Archive for December, 2009

Best And Worst SF/Fantasy Movies Of 2009 [Year In Review]

30 Dec

This was a year of extremes: huge CG-heavy spectacles and low-budget gems. Most of all, 2009 made us feel the boundaries of cinema were stretched... for good and ill. Here are the 10 best and 10 worst films of 2009.


10. The Road

One of the most significant SF-themed literary novels of the past decade, Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic epic, was adapted into an arthouse film starring Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee. And while the novel's themes didn't quite work as well in a movie format, and we had serious issues with the movie's sentimentality, we still found the movie's post-apocalyptic vision compelling. In an era where the apocalypse strikes inside cinema with alarming regularity, this was the grimmest and most unflinching look at a world where every ounce of green, and almost every spark of human kindness, has been destroyed.

9. Gamer

This film, on the other hand, may have boasted slightly less of a literary pedigree. But if you love over-the-top, crazy exploitation films with a satirical edge — and we certainly do — then this tale of remote-controlled killers and sexbots will surprise you. It's easy to see why Gamer never got its props: It's crude, nasty, and full of day-glo wigs. But its plot, about a new biotech called "Nanex" that can replace your brain cells with remote-control devices that can never be removed, is creepy. And the architect of this evil scheme to own your brain? Is Dexter (Michael C. Hall). Who does a song-and-dance number about how much he enjoys yanking your synapses around. Really.

8. Coraline

Veering back towards literary adaptations, there's Henry Sellick's gorgeous version of Neil Gaiman's Hugo award-winning horror/fantasy book. Forget Avatar — this was the most visually striking use of 3-D this year, and it was in the service of a story that felt like a classic fairy tale.

7. Drag Me To Hell

Thank goodness Sam Raimi decided to take a break from Spider-Man movies and return to his horror roots, with this amazingly snarky, Evil Dead-esque journey into the heart of class insecurity. Charlene, a young loan officer at a bank, is desperate to advance up the corporate ladder and escape her hick past, not to mention impress her boyfriend's snobbish family. So she decides to deny a home loan to an old woman — who turns out to be the wrong person to mess with. As we said in our review, "Like all good horror, Drag Me To Hell takes real-life fears, dresses them up in blood-soaked costumes, and sets them running."

6. Paranormal Activity

As we mentioned, this was the year of low-budget movies that focused on a few unforgettable characters, and this film managed to turn a low budget into maximum scariness. As we wrote in our review, "Nothing ever felt like padding or gratuitous "we're going to amp up the tension with cheap jolts" bullshit. The terror was raw and real - all the more so because it was so understated." But the real horror in this film is the dysfunctional relationship at its core, between a woman stalked by a demon and the boyfriend whose antics wind up making things much worse.

5. Zombieland

This post-apocalyptic comedy swept us away with its cool style points — Columbus' rules for surviving the zombie apocalypse, Tallahassee's creative zombie-killing techniques — but it really won us over with its clever romance between Columbus and Wichita, and the way it conveyed the experience of geeky coming of age against a chaotic backdrop. Like all the best road movies, it's about the journey.

4. Avatar

James Cameron's long-awaited out-of-body-experience movie was everything we were expecting: It was just as clunky and preachy as his original "scriptment" suggested it would be, and the native peoples were just as much of a "noble savage" stereotype as we'd expected. But it was just as beautiful and thrilling as we'd expected, too. People have been in the habit, lately, of saying that Avatar has great special effects and a terrible story — but in addition to the incredible CG world-building, the film also does have some thrilling performances from Sigourney Weaver and Sam Worthington, in particular. It's not just the cool flying dragons that suck you in — it's the characters.

3. Star Trek

Gene Roddenberry's optimistic space opera needed a long rest after the blunders that were Enterprise and the last two movies. In fact, we weren't sure Trek's tired old saws ever needed to be brought back. But J.J. Abrams somehow managed to make Trek seem fresh again, mostly by giving Kirk and Spock a new backstory. Unexpectedly, we found ourselves caring what happened to these guys again, and the scene where Sarek finally admits he married Amanda because he loved her is surprisingly powerful. For the first time in too long, Star Trek became a universe where anything could happen — even the destruction of Vulcan. Who knew Trek could be unpredictable?

