Monday, October 31, 2016

Junior Caramels

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

Funny thing happened to me when I was in Walgreen's last month. I had just posted a review of Junior Mints saying how I didn’t like the combination of mint and chocolate as the mint is overpowering. I much prefer chocolate and caramel. After lunch, I walked into Walgreen's to find other candies to review. Lo and behold, I found Junior Caramels in the candy aisle. I had to buy a box.

Even though I like chocolate and caramel, putting the two together isn’t necessarily a sure thing. I’ll probably be posting a review of Rolo within a few reviews of this one. Rolo wasn’t a candy that I thought too highly of, but was still willing to eat. Overall, Rolo is good enough if you’re in the mood for candy.

Same thing here. The caramel is pretty soft, so you have a small candy that you can eat without much resistance. There’s enough chocolate that you don’t get too much of one or the other. Even better was that I didn’t get any stuck at the bottom of the box. The caramel wasn’t so tough that I was tired at the end of the box.

Junior Caramels are about the same size and consistency as Junior Mints. Whoever makes the candy basically took out what I didn’t like (mint) and put in what I did like (caramel) to produce something that was at least better than the original. Both are small enough that you can eat a few at once, but you may end up taking your time depending on how much you like them.

I have to wonder why I didn’t see these earlier. Maybe I did and just forgot about them. Maybe they started making them after I stopped eating a lot of candy. I think that mostly, there are other caramel-and-chocolate combinations that I like more. I don’t think I’ll be rushing out for these, but they are at least worth a second look.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Room 237 (2012)

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

There’s a scene in “Weird Al” Yankovic’s UHF where his character, George, is making a replica of Devils Tower out of mashed potatoes.  When he finishes, he says, “This means something.”  If you’ve never seen Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the joke will make no sense to you.  Likewise, it would make sense to watch The Shining before watching Room 237.  Having seen The Shining, the description of Room 237 looked interesting.  Several people offered their takes on Stanley Kubric’s interpretation of Stephen King’s book.  I thought it would be interesting.

The scene from UHF also illustrates another point:  Given enough material, you can make it look like just about anything.  That’s what I ended up watching here.  I don’t recall seeing any credentials for any of the five people.  From the sound of it, they were just five people that happened to see the movie when it came out and had differing takes on it.  (I’m not going to use names because we never get to see any of them, making it hard to keep track of anyone.  All we have are voices set to clips of various movies.)

One person says that he believes the mistreatment of Native Americans by Europeans is a prominent theme.  As ‘proof’, he points out several cans of Calumet Baking Powder.  Calumet can also refer to a ceremonial Native American pipe.  In one scene, the cans are facing.  In another, they’re not.  Several cans of Tang serve as evidence that the movie is Kubric confessing that he helped fake the moon-landing footage.  Most people would pass this off as product placement.  I hadn’t even heard of Kubric being involved until I saw this movie.  (Before you leave a comment, I don’t follow conspiracy theories that much.)

Part of the reason that the theories are so easy to believe is that Kubric is very detail oriented.  According to the movie, he spent several months doing research for the film.  A chair that disappears between shots can’t be a continuity error.  The people looks at it and says, “This means something.”  Sometimes it does, but it doesn’t always.  Sometimes a chair is just a chair.

This is one of maybe three movies I couldn’t watch to the end.  The problem for me is that I came in thinking that there might be some mind-blowing revelation.  At least I could be entertained watching people show something interesting.  I am so happy that I got this movie streaming.  If I had the limited two-per-month Netflix plan, I would have been pissed that I wasted half of this month’s movies.

I can see a lot of people coming into this the same way.  You may have watched The Shining and even enjoyed it as a movie.  I think most people will watch the Shining and be entertained by it, just like any other movie.  Are there hidden messages?  Maybe.  Was Kubric very detail oriented?  I’d like to think so.  Does this mean that Kubric is admitting to having faked the moon landing?  I’m leaning towards no.

Like the mashed potatoes from UHF, the people are taking seemingly random bits and pieces from the movie and fashioning them into a narrative that fits their viewpoints.  For this reason, reviews of this movie seem to fall into two camps.  One camp says that this is a steaming pile of crap with the narrators (probably literally) phoning it in.  (One guy steps away for a few seconds to deal with his unruly kid.)  The other camp says that if you call this a steaming pile of crap, then you just don’t get it.  I’ll admit.  I just don’t get it.

I’d advise against renting this.  There’s very little entertainment value. There a few scenes from The Shining that are repeated a lot and shown in slow motion.  This can be very distracting.  If anything, Room 237 a study in confirmation bias.  One person said that he saw Kubric’s face in the clouds during the opening sequence.  I didn’t see it.  The film’s producers couldn’t highlight it.  I can’t even find an image that highlights it on Google Images.  Granted, I didn’t look that hard, but you’d think it would be easy.  I can just see the postproduction team being asked to highlight it, only to wonder what anyone’s talking about.  This is a must-miss movie. 

Saturday, October 29, 2016

This Film Is Not Yet Rated (2006)

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

Everyone has probably heard of the Motion Picture Association of America, which usually just goes by MPAA. The MPAA is the agency that, among other things, assigns ratings to movies. Specifically, it has a board of people that meets to review movies and figure out how they should be rated. Have you ever stopped to wonder how those ratings are assigned?

The ratings system is designed to give people an idea of what’s in a movie. But, what makes a PG movie different from a G movie? What, exactly, differentiates an R from an NC-17? (Yes, the NC-17 is generally associated with porn, but there are plenty of R-rated movies with lots of sex in them.)

The trouble is that the members of the MPAA’s ratings board meet in secret and are unknown to the general public. Supposedly, they’re all parents of young children and are average, middle-class people. However, since we don’t know who they are, we have to take the MPAA’s word for it. That’s where the writer/director, Kirby Dick, comes in. He’s taken it upon himself to figure out who these people are and why they rate the way they do.

Mr. Dick makes a few interesting points. For instance, a rating of NC-17 can pretty much kill a movie, since it limits the options of said movie in terms of advertising options and distribution. Granted, theaters have the right to show what they want, but what if the NC-17 rating is given unfairly? As I asked before, why are some movies with sex scenes given an R while others are bumped up to an NC-17?

The movie does actually show which forms of sex are ‘acceptable’ for an R rating while everything else is considered non-mainstream. In a way, it gives the board the power to rewrite movies, essentially telling the writers that if they take out certain scenes, then can get a different rating. From what I understand, UHF could have gotten a G rating if the scene with the flying poodles had been taken out. In that case, “Weird Al” Yankovic refused to take the scene out, but there are some writers that don’t.

The movie is filled with interviews featuring all sorts of people, such as Matt Stone of South Park fame. Many of them explain how they were in a movie or tried to make a movie that the ratings board rated unfairly. I didn’t feel that any of it came off as whiny, but the movie did drive home the point. If anything, it was repetitive.

Mr. Dick also decided to hire a private investigator to find out the identities of the board members, which I felt was also drawn out. I can see showing the identities of one or two, but he shows the investigator exposing all of them. He uses the information to show how the board members aren’t necessarily what the MPAA says they are. It would have been fine to feature how he got one or two and give all the names. It basically came across as filler.

Speaking of filler, the movie also has footage (most of it reenacted) on how the movie got its own rating of NC-17. This is due mostly to the movie featuring a lot of sex scenes. (It tries to show how violence is more acceptable that sex.) It reminded me of a scene in the Simpsons where Marge’s sisters are showing a slide show of a recent trip, which ends in the sisters dropping off the film to be developed. (By putting in that footage, doesn’t the film have to be resubmitted?)

The ratings are supposed to reflect society’s standards, but that may not always be the case. The main point of the movie is that the MPAA is a bit biased. There are no movie professionals on the board. There are no single people. It doesn’t seem that the board is a very diverse group. It’s also difficult to get an appeal. If you want a new rating, you have to cut stuff.

