Monday, May 30, 2016

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005)

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

I had wanted to see The Chronicles of Narnia in the theaters, but I wasn’t sure how much of a kids’ movie it was. I didn’t really want to go by myself if there would be a theater full of kids and there weren’t any people that I thought would be willing to go with me to see what I knew would be a fantasy movie.

For those that don’t know, this movie is based on the first of seven books by C. S. Lewis. It tells the tale of four children sent away by their mother to protect them from the onslaught of WWII. (Their names are Edmund, Peter, Lucy and Susan.) They’re living with a professor that they’re told not to disturb. They’re also told not to touch anything, but it isn’t long before Lucy finds a wardrobe that leads to Narnia

At first, no one believes her. Not only does she find a wardrobe that leads to another world, but she meets a faun and when she returns, only a few seconds have elapsed. Yes, all four children do eventually go through and learn that Lucy was telling the truth. There’s also supposed to be a prophecy that four children of Adam and Eve (humans) are supposed to end the reign of an evil witch.

The White Which is that evil witch and wants to thwart the prophecy. She tries to get Edmund to betray his siblings and kidnaps him when he fails. It’s up to the remaining siblings to find a lion named Aslan to get him back and to stop the White Witch’s rule on Narnia.

It’s an interesting story and definitely has a fantasy element, so a few adults may be turned off by this. Many of the animals talk, which is definitely aided by CGI. There’s also magic and even an appearance by Santa Claus, even though there’s been no Christmas in Narnia for over 100 years. The thing I found odd was that he gave three of the children weapons to help fight, which you wouldn’t expect from someone who’s known for giving out toys.

I didn’t find the movie to be too overbearing in terms of any sort of moral. While it was fun and there is the sense that good will prevail, it wasn’t like someone was being very obvious about anything. If anything, the fantasy may be a bit much for some people. There are all sorts of creatures that you’d expect from fantasy, like fauns. It’s a little complicated. If you miss part of it or if you miss the first half, you may be lost later on in the movie.

This movie is based on the first of seven books. I’ve never read any of them, so I have no idea how closely the story follows. The biggest indication of how much people like the movie may be how well the sequels do. Granted, since the movies are based on books, there will be a built-in audience. However, if the first two movies don’t translate well, they may not do the remaining five. However, I will be waiting for all of the remaining six movies and may even see if I can pick up the books.

I do recommend this movie. The only downside for some people may be the violence that comes about due to a war. I would think it’s safe for children ten and up, but it is something to consider. The second movie is currently in production, which I may see in the theater depending on when it comes out. 

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Sigma DC 201940 10-20 mm F/4.0-5.6 HSM EX IF ASP Lens

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

When I first got a digital SLR, my brother gave me some great advice. He told me to wait a few months before buying any new lenses. At the time, I had a Sigma 28-90 and a Nikkor 35-135. Those should be enough for a while. Eventually, I’d figure out what, if anything, I needed to get. It didn’t take me long to realize that I wanted to get wide-angle shots. 28mm was pretty wide, but there were shots that I just couldn’t get.

The day I decided to buy something, I was in North Carolina. There was a bus station I wanted to photograph, but I had a building to one side and a building behind me, so I couldn’t get into a position where I could photograph the entire building. I knew it was time to buy something wider.

I knew that I wanted to get really wide shots and didn’t want to have to go out and buy yet another lens, so I decided to go all the way. I looked at several lenses, including the Nikon 12-24. I finally decided on the Sigma 10-20 for several reasons. (The most important was that the Nikon 12-24 was more than twice the price of this lens at the time.) I had looked at lenses that weren’t as wide, but I was afraid that it wouldn’t be enough.

When set to 10mm, I get an extremely wide shot with this lens. It ranges from 63.8 to 102.4°, which is pretty good. My mother wanted me to take pictures of various tents. I was standing so close to one that my mother wanted me to stand back. I actually moved a little closer so as not to include a fence in the picture. I’ve also found that it’s hard to take pictures without people because they often don’t realize they’re in the picture.

