Sunday, December 31, 2006

Saturday Night Fever

Saturday Night Fever is really one of the great American films ever. I know it's known mainly for it's music and dancing scenes. But what a remarkable story this is. It's been called an urban tragedy, or perhaps a tragedy of youth. John Travolta plays Tony Manero, who works in a hardware store by day, but is the undisputed king of his world by night -- on the dance floor and among his friends. Yet from his dead end job, the discord in his family life, and the small local dance competitions he practices for, we begin to see that that his world is too small. That his goals are not high enough. It takes his encounter with the ambitious Stephanie, and a tragedy within his circle of friends, to make him realize how limited his world really is. As such, it's a remarkable coming of age story.

This movie is not possible, of course, without John Travolta. This is the movie that made him a household name, and his megawatt star power dominates the film. It grabs us from the opening scene - that fabulous strut down the streets of Brooklyn. It's interesting that the success of his performance is due as much to raw charisma as to any technical ability.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The DaVinci Code

This is the much-hyped adaptation of Dan Brown's mega-bestseller The DaVinci Code. I read the book and really liked it -- how would the film version turn out? This movie certainly has the star power to do the task, not just with Ron Howard directing and Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou in the lead roles. Even the supporting roles are filled with stars - Jean Reno as Captain Fache, Alfred Molina as Bishop Aringarosa, Paul Bettany as Silas, and Ian McKellen as Teabing. In fact, it's a credit to the casting that I could not name an actor I would have preferred for any of those roles.

Film adaptations of literary works though are always hit and miss, I think because they are very different media. Film is a very visual medium, while literature is a cognitive one. Literature also tends to be dialogue-heavy. So films adapted from books tend to work best when they try not to follow the story too closely. I'm thinking that 2001: A Space Odyssey was the best example of that. That film is very different from the book, yet still follows in the spirit of the story. Also I'd have to admit that the Lord of the Rings movies stake out their own territory from the books, although God knows I hated those movies.

Films that follow the storyline too closely tend to be too linear, and also end up being very long because it's almost impossible to squeeze into 2 hours what a reader might consume over several weeks. Also there is a tendency to model the cognitive aspect of the novel by having the main character narrate or monologue alot. Or you have the characters sitting around talking to get through all the exposition. The DaVinci Code suffers from this a little, but it is a credit to Ron Howard that it does not detract from the film too much. But make no mistake - this is a long movie, with a lot of story to sit through. Also I felt that the cinematography and the musical editing were a bit heavy-handed, though this got better by the end of the movie.

But I think what saves the film is that it stays true to the central idea of the novel - the story of Mary Magdalene and the theory that the Church has tried to supress it. It didn't try to turn into an action movie, or some kind of special effects movie, like *ahem* Lord of the Rings. It's a solid film, but a very talented crew. Oh, and for fans of Audrey Tautou (*raises hand*), she is beautiful in this movie.

Monday, December 4, 2006

The Best of Classic Star Trek

I've run out of movies for Netflix, so I've queued up the entire Star Trek classic series. I'm going to list here my favorite episodes. This is for my own use, so if you don't like Star Trek please please please don't read this. Mainly the episodes I like deal with some interesting social or political theory, don't have a lot of cheesy scenes, and preferably have a hot bit of yeoman eye-candy. :) These are listed pretty much in chronological order.

The Naked Time: A mysterious virus makes the Enterprise crew bare their rawest emotions. Sulu running around with a samurai sword, Spock crying - it's all good.

Mudd's Women: Ah, I remember as a kid looking longingly at these three lovely ladies. Watching this again, they're starting to look a bit dated - a bit too 70s. But this episode does ask some interesting questions about beauty and self-perception.

What are Little Girls Made Of? This is an interesting episode about robots and all, but I have to admit the main reason I like it is that hottie robot girl. How did they keep those clothes from falling off?

The Conscience of the King: I've always liked this episode about a man suspected of being Kodos the Executioner. It's more serious than the usual episodes, with not a lot of special effects or weird ideas. Just grit.

Balance of Terror: This is the episode that introduced us to the Romulans, and is probably the best of the ship-based battle episodes. I liked the contrast between Kirk and the Romulan captain.

Arena: This was a great idea, pitting Kirk against a nasty super-strong lizard man on an arena planet. The ideas they use to concoct weapons are very cool.

Space Seed: This is the episode which the best of the Star Trek movies, Wrath of Khan, is based upon. Ricardo Montalban is spectacular as Khan. I'm amazed at his charisma and explosiveness in this role. It's interesting to see how they modified Kirk's behaviour a bit so that he wouldn't be eclipsed by Montalban. And he carries it off surprisingly well.

The Devil in the Dark: I've seen this one many times as a kid, so I was expecting to be a bit bored. But watching it again, I realize it has all the elements of the best classic episodes. The partnership of Kirk and Spock, which is the great strength of the classic series, is very prominent in this one, where both their similarities and differences are apparent. There is a lot of witty banter between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. And the story deals with some interesting ideas like how we fear things we don't understand, and the idea of working in cooperation with the world around us rather than forcing it into our own structures.

The City on the Edge of Forever: This is, hands down, the best Star Trek episode ever. Nothing else is close. The Enterprise crew discovers a time portal, and after a freak accident McCoy goes back in time and somehow changes history so that the Federation and the Enterprise no longer exist! It's up to Kirk and Spock to go back in time and try to stop McCoy from changing history. This episode just has a different feel about it - it's almost like it was created totally separate from the other episodes. There's hard any sci-fi tricks or special effects, just a riveting, gritty storyline. And Joan Collins is fantastic as Edith Keeler.

