Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Star Trek: The Next Generation - Episode 154 (Liaisons)

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

First contact is a difficult business. It’s the first impression that a new species has of the Federation and of Starfleet. Lt. Worf is not comfortable with it and Cmdr. Riker has even less to look forward to. All Worf has to do is meet them. Commander Riker has escorting one of the aliens around to look forward to. When Capt. Picard, Riker, Worf and Counselor Troi meet the new species in one of the shuttle bays, we learn that two ambassadors are staying on the ship and the third is taking Picard back to their home world. Much to Worf’s dismay, the ambassador that’s supposed to be with Riker requests that he be with Worf during his stay. Worf wants to argue, but knows better than to go against a senior officer. The ambassador that’s supposed to be with Troi doesn’t seem to mind being paired with her.

The only thing that seems to bother Picard is the long trip to his destination. It’s going to be several days and the pilot doesn’t seem to be in the mood to talk. Before Picard can find something else to do, the shuttle crashes on a planet. The place doesn’t look that good. There are electrical bolts flying everywhere and the surface is barren of anything resembling plant life. To boot, the pilot is severely injured. Picard goes out to look for help, but is injured by one of the electrical bolts. We see Picard being dragged off right before the scene changes to the Enterprise

Troi seems to be getting along well with her ambassador. She’s showing him all of the food that the ship has laid out in a buffet. Worf’s ambassador is very bossy, insisting that Worf bring him food. Worf shows an incredible restraint, but does want to hurt the ambassador. Troi is enjoying the company of her ambassador while Worf is miserable.

Back on the planet, Picard finds himself in a crashed freighter. The only company he has is a human woman that crashed there seven years prior. She hasn’t seen anyone else in all of that time. She tells Picard that the pilot is dead and that the ship seems too badly damaged to be of much use. However, she volunteers to go back to get a communications console from the shuttle. When she returns with it, Picard notices that it’s too badly damaged to be of much use. She accidentally hit it with a phaser and destroyed the power cell.

Things start to come together, both on the ship and on the planet. The ambassador assigned to Worf continues to provoke him and the ambassador assigned to Troi continues to seek desert. Picard slowly comes to realize that the woman he’s with isn’t being truthful. Shortly after she runs out of the freighter, the pilot shows up, not as dead as the woman would have him believe. They both follow her out to a cliff, where they spit up. Picard is the one to find the woman. He then figures out what’s going on.

On the ship, Worf, Riker and Troi find out that the ambassadors are also not telling the whole truth. The ambassadors were sent to learn about different aspects of humanity. The one assigned to Worf was assigned to learn of aggression. The one with Troi was sent to learn of pleasure and indulgence. The pilot that was taking Picard to their planet was also actually an ambassador; his assignment was to learn of love and attraction. He had based the scenario on the logs of a real woman who had actually spent seven years on a planet until an actual man crashed and fell in love with her. (The shuttle wasn’t actually damaged in the crash, so they’re free to leave.)

The two story lines didn’t work that well. There was something about Picard’s situation that didn’t seem legitimate, even on the first watching. It just seemed too odd that Picard would crash on a planet that had a woman on it. Granted, it was based on a real scenario, but what are the odds? It also seemed like someone would come looking for him, especially considering that they knew his flight path. (I do have to wonder why no one came looking for the woman, considering that there were others on that ship.)

There’s also the problem of the two ambassadors onboard the Enterprise. Both of them acted in a way that I wouldn’t consider consistent with ambassadors. One acted goofy and the other acted rudely. I don’t think that these are two people I would choose to represent my species.

The biggest problem I had was that the species had to resort to trickery to learn of the Federation. Why not just open a dialogue like everyone else?

This is a two-star episode. While the acting was good, the story line and script were below par. 

Monday, October 30, 2017

Star Trek The: Next Generation - Episode 153 (Descent: Part II)

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

Before you get started with this episode, you should realize that while it is the first episode of the final season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, it’s the second part of a two-part series. It begins right where the season six finale left off. Please read my review of part one before you read this review. To recap:

Rogue Borg attacked a Starfleet installation to get the Enterprise’s attention. The drones showed signs of individuality and were also interested in Data. Data killed one out of anger and actually enjoyed it. Later, a drone is captured and convinces Data to go to the rogue Borg’s colony. The Enterprise follows them and a search party finds Data, Lore and several dozen drones in a building.

Part II picks up with Lore and Data looking down on the search party; several dozen drones are surrounding the search party and there’s a dampening field. Basically, all possible exits are blocked. Lore has been using the drones to manipulate Data into coming. Data seems to have totally bought into Lore’s philosophy, telling Picard that he’s no longer the Federation’s puppet. (Or words to that effect.) Lore has been leading the rogue Borg who were so influenced by Hugh’s individuality that they were unable to pilot their own ship. (Hugh is the name given to the drone that the Enterprise released back into the Borg collective, hoping that his individuality would have an effect.) Lore has become a cult leader of sorts, promising the drones the perfection of a totally artificial body.

Lore has been doing experiments on drones, but none of the drones have made it through intact. (Some have died and some have survived in a debilitated state.) Now, he has three humans to experiment. Lore takes Chief Engineer La Forge’s VISOR under the pretense of wanting to do experiments, but La Forge points out that he can see the carrier wave that Lore is using to manipulate Data. (The VISOR is a device that allows La Forge to see. Without the VISOR, La Forge is totally blind. If I recall, VISOR is an acronym, hence the caps.)

Lore orders Data to do experiments on La Forge. The plan is to use La Forge to see if an artificial neural network can be established, thus eliminating the need for an organic brain. There’s a 40% chance of success, but with three humans, odds are that at least one will survive. It’s up to Picard, Troi and La Forge to find a way to get Data to come around to his senses.

Dr. Crusher is in charge of the Enterprise. Despite being given orders to return to Federation space, she stays near the planet and sends a probe containing the ship’s logs through the transwarp conduit. She’s determined to get as many of the search teams as she can off the planet. She manages to get almost all of the teams off, essentially leaving Picard’s team and a few other people. She’s actually able to destroy the Borg ship, thus giving her plenty of time to help those on the planet. She knows where Picard, Troi and La Forge are, but is unable to beam them out because of the dampening field.

Commander Riker leads another search party, which is captured by several of the renegade drones. Fortunately, this is not the same group that’s led by Lore. Instead, Riker and his search party are taken to Hugh, the Borg drone that I had mentioned earlier. He explains to Riker what’s been going on. He isn’t happy to see Starfleet officers, since it was Starfleet officers that caused so many drones to become individuals. He shows Riker some drones that survived Lore’s experiments, but were left severely impaired by them. Hugh shows Riker the way to the compound that Lore is in, but refuses to go with them. In the end, it all works out. Data’s conscience starts to reemerge, Riker leads a successful raid with a little help from Hugh and Dr. Crusher is there waiting in orbit with the Enterprise.

I was able to see both episodes together on Spike TV. (It’s a cable station. They’ve acquired the rights to show Next Generation and Deep Space Nine episodes.) I’ve noticed that there’s a bit of bait and switch here. The first part focuses on Data and how the ‘negative’ emotions are affecting him. In this part, it’s more about Lore and his diabolical plans. When I first saw the episode, it wasn’t as noticeable since I had to wait three months after Part I aired to see Part II.

Apparently, the individuality affected just Hugh’s ship. Hugh talks of not being able to go back to the collective. At first, I assumed that this meant that they couldn’t return to a collective state, but the Borg did make several appearances in Star Trek: Voyager, and it was the collective version. (The Borg would also play a central role in the movie, First Contact.) There’s no appearance of Hugh or the renegade drones after this episode. I had hoped to find out what happened to them. (It might have been interesting to have a few of them stop by Deep Space Nine or something.)

One point that all of the nitpickers seem to point out is that in Part I, Troi tells Data that there are no positive or negative emotions. (It’s the resulting actions that are positive or negative.) Early in the episode, La Forge says something to Data about his negative emotions; Data responds by quoting Troi. Later in the episode, though, Troi makes a comment about Data’s negative emotions. What gives?

