Thu, Apr 10, 2014

: The Damned United

I’ve been wanting to watch this soccer film for a while, but I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I thought it was a documentary but it’s not: it’s a dramatization of real-life events, with some liberties taken with the facts.

The title confuses me because it doesn’t seemed to have anything to do with the movie. It’s really a story about rival managers back in the early 1970s: Don Revie was the old dog, leading Leeds United to top success, while newcomer Brian Clough was brash and outspoken and took his no-name team Derby County from the bottom of the second division to the top of the first. He was assisted by his friend Peter Taylor until the two had a falling out when he reneged on a contract to take over at his old enemy’s club Leeds. He only lasted there 44 days, as the players resented him and his attitude. Humbled, Clough eventually reconciles with Taylor and they go on to have managerial success with Nottingham Forest in the 1980s.

In terms of drama, the film’s awesome, with a fantastic performance from Martin Sheen as Clough. He’s somehow both arrogant and likable, an almost impossible combination to pull off. The film also credits Taylor with a huge amount of Clough’s success — the pair were great together, and not so successful separately.

Ultimately, this isn’t a film about soccer as much as it’s about greed, ego, rivalry, and friendship. It’s quite fascinating regardless of the sports you’re into. Recommended.

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: Winter’s Bone

I thought the book was fantastic and I’ve been meaning to watch the movie for ages and finally got around to it during some airplane travel. It’s definitely excellent, portraying a fascinating look at Ozark life, but not quite as easy to understand as the book. (It’s a little confusing which relatives and which.) The Oscar-winning performance of Jennifer Lawrence in the lead role wasn’t undeserved, though not as dramatic as I expected. I think she gained from the movie’s unexpected success. Still, it’s a good film and worth watching, though the book is better.

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Thu, Apr 03, 2014

: Planes

I missed out on this in the theaters, even though I loved the original Cars, as it felt too formulaic. It definitely hits all the right notes, like a script-by-numbers, with a plucky crop duster who’s afraid of heights wanting to be a race plane. There are all your standard airplane puns, fun sidekicks, and evil villains, but nothing’s very inspired. The ending is excellent — the whole thing is excellent — but it still never feels original despite all the hard work put into it.

(Part of that is probably because of the reliance of a racing story: those can only end one of two ways, and one of the ways is depressing. I’d love to see more stories in the Cars/Planes world showing what normal life is like in that place, away from all the drama of races.)

Despite all that it’s still an great movie, especially for kids. It’s fun, harmless, with a positive message.

Topic: [/movie]

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Sun, Mar 30, 2014

: The Hunter

I assumed this was some silly dino-hunter film and it turned out to be a serious thriller about a loner sent into Tasmania by a shady corporation to find the last Tasmanian Tiger. They want its priceless DNA.

It’s very similar in tone to The American. He moves in under cover and pretends to be a scientist, but gradually befriends some locals and his heart is changed. There’s a bit of an ecology angle, but it’s not too heavy-handed. It’s mostly a slow-paced, thoughtful film, full of atmospheric silences and drama. Willem Defoe is just awesome as the hunter, and the supporting case is terrific, too. Worth your time.

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Sat, Mar 29, 2014

: The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones

The concept of a child who inherits special abilities is a classic and though familiar, I was still curious about this film. I skipped it in the theaters and I’m glad I did. I don’t know anything about the books, but everything about the film is ham-handed and dull.

The central concept is the teen girl is a “shadowhunter,” half-human, half-angel, who has special abilities she can use to kill demons. There’s a bunch of other muddling mythology, but the real problem is much worse: it’s boring. All the technical details about this fictional world are read off of cue cards with all the enthusiasm of a half-asleep telemarketer. Important info and cool concepts are tossed off with barely a blink and no one seems to take even the most outrageous events with any surprise. I literally fell asleep during the film and was so bored I didn’t even care to go back and watched what I missed.

The whole thing devolves into utter silliness and cheesy digital special effects. Don’t waste your time.

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Tue, Mar 25, 2014

: The Ice Limit

Author: Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

I really knew little of what to expect, but I really enjoyed this adventure tale. The story involves the quest to retrieve the largest meteorite every discovered, and is mostly about the massive engineering operation in a remote location at the bottom of the world, mixed in with mysteries surrounding the giant orb. Though some of the events are far-fetched, it still made for a great story.

