Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

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

Steve Rogers has a dream.  All he wants to do is serve his country.  World War II is in full swing and he’s not going to let something like a medical deferment stop him.  You see, Rogers is small, weak and has a few health issues.  He can’t serve, as much as he wants to and as many times as he tries.  That’s where Dr. Abraham Erskine comes in.  He’s interested in using Rogers as a test subject.  Rogers agrees.  Even if it’s not for sure, it might get him into the armed forces.

Dr. Erskine has developed this serum that will turn an ordinary man into a super soldier.  He knows that Rogers is the right man for the job, despite the military’s skepticism.  Rogers is turned into a super-soldier.  The drawback is that the formula is lost, leaving Rogers as the only positive result.  This is useless to the military, as they were promised an entire army of super-soldiers.  But, they could always use him as a poster boy to sell war bonds…

This isn’t what Rogers signed up for.  Yes, he is serving his country, at least more so than when he started off.  The problem is that he’s going around in a silly costume that pleases civilians, but is seen as a joke by those on actual active duty.   When the opportunity presents itself, Rogers goes and saves his friend and many other soldiers, thus earning him the right to defend his country.  Rogers also brings back some good intelligence, giving him several more missions to go on.

HYDRA is the main group of bad guys.  They’re the Nazis' research wing and they’re developing some pretty nasty weapons.  If Rogers can take out the remaining factories, all will be saved.  HYDRA is led by Johann Schmidt.  He’s an earlier, failed attempt at the super-soldier.  To say he has issues is an understatement.  It’s not going to be easy to defeat Schmidt and HYDRA, but it is possible.

At this point, if you’ve been reading my reviews, you should have figured out that I’m going to watch the Avengers movie one of these days.  Of all the movies that feed into that movie, this one seems to be the most obvious in terms of setup.  It even has “The First Avenger” in the title.  (The only one that comes close is Thor.)  You even get a tie in or two.  In the beginning of the movie, Rogers and his friend are visiting the Stark Expo, hosted by Tony Stark’s father, Howard.  Howard Stark even plays an important role in the movie.  I don’t think that the references were too much.  It wasn’t really forced at all.

The movie took a while to get going.  There was a bit of setup and a while where we got to see what kind of person Rogers was.  I didn’t think it dragged, but the action doesn’t start immediately.  Rogers spends a good deal of time getting ready to be made into Captain America and spends a good deal of time before seeing action.  If you’re in it for the action, I don’t know that you’ll be disappointed, but you will have to wait for it.

Right now, the only movie I would want to see before seeing The Avengers is The Incredible Hulk.  I’ve seen Iron Man, Iron Man 2 and Thor.  (I don’t think there are any other movies I need to see.  Please leave a comment if I’m mistaken.)  Of all the movies that I’d have to see, The Incredible Hulk is the one I’m not too crazy about.  If I hadn’t wanted to see The Avengers, I’d probably have watched this and the two Iron Man movies and maybe gotten around to watching Thor if it came on TV.  Since I don’t read comics, I don’t know how well it holds up to the comics, but it is definitely worth renting.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Argo (2012)

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

The movie starts in November of 1979.  Protesters are outside the American embassy’s compound and those inside are worried.  The former Iranian shah is in America for medical reasons and the Iranians want him back.  Six of the embassy workers manage to escape, but everyone else is taken hostage.  Those six manage to find refuge at the home of the Canadian ambassador.  The U. S. State Department wants to get them out, but there’s no really plausible way to do that.  Tony Mendez, played by Ben Affleck, finds reasons that each proposal might fail.

One night, while watching one of the Planet of the Apes movies, he realizes that movies will occasionally need to film on location.  This gives him the idea of posing as a studio employee meeting some ‘Canadian’ counterparts in Iran.  After a few days of ‘scouting’ for a location, they’ll all catch a flight back to North America.  Not only does Mendez have to train six people to learn their cover stories, but they’re operating under a deadline.  (It won’t take long for the hostage takers to realize that they’re short six hostages.)

There are also a lot of technical details to worry about.  Mendez brings in some Hollywood people to help sell the cover story.  They buy an actual script to use, hire real actors and go through the process of pretending to make a movie.  The even set up an office for Iranian officials to call when the need arises.  There are also bureaucratic problems that they just have to hope will resolve themselves.

Part of the problem with movies based in history is that you may have some sense of how it ends.  Argo tells part of what went on with the Iranian Hostage Crisis, which took place when I was only a few years old.  I saw the movie with my brother, who was only a few months old at the time.  There were a few references that he missed, like to Rock Hudson.  I’m sure that I missed one or two, myself.  (I have no memory of Carter as president.)

Most of the movie focuses on the rescue attempt.  We get to see the hostages a little before they meet Mendez, but it’s mostly to show that they’re getting cabin fever.  They can’t leave the ambassador’s residence for fear of someone recognizing them.  Once they’re out ‘scouting’ for a location, they have to stay in character the whole time.  (On that note, I’m not sure how much of the film was done for dramatic effect.  There were a few tense scenes where the six ‘houseguests’ were out and almost caught.)

One thing I thought about was the screenwriter whose film was purchased to use for the project.  I felt a little bad that it was purchased with the intent of not really making it.  My brother pointed out that it did help to save lives, but the mission was classified.  Mendez, who came up with the idea, was awarded the Intelligence Star, but couldn’t actually take it home.  This is how classified it was.  I don’t imagine that the State Department was going to let some screenwriter in on their little secret.  I’m sure projects fall through all the time, but it must be so weird to find something like that out years later.

I do recommend seeing the movie.  I liked seeing it in theaters.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get around to posting it until after it came out on DVD.  Another thing I noticed is that the Canadian government did a lot to help us, even jyst by letting the six Americans stay there.  I’m not sure how much that affected their relationship with the Iranians.  Definitely rent this movie if you get the chance. 

After the Dark/The Philosophers (2013)

You might have had one of those philosophical debates in class over who would get to go into a hypothetical fallout shelter.  You have maybe two or three times the number of open slots and you have to pick based on things like skills, profession and gender.  (How useful is a college student?  Is a woman more valuable because she’s of child-bearing age?)  Well, someone made a movie based on that premise.

It’s the last day of a philosophy class.  The students are subjected to a thought experiment by their teacher, Mr. Zimit.  He proposes that his students are on a field trip when nuclear war or some other disaster breaks out.  They happen to be in proximity to a fallout shelter, but there are 21 people (including Mr. Zimit) competing for 10 beds.  They can’t alternate sleeping schedules, as there’s only enough food and air to last 10 people exactly one year.  Each student is assigned a profession and the students have to decide which of them gets in.

The first time the students conduct the experiment, Mr. Zimit gets himself in as a wildcard.  He won’t say what his advantage is or what he does for a living.  For all anyone knows, he’s a traveling axe murderer.  He gets himself in.  Realizing that he may be leaning towards axe murderer, the remaining nine selected decide to lock Mr. Zimit out of the shelter.  This may be a bad move, as he claims to have the exit code.  (His profession was shelter builder.)

That doesn’t end well, leaving the students to try again.  This time, an additional detail is revealed.  A female student that had been a doctor is now a potential Ebola carrier.  Another student, who had been rejected for being a soldier, now has eidetic memory.  There’s also the added condition that they must produce at least one child by the end of their year in the bunker.  Again, this doesn’t end well.

The students have one last go at it.  This time, one of the students decides to take over.  In Petra’s version, everyone is on an island.  There’s no sign of volcanoes going off or nuclear blasts or anything.  Still, she selects ten people to go in.  Mr. Zimit is chased off, as everyone knows that he has a thing for shooting people.  Initially, Petra doesn’t want to go in, but one of the other students switches places with her.

Even though Petra’s selections aren’t optimal, everyone lives this time.  It turns out that the apocalypse didn’t affect their area.  Mr. Zimit doesn’t approve of her outcome.  There’s no way to get back to the rest of humanity, nor is there any hope to rebuild on the island.  All of the ‘useful’ people were sent off on the boat.

That’s essentially what it comes down to.  In both of the teacher’s scenarios, people of perceived use are selected, but everyone dies.  In Petra’s scenario, she selects based on her preferences.  There’s limited hope, but at least nearly everyone survives the first year.  Usefulness is of little consequence if no one makes it out alive.

It’s interesting to see how the scenarios play out.  Normally, when I’ve been given this exercise, it’s strictly in the sense of which traits are useful.  No one ever thinks about how it plays out.  A doctor is perceived as being useful because they know about medicine, but what kind of person are they?

