Sunday, February 19, 2012


Over the past couple of months, I took my family through all the X-Men movies, brought to us by that wonderful DVD-by-mail institution that is Netflix.  I had already seen the first two movies and wanted my kids to see the coolness, so I went ahead and ordered all five.

The first X-Men delivered.  It successfully brought to the screen some of America's favorite superheros: Charles Xavier, Storm, Cyclops, Wolverine, Jean Grey, and Rogue.  On the bad guy side, it brought Magneto and Mystique, plus two others I wasn't familiar with: Sabretooth and Toad.

Like in most comic books, the "bad" guys aren't just bad.  Rather, they are conflicted.  Magneto simply desires to preserve the future of the "mutant race."  He does what he thinks is best for the mutants.

Likewise, the "good" guys aren't perfect.  They also have their issues.  Even Xavier with all his good intentions and moral values has his shortcomings.  His naivete allows himself to be bested (as seems to happen in all the movies he's in).  Wolverine and Cyclops are always at each other's throats.  Rogue hates her powers.

I only have two complaints.  The first being the separation of "mutants" and "humans."  Aren't "mutants" still a subset of "humans"?

The second complaint is the relatively slow plot.  Just like in the first Harry Potter movie, a lot of time is spent introducing the characters.  The end of the movie almost feels like, "That was it?"

Still, it is a fun movie to get to know your favorite X-Men characters.

I enjoyed the sequel, X2, more than the first.  The characters were already introduced, and the writers spent more time fleshing out the characters and plot.  This time, the bad guy is a human, Striker.  This brings an "enemy-of-my-enemy" twist where Magneto works with Xavier in a parallel play fashion.

The movie explores several different relationships.  You have the complicated friend/enemy relationship between Xavier and Magneto.  There's more of the Grey/Wolverine/Cyclops triangle.  Mystique struggles with her intentions as she meets someone like her: Nightcrawler.  Iceman and Pyro have at it as they decide which side to join.  Rogue continues to deal with not being able to touch anyone.  Wolverine continues to learn more about his origins.

Filled with action and cool special effects, this movie never lets up, and is still one of my favorite out of the set of five.

X-Men: The Last Stand ends the original trilogy and is the movie to end all X-Men movies.  People die.  Questions are answered in this epic conclusion.

When a "cure" is found, at first it's offered as a voluntary way for mutants to lose their powers and become "human."  But it turns out to be not so voluntary.  In fact, the anti-mutants develop this cure as a needle weapon.  Shoot the mutant and he loses his powers.

Also, Jean Grey has gone hyper-evolutiony.  She wants to be good but has trouble controlling her exponentially increased powers.  Xavier tries to help her remain in control, while Magneto wants to help her release her powers and reach her full potential.

The movie builds to an epic Spielbergian-like battle (that is, a few good guys take on an impossibly high number of bad guys), but a lot of the deaths and losses of power seem somewhat empty.  Part of that might be a sense of, "This is an X-Men movie, and some super power will bring that person back, right?"  Part of it might be a lack of good writing to help us feel the loss.

Either way, if you watched and liked the first two movies, this third one is a must-see.  You have to see how it ends, right?

X-Men Origins: Wolverine is the 4th movie, but chronologically, it comes first.  It also has a much different feel.  The main constant is Hugh Jackman, the only actor to appear in all five movies.  Also, the writers made every effort to remain consistent with what we learned from the first three movies.

Who is Wolverine, and how did he become who he was?  Why doesn't he remember anything?  How does Striker fit in, and what exactly did he do?  All of these questions are answered.

It turns out that Wolverine is practically immortal, as is his older brother, Victor.  Throughout the years, they stick together and watch each other.  When they join a secret government team, they begin to diverge.  Victor doesn't mind doing the questionable things they're asked to do, but Wolverine wants to do the right thing.  He leaves the team, or at least he tries to.

This may be my second favorite movie out of the five.  It's definitely another must-see if you liked the earlier movies.  Easter Egg note: unlike with the trilogy movies, the "X" in 20th Century Fox is not illuminated at the beginning of the movie.  Dang!

Finishing off the X-Men-athon is X-Men: First Class.  This prequel begins with Xavier meeting Erik (soon to be Magneto).  Erik is trying to hunt the Nazi who killed his mother.  Xavier tries to help Erik control his hate and focus his powers.  This leads Xavier to build his school, recruit mutants, and train them.

Kevin Bacon plays an awesome villain (as usual).  However, he's so powerful that we end up with the same problem the earlier movies have.  Xavier locates hundreds if not thousands of mutants, and he's only able to recruit less than ten.  And somehow they're supposed to beat this experienced team of super-powered bad dudes?

I enjoyed exploring the relationship between Xavier and Erik.  Together with the trilogy, it completes their operatic story.  This was the strongest part of the movie.

