Saturday, July 30, 2011

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines

Year 3, Day 211 - 7/30/11 - Movie #932

BEFORE: The robot theme carries over, though I realize I might have jumped the gun by watching "Terminator Salvation" last year before this one. It's best to watch these things in the proper order, but I remember hearing about how the films weren't all that connected - either way, after tonight's film I'll review the John Connor timeline, looking for any anomalies. The reason for saving this one for tonight is sending big birthday SHOUT-out #53 to Arnold Schwarzenegger (last seen in "Commando"), born 7/30/1947. And the easiest way to link from "Bicentennial Man" is to point out that Robin Williams was in "Death to Smoochy" with Danny DeVito, who of course was in "Twins" with Arnold.

THE PLOT: John Connor is now in his 20's, and a female terminator is after him. Another T-101 is sent back through time to protect him on the verge of the rise of the machines.

AFTER: I love love love time-travel movies, though they're often filled with errors. This franchise keeps you on your toes with the conundrums and the conflicts, plus it keeps you guessing - is Arnold's Terminator good in this one, or evil? Who sent him back in time, and what's his mission?

Well, he's on the right side this time (phew!) but there's a newer, more updated, more evil FEMALE terminator. In fact, she's designed to fight Terminators, so she's really a Terminator terminator. Arnold's T-101 is outdated and outclassed, but he's still got to find a way to become a Terminator Terminator terminator. Got it?

The "Terminatrix" has been sent back to kill John Conner's future lieutenants in the Human Resistance, a spin on that "kill Hitler as a baby" thought experiment. But she stumbles onto the real deal, Conner himself, who's been living off the grid for years. Before she can kill him, though, the T-101 is "bahk". (I think he predicted that would happen at one point.)

In the meantime, a weird computer virus is shutting down America's computer network, including those pesky missile things, so the Defense department starts to think about giving this experimental "Skynet" project a whirl. Geez, if only there were a way to predict whether that's a good idea or not. Oh, well.

So it's John Connor vs. Skynet (again), but also it's Terminator vs. Terminatrix, which leads to some really spectacular stunts and chase scenes. The one with all the emergency vehicles blew me away - the Terminatrix can control cars and other devices remotely, so she can fight on many levels at once - all that, and she's easy on the eyes!

Lots of in-jokes and nods to the first two films in the series, though I probably didn't pick up on all of them. Someone has to say a variation of the classic line "Come with me if you want to live!", for example. And Arnold has to beat someone up to get his clothing and a pair of sunglasses. Little things like that link up the films pretty squarely.

NITPICK POINT: If John Connor will one day lead the resistance against the machines, why go to so much trouble to try and save the man who will activate Skynet? It just seems counter-productive, that's all.

NITPICK POINT #2: The only access to the hangar is through the room with the particle accelerator? Why, that's not dangerous at all! Who the heck designed that army base?

I've got no clear agenda after this film - I've been too busy to block out August, I can only hope for some celebrity birthdays to pop up and suggest a direction. I've got no more films on the list with robots or Schwarzenegger in them. I could watch more films about the apocalypse (or robocalypse), but I was trying to save them for the end of this year. I could pick up on the time travel thing, but I'm waiting for some channel to run "Hot Tub Time Machine". I wish I had a copy of "Total Recall", I could go from there to "Mission to Mars", and so on. I'll figure something out - meet be back here in 24 hours and hopefully I'll have some kind of idea.

Also starring Nick Stahl, Claire Danes (last seen in "Romeo + Juliet"), Kristanna Loken, David Andrews (last seen in "The Rat Pack").

RATING: 7 out of 10 rocket launchers

Friday, July 29, 2011

Bicentennial Man

Year 3, Day 210 - 7/29/11 - Movie #931

BEFORE: The last Robin Williams film, at least for now. Ending the chain on this one will make more sense when tomorrow's movie is revealed.

THE PLOT: An android endeavors to become human as he gradually acquires emotions.

AFTER: This is based on a short story by Isaac Asimov, and his famous Three Rules of Robotics are prevalent, at least at the start of the film. (Namely: 1. A robot may not harm a human, 2. A robot must obey humans, unless doing so conflicts with Rule #1, and 3. A robot must protect itself, unless doing so conflicts with Rules #1 and #2).

