2018年4月27日 星期五

"The Martian" by Andy Wier (2011)

"You may be wondering how I'll store them.  I can't just pile them up; most of them would go bad before I got around to eating them.  So instead, I'll do something that wouldn't work at all on Earth; throw them outside."

Andy Weir started out as a computer programmer.  He's written a lot on the web, but his paper output consists almost entirely of The Martian, his first novel.  Despite his love of space travel he has a strongly developed fear of flying.

I'm assuming that most people are familiar with The Martian's plot.  The 2015 movie was a huge hit, thanks in so small part to Matt Damon's appearance as the story's protagonist, Mark Whatney.  Like most people, I saw the movie long before hearing of the book, and its "marooned on Mars" plot was obvious from the previews.

The book is competently written, and penned by an author who has a clear love of space travel.  The movie version is faithful to the book, though of course some of the more scientific aspects of the book had to be left out of the film.  Matt Damon's Mark Whatney is a lot manlier than Andy Weir's version, but the differences between the two versions are negligible.

Should you bother to read the book?  My opinion?  Probably not.  It doesn't offer much that can't be found in the movie, though of course those interested in the workings of solar cells, water reclamation devices, and jet propulsion will find more to like in the pages of The Martian.

Related Entries:

"Arrival" by Ted Chiang (2015)
"The Underground Railroad" by Colson Whitehead (2016)
"House of Suns" by Alastair Reynolds (2008)
"Neuromancer" by William Gibson (1984)

2018年4月26日 星期四

A Review of Every Marvel Movie from 2008 to the Present (Revised as of April 26, 2018)

Due to the truly astonishing number of Marvel films either released or in various stages of production, I have decided to begin the list below with the first Iron Man, in 2008.  For reviews of older Marvel films look here.

Also, a note on the ratings/stars next to each entry.  These ratings were assigned when the movie came out, and may not reflect my current feelings about that movie.  In other words I was judging X-men Origins: Wolverine against Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk, the other two superhero movies of that year.  Since 2008 there have been a lot more superhero films, and getting three stars in 2018 is a lot harder than getting three stars in 2008.

Excellent!  Had to see it twice!
Good movie with a few flaws.
Not bad, but not great.
I’d watch it once if I was bored enough.
[no stars]
Just terrible.
So bad it’s kind of good.

21. Iron Man (2008) ****

After Batman Begins, this is the other movie that reinvigorated the genre.  Where Batman Begins was dark, this one was funny.  Where Batman is driven, Tony Stark is brilliantly conflicted.  It is everything that Nolan's movie wasn't, and that's why it works.

22. The Incredible Hulk (2008) ***1/2

This movie was sidelined by the overwhelming success of Iron Man, but I loved it.  I loved Edward Norton's take on the character, I loved the script he wrote for the film, and I loved the Greco-Roman take on The Hulk.  My only complaint is that he let The Abomination live at the end.  I found this hard to believe.

23. Punisher: War Zone (2008) *

A more violent take on Frank Castle.  It's a solid film, but maybe a little too depressing for its own good.  I consider it an improvement on the first.

24. X-men Origins: Wolverine (2009) *

This movie is standard popcorn fare, much along the lines of Ghost Rider. Hugh Jackman goes through the motions, an attempt to bring Deadpool and Gambit into the mix is handled badly, and by the end you're thankful that it's not as dreadful as X3.


25. Iron Man 2 (2010) ***

I liked this almost as much as the first one.  Downey Jr. is given even better one-liners in this film, and Mickey Rourke characteristically chews the scenery.  Sam Rockwell is also great as Justin Hammer, and my only complaint is that Don Cheadle isn't given enough to do.

26. Kick-Ass (2010) **

I have friends who love this movie.  I don't.  I think the first half is good, but after Big Daddy dies it just gets silly - especially the jet pack.  A nice warm up for The Amazing Spider-Man, however.

27. Thor (2011) *

Considering how hard it must have been to adapt Thor to the big screen, I would consider this movie a success.  Still, compared to other movies Marvel Studios has made, I think this is the weakest one.  I've never been a big fan of Kenneth Branagh.

28. X-men: First Class (2011) ***

Michael Fassbender makes this movie.  Forgive the pun, but he is positively magnetic as Magneto.  I thought the end was weak, but it's still miles ahead of the first three films.

29. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) ***

Still one of my favorite Marvel movies.  It might seem a bit slow for some people, but the mixture of Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark really worked for me.

30. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2012)

Ghost Rider journeys to Europe on an extremely low budget.  The screenplay was probably good, but the direction is all over the place and Nicholas Cage overdoes the "manic" elements.  The only good thing I can say about this film is that the actress who plays "the Devil's baby-momma" is extremely beautiful.  Fun Fact: Idris Elba, who appeared in Thor the year before, is Johnny Blaze's sidekick.

