Tag Archives: Adventure

TELEVISION: Stargate Atlantis Goes Out With A Bang – And No Cliffhanger!

Stargate Atlantis [Sci Fi Channel, Fridays 9/8C] closes up shop one week from tonight with its one hundredth episode – but before we get to that double milestone, there’s a small matter of a series of inexplicable murders in and around Las Vegas.

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Subtly entitled Vegas, the show’s penultimate episode opens as a clever riff on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation – but the murders under investigation are way beyond any normal cops and forensics units’ abilities. Fortunately, Detective John Sheppard [Joe Flanigan] is on the case – making it easier for Dr. Rodney McKay [David Hewlett] to trust him with a top secret tale of familiar dimensions. In an unusual and slightly unsettling way, Vegas sets the stage for the series finale.

Enemy at the Gate brings the battle with the Wraith to Earth in an unexpected manner. In the episode, sometime Wraith collaborator Todd [Christopher Heyerdahl] approaches Atlantis with news that an underling has taken over his hive ship – which is now equipped with a ZPM and being turned into an invulnerable dreadnought. In a twist foreshadowed in the previous episode, that bigger, better hive ship will cause a great deal of turmoil – not the least of which is the show’s second James Blish reference [that’s the only hint you get – look it up].

Atlantis’ final episodes do what the show has always done best – science fiction adventure with deft humor, intriguing characterization, and some show stopping effects [I suspect the SGA creative team may have cut a few corners to give the series a big finale and it definitely worked]. The writing is especially noteworthy for the way Robert Cooper [Vegas] and the team of Joseph Mallozzi and Paul Mullie not only play with sci fi conventions, but the conventions of the series they’ve worked on for the last five seasons.

Cooper also directed Vegas and he definitely catches the essence of CSI before the ep moves back into a version of more familiar territory. Andy Mikita deserves commendation for taking the series home in Enemy at the Gate [which is another title that works on a couple of levels, as you’ll see in the ep’s final sequence].

Several old friends are on hand to give fans a last chance to enjoy series favorites like Amanda Tapping [Col. Samantha Carter], Paul McGillion [Dr. Carson Beckett], Mitch Pileggi [Col. Steven Caldwell], Colin Cunningham [Major Paul Davis], Matthew Glave [Col. Paul Emerson], Ben Cotton [Dr. Kavanaugh], and the inimitable Gary Jones [Sgt. Walter Harriman].

Stargate Atlantis ends on a high note. All we have to do is enjoy.

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MOVIE REVIEW: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – Youth, Apparently, Is Not Wasted on the Young!

One of the strangest – and yet most normal – films of the year is The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Even you’ve not been paying attention to pop culture for the last six months, it would hard not to have heard about the movie about the guy who ages backwards while living forwards. Directed by David Fincher [Fight Club, Zodiac], Button stars Brad Pitt as the titular button – a man who is born an eighty-five year old baby whose every breath rasps and rails as if it might be his last and grows physically younger with each passing day. Whether this odd journey through life is supposed to mean something specific, in terms of metaphor, will no doubt be the subject of much debate.

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For Benjamin, though, life is the same puzzle as it is for the rest of, though he views it from a unique perspective. When he first sees Daisy [Elle Fanning], they are seven – but he is, physically, seventy-eight. This makes their relationship, which would otherwise be completely normal, something else entirely. Even so, his first love, first drink, first sex, first affair [and so forth], all happen in pretty much the conventional order – only Benjamin’s de-aging is different.

Perhaps the point of the movie is that “normal” is strictly a point-of-view, not a definitive quantity; maybe, it’s a tone poem on the idea of youth being wasted on the young; it’s even possible to see the film as an argument for the idea that the beginning and ending of life are the same thing seen from different perspectives – and what happens in the middle will be much the same no matter which way we progress, physically.

When Benjamin and Daisy [now played by a luminous Cate Blanchett] finally come together in the middle of their lives – when they both look their age – they do the expected things, like move in together and have a child. Benjamin’s de-aging means that he will appear to be teenager when his daughter hits puberty, which leads to his having to deal with being unable to be a father to his child – again, an ordinary thing that happens to many men but here because of a unique reason.

