Film Review: Thousand Pieces of Gold

Thousand Pieces of GoldMy friends and family know that I have a thing for indie films that pack an emotional wallop. Well, I came across another gem of a movie on Hulu. It’s called Thousand Pieces of Gold and it’s a low-budget indie film from 1991. In fact, the Internet Movie Database gives it 7.3 stars, which is an excellent crowd-sourced rating.

In China during the 1880’s, farmers and herders are facing poverty due to famine conditions and military conflict, exacerbated by the depredations of soldiers who might as well be bandits. Facing an inhospitable winter and likely starvation, Lalu’s father sells her into marriage. Instead of becoming a bride, though, she’s transported to America against her will and sold as an indentured servant.

Lalu ultimately ends up in an Idaho gold-mining town, the property of a Chinese saloon owner who wants to turn her into an exotic whore for the locals. However, he never counted on Lalu’s strong will, which foils him at every turn as she tries to make her own future in this strange new land.

The story does a great job of capturing the turmoil of frontier life in a gold mining town, the culture clash between the Chinese and American residents and the transition of Lalu (admirably played by Rosalind Chao) into a force to be reckoned with, all leavened with a dose of humor and a smidgin of romance (with her love interest played by the inimitable Chris Cooper). I also appreciated the nuanced characterizations, which allowed all of the characters to have shades of gray and white rather than slipping into easy stereotypes.

Even more interesting, the story is based on real life events and real people, as described in the 1981 book by Ruthanne Lum McCunn, Thousand Pieces of Gold, upon which the movie was based.

Not a perfect movie; the ending comes across as a little abrupt. Still, a very good movie and one well-worth your time. Check it out on Hulu or look for it elsewhere.

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Film Review: The Man in the Moon

The Man in the Moon I recently watched The Man in the Moon on Hulu (for free), a 1991 indie drama starring Sam Waterston (from Law and Order fame) and Reese Witherspoon in her first movie role (at about age 15).

It’s 1957 on the Louisiana farm owned by the Trant family. Young Dani Trant (Reese Witherspoon) is a 14-year-old carefree tomboy who looks up to her older sister, Maureen. Mother Abby is pregnant with her third child and father Matthew (Sam Waterston) is the strict, hard-working head of the household. Everything changes when the Fosters move into the farm next door, as both girls fall in love with Cort Foster, the 17-year-old eldest child and acting head of household since the untimely death of his father.

It’s a slowly unfolding coming-of-age story for both girls, with a biting left hook at the end that delivers all of the impact promised by its slow and steady build-up. I liked it a lot. It also featured impeccable acting from all of the principals, but especially from a very young Reese Witherspoon.

Now, this isn’t my usual type of story. I lean towards thrillers, action dramas, crime stories and science fiction. But I also like stories with realistic characters, stories that grab you by the heart and deliver a real emotional impact. The Man in the Moon does this, and it doesn’t have to rely on stunts, CGI, flashy editing or any of the usual tricks of today’s MTV-inspired movies.

Obviously, this movie isn’t going to resonate with all of my friends or readers. Still, if the description sounds at all interesting to you and you have a couple of free hours, there are far worse ways to spend your time (any Transformers movie would be just about the worst).

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Preparing for the 2015 AMC Marathon

The Oscar AwardI don’t know if some of you reading this blog are movie buffs the way I am, but the Oscar nominations for the 87th Academy Awards come out on Wednesday, Jan 14th. What that means is that AMC starts planning their annual AMC Oscar Best Picture Marathon.

Now, there’s only three AMC theaters in the area that do this…but they’ll run a special 2-day marathon (on consecutive Saturdays) where you get to see ALL of the Best Picture nominees for one low price (well, actually, one price for each Saturday). For example, last year I got see four nominees on one weekend, and the remaining five the next weekend. If interested, let me know…’cause I’m doing it again this year with a few of my friends. And tickets go FAST…

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Wanderers: A Short Film

OK, this short film from Erik Wernquist, which leverages the voice of the late Carl Sagan, is just plain cool. You need to watch it, you really do.