31. The Avengers (2012) ***1/2

There are entire websites devoted to how awesome this movie is.  It's a good film, but not one of the best.  Considering how difficult it is to put characters as diverse as Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor into the same movie universe, this one is an unqualified triumph.  I'm only sorry the Oscorp Tower didn't make an appearance.

32. The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) ***

This is a good movie, and I'm looking forward to the sequel.  Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone have some terrific chemistry, and it's a solid effort.  The Lizard is a bit too Hulk-like for my taste, but this is a vast improvement over Spider-Man 3.

33. Iron Man 3 (2013) *

I was super excited about this movie, but walked away from it disappointed.  It starts out well, but neither of the villains are very compelling, and the stunt work is too over the top.  My biggest complaint is the ending, which gives us a Tony Stark who no longer has any reason to be Iron Man.

34. Kick-Ass 2 (2013) **

It's not a great movie, but it's not bad.  There are some funny scenes in this one, but it could have been a lot better.

35. The Wolverine (2013) **1/2

I had high hopes for this one, but it wasn't all that good.  It's certainly much better than X-Men Origins: Wolverine and all the other X-Men films, but that's not saying all that much.

36. Thor: The Dark World (2013) ***

This was a great movie.  I didn't love the first Thor, but this one was a vast improvement.  Reminded me a lot of the Walt Simonson run on the comic book.  Hoping to see Beta Ray Bill in Thor 3!

37. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) ***1/2

Steve Rogers struggles with the modern world and his role in S.H.I.E.L.D.  After encountering the Winter Soldier, he has even more reasons to doubt the nobility of certain causes.  A very topical movie, with some great action sequences.  Didn't like it as much as Thor: The Dark World, but it was well done.

By the way, if you liked this movie you'd probably also enjoy (and find a lot that's familiar in) the Robert Redford vehicle Three Days of the Condor.

38. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) **

Too much CGI, but some great performances from Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone.  I liked this movie more than "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," though the action sequences in Cap were better.  This film has more dramatic tension, better ensemble performances, and more heart.  Looking forward to the third film!

39. X-men: Days of Future Past (2014) ***1/2

A surprisingly good movie.  As mutantkind faces extinction, Wolverine journeys into the past to change the future.  Excellent performances, and one of the most emotionally resonant superhero films to come along in quite a while.  Fun Fact: Although played by a white midget (Peter Dinklage) in Days of Future Past, Bill Duke, a rather large black man, plays Bolivar Trask in the earlier X-Men: The Last Stand.

40. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) **

A good movie, though it features too many characters for its own good.  Humor holds the film together, and makes some of the less plausible plot elements seem more plausible.  As with many other recent films from Marvel Studios, seems less inspired than calculated.  Maybe the second one will be better?

41. The Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)**1/2

I can't say it's flawless, but I did like it much better than Guardians of the Galaxy.  It's less talky than the first Avengers, and the battle between Hulk and the Hulkbuster is truly awesome.  Quicksilver seemed a bit  underused, and I would have liked to see more of the Vision, but it's still a great movie.

42. Ant-Man (2015)***

Any great scenes in this movie involve a) Michael Pena, b) shrinking, or c) both.  As for the rest of it?  It starts off well enough, but it takes too long to get going.  "The heist" at the end is a bit of a non-event, but the fight scenes between Ant-Man and Yellowjacket are good.

43. Fantastic Four (2015)*

This movie is not bad up until the four return from Planet Zero.  After that point it's a mess.  Once Reed escapes from the military facility the dialogue is awful, the characters do things that make no sense, and the movie somehow ends without building up any kind of dramatic tension.  It feels like an hour of this film was removed before it hit theaters, and Dr. Doom looks like he escaped from another, much lower-budget film.

44. Deadpool (2016)***

The good news: as far as films within Fox's X-men universe go, this one is second best.  It's not as riveting as X-men: Days of Future Past, but it's better than all the other ones.  Compared to the Marvel Studios films, I'd rank it above lesser efforts like Iron Man 2 and 3, though it comes nowhere near their best.  It's refreshingly profane, yet it struggles during most of the "serious" parts.  A sequel to this movie would probably be much better than the original.

45. Captain America: Civil War (2016) **1/2

I liked it, but it was WAY to long and that fight at the airport seemed entirely unnecessary.  The inclusion of both Black Panther and Spider-Man also did very little to advance the plot, though I was happy to finally see Marvel's approach to these characters.  I think a smaller-scale movie, concentrating on the dynamic between Steve, Bucky, and Tony would have worked much better.

46. X-Men: Apocalypse (2016) **

Continuity be damned!  Never mind the fact that many of the events occurring in Apocalypse happened much later (or is it earlier?) in the first three X-men movies.  Never mind the fact that many of the characters from First Class ought to be in their 50s by the 1980s.  The biggest problem with this movie is the villain, and the fact that he's just not threatening.  When you title a movie "Apocalypse" it ought to feel like the end of the world, and this movie just doesn't deliver on that promise.

