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March 30, 2010

"And chamber maids were once such a liberal breed."

I managed to get another cold over the past weekend so I ended up doing a lot of slug-like activities. The other night, I was looking through my Netflix instant-watch list and came across this Reagan-era relic: Firefox (1982). I was amused to give this a watch since I was feeling like something, shall we say, unchallenging? This movie fit the bill and was a good nostalgic choice as I had seen it a number of times on cable in the 1980s (it's also a movie my Mom likes). This Clint Eastwood movie, while being slightly overlong, is above average for its genre, the cold war espionage action thriller. Much of the plot and character motivations aren't very convincing. Clint's character, in refuge in Alaska, is all too quick to take the assignment and the "he's the only man for the job" thing is as contrived as can be. But no matter. The paper-thin plot fares only somewhat better. This also isn't too big a problem for this kind of movie.

We all know Clint's going to get the plane and the journey to that end makes the movie entertaining. One thing I like about this movie is the way that Clint's Air Force Vietnam vet character doesn't instantly become James Bond when he starts the mission. There are scenes where he is obviously fumbling with the whole spy thing and his Russian helpers don't seem to think much of his abilities at first. The sequences involving Clint's travels through the USSR, a lot of chases, are paced well with some colorful supporting characters and good European stand-ins for the real Russian locations (you can easily spot where they used rear-projection process shots of certain Moscow landmarks). Once Clint's character makes it to the Russian superplane, we see where much of the production budget went. The models of the fancy fighter plane look pretty good and while crude by today's standards (or even compared to the action sequences in Top Gun), the flying scenes are pretty good for the time using models and process shots. One of the fun things they came up with here is the idea that this superplane's weapon systems can be controlled by the pilot's thoughts. It's an interesting idea that only partially works on screen. The scenes where Clint's character interacts with the weapons are cut in such a deliberate way, that it looks like it'd be faster to press a few buttons, despite the movie's claim that this system would be quicker to respond than a traditional button-pushing fighter jockey. The ending is a bit anti-climactic and needed something more of a coda.

The political element wasn't entirely evident to me when I was younger, but it really stands out today. The whole idea that the USA was so far behind on high tech weapons that we had to send in 'ol Clint on this desperate mission makes it all clear that the USA has gone soft on the Evil Empire. There's Star Wars and there's Star Wars:

Star Wars: The idea that the USSR is out-gunning us in weapons tech, so we'd better get crackin' on that missile defense system.

Star Wars: The effects-heavy fighter scenes are obviously influenced by the Lucas epics. The sequence where the two fighters fly through a snow-covered trench at high speed looks almost exactly like the Tie Fighters/X-Wing chase at the end of Star Wars. Of course Clint's movie was far from alone in copying these movies.

And, never mind that in retrospect, the USSR was going broke and not anywhere near overtaking the USA in expensive high tech weapons. The transparent political message on display here is quite laughable today. The buffoonish Soviet officials also tend to undercut the idea that the USSR is about to overtake us. The plane is a credible, if imaginary threat and the Soviet police are menacing, but the military officials end up being cardboard villains. Perhaps a lost opportunity for a good Moo Hoo Ha Ha villain.

Okay, so there are plenty of problems with this movie, but I still had a good time watching it. I won't go so far as to recommend it, but I had fun.

I also managed to catch A Serious Man (2009) on BD. I liked it pretty well. The look and mood of this dark comedy really pulled me in. I found some of the material to be like a Woody Allen comedy, at least the parts pertaining to the Jewish faith. Seeing all the Minnesota locations and 1960s looking college buildings was fun and the cast was excellent. The ending is something I'm not sure about yet; I need a bit more time to digest this one.

So on we go to this week's new stuff:

Alice in Wonderland (1951) Another reissue of the Disney animated version. Oddly not on BD this time around.

Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel (2009) Ugh...also on BD.

An Education (2009) Also on BD. The DVD Savant guy has a good review here.

Housebroken (2009) Also on BD.

IMAX: Under the Sea Also on BD.

Rhoda: Season 2

Salt of the Earth (1954)

Sherlock Holmes (2009) Holmes is recycled once again in a big-budget blowout. Also on BD.

March 22, 2010

"You are a sad, strange little man, and you have my pity."

We caught the movie Coraline on BD over the weekend. I thought it was a good, dark, creepy "children's" (I use quotes because it is certainly too creepy for some kids, IMO) fantasy that has some of the best stop-motion animation I've ever seen. There is an incredible amount of handmade detail on the screen that impressed me, in its own way, every bit as much as Avatar. The musical score was also very good and didn't sound like a Danny Elfman knockoff. Give it a rent at least.

