Jade's Trick

Reviews, Spotlights, and Randomosity of all things under the sun.

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Location: Hartford, Connecticut, United States

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Sunday, January 30, 2005

“Nobody *ever* listens to me!” -- Dark City

I first saw this week’s movie during a Philosophy class I took during our unit of Free Will / The Soul. A few weeks later, I picked it up at Fry’s for $6. When a movie on this quality can be vended at $6 without a sale, I need to do a review on it.

Dark City is a science fiction masterpiece that easily rivals The Matrix in magnificence. The two share many similarities (including some sets that The Matrix reused), but at the core they are fundamentally different movies that are great for different reasons.

Dark City starts with a lame voice-over by Kiefer Sutherland’s character Dr. Daniel Schreber giving some plot exposition. Apparently, the studio thought that the movie was too hard for audiences to understand and forced the director to add this. Shmucks. Anyway, the basic premise is that this dying alien race called The Strangers has taken control of the city and is manipulating everything and everyone in it in a series of elaborate experiments designed to find exactly what makes humans unique. John Murdock, our protagonist, wakes up in a bathtub without any coherent memories. He looks around his motel room, gets dressed, finds some clues here and there, gets a call from Dr. Schreber telling him to get out, and quickly leaves the room (spotting a gruesome murder by the bed on his way out, by the way). He eventually finds out his name and starts following the breadcrumbs. To tell more would be to spoil it, so I won’t.

Visually, this movie is nonparallel. Shot in Film Noir style (and heavy on the dark tones), it has a look similar to, but less grainy than, Blade Runner. The special effects, which are relatively scant, work very well, very rarely seeming trite, lame, or overdone. The cinematography is also pretty good; the camera angles are interesting and clever. Likewise, the music was form-fitted to the razor-thin mood changes. There’s not a lot to fault the movie on here.

You’re either gonna love or hate the acting. The movie’s characters have been attacked as “flat, one-dimensional, emotionless, and cliché,” and this is true to a certain extent. However, as you learn more about the world of the movie, it starts to become apparent that this was a stylistic decision the director made based solidly on the plot. Just try to keep in mind that the actors are competent, the director does know what he’s doing, and the producers did give the movie sufficient time and money. Kiefer Sutherland in particular has a polarized following: he plays his doctor as slightly mad with badly halting speech barely above a whisper. I kinda liked it: odd, but not too odd; strange, but not so strange as to be utterly unlikely. You may disagree. To each his own.

But in the end, Dark City is science fiction, and science fiction, is an asker of questions in its heart of hearts. Good SF focuses on the characters over the SF elements, and the movie indeed does that, but the characters are merely a means to an end, case studies meant to help us get answers: What is it that makes each person unique? Are we merely the sum of our memories, or is there something else? In many ways, we the audience are meant to act like The Strangers, overseeing their experiments to “find the human soul.” Like all good science fiction, however, the movie never definitively answers these questions (oh sure, John Murdock does at the end with easily the most profoundly lame sentence in the entier movie, but the film itself leaves the answer unbubbled). It merely provides a new way of asking the questions, but leaves the ultimate answers to you.

Acting: 3.5/5 chalk spirals (Although I feel the acting fit the movie very well, none of it was in and of itself particularly notable).
Sound: 4/5 forehead syringes (This movie had very small variations in tone and emotion, and the sound captiured these minute changes very well).
Visuals: 4.5/5 Automat meals (Definatelly one of the better parts of the movie, the visuals have some serious kick).
Story: 4/5 postcards (I am thouroghly satisfied with the storyline. Events flow reasonably).
Philisophical Merit: 5/5 goldfish (As I said, I first watched this in a philosophy class. It completely belonged there).
SF Elements: 3/5 subway trains (Although there did what they were supposed to do and they were visually beautiful, I feel that the SF elements of this movie are more fantasy, or “soft,” than I would like them to be).

Overall (not necessarily determined by the above categories): 4.5/5 dashes of teenage rebellion (This movie ranks among my favorites, right alongside 12 Angry Men, K-PAX, The Matrix, and LotR).

Saturday, January 22, 2005

"Dad, the goat kicked your Geo's ass." -- Big Trouble

Here's a sleeper film that was tragically swept under the rug for events outside its control.

Big Trouble is a star-studded screwball comedy based off Dave Barry's book of the same name. Anyone familiar with Dave Barry knows that he's got a penchant for the absurdities and exaggerations, and this film has a dearth of both. Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld and showcasing the acting chops of Tim Allen, Rene Russo, Stanley Tucci, Johnny Knoxville, Janeane Garofalo, Jason Lee, and Andy Richter (with cameos from Barry Sonnenfeld, Martha Stewart, and Dave Barry himself), this sucker is rife with talent.

