Archive for the 'Films' Category

General discussion and ruminations about the movies. Includes the contents of the reviews and trailers categories.

The Wishgranter

10-Sep-16 10:30 AM by
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Happy birthday to a special someone! May all your wishes come true.

Looking Back at 2014

04-Jan-15 9:01 AM by
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Happy New Year! It's been four years since I took this opportunity to reflect on the past year of movies, so I have some catching up to do!

For about a decade, my moviegoing was stable at 10–16 outings a year. I've never been one for Hulu or Netflix, so anything I didn't catch in theaters, I'd either borrow on DVD from the library or miss entirely. But lately, my habits have changed:

2014 year in review

Not since I was in college have I gone to the movies as often as I did in 2014! What changed? I attribute this uptick to several causes, in order:

  1. This was my first full year living in Boston. I now have easy access to so many theaters that it's easy to hop on a bus or subway and see one after work or on a weekend.
  2. Likewise, I also have easier access to friends who live in Boston, where I went to grad school. Many of them don't have cars but can use public transit to coordinate outings. More invitations to the movies equals more movies.
  3. The Brattle Theatre, a non-profit theater in Harvard Square. It has only one screen and generally shows a different film every day, ranging from classics to indies to regional debuts. I'm a patron of the Brattle, which grants me a dozen free tickets a year. Darned if I'm going to let them go to waste! However, this also means not every movie I saw in 2014 was necessarily a 2014 release, such as Labyrinth and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
  4. RiffTrax Live. The creators of Mystery Science Theater 3000 have kicked up the number of live-streaming comedic commentary events, with four in 2014 alone. I backed two of them via Kickstarter, so of course I was going to see my name up in lights!

Having gone to the theaters so many times, I thought the competition for best films of the year would be stiffer, but the choices are fairly obvious — especially if you like children's films: Frozen (which technically came out in 2013), The Lego Movie (essentially a retelling of The Matrix), and Big Hero 6, which I liken to a cross between How to Train Your Dragon and The Incredibles. All three films were a pure joy, and though there is a place for cinema to be challenging and address dark or difficult subjects, I felt like these movies made moviegoing fun, while featuring believable characters and some plot twists that elevated them above being insubstantial tripe.

I'm not going to make predictions for 2015. The last time I offered predictions, they included promises that I would not be seeing X-Men: First Class or the Footloose remake. I ended up seeing and thoroughly enjoying both! So enjoy whatever the year has to offer. Showbits' official debut was eight years ago this month, and though my energy for blogging has mostly been directed elsewhere, theatergoing is still a big part of my life. I look forward to sharing those experiences with you for years to come!

Halt and Catch Fire adds sizzle to PC history

11-Jul-14 10:56 AM by
Filed under Reviews, Television; 2 comments.

In the fifteen years since I cancelled my cable service, the television landscape has changed: "reality TV" was invented, medical and legal procedural dramas boomed, and HDTV became the norm. So it was interesting to watch and review the AMC series Halt and Catch Fire for Computerworld. Not being an AMC subscriber, I bought a season pass for the first four episodes on Amazon Instant Video and paid for the fifth episode individually.

It's hard to judge any show by its early episodes — I doubt any of the various Star Trek series would've lasted long by that metric. So I tried to keep my critical eye at bay for the first few episodes, which was not easy. The three main characters — Joe MacMillian (Lee Pace), Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), and Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) — are trying to develop one of the first IBM clones of 1983, but their subterfuge and machinations, with both corporations and each other. I roll my eyes at such drama for the same reason that I stopped watching soap operas. MacMillian, who physically reminds me of a cross between John Cusack and Andy Garcia, is a vile businessman who oozes deceit and smarm. He's a character you love to hate.

Halt and Catch Fire

Lee Pace as Joe MacMillian. What a jerk.


But there are some really nice moments of character development, too. Clark, the show's Steve Wozniak-like character, struggles to realize his dream of creating the ultimate computer and will hitch his wagon to whoever can help him get there. At the same time, he's trying to be a good husband and father, though his family clearly isn't his priority.

Overall, I've enjoyed watching the first five episodes and will likely continue watching the series as time permits. For more details, read my full review on Computerworld.com, "Halt and Catch Fire adds sizzle to PC history".

It's easy to fall in love with Her, Computerworld, and MIT

20-Jan-14 7:30 PM by
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This month marks two one-year anniversaries. January 12 was my departure from Computerworld, the magazine and website where I'd been an editor for six years; January 22 commemorates my arrival at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where I now work on the MIT Medical marketing team. I was concerned that leaving the publishing field would diminish my value as, and opportunities to be, a journalist. Much to my pleasant surprise, the opposite has proven true, with resources and collaborations now possible that weren't a year ago.