47. Doctor Strange (2016)**1/2

A former neurosurgeon battles otherdimensional threats.  Benedict Cumberbatch, an actor with an established reputation, is a credible Dr. Strange, though the plot is somewhat formulaic.  The strength of this movie is its visuals, and these are something worth seeing.

48. Logan (2017)***1/2

A solid, dramatic film that may well prove Oscar-worthy.  It's still early 2017, so it's hard to say whether or not the Academy will remember Jackman's performance or Mangold's direction come Oscar time.  But Logan is a good (maybe great) movie that might just stand the test of time.  The last act falters a bit, but the first two acts are excellent.  Not as mind-blowing as The Dark Knight, not as paradigm-shifting as Deadpool, but nevertheless a well thought-out, well executed meditation on pain and loss.

49. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) **

If you're one of those people who LOVED the first Guardians of the Galaxy, you'll probably love this one, too.  I wasn't a huge fan of the first installment, and this movie did nothing to change my mind.  The humor in Vol. 2 seemed even more forced, and the characters spend SO much time explaining plot points that it took me right out of the movie.

50. Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)****

Gotta say they nailed it.  I can't think of a single bad thing to say about this movie.  The acting, the directing, the special effects, the fight scenes - and they even made me love Iron Man all over again.  I'll be seeing it again soon.

51. Thor: Ragnarok **1/2

Too jokey by far, even if the jokey bits are also the best parts of the movie.  Hela might be one of the better developed Marvel villains, but the Thor and Loki seen in this movie are so watered down as to be unrecognizable.  Who is Thor, really?  What is his personality?  What does he want?  Even Marvel doesn't seem able to answer these questions - and thus the central flaw in their Thor trilogy.  I'm still a big fan of Taika Waititi, and What We Do in the Shadows remains one of my favorite films, but his directorial style obscures what might have otherwise been a solid action movie.

52. The Black Panther (2017) ***1/2

My favorite thing about this movie is the world-building.  As a piece of world-building Wakanda rivals Peter Jackson's Middle Earth, and Jackson built Middle Earth with the aid of Tolkein's novels.  I've also read my share of Black Panther comics, and I can't think of many precedents for what Ryan Coogler and co. managed to get onscreen.  Black Panther is a well put together movie, and my only reservation is that there isn't much tension leading up to the film's climax.

53. Avengers: Infinity War (2018) ***

Having Thanos as the main character was a bold choice.  That ending was an even bolder choice.  I think that after audiences get past their initial sense of dismay, they'll get behind this movie, though of course the extent of their support remains to be determined.  The story's solid and Thanos is a compelling (if not entirely explained) villain, and the movie does an admirable job of juggling dozens of characters spread across several galaxies.  My one complaint?  The cgi isn't always necessary, and certain characters (Proxima Midnight) ought to have been performed by real, living people.

On the Way

Note: the Fox release schedule is to be treated with the utmost skepticism.  Deadpool 2 is already in the can, but other releases are anybody's guess.  Disney/Marvel has recently acquired the rights to the characters, and it may transpire that Marvel Studios "kills" both the upcoming X-Men: Dark Phoenix and New Mutants films as a way of easing these properties into their cinematic universe.

54. Deadpool 2 (2018)

Ryan Reynolds reprises his role from the first movie, with Josh Brolin (yes, that Josh Brolin) costarring as Cable.  I like what I've seen from the trailers, and I've been looking forward to it more than Infinity War.

55. Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018) 

Ant-Man is still one of the more overlooked Marvel movies, even though it was, in my opinion, far better than Doctor Strange.  Like almost everyone else, I'm curious to see how they work elements of Avengers: Infinity War into this movie.

57. Venom (2018)

The symbiote looks solid, though Eddy Brock resembles Peter Parker a little too closely.  Is that Carnage in the trailer?  The idea of Woody Harrelson playing Carnage has me more excited than Tom Hardy playing Venom.

56. X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2019)

Fox gives it the old college try with yet another adaptation of the X-men's most iconic storyline.  That actress playing Jean Grey does absolutely nothing for me, and I'm hoping Marvel prevents this from seeing the light of day.  I'm also not optimistic about first time director Simon Kinberg.

58. Captain Marvel (2019)

A female superhero film - even if it will appear a TWO YEARS after DC's Wonder Woman.  And Captain Marvel ain't no Wonder Woman!  There are many production photos available online.

59. Avengers 4 (2019)

With a rumored budget of a BILLION dollars, this and Infinity War will, if nothing else, be something to talk about.

60. Spider-Man: Homecoming 2 (2019)

If it's half as good as the first one, it should be great!

61. The New Mutants (2019)

I am/was guardedly optimistic about this one, but they've pushed the date back and those reshoots seem like they're taking forever.  Not a good sign.

62. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (2020)

The last one made me sleepy.  A third one?  I don't know, if Adam Warlock is involved I might be more interested.

63. Gambit (2019)

Don't hold your breath.  I list it here because it's supposed to be entering production soon, but who knows?