It was a good movie worthy of four stars, but seemed a bit long at 90 minutes. It’s still worth watching. 


Friday, October 28, 2016

I Am Legend (2007)

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

WARNING: This review gives major details about this and other movies that may influence your decision as to whether or not to watch this one. As the movie is based on a book that has been made into two other movies, this decision may have already been made. Continue watching at your own risk.

First came a book by Richard Matheson called I Am Legend. It was about a man immune to a plague that was trying to find a cure. From that book came several (credited) movies and possible an entire genre.

The first movie was called The Last Man on Earth and featured Vincent Price as Dr. Robert Morgan, a man who was bitten by a bat and thinks it’s given him an immunity to a worldwide plague that’s killed his family. He spends his days seeking supplies and his nights hiding from humans that have become vampires. He manages to find a few other survivors and eventually saves humanity, but dies trying.

The second movie was called The Omega Man. It starred Charlton Heston as Colonel Robert Neville, a man who has a vaccine, giving him immunity against a worldwide plague that’s killed almost everyone. Neville finds a few survivors, manages to save them, but ends up dying in the process. Notice a pattern here? I was a bit reluctant to see the movie called I Am Legend because I kind of figured it had to follow the same basic premise.

This time, it’s a cure for cancer that’s the cause of a worldwide plague in 2009, which wipes out much of humanity. Lt. Col. Robert Neville is the last uninfected man in Manhattan. He’s also a doctor that’s lost his family. He didn’t create the virus, but he has…drum roll please…an immunity and wants to use that to help those infected, who have become vampire-like mutants. He has some success on rats, but not on humans.

For the three years between the outbreak and the start of the movie, Neville spends all of his time with his dog, Samantha. Together, they go out together during the day looking for food and ‘renting’ movies. Neville has placed mannequins throughout the city so he can have conversations with them. At night, he has to hide in his house from said mutants. He has entire house on lockdown to protect himself. I’m not going to go through the rest, as you have to assume that the movie either follows the first two or it doesn’t.

Will Smith has come a long way since Fresh Price of Bel-Air. For most of the movie, we get to see Neville alone. This has to be hard for Will Smith, as his only costars are a dog and several inanimate objects. This couldn’t have been easy, as a good deal of acting involves playing off of other people. According to IMDB, there are two dogs credited as playing Samantha. (I’m assuming one was the adult Sam and the other was Sam as a puppy featured in a series of flashbacks.) I remember reading that Smith wouldn’t let many other people around the dog playing the adult Sam so that they would have a stronger bond.

As for the mutants, it was a little obvious to the untrained eye that they were CGI. They were supposed to be actors, but the actors just couldn’t get rid of all emotion. It didn’t really detract from the movie, as they weren’t shown that much. Otherwise, the special effects were great. I heard that most of the emptiness of New York City was done with computers and I didn’t even notice it.

Of the three movies, I’m torn between liking this one and The Omega Man the best. This one looked more modern, but it also looked more Hollywood. It had all sorts of fight scenes and explosions. The Omega Man seemed to be more about the plot and the characters. Heston was able to interact with the infected. Here, it was man against beasts.

I would definitely recommend seeing The Omega Man, especially if you’re going to see this one. It’s up to you which you see first. As for the rating, Last Man on Earth gets four stars.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Nikon Nikkor 75-300 mm F/4.5-5.6 AF-D AF Lens

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

When I bought my Nikon D50 from my former manager, he sold it to me with a Nikkor 35-135mm lens.  The lens was (and still is) great for taking photos, but there were cases where I needed to get a little closer.  He also had this lens and was willing to part with it for a reasonable price.  I have to say that I’m not at all disappointed with the lens.

One good thing that Nikon has done is to allow photographers to carry over the film lenses to a digital body.  This means that while the 75-300mm lens was intended for film cameras, it will still work on a digital body, like the D50.  The only noticeable difference is that since the image sensor on a digital camera is smaller than one frame of film, this lens effectively becomes 112.5-450mm.  (If you’re looking for more telephoto, this is a good thing.)

I tend to use the lens for taking pictures of things that aren’t that close to me, so I’ve never really had to worry about how close you can get to an object.  However, I can speak as to the other extreme.  I’ve taken a few pictures at the 200mm-300mm range.  Handheld, the photos don’t come out well as often as with a tripod.  For every 100 I take handheld at 300mm, maybe 5 will come out well enough that I’d want to do anything with them.  On a tripod, it’s the opposite; 90-95% will come out well enough that I could do something with them.

The lens actually comes with an adjustable tripod mount.  The lens is so long and heavy that it will affect your camera’s center of gravity.  I haven’t noticed a big difference between the camera’s mount and the lens’s mount.  (This is probably due in large part to the fact that my tripod isn’t one of the better models out there.)

To zoom with the lens, it uses a push-pull system.  For those that grew up on zoom lenses that rotate, this is going to be a little bit of a shock, but it’s pretty easy to figure out.  The only complaint that I have is that when zooming from 75-200mm, the lens has more gradual increments.  200mm and 300mm are very close to each other.  It’s never been a huge deal, as I’m usually just judging what works best for the image.  I’m not really worried about the exact number of millimeters I’m using.  It really isn’t that hard to go from 200mm to 300mm.

There’s no real noticeable distortion.  I also haven’t noticed any darkening around the corners that I’ve gotten with some other lenses.  These are both things that I wouldn’t expect from any lens above 50mm, especially considering that I’m going with a Nikkor lens.

The auto focus works on the digital camera fine, but that may vary depending on which digital model you have.  Some of the newer cameras produced in the past couple of years such as the D40 and the D60 don’t have a focusing motor.  This was done to make the camera lighter, but has the side effect of making a lens like this into a manual-focus lens.  The reason is that this lens doesn’t have a focusing motor, either.  If you have a digital camera or are considering getting one, I’d look into that if you’re considering getting a film lens like this one.  (For that reason, I’m a little worried about getting a new body.)

On that note, you don’t see too many new film lenses any more.  This model was discontinued a while ago.  With digital cameras, new lenses were made for the digital bodies.  (I believe this model was replaced with another one, but I don’t recall which one.)   I don’t really know how the newer models compare to this one, but I doubt that they could do much better.

I’ve had the lens for over a year now.  I don’t use it as much as I’d like to, mostly because of its size.  It doesn’t fit in my camera bag, but I will bring it with me if I know that I’ll need it.  It’s great for wildlife, so I’ll bring it with me to a park.  When traveling up to a wildlife sanctuary in West Palm Beach, I was able to get some great shots.  (If you’re on Flickr, look for my pictures tagged with ‘Nikkor 75-300mm f/4.5-5.6’.  My username is seacow_99.)

Another reason that I don’t bring it with me is the weight.  It’s the heaviest that I own.  Without any filters, it comes to around 30 ounces.  It’s not that much of a strain, but you won’t soon forget that you have it around your neck.  Also, the lens does extend if you’re wearing it around your neck, so you really have to account for a lot more volume than you might normally.  There were a few cases where I would bump into something and hear metal against wood.  (One advantage metal has over plastic is that the lens won’t break as easily.)

The lens takes 62mm filters, which is the same as the 35-135mm lens.  Even though the take the same filters, I’ve gotten a UV filter for one and a Haze-1 filter for the other.  (Both act as basic protection.)  I have a circular polarizer between the two of them, but I think I may get another one.  I often go out with one lens only to realize that I left the circular polarizer on the other.

If you can find this lens used online or in a store somewhere, I’d recommend buying it.  It’s a great lens and has gotten me a few really great pictures.  As I said, go to Flickr and take a look at what I’ve been able to take.  Just remember that you’ll want to pick up a reliable tripod, as well.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Millennium (1989)

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

Warning:  I’m going to give away major details about the movie, including and up to the end of the movie.  If you’re not into this sort of stuff, now would be a good time to stop reading.