Despite the dissimilarity to the first part, it’s still a good episode. Once again, Brent Spiner gets to shine in two roles. Before, the two roles were polar opposites. You have the emotionless Data and the self-interested Lore. Here, Data switches to the Dark Side, even if it is just for the one episode. The shame of it is that both episodes aren’t available together. You either have to buy two separate tapes or buy them as part of two separate boxed sets since the series is sold on DVD by season.

If you’re going to buy the episode, I’d recommend that you do so as part of the seventh season. There were so many other great episodes in that season.

IMDb page

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Stranger Things (Season 2)

When Stranger Things premiered last year, it began the odd story of Will Byers.  Will disappeared one day after playing some D&D with friends.  While it may have looked like any other disappearance, it wasn’t.  Connected was Hawkins Lab, which again looked normal, but wasn’t.  They had opened a portal through which Will had gone through.  He was returned, but not necessarily safely.  The first season ended with the promise that it wasn’t over.

The second season picks up almost a year later, just before Halloween.  The kids are getting ready to go out as the Ghostbusters.  They spend a fair amount of time at the local video arcade playing Dragon’s Lair and Dig Dug.  This should tell you a good deal about what’s in store.  (That is, if you’re an old geezer like me, who happens to be old enough remember these games.)

Will has been having episodes.  Dr. Owens, who seems to be running things at Hawkins, won’t say much.  Then again, this is Hawkins Lab, so there’s no telling what he’s holding back.  Other than that, Will and his friends seem to be adjusting as well as can be expected.   They’re not allowed to talk about it with anyone, which doesn’t help.  And their mysterious friend, Eleven, hasn’t been seen by anyone other than Sheriff Hopper.

The season is nine episodes, each just under an hour.  It continues the story without repeating it that much.  (For those that haven’t seen the first season, you’ll want to watch the series in order.)  Whereas Will was maybe a little underused the first season, the second season has him in abundance.  He’s tested and poked and prodded, as something from the Upside Down alternate universe is controlling him.

His friends and family all try to help in their own way.  Even Eleven, who has been hidden away, has a path to take.  The references to the 1980s are toned down a little, which lets us concentrate on the eeriness.  This isn’t to say that Radio Shack isn’t namedropped or that you don’t get to see a Polaroid instant camera or two.

I would think that it makes the show a little more accessible to younger audiences.  Sometimes, the references don’t resonate the same for those born in the 1990s or later.  For instance, those that have played Dig Dug will notice elements of the game in the story.  Those that haven’t, not so much.

It seems like the second season has perfected the storytelling a little bit and has started to find a balance.  This may be because it sticks to only a few plot threads.  Basically, it’s Eleven’s plot thread and Will’s plot thread with a resolution for some of the characters from the first season.

Part of the problem with a heavily serialized show like this is that episodes can drag.  I noticed less drag this season.  Each episode ended about where it should in terms of story and set up the next one nicely.  It’s perfect for binge watching.  (I was able to watch the episodes in three sittings, although I probably would have made it two if my schedule had permitted.)  I’d be interested to see where the third season will go.  Many loose ends are tied up, but even those presumed dead have a way of coming back.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

The Void (2016)

I’ve been watching horror movies over the past week or so for two reasons.  First, Halloween is coming up.  This might generate a few more seasonal hits.  The second is to see what gets made.  It’s hard to understand what’s considered good horror, as bad movies do occasionally slip through.  That’s ok, too.  In some ways, bad movies can be just as valuable as good movies.  The basic question, though, is if the movie is entertaining.  Does it live up to the trailers and/or descriptions?

When I watched The Void, I knew is was going to maybe be a little paranormal.  The basic premise is that Deputy Daniel Carter finds a man named James, who is in need of medical attention.  Deputy Carter takes James to the nearest hospital, which is in the process of relocating.  When he arrives, strange things start happening.  For instance, a nurse murders a patient.

Shortly after Carter’s arrival, State Trooper Mitchell shows up, interested in whatever happened with James.  Oh, and a father-and-son pair (Vincent and Simon, respectively) show up, intent on killing James and possibly everyone else there.  Why would Vincent and Simon want to kill everyone?  Well, dead people are being resurrected as monsters.  Why James, in particular?  Well, James was involved in a cult and now members of that cult have surrounded the building.  Well, that’s just great.  What’s a deputy to do?

Movies like this tend to go one of two ways.  Either nearly everyone gets out or nearly everyone dies.  Generally, only comedies tend to have everyone live and this isn’t a comedy.  You’re going to see people die and it’s not going to be pretty.  It’s simply a question of when and how a given character might die and what they have to go through before then.   One of the characters is an intern named Kim.  She seems easy going until the pregnant woman’s grandfather wants Kim to perform an emergency C-section, a procedure for which she isn’t qualified.

In terms of depth of story, the movie seems to go more for the tension rather than back story.  I don’t recall there being much of a story behind the cult or what was going on in the hospital.  I’m not sure that filling in details would have been the right way to go.  The movie was fine at 90 minutes.  It was evenly paced and didn’t seem overdone at all.  While it is possible to have a lengthy fight, I wouldn’t want to watch one just for the sake of padding the running time.

The movie isn’t rated, but would probably carry a strong R rating, given the amount of violence in the movie.  You have people being killed and dead people mutilating other people.  This is not a movie for children.  This is the kind of movie your parents would prohibit you from watching and, when you do finally see it, you realize why.  If you have no stomach for horror movies, I’d recommend skipping this one.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Absolutely Anything (2015)

I can forgive a lot of things when it comes to movies.  Using an idea that someone else has used isn’t the worst sin you can commit.  When you get down to it, each film has elements of previous stories in it.  What I will judge a movie on is what it adds to the idea.  If you’re going to remake a movie, why should someone watch yours rather than the original?  Absolutely Anything isn’t really a remake of Bruce Almighty, but does have a lot in common.  Both are about men who are given unlimited powers.  Whereas Bruce Nolan gained his powers as a result of challenging God, Neil Clarke gained his as a result of aliens wanting to test humanity.

When several aliens find one of the Voyager probes, they travel to Earth to destroy it, but decide to at least give us a shot at redemption.  One human will be selected randomly and given the ability to do absolutely anything, even if it’s not normally possible.  That one random human is a school teacher named Neil Clarke.  If Neil can use his powers for good, humanity survives.  If he uses the ability for evil, Earth gets roasted.  Oh, and the aliens don’t tell Neil about it at all.  He’s left to figure out he has powers all on his own.  No pressure.

Somehow, Neil manages to figure out about his powers rather quickly.  We’d all like to think that we’d use such powers to better humanity.  Instead, Neil uses them for all manner of random things.  Many of the gags are one-of jokes, usually involving the literalness with which the wishes are rendered.  In one scene, Neil wishes for the body of a great man and is made to look like Albert Einstein.  In another, he destroys his classroom.  When he wishes for everyone to be alive again, long-dead people start coming out of their graves.

Few of them last more than one scene.  He has a friend, Ray, who is interested in a woman that ignores him.  Neil makes the woman worship Ray, leading to a cult.  The cult then proceeds to chase Ray all over town.  Neil also realizes that he can give his dog intelligence and a voice.  This leads to the obligatory embarrassing scenes with love-interest Catherine.

There really isn’t anything new in this movie.  If you’ve seen similar movies, I don’t think you’re going to find any surprises.  Neil gets the powers and eventually realizes how hard it is to use them, even when he does try to help people.  The difference here is that his epiphany comes very late in the movie.  It ends up being a string of situations that Neil fumbles with before feeling regret and maybe getting it somewhat close to right.

Part of the problem is that there’s only so much you can do with such a concept.  You can do what The Greatest American Hero did and have a guy who genuinely wants to help people.  Or you can do what Absolutely Anything did and just use it as a way to string scenes together.  Yes, that’s kind of harsh, but it’s true.  There was some potential here and it seems somewhat wasted.

