Saturday, July 31, 2010

10 Favorite Movies: 1990 to 1999

1. Back to the Future Part III (1990)
The third entry in the Back to the Future trilogy and my favorite of the three. Doc is taken to 1885 when a stray bolt of lightning strikes the time machine. Marty goes back to save him from Buford Tannen's bullet. Immediately after arriving in 1885, Marty damages the DeLorean's fuel line and the gas tank is emptied. Since a gas station won't be available for several decades, Doc and Marty have to come up with an alternative way to get the time machine up to 88 mph while still avoiding Tannen.

Memorable Scene:
Doc, Marty, and Doc's sweetheart risk death while using a steam locomotive to push the DeLorean up to 88 mph. Will the DeLorean be able to time travel before the boiler explodes and the train runs off the cliff?

2. Galaxy Quest (1999)
Although the movie is mostly a spoof of Star Trek and it's fans, it's extremely entertaining in its own right and is never mean-spirited. The cast of the long-canceled sci-fi show Galaxy Quest are asked by the remnants of a peaceful civilization to help them defeat the evil Sarris. It turns out that these beings have seen the entire show in reruns, but have no concept of "fiction" and believe that the show is a documentary. Not realizing that the show's NSEA Protector was a model and the ship's crew were merely actors, they create a real starship and hope that their overwhelmed TV heroes can save them before their civilization is destroyed.

Memorable Scene:
Just about any line said by Guy Fleegman, the one-time extra/fan who played Crewman #6 in an episode that killed off his nameless character in the first five minutes. He's convinced that the same will happen to him in real life.

3. Independence Day (1996)
This is not a very good movie: the acting is mediocre except for Will Smith's and Jeff Goldblum's, the script is full of cliches (take any disaster movie from the '70s and add aliens and you have Independence Day), and the plot is extremely predictable. And yet, I really like this movie. An alien race parks its city-sized spaceships over earth's major population centers and start wasting the place. Some creative thinking involving the remains of the world's air forces and an alien fighter that crashed in Roswell in 1947 may be mankind's last hope.

Memorable Scene:
This is an obvious one: New York, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C. are simultaneously obliterated by alien death rays.

4. The Iron Giant (1999)
A must-see animated movie for any fan of 1950s pulp sci-fi. A giant robot crash lands on earth, losing his memory in the process. A young boy befriends the robot and tries to hide it from the military and one very nosy CIA agent. When it becomes evident that the robot was actually built for war, the boy teaches it that "you are who you choose to be".

Memorable Scene:
During a one-sided battle with the military, the panicked CIA agent calls in a nuclear strike on the robot, which happens to be in the middle of a populated town. Realizing that innocent civilians will die in the attack, the robot remembers the boy's words and chooses to be "Superman" rather than the giant war machine it was originally built to be. I've seen many nerds on sci-fi boards admit that this is the only movie that ever made them cry.

5. Jurassic Park (1993)
Probably one of the most famous and influential movies of the 1990s. DNA recovered from fossilized mosquitoes allows the cloning of dinosaurs and the creation of the titular park on a island near Costa Rica. Before the park can even open, industrial sabotage allows the dinosaurs to escape. Although the park's tyrannosaurus gets some of the best scenes, the much smaller velociraptors steal the movie.

Memorable Scene:
This is a hard choice, but I'll have to go with the "kitchen scene". Jurassic Park presents its own version of a classic childhood nightmare scenario when two velociraptors stalk the grandchildren of Jurassic Park's creator in an industrial kitchen.

6. Mars Attacks! (1996)
This movie became a favorite of mine years after I saw it since I was too young to get it the first time. Martians invade earth in darkly humorous fashion. By the end of the movie, nearly every character played by a big name actor is dead. Although the invasion is set during the 1990s, all military equipment, uniforms, and weapons are of '50s vintage. Movies like Earth vs. the Flying Saucers are directly spoofed.

Memorable Scene:
After their flying saucer lands, the martian ambassador addresses earth in a language that appears to be composed of the single word "Ack!" repeated over and over with varying intonation. A machine translates his statement as "we come in peace", at which a group of hippies releases a dove. The martians freak out, zap the dove, and start vaporizing the crowd.

