Friday, July 21, 2017

Sci Fi Top 100, #11: E.T. the Extra Terrestrial (1982)

This movie was previously reviewed as part of my AFI Top 100 Movie Project. Below is the pertinent information about it: the movie stats, plot summary, and the rating I gave it. You can read the full text of my review HERE.

Movie Stats:
Released 1982 (France)
American, in English
Director - Steven Spielberg
Stars - Henry Thomas, Robert MacNaughton, Drew Barrymore

Plot Summary:
When a space alien accidentally gets left behind by his compatriots, he finds refuge in the home of a young boy, Elliott (Thomas). MacNaughton co-stars as Elliott’s older brother, Michael, and Barrymore as his younger sister, Gertie.

Rating:
3 stars

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Music Love: "Skating Away on the Thin Ice of the New Day" by Jethro Tull


I’ve loved Jethro Tull since I was a teenager. I think when I first got into them, it was somewhat fueled by my adolescent need to exert myself as an individual. Not only did I listen to classic rock, which most of my peers weren’t listening to at the time, my favorite classic rock band wasn’t one of those super mainstream ones like The Beatles or The Rolling Stones. No, I was different. My favorite band featured a guy playing a flute.

Still, in spite of my potentially juvenile motives, I feel that I chose wisely. Jethro Tull is a great band. The music is good, I happen to love Ian Anderson’s voice, and they give a phenomenal concert (I’ve seen them twice). But for me, where they’ve always excelled is in the lyrics. Even now, in my 40s, I can so relate to nearly everything they say. (Plus, along the way, I’ve learned a lot of great Britishisms, such as “dog end” for “cigarette butt.”)

This song has always been one of my favorites. I love the sense of hope and promise that the music brings, while the lyrics belie how uneasy and anxious the singer feels. It’s exactly how I’ve felt for most of my life. Each day has so much potential, but on the inside I’m worrying about pretty much everything and feeling like I don’t connect to the world the way I’m supposed to.

“Well, do you ever get the feeling that the story’s too damn real and in the present tense?” The song asks. Why yes, yes, I do.

“Or that everybody’s and the stage and it seems like you’re the only person sitting in the audience?” Oh my god, YES. I feel that way all the time!

So maybe, even after all these years, there’s still a little teenaged angst inside of me, and that’s okay. It doesn’t change the fact that, at the end of my life, Jethro Tull will still be one of my top 10 favorite bands.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Sci Fi Top 100, #12: "The Thing" (1982)

Movie Stats:
Released 1982 (USA)
American, in English (some non-translated Norwegian)
Director - John Carpenter
Stars - Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Keith David, and many others

Plot Summary:
When a U.S. research team at a remote Antarctic outpost has a close encounter with an alien creature, they’re no longer able to tell who’s human and who isn’t. Russell co-stars as helicopter pilot R. J. MacReady; Brimley as Dr. Blair; and David as Childs.

Warnings:
Lots of blue language; extreme violence; extreme gore; drug use (marijuana); non-consensual drug use (morphine).

Bad Stuff:
The special effects for the alien look terrible and cheesy.

I’ve always considered it more horror than sci-fi. It goes the extra mile to be gross & gory in a way that, for me, cheapens whatever else is interesting and effective about the story.

To that end, I don’t agree with the many people who seem to find it scary. I don’t think it’s scary at all.

Good Stuff:
While I don’t find it scary, I do think it’s intense. It makes me uncomfortable in the best kind of way.

I like that the more sensible characters use their problem solving skills. Instead of running around and killing everything that moves, they try to use their logic to save themselves.

It’s got one of the best open endings in cinema.

The Verdict:
I’m not the biggest fan of this film. I don’t care for all the gore and jump scares. However, this go around, I got a better feel for what is actually excellent about it: how suspenseful it is. As a viewer, you spend much of it on-edge, unsure of which characters you can trust. It's fun if you like to feel that way. I’m not convinced that it belongs on this list. While it’s certainly more deserving of a spot than some of the more perplexing entries (“Three Colors: Red,” for example), I can’t say I’ve ever really thought of it as a great sci-fi film. Rather, I consider it one of the more palatable horror films. Still, I’m giving it a lot of credit for being a horror film with some intelligence.

I give it 3.75 stars.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Sci Fi Top 100, #13: "The Matrix" (1999)

Movie Stats:
Released 1999 (USA)
American, in English
Directors - The Wachowskis
Stars - Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving

Plot Summary:
Computer hacker Thomas “Neo” Anderson (Reeves) discovers the devastating truth about the nature of reality. Fishburne co-stars as Morpheus, Neo’s mentor; Moss as Trinity, Morpheus’s second-in-command/Neo’s love interest; and Weaving as Agent Smith, the bad guy.

Warnings:
Blue language (including a rude gesture); lots of violence; gore.

Bad Stuff:
Some of the dialogue is super cheesy.

I don’t believe the love story between Neo and Trinity. They barely talk to each other the whole film & suddenly they’re in love and kissing.

There’s quite a bit of action movie magic going on, i.e. the approximately 1 billion bullets the good guys fire only ever hit their intended targets, and that happens well before [SPOILER] Neo gains his super ultra special immortality matrix-manipulating skills. [SPOILER]

Good Stuff:
Agent Smith is one of my all-time favorite bad guys.

It still looks really cool, and I don’t just mean the special effects. I also love the costuming, the styling, and the set design.

It’s one of the most creative ideas to ever grace the genre of sci fi.

The Verdict:
I remember seeing this in the theater when it came out and thinking it was so freaking cool. One of the reasons for its wild popularity is that it was very different to anything else that was out at the time. I’m still impressed with its creativity. However, it’s been a while since the last time I watched it and I have to admit, it was a lot cheesier than I remembered. Not only is some of the dialogue terrible, there’s a gravitas to it that kind of feels goofy now. It takes itself way too seriously. Also, the character development isn’t great. I fully expected to enjoy the heck out of it again and give it a glowing review with high marks, but I simply don’t feel that way. Still, it’s an entertaining film that was absolutely groundbreaking in its day. I’m giving it a high mark, just not as high as I anticipated.

I give it 4 stars.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Up with Geography: Denmark

Country Name:
Denmark

Capital:
Copenhagen

Continent:
Europe

Maps:
European continent. Denmark outlined poorly
in dark ink.

A close-up of Denmark.

Neighbors:
Germany

Water Borders:
North Sea, Skagerrak (strait), Kattegat (sea), Bay of Mecklenburg, Baltic Sea

Total Area:
16,562 square miles; Denmark has two overseas territories (Greenland & Faroe Islands) that I'm not including in its total area

Five Largest Cities:
Copenhagen, Aarhus, Odense, Aalborg, Frederiksberg

Famous Geographical Point:
Limfjord

Famous Person:
Niels Bohr, physicist (recipient of the 1922 Nobel Prize for Physics)

Book Set In/About:
Hygge: The Danish Art of Happiness by Marie Tourell Søderberg

I'm having a hard time putting into words what hygge is, so here is the Wiki page about it. I find it both fascinating & awesome and I totally want to read this book

Movie Set In/About:
"Jagten (The Hunt)" (2012), directed by Thomas Vinterberg

A young child's lie threatens to ruin the life of a dedicated teacher.