64. X-Force?  Deadpool 3?

These films are also supposed to be entering production, but with the Marvel/Disney deal underway their future seems uncertain.  I like the idea of both movies, but then again the idea of Deadpool popping up in a MARVEL movie beats the idea of both movies to death.

Related Entries:

Avengers: Infinity War: 6 Days and Counting
Some Other Movies From 2000
Some Other Movies From 1998
Some Other Movies From 1996

2018年4月20日 星期五

"Arrival" by Ted Chiang (2015)

"Once I have the basic idea laid out, I set my mind to multiprocessing: one section of my mind deriving a branch of mathematics that reflects the network's behavior; another developing a process for replicating the formation of neural pathways on a molecular scale in self-repairing bioceramic medium; a third devising tactics for guiding private industrial R&D to produce what I'll need."

The cover of this book is somewhat misleading.  It's actually a collection of short stories, only one of which inspired the 2016 film Arrival.  For this reason I'll be discussing the stories on an individual basis.

1. Tower of Babylon

The title is fairly self-explanatory, with the exception being that Jahweh never smites the Babylonians for their impudence.  It's far more fantasy than science fiction, but it offers an intriguing premise.

2. Understand

Two beings of greatly enhanced intelligence engage in a duel.  According to the "Story Notes," this is the oldest story in the collection, and it shows.  It has some interesting ideas, but it's not as polished as the other stories here.  Reminded me of certain characters within Frank Herbert's Dune novels.

3. Division by Zero

A mathematician discovers an unsettling truth.  It's the most depressing story here, but it's well executed.  Bears some strong similarities to the following entry, Story of Your Life.

4. Story of Your Life

The story on which Arrival is based, though in a far more stripped-down form.  I liked it much more than the movie, though I still found it a bit implausible.

5. Seventy-Two Letters

Members of the aristocracy deal with a population crisis in a world that never experienced an industrial revolution.  This is my favorite of these stories.  I loved the author's invented system of magic.

6. The Evolution of Human Science

I'll call it a paper appearing in a future scientific journal.  It's very short.

7. Hell is the Absence of God

A man tries to rejoin his wife in heaven, within a world where heaven and hell are manifested daily.  I liked the way angels were presented, but it seemed like it needed more of a philosophical underpinning.

8. Liking What You See: A Documentary

College life within the context of being able to "switch off" one's perception of facial beauty.  It goes on far too long, and I couldn't figure out why the characters wouldn't just switch over to some other physical measure of attractiveness, such as build, height, or even the sound of someone's voice.

Related Entries:

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"Make Way for the Super Humans" by Michael Bess (2015)
"Homo Deus" by Yuval Noah Harari (2015)
"House of Suns" by Alastair Reynolds (2008)

2018年4月19日 星期四

Avengers: Infinity War: 6 Days and Counting

I don't know about where YOU live, but where I live it'll be 6 more days (next week Wednesday) until I can finally see the third Avengers movie.  I doubt I'll make the first showing (gotta work), but I'm determined to see the earliest showing possible.

To recap, what are the films in the MCU so far?  They are:

1. Iron Man
2. The Incredible Hulk
3. Iron Man 2
4. Thor
5. Captain America: The First Avenger
6. The Avengers

7. Iron Man 3
8. Thor: The Dark World
9. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
10. Guardians of the Galaxy
11. Avengers: Age of Ultron
12. Ant-Man

13. Captain America: Civil War
14. Doctor Strange
15. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
16. Spider-Man: Homecoming
17. Thor: Ragnarok
18. Black Panther

...and I compiled that list from memory, with only one mistake.  Excluding Black Panther, which I don't believe is available on DVD yet, I've seen all of the above movies at least two times.  Some of them, like the first Iron Man and The Avengers, I've seen at least FIVE times.

I still think the first Iron Man is the gold standard of the MCU, not only because it was first, but also because it's an excellently put together movie.  The Incredible Hulk, Captain America: the Winter Soldier, and Spider-Man: Homecoming are other personal favorites.  My least favorite MCU movies are probably Guardians of the Galaxy and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which I've never felt much connection to.  I've vented on the subject of Thor: Ragnarok elsewhere, so I'll leave it alone for now.

Going into Avengers: Infinity War, what am I expecting?  Well for one thing, I expect that Thanos is going to be a disappointing villain.  If you've read Starlin's Infinity War comics, you'll know that he's basically just a(nother) big purple bad guy with an ill-defined goal.  I'm sure the Russos did their level-headed best to give him more depth, but with a two-hour runtime and a movie crammed full of characters I doubt there's much they could do.  If they prove me wrong, I'll be happy.

The criticism that the MCU has a "villain problem" is, I think, justified.  Of all the MCU films so far, the only villains I've really enjoyed were Abomination, Loki, the Winter Soldier, and the Vulture.  The Red Skull was completely two-dimensional, but it worked for the type of propagandistic movie he was in.  Ultron was, in my opinion, the biggest wasted opportunity.  I'm really hoping they do something more with Thanos, but giving him adequate time to develop would seem to imply a "scaling down" of this movie.