In the context of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the importance of the ordinary… the normal… is brought home in a new way. Pitt’s performance [including the CG grafting of his face onto older and younger actors’ bodies] is perfect because Benjamin is, in spite of his unique manner of aging, an ordinary man whose life is except for brief moments, pretty ordinary. The film winds up showing us that even the ordinary is wondrous. That’s a pretty heady achievement.

Final Grade: A+

TELEVISION REVIEW: The Librarian: Curse of the Judas Chalice – Still In Like Flynn

Every so often, you need a little low-budget, B-movie fun. The Librarian: Curse of the Judas Chalice [TNT, Sunday, 8/7C] provides exactly that. This time, Flynn Carson’s [Noah Wyle] New Orleans vacation is interrupted in unique style as it comes to light that the Judas Chalice – the chalice made from the silver of the thirty coins paid to Judas Iscariot for Christ’s betrayal – has come to light. Obviously, The Library would like to add it to their private collection.

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Curse of the Judas Chalice continues to mine the Indiana Jones format to good effect. The movie opens with Carson bidding on a vase from the early Ming Dynasty [circa 1411] and having to destroy it to obtain the real treasure inside. There follows swordplay – and a throw pillow is involved – all of which leads to Carson’s girlfriend breaking up with him.

From there, a serious meltdown and a strange dream lead our hero to take a vacation in New Orleans – where he encounters a statue and a woman that were in said dream. Mix in a former KGB agent and Russian government official named Kubicek [Dirkan Tulaine], who has a lead on the chalice; a decrepit history professor named Professor Lazlo [Bruce Davison], and a legend that suggests that the Judas Chalice can resurrect vampires and you’ve got a potent mix for adventure. Once Carson encounters the woman from his dream, Simone [Stana Katic], singing in a club, the action comes fast and furious.

Curse of the Judas Chalice is a bit of a comeback for the franchise. As with the Indiana Jones films, the second chapter wasn’t quite right [and Gabrielle Anwar was no Sonja Walger – whom we see in the opening credits here for some reason]. Where the second Librarian movie was too silly, Curse is just silly enough. The idea of resurrecting vampires combines well with revelations that make sense of Judson’s [Bob Newhart] appearance in New Orleans to give the series an extra layer of the epic.

Jonathan Frakes keeps things light and breezy and Marco Schnabel’s script is witty and slightly deranged. Add in genial performances and solid effects and the result is an entertaining bit of froth that will provide a cheery couple of hours – which is exactly what it sets out to do.

Final Grade: B

DVD Review: PIXAR Outfits The WALL*E 3-DVD Set With A Cornucopia of Goodies!

When WALL*E premiered, I described it as follows: “WALL*E is the best film of the year – let alone the summer – so far. Easily.” While that was before The Dark Knight and a number of amazing smaller films came out, this eco-fable/romance between the decidedly blue collar trash compacter on tank treads and the equally decidedly uptown seeker of life is still one of the year’s best films.

WALL-E Cover Art

Looking like a Bizarro World hybrid of ET and Johnny 5, WALL*E may be the year’s most unlikely leading man, while sleek, shiny EVE should be far, far out of his league. For some reason, though, the duo have become a classic romantic duo – in spite of their differing backgrounds – and their story plays almost as well on a twenty-seven inch screen as in a theater.

The three-DVD set is almost overflowing with features: Disc One: Audio Commentary by Director Andrew Stanton; BURN*E, a new animated short featuring a peripheral character from the film; Presto, the animated short that accompanied WALL*E in theaters; Deleted Scenes [two, lasting over six minutes], Sneak Peek: WALL*E’s Tour of the Universe, and Animation Sound Design: Building Worlds from the Sound Up – Legendary Sound Designer Ben Burtt Shares Secrets of Creating the Sounds of WALL*E.