It starts by introducing the characters, using the voice of Tim Allen's character (Eliot Arnold) as the omniscient narrator, pausing the action from time to time to let the voiceover catch up. The movie splices in bits and pieces here that both get us up to speed and set the frantic pace of the movie. And boy is it ever frantic. It throws memorable character after memorable character at us until we almost drown in weirdos (not a bad thing, mind you). In short, the movie starts in Miami with Eliot Arnold working at his own two-bit advertising agency, Puggy (a homeless man who looks like Jesus with a Jones for Fritos and "Martha Stewart's Living") arriving via boat in search of good Cuban food, Henry Desalvo and Leonard Ferroni getting off a plane with the intent of assassinating Arthur Herk (a pompous perverted prick), and Snake Dupree and Eddie Leadbetter (a couple of ex-cons) just tryin' to get by. The number of characters increases exponentially as the movie progresses until it becomes prudent to start taking a tally. Like always, I don't want to spoil anything for you, so I'll just say a few more things about the plot: hunting rifles, goats, and cowboy boots with a "W" on them.

This movie is laughtastic. Literally everything and everyone is, in some way, just a little bit "off" and you never quite acclimate to this storm of satire, this flurry of funny. Fun is poked at everything from toad hallucinogens (and the effects therefrom) to Gator fans, from Russian arms dealers to private security officers. Although the movie shellacs everything in absurdity, many styles of humor can be found here: satire, parody, slapstick, witty dialogue, obscene wordplay, and others. It's a funny movie, capische?

But despite its great virtues, this movie bombed (no pun intended). Why? Simple. It was originally set to debut in December 2001, but it makes fun of airport security and culminates with a nuclear bomb danger. The producers felt that the humor would perhaps strike a raw cord after the September 11th tragedy, so they sat on Big Trouble for a year, publicized it little, and left it in theatres for a very short time.

Acting: 3/5 water pistols (It was ok, I guess).
Sound: 4/5 telephone cords (The music was form-fitted to the movie).
Visuals: 4/5 airplane doors (Well done all around. Creative camera angles, fun use of the "pause" button, and good special effects all have their cameos).
Humor: 5/5 Super Soakers (A splitter of sides).
Story: 5/5 heavy metal suitcases (For madcap speed and sheer ridiculousness, you'll find no better. I love it).
Special Features (DVD): 2/5 police cruisers (Sadly scant. We're given a commentary track, an 8 minute version of the movie, and two movie trailers).

Overall (not necessarily determined by the above categories): 4/5 Ugly Fish (Great fun).

Sunday, January 16, 2005

"The wind called; he leaped to meet it.” -- The Last Dragonlord

This week's feature is (gasp) a book that has, in my opinion, been lost between the cracks. This is still a positive review, but at least give me credit for varying the medium.

The Last Dragonlord is this wonderful marshmallow fantasy about weredragons and Platonian souls. Fun to read, too.

Our protagonists are Linden Rathan and Maurynna Kyrissaean, but your first question is probably "What the heck is a Dragonlord?" So here's the basic idea: a long time ago, wild magic caused a number of human and dragon souls to be split in half. Now I don't know about you, but I for one don't think being cut in half would be a whole lot of fun. Neither did these souls, so they put themselves back together, albeit backwards. Instead of one human and one dragon, you get two half-human / half-dragons. Dragonlords. Among other small things, Dragonlords are extremely strong, tough, and perceptive, enjoy riding sentient horses, live for a very long time, and (as an afterthought, of course) can transform into huge fire-breathing dragons.

Due to a number of blue-blooded deaths, the kingdom of Cassori is without adult royalty and the Dragonlords are called upon to judge which noble will take the crown until the young prince Rahn is old enough to rule. Our friend Linden is one of the three chosen to go. He has been the "Little One," the youngest of the Dragonlords, and the only one without a soultwin (remember how each Dragonlord is the result of a swap of half-souls? Well, each Dragonlord also longs to "join" with the Dragonlord made of the other halves) for many many years. Maurynna Kyrissaean is a sea captain who is friends with Linden"s oldest human friend (a bard names Otter) and is an avid Dragonlord fan. Anyway, an ancient organization called the Fraternity uses powerful blood magic in a nefarious attempt to gain control of a new Dragonlord and is foiled (which is clearly as surprising as Rosebud or Luke's parentage).