2. Moon

Sam Rockwell brought enough conviction and character for twenty actors to this story of a lonely worker trapped in a lunar mining outpost. His loneliness and brushes with madness are captivating — and that's even before there turn out to be two of him at once. By the time this psychological thriller unravels into a story of an evil corporation treating its workforce as a disposable commodity (literally), we're so wound up into Sam Bell's loneliness and yearning to go home that the fate of both Sams becomes more urgent than the fate of entire worlds.

1. District 9

It's easy to think of this film as just a polemic against Apartheid and the mistreatment of refugees — but the story of aliens herded into shantytowns is much more than that. The story of Wikus Van De Merwe, a total bastard who enjoys watching alien children pop like popcorn, feels uncomfortably like our story. After Wikus gets infected with some kind of alien goo, he starts to discover what it's like to be one of the downtrodden aliens, but this revelation doesn't particularly make him a more noble person, at least not for most of the movie. Brilliant production design adds to this film's sense of stark realism, and even some ugly Nigerian stereotypes fail to detract from the film's unforgettable portrait of human cruelty and alien family values. This was the film, more than other, that stuck in our heads long after watching it.

Honorable mentions: I really wanted to give a shout out to Men Who Stare At Goats and Push, two films that got unfairly panned this past year. Goats is way more fun than people gave it credit for, and had occasional moments of total brilliance, especially from Jeff Bridges. Push is stylishly shot in Hong Kong, full of homages to Wong Kar-Wai, and features world-builiding about mutant powers and secret organizations that feels lived-in and clever.


10. Surrogates

This film could have been terrific — based on a brilliant graphic novel written by Robert Venditti, this "shut-ins go out in robot bodies" epic is a potent metaphor for our relationship to technology. Unfortunately, the film version, starring Bruce Willis, is a cluttered, clunky mess. It's every dumb action-movie set piece jammed together with bits of chewing gum, plus an incredibly preachy screenplay that doesn't trust the audience to reach conclusions on its own. And that's really the worst sin a dystopian movie can commit: force-feeding us messages, because the dystopia isn't powerful enough to reach us on its own.

9. The Fourth Kind

Even as Paranormal Activity was making the Blair Witch-style "real-life recordings" vibe seem fresh again, The Fouth Kind was trying to pass off fake alien abduction tapes as real, and unfortunately the film-makers put more effort into trying to hoodwink the press than they did into crafting a compelling movie. The actual film is a mish-mash of bad "archival" footage, unscary alien abductions, and flaky plot twists like the idea that a professor can speak ancient Sumerian because he's seen some texts.

8. New Moon

There's something to be said for a book and movie franchise that has converted so many new people, especially girls, into SF/fantasy lovers. But still, this movie slathered us with cheese and bored us with long stretches of Bella moping after Edward, who's decided they can't be together. Edward starts appearing to Bella, Obi Wan-like, as she becomes an adrenaline junkie and runs around with shirtless Jacob. The moments where the film winks at the audience, or veers into outright self-parody, can't quite make up for the goopiness of much of the rest.

7. X-Men Origins: Wolverine

If we had a crane with a camera on it following us around all the time, we would feel tempted to look up at the ceiling and howl as well. Where can we get one of those? The fourth film in the X-Men saga continued X3's slide into mediocrity, with too many random mutant cameos and a campy mutant self-discovery plot that felt instantly forgettable, even without a memory-erasing magic bullet. At no point in this endless film do Logan and Sabretooth feel like brothers, and we don't really care which one of them kills the other. Is there any way that Ryan Reynolds' Deadpool movie can make up for this disaster? We can only hope.

6. The Time Traveler's Wife

We loved Audrey Niffenegger's clever, disciplined time-travel novel just as much as we hated the schlocky, smug movie version. The film excised some of the coolest parts of the novel, and substituted a lot of cookie-cutter romantic-dramedy whininess and angst. What was a classic love story, as well as a insightful look into the way in which we're all time-travelers because we're constantly reliving our pasts and dreaming of our futures, becomes a mindless (and heartless) exercise in pouting as character development. All the more disappointing, because it had such great material to work with.