The lens is f/4-5.6, which means that it’s not letting in as much light as other lenses. Then again, I intend to use the lens mostly outdoors. If you’re indoors, you’ll have to get an SB-600. I have a Nikon D50 and the onboard flash isn’t enough. You can actually see where the on-board flash falls off.

I have tried using the lens on occasion for nighttime photography. It’s a little trickier because you need a tripod and no flash. You’re better off using a tripod and going for a long exposure. If you go to my Flickr account, I’ve actually tagged many of my Sigma 10-20 shots as such. Many came out good, but not as good as they could have been.

The lens works better with nature photography than with architecture, the reason being that it’s tending towards a fisheye lens. The distortion is somewhat noticeable at 20mm and very noticeable at 10mm. (The distortion can be compensated for in Photoshop.) When I had the lens at work the other day, a coworker was using the lens to take pictures of our faces. It looked almost like a funhouse mirror.


If you’re at 10mm and you’re taking pictures of a room, you have to have the lens aimed perpendicular to the wall. If you do point the lens perpendicular, you’ll notice that the room seems deeper than it really is. If you don’t, you may see some of the vertical lines tilting. This is true for any straight line, really. If you can go into a store and test out the lens, point the lens at a wall and move the camera left to right. You’ll see what I’m talking about.

One interesting aspect is that it’s a HSM lens, which is the Sigma designation for High Speed Motor. If anyone reading this has a D40, D40x or a D60, you’re thinking to yourself that the salesman may have said something about having to use Nikon DX lenses. This is because those cameras don’t have a lens motor. You have to buy lenses that have motors, such as the Nikon DX lenses or (drum roll, please) Sigma HSM lenses. Yes, this lens will work on the aforementioned cameras. (In retrospect, I should have tried it on one of those cameras the other day, as I work in a camera store.)

If you have a full-frame camera, like a Nikon D3, you’ll see cropping. The lens was intended for digital cameras. If you’re wondering if they make a VR version of this, it would really be pointless as you don’t need it with smaller distances. You have to really move a lens to get shake at 10mm. As for color fringing, I have noticed it on one or two photos, but the lens has been pretty good at not having it. This is especially important for outdoor shots.

Overall, the lens gets five stars. The lens is exactly what I want and, while expensive, was worth every penny.

Contact (1997)

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

Jodie Foster plays Dr. Elli Arroway, a radio astronomer. She was raised by her father, who gave her a strong interest in astronomy. She spends a great deal of her adult life looking for extraterrestrial life, mostly with SETI. Things are rough. Most government bureaucrats aren’t willing to finance the search for little green men, so Dr. Arroway has to spend a lot of time looking for funding. Fortunately, she’s able to secure enough to rent radio telescopes, which scan the heavens for some sort of coherent signal.

Finally, just as everyone’s about to give up hope, a signal comes in. It’s these loud, booming noises. Dr. Arroway and her team realize that the noises are grouped in prime numbers. Prime numbers are numbers that are divisible by only themselves and one, such as 2 and 5. (1 isn’t considered a prime number by many for reasons I won’t go into here.) Any intelligent civilization should know what a prime number is because primes are independent of what base we use for our numbering system. The signal is very interesting. It’s so interesting that the government wants a part of it. Dr. Arroway and her team are allowed to research it, but at the governments direction.

Some interesting things are learned about the clip. First, there’s a clip of Hitler speaking at the 1936 Olympics. The 1936 Olympics was the first TV signal strong enough to go into space. The aliens, whoever they are, apparently recorded the signal and sent it back to us. Is this an endorsement for the Nazis or is it simply a way of saying, “Hey! Look what we found!” After a little more digging, dozens of diagrams are uncovered. No one can figure out what they are. Finally, Dr. Arroway gets the nudge she needs to figure out how they work.

They’re actually blueprints. America is able to construct this big sphere that sits atop a device that can (presumably) send it through space. The scientific community is at a loss to explain how it works. No one is really sure that it will, but we decide to try anyway. After a lot of hard work and sacrifice, we finally manage to get Dr. Arroway into the sphere and through the device.

