Miscellaneous musings from the perspective of a lefty (both senses) atheist with a warped sense of humor.

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Location: Madison, WI, United States

I am a geek, but I do have some redeeming social skills. I love other people's dogs, cats, and kids. Snow sucks, but I'm willing to put up with it just to live in Madison.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Knowing Witch Mountain

SASS*: Nothing to see here; move along.

Rating scale: 9 (superlative) to 1 (execrable)
Short story: 9-7, recommended; 6-4, up to you; 3-1, eschew
Ratings intended for: adult SF&F fans

This Week’s SF&F Movies

Race to Witch Mountain (PG, 1:38) — 4
(opened last week)

Dwayne Johnson plays Jack Bruno, Las Vegas cabbie, and Carla Gugino is Dr. Alex Friedman, UFO expert. Perhaps you saw the preview in which Bruno and Friedman are crawling thru a tubular tunnel and she admits to a bit of claustrophobia. Just then Bruno reaches an opening into a deep vertical shaft and asks “How are you with heights?”. It was a good scene, with a bit of low-key but contextually appropriate humor that the former Rock has learned to deliver effectively, making him a big, strapping brute of a guy that you feel comfortable with. But that scene isn’t in the film itself. Instead, we see the aftermath, in which Friedman is still a bit freaked out, for no apparent reason.

The rest of the movie was like that, too. People seemed to be doing things with no credible motives. The 2 adults flee from no fewer than 4 sets of pursuers exhibiting varying degrees of hostility (The Government, a space-alien cross between Predator and Inspector Javert, Bruno’s former mob boss Mr. Wolf and his henchthugs, and the LVPD). They do so to protect 2 teenage Swedish, I mean space, aliens who are here to retrieve the mcguffin, um, recording device that will prevent their planet from launching a hostile takeover, uh, invasion. The gal of the pair, Sara, is played by AnnaSophia Robb. We know from her performance in Bridge to Terabithia (2007, 9**) that she can be a tremendously appealing young actress, but here she gets to do stuff like pointing her finger and monotonically saying “Go that way, Jack Bruno.”. The boy, Seth, is played by Alexander Ludwig, a cipher.

The government’s head alien tracker warns Bruno that the kids are not what they seem to be. Anyone who’s ever seen a science-fiction movie (which apparently includes precisely zero of any characters who are actually in an SF movie) can only begin to imagine what might lurk beneath those placid blond exteriors, but this proves singularly untroubling for Bruno, leading right up to the snuggle-bunny ending (Disney, y’know), which was likewise not well set up by any of the preceding events.

The scenes set at a UFO convention make good sport of fannish stereotypes, which some people might find offensive but I choose to treat as endearing. And I loved the sly humor that they did leave in the script, wherein Bruno asks the kids “Do you know how to fly this [flying saucer]?”, they respond “How do you think we got here?”, and he replies “Well, you crashed!”. More of that, from another couple of passes thru the typer, would have earned this one an upgrade.

Knowing (PG-13, 2:01) — 4

Harrison Ford is clearly the most famous actor with a long history of SF&F films, but Tom Cruise had a nice little run of his own (Vanilla Sky, 2001, 7; Minority Report, 2002, 8; War of the Worlds, 2005, 5). We’ll pass quietly over Keanu Reeves. Brendan Fraser has made a career, if not exactly a name, in the genre. And now we need to acknowledge that Nicolas Cage is lending his considerable screen cred to our favorite kind of flix. The question going into this TEOTWAWKI epic is whether it would be a splendid effort like Next (2007, 8) or a disappointment like Ghost Rider (2007, 5). Alas, it’s a fuddled testimonial to Calvinism’s doctrine of predestination.

50 years ago, kids in suburban Massachusetts did a bunch of drawings intended for their new elementary school’s time capsule — except for 1 odd little girl, who just filled her paper with endless digits. Cut to 2009, where that paper winds up in the hands of little Caleb Koestler, son of widowed and cynical MIT professor John Koestler (Cage). Among the plethora of digits is the string “911012996”. Now, you might think that it was the “911” that captured Koestler’s attention, but no; he writes the string on a whiteboard and then spends some time mulling where to put the slash marks. The “2996” is, of course, the death toll on that fateful day, and Koestler soon discovers the dates and fatality counts of many other disasters in the previous half century — plus 3 that are slotted for the next couple of days. Every such entry is also trailed by a string of other digits, and the genii at MIT are unable to figure out at 1st what they mean. (Of my 1st 2 instantaneous hypotheses — location and junk DNA — the more obvious proved correct.) But it’s asinine for a fellow prof to liken the predictions to numerology (as in The Number 23) or suggest that maybe Koestler is following in the delusional footsteps of John Nash (brilliantly depicted in A Beautiful Mind) when the numbers are so clearly related to real, and supposedly unpredictable, events.

Koestler tries to prevent the predicted disasters, but to no avail. Evidently it’s all been written down in the Big Book in the Sky eons ago, and mere mortals are powerless before destiny. It goes on like this, getting progressively gloomier, until we arrive at an improbable ending that makes The Day the Earth Stood Still look like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.

The acting and effects are quite convincing while you’re in the theater, the kids are cute, and the dialog (under the circumstances) is realistic, so the flik isn’t an absolute dog.

Still in Theaters

Bedtime Stories — 6
Coraline — 8 (in 3-D at Star and Sundance)
Twilight — 7
Watchmen — 9 (in Imax at Star)

Mark Your Calendars

Mar. 27: The Haunting in Connecticut (OK, maybe don’t mark this one)
Mar. 27: Monsters vs. Aliens
Apr. 8: Dragonball: Evolution
Apr. 17: 17 Again
Apr. 24 (maybe): Mutant Chronicles
May 1: Battle for Terra
May 1: X-Men Origins: Wolverine
May 8: Star Trek
May 21: Terminator Salvation
May 22: Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian
May 29: Drag Me to Hell
May 29: Up
June 5: Land of the Lost
June 12: Moon
June 19: Year 1
June 24: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
July 1: Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs
July 17: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
July 24: G-Force (not the Packers, they’re guinea pigs)
July 31: They Came from Upstairs
Aug. 7: Shorts (kids discover magic rocks)
Aug. 14: District 9
Aug. 14: The Time Traveler’s Wife (adapted? from the novel)
Aug. 28: Final (hah!) Destination: Death Trip 3D
Sep. 4: Game
Sep. 4: Pandorum
Sep. 9: 9 (Get it? 9/9/09! Do not confuse with “Nine”, a musical remake of “8 1/2”)
Sep. 18: Jennifer’s Body (demonic castration paranoia from Diablo Cody)
Sep. 18: Splice
Sep. 23: Astro Boy
Sep. 25: The Crazies
Sep. 25: Surrogates
Sep. 25: This Side of the Truth
Oct. 9: Zombieland
Oct. 16: Where the Wild Things Are
Oct. 30: The Box
Nov. 6: The Wolf Man
Nov. 13: 2012
Dec. 11: The Lovely Bones
Not Sayin’: The Road
Maybe Next Year: Timecrimes

*short attention span synopsis
**best SF&F film of the 21st Century so far


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