5. 2012

It's tempting to give this film a free pass, because who expected greatness, or anything other than explosions, from Roland Emmerich's umpteenth disaster film? But it's worth calling out this film for its brain-dead destruction porn and focus on special effects to the total exclusion of characters, or anything really. Bad science, bad writing, bad acting... but most of all, it's kind of boring, and you really have to turn off your brain to enjoy any of it. To quote from some of the comments in our review: "I didn't care who lived or died," "I felt dead inside," "My problem with this movie isn't the rampant destruction, but the boringness in between."

4. Knowing

Making fun of a Nic Cage movie these days almost feels like challenging a dyslexic to a spelling bee. But really. This film was so insultingly bad, that we can't let it slide. Cage plays a college professor, whose idea of teaching astrophysics is to hold model planets and say stuff like, "Hey, man. The sun is like, really, really hot. Did you ever think that maybe things happen for a reason?" It's like stoner astrophysics 101. And then he gets hold of a time capsule from the 1950s that's full of numbers which somehow predict every disaster, including the end of the world. Even if you can ignore coincidences like a plane crashing next to the highway where Cage is driving, you'll be clutching your head by the time this movie's final plot twist is revealed. If this is Knowing, then ignorance really is bliss.

3. Pandorum

Zombies infest a spaceship — how could that be bad? Well, um... how about if it's zombies on a spaceship where Dennis Quaid is doing a crappy pastiche of Fight Club? How then? We never knew space madness could be so boring. Actually, the biggest problem with this film isn't Quaid's endless freak-out, or the random cannibal guy who's diagrammed the entire plot in graffiti, it's the boredom. The makers of the film seem to have mixed up suspense with "nothing happening for long stretches," as our heroes skulk around dark tunnels endlessly. It could have been so much better, if the themes of reclaiming your pride as an officer and sticking together had been foregrounded. Even a cool ending can't save this stew.

2. Terminator Salvation

We debated whether to include T4 among the worst letdowns of the past decade — but there were already so many from 2009 on the list. It's shameful to admit it now, but we expected more from this film, thanks to the reunion of The Dark Knight's star and writer, Christian Bale and Jonathan Nolan. Instead, what we got was the giant head of Helena Bonham Carter delivering exposition. Sam Worthington does his best with the role of Marcus Wright, who discovers he's a cyborg, but he's hobbled by a nonsensical plot. And Bale is a major disappointment as John Connor — it's hard to believe anyone could make us miss Nick Stahl.

1. Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen

We celebrated this film as the ultimate apotheosis of Bunuel-style surrealism, but if you're expecting it to make a lick of sense, you might as well expect ants to climb out of your hand. Honestly, 2012 only wishes it could be as dumb, as massive — and yes, as boring — as this clunker. These robots can turn themselves into anything — except for compelling characters. And unlike 2012, in which the action set pieces are the punctuation in between long boring sequences, this film's action sequences are the most boring part, because it's hard to tell what's supposed to be going on, and we don't really care anyway. If 2009 was the year that giant CG rainbow showers finally conquered movie screens, then Transformers 2 was the worst offender.


Focus on the Action to Avoid Headaches During 3D Movies [Movies]

20 Dec

Quite a few people will be taking in 3D movies this holiday season, and quite a few of them will leave the theater with headaches. Avoid getting a 3D-movie-induced headache with this simple trick.

Movie-centric site Shadow Locked put together a simple guide to avoid getting a headache when you go see a 3D movie. First, you have to understand why many people get the headache in the first place. In traditional 2D cinema, the out of focus areas of a scene often have interesting details and information in them that we've been conditioned to look at—the spooky shadow in the background, the action occurring behind the hero, and so on. When elements of the picture appear 3D to us however, our brain gets confused when we try to look at the background details and the background fails to come into focus.

The trick to avoiding the headache? Ignore your experience with 2D movies and stay riveted to the in-focus action. When watching a 3D movie, whatever is right in front of you and in-focus is what you want to be paying attention to—focusing on the background details for too long triggers headaches and disorientation.

Have a tip or trick for enjoying your movie going experience? Let's here about it in the comments.


Ransom America’s public domain video treasures back from the National Archives!

