that there were so many people that were left that helpless. Yes, I know. I’m being naive here. If that many people disappeared from one area, a lot of people would be in serious trouble. You have to admit, though, that the few examples shown were a bit exaggerated.

We never really find out what happened to those that disappeared. The only possible explanation as to why is that everyone else needed a good jolt. It’s a good movie, but I could see a lot of people getting bored with the movie very easily. It’s a shame since the movie has such a great ending. Despite all of the flaws, I can still give the movie four stars.

Official Site

Official Site (Spanish)


Thursday, July 17, 2014

Coincidence? I think so. (Chariots of the Gods movie review)

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

One thing I remember fondly of high school was those movies you’d watch in science or maybe history class.  The narration was jerky and the monologue was usually simple.  Picture quality was usually very low to begin with and deteriorated from constant use.  This was the first thing I thought of when I started watching Chariots of the Gods.  In fact, it didn’t look like they were playing it full screen.  The ‘documentary’ was made in the 1970s and shows its age.

This ‘documentary’ takes on the ancient astronaut theory.  For those that don’t watch the History Channel, this is the belief that we’ve been visited and even guided by aliens in our distant past.  The movie shows several things, like the pyramids and monoliths, that ancient humans couldn’t possibly have built.  (There are 2,000 ton pieces of granite with no quarry nearby, for example.)  There are also cave paintings that look vaguely like some guy with a round head.  Since the drawings look so much like a modern astronaut, this has to be proof of ancient visitors.

You may have noticed that I put documentary in single quotes when referring to this movie.  That’s because the movie is very light on the evidence.  It’s almost like an overview of The History Channel’s Ancient Mysteries.  Instead of having people on to explain what a particular item might be, it’s more like, “Look at the pyramids.  How did they build those?”  Then it’s on to the next thing.  (“Don’t these statues look like astronauts?)  It’s basically a world tour of interesting things that are supposed to show proof of ancient visitors.

Now, I’ll admit that the Nazca Lines, which are covered in this movie, are a little odd.  Why would a culture go through so much effort for that?  I’m just not making the connection on most of the other stuff.  We probably read a lot of stuff into things, like the drawings.  If you draw something with fingers and feet and a head, it’s going to look like a person.  Make the features strange enough and someone’s going to think it’s an alien.

Look at all of the science fiction we’ve made.  Does that mean we were visited by Klingons or Predators thousands of years ago?  Probably not.  Some guy was probably doodling on a rock face one day and decided to try something different.  I mean, if aliens were going to have us carve stuff in the ground, why a picture of a monkey?  If aliens were going to have us build a pyramid or other building, why use materials that would have been used on Earth at the time?  If it had been some unusual material, that would have been odd..  Heck.  They supposedly showed us how to make lenses for telescope.  Why not put in a few windows?

One thing that stuck out in my mind was this hole in the ground that was supposed to be a perfect cylinder except that it wasn’t.  It had a lot of water in it and was apparently used for sacrifices.  The movie posits that it was created when a rocket took off, which blasted this perfect cylinder-shaped hole in the ground.  I was wondering how that was possible.  I don’t think a rocket would cause ground to sublimate like that.  (It wouldn't have been a very efficient rocket if it had.)  Even if it did, how would it cause that much ground to just go away?

I wouldn’t recommend buying the movie.  Instead, get it streaming from Netflix if you can.  If I do watch this again, I’d love to watch it with someone that knows about archaeology.  It would be interesting to have them point out all the inaccuracies.  (I did find out that they were wrong about the population of Easter Island.)  Maybe we could even have a Mystery Science Theater 3000 for movies passing themselves off as documentaries.   How cool would it be to add a commentary track from actual experts?

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Battle Beyond the Stars = That Nestor Dabbles Yet

There are a few movies I’ve found through  Not all of them are horrible, but a good number of them are.  Battle Beyond the Stars is one of the not-so-memorable ones.

The movie starts with a planet, Akir, being attacked by some space pirates, led by Sador.  Sador wants to take their crops.  He’ll be back in a few days to pick up the goods.  Meanwhile, one resident of Akir, Shad, is sent out with his planet’s only ship to recruit help.  Being such a poor planet, they can’t really offer anything for payment.  But who knows?  Not everyone is motivated solely by money.  Maybe Shad will find people willing to help for other reasons.

He initially goes to get help from Dr. Hephaestus, who runs a space station.  He finds that only Hephaestus and his daughter, Nanelia, live there.  As Hephaestus is on life support, he ahs to start thinking about his daughter’s future.  Even if he won’t live to see his grandkids, he wants Shad to hook up with Nanelia.  Shad and Nanelia leave the station to find help on their own.

Shad and Nanelia do eventually meet people that will help.  Shad recruits Space Cowboy, played by George Peppard.   He’s delivering some weapons to a planet that happens to get destroyed by Sador.  Space Cowboy realizes that he has no buyer.  Not having been paid, he can’t get home.  So, he agrees to help Shad.

