Picofarad #24 movie review

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Summer Wars (2009)

Directed by Mamoru Hosoda
Running Time: 114 minutes

Kenji Koiso (Ryunosuke Kamiki) makes two bad decisions in the course of two days. One of them puts the entire world in jeopardy; the other ultimately opens up a small chance that it can be saved.

The trouble begins when Kenji, spending his summer vacation from high school as an administrator in Oz, a huge Second-Life-like network (inspired by the real Japanese social network Mixi), accepts an offer of an additional job: posing as the boyfriend of his classmate Natsuki Shinohara (Nanami Sakuraba) for a few days at a family reunion for her grandmother's 90th birthday. Kenji discovers too late that Natsuki has omitted a few crucial details, such as that she comes from a proud line of aristocrats that trace their origins back to the samurai days and she has completely invented a pedigree for him to make him acceptable to her relatives.

That night, someone sends Kenji a math problem. Being the sort of prodigy who can't resist a challenge, he solves it. The next morning, his Oz account has been taken over by a malicious program which then hacks its way into Japan's infrastructure and begins to cause chaos, just as Natsuki's clan starts to uncover his real identity.

What follows is an odd but superbly entertaining blend of P. G. Wodehouse and William Gibson. As adversity mounts, the family pulls its resources together to fight the virus, rescue Japan, and most importantly, keep all of this from messing up Natsuki's grandmother's birthday.

The heart and soul of the movie is the matriarch herself, Sakae Jinnouchi (Sumiko Fuji). She is a gracious lady who seems to be living in another time, wearing kimonos every day and playing hanafuda (think Japanese- style gin rummy). When things start to fall apart, she immediately picks up a land line phone to contact government ministers she knew as children, reassuring them and explaining what they should do about the crisis. Yet her first words to Kenji are those of a the head of a warrior clan, and when she is deeply offended by Natsuki's favorite uncle, the uncle finds himself having to dodge a polearm attack.

The animation is, as we always expect, gorgeous. Oz is the most beautiful place in cyberspace. You won't manage to remember most of the family's names (I think this was intentional), but you'll have no trouble telling them apart. The story moves along without a single wasted minute.

The English-language release of Summer Wars has been limited to occasional showings in a few cities, but the DVD is out as of March 2011. If the argument can be made that that is its proper release date in English, it has every right to be a Hugo nominee next year. Catch it if you can.

TRON: Legacy (2010)

Review by Chris French

Directed by Joseph Kosinski
Running Time: 125 minutes

These days, Hollywood's policy towards sequels is about as bipolar as I am-- either the sequels are bundled into the contract for the first movie, leading to a veritable raft of straight-to-video rubbish which would be infesting your local video store except they're all out-of-business thanks to Netflix and Redbox (and I can't tell if this is good, or bad...); or filmgoers have to wait for the "nostalgia sequel", which happens when the kids who liked a movie have aged twenty years and now have disposable income of their own, at which point Hollywood swoops down like a Recognizer onto Clu (and if you don't get that reference, why in hell are you reading this?).

TRON: Legacy is the second of these-- TRON came out in 1982; for reference, Yr. Obd. Srvt. would have been nine at the time. In that time, computing power has increased in a way which can only be calculated using Greek letters, and computing in general has evolved to where we're maybe about two generations from actually having a Game Grid. Which forces the question: Where does one go with what was established in the previous flick?

The usual response where Hollywood is concerned is "accept the fact everyone's twenty years older, and run with it". In this case: Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) disappeared in 1989. His son Sam (Garrett Hedlund-- who wasn't even born when TRON was made!) grows up to be a prize slacker, uninterested in running the company his father founded, and generally being annoying (demonstrated by his screwing up a major ENCOM software launch-though as the software is shown to be screwed up to start with...). However, a familiar face then appears: Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner), telling him a message has been received from Kevin, said message coming from the old arcade seen in the first film (and why hasn't this building long-since been knocked down or gentrified?). Sam heads over to the arcade, and no sooner figures out Kevin had gone to the Game Grid than he ends up there himself. It turns out that in the intervening years, Kevin has created a new edition of the program Clu from the first flick; Clu has turned into a Complete And Utter Bastard, overthrowing Kevin and believed to have killed Tron (more on this later). Sam meets up with Quorra (Olivia Wilde), who is now Kevin's right-hand program (GET YOUR MINDS OUT OF THE GUTTER, YOU DEGENERATES!); and the three of them set out to end Clu's reign of terror, as well as his plot to unify the Grid and the World (apparently Clu has never read Imajica...).

A matter which needs to be dealt with: The visuals. Back when TRON first came out, computing power was weak; what CG existed was impressive in the same way a dog who talks is impressive-- not that it was done well, but that it was done at all (and much of the first movie wasn't CG; it was hand-drawn). But twenty-five years have passed; CG is now to the point where floating mountains are easily done; six-foot-one-inch John Rhys-Davies can play a dwarf; and any yobbo with a computer can depict a 1,000-foot-long ill-tempered fish biting the Golden Gate Bridge in half. When the impossible becomes commonplace, where does one go from there? So, the visuals are there, but really there's no room to impress on that score anymore.

Which leaves us with the basics of cinema: Plot, Character, and Acting-- and on that score, TRON: Legacy is a serious let-down. Kevin Flynn appears to have been lifted wholesale from The Big Lebowski (and I cannot abide stoner humor); the rest of the characters are so banal, even the red-tint given to bad guys seems beige. There are the obligatory call-backs to the first flick; however, unless you've seen the first flick, you won't know why there's a Journey song queued up on the jukebox in the arcade. The music is completely unmemorable (not so much Daft Punk as Dull Punk). The script itself appears to have fallen through TV Tropes and hit every link on the way (remember what I said earlier about Tron being dead-- "they never found the body", and the villain has a Faceless Uber-Subordinate; you know what that means, folks). In short, flashy latest-gen visuals do not make up for what is a flat, uninteresting movie. Even for TRON completists, this flick barely warrants an Eh; for everyone else, Avoid it.

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010)

Directed by Jalmari Helander
Running Time: 84 minutes

It's a story at least as old as the movies: A child eagerly awaits Christmas, but suddenly it is threatened, and only the young hero can salvage the holiday for his entire village. Only this time, the menace may be Santa Claus himself.

The ball starts rolling when a Sami boy named Pietari (Ommi Tomila) gets interested in the story behind Santa. The Finnish word translated as "Santa Claus" is Joulupukki, literally "Christmas Goat", whose heritage goes back beyond "the Coca-Cola version", as Pietari will later put it, to a figure who was said to steal naughty children and eat them. His eyes opened to the true Santa, Pietari immeidately puts himself on nightly guard for the evil force.

All this would be academic except that the foreigners digging at the nearby mountain then uncover something which scatters them, escapes, and massacres the reindeer herd just before the village roundup. Now Pietari is in a race against time to convince the unbelieving adults around him, as he also grapples with guilt about an action of his which may have inadvertently aided the release of the horror.

Rare Exports has been promoted as black comedy. It isn't; it simply takes an idea and follows it wherever it goes. It just happens that some of those places are hilarious. The line about how Santa can be in many places at once, in particular, will be with me for many, many Christmases to come.

The other unusual feature of this Christmas movie is the R rating, gained on the strength of a few cuss words and the fact that some of the servants of the ultimate horror do not wear clothes. Do not let this keep you from letting your mature 12-year-old see it. In fact, I encourage everyone to make their kids watch this one as soon as you think they can handle it; they will get an empowering message about taking responsibility that no kid should be without.

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