7. The Rocketeer (1991)
In late 1930s Los Angeles, racing pilot Cliff Secord comes across a rocket pack designed by Howard Hughes and sees it as his chance to make some real money. However, both the FBI and Nazi spies are after the rocket pack, which puts Secord, his mechanic and best friend, and his girlfriend in danger. Secord's superhero alter-ego, the Rocketeer, evokes the various rocketmen characters of comics from the '30s and '40s as well as the hero of the Commando Cody serial from 1955.

Memorable Scene:
After a disastrous test of the rocket pack using a wooden statue of Charles Lindbergh, Secord puts on the rocket for the first time to save an ailing friend in a broken-down Jenny biplane. The rescue takes place in the middle of an air-race, making the Rocketeer instantly famous.

8. The Sixth Sense (1999)
A child psychiatrist tries to help a young boy who claims that he sees ghosts. The psychiatrist gradually realizes that the ghosts aren't just a hallucination; the boy is being contacted by genuine spirits who seem to want something from him.

Memorable Scene:
There are so many, but the most memorable scene for me is the twist ending, which causes you to rethink everything you've just seen. Since some people still haven't seen this movie, I won't say what happens.

9. Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
The Star Trek: The Next Generation crew follow a Borg starship back in time to 2063, where the Borg intend to interrupt Zefram Cochrane's first faster-than-light flight and the subsequent first contact between humanity and an alien race. Until 2009's Star Trek this was my favorite Star Trek film.

Memorable Scene:
A partially assimilated Data surprises the Borg Queen, declaring that "Resistance is futile" (the Borg's own tagline) and smashing a pipe filled with flesh-dissolving coolant.

10. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)
The fourth Star Wars movie made but the first episode chronologically. The movie has a lot of flaws, but it's still one of my favorites. Jedi knight Qui-Gon Jinn and his apprentice, Obi-Wan Kenobi find themselves trying to save the peaceful planet of Naboo and its queen from a Trade Federation Plot. The two come across a young Anakin Skywalker, who shows the potential to become the most powerful Jedi ever. Sith Lords are found to be behind the plot to conquer Naboo, a fact which greatly concerns the Jedi since the Sith are presumed to be extinct.

Memorable Scene:
The three-way duel between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and Darth Maul is considered by many fans to be the best lightsaber duel of the Star Wars Saga. It doesn't hurt that the actor playing Darth Maul, Ray Park, started martial arts training at the age of seven.

Friday, July 23, 2010

10 Favorite Movies: 2000 to 2009

Here's part one of my lists of favorite movies by decade. I'll try to limit each list to ten since that's a popular number for list purposes. Given that it's easier to see a movie from 2005 than from, say, 1925, this first post will cover the most recently completed decade. Eventually I'll work my way backwards. Since it's too difficult to put them in order from least favorite to most favorite or vice-versa, I'll simply list them in alphabetical order.

1. The Dark Knight (2008)
The sequel was even better than 2005's excellent Batman Begins. Batman faces off against the Joker. This version of the Joker isn't just a lunatic who enjoys random acts of murder; the Joker has been re-imagined as an agent of chaos whose sole purpose is to upset the order of things (whether or good or evil) and to corrupt otherwise good people.

Memorable Scene: This is a hard choice, but I'll have to go with the "pencil scene". Not only was it totally unexpected, but it showed us that this Joker was going to be different than previous depictions of the character.

2. The Incredibles (2004)
Superheroes are driven into hiding by lawsuits. One, Mr. Incredible, refuses to give up the glory days. However, a chance to don the super suit puts him and his family into danger. It turns out that Mr. Incredible has a very disgruntled former fan whose technology makes up for his lack of superpowers.

Memorable Scene: Mr. Incredible, his family, and his friend Frozone save Metroville (an obvious amalgam of "Metropolis" and "Smallville") from the villain's giant robot.

3. Iron Man (2008)
Billionaire defense contractor Tony Stark has a change of heart when he's captured by terrorists who want him to recreate a new weapons system for them. Rather than build the weapons, Stark builds a suit of powered armor and escapes. More refined suits of armor follow the first, with Stark deciding to use the suits to make the world a better place. However, Stark is betrayed and has to fight his former friend who has built his own armor.

