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.

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.

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).

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.

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.

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.

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.

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




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.

Germany, Poland, Slovakia, Austria

Water Borders:

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

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.

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.

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:


Date of Entry:
December 11, 1816


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

Close-up of Indiana & its 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.

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.