There's also the idea that one or more of the MCU's main characters will die during Infinity War.  Iron Man?  Captain America?  Hawkeye?  Drax?  If I could pick a character to kill off it would be Black Widow, because I find her extremely irritating.  I'm betting that it's Iron Man, Captain America, or both.  We already know that Captain America will be in Avengers 4, but he might just be appearing in flashbacks.

If nothing else, the special effects should be great.  Marvel Studios has spent a ton of money on this movie, and the previews seem to indicate new levels of citywide carnage.  I'm hoping they don't set too much of the movie on Earth and/or in Wakanda.  This movie should be bigger than that, with characters moving across galaxies.

In a real world context, there's the issue of representation.  Marvel is of course feeling the unparalleled success of Black Panther, and the characters and places from that movie might carry a weight in Infinity War that they ought not to have.  I'm guessing they'll go light on Thor, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man, Doctor Strange, and Hulk, and heavy on Iron Man, Captain America, Spider-Man, and Black Panther.  Don't get me wrong, Black Panther has always been a favorite of mine, but I don't think he should be front and center against Thanos.  What's he going to do?  Scratch Thanos to death?

Hopefully Infinity War will feel like the end of a chapter in the MCU, and not just a lead-in to Avengers 4.  If Marvel's smart, they'll know we've been waiting since 2008 for this to happen, and that anything less than a grand finale's going to disappoint a great many people.  Killing off Hawkeye or Vision isn't going to be enough.  This one has to hurt.

Whatever they do, I'm hoping it's a well crafted story without too many plot holes.  Of course when dealing with purple giants and Asgardian gods there are bound to be plot holes, but I hope they aren't glaringly large.  If they get the characters right - and I have every reason to believe they will - and if the actions of these characters make sense, I'll be happy.

Oh, and having Deadpool show up at the end would be nice.  Not that I'm holding my breath.

Related Entries:

Some Other Movies From 2000
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2018年4月17日 星期二

Some Other Movies From 2000

2000.  I was either about to get, or I had just gotten, married.  I was either about to be a first-time father, or it was a done deal, and I was adjusting to the fact.  I was living in a very primitive apartment in Taichung - on the west coast of Taiwan - and I wasn't watching a lot of movies.

We had no Internet in the place we were living.  We didn't own a DVD player.  We had was a VCD player, but our selection of films was limited to whatever we could find at local night markets.

Sometimes, when we were very bored, we went to this place near our apartment and rented a Laser Disc player, and a few movies on laser disc.  Yes, I was at that time the King of Soon-to-be-Abandoned-Technologies, and it didn't bother me one bit.

The big movies that year?  Gladiator, Mission: Impossible 2, and Cast Away.  The first X-men also appeared, establishing the longest-running superhero franchise yet.  Who knew, way back in 2000, that a flood of superhero movies was on the way?

Some Good Ones

1. Best in Show

It's not Spinal Tap, it's not even A Mighty Wind, but this mockumentary about a dog show is still very funny.  My favorite bits involve the lesbian poodle handler.

2. Almost Famous

Cameron Crowe directed this autobiographical movie about his time as a rock journalist.  I still think it's the best film Crowe ever did, and the soundtrack is great too.

3. Frequency

Dennis Quaid and Jim Caviezel star as a father and son able to communicate across three decades.  It doesn't make a lot of sense, but aside from a truly corny scene at the end it's not bad.  ...whatever happened to Jim Caviezel?  Did playing Jesus destroy his career or what?

4. Finding Forrester

Sean Connery and Busta Rhymes in the same movie?  Yep, and you have director Gus Van Sant to thank for it.  Van Sant directed this after his disastrous Psycho, which may explain the lukewarm response.  I really enjoyed this film, and it made me want to see the films in Van Sant's filmography I haven't seen yet.

5. Mission to Mars

Brian de Palma's version of 2001.  It's a decent movie, even if the characters aren't particularly likable and/or interesting.  As stories of space survival go, you'd be better served by The Martian, but it features some memorable movie deaths, and the ending is predictably uplifiting.

6. Road Trip

Ah - the tried and true road trip movie.  Road Trip, Tommy Boy, The Sure Thing - the list is practically endless.  When the formula works, it's hilarious, when it doesn't...

Whatever happened to Seann William Scott?  That guy made a lot of mediocre movies much funnier.  This movie, The Rundown, American Pie... he should have been a much bigger star.  I'm guessing that at a certain point he got tired of playing the same character over and over.  But while he was doing it, he was doing it better than anyone else.

Road Trip isn't Scott's funniest movie, but it's still good for a few laughs.

7. Bring It On

A cheerleading movie with a really weird sense of humor.  In 2000 most guys would have dismissed it as a chick flick, but the screenplay was well written, and the director knew what he was doing.  That director, by the way, was Peyton Reed, better known as the director of Ant-Man.