And away we go into this week's list:

The African Queen (1951) Believe it or not, this classic has never been available on DVD here in the USA before now. As far as I can tell, this has to do with the poor condition the film was in plus the fact that it changed ownership a number of times over the past two decades. And, Paramount/Viacom, its current owner, doesn't have a management team who's very interested in releasing movies made before 1990 (this will probably be one of their only classic movie BDs this year). In any case, it's finally here and the reviews of it are good so far. A proper restoration was done on the film and for me it's a no-brainer. Available on DVD and BD.

Bigger Than Life (1956) Also on BD.

The Blind Side (2009) Also on BD.

Days of Heaven (1978) New BD from Criterion this week.

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) Also on BD.

Mad Men: Season 3 Also on BD.

The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009) Also on BD.

The Prisoner (2009)

The Red Cliff (2008) Also on BD.

Toy Story and Toy Story 2 Now on BD Ah, time to buy these again...and then we get TS3.

March 16, 2010

"You are secretly funny."

I managed to get out and see Avatar recently before it leaves first run. It will come as no surprise that I found the effects and 3D process to be pretty amazing. The combination of CG fantasy and human actors is nearly seamless and the movie looked fantastic on a large screen. The 3D system worked pretty well. There were times when things got a little fuzzy when I tried to focus on things in the background, but most of the time the effect worked, better than other 3D movies I've seen. I don't know that I'd want to watch everything this way, but it added a lot to this movie, no doubt. The story is completely uninspired and the dialogue is poor at times, but it's not so bad that it distracts you from all the eye candy. I'd say it's on par for Cameron and probably a notch above George Lucas' later movies in the writing department. I'm sure we'll discuss it on our next Trek podcast.

So, let's get into this week's new stuff:

Armored (2009) Also on BD.

Astro Boy (2009) Also on BD.

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (2009) Also on BD.

Broken Embraces (2009) Also on BD.

Did You Hear About the Morgans? (2009) Also on BD.

The Fourth Kind (2009) Also on BD.

Monk: Season 8

The Princess and the Frog (2009) Also on BD.

South Park: Season 13

The Twilight Saga: New Moon (2009) Also on BD.

March 9, 2010

TOS Rewind #39: "Obsession"

Up next: Obsession (12/15/1967)

Our usual group recorded a podcast for this episode. Download it here.

"Obsession" has two basic elements to it. One, a story surrounding our heroes battling a deadly alien creature. Two, a closer look into Kirk's personality/backstory and his relationships with the crew.

The monster story here has a fairly conventional arc, right through the climax on the planet where Kirk and Garrovick have their final showdown with the creature. The part in space where the creature turns and attacks the ship is a good twist in the story. The thing I find more interesting about this episode is the focus on Kirk's past and a demon that haunts him from it. This is one of the first times we're given much about Kirk's previous military career other than brief bits of information. The character focus in this episode reminds me a bit of the one in "Conscience of the King." There, like here, Kirk is driven almost single-mindedly to fix something from his past; even if it puts his command or other lives in jeopardy. It's compelling to see Kirk's character stripped of its usual veneer or confidence like this and I believe the inner turmoil on display here is done even better than in that previous episode.

One aspect of Trek that works so well for me is that way that the main characters interact under stress. Most of the time, the familiar characters work together, using their collective strengths to prevail. This time, Kirk spends much of the story working alone or even against his friends and crew to an extent. Kirk seems to forget the trust that Spock and McCoy have in him. This would normally be an inconsistency, but in this instance it reinforces personal nature of the situation. Kirk's feelings of guilt over his past inaction is so intense that he doesn't want his closest friends in on it. The one odd thing about this is the way Kirk seems to leave them clues to the situation. This doesn't always make a lot of sense, but it does make the story flow well with a nice buildup of tension. The way Spock and McCoy team up to figure out what the hell's going on with Kirk helps the story and provides some interesting character development and a few good scenes between them. I also enjoy the scenes with Garrovick who comes off as a genuine character beyond being a cipher for Kirk's self-pity. Garrovick is still new to the whole thing and not 100% sure of himself. Another interesting thing is the way that Spock learns about and tries to deal with Kirk and Garrovick's self-guilt. Spock almost plays ship counselor during a couple of scenes, talking about things such as "wallowing in a pool of emotion." Ha!

One thing that I'm not crazy about is the way that Kirk seems to "sense" what the creature is up to (reminds me of "Metamorphosis"). Of course we need to know some of this information, but it comes off as a somewhat contrived. I also wonder if the suspense would have been more effective if they had not shown the creature right off the bat. It's not a big deal of course.

