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.