Amok Time: This of course is the episode about Spock's wedding. As I said before, Spock and Kirk are the real strengths of this series. And in this episode we get our first look at the planet Vulcan, and the exotic Vulcan mating ceremonies that are, well, 'fascinating'. Spock provides a lot of flavor to the crew, and we are always interested in learning more about Vulcans. It's curious why he is the only non-human crewmember, since they lead to a lot of interesting backstory. The crew of TNG, of course, is littered with aliens.

Mirror Mirror: This is my favorite episode after The City On the Edge of Forever. A transporter malfunction sends Kirk, Scotty, Uhura, and McCoy to a parallel universe where the Federation is brutal, aggressive, and imperial. It's interesting to see the contrast of this 'Klingon' like Federation, and there is a lot of tension in whether they will be found out before they can get back to their own universe. It's also funny how Spock is pretty much the same in both situations, and the episode makes good note of that.

The Journey to Babel: I didn't have much expectations on this one, but it's actually really good. It introduces a lot of things to the show. Mainly Spock's parents, and the tension between him and his father. (Did anyone notice that Spock's father is the same actor that played the Romulan captain in Balance of Terror? Well, I guess Vulcans and Romulans are very similar...) Also this idea of the Federation as only a semi-agreeable collection of different peoples is very compelling, and mirrors the countries in real life. Besides that there is the usual tension of a spy on the ship, a mysteriously powerful ship stalking the Enterprise, Kirk injured, etc. All good stuff.

The Trouble With Tribbles: This popular episode was actually rated the #1 favorite episode in a recent poll. I don't agree with that, of course, but it is a good story. The tribbles are cute and quite a departure from the normal scary-looking aliens. Also I really liked the interactions between the humans and Klingons. It presents the Klingons in a more personal setting, making them seem more like us.

The Gamesters of Triskelion: This is a very cool episode, even if there is nothing really earth-shaking about it. Kirk, Uhura, and Chekov are whisked to an alien planet and become gladiators of sorts, fighting on behalf of advanced, purely intellectual beings. It has some interesting ideas about personal freedom, and the girl in the silver suit is kind of cute. 200 quatlus for the human!!!

Return to Tomorrow: This is one of my favorites. The Enterprise finds a deserted planet, with only three intellects remaining of a highly advanced race. (Why does 'advanced' always mean intellectual, by the way?) They ask to possess the bodies of Kirk, Spock, and Dr. Ann Mulhall so that they can build android bodies. It's very moving to see the beings having bodies again after so many centuries, as well as the interactions between Sargon and Felezza. This is the first appearance of the appealing Diana Muldaur as Ann Mulhall.

Patterns of Force: The concept behind this one is very interesting. A Federation historian John Gill goes to an alien planet and sets up a Nazi-style government. The theory is that no country accomplished as much as the Nazis did in such a short time - basically pulling their country from near bankruptcy to world domination. The question is: could that government succeed if ruled by a benevolent person instead of a maniacal dictator. I think the answer given is that absolute power corrupts absolutely. It's an interesting idea and this episode develops it well - with two warring planets, a resistance movement, undercover agents, etc.

Assignment: Earth: This is an interesting episode in that it doesn't deal a lot with the Enterprise crew. The main characters in the story are the agent Gary Seven and his secretary (played by Teri Garr!). This episode even looks like some of the detective shows of the 70s.

The Enterprise Incident: This is one of the more popular episodes. It's a cloak-and-dagger story about Kirk and Spock on a mission to steal the new Romulan cloaking device. It has a lot of nuggets like Kirk dressed up as a Romulan, and Spock making out (pretty much) with the sexy Romulan commander.

Is There No Truth in Beauty? Well it's hard to go wrong with Diana Muldaur. In this episode she plays the aide to the Medusan ambassador, whose visage is so hideous that it drives humans mad! There's a lot of cool psychological stuff going on here, plus a war of wills between Spock and Diana Muldaur. To her credit she holds her own very well, which is not easy.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Road Home

This really is a beautiful movie by Zhang Yimou. It is one of his rural dramas and is more similar to The Story of Qiu Jiu than to his lavish period pieces like Raise the Red Lantern, or his martial arts films. So it may be a little slow for most people.

The story is simple enough - a young man returns to his home village after the death of his father, the village's teacher. In flashback he recounts the love story of his mother and father, and the movie becomes a nice treatise on love, and also on the value placed on teachers, something which is unfortunately lacking in the U.S. today. At first I thought the love of the young girl, Zhao Di, was rather obsessive, almost like she was stalking the guy. :) But in viewing this again I think I was being too cynical, and that the story tries to portray the innocence of young love. Also I have to remember that this is the work of Asian culture, and not American culture with it's preoccupation with privacy and personal space. Also Zhang Yimou using an interesting device where he will show the same scene over and over, with small modifications, to give the impression that these events are repeating themselves over time. And so it is easier to understand the depth of their love, rather than if we thought all of this happened in a week or something.