The performances here are generally good. Some may find a bit too much Shatner for their liking but considering how Kirk is written in this episode, I don't think it's too far out of line. The rest of the cast is in good form and the guy who played Garrovick got the balance of the role right without overplaying the scenes with too much sullenness.

I liked this episode well growing up as it had lots of drama, dead red shirts, and even some action in space. I noticed that they recycled some of the music from "The Doomsday Machine." As Rob pointed out on the podcast, this is a drawback of watching the series in broadcast order. It becomes easier to catch things like this as you work your way through. The enhanced effects added a little bit this time around. The scenes in space where the creature is pictured look less like a white blob on the screen and they have a new shot of the Tycho planet after the bomb is detonated with an appropriately large hole on it.

Now let's see what Eric has to say:


I remember "Obsession" being a favorite episode (in the top 20) when I was younger, and upon rewatching, I was pleased to find that it held up. It has pretty much everything: action, drama, pathos, and some really interesting character interactions. But what I like best is that it is a Kirk episode. It fills in some of his back story, and it develops his character in a surprising way.

One thing I've noticed about 60s TV is that heroic, leading characters are rarely portrayed as genuinely flawed. If there are chinks their armor, they're the kind that are more admirable than detestable. Not so with Kirk in this episode. He's faced by a demon from his past, and in his struggles to deal with it, he acts irrationally, risks lives, and mistreats his crew, most notably Ensign Garrovick--the newly-assigned security officer whom Kirk harshly punishes for a completely normal, and forgiveable, reaction to an emergency. And what is particularly reprehensible is that Kirk is not motivated by fair-minded attention to his command duties; rather, it is a vicarious way for him to do penance for his perceived inadequacy in a similar situation when he was a young officer. The problem, of course, is that Garrovick has to bear the burden of Kirk's self-flagellation, which is not only undeserved and grossly unfair, it also creates, in Garrovick, the same demon that has plagued Kirk for eleven years.

Kirk's behavior is understandable, if not entirely excusable. We can sympathize with having something in your past that haunts you and affects your behavior and ability to function until, and unless, you deal with it. We expect our heroes to deal with such issues better, though, and that's why Obsession is such a good episode. It shows us that the noble James T. Kirk really is a human being just like us, complete with infuriating flaws. Of course, he does ultimately defeat his demon and manages to redeem himself in the process. Which is as it should be--he is, after all, a hero.

Next time: "Wolf in the Fold"

March 8, 2010

"I'm like my mother, I stereotype. It's faster."

So another Oscar Night has come and gone again. Unlike last year, I'd at least seen a few of the nominated movies. Of course since they expanded the number of nominees, that was probably inevitable, but I still couldn't find it in me to really care much about how it came out. Shrug. Maybe I'll feel motivated to write something more after I've seen the two biggies, Avatar and The Hurt Locker (that is, if Netflix will ever get enough copies for me to get one).

Here we go with another week of exciting(!) new releases!

The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day (2009) Also on BD.

The Brothers Warner

Capitalism: A Love Story (2009) DVD Savant has a good review of this one here. Also on BD.

Hachi: A Dog's Tale (2009) Also on BD.

Old Dogs (2009) Also on BD.

Planet 51 (2009) Also on BD.

Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (2009) Also on BD.

The Stoning of Soraya M. (2009) Also on BD.

Up in the Air (2009) Also on BD.

March 2, 2010

"I have no plans to eat anyone."

The ice ruts on the streets are finally melting and the daytime temps are creeping above freezing. I'm more than ready for Spring. We still haven't seen Avatar, but at least I know one other person who hasn't seen it! Maybe next week. We've recorded another Trek podcast and should have it and the reviews posted very soon. In the meantime, you'll just have to make do with the list of this week's new stuff.

2012 (2009) The year we make contact...WITH DESTRUCTION!!! Also on BD.

Alice (2009 TV Miniseries) Lots of "Alice" stuff being dumped on the video market with the release of the Tim Burton version upon us. Also on BD.

Alice in Wonderland (1933).

Alice in Wonderland (1966, BBC)

Alice in Wonderland (1999, TV).

Clash of the Titans (1981) And yes, another theatrical tie-in. Also on BD.

Doctor Who: Remembrance of the Daleks (1987)

Doctor Who Dalek War: Frontier in Space & Planet of the Daleks (Stories 67 and 68)

Gentlemen Broncos (2009) Also on BD.

Ninja (2009) Also on BD.

Ponyo (2008) Also on BD.

Where the Wild Things Are (2009). Also on BD.