Here’s how Erik describes his project:

Wanderers is a vision of humanity’s expansion into the Solar System, based on scientific ideas and concepts of what our future in space might look like, if it ever happens. The locations depicted in the film are digital recreations of actual places in the Solar System, built from real photos and map data where available.

Without any apparent story, other than what you may fill in by yourself, the idea of the film is primarily to show a glimpse of the fantastic and beautiful nature that surrounds us on our neighboring worlds – and above all, how it might appear to us if we were there.

Mesmerizing stuff. For more information (and links to still pictures), see Erik’s article.

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Orphan Black – A Clone is Never Alone

Orphan Black, Season 1 I just binged on Orphan Black (Season 1 – 10 episodes), an awesome TV show about a streetwise hustler who discovers that she’s one of an unknown number of clones.

Who’s behind this experiment? What do they want? Who’s watching them? Who’s trying to kill them? Excellent use of a science fiction premise for a very down-to-earth thriller with lots of twists and turns. Highly recommended!

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AMC Best Picture Marathon 2014, Day 2

AMC Best Picture Showcase 2014, Day 2

Yesterday was awesome! I attended Day 2 of the AMC Best Picture Showcase, which featured the last five of the nine films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar award. They were shown in the order listed above in the picture. Day 1 of the marathon was last weekend, February 22nd, and featured the first four nominated films.

Nebraska was a real sleeper of a movie. Meticulously assembled with awesome performances from everyone involved, and often very funny. Clearly a labor of love on the part of the producers. It was the film I was least interested in, but it turned out to be a perfect little gem of a movie.

Captain Phillips was a riveting battle of wits between the captain of a cargo ship, the crew and some Somali hijackers. Incredible direction by Paul Greengrass and top-notch performances from Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi.

Her was an unusual film. Frankly, I wasn’t sure what to expect. In the near future, a man, played by Joaquin Phoenix, who has recently split with his wife installs a new operating system on his computer. The OS features an artificial intelligence (AI) that learns from experience, and he falls in love with this new “person” in his life. Director Spike Jonez manages to make the romance believable. The AI, Samantha, is admirably played by Scarlett Jonhansson, with a voice-only performance that makes her character seem real despite never appearing onscreen. The story also function as a solid science fiction extrapolation of the potential cultural impact of AI technology. If I have a beef with it, it’s that I’d expect the future to include 3D immersive worlds where Samantha could have easily appeared as an avatar.

Amercian Hustle was a good movie, with excellent performances, but a bit of a sprawling, hot mess. It’s a story of a con man and his female partner forced by the FBI to entrap corrupt politicians during the ’70’s. It featured some excellent performances, but had a few too many twists and turns, and an ending that was just a little too abrupt and convenient. A good film, but not a great one.

Finally, Gravity, in 3D. An excellent, pulse-pounding, ground-breaking film, and a testament to Alfonso Cuaron’s vision. I can pick out some simplifications and lapses in the science, but the film did a miraculous job of catching the intensity of a life-and-death crisis in space.

For me, the clear winner of the day was Gravity, followed by Captain Phillips.

So, for the Oscars, I’m predicting Twelve Years a Slave for Best Picture, with Gravity for Best Director and various technical awards. Her is a serious contender for Best Original Screenplay. Dallas Buyers Club to take both male acting awards.

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AMC Best Picture Marathon 2014, Day 1

AMC Best Picture Showcase 2014 This is the 8th year of a great tradition from AMC Theaters — the AMC Best Picture Showcase. Beginning in 2007, movie buffs around the country have had the opportunity to see all of the movies nominated for the Best Picture award by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for one great price.

I’d heard about this event two years ago from my friend and former boss at General Dynamics, Jessie Link. This is the first year I’ve been able to attend the annual movie marathon, which AMC provided as either a 1-day, 9-movie marathon, or a 2-day, 4-then-5-movie marathon over two weekends. I chose the 2-day option, along with my friends Cheryl Baker and Narayanan Doraswamy.