Shad and Nanelia meet several others that are willing to help.  There are five clones that go by the name Nestor.  Nestor has sent the clones to help.  There’s also Gelt, played by Robert Vaughn.  He has all the money he could need, but is wanted everywhere.  He agrees if he’s given a place to stay.  A lot of people don’t make it to the end of the movie, but Shad is able to save the day.

The only reason I rented this is that I was able to get it streaming through Netflix.  This is very much a B movie.  From what I understand, it’s a remake of The Magnificent Seven and The Seven Samurai, as told by Roger Corman.  Not having seen either movie, I can’t comment on this.  However, it has that low-budget feel.  The big plus is that it does have a few recognizable faces, like Peppard and Vaughn.  (Also, Sybil Danning is pretty nice to look at.)

I always find it odd when there’s just one of something important for an entire planet.  I don’t think that the population on Akir was very big, but how is it that they have just one ship?  I’d hate to think what would have happened if the ship didn’t take off.  At least in this case, it makes sense that they wouldn’t be able to afford a second ship.  Still, if it hadn’t worked, we might not have had much of a movie.

If you’re in to cheesy science-fiction movies, this is the way to go.  You have some fight scenes.  You have a bad guy who’s surrounded himself with ineptitude.  You have good guys that you wouldn‘t expect to win, but do well anyway.  It’s not big budget, but it will at least hold your attention for a few hours.  I suppose that’s all you can really ask for from a movie.

Battle Beyond the Stars trailer

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009)

There are cases where getting exactly what you asked for is the worst thing that can happen.  Take, for example, Bob Wilton.  He’s your average newspaper reporter from Ann Arbor.  His life is about as exciting as you’d expect.  This may be why his wife is leaving him for his editor.  Bob needs something big and he needs it now.  Unfortunately, the biggest story he can find is Gus Lacey, the town wacko.  He has all sorts of stories about remote viewing and the Loch Ness Monster.  What’s Bob to do?

He decides to get himself over to Iraq.  It’s 2002 and a good, manly story is bound to head his way and help him win his wife back.  He gets as far as Kuwait, where he meets Lyn Cassady.  Lyn Cassady happens to be one of the names that Lacey mentioned, giving Bob an in.  Cassady is able to expand on The New Earth Army, giving Wilton all sorts of information.  (Maybe Lacey wasn’t such a wacko after all.)

Cassady is able to get Wilton into Iraq, which isn’t necessarily a great thing.  It isn’t long before Cassady and Wilton get stranded and subsequently abducted.  Cassady is able to get them both out of trouble, all the while telling Wilton about the project that he was involved in.  Wilton gets his story, which he’s able to bring back and tell.

The movie is based on a book that accompanied a three-part documentary.  From what I can tell, the book was more nonfiction where this had more of the Hollywood treatment.  It begins with “More of this is true than you would believe.”  This may be, but there is an absurdity to the movie.  Not everyone is going to take psychic warriors and remote viewing seriously, as it tends to be difficult to replicate.  (Cassady is shown as a prodigy, but then again, he is the one telling Wilton the story.)

There are a lot of big names in the movie.  Ewan McGregor plays Wilton.  George Clooney plays Cassady.  You also have Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey as former members of The New Age Army.  I didn’t feel like anyone was out of place or anyone’s talents were wasted.  The movie simply wasn’t what I expected.  It’s not a particularly deep-message kind of movie.  It’s not something where you come away feeling like you learned something.  Instead, it’s about someone who had to go on a journey.  At times, it felt like it dragged a bit.  There wasn’t a lot of suspense or urgency.

It’s strange to think that this was actually based on truth.  There apparently was a First Earth Battalion.  Many of the characters are based on real people.  The thing is that there’s no real sense of urgency.  There are no countdowns.  There’s no bomb waiting to go off if they cut the wrong wire.  Wilton gets that Cassady is looking for someone, but there’s no rush.  It sounds like the kind of story you’d tell at a party or something.  (“So, then they guy let us use his car…”)

Fortunately, Clooney and McGregor are able to carry the movie.  It’s entertaining enough that I was able to watch the movie for the entire 93 minutes.  Still, it was one of those movies where I was waiting for an explosion.  I was kind of hoping for something big to happen.  It’s hard to recommend.  It was good, but it wasn’t great.  If you can get it streaming or it comes on HBO, go for it.  Otherwise, I’d probably recommend waiting.


Black Forest (movie review)

Warning:  I’m going to give away details, including the ending to the movie.  You’ve been warned.

Made-for-TV movies have a reputation for being subpar.  You’re basically getting a feature-length film produced on a budget similar to a TV show.  You’re not getting the big budget of a studio-backed movie.  I’m not saying that they’re all bad.  Some serve as a backdoor pilot to a TV show, whether intentionally or not.  (The pilot for Due South was intended to simply be a movie, but high ratings brought us four seasons of episodes.)