A leader has the advantage of presumably being able to lead, but we don’t know what kind of leader they’d be.  Everyone has to be able to get along with everyone else.  10 people means 45 possible interpersonal relationships.  All sorts of factors play into this.

We do get to see Mr. Zimit lead his class.  Many of the students aren’t convinced of his leadership.  A few threaten to walk out at the beginning of the exercise.  We also get to see him be a bit of a control freak.  This is not a movie for children, mostly because of his actions.  I don’t want to give away too much, but he does take a few actions that small children wouldn’t be able to understand.  (At the very least, you should probably watch it before deciding if it’s appropriate for older children.)

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Monsters (2010)

Usually, synopses are pretty accurate. Not always, but usually.  Netflix has Monsters listed as an alien-invasion movie, but it’s not at all what I expected.  Instead of aliens coming in with guns blaring, it’s more of the invasive species type.  According to the movie’s timeline, a probe was sent out into space.  It returned with some sort of aliens.  When the probe crashed in Mexico, said aliens begin to multiply.  The entire northern part of Mexico is now quarantined.

Andrew Kaulder is a photojournalist who’s suddenly tasked with finding Samantha Wynden  and getting her the heck out of Mexico and back to the United States.  He wants to stay, as he’s in the area because of the monsters.  Getting the right photograph pays well.  However, Sam is the boss’s daughter, making her the priority.  So, he gets her to the coast only to find that it costs $5,000 to buy a ferry ticket back to the United States.

This isn’t a big problem at first.  Then, Andrew gets drunk, which leads to him getting drunk.  This gives a one-night stand the opportunity to steal their passports.  Now, Sam has to give up her engagement ring to get both of them home by land, which is a lot more dangerous.  This leads to a several-day journey where they survive and bond.  We learn about Sam and Andrew and those that are waiting for them at home.

I should warn you that the movie starts with the story’s last scene, which does kind of give things away.  I’m not crazy about this kind of movie, but I was able to get past it.  My big issue was that I was expecting more from the aliens.  Yes, they’re an ever-present threat, but they seem to only come out at night.  The only time you see them during the day is when they’re dead.  Mostly, this is done to add to the suspense.  You can’t quite see all of them, but you get to see enough that you no there might be trouble.  There are maybe two or three scenes where we get some suspense.

Instead, the movie is more about the two people that are being drawn closer together by shared risk.  Andrew is down there basically on business.  We never really find out why Sam is there.  They’re the opposites that eventually attract.

I did like watching the movie.  As a movie, it’s an interesting way to spend 93 minutes.  There is room for potential.  Very few are given about the aliens.  People will comment on mating habits and stuff, but that’s about it.  We don’t find out which planet they come from.  (It’s implied that they’re from within our own solar system.)  I don’t think they were even given a name.

The angle of an invasive species could have worked well against the backdrop of Mexico and the issue of illegal immigration.  For that matter, an invasive species could have worked well in its own right, showing us what happens when something comes in and displaces the local species.  Not much was really done in either regard.  We have a wall between the U.S. and Mexico that serves as a finish line, but that’s really about it.

IMDb shows Monsters: Dark Continent with a release date of November 28, 2014 in the UK, but it looks like there’s very little connection between the two movies.  The directors and writers are different.  I’m not sure what the story will be with that, but I would be interested in seeing it when I get the chance.

Official site

Age of Tomorrow (2014)

Note:  I’m going to give away major details, including the movie.  I don’t think there should be much risk of you watching it, since it’s a horrible movie.  If you want to be surprised, now would be a good time to stop reading.

I used to think that happy endings were kind of cliché.  It took something away from the movie knowing that someone would walk away happy.  Even in a horror movie, it may have been the bad guy, allowing for a sequel.  I’ve come to realize why this isn’t such a bad thing.

Age of Tomorrow starts off with what is called an asteroid heading for Earth.  (The reason I don’t say “appears to be” is that it has spikes all over its surface.  No asteroid should look like this.)  General Magowan calls on Captain James Wheeler to lead a team to destroy it.  Of course, Wheeler has sworn off the military due to having lost one person on a mission, but is convinced once he realizes the potential repercussions.  He demands to bring his own team.  Along for the ride is physicist Dr. Gordon.

When they get to the asteroid, they discover that it’s no asteroid.  They’re on an alien space ship, which explains the normal gravity and everything.  The team is attacked by a spherical machine, which Dr. Gordon instantly knows will transport them someplace else rather than kill them outright.  On Wheeler’s order, the rest of the team allows itself to be transported.

They find themselves on an alien planet.  They have a transmitter, but it will take an hour to charge.  While looking around, they notice humans being led into a facility by aliens.  Rather than hide the transmitter and to some reconnaissance, they leave the transmitter in plain sight and barge in.  All of the team members are eventually killed.  That’s what you get for taking a mission with a $3-million payday.

The B story, which takes place mostly on Earth, involves a firefighter that has to go in to work, despite it being his weekend with his daughter.  She wanders off into downtown L.A., which happens to be where the aliens are attacking.  He eventually finds her, only to see her transported to the alien world.  This leaves him to join up with the military and help with a rescue mission while General Magowan destroys the asteroid.

If only it were that easy.

General Magowan destroys the asteroid, but the daughter is shot.  Both Magowan and the father realize how screwed they are.  There are several dozen aliens surrounding the father, one of whom shows them Earth surrounded by several dozen asteroids.  The father decides to go down fighting.

This is one of those movies that’s going to be very easy to pick apart.  The first thing that caught my attention was that they happened to have a ship for the team to go up to the asteroid.  It’s said that it’s supposed to be some lunar-base supply ship.  I can excuse this, as it’s implied that the military is lying to Wheeler.  But it does seem rather convenient that the military has a lot more of these, which are shown later in the movie.  (The same goes for having Earth-like gravity on the supposed asteroid, as it’s not really an asteroid.)

The thing that gets me is that very little is mentioned about the physics of the blast.  They’re sending up a physicist, but she makes no mention of directing the blast.  It’s not really enough to destroy the asteroid.  If I understand correctly, spreading around the mass just spreads around the damage.

Also, why is it that alien planets always have trees and plants?  In some movies, it’s understandable.  You’re colonizing a planet.  You might even be terraforming the planet.  It would make sense to put trees on your new planet if they’re not already there.  Not only do the aliens look humanoid, they happen to have plant life that looks like ours.  I won’t even get into the fact that their technology looks almost identical.

The writing is bad all over.  This is one of those movies where the daughter tells her father that she’s in some random office building and he magically knows which one.  It seems like the characters, many of them trained professionals, are simply there to be killed.  We get some nice shots of people getting their heads blown off.  Still, I’d like to see someone stop for a moment and think about what they’re doing.  If you’re wondering, there’s no sex or nudity.  All of the objectionable imagery comes from the gore.  This is not a movie for children.

I’m not sure where the name comes from.  The official site doesn’t say much.  I think maybe it’s supposed to be a title that thinks it’s more awesome than it really is.  Quite frankly, so is the movie.  Kelly Hu and Robert Picardo are the only names that I recognized.  I wonder if they lost a bet or something.

Somewhere in Time (1980)

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

When I found Somewhere in Time, I was actually looking for time-travel movies. At first, it sounded like a straight-up time-travel movie. The more I read about it, the more I realized that it had more of a romance theme. I was still interested, though.

The story is about a playwright named Richard Collier, who’s destined to be a great writer. At the opening of his first play, an elderly woman approaches him, hands him a watch and tells him to return to her. Everyone (including Collier) wants to know who this woman is. Eight years pass; Collier has broken up with his girlfriend and is having trouble writing.

He decides to take a vacation, so he just gets in his car and drives. He almost passes a hotel, but decides to stop and check in. While visiting a display in one of the hotel’s rooms, Collier finds the picture of a woman. The picture is from 1912, but Collier becomes enamored with the woman. When he asks, he finds out that she was an actress named Elise McKenna.

Further research reveals that she’s the woman that handed him the watch 8 years ago. As you’ve probably figured out by now, that’s where the time travel comes in. Collier is determined to find a way to go back to 1912 to meet McKenna. It takes some work, but he does succeed. Where it goes from there, I won’t tell you.

I think part of the reason that the movie works is the simplicity of the story. It doesn’t rely on any sort of complicated machinery or temporal abnormalities. It’s not really asking you to buy into anything heavy. The main theme of the movie is the relationship between Collier and McKenna. Collier doesn’t try to explain that he came from the future, but is aware of the fact that it would sound strange to McKenna.

