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Monday, July 24, 2006

I kept waiting for somebody to slap her good

Last week I did something that, in all my thirty-some years of being a southerner, I'd never done before: watched the entire movie Gone With The Wind.

What did I think of it? I thought it was one of the best period pieces I've ever seen. But it got to the point where I was just waiting for somebody, anybody, to slap the heck out of Scarlett O'Hara. She was way too hung up on Ashley Wilkes for her own good and it cost her everything: in the end she's this poor delusioned woman clinging to vague hope that it'll all be somehow better. In a way I can kind of empathize with her though: she didn't want to be alone in this world... but to resolve that she tried to have something that wasn't meant to be hers at all.

Anyway, it's a pretty good movie, even if it's soooooo long. I don't know if I'd ever watch it again but at least now I've cinematically lived up to my southern heritage.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Weird Al's coming STRAIGHT OUTTA LYNWOOD on September 26

After a week of tantalizing teasers, yesterday "Weird Al" Yankovic revealed the title and full cover artwork for his newest album. Straight Outta Lynwood arrives in stores on September 26th. Here's what it'll look like:
Maybe it's just me, but this title and cover seems to be a lot more "serious" than the typical Al album. Guess I was expecting something along the lines of the covers for Bad Hair Day or Running With Scissors. But whatever it is he's got on this new album, you can be sure that I will be buying it on September 26th!

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Four years ago today...

...I became the happiest man on the face of the earth.

Happy Anniversary, my dear Lisa :-)

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

"Game over man, game over!"

A little bit of cinema history: it was twenty years ago today - July 18th, 1986 - that the movie Aliens debuted.

Monday, July 17, 2006


Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest is one of those movies that just gets better and better the more I think about it, now four days after Lisa and I watched it at a theater in Newport News, Virginia. It was a really neat movie experience to wrap up what was a terrific - if completely unplanned - vacation. Now with some time behind me that was spent on "digesting it all in, I feel like commenting on it.

Let me go ahead and state something that everyone else seems to be saying: this movie is a lot like The Empire Strikes Back (Philip Arthur makes note of many similarities in his review of Dead Man's Chest). But it's like a lot of other movies too. I thought the ending seemed very much like The Matrix Reloaded and maybe I'm the only one seeing this but the East India Trading Company as its depicted in Dead Man's Chest seems an awful lot like Weyland-Yutani - otherwise just known as "the Company" - from the Alien movies. But there's nothing wrong with any of that. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest is a smart amalgam of plenty of classic elements and story devices... and as the first half of a two-part story, it's just about perfect.

When we last saw young Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann (Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley, respectively) had just helped pull off an escape for Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp). Dead Man's Chest opens with the repercussions of their aiding and abetting the scoundrel, as they are arrested - on their wedding day no less - on orders from Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander), who represents the East India Trading Company (and who it's strongly implied had a run-in of some kind with Captain Sparrow years earlier). Beckett is willing to cut a deal with Will: steal Sparrow's seemingly-broken compass and he'll let them go free... but fail to get the compass and Elizabeth will "dance the Tyburn jig" from the hangman's gallows.

It's around this time that Captain Jack Sparrow - the hub around which everything else revolves around in this movie in one way or another - is brought into the picture. Remember how Sparrow makes his first appearance in The Curse of the Black Pearl? Well, his first moments of screentime in Dead Man's Chest are just as memorable and perfectly true to his outrageous character. Onboard the Black Pearl Sparrow has a spectral visitor: Bootstrap Bill Turner (Stellan SkarsgÄrd) has come to tell Sparrow that it's almost time to make good on a debt he owess to none other than Davy Jones. So it is that the events are set up: Will Turner is going after Sparrow, while Sparrow is desperately trying to escape his fate, and it's not long afterward that Elizabeth is going after both of them. And above it all lurks the tragic story of the devil-of-the-sea himself, Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) and the mysterious chest that is about to become sought by all.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest is foremost a movie intended to give fans of the first film what they've wanted most: more Captain Jack Sparrow! From beginning to end, everything that happens in this movie does so as a ripple from the presence of Sparrow landing in the pool. Johnny Depp is obviously having fun with this character. This may be the portrayal that he'll forever be known for, as much as Sylvester Stallone is known as Rocky or Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker. I'm of the mind that Captain Jack Sparrow is one of the few wholeheartedly original characters that movies have given us in the past several years. If you enjoyed him in The Curse of the Black Pearl you'll love him even more here and if you've already seen Dead Man's Chest, it's only another ten months before we arrive at World's End and get more.

Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley are fine in this movie, as are the others that have returned from the first movie (including Pintel and one-eyed Ragetti, who is trying to study-up on the Bible since he's now mortal). We are also introduced to several new characters, including the Voodoo priestess Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris).

But the real standout of this movie, apart from Depp's Captain Jack, is Davy Jones and everything associated with him: his ship, his crew of the damned, and the man/thing himself. Jones is a completely computer-generated character and for the first time in five years, at least since before WETA ran away with the artform with Gollum and the rest of their stuff in The Lord of the Rings, Industrial Light and Magic are back on the ball with digital animation. My biggest complaint with ILM's CGI work has been that their stuff has looked too "shiny and new". In Dead Man's Chest they've finally learned to get away from that look. Davy Jones looks frickin' real, in a way that ILM has never done anything before. WETA's Gollum set the benchmark for what's to be expected from CGI and now ILM has more than surpassed that goal. As for the Kraken... well, the least said about it to the uninitiated, the better.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest is pure fun with a bag of popcorn and hopefully someone to share the experience with. It's not a completely perfect movie (there seems to be too long a lull in the action in the second half, but remember this is just part one of a two-part story) but it's a great summer flick that from the start of the closing credits will have you hungering for the next installment. Highly recommendable.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Pictures from our Hampton/Virginia Beach/Norfolk/Newport News excursion

Lisa took a lot more pictures with her film camera that I'll probably be adding on to these eventually, but here's a look at some of the stuff we did this past week after arriving in Hampton, Virginia:

U.S. Navy aircraft carriers docked at Norfolk

Another Navy ship berthed in Norfolk (we caught this pic on our way back home.)

Tuesday I got to do something that I've been wanting to do for years: drive the length of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. We paid $12 at the southern entrance in Virginia Beach and entered the 19-mile long (17 miles of it over and under the water) causeway:
On the bridge-tunnel's south artifial island we stopped at the gift shop and I got to take a very special picture of Lisa: I've been on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel twice before, in 1984 and 1992, and both times I had my picture taken at the northern-most point you can get on the island. Well, a few days ago I took this photo of Lisa at the exact same spot:
Here's the reason why the Chesapeake Bay Bridge has two tunnels: so that boat traffic (like Navy ships such as this one out of Norfolk) can glide across the bay and into the open waters of the Atlantic unimpeded:
Driving through the first Chesapeake tunnel:
We drove a few miles on Virginia's eastern shore and then turned back around for the return trip to the mainland (since we were returning within a 24 hour period from our initial crossing it only cost us $5 for the return drive).

Here's Lisa later that night, on the "boardwalk" of a beach in Hampton:

The next day we visited Yorktown, where British forces under General Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington, thus ending major fighting in the Revolutionary War. Here I am standing with the victory monument in the background:

And also at Yorktown, here is the "Poor Potter's" kiln and earthworks... which actually turns out to have been the first major pottery operation of its kind in colonial America (linked image is larger so you can see the detail of the archeological work done at the site):

The next day (Thursday) we visited the Virginia Air and Space Museum (which also has an IMAX screen showing Superman Returns in 3D, but we didn't watch that again). Here's me standing in front of the command module from the Apollo 12 lunar mission:

After we finished there we returned to our hotel for awhile, then went to the mall nearby where I bought the latest Mad Magazine, and then came back and rested a bit before heading out to eat dinner and seeing Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest at a theater in Newport News.

And, that's basically our trip in a nutshell. We had such a great time that we're planning on going back in the fall when its cooler, and then take in such sites as Colonial Williamsburg and the Jamestown settlement.

Look for pics from Lisa either here or on her own blog soon :-)

Friday, July 14, 2006

Return from the land of a thousand 7-Elevens

Lisa and I pulled back into home about 2:30 this afternoon, four days after taking off with no idea whatsoever where we were headed. All we knew was that we were going to head out of town and we didn't care where that put us. And I think the original plan was to try and make it at least as far as New Jersey and maybe take a quick jaunt into New York City. But in the end, Monday evening saw us marginally lost in Virginia Beach, headed up I-64 to Hampton, where we stayed until leaving this morning. And given our lack of planning, we had a heck of a trip! Tuesday I got to do something that I've wanted to do for years: drive across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, all 17+ miles of it over and under water then turned around and made the return trip (cost seventeen bucks to do it but I thought it was worth it). Lisa and I got to play in the surf at Hampton and Virginia Beach (finally using the boogie board we bought at the Outer Banks three years ago) and on Wednesday visited the site of the Battle of Yorktown, then took Colonial Parkway past Colonial Williamsburg and the site of the Jamestown settlement (will have pics of those up soon hopefully). Then yesterday made a visit to the Virginia Air and Space Museum and caught Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest at a theater in Newport News.