Headline of the Day:
"Apple Will Build a Second Data Center in Denmark" on BetaNews.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Sci Fi Top 100, #14: "Moon" (2009)

Movie Stats:
Released 2009 (USA)
British, in English
Director - Duncan Jones
Stars - Sam Rockwell, Kevin Spacey

Plot Summary:
The lone human employee of a mining company on the moon, Sam Bell (Rockwell), begins to experience strange goings-on at the tail end of his three-year contract. Spacey co-stars as the voice of the base’s computer, GERTY.

Warnings:
Lots of blue language; violence; lots of gore; sexy times; brief male nudity (butt only).

Bad Stuff:
The pacing is quite slow. Not exactly a thrill-a-minute.

There are some definite plot holes. [HUGE SPOILERS]
For example, if they’ve got the technology for a relatively intelligent computer like GERTY, why does there need to be a human employee on base at all? Or, why implant Sam Bell’s memories into the clones’ brains? Why not implant the memories of someone who likes to be alone and isolated? Most perplexing of all, if for whatever arbitrary reason you only want the clones to live for three years, so you code them to die, why not just code them to drop dead of an aneurysm or something? Coding them so that they get horrendously sick before dying seems unnecessarily cruel, not to mention inefficient. Maybe it wasn't coding. Maybe that's just the shelf life of clones, but then they should explain that.
[SPOILERS]

Good Stuff:
If you’re going to pick just one person to carry a whole film, Sam Rockwell is an excellent choice.

I like the twist. It’s one of those films that definitely isn’t what you think it is, based on the beginning. I really thought one thing was happening and then, bang, it went in a completely different direction.

It’s great at showing rather than telling. To me, it was a welcome contrast to the two Tarkovsky films I just watched. In the Tarkovsky films, the characters do a lot of expounding, spelling out for the audience what issues they should be thinking about. This film shows you the situation and lets you draw your own conclusions about what’s right or wrong in it.

The Verdict:
This movie is unexpectedly deep. At only 97 minutes long, and largely starring just one person, you think to yourself, “What could it really have to say?” The answer is, a lot, but it shows it to you rather than saying it. While it covers a lot of the same themes that are so common in sci fi, such as the nature of humanity, it approaches them in a way that feels fresh and different. Some know-it-alls will tell you they saw the twist coming, but I didn’t the first time I watched it. It’s a good reveal. I do think the plot could be a little tighter, but other than that it’s pretty solid. Definitely one of the better sci fi films to grace the early 21st century.

I give it 4 stars.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Sci Fi Top 100, #15: "Stalker" (1979)

Movie Stats:
Released 1979 (Soviet Union)
Soviet, in Russian (watched with English subtitles)
Director - Andrei Tarkovsky
Stars - Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy, Anatoliy Solonitsyn, Nikolay Grinko

Plot Summary:
Writer (Solonitsyn) and Professor (Grinko) hire a guide called a stalker (Kaydanovskiy) to take them into a mysterious, forbidden area called the Zone, which holds a room that purportedly grants a person’s deepest desire.

Warnings:
Very minor blue language; very minor violence & gore.

Bad Stuff:
I have no idea WTH I even just watched.

It takes too long to explain itself. You’re practically an hour in before you understand what the three main characters are doing. It’s another hour at least before you get to know any of them. I couldn’t stop thinking, “Why should I care about this when I don’t know who any of these people are?”

There’s a lot more telling than showing. Ex: “Oooo, it’s so dangerous here!” And then nothing remotely scary or dangerous happens.

Good Stuff:
The cinematography is amazing.

I enjoyed Kaydanovskiy’s performance.

[SPOILER-y]
I really like the idea that, when faced with the prospect of getting exactly what they want, most people can’t accept it and be happy. That says something pretty interesting about human nature.
[SPOILER]

The Verdict:
This felt like a cross between “Lord of the Rings” & “The Happening”: three men walking around in nature for nearly three hours, talking & arguing, and saying that it was super scary when it never seems scary at all. Sure, it had some interesting points about human nature, but by the time it was finally over, I was so bored and annoyed that it hardly seemed to matter. This was another experiment in psychological torture by Tarkovsky, as far as I’m concerned. I liked it even less than “Solaris.”

I give it 2 stars.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Up with U.S. Geography: Illinois

State Name:
Illinois

Capital:
Springfield

Date of Entry:
December 3, 1818

Maps:
Map of USA. Illinois outlined in dark ink & with
its name written on it.

A close-up of Illinois & its neighbors.

Neighbors:
Wisconsin, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Iowa

Water Borders:
Mississippi River, Lake Michigan, Wabash River, Ohio River

Total Area:
57,914 square miles

Five Largest Cities:
Chicago, Aurora, Rockford, Joliet, Naperville

Famous Geographical Point:
Shawnee National Forest

State Nickname:
The Prairie State. At one point in time, Illinois had one of the most abundant prairie lands in the U.S. No longer, due to humans, although restoration work is underway in many areas. I learned all about this at Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum.

Famous Person:
Florenz Ziegfeld Jr., early pioneer of Broadway (creator of the wildly popular Ziegfeld Follies)

Book Set In/About:
The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

This non-fiction book knits together the story of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair with that of H.H. Holmes, the serial killer who used the fair to lure unsuspecting victims into his house of horrors. Despite my interest in world's fairs & serial killers, and my love for Larson as a writer, this isn't my favorite book of his, but everyone else I know thinks it's great.

Movie Set In/About:
"Ferris Bueller's Day Off" (1986), directed by John Hughes

In this comedy, a teenager goes to great lengths to skip school with his friends & have fun without getting caught. Really, though, it's a loving ode to the city of Chicago.

Headline of the Day:
"Illinois House Set to Vote on Governor's Budget Vetoes" in U.S. News & World Report.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Sci Fi Top 100, #16: "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" (1991)

Movie Stats:
Released 1991 (USA)
American & French, in English (minor non-translated Spanish)
Director - James Cameron
Stars - Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Edward Furlong, Robert Patrick

Plot Summary:
In the 21st century, the human race has nearly been wiped out by intelligent machines. Those machines send the assassin cyborg T-1000 (Patrick) back in time to kill the leader of the human resistance, John Connor (Furlong), as a child. Adult John Connor sends a cyborg Terminator (Schwarzenegger) back in time to protect his younger self. Hamilton co-stars as John’s mom, Sarah. This movie is the sequel to “The Terminator.”

Warnings:
Strong blue language; violence; gore.

Bad Stuff:
I hate the voiceover. The stuff at the beginning is okay, but when it turns up later in the movie it feels clunky and out-of-place.

It’s cheesy. I know it spawned a lot of catchphrases back in the day, but you watch it now and a lot of that stuff is pretty cringey, like the thumbs-up at the end.

Idk, I feel like John Connor sending back a replica of the machine that terrorized his mother to protect himself is a little cruel to Sarah. Like, was there no other model he could have possibly captured and sent back? It seems like just a convenient way to make sure Arnie was in the film since he was the breakout star of the first.

Good Stuff:
I love Robert Patrick in this. He makes such a great killer cyborg.

The special effects have held up surprisingly well. I thought this early CGI would look bad to me now but it really doesn’t. In fact, it's some of the practical effects that look terrible (for example, both Schwarzenegger’s and Furlong’s stunt doubles are very obviously not them). Even so, there’s no denying that this film is still quite impressive visually.

I always appreciate an action film that doesn’t feel the need to shoehorn in a love story.