There were very few jokes related to time travel. The only one that stands out is when Collier first checks into the hotel in the present time. Arthur, a long-time employee of the hotel, senses something familiar about Collier. You know this is setting up a meeting in the past. Collier also gets to witness the taking of the picture that he originally saw in the hotel.

It took a while for Collier to find a way back into the past, but that’s understandable. You really can’t set up a movie like this in a few minutes. There are a lot of little things that help make the movie. One shot shows many of the awards that Collier received. One is for a play called “Passionate Apathy”. To simply rush back into the past wouldn’t have been a good idea.

It’s hard for me to explain exactly how or why this movie works, but it does. I actually found out that this movie has a fan club, so I know I’m not alone in this. (If you’re wondering about the club, there was a feature on the DVD that I rented that went into some detail about that.) I’d definitely recommend watching this movie. 

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Odd Thomas (2013)

I have a lot of movies in my Netflix queue.  As in 446, not including those that aren’t available on DVD at the moment.  Some of them, I’m saving because they are or were available for streaming.  I’m not sure about the rest.  As I was going through the titles in my queue, I came across Odd Thomas.  It had been there for a few months.  I’m not sure how I found it, but it looked like one of the better selections.

The movie is based on a series of books by Dean Koontz.  It’s about a man actually named Odd Thomas.  He can see dead people and he is of the mind that he should do something about it.  The movie starts with Odd helping a recently deceased woman get her killer arrested.  He happens to be friends with Police Chief Wyatt Porter.  Helping Odd is Stormy Llewellyn, who manages an ice cream shop at the mall.

Odd knows that something big is coming.  He’s tipped off by the presence of bodachs, which are ghostly beings that seem to come around when someone important is about to die.  Not every death attracts one, but the presence of several dozen gets Odd’s attention.  He’s never seen that many at once.  (By the way, he’s the only one that can see them.)  Odd doesn’t know exactly what’s going to happen, but he‘s given clues in the forms of dreams and hallucinations.

Fortunately, I didn’t seen much in the Netflix reviews comparing the movie with other media, not that I read a lot of reviews before watching a movie.  There’s always that temptation to compare the movie to something else.  (“If you liked the Dead Zone…”)  Yes, there is a reference to The Sixth Sense, but it’s not really harped upon.

Yes, this is a scary movie.  Netflix has it listed as NR, but IMDb has a self-applied PG-13 for the movie.  I don’t think this is a movie for children, mainly because of the bodachs.  This could give a young child nightmares, as they’re basically very scary.  They’re seen following people and occasionally possessing someone.

I think most adults will be able to handle the movie and even enjoy it.  I know my parents are often turned off by anything paranormal at first, even though they’ve enjoyed similar movies.  I’d be interested in reading the books.  This isn’t to see how closely the movie follows them, but rather to see more of the story.  I’m surprised that I haven’t seen more about the movie or the books.  Granted, I haven’t been watching movies in the theater much lately, but I’d think with a name like Koontz, someone would have mentioned this to me.

RoboCop (2014)

Note:  This review reveals major details about the movie.  If you haven’t seen the movie and don‘t want spoilers, you may want to wait before reading this review.  (There shouldn’t be many surprises, though, if you’ve seen the 1987 version.)

Remakes are a tricky business.  You’re basically using someone else’s idea and trying to make money off of it.  Yes, there’s safety in knowing that it’s already worked.  However, I’ve never really liked remakes because I always end up comparing it to the original, assuming I had seen the original first.  Total Recall is a perfect example of this.  The 2012 remake is looks nicer, but I would recommend the 1990 version any day.

Likewise, in 1987 we had a movie about a police officer named Alex Murphy who was killed on the job.  OmniCorp got the remains and remade him into RoboCop.  They needed a great new product and they could do whatever they wanted, as they ran the Detroit Police Department and Murphy was legally dead.  In 2014, a new version was made.  Replacing Peter Weller was Murphy was Joel Kinnaman.  I knew I was going to want to hate the remake, but I had to give it a fair shot.

The story is basically the same.  Police Officer Alex Murphy is trying to take down criminals.  When he crosses the wrong one, said criminal attempts to have Murphy killed.  Murphy lives, but just barely.  OmniCorp steps in and offers Mrs. Murphy the opportunity to have her husband remade into RoboCop.  She reluctantly agrees.

RoboCop also has his detractors, most of them criminals.  There are also politicians rallying against drones.  This is what necessitates Murphy’s involvement.  Most voters object to the use of drones on American soil.  However, a human in control of a robot isn’t so objectionable.

RoboCop takes a lot of work and a few unethical choices, but is initially a success.  When RoboCop is first introduced to the public, Clara knows something is wrong with her husband.  He doesn’t respond to her or their son.  However, he is able to apprehend a criminal who’s standing right next to two of Detroit’s finest.  RoboCop also doesn’t bother with briefings; he just goes out and gets the bad guys.

This comes at a cost.  As I said, there are ethical choices to be made.  Dr. Dennett Norton, who is leading the project, has to tinker with Murphy’s emotions.  He has to adjust Murphy’s physiology.  It’s not something he’s comfortable with, but the alternative is failure.  Murphy becomes unstable at certain points.  If RoboCop is to work and Murphy is to live, regrettable decisions will have to be made.

After being put into service, Murphy begins to reemerge.  One of the big problems is being given access to information on his own attempted murder.  He’s programmed not to react emotionally, but eventually goes after those that would have killed him.  In the end, Murphy gets the people that he’s after.

If you’ve seen the original movie, you will probably see most of the movie coming.  As I said, the basic details are the same.  Murphy is killed and comes back for revenge.  His final obstacle is not being able to hurt OmniCorp employees.  (Each movie resolves this differently.)  The movie deals with what it means to have free will.  Do we have it or is it an illusion?

We even get a few of the iconic lines repeated which is nice.  However, there are a lot of differences that fans of the original will notice.  There seemed to be more focus on Murphy.  The original had more focus on OmniCorp and the politics of getting RoboCop made.  Here, we get to see more of Murphy in action.  Speaking of which, Murphy’s memories weren’t wipe, as in the original.

This presented its own set of challenges, like getting Murphy to cooperate.  It also puts an entirely new spin on the movie.  Murphy is ‘erased’ more slowly.  He does make the same comeback, but he’s treated more as a human.  In the original, his family had left Detroit.  Here, he can visit them and even has his wife fighting for him.  It’s almost as if we’re dealing with two different movies.  (Interestingly, this version makes no mention of Detroit’s current bankruptcy.  I thought it was odd how the original seemed to call this.)

I wasn’t liking the movie too much for the first hour or so, but I have to admit that it is a decent movie in its own right.  I’m not saying that I love it or that I like it better than the original, but it is worth watching.

OmniCorp Web site

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Conspiracy (2012)

Note:  This review gives away major details about the movie and how it ends.  If you want to be surprised, you might want to stop reading here.

There’s the old adage that you’re not paranoid if they’re really out to get you.  Terrance might seem like you’re average ranting nut job.  Jim and Aaron are making a documentary about all of his crazy theories about a secret society pushing the world towards one government.  Is that guy on a bike really out to get him?  Maybe.  Is it odd that he disappears shortly after seeing said guy on bike?  Maybe.  Jim and Aaron check local hospitals and whatnot, but Terrance is gone.  His apartment is vacant.  There’s no trace of him.

Jim is willing to let it go.  Aaron, not so much.  Aaron saves various newspaper clippings and starts putting things together.  He puts dates into Google and comes up with The Tarsus Club.  This club seems to have meetings right before major events, such as the attack on the World Trade Center.  Did they really get to Terrance?

This has Jim’s attention, to say the least.  After more research, Jim and Aaron decide to infiltrate a Tarsus meeting.  This is not the best of ideas.  No one has ever gone in and gotten decent footage of a meeting.  Any secret society worth its salt has ways of remaining secret.

The movie starts with Jim saying that he never should have let Aaron go that far.  We get the impression that it won’t end well for Aaron.   The truth is that we see him being beaten up, but not to what extent.  We’re told that he moved away, presumably to the same place that Terrance went.  We never find out what happened to either.

Part of the problem with this angle is that you end up spending the entire movie waiting for something terrible to happen.  You expect Aaron to get hit by a car or something.  Even when it’s a surprise, you still see it coming.