What really makes this film work is the incomparable Zhang Zi-Yi. This, along with Crouching Tiger, was one of her breakout films, and the beginning of her collaborations with Zhang Yimou that would continue in Hero and House of Flying Daggers. She is beautiful as the young Zhao Di, and Zhang Yimou really milks it. It seems like every other scene is Zhang Zi-Yi running around, Zhang Zi-Yi smiling, Zhang Zi-Yi leaning in a doorway. Which is all fine with me, but might be less tolerable to those that are not big fans. :)

Wednesday, November 1, 2006

X-Men: The Last Stand

I've finally watched this latest installment (and, judging by the bodycount, possibly the last) of the most consistently good comic-book adaptation series (along with Spiderman). I really liked X-2, so I had pretty high expectations for this movie, and it didn't disappoint. I was wondering how well they would handle what is probably the most revered storyline in comic-book history - the Dark Phoenix saga. I think for the most part they did a good job, although they modified it A LOT. This idea of Jean Grey being the only 'class 5' mutant, with unlimited potential was very cool! But what I think was lacking was the different cause of the transformation. In X-2 it was caused by Jean saving the X-Men. In the comic book, she saved the universe in the heart of the M'Kraan crystal, so the scale is quite a bit smaller. Also in the comic book we had these awesome shots of her flying around the universe as a giant bird of fire, destroying entire planets. In the movie, she just gets a bird face and starts disintegrating things. It would have been nice if they had at least TRIED some cool special effects, especially considering the budgets they get in these types of movies.

Another major problem, and one that I think X-2 also had, was that too many plotlines are woven together. In the comic book, there were maybe 2-3 active storylines at any given time. In the movie there are like ten - the mutant vs. human dilemma, Angel's rejection by his father, the rivalry between Iceman and Pyro, Rogue's psychological problems, the authority struggle between Storm and Wolverine, etc. - plus more mutants than you can count. I feel it inhibits the development of each individual storyline, esp. Dark Phoenix. But maybe movies are different.

Sunday, September 17, 2006


This is a very well-made movie, written and directed by Stephen Gaghan, the Oscar winning screenwriter of Traffic. Like that movie, Syriana is composed of several interconnected stories all centered around the social, political, and business events surrounding an oil deal in the Middle East. The story is a bit hard to follow - it's difficult to determine who's working for who, and who wants what. But I think this was intentional, because the allegiances of the characters are constantly changing in the movie. And also the movie never gets preachy, never takes a strong political or moral stand. All the characters have good intentions, along with other motives that are more questionable. In that sense, it's true to life.

The movie has that pseudo-documentary feel that we saw in Traffic. I almost wonder if the movie would have been more powerful with all unknown actors, so that we really would get that illusion of reality. As it is, whenever George Clooney or Matt Damon pop up on the screen, it's pretty obvious it's a movie. But I think when you have a chance to work with two great actors like that, you take it. I thought this movie would be a George Clooney star vehicle, but it is not. He has a prominent role, but it is truly an ensemble cast, and a good one. In particular I like Alexander Siddig (who I first saw in Kingdom of Heaven) as the idealistic Prince Nasir, fighting to bring democracy and improved human rights to his country. The fact that the CIA is trying to unseat him because he will not allow the U.S. to build military bases in the country, is perhaps the single clearest injustice portrayed in the film.

But the real star of the movie is the Middle East itself, this dangerous land of prayer, oil, sand, and blood. We read all the news stories, but the environment pictured on the screen seems so foreign to our way of life here. But the movie does a great job of showing common threads that run through both cultures - love of family, young people trying to find jobs, good people and bad people.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Moby Dick

Through this American lit class, I have finally read Moby Dick, a book which many consider to be The Great American Novel. I, of course, am in no position to judge the accuracy of that statement, but here are some thoughts on the book.

It's a long book, 800 pages in the edition that I read (albeit with small pages, big font, and some nice illustrations). Because of the language it's a bit of a tough read, and it also requires perseverance. Because in between the moments of intense action are these canyonesque sections on whale anatomy, ship anatomy, every person on the boat, every duty they perform on the boat, etc. I wonder if Melville was trying to get the reader to empathize with the life of the whaler, who himself sees the thrill of the chase separated by these long days of monotonous duties. I have to say though that I was not comfortable with some of the details of the whale killing -- it's not quite politically correct in these days of environental conscienceness. But to give Melville credit, he really exudes the respect of the hunter for the hunted, unlike the impersonal, mechanized hunting of today.

There is quite a cast of memorable characters on the ship, but dominating them all is this figure of Captain Ahab. I'm not sure if he is some study in obsession, or perhaps some critical statement on the American workaholic? But his is the personality that drives this book forward. I also liked this character Starbuck, who seems to be the archetype for the 'right hand man' we see so often in American film. He serves as a voice of reason to the extreme behavior of the captain. They are always at odds, but in the end he is the only one that Ahab really trusts. There is this extremely poignant scene near the end where Ahab confides in Starbuck his doubts that perhaps he has wasted his life in this obsessive pursuit of revenge. Very moving. This is a long book, and tough, but the last 100 pages or so are totally worth it.

Friday, September 1, 2006


This really is an incredible film, and in my opinion one of the most stunning achievements in cinema history. Mel Gibson, in only his second turn as actor/director (after the rather pedestrian Man Without a Face), decides to create not just an epic, but a historical epic, replete with period costumes, huge battle scenes, and tough on-location shooting in Scotland. The result? A film that garners 10 Oscar nominations and 5 wins, including best picture, best director, and best cinematography.

This is a long film (3 hours), but it doesn't feel that long, I think because Mel Gibson really gets us involved with the character of this man William Wallace, who struggles against the ruling British and against his own Scottish noblemen to win freedom for his people. We see many facets of this historical figure - his idealism, his leadership, his military genius. And yet we also understand that he is, as Gibson puts it, "a savage". And it is hard not to become enthralled with his story.

The movie benefits from a very good cast, most of whom were then unknown in the U.S. Sophie Marceau is radiant as Princess Isabelle, as is newcomer Catherine McCormack as Wallace's childhood love, Murron. And British veteran actor Patrick McGoohan is particularly good as the creepy and explosive King Longshanks.