It’s also worth noting that this was the final movie for Robin Williams, who voiced Neil’s dog.  I didn’t think that Williams was as high strung as he usually was, which by itself is a bit of a waste.  He was a little hyper, like you’d expect a dog to be.  I felt like he didn’t have as much screen time as I would have liked.  It ended up being Simon Pegg’s show.  If you come across this on Netflix, I would recommending holding off on it until you’re absolutely out of other movies.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Miss Hokusai (2015)

Stories tend to have a well-defined structure.  You set up all of the relevant details first.  Then, something happens to set the action in motion.  Stuff happens.  Usually it’s tense stuff, even in comedies.  Eventually, there’s a resolution where everything comes together.  This isn’t always the case, though.  It can be difficult to have a movie without a well-defined plot, although it’s been done.  Even with A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, there were many small, interrelated stories.  It was almost like a lot of short movies that had been strung together.

Miss Hokusai takes a similar approach.  The movie shows a young woman, O-Ei, and her father, Tetsuzo.  Both are painters; he’s established while she’s learning under him.  Both have worked on commissions, but she still has some learning to do before she’s at her father’s level.  The movie takes place over several months.  Scenes don’t seem to follow a single narrative.

For instance, O-Ei visits her sister, O-Nao, several times.  O-Nao is a girl who was born blind and sent to live with nuns.  Each visit, the sisters might visit a bridge or get something to eat or drink.  They talk of visiting their father, but Tetsuzo seems to want to keep his distance, which O-Ei seems to respect.  There are also several of Tetsuzo’s students coming and going.  In one scene, Tetsuzo, O-Ei and a student visit a brothel where they witness a woman having an out-of-body experience.

Father and daughter seem to compliment each other.  O-Ei is more outgoing where Tetsuzo seems more introverted.  Tetsuzo is more experienced, whereas O-Ei is still learning.  Throughout, Tetsuzo does work and O-Ei gets better.  She even has a commission of her own.  However, several aspects of her work, like erotic art, are said to need improvement. 

It’s difficult to review a movie like this.  It seems almost like the outtakes from another movie.  It’s as if there was enough material to make a coherent movie.  I could almost see this being part of a larger story.  Part of this may stem from the fact that the movie is based on a manga.  From what I’ve read, this is actually part of a larger story.  (The manga was based on the life of a real father/daughter team.)

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Anime and manga to rely as much on the visual aspect as it does on the script, and this movie does well with the visuals.  (I would hope so, as it’s about two artists.)  The lack of a clear antagonist didn’t bother me at all.  It was interesting just to watch the story go by.

Even though it’s anime, the movie did get a PG-13 rating.  Most of it seems to stem from the erotic art and trips to the brothel.  This is one of those cases where the rating seems appropriate.  I don’t think there would be anything too uncomfortable for teenagers and above.  (A little awkward for a few moments, maybe, but not uncomfortable.)  There is one scene where someone is sexually aggressive towards O-Ei and she relents.  It only lasted for one scene and didn’t seem to have an impact on the rest of the movie.

Overall, I’d recommend watching it.  However, this  is one of those movies where Netflix leaves me wanting.  I was able to watch the movie in Japanese with English subtitles.  (This doesn’t bother me, so I didn’t really try to mess around with settings.)  The thing I don’t like is not having special features.  This is a case where I’d want to know more about the movie and its background.  IMDb will only get you so far.  (Wikipedia did have some information on the real people that served as the basis for Tetsuzo and O-Ei, but still…)  If you have a good source of information on the history behind this movie, please let me know.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

L.A. Confidential (1997)

In the Star Trek universe, we have the Cardassian race.  In a Deep Space Nine episode, Garak and Bashir were talking about Cardassian Enigma tales.  Bashir’s main complaint was that all of the suspects were guilty of something.  Garak points out that the fun of the stories was to figure out who was guilty of what.  L.A. Confidential is a bit like that.  It seems that all of the main characters (and many of the suspects) are guilty of something.  If they haven’t done something yet, they will.

The movie is set in Los Angeles in the 1950s.  Ed Exley is a by-the-book sergeant who wants work his way up the ranks.  Captain Dudley Smith asks him if he’d be willing to bend the rules; since the answer is no, Ed probably won’t make it far as a detective.  Bud White is more of what Smith would consider a good officer.  He’s someone who is willing to beat the crap out of a suspect if it means that a guilty person goes to jail.  Then, there’s Sergeant Jack Vincennes, who’s not above taking some money.  He works with Sid Hudgens, who publishes a tabloid.  Vincennes also works as a consultant on a Dragnet-type show.  If money is changing hands, one of those hands probably belongs to Vincennes.

Early in the movie, several prisoners find themselves in a jailhouse fight with several police officers, including Vincennes and White.  Exley witnesses it, but is powerless to stop it.  Since Exley testifies, he’s given a promotion, but is not well liked by his fellow police officers.  Still, life goes on for White, Vincennes and Exley.

As detective lieutenant, Exley responds to a call involving several murders, including that of a former police officer.  This leads to finding three suspects who appear to be guilty of the crimes.  Exley is considered a hero for solving the crime.  He’s not convinced that this is all there is to it.  Vincennes agrees to help Exley look into it, which opens up a can of worms neither of them expected.

There’s that famous line, “It’s not what it looks like.”  In all of the television and movie that I’ve watched, this is probably the one time that the line was uttered where it was true.  The movie is complicated.  If you miss a detail, you may not understand the rest of the movie.  There are certain aspects of the movie that aren’t what you might assume.

Everyone likes to think that they’re a good guy and there are some good guys in all of this.  However, all of the main characters eventually do something that’s less than good.  That seems to be the distinguishing characteristic between the main characters.  Exley is the one that is most willing to follow the rules.  He does make a few mistakes, but he likes to think he tries.  The trick is figuring out what, exactly, everyone is guilty of.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The Prophet (2014)

Almitra is a bit of a troublemaker.  She should be in school, but spends her time taking stuff from local vendors.  This doesn’t earn her any points with the local vendors or her mother.  Kamila is trying to do the right thing and to raise her daughter to do the same, which is what makes it so frustrating.  When Almitra skips school to follow Kamila, Kamila has no choice but to bring the young girl with her to work.

She leaves Almitra with Halim, a uniformed guard who has his own guardhouse and everything.  What kind of job does Kamila have that she has to pass by a guardhouse?  She’s a housekeeper for a man named Mustafa.  Well, technically she works for the government, who is keeping Mustafa under house arrest.  Mustafa is a bit of a troublemaker, too.  He paints and writes, but his subject matter tends to make the government nervous.

Shortly after Kaila and Almitra arrive, Halim’s sergeant shows up; Mustafa is given his freedom, provided that he board a ship and return to his homeland.  Halim and The Sergeant escort Mustafa to the shore where the ship is waiting.  Along the way, they meet several townspeople, who all greet Mustafa as a great man.

Throughout the movie, Mustafa tells people various stories or goes off on tangents.  For instance, he tells Almitra how he’s free, despite being imprisoned, because he can travel with his mind.  Each story is animated differently from the main story, but is narrated by Mustafa.  As the movie progresses, you get the sense of why this guy is so well liked.

The movie is an animated movie released by Gkids in the United States.   It does have a PG rating, though.  There is some violence and what IMDb has listed as sensual images.  I also think small children probably wouldn’t understand what a political prisoner is or why Mustafa is being kicked off the island.  I don’t recall anything that would be objectionable for teens and above.

I had heard of Gibran before seeing this movie, which is what prompted me to watch it.  The movie is based on The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran.  I’m not sure of how much the movie resembles the book.  This is one of the few cases, though, where I would want to check it out of the library.  Most novels translate well to the screen, as this did.  I do think there would also be something to be gained by reading the book.  I would imagine that there were parts of the book that could not be adapted to the screen.

I usually try to think in terms of who would like a movie rather than who should avoid it.  However, this one is a little more difficult to place.  I don’t have many other movies to compare it to.  It’s also the kind of movie that will probably speak to people differently.  I’m not sure if it would be available at Redbox or at most libraries.  It is available streaming on Netflix, which would make it easy for users of the service to watch.  If you can, I would recommend it.  Just make sure you’re not doing anything else during the movie.  It deserves your full attention.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Cube (1997)

There’s a joke that NASA spent millions of dollars to create a pen that worked in space whereas its Soviet counterpart was content using pencils.  If the story is true, I’m sure there’s more to it than the punch line lets on. However, it does make a point; sometimes, simplicity is best.  Take a movie, for instance.  Get rid of the fancy editing and CGI.  Forget the cast of thousands.  Pare down the sets to just one or two.  What are you left with?  You’re left with a movie like Cube.