8. Shaft

In 2000 almost no one knew who Christian Bale was, while Samuel Jackson was still riding high off the success of Pulp Fiction.  Jackson was certainly cool enough to play Shaft, but director John Singleton wasn't always up to the task.  It's a good movie, but not great by any stretch of the imagination.

Jeffrey Wright though.  He's so great in this movie that he just about hijacks the entire film.  A movie centered around his character would have been SO much more interesting.

Fun Fact: In his first movie, WAY back in 1972, Samuel Jackson played a character named "Stan Lee."

9. Rules of Engagement

Samuel Jackson (again!), Tommy Lee Jones, and Guy Pearce star in this William Friedkin-directed military courtroom drama.  One gets the feeling that his role as a Marine accused of murder was more of a stretch for Jackson, not that that's a bad thing.  It's a bit slow toward the end, but it's still a solid movie.  Much better overall than Shaft.

The negative reviews it received up on release were, I think, largely due to similarities between this movie and A Few Good Men.  It was 2000 after all, and 9/11 hadn't happened yet.

10. Space Cowboys

Tommy Lee Jones (again!), Clint Eastwood, James Garner, and Donald Sutherland star as four older astronauts who finally have the chance to see the Earth from space.  Eastwood also directed.

It's not a terrible movie, but the predictable self-sacrifice near the end lacks the emotional impact it ought to have had.  Garner and Sutherland's characters are also very underdeveloped.

It's also funny - watching this movie in 2018 - to muse upon the careers the four actors in this movie have had.  There's Eastwood of course, moving from Rawhide, to the spaghetti Westerns, to Dirty Harry, to a host of other films.  There's Jones, briefly glimpsed in 1970's Love Story, then in Coal Miner's Daughter, Cobb, and more recent movies.  There's Sutherland, celebrated in 70s movies like Klute, M*A*S*H, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  And there's Garner, who spent most of the 50s in TV in Maverick, the 70s in The Rockford Files, and who may have had the most varied career of all. They collectively represent a ton of film history.

Fun Fact: Though depicted as having served together during the onset of the Cold War, the actual ages of the four actors varied widely.  James Garner, the oldest, was 72.  Clint Eastwood was 70.  Donald Sutherland was 65.  And Tommy Lee Jones was a relatively spry 54.  Garner and Eastwood served in the military during the Korean War (Garner won the purple heart twice, and Eastwood was a lifeguard)  Sutherland, though old enough to have served, is Canadian, and Jones wasn't old enough to join the military until 1964, right around the time the Apollo program was gathering steam.

11. Wonder Boys

Hey it's Ant-Man, Spider-Man, and Iron Man in the same movie!  Michael Douglas stars as a college professor and former novelist, Tobey Maguire is one of his students, and Robert Downey Jr. is Douglas' agent.  It's not bad, but as "washed up novelist/writer's block" movies go, Finding Forrester was much better.

12. Thirteen Days

The perpetually underrated Bruce Greenwood stars as JFK, with Kevin Costner as his closest adviser.  The "thirteen days" is a reference to the Cuban Missile Crisis, which was a tense thirteen days indeed.  This movie's good, if a bit unconvincing.  I'm inclined to blame the director, who seems to betray a lack of faith in the material.

13. Pay It Forward

Remember when Kevin Spacey wasn't the Antichrist?  When he was just a good actor, who starred in good movies?  Sure, there's a certain irony to this story of a teacher who befriends a young boy, but if you can look past Spacey's alleged personal failings, this is still a good, if not excellent movie.

The thing is that aside from the young boy's utopian scheme, this movie bears some strong similarities to Mel Gibson's 1993 film, The Man Without a Face.  To add to the irony, some of the trouble Gibson's character finds himself in bears an uncomfortable likeness to the accusations more recently leveled against Spacey.

14. What Women Want

Speaking of Mel Gibson (and also Helen Hunt, who costars in both this movie and Pay It Forward), he stars in this movie about the battle of the sexes.  Gibson is an ad exec who finds he can read women's minds.  It's a thoroughly charming movie, and Gibson was the ideal choice for the role.

15. Chopper

Eric "Hulk" Bana stars in this Australian prison movie.  It's watchable, but there are moments when the low budget really shows.  I liked the first part in the prison, but after that I had trouble staying interested.

16. Nurse Betty

If you look very closely, you'll notice that now-forgotten model Sung Hi Lee is one of the nurses in the TV show Betty worships.  God, in the late 90s I was so in love with Sung Hi Lee.

In Nurse Betty, a young woman goes into an extended (if amusing) psychosis after witnessing the violent death of her husband.  Renee Zellweger stars, with Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock playing the men who killed the husband.

Zellweger is excellent in the lead - it might still be her best performance.  But I'm just not buying the fact that Freeman's character doesn't bother to check the other rooms near the beginning of the movie.