Disc Two: The PIXAR Story, a ninety-minute documentary by Leslie Iwerks; Deleted Scenes [twelve more minutes – with optional introduction by the director]; Behind the Scenes Featurettes [The Imperfect Lens, Captain’s Log, Notes on a Score, Life of a shot: Deconstructing the PIXAR Process, Robo Everything, and WALL*E & EVE]; BnL Shorts [The History of Buy n Large; Operation cleanup; All Aboard the Axiom; Captaining the Axiom, and Meet the BnL Bots]; WALL*E’s Treasures and Trinkets; Lots of Bots [Interactive Storybook & Games].

Disc Three: Digital Copy [for uploading to other media]

Grade: WALL*E – A+

Grade: Features – A+

Final Grade: A+

MOVIE REVIEW: Quantum of Solace: Vengeance is Mine, Quoth Bond!

If you’ve seen Casino Royale, then you’ve gotten all the character development you need to enjoy Quantum of Solace, the latest adventure of MI6 operative James Bond [Daniel Craig] – but it’s not all the characterization you’ll get before the film ends. This film, which begins twenty minutes after the end of Casino Royale is a sleek action flick that – while it may be influenced by what Paul Greengrass did with the last two Jason Bourne films – manages to use some of the handheld techniques from the Bourne trilogy without ever moving completely away from the equally kinetic but different style of the previous film.

Bond & Camille

Here, Bond is out to avenge the death of the only woman he ever loved. The problem, he learns, is that her killer is part of a global network dedicated to take over the planet by perverting the fight against global warming to their own ends. The film’s most visible antagonist is Dominic Greene [Mathieu Amalric], the front for an organization of alleged ecological crusaders. Complicating things is a woman who is after the man who killed her family – and is now working with Green.

Quantum, it turns out, is the name of this shadowy organization and their claim that they are everywhere is supported by an attempt on M’s [Judy Dench] life by her own bodyguard. Circumstances dictate that she cut Bond loose to do what he does best – while looking like she’s trying to get him to stand down. It gets even more complex from there though Bond’s ability to suss out information from the slimmest resources gets him through it in fine style

Marc Forster’s direction, as mentioned above is somewhat influenced by the Bourne films, but he skilfully weaves unexpected character moments throughout in a way that’s so invisible that many reviewers have found the film devoid of characterization. Such is not the case – though much of Quantum’s character moments come through choices Bond makes in the midst of action.

The action sequences are breathtaking throughout, but the bookends of the opening chase/fight sequence and the wall of destruction just before the film’s conclusion are among the best I’ve ever seen. The cast is excellent as well – especially Olga Kurylenko as Camille – the woman who, like Bond, has vengeance on her mind [her situation at the end may have something to do with her not sleeping with Bond, but that’s a subject for Bond fanatics to debate.

Amalric makes a good villain for two reasons: acting skill [and knowing when not to chew the scenery], and the fact that his eyes seem just a tad bit too large for his face [just enough to be creepy; not enough to be funny]. In terms of sheer presence, none of the other Quantum employees/conspirators matches him.

Overall, then, while Quantum of Solace won’t be making any top ten best films lists for 2008, it is in no way a bad film. Rather, it is one of the half-dozen best Bond films – and that’s not too shabby.

Final Grade: B+

TELEVISION: NBC’s Crusoe Is Swashbuckling Fun!

One of the last of the new fall programs to be broadcast, NBC’s Crusoe [Fridays, 8/7C] is allegedly a radical retelling of Daniel Defoe’s classic novel, though it fudges on his background [slave owners not being particularly well thought of these days] and utilizes the “Lost Method” of storytelling.

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Here, Crusoe [Philip Winchester] is a newly married inventor/weaver who is off to the Americas to purchase equipment and materials to speed up his production and make him and his new wife, Susannah [Anna Walton] rich – or at least filthy, stinking well off. When his ship is wrecked by a combination of storm and rocky island coastline, he is the only survivor.

When a number of cannibals arrive on the island to sacrifice one of their number to the gods, Crusoe rescues him and, because he couldn’t possibly begin to pronounce the man’s name, he dubs him Friday [Tongayi Chirisa]. It just so happens that Friday is no savage – he speaks a dozen languages and has other knowledge and skills [archery among them].