It starts out with a man in a room which, coincidentally, happens to be a cube of all things.  He walks through the room only to hear a sound and subsequently find himself sliced to death.  I mention this because it sets the tone of the movie.

Six other people meet up by traveling from room to room.  We have Leaven, a math student; Rennes, who can escape from prisons; Holloway, a medical professional; Quentin, a police officer; Worth, a paper pusher and Kazan, a savant with some sort of cognitive/mental disorder.  They don’t remember being brought to the cube, nor do they know what the cube is.

Each face of the room, whether it be wall, ceiling or floor, has a door in the center.  Each door has a set of three numbers.  The room on the other side may or may not have a trap, so hold on to your boots.  No, really.  They’ll need them to test the room for traps.

The biggest plan is cooperating.  As you might imagine, tension runs high.  The assumption is that the government is behind their imprisonment.  Who else would have the resources?  (No Mr. Tsoukalos; it’s not aliens.  Probably not.)  Either way, there’s still the issue of getting out.  Leaven is able to figure out that prime numbers are key to figuring out which rooms are trapped.  She’s also able to infer the size of the overall structure and which room to be in if they want to get out.

You might not think you could make a feature-length film out of a concept like this, but Vincenzo Natali did.  Not only that, but it spawned two additional movies, as sequel and a prequel.  (Natali wasn’t involved in either one.)  The big problem with the movie is that, in the absence of high-end effects and whatnot, dialogue has to carry the movie.  Having read other reviews, I might be in the minority here in thinking that it does.

The biggest thing you have to get rid of with a movie like this is expectations.  If you’re coming in expecting to find the meaning of life, you’re going to be disappointed.  If you’re looking for something that can showcase six people trapped in a maze they know nothing about, you’ve found a pretty good one.  It’s one that can even capture your attention through to the end.  There is a certain suspense as the characters alternate between helping and bickering.   Imagine you found yourself in that situation.  How do you think you’d react?

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Innerspace (1987)

One definition of an odd couple might be two people that for a friendship despite being opposites in terms of personality.  Take, for instance, Jack Putter and Tuck Pendleton.  Jack is a hypochondriac who works at a Safeway who seems to like worrying about his health more than he should.  Tuck is a former Navy lieutenant who seems to like alcohol more than other people.  Jack can’t handle stress and Tuck is nothing but.  The two might never have met had it not been for a series of events.

Had Tuck not quit the Navy, he wouldn’t have needed to sign up for a miniaturization project.  When the project is attacked by another team of scientists, the project supervisor escapes with the syringe that contains Tuck.  Both the supervisor and Jack wind up in the same place at the same time.  Tuck winds up injected into Jack instead of a rabbit.

It takes Tuck a few minutes to realize what’s going on.   It’s a little more difficult convincing Jack that he’s not suffering from schizophrenia.  However, the two learn to work together with the aid of Tuck’s girlfriend, Lydia Maxwell.  They need to figure out what happened while evading the other team of scientists and their henchmen.  Oh, and they need to get the stolen computer chip and return to Tuck’s lab.  They also have a hard time limit, as Tuck has only so much oxygen.

The movie is more of a comedy than a drama.  You know that it’s going to come down to the last minute, but Tuck and Jack will get out of it ok.  It does also come of as somewhat goofy, which is to be expected with Martin Short.  However, it doesn’t agonize over the details.  The oxygen is a concern, but doesn’t seem to be a pressing one until later in the movie.  (Also, how is Tuck able to drink regular-sized alcohol after he’s been shrunk?)  It’s mostly going after the bad guys and becoming friends in the process.

Potential uses for the technology are never really discussed in detail.  Ostensibly, it could be very useful for medical purposes, especially in diagnosing various ailments.  (You could find out exactly where an artery is blocked and possibly even unblock it.)  One would imagine that it would also be useful for espionage, as you could inject an operative into a foreign agent.

It’s also odd that Tuck was injected into someone who was barely capable of getting him back.  What would have happened if he had been injected into someone that couldn’t get him back?  For that matter, what would have happened if he had been injected into a martial arts expert?  It’s just enough to keep the story going without being implausible.  We can identify with Jack as being someone who could but would probably rather not.  The movie is enjoyable in that it’s not difficult to overlook these things.  Like I said, it’s a comedy.  They’re not going to team up two really great people.  Where’s the fun in that?

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Extraordinary Tales (2013)

Edgar Allan Poe is one of those names everyone knows on some level.  For most people, it’s probably from having to read one of his stories in high school.  Works like The Raven and The Tell-Tale Heart are known by enough people that references can be found in popular culture.  His is exactly the sort of work you could make a short film from.

Extraordinary Tales takes five of Poe’s works and makes them into animated shorts.  Their tied together by scenes of a raven, representing Poe, in a graveyard, which represents Death.  Before each segment, Poe and Death have a conversation which leads into the various stories.

The first is The Fall of the House of Usher, narrated by Christopher Lee.  Of the five stories, this is the only one I remember having to read in school.  From what I remember, the segment follows the story pretty closely.  The animation tended to be pretty angular, but was done well.

The second segment was Bela Lugosi reciting The Tell-Tale Heart.  Yes, this is the same Bela Lugosi that was almost featured in Plan 9 from Outer Space.  Given the quality of the audio and that Lugosi died years prior to the release of the film, I’d assume that it was simply a lucky coincidence that someone had him on tape.  The animation here is strictly black and white.

The Facts of the Case of M. Valtemar is narrated by Julian Sands.  This one was set up more like a comic book.  It’s also one of the more eerie ones, about a doctor who tries to study death with unintended consequences.   I think of the five stories, this might be the most scary to children, as it deals with someone on the verge of death.

Guillermo del Toro provides the narration for The Pit and the Pendulum, which is about a condemned prisoner.  This one was probably the most realistic of the five segments.  It looks almost like they shot actual actors and applied some sort of special effect to make it look like animation.

The last segment is The Mask of the Red Death and features one line of dialogue spoken by Roger Corman.  Other than that, it’s silent.  This one also might be too much for children, as it features people suddenly experiencing pain.  Then again, this is Edgar Allan Poe.  I don’t know that there’s any real expectation that any of them will be suitable for children.

Most of the names are ones that I recognize.  Julian Sands was the only one of the narrators I had to look up; he’s been in things like 24 and Stargate: The Ark of Truth.  (If you go to his IMDb page, you might recognize the face.)  Roger Corman is recognizable only in that he’s a prolific producer.  (I’ll be using his name as a tag.  It should be associated with a few other titles that I’ve reviewed.)  Similarly, I know Guillermo del Toro as a director.

Stephen Hughes voiced the Raven and Cornelia Funke voiced Death.  Neither is a name I recognized.  Hughes has other acting credits, but I don’t recognize any of the titles.  This is Funke’s only acting credit; most of her credits are for writing or as herself.  The interstitial segments weren’t great, but they didn’t really take away from the movie at all.  It was something to introduce the next segment.

I would say that the most recognizable name would belong to Edgar Allan Poe.  If you’re reading this review, that’s probably how you got here.  I would say that the movie is going for a more common audience.  It seems like it’s meant for people that aren’t part of the literary scene, but may know of his work.  It’s the kind of thing that a high-school teacher or college professor might show in class.  At 73 minutes, it’s just short enough that you could squeeze it into a single class period.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Hoodwinked! (2005)

Some things work only if they’re done well.  When someone tries to make it a True Daily Double on Jeopardy!, they’re a genius only if it works.  If not, they’ve got their work cut out for them.  The same goes for something like using fairy-tale characters.  If it’s done well, it’s something can be used to the movie’s advantage.  If not done well, it can turn people away.