The Verdict:
Another film I saw in the theater when it came out & hadn’t seen since. I remember not being completely thrilled by it back then. I feel the same way now. I certainly don’t think it’s bad, and I understand why it’s so beloved. It’s entertaining, and it’s great to look at. I just don’t seem to connect with it the way other people do. Plus, I’m not convinced that it truly addresses the time travel paradox. I mean, they change the future, so how could any of this have actually happened? I suppose that’s why there are still sequels being made, more than 30 years after the original.

I give it 3.5 stars.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Sci Fi Top 100, #17: "Solaris" (1972)

Movie Stats:
Released 1972 (France)
Soviet, in Russian (some non-translated German; I watched with English subtitles)
Director - Andrei Tarkovsky
Stars - Donatas Banionis, Natalya Bondarchuk, Juri Jarvet

Plot Summary:
When the crew of a space station orbiting the planet Solaris begin to experience strange phenomena, psychologist Kris Kelvin (Banionis) is sent there to determine if the project should continue. Bondarchuk co-stars as Kris’s wife, Hari (it was spelled this way in the subtitles; IMDB posts her name as Khari), and Jarvet as Dr. Snaut, a space station crew member.

Warnings:
Minor gore; implied sexy times; female semi-nudity (breasts seen through a see-through shirt that might as well have not been there at all).

Bad Stuff:
It’s very long and very slow. At one point, I said to my husband, “I feel like I’ve been watching this film for 30 years.”

There are a lot of scenes and shots that feel like they’re in there because the director was desperate to show how artistic he was. For example, the five-minute-long, silent, car ride of a secondary character with no apparent destination. We never see that character again. Or, the extreme close-up of Banionis’s ear hair while he monologued.

I don’t find characters’ reactions particularly believable. [SPOILER] If a loved one of mine came back from the dead, my reaction would include a great deal more freaking out. [SPOILER]

Good Stuff:
I enjoyed its more science-y aspects and liked that they attempted an actual explanation for the phenomena. While some characters’ reactions weren’t relatable, I appreciated that there was one person (Dr. Sartorius, played by Anatoliy Solonitsyn) who approached it as a scientist.

Quite a bit of the cinematography is really beautiful.

I appreciate the exploration of humanity, reality, and morality.

The Verdict:
To give you an idea of how long this film is, I completed 3 loads of laundry while watching it. I see that it’s received a lot of accolades over on IMDB. I confess I don’t get it. When I was younger, I loved a good art house film. Now I find even the shorter ones tedious and labored. One that’s nearly 3 hours long? Practically torture. There were so many scenes where I found myself thinking, “What is even the point of this?” It feels both self-indulgent & self-important, like if I were able to say any of this to the director, he would respond snootily, “Well, obviously you just don’t get it.” The longer I watched, the more I began to appreciate the more recent version. The original may be deeper and more philosophical, but at least it didn’t have this much filler.

I give it 2.5 stars.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Music Love: "This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)" by Talking Heads


Note: Video is a little NSFW due to pictures flashing on the screen behind the band.

I completely, utterly, love this song, and I’d somehow forgotten how much I love it until I saw it mentioned in a Reddit thread a couple of weeks ago & listened to it again. (That thread, appropriately, was an Ask Reddit about people’s favorite songs of all time.)

There’s just something so charmingly sweet about it, music and lyrics. It makes me happy every single time I hear it. My favorite lines:

“And you're standing here beside me; I love the passing of time. Never for money, always for love. Cover up and say goodnight, say goodnight.”

and

“I come home, she lifted up her wings. I guess that this must be the place.”

and

“I'm just an animal looking for a home; share the same space for a minute or two. And you love me 'til my heart stops. Love me 'til I'm dead.”

In addition to how charming the song is by itself, I was equally disarmed by the video. Everyone seems to be having so much fun. I love all the knowing looks they give each other. Even more, I love how hilariously awkward David Byrne is. Moving his head like a chicken, dancing around with a standing lamp while looking like Mr. Rogers. Adorable.

By the time I finished this video, I was grinning like a fool. I immediately wanted to watch it again. There was something so incredibly special about the Talking Heads. Sometimes I feel a little sad that they’ll never perform together again.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Sci Fi Top 100, #18: "Children of Men" (2006)

Movie Stats:
Released 2006 (Italy)
American, British & Japanese, in English (lots of non-translated foreign languages)
Director - Alfonso Cuaron
Stars - Clive Owen, Clare-Hope Ashitey, and many others

Plot Summary:
In a near future where all women in the world have been infertile for nearly 20 years, young Kee (Ashitey) finds herself pregnant. Cynical former activist Theo Faron (Owen) is tapped to bring her to safety.

Warnings:
Strong blue language; violence; gore; brief female nudity (breasts & labia); drug use (marijuana).

Bad Stuff:
The pace is quite slow.

The birth scene is rather unbelievable.

Good Stuff:
I like that Theo is just a guy. He doesn’t have special skills or superhuman powers. His initial flight with Kee is almost comical, shoeless, with a car that barely starts. He spends half the film running for his life in flip flops. He simply cares, first for the ex-wife who asks for his help (Julian, played by Julianne Moore) and then for the Kee & the baby.

The acting is phenomenal. I love that you can see Theo transform from a man who’s been completely beaten down by life into a person with hope. There are some great secondary characters as well. My favorites are Theo’s friend Jasper (Michael Caine) & police officer Syd (Peter Mullan).

It has the kind of open ending I enjoy.

It’s got a great soundtrack.

The Verdict:
I saw this when it first came out. Whenever someone mentions it, I always say, “I love that film!” But I only saw it that once until now. While I don’t particularly care for the slow pace, I still think it’s a very good film. I find it incredibly moving. In fact, during one particular scene toward the end, I couldn’t stop the tears from rolling down my cheeks. The hope & redemption in a world gone mad just really hit me right in the feels. The acting, particularly from Owen, was what stood out to me then, and it’s still what most stands out to me now, but there’s also much more to recommend, including what I mentioned above plus the stark cinematography.

I give it 4.5 stars.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Sci Fi Top 100, #19: "The Fly" (1986)

Movie Stats:
Released 1986 (USA)
American, British & Canadian, in English
Director - David Cronenberg
Stars - Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis, John Getz

Plot Summary:
When scientist Seth Brundle (Goldblum) sends himself through the teleportation device he’s invented, a mishap leads to his DNA merging with that of a fly. Davis co-stars as journalist-turned-Seth’s-lover Veronica Quaife & Getz as Veronica’s editor/former lover, Stathis Borans.

Warnings:
Blue language; violence; extreme gore; sexy times; brief male nudity (butt only).

Bad Stuff:
It’s way, way more gory than I care for in my movies.

I don’t like that it goes from a fairly interesting, scientifically-themed flick to horror schlock. That was disappointing.

There’s no reason that they had to tack “jealous creep ex” onto the Stathis character. He would have been perfectly acceptable (even better) as merely Veronica’s editor & friend. It was an unnecessary storyline. [SPOILER-y] There are a million other triggers that could have sent Seth on an ill-advised trip through the teleportation device beyond his jealousy of Stathis. [SPOILER]

Good Stuff:
I really enjoyed the first half of the film, which had a lot of scientific theory. I have no idea if any of it was correct, but it sounded plausible & was interesting.

Jeff Goldblum gives an excellent performance. I thought he was particularly good during the part of the film where he’s in the early stages of his transformation. Truly chilling.

A lot of the special effects are great.

I loved the soundtrack.

