Friday, June 28, 2013

Mark at the Movies: Monsters University

Plot: Meet Mike Wazowski and James P. "Sully" Sullivan before they became fast friends. See them in a college setting, learning how to scare small human children and thus create the power that their world uses for energy in this Disney/Pixar prequel. Anyone who has spent time on a college campus will recognize the stereotypes here, represented by fraternities and sororities - the jocks, the hipster girls, the goth outcasts, and of course, the losers and nerds. Mike and Sully manage to get themselves expelled from the Scare Program early in the film, but a daring bet with the school's Headmaster will get them back into the program if their team wins the "Scare Games." A loss, however, will result in their expulsion from the school all together. Those Scare Games become the central piece of the film, and are the chief vehicle for our characters to grow and come to know one another, quirks, faults, and all.

Players: Billy Crystal and John Goodman return to voice Big Eye Mike and Big Furry Sully. Steve Buscemi is also back as the voice of Randy, the disappearing chameleon-like monster. Helen Mirren does a bang-up job as the stern voice of Dean Hardscrabble, the school's headmaster. Comic actors Sean Hayes and Dave Foley serve as two-headed Terri/Terry Perry. The respected Alfred Molina plays a small role as Professor Knight, and Nathan Fillion takes a turn as BMOC (Big Monster On Campus) as Johnny Worthington. Other well-known actors have bit parts: Bonnie Hunt, John Krasinski, Joel Murray, Julia Sweeney, Bill Hader and of course, it wouldn't be a Pixar movie if John Ratzenberger didn't stick his characteristic voice in.

Pilot: Dan Scanlan directed, conceived the story, and contributed to the screenplay. He's written for other Pixar movies (most notably Cars) and has directed some of their shorts, as well as a small budget "mockumentary" film called Tracy done four years ago. This was his first big budget directing job.

Performance: In many ways, the story reminded me of the 1984 comedy, Revenge of the Nerds. Mike and Sully find themselves pledged to Oozma Kappa (their slogan: "We're OK!"), a collection of social outcasts and misfits, and - as good stories often do - we get to see their evolution into the characters we enjoyed in the first Monsters movie. And not just the leads, but the rest of their fraternity brethren, as well. But the road is hardly smooth, and the writers and actors have done a very credible job here in providing obstacles and ways to overcome them. There's a very nice bit at the end of the film bridging the gap between the college years and the "BFF" duo we see in the original Monsters, Inc. And do stay through the credits, as there is a brief scene at the end, though it's likely to just leave you a little sad.

Point: Friendship. Living up to your parents expectations. Telling the truth. Letting your natural talents lead you to happiness. Overcoming your natural weaknesses with the help of friends. These are all themes touched on or explored in depth within the context of the story.

Particulars: Rated G, there is nothing objectionable here. Small children may find Dean Hardscrabble's character somewhat frightening, and certainly intimidating. But here even the bad guys are lovable.

Raymond's Rating: I'm going with two-and-a-half stars (out of four) on this prequel. While there were a tremendous amount of creative touches throughout and it was definitely an enjoyable experience, the story just didn't feel terribly original for me and unlike the first film, there were only a couple of spots where I laughed right out loud. Let's put it this way: it's a great film at matinee pricing.


Mark's Musings is published on a periodical basis - right now on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays - but that may change without notice. Find me on Twitter at This blog is considered to be a digital periodical publication and is filed as such with the U.S. Library of Congress; ISSN 2154-9761. The Scare Games. Let's call them a Monster Dash.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

This Stuff is Amazing.

Wow. Not to shill for Rust-oleum or Home Depot (where this product appears to be sold exclusively), but this video was truly, truly impressive.

Science marches on. 

I wonder if you could spray it all over yourself and keep from drowning?


Now I'm just being silly.


Mark's Musings is published on a periodical basis - right now on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays - but that may change without notice. Find me on Twitter at This blog is considered to be a digital periodical publication and is filed as such with the U.S. Library of Congress; ISSN 2154-9761. Wow. Just wow.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Mark at the Movies: Man of Steel

Superman has a long and storied run on both television and in movies. Created in 1933 by Jerry Siegel and Joel Shuster while they were both in high school, his story was sold to DC Comics in 1938 and the rest, as they say, is history.