Williams plays Andrew, the android, who seems to be unique in that he possesses a spark of creativity, and is gradually taught to think for himself, and eventually wants to experience the concepts of humor, love, freedom. It's too bad that this means covering some of the same ground as other characters like Pinocchio, that kid from "A.I." and Data from "Star Trek". And also Williams' old role from "Mork & Mindy", where he played a space alien who desired to learn all about human culture.

But there are more questions here about the nature of robotics and technology - namely, can a robot be programmed with emotions, made to feel? We can build a player piano, but can we build one that enjoys the music? This movie suggests that doing so is possible, after all, Rule #1, to not harm humans, is a sort of programmed compassion. It's (relatively) easy to program a robot to tell jokes, but can it find the humor in them?

I thought I had a good Nitpick Point - when one of the daughters in the family tells Andrew to jump out of the window, it would seem to violate Rule #3, to protect itself - but Rule #3 is void when it conflicts with Rule #2, to obey humans. So the movie did get it right.

But don't think I didn't spot the implication that it might have been the FALL from the window that "broke" Andrew (or fixed, depending on how you look at it), making him uniquely creative, or sparking something akin to humanity within his circuits. Crossed wires, a short circuit - or fate?

I'm curious about the nature of the visual effects in the film. I know that Robin Williams, mega-star, probably didn't clunk around the set in a robot suit for hours, and probably for the first 2/3 of the film provided just the voice of the character, with a stand-in wearing a suit with a Robin Williams-like face. I can't help it, I need to know how the movie magic is done. Considering the number of puppeteers listed in the credits, it looks like the appearance of high-tech was actually done in a low-tech way.

Speaking of technology, you know what we really need? Some sort of device in a shoe store that would let you know what shoes they have in your size. I bought sneakers today, and the process was just ridiculous - I had to hold up each sneaker and ask, "Do you have this one in size 13?" (pause while the clerk checked the back room) "No? Well, what about THIS one?" "How about THIS one?" Are you kidding me? It took like an hour to find something in my size. Why show me a wall full of sneakers, and force me to play the guessing game? What they need is an array of sneakers on little platforms, and when you go to a computer and punch in your size (and width, I have wide feet), then all the designs the store has IN STOCK in that size would, I don't know, light up or something. Don't say it can't be done, because I believe it can. Then I'd know right away which 3 sneakers were available in my size, I'd be done quicker, and I'd be a happy customer.

Lest you think I'm crazy, I've been calling for years for someone to invent a better umbrella, one that doesn't make water go down the back of my shirt - the Nubrella (seen on "Shark Tank") is a great first step. I also had the idea for the pot that stirs itself, so your hands are free to do something else - and along came the RoboStir (as seen in late-night commercials). So come on, shoe stores, lets put technology to use - please, steal my idea! (I'm still working on that reverse microwave concept, it still needs some fine tuning)

This film doesn't claim to have all the answers about advanced robotics, which I appreciate, but at least it dares to ask some important questions - what makes a human human? Is it the potentially short lifespan, or is it the anatomy, the chemistry (I always liked Vonnegut's description of humans as "walking bags of chemicals"), or is it something more intangible, like emotions or a soul? Or are those concepts just shared illusions formed by our brains?

I also appreciate that the film shows both the positive and negative side of being an artificial life-form. Living forever is a positive, but it also means watching your friends and family pass away as you outlive them. Which would only be a problem if the robot had emotions - oh, crap, he does.

I look back on what I've written sometimes and wonder if I'm too negative - not about these films, 'cause, well, screw 'em - but about life in general. I try to strike a balance, I don't consider myself an optimist or a pessimist - I aim to be a realist, and if that comes across as cynical, then so be it. But I see the good and bad in most things. I had a lot of fun at Comic-Con, but I also wore out my body and my sneakers. The NFL lock-out is over, which I guess is good, but it also means that once again the Fox Sunday animation line-up is going to be aired at irregular times (really, we can't invent a DVR that can compensate for sporting events that run long? Or impromptu presidential speeches? COME ON!)