Yeah, darned good trip! But what I can't figure out for the life of me is why are there so many 7-Elevens in the Virginia Beach/Norfolk/Hampton area? I swear, there were three located within about two blocks of each other at one spot in Virginia Beach. We didn't visit any but they were plenty ubiquitous enough.

Anyhoo, that's where we were for the past several days. We may visit the area again sometime this fall.

Saturday, July 08, 2006


At the behest of Darth Larry (who wrote a report last week after seeing it) and because we felt like a short trip was in order, Lisa and I ordered tickets this past Monday night for Superman Returns in IMAX 3D at the only IMAX screen (of two) in North Carolina that was showing it. The showtime was at 7:45 and when I told my friend Chad about it he ordered him up a ticket too. So we hooked up at his pad, went to dinner at a Mexican restaurant not far from the Exploris Museum (where Raleigh's IMAX is located) and then went on to the Exploris. We picked up our tickets and, per Darth Larry's recommendation got in line about an hour before the show, which was a good thing 'cuz the lineup was fast lengthening.

So we show them the tickets, they gave us these funky 3D glasses with some kind of polarized lenses (not the blue/red 3D that were big in the Fifties) and we got some good seats for the show. After a short intro about what IMAX is (the screen at Exploris is about five stories tall, with 44 speakers pumping out 12,000 watts of sound) and how to use the glasses (put them on when the green glasses flash at the bottom of the screen, take them off when the flashing glasses are red) and then some trailers - all in 3D - for movies like The Ant Bully and Happy Feet (why couldn't there have been a 3D trailer for Spider-Man 3?) the show started.

And it was terrific! This was the second feature film that I'd seen in IMAX (the first was The Matrix Reloaded three years ago) and it was nothing short of spectacular. Not every movie can have the honor of being IMAXed, but the epic scale of Superman Returns absolutely demands it. I've written my review of the movie after watching it a week ago so I won't go much into the movie itself, but seeing the movie THAT big no doubt maxed-out the irises of everyone looking at the screen.

Yes, Superman Returns in IMAX 3D was a beautiful thing to behold... but only 20 minutes of the movie is in 3D! Those include Clark's remembering when he first learned he could fly, the rescue of the space shuttle and the 777 jetliner, some of when Lex is "growing" his new continent (STILL the dumbest criminal plot in a movie ever) and the final scenes showing Superman flying toward the sunrise (like how Christopher Reeve did it in his movies). There were PLENTY of other scenes that could have been 3D-ized, like Superman and Lois's first reunion, the part where Luthor enters the Fortress of Solitude, even Superman's return to Earth... THAT would have been spectacular! But I guess it must have been too expensive to convert the entire film over to 3D... and IMAX 3D at that. Still, Lisa and I both had the same sentiment: that we wished there had been more of it in the movie.

But anyway, all around it was a fine evening. Am glad we were able to catch it and fairly close by to where we live, too. Well worth the higher cost over that of a regular movie ticket to see at least once.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

In 1996 we celebrated our INDEPENDENCE DAY

Today marks a pretty funny anniversary for me. You see, it was ten years ago yesterday – July 3rd, 1996 – that Independence Day premiered. Some theaters jumped the gun and had showings on the night of the 2nd, which is the date in the movie that all the action starts happening, but most people started seeing it on the 3rd and 4th. It was on July 4th that I saw it for the first time...

...and I liked it so much that I saw it six more times before the summer was out! Yeah, 1996 will forever be "the year that I saw Independence Day seven times in the theater" to me. The only other movies I saw that season were Twister (caught it three times) and A Time To Kill (just once). I've no idea why such madness overtook me in those lazy, hazy, crazy days ten years ago. It was a personal record that stood until I saw Star Wars Episode I nine times three years later. But it was still enough to merit making a post about it here in commemoration.