The Verdict:
This is a tale of two movies for me. The first half is interesting and intense as we follow an enthusiastic-and-perhaps-naive Seth while he perfects his machine, falls in love with Veronica, makes some poor life choices, and begins his transformation into a fly. The second half is typical, boring 1980s horror crap. I really liked that first half. If the whole film had been that way, I would’ve given it more than 4 stars. But it didn’t stay that way. Therefore, it’s not getting that 4+ rating. I still think there’s a lot to recommend in this film, particularly Goldblum’s performance, but it’s definitely not going to be my favorite of the Top 20.

I give it 3.75 stars.

Side note: Is it me, or does Stathis Barons sound strikingly similar to Stannis Baratheon? Maybe George R.R. Martin is a fan of this film, lol.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Out and About: Hellhole Canyon

Last month, my husband and I decided to head out to east San Diego County to visit the Bates Nut Farm. However, since there weren't any special events going on at the farm that day, I figured we wouldn't be spending a whole lot of time there & decided to hunt for other things to do in the area. That's how I discovered Hellhole Canyon.

I didn't take any pictures at the nut farm, but in addition to some tasty jams & other goodies, we picked up this cute piece of art for our house:


After finishing at the farm, we headed over to hike the canyon, which is nearby. I really enjoyed this hike, even though we didn't get to stay for very long. The views are absolutely gorgeous! Unfortunately, I didn't take into account the fact that the trail allows for horseback riding, which means there was a lot of horse dung and consequently a lot of flies. If we'd brought hats, it wouldn't have been a problem, but we forgot hats, so the flies were quite annoying, especially for my short-haired husband.

Here are a few shots from the hike:





Many trees like this bore evidence of a
somewhat recent fire.

Arty shot.



As I said, I really enjoyed the hike & was disappointed that we had to cut it short. I would definitely like to go back, but it will have to wait until the Fall. Due to its location deeper in the desert, it gets quite a bit hotter than where I live. In fact, the park is closed to hiking in August.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Sci Fi Top 100, #20: "Forbidden Planet" (1956)

This movie was previously reviewed as part of my A-Z Movie Project. Below is the pertinent information about it: the movie stats, plot summary, and the rating I gave it. You can read the full text of my review HERE.

Movie Stats:
Released 1956 (USA)
American, in English
Director - Fred M. Wilcox
Stars - Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis, Leslie Nielsen, Warren Stevens

Plot Summary:
Twenty years after a group of scientists landed on a far-flung planet for research, Commander Adams (Nielsen) and his crew are sent to discover why no one has heard from them again. On the planet, they find only two survivors, Dr. Morbius (Pidgeon) and his beautiful, naive daughter, Altaira (Francis). Soon, all are embroiled in a deadly mystery. Stevens co-stars as Lt. “Doc” Ostrow.

Rating:
3.25 stars

Friday, June 16, 2017

Sci Fi Top 100, #21: "Back to the Future" (1985)

Movie Stats:
Released 1985 (USA)
American, in English (small amount of non-translated probable Arabic)
Director - Robert Zemeckis
Stars - Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Crispin Glover

Plot Summary:
Teenager Marty McFly (Fox) finds himself trapped in the past after using a time machine invented by his friend Dr. Emmett Brown (Lloyd). Thompson co-stars as Marty’s mother, Lorraine, and Glover as his father, George.

Warnings:
Blue language; violence; attempted rape; drug use (marijuana).

Bad Stuff:
[THIS WHOLE SECTION CONTAINS SPOILERS]
I’ve always been squicked out by Lorraine lusting (unwittingly) after her own son. While it’s played for laughs, it just makes me uncomfortable.

The casualness with which sexual assault is dealt is exactly what people mean when they say, “rape culture.” Marty discovers that his father used to be a peeping tom and shrugs it off. In the altered timeline, Biff attempts to rape Lorraine and is shown to be friendly with her 30 years later. In fact, Lorraine and George laugh about how the attempted rape brought them together. Gross.

I wish Marty and Doc had one conversation where Marty said, “So you befriended me with full knowledge that all of this was going to happen? Would we have ever been friends otherwise?”
[SPOILERS]

Good Stuff:
It’s got a great sense of humor. Lots of funny one-liners, dialogue, and sight gags. Also, pay attention to things in the background. So many amusing business names, etc.

I like how very much Marty acts like a teenaged boy. I feel like that’s a rare note to hit in a way that’s endearing/amusing rather than annoying. My favorite example of this is in the opening scene, where, when left to his own devices, Marty utilizes Doc’s giant amp to play the loudest guitar riff known to man.

The plot is well thought out. It lays its groundwork at the beginning, so you never feel like the writers made up stuff as they went along. For example, how Marty ends up back in 1955 is clever & makes sense.

The pacing is excellent.

The Verdict:
My whole life, everyone I know has liked this film way more than me. It’s not that I don’t like it; it’s that most people love this film a lot. So I’ve always kind of felt like I don’t like it, or at least that I don’t get the rampant love. I tried to put those feelings aside and watch it this time with the mindset of a critic. And it actually worked! It led me to recognize that this is a really well made film. While it’s theatrical fluff, it’s fun and funny and paced in such a way that it never drags. It feels realistic, like something that could occur if you just so happen to have a mad scientist for a friend. I don’t really care for the icky sexual stuff (although I will admit that it was certainly in line with 1980s sensibilities) and I’m annoyed by the ending, which shamelessly sets up a sequel, but overall I think it’s a fantastic film.

I give it 4.25 stars.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Up with Geography: Democratic Republic of the Congo

Country Name:
Democratic Republic of the Congo

Capital:
Kinshasa

Continent:
Africa

Maps:
African continent. Democratic Republic of
the Congo outlined in dark ink.

A close-up of the Democratic Republic of the Congo &
its neighbors.

Neighbors:
Central African Republic, South Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, Zambia, Angola, Republic of the Congo

Water Borders:
Lake Albert, Lake Edward, Lake Kivu, Lake Tanganyika, Lake Mweru, Congo River, Atlantic Ocean

Total Area:
905,355 square miles

Five Largest Cities:
Kinshasa, Lubumbashi, Goma, Mbuji-Mayi, Kisangani

Famous Geographical Point:
Congo River

Famous Person:
Dikembe Mutombo, basketball player (famous for blocking shots, you may recognize him from a recent series of commercials where he does that with objects other than basketballs)

Book Set In/About:
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

This novel follows the fate of an American missionary family in the Congo during the middle of the 20th century. I've read it a few times & loved it each time, but it's been so long I don't recall much of what happens.

Movie Set In/About:
"Kinshasa Symphony" (2010), directed by Claus Wischmann & Martin Baer

A documentary about Kinshasa's symphony orchestra.

Headline of the Day:
"Democratic Republic of Congo Jail Break Frees Nearly 1000, Leaves Guards Dead" in The Sydney Morning Herald

Monday, June 12, 2017

Sci Fi Top 100, #22: "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" (2004)

Movie Stats:
Released 2004 (USA)
American, in English
Director - Michel Gondry
Stars - Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Mark Ruffalo, Kirsten Dunst, Tom Wilkinson

Plot Summary:
When Joel (Carrey) discovers that his recent ex-girlfriend Clementine (Winslet) has used a service to erase him from her memory, he decides to do the same thing with his memories of her. Wilkinson co-stars as Dr. Howard Mierzwiak, the man who provides the memory erasing service; and Ruffalo & Dunst as, respectively, Stan & Mary, two of Mierzwiak’s employees.