Since tonight's movie ended the chain on a positive note (umm, I guess...) I'll try to do the same. If there's an overarching theme for the last week's films, it's this: no matter whether are lives are short ("Jack") or long ("Bicentennial Man") it's important to seize the day (duh) and appreciate the people we love ("License to Wed"), plus try to make a positive difference in the world ("According to Garp"). And it's OK to appreciate the special moments of our life ("One Hour Photo"), but not to get obsessive about them, and when things go wrong, we should try to put them right ("Jumanji"). And, umm...Popeye. Don't watch it.

How's that for non-cynical?

Also starring Sam Neill (last seen in "Omen III: The Final Conflict"), Embeth Davidtz (last seen in "Fallen"), Oliver Platt (last seen in "Kinsey"), Wendy Crewson (last seen in "Air Force One"), Hallie Eisenberg (last seen in "The Insider"), with cameos from Stephen Root (last seen in "Everything Must Go"), John Michael Higgins (last seen in "Couples Retreat"), Bradley Whitford (last seen in "Scent of a Woman"), Lynne Thigpen (last seen in "Anger Management").

RATING: 7 out of 10 grandfather clocks

EDIT: NITPICK POINT (You just knew I'd find one, right?): Try as I might, I can't justify the supporting (human) characters' ages in a way that backs up the claim that Andrew is 200 years old at the end of the film. When he is first activated, the character of "Little Miss" is about 6 or 7, and years later Andrew returns when she is a grandmother - let's say she's 70, so Andrew is about 64. At this point her granddaughter, Portia, is about 16 (the first age when a girl might resemble her adult grandmother) - so at the end of the film, this would make her 152? Sure, there's some talk about DNA serums and futuristic anti-aging techniques, but come on. I have to call shenanigans.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

One Hour Photo

Year 3, Day 209 - 7/28/11 - Movie #930

BEFORE: Almost done with the Robin Williams chain. Three days after Comic-Con, and I'm still recovering, with a sore back and sore arms - and the latest is that I got an infection in my foot, from the blister I got walking so much around the convention center, so I'm on antibiotics for the next 10 days. Which I think means no alcohol, so it's up to movies to entertain me.

THE PLOT: An employee of a one-hour photo lab becomes obsessed with a young suburban family.

AFTER: Perhaps a departure for Williams, playing a lonely older man who becomes unhinged after looking at so many photos of happy families. It's tough to set the right tone with a topic like this, do you make the character sympathetic or not? This is sort of the flipside to "Dead Poets Society", you can see what happens to a man who did NOT seize the day, never married, never had kids, never got out of his dead-end job at the photo place.

Williams plays Seymour Parrish, aka "Sy, the Photo Guy", and saying he knows his customers intimately is an understatement. He can spot the first-time parents, the frequent vacationers, and the amateur pornographers among his customers. Yes, it's a violation of privacy for him to look at their photos (and make copies for himself), but come on, you know it happens.

Aside: I went into a sandwich shop in San Diego, right near my hotel, and the woman at the counter said, "Didn't you come in here, like, a year ago?" Why, yes I did. Either this woman had an incredible memory, or she recognized I wasn't one of her regular customers, or I somehow made an impression last year when I ordered a sandwich.

This film simmers for a long time before it comes to a boil, and there's a lot of creepy music that warns us about what's to come, as Sy gets bolder in the ways he tries to connect with a particular family. Then he learns a secret about the husband through the photos in his store, and he really goes off the deep end.

Infidelity is a tricky subject - if you learn that someone is cheating, should you tell their spouse? Yes, of course, obviously they should know - but then, also maybe no, because you don't necessarily have all the facts of the situation. They may already know (at least on some level) and they may already be dealing with it (at least on some level).

Unfortunately this seems like a 5-minute story, stretched out to a 90-minute film. I wonder if the pacing would have worked better as a 15-minute short film, rather than as a feature. The movie makes a few interesting points about photography, but considering the switch to digital cameras and on-line photo albums, that all seems rather outdated. Photo-developing centers are on the endangered list, aren't they?

Also starring Connie Nielsen (last seen in "The Ice Harvest"), Michael Vartan, Gary Cole (last seen in "Extract"), Eriq La Salle and Clark Gregg (last seen in "(500) Days of Summer").