I saw Millennium a long time ago.  It’s one of those movies where I remembered a few key scenes, but not much else.  I think I may have watched it at a friend’s house.  What little I remember, I remember having questions about, which I’ll get to later.

The movie starts with two planes colliding.  It’s scary enough to be piloting a doomed aircraft, but the navigator goes back to check on the passengers to find that they’re all burned.  This wouldn’t be unusual, except that the plane hasn’t crashed yet.

Enter Bill Smith.  He spends long periods of time going around investigating plane crashes.  This one shouldn’t be that unusual, except that the navigator was heard on the black box saying how all the passengers were dead.  Was he hallucinating from the stress of being on a doomed flight?  Maybe they heard wrong.

That alone wouldn’t be that suspicious, except that that this scientist, Dr. Arnold Mayer, is nosing around.  He seems to have a thing for plane crashes.  He investigates them hoping to find something.  In any event, they have a lot of wreckage to go through.  In fact, someone comments on the fact that they have flight attendants serving coffee.  When Smith asks for some coffee, the flight attendant he calls for runs away.

Well, it doesn’t take long for her to approach him and set up a date for that night.  They spend the night together and in the morning, she asks him not to go in to work.  They won’t miss him for a day.  Right?  He leaves for work, but realizes that he’s forgotten something in his room.  When he goes back, she’s not only gone, but the room looks like it was just made up.

It turns out that mystery woman, Louise Baltimore, is from the future.  In the future, humanity is on the brink of extinction, having run the planet into the ground.  She and her team are coming back in time to take people that won’t be missed to help repopulate the world.  The idea is that since the people are going to die on plane crashes anyway, no one will notice that they’re gone if you replace them with a dead body of similar size and makeup.

The trouble is that her team is kind of sloppy.  Not only does Louise lose her stunner for Smith to find, but a member of her team loses a stunner for Mayer to find as a child.  Yes, Mayer was the lone survivor of a plane crash.  He found a stunner and was able to keep part of it.  When Mayer and Smith meet, Mayer is able to put together a complete stunner and accidentally kill himself.  This causes a massive time paradox, which forces the future people to send their kidnapped people into the distant future to repopulate the world.  Baltimore and Smith end up going with them, presumably to live happily ever after.

I have several problems with the movie.  First, the team of time travelers don’t seem to be that good.  Yes, I realize that humanity’s population has dwindled and it’s possible that this is the best that humanity has to offer, but you think they’d at least know better than to leave technology which doesn’t belong.

Also, the movie seems to take both sides of predetermination.  Baltimore can look back into her past, but there are certain parts that are censored so that she doesn’t know what her personal future holds.  Thus, there is some sense that she’s destined to go back in time.  However, it’s still possible to screw things up royally.  You could leave parts of a stunner for someone to find and assemble only to have them cause a major paradox and destroy everything.

This leads me to the third in this chain of questions.  If it’s possible for the future society to quickly make a hotel room look like it was made up, couldn’t they have a way to track and recall their own technology?  You’d think that as Baltimore’s team was being recalled, they’d be like, “Oh, she dropped a stunner.  Let me just get that and…done.”  Instead, they set up several paradoxes that they attempt to fix, only to make things worse.

On this note, one thing that I remember wondering is how the kidnapped people were able to be sent into the future.  If you can change the past and affect the present to create a paradox, wouldn’t that mean that the entire operation would go away?  It does, which means that there would be no machine to take people from the past and no machine to send them into the future.  I can see that they’d at least take the chance, but what’s the point?  It seemed like they were certain that the people would survive.

Also, you’re sending all of these random people into an unknown situation.  At least in those hypothetical situations you had in school, you had several useful people to chose from, like a doctor and a lawyer.  Here, they’re just sending in whoever they have and hoping for the best.  Yes, I realize that it was kind of rushed.  They were probably planning on having more time and they probably were looking for particular people.  If you’re going to take one person from a doomed flight, why not just take all of the passengers?

One big thing was why they had to go so far back.  I guess they wanted to make sure that they had people well before any catastrophic event that decimated the planet, but they had to replace the people with bodies that were genetically the same and probably even had the same fingerprints and personal items.  How did they know?  How were they able to get DNA to create a clone?  How did the get fingerprint records?  Did they have to make another trip that we never saw?

The movie is based on a short story, which may explain some of this.  I’d have to read it to know for certain.   This is one of the few cases where I could see a remake being an improvement.  It has some interesting aspects, like getting people from planes to repopulate the planet, but doesn’t put them together all that well.  It’s one of those things that would have been better if more had been explained. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Style Wars (1983)

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

When I was a kid, I remember associating New York City trains with graffiti. That seemed to be one of the images presented on TV and in media, fairly or unfairly. Then again, it was just paint to me back then. I thought people were just taking spray paint and putting up random images on the trains. Not only has New York City has cleaned up their image since then, but I have come to learn that the images are more than random.

Style Wars goes into what the images mean and shows who’s making them. Those doing it, who sometimes call themselves bombers, want to get their name out among others that are doing it. If you get your name on enough trains, you can be seen all over New York City. There are detractors. Those interviewed called it a quality-of-life issue, comparing it to prostitution or picking someone’s pocket. Many people didn’t like it. There’s also a pretty heavy price tag associated with getting rid of the paint.

New York City eventually cracked down on it, which is probably why I don’t associate graffiti with the trains any more. The documentary showed this campaign that the city had involving celebrities. There is a certain reverence paid to the graffiti artists, though. The crackdown is shown in a somewhat negative light, almost like the end of an era. The graffiti artists had to move on to other means of expression.

The movie didn’t so much put graffiti in a positive light, though. It was mostly showing who did this and maybe even why. There was one kid talking about it in front of his mother, who just didn’t get it. There was another guy who had only one arm, yet managed to do graffiti anyway. Despite complaining from the public and the best efforts of the transit authority and Mayor Ed Koch, people still found a way in to mark the trains. Everyone that did it had some way in.

There was one kid that was saying how he could get away with $50 or $100 in spray paint. Once he had a trench coat, all he had to do was wait for a couple of black or Hispanic kids to come in and he could stuff the trench coat was the limit. There was another kid trying to explain why he did it with his mother in the background. She kept rolling her eyes whenever he would say something like how he would never get caught.

The documentary focused mostly on the graffiti, but showed other aspects of life that went along with it, saying at one point that rap was the spoken word and graffiti was the written word. It seemed like the rap and break dancing were filler, though. It was almost like the producers didn’t have enough graffiti to go around and needed something a little more.

The movie really wasn’t as interesting as I thought it would be. Even at 70 minutes, it seemed long at times. Part of it was that the film quality wasn’t that good. (That has to do not only with the movie being 25 years old, but also with the producers using smaller, more portable video cameras which have lower quality.) When I was done with it, I ended up returning it to NetFlix pretty quickly. (I’m beginning to think I should have watched some of the extras.)

I read that there was a follow-up documentary done recently, but I don’t know if I’m going to watch that. This was more of a three-star movie. If I have the time and I’m running out of movies on my NetFlix queue, I may get it. As for this movie, I think I’d recommend the same thing to you. Don’t waste a lot of time getting it, but if it comes on while you’re watching PBS or something, go for it. 

Monday, October 24, 2016

Oz the Great and Powerful (2013)

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

When I first saw coming attractions for Oz the Great and Powerful, I knew I wanted to see it.  I had been reading some of the books and had seen the 1930s movie.  I had a sense that this hadn’t used any of them as direct source material, instead creating a new story about how Oz came to a land called Oz.  The original movie is still under copyright protection, but the books have fallen into public domain.  Still, there are some references to the original movie.