Then, there’s the SyFy Channel.  It seems to have a reputation for putting two random ideas together and making a movie.  Again, I’m not saying that they’re all bad.  I’m just saying I’m not looking forward to Sharknado 2:  The Second One.  When I came across Black Forest on Netflix, I saw that it was produced by the SyFy Channel, I nearly skipped it.  But, there it was, available for streaming on Netflix.

The basic premise is that several tourists go to Europe for some sort of supernatural tour.  They end up being tricked into going over to a parallel world where fairy tales seem to come from.  They meet Karin, who lives in a hotel in the alternate world.  She seems to be helping them, but has ulterior motives.  Oh, and she happens to look like the dead wife of one of the tourists.

The tourists have to find a way back to their world, although that’s easier said than done.  Karin is able to help them, as she knows something about the world they’re in.  She was born in the real world, but has acclimated to the alternate world.  Two of the tourists happen to know a thing or two about the reality they’re in.  The remaining people tend more towards clueless.  As you might expect, one or two manage to get themselves killed due to their own stupidity.

Speaking of clueless, two of the other tourists are parents who bring along their baby and nanny.  This brings up one of those plot points that is necessary, but doesn’t make sense.  The tour takes place in the later hours.  The group is sent over to the fairy-tale world late at night, but the parents saw fit to drag the baby and nanny along with them.  You’d think that they’d leave their baby at the hotel, given that they’ve brought someone they can trust with their child.  I understand that the people of the alternate world need children, but you’d think that someone would have said something as to why the child had to come along.

The movie is entertaining.  At least most of the plot made sense.  It didn’t go too heavy into folklore.  It was just enough to move the story along without having to make a cameo out of every bedtime story.  Also, the film quality seemed to be much higher than I would have expected.  It seems like movies and shows from TV often don’t get the best transfer quality.  (To be fair, most that don’t seem to be from before the age of DVDs and streaming.)

The idea of  fairy tales being really isn’t new.  There was a show I really liked called Special Unit 2 that dealt with creatures that served as the basis for monsters and the like.  I should warn you that the movie is not all family friendly.  The nanny meets her end in a gruesome manner.  The father’s end isn’t particularly pleasant, either.  You might want to skip this movie if you’re squeamish. 

I don’t regret having watched this.  I was able to get it streaming, although it doesn’t seem to be available on DVD.  (Note that the Amazon link is for region 3.)  I’m not sure if it hasn’t been released in region 1 or if Netflix simply doesn’t have access to it.  If you have Netflix, I’d suggest giving it a try.

2001: A Space Odyssey -- Putting the Odd Back in Odyssey

Note:  This review was originally posted to my Epinions account.  A few modifications were made here.

I like to think of myself as a reasonably intelligent person. That’s why I’m still thinking about 2001: A Space Odyssey. I can’t quite figure it out. I mean, I was able to follow the story and everything, but it’s one of those movies that you don’t quite get on the first viewing.

It starts out simply enough. It’s the dawn of mankind. With no explanation, this big slab of something appears. The primates that will presumably evolve into modern humans discover it and are curious about it. They are just beginning to realize that not only can they manipulate the world about them, but they can use tools to aid themselves. It’s a significant point in the history of our planet.

All of a sudden, the year is 2000.  (The movie was released in 1968.)  Man is beginning to venture out into space. We have a presence on the moon and a space station between here and there. A man is on his way to the moon to check out this big, mysterious slab of something that was discovered on the moon. (It appears to be the same slab from the primate era.) Again, not much is said about it other than the fact that it had to have been placed there by some sort of extraterrestrial intelligence. Before anyone can analyze it, the sun passes over the slab there’s this strange buzzing noise

Now, it’s 18 months later and there’s a ship bound for Jupiter. There are five men and a computer. Three of the men are in stasis and will be revived once they reach Jupiter. The other two basically run the show with the help of the computer, the HAL 9000, who they simply call HAL. HAL has the programming to sound human and interact with people, but is basically a fancy computer that controls all aspects of the ship. It’s a definite recipe for disaster.

I won’t say too much beyond that mostly because I don’t fully understand the ending. I think I understand what’s going on, but it’s a very odd sequence of events. Basically, we get a spectacular light show and an odd sequence of events.

The use of color in the movie is great. I loved the backgrounds in the primate era. However, the movie isn’t much on dialogue. There are a great many sequences that are mostly silence or background noise. Those that aren’t into this kind of movie will find it boring, and the movie runs for 148 minutes. You’ll find sequences of 10 or 20 minutes with no dialogue whatsoever. However, we do get a very memorable line from this movie: “I’m sorry Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.” (If I had to compile a list of the ten best lines, that would be on it.)