Day 1 of the marathon was an awesome way to see the Best Picture nominees. My winner for the day was “Philomena” with it’s heart-felt mix of humor, tragedy, anger, and forgiveness. “12 Years a Slave” was riveting, but too brutal for comfortable viewing. “Dallas Buyers Club” was surprisingly uplifting. And “Wolfie” was about a bad boy who never really learned from his mistakes — interesting and crisply directed but not a contender.

I’m really looking forward to Day 2 of the marathon, which will be next Saturday, March 1st (the day before the Oscar Awards). This will be the first time ever that I’ve had a chance to see all of the Best Picture nominees prior to the Oscar Awards.

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Film Review: Forward Unto Dawn

Halo 4: Forward Unto DawnSomething surprising happened this weekend. I watched a good science fiction movie. This happens rarely, because Hollywood doesn’t really understand SF. I usually watch an SF movie with hopeful trepidation, expecting my hopes for a movie with a comprehensible plot, believable science, and strong characters to be dashed with callous disregard by overhyped directors or buried under overblown CGI. When the end of the movie arrives, and none of these things have happened, then the reaction slowly sinks in: “Hey, that was a pretty good movie.”

The film I watched was Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn, and it has a very interesting history. Halo is a popular game series created by Microsoft (well, some other companies actually did the game development work) for the XBox platform. The games are military-oriented combat games set in a complex and well-defined background reminiscent of Larry Niven’s Known Space series.

The story of the making of the film is almost as interesting as the film itself.

The Making of the Film

With Halo 4 about to be released, Microsoft wanted to do something new and different to help promote the game. They’d had success previously with some online video teasers, directed by Neill Blomkamp, the director of District 9 and Elysium. They decided to up the ante by producing a web series to promote the release of the latest game, with five episodes of 15-minutes or more to be released online. The producers went one step further and decided to created a story that would allow the five segments to slot together seamlessly as a 90-minute movie.

Microsoft dedicated a budget of about 10 million dollars to the web series. Depending on how you look at it, this probably makes it the most expensive web series of all time, or a solid low-budget film. The film also has more than 400 CGI shots, which is far less than the average Hollywood tentpole movie, but far more than a typical low-budget indie film.

The Film

Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn takes place in 2525 and tells the story of Thomas Lasky, a young cadet at the Corbulo Military Academy. Humanity has spread out across the stars and now has colonies on many planets, with order maintained by the United Nations Space Command (UNSC). However, all is not well. There is widespread unrest across the colonies, and a group known as the Insurrectionists are fighting what amounts to a civil war against the UNSC.

Against this backdrop, Lasky and his fellow cadets are learning the art of war. The film is very effective at making this futuristic military school seem believable. Meanwhile, Lasky is conflicted about the war with the Insurrectionists, and has decisions to make about whether his future lies in the military. All of the cadets are unaware that a new and even more dangerous war is about to start.

The film has a solid, coming-of-age plot that works very well. The characters seem believable, although one could quibble that they’re a little bit stereotypical. However, the spot-on dialog and crisp direction make them seem very real in a short period of time. I also liked the prologue that introduced the cadets — experimental though it might have been, I thought it worked exceedingly well.

The action, both the training exercises and later combat scenes, were stunning. I have read some reviews that described the movie as a little slow in the beginning. I disagree. I thought it was exceptionally well-paced. The concentration on character development made you actually care about the characters, which was essential to the conclusion of the film. I can only conclude that younger film-goers may be unfamiliar with character development, probably because it’s so seldom seen in Hollywood blockbusters like the (awful) Transformers movies.

My biggest quibble with the movie comes from the framing story, which may be somewhat opaque to an audience unfamiliar with the Halo universe. Accordingly, I will provide some explanation of the framing story. I don’t think that explaining the framing story in advance detracts from the film, but some may consider it a spoiler. Accordingly, skip to the conclusion if you don’t want to see the explanation until later.