Warnings:
Lots of blue language; minor violence; heavily implied sexy times; brief male nudity (mostly upper butt cheek/butt crack); brief female nudity (a little bit more than side boob); drug use (marijuana).

Bad Stuff:
Clementine is a little bit too “manic pixie dream girl” for me.

It has too many story lines, which makes it somewhat fussy. For example, I think the movie could lose Patrick (Elijah Wood) and still be a great film. In fact, I think it would be better.

Soundtrack is a little meh.

Good Stuff:
I really enjoy the story itself. It’s a great concept that’s well executed. For a movie that’s thirteen years old, it still feels fresh and different.

There are a lot of fine performances. Carrey is the definite standout.

I like the themes it explores. [SPOILER] For example, the idea that someone who has meant a lot to you can never truly be erased from your life. [SPOILER] The film has a sweet sadness to it that’s tinged with beauty.

The Verdict:
This is a solid film. I saw it in the theater when it first came out & hadn’t seen it since until now. I remember really loving it the first time. I wouldn’t say I loved it this time ("manic pixie dream girl" wasn’t a known “thing” back then but she’s been quite popular in recent years & I’ve gotten sick of her so I found Clementine pretty annoying) but I still like & enjoy it. It’s a great idea that’s done well, and the concept is so novel that I don’t think there’s been any movie quite like it, either before or since. I would never put this movie on a favorites list, but I could see myself watching it once a decade and finding it refreshing and entertaining each time.

I give it 4 stars.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Sci Fi Top 100, #23: "A.I. Artificial Intelligence" (2001)

Movie Stats:
Released 2001 (USA)
American, in English
Director - Steven Spielberg
Stars - Haley Joel Osment, Jude Law, Frances O’Connor, William Hurt

Plot Summary:
In the future, realistic robot boy David (Osment) goes on a quest to become real in order to win the love of the woman he considers his mother. O’Connor co-stars as Monica, David’s “mother”; Law as robot prostitute Gigolo Joe; and Hurt as Professor Hobby, the man whose idea gave birth to David.

Warnings:
Violence; minor gore; implied sexy times.

Bad Stuff:
As with most Spielberg stuff, I feel that the intent is to tug at my heartstrings. Like he’s angling for an Oscar by seeing how many tears he can make you shed.

The turn the film takes in the last 45 minutes is pretty strange. It doesn’t fit with the rest of the movie at all.

The murder side story, so little explored, is completely unnecessary and frankly a bit confusing. What is the point of it? Surely there was another way to make Joe and David’s paths cross.

Good Stuff:
Jude Law is, as always, amazing.

The visuals are stunning. Plus, a lot of the special effects have held up really well.

I enjoyed the soundtrack.

The Verdict:
Man, this movie is depressing. I wasn’t expecting that. I’m trying to imagine how Spielberg’s internal monologue went on this one. “How can we make this story about a little boy robot who’s been rejected by his mother sadder?” Mission accomplished, although I don’t think I much cared for the result. It’s just relentlessly maudlin. On the other hand, it has a lot of interesting ideas, at least one stellar performance (although the other actors apart from Law aren’t exactly slouches), and it looks good. Plus, it was nice to see something different, a story about love. Not the worst movie I’ve ever seen, but not something I plan on ever watching again.

I give it 3 stars.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Up with U.S. Geography: Mississippi

State Name:
Mississippi

Capital:
Jackson

Date of Entry:
December 10, 1817

Maps:
Map of USA. Mississippi outlined in dark ink & with
name written on it.

A close-up of Mississippi & its neighbors.

Neighbors:
Tennessee, Alabama, Louisiana, Arkansas

Water Borders:
Mississippi River, Gulf of Mexico

Total Area:
48,430 square miles

Five Largest Cities:
Jackson, Gulfport, Southaven, Hattiesburg, Biloxi

Famous Geographical Point:
Mississippi River

State Nickname:
The Magnolia State. So named for the abundance of magnolia trees, which are also their state tree. The magnolia flower is their state flower. They are apparently very proud of their magnolias.

Famous Person:
Fannie Lou Hamer, Civil Rights & voting rights activist

Book Set In/About:
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

This novel covers the course of 30 years and focuses on the fate of the Compsons, who are disgraced Southern aristocrats.

Movie Set In/About:
"In the Heat of the Night" (1967), directed by Norman Jewison

Set in a fictional Mississippi town, when a Northern black police detective becomes embroiled in a murder investigation, racial tensions flair.

Headline of the Day:
“Final Parts of Mississippi Budget Set During Special Session” in U.S. News & World Report.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Sci Fi Top 100, #24: "Twelve Monkeys" (1995)

Movie Stats:
Released 1995 (USA)
American, in English (a small amount of translated French)
Director - Terry Gilliam
Stars - Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, Brad Pitt

Plot Summary:
Some thirty years after a virus wipes out most of the Earth’s population, forcing the survivors to live underground, convicted criminal James Cole (Willis) is sent back in time to discover the source of the infection. Stowe co-stars as psychiatrist Kathryn Railly & Pitt as psych patient Jeffrey Goines.

Warnings:
Violence; gore; lots of blue language; male nudity (butt only); attempted rape; forced drug use (psychiatric meds).

Bad Stuff:
Maybe I just wasn’t in the mood for watching it, but I found myself a bit bored.

It’s weird in a way that makes me uncomfortable. For example, the way that county lock-ups & mental institutions are portrayed as dystopian hellholes. Like, I know such places aren’t exactly fun, but the way they are characterized here is really off-putting.

Good Stuff:
The performances from Willis and Pitt are phenomenal.

It’s refreshing to see a time travel movie that doesn’t hinge on someone going back in time to stop something. That’s a good way to avoid the problem of a time paradox.

This is the type of “mind game” story line that I like. The audience already knows the truth: that Cole is from the future. We don’t have to discover it along with the main characters. That means we can sit back, relax, and be entertained by the characters’ journey.

The Verdict:
This movie totally borrowed the beginning and end from La Jetée! So that explains how an obscure French short film found its way onto the list (by being influential). It seems more of a loving homage than outright theft. I thought it was kind of cool. As I said above, I found myself a trifle bored here, but I also wasn’t much in the mood for it, so I’m going to cut it some slack in my rating. It’s well crafted, a rare time travel film that avoids the pitfalls such movies typically face. I also really love Brad Pitt in it. Its one of his performances that remind you that he became popular for things other than having a pretty face. This is a flick that deserves all the accolades it has long received.

I give it 4 stars.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Sci Fi Top 100, #25: "RoboCop" (1987)

Movie Stats:
Released 1987 (USA)
American, in English
Director - Paul Verhoeven
Stars - Peter Weller, Ronny Cox, Miguel Ferrer, Kurtwood Smith, Nancy Allen

Plot Summary:
In future, crime-ridden Detroit, when police officer Alex J. Murphy (Weller) is killed by a gang of thugs, he’s turned into a cyborg by the corporation that runs the police department. Cox co-stars as Dick Jones, the #2 man at the corporation; Ferrer as Bob Morton, the guy who came up with the idea for the cyborg; Smith as Clarence Boddicker, a crime boss with a connection to Jones; and Allen as Murphy’s partner on the force, Anne Lewis.

Warnings:
Extreme violence; extreme gore; extreme blue language; brief female nudity (breasts only); brief male nudity (butt only); attempted rape; drug use.

Bad Stuff:
The special effect for the ED-209 (a prototype police robot) is laughably terrible. I can’t even tell what it is (Claymation? Stop motion animation?) but it looks bad, bad, bad.