There are also a lot of scenes in space that make use of artificial gravity to give us some excellent shots of people walking up walls and into oddly angled staircases. It gives the movie a chance to show off special effects, which were actually done pretty well.

As for the story, the first half is pretty good and easy to follow. The last half gets pretty confusing. There was also this intermission that could have been eliminated from the DVD release. At the very least, it could have ended with the chapter, thus making it easier to skip over. I don’t know if it was included for effect, but all I got was a few minutes of music.

The movie has a G rating due to a lack of anything really offensive and crude, but there are a few scenes of people presumably having been blown out of an airlock. Children also probably won’t understand the movie. Had I watched this when I was 10 years old, much of the movie would have been way beyond anything that I could hope to understand. I still don’t get it all.

It's hard to recommend this movie to people. I honestly can’t see recommending this movie to anyone outside of a film major.  The one thing that it has going for it is that it is a well-known movie and is going to influence cultural references.  I'm not saying that watching it would be a total loss, but I would recommend renting it before you buy it.

 2001: A Space Odyssey - Official Trailer [1968] - HD

Voices of a Distant Star

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

Every so often, I go for something completely different. I saw this movie on NetFlix and decided to give it a try, mostly because it’s only thirty minutes long. (Since I’m working now, I don’t have a lot of time for movies.) I figured that I would see what the movie was about.

The plot is very easy to explain. A girl, Mikako, goes off to defend Earth from an invading army, leaving a boyfriend, Noboru, behind. (Yes, she’s a girl; she’s only 15, if I recall.) The only way that she can communicate with him is through text messages on her cell phone. As she goes further out, it takes longer for the messages to reach Earth. Eventually, she’s 8 light years away, meaning that it takes 8 years for the messages to get back.

The story focused on the relationship between the two main characters. (In fact, there were no other human characters.) There was little or no explanation as to how the messages were transmitted or how the Mikako even charges her phone. There also seems to be some debate as to whether both characters are aging at the same rate or if Mikako and the other ships are goinjg near the speed of light, allowing her to age more slowly. (It was never mentioned either way.)

Makoto Shinkai is the man behind the movie. He animated the entire movie on his computer, doing some of the voice work at first just to see how it came out. (This was included on the DVD, but is practically the same as the feature if you’re using the dubbing.) The visual style is a little different, but you get used to it. Shinkai is good. He has one other movie, which I’ll be renting.

I ended up using the English voice track, which I seem to be doing a lot of lately. I think that subtitles would have taken my attention away from the animation too much. I would have rather been able to watch the movie without looking down too much. As for the music, that was great also. I even liked the music on the menus, which is rare for a DVD. The music in the movie was subdued, but worked well.

As for extras, the only thing worth noting is a short called “She and Her Cat”, which is told from the perspective of a cat that is adopted by a woman. There’s also the director’s cut of the movie, but as I said earlier, it doesn’t mean much if you don’t understand Japanese.

I’d definitely recommend this movie to anyone. Even if you don’t like animation, it’s only thirty minutes. What have you got to lose?

Voices of a Distant Star Trailer

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Doomsday Book (2012)

Some movies are hit or miss.  Either you like them or you don’t.  With this one, it’s a little more complicated.  Instead of one movie, there are three segments, each about 40 minutes.  (The total run time is 115 minutes with each segment almost exactly one third of the movie.)  Each one deals with the end of the world in some way.  Each one is sort of like an Outer Limits episode.

The first segment is about a zombie outbreak that stems from bad food.  A guy has to stay home while his parents and sister go on a vacation.  (At first, it looks like he’s being left behind, but it’s later implied that the sister horned in on her parents’ trip.)   He and several other people start to exhibit strange behavior.   News organizations have all sorts of theories.  Is it the work of a hostile government?  There’s even a debate that breaks down into some sort of musical weirdness.

The second segment is about a robot that gains sentience and poses a threat to its creators.  The robot is supposed to be a tour guide at a Buddhist monastery.  Someone is called in to diagnose the robot, but the technician can’t find any technical fault.  There’s no real problem, but the company wants the entire line recalled, despite the protests of the monks in the monastery.   The CEO sees the robot as a threat, even though the technician has doubts.  Humanity is unique in sentience.  What does it mean to have something encroaching on that?

The third segment is about a girl that brings about worldwide terror because of an Internet purchase.  She breaks her father’s 8-ball and wants to replace it.  Later, when a giant asteroid is approaching Earth, the girl realizes that there are unintended consequences to her actions.  I don’t want to say what, as that would ruin the story.  I will say that it’s a very strange movie.

The first two segments I could see being developed into full-length movies.  The last one, I’m not so sure.  It’s almost like some people pulled some random words and phrases out of a bag and had to write an end-of-the-world story about it.  (“Ok…I got vacation, apple and zombies.  What did you get”  “I got Buddhism, android and maniacal CEO.  How about you?”  “I got 8-ball, a fallout shelter and the Internet.”)