After the prologue introducing the cadets, the film credits show the interior of a wrecked starship, the Forward Unto Dawn, which was ripped apart at the end of the game, Halo 3. The ship’s AI, Cortana, has a sent a Mayday signal, and has subsequently begun to go slowly insane (which will be a running plot thread in the Halo 4 game). The only survivor on board the ship is the legendary, genetically engineered soldier known as the Master Chief, who has gone into cryo storage until he’s needed. After more than four years, the distress signal is received by a much older Thomas Lasky, clearly a high-level commander in the military.

Most of the movie is a flashback, as Thomas Lasky remembers his time at the Corbulo Military Academy, and his first encounter with the Master Chief. At the end of the film, Lasky and the ships under his command move off into slipspace to answer the distress signal, which directly initiates the events of the Halo 4 game.

Conclusion

It’s a solid film, with a complex and consistent science fiction background, characters that you can care about, dangerous aliens, and stunningly realistic combat. It’s also got, as far as I know, the first instance of a space elevator (or space tether as the producers referred to it) to ever appear in a film. To me, that by itself is kind of a big deal.

I recommend the film to both Halo fans and to others outside the game community who just want to see a good movie. My one caveat for “outsiders” is that the framing story may be a little confusing to those not familiar with the game background.

The movie is available on DVD and Blu-Ray. Since it was released to help advertise the game, it’s also free to watch in many venues, such as Hulu. The DVD/Blu-Ray editions have about an hour of extras, which I thought was well worth the price.

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Film Review: Europa Report

A new indie film called Europa Report was released on August 2nd. Like Monsters (see my review) in 2010, this low-budget effort was released to a limited theatrical distribution and simultaneously made available on iTunes and other on-demand platforms. I discovered the buzz about the film online and decided to check it out yesterday, so I rented it from iTunes for $6.99.

Europa Report

The film describes a private space mission to Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter, and the place in our solar system besides Earth believed most likely to harbor life by scientists. Europa is covered by ice, but tidal flexing and the warmth of the moon’s core are believed to have created a vast ocean of liquid water underneath the ice — warmth and liquid water are considered to be the necessary conditions for life to develop.

The mission is stunningly realistic, from the underlying science to the technologies used during the mission. The crew members even sound like astronauts. The film makers consulted extensively with NASA and other companies involved in space to ensure as much accuracy as possible, a goal that they certainly achieved.

Here’s the trailer for the film:

But was the film any good?

Yes, I enjoyed it quite a bit. However, the way that the film was shot will appeal to some people, and not others. The film is told out of order, and ostensibly assembled using “found footage” — the footage being all of the stationary cameras available throughout the ship, as well as the camera inside the spacesuits that focuses on the face of crew members. It’s an interesting conceit, and it mostly works, although it makes the film seem a little disjointed at times.

The acting was reasonably good, although we don’t get deep into the characters of any of the crew members. Still, the performances are solid, if not inspired, and serve to carry the story forward well enough. I liked the fact that the crew never gives up, no matter what happens. To me, that seems true to the spirit of the type of explorer that would go on a mission like this.

The film was directed by Sebastián Cordero. The only well known actors in the film are Sharlto Copley (from District 9) and Michael Nyqvist (from the original version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, i.e. — the one that I liked, as opposed to the cold, passionless American version).

It’s an excellent indie SF film. Recommended for SF fans, space fans and anybody that’s willing to watch a film that, despite some flaws, succeeds admirably at what it tries to accomplish. It’s a smart, scientifically accurate and riveting depiction of a futuristic space mission.

Europa Rocket Launch
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Smash and Nashville

I’ve been getting teased a little bit lately because my friends know that I like the TV shows Smash and Nashville. For those who might not be familiar with the shows, let me provide a brief overview before I explain why I like them.