When a band of pirates comes ashore in search of treasure – following a map tattooed on the back of one of them – things get very dicey, very quickly. Fortunately, both Crusoe and Friday are inventive and capable of thinking on their feet. It doesn’t hurt that Crusoe has plundered the remains of his ship and created a very comfortable refuge for himself – and some nasty surprises for unwanted guests.

Crusoe’s story is told from his point of view, in his present – but his life before the shipwreck is told in flashback. Thus we watch Crusoe trying to deal with the pirates in his present, and learn about the horrors of his childhood and the joys of his new marriage in flashbacks that are sparked by events in his present. It’s all very cool – and informative – but it doesn’t lead to amazing discoveries of either natural or supernatural natures. It’s all just glorious swashbuckling fun.

The show’s cinematography is amazing, though it helps to have a beautiful island to provide exquisite scenery. The main cast members are more than up to the swashbuckling and show themselves capable of carrying the darker, more dramatic moments. It seems a bit odd to put such a show on Fridays, but it offers a bit of pure entertainment, and that might help it survive TV’s dead zone. While there will undoubtedly be a certain amount of continuity, I suspect that we will be able to watch individual episodes without having to know every little detail of what has gone before – which also makes it easy to enjoy.

Final Grade: B

MOVIE REVIEW: City of Ember: The World Ends But Life Goes On… For Awhile!

When a movie begins with a narrator intoning, “The day the world ended…” you can be sure that there’s a caveat somewhere. With City of Ember that caveat is that a bunch of the best and brightest built an underground city so mankind could live on. An ingenious device was placed in a box that would open in two hundred years, giving instructions on how to return to the surface to find out if the upper world was once again inhabitable. Unfortunately, the device [which was to be inherited by each succeeding mayor] was lost when the seventh mayor had a heart attack and the box was put away in a closet.

Doon and Lina

Now, two hundred years later, Ember is falling apart. The city’s generator is cranky and blackouts are occurring – each longer than the last. Food supplies are getting low – and what food can be grown in the city’s greenhouse is looking less and less edible. The city is run by the corrupt Mayor Cole [Bill Murray] – the only person in town who is actually fat. Into this situation come Lina Mayfleet [Soairse Ronan] and Doon Harrow [Harry Treadaway] who swap assignments after graduating from whatever school exists there – she to become a messenger, he to become a pipeworks worker.

City of Ember is darkly gorgeous to look at. The actual city looks like a close-packed English village with a central meeting circle, but the machines that keep the city alive are oddly fascinating, clunky Rube Goldberg devices that actually have uses. Though the citizens of Ember are worried about what’s happening their fears are assuaged by the mayor and a group of religious singers [led by Mary Kay Place’s Mrs. Murdo – who takes in Lina and her sister, Poppy when their grandma dies].

Based on the novel by Jeanne Duprau, City of Ember starts slowly, like the city’s generator, and then [unlike the dying generator] picks up steam as it goes – and as Lina and Doon discover that there may be a way back to the surface – all tied into fragments of instruction in a weird little box Lina finds in her gran’s closet. Their characters aren’t all that well developed but both Treadaway and Ronan make us care about them. Other notable actors also make a lot of slenderly written, though pivotal characters like Tim Robbins [as Doon’s inventor father, Loris; Marianne Jean-Baptiste as greenhouse keeper, Clary, and Martin Landau, as pipeworks veteran, Sul].

With its touches of satire, fable-like storytelling and enthralling design, City of Ember manages to engage for its ninety-five minutes – though kids will likely find it vastly more engaging than adults [if Murray hadn’t sleepwalked through the role of Mayor Cole, that might have been different].

Final Grade: B-

DVD REVIEW: Stargate: Continuum: Playing with Time

Stargate: Continuum is the first DTDVD stand-alone adventure of the SG-1 team and it’s a bit of a time traveling doozy! It begins with SG-1 and General Jack O‘Neill [Richard Dean Anderson] attending the extraction ceremony for the last Goa’uld still existing in a Goa’uld System Lord. The Goa’uld is Ba’al [Cliff Simon], or rather, the last clone of Ba’al, who warns them that they’ve made a terrible mistake. As the ceremony proceeds, Vala [Claudia Black] and Teal’c [Christopher Judge] vanish. When members of the Tok’ra begin to disappear, too, the remaining SG-1 members and O’Neill realise that Ba’al has gone into the past to prevent the Stargate from being used – leaving Earth open to complete domination by the Goa’uld.