Ten years ago in 1996 my ebullient comrade "Weird" Ed was taking summer classes at Elon, and I was working a summer job at a bindery near Greensboro. We'd been given the 4th and 5th off – a Thursday and Friday – so I was gonna get a four-day weekend. Well, after work let out about 4 p.m. on the 3rd I drove to the Elon campus, picked up Ed and we made a quick stop at my Burlington apartment (I was living with my parents during the week that summer but staying at the apartment on weekends) where I got cleaned up and changed shirts. We then drove to my parents' house, dropped off Ed's gear there (and he became one of the very few people that our cocker spaniel Bridget never barked at... which shows how neat a guy Ed is 'cuz Bridget barked at just about EVERY stranger who came into the house) and then headed to King's Inn Pizza in Eden 'cuz I'd been telling Ed they have some of the best pizza anywhere. We stopped off at Wal-Mart (the original Eden one) on the way home and ogled some Star Wars figures and fireworks before heading back to the house and playing around on the Internet for the next three hours. See, Ed was spending the night at our place so we could be sure to get an early start on catching Independence Day before the theaters all got sold out the next day. Well, the next morning we woke up and got ready and headed out the door a little after 11 and went to the Janus Theater (which is no longer there) in Greensboro. We got tickets for a showing a little after 1 p.m. And we wound up getting pretty good seats too. And then the show started...

I think it's safe to say that we were "blown away" by Independence Day (often contracted to just ID4). We'd been stoked for this movie ever since the commercial that ran during Super Bowl XXX and all the trailers and television spots that had aired since. Well, Independence Day did not disappoint. It was everything a summer movie was supposed to be: a lot of cornball hokey fun blowing up stuff real good with a multi-million dollar special effects budget.

Don't fire your guns at flying saucers: you could trigger an interstellar war.

Well, we liked it so much that we decided to see it again a few days later on Sunday. Then I saw it again a week later with a friend from out-of-country. And I kept seeing it again and again and again. Here's how the final tally broke down:

Thursday, July 4th 1996 – 1st time, saw it with Ed at Janus Theater in Greensboro

Sunday, July 7th 1996 – 2nd time, saw it with Ed at Brassfield Theater in Greensboro

Sunday, July 14th 1996 – 3rd time, saw it with Benny – my good friend from Belgium – at the movie theater in Sylva, North Carolina

Saturday, July 20th 1996 – 4th time, saw it with Johnny Yow (who's been on me awhile now for not mentioning him on this blog so now I get to make that right with him) at Brassfield Theater in Greensboro, right after he told me that night that he'd proposed to his girlfriend/now-wife Della

Saturday, July 27th 1996 – 5th time, the only time that I went alone to see Independence Day in the theater, at the theater that used to be in Burlington, North Carolina before it was demolished to make way for a Lowe's hardware store

Saturday, August 10th 1996 – 6th time, saw it with Ed at the Brassfield (again)

Wednesday, August 21st 2006 – 7th and last time I saw Independence Day in the theater, with Ed and Gary, once again at the Janus

Well, my now-apparent obsession about Independence Day soon manifested itself for all the world to see. A few nights after seeing it for the second time I started work on an Independence Day webpage. HTML was something I'd started picking up about nine months earlier and I was eager to stretch my newfound skills to the limit. It began with a single crude black page with a graphic I made in Paint Shop Pro (this was all being done on a 486/25mhz machine running Windows 3.1 and using a 14.4 modem to upload to my web account on my college's server, mind ya). And it fast spiralled completely out of my control. I spent the next few nights after coming home from work scouring the Internet for new Independence Day graphics, sounds, anything I could cram onto my 170 MB hard drive. The page became two, then three and ultimately eight different pages on what was by that point a full-bore website. And thus, Chris Knight's Unofficial ID4 Homepage came into being. And my Independence Day homepage almost brought down Elon's web server because (a) in short order it became the biggest website hosted on Elon's server - larger than the school's official site even - growing to an unconscionable over sixty megabytes in size: most of those were all the sound files (in bulky WAV format, remember this was before the advent of MP3). And (b) it started racking up hits out the wazoo. It had received something well over 120,000 visits by the time I was forced to take it down about a year later.

They blew up Congress!

But even today, I'm still proud of my humble lil' ID4 homepage. It was the first thing I ever did online that garnered a lot of popularity, apparently. My site was linked to by just about all the other big fan-made sites (and I was more than glad to link to them in kind) and a lot of really sweet e-mails came in from all over the world. A few weeks after the site first went online I got the ultimate nod courtesy of an e-mail from none other than Independence Day producer Dean Devlin himself, congratulating me on having a great website about his movie (I've still got that e-mail somewhere too). And that was my first real contact with someone from the entertainment world that came about because of something I did in cyberspace. There've been many since then, but that e-mail from Devlin about the ID4 site I'd put up... well, there's not been anything quite like that since.