I will say that the whole conspiracy angle is done well.  The title includes a blurred word, which is Mithras.  The movie is kind of what you’d expect a documentary of this type might look like.  If you wait for the end of the credits, you’ll see Chance Investment and Mithras Films credited.  (Chance is the last name of the leader of The Tarsus Group.)  I was able to get this streaming on Netflix.  I would say it’s worth renting the DVD if you can get it. 

Total Recall (2012)

I tend not to like remakes.  Rarely do they add anything except make it look modern.  In this case, we have two movies based on a short story.  (Both versions of Total Recall owe very basic elements to the story “We Can Remember it For You Wholesale” by Philip K. Dick.)  The short story is about a man who comes to realize that there‘s more to his life than what he thinks he remembers.  That’s where the similarity ends.

Here, we have a dystopian future where most of the planet is uninhabitable.  The two remaining areas are the United Federation of Britain and The Colony.  (The Colony is actually just Australia.  Why they couldn’t just call it Australia, I don’t know.)   A man named Doug Quaid is thinking about going to Rekall.  Quaid is a lowly factory worker.  He can’t afford to go on vacation, so Rekall will “remember it for him” as their ad goes.  A coworker warns him not to do it; Rekall has a reputation for lobotomizing people.  Another coworker tells Quaid not to worry about it.  He even recommends one of the technicians.

Well, the implantation goes bad when a SWAT team breaks into the Rekall lab.  Amazingly, Quaid is able to escape.  It turns out that he’s not really Doug Quaid and his lovely wife of several years is actually his handler.  His memories were erased and he was given a new life.  He manages to find out that he was part of a resistance.  People in The Colony are the lower class while the UFB is basically the upper-class people.  The UFB has some nefarious plan that Quaid’s former self didn’t want to see come to fruition.  Or did he?  Either way, it’s up to Quaid to stop it unless he’s not going to, assuming that was the plan all along.  Or was it?

I think this is one of those cases where if you saw and liked the 1990 version, you’re probably not going to be thrilled with this one.  The 1990 version was much better.  We had the issue of identity, which is brought up briefly here.  There’s the issue of what’s real and what’s an illusion, which is mentioned only in passing.  (It comes across mostly as a reference to the 1990 version, but more on that later.)

I remember hearing about the remake and wanting to see it.  I knew I probably wasn’t going to like it as much, but I had to see if they could improve upon it.  Not only did they not improve upon it, I think they even took something away.  Instead of being based on the same source material, this is more of a flashy action remake.  We have the same corrupt leader.  We have the same wife that’s not a wife.  There’s even a three-breasted woman and a comment on the desire for a third hand.  What we don’t have is anything to make you think about the movie.

As I mentioned, there were a few scenes that were referencing the original movie.  Quaid uses the same technology to get to The Colony, which I think was only called The Colony because there was a Martian colony in the original movie.  (Look closely when Quaid arrives in the UFB.  Pay attention to the woman going through security.)  In another scene, Quaid’s coworker is trying to talk Quaid into shooting his fellow resistance member, saying that this is all a dream back at Rekall.  If you’re thinking of seeing Total Recall, I’d recommend skipping this one and just watching the Arnold Schwarzenegger version. 

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Total Recall (1990)

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

Douglas Quaid is a relatively boring man.  He works in construction.  He doesn’t really do much aside from go to work and go home.  He does have a rather attractive wife, played by Sharon Stone.  Lately, he’s been having these strange dreams about a mysterious brunette and has developed an itch to go to Mars.

His wife isn’t too big on the idea.  There’s not much to do there and the political instability doesn’t make for a safe trip.  After all, Mars was colonized basically to mine material.  Yes, they have things to do, but it’s really not much of a resort destination.  He considers a company called Rekall, which specializes in fake vacations.   It sounds nice, but one of Quaid’s coworkers advises against it.  He heard that the lobotomized someone not to long ago.

Despite the coworker’s advice, Quaid checks it out.  They have the ability to implant memories of any trip you want to go on.  For a little extra, you can assume a different identity, such as a spy or a millionaire.  They will even give you some trinkets to take home as souvenirs.  Sounds great.  Quaid signs up.  Problem is that he starts freaking out, saying all sorts of crazy stuff.

He eventually escapes only to find that nothing is as it seems.  The aforementioned coworker tries to abduct Quaid at gunpoint.  It also looks like his beautiful wife was actually sent there to keep tabs on him.  Plus, Quaid may really be someone named Hauser.  Quaid finds a metal briefcase with all sorts of money and documents.  There’s also a message from Hauser telling Quaid what to do in case someone comes after him.  He’s to get to Mars and look for some members of the uprising there.

There’s one small problem:  Cohaagen, the CEO/dictator of Mars, is after him.  Quaid has some information that Cohaagen doesn’t want getting out.  It could hurt Cohaagen’s hold on power.  His company does supply a lot of material to Earth.  It would be a shame if he lost it all.  Cohaagen sends some of his hired guns after Quaid, but Quaid manages to make it to Mars and meet the woman that he was dreaming about.

I remember first seeing this a long time ago.  It’s one of those movies that seems to hold up on later viewings.  It’s one of those movies that you can watch several times and see it different ways each time.  The big theme is reality versus perception.  Did Quaid really get his fake vacation or did it go horribly wrong?  If it was fake, how was it that Quaid was already dreaming about the woman he met?  Yes, it could be that he had dreams about some random woman and the fake vacation simply incorporated it, but there are a lot of other clues that would indicate that the trip was imagined.

This is not a movie for small children.  For starters, it’s very violent.  When Quaid goes nuts in the Rekall lab, he kills and/or injures most of the staff there.  When Cohaagen’s men go after Quaid, they will shoot anyone in the way.  (Quaid even uses one of the casualties as a shield.)  According to IMDb, the death count is somewhere around 73.  Many of the deaths weren’t incredibly bloody, but there are a lot of deaths.

Another thing that you might want to know about before viewing the movie is that Mars has all sorts of mutants.  This comes from the fact that Mars has no natural atmosphere, thus letting in all of the radiation that causes our DNA to change rapidly.  Many look freakish, but you do end up with some interesting mutations.  (It seems that a lot of people remember the prostitute with three breasts.)

I bought Total Recall through iTunes to watch while going on vacation.  (My parents and I were going from Miami to the Tampa area and back, so I had some time on my hands.)  The only reason I bought it was that it was on sale.  I could definitely see watching it again with someone else in the near future, though.  It doesn’t seem that long at 113 minutes.  I’d definitely recommend watching it. 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

David Simon - Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets

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

Many years ago, there was a TV show called Homicide: Life on the Streets.  It was based on this book, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets.  Being a fan of the show, I decided to pick up a copy.  The book is written by David Simon, a reporter for the Baltimore Sun.  In the book, Simon follows the Baltimore Police Department for a year.  (Simon wrote the about the police for the Sun, so writing this book wasn’t much of a stretch.)

As you might expect, the book takes place in Baltimore. It’s mostly in chronological order with a few exceptions.  In the book, you get to read a lot of detail that you normally wouldn’t get in a movie or TV show.  The book goes into a lot of detail about how criminals are caught and tricks that police use to get suspects to confess.

In the book Simon explains how few cases are ever made on evidence alone.  Witnesses forget or move; things like prints are circumstantial; even video doesn’t always mean anything.  A certain percentage of suspects will never see the inside of a courtroom.  Even those that make it to pretrial may get dismissed on a technicality.  For this reason, police are given some leeway in interrogating a suspect.  Most cases are cleared based on confession rather than trial.

Sometimes, they do catch a break, such as finding the murderer standing over the dead body and saying that they’re proud to have killed the person.  It’s not like TV, though.  Many times, the person believed to have committed a murder doesn’t go to jail.

It’s also a physically demanding job, and it‘s not just running after people.  If I recall correctly, the detectives would rotate shifts, meaning that they would have to work mornings one week, afternoons the next and nights the week after that.

The first year of Homicide: Life on the Streets relied heavily on this book, so if you’ve seen the show recently, you’ll probably recognize many of the characters and cases from the book as the people and events that they were based on.  This isn’t to say that it would ruin the book for you.  As I said, I was a fan of the show while it was on.  I had basically wanted to read the source material for the show.

Even if you haven’t seen the show, it’s worth the read.  As I said, many people watch police procedurals and think that every criminal is caught, or at least identified.  This isn’t the case.  Many cases go unsolved.  Many detectives spend their entire careers trying to put someone in jail only to have to retire knowing the case will never be resolved.