Memorable Scene: Stark's escape from captivity in his first suit of armor (turning the terrorists into the terrorized) is one of the best first appearances of a superhero ever.

4. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-2003)
I had to merge the three movies into one since the trilogy is effectively one long movie. A powerful magic ring falls into the hands of the hobbit Frodo who must destroy it before the evil lord Sauron can use it to restore his kingdom of darkness. Along the way Frodo and his friend Samwise must face orcs, giant spiders, and the demented Gollum who has been twisted by the effects of the ring. In the meantime, Frodo's friends (an odd group of hobbits, a human, an elf, and a dwarf) must defend the kingdoms of Rohan and Gondor from Sauron's allies.

Memorable Scene: There are a lot of memorable scenes to be found in over eleven hours of film, but I've always enjoyed the inspirational speech given by the King of Rohan immediately followed by the charge of the Rohirrim in The Return of the King.

5. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)
Cursed Pirates of the ship Black Pearl seek out the last piece from a chest of Aztec gold, along with the blood of one of their former crew mates, in an attempt to remove the curse. The daughter of the local British governor and a blacksmith's apprentice who loves her get involved with Jack Sparrow; former captain of the Pearl who was marooned before he could have any part in the curse.

Memorable Scene: As explained by Jack Sparrow's replacement, Captain Barbossa, the curse makes the pirates immortal but robs them of feeling, happiness, or pleasure; it's as if they were dead men. Soon enough, we're shown that, by the light of the moon, the pirates even look like rotting corpses.

6. Serenity (2005)
This follow-up to the prematurely-canceled TV show Firefly reveals the origins of the Reavers, shows the source of River Tam's psychic abilities and the reason why her mind is so screwed up, and finally gives Captain Malcolm Reynolds the opportunity to strike back at the evil Alliance government. True to creator Joss Whedon's style, major characters will be unexpectedly killed along the way.

Memorable Scene: The teenage River Tam, armed with her augmented abilities and two battle axes, wipes out a room of cannibalistic Reavers.

7. Signs (2002)
Strange sightings and events make it apparent that earth is being slowly invaded by a stealthy alien race. The story focuses on the experiences of a widower and his family who must protect their farmhouse from the deadly creatures. The low-key nature of the invasion, and the film's focus on religious faith (which gives the title Signs a dual meaning), make this one of the most unusual alien movies ever made.

Memorable Scenes: The climactic end scene, in which multiple seemingly unrelated details come into play, leaves the viewer rethinking almost everything that came before it.

8. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004)
Sky Captain and intrepid reporter Polly Perkins must thwart the plans of the evil scientist Dr. Totenkopf, whose giant robots are kidnapping scientists as well as stockpiling fuel and materials for unknown reasons. This fond homage to pulp sci-fi comics and serials takes place in an alternate 1939 and even recreates the soft focus and washed-out color of films from that era.

Memorable Scene: While an army of giant robots march through the streets of New York, Polly Perkins goes to near-suicidal lengths to get the story while Sky Captain fights the robots in his souped-up P-40 fighter. Lines lifted straight from Orson Welles' 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast and death ray sounds taken from the 1953 film version of The War of the Worlds make any classic sci-fi fan giddy.

9. Star Trek (2009)
The vengeful Romulan Captain Nero goes back in time and effectively rewrites the entire Star Trek timeline as we know it. Spock, Starfleet Cadet Kirk, and the rest of the Enterprise crew must save Earth from Nero after he successfully destroys the planet Vulcan. I've been a Star Trek fan for years and originally hated the premise of a film set during Kirk's cadet years. A great cast and script made me love the movie. Instead of killing the franchise, this version of Star Trek may have saved it.

Memorable Scene: George Kirk (James T. Kirk's father) ends up as captain of the U.S.S. Kelvin and fights a losing battle with a Romulan ship from the future. His noble sacrifice saves most of the Kelvin's crew as well as his newborn son, James.

10. Star Wars Episode III: The Revenge of the Sith (2005)
The last Star Wars movie made but the third story in the six film saga. The Clone Wars come to an end while Anakin Skywalker quickly falls to the Dark Side. Chancellor Palpatine is revealed to be Darth Sidious too late for the Jedi Order to do anything about it. A duel between Obi Wan Kenobi and Anakin results in Anakin becoming horribly burned, forcing him to wear the iconic armor of Darth Vader. This is one of my favorite films, although I admit that it's inferior to the original Star Wars films and is bogged down by several silly scenes and plot holes.