Some Bad Ones

1. Bait

Jamie Foxx when he was better known as a comedian.  It was Antoine Fuqua's second movie (after The Replacement Killers and before Training Day), and you can tell that both he and Jamie Foxx haven't quite found their rhythm yet.  The mix of crime thriller and Foxx's need to generate laughs is VERY jarring.  That, and the second half of this movie just doesn't make a great deal of sense.

2. The Way of the Gun

Ryan Philippe - now there's an actor that never quite found his niche.

This movie is Christopher McQuarrie's version of the spaghetti western, complete with a truly gruesome third act.  Despite some great performances by Benicio del Toro, James Caan, and Juliette Lewis, most of this film is dreadfully boring.  It starts out great, finishes in epic fashion, but between its beginning and end it's incredibly talky, and the attempts at plot development detract rather than add to its conclusion.

Fun Fact: Geoffrey Lewis (now deceased), who plays one of Caan's associates, was Juliette Lewis' dad.  He was perhaps best known as Clint Eastwood's best friend in Every Which Way But Loose.

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2018年4月12日 星期四

"The Anatomy of Violence" by Adrian Raine (2013)

"I do believe that in tomorrow's world we can rise above our feelings of retribution, reach out for rehabilitation, and engage in a more humane discourse on the causes of violence."

Adrian Raine is a professor of Criminology, Psychiatry, and Psychology.  Aside from this book he has written two others, all concerned with the psychopathology of violence.

At the outset I should say that if I'd known he was a psychologist I wouldn't have bothered with this book.  I have long harbored a dislike for psychology and psychological methods, stemming primarily from (what I perceive to be) a lack of empiricism.

Let me put it this way: a mechanic, a doctor, and a psychologist observe a man drive a car down the street.  

You ask the mechanic: "Why did the car move down the street?" and he'll tell you about the gas pedal, the fuel lines, the fuel injectors, the pistons, and other contrivances.  Sure - he'll start with the gas pedal, but eventually he'll work his way back to the man driving the car.

Then you ask the doctor.  "Why did the car move down the street?"  He'll tell you about the driver's brain, his lungs, his heart, his circulatory and nervous systems, and other bits of anatomy.  Sure - he'll start with the brain, but eventually he'll work his way back to the engine.

But the psychologist?  Well, 9 out of 10 will argue that the man's brain wasn't a factor, and that the workings of the car aren't worth discussing.  And if they does acknowledge the car, any discussion of the vehicle will be restricted to emotional states and predispositions!

I hope you'll forgive me for sounding crotchety.  Let's just say that as a teacher I've had a long acquaintance with Psychology, and I wasn't eager to renew that acquaintance through this book.  In my opinion psychologists - those fence-sitters of the academic profession - do little good and far more harm.

As for the book?  Well, it presents itself as a study of the biological causes of violence, but there's a generous helping of bullshit to go with all the hard science.  The author talks about brain imaging, genetic predispositions, nutritional factors, and resting heart rates, but in the midst of all that there are a host of dubious studies, and still more dubious conclusions.  

To sum up, color me unconvinced by The Anatomy of Violence, even though some of the material on serial killers was interesting.  It was this material, in fact, that got me through the book, and had it not been present I doubt I would have finished it.

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2018年4月5日 星期四

Some Other Movies From 1998

1998 was my last year at the University of Washington, and also the year before I moved to Taiwan.  I remember it being a good, if uncertain, time in my life.

The big movie that year was Saving Private Ryan, which remains one of Spielberg's best movies.  Rush Hour, There's Something About Mary, The Big Lebowski, and Mulan were other big movies from that year.  

It's funny to look back at the box office hits from that time.  Despite coming in third at the cinemas that year, how many people have seen 1998's Godzilla recently?  Deep ImpactShakespeare in Love?  I can't help but think that in subsequent years other films have overshadowed their earnings - smaller efforts like Wild Things, The X-Files, and Pi.

Some Good Ones

1. A Civil Action

Robert Duvall all but steals the show from John Travolta - but it's a great movie regardless of this fact.  The best thing about this courtroom drama is its sense of moral ambiguity.

2. BASEketball

Dodgeball it ain't, but it's still much funnier than Half Baked (see below).  Trey Parker and Matt Stone star as two regular guys who invent a new national pastime.

3. Wild Things

The preview would lead you to the conclusion that this movie's just another excuse in tits and ass, but Denise Richards' enormous breasts aside, it's an excellent noir thriller.  Matt Dillon stars as a high school guidance counselor who may or may not be a rapist, Kevin Bacon plays the vice cop investigating him, and Denise Richards and Neve Campbell play two high school students under Dillon's "guidance."

And you know what?  This movie would have only been half as good in the absence of Bill Murray.  I don't know how they talked him into playing the lawyer, but however much money they paid him probably wasn't enough.

4. Rushmore

Bill Murray again, this time with his director of choice Wes Anderson.  I didn't like it as much as Bottle Rocket, but this story about a self-important private school student is well worth your time.