Hoodwinked starts with the final scene from Little Red Riding Hood.  Red Puckett is at her grandmother’s house, but it’s not Granny Puckett that Red is dealing with.  It’s the Wolf W. Wolf wearing a Granny mask.   Red is no fool; she’s on to him.  Suddenly, a Kirk the Woodsman comes crashing through the window.  Cue the police, who tape off the area and start interrogating the various suspects.  Fortunately, Nicky Flippers happens to be walking along.  He’s a frog who has a knack for solving crimes.  He starts asking the right questions.

Nicky starts with Red, who works for Granny.  Granny runs a successful snack business.  Red had just found out about the Goodie Bandit, who has been stealing recipes.  Fearing for Granny, Red took the recipe book to Granny’s house, only to have several issues.  This includes meeting Mr. Wolf and Twitchy.  She manages to  lose Wolf and make it to Granny’s, only to find Wolf impersonating Granny.

Nicky then interrogates Wolf, Nick and Granny in that order.  Each interrogation adds more detail to the overall story.  (For instance, Wolf is actually a reporter, with Twitchy being his photographer/assistant.)  After Nicky is done asking questions, some secrets come out, but not the identity of the Goodie Bandit.

The use of the Riding Hood tale was unnecessary.  I get that retelling classic stories has almost become a genre unto itself, but that doesn’t mean you need to do it yourself.  It doesn’t really add anything to the plot.  Sometimes, it’s done with the intent of showing what really happened, either figuratively or literally.  Some characters, like Sherlock Holmes, were based on real people.

Some cases may use the characters to give a sense of back story.  It’s not intended as a direct sequel to the story, but rather to use the story to let us fill in details.  When SyFy did a miniseries based on The Wizard of Oz, we knew the story of Dorothy and The Wizard.  We could see comparisons between the new characters and the old.  The new story is written around the old one.

Here, we’re using the characters in name only.  You could have generated new characters and basically told the same story.  Using fair-tale characters doesn’t add anything new except maybe the chance for a throwaway joke or two.

And then, there’s the animation.  It’s not at all like anything that I’ve seen before.  This might put off anyone that’s new to CGI.  I got used to it pretty quickly, but others might not be so fortunate.  (At least with the animation, you can take a look at a trailer to know what to expect.)

I’d say that it’s low budget, but the movie at least has some recognizable names behind the animated faces.  (Anne Hathaway voices Red while Glenn Close voices Granny.)  Even with this, the actors aren’t necessarily recognizable.  I’ve seen David Ogden Stiers in enough roles that I would recognize such a distinctive voice.  It wasn’t until I started looking up the movie that I realized who it was.  If you skipped this movie, you could be forgiven.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Dark Signal (2016)

Laurie Wolf is not a happy woman.  She’s looking for a job, as she was recently terminated by a radio station.  In fact, she’s going in to do her last show.  Her technician, Ben, has invited Carla Zaza on the show.  Laurie isn’t thrilled, as Carla is a psychic.  She wants to play her own play list and just finish out her time.  (Ben eventually convinces her, as letting Carla on would anger the station’s management.)

We also have Ben’s friend, Kate.  Kate would go for the final airing of Laurie’s program except that she has to help Nick.  Nick tells Kate that he’s going to collect money from some rich guy who won’t pay up.  All Nick needs Kate to do is sit in the car and maybe get rid of anyone who shows up.  It sounds sketchy, but Kate needs the money for her son.

All of this sounds easy enough, even with a serial killer out there on the loose.  Wouldn’t you know, things go sideways.  Carla apparently makes contact with a spirit.  Laurie is skeptical at first, thinking that Carla and Ben are playing some joke, but they try again, getting better results as they go on.

Even Kate has her scary moments.  A man knocks on the window of her car and offers to help her out.  Kate tries to get rid of him, eventually telling him that her boyfriend noticed some escaped livestock on a neighboring property.  She knows that Nick is withholding information.  If that’s not enough, he stops answering his phone.  Oh, and there’s one too many faces in Kate’s selfie.  (That’s not even the scary part.)

I’ve never really liked scary movies, per se.  I’m not the kind of person that likes scares.  Those that aren’t scary tend to be hokey, so it’s nearly impossible for me to win.  However, I wanted to watch a scary movie or two in anticipation of a possible Halloween rush.  I’m not even really certain what I expected here.  Part of it was that I recognized the actor playing Ben, Gareth David-Lloyd from Torchwood.

I think part of it is that it’s not quite a thriller and not quite a horror movie.  It has supernatural and paranormal elements, but not to the point that it’s a true paranormal movie.  There’s not a real mystery element, either.  The serial killer is mentioned early in the movie and all but forgotten about until the end of the movie for the big reveal.  Instead, we get a few mild scares that you can sort of see coming.

This is kind of like a campfire story you might tell your friends.  It’s entertaining, but it’s not the kind of thing you watch if you were looking for big frights.  It’s more like the supernatural and horror elements are simply plot elements.  This isn’t to say that it’s bad.  I don’t recall ever being bored with the movie.  With a little reworking, it might even resemble a decent Twilight Zone episode.

The other thing is that there are two stories that don’t really work well together.  It’s like it came from two separate stories that couldn’t quite hold their own as a movie.  We get the sense that they’ll both come together, but there’s no real need for that.  Had these stories been done as part of a TV series, each could have worked separately.

It’s kind of hard to place this film with an audience.  It’s not the kind of film that’s meant to give you nightmares unless you’re frightened very easily.  Then again, it’s hard for me to judge someone’s tolerance for scares if I’m not meeting them face to face.  Those that don’t like horror are probably going to stay away from this and I don’t blame you.  It’s still maybe something you’d want to avoid right before bed.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

13 Demons (2016)

Many years ago, back when Dungeons & Dragons first started, people didn’t seem to understand it.  Younger people seemed to like playing it and older people seemed to read something sinister into the game.  There were implications that it was satanic or caused suicide.  At some point, there was a rumor that people that played it had detached themselves from reality, either before or after starting the game.  Like autism and vaccines, there was no causal link.  Dungeons & Dragons had not loosened anyone’s grip on reality as far as anyone could prove.

13 Demons takes its plot from that basic premise.  What if there were a game that could somehow cause people to think that they were living the campaign?  Three friends start playing a game called 13 Daemons.  The basic rules are what you’d expect of such a game.  Each player moves a token around a board per several arbitrary rules.  (You’re not allowed into red areas unless you roll a certain number.)  The game has a strange smell, further compelling the friends to do something else.  They do eventually get into the game, only to go further down the rabbit hole.

We know that they go all the way because the movie starts in a police station with two of the friends being interrogated.  I’ve always hated that plot device because it either means that the movie is giving away the ending or its setting us up for some strange twist of events that let the characters get out of their mess.

In this case, knowing the history of role-playing games, I don’t expect the main characters to be that smart.  They’re all stoners that don’t seem to have much else to do.  In their first session, they play the game straight through until morning, possibly longer.  Over several weeks, they really get into the game.  They do eventually have their psychotic break in the form of a strange laser show.  A news report implies that they may have killed someone, an assumption backed up by the police interrogation.

Most of the movie takes place in the one room.  We don’t even know if it’s the parents’ basement or if one of them somehow managed to hold a job long enough to get their own place.  This leads me to another problem I had with the movie:  We don’t really develop a bond with any of the characters.  They’re all losers and we basically go into the movie expecting them to kill someone.  Granted, marathon sessions aren’t unheard of, but you’d think one of them would mention needing to get to work or to procure some food.

There’s no reason for us to develop any empathy for the characters.  The whole thing is like some cautionary tale your mother might tell you when you first show an interest in such games.  Is the writer trying to show how silly the whole thing is?  Is this what parents believe will happen to their children if they get into the dark, evil world of D&D?  Or is it written by someone who thought they could make a decent movie out of it?  It’s implied that the cause of the mental break was mold or some other actual agent.  However, the three friends are no less delusional and the game was no less banned several decades ago.

You don’t see many of the murderous acts, but this is not a movie for children.  It’s evident what’s going on, at least to an adult.  At the very least, a small child would probably be confused by the movie, especially if they have no concept what an RPG is.