RATING: 3 out of 10 soccer games

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Dead Poets Society

Year 3, Day 208 - 7/27/11 - Movie #929

BEFORE: Say what you will about Robin Williams, the guy's got range. In the last week I've seen him play a boyish man, a mannish boy, a writer, a sailor, a preacher, and now a teacher.

THE PLOT: English professor John Keating inspires his students to a love of poetry and to seize the day.

AFTER: This was a good transition - both the preacher and teacher roles showed Williams' character using unusual methods to make his points, from a position of some authority.

Though the film never explicitly states the year in which the film is set, the IMDB suggests 1959. Makes sense, since there are some early rock songs played in the background, along with some essays that resemble beat poetry. This was also a time when sons were expected to be subservient to their fathers, and gender segregatin and corporal punishment (paddling) were commonplace in prep schools. Just try to get away with that today.

Professor Keating (Williams) expands his English students' minds, showing them that poetry is best analyzed on a basis of feeling, not meter and rhyme. Also performing Shakespeare for them in a host of voices, from Marlon Brando to John Wayne.

Essentially, it's a coming of age story, as each of the teen boys deals with a different problem - from being attracted to girls, to fear of public speaking, to raging against authority. One teen wants to take up acting, against his father's demands that he go to medical school, but he persists in playing Puck in "A Midsummer Night's Dream", causing his father to have a meltdown and send him to military school.

NITPICK POINT: Why send his son to military school if he wants him to become a doctor - does he want him to become an army medic? Because that doesn't sound as safe as being a G.P. Anyway, the kid goes about telling his father about his burgeoning acting career all wrong. He should have pointed out that acting experience would benefit a doctor - since he'd have to act concerned (or perhaps blase) about the medical conditions of his patients.

Then, he should have temporarily dropped the acting, gone to medical school, and intentionally wash out. That way he could tell his father that he tried to be a doctor, and fall back on the acting. Geez, it's Parent Psychology 101! Besides, doctors aren't so great - mine told me to take a pill every 6 hours, then suggested I get a good night's sleep, which I presume to be 8 hours. Well, doc, which is it? Thanks for the conundrum...

What I'm trying to say is that all of our experiences in high-school, and our first few McJobs, can all come in handy down the road. I acted in a bunch of school plays and local theater productions when I was a teen, and while I haven't made a career out of it, I've done enough voice acting for animated films that I appreciate those early theater days. (I always seemed to play the authoritative character, like Sitting Bull in "Annie Get Your Gun", or Sen. Bullmoose in "Li'l Abner", or the town mayor in "Bye Bye Birdie". Good times...)

I also worked in a retail warehouse for a few years - giving me skills that come in handy when it's time to move merchandise around at Comic-Con. And I worked a year or two in a movie theater, and today I deal with theaters and film festivals around the world. So I always say learn whatever you can at any job, it could be very relevant later on.

However, there's another side to the coin - telling teens that they can do whatever they want with their lives could be seen as a recipe for disappointment, as another teacher mentions in the film. Allowing kids to believe in an unattainable goal doesn't necessarily benefit them in the long run. Just a thought.

Also starring Robert Sean Leonard, Ethan Hawke (last seen in "New York, I Love You"), Josh Charles (last seen in "The Darwin Awards"), Norman Lloyd (last seen in "The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle"), and Kurtwood Smith (last seen in "Going Berserk"), with a cameo from Melora Walters.

RATING: 5 out of 10 study group sessions

License to Wed

Year 3, Day 207 - 7/26/11 - Movie #928

BEFORE: Caught the Sunday/Monday overnight flight back from San Diego - I almost didn't make it, or perhaps I almost didn't get my excess merchandise shipped back. For a while there, it looked like I'd have to make a choice - ship the boxes back and miss my flight, or ditch the boxes. Well, I learn a little more about how to run a Comic-Con booth each year, and this year I learned that the Fedex office in the convention center is a complete rip-off, adding on multiple surcharges, just because they can. It's a long story, but I took a cab up to a suburb called Mission Hills and shipped them back ground at a 24-hour FedEx (UPS is cheaper, but closed on Sundays). However, I spent extra money on the cab up there, so it probably was a break-even sort of deal. Anyway, I'm still completely exhausted, slept most of Monday afternoon away, and I need to ease back into the movie routine with a nice, light comedy. Hope this is one.