Also, we learn more of the relationship between Erik and Mystique.  We learn why Mystique walks around naked in the trilogy movies.  However, this part of the movie bored me.  I don't know how many times I can take, "You're beautiful just the way you are."

A word of warning: this last movie happens to be the least kid-friendly.  My kids pointed out that the first movie was okay.  The second had a couple more sexy scenes.  The third even more.  The Wolverine movie wasn't that bad, but First Class was definitely the worst, as the director made sure to push that PG-13 rating to its furthest limits.  He included some unnecessary Vegas scenes with half naked girls.  And Wolverine's cameo appearance featured the movie's one F-bomb.  That was a funny scene except for the fact that Wolverine never swore like that in the other movies.  To me he looked more like the Comedian from Watchmen.

If you watched the trilogy and liked those movies, you might as well watch this one, too and finish up the story.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The 3D Scam

The long awaited 3D release of Star Wars - Episode I has hit the theaters, but I won't be going.  Let me explain why.

First off, I love a good 3D movie.  I was that kid who wore the red and blue glasses wherever I went.  In fact, I still have an emergency supply of about 50 of those glasses.  You never know when someone's going to post something cool in 3D on the internet!

I remember watching the original House of Wax when it was re-released in the late 70s.  That movie has some cool 3D effects that were unmatched until Avatar came out.  Here's the iconic paddle-ball scene.  (Make sure to grab your emergency pair of red/blue 3D glasses!)

How do 3D glasses work?  Simple--all you have to do is emulate the natural parallax that our two eyes provide.  What image do you see with your right eye?  And what image do you see with your left eye?  Put those two images together, and the differences in the angles, and what one eye sees that the other doesn't, provide the information the brain needs to judge distances.  This emulation process is so simple to understand, that I was able to produce cool drawings in high school.  The lines come out of the paper, and I impressed many girls.  < I'll post one of these drawings as soon as I find one. >

Okay, so 3D is a simple process.  If you have right-eye info and left-eye info, you have 3D.  To shoot film in 3D, you put two cameras next to each other.

However, once you've shot a 2D movie (using just one camera), you only have info from one eye.  There is simply insufficient data to create a true 3D image.  You can estimate it using focus/out of focus data.  Or you can manually take each frame and judge: "I'll put this guy here, and this gun that he's holding will come out of the screen this much, etc."  Sound familiar?  This is exactly what people went through to colorize old movies.  At the time, people thought it was a good idea, but you know what?  Today, no one admits that anyone ever successfully pulled it off.  The colors always look unnatural.

It's the same with converting 2D movies into 3D.  There just isn't a way to pull it off perfectly, and the results are distracting.  Case in point: Clash of the Titans (2010).  The 3D conversion was so terrible that characters' heads appeared to be detached from their own bodies.  The result was distracting and all the reviewers unanimously warned us viewers NOT to watch the movie in 3D.  I took their word for it and watched it in 2D.  I also remember seeing a preview for the movie Piranha 3-D (2010), and thinking, "This 3D is terrible!  How could any professional producer let this inferior product hit the screens?"

Some 3D conversions are better than others.  I'm sure all the CGI in the Star Wars prequel movies will be awesome, as the 3D information will most likely already be there.  That's how Pixar was able to successfully produce Toy Story 1 and 2 in 3D.  Since the original animation was produced with 3D imaging, the needed information already existed to produce the true 3D image.  This type of info doesn't exist anywhere in the original Star Wars trilogy.  I wonder how they're going to manage that.

But, yeah--if you watch Star Wars I, expect to see some cool 3D effects, but anything that's not CGI will be a toss up, and it would only take one instance of Obi Wan's nose floating in front of his face to ruin it all.

I actually wouldn't mind going to see the movie and judging how well they did the 3D conversion, if it weren't for the "scam" going on right now.  It's not that anyone's doing anything illegal, but like cell phone companies charging exorbitant texting fees and charging for receiving unsolicited texts, it's something the movie industry's doing and will continue doing as long as we, the consumers, let them.

This 2D-to-3D conversion is a recent boon for the movie industry.  3D movies are in, and everyone wants a piece of the action.  If it's cheaper to film in 2D and then convert to 3D, then an inexperienced 3D producer will go for it.

And look what's going on at the box office.  You have to pay an extra $3 fee per ticket "for the glasses."  I once asked if I could use my own pair that I saved from the last movie, and was told that I have to use the glasses specific to that movie.  While that once used to be the case, just about every movie produced in the last few years USES THE SAME 3D GLASSES produced by Real3D.

Also, outside the theater, they ask you to put your glasses into those recycle bins.  Do you ever wonder what happens to them?  If they throw them out, then that's a terrible waste of material.  If they clean them and repackage them, there's still no way that the costs of recycling get anywhere near $3.