The funny thing is that this kind of movie is what I had hoped to specialize in here.  It’s the kind of movie that’s bad, but not so bad that I can’t sit through the whole thing.  Keep in mind, though, that I’ve managed to make my way through a lot of bad movies.  I watched Abraxas: Guardian of the Universe.  I watched Future War and Star Crystal.  I even sat through Winterbeast.  This isn’t quite like any of those, but it’s still bad.  I’m actually debating over whether or not I should put this on a ten-worst list.  If I have a need for a specialized list, like Ten Movies in  Need of a Massive Rewrite, this would make the list.

That’s seriously all it needs.  The effects and the acting are at least passable.  I can forgive a low budget.  (IMDb reports that this one had a budget of $1,000,000.)  However, this looks like the theatrical version of a homework assignment rushed at the last minute.  This movie is a short 1:20.  A little more meat and we might have had something.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

American Fable (2016)

Sometimes, we find ourselves with a difficult choice.  The correct option isn’t always immediately evident. Gitty, an 11-year-old girl, finds herself in that situation when she finds a man in a silo.  The silo happens to be on her family’s property.  The man is named Jonathan.  He’s well dressed and wants help, but is hesitant to let Gitty get her father, Abe.

What’s she to do?  The easiest solution is to find the key for the lock and to get some books.  She can’t find the correct key, despite bringing with her any key she can find.  She does get some books from the library, which she leaves for Jonathan to read.  They spend the next several weeks talking to each other.  We initially assume, correctly, that Abe is involved with Jonathan’s captivity.

You might wonder why she doesn’t get help.  I still wonder that.  Martin may be her brother, but he’s still a major jerk, for lack of a more-polite term, so he can’t be trusted.  She finds out that the family farm isn’t as safe as Abe had been letting on.  Her parents are maybe not the best option, either.  She at least brings food to Jonathan and keeps him company until Martin finds out about it.

By this point, little is done, although we know she has options.  Gitty has rope to get herself in and out of the silo, although no attempt is made by Jonathan to get out this way.  She eventually finds an axe, although no attempt is made earlier in the film; only when it’s imperative that Jonathan get out.  She also makes no attempt to use the axe on the outside of the door, which would be easier than the inside.

The situation reminds me a joke about a preacher who finds himself surrounded by rising water.  Before the flooding begins, the area receives several warnings over TV and radio, which he hears.  Convinced that God will protect and save him, he stays.  As the waters start to rise, a man in a canoe comes by and offers to take the preacher to safety.  Again, the preacher is convinced that God’s protection is all he needs.  After the waters have driven the preacher to the roof, a helicopter comes along and offers to take the preacher away.  Again, the preacher refuses, adamant that God will rescue him.

The preacher subsequently dies and ascends to the pearly gates.  When he meets St. Peter, the preacher demands to speak with God right away.  The preacher asks why God did nothing to save the preacher’s life.  God responds, “What are you talking about?  I sent you a warning, a canoe and a helicopter.  What more did you want?”

It’s stated that Jonathan and Gitty have spent several weeks getting to know each other.  I can’t believe that she made no attempt to get Jonathan out.  She could easily have called for help, either by phone or through several other characters we see.  There’s that old gimmick of sending a letter that never gets sent or is somehow misdirected.  We don’t even get that.

The problem is very subdued.  Neither Gitty nor Jonathan seems to be distressed by the situation.  Ok. So the movie is called American Fable.  Maybe there’s supposed to be some sort of allegory going on.  I would take several issues with this characterization.  First, a fable tends to have all sorts of mystical elements, like talking animals.  The movie had none of that, despite what the description may have said.  Second, fables tend to have an obvious moral lesson.  American Fable was almost the opposite.  I didn’t really know what I was supposed to get from this.  Am I to assume that not liberating Jonathan was the correct thing to do?  Is it even fair to put this choice on the shoulders of a child?  The movie didn’t really deal with any of this.  Yes, the farm is relatively isolated, but there were other things she could have tried.

My biggest problem is that I started seeing the plot holes rather than the story itself.  For instance, Gitty kept bringing Jonathan things.  It’s hard to imagine that no one in her family noticed.  Granted, she was probably taking stuff back with her, but she probably left the books for Jonathan to read.  One would assume that either Abe or someone else would have checked in on Jonathan and noticed the books or some other item that Gitty had left.

For that matter, I don’t think it was explicitly stated whether or not Abe was feeding Jonathan.  Abe was working with someone else, so it’s possible that there was a miscommunication, but Jonathan might have starved without Gitty’s intervention.  She’s not bringing him snacks.  She’s bringing stuff like bread and water, for which Jonathan seems grateful.

As for the library books, Gitty states that she has them for two weeks.  If I’m interpreting the timeline correctly, Jonathan has them for about that long or maybe longer.  (There was a line where Jonathan says, “These past few weeks” to  Gitty.)  No mention is made of Gitty trying to get them back to the library or the library calling about them.   This would have made a great way for Gitty to be found out.

I did enjoy the movie, but it required a small amount of suspension of disbelief.  The entire kidnapping aspect seemed too easy and too underplayed.  The entire movie is understated to the point that it almost seems implausible.  We even have a final scene that seems to throw on a level of ambiguity.  Upon seeing the final scene, I could only wonder what it was that I had just watched.

Monday, October 16, 2017

O Menino e o Mundo/The Boy and the World (2013)

Cuca is a young boy.  He lives on what appears to be a farm with various animals to play with.  Also present are his parents.  One day, his father leaves on a train to find work, which understandably upsets Cuca.  He eventually tries to see where his father went only to end up being rescued by an old man.  The man picks cotton for a living, but is eventually sent home when he’s too sick to work.  Cuca then travels some more and sees people working in a factory.  Cuca gets to see the city and all its many residents, but seems to stick to one resident in particular.  Cuca has an epic adventure, witnessing parades and even a battle between musically generated birds.

When I first started watching the movie, I was a little worried because I couldn’t see the captions.  I knew the language wasn’t English, but I wasn’t sure if the captions weren’t working of if I couldn’t see them against the white background.  It turned out that what little dialogue the movie had was reversed Portuguese.  Instead, the movie relies on it’s distinctive animation style to tell the story.  There is a little bit of live action towards the end of the movie, which fortunately isn’t that distracting.

There’s also a lively soundtrack with many of the notes being represented by little dots of color.  (This is how we end up with a fight between the two birds.)  With most movies, the music is in the background.  Here, it’s almost like a companion for Cuca, who uses a particular tune to remember his father as much as he uses a picture of him and his parents.

During the opening credits, I saw Gkids.  I almost shut it off until I realized that children’s movies aren’t off limits.  I’ve enjoyed lots of animated movies that were probably meant for children.  The movie has a PG rating in the United States, but there’s very little that would be inappropriate for children.  I think the worst of it might be the son being separated from his father for most of the movie.  Cuca has a sense of adventure and wonder, but there are times when despair shows through.  Things are simple at home, but become more complicated when more people are around.  It’s easy to become lost in a crowd.

I’m glad I stuck around to watch the end.  I would say that overall, it’s an upbeat movie.  It has its moments of distress, but what good story doesn’t?  What kind of movie would we have had if Cuca had just stayed on the farm?  If anything, it probably would have been a short one.  The fun of the movie comes in seeing Cuca react to and deal with his new environments.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Powers of Ten (1977)

The new Philip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science opened a few months ago.  Back before it moved to its current location, it was located right at the southern end of I-95.  I remember going there as a child a lot.  One of the things I remember was this dark room with a film called Powers of Ten, made by Charles and Ray Eames.

The concept is simple.  It starts out in  Soldier Field in Chicago with a couple having a picnic.  The filed of view is a square with text on either side.  On the left shows the distance, vertically, in numbers.  (We start with a square one meter by one meter.)  On the right side is the same information, horizontally, in powers of ten.  (Instead of 1 meter across, it’s shown as 100 meters.