Memorable Scene: The simultaneous Yoda/Sidious and Anakin/Obi Wan duels are possibly the most energetic and frenetic duels in the series. Darth Sidious is downright giddy in his evilness.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Old Movies

While I was growing up I didn't regularly watch films that were older than me (i.e., from before 1979). However, after several years of watching Mystery Science Theater 3000, I began to realize that I enjoyed many older movies, especially those from the 1950s. This was partially due to a sense of nostalgia created by an interest in history and the fact that most of my favorite cartoons and TV shows already dated from the '40s, '50s, and '60s. With the invention of DVDs (which are cheaper to manufacture and more durable than video tapes) and the formation of companies that cater to more arcane interests (e.g., Criterion), it has become a lot easier to watch older films. While in college, I started to rent sci-fi films from the '50s that didn't have MST3k's Joel/Mike and the 'bots.

Thanks to Netflix, which caters to just about every taste, I've been able to watch movies from almost every decade since the dawn of feature-length films. The oldest I've watched thus far was released in Germany in 1920. While most of the older films I watch are still the stereotypical radioactive monster or alien invasion movies that became popular at the dawn of the atomic age, I've also started to watch movies that have historical or cultural significance. Inspired by something a friend of mine posted on Facebook, I would like to make a list of favorite movies released between 1910 and 2009; ten from each decade (I'll probably have to merge the '10s and '20s). To do that I'm going to have to watch a few more movies from certain decades, especially the '40s and the '70s.

Monday, July 5, 2010

The President's New Mission for NASA: Does This Make Any Sense?

With the Space Shuttle well on its way to retirement (slated for this year), NASA and its contractors have been hard at work on the Constellation Program. The highlight of the program was intended to be a return to the Moon in 2020. However, the Obama Administration has declared that Constellation is "over budget, behind schedule, and lacking in innovation" and has effectively canceled the program with the 2011 budget. First, I have to question how much a so-called community organizer knows about spacecraft development. Second, with the Space Shuttle retired and the Constellation Program scrapped, America will be left without a homegrown system for putting astronauts into space. This leaves us dependent on countries such as Russia to put Americans into orbit until a Shuttle replacement enters service, which will take years. Any American should find this situation embarrassing.

The cancellation of the Constellation Program, along with statements made by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden during a recent interview on Al Jazeera Television, makes me wonder if the President understands or even cares about NASA's mission. Bolden said that:
When I became the NASA administrator - or before I became the NASA administrator - [President Obama] charged me with three things. One was he wanted me to help re-inspire children to want to get into science and math, he wanted me to expand our international relationships, and third, and perhaps foremost, he wanted me to find a way to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with dominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science ... and math and engineering.
Inspiring children to go into science and math is fine, although I doubt leaving astronauts grounded by canceling the Space Shuttle's replacement is the way to do it. Bolden's second charge, to expand international relationships, makes no sense unless it's specifically to advance NASA's express goals. Otherwise, this is a task for the State Department. It's the third charge, the "foremost" one, that really irritates me. The foremost charge given to the Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is to "reach out the the Muslim world" and "help them feel good about their historic contribution"? What kind of nonsense is this?

First of all, the purpose of NASA is to perform aeronautical and space research. It's part of their name, for heaven's sake. Second of all, NASA is populated by scientists and engineers, not diplomats. Being an engineer myself, I can assure you that all they care about is putting people and equipment into space and gathering data. Making any particular culture feel good about itself isn't part of the job description and is a distraction from real work. In fact, knowing the typical engineer's mindset, "Operation: Make [insert culture here] Feel Good" would be met with extreme cynicism and would add politically-correct insult to the injury of canceling the Constellation Program.