THE PLOT: A reverend puts an engaged couple through a grueling marriage preparation course to see if they are meant to be married in his church.

AFTER: I have some experience with this subject, I took the Catholic Pre-Cana class when I got married the first time, so that my marriage to a non-Catholic (a Presbyterian, horrors!) would be sanctioned. There were a lot of hoops to jump through, and a lot of promises were made - I had to promise to raise any children as Catholic, even though I haven't felt particularly Catholic-y in about 25 years. So I was put in a terrible position. I had to promise not to raise my children as heathens, which is a sin, I suppose - but lying is also a sin, and I had to lie in order to get the marriage approved by the diocese. I even asked the priest which sin was worse - lying or having heathen children - and apparently it's the latter, since he fell just short of telling me to lie. A lie, after all, is between me and God, but having kids who aren't coming to church would hit the diocese right in the wallet, one or two future Catholics who aren't contributing to the collection plate.

It's that kind of hypocrisy that really drove the wedge between the Church and me - oh, I went to the Presbyterian services once in a while, but the damage was done. And then so was the marriage, but for a completely different reason.

It bothers me that movies don't really make a distinction between a legal marriage and a church service. Doesn't everyone know that you can get married at City Hall, and that the ceremony is just for show? You sign the paper, and you're essentially married, and free to have whatever type of service (or no service) you want. The 2nd time around, I was married by what I thought was a Justice of the Peace, but she really turned out to be an Interfaith Minister. I suppose that's acceptable for a couple of agnostics/athiests. Hedge your bets, I say. But she worked with us to have as much or as little mention of God in the service as we wanted, which was really considerate. She did work for us, after all, something a lot of young brides and grooms don't seem to acknowledge - it's YOUR day, make of it what you will.

On the flipside, there are movies like "The Philadelphia Story", where a groom heads for the hills, and another warm body, like an ex-boyfriend, steps into the service. Umm, but his name isn't on the marriage license! Am I the only one who can see that?

The point I'm trying to make here, is that there is a distinction between the state's opinion of a marriage, and the Church's. Kind of a timely point when you look at the news out of New York these days. Legally, gay couples are JUST as married as the ones who have a church-sanctioned wedding, as much as the Church doesn't want to admit it. When you put a minister in charge of signing off on your marriage, you're putting it in the hands of someone who couldn't possibly know as much about marriage as you do. (I know, there are ministers and reverends who are allowed to marry, and good for them. But work with me here.)

In this film, we've got a minister (Robin Williams) who puts a young couple through a series of unorthodox (pun intended) exercises designed to test their relationship - after all, unless you test it, how do you know it will last? But it's tough to figure out his angle - does he intend to break them up, or just toughen them up? These methods repeatedly injure the young groom, or make him look foolish, so that sort of put his goal in question for me. What does he gain by putting them through the wringer?

Again, this is a man who knows a lot about the theory of marriage, but very little about the actual practice. Asking them intimate questions about their sex life, or putting a bug in their hotel room seem to cross the line from advisory to just plain creepy. And giving them two impossibly realistic robot babies to care for - is that really the best method, when the same effect could be achieved by just simple babysitting (which for some reason, happens simultaneously) or visiting a day-care center? Jeez, I see babies on the subway and it makes me realize how much work their care requires - it's not rocket science, or even robotics.

But, of course, this is where the film resorts to slapstick, comedy of the lowest kind. Stinky robot diapers (is that even possible), hitting a baby to make it stop crying (unacceptable, even with a robot baby), and for good measure, a baseball to the face (really? Not even a nut shot?).

Do a little digging, and you'll determine the real reason that Catholic priests can't get married - it has absolutely nothing to do with celibacy being close to holiness, or being singularly devoted to God and not a wife. After all, the first priests were Jesus's disciples, and he told them to "be fruitful and multiply", not to remain celibate. So why the disconnect? In the Middle Ages, priests were known to father a child or two (or, more likely several hundred...) so the Pope came up with the celibacy concept to cut down on the number of bastard priest children, who could have property claims against the Church, and demand to inherit Church land. Anyway, we know that even today there are priests who go against their vows of celibacy - so how'd that end up working out for you guys?