This movie really is a great achievement, and brought the period epic back in to U.S. cinema, paving the way for movies like Gladiator, Troy, etc.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Inside Man

After a string of Netflix dregs (re: The Babysitter), it was nice to finally watch a well-made movie! Because of quality of the people involved in the movie - Spike Lee, Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Jodie Foster - I thought Inside Man had the potential to be a great movie. It is certainly a worthy effort, but it just didn't click for me.

The movie is about a bank holdup orchestrated by Clive Owen, with Denzel Washington as the lead detective on the case. The movie is well-shot, and full of tension. But the area which I think Inside Man is really lacking is in the depth of its characterizations. Strange, considering the great actors involved. But the characters are all fairly one-dimensional. Jodie Foster, in particular, seems to wander around the movie with this sly smirk glued to her face. The intellectual standoff between Denzel Washington and Clive Owen -- a la Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive -- never really materializes. And we never identify enough with any of the characters to really get emotionally involved in the film.

I believe that great characters are crucial to the success of any film, regardless of genre. Take The Matrix for example. Of course we all know about the special effects and innovative filmmaking. But it's really the characters - Neo, Morpheus, Trinity, Agent Smith -- that bind us to the movie. I think we particularly identify with Neo, or hope to -- this semi-clueless guy wandering through life who finds that he has a higher calling. Similarly, Titanic would have been just another disaster movie, except that James Cameron chose to show it through the eyes of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. We fall in love with their characters, and so the disaster hits home much stronger. Finally, Gladiator is raised above traditional epic films by a very nuanced performance by Russell Crowe. I mean, what would Gladiator have been like if Arnold Schwarzenegger had been cast in that role? *shudder* I wish that Hollywood would concentrate on getting the story and the characters right, and not worry so much about big budgets, fancy special effects, or big-name stars.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Planking Layer

A status update on the San Francisco. I've finished putting the first layer of planking. This is one of the most fun stages, since you can really see the hull taking shape. My skills have eroded a bit, so the first planks I did were not that great, but by the end I was getting better. It's also easy to rush this part, because you can always correct mistakes with a sanding block. But it's better to do a good job, to save work later on. As it is, I think I have a lot of sanding in my future. :) Next up is the second layer of planking in walnut - one of the most laborious steps.

On a side note, I've suffered my first injury. For some reason this generic X-Acto blade company has made the #11 blade a slightly larger shape than the ones from X-Acto. :( So I put my thumb where I was not expecting any metal, and sliced it open a bit. Most importantly though - the boat model was unharmed.

Wednesday, August 9, 2006

Love's Labour Lost

First of all, let me say that I think Kenneth Branagh is brilliant. He is a great actor, and as a director/actor, his movies like Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, and Hamlet have made Shakespeare accessible to an entirely new generation of viewers.

That being said, Love's Labour's Lost is a lousy movie. First of all it's a musical, which surprised me. Now Love's Labour's Lost, because of its lightness, is probably the best candidate for turning into a musical. I mean, can you imagine a musical adaptation of Hamlet? (Although who can forget the priceless Gilligan's Island musical version of that play!) The movie is similar to Moulin Rouge in integrating popular music into the plot, though while Moulin Rouge used contemporary music, Love's Labour's Lost uses songs from old American musicals, songs such as "Cheek to Cheek" and "The Way You Look Tonight".

For some reason it falls flat. While I enjoy seeing old-time stars like Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, and Ginger Rogers, for some reason it is much less appealing watching Kenneth Branagh and Alicia Silverstone dancing and singing. There must be some change in expectations of our current generation of film stars. Also the singing is obviously dubbed, and for some reason the songs are cut extremely short (which actually is a benefit in hindsight!). And the lighting of the movie feels very plastic. Perhaps they were trying to resemble the high-key lighting of musicals like Singin' in the Rain, but could not reproduce that Technicolor look. There is also the tendency for these stage adaptations to be shot too closely, and this film suffers from that, whereas Much Ado About Nothing, and Hamlet did not.

So I got very frustrated with this movie, and turned it off in the middle, which I rarely do. Still, no one can deny the creativity and daring of Kenneth Branagh as a filmmaker, and I always say that innovative films are always worth making, even if they don't always work out.

Tuesday, August 1, 2006

Building a Boat

After a long hiatus, I have started to build another boat model. This will be my sixth one, a Spanish galleon called the San Francisco by the Barcelona-based model company Artesania Latina. At this stage, all the hull frames have been aligned, and the deck attached to the top. This model has a split deck, so it was a little hard to get everything aligned properly. There was actually a bit of twist in the keel, but that seems to have gone away (which is fortunate since I had no idea how to fix it). I am now sanding the sides of the frames. It's easy to be impatient with this part and do just a cursory job. But it's important to get this right because it goes a long way toward determining how well the planks attach to the hull, and the final shape of the hull.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Can Money Buy Happiness?

The latest issue of Money magazine has a really good article called "Can Money Buy Happiness?" You should try to read the full article, but here is a summary of the main points:

Survey of people who said that they were "very satisfied" with life:

<$20K - 22%

$20K - $50K - 30%

$50K - $90K - 42%

$90K+ - 43%

This is very interesting. I believe that as long as you have enough money to provide for basic needs (so that you don't have to stress about paying the bills), more money beyond that does not lead to a proportionate increase in happiness. The article gave three reasons why this might be so:

You overestimate how much pleasure you'll get from having more. They said that intially after you purchase a new item, you feel very happy. But you quickly become used to having it around and it no longer makes you as happy. People make a mistake in thinking that perhaps they just bought the wrong item. :)

More money can lead to more stress. For example, having a big house in the suburbs might not increase your happiness if you end up spending 3 hours in commute traffic every day.