His first televised appeareance, according to the Internet Movie Database, was in the 1952 show Adventures of Superman where he was portrayed by George Reeves. He turned up for the first time in a cinematic production in 1978, portrayed by Christopher Reeve (no relation) who filled the role for a total of four movies through 1987, each one successively worse than its predecessor. They were so bad that the Man of Steel disappeared from Hollywood for half a decade, finally coming full circle as a fairly successful television show in 1993 under the title Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman with Teri Hatcher and Dean Cain in the lead roles. The show enjoyed a four-year run. It's success sparked an animated cartoon that began in 1996 and also ran for four seasons. 

And then mild-mannered Clark Kent (Superman's alter ego) went underground for another five years when the movie franchise underwent what has come to be known as a "reboot" with the film, Superman Returns in 2006, starring Brandon Routh. It built on the storylines in the first set of movies and perhaps for that reason, lost money and Superman would not return again.

Until this year, when the story was given a re-reboot, this one under the title, Man of Steel. If nothing else, filmmaking technology and computer-generated imagery (CGI) have been much updated so that this movie could be more "super" than any of its ancestors.

Plot: As anyone who hasn't lived under a rock or off the grid over the past 70 years should know by now, Krypton is a dying planet of beings much farther along the scientific path than we humans. Too late to save their world, in this version not only is Kal-El (Superman's Kryptonian name) packed up and shipped off to Earth, but he also carries with him on the trip the entire genetic future of Krypton in a "codex," which is a fancy (and archaic) way of saying database. And truth to tell, it's not an *entirely* accurate use of the term, but I shan't nit-pick. The Kryptonian military general - Zod - who was attempting to stage a planetary coup and in some fashion save Krypton, is exiled to the Phantom Zone for his crimes and yet vows to track down Kal-El and retrieve the codex, saving his people's future. Superman's early years are then depicted and show us his serving around the world in an itinerant laborer sort of fashion, coming to the rescue whenever tragedy occurs, and this forces him to move on to the next gig. We see bits of his childhood in well done flashback scenes. Enter Lois Lane, Daily Planet reporter, who embeds herself with a military excavation at the south pole where some kind of space vessel has been discovered, frozen in the ice for almost 20,000 years. She spies Superman (in yet another itinerant disguise) attempting to quietly slip away and explore the vessel himself, and follows. That decision entwines her fate and future with his as she becomes bound and determined to discover his secrets. On the ship, Superman finally learns his true identity and flies it away to the other pole, but doing so activates a distress beacon that alerts Zod - who escaped from the Phantom Zone when Krypton exploded - to his whereabouts. An epic confrontation that would be an insurance agent's nightmare follows as Earth, Superman, and all of mankind's fate hangs in the balance. (Whew! Long plot - but the movie is nearly two-and-a-half hours long.)

Players: Henry Cavill portrays this version of Superman (you may know him best from The Tudors television series), the always watchable Amy Adams is the indomitable and intrepid Lois Lane, Michael Shannon grinds through his role as Zod with lust and vigor, and a long list of other "A" actors round out the cast in smaller roles. Kevin Costner and Diane Lane play Superman's foster parents, Laurence Fishburne serves as Perry White, Lois' editor, Russell Crowe does double duty as Jor-El, Superman's father and the AI "consciousness" of his father later, and both Christopher Meloni (from the Law and Order TV series) and Richard Schiff (most well known for his work as Toby on The West Wing) are given small but pivotal roles. German actress Antje Traue is given a full introduction to American audiences as the right-hand of General Zod, Faora-UI and is both menacing and lovely.

Pilot: The movie is directed by Zack Snyder who also helmed 300, Watchmen, and Sucker Punch. He has already been announced as coming back to direct Man of Steel 2, and considering that Christopher Nolan (of the Batman trilogy of films) shares a co-writing credit on the story, I think we're probably due for another trilogy here.