It’s way too violent. This isn’t the kind of thing I normally complain about, so you know it’s got to be pretty dang awful for me to bring it up.

The cyborg suit that Weller wears in it is noticeably cumbersome. I found it a bit distracting. There were multiple scenes of him shooting guns with his non-gun arm cocked at a weird angle and it took me out of the scene as I thought to myself, “He needs to do that because he can’t balance properly in that awkward suit.”

Good Stuff:
I really enjoyed Ferrer’s performance. I’ve had a soft spot for him ever since the TV show “Crossing Jordan,” and it’s fun to see him play out of type. Usually I find his characters likable but I absolutely loathed Bob Morton. So, good work!

It’s an interesting idea, very different from anything else that was out at the time. And, for the most part, I think it was executed well.

Thank goodness for an action film without a shoehorned-in love story. I also appreciated that the only prominent female character wasn’t a romantic interest.

The Verdict:
I spent most of the film thinking I was going to give it 4 stars, but then I got to the big fight scene toward the end and it was so ultra violent that I decided to knock a quarter star off of it. It’s really over the top. [SPOILER] I mean, a guy gets doused in toxic waste and spends several minutes wandering around, melting and wheezing, before exploding into bits after getting hit by a car. So incredibly unnecessary. [SPOILER]  I do like it & think it’s a really solid action film with interesting ideas, a believable plot, and some good performances. I just wish it had dialed it back a notch.

I give it 3.75 stars.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Music Love: A Chris Cornell Retrospective

I'm not going to sit here and pretend that I'm some Chris Cornell super fan. Back in the day, I owned the Soundgarden albums Louder Than Love and Badmotorfinger. I never bought any of his other bands' albums, nor did I purchase music from his solo career. I never saw him in concert. That being said, Cornell was probably my favorite voice of the grunge era. I've been taking his death pretty hard.

I think there are 3 factors feeding into how I feel about it: 1. The same night that he killed himself, my husband and I hosted a friend who said he would kill himself if he spent the night alone. The parallel of how Cornell's story to my friend's (albeit with different outcomes) has left me shaken. 2. I feel too young for most of the musical icons of my generation to be dead. 3. Knowing little about his personal life, I was unaware that he was troubled, so his suicide is a shock.

I know lots of people are having similar feelings about it. I spent several hours on Thursday afternoon reading a tribute thread and listening to most of the videos there. That's how I found out that Cornell was far more talented than I ever realized. Here are a few of my favorites of those videos:

Soundgarden - "Fell on Black Days"


Chris Cornell - "Sunshower"


Chris Cornell - cover of "Nothing Compares 2 U"


Chris Cornell - covers "Redemption Song" (my favorite Bob Marley song) with daughter Toni


Chris Cornell - sings the lyrics of "One" by Metallica to the tune of "One" by U2, simply amazing


I feel so sad for his family & can't decide if it's better or worse that they have to share their grief with an adoring, questioning public.

RIP Chris Cornell. Thanks for sharing your talent with the world for a little while.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Sci Fi Top 100, #26: "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" (1956)

Movie Stats:
Released 1956 (USA)
American, in English
Director - Don Siegel
Stars - Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter

Plot Summary:
Dr. Miles J. Bennell (McCarthy) slowly begins to recognize that an alien invasion is taking over the small town in which he resides. Wynter co-stars as Becky Driscoll, Bennell’s love interest.

Warnings:
Minor violence; very minor gore.

Bad Stuff:
The musical score isn’t exactly subtle.

I wasn’t wowed by any of the acting. McCarthy in particular was pretty weak as a lead.

It does a lot more “telling” than “showing” how the affected act differently. When comparing it with the 1970s version, I appreciated that there was a bit more nuance. Viewing it as a standalone, however, I wish they’d tried harder to show what they meant. I felt like, “I don’t know any of these characters. How am I supposed to just take their word for it?”

Good Stuff:
In this version, it was a lot more clear that the story is an allegory for the fear of Communism. I personally happen to like it when films feature aspects that are indicative of the time in which they were made.

It’s surprisingly non schlock-y. More mind game than horror flick.

It’s a nice, compact 80 minutes that comes at a good pace. I never felt like it dragged.

The Verdict:
I really wish that the two versions of this film weren’t so close together on the list. For one, it was hard to stay interested because I felt like, “Didn’t I just watch this?” even though there are significant differences between the two. For another, it was difficult to watch it without comparing it to the other one. I wanted to give this a review based on its own merits but found myself constantly thinking, “Well, in the 1970s version, they did x and in this version they did y.”  I wrote and deleted several points repeatedly.

Ultimately, I do like the film. If comparisons are all but impossible to avoid, I think it’s the better of the two. The 1970s version features better acting. This version is superior in almost every other way. Even so, I think the differences are slight. What I’m saying is, I appear to agree with the people who assembled this list. Both movies deserve to be on it, and the 1950s version is better, albeit only slightly.

I give it 3.5 stars.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Sci Fi Top 100, #27: "A Clockwork Orange" (1971)

This movie was previously reviewed as part of my AFI Top 100 Project. Below is the pertinent information about it: the movie stats, plot summary, and the rating I gave it. You can read the full text of my review HERE.

Movie Stats:
Released 1971 (Canada & USA on the same day)
American & British, in English
Director - Stanley Kubrick
Stars - Malcolm McDowell (plenty of other people are in it but I can’t really say that any of them “starred”)

Plot Summary:
In a dystopian future Britain, follow the life and times of dangerous hoodlum Alex (McDowell).

Rating:
3.5 stars

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Out and About: Black Canyon River Trip

Last weekend, I went on a canoe trip down the part of the Colorado River called Black Canyon. It spans the 11 miles between Hoover Dam and Lake Mead. The trip was billed as a relaxing, easy float that would require very little paddling. And that's what it was like the first day.

On our way out to Nevada, we saw this super cool solar power plant near Primm. Until I saw it, I didn't even know that solar power plants were a thing.


Launching below the Hoover Dam:


On our way down the river:


Since the launch site is on federal property, you only have 15 minutes to unload your stuff from the transport to the canoes, so you can't really organize anything. That means we needed to stop on a sandbar a short ways downriver to sort ourselves out. The following two photos were taken from the sandbar:



Back on the river:



Side hike:


Some of our duck companions:


Waterfalls on a side hike:




Trying to capture how green the water was:




I took this picture because of the "small" boulder that is perched precariously partway down the slope on the left:


Exploring a river cave. After this photo was taken, a phone (not mine) would be lost to the watery depths. It was retrieved but I don't know if it survived.


Sunset over our campsite. There were very cool hot springs at the camp site, but I didn't have my camera with me when I went to visit them.


Unfortunately, on the second day, we experienced strong headwinds that made paddling very difficult. It took a full day of extreme physical effort to make it to our pick-up point an hour late. So it wasn't exactly enjoyable. This is the only picture I took on that day, before the winds picked up:


In the end, I was glad that I went. It was nice to learn that I was made of tougher stuff than I thought I was, and I'm proud of myself for stepping outside of my comfort zone. But I don't think I'd go again unless I could be certain that I wouldn't experience the same adverse weather conditions.

Sci Fi Top 100, #28: "La Jetée" (1962)

Movie Stats:
Released 1962 (France)
French, in French (significant non-translated German; the particular version I watched was dubbed into English, but even then the German wasn’t translated)
Director - Chris Marker
Stars - James Kirk

Plot Summary:
The survivors of WWIII attempt to ensure their future through the use of time travel. Kirk is the English-language narrator (in the original French it’s Jean Negroni). Other than the narration and the non-translated German whispers, there is no dialogue and there is no acting.