You endlessly compare yourself with the family next door. They said that your happiness depends mainly on how we feel compared to those immediately closest to us, and not to the ultra-rich that we see on TV or magazines. So if you have more money, but everyone around you also has more money, then you won't necessarily be happier!

So then, if money is not the key to happiness, what is? Again, three possibilities:

Friends and family are a mighty elixir. The people around us are most responsible for our happiness. Personally the happiest time in my life was getting my bachelor's degree at UCLA, which coincidentally was the time that I was the poorest. But all my friends were poor too, and we figured out all these creative ways to have fun without a big budget, and had a blast.

Doing things can bring us more joy than having things. I think this is really profound. You can surround yourself with things, but if you don't actually do anything you will just get bored. Interestingly, they also said that vacations are worthwhile, because even if we are stressed out on them, or things don't go as planned, as time passes we remember only the good things that happened.

Applying yourself to something hard makes you happy. Right on the money again. My satisfaction with work doesn't seem to be tied to how many hours I spend there (or how few), but on whether I feel that what I am doing is important and interesting.

In conclusion, they said that it important for us to 'Think Happy." They said that some characteristics of happy people are 1) they don't waste time dwelling on unpleasant things 2) they tend to interpret ambiguous events in positive ways, and 3) they aren't bothered by the successes of others.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Pretty Woman

I ran out of things to do last night, so I watched Pretty Woman again. Pretty Woman might be one of the most beloved movies of all time. The plot is the typical improbable Hollywood story. A successful-but-lonely billionaire corporate raider picks up a poor-but-goodhearted prostitute on Hollywood Blvd. He is intrigued by her genuineness and pays her to stay with him for a week. During the course of the week she causes him to re-evaluate his workaholic life, and his cutthroat business practices. And as he treats her with respect, she learns to value her own life more. Aside from the questionable moralities, this is not really a believable story. I mean, this kind of stuff doesn't happen every day. But I think this movie shows that audiences are willing to suspend their disbelief for "good" movies. So why does this movie work? What elements turn what could have been a very pedestrian romantic comedy into a classic?

Stars - we all love the stars, especially new ones. Julia Roberts lights up the screen in this, her breakout role. She had some critical, though not necessarily popular, success in Steel Magnolias. But Pretty Woman created the image that carried her to superstardom - the smile, the beautiful dresses, the spunky attitude. Even Richard Gere was relatively unknown at this point, although he had several successful roles in American Gigolo, An Officer and a Gentleman, and The Cotton Club.

Screen Chemistry - this pairing of Julia Roberts and Richard Gere has to go up there among the top screen couples of all time. It's hard to predict when that chemistry will happen, and there's no guarantee that it will happen again (ahem, Runaway Bride). But what would Pretty Woman be without its two stars. In the same way, what would Casablanca be without Humprey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, or Titanic without Leonardo Dicaprio and Kate Winslet?

Good Filmmaking - Garry Marshall is an accomplished director, and I like the way he gives this movie an honest, straightforward treatment. Sometimes you'll see movies like this being filled with cliches, overdone sentimentality, unorthodox camerawork, or even slapstick in order to get an audience reaction. Pretty Woman is fortunately free of this, instead relying on strong character development to engage viewers, and I think this contributes to its timeless quality. There are also some very memorable visuals - Julia Roberts in the red dress, Julia Roberts and Richard Gere taking the day off to picnic in the park, etc.

Emotional Truth - As I said, the story is a bit hard to believe, but there is some truth in the movie. The actors do a good job selling the emotions of their characters, and I feel the movie does say some profound things about self-respect, and people believing in each other.

Monday, July 24, 2006


Hmm, can you say "chick flick"? :) This Charlotte Bronte wannabe oozes with tragedy, desperate straits, and sentimentality. I'll not summarize the story in case any of you want to watch it, but it is a period British film with so many unfortunate circumstances that it feels a bit unrealistic and contrived, not to mention a shameless tear-jerker. So I'm a little confused as to why so many of the user reviews on Netflix and Y! Movies are so positive! It seems people really love this movie - and not just the ladies, mind you, but also many guys. I suppose that for what it is, it is quite a well made movie. The cinematography has a nice restrained feel, though it is shot a bit small, almost like a TV movie. But I think it is the amazing Sophie Marceau that sets this movie apart and makes it worth watching. She has great screen presence, and dominates the scenes where she is onscreen. And we really 'feel' the story through her character, and also through the character played by the British actor Stephen Dillane, who is also very good.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Zhang Zi-Yi Rocks

I found this incredibly cute picture of Zhang Zi-Yi on the web, and I thought I'd post it, and also test out the blog photo upload. "Ziyi" Zhang is, of course, the beautiful and talented Chinese actress who debuted in Zhang Yimou's The Road Home, then rocketed to fame in Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. She was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar last year for Memoirs of a Geisha. In my opinion, she should be nominated every year, just because she is the cutest one. Mind you, I'm not saying she needs to *win* every year. She should just be nominated so that we can see her on the red carpet. Of course if she wins, then we get to see her give a speech in her heavily accented English, and there's certainly nothing wrong with that.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Team America

"Pearl Harbor sucked, and I miss you." I normally don't watch movies like this. (Really. No REALLY!!!). But I saw a guy watching it on his laptop on Caltrain, and it seemed pretty funny (or at least he was deriving a lot of entertainment out of it), so I rented it through Netflix. And I feel very guilty about this, but I have to say that I liked it. :)

Team America, directed by South Park's Trey Parker, is your typical action movie about a team of U.S. special agents sent to foil a worldwide terrorist attack. Well, except that everyone in the movie is a marionette. And it's funny because the movie doesn't try overly hard to disguise the fact that they are marionettes. Like the scene where one of the female agents reaches out to touch one of the male agents, but she can't because her arm won't unbend all the way. Or the horribly choreographed fight scenes and sex scene that are hilarious because they look so ridiculous.