This is a fun book. It's no Hamlet or Lord of the Rings, but if you're looking for a bit of easy reading, this is the novel for you. The writing is brisk but vivid, engaging but highly accessible. Perhaps the best word to describe the book is "satisfying." A few words of warning: you'll find a very strong romance "subplot" entwined within the overall conflict, which has the potential to alienate some, but for the most part it is tasteful and well done (I usually just feel embarrassed when moments such as these come up in literature or film, but not here). Also, there are a number of sex scenes in the book but they are almost always "fade to black"s and to my recollection there is only one bit that is it all explicit (and it's rather PG-13). Finally, some of the concepts are more than a little cliché, but some slack can be cut (after all, fantasy stories almost have to be trite just to be called fantasy and this is Bertin's first novel).

Characters: 3.5/5 wine-colored birthmarks (The characters felt believable and fairly complex, but they are mostly stock and our allegiances with virtually all of them are too clear for them to be masterpieces).
Setting: 4/5 grandfather trees (A rollicking Mediterranean world full of life).
Magic System: 4/5 gratuitous explosions (Although the soultwin concept is a tad hackneyed and the blood magic nothing new, the synergy and continuity of the magic in the book is very enjoyable. You get the feeling that 'this is how the magic should be').
Satisfaction: 5/5 mile-wide smiles (I put down this book with a firm sense of contentment).
Story: 4/5 pints of stock solution (Most of this we've seen before, but for fantasy, it ducks and weaves all over the place and it doesn't really feel as cliché as it could).
Re-Readability: 5/5 Llysanyins (The fun of the book is in reading the book rather than surprises and unexpected twists. If anything, knowing what was ahead made the book that much more enjoyable because I was anticipating more).

Overall (not necessarily determined by the above categories): 4/5 standing stones (It's just a great way to spend some hours).

Saturday, January 08, 2005

"You've got some red on you." -- Shaun of the Dead

I was really planning on reviewing a book this week, but the movie I saw yesterday was just too good to pass by.

Shaun of the Dead is an absolutely glorious dark comedy about a Londoner named (shockingly) Shaun. Simply put, this is the funniest movie from 2004 that I've yet seen.

The film starts with some fairly mundane British humor as we are introduced into our protagonist, Shaun, a 29 year old working at an appliance store. Parallels are frequently made between normal loser Shaun and the classic zombie image (But, as they say in the film, "we aren't using the zed word"): he wakes up groaning, moaning, and walking jerkily, he shuffles obliviously to and from the store, and his life is highly repetitive (every one of his dates with girlfriend Liz ends at a pub called the Winchester). After he botches setting up a dinner reservation, Liz dumps him and he and Ed (his loser roommate who spends his days playing video games, drinking beer, and selling drugs) spend the night getting really drunk at the aforementioned pub.

This is approximately when the the zom- er... life-challenged humanoids (hereafter referred to as LCHs) start really showing themselves and the movie takes a turn for the supernatural. In a great scene, Shaun walks down to his local convincingly store completely oblivious to the gorey scenes around him. When he returns home, he and Ed discover a girl staggering around in their back yard; they assume she's drunk until she attacks them. They discover what she is and run back inside (but not before running into another LCH). A news show tells them how to take 'em out: "Remove the head or destroy the brain." They proceed to do that and comedy ensues.

To make a long story short, they get Shaun's parents, Liz, and Liz' friends and go to the Winchester, hoping to find a secure locale. A Deus ex Machina eventually resolves the situation (although to be fair, it had been well set up beforehand) and we are treated to a fantastic Epilogue.

As I said above, I thought this movie was uproariously funny, but it has its moments of genuine drama as well. A few disclaimers: the gore is really quite bad (in one psyche-scarring scene, a character is ripped and torn apart right in front of us), although as long as you realize that its all fake, much of it can be funny as well (in an absurdist sort of way); likewise, if you try to empathize with Shaun too much, the movie can be a real downer here and there. If you have a problem with naughty language, parts may offend you (particularly in the beginning). In short, the movie works best if you don't take it too seriously.

Acting: 4/5 body parts (The acting was flawless, but the film didn't require anything particularly difficult from the actors).
Sound: 3/5 undead snarls (The gore sounded appropriations squishy, the music fit when necessary. In short, good, but like acting, nothing special required).
Visuals: 4/5 prosthetic wounds (The LCHs were fabulous. For the most part, the gore was highly realistic. The shots were also pretty well done, especially when they were going over potential plans).
Humor: 5/5 pints of Guinness (I was in stitches).
Story: 3.5/5 projectile records (A simplistic story that was highly conductive to humor but not not really all that exceptional in and of itself).

Overall (not necessarily determined by the above categories): 4.5/5 Jaguars (See this movie unless you have a good reason not to).