When Monica Castillo of the Cinema Fix podcast recommended I see the movie Her, starring Joaquin Phoenix, I sensed the opportunity for a story. Monica had previously gotten me into a press screening of Jobs, which I turned into a review for Computerworld. With Her's focus on a lonely bachelor's romantic relationship with a Siri-like mobile operating system, this film also seemed up the alley of Computerworld's readers. I sold my pitch to their news editor.

Here's the thing about writing film reviews for Computerworld: it's a publication that covers IT, not cinema. For the article to be a good fit, it would have to connect to the IT angle somehow. Past methods of doing so wouldn't work. For my first Computerworld movie reviews — The Bourne Ultimatum, Live Free or Die Hard, Iron Man, and Iron Man 2 — I paired with a security expert and analyzed that aspect of the movie's tech. But Computerworld didn't feel I needed a co-writer for Her. Jobs had plenty of historical fact to assess, but Her was a fictional, futuristic work. My editor suggested that "It would be great if we could set the context around the melding of technology and day to day life as opposed to just a straight out 'this was a good/bad movie'." I wanted to do more than that — but what do I know about artificial intelligence?


Fortunately, whatever technical knowledge I lack, MIT has in spades. Right in my own academic backyard is CSAIL, the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. I reached out to the MIT News Office, and Abby Abazorius connected me with principal research scientist Boris Katz. On short notice, Katz made himself available to discuss the basics of artificial intelligence and consciousness and how they compared with the capabilities of Samantha in Her. Even though Katz had not seen the film, my line of questions based on my own viewing opened him right up. After just 45 minutes of conversation, I had ample material to transcribe.

The resulting article, "It's easy to fall in love with Her", was published on January 11 — a year to the Friday that I left Computerworld for MIT. I found it a fitting manifestation of the ways in which I can continue to be a contributing member of the Computerworld community, even more so now that I have access to everything MIT has to offer. Who knows what other stories lie about MIT, waiting to be unearthed?

Jobs movie applies its own reality distortion field

19-Aug-13 1:45 PM by
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Less than two years since Steve Jobs' passing, his life story hits the silver screen today. The limited release of Jobs, the feature-length film directed by Joshua Michael Stern and starring Ashton Kutcher, was delayed from its original April release after it received poor reviews at the Sundance Film Festival. The official release will please Apple fans with its casting and acting as much as it will frustrate them with its script and dramatic reinterpretation of events.

Josh Gad & Ashton Kutcher

Josh Gad & Ashton Kutcher as Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs.


Continue reading my review at Computerworld.com »

A big thanks to the Cinema Fix weekly movie review podcast, whose co-host got me into the Jobs press screening that made my review possible!

Summer Shorts sellout: My favorite CGI films

19-Jun-13 12:23 PM by
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I spend so much time watching YouTube that, in 2009, I applied that knowledge toward creating a Showbits feature: Summer Shorts. Every weekday for a week, I posted a different short film to this site. In 2010, I revisited the format but over a longer period of time, sharing one video every Friday for 17 weeks.

After a two-year hiatus, I'm pleased to announce Summer Shorts is back, though in a new context. Going with a thematic approach and a commercial outlet, I've compiled my nine favorite CGI shorts into a video gallery. "9 animated shorts that give Pixar a run for its money" is my first freelance feature for ITworld, an affiliate of Computerworld, the magazine where I was an editor for six years.

9 animated shorts that give Pixar a run for its money

Who needs Pixar? Here are my 9 favorite CGI shorts that you can watch for free right on YouTube.


Two of the nine shorts will be familiar to long-time Showbits readers. Pigeon: Impossible and Kiwi, though older, stand as some of the most enjoyable and memorable animated films I have seen online. Five other shorts I'd seen before but had not previously shared, leaving Rosa and The Chase as new to me, the result of extensive research into YouTube's library.

There were enough other candidates that ITworld's gallery could have been nearly double its length: six more videos, including The Passenger and Sebastian's Voodoo, nearly made the cut. As is, the final playlist totals an hour, making for an fun and diverse showcase of the fastest, funniest, most poignant CGI films YouTube has to offer.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug trailer

11-Jun-13 6:03 PM by
Filed under Trailers; 1 comment.

Last year's release of The Hobbit was warmly received by this blogger. In many ways, I actually preferred it to the Lord of the Rings: it seemed lighter, somehow, and there was more obvious character growth in our protagonist. Though a bit uneven in pacing, it didn't feel too long, either. It left me eager to see the rest of the series.

That wait got a bit shorter today with the release of the first trailer for the second part in this trilogy. Behold The Desolation of Smaug:

I'm actually a bit underwhelmed by this trailer, which I feel reflects more on the editing than on the source material. There weren't many surprises or major plot references. The most intriguing, but still unsurprising, aspect was the appearance of a certain well-known elf. As someone not well-versed in Tolkien lore, I'm unsure how Legolas Greenleaf works into this tale, seeing as how he was not in the original book. But all will be revealed upon the film's release on December 13, 2013.