I’d recommend buying this book.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Rare Exports (2010)

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

We’ve always heard what a nice guy Santa is.  He comes around once a year to give out presents to those that make his list.  An American believes he’s found the burial mound of the creature that was the original Santa.  He’s in Russia, near the Finnish border.  Some reindeer herders on the other side of the border don’t know about this.  All they know is that there’s a hole in the fence and their reindeer are all dead.  This leads them to believe that the American and his team have let some Russian wolves through.  Either way, it means that they’re out a lot of money and they have debts to pay.

One of the herders, Rauno, sets up a wolf trap, which is illegal.  The fact that he catches an old man doesn’t make things easier on him.  When he and another one of the herders go to dispose of the body, they discover that he’s still alive, which eventually presents an even bigger problem:  The old man can smell children.  He reacts whenever Rauno’s son, Pietari, comes near.

Pietari has been reading up on the Santa legends.  He knows what’s really going on up there and why the old guy is reacting to him.  Pietari and his friend made the hole in the fence to go up and see what the American was doing.  He believes that this is Santa Claus coming to punish him for being naughty.  Unfortunately, none of them yet realize the true scope of the situation.

This isn’t a movie for children.  There aren’t many scenes that parents would find objectionable, but what there is might be very objectionable.  We get to see full male nudity, both front and back.  Granted, it’s some old men in a shower, but I don’t know if I’d be comfortable watching that with my parents.  Also, we get to see a herd of dead reindeer.  There is also a monster that we don’t get to see, but we know it’s big and probably very scary.

It is definitely a new play on the Santa story, at least that I’ve seen in movies.  We have this image of who Santa Claus is and it turns out that this is not at all the case.  There is apparently some truth to the story, insofar as it’s true to legends.  There was a culture that worshiped something similar to what’s presented in the movie.  (Look up Krampus.)  Here, it’s shown that they buried whatever it was.

There were a few unanswered questions.  For starters, why was the American even looking for Santa?  He seemed to have some idea of what the creature was capable of.  He hands out new safety rules to his crew, such as no swearing.  I guess he may have been a little mentally off balance, but it was never stated what he hoped to accomplish.  Maybe he thought the creature wasn’t that bad.  (There are other questions, but I don’t want to ruin it for anyone.)

One of the things I like about having Netflix streaming is that I can find all sorts of new and interesting movies.  Yes, some of them turn out to be crap, but some of them are like this one.  If you don’t come in expecting anything really deep or mind bending, it can be a fun movie.  It doesn’t even go into the legend or history that much except to show Pietari doing some research.  It’s three adults and a kid fighting Santa and his minions.

One problem is that Netflix didn’t have captioning.  There were subtitles for the Finnish dialogue, but there was some English dialogue that I couldn’t get subtitling for.  Other than that, I’d definitely recommend watching it.  You don’t even have to wait for Christmas to give it a shot.

Official site

IMDb page

Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)

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

There are some movies that just come together.  They’re not great because of any one thing.  It’s more like everything works great with all of the other things to produce something memorable.  I’ve come to realize that the opposite is true.  When you have a movie that doesn’t do anything well and doesn’t even make the attempt to produce a cohesive work, you have a horrible movie.

Take Plan 9 From Outer Space.  The movie was written, produced and directed by Edward D. Wood, Jr., considered to be the worst director of all time.  The movie he made was about aliens that come to Earth to try to get us to end our destructive ways.  If we don’t, we’ll eventually make solaranite, something capable of destroying the entire universe.

Apparently, their first eight plans to stop us have failed.  They’re starting with their ninth plan, which has to do with the reanimation of corpses.  The exact nature of the plan isn’t stated, but the corpses tend to want to kill, much like a zombie.  It looks like the aliens are beyond trying to negotiate and have decided that killing humans is the only way to stop us from developing solaranite.

The aliens are first spotted by the crew of an airplane.  The captain knows he saw something, but is prevented by the military from saying anything.  Their official position is that aliens don’t exist, even though the aliens seem to leave lots of witnesses.  The aliens reanimate a man and his wife, neither of which is given a name, to test their reanimation capabilities.  Before long, a police inspector learns too much and is killed, then reanimated.  A military officer, a few local police officers and the airline pilot take it upon themselves to try and stop the aliens before they reanimate anyone else.

You may be thinking that this is at least a somewhat decent plot.  It is, but it’s poorly executed.  There weren’t many actors in the movie that had any acting ability outside of Ed Wood films.  Criswell, who introduced the film and did the narration, was a psychic of sorts, making predictions with a wide range of accuracy.  Vampira, who played the reanimated wife, had been in a few other movies and had even hosted her own short-lived TV show.

Bela Lugosi was the only actor I had heard of before watching the movie about Ed Wood.  Unfortunately, he had died before the movie was produced.  Some footage that Ed Wood had shot before the movie was written was used to established Lugosi as the husband distraught at losing his wife.  After dying and being brought back, the corpse is played by his then-girlfriend’s chiropractor, Tom Mason.  (Note that there’s a very obvious difference in height between Lugosi and Mason.)

Most of the acting was pretty bad.  It was what you’d expect from people that had just started acting.  Very, very flat and with almost no emotion.  The aliens were supposed to be arrogant, but came across as being very silly.  It’s like when people that know very little try to talk as if they know something.  (They kept describing humans as being “stupid” and as “idiots”.) 

It’s kind of hard to rate the effects using the system we have here on Epinions.  Since this was produced in the late 50s, they had no access to 90s technology.  But to say that you can’t see the strings is being kind as you can actually see the strings on several occasions.  It also changes between night and day several times.  The makeup was at least somewhat decent, but black-and-white film is a little more forgiving.

The plot and writing, as you may have guessed, aren’t the best, either.  How is it that a race mastered interplanetary travel, but can’t seem to affect any sort of change on Earth?  I mean, they’re enacting a really sucky plan that’s pretty much doomed to failure and they’re not even in the double digits yet.  They can tell that we’re on the verge of developing technology that could destroy everything in existence, but they can’t think of anything on the way over?  If they know enough to stop us, they must have dealt with similar issues on other planets.

There’s no real mention of the first eight plans, but I don’t imagine that they could have been that good.  It’s not even clear what they want to do with the zombies.  Do they hope to use them as an army?  Is it a show of power?  Maybe they just want to scare the living daylights out of people or force the military to admit the existence of aliens.  To think that such an advanced race ran out of good ideas so quickly.

Ed Wood had the desire to make movies, but seriously lacked talent.  In terms of production values, this has to be the worst movie I’ve ever seen.  It pretty much sets the standard for poorly made movies.  In terms of entertainment value, it is still kind of entertaining to watch.

This is one of those few movies that I’m forced to give one star, but would still recommend.  At 78 minutes, it’s not at all boring.  I’d recommend this to anyone who’s interested in movies.  You have to watch it just to see how bad it is.  As they say, no one’s a total failure.  At least you can serve as a negative example to others.

Plan 9 IMDb page (planned remake)

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Atomic Brain/ Monstrosity (1963)

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

Warning:  I’m going to give away major details about the movie, including the ending.  If you don’t like spoilers and have any intention of watching this movie, you might want to hold off on reading this review.

Hetty March is an old, miserly hag and she knows it.  She’s spent her entire life hoarding money.  Now, she has a plan to take it with her.  She’s contracted with Dr. Otto Frank to find a way to transfer her brain into a hot, young body.  She’ll then change her will to leave all of her fortune to the person whose body she will eventually reside in. 

Dr. Frank isn’t doing so well with his experiments.  Since no credible hospital will let him do experiments, he’s forced to work out of Hetty’s basement.  He’s even reduced to having his henchman steal bodies from the cemetery.  At best, he can make a mindless zombie.  His henchman, in fact, is nothing more than a dog’s brain in a human body.  The dogman can obey orders, but doesn’t seem to have much independent thought.

So, Hetty takes out an ad for a maid.  Three young female candidates all arrive in town, only to meet at the airport.  There’s Nina, the Austrian; Anita, the Mexican and Beatrice, the blonde with the annoyingly fake British accent.  Hetty figures that since they’re all a long way from home and probably don’t want to deal with INS, they’ll be cooperative, or at least hesitant to run.

After inspecting the women, Hetty finds that Anita has a mole on her back.  This is enough to cause Hetty to reject Anita.  At least Dr. Frank has his first live subject to experiment on, so he transfers the brain of a cat into Anita’s body.  When Anita eats a mouse, Hetty realizes that the process has promise.  All that she needs to do is figure out which of the two remaining women she wants to swap bodies with and change her will accordingly.  (Due to Beatrice having a horrible accident, it ends up being Nina.)