We should call it what it really is: a fee to cover the extra costs of producing the 3D.

With that in mind, now you, the consumer, should know which movies deserve to get that extra $3.  Movies like Avatar went out of their way to give us some of the most awesome 3D effects in our generation.  On the other hand, movies like Clash of the Titans decided at the very last minute to convert to 3D, hoping to pull in an extra buck.  Their costs were nowhere near what Avatar spent, and the results were disastrous.  Yet, they pocketed that extra $3 per ticket.

How do you know which movies are really shot in 3D?  You could either do a Google search on the movie's name and add in quotes "shot in 3D," or you can visit this site I found:  It lists which movies have "real" 3D and which ones are "fake."  (The only place I disagree is with Transformers 3D, where most of it actually was shot in 3D, and the only reason to really watch it is the awesome 3D effects.)

So, when you want to see a movie, go check it out.  If it was shot in 3D, go ahead and pay the extra $3.  They deserve it.  If not shot in 3D, watch the movie in 2D and help put an end to this silly 3D conversion scam.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Goodbye, Chuck

After five fun seasons, "Chuck" has come to an end.  When it first came out, I was attracted by the nerdy "I don't know what I'm doing" spy angle.

Chuck was a young, geeky, intelligent college screw-up.  He worked at the Buy More fixing computers in the Nerd Herd.  It was the best job he could find.  Thus at the very beginning we had a guy frustrated with some dead end job, knowing he could do a lot more.  He was surrounded by idiots who got in the funniest situations.

Everything changed when his old college buddy sent Chuck an email containing a virus that would upload an entire super-secret database (the Intersect) into his mind.  Then the CIA and NSA each sent an agent to watch over and protect the "asset."  The CIA sent the sexy Sarah Parker (seen in the promo above), and the NSA sent John Casey (Adam Baldwin almost reprising his role in "Firefly").

The first season revolved around a hilarious love/hate triangle between Chuck and these two agents.  Chuck fell in love with Sarah as they went through their cover as boyfriend/girlfriend.  John Casey tried to keep everything professional, knowing that when the mission is over, he would have to terminate Chuck.

This first season had a lot of energy, combining fun spy action with nerdy comedy and silly situations.  Yes, it was easy to see that the spy action was convoluted and written so as to set up the silly situations, but the comedy was so funny, hardly anyone cared.  The funniest moment comes to mind when Chuck was controlling an explosive missile.  It had to go somewhere, so he guided it to hit Casey's beloved Crown Victoria.  BOOM!!!  And the look on Casey's face--priceless.

Later seasons got more interesting, but never quite maintained the energy from the first season.  Throughout the years, we got to meet Chuck's Dad, who turned out to be the one who created the Intersect.  Then we met his Mom, who also turned out to be a super secret spy.  Chuck got an Intersect upgrade at the end of Season 2.  ("I know Kung Fu.")  So, in Season 3, he got to be a real super secret spy, fleshing out his Carmichael persona.   Of course, at first he didn't do it right.

Slowly, we saw Chuck's bushy hair transform into a more sexy kept hairdo.  As he came to lose the Intersect, and then watch it go into his best friend, Morgan, we watched as Chuck tried to keep him from making the same mistakes.

We saw several villains.  I can't remember one major villain from the first season, unless you count the college friend, Bryce who turned out to be kind of a traitor, but not really.  He's the one who got Chuck kicked out of college, sort of.  Other villains included the Ring, Folcrum, Volkoff, Volkoff's daugther, Chuck's mom, Daniel Shaw, and one last one at the end: Nicholas Quinn, the guy who was supposed to get the Intersect instead of Chuck.

The show had a good run.  It ended at a good spot.  Everyone got a happy ending (like the Subway moving in with the Buy More--much to Big Mike's delight), except for perhaps Chuck and Sarah.

They say you shouldn't introduce new characters and new situations at the end of a story, and this is one case where I agree.  Sarah lost her memory with only two episodes left for the writers to resolve the conflict.  And with the show over, in my opinion, they were unsuccessful.  Sarah losing her memory did provide some emotional tension, but so close to the end, it also added a lot of unnecessary confusion, when the writers should have been spending more time closing off all the loose ends.

The show ended with a kiss.  Did it bring back Sarah's memories?  Did it simply signify her decision to make it all work even though she had none of her memories?  Such a bittersweet ending would work in a movie or in a series built around the premise, but not here in "Chuck."  It just doesn't fit, and it was nowhere near fleshed out fully.  I'm not thinking, "Oh, how sweet and sad." Instead, I'm thinking, "I don't care."

But then again, it's always hard to write that last episode of any series.  I'll always remember "Chuck" as that funny show that was part of my life for a few years.  It proved that even we nerds can have fun.  We need more shows like that.  :)