(more…)

Star Trek Into Darkness' origins and impact

25-May-13 11:09 AM by
Filed under Films, Star Trek; 6 comments.

Four years after J. J. Abrams rebooted Gene Roddenberry's original television show, the youthful crew of the original NCC–1701 have again taken to space in Star Trek Into Darkness. As is now our tradition, my father and I attended the film's opening night. Two hours later, I left the theater feeling a way no other movie had ever left me: overwhelmed. The layers, implications, and consequences of the Enterprise's latest mission are too complex to be boiled down into a simple recommendation. Although I do wholeheartedly recommend this film, it's not enough to say that it's a good film, as it's much more than that.

I'd walked into the movie having successfully avoided all trailers, teasers, rumors, and revelations. I cannot promise I will do the same in this review, so proceed with caution. For example, the latest trailer has a single word that would've ruined for me the identity of the antagonist, which some might consider an already poorly kept secret — but even as I watched the film, I was never sure of myself right up until the big reveal. It would be impossible to comment on the film without including that moment.

Spock in flames

What better way to start a summer blockbuster than with a volcano?

More broadly than those specifics, it's important to first acknowledge that this is no longer Roddenberry's Star Trek. Some have criticized Abrams for dumbing down Star Trek from its ideological origins into a generic action-packed blockbuster. But with these two films, Star Trek has undergone a natural evolution from philosophy defined to philosophy realized. Star Trek is no longer about debates around tables and in turbolifts, as it so often was in The Next Generation, a series I adored. Now it is about making difficult decisions in the heat of the moment — and dealing with the consequences. The most talkative we see this crew of the Enterprise is Kirk's confrontation with Scotty, which does not go the way either Scotty or the audience expected; the look on his face says, "Did we really just pull the pin on this grenade?" Other conflicts, such as Uhura and Spock's spat, seem almost comically timed and forced. But even these moments move the story and the characters forward through challenging times. Just because the set has moved from a conference room to the heat of battle does not make the decisions any less difficult.

That gravity is carried by the excellent acting of the cast. Although the credits list the actors in alphabetical order, implying an ensemble cast, it is very much Kirk and Spock's show. Most everyone else gets their chances to shine: Scotty is integral to the plot; Bones and Uhura have some fantastic scenes; and Sulu's moment in the spotlight is the first time I've seen a hint of the man who will eventually captain the U.S.S. Excelsior. Chekov, unfortunately, is mostly wasted in this episode, serving as a poor substitute for Scotty. But the movie is ultimately about Kirk and Spock's friendship and their diametrical approaches to situations, as indicated by McCoy's answer to Kirk's early question, "If you were here, Spock, what would you do?" The returning cast is joined by Alice Eve (Men In Black 3) as Carol, Peter Weller (RoboCop) as Admiral Marcus, and Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) as John Harrison.

Harrison vs. Kirk

A new rivalry…
or an old one?

John Harrison? Yes, that is the name of our villain, at least at first. His early act of terrorism was brutally unwelcome here in Boston, where we had just suffered a similar tragedy. From there, his actions are pettier than I'd expect. His escape to the Klingon homeworld gave us a first glimpse at this re-imagined alien race, but they are otherwise a red herring. Harrison was neither conspiring with them nor enticing the Enterprise into a war with them. Given those missed opportunities, what was he going to do on Qo'noS — hide? It seems an unfitting and unambitious fate for the tyrant he eventually reveals himself to be. Had he succeeded, we might once again have had a movie where Kirk and Khan never come face-to-face — a missed opportunity from the 1982 film, finally realized in 2013.

Carol and Jim

Watch their love explode across the screen!

Cumberbatch's character is one of the film's many ties to the known Star Trek timeline. Another is Section 31, the brief mention of which elicited a gasp from this long-time fan. It indicates a familiarity with Star Trek lore, both the unaltered timeline that precedes Nero's incursion — Section 31, although introduced in Deep Space Nine, was alive and well in the age of Captain Archer — and the implications of what it could become in the future. The same occurs with the introduction of Carol Marcus: her introduction to Kirk produced little unique chemistry, but we know what it could become.