It starts in black-and-white Kansas circa 1905.  Oscar Diggs is a second-rate magician at a traveling carnival.  He seems to have a way with ladies.  That is to say, he has one routine he uses to charm a girl in each town.  When this comes back to bite him, he finds the nearest balloon and proceeds to get lost as quickly as he can.  He travels directly into, of all things, a tornado that takes him to the Technicolor land of Oz.

The first thing he does is meet the beautiful Theodora, who tells Oz that she and everyone else in Oz would be saved by a great and powerful wizard bearing the same name as the land.  Along the trip back to The Emerald City, they meet Finley, a talking, flying monkey.   Finley pledges his life to Oz until he realizes what that might entail.  Oz is a bit reluctant, himself.  He knows he’s no great wizard.

Promises of the royal treasure does help persuade him.  Theodora’s sister, Evanora, tells Oz that in order to get the treasure, he has to kill a wicked witch.  Along the way, he meets China Girl, a ceramic person whose village was destroyed.  (Yes, that is the name listed on IMDb.)  Oz fixes her, so they head off to find this witch, only to find out that she’s the good witch Glinda.

It’s up to Glinda, Oz, Finley and China Girl to defeat the two wicked witches.  Mostly, it’s up to Oz, who seems to bear the brunt of this prophecy.  He doesn’t really start to take things seriously until late in the movie, when he devises a plan.  Not everyone knows what’s going on, as he keeps most of it a secret.  (On this note, it is a prequel.  As such, you know what will become of most of the characters.  I don’t think I’ve really revealed much in the way of surprises.)

There are a few references to the 1939 movie you may catch.  One of Oz’s love interests in Kansas says she’s going to marry a man named Gale.  There are a lot of Oz-based characters that resemble Kansas-based characters.  Other than the characters, that’s where the similarity seems to end.  If you’ve seen the original movie, I don’t know if James Franco would be your first choice to play the man who would become The Great and Powerful Oz.  (It does look like there will be a sequel to this movie, so we may get to see how he transitions.)

L. Frank Baum created characters that wanted most what they already had.  (The scarecrow wanted intelligence, but already seem to possess great skill and cunning.)  In this sense, this movie holds true to the books.  Oz wants to be a great magician.  What he doesn’t realize until coming to Oz is that he has the ability to do great things.  He just has to use his considerable skills to his advantage.  With some help, he’s able to pull this off.

Those coming into the movie without having read the books or seen the other movies will probably miss out on a lot of the references.   We get to see the flying monkeys, which are very dark in this movie.  They’re used mostly for brute force here.  (In the books, they were capable of dialogue.  If I recall, they tied to a hat which would grand the user three wishes within the monkeys’ power.)

I had wanted to see the movie in theaters, partly because of the 3D aspect.  I didn’t feel like paying a lot of money for that.  (I don’t think theaters give any sort of special discount on 3D for early birds.)  I ended up getting it through Redbox with a free code.  I wasn’t able to watch it in 3D, though.  (I’m not even sure how they’d do this.)  If I could see it in 3D, I’d probably consider doing it.  There were a few scenes that would have been great for that, but I’m not holding my breath. 

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Pi (1998)

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

Max Cohen is either crazy or a genius. He basically sits at home all day and looks for patterns in the stock market. Max also suffers from severe headaches and delusions. In most cases, he’d be dismissed as some math freak in need of some serious medical attention. He must be on to something, though; two groups seem to be interested in him. He keeps getting calls from an investment firm, but Max keeps trying to get rid of them. He’s not even sure how they got his number. Then, there’s a group of Hassidic Jews who are looking for patterns in the Bible. Both are interested in a 216-digit number, but for different reasons. Both groups agree that Max is the man to get what they want for them. Once he does, he doesn’t want to give it up. It’s not easy being Max.

You don’t have to be some math genius to understand the movie. Much of what goes on in the movie is explained in some detail. For instance, there’s a brief explanation about what kinds of codes are being sought from the Bible. (There really is a Jewish numerology based on the Torah.) You may not understand every last detail, but you don’t really have to. I didn’t understand some of it, myself.

I have to warn you that there’s a high gross-out factor to this movie. (I really wish Epinions had a separate bar for that, along with suspense and quality of special effects.) For starters, Max often gets bloody noses. It gets much worse from there. If you’re squeamish, this isn’t your movie. I’d say that as for age range, this is definitely a movie for adults. Even then, I know a lot of adults that wouldn’t be able to handle it.

Another thing is that there are a lot of themes that might not be suitable for children. It’s not unsuitable in the sense of adult or vulgar themes. It’s just that many younger children might not be able to understand everything. Had I seen this while I was in middle school, I probably would have though it was just some bizarre movie about this weird guy that has problems. Now that I’m an adult, I can appreciate much more of it.

There’s also a low-budget look to the movie. That might have something to do with the fact that there was actually a relatively small budget, but I don’t feel that it takes anything away from the movie. In fact, it works well. The story has a very dark feel to it, given that Max has so many people interested in him. (It also works well because Max wants to see things in black and white.)

The only problem that I had was when Max referred to the Golden Number as theta. I’m pretty sure that it’s called Phi. It’s not a major problem, but Max does go into some detail about it and seems to know quite a bit about it.

I’d give the movie five stars. At 84 minutes, it’s a very short movie, but it’s paced just right. The acting, direction and script were all done perfectly. I’m recommending the movie, but again, I want to remind you that it’s not for everyone. 

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Hotel Transylvania (2012) = A Nonlethal Varsity

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

I don’t know why, but when I get free stuff, my standards seem to be a lot lower.  This applies even when I have a wide range of selections to choose from.  Take Redbox.  Occasionally, I get codes for free movies, but the codes have to be used that day.  One of the problems with Redbox is that I can’t always get my first choice.  Sometimes, I can’t even get my second or third choice.  Since I’m already at the kiosk, wasting the code seems like a bad idea.  Even if I don’t like the movie, I’ll get a review out of it.

Hotel Transylvania was such a title.  I’m not a huge fan of Adam Sandler.  I knew going into this that he voiced Dracula, but he was at least tolerable in Click, so I figured that I’d give Hotel Transylvania a chance.  If you’re reading this, it means that I’ve gotten my review out of it and have commenced forgetting about the movie.

The story is that Dracula wants to protect his daughter, Mavis.  He hasn’t had the best of luck with humans.  Most monsters are of similar mind, so Dracula opened Hotel Transylvania.  The idea was that he’d build it someplace that humans wouldn’t know about and would set things up so that they wouldn’t want to go there even if they stumbled upon it.

Well, everyone’s coming over for Mavis’s 118th birthday celebration and wouldn’t you know it, a human named Johnny happens to stumble upon the hotel.  (Actually, he follows some monsters back from Dracula’s ill-advised attempt to trick Mavis into staying at the hotel.)  Anyway, Dracula notices Johnny before anyone else does.  Killing him outright is out of the question.  He can’t have him stay, though, for fear of upsetting the guests.  Sneaking him out proves problematic, so Dracula tries to hide Johnny as a long-lost relative of the right arm of Frankenstein’s monster, Johnny Stein.  Every attempt to deal with Johnny causes further complications, eventually leading to Johnny meeting (and falling for) Mavis.

This is what makes up most of the movie’s 91 minutes.  It’s Dracula being an overprotective father and making a few mistakes along the way, then having to fix them in the end when he realizes what it will really take to make his daughter happy.  Along the way, you have a lot of familiar monsters, at least in name.  You have Wayne the Wolfman, Frankenstein’s Monster, Eunice (a.k.a. Bride of Frankenstein), Quasimodo, the Invisible Man and so on.  I don’t think any of them act the way that they did in the movie.  Frankenstein is very friendly, for instance, even if he does fall apart on occasion.  Wayne is also normal father that tries to provide for his wife and many children.

It was a good movie, but it wasn’t great.  The one big drawback was Fran Drescher.  Had I known she was in the movie, I probably would have rented something else.  As with Sandler, I’m not particularly a big fan.  She wasn’t bad in this movie, but knowing that both were in this movie probably would have killed it.  There were a lot of people that I did like, such as Steve Buscemi, CeeLo Green and Jon Lovitz.

