Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Sirens of Titan

Book: The Sirens of Titan
Writer(s): Kurt Vonnegut

This is a bizarre, ambitious, and genius bit of work from Vonnegut. It's somewhat a science-fiction piece, with time-travel and interplanetary voyages, but it really is about the quest for the meaning of life. The joke is that the sum total of all human endeavor turns out to be for the sole purpose of assisting a stranded alien motorist. But Kurt presents all this in a wild tale of manipulation, fortune-telling, war, and religion that is fascinating. The plot is difficult to describe. Basically a man on Earth tries to fly to Mars and gets caught in a time-loop of some sort: he's basically stuck in every moment time, past and future. He appears on earth and elsewhere as a projection, but he can communicate, so he starts manipulating people on Earth to start a war between Mars and Earth. You don't find out his ultimate purpose until closer to the end of the book. It's a wild story, interestingly told. I found Kurt's science-fiction aspects to be very well done. He invents cool new places and creatures really well. Some of the technology he describes is quite old-school and dated (I'm not sure when this story was written, but I think vacuum tubes were still popular then), but in the end such things are minor parts of the novel. Ultimately, I'm not quite sure where this all leads. If his purpose is to say that there is no purpose, he's defeated himself in the process. Either way, the ending is a letdown; much ado about nothing. That doesn't take away from the many positives of the book, but it does keep it from being great. It's a worthwhile read for everything else, however. I recommend it to Vonnegut fans.


Friday, July 30, 2010

Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore

Movie: Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore

I am embarrassed just to type the ridiculous title of this silly film, but even more shameful is that this was the best choice in new films this weekend. Still, talking animal movies can be fun. Unfortunately, this one isn't. It's sadly just not funny. (Tired jokes about dogs sniffing rear ends predominate.) The best jokes are the ones that are barely shown, almost afterthoughts. Such as my favorite: the labels on the gearshift in the jet car. High speed is K9 (ha ha) but stop is the classic, "Stay." These kind of background jokes provide a few smiles, but the surrounding film moves at a pace too quick for you to really see or enjoy those things. The film's worst flaw is that the creators seemed to think that animals talking exposition is not as bad as humans talking exposition. You know what? It's worse. When animals do it not only is it dreadfully boring, but it ruins the magic of animals talking at all. There are a few bright spots: I loved the pigeon's dim-witted and short-attention-span character, and I saw hope in the brief moments when talking animals and humans interacted: that, at least, was interesting, as the animals had to pretend to be dumb. But that happens too infrequently and doesn't go far enough: I would have liked to have seen that be a major aspect of the film: dogs and cats as spies in the human world, saving us from ourselves. Visually, the film isn't terrible, but it's nothing special either. I'm not even sure I recommend this on DVD. Young kids may find it mildly amusing, but adults should stay far away. Sad.


Friday, July 23, 2010


Movie: Salt

The most interesting thing about this film is the pacing: non-stop. It's a little slow to get going, but once the action starts, it doesn't let up for a second. I'm not sure that's a good thing, though, because non-stop punching and running becomes monotonous and uninteresting just like anything else. As for the plot... the less said the better. It's one of those plots that is designed to sound impressive but has no meat on the bones. It's absurd and makes little sense (I think I missed something important because I didn't get it), but the movie moves so fast you don't notice or much care. You don't care much about anything or anyone in the film, really. It's an okay thrill-ride, but it reminds me of one of those amusement park rides with the four mile line and six hour wait and then the ride is two minutes of blur and you get off, slightly dizzy, wondering, "Is that all there is?"