"And what the hell is that smell?!? AAAAAAAAAAGHHHHHHH... I could have been at a BARBECUE!!"

Today, looking back, I've no idea how come I went so mad for Independence Day that summer. Maybe it had something to do with how starved I was for good sci-fi escapism. Maybe it was because this was the first movie in a long time for me that honestly felt like a summer blockbuster: the last summer film of this kind of scale that I'd seen, Jurassic Park, really left me feeling wanting. Independence Day satiated my desire for a fun summer flick like nothing had in too long a while. Or maybe it was that for the first time in my life, I really let myself go to be overwhelmed by the hype of a blockbuster movie. That was the first time, and there haven't been many times since (I'm pretty pragmatic when it comes to accepting entertainment... or anything else for that matter) that I've found myself caught up in the hooplah (for the record, I still don't "get" all the fuss about Snakes On A Plane). Independence Day was mindless good fun and just for once it felt great to join in the revelry without caring about whether or not this movie made any sense at all.

"You don't actually think they spend twenty thousand dollars on a hammer, thirty thousand dollars on a toilet seat, do you?"

Yes, let's talk about making sense, 'cuz Independence Day just plum doesn't. The mistakes abound in this film (the very first time I saw it, I caught the error in the first scene of how the Apollo 11 plaque is planted amid some rocks when it was actually attached to the base of the lunar module). There are geographical gaffes all over (like putting the Empire State Building in the wrong part of New York City). The producers played fast and loose with real military protocol (a U.S. ballistic submarine doesn't usually operate in the Persian Gulf). There are fallacies upon fallacies in Independence Day... and at the top of the heap is how it is that an Apple Powerbook is somehow able to interface with alien technology and upload a computer virus into the mothership. Look, we're only now able to get Windows machines to talk to Macs with any sense of coherence... and they expect us to believe that a laptop computer is going to feed bogus data into the mainframe of an alien spaceship the size of a small moon?

"Die. Diiiiiieeeeeee..."

"Is that glass bullet-proof?!"

And, let's face it: the past ten years have made Independence Day a somewhat dated movie. The World Trade Center was destroyed, but it wasn't by the aliens. There is no more Republican Guard to be so desperately driven as to hook up with Israeli fighter pilots somewhere in the Iraqi desert. When production began on Independence Day the Internet was just then coming into its own: it would certainly figure into the scheme of things if a real-life alien invasion took place today. There're probably a dozen or more things in this movie that firmly establish it as a product of the mid-Nineties, instead of enhancing its quality as a timeless classic...

President Whitmore delivers The Speech.

...but even then, that is part of the appeal of Independence Day, I think. This is a movie that, at its heart, is about an America - and a world - that never was, but could have been... and might still be someday. At the time it came out I wrote somewhere that Independence Day was the most politically-incorrect big-budget movie to come out in quite some time. When I wrote that I did so with what was then a very limited perspective of ideologies. In my mind back then, Independence Day was a movie that reflected a damned good light on the United States military (something taboo to "liberals", I understood then) but even back then I realized something about this film: that Independence Day is a movie where average people come together to do the impossible. And they're not divided up along racial or class lines either. Fercryingoutloud, that's Steve and David who fly up together into that mothership to save the world... and not once does anyone bring up that they happen to be a black man and a Jew. In too many other movies that would be something that would be harped upon somehow... but it never comes up in Independence Day.

Why can't real life be like that? Why can't we just STOP MEASURING EACH OTHER BY WHATEVER THE HELL IS CONVENIENT and just accept EACH OTHER as being someone special... without trying to exploit the hell out of them? You see, that is what's so wrong with the world - and especially America - these days. We've stopped seeing individuals and started seeing "potential assets". In Independence Day, everyone in the story had humongous value: as a character in the story and as a person worth considering. In this story of survival, we all really were in it together. And there was no "class structure" or elitism in place that kept some from pulling their fair share of the load.

Think about it: if the story of Independence Day was to really happen, today, does anyone seriously think that President George W. Bush would jump into a flightsuit, walk toward an F-16 and tell someone that "I'm a combat pilot... I belong in the air"? Hell, Bush would never have let himself mingle that close with common folks who were living in a flotilla of mobile homes. If a real alien invasion was to happen, he would send some other poor saps up to do the fighting while swaggering his arms and telling the aliens to "Bring it on."