I also wasn’t a big fan of the style of animation.  It was a little exaggerated for me.  As I said, I was renting this for free, so I figured I’d at least try it.  However, animation is already a strike for some people.  Even for those that like animation, they may not like this style.  There were also a few scary moments when Dracula tried to intimidate Johnny.  It wasn’t wet-your-pants scary, but I was caught off guard and thought that it was a little out of place for a comedy.  We’re talking a few shots, a second or two each.

Ultimately, I have to learn to be more selective the next time I go to Redbox.   I think part of the problem with Redbox is that I tend to feel a little rushed and given the limited selection, I usually get the first thing that seems safe rather than take my time to find something I like.  Getting a movie like Hotel Transylvania is the result.  It wasn’t a horrible movie, but it wasn’t a great movie, either. 

Friday, October 21, 2016

Nikon Speedlight SB-600 Shoe Mount Flash for Nikon

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

When I first got a Nikon D50, there were a few things I wanted to get. One thing I new I needed was a flash. This becomes evident mostly when taking indoor pictures. My cat would often get those green eyes commonly associated with pets. Pictures of rooms were yellowish or blurry. Even with the flash, they weren't great. There were also times outdoors when things would be backlit. I have a lot of pictures that would have benefited greatly from a flash.

My three choices were the SB-400, SB-600 and the SB-800. The SB-400, I'm told, is very basic. You can't even swivel from left to right with it. The SB-800, I'm told, is more expensive, but not worth it if you don't have one of the higher-end cameras. The only big difference between the 600 and the 800 is in setting up several flashes. I have no need for this, so I figured I'd save myself a hundred dollars or so and go for the SB-600.

If you do decide to get the SB-600, you'll need to buy four AA batteries. I've had a set for a while now and they've lasted a while. I would recommend keeping a spare set, just in case. I haven‘t had this one go out yet, so I have no idea if the power reduces or if the flash just stops working. (Note: Like most devices that use batteries, be sure to remove them when not using the flash, as they will eventually leak.)

You put the flash on using a hot-shoe adapter. Your camera should have a hot-shoe protector, which you'll need to take off before putting on the flash. Once on, the flash has a locking mechanism to help keep the flash on. I have actually left the flash unlocked only to have it slide off slightly.

The SB-600 is a bounce flash. This means that you can have it pointing strait up, forward or anywhere in between. If you have a light-colored ceiling, you can use it to diffuse the flash and give more even tones. You also have the option of moving the flash to the left or right. This is something you'll have to play around with to see how well it works. I could probably write an entire article just on how to use the tilt and swivel on a flash. The important thing is that you have options not available to you with your onboard flash and those two options do make a huge difference in your pictures. (You can, technically, point the flash towards you, but I don't recommend this.)

On the back of the flash is a display showing various settings and options. The flash will adjust depending on the focal distance. (The flash does have its limits and leaving the diffuser down causes the flash to simply go to 14mm.) If you turn the camera off, the flash goes to standby. You have to turn the flash back on before shutting it off, which is a bit annoying if you're in a rush.

I can say that I have yet to have a problem with the flash. The battery life has proven to be good and my pictures are better. I have yet to get red eye (or green eye) with it. Go to Flickr and look for pictures with the SB-600. Most of the pictures I've taken with the SB-600 are tagged as such. (You'll find some nice pictures, if I do say so myself...) The flash gets four stars.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Quiz Show (1994)

Note:  This review does give away major plot points including the ending.  The movie is based on fact and probably won’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the story.  However, if you don’t like knowing a lot going in, you might want to wait before reading the review.

Herb Stempel was a hero in his neighborhood.  He had won a lot of money on a quiz show named Twenty-One.  The object was to answer questions.  Difficulty was based on the number of points, from one to 11.  The goal was to get 21 points.  Stempel had won for several weeks and seemed happy about it.  The catch was that the producers were feeding him the answers.  Enter Charles Van Doren.  His family is well known.  He’s good looking.  He’s basically more useful than Stempel, at least from an advertising standpoint.  The ratings have hit a plateau, so the producers want Stempel to take a dive.  He’s to answer a tough question incorrectly.

When the producers pitch the idea to Van Doren, he is a bit nervous.  He doesn’t think it’s right, so they all laugh it off.  He appears on the show and seems to do well on his own.  Then, the moment of truth comes.  He’s asked a question that he knows they know he has the answer for.  It’s the very same question they overheard him answer in the office.  He has three choices.  He can admit what’s happening on national television and risk embarrassing everyone, assuming he’s even believed.  He can quietly take a dive as Stempel did and risk losing the game.  Instead, he chooses to give the correct answer.

He goes on to higher ratings (and more money) than Stempel.  Stempel goes back to his wife and neighborhood, ashamed that he had to miss such an easy question.  (It was a question everyone knew that he should know.)  Stempel tries to hit up the network for more money.  He could easily be put on some sort of panel show or something.  The network politely declines.  Stempel threatens to sue, but that leads to sealed court records. Stempel now has no one to turn to.  That is, until Dick Goodwin comes knocking on his door.

Goodwin is a congressional investigator looking for a big story.  He wonders why the court records would need to be sealed.  He eventually knocks on Stempel’s door and finds his mother lode.  Since Stempel isn’t a particularly likable guy and he is the only witness, the investigation stalls.  It isn’t until Van Doren is subpoenaed that anything happens.  The network and sponsor deny everything.  Even if they had known, none of the accused actions were illegal, per se.  It’s tricky, since the questions and answers were said to be locked in a safe, but it was never expressly stated that contestants weren’t given the answers beforehand.  The producers are left to take the blame for everything.

There is a certain irony in that those in charge tried to play off the scandal in that the game show was little more than entertainment.  The facts are meaningless.  I’m sure that liberties were taken with the story here.  There is an implicit understanding that this is done, though.  It’s not the first movie to do so and won’t be the last.  We do go to movies to be entertained.  The issue with the game show was that they seemed to go to some trouble to make it look like the people were actually competing.

Interestingly, this entire story ends up being the basis for the format of a particular current game show.  The story goes that after the scandal had broken, it would be difficult to get a network to buy into a new quiz show.  Merv Griffin was discussing it with his wife, Julann.  She suggested that contestants be given the answers and would have to respond with questions.   From what I understand, the idea had been used before.  However, the recent history coupled with low prize amounts got the network’s approval.

I did enjoy the movie, but I’m curious as to why this particular era of TV history was chosen.  I’m not saying that it’s a story that doesn’t deserve to be told.  I’m just not sure if there was a lot of interest.  If you mentioned the scandal to most people, I’d imagine that they’d find it of passing interest at best.  (There are times I’ve told people things that I’ve found very interesting only to get, “um…ok,” as a response.)

There is a morality play that’s somewhat evident.  Stempel seems comfortable with the lie.  The story starts several weeks into his run on Twenty-One.  We don’t see him prepped or vetted.  We do get to see Van Doren auditioning for another game show.  He’s someone that is presented as an honest person to start with.

We imagine that Stempel was probably honest, too.  His reasons for going along with it are understandable.  Who would turn down easy money and fame?  He wants to be more financially independent.  He likes the respect he gets from people.  It’s almost like a drug for him.  Stempel is what any of us could easily become.

With Van Doren, it’s a little different.  He’s already well off.  He already has a name for himself and comes from a respectable family.  He’s being presented with the chance to make being bookish and nerdy more accessible to the common person.  If a guy like him can make a lot of money, why not try to be like him?  The problem is that it’s all based on a lie and Van Doren knew it.  He could treat it abstractly it all he wants, but once he goes down that road, he can never go back.