Performance: This movie falls straight into the category of rollicking yarn. There are just enough lulls with character exposition and backstory to make the action scenes pop. My one note of distraction while watching was that there was, perhaps, too much action. When you're talking about a character called "Superman" - and there's a clever bit with Lois about the symbol on his chest - there's a tendency to make everything bigger. And then what do you do for a climax? Make it even bigger still. And longer. The film finally reaches a point where it's just too much and you begin to be numbed by it all. But that was a minor flaw. There are several quick bits during the climactic battle scene that Snyder fits in: a worksite with a sign displaying "106 days without an accident" is hit and the 1 and 6 fall off. In another shot, a tanker with "LexCorp" emblazoned on the side is destroyed, a millisecond homage to nemesis Lex Luthor. The movie ends with Superman set up in his Clark Kent identity, newly-hired at the Daily Planet newspaper. The final two lines of dialogue are a near-perfect ending for the film, leaving things fine as a stand-alone movie, but also ripe for the sequel.

Point: Several times throughout the movie we are asked what mankind would do if we found out there was an alien living among us, and he was a far superior being. Would we panic? Would we accept him as one of our own? Would we look to him as hero and savior or would we shun and fear him for his differences? The film shows that struggle and the conclusion is drawn by one character for us all when he says, "this man is not our enemy." I could spend some time drawing parallels between Superman and Christ, as well as critical differences, but that's for another post. There is one scene where Superman asks a local priest for advice. In the end, the priest offers, "Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith first. The trust comes later." I was glad the writers nailed that one.

Particulars: I found nothing truly objectionable here. There are hints of cleavage, a lingering kiss, a quick scene of sexual harassment, several violent yet mostly bloodless deaths, and a few uses of "ass" and "dick" in conjunction with other words to create insults.

Raymond's Rating: I'll give this film a solid three stars. The action goes on too long, and Superman's ultimate solution to the menace is a choice I'm not sure he ever would have made in the comic mythology, but as summer blockbusters go, this one is right up there.


Mark's Musings is published on a periodical basis - right now on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays - but that may change without notice. Find me on Twitter at This blog is considered to be a digital periodical publication and is filed as such with the U.S. Library of Congress; ISSN 2154-9761. Up, up, and away!

Quick Laugh

And it's educational, too. Watch this video for a 49-second primer on how to fold a short sleeve shirt in less than two seconds:

Now watch this video to see how it's actually done:


Mark's Musings is published on a periodical basis - right now on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays - but that may change without notice. Find me on Twitter at This blog is considered to be a digital periodical publication and is filed as such with the U.S. Library of Congress; ISSN 2154-9761. "Tell me, does your shirt fly?" "No, I fling it."

Friday, June 14, 2013

Mark at the Movies: After Earth

Plot:  The basic premise starts with the fact that we "ruined" the earth and humanity left the planet en masse 1,000 years ago and settled on a new world: Nova Prime. There we discovered that we were not alone; a new fearsome predator dubbed an "Ursa" was discovered. The beast is a huge, spidery thing with no eyes. It tracks its prey by smelling the pheromones given off by its terrified victim(s). Cypher Raige (Will Smith) has learned how to control his fear and thus become invisible to the creatures, a process that was called "ghosting." His prowess in helping humanity quell this menace has risen him to the rank of General in the Rangers and garnered him unprecedented respect and loyalty among the troops. But his dedication to this military effort has left him with a family that is distant and his relationship with his son, who is in training to become a Ranger as well, is growing cold. Recognizing this fact - with the help of his still-loving wife - he takes his son with him on one final training mission before his planned retirement. Their ship crash lands on ancient earth and breaks into two pieces. The only two survivors are the General and his son, Kitai Rage (Jaden Smith). Their distress beacon is damaged, but their hope is a working one will be found in the tail section, over 60 miles away from their current position. The General, however, sustained two badly broken legs in the crash and their only hope for survival lies in the ability of his son to travel to the tail section, then find and fire the distress beacon. His father cannot provide any physical aid, but as he strives to survive his injuries he can stay in contact with his son visually and digitally as he makes his way through the dangerous terrain. To add another layer of menace to an already perilous journey, the ship had carried an Ursa on it as part of the training mission, and not only did it survive the crash, it escaped into the wild.

Players: Look at the image above; note that Jaden Smith is the first face you see. That's because he is the actual star of the film, taking the lion's share of the screen time. Will Smith has a commanding presence in the movie as General Cypher Raige, but the story is of his son Kitai coming into his own. 90% of the movie features just these two players. Sophie Okonedo portrays the understanding-yet-firm wife and mother, Faia (pronounced Fie-ee-ah). Zoe Isabella Kravitz portrays Kitai's sister, Senshi, and carries a pivotal piece of the story with her role. All the other actors in the film have mere cameo roles to move the story along.