5. Primary Colors

1998 was a good year for Travolta.  Not only did he star in the oft-forgotten A Civil Action, but also co-starred* in the far more likable Primary Colors.  This stab at Bill Clinton is still entertaining, though modern viewers might find more resonance in Emma Thompson's portrayal of "Stanton's" wife "Susan" (read: "Hillary").  It won several awards, and is one of the better political movies.

Fun... Fact?: Various sources have alleged that Travolta has, on several occasions, attempted to leave the "Church" of Scientology, but threats of blackmail concerning previous "homosexual acts" have kept Travolta in the fold... thus far.

6. Pi

Director Darren Aronofsky's first movie.  It's about a mathematician obsessed with a secret code, and bears strong similarities to A Beautiful Mind, which came out three years later.  Pi is of course a lot lower-budget and more abstract, but it's still an excellent movie.  While I haven't enjoyed more recent efforts like Noah and mother!, I'd have to say that everything Aronofsky directed from Pi to Black Swan is great.

7. Savior

Dennis Quaid joins the French Foreign Legion, and visits the scenic Balkans.  It's a surprisingly visceral film, and one of Quaid's best performances.

8. Bulworth

Warren Beatty stars as a senator on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  Hearing Beatty rap is truly cringeworthy, but that cringeworthiness is largely intentional, and I think this movie's heart is in the right place.

Some Bad Ones

1. Half Baked

Dave Chappelle before anyone knew what to do with him.  Oh, and some white dudes too.  This is one unfunny comedy about weed.  If you liked Chappelle's Show (as I did), you might get something out of it, but those moments of "almost funny" aren't worth sitting through an hour and a half of people trying (and failing) to act stoned.

2. The Faculty

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (or is it The Thing?) meets Lucas.  There are a ton of people in this movie that were much better known later on.  Elijah Wood spends most of the movie getting bullied, and do you know what that big, scary monster is a metaphor for?  CONFORMITY, my friends!  And conformity's NOT cool.  ...or something.

And Elijah Wood's parents even take away his masturbation privileges.  That's just some weird parenting right there.

3. I Still Know What You Did Last Summer

Worst Caribbean vacation EVER.  Jennifer Love Hewitt spends about 70% of this movie walking around empty rooms, failing to find the killer, AND IT'S SO F*&KING BORING.  This movie's only redeeming features are 1) the guy from Re-Animator, who plays the hotel manager, 2) Jack Black, who plays a Rastafarian drug dealer, and 3) Brandy, who is (was?) FINE.

I still haven't seen the first one, so I have no idea whether this installment is better or worse than that.  I'm guessing the first one was slightly... better?

4. The Avengers

No, not THOSE Avengers!  The other, British ones!  You know, from that old TV show you can barely remember?

Except in this instance we get Ralph Fiennes as the man in the bowler hat, and Uma Thurman as his female counterpart.  Oh, and Sean Connery plays the villain.  Sounds not bad in theory, but the movie fails in the execution.  Whereas the REAL Avengers have varied superpowers, THESE Avengers' only power is boring anyone within earshot to death.

Fun Fact: As I'm sure you know, Sean Connery played James Bond many times, but did you know that there are other connections between The (British) Avengers and 007?  Ralph Fiennes would later appear opposite Daniel Craig in both Skyfall and Spectre, Patrick Macnee (the original John Steed) appeared opposite Roger Moore in A View to a Kill, and Diana Rigg (the original Emma Peel) played George Lazenby's love interest in On Her Majesty's Secret Service.

5. Lost in Space

For those complaining about Uma Thurman and Ralph Fiennes' lack of chemistry in The Avengers, I give you Matt LeBlanc and Heather Graham in Lost in Space.  Leblanc was woefully miscast in this movie, and he also has some of the worst lines.

In 1998 this movie somehow upstaged Titanic, ending its reign as #1 at the box office.  Just the same it's pretty bad, and one wonders if it wasn't an attempt to cash in on the success of the previous year's Starship Troopers.

And what the f*&k is with that cgi-alien-monkey thing?  Who thought that was a good idea?

6. Mighty Joe Young

In the same year that Roland Emmerich directed the very forgettable Godzilla, Disney released this movie featuring King Kong - er - Mighty Joe Young.  Bill Paxton is in it, and I'll watch any movie with Bill Paxton at least once, and Charlize Theron is also in it, her status in Hollywood much improved since the previously reviewed 2 Days in the Valley.

This movie starts out ok, but it goes from boring to nonsensical fairly quickly.  Theron's character is very irritating, and by the end of the movie I found myself hoping that some sort of fatal accident would befall her while running around that amusement park.

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*Co-starred?  The star of this movie is actually Adrian Lester, who plays Travolta's (Clinton's) campaign manager.  Lester's filmography is very short.  He starred in Primary Colors, and only appeared briefly in a few later movies.