19 Dec
Rogue archivist Carl Malamud sez,
If you've already made your Christmas gifts to EFF and Creative Commons and have a couple of bucks left over? How about buying a gift for the public domain!!

Public.Resource.Org just ordered another 41 titles and spent $560 on some really great FedFlix from the vaults of the National Archive, there is still plenty of great material out there, so we put together an Amazon Wish List. If you see anything you'd like to buy the public domain we'll take your DVD and upload the video to YouTube, the Internet Archive, and to our own rsync/ftp public domain stock footage library.
Background: these videos were made at US taxpayer expense, and they are in the public domain. However, they aren't distributed for free by the National Archives; instead they're sold through Amazon as a money-maker for the government, which charges you to get access to the stuff you already own and paid for. The Archives get a minuscule amount of money by doing this: $3,273.66 over the past two years! In order to make a measly three grand, the National Archives have closed off the entire USA's access to its video treasures.

Public Domain Videos from the Vaults of the National Archives (Thanks, Carl)


Kate MacDowell

16 Dec


Blown away by the hand sculpted porcelain of artist Kate MacDowell







Superb data-visualization of UK government spending

11 Dec

Yishay sez, "The good people of the Open Knowledge Foundation have just released a prototype of their visualisation tool for UK gov spending. This on the same week that the government announced radical plans for opening their data. Open data needs to be seen, not just done."

I'm loving this: you can click on any of those dots (on the actual web-page) to see what it represents. The slider moves you back and forth year-to-year. It's an amazing way of visualizing public spending.

Where Does My Money Go? (Thanks, Yishay!)


Google Analytics get faster, better

06 Dec

One very annoying aspect of Google Analytics has always been the delay it can add to your page load -- you can let the page render by putting the script at the bottom of the page, but still some users will sit and wait for the page to finish loading, and others click through before GA registers the visit at all. Well, finally it looks like they've worked out a solution to this problem: asynchronous loading!


Jeff Bridges Admits Iron Man Movie Had No Script [Iron Man]

02 Dec

Iron Man may have seemed as polished as fresh power-armor, but the movie actually had no screenplay at all, says Jeff Bridges. The chaos freaked him out, until he decided to think of it as a $200 million student film.

In an interview with InContention, Bridges explained that the Marvel superhero movie rushed into production to make its release date, with the director and star making up scenes as they went along:

"They had no script, man. They had an outline. We would show up for big scenes every day and we wouldn't know what we were going to say. We would have to go into our trailer and work on this scene and call up writers on the phone, 'You got any ideas?' Meanwhile the crew is tapping their foot on the stage waiting for us to come on."

Bridges, director Jon Favreau and Robert Downey Jr. would literally act out sequences during primitive rehearsals, Downey taking on Bridges's role and vice versa, to find and essentially improvise their way to full scenes, the actor recounts. Bridges says that the entire production was probably saved by the improv prowess of the film's director and star.

"You've got the suits from Marvel in the trailer with us saying, 'No, you wouldn't say that,'" Bridges continued. "You would think with a $200 million movie you'd have the shit together, but it was just the opposite. And the reason for that is because they get ahead of themselves. They have a release date before the script, ‘Oh, we'll have the script before that time,' and they don't have their shit together.

"Jon dealt with it so well," Bridges continues. "It freaked me out. I was very anxious. I like to be prepared. I like to know my lines, man, that's my school. Very prepared. That was very irritating, and then I just made this adjustment. It happens in movies a lot where something's rubbing against your fur and it's not feeling right, but it's just the way it is. You can spend a lot of energy bitching about that or you can figure out how you're going to do it, how you're going to play this hand you've been dealt. What you can control is how you perceive things and your thinking about it. So I said, ‘Oh, what we're doing here, we're making a $200 million student film. We're all just fuckin' around! We're playin'. Oh, great!' That took all the pressure off. ‘Oh, just jam, man, just play.' And it turned out great!"

First off, that's amazing that he called them "suits." He really is The Dude. And second, this is just hilarious. I can't believe they let Robert Downey Jr. and Jon Favreau just run with this stuff. But, thank goodness they did, because what came out was a pretty great action flick blended with biting humor. Still I can't imagine what it must have been for everyone else on set. [InContention via Worst Previews]