Because it's by the South Park, you know the movie will be irreverant. It's very tongue-in-cheek, but a little like Naked Gun in that the most outrageous ideas (the main hero is an actor, for crying out loud) and also some more subtley bizarre stuff (like the song lyrics at the beginning of this blog) are all presented with total seriousness. My suggestion - rent it once and watch it, and never tell anyone you did it. Note: no historical landmarks were harmed during the making of this film.

Thursday, July 6, 2006


I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

This is a classic passage from Thoreau's Walden. You might recognize it from the movie Dead Poet's Society. Thoreau almost sets the standard for living life on your own terms, and on living a simple and self-reliant life. I like what he says about not relying on what other people say about life, but on living it to the fullest, and determining for yourself whether it is good or bad.

Wednesday, July 5, 2006


Another gem from Emerson's essay Self-Reliance:

What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowds keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.

Tuesday, July 4, 2006

Match Point

This is a terrifc movie. I've actually not seen very many movies by Woody Allen, but I was obligated to see Match Point because of Scarlet Johannsen. I was expecting a literate, dialogue-heavy script with well-developed characterizations, and this movie certainly delivered in that respect. What surprised me was how beautifully made this movie is, though I think a lot of the credit for that goes to cinematographer Remi Adefarasin.

The movie is about a young Irishman, Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) who has had a mediocre career as a professional tennis player and grudgingly quits to become an instructor at a British tennis club. He meets the sister of one of his well-bred clients, and is soon married into one of Britain's upper-class families and given a position in the family business. He is skyrocketing up the social ladder and has a women who loves him dearly, and all seems well except for one fatal flaw - his obsession with a sexy but struggling American actress named Nola Rice (Scarlett Johanssen), who happens to be engaged to his brother-in-law!

The introduction of Scarlett Johannsen injects a lot of sexual tension into the movie, and it gradually escalates into a taut psychological thriller. But the part that I liked the best is the way it displays the nuances of people and relationships, in particular a sensible yet passionless marriage, and a passionate affair that has no future. The roles are played very well by the two main actors, Rhys Meyers and Johannsen. As noted in several reviews, Match Point is very similar to the classic A Place in the Sun, with enough plot changes and role reversals to keep the story fresh and original. Rhys Meyers' Montgomery Clift is set against Johannsen's bizarre mixture of Shelley Winters and a young Elizabeth Taylor in a very entertaining and intriguing movie.

Sunday, July 2, 2006

Ralph Waldo Emerson

I've been reading some of Ralph Waldo Emerson's essays for a video course on Amerian literature. I've found it pretty tough going, not so much because of the language, but because his ideas are often so abstract. However I will quote some sections that strike me in particular. This is from Nature:

All men are in some degree impressed by the face of the world; some men even to delight. This love of beauty is Taste. Others have the same love in such excess, that, not content with admiring, they seek to embody it in new forms. The creation of beauty is Art.

I've been looking for a good definition of 'art', and I find the simplicity of this definition intriguing - "the creation of beauty is art". It does leave out the communicative aspect of art. Certainly from the earliest examples of art, it has contained religious, political, or moral messages. And post-Impressionist art introduced the idea of art echoing the emotions of the artist. For example, would one necessarily call Munch's expressionist work "The Scream" a "beautiful" painting? But it's significance in art is clear.

Also what is the line between craft and art? A finely crafted vase or cup may be beautiful, but does it's usefulness prevent it from being art? It seems innovation or creativity must factor into the definition somehow. Nevertheless I do like this definition a lot. :)


Another quote from Emerson's Nature:

But this beauty of Nature which is seen and felt as beauty, is the least part. The shows of day, the dewy morning, the rainbow, mountains, orchards in blossom, stars, moonlight, shadows in still water, and the like, if too eagerly hunted, become shows merely, and mock us with their unreality. Go out of the house to see the moon, and 't is mere tinsel; it will not please as when its light shines upon your necessary journey. The beauty that shimmers in the yellow afternoons of October, who ever could clutch it? Go forth to find it, and it is gone: 't is only a mirage as you look from the windows of diligence.

This is a remarkable statement. He says that beauty diminishes if we seek it too eagerly - that it is better if it surprises us in the normal course of our day. I wonder if this applies to the rest of life - that our appreciation of life comes down to the management of expectations?

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit

I was interested in seeing this latest film by Nick Park, because I love the 3 short Wallace & Gromit films, and also liked Chicken Run. I had two questions in particular - how would the story hold out over the length of a feature film, and would the inevitably higher production values detract from the charm of the shorts.

It's interesting with animated or special-effects intensive films, especially if they are very innovative, that in the end they are still movies. And sometimes the effects can distract the viewer from enjoying the story, especially for a longer film. It happened with films like Final Fantasy, or perhaps Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. But it doesn't seem to interfere with films like Shrek, or The Matrix. So it's nice to see the claymation of Wallace & Gromit holding up well over the whole movie, as it did in Chicken Run. Although I thought that the characters of Victor Quartermaine and Lady Tottington looked rather bizarre.

But I did feel that the higher production values did not benefit the film. One of the things I really liked about the short films was their campiness, and the feeling that Nick Park was making the films in his basement or something. Also, the smaller casts in the short films help keep the focus on the stars, Wallace and Gromit. It felt like there were a ton of characters in this movie.

Still, I shouldn't be too critical. This is an enjoyable film and another testament to the genius of Nick Park.