Here’s where I’m going to end the plot review. There’s still a significant portion of the movie left, and there’s really no way I can handle it without giving away too much. The movie does a good job of setting up the story and leaving us wondering what will come of the events. In a way, I’d like to see a sequel, but it’s just as well that there isn’t one. I think to try and answer the questions I have might spoil the fun.

There’s a constant theme of science vs. religion throughout the movie. Elle Arroway needs proof. She can’t fully accept religion because it offers no real proof. Then there’s Palmer Joss, who’s religious and tries to make the case for religion without trying to force it upon anyone. It almost seems that religion and science are polar opposites. The X-Files did a better job using Scully, who was both religious and a scientist, to stage the question and to show that you don’t have to be one or the other.

The movie is based on the book of the same name by Carl Sagan. In writing the book, Sagan had to deal not only with how a race would contact us but with the logistics of how a meeting would take place. The nearest star to us is 4 light years away. That means that it takes light 4 years to cover the distance to that star, and there’s no way that we can pass the speed of light with our current understanding of science.

The movie doesn’t really explain too much the science. As I said, we’re presented with an option that might turn out to be a fraud. It’s really a story that’s accessible to anyone, regardless of their understanding of physics or astronomy. I think I could recommend this movie to just about anyone.

IMDb page

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Chuckles Candy

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

How the heck do you write a review on candy? Normally, many varieties of candy are so ubiquitous that explanation is really unnecessary. Add to that the fact that most candy cost less than a dollar unless you’re buying the family size. There really isn’t much of a need to do reviews on candy. You buy a single pack, take a bite and at worst, you’re out a few dollars. Then, I came across a review for Chuckles. It occurred to me that I hadn’t seen them in a while. (Not that I’ve been looking that hard…)

It’s pretty rare these days that I take a serious look at a vending machine. Usually, they’re overpriced. When I go into a convenience store or supermarket, it’s not to buy candy. However, when I did buy candy a lot, I noticed that there are some candies that are neglected. Chuckles happens to be one of them.

When looking online, I noticed that they are available for purchase. (Just do a search on Google and you should be able to find at least one vendor.) I noticed that to save on shipping, you have to spend a lot. (Who wants to order just one package, anyway?) That leads me to another good question: How the heck do you review Chuckles? I mean, it’s a candy. You’re basically looking at oversized, flattened gumdrops that have more flavor.

For those that have never seen the package, each one contains five different misshapen gumdrops. The candies come in a three-sided cardboard tray and are wrapped in plastic. Each candy is roughly rectangular in shape and you get each of five flavors, with those flavors being lemon, lime, cherry, licorice and orange. This selection has never varied when they were more common. I’ve never seen any special holiday flavors nor have I ever seen them individually wrapped.

This is odd, considering that I seem to be the only person that really likes the licorice. (Note: The objection to licorice seems to stem mostly from the flavor in general rather than from the specific Chuckles licorice.) My favorite is the lime flavor, but lemon and orange are pretty good, too.

They’re pretty chewy, but not like gum. They have consistency similar to that of a gumdrop and are also covered in sugar the same way. The comparison to gumdrops basically differs in the intensity of the flavor, from what I can recall. They’re also pretty fun to eat, although it’s pretty quick. Each one takes no more than three bites if you’re trying to go slowly, and that’s pushing it.

Writing the review makes me want to go out and buy a pack. I don’t know why I never got it more as a kid. I think it’s mostly because my parents weren’t that big on sugary stuff. Maybe next time I’m at Publix, I look for some. 

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992)

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

Who doesn’t like a good vampire movie? I saw Buffy the Vampire Slayer on sale in Best Buy and decided to get it. I figured it couldn’t be that bad. Well, it wasn’t that bad, but it’s definitely not for everyone.

