The Road

Cormac McCarthy's 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction novel, The Road is barren, bleak, and haunting, but not necessarily a book I would recommend, and certainly not one I care to see translated to screen. It's a story of survival in some post-apocalyptic section of the eastern United States, between a father and his very young son who face starvation, sickness, and the scum of whats-left-of-society.

It's not a futuristic tale, but one where all the remnants of a recently (nuclear fallout appears to be the cause) hostile earth environment conspire in a real and cold manner. The majority of dialogue is between the father and son, and it's brief and repetitive to the point of irritation. I was surprised that the book was as short as it was, but thankful in the end.

Aside, there's a purveyance of guilt, perhaps with a bit of confusion I feel when I read a highly-praised novel and I come away with disappointment. McCarthy's work may be lauded by critics, but the material is a lacking follow-up to the film No Country For Old Men. Of course, I never read the book, but read repeatedly how it was very faithful to the book. Maybe the books really weren't up to snuff and the translation by the Coen brothers (and Javier Bardiem) made up for the source material. Or maybe each book is different in its own way. Regardless, The Road didn't do it for me, whatever 'it' is.

PS. Upon further review, the award Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, deals with "distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life". My interests in fiction generally do not fall in the everyday American life category. Wrapping the folksy tale in an apolocalyptic blanket clearly didn't help.

The Fantastic Mr. Fox

Wes Anderson movies are difficult to evaluate on first viewing, so it is with hearty 'meh' of assurance that The Fantastic Mr. Fox was something less than that, but certainly one day could be like the title. Anderson's adaptation of the beloved children's book (beloved in the sense that that is what I heard -- I never heard of the book until last month) is successful as a fun, quirky, sometimes funny tale of some wild animals struggling with their duties as domestic beings while still embracing their wild side.

The film itself is clever, perhaps too clever to take in one sitting. There was a direct line stealing / homage to an older film early on that caused me to drift off and think about what movie it was from. Minutes later when it finally dawned on me that the line was James Dean from "Rebel Without a Cause", I was wondering just what audience that line was in there for -- a film reference from an (relatively) obscure line from 55 years ago probably didn't get recognized by the target audience. I enjoyed it nonetheless, but only because I happened to remember the film line, which makes me wonder how many more subtle references are made in the movie. Wonder and irritate.

My gut feeling is that repeating viewings will make this film more enjoyable, perhaps on a fantastic level, but I don't know if I'm going to invest the time and effort to getting there.

PS. I had no idea Roald Dahl (author of Fantastic Mr. Fox) also wrote the screenplay to You Only Live Twice. This might explain how the giant volcano base came to be.



Decidedly different from the masterful sci-fi horror original, Aliens in its own right is a thrilling action/suspense sequel that launched the series -- really re-created the series in its own image -- and took no prisoners. Boasting a colorful and memorable cast, the film hits all the right emotional notes. Sigourney Weaver owns the character Ripley, but she has plenty of talent to work off. From Michael Biehn's reluctant corporal-turned-commander to Jenette Goldstein's tough-as-nails Vasquez, to Bill Paxton's quote-making-masterpiece as doomsayer Private Hudson, to Lance Henrikson's quiet but emotional performance as the android Bishop, you feel for the characters and their hopeless situation of escaping from hundreds of Aliens.

James Cameron's ultimate strength remains in weaving memorable characters to a well-paced plot and action. (Did I mention James Horner's score is awesome?) Once caveat is that length does not necessarily make a film better, so I'll have to disagree with him that his 1991 director's cut (157 minutes) is better than the original theatrical cut (135 minutes). I have to side with the studio that the twenty minutes of footage actually serve to draw out the lengthy beginning of the film -- you don't even see an Alien until well-over an hour in. While this works in Jaws, I didn't feel it worked to make a better film here. In the original, Ridley is rescued, you get her situation, get the urgency of the colony, and bam-- we are on our way. Forty-five minutes of tension is plenty before all-hell breaks loose, but either way, Aliens still stands up as one impressive piece of action-filmmaking.


Imagine a story featuring a world-class hacker whose foolish double-cross of his bosses led to them forcing him to undergo surgery that prevents him from jacking into the matrix. And now imagine that a slender female, who has surgically implanted mirrors for eyes and retractable razors for fingernails, and a former soldier whose personality has been replaced, recruits the hacker on behalf of a ruthless Artificial Intelligence who wants to be set free from its network. Pretty cool concept, kind of a The Matrix meets Terminator meets AI meets The Cell. Now imagine this story was written before any of these movies were made, 25 years ago.

To call Neuromancer a ground-breaking work is an understatement. I've read the work four times now, and there are things about William Gibson's novel that never get old.

Certainly, the further along we get in technology, the more interesting and astounding it is to read about these visionary concepts when the vast majority of people had little idea what a network was let alone RAM. Virtual reality was years away from being even a cult phrase, and hacking was a threat without a target -- who even had a computer at their desk at work in 1983? I still get a tingly thrill reading a story whose made-up-technology coined many of our current concepts and language and remains for the most part (the size of RAM needs updating, but EVERYONE who wrote about advanced computers in the 80's and 90's got the rate of growth wrong).