But no character, alien, or organization carried as much weight as a scene revisited from The Wrath of Khan. Kirk's rescue of the Enterprise came so suddenly that, when I realized what was happening, it hit me like a ton of bricks. "Not again!" I despaired. Leonard Nimoy's Spock had just said that Khan was defeated "at great cost" — a heavy statement: how many people can reflect on their own deaths, then be chilled by the knowledge that their murderer has risen from the grave? Now here we are, seeing it happen again, this time with Kirk as the human sacrifice. The captain who'd started the film with the proud proclamation of having never lost a member of his crew had more than a perfect record in mind; the agony with which he had, moments ago, apologized to the bridge for what he thought was their ultimate defeat was palpable. Kirk cares for every member of his ship as much as he cares for Spock — the latter being a friendship that is no less weighty for having been witnessed across only two films instead of two decades, as it was the last time Khan threatened the Enterprise. Kirk bookends the film by saving Spock's life, and the evolution we see is in Spock's reaction: from a detached betrayal of his captain to Starfleet, to a vengeance-fueled hunt his friend's killer. Through Kirk's selflessness, Spock has gotten in touch with the best and worst of his own humanity.

Spock and Kirk

Watch their love explode across the screen!… or not.

This scene, combined with using Khan as the film's protagonist, may suggest an unoriginality among the scriptwriters. Four years ago, Khan seemed the least likely candidate for the sequel, lest Abrams walk the same cinematic path laid out in decades past. But critics clamoring for this new generation of Star Trek to go on an original adventure need look only four years to the past, when the Romulan Nero arrived on the scene.

By contrast, this sequel is not a rehashing of an old plot but rather a brilliant exploration of destiny. How much of these characters' fates are their own to decide? Are Kirk and crew destined to always clash with Khan, no matter how much the circumstances may change? Just how far-reaching are the effects of Nero's destruction of Vulcan? The exhumation of the SS Botany Bay is a small change with dramatic consequences. Will the next film continue referring to the pivotal moment in time when a villain from the future set a new course for the galaxy?

With the full weight of Star Trek's history behind this movie, it is hard for me to say if this sequel is as much meant for a general audience as the 2009 reboot was. You can get away without knowing what Section 31 is, or who Carol Marcus becomes — but is Khan a good villain on his own merits? There is no reference to the Eugenics Wars, which may be too much backstory for one film to deliver, lest it become the preachy Trek it is trying to move away from. Not only his origin, but also his ambition, may be lost on an audience that is not as likely to respond to Khan's identity with "Holy crap!" than they are with "Who?"

Star Trek Into Darkness opening night

Star Trek: Generations.

For those filmgoers who take this film as just another summer blockbuster, there's still plenty to enjoy on just that level, and plenty to gripe about, too. As with any Trek (or even sci-fi in general), there are plenty of plot holes and technological inconsistencies. Some were elegantly addressed: when I wondered how Khan could beam himself to Qo'noS, they tied back into the 2009 film with a reference to Scotty's transwarp beaming technique, a direct result of Nero's temporal incursion. But then the question becomes: why send the Enterprise to Qo'noS when they could just beam there? Of course, the choice to plot a course into enemy territory furthered Admiral Marcus' agenda, but it still seems an oversight. Also, I think the film may've addressed this, but is within an explosive device the smartest place for Khan to have hidden his family? And, even if the Eugenics Wars was two hundred years ago, shouldn't at least one member of Starfleet have studied enough history to recognize the leader of the Augments? Or was plastic surgery part of Khan's transformation into John Harrison, that he might work alongside Section 31 without revealing the depths to which Admiral Marcus had plumbed for inspiration?

Still, most other scenes can be neatly explained. Marcus sharing the secret of Section 31 with Kirk seemed a faux pas, but I suspect Marcus never expected Kirk to come back from his next mission, taking the truth of the clandestine group's existence to his grave. The explosion of the 72 torpedoes first seemed heartless and cruel, especially given McCoy's involvement — what happened to "First do no harm"? When Kirk learned that the Augments had been extracted, his response took the words right out of my mouth: "I'll be damned." And the use of Khan's blood to save Kirk (which has its own implications for the future of Star Trek — is there anything Augment blood can't cure?) was foreshadowed not only by the tribble's resurrection, but also by the cure for the diseased girl, which was likely a dose of the same elixir. And sure, we knew Kirk wouldn't die, not so early in Pine's career in the role. But if only the admirable Pike had been afforded so heroic a death, or at least the peaceful one we can assume he was granted in the original timeline, rather than gunned down in cold blood — even if the latter was necessary to provide Kirk the drive to go after Harrison.

Whatever level you view this film on, it has special significance for its core audience. For someone who has seen all 726 episodes and 12 movies and read dozens of novels of Star Trek, I cannot take what J.J. Abrams has done here lightly. It is a powerful combination of fan service and creative license — a message of "I will use what you like, but you may not like how I use it." I almost cannot render judgment without seeing what comes next. Will Abrams continue to rely on the familiar, remixing it in unexpected ways? Or will he contribute something wholly original to the Trek universe? In a sense, he has already gone boldly, with his direction and pacing of this action-packed sequel. What more lies far beyond the stars for the Enterprise and her fans to discover?