Good lord, if only we could have a real President like Thomas J. Whitmore in the White House: someone who actually did care enough about his fellow Americans to fight alongside with them, without hiding from them. Whitmore in Independence Day is the ultimate ideal President of the United States, in my book anyway. And that's also part of why I love this movie so much: like Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, it shows us, maybe not what we have realistically, but it does show us what we can and should be looking for in those who ask to be entrusted with so much power. Whitmore, I could trust with being President if he were a real person... not so much with just about any stripe of politician in Washington today (with the exceptions of maybe Tom Tancredo and Ron Paul).

The Jolly Roger

Could we still have an America like that today? I like to think so... and I like to also think that it won't take anything like an alien invasion to make it happen either. And I think that Independence Day touched a lot on what it will mean to make that come about. F'rinstance, consider Jasmine, played by Vivaca A. Fox...

Jasmine at the wheel

Jasmine is like that guy in New Orleans who stole the schoolbus after Katrina hit and brought dozens of refugees to Houston, out of harm's way. Nobody told Jabbar Gibson to do that and no one told Jasmine to commandeer that city truck and look for survivors of the aliens' attack on Los Angeles either... she just did it! You see, that is why America has failed so much and it was apparent even in the wake of 9/11: we let our government decide the course of action we take, instead of just damn doing it ourselves with the minds God gave us. If Independence Day happened in real-life America, in this era of neo-conservative dominated politics, absolutely nothing of substance would be done to alleviate the suffering of those hit by the attacks... at least not without "compassionate government" trying to "help". The ironic thing is, Independence Day came out at the height of the Clinton presidency... which was accused of trying to do to America what the current administration has attempted to do from day one!

The short of it is: get the hell out of our way, United States Government. Real men and women know exactly what to do when the need arises, thank you very much.


Well, what else can I say about Independence Day that hasn't already been said? Yeah, it's a movie with all the depth of the typical Irwin Allen disaster flick... with a vastly magnified budget. It's hokey good fun. And maybe I've over-analyzed it over the years but I think despite its flaws and even some frustrations with the plot and dialogue, and for however past-ripe the story is in contrast to our current times, I believe that Independence Day is a movie with a lot of solid merit to it.

I've probably said enough, but there's one thing about Independence Day that I just have to let loose one final rant about. There's something that's been bugging me ever since I first saw this movie, ten years ago to the day. It's this scene:

Here's Judd Hirsch's character Julius talking to David's ex-wife about love and all that. Look at that woman sitting to his right. She shows up quite a bit in this movie. I don't know what her name is or who plays her, but look at what she's doing...

SHE'S READING A FRICKIN' MAGAZINE!!! I just can't believe this: here's this presidential aide sitting on Air Force One, having just escaped the biggest calamity in recorded history... and she's sitting there reading, it could be Southern Living or Redbook for all we know. WHY THE %@&* IS SHE READING at a time like this?!? Why is she so calm?! I've never understood this and it's bugged me to no end.

Okay, just couldn't write a piece about Independence Day and not mention that one pet peeve I have with this movie :-)

So, to Dean Devlin, Roland Emmerich and everyone who worked on Independence Day all those years ago: Happy Tenth Anniversary! You gave us a really good time back in the summer of '96, and it's meant quite a bit to a lot of us in the years since. Thanks for giving us a movie that was not only a lot of fun, but pointed us to what is best about the real America... and real human nature for that matter.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Ain't It Cool News is ten years old!

Ten years ago today, an Austin, Texas cinephile named Harry Knowles officially launched Ain't It Cool News. Say what you will of that site be you fan or detractor, it has more than made its mark on popular culture in the past deci-century. From the very beginning - heck I was there when Harry posted those pics from the Star Wars Special Editions on a plain blank page in March of '96 - this has been one of my very most visited websites. Spend some time on AICN and you not only learn a lot about the movies, but you learn how they are really made, with all the plots and intricacies that go on behind the scenes. In some ways Knowles and his gang have been the best film school you could possibly find for the price they're offering. Anyways, happy birthday Ain't It Cool News, and many happy returns!!

Saturday, July 01, 2006

SUPERMAN RETURNS to a world that's needed him for way too long

Superman Returns is a full-water baptism that finally and thoroughly washes away the reek and stench of the last two Superman movies while bringing the hero back to a pure, clean starting point.