I didn’t get the ending to the first segment.  It ended with references to Adam and Eve, as in the bible.  The only thing I got from the segment was the apple being the source of the outbreak.  I’m not sure how they worked that in.  How do Adam and Eve work into a zombie apocalypse?  The last one left me wondering the most.  It was a little weird, which I can tolerate.  I think it’s going to come off as confusing to some people and a little silly to others.

One good thing is that each story is separate, so you could easily skip one and not have to worry about the other two.  The only thing is that I got it streaming through Netflix.  To skip one, I’d have to slide the bar over to get to the next one.  I don’t know if this is an issue with the DVD.  I’m not sure if you can choose the story on the menu, but I’d imagine that the beginning of a story would be the beginning of a chapter, making it easier to skip to the next one.

This is one of those movies that I might not have rented if I had to get it on DVD.  I probably would have wanted to see it, but would have kept bumping down to give priority to another movie.  I am so glad to have access to Netflix’s streaming services.

IMDb page

Banner Exchange

I signed up for a banner exchange program.  I was hoping that I wouldn't need to do much, but it looks like they want me to add code to my site.  I'm hoping that the small banner's I'm placing here will be enough.  If not, I'm not sure what will be enough.  I can't find any other code on their site.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

The Marvelous Land of Oz by L. Frank Baum (e-book)

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

There are a lot of movies based on books.  I didn’t realize it at first, but The Wizard of Oz was based on The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum.  He never intended to write any sequels, but he did.  The first of these was The Marvelous Land of Oz.  (Since the books have long since fallen into the public domain, I was able to download both as ebooks from Project Gutenberg.)  Granted, this is a children’s book.  As such, it is somewhat simple.  However, this isn’t to say the book isn’t worth reading.

The movie.roughly follows the first book. Dorothy Gale travels to a strange land and is sent to The Wizard of Oz to find a way back to Kansas, which she does.  This book picks up some time after that.  A boy named Tip wants to get away from Mombi, who has ‘cared’ for him since birth.  (I say ‘cared’ because he’s more of a servant.)  He intends to scare Mombi with a scarecrow, but the best he can do is Jack Pumpkinhead.  (As you might expect, his distinguishing feature is a pumpkin for a head.)  When Mombi finds him she uses her powder of life to animate him.  Tip and Jack run away, taking the powder of life and a sawhorse, which they also animate.

They eventually meet General Jinjur and her all-girl army.  They plan to take over The Emerald City (the seat of power for Oz) with knitting needles.  They feel that it’s unfair that the central city has all the wealth and that women are subservient to men.  (While their complaints may be fair, who brings a knitting needle to a knife fight?)  Tip, Jack and the sawhorse have to get to the Emerald City to warn the Scarecrow, who has been ruling in The Wizard's absence.

Despite the fact that they get there first, Jinjur and her army succeed.  The Scarecrow is chased out of The Emarald City on a Gump. (Actually, it’s a collection of items with a Gump’s head, which was made to fly and brought to life with the powder of life.  As if that’s any less confusing.)  They meet The Highly Magnified and Thoroughly Educated Wogglebug, who agrees to help them reclaim the city.

Meanwhile, Jinjur enlists the help of Mombi.  She’s able to use trickery to help Jinjur, but it’s not enough.  Jinjur’s army is chased out of the palace and eventually the city.  It turns out that the Scarecrow doesn’t reclaim his throne, which he didn’t particularly want to keep in the first place.  Tip has a little secret, which I won’t spoil.

Just like the first book was made into The Wizard of Oz, elements of this book and Ozma of Oz were made into the 1975 movie Return to Oz.  There’s also a prequel movie that came out called Oz the Great and Powerful.  I’d imagine that there will be a lot of interest in the books.

From what I’ve seen of the first two books, it’s probably best to read them in order.  Even though Dorothy and several other characters from the first book don’t make an appearance in this one, they are mentioned.  I don’t know that you’d be lost, but you probably would miss a lot if you read this book before The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

As it is intended for children, there will be a lot of things that seem silly.  (Take the use of knitting needles as weapons.)  There are a lot of contradictions, as in the first book, though.  The Scarecrow rules Oz, but would be just as happy not to.  You have The Gump, a being that doesn’t want to be.  And then there’s the Wogglebug, a creature that you wouldn’t think would be capable of intelligence, but is able to help.

I really only found out about the first book through the first movie.  It wasn’t until I looked up the book that I found out about the sequels.  If you have children, this would be a good book to read them, although you might want to get a copy with the illustrations.  If you’re just interested in reading the books for yourself, the ebooks are probably the way to go.  They lack the illustrations, but they’re free and you can probably find a version for your device.  (I was able to download both books for the iPod touch.)