Warnings:
Female nudity in the form of artwork.

Bad Stuff:
I saw “the twist” coming very early in the film.

The way it plays out is kind of silly. [SPOILERS] They send him back in time in order to get supplies to help them survive but instead he romances a woman whose face he saw once as a child. So then they send him into the future where he finds out the human race survived without his help anyway. [SPOILERS] Seemed a bit pointless.

Good Stuff:
It’s quite experimental, in a way I think I liked. The whole time, I couldn’t help thinking about how quintessentially French it felt, like the very definition of 1960s French cinema.

Although I didn’t care for the way it played out, I liked the idea of it. Inventing time travel seems a clever way to solve a thorny problem. Personally, I think I would use it to try to stop WWIII, but whatever.

It’s nice and short.

The Verdict:
This is definitely one of the more unusual entries to the list. It’s not a film in the strictest sense. It’s a series of still photos tied together by narration. At only half an hour, it’s pretty short, but I think that was the right idea. Any longer and it just would’ve been irritating. As it was, I got a trifle bored, because nothing much happens. However, overall, I would say that the uniqueness of it made it intriguing. I understand how it found its way onto the list.

I give it 3.5 stars.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Sci Fi Top 100, #29: "Planet of the Apes" (1968)

Movie Stats:
Released 1968 (USA)
American, in English
Director - Franklin J. Schaffner
Stars - Charlton Heston, Kim Hunter, Roddy McDowell, Maurice Evans

Plot Summary:
An American space crew returning from a long-haul mission crash lands on a planet ruled by talking, intelligent simians who treat the local mute, primitive human population like animals. Heston stars as George Taylor, one of the astronauts; Hunter as Zira, the animal psychologist who becomes convinced that Taylor is intelligent; McDowell as Cornelius, Zira’s fiancé; and Evans as Dr. Zaius, the Minister of Science, who is intent on taking Taylor down.

Warnings:
Male nudity (butt only, although there are a few scenes where if you were so inclined, I suppose you could freeze frame and perhaps see a little peen); violence; minor gore.

Bad Stuff:
It’s a little too long. I think a few scenes could use some tightening.

It’s occasionally too cutesy. For example, the see-no-evil/hear-no-evil/speak-no-evil scene made me roll my eyes. Also, the “don’t trust anyone over 30” nonsense - that really dated the film.

[SPOILER-y]
I’m not convinced that, 2,000 or so years in the future, simians would not only evolve to have a very similar culture to humans, but also that they would just so happen to speak English & speak it in such a way that a man from the distant past would be able to understand it.
[SPOILER]

Good Stuff:
The characterization is really good. It’s consistent, which I think is a rarity in fiction. I particularly liked how Dr. Zaius was presented. I hated his guts, but his character made sense.

The ending is great. Good reveal, and the exact right kind of open.

I think it’s a thoughtful film, not only in the questions it asks about human nature and where we’re heading, but also in terms of plotting. One thing I appreciated most was that it took the time to explain that the space shuttle was launched in 1972 and set to return in the distant future, which accounted for the old technology. A lot of times in sci fi films, I sit there thinking, “If this is supposed to be happening 400 years from now, would they really have this technology that looks exactly like the technology from the time this movie was made?”

The Verdict:
I like this film. It’s really solid, with a good story, good acting, and good practical effects. As with anything, I can nitpick, and I do think it gets a bit dull at times, but overall, it definitely deserves its spot on this list.

I give it 4 stars.

Random Fun Fact: Now that we’re in the Top 30, there are only 10 of these films I’ve never seen before. While this isn’t one of them, I last saw it probably well over 20 years ago.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Up with Geography: Czech Republic

Country Name:
Czech Republic

Capital:
Prague

Continent:
Europe

Maps:

Map of Europe. Czech Republic outlined in
dark ink. Due to technical difficulties, I was
unable to do shading.

A close-up of Czech Republic & its neighbors.

Neighbors:
Germany, Poland, Slovakia, Austria

Water Borders:
None

Total Area:
30,450 square miles

Five Largest Cities:
Prague, Brno, Ostrava, Plzen, Liberec

Famous Geographical Point:
Elbe River

Famous Person:
Franz Kafka, author

Book Set In/About:
The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

This book chronicles the lives of four people (and one dog) during a brief period of liberalization in Czech Republic's (then Czechoslovakia's) Communist history. Whenever possible, I try to pick a book I've read. This is one of the rare instances I can!

Movie Set In/About:
"Kolya (Kolja)" (1996), directed by Jan Svěrák

Middle-aged Louka, bachelor & womanizer, finds his life transformed when he unexpectedly becomes the guardian of a young boy. Set in Prague during Czechoslovakia's emergence from Communism. I've seen this film! It's cute.

Headline of the Day:
"Billionaire Businessman Babis Is at Heart of Czech Political Crisis" on reuters.com.

This was not the most recent news piece I could find about Czech Republic, but most of the more recent stuff came from blogs and I wanted to use something from a reputable news source. This was actually a very interesting article that I recommend you check out.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Sci Fi Top 100, #30: "Jurassic Park" (1993)

Movie Stats:
Released 1993 (USA)
American, in English (minimal non-translated Spanish)
Director - Stephen Spielberg
Stars - Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Richard Attenborough, and many others

Plot Summary:
When wealthy entrepreneur John Hammond (Attenborough) invites three scientists - paleontologists Dr. Alan Grant (Neill) and Dr. Ellie Sattler (Dern) & mathematician Ian Malcolm (Goldblum) - on a private tour of his new dinosaur theme park, disaster occurs.

Warnings:
Violence; gore; blue language.

Bad Stuff:
I know it’s kind of the point of the film, that the people behind Jurassic Park were arrogant & didn’t treat nature with respect, but there are just a few too many things where you’re like, “Really? You didn’t think that through?” For example, [SPOILERS] Leaving computer security all in the hands of one man & not knowing any of his passwords or anything. Bringing your grandkids to the park after a man has just been killed there. Having a reboot of your computer system be dependent on shutting down the whole entire park, including the fences that guard the most dangerous animals. Apparently not having a back-up generator for your electricity when you live in an area that has tropical storms. [SPOILERS] I could go on, but I think you get the point.

Never have I made this kind of complaint about a film before: there’s an odd focus on butts. Particularly toward the beginning of the film, many of the camera angles make it so that you’re looking directly at someone’s (clothed) butt for the duration of the scene. I never noticed it before, but once I noticed it, I couldn’t stop seeing it. The fourth or fifth time, I was like, “Why am I looking at someone’s butt again?” It’s weird.

There’s not as much cutesy kid stuff as there is in most Spielberg films, but what there is feels out of place in context.

Good Stuff:
I do love a good John Williams soundtrack.

All of the acting is excellent. I can’t think of anyone who’s weak. Even the secondary characters are great, especially Bob Peck as intense big game hunter Muldoon and Samuel L. Jackson as mumbling, chain-smoking security guy Mr. Arnold. But I’m going to give my biggest props to the child actors who play Hammond’s grandkids, Ariana Richards as Lex and Joseph Mazzello as Tim. I remember the first time I saw this, the scene where [SPOILER] the T-Rex is attacking the kids in the Jeep [SPOILER], their terrified screams and faces gave me chills. I still think their performances are very impressive.