Performance: Jaden Smith has two previous "well-known" roles. The first was in The Pursuit of
Happyness and he again played his father's son. At that age, he was simply cute and precocious and not a lot of acting chops were expected from him. His next starring turn was in the remake of The Karate Kid and Jackie Chan was along to bear the weight of the dramatics. Smith was fine, but it was a role where not a great deal of range was expected. Here, the story relies almost solely on Jaden's maturing acting ability, and while he shines in spots, I was underwhelmed with his overall performance. The other performance to be taken into account here is that of M. Night Shyamalan (pronounced Shuh-yeah-mah-lahn), a director who has endured a meteoric rise (after The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable and Signs) and then a gigantic collapse after a string of critical and financial failures (The Village, Lady in the Water, The Happening, and especially The Last Airbender). Here he is directing one of the few films that he didn't write, though he does share co-writing credit. The story is Will Smith's, but the dialogue was mostly written by Gary Whitta. The film does not carry any of Shyamalan's twisty endings that change the nature of everything you've just seen but instead is told in a fairly straightforward manner. This is a welcome change and the film benefits from it.

Point: There are several layers and undertones at work here. The obvious message was the ecological one. We "ruined" the earth. The next message strongly present was the philosophical one, engendered by the film's catchphrase: "Danger is real. Fear is a choice." Early in the movie Will Smith explains this concept in some detail, including some very worthwhile words about the worthlessness of fear and it being all about what hasn't happened yet. All we can do is live in the moment. Finally, the film is centrally a coming-of-age story and repairing the relationship between father and son. I have read that some saw Will Smith's Scientology beliefs coming out, but I saw nothing of that. Perhaps I am too uneducated. As a believer in Christ and a follower of The Way, the message of choosing to set fear aside (because we know who holds the future) was strongly appealing to me.

Particulars: There is no swearing in this film, and no violence so graphic as to be off-putting. There are moments of gruesomeness, and a few surprises that illicit shivers of sympathetic tension, but they are balanced by the occasional tender moment. You do see a few bloodied crash victims, and several bodies are impaled by the Ursa, but there is no gore.

Raymond's Rating: I give this film two-and-a-half stars, and would mildly recommend it as a movie worth watching. Kitai is given a line at the end that is the flick's one comic moment, and it is a good one.


Mark's Musings is published on a periodical basis - right now on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays - but that may change without notice. Find me on Twitter at This blog is considered to be a digital periodical publication and is filed as such with the U.S. Library of Congress; ISSN 2154-9761. This film's working title was "1,000 Years A.E."

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

It Caught My Eye

There's a brand new flavor in Lollipop Land and it rhymes with "dressed silk" ... I'll give you a minute.

Need more time? Go ahead, I'll wait.

Yes, if the picture didn't give you enough of a clue, there is now a breast milk lollipop on the market. Adds a whole new level of meaning to "sucker."

And you thought I was kidding.


On a completely different note, and I'm not sure why this caught my eye, but it did: Thrivent Financial, the insurance arm of the Lutheran Church, is opening up its doors to sell insurance to all denominations now, after a 111-year policy of insuring only Lutherans. Another economic victim of waning church attendance in America.

But they are going to open their doors slowly. Thrivent President Brad Hewitt said it is more like "a 50-year, (than) a five-year plan."

They are starting with just friends and family members of their current Lutheran subscribers.

"Everybody find your Lutheran buddy! If you don't have one, get one!" (Oblique Toy Story reference.)


And this just in - uh, two weeks ago - Japan has stopped buying U.S. wheat. Why? Because they fear that wheat genetically doctored by agriculture giant Monsanto may creep into the commercial supply.


These are people who still have rampant radiation running loose in parts of their country. If they're not going to buy our wheat, what does that say about how bad this Monsanto thing is getting?



Mark's Musings is published on a periodical basis - right now on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays - but that may change without notice. Find me on Twitter at This blog is considered to be a digital periodical publication and is filed as such with the U.S. Library of Congress; ISSN 2154-9761. So what catches your eye?