Third of all, although many scientific advances and inventions can be credited to the Muslim world, the majority date back to the Islamic Golden Age between the 8th and 13th centuries A.D. Most of the science and technology behind aeronautics and space flight date to Isaac Newton (the 17th century) or later and are primarily the result of European (especially German) and American advances. Obama's charge to Bolden reeks of typical Liberal condescension; i.e., exaggerating or overemphasizing the contributions of certain minorities or cultures to boost their self-esteem and/or curry their favor for political reasons (this has become fairly common in education). It also reflects a Liberal tendency to lump people into groups or categories rather than consider them as individuals. The accomplishments of one's ancestors or members of one's group (e.g., race, culture, gender, nationality) mean absolutely nothing about an individual's own accomplishments. My English ancestors may have made all sorts of contributions to history throughout the centuries; it doesn't follow that I have accomplished any great deed or that I'm even capable of such a thing. Conversely, perhaps my ancestors committed horrible atrocities. Does that mean that I should hang my head in shame and declare my own worthlessness? This mindset (that people should be treated as groups rather than individuals) is best exemplified by the proposal that the descendants of slaves receive some form of compensation.

I am thoroughly tired with the Administration's drive to politicize everything (the housing crisis, health care, the BP spill, etc.). Now, with Bolden's revelation and Obama's recent cancellation of the Constellation Program, it is apparent that the President believes that NASA's proper mission is to serve as a political tool rather than as a scientific and technological organization with the specific mission of exploring the fields of aeronautics and astronautics.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Happy Independence Day

Happy Independence Day to all American Patriots. Today marks 234 years since the wording of the Declaration of Independence was finalized and approved, making it the the 234th birthday of the United States of America.

The 4th of July simultaneously inspires and depresses me. This day reminds me of the great principles of liberty that were held by the Founding Fathers; principles for which they were willing to give their lives. It reminds me of the freedoms that we benefit from and that so many others will never have. On this day we celebrate a remarkable moment in history that forever changed the world.

However, the 4th of July also reminds me that American patriotism is despised by many who call themselves (albeit reluctantly) Americans. There are a surprising number of Americans that believe that there is nothing particularly special about this country and even that it's the source of much of the world's misery. That the American ideal of liberty inspired millions and eventually resulted in the spread of democracy throughout the world seems lost on them. The fact that this country helps feed other nations, fights for other nations' freedom, and provides much of the world's medicines and technologies are ignored by them. I'm not saying that the United States is perfect; no nation composed of anything but saints could ever be perfect. However, the effect of the United States on the world has been overwhelmingly positive.

Even more discouraging than those Americans who actually despise their native country is the even greater number of Americans whose patriotism is shallow. How many of us think of Independence Day as a day simply for barbecues, fireworks, and good deals at the local furniture store? Do we make an effort to learn about the history of the American founding or the principles that drove the Founders? Do we appreciate the Founders' sacrifices or the fact that they were concerned not only about their own generation but about future generations as well? Are we passing on the ideals of freedom to the rising generation? Or are we tempted to take our liberties for granted, thus putting ourselves at risk of losing them? President Ronald Reagan said it best:

Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn't pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

This Month In Atomic History...

Several important anniversaries in nuclear history are celebrated this month. Much of the credit for these events goes to a single man: Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard.

On July 4, 1934, Szilard filed the first patent application for a method of producing a nuclear chain reaction. The patent, filed in Britain, described the use of a neutron-induced chain reaction to create an explosion. Szilard also realized that such a reaction would require a certain "critical mass"; i.e., a minimum quantity of fissile material needed to sustain a chain reaction.

Szilard had been working at the University of Berlin until he was forced to flee Nazi persecution in 1933. Well aware of Nazi Germany's increasing aggression, and realizing the devastating potential of atomic weapons, Szilard assigned the patent to the British government in 1936 so the idea could be classified and protected.

On July 3, 1939, Szilard wrote to fellow physicist Enrico Fermi and described the use of a uranium lattice in carbon to create the chain reaction described in his patent. Three years later, in late 1942, Fermi and Szilard brought the idea to life when a fission chain reaction was sustained in atomic pile CP-1.

The successful operation of CP-1 was a crucial milestone of the Manhattan Project, which was started as a result of the famous letter written by Szilard and Albert Einstein to Franklin D. Roosevelt in late 1939. The letter alerted the President to the possibilities of nuclear weapons and warned him of Nazi research into atomic power.

On July 16, 1945, the idea that a neutron-induced chain reaction could create an explosion was dramatically proven at Trinity, New Mexico.


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