Now, for the elucidation...

Finally caught Superman Returns today, in the good company of my wife Lisa, my friend Chad and his brother Brad. We saw it at the West End Cinema in Burlington: right next to where I went to college at, and the place where I once camped overnight for tickets to Star Wars Episode I. I'd seen everything from the Star Wars Special Editions to Titanic at the West End, and the last time we were there was to see the first Pirates of the Caribbean three years ago, so it was a neat thing to be back on old turf again for what I can only describe as the best movie I've seen so far this summer.

Let me reiterate that: Superman Returns is the best movie I've seen out of the 2006 summer season. And that comes despite some things about this film that I have problems with. But the good definitely surpasses what bad (or nonsensical) there is in the movie. It's definitely a flick I want to catch at least once more this summer.

The first thing that I believe needs to be addressed in this review is that the first two original Superman movies are not required viewing before watching Superman Returns, even though the 2006 film is constantly referencing those two in ways both blatant and subtle. And we were finding all kinds of those in Superman Returns, like the location that's on the nameplate of the meteorite, or that it's Ben Hubbard (mentioned but not shown in Superman: The Movie) who's leaving Martha's house at the beginning of the movie. You can watch Superman Returns without ever seeing Richard Donner's 1978 classic and still have a fresh sense of continuity, but if you've seen the first two movies (thankfully the last two are not touched on at all and in fact made thoroughly kaput by Returns) you'll have something of a "vague back-story" from which to draw upon.

(By the way, from this point on there are story spoilers, so skip reading this until after watching Superman Returns if you haven't done so already. Just trying to keep the surprises for y'all :-)

At the beginning of Superman Returns we are given a brief capsule of what’s already transpired: Superman being the last survivor of the planet Krypton, how he came to Earth and all that. Well, it turns out that astronomers believed they had located the place where Krypton once lay in the heavens, so five years ago Superman left Earth to investigate the remains of his birthworld. Meanwhile, life went on in a world without a Superman...

In the first true scene of the movie we see Lex Luthor (played by Kevin Spacey) swindling a dying woman out of her fortune (look for Noel Neill, the original Lois Lane from the 1950s TV series, in the role of Gertrude Vanderworth. Jack Larson – the TV series's Jimmy Olsen – also shows up later as Bo the bartender). Seems that Luthor was serving a double life sentence for whatever crime it was he committed earlier (you can make up your own mind whether or not this was the "Coasta Del Lex" scheme from Superman: The Movie or decide it was something else we just aren't told about) but when Supes flew the coop there was no star witness to testify so Luthor got paroled after five years in the slammer. Meanwhile, something is streaking out of the sky and lands in the cornfield on the Kent homestead in Kansas. Martha (Eva Marie Saint) comes running out of the house only to have her adopted son Clark – alias Kal-El, the Last Son of Krypton and most especially Superman – collapse into her arms after falling out of his spaceship. It's not long afterward that the story is propelled toward other locales in the Superman mythos: the Fortress of Solitude in the Arctic, Metropolis, and especially the offices of the Daily Planet where Perry White (Frank Langella) is still in charge and Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has earned a Pulitzer for an editorial titled "Why The World Doesn't Need Superman". Lois is eating those words a short while later after being rescued from certain death by the Man in Blue in a scene that is going to surely look hella cool if you're seeing it on a 3-D IMAX screen... yes ladies and gentlemen, Superman is back!

Bryan Singer gave up directing the third X-Men movie to do Superman Returns, and his presence behind the camera stands out sharply in contrast to what happened with X-Men: The Last Stand. I didn't want him to leave that series, but now after seeing what he did with Superman Returns, I can't fault him at all. There is now a three-way tie for what I think is the best comic book movie thus far: Spider-Man, Batman Begins, and now Superman Returns. This is as perfect a superhero movie as you're likely to find. EVERYTHING about it just works so darned well. Including the casting. Which yeah, part of me is thinking that an older actress might have been appropriate for Lois Lane, but Kate Bosworth brings exactly what's needed to the role, including the anger of being seemingly jilted and the angst that comes with being a single mother (to son Jason, played by Tristan Lake Leabu).