As you might expect, it’s not that simple.  Hetty has surrounded herself with people that don’t like the idea of being left out of her will.  She has a boyfriend that realizes that he’ll be dumped shortly after Hetty has better options.  Otto realizes that Hetty will have limited use for him, as well.  Well, the boyfriend isn’t successful at stopping Hetty, but Dr. Frank is.  He puts her brain in the cat’s body and leaves Nina intact.  His plan is to find a way to get the money from Nina.

While Dr. Frank had better luck than the boyfriend, he does eventually suffer the same fate.  The movie ends with Nina running off into the forest surrounding Hetty’s house with Hetty (in the cat’s body) following her.  We’re left to guess as to what becomes of them.  We don’t get to see Nina in a psychiatrist’s office or sitting on a bus bench.  We don’t even get any sort of text or anything.

This was one of those movies that could have been done a lot better.  In fact, I’m sure that there are plenty of brain-swapping movies that have been done better.  If you’re making a movie about transferring your brain to a new body, how about giving us some details?  There are no shaved heads or scars to speak of.  Also, how do you fit a human brain into a cat’s head?  While I’m on the subject, how does putting a dog’s brain into a human body cause the human body to grow fangs?

I’ve also wondered how these doctors and scientists hook up with people that will fund them.  This is before Craig’s List, so you’d probably have local papers at best.  I could just see the ad, “SWF needs mad scientist for some brain-swapping experiments; will provide lab in basement, but you must bring your own bodies”

It’s not rated, but it’s still something you might want to keep the kids away from.  It’s not so much that you see anything as children probably won’t understand what’s going in.  If they do, it’s not really something they should be thinking about.  You don’t see any surgery, but you seeing the dog in a human body might scare some people.  Even though Hetty examines the bodies, you don’t really see anything.  At most, you see their bare backs.  She also prods the women with her cane a little.

I got this as part of a set of ten science-fiction movies, all of which seem to be public domain.  I’ve even seen it as part of other collections, usually as The Atomic Brain.  (You’ll find it on the Internet Movie Database as Monstrosity.)  The video transfer isn’t that good.  I think that St. Claire Vision, the company that released the ten-movie set, didn’t want to put a lot of money into it.  It looks like it was taken from a set of reels that was actually used in a movie theater.  The sound is bad and the dialogue is often truncated, as if the film is missing a few seconds here and there.

I’m sure that there are better transfers, but I doubt that this would help the movie much.  Everything about this movie would tell me that it suffered from a really small budget.  While the concept is good, the dialogue and acting aren’t that good.  Of the three women that were candidates for the brain swap, none of the actresses went on to star in anything else.  (This is also the cat’s only acting credit.)  The only way I could recommend watching it is if it comes on television late at night or you get it as part of a collection of movies like I did.  It’s only 63 minutes, which means that you won’t be wasting too much of your time. 

Monday, September 15, 2014

Lee Smolin - Three Roads to Quantum Gravity

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

Quantum gravity isn’t a subject for everyone. I’ve been reading a few books on it recently and this book is the most recent. For those that don’t know, the theory of quantum gravity is one of several attempts to unify the theories that deal with large-scale things, like planets, and the theories that deal with small-scale things, like electrons and other subatomic particles. It would essentially create one theory that explains everything from the largest object down to the smallest possible particle.

I hadn’t heard of the author, Lee Smolin, before I came across this book. However, he does have a firm grasp of the subject. According to the back of the book, he’s a researcher at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics and Professor of Physics at Waterloo University.

If you haven’t heard of quantum theory before, you’ll probably need to do some reading before you start this book. It’s not that the information is unclear. It’s just that you might not catch everything. It’s like trying to drive a sports car if you’ve never driven before. You’ll have to work your way up. Someone new to this kind of science in general will probably be confused after the first few chapters.

The author admits that the book is meant for the “intelligent layperson”. He hasn’t assumed a previous knowledge of the book’s subject. However, physics isn’t really what you’d call an ‘easy’ subject. Some of the stuff you may remember from high-school or college science. Much of it will be new to you.

You’re probably wondering about the three roads that the title refers to. They refer to three methods of uniting large-scale and small-scale physics. One is M Theory. (No one is really sure what the ‘M’ stands for.) Another is Loop Quantum Gravity, referred to as LQG. The third is Black-Hole Thermodynamics. The answer could be on one of these ‘roads’ or some combination of all three.

The book deals with all three. However, instead of devoting a section to each ‘road’, the book is written chronologically, which does make it easier to understand. The three areas of research have some things in common and may one day prove to be parts of the same thing.

I would definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in physics. There were a few parts that were somewhat difficult to understand, but the book as a whole was easy to read. For someone who knows at least something about physics, the book is fairly easy to understand. The chapters are very well organized and presented. The author does a good job of explaining things. The only complaint that I had was that at times, it seemed like the author was almost bragging, telling about certain things that he’s done. However, it does help to have someone that’s done work in the field, which makes feeling like that unavoidable. I’d give the book four stars. 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Lynne Truss - Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation

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

I remember once I was at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. Throughout the zoo, they had several signs posted about “Free Ranging Monkeys.” I turned to my father and said that I liked free stuff as much as the next guy, but I had no idea what a ranging monkey was. (What they had probably meant to say was “Free-ranging Monkeys.”) That was many years ago.

It wasn’t until just recently that I found a book for people like me. “Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation” is Lynne Truss’s way of telling the world what she thinks of a particular movie title (“Two Weeks Notice”) and various other grammatical mistakes, many of which she blames on greengrocers.

There’s one chapter dedicated to apostrophes, mostly because people find it so difficult to tell when to use one. It would seem that possessives confuse a lot of people, especially when it comes to ‘its’ and ‘it’s’. (‘Its’ is possessive while ‘it’s’ is a contraction for ‘it is’ or ‘it was’.) There’s also another chapter dedicated to the comma. (For some reason, people seem to have trouble with the comma, as well as the apostrophe.) Truss points out several examples where a well-placed comma could have made a difference, as in the joke to which the title refers. (For those that haven’t heard it, it’s printed on the back of the book.)

The book also covers the colon, semicolon, dashes and several other punctuation marks, but not in as much detail. That’s because commas and apostrophes seem have the greatest impact on how we read a sentence. Consider the words, “woman without her man is savage”. (This is actually brought up in the book.) One way of punctuating it is: “Woman, without her man, is savage.” You could also go with, “Woman: Without her, man is savage.” Notice how commas make all the difference. As I’ve mentioned, dashes also have a great impact and are also covered in detail.

Truss is British and wrote the book for a British audience. No attempt was made to rewrite or edit the book for American audiences, but it doesn’t really matter. Most readers shouldn’t have a problem with the book. Many of the differences are in terminology. What Americans call a period, the British call a full stop. (I have to wonder: if a period is a full stop, is a comma a rolling stop?)

I’m tempted to recommend this book just to certain people, and I don’t just mean those within the Epinions community. However, I’d recommend this book to anyone who writes. Truss writes that the fluid nature of the Internet and the popularity of email and text messaging are partly responsible for the decline of punctuation and the language in general. (This isn’t the first time that I’ve heard such a sentiment.) I haven’t noticed it as much, probably because I deal mostly with people that hold themselves to a higher standard. (In other words, I’d like to think that I’ve chosen my friends well.)

The main reason that I’m recommending this book is the clarity with which it’s written. Anyone, British or American, can pick up this book and understand what’s being said and why the author can’t stand certain mistakes and what, if anything, she’d like to see people do about it. You wouldn’t think that you could take a subject like punctuation and keep it interesting for 204 pages, but Truss did it.

For all those that cringe whenever you see misplaced or misused punctuation, you can feel better knowing that there are others like you out there. For those that don’t cringe, this book was written for you.

Amir D. Aczel - Fermat's Last Theorem: Unlocking the Secret of an Ancient Mathematical Problem

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

Anyone who took math in high school would remember the Pythagorean theorem. It states that the sum of the squares of the two sides of a right triangle equals the square of the hypotenuse. (More basically, that a squared plus b squared equals c squared.) Then, along came Fermat, who stated that two is the only whole-number power greater than one to which this equation is possible, at least with whole numbers as a and b. This means that you could have A cubed plus B cubed equaling C cubed. Supposedly, Fermat had proof, but he never wrote it down.