Adrift in Tokyo

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

I remember thinking once that there were so many movies out there that it might be impossible to watch them all within a single lifetime.  If this was the case, how would you know what was worth watching?  This isn’t even taking into account having to pay to buy or rent the movies.  (For that matter, a good number of movies probably aren‘t even available.)  Netflix helps with that a little.  I’ve been able to stream a lot of movies that I may not have even heard of otherwise.  This is how I came across Adrift in Tokyo.  It’s one of those oddball movies that I just don’t hear about.

The movie starts with Fumiya Takemura, a student that owes a loan shark 840,000 yen.  (That’s about $8,260.)  Said loan shark sends Aiichiro Fukuhara to collect.  Fumiya has three days to pay up…or else.  Aiichiro returns the next day to make Fumiya a proposition.  Aiichiro will give Fumiya a million yen if Fumiya accompanies Aiichiro on a walk.  The walk may take three days or it may take a month.  Fumiya has a hard time believing it’s that simple.  Why would Aiichiro need the company, anyway?  The again, Fumiya is being offered more money than he needs, not to mention that Aiichiro has Fumiya’s driver’s license and student ID.  So, their road trip on foot begins.

You’re probably wondering where the story comes in.  The movie is 1:41, which means that there’s a lot of walking.  Why would a collector even be willing to make this offer?  There are a few side stories.  We learn about the families that Aiichiro and Fumiya never had.  (Aiichiro wanted a son and Fumiya was adopted.)  They also don’t take a direct path, stopping at places that Aiichiro visited with his wife.  After some prodding Fumiya even tracks down a girl he once knew.

It’s not the kind of movie Redbox would have and I don’t think I would have rented it from Netflix.  I probably would have kept putting off getting the movie on DVD.  It’s an odd movie, but it’s one of those movies where the oddities work.  You have two people thrown together by circumstance and they become more friendly as they travel together.  It’s almost like Planes, Trains & Automobiles, where there’s no real antagonist.  (Yes, Aiichiro could be seen as the antagonist, but he just doesn’t seem as mean and rough as a collector should.)

It’s the side stories and random events that make it worth watching.  In one scene, Fumiya follows some strange guy playing a guitar.  This almost gets him in trouble with Aiichiro.  (Fumiya is supposed to wait for Aiichiro while Aiichiro looks at some art he’d rather be missing out on.)  Aiichiro even has a place to stay, as he once posed as a woman’s husband for a wedding once, which is a whole other story.

I definitely recommend watching the movie, especially if you have Netflix streaming.  I could even see watching the movie a second time.  One of my brothers lived in Japan for three years, although not in Tokyo.  I may watch again the next time my he’s in town.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Malba Tahan - The Man Who Counted: A Collection of Mathematical Adventures

Note:  This is a review I originally posted to my Epinions account.

I actually found this book by accident. After reading another math-related book, I decided to look in the library for other similar books. I couldn't find what I was looking for, but I came across this book, the story of Beremiz Samir, a man who has exceptional math skills. The story is told by Hanak Tade Maia and starts when the two meet. Beremiz demonstrates to Hanak the unusual abilities that he has and the two become traveling companions.

Much of the story takes place in Baghdad. Beremiz solves many problems for many people. The first one that he solves is for three brothers who have inherited 35 camels. The problem is that one of them is to receive half of the camels, which is impossible since 35 is not divisible by two. Beremiz comes up with an ingenious solution. From there, the problems get more complicated, but Beremiz handles them with ease. As the problems he solves become more difficult, his fame increases, as well. He is eventually tested by seven wise men and passes all of the challenges put before him. In so doing, he gets what he wants most.

I don't want to give away too much because that would take away from the book. You don't have to be a math nut to enjoy it. All of the solutions that Beremiz came up with were explained simply enough for anyone to understand. While I think that the story itself is fiction, there are some interesting mathematical curiosities. There's one section on getting any whole number out of four fours. For instance, 1 is 44 divided by 44. 2 is four fourths plus four fourths, or 1 plus 1.

This book was translated by Leslie Clark and Alastair Reed and illustrated by Patricia Reid Baquero. Aside from the cover, the illustrations were at the beginning of each chapter and in black and white. They were simple, but worked well with the story. I actually looked forward to each new illustration.

There was something about the story that made me not want to stop reading. I like math, but I don't think that was it. It's mostly to see how good this guy really is. You have to wonder if Beremiz will ever be presented with a problem that he can't solve. That's just it, though. While Beremiz's skills are very rare, the book illustrates how useful math is.

I'd recommend this book to anyone. There was a religious aspect that might turn some people off, but I don't think that it was offensive to anyone. It shouldn't be a problem to the vast majority of the people. Most of the religious references weren't too much. The chapters were short, which made for an easy read. I almost read the entire thing in the library, but I had to be somewhere, so I checked it out and brought it home. Five stars.