Stempel and Van Doren could easily have said nothing and have walked away.  Granted, some one else would have eventually spoken up or made a fatal mistake.  Goodwin did find evidence of the deception going through old tapes, so someone would have at least known something was going on.  Ultimately, Van Doren will always be the good guy gone bad and Stempel will have to live with being the guy who missed an easy question.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

GE Slimline 292674 Single Line Corded Phone

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

The phone for my land line wouldn’t be a big deal except that cell phones don’t like to work in my house. I do spend a lot of time in my room either watching television or writing reviews. On the rare occasions where I need to buy a phone, I try to get one with caller ID. I don’t really need speed dial, as I know the few numbers that I need to know. (You know… work, friends, 900 numbers… er, um … I mean pizza delivery.)

I came across the 29267 when I was looking to get a new phone. My primary concern was price, really. I need a phone. As I stated, the only thing it needs to do is identify calls. I also wanted something with a cord. Wireless phones tend to be more of a pain than anything. As long as it can hear the person on the other end, though, I won‘t go back asking for a refund.

That’s not to say I don’t have complaints. When I get an incoming call, it’s hard to read the display. This has a lot to do with the positioning of the phone, though. The cord that goes into the wall from the phone is just short enough that I have to keep it on the edge of my desk. I have to lean over pretty far to see the display. Now, there really aren’t many people that I’m avoiding, but I don’t like telemarketers and people that do surveys. I like to let unidentified 800 numbers go to voicemail if I can help it.

As with other phones that have caller ID, cell phones will often be displayed as a city and state. Thus, if you don’t have your friends’ phone numbers committed to memory, you may have to take a chance once in a while. With land lines, the phone goes by whoever’s name is on the bill. Thus, if it’s a company’s line, the company’s name will appear on the caller ID. Not a problem if your significant other works in the same office every day.

If you need to call someone back, it’s pretty easy to scroll down the list of recent numbers and find the number. It even displays time and date so that you can more easily tell which number someone called from. If you want to dial using the phone’s memory, you have a dial button you can press. Once dials the number with the one, area code and phone number. A second press gets rid of the one. A third press gets rid of the area code. The next press starts over. (I don’t really know what you’re supposed to do if you need to dial a one and no area code.)

If you need to delete the numbers, perhaps to clean up redundant entries, you can delete them by pressing the button marked ‘delete’. I don’t know if there’s any way to delete all the numbers at once. I guess you just have to go through them one by one. The phone can store 50 numbers, so you’ll be in for a workout.

As you may recall, I mentioned that the phone stores the numbers with time and date. Don’t worry about setting the time and date, as the phone takes care of this with the first incoming call. If you’re not a popular person, you have two options. You can either be patient and wait or you can call yourself from a friends house just to get the time set up. I don’t use this phone to tell time, so I was more than willing to be patient.

You do need 4 AA batteries if you want to use the caller ID. Without the batteries, the phone still works. You just won’t be able to tell who’s calling. I’ve noticed that the batteries don’t need changing on caller ID phones. The last one I had needed new batteries once. I’ve had this one for at least a year, I think, and I don’t recall the batteries ever going out.

The cord that it comes with that goes from the base to the handset isn’t very long, but it’s enough to go from where the phone sits to where I sit. Normally, this isn’t an issue. Sometimes, the cord tangles and the phone falls, but it has yet to break or get seriously damaged. It still works.

Overall, I’d give the phone four stars. It’s not spectacular. It won’t give you winning lottery numbers or cook breakfast for you. It’s just a phone. But it has served me well.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Real Genius (1985)

Growing up, there were certain movies that seemed to come on a lot.  If you had pay channels, you were usually treated a limited selection any given month, so it wasn’t unusual to see the same movie several times.  One of the movies I remember was Real Genius.   Val Kilmer played Chris Knight, a genius who’s ready to graduate.  Replacing him is Mitch Taylor, played by Gabriel Jarret, a fifteen-year-old whiz kid.  Mitch is recruited by Professor Jerry Hathaway, who’s building a laser.  As it so happens, that’s what Mitch is interested in.

Mitch is rather straight laced.  He’s all study and no party, as opposed to Chris, who’s all party and almost study.  Professor Hathaway needs his laser, as in right now, so Chris’s lack of work is a problem.  In fact, the good professor threatens to not pass Chris in a necessary class that only Hathaway teaches.  As the school year progresses, Chris gets Mitch to loosen up a bit.  Mitch gets Chris to work a little harder, even if it’s to show Hathaway who’s boss.

They’re joined by a hyperactive/insomniac woman who seems to have a thing for Mitch.  There’s also Kent, who is the teacher‘s pet writ large.  (He’s what they call a legend in his own mind.)  Kent, Mitch and Chris are joined on the laser project by "Ick" Ikagami.  Oh, and there’s a guy named Lazlo Hollyfeld living in the closet of Mitch and Chris’s dorm room.

There were a lot of memorable scenes in the movie.  The one I remember is a series of scenes showing an increasing number of students recording a lecture until the professor gives up and simply leaves a recording of his planned lecture.  Another is Mitch discovering Lazlo’s secret lair.  I remember wishing I had something like that.

One thing I never noticed until my most recent viewing is that the movie features not one but two revenge stories.  After Mitch is tormented by Kent and his lackeys, Chris convinces Mitch to not only stay by get back at Kent by moving Kent’s car into his dorm room.  Later, when Chris is confronted with the reality of not graduating and getting his dream job, Mitch returns the favor.  Not only does Chris stay and graduate, they get back at Hathaway for being such an arrogant jerk.

This leads to a scene tested on Mythbusters.  (Note:  If you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want the ending spoiled, skip this paragraph.)  For those that have seen the movie, you probably remember the laser-made popcorn destroying Hathaway’s house.  Yes, it is possible for a laser to make popcorn.  However, it was determined that the destruction of the house could not have been the result of the popcorn.  Once it fills up the house, the pressure of the structure should be enough to keep the resulting volume from expanding.  The popcorn on the edge will be crushed.

The movie has a very goofy slant to it.  Part of the beauty of the movie is that it owns its goofiness.  It can be extreme, but isn’t really.  Yes, Chris and Mitch are opposites, at least during the course of the movie, but they manage to learn from each other.  They each learn to own their own lives and realize that they do have some control over their lives.  We all have to grow up, but how we do that is up to us.  Even Lazlo has hope.

Monday, October 17, 2016

The Imitation Game (2014)

I remember watching Wheel of Fortune as a child.  For those that have never seen an episode, contestants are playing a version of hangman with prizes.  The winner of the game goes on to a bonus round where they have to select five consonants and one vowel.  Those are the only selections they can make.  If they’re lucky, a lot of blank spaces will be filled in, making it easy for them to win. I had noticed that people tended towards R, S, T, L and N for their consonants and usually picked E as their vowel.  I asked my mother why this was.  She told me that those are the most commonly sued letters in English.  If you have no idea which letters to pick, you pick those.  (This was before they started giving you those letters outright.  The ones you‘d pick now are C, D, M and A.)

This is important for cryptographers.  If you have an encrypted text of sufficient length, you can do a frequency analysis.  If it’s encrypted with a simple substitution cipher, you’ll get most of the letters right.  The Germans got around this by using the Enigma.  It had been around before the war, but proved useful to the German government because it moved the cipher every so often.  You might start moving one letter off, with A becoming B.  After each letter, the machine moves one additional letter so that A becomes C, then D, then E.  This makes frequency analysis useless.  The easiest way for Allied Forces to break the code was basically to steal a machine and the corresponding code book.

There had to be an easier way.  Poland had broken the Enigma, but this wasn’t the same machine.  Germany had made the military version better than the commercial version by adding two rotors.  Enter Alan Turing.  He believed that he could build a machine that could make a brute-force attack easier.  The machine would run through possible combinations until it found one.  If they could eliminate enough combinations, it would work.