One of the best things about Stargate time travel tales is that they are usually a lot of fun. Continuum takes that to a whole new level, with appearances by nearly every major character in SG-1 lore – even though many are surprising cameos [check out the appearance of the System Lords, for example]. Also, Continuum is a stand-alone movie, so it’s not wrapping up a cliffhanger – or leaving fans hanging on yet another one.

SG_CONTINUUM Box Art

In the alternate timeline that’s created by Ba’al’s maneuver, we get to meet alternate versions of O’Neill, General Hammond [Don S. Davis], Major-General Landry [Beau Bridges] and even President Henry Hayes [William Devane] – and we learn that, in this timeline, Col. Samantha Carter [Amanda Tapping] was an astronaut who died saving her shuttle crew and Daniel Jackson [Michael Shanks] is a discredited crackpot. Not only that, but Lt.-Col. Cameron Mitchell [Ben Browder] is in a position to create a Grandfather Paradox [look it up] if he screws up.

Stargate: Continuum works on a couple of levels: it’s a solid SG-1 adventure replete with action, humor and wit, and it’s also a breathtaking visual achievement, with some brilliantly shot sequences in the Arctic – and the first ever time that a nuclear submarine has been used in a movie [the captain being played by the sub’s real commander]. The writing is a bit above the average for the series and the cast get to play some interesting variations on their characters – especially, Shanks, whose Daniel Jackson suffers more than usual [even for him]. The direction is, as with the series, pretty snappy. Even the expository scenes are rife with wit and fun. As for the effects, they’re terrific – though they can barely hold their own against the majesty of the Arctic.

Features include: Audio Commentary by Executive Producer/Writer Brad Wright and Director Martin Wood; The Making of Stargate: Continuum Featurette; Stargate Goes to the Arctic Featurette, and The Layman’s Guide to Time Travel.

Grade: Stargate: Continuum – B+

Grade: Features: A

Final Grade: A-

MOVIE REVIEW: Journey to the Center of the Earth in 3D: More Fun Than It Has Any Right To Be!

New Line’s Journey to the Center of the Earth is a flimsy plot – loosely based on Jules Verne’s novel of the same name – used to set up a string of wild [and at times gross and/or grotesque] 3D effects. The good news is that the combination of cast and CG effects make it – literally – a great ride.

Trevor Anderson’s [Brendan Fraser] work on seismic effects is threatened by a lack of results. When his nephew, Sean [Josh Hutcherson], comes to visit, a comment on his dad’s favorite book [guess…] leads to the discovery that seismic shifts lead to an unexpected location – and the figures match, precisely, those from the time when Trevor’s brother, Max, disappeared. The figures lead Trevor and Sean to Iceland and a mountain guide, Hannah Ásgeirsson [Anita Briem], whose father was a colleague of Max’s. Before you know it, the three are at the center of the planet!

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Outside of encounters with luminescent birds, extinct dinosaurs, piranha the size of Great Danes and other odd occurrences, that’s all there is to it. What makes it work is that Fraser, Hutcherson and Briem give themselves over to the thrill ride completely. The screenplay, by Michael Weiss, Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin, gives our heroes plenty of exciting situations to deal with – and a number of good [if not terribly memorable] lines to keep us the edges of our seats. Eric Brevig’s direction is frenetic enough that, even with a few pauses for breath and a bit of emotional interplay, the film zips by in a compact ninety-three minutes – without feeling too short. The 3D is generally very good, though there are a few places where it is outstanding. My personal favorite [which is to say, the one that made me jump the highest] involves a piranha – and I guarantee you won’t see it coming [sorry…].

It’s a pity that Journey to the Center of the Earth opens the same weekend as Hellboy II and the new Eddie Murphy movie [which is likely not half as much fun]. It would be a shame to see it get lost in the box office shuffle. It’s far too much pure fun for that.

Final Grade: B