Kristy Swanson plays Buffy Summers, you’re typical valley-girl-type blonde high-school cheerleader. She keeps having these strange dreams about strange people. She’s in the dreams, but has no idea really what’s going on. Then, she meets this strange guy named Merrick (played by Donald Sutherland) who tells her that she’s The Chosen One. It’s The Chosen One’s lot in life to slay vampires.

It’s Merrick’s lot in life to find The Chosen One and train her to slay vampires. It takes them a while, but Merrick finally gets Buffy ready. It’s just in time, too. Lothos is the main vampire and he feels it’s time to regain control of Los Angeles. He sends out his right-hand man, Amilyn to rebuild their army of bloodsuckers. (Amilyn is played by Paul Rubens of Pee-Wee Herman fame.) Buffy manages to take on all of these vampires while being a cheerleader and planning the senior dance.

Ultimately, the movie is a bizarre vampire movie. (When you see the scene with Amilyn dying, you’ll know what I mean.) It’s hard to believe that someone was trying to make a serious movie. For starters, why is the person that’s chosen to do something called “The Chosen One”? It would be funny to have someone called “The Preferred One” or “The Elected One” or something just to be a little different. Also, ‘chosen’ implies some sort of process. Movies that have a Chosen One never seem to explain how the person was chosen.

I also don’t understand why Merrick knows so much. Admittedly, he’s been born and reborn several times, each time with the knowledge about The Chosen One. Wouldn’t it be more direct to simply have Buffy be born with the knowledge? I suppose that would cut out a good chunk of the movie. Buffy has to go through the process of accepting Merrick and training with him. The relationship between them is really the only one that’s developed to any extent. Sure, there are other characters that Buffy deals with, but few of them seem to build up to anything.

It’s a three-star movie. If it comes on one of the movie channels, go for it. As for renting it or buying it, you’d have to have a reason. There are some people that I’d recommend it to, but I don’t think it’s for everyone.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Castle in the Sky (1986)

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

I’ve never really been big on directors. Sure, there are movies that were well-directed, but I’ve never really been one to seek out movies based on a director or production company. Then, along came movies like Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and The Cat Returns. I was hooked on Studio Ghibli’s movies. I began renting as many as I could find on NetFlix.

Castle in the Sky seems to be one of the earlier works, but wasn’t released in the US until recently. The story revolves around several people looking for a lost city called Laputa. The military wants this city for its technology. Pirates want it for untold riches that are bound to be there. Then, there’s Sheeta and Pazu, two children that are out to find the city, as well. (Sheeta has a special connection to the city.)

The thing that makes Laputa hard to find is that it floats above the Earth, hidden from view pretty well. Some doubt that it even exists. Pazu’s father died trying to prove its existence. Sheeta has the ability to find it, which makes her valuable to both the military and the pirates. Together, Sheeta and Pazu might just be able to find the lost city which floats above the planet.

There’s this great debate between Sub vs. Dub, or subtitles versus the English dubbing. I’ve always preferred the dub, mostly because the English voices are usually well-known actors. In Castle in the Sky, you have Mark Hamill, Mandy Patinkin, Richard Dysart and Cloris Leachman. From what I understand, the translation of some of the earlier works, like this movie, led to a ‘No Cuts’ policy, forcing a more literal translation of the movies. I’d love to learn Japanese to see the difference.

As I’ve said with other animated movies, there’s so much more you can do with animation. What would require special effects in a live-action movie is bound to look seamless in an animated movie. Castle in the Sky is a great example of such a movie. You’ve got all manner of flying ships. To look at Laputa is to see exactly what I’m talking about. Imagination is the limit with anime and animation Despite a somewhat complicated plot, I found it was easy to follow and understand. The story is as well crafted as the animation.

I never really thought the comparison of Ghibli to Disney was fair. Yes, both have produced a lot of great films, but both are radically different. Ghibli has produced a wide range of films, some being meant more for children and others that are better suited to adults. (Granted, Castle in the sky is probably better for children, but look at movies like Grave of the Fireflies.)

At just over two hours, it’s not too long. Everything about it is genius. I’d recommend it to anyone.