The narrator explains that as we zoom out, the distance across the square increases by one power of ten every ten seconds, so that after one second, we’re at 10 meters, then 100 and so on.  After a few minutes, we make it to 1024 meters, which makes our entire galaxy no more than a distant point of light.  We then zoom back in reducing a power of ten every 2 seconds until we’re back to 1 meter across.  We then work inward until the field of view is 10-16 meters across.

The entire film is a short 9 minutes, but it imparts the sense of scale quite well.  We go form a normal size to a very vast scale, then down to a very small scale.  The movie was made in 1977, which probably would have made for a smaller upper and lower limit, but it’s still pretty vast.  The last few lines of the narration point out that the film covers 40 orders of magnitude.  It’s a bit much to comprehend, even after watching the movie.

While I grew up watching the film a lot, I don’t recall many other children mentioning it.  In fact, I only recall having a conversation about it once where the other kid mistook the narrator’s voice for the voice of Winnie the Pooh.  (To be fair, Phil Morrison does sound like the voice from the Disney films, but I don’t think he ever actually voiced the character.)  The web comic xkcd did reference it once, which I would take to mean that the film has a certain amount of prominence.  However it’s not the kind of thing I’d expect to see on TV or even on Netflix.  (You can rent this film as part of a DVD set, but I don’t think you can get it streaming.   I have seen it on YouTube, though.)

It’s worth noting that there was an earlier version, released in 1968.  I haven’t seen this one yet, although I imagine it might also be available through YouTube.  I have seen both offered on one DVD through Amazon, so I know that both versions are available.

I still think of this short every so often and go to watch it on YouTube.  Maybe one day, I’ll get around to purchasing it on Amazon.  I wonder if it was carried over to the new science museum.  If I ever get the chance to visit, I’ll have to check it out.

Official site (Eames Office)

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon? (2001)

There are a lot of different conspiracy theories.  One holds that the Earth is flat.  Another would have us believe that Elvis didn’t die of an overdose.  There’s no shortage of theories surrounding the assassination of John F. Kennedy.   One of the more prevalent is that we didn’t really land on the moon.  Instead of sending astronauts to our only natural satellite, NASA sent three people up only to bring them back down and subsequently broadcast footage from a soundstage.

This so-called documentary is sort of a primer on all of the evidence people bring up when trying to support the claim of a hoax.  For instance, there are no stars in the background of any of the pictures.  If you’ve ever tried to take a picture at night, you may or may not get stars, mostly because stars require a longer exposure to show up.  NASA had the exposures set low, meaning that stars weren’t going to show up.  Another claim is that details can be seen on surfaces that fall in a shadow.  Any good photographer knows how to play with the settings to get this effect, with or without additional light sources.

I don’t really want to go into all of the evidence people use to call the moon landing a hoax.  There are sites that can go into greater detail and list everything.  I’d be here all day responding to everything.  Instead, I want to focus more on the actual program.  As I said, it’s more of a few basic questions the producers would have you ask.  Some of these come from a lack of understanding of things like physics.  For instance, why would a flag wave in an environment that lacks an atmosphere to blow it around?  While planting the flag, the astronaut imparts momentum.  The lack of an atmosphere means that there’s nothing to stop the flag from moving around.

Some of it is convincing at first glance.  It’s pointed out that several pictures have crosshairs that aren’t fully visible.  People have taken this to mean that photos were altered.  This is explained as the emulsion bleeding between two highly contrasting colors.  Another point is made that two mountains are very similar, despite being several miles apart.  This could be a trick of the eye.  The lunar surface doesn’t have the same variation Earth does.  Very similar doesn’t mean the same.

The thing is that there’s never been any hard evidence.  There were hundreds of thousands of people involved in the mission, either directly or indirectly.  It’s also been almost fifty years.  You’d think someone would have noticed something revealing.  Someone would have come forward and said something.  Given the scope of the mission, there would be something incontrovertible.

I’ll admit that absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence.  Is it possible that the mission was faked?  I can’t prove otherwise.  However, I don’t think this documentary was meant to persuade anyone.  It seems more like it’s meant to pander to those who already believe it.  Instead of presenting something convincing, we’re instead asked how to explain what many people would perceive as an inconsistency.  (It‘s along the lines of, “Oh, yeah? Well, how do you explain this?”)   The fact that any evidence is so easily refuted would have me side with NASA not having faked the moon landing.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Yume to kyôki no ôkoku/The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness (2013)

Some documentaries are straightforward.  You’re presented with information meant to teach you about a given subject.  Others, not so much.  The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness takes a look behind the scenes Studio Ghibli Primarily, the movie focuses on the production of The Wind Rises, which was Hayao Miyazaki’s most recent attempt at a final film.  (He had previously announced his retirement several times before only to direct another movie.)

Another movie, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, is mentioned, only because it was in production at the same time and was supposed to be released at the same time as The Wind Rises, although The Tale of Princess Kaguya is shown as having too many delays.  Thus, the documentary focuses on The Wind Rises with The Tale of the Princsess Kaguya having a small role.

It starts with a meeting about how merchandising sales and not having released a movie in the previous year.  It shows storyboarding, animating and voicing the movie.  The parts showing the animating didn’t seem to focus on too many people, although you get the impression that there’s a much larger team at work.  Likewise, only the Japanese voice of the movie’s main character is shown.  Those producing the movie knew that they wanted Hideaki Anno to voice Jiro Horikoshi, although they weren’t sure if he’d be available.  No other recording for the voices are even mentioned.

The movie also has segments with Miyazaki talking about things like the Fukushima disaster.  In one scene, he responds to a letter from someone and talks about his father.  Other parts of the movie cover the history of Studio Ghibli, as well as Toshio Suzuki and Isao Takahata.

It comes across almost like a bonus feature for The Wind Rises, as there is a lot of behind-the-scenes footage.  This doesn’t mean that you have to have seen The Wind Rises.  If you’re a fan of any of the studio‘s movies,  you’ll want to watch this movie.

My mother once asked me if knowing more about a movie takes away from the enjoyment.  I have been known to watch the bonus features when I have a chance and will also read the trivia section on IMDb.  I don’t think this would take away from watching The Wind Rises at all.  Since you get to see some of Miyazaki’s opinions on certain topics, it does give you insight in to his personality.  It might affect your opinion of him as a person, but it didn’t affect my ability to watch his films in the future.

It is worth noting The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness doesn’t have many heavy spoilers, although some information about the movie is mentioned.  You see scenes from the movie being voiced and animated.  I don’t think there would be enough to ruin the movie nor does there seem to be any assumption as to whether or not the viewer has already seen it.

People unfamiliar with animation and Studio Ghibli probably won’t get as much out of this.  In fact, I could almost see the documentary being used for a class on animation.  We sometimes think of studios and directors being something mythical and we can forget that actual people are involved in the making of a movie.  There’s also the business side of movies.  Merchandising can bring in a lot of revenue.  (There’s a reason lunch boxes were so popular in the 1980s.)  If you’re interested in Studio Ghibli, I’d watch this documentary.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron/A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014)

Netflix has a pretty interesting selection of movies available for streaming.  They have (or have had) major movies, such as The Matrix.  Some are less familiar to American audiences, like First Squad.  What you may not know is that there’s a list of subcategories for Netflix’s selection.  This is how I found out that they have a decent selection of art house movies.  One of these art house movies is called En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron, or A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence.

The movie is a series of (loosely) related scenes.  Several feature two traveling salesmen, Sam and Jonathan, who are just trying to sell some novelty items that no one seems to want.  Two scenes feature a man waiting for someone who is apparently not going to come.  One early scene has a man dead on a cruise ship; someone points out that the food’s already paid for, so they can’t put it back for sale.

Each scene is supposed to be commentary on society, although it’s just absurd enough that I’m not really sure where each is going.  Sam and Jonathan are at least relatable, as it’s easy to relate to a difficult task.  However, it gets repetitive to the point where I’m not sure if that was supposed to be saying something.  (They keep hawking the same items in the same order using the same spiel.)  There were also several scenes where someone was saying, “I’m happy to hear you’re doing fine.”  Each scene has the line (or some variation) uttered at least once.