In the 300 years since Fermat wrote that down, many great minds have tried to figure out how to prove (or disprove) what became known as Fermat’s Last Theorem. This book shows many of the major players and how they went about trying to get the answer, which was eventually solved. (Yes, it was an extremely difficult problem.)

I thought the book was a little short. It was only 147 pages, which made for an easy read. While the book covered the subject matter pretty well, it didn’t go into a lot of detail. There were many mathematical theorems and proofs that built up to the proof for Fermat’s Last Theorem; someone that doesn’t know a lot about higher math will probably be lost. I was able to follow the book, but there were still a few things that I didn’t know much about.

Instead of focusing on the mathematical detail, the book is more of a historical account of what happened. For instance, Fermat lived for another 26 years, I believe, after writing out his famous equation. In that time, he never bothered to write out his proof. It’s believed that his proof was much simpler than the one we have now, mostly because it used a lot of math that Fermat didn’t have available. However, we’ll never know if Fermat actually had a proof or if he just wrote out this equation on a whim.

(On a side note, there was an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in which Captain Picard mentions Fermat’s Last Theorem, stating that it hadn’t yet been solved. That episode aired a few years prior to the finding of the solution.)

One thing that I noticed, and I might be imagining this, is that it seemed like there was a lot of repetition. I know that I wasn’t repeating any pages, but there were some passages that seemed familiar, as if I had just read them a few pages back. Maybe I had accidentally gone back a few pages, but I doubt it.

I’d give this book four stars, but I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone. You will need some understanding of math. It may be somewhat difficult for the average person. If you’re into math, this would be a good book to read. 

Gothic Vampires from Hell (2007)

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

There’s a joke that I think applies to this movie:  A guy orders dinner at a restaurant.  After he eats it, the waiter asks how the customer’s food was.  He says, “I have two complaints.  First, it was horrible.  Second, there wasn’t enough of it.”

Ok.  On with the review, then.

The title of the movie comes from the name of a band that wants to win a competition.  The prize is a contract as the house band at a Gothic night club.  Losers at least get some stage time, but the lead singer of the title band has put too much time into the band to settle for second place.  He wants to win.

Enter two women that claim that they want to sign Gothic Vampires From Hell to a recording contract.  If they can get a contract, they don’t need the club.   The women aren’t quite what they seem, though.  People have a way of going missing after meeting with them.

That’s really where the plot description ends.  I can’t even say it’s a battle between good and evil as it’s really just a battle between the to women and the bands that they meet.  As you might have gathered from trailers and other reviews, the two women are vampires who are really looking for their new vampire leader.

There are some movies that do well with a small budget.  This isn’t one of them.  The most obvious sign of it being low budget is the recycling of footage, despite the short running time.  If you’re making a movie and need to reuse footage and it’s going to be very obvious, I’m sure there are ways you can work that into the story.  Instead, there are several scenes with different bands playing where the images of people dancing are used repeatedly.  To boot, the scenes look like nothing more than filler.  (Remember when you had to write a paper for school and you played with the font and margin to make the minimum number of pages?  This is the cinematic equivalent.)

Most of the acting was bad, too.  Yes, good actors had to start somewhere.  I don’t think many of them started in a movie like this.  Normally, I’d go to the Internet Movie Database and look at the actors’ other work as an indication.  With many bad movies, there are no other roles to speak of.  This one seems to be the exception, although I think there’s at lease one actor that hadn’t been in anything else at all.  Others have had a few roles, although some have had a lot of roles in other bad movies.

The video quality looked like the movie was made with a couple of borrowed camcorders.  It seemed like the producers were trying to make up for bad video quality by doing things that made it look more like they didn’t have that much money.  What little CGI they had didn’t really blend in that well and actually was distracting.  They also tried to use a lot of fancy transitions between scenes which made it seem like they were trying too hard.

I think with some more attractive women and a lot more nudity, this could have been a great porn title.  In fact, the one good thing the movie had going for it was a couple of attractive vampires.  If the writing was better, it could have been a real mainstream movie.  As it stands, it looks like someone took an episode from one of those horror series like Tales From the Crypt and put it on steroids.


Saturday, September 06, 2014

The Dead Zone (1983)

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

Christopher Walken plays John Smith, a man who has everything. He has a beautiful girlfriend. He also has a job as an English teacher. He’s doing all right until one night, after dropping his girlfriend off at her house, he gets in an accident. He wakes up in a hospital. When he remembers what happened and realizes that he’s without bandages, he asks what’s going on.

It turns out that he’s been in a coma for five years. His girlfriend has moved on. His job is no longer there. He finds that everything is either gone or slipping away. While in the hospital, he touches a nurse. He sees a burning house and calls out the name of the nurse’s daughter. Smith tells the nurse to run home and save the girl.

It turns out to be a long and painful road to recovery. He’s initially bound to a wheelchair, but with a lot of hard work, he’s able to walk with the help of a cane. He can’t return to his old job, but he is able to work as a tutor. Through it all is his doctor, Sam Weizak, played by Herbert Lom. Smith is able to demonstrate his abilities by figuring out where his long-lost mother is. (Dr. Weizak was separated from her during World War II.)

Smith is able to help others, like a boy who can’t seem to function. He also aids the local police department in finding a serial killer. Dr. Weizak advises against it because Smith ends up with terrible pains and reports that he feels like he’s dying each time. He can’t, though. He wants to help.

I should warn you that I’m about to divulge how the movie ends. Now is the time to stop reading if you’re not into that kind of stuff. Smith realizes that he has one last mission to accomplish. Martin Sheen plays Greg Stillson, a candidate for Senator. This guy’s a certifiable nut job and everyone knows it, but he keeps getting voted into office because he has that certain charisma that says, “I’ll do what I promise no matter what.”

Smith has a vision in which Stillson goes on to become president. This president isn’t anything like what Sheen plays on The West Wing. This president is suicidal. Instead of waiting for a diplomatic solution, he ends up launching missiles at the enemy, thus ensuring the end of humanity. Smith must kill Stillson, even though he’ll never get away alive.

The movie is very depressing. We see Smith eventually stripped of everything. This is a man that could be any one of us. (After all, he’s named John Smith.) Any one of us could be in an accident. Any one of us could see our girlfriend marry another man and have a child. Granted, not everyone has the ability to touch people and know details about them. As we watch Smith slide into a life he wants no part of, we have to empathize with him. I don’t think any of us would want that life, even if we had the ability to help people.

Walken does an excellent job as Smith. He portrays the frustration perfectly. Sheen also does very well as the sociopath candidate. It seems natural that the movie would have to end with one of them dying.  This is definitely not a movie for children. I don’t think that anyone under the age of 16 or so would be able to deal with many of the issues dealt with in this movie. I don’t think many adults would, either. 

Thursday, September 04, 2014

The Directory Of Signs & Signals: A Guide To Signs, Codes And Signals From Across The World

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

I’ve always had an interest in communication, whether it be learning to communicate or different forms of communication.  Usually, I’ll read newspaper articles or get books from the library.  When I came across a book on signs and signals that was on sale, I decided to pick up a copy.

It’s a fairly simple book that covers various forms of nonverbal communication.  There are five groupings of signs and signals in the book:  Distance communication, personal communication, survival, sports and miscellaneous.  Each section is further divided into a few forms of signs.  Distance communication has semaphore, Morse code and maritime signal flags.  Personal communication has Braille, American Sign Language, British Sign Language and Emoticons.  Survival has ground-to-air signals, body signals and trail signs.  Sports is American football hand signals, soccer hand signals and motor-racing flags.  Miscellaneous is simply trading signals and weather symbols.  There are tabs on the side of the pages to make it easy to find each main section.

Each of the sections is broken down into two or three subsections.  There’s a brief (two-page) overview of the system, covering things like how it was invented or how it’s used.  There’s usually a few pages showing all of the symbols.  After that is several pages showing larger images of each symbol.  So, the semaphore section will have two pages, one showing A-O and the next showing P-Z, error and numerical sign.  After that comes pages showing two letters at a time.  Each letter is shown with an image of a head, feet and hands holding the flags.

With American Sign Language and British Sign Language, it’s just the letters and maybe one or two words.  There’s nothing on grammar or syntax or anything.  If you wanted to learn sign language, this would be a very basic introduction.  If you were going camping and wanted to know about using trail signs or ground-to-air communication, I’d recommend getting a better book than this.  I don’t think that this is meant to be comprehensive.

The subtitle indicates that the signals are supposed to be from across the world.  Yes, Morse code is used internationally, but there does seem to be a slant towards British and American.  Things like Braille and Morse code don’t even have international letters.  Other languages, like French and German, use letters that aren’t included in this book.