Wednesday, June 7, 2006

First Blood

"They drew first blood." Ah, Rambo - the epitome of the testosterone-laden American action hero, in the tradition of Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean Claude Van Dam, and Stephen Seagall. Or is he? Before he became Rambo: American Super-Soldier, he was the Rambo of First Blood - Rambo the anti-hero.

The story is rather familiar now. Vietnam vet John Rambo has been finding it difficult to assimilate back into normal society. He still has flashbacks and emotional scars from the war, and seeks out the last member of his troop, only to find him recently dead from cancer caused by Agent Orange. Wandering into a small town, Rambo is harassed and mistrusted by the people he once fought to protect, and he finally snaps. The movie than morphs into a guerilla war between a single man and local, state, and national guard troops led by a bloodthirsty captain (Brian Dennehy). The first part of this occurs in the forest near the town and is the best part of the movie, as we see Rambo in full survival mode. It is all quite one-sided, of course, and ends with Rambo trashing the town. It's not exactly Shakespeare, but it is gritty, edgy, and well-made. And it deals with the alienation of the Vietnam veterans, which the country was still working through in 1982 when the movie was made. A country realizing that there are greater costs to war than simple body counts.

Isn't it funny, though, how as soon as a movie and a character become popular, it inevitably spawns several sequels. But now the two-dimensional character, who we both admire and despise, suddenly becomes this totally likable guy - the hero, our champion. It happened with Rambo in Rambo II and Rambo III (which admittedly I don't remember). It happened with the Terminator, where Arnold reappears and suddenly he's the good guy! And it happens alot in television - for example Beverly Hills 90210, Friends, etc. In the first year, each of the characters has some good things and bad things about them, some edginess that keeps us from totally liking them, but which also makes them very interesting as people. But by the 3rd or 4th season they're all so popular that they have to be watered down so as not to be offensive. Then the shows have to bring in secondary character to provide the conflicts. It's amazing how often this happens. Anything to keep the audiences coming, I guess.

Sunday, June 4, 2006


Like I would really say anything negative about a movie starring Alicia Silverstone as a hottie LA school girl? AS IF!!!!! Director Amy Heckerling seems to specialize in moderately successfull teen-targeted comedies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Look Who's Talking, and A Night at the Roxbury (producer). But I actually really liked this movie. It's a loose adaptation of the novel Emma, and I love it when they attempt stuff like that. The movie stays reasonably true to the plotlines of Emma, while modernizing the setting (and in the process totally skewering spoiled Beverly Hills teenagers). Well done! I thought it was interesting that the individual plot elements are shot very short. In fact the whole story feels contracted, but I guess this is in line with its MTV-watching demographic. Alicia Silverstone is very good in this movie. She is actually quite expressive - I'm surprised she has not gotten any real substantial roles. And no, Batgirl doesn't count. Do they really think the limit of her ability is acting alongside Brendan Frasier in the mostly forgettable Blast From the Past? What-ever!

Saturday, June 3, 2006

The Barefoot Contessa

The title sounds familiar, but I had never heard of this film by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (of All About Eve fame) and starring Humphrey Bogart and Ava Gardner. Probably because it is not a very good movie. It's strange how you can have great stars and a reputable director, and still come up with an average movie. But there is nothing wrong with that - some things work and some things don't. The movie is a about a Spanish dancer Maria Vargas, who is 'discovered' in Madrid and goes on to be a top box-office star in Hollywood. Fame and admiration come easily to her, but in the end she is unable to find what her soul is missing - love. Different parts of her life are narrated by three of the men in her life, Humphrey Bogart her director, Edmund O'Brien (in an Oscar-winning role) as her producer, and Rossano Brazzi as her husband. And perhaps it is this vehicle that prevents us from really getting into the movie. Perhaps this jumping between different perspectives keeps us aware that we are outsiders to the story, rather than inside the story. I'm not sure. It's not a bad movie, just not a great one. And it's long - 140 minutes! Interestingly, this is the first movie I've seen starring Ava Gardner. She is radiant in this movie - with her pale complexion, dark hair, and 'unattainable' feel, she reminds me of Monica Bellucci.

Friday, June 2, 2006

Lost Horizon

James Hilton's classic, Lost Horizon, is an extremely thought-provoking novel. In surprisingly short fashion, it tells the story of four travellers - two English diplomats, Conway and Mallinson, an American capitalist Barnard, and an English missionary Miss Brinklow - as they are led stray to a Tibetan monastery, the legendary utopian society of Shangri-La. As he spins the tale, Hilton raises several profound questions. What is utopia, and for that matter, what is the wisdom that allows us to attain it?

I believe Hilton's conjecture is that utopia comes from taking all things in moderation, and that wisdom is obtained by a reduction, or perhaps I should say 're-scaling' of human passions so that even the subtle joys of life are satisfying. But I also believe he is saying that wisdom comes from a better understanding and appreciation of time. He makes a comment that the Americans and British are always rushing around trying to get things done, and I believe it is true that modern society prioritizes activity, with the end result of sacrificing happiness without a commensurate increase in productivity. But these points are debatable of course, and largely depend on who you are. There are many people who prefer a secure, calm life, and yet many who prefer the extremes of passion. Hilton shows this brilliantly in the contrast between the older Conway, who has already seen his share of things in the world, and the young, impatient Mallinson who still has the rest of his life ahead of him.

(Warning: there are some spoilers coming up, so stop reading if you intend to read the book!)