In each scene, the camera doesn’t seem to move.  If a room is used more than once, the angle may change from one use to the next, but each time we see a particular skit, it’s shown from an unchanging direction.  The colors are also very muted.  There’s nothing vivid about any of the buildings or scenery.  Even outdoor scenes where it’s a bright, sunny day, we don’t get the full vibrancy you’d expect from a bright, sunny day.  This flows over into other aspects, such as the acting.  The dialogue is delivered in a very simple, subdued, almost monotone fashion.

Most scenes probably won’t evoke that much emotion.  Taken together, you do get a sense of a story, even if it is haphazard and disjointed.  Life, like the movie, isn’t usually interesting or straightforward.  Context does matter for something, but not always.  And you’re not always going to understand what that context is.

This is one of those movies that most people will shut off early on.  Those that don’t may or may not regret it.  (If you tend towards big-studio productions, you’ll probably be shutting it off relatively early.)   It leads with three displays of death, including the one on the boat.  In another scene, people are led into a large metal cylinder; when it’s closed, a fire is lit beneath it.  Instead of screams, you hear eerie music.  There are a few dark, depressing elements to the movie.  To say that it’s not a movie for children is an understatement.  It’s not even going to be a movie for most adults.

The movie is the third in a trilogy by the director.  Netflix doesn’t currently have either of the other two streaming, although it looks like they are available on DVD.  From what I’ve read, the other two are similar to this one in that they’re short, loosely connected skits about the human condition.  There doesn’t seem to be any connection between the three movies in terms of characters or dialogue, so it’s possible to watch them out of order.  I’ve added them to my queue, although I’m not sure how soon I’ll get around to watching them.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Beyond the Gates (2016)

Bob Hardesty had a thing for VHS.  His never really accepted DVD, even though he ran a video-rental store.  After Bob’s disappearance, it’s up to his two sons, Gordon and John, to pack everything up and presumably do something with all of the VHS tapes.  Gordon has brought with him his girlfriend, Margot.  While cleaning out the store, the two brothers get to talking.  It’s been a while since they’ve seen each other, as Gordon left town while John stuck around.  They may have grown apart, but they both remember being in the store as children.  One thing leads to another and they find a VHS game, which is like a board game with a video to go along with it.

It seems innocuous enough.  There’s room for four players, although it‘s just John, Gordon and Margot.  They’re supposed to get instructions on game play from the video, which is just the head of a woman named Evelyn.  It seems somewhat boring at first, but gets somewhat scary when Evelyn seems to know stuff that’s a little too particular.  They eventually come to realize that Bob may be trapped inside the game.

The game is played by collecting several keys.  Each mission to do so involves a gruesome choice, usually revolving around having to kill someone.  The first one is somewhat innocuous.  They have to get a key out of a small doll.  What they don’t realize is that it’s connected to John’s friend, Hank.  What they do to the doll also happens to Hank, leading to a rather unusual scene in a bar. 

John, Gordon and Margot are conflicted.  On the one hand, they’re smart enough to want nothing to do with the game.  On the other hand, they want to get Bob out of the game, if that’s at all possible.  They visit the store where Bob got the game, only to find out that they are, in fact, obligated to finish the game once they’ve started.  They even try throwing the game away, only to have it reappear.

They eventually go through with the game, realizing that the alternatives aren’t that desirable.  They end up in an alternate dimension where they have to face off against the spirits of Bob, Hank and another character.  Winning gets them back to their own dimension, where they realize that they may have saved Bob’s soul, if not his body.  Gordon and Margot leave shortly after, with John and Gordon now more friendly towards each other than before.

This isn’t exactly what I’d consider a horror movie.  It does have some scary/grim moments, but the movie doesn’t seem to play it up like I’d expect.  It’s almost like the movie is trying to be a satire of horror movies.  It’s somewhere between a serious movie and a movie that’s playing towards nostalgia.  The entire aspect of Bob Hardesty sticking by VHS would tend to reinforce that.

It’s not so much that I could see the stuff coming.  It’s more that I had to wonder why.  For instance, Gordon has odd experiences at 3:13 each night.  It’s never explained why that particular time.  Are we to assume that the 13 is some sort of bad-luck omen?  Even if that’s true, why 3:13?  Why not 5:13 or 12:13?

My biggest complaint was the acting, which seemed to be very subdued.  Even in tense scenes, it seemed overly calm.  It was like everyone was required to be on sleeping pills during filming.  I wonder if this was intended.  Everything about the movie makes it a solid B-movie.  I do think there was some satirical/nostalgic intent in making this.

I would probably avoid showing it to children for several reasons.  First off, there are some things that might scare children, such as people being killed.  I also think that the target audience here may be people in their 40s.  Specifically, it seems like it was meant for people who grew up in the 80s and 90s and would have had some concept of VHS and horror movies of the time.

It almost looks like it could serve as a backdoor pilot.  It’s mentioned that the game always manages to find its way back to the shop where it was purchased.  If done properly, I could see this being something along the lines of Friday the 13th: The Series.  You could have the game make its way to a new group each week and exploring some new issue.  Then again, some things are best left alone.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Der Fall X701/Frozen Alive (1964)

It’s often difficult to judge other places because you’re often doing so by comparing it to where you live.  If you live in the south, you may see northern states as being cold in the winter.  Living in Florida, I might be envious of states that don’t get hurricanes as often, but other states have natural disasters of their own.  I don’t know that I could give up life in a major city.  The pace of a rural area wouldn’t appeal to me.

Likewise, when I judge movies of the past, I’m doing so against movies that have been released within my lifetime.   I’ve grown accustomed to a certain duration and pacing.  If I see a movie billed as a drama, I expect it to last a little over two hours.  When I saw the description of Frozen Alive, I expected one thing.  When I watched it, I got something completely different.

The back of the box described a movie where a scientist freezes his own body and ends up the prime suspect in the murder of his wife.  I expected the wife to die early in the movie and the scientist to have to spend a lot of the movie’s 64 minutes explaining how he was conveniently frozen at the time.  Instead, the movie is mostly setup.

Dr. Frank Overton is the scientist and he’s been working in cryogenics.  He and his partner, Dr. Helen Wieland, have had great success with chimpanzees.  They even win an award for $25,000 each.  Those that oversee their research aren’t that crazy about trying it on humans, but that is why they are doing this.  The hope is that one day, it can be used for surgical purposes.  If not now, then when will they test it?

Eventually, Dr. Overton decides to try it on himself.  He doesn’t wait for approval.  He doesn’t even tell his wife.  He just goes into the lab and has himself put into suspended animation.  That’s when his wife dies.  Unfortunately, things don’t look good for him.  The police go to the lab and are told about the experiment.  They may not like it, but they’ll have to wait for the good doctor to be revived.  By the time that Dr. Overton is conscious, his name has already been cleared.  (Most of the descriptions I’ve read for this movie, including the one on the back of the box, either state or imply that the doctor will have to defend himself.  This isn’t the case at all.)

The movie was somewhat difficult to follow, mostly because the audio was hard to hear at times.  I could follow the basic story, which is that Dr. Overton is usually working (with a beautiful woman, no less) and Mrs. Overton is usually cheating on him.  It’s not a happy marriage, which makes Dr. Overton a good suspect.

I’m used to the suspect having to defend himself and that defense usually makes up the bulk of the movie.  Here, the bulk of the movie is spent on the unhappy marriage and the work of trying to freeze people.  The actual suspicion part is maybe the last 15-20 minutes of the 64-minute running time.

Here’s the thing, though: The movie was released in 1964.  I find it hard to believe that such a basic movie of such poor quality was made so recently.  I get that crappy movies are made all the time, but this looks like something closer to the movies of a decade or two prior.   With this movie, it’s difficult to tell how much of it was the fault of the original production and how much of it is transfer quality.  Some of the movies I’ve been watching tend to have mostly third- or fourth-generation copies available.  A good transfer may not have been an option.

This is a movie that I’d recommend missing if you’re given the option.  This isn’t even the kind of movie I’d sit through to make fun of.  It’s just bad.  Apparently, there’s an 81-minut cut of the movie.  I don’t think the extra time would help.  It would just be another 17 minutes of waiting for the movie to end.