But the two standouts that made this movie work so well for me were Brandon Routh as Superman and Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor. Now, there will not now, or ever be, replacing Christopher Reeve as the one who made us believe that a man can fly. But Routh definitely makes us believe that a man can fly again. He brings to Superman a... how can I say this? Okay, Routh makes Superman his own in the way that Reeve made the character his own in 1978: more than being the product of special effects, Superman is a model of virtue and humility. Anyone can be made to look like they're flying, if you have enough money and the right equipment. But to pull off Superman means tapping into something that can't be purchased with even the biggest of blockbuster budgets. It means finding what can be the best of human nature in all of us and projecting that as pure persona. Yes, Superman Returns... to a world that needs the kind of hero he represents, and now more than ever. As much as Christopher Reeve made us believe a man can fly, Routh reminds us that a man can be good... and still matter in this world.

And as for Kevin Spacey... well, what else can I say? He is the big screen's most pure incarnation of Lex Luthor ever. Even in the moments when he's ever-so-slightly campy or hatching a plot that makes no sense whatsoever (see below). Casting Spacey as Luthor was frickin' GENIUS!!

The special effects are incredible (Marlon Brando's "return" to the silver screen is especially haunting). The camera work is beautiful. The acting and directing: stupendous. Yup, this movie has just about everything going for it. Almost...

How the heck does Clark Kent get his old job back? Unless he was one helluva good writer (and who knows maybe he is) you can't just leave a reporting gig at a newspaper on par with The New York Times and expect to come back after five years as if nothing's happened. Sorry, I don't buy that bit about how some other reporter died and there was suddenly a convenient opening for Clark to take. At the very least there should have been a scene where Perry White gives Clark a good chewing-out before screaming "Well what the hell are you doing just standing there, there's a city to cover out there!"

But that's nothing compared to what must be the DUMBEST criminal plot in the history of comic-book movies: using several crystals he's stolen from the Fortress of Solitude, Lex Luthor is going to grow an entire new continent. Seems that in the movies at least, Luthor can't stop it with the land-swindling schemes. With the crystals, Luthor is going to make them generate a Kryptonite-laced landscape off the coast of Metropolis that will eventually engulf the entire eastern half of the United States.

Now, there's several problems with this plan. For openers, Luthor-Land is plum-assed UGLY. Who in their right mind is going to want to live in a place that looks like industrial waste?! Second, Luthor doesn't care that "Billions!" of people are going to die before his plan reaches full fruition... so who the heck is going to populate this new countryside of his?! And when you throw in that the entire world economy is going to be toppled after New York City and Washington and Metropolis and Gotham City are wiped out... well, what's going to be the allure of visiting a "new continent" anyway? For someone who calls himself "the greatest criminal mastermind of our time" Luthor obviously didn't think this all the way through.

Yeah, it's a hokey plot. But it didn't take away one bit from my enjoying Superman Returns. If anything it makes me enjoy it that much more, because it made this movie a great thing to escape into and get away from all the problems that life throws at us... if only for a little while. But isn't that much what makes life worth living anyway?

Flaws and all – what little there are in this movie – I felt leaving Superman Returns that it was time well spent, and something that I really enjoyed sharing with a few people who are very special with me: my wife and two good friends. I really can't think of many other movies that left me feeling this satisfied as the credits rolled.

Superman Returns is everything that a summer movie is supposed to be. And I can't wait to make my own return to the theater to see it again.

EDIT 10:56 PM EST: Can't believe I didn't mention the awesome musical score in this movie, composed by John Ottman. It's so good that I just came back (after attempting to see some fireworks tonight) from getting the Superman Returns soundtrack CD. Ottman's score uses a lot of the familiar themes from John Williams's work in Superman: The Movie (especially the triumphant Superman fanfare and the "love theme"). But there's also plenty of "newer"-sounding stuff too to add to the Superman music mythos. This is gonna be one sweet soundtrack to add to my MP3 player :-)

Avast ye scurvy mateys: the Pirate Party comes to the U.S.

You may have heard of the recent do-to about The Pirate Bay, a website that serves as a search engine to help you find torrented files for download (I've used it a few times to locate bootleg episodes of Doctor Who since we won't be getting new eps of that show here in America for awhile). Well the Pirate Bay got raided by the Swedish police and shut down for awhile, but then came back and now they're becoming a full-fledged political party. Well, now the Pirate Party of the United States has formed. There's no word on when we can expect to see the Pirate Party on the ballot but I think we should draft this guy to be its first candidate for President:

Whil Piavis, AKA "The Pirate Captain", N.C. State student body President 2005-2006