More than 20 years on, it still looks really good. Man, I miss practical effects.

Yay, a strong female character who has a story arc beyond "love interest" & who's integral to the survival of our heroes!

The Verdict:
This film was RED HOT when it came out. One of the big blockbuster hits of my youth. I was with the crowds, watching it in the theater and I loved it. I’ve seen it numerous times since then. I always find it immensely entertaining. I wouldn’t say that it’s a smart film, not in the way that Gattaca or Galaxy Quest or The Prestige is, but it’s scary and fun and satisfying. Now that I’m older and I’ve seen it enough times to nitpick it, I can certainly find problems, but they aren’t problems that I care all that much about. I’m willing to turn my brain off for this movie and simply have a good time. If you’re an adult who’s never seen it, I’m frankly shocked. You should rectify that.

I give it 4 stars.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Sci Fi Top 100, #31: "The Day the Earth Stood Still" (1951)

Movie Stats:
Released 1951 (USA)
American, in English (several brief, non-translated languages that are unimportant to the film)
Director - Robert Wise
Stars - Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, Billy Gray

Plot Summary:
Klaatu (Rennie), a human-like alien from another planet, arrives on Earth with a message for its people. Neal co-stars as Helen Benson, one of Klaatu's roommates in the boarding house where he lives incognito, and Gray as her son, Bobby.

Warnings:
Very minor violence.

Bad Stuff:
It’s pretty slow and boring. Once I realized that it’s the same director as The Andromeda Strain, the pacing made so much more sense.

I’m a little confused by the message. [SPOILER] The whole movie, Klaatu’s all Mr. Smuggy McSmugface saying, “We’ve moved beyond violence” and then at the end he’s like, “Oh, BTW, we created a bunch of robots that will destroy us if we get violent.” I’m not so sure you get to be super smug about your non-violent nature when the only reason you’re non-violent is because you’ll be destroyed if you’re not. [SPOILER]

The writing is weak. People’s reactions are both exaggerated and oversimplified. I felt like half the movie’s problems could have been solved if Klaatu wasn’t so cagey about his purpose for visiting.

Good Stuff:
The special effects have held up pretty well.

The acting was good. I even liked Billy Gray. Normally I dislike child actors, especially ones from the 1950s who did a lot of gaping, but he was quite enjoyable.

While the effort may have been ham-handed, I did enjoy that it was an allegory for America’s over-the-top reaction to Communism.

The Verdict:
Meh. I did see this once before, in a theater no less. I couldn’t remember much of anything about it other than that I found the ending anti-climactic. I still feel that way. What’s more, I thought it tried too hard to be dramatic when all it’s really about is [SPOILER] a guy who swings by the planet to say, “Hey, stop being assholes or we’ll blow you up” [SPOILER] P.S. I know they were different times, but even in the 1950s would a woman leave a person she hardly knew in charge of her son for a whole entire day so she could go on a date? That bugged me for half the film. Anyway, although I see lots wrong with it, ultimately I think it’s harmless. You might enjoy it more than me. I certainly wouldn’t discourage you from giving it a shot.

I give it 2.75 stars.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Up with U.S. Geography: Indiana

Indiana is the first of the eight states I've lived in to make the list! I spent three years there, getting my undergraduate degree at Indiana University (my junior year, I was abroad in Germany).

State Name:
Indiana

Capital:
Indianapolis

Date of Entry:
December 11, 1816

Maps:

Map of USA. Indiana outlined in dark ink, shaded, &
with name written on it.

Close-up of Indiana & its neighbors.

Neighbors:
Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, Illinois

Water Borders:
Lake Michigan, Ohio River, Wabash River

Total Area:
36,418 square miles

Five Largest Cities:
Indianapolis, Fort Wayne, Evansville, South Bend, Carmel

Famous Geographical Point:
Wabash River

State Nickname:
The Hoosier State. People in Indiana call themselves Hoosiers. It's the official mascot of Indiana University. And yet no one knows what it means or where the nickname came from. The colorful yarn I heard when I first arrived at IU was that, after an old timey barroom brawl, someone picked a severed ear up from the floor and said, "Whose ear?"

Famous Person:
Jim Gaffigan, comedian

So many famous Hoosiers! I've done quite a few musicians recently, so I decided not to go with the obvious choice (Michael Jackson). I've seen a few of Gaffigan's shows in person & I think he's hilarious. I'm going to ignore the fact that he went to hated rival Purdue University for a year. ;)

Book Set In/About:
All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

In this young adult novel, two lost souls have a chance meeting and begin to bond as they explore Indiana's natural offerings. It's on my list, haven't gotten to it yet, but I hear good things about it!

Movie Set In/About:
"Rudy" (1993), directed by David Anspaugh

Another wealth of choices for this category. I decided to go with the film that many men will say made them cry. It's the biographical tale of a young man who aspires to play football for the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame, despite many obstacles.

Headline of the Day:
"India-Based IT Company Plans Indiana Site with US Expansion" in US News & World Report.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Sci Fi Top 100, #32: "Gattaca" (1997)

Movie Stats:
Released 1997 (Canada)
American, in English
Director - Andrew Niccol
Stars - Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, Jude Law, and many others

Plot Summary:
In the not so distant future where genetically modifying embryos is the norm & natural-birth people are considered second-class, non-modified Vincent Freeman (Hawke) chases his dream of going into space by borrowing the identity of a modified man, Jerome Morrow (Law). A murder at his place of business, Gattaca, puts his mission in jeopardy. Thurman co-stars as Irene Cassini, Vincent’s co-worker & love interest.

Warnings:
Blue language; minor violence; minor gore; implied sexy times; brief male nudity (butt only).

Bad Stuff:
It has some of those editorial inconsistencies that stick out to & bug me. For example, in one scene Irene arrives at Jerome’s apartment in the car of a police detective. Then the detective leaves without her. How does she get back to work? I spent five minutes of the film wondering about that.

It’s a little slow.

Good Stuff:
Jude Law is so good in this. It was one of those moments when I thought to myself, “Oh yeah, now I remember why he was a thing back in the day.” The other actors are good too, but Law really stands out. He commands the screen.

I like the mix between futurism, conservative 1950s vibe, and 1940s film noir. It’s weird in a good way. Kind of funny how frequently sci fi is mixed with film noir.

It’s a really well crafted story. While there’s no mystery for the viewers (okay, I guess there’s a small one), it’s fun to watch the detectives unravel their mystery. Vincent thinks of everything in his quest to portray Jerome, but the detectives think of those things too. It makes for a lot of delicious tension. Will Vincent get to go on his space mission or won’t he?

The Verdict:
I’d forgotten how good this film is. Whenever someone has mentioned it in the 15 or so years since I first saw it, I’d say, “That’s a great film!” And while I believed it, I can’t say that I remembered much about it. Fortunately, my belief was rooted in fact. It really is quite good, so good that I can’t find much in it to pick apart. Definitely, the slow pace is the worst of it, but I find that in all film noir, whether it’s sci fi-themed or not. It just seems to be a characteristic of the genre. Other than that, anything negative I have to say is being a little petty. This is a really solid, well-written, well-acted, visually interesting movie.

I give it 4.75 stars.

Random Fun Fact: Improbably, Ernest Borgnine has featured in THREE of my four movie projects. Best Picture - Marty; AFI Top 100 - The Wild Bunch; Sci Fi Top 100 - Gattaca.