WIkipedia page

Publxihser Web Site

Monday, July 07, 2014

Flashforward by Robert J Sawyer

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

I first became aware of this book through the ABC’s TV show of the same name.  Disappointed that ABC has put it on hiatus for several months, I decided that I would use the time to at least read the book.  This way, I could see how the show held up to the book.

The book starts with Lloyd Simcoe and Theo Procopides conducting an experiment with CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.  They want to find the Higgs boson, which theoretically gives mass to all particles.  Everything is controlled perfectly by machine.  Nothing should go wrong, but something does.

Just as the clock strikes 5:00 p.m. local time, everyone passes out.  Lloyd sees himself lying in bed with a woman that looks unfamiliar.  When everyone wakes up, most of the people had some sort of vivid dream.  Theo seems to be the only notable exception, which bothers him.  He passed out at 5:00 and woke up a few minutes later with no gap in consciousness.

It turns out that the entire world passed out at exactly the same time.  About a third of the world’s population was sleeping at the time, but there were a lot of people driving, on a plane or undergoing surgery.  This meant that a lot of people didn’t survive.  Everyone at CERN assumes that the experiment was the cause of the accident.  Even though there was no way that he could have known, Lloyd feels guilty.

The first part of the book deals with the fallout and potential ramifications of what happened.  What, exactly, happened?  All security footage shows static, so there’s no way to know what happened during the blackout.  Also, what happened to the experiment?  Again, there’s no record of anything happening.  CERN’s director is worried about lawsuits, so Lloyd agrees to hold off on any press conferences.

People start talking with each other and soon the world realizes that they’ve gotten a glimpse into their futures.  A project called Mosaic is formed, allowing people to post what happened.  First, the exact date that people got to see is established.  People got to see approximately 20 years into the future.  South Africa will be known under a different name in the future.  There will be an African-American president.  No female president will have been elected, but the Catholic Church will have ordained women.

One of the big discussions among the scientists is the issue of free will versus fate.  Theo believes that the universe is determined and the flash forward reinforces that.  It does raise a problem for him, though.  How can he go through with his marriage to a woman that he knows he won’t stay married to?  How will the marriage play out, if at all?

Theo has to think that there’s a chance at changing the future.  He posts his story and asks if anyone has news on him.  It turns out that he will be murdered, but details are not forthcoming.  He has to think that he might live.  After all, all it would take to change the future is for some landmark that still exists two decades hence to be taken down.  People do try, though.  Stock markets are closed for this very reason.  People even get the idea to try and put together winning lottery numbers.

It seems that there is also a bit of self reinforcement.  Knowing that China will still be communist in the future quells all resistance.  (One thing that wasn’t mentioned was risk compensation.  People that know that they’ll be alive in 20 years may be more prone to take risks.)

But why be given a vision if you weren’t meant to do anything about it?  Theo’s brother realizes that he won’t be where he wants to be in 20 years.  This causes him to wonder what the point of going on is.  He tells Theo that millions of people must be going through the same thing, wondering what the point of going on is if they don’t have the family or career that they want.  It will be hard for all of these people to wake up every morning knowing that they will all eventually fail.

Yes, they do try the experiment again.  I don’t want to say too much for fear of giving away major details.  For those that have seen the TV show thus far, don’t worry.  The TV show seems to be tackling the idea from a different angle, focusing on the investigation rather than the actual event.  I don’t think the TV show will ruin anything for those wanting to read the book.

I feel that the book is much better than the TV show.  Still, it's a shame it didn't get renewed.

20 Years After (2008)

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

Epinions has done a few first-review promotions.  This probably works well for most categories.  I’d imagine that there are a lot of books out there that haven’t been reviewed yet because the category doesn’t pay well.  I know this to be the case with movies, but movies at least tend to be more popular.  For most people, it’s easier to sit passively for two hours than it is to spend the better part of a day actively comprehending text.  I imagine the day when all we have left unreviewed in movies are the movies no one wants to pay to watch.  One of those movies could have been 20 Years After had it not been for Netflix’s streaming service.

It’s set in a post-apocalyptic world.  Humanity has been wiped out by nuclear blasts, plague, famine, locusts and the like.  (We know this because a voice-over explanation tells us so.)  20 years have passed since the recovery began.  15 years have passed since anyone gave birth.  For the purposes of the story, there seem to be three main groups.  You have a mother and daughter who seem to be squatting in a doctor’s house.  There’s also the camp of bad guys who seem to be interested in capturing the daughter‘s soon-to-be-born baby.  Then, there’s a camp of people that are just trying to get by.  We also have Michael on the Radio, a guy who sporadically takes to the airwaves to give people hope.