He and several other people worked at Bletchley Park to break the Enigma.  Turing was not a social person.  He successfully made a power play at Bletchley Park, then fired two of his coworkers.  He did want to work with Joan Clarke at a time when women were usually relegated to the secretary pool.  He could rub people the wrong way, but he did get his machine to work.  He was able to decode Axis messages, thus shortening the war and saving millions of lives.

Being that this is based on history, those familiar with Turing’s life will probably know how the movie ends.  Those that don’t might want to stop reading, as I’m about to give away the ending.  During his time at Bletchley Park, Turing was suspected of being a spy.  He was cleared, but it turned out that he had another secret:  He was homosexual.  Given the option of prison or chemical castration, Turing chose castration.  He eventually committed suicide.

I asked in a previous review how historical figures might react to modern technology.  Consider that I’m writing this review on a device that is his legacy.  I do this knowing that other people will be using other similar devices.  I even get hits from IMDb’s mobile page.  How would Turing feel about a device that had more utility and computing power than he could imagine possible and could fit in your pocket?

I wonder what history would look like had he lived.  Modern computing owes its existence because of what he did.  You’re reading this on a computer because of him.  The fact that he was gay trumped this.  The title of the movie refers to what eventually became known as the Turing test, which is designed to test if you’re dealing with a person or not.  Imagine the further contributions he could have made.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Hancock (2008)

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

There are certain things that most superheroes have in common.  For starters, there's almost always a secret identity involved.  Superman has Clark Kent.  Spiderman goes about his non-hero business as Peter Parker.  Not so with Hancock.  Everyone knows him as such and he always uses the same identity.  He dresses in everyday clothing and has no alter ego.  He even goes through most of the movie without even thinking of a special costume.

His full name is John Hancock, an allusion to the most famous of signatures.  (The reference is explained in the movie.)  John is the most basic of heroes.  He doesn't seem to have use for social skills or manners.  When he arrives to help someone, he does what he has to do to save their lives, but doesn't seem to care what the consequences are.  This bothers many elected officials, public servants and common people.

To give you a good example, Ray Embry, played by Jason Bateman, enters the movie when Hancock saves him from an oncoming train.  Ray made the mistake of stopping on the track and not noticing said oncoming train because he was talking on the phone.  Instead of picking up the car and flying off, Hancock chooses to stop the train, thus derailing it.  Yes, Ray gets to live another day, but the railroad company is left to clean up a huge mess.

Everyone at the scene is upset with Hancock because this is just the latest in a string of messes he's made.  Ray, recognizing that Hancock saved his life, decides to repay him by trying to change his image.  Turns out, he's an advertising executive, so he knows a little about changing image.  Apparently, Ray likes a challenge.

Ray's wife doesn't think that the makeover will work.  Hancock is not only impolite, but he's a drunk and a rather mean one at that.  He lives in a trailer far removed from anyone else.  He seems to hate everyone for calling him what he is.  I don't know that he's necessarily a bad person.  It's just that, as I said earlier, he doesn't realize why it's important to be polite.  He knows that stopping a carjacking or a murder is the right thing to do.  He doesn't realize that form is at least as important as function.

Hancock seemed a bit over the top at times.  In one scene, he throws a kid so far up in the air that he has to wait a minute or two to catch him.  (Another scene is not fit for describing in mixed company, but you won't be able to listen to the theme to Sanford and Son the same way.)  The bad guys, on the other hand, seemed a bit flat.  I felt like they were just there to give Hancock something to do.

I don't know if there was any source material, like we have with other superheroes, who seem to be based mostly on comics.  This was a good thing for me because it all seemed new.  Even though comic-based books do deviate a little from the source material, you generally know the basic information like where they came from and who the main bad guys are.  (Despite never having read a comic book in my life, I can usually point out the minor changes to the story.)

I felt like Hancock's back story could have been spread out a little.  We spend a good portion of the movie learning about the basics of Hancock, like what a jerk he is.  We also learn that he woke up with amnesia, not knowing who he was.  Then, we have a good portion of his history dumped on us all at once.  I could have seen the information being spread out over several movies.  A hero with amnesia does seem interesting.

Despite the flaws, I do recommend the movie to people.  This is not a movie for children, as there's quite a bit of name calling and vulgarity, not to mention images that small children may not be able to deal with.  Interestingly enough, it does look like there will be a sequel, at least according to IMDb.  I'd definitely be interested in seeing it. 

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Grave of the Fireflies/Hotaru no haka (1988)

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

There are some movies that seem to take on a life beyond what they were intended for. From what I understand, Grave of the Fireflies was originally written as a book by an author who needed to deal with some issues in his childhood. While I can’t really elaborate without ruining the story, I can say that the movie has become somewhat of an anti-war movie.

The movie takes place in Japan during the final months of World War II. Seita is a boy about high-school age. He works and goes to school, but both his school and place of employment are destroyed when Allied forces begin air raids on his home town. He’s told by his mother to look after his sister, Setsuko, and to make sure that they both get to the shelter safely. (Their father is in the Japanese Navy and is away at war.)

Both make it to safety, but are separated from their mother. After the raid, they find out that their mother didn’t fare well. She has to be taken to a hospital, but dies en route leaving the brother to look after his sister. Fortunately, there’s an aunt who can take them in, but she’s too strict for the siblings’ liking. Seita makes the decision to strike out on their own rather than live with the aunt.

This proves more difficult than he originally anticipated. While he can come across money and he and his sister get rations, enough food is scarce and they’re forced to live in an abandoned shelter. Money and food run out on occasion and Setsuko seems to be getting sick. Seita cares for his sister very much and hates to see her like this. He can go back to the aunt, and is urged to do so on several occasions, but is too prideful to honestly consider it.

I don’t want to say more than that for fear of spoiling the movie. I will say that you shouldn’t be fooled by the fact that this is anime. It’s a very adult movie and really shouldn’t be watched by small children. I don’t recall much death being shown on screen, but there is some gore and the effects of war aren’t something that many children would be able to understand.

There are also certain subtleties that many children may miss. For instance, the aunt may seem like an overbearing foster parent when in reality, she has hard choices to make. Seita doesn’t work and doesn’t seem to think there’s much for him. When he agrees to let his mother’s kimonos be sold off for rice, he thinks that he’ll be entitled to a better share than he and his sister actually get. The aunt points out that she and her husband contribute to the household and society whereas the two siblings don’t. As an adult, you can understand the aunt’s point of view.

If you think that animation is for children, this is a great movie to break you of that belief. Grave of the Fireflies is not only great animation, it’s a great movie. I’d say it’s even top-10 material. I’d give it five stars.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Flightplan (2005)

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

Warning: I’m going to give away some spoilers. I’m not giving away the ending and I’m certainly not giving away that much. However, if you’re not into hearing too many details, don’t read this review just yet.

I remember seeing the coming attractions for flight plan. Mother and daughter are traveling on a plane. The mother, played by Jodie Foster, falls asleep and awakens to find the daughter missing. Since they’re on a plane and no parachutes are missing, the mother is left to assume that the daughter is still on the plane. That’s about all the trailers revealed.

After seeing the trailers, I had to wonder how they could fill almost two hours of film based on just that. Part of the movie deals with why Kyle (the mother) and Julia (the daughter) are on the plane. It turns out that the father died, apparently having killed himself by jumping off of the roof of an apartment building. The bulk of it has to do with what exactly happened.

This is why I’m warning you about the spoilers. I can’t really write an honest review without giving away at least some of the details. For starters, the insanity card is played way too early to be what really happened. Even though you know she’s not crazy, you have to wonder just a little bit. After Kyle discovers Julia missing, she finds (the hard way) out who the air marshal is. The air marshal later informs Kyle that she’s actually transporting two coffins, one of which is for her daughter. There’s no record of Julia having been on board. He even provides evidence that she picked up two bodies from the coroner before leaving.