The question that really got me thinking however is this: why does Conway leave Shangri-La, when it seems he had found there exactly what he was looking for? I understand that Mallinson caused him to doubt that what he had seen and heard was actually real. And this doubt is certainly understandable, because the utopia of Shangri-La is a utopia of the mind, not of the body, so how can it be proven? But the question is, does it really matter if something is not real, if it satisfies something real in your heart? It is this question of accepting deception if the benefits outweigh reality that is the heart of movies like The Matrix, and Open Your Eyes (Vanilla Sky). It also occurs in religion, where you believe in something which you may never be able to really prove, but the belief makes you a better person. And also in unrequited love - if you love someone who does not love you back, is it still love?

But I think what really pushed Conway over the edge, so to speak, was when Mallinson convinced one of the monks to leave. I mean, if the place truly is utopia, why would anyone want to leave it? But I wonder if people also have a hard time accepting paradise. I believe there is a distrust or dissatisfaction with happiness that is innate to the human spirit - it may be one of our greatest strengths, but at the same time can be the cause of great sadness.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006


I'd never heard about this movie, but David and Xiaofan had it saved on Tivo so we all watched it. It turned out to be a terrific little directorial debut by Greg Marcks, with an interesting cast including Hilary Swank, Barbara Hershey, a hefty Patrick Swayze, and Rachael Leigh Cook. The movie is about a series of interconnected events happening around 11:14pm (hence the title), and as such bears a similarity to movies like Pulp Fiction and Crash. Unfortunately, unlike those two, there is no deeper meaning connecting the plot lines. They're all interconnected, but that's it. Still, this is an interesting, well-made movie. And it's short - about 90 minutes. It's nice to see a new director keep the movie short. I mean, who's going to take a chance on a 3 hour megalith by an unknown? At least keep it short so that if we don't like it we haven't lost much. Okay let me get down from my soapbox...

Friday, May 26, 2006

Aeon Flux

This is basically a Matrix ripoff, but unlike that movie this one is more style than substance. The only redeeming quality is the stunning Charlize Theron, and the movie does not disappoint in that respect with many closeups and skin-tight costumes. But the story is rather shallow. And the movie itself is shot very small. The action sequences and special effects are lacking, and the movie tries to cover this up by shooting many sequences in closeups with indistinguishable objects whizzing around.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Tomorrow Never Dies

Pasha has promised that this is the end of the Bond marathon, thank god. This, the 2nd Pierce Brosnan Bond, is a good enough movie. I features two sexy yet smart women in Teri Hatcher and Michelle Yeoh. Michelle Yeoh in particular is radiant, this movie coming 3 years before her American breakout role in Crouching Tiger. The thing that really kills this movie is the terrible villain. Perhaps in 1997, the idea of powerful media conglomerates dominating the planet was scary, but it isn't any more. His ultimate goal? "Exclusive broadcasting rights in China for the next 100 years!!!" Yawn.

Pierce Brosnan is fantastic as James Bond - he is perfect for the role. In fact, I have decided that all male acting roles in every movie ever made shall be played by Pierce Brosnan. Let it be so!


This has to be the best of the Brosnan Bond movies. It's very well made, and features two hotties in Famke Janssen (of X-Men fame), and relative unknown Izabella Scorupo. It also benefits from very good villains, including Boromir ... er, I mean Sean Bean. :)

Btw, I tried to watch Howl's Moving Castle again, but had to stop in the middle. It's a good movie, but lacks the wonder of movies like Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, Castle in the Sky, and Nausicca.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Howl's Moving Castle

I'd heard that this movie was not as good as Miyazaki's previous efforts. Well I shouldn't have worried. Even an average Miyazaki work is better than most of the stuff out there. This movie did have a different feel to it, perhaps because it was based on a book by another writer. (Though I'm not sure what the source was for the other movies.) It's quite involved, and towards the end it's a little hard to keep track of what is going on. It's also more of a "people" type film, so it's more similar to Kiki's Delivery Service than say, Spirited Away.

The thing I really like about Miyazaki is his restraint. He's not constantly blasting us with background music or gratuitous action scenes. In fact, a lot of the beginning of the movie is rather quiet. I think some people would get bored with this, but I find it allows me to really sink into the ambience of the movie and the characters. The story - where a young girl Sophie overcomes her limitations (both self-imposed, and subjected on her by others), and truly makes an impact on those around her - is very uplifting.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

The World Is Not Enough

Pasha is going through a Bond phase, so we watched The World Is Not Enough last night. I'm not a huge Bond fan, but I do like this one, primarily due to the amazing performance by Sophie Marceau. Has there been a more substantial role for an actress in a Bond movie? Usually they are these fluffy, one-dimensional parts by less accomplished actresses. But the character of Electra King is quite involved, although the premise behind the character is admittedly a bit contrived, and Sophie Marceau delivers an edgy, nuanced performance. In fact, she dominates the screen in every scene she's in. Even scenes with Pierce Brosnan, which is saying something because he has a tremendous screen presence. I'm trying to Netflix more of her movies, but like Monica Bellucci, most of her roles in U.S. movies are secondary (outside of Braveheart). I hear she is very popular in France.

There are two things holding this movie back. One is a very weak villain in Reynard. He's just not intimidating at all. And the least they could have done is cast someone taller than Sophie Marceau! It would have made him seem less feeble. The second is one of the all-time worst acting performances in history by Denise Richards. Even ignoring the crazy notion of Denise Richards as a nuclear physicist, her acting is just terrible. Anyways, Pasha thought she looked hot, and I guess that is her main purpose in the movie.

The opening sequence with the boats is amazing - one of the best opening sequences I've seen in awhile. Strangely the other action sequences in the movie fall much flatter, notably the skiing one. I noticed the boat sequence has a lot more distance shots, while the skiing one is shot more up close and feels much smaller in scale. I'll have to think about this more.