This is the end of anything that makes any sort of sense.  Take, for instance, Dr. Samuel Singleton. He’s the guy that finds the mother and daughter in his house.  He said that he went out for a while, but I get the impression that they had been living there for a while.  He knows that they’re out of bullets.  He even gives the date of the last bullet that the mother used.  He even pulls out a ventriloquist dummy and starts doing a little act  I have to wonder why he waited so long to come back.

Also, it looks like there’s a water-collection system that dumps the water into the toilet.  This is not what I would consider the ideal place to keep my water.  Even if it was, I think I’d make sure not to put anything in there.  The mother seems to not mind keeping their pet fish there.

Also, we have the daughter, Sarah.  She’s the first pregnant woman in 15 years.  Since it’s been 20 years since the end of the plagues and stuff, this means that people weren't having kids for five years.  At least with movies like Children of Men, we find out that people can’t have children.  Here, we’re left to infer that people just gave up.

This leads us to the second group of people.  The evil, crazy bad guys that are led by a woman.  She has a guy that she sends out to get the daughter, although he fails repeatedly.  He has this friend/lackey that has some sort of disfigurement, although all he seems to do is stand around and act sad when the evil woman does something bad to his friend.

Eventually, Singleton sets out with the mother and daughter.  Around the same time, Michael sets off with a new-found friend.  They all end up at this abandoned rock quarry where the third group is just trying to get by.  They have all sorts of neat stuff, like cars that don’t quite work and a blue tree, which is just a dead tree with a bunch of blue bottles hanging from it.

The Evil Woman sends her guy to make one more attempt to get Sarah.  When that fails, Sarah realizes that a cave is no place to have her kid.  She sets out with her mother and Michael in the one truck that someone managed to get working.  I have no idea where anyone found the parts or managed to get gas.  You’d think that the gas in the tank would have either evaporated or at least gone bad after 20 years.

Still, Evil Woman is so disappointed that she cuts off a piece of her errand boy’s ear and sets off to finish the job herself.  Somehow, she knows where Sarah is going.  She puts herself along Sarah’s path, making it look like she and two women are in need of help.  They manage to find their way to a tall building that happens to have a guy dressed vaguely like a doctor.  Yes, they happen upon the one person that can help deliver a baby.  At least, I think so.  Oh, and he also has a working radio station upstairs.

When the supposed-doctor guy sees Dr. Singleton’s dummy, he starts doing an act of his own.  He even starts with the same joke.  Well, to make a weird story short, Sarah gives birth to a healthy baby.  Shortly thereafter, Evil Woman poisons Sarah and her mother.  Michael, who’s upstairs doing a radio show, has been knocked out.  Rather than head for the hills with the baby she wanted so much, Evil Woman hangs around to gloat.  If you’ve seen enough bad movies, you know that Michael wakes up and dispatches with Evil Woman.  Mother, daughter and now granddaughter are set to make the world a better place through hope.  Michael is now broadcasting to a (presumably) wider audience.  All is right in the post-apocalyptic world.

This is the epitome of bad movies with a lot of potential.  You know when a parent or teacher tells you to put some effort into something?  This is what you get when you don’t put much effort into something.  We have a lot of actors that have been in other things. Granted, it’s mostly TV and only one actor looked familiar, but we do have some talent here.  The acting was flat.

The production values seemed to be on par with a made-for-TV movie.  However, there is very minimal plot.  You may wonder why we need plot twists.  It seems like nothing can be that simple.  This is what you get when you go for as few plot twists as possible.  For the first hour, it’s just a bunch of people doing stuff for no apparent reason.

We don’t know who the mother and daughter are or why they're so special other than the daughter being pregnant.  We have no idea why the Evil Woman wants the baby so badly.  How does she benefit from no one having hope?  How does one baby bring hope that easily?  For that matter, most people to seem react to a pregnant woman by saying something like, “Wow!  A pregnant woman!  I’ve never seen a pregnant woman before.”  I also think that Errand Boy was supposed to be Sarah’s brother, but I couldn’t be sure.

The movie looks like someone brought this project to a studio, but didn’t get enough money.  Through a combination of initial apathy and the money running out, we got this.  If it had a decent script, it might have gotten enough funding to make a decent movie.  It could have even been made into a TV show like Revolution.  TV shows like that so rarely explore beyond a limited scope.  How cool would it be to have a small crew exploring the vast wasteland?

As I said, I found this movie among Netflix’s collection of movies that it allows you to stream online.  I think this was part of their We Didn’t Have to Pay Much For This, so We’re Inflicting it on an Unsuspecting Public collection.  (You’ll see this in any sort of on-demand service.  Since Netflix can only afford so much for streaming rights, they’ll get a few new releases, which are probably expensive, and spend the rest on as many cheap titles as they can get.)

This isn’t even one of those movies I can recommend to see how bad it is.  Even if you have nothing to do for an hour and a half, there are better things to do.  Maybe if you’re looking to punish a boyfriend you’re mad at, this might work.  Then again, it might just be what causes him to break up with you.