Kyle starts seeing conspiracies everywhere. There are two passengers who are of Middle-Eastern origin who Kyle swears were looking at her from an apartment across the street. Also, she makes a point to tell the captain that two members of the flight crew weren’t exactly trying that hard when everyone was supposed to be looking for Julia.

You do eventually realize that something major is going on. It actually takes a while to figure out what, though. The writers did a good job of stretching out the story. When I first walked out of the theater, I thought to myself that I had just wasted $6.50 of my hard-earned money, but I began to think and I realized that there really was more to it than that. (Which is why I’m withholding a lot of the details.)

There were two major problems that I had with the story. First, I found it very convenient that no one saw Julia get on. Given that we’re talking about a plane with two floors of seats and a good-sized crew, not one person could corroborate that Kyle had gotten on with someone. The second point was that the whole thing with the Middle-Eastern passengers didn’t go anywhere. It doesn’t really mean anything that they happened to be across the street. Plus, they had an alibi for that night, which was never fully checked out.

The entire story seemed to be one of convenience. Things just happened the way that they needed to happen in order for there to be a two-hour movie. What would have happened if someone had been able to definitively say that they saw Julia? I’m going to give the movie four stars. Despite the complaints, the movie was at least entertaining. I’m going to have to see this movie again, just to be able to pick up on things that I didn’t see before. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Project Almanac (2015)

Sometimes, reviewing a movie is easy if it tends towards the extreme.  Even if it’s really bad, that’s something to work with.  What do you do with a mediocre movie?  What do you do with a movie that doesn’t do anything really well?  Project Almanac looked like it had promise.  It was about an MIT hopeful named David and his friends finding a time machine.  I know.  What could go wrong?  It turns out, quite a lot.

The first half of the movie is basically a way of dropping names while trying to get the thing to work and subsequently testing their new Temporal Displacement Device.  You have all the obligatory Terminator/Doctor Who/Back to the Future/whatever references.  They even throw in a Timecop reference for good measure.  Ok.  I can buy that.  (I would have gone with Timecrimes.  But that’s just me.)

At this point, the movie can go one of two ways.  One way is to make history better.  One of the friends says that they have to kill Hitler.  Everyone who has ever invented a time machine knows this.  Instead, they go the other way and try to make their own lives better.  This includes, but is not limited to, winning the lottery.  This is understandable.  David gets into MIT, but doesn’t get the accompanying financial aid that he wanted.

You’d think that it would end there, but they decide to go to Lollapalooza once David gets the device working.  They can go back pretty far, but David knows he can do better.  This is mostly because the movie is predicated upon him and his sister finding a recording of his seventh birthday in which his seventeen-year-old self is seen in a reflection.  This also happens to be the night that their father died.

This raises several interesting questions.  If he was able to go back in time, was he not able to prevent his father’s death?  Why is his shirt stained?  If he knows he’ll be wearing a stained shirt, why not bring a clean one?  The one I was asking was how such an old video camera still had a charge right out of the cardboard box it was sitting in.  David is seventeen, meaning it had been sitting there for ten years.

The problem with using a convention, like time travel or found footage, is that it’s very difficult to add anything to it.  Many movies address meeting yourself, but there are only so many ways you can do this.  You also either have a fixed universe or one with many timelines.  Also, found footage was new and interesting once.  Very few movies have been able to do it well and those that did were ones that didn’t rely on it.  (Lunopolis and The Europa Report are the two I remember liking.)

Neither time travel nor found footage is anything new insofar as movies go.  I found Project Almanac to be a cross between The Butterfly Effect and The Blair Witch Project.  You have five teenagers going around, making a mess of history that they have to undo, and adhering to one rule:  Record everything.  The movie doesn’t really do anything well.  In fact, this is what’s notable to me.  I was entertained for two hours, but I came away from the movie not wanting to recommend it to anyone.  It’s not the kind of movie where I’ll be talking to someone about movies and ask if they’ve seen this.  If you can get it streaming through Netflix, fine.  If not, don’t bother

IMDb page

Monday, October 10, 2016

Timecop (1994)

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

Warning:  I’m going to give away major details.  I have to do this to properly review the movie.  If you don’t like spoilers, now’s a good time to stop reading.

One of the big questions with time travel is what you would do with it.  Would you go back and kill Hitler?  Would you give yourself the winning lottery numbers?  If you really screwed something up, would you go back and warn yourself about it?  The big question in Timecop is what would you do about it.

The movie starts with someone stealing some Confederate gold.  Yes, that Confederate, as in the American Civil War.  Cut to the present (in this case, 1994) where you have three people telling some senators that time travel has just been invented.  You can’t go to the future because it hasn’t happened yet, but you can go to the past.  This is tricky because there’s no telling what would happen if, say, someone were to go back and kill Hitler before he killed millions of people.  Who knows what effect those millions of people would have on history?

Instead of sweeping it under the rug, it’s proposed that a commission be set up to police the timeline and prevent someone from doing serious harm.  It’s called the Time Enforcement Commission.  Senator McComb gets himself appointed to oversee it.

Max Walker is a pretty good police officer and husband.  He’s considering a job with the new Time Enforcement Commission, much to his wife’s dismay.  As Max is leaving his house one day, he’s beaten up and left for dead by some thugs.  Max looks up to see his wife still inside the house with McComb behind her.  Before he can go in and help, the house explodes, taking her with it.

Ten years later, Max is working for the TEC.  He has to go back and get his former partner, who has gone back to take advantage of the Great Depression.  The plan is that he can buy stock really, really cheap so that his benefactor can make tons of money in 2004.  When Walker asks who that is, the former partner says that it’s McComb.  The plan is to use the money for a presidential bid.  Walker wants him to testify, but he refuses, saying that McComb will kill his grandparents.

When McComb arrives at TEC headquarters to give a tour to a new senator on the oversight committee, McComb asks Walker about his latest mission.  Walker is smart enough not to outright accuse McComb of what he’s done, but they each know what the other knows.

Walker gets to go back on a second mission where he finds the McComb of 2004 trying to kill a former business associate from 1994 at a crucial point.  He succeeds and changes history for the worse.  When Walker goes back, he finds the TEC all but shut down.  He convinces his boss to let him go back one more time to set things right.  As you might expect from a time-travel movie, especially one that has a sequel, Walker not only sets things straight, but he manages to save his wife, as well.

The thing about time-travel movies is that there’s either something that you can’t explain or something that you miss entirely.  In this case, I never understood the cancellation effect that happens when a present-day object touches it’s counterpart from the past.  It’s stated that an object can’t occupy the same space as its former self.  This is used to kill McComb.

I have three problems with this.  First, you’re literally not the same person you were ten years ago.  You’ve consumed and digested a lot of food and drink, breathed a lot of air and a good portion of your body, like hair and nails, has come and gone.  Secondly, the clothes seem to be included in this.  I doubt that McComb is wearing the same socks, the same shoes, the same underwear and so on.  Third, we do go through a lot of oxygen.  What happens if we carry back a molecule of oxygen that happens to interact with its past self?  Does that oxygen nullify itself?  Make enough trips back and you’ll deplete the atmosphere.

Another thing that’s never explored is where the time vehicles go.  To get to the past, a passenger is put into a vehicle.  Passenger and vehicle go forward along a track and eventually disappear.  The passenger arrives somewhere, but there’s no mention of the vehicle until the passenger returns, at which point the vehicle reappears.  Maybe someone came up with something that got cut from the final version.  I’m just curious.

The movie is entertaining, but could be better.  It’s one of those movies that has intricacy, but leaves a few obvious holes.  There are cases where the effects of interference never manifests.  There are cases where the effects are profound.  There are cases where the effects are pretty good.  There are cases where the use of green screen is fairly obvious.  While I’d recommend watching it, I don’t know that I’d recommend running out to get it.  Instead, I’d recommend it only if it comes on TV or if you can get it as part of a package deal.