SmashSmash, now in its second season and struggling for ratings, follows a group of people as they try to develop a Broadway musical. Key characters include:

  • Eileen Rand, Producer: She has tons of experience working on Broadway plays with her philandering husband, a ruthless, rich and successful producer. While going through a bitter divorce, she’s looking to step out of her ex-husband’s shadow and make a name for herself.

  • Julia Houston, Writer: She’s part of a highly successful Broadway writing team with Tom Levitt. She’s come up with the idea of making a musical about Marilyn Monroe’s life.

  • Tom Levitt, Composer and Musical Director: He’s part of a famous Broadway writing team with Julia Houston. He’s been partnered with Julia for a long time, but is he ready for something new?

  • Derek Willis, Director: A brilliant but difficult director, with flaws that may either sink the production or propel it into the stratosphere.

  • Ivy Lynn, Actress: An experienced actress, singer and dancer. She’s worked in the business for a long time and she’ll do just about anything to land her big break, a starring role in a major Broadway production.

  • Karen Cartwright, Actress: A young, naive actress who’s also looking for her big break. But how badly does she really want it? Is she willing to do what’s going to be required in order to make the new production a hit?

There are numerous other supporting characters, but those are the main ones.

Nashville - The TV ShowLike Smash, the new show, Nashville, follows the trials and tribulations of a group of creative professionals, this time in the competitive field of country music.

Key characters include:

  • Rayna Jaymes, Singer: A legendary country music superstar possibly facing the long, slow twilight of her career…unless she can re-invent herself.

  • Juliette Barnes, Singer: A young superstar who has achieved fame as a teen sensation. But now she wants to transform herself from a teen fad into a serious country singer.

  • Deacon Claybourne, Guitarist: A top country guitarist and former lover of Rayna James. He’s sought after by both Rayna James and Juliette Barnes for both his penetrating musical insights and his superb guitar work.

  • Scarlett O’Connor, Singer, Songwriter: The niece of Deacon Claybourne, and an unexpectedly talented entertainer in her own right. Is she ready for the spotlight?

  • Avery Barkley, Singer, Guitarist: A bad-boy aspiring musician and the boyfriend of Scarlett O’Connor. If there’s a wrong turn or a bad decision to be made, he’ll probably find it.

  • Gunnar Scott, Composer, Guitarist: Scarlett O’Connor’s friend and musical partner. He’s a nice guy, but does he have what it takes to launch his musical career and win the love of his musical partner?

Like Smash, this show also has a ton of supporting characters.


I’ll be the first to admit that both shows have their flaws. There are soap opera aspects to the lives, and loves, of many of the characters from these shows. But what the shows both do very well is to illustrate the joys, and perils, of creative careers.

Let’s contrast this, for a moment, with a show like the new Dallas, where most of the main characters are young, beautiful, smart and rich. They seem to spend all of their time scheming, back-stabbing and sleeping around. Although some of them are characterized as “brilliant,” you don’t really see any of them actually doing any work.

In Smash, the writers struggle to find the heart of the story that they want to tell about Marilyn Monroe. The two main actresses, both extremely talented, each compete with all their heart for a role that only one of them can win. The producer struggles to fund the production of the show, while dealing with treachery from both within the crew and from outside the production.

These people are working. They are hustling. They’re trying to bring something into existence that didn’t previously exist. They’re struggling to beat the odds. That’s…not something you generally see on TV, people actually working (you certainly don’t see it on Dallas).

I feel similarly about Nashville.

The aging country singer, Rayna James, is trying to be true to herself, while struggling to produce music that’s relevant both to herself and the audience. The upstart singer, Juliette Barnes, whether she realizes it or not, is trying to transform herself from a bubblegum teen sensation into the next Rayna James.

All of the singers and musicians in the show are struggling to produce quality music and to transform themselves in various ways. They are working, and struggling, in a creative profession.

Yes, there’s glitz, glamor and soap opera aspects to both of these shows, but I find it invigorating to watch shows about creative professionals…working. It’s such a novelty.

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