Friday, July 16, 2010


Movie: Inception
Writer(s): Christopher Nolan
Director(s): Christopher Nolan

Wow. Greatest mind-trip ever. Makes a Charlie Kaufman movie seem normal. I went in with the highest expectations and I can comfortably say those were more than met. I was leery about the two-and-a-half hour run time but I never even noticed the passage of time. It felt like minutes. (Which is interesting, since that's a key concept in the film.) The plot is too difficult to describe and it shouldn't be anyway, both since the film does it so well and it's a much more interesting journey not having it spoiled. Let's just say it's an incredibly convoluted story about dreams within dreams within dreams, where the difference between reality and dreams blend. But unlike so many films that introduce complications just to confuse the viewer and make the story seem deeper, here, though things are amazingly complex, it's handled to deftly that everything makes remarkable sense. Only at the very beginning was I confused, but it wasn't the kind of confusion that irritates. In many films information is deliberately withheld to keep the viewer in the dark and that's frustrating and tedious. Here the things we don't know are part of the plot. That beginning that seemed too convoluted, soon makes sense, and by the end of the film makes complete sense. This film feels like it should be more confusing than it is. I've seen many movies with much simpler stories that felt far more confusing. In fact, the plot seems almost simple the way it's dished out! But it's not at all simple: it's a powerful and intricate story, a story about love and loss and longing. The film has everything: action, fantastic scenery, drama, heartbreak, tension, wonderful characters and acting, surprise twists, and powerful emotions. What's amazing about the special effects is that despite being startling visuals, they feel like backdrop they are so seamless. In one sequence I realized I'd been watching for several minutes before I realized that everyone was floating (it was a world without gravity) and the technical difficulty of such visuals hit me. It had just seemed so natural and normal! The same with the excellent performances of the cast, who ground everything and keep our reality in check. I loved this movie. Highly recommend if you have a brain and like trippy rides. You won't be disappointed.


Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Sorcerer's Apprentice

Movie: The Sorcerer's Apprentice

Surprisingly good. It's very light, a total popcorn flick, but well done and pleasant. There's nothing remarkable here -- but there's nothing horrible either. There's humor, action, overdone special effects, and the plot is slight (bad wizard against good wizard), but it works. Above average in a genre of average.


Tuesday, July 13, 2010


Movie: Predators

I've seen the original Predator a few times. The first two times, I fell asleep watching it. The first time I had an excuse, since it was very late at night, but the second time I was just confused and bored. It wasn't until the third when I actually figured out what the heck was going on. The film is dark and confusing, intercut with scenes from the alien's point-of-view and blury shots of mindless action. But that third viewing showed me it's not a bad movie and I sort of liked it. I'm not the biggest fan, though, and I wasn't super-excited about this retread. I am surprised to express how much I liked this. It's not a great film, and there are many flaws, but the ride was fun. The premise is old (a minor variation of the old "hunter becomes the hunted" chestnut and the whole "Most Dangerous Game" story). In this case, top criminals and killers from Earth are kidnapped and dropped onto a strange planet with several Predators hunting them. The very beginning is rocky and not too interesting as these strangers all wake up on the planet and want to kill each other. Most of the characters are little more than stereotypes and we aren't given much in the way of backgrounds, only job titles. Once they figure out where they are and who the real enemy is, things get more interesting. (Part of the problem with a film with such a simple premise like this is that while we, the audience, understand the premise in ten seconds, it takes the characters on the screen a laborious 30 minutes to figure things out.) There are a few twists and turns, but overall this is little more than a "kill one character off a time" story. But there were aspects that kept me interested: dramatic tension, good performances (Topher Grace in particular), decent action and special effects, the seemingly overwhelming odds against the humans, occasional humor (very welcome), the pluckiness of some characters, and curiosity as to how the story would end. There was nothing truly surprising, but that was okay, as the conclusion was satisfying enough. Again, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this. Somehow the mediocre pieces assembled into something that was greater than their sum. It's not a brain stretcher by any measure, but definitely entertaining.


Friday, July 9, 2010

Despicable Me

Movie: Despicable Me

During this movie's opening trailers, they showed the promo for the movie Megamind, which is so similar sounding -- an animated story about an incompetent evil supervillain with a superarchrival -- that I realized I had two movies mixed together. I remember being surprised this was out now as I had thought it wasn't coming until later in the year (that's Megamind). So I really wasn't at all sure what to expect from this. It turned out to be an enjoyable film. Though there are numerous problems with pacing and the humor's inconsistent (it's not very funny very often), the heart of the film is genuinely touching. Basically our bad guy is Gru (The Office's Steve Carrell in an annoying Eastern European accent) who wants to be the best bad guy on the planet and to prove it comes up with an outrageous plot to steal the moon. There's zero sense of reality here -- no explanation of what monetary value would be obtained by doing that, nor any disastrous consequences to the planet if the moon were suddenly gone -- which I found unsettling. But what makes the film work is when Gru, as part of his nefarious plot, adopts three orphan girls who proceed, via their childish innocence and charm, to sabotage all of Gru's plans and slowly change him from a bad bad guy to a good bad guy. This part of the film is well done and I loved the way Gru's character reluctantly changed. It was both hilarious and touching. The ending is sweet and overall I was pleased. Though the first half of the movie is somewhat rough, the core story helps smooth things over and in the end, I really liked this.


Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Last Airbender

Movie: The Last Airbender
Writer(s): M. Night Shyamalan
Director(s): M. Night Shyamalan

I had never even heard of the TV cartoon series this was based on until I heard about this film about a year ago (back then I mostly thought it was weird making a live-action film of a cartoon when it's usually the other way around). I guess that's a good thing, because it sounds like fans are disappointed. Me, not so much. Contrary to most critics, who are blasting this thing, I didn't have a problem with it. Now I had low expectations going in, so perhaps that helped, but the big thing was not knowing anything about the story and setting. Sure, the dialog was lame and hokey, the mostly no-name actors lived up to their billing, and there are serious problems with the script, but I found the fantasy story fascinating and interesting, and the unusual setting more than offset those negatives.

Basically in this fantasy world there are four groups of people, each corresponding to a different basic element (earth, wind, fire, and water). Some of these people can "bend" their element -- i.e. use their mind to manipulate matter. One special guy -- strangely called the Avatar -- can manipulate all four. Because of that, he's incredibly powerful and keeps the four nations in check. He's continuously reincarnated so he's always around in some form to keep the balance over the centuries. But 100 years ago he vanished and hasn't been seen since. The fire nation took over and started to beat up the other nations, and now they've taken over most of the world. At the beginning of the film two children of the Southern Water nation discover a child hidden beneath the ice: he turns out to be the Avatar, who thinks only a few days have passed. Unfortunately, his training is incomplete: he only knows how to master air, not the other elements. So begins a grand quest to fight the Fire nation. The Avatar must be trained, and there are interesting elements going on within the Fire nation camp as well. The plot is dense and has the feeling of an epic adventure, a la Lord of the Rings. I worried about how they could cram that into a 105-minute movie. The answer: they didn't. The film ends in the middle of a sentence, really, with everything set up for future films. In this one, there is resolution to a battle and there's a terrific sacrifice made (I loved that plot point). I can see enough of this grand story to understand both why fans loved the original series and why they are upset with this condensed version. This is deep, epic material, and it does not translate well dumbed down to a single film. This shows throughout the film, which feels choppy and awkward in many places, as though things were missing. Many scenes feel rushed or cut short, and some events are implied, rather than shown or explained. Sometimes this was confusing, but most of the time it was just odd. For instance, in one scene the children are in a forest with other people with no explanation of how they got there and no introduction of the others. Since the children are on the run, I found it odd that they would be hanging around near civilization where the enemy soldiers are located, and that's never explained. But while these flaws no doubt bother the purists and hard-core fans, I was intrigued by the wonderful scenery -- fantastic venues of landscape and ice worlds -- and compelled by the complex story. I never quite got the reward I wanted from the story, which felt incomplete, but the scenery at least made the ride pleasant.

I came out of the theatre satisfied. I got what I expected: a rousing adventure with an unusual setting and interesting (though not spectacular) special effects. I didn't expect great dialog or acting and I didn't get it (though one or two actors and scenes stood out). I was puzzled because I'd heard that critics thought this was awful, but it's not any worse than other big Hollywood action flicks such as Iron Man 2. This is a popcorn movie. Go, relax, and have fun. Most of the critics seem to be judging Shyamalan, not the movie, and expecting too much from a once-great director, and most of the disappointed viewers seem to be fans of the TV show who are annoyed at all the changes and chopped up bits. That the film also has myriad small problems makes it ripe for picking, but this film is typical Hollywood in my book. I don't get all the outrage. Sure, this premise had great potential that's unrealized, but it's not that bad. I wouldn't exactly recommend it, but it's watchable.