I feel compelled to write a very long review, but there’s not that much to the book.  It consists mostly of pictures with very little writing to it.  What writing there is doesn’t really go into much detail.  I’m sure that there are must more detailed books out there, especially on sign languages.  If you were interested in the history of Morse code or Braille, I’m sure you could find books dedicated to either one.  The book is nice to look at, but I don’t think is intended to be full-on reference.

That said, it’s worth getting if you can get it on sale.  I don’t know that I’d recommend paying more than a few dollars for it.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

A Bit About Socks

Note:  This was originally posted to my Epinions account.

Every so often, I like to write about a totally random topic. Today, I’d like to take on the random topic of socks. Socks are a relatively unappreciated piece of clothing, often taken for granted. At their most functional level, they serve as a barrier, reducing or even preventing friction between your shoe and your foot. Those that don’t wear socks may end up with all sorts of sores and abrasions on their feet depending on what sort of shoe they wear. Take it from me; this is not pleasant. Socks are a very important part of your wardrobe.

Socks come in many colors, styles and sizes. Many are made of cotton, but you can get socks in synthetic materials such as Nylon. Some are meant for casual use while others are meant for sports. There are even dress socks meant for formal and business occasions. There are two baseball teams, the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago White Sox, but those are just their names. I don’t think that there’s any actual connection to or endorsement of socks other than what the players wear.

Most people wear casual socks, which are used with regular sneakers. Usually, these socks are meant for sports such as tennis, but do well for everyday use. Casual socks range in size from ankle-high to knee-high, although I prefer those that go up about six inches above my ankle. I once tried ankle-high socks, but I felt like I wasn’t wearing anything at all. I would imagine that those that go up to the knee offer more support, but I really couldn’t see wearing those.

If you work or if you’re going for a job interview, you might want to wear dress socks depending on how you dress. Women who choose to wear a skirt often don’t wear dress socks. However, those that wear slacks often do. These are socks meant for occasions when you have to get dressed up. For some reason, you can’t wear just any socks. You need special socks that match the rest of your outfit. (Tell me how many times you’ve noticed the color of someone’s socks when they’re wearing slacks.)

Dress socks come in a wide variety of materials and colors. As I said, you have to match them. It will probably take you a while to find a material and style that you feel comfortable with. It took me years to find a pair that didn’t cause my big toes to curl inward, thus making my feet very uncomfortable. Now that I have to wear dress socks on a regular basis, I’m glad I have several pairs that I can wear for 8 to 10 hours at a time.

You might also have to wear formal socks if you ever need to wear a tuxedo. I don’t really know if or how these differ from dress socks. Every time I’ve needed a tuxedo, I’ve rented it and the rental came with a pair of shoes and a pair of socks. I don’t know if these are simply a cheap pair of socks or if they’re something special that you have to wear with the shoes. If someone knows what the difference is, please let me know.

You may be wondering how you can purchase a pair of socks. Any place that sells shoes should sell socks, as well. Wal-Mart and Target also have a wide variety of them. Yes, they do come in different foot sizes, so be careful. The size of the sock is usually given as a range of shoe sizes. (The package might be marked as men’s sizes 10-12, for instance.) If you’re not sure of your shoe size, check the tongue of your shoe, which should have a tag. This tag will tell you your shoe size. Since socks do have some stretch, you’ll find that you have a little leeway.

There seems to be some debate as to when to throw out your socks. Some people think that you should throw out your socks as soon as you have any sort of hole in them. Others seem to think that you can get away with wearing them a bit longer. The choice is yours. After all, they’re your socks.

I’d like to see Epinions list more socks for review. I’d actually write some reviews, but I usually have a hard time remembering which set of dress socks is which brand. I was going to talk about wet socks and argyle socks, but I’ve decided against. After all, nobody likes a wet sock. Or is that a wet blanket? (Maybe it’s an argyle blanket.) Anyway, I’m going to leave you with a Web site to look at.

The Bureau of Missing Socks

Assault Girls/Asaruto gâruzu (2009)

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

I’ve come to realize that the first-review promotions on Epinions probably wasn’t done with movies in mind.  Many of the mainstream, big-budget titles were typically reviewed regardless.  This left many of the independent and low-budget movies, some of which are good.  However, the vast majority of movies without reviews were going to be movies that are pretty crappy.  Most of them were without reviews for a reason.

Take Assault Girls.  I’ll admit that I gave into my more basic instincts when I saw that it was about three Asian women in a VR setting.  What I didn’t realize is that at 70 minutes, there was no way it was going to be that good.  Ever notice how a three-hour movie can be long, but a one-hour movie will seem even longer?  This is the case here.  The movie starts with an 8-minute narration about shared reality and the decline of man or something.  (I couldn’t really tell because the audio was kind of muffled.)

We then cut to three women and a guy in some sort of fight with giant worm things.  One woman is a Goth that can turn into a raven and shoot energy balls.  Another is dressed in red and rides a horse.  The third is dressed in black and grey and has an airplane.  They guy has some sort of RPG launcher or something.  They’re all doing this to get points or something, all the while insulting each other’s motivations for being there.

Each of them runs out of some critical item, like grenades or transport time, and has to wait until they can get more.  They go back to their respective bases and then proceed to wander aimlessly in the vast desert that is their VR world.  Along the way, they meet a snail and a statue.  (What do they do?  Put the snail on the statue, of course.)  There’s also some sort of voice that tells them stuff, like how beating the big boss worm is impossible to do alone, so they’ll have to form a party.

Actually, I’m not sure if the voice was telling the pilot woman or all of them.  Either way, this takes up about a half an hour.  Yes.  We’re talking about a good 20-30 minutes of walking around in the desert.  Not a figurative 30 minutes, but a real 30 minutes, much like how I’m using a great many words to describe this.  I actually sat through the entire thing.

After everyone’s gotten some good VR exercise, pilot woman gathers everyone so that she can propose teaming up and defeating the boss worm, Madara, together and splitting the points four ways.  The guy doesn’t like this, so he proposes taking half and leaving the rest for the women to split.  She challenges him to a four-round duel.  He accepts and subsequently loses all four rounds.  So, they team up and beat the boss worm.  They guy then realizes that he’s been betrayed, so he shoots down the women and decides that he’s going to be a player hater from here on out.  That’s how the movie ends.

I’m going to say it right here: Do not buy this movie.  There is going to be little to no replay value.  Remember how I said that a one-hour movie could be longer than a three-hour movie?  Whoever edited this movie should have gotten rid of all the walking scenes.  I don’t think this would have taken anything away from the movie.  From there, we probably could have cut the movie in half again and not lost much.

When I finished the movie, I felt like I was missing some sort of perspective, like it was one big in-joke and I didn’t get the punch line.  I did some research and apparently, it borrows elements from a movie called Avalon.  (IMDb doesn’t list this as a sequel or anything.   It just says, “Evolves around the same virtual reality:  Avalon”.)  If I had watched Avalon, I’m wondering if Assault Girls would have made sense.  It also probably doesn’t help that I’m not a gamer.  It’s possible that the four characters are supposed to make fun of those that play a lot.

Instead of all of this walking, we could have had a little character development.  Why is everyone there?  We get that everyone’s being paid to be there, but how are they being paid?  Is it by the week?  Is it by the kill?  Is it by the point?  At least one person is doing this to support a family.  Is the family being paid directly?  How long do they stay there?  Is it for a set period of time or until they beat the game?  It’s also never stated why someone would pay them.  Is it to test the system?  Is it to study combat with an alien race?  At least some of this could have been explained during all of those walking scenes.

The movie is kind of  like The Matrix meets Dune.  (This isn’t entirely fair.  At least The Matrix had a coherent plot.)  This is the worst case of What the F*** was Everyone Thinking that I’ve ever seen.  There was this rule that everyone had to speak English while in the system, even though an exception is made in one scene.  This isn’t to say that subtitles aren’t necessary.  As I said, the introductory monologue was hard to understand and Netflix didn’t seem to have subtitles while streaming.  There were subtitles when the producers thought necessary, but I had trouble in  spots.  There are also five chapters, each of which has lines about gods being hidden and men that can’t be forgotten.  The text was not in English, but the subtitles were there to help.

It’s kind of like someone tried to take a short story and make it into a full-length movie.  As you might expect with a 70-minute film, they fell way short of this.  Instead of adding material, they had people walk around.  I’d recommend avoiding this one, even if you can get it streaming.