Of course, the concepts are fascinating, but without the story and Gibson's breathtaking description (opening line: "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel."), it would be as interesting as a Nostradamus portent. The first act of the story involves the hacker, Case, working with his hired-gun Molly, to break into a highly-guarded computer facility to retrieve the "flatline" of a former hacker. The "flatline" is a self-contained program that resembles the personality of the former hacker and will work with Case to break through the security that houses the AI. Using an implant, Case can 'jack-in' to Molly to receive all her inputs during her break-in, including feeling the actual pain of a gunshot wound and her playful nipple pinch. That caper proves simple compared to the ultimate goal, which they must recruit a sociopath who can project holograms and travel to an orbiting multi-layered mainframe to accomplish their mission.

Wildly creative and original, Neuromancer remains the holy grail of cyberpunk novels, and stands up today as strong as it did 25 years ago.


Clash of the Titans (1981)

With one minute of teaser trailer footage, the 2010 Clash of the Titans remake has firmly grabbed a hold of my youthful nostalgia and nearly made me frothing with desire to see this film in March. This is not because I thought that the original was lacking, but rather that 1981's Clash of the Titans holds up as great adventure tale whose film techniques could use a 21st-century treatment.

1981's Clash was a "big-budget" film using stop-motion animation, the premiere technology at the time for special-effects. While stop-motion animation is still in broad use today, it is relegated to animated films; CGI effects have all-but replaced the technology for realistic effects. Although it was obvious back in '81 that the Krakon was a big clay sculpture, it was enough for the time to get absorbed in the film. Today, watching the piece, it is a lot more noticeable as times have changed and we are used to digital characters that seamlessly integrate with real ones.

What sets Clash apart is the execution of a gang-buster story. Interweaving dozens of classic Greek mythological heroes, gods, and villains, the story still resonates with urgency and menace. One of the classic scenes involves Perseus' confrontation with Medusa, the Gorgon who cannot be looked upon without turning to stone. Perseus must use all his wits and skill to defeat an opponent who has acidic blood, a marksman's skill with arrows, and a face that literally could kill. It's obviously claymation at work, but the scene still to this day carries palpable menace and tension throughout.

The legacy, and challenge, of this remake is to take what was once great and make it great again for a new audience. It's probably the easiest upgrade I can think of; you've got the story, now all you've got to do is throw in some one-liners and adjust the action. And maybe lose the comic-relief gold owl.


The Men Who Stare At Goats

It's often in IT that you see a case where an idea is brilliant in concept, but in execution the flaws become obvious. This is the reason most IT projects or code go through pilot testing to shake out the flaws. If caught early enough, the flaws can be corrected, or the requirements changed to something more practical. But at some point, the cost of changing what you have outweighs the benefits of change, so you have to just do your best and hope the product works out.

In The Men Who Stare At Goats, the main character and narrator, Bob Wilton, is a reporter who travels to Iraq to find some worth in his life. There he meets a man who claims to be part of a secret army crew who are referred to as "Jedi". Throughout the film, Bob plays the neophyte follower who is trying to learn about their "Jedi" ways. As such, he often asks plenty of questions about the "Jedi" and acts confused when new concepts of the "Jedi" are discussed.

In a brilliantly clever, but ultimately undoing casting decision, Bob is played by Ewan McGregor. Anyone who has seen the recent Star Wars films can see the ironic humor of Obi-Wan Kenobi going around befuddled by these New Age "Jedis". If this had been a throw-away concept, a one-time joke, it would have served the film as a clever aside. But, with Ewan / Obi-wan glaring back at you as the narrator constantly confused by references to Jedi, I found it impossible to relax into the film. Instead, it became a meta-character. When the character is not so much enhanced as dependent on the actor being recognizable in another role, and that joke is hammered home repeatedly, the result is you have reminders that these are actors.

Yes, I realize that I was sitting in a theater, and I paid money to watch a film, and yes, these films have actors, and no, it's not real. My problem come in with suspension of disbelief -- the ability of the audience to accept the concept of the film in order to enjoy it. For instance, it's very difficult to enjoy Star Wars if every time you see the Millenium Falcon jump to hyperspace, you snort and deride that is ridiculous. An instance more similar to the casting problem is breaking the fourth wall, where one of the characters address the audience directly. This does not break suspension of disbelief BECAUSE the characters stay in character. It would never work for Woody Allen in Annie Hall to say "You heard that! I know because I wrote this script!" versus "You heard that!" Ewan McGregor as Bob doesn't break the fourth wall, it sneaks around it. It's funny as a Saturday Night Live skit, but not as film.

If the character of Bob is played by ANY other actor (except Liam Neeson or Mark Hamill -- the latter being the most distracting), then entire feel of the film changes. Instead, I have to wonder if the script was written precisely with Ewan in mind, if the producers where intending you to go, "that is ironic and funny that Ewan is asking about Jedi again" every time he's up there, or if there was a pilot process to any of this.

And then there's the ending. The very last scene changes the entire feel of the preceeding 110 minutes. I'm not going to spoil it for you, but I'll guess that you, like me, expected an entirely different result to Ewan's experiment. Where most of the film is grounded in psychic powers that may-or-may-not exist, but if they do they certainly aren't capable of some things, then the end is completely head-shaking.

Did I mention I liked the film? It's a solid 'B' experience, except for those two things. Casting and end. Come to think of it, that's grounds for an official "bungling in execution" label. Next time get Harrison Ford. Wait, maybe not...