(This is a true fact, and I bring it up not as a dig against the movie, but as a point of order regarding the Church. But where else am I going to spread the knowledge and enlighten people?)

Anyway, it's a nice light comedy - and I'm probably getting too hung up on the details, since I've got an axe to grind. But an extra point off for the way-too precocious kid who works as a minister-in-training.

Also starring John Krasinski (last seen in "It's Complicated"), Mandy Moore, Peter Strauss (last heard in "The Secret of NIMH"), Eric Christian Olsen (last seen in "The Comebacks"), Christine Taylor (last seen in "Zoolander"), Grace Zabriskie (last seen in "Armageddon"? Geez, a lot of tough ones tonight...), with cameos from Rachael Harris (last seen in "The Soloist"), Bob Balaban (last seen in "Midnight Cowboy"), Wanda Sykes (last seen in "Down to Earth"), and three of Krasinski's co-workers from "The Office": Mindy Kaling, Angela Kinsey, and Brian Baumgartner (last seen in "Four Christmases").

RATING: 3 out of 10 fancy cheeses

Tuesday, July 26, 2011


Year 3, Day 202 - 7/21/11 - Movie #927

BEFORE: I managed to watch one movie while in San Diego, I'll count it for Thursday, July 21, in order to send a Birthday SHOUT-out to Robin Williams, born July 21, 1951. A full Comic-Con report may be filed here later, but suffice it to say I was extremely busy, setting up the booth, selling books and DVDs at the booth, and then working at evening signings. I barely had time to hit my favorite restaurants, and when I wasn't at the booth, I was trying to walk around the convention floor - so movies weren't on the agenda, though I watched half of this film on Thursday night and the other half on Friday. My apologies to Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose birthday fell on Saturday - I had to skip a SHOUT-out, and I'll have to watch his films later on.

THE PLOT: The sailor-man travels to a town called Sweet Haven, falls in love with Olive Oyl, adopts Swee'Pea, and makes an enemy with Bluto.

AFTER: Obviously I didn't watch this film under ideal conditions - I was exhausted and suffering from convention-related sensory overload. Definitely hard to concentrate, but I'm still fairly sure this was a terrible, terrible film. Made in 1980, before the wave of comic-book/comic-strip films really took hold, it suffers from not really getting the formula of a comic character film right.

Unbelievably, this was directed by acclaimed filmmaker Robert Altman - best known for highbrow stuff like "The Player", "Short Cuts", "Nashville" and "Gosford Park" - what made anyone think he could tackle a lowbrow comedy, with people playing live-action cartoon characters with funny voices?

I barely know where to begin with this one, since it's ill-conceived, poorly acted, there's no discernable plot or story-arc, I couldn't figure out anyone's motivations or the WHY of anything that was happening. There's no origin for Popeye - he just turns up in a weird ramshackle town, looking for his father. Where did he come from? Why does he think his father is in the town of Sweetwater? All we know about him is that he's a sailor.

Then he meets Olive Oyl - and thanks to the addition of a missing baby, they form a couple. But the movie neglects to explain why they're attracted to each other, or show them falling in love, it just seems like a done deal because that's what the story needs to be. It barely even explains why she falls out of love with Bluto.

The songs are repetitive - I'd barely even call the same phrase over and over, set to music, a song. And Robin Williams saying Popeye's catchphrases set to music are even worse. Sample "song" lyric: I yam what I yam what I yam what I yam, and that's all that I am. (repeat)

There's a boxing match, and a baby that can predict horse races, and Popeye hates spinach at first, which was confusing - does he learn to like it, or does he just eat it so he can beat people up? Then there's all this anti-tax collector stuff, so it's sort of a Tea Party-friendly film. But when Popeye finds his father, I still didn't understand - was he the Commodore, or was Bluto the Commodore? If they were working together, why did Bluto have him tied up?

Am I asking too much here, thinking that a movie should make some kind of sense. Or you know, tell me what's going on.

Also starring Shelley Duvall (last seen in "The Shining"), Paul Dooley (last seen in "Going Berserk"), Ray Walston (last seen in "Silver Streak"), with cameos from Richard Libertini (last seen in "Nell"), Donovan Scott (last seen in "1941"), and Bill Irwin.

RATING: 1 out of 10 hamburgers