But what I most enjoyed was the fascinating character of the leader of expedition, a man who predicts every possible outcome and always has a backup plan. He has never failed. When the meteorite proves unpredictable, it was awesome to see the two square off.

The ending has a nice twice that’s plausible and ominous. Good fun with a lot of intriguing science.

Topic: [/book]

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Wed, Mar 12, 2014

: My Kid Could Paint That

Intriguing little documentary about a four-year-old girl whose abstract oil paintings sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. It becomes a controversial topic both because there’s disagreement over why abstract art is worth that much (Is her artwork only worth that because it’s known she’s so young?), and because 60 Minutes does an exposé questioning that the girl actually paints them.

When the family responds by creating a video recording of their daughter creating a painting from start to finish, it seems to diminish most of the doubts of her authenticity. Still, a few questions linger. While I was disappointed that the film doesn’t completely resolve everything, it was a surprisingly compelling story and very watchable. It’s not long and utterly fascinating.

Topic: [/movie]

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Sat, Feb 01, 2014

: Epic

I remember when this hit the theaters — it baffled me. The title has absolutely nothing to do with the movie. It’s not memorable or relevant. Just bizarre.

I actually rather liked the film. It’s about tiny fairy people who live in the forest (they’re smaller than mice and hang out with talking slugs and snails). I wasn’t that impressed with them — they aren’t very original or even interesting — but I liked the story of the human girl is forced to live with her “weird” scientist father after her mother dies. He’s obsessed with finding the little people and ostracized by society who think he’s crazy and she’s embarrassed for him — until she’s shrunk down to little person size and realizes he was right.

The plot’s mostly about her having to help save the little people. It’s a little forced — the old queen is dead and a new queen will hatch from a pod but only if it’s the right place at the right time — but it does work. It’s all a bit frantic and wild, but the animation is good and the story has enough meat on it to be worth your time. A lot of the action is silly but fun, and as are many of the side characters.

But I still can’t get over the title. The story certainly isn’t “epic” in any way I can tell, and if you asked me tomorrow if I wanted to watch “Epic” I’d probably ask you what movie that was because I’d have already forgotten. At least similar movies about tiny people are well-named, like The Borrowers, where the title reminds you what the movie’s about. This one ends up being an okay film, but the title just about ruins it.

Topic: [/movie]

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Fri, Jan 31, 2014

: Stoker

This is a very strange and fascinating movie. It’s eerily reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, but without that film’s good taste. Here, everyone is crazy.

It’s very tough to tell anything about this film without spoiling the plot, but it’s also important. The description I read about it was something along the lines of “After her father dies, a teenage girl becomes infatuated with her uncle though she suspects he’s up to something.” That provoked zero interest in me and explains why this film was a flop (despite big stars like Nicole Kidman in it, I’d never heard of it, which is a dangerous sign).

The film is actually about murder. The main girl’s uncle turns out to be a psycho murdering people… and then the girl joins him and starts murdering, too. That aspect is fascinating and full of dark humor and could have been brilliant — except the filmmakers hide that from the viewer as though it’s some major revelation, with the result that the bare story (a troubled girl dealing with her father’s death and a strange visiting uncle) seems utterly boring and all the characters too weird to be watchable. If this had been done as a black comedy, celebrating the girl’s weirdness and murderous instincts, it would have reached the intended audience.

The worst decision of all is the title. When I saw the title, I assumed this was some sort of horror film — after all, Bram Stoker is the creator of Dracula and his name is synonymous with horror. Perhaps that was the intent, but that’s not what this movie is at all, and naming it that is just deceiving and confusing. It’d be like naming a film “Hitchcock” and having zero to do with the famous director, horror/suspense, film-making, or anything else Hitchcock-related. I didn’t even realize until halfway through the film that the girl’s last name is Stoker and that’s where the title comes from. Nothing is even done with that, either (other than a bully’s transformation of the name into an insult), making the name pointless.

Beyond those two mistakes — poor description and a terrible title — this film is utterly brilliant. From the opening sequence where the girl shows off her hyper-sensitivity and the camera-work focuses in on incredibly microscopic details (tiny insects, hairs, etc.) we realize this is an unusual film. The opening credits are amazing — the action freezes briefly as names are displayed and I love the way the letters are both part of the scene and not part of the scene, such as when some of the text disappears behind a character when she moves.

Throughout the film the way the director blends scenes together is fantastic. A few don’t work, but many are jaw-droppingly good. My favorite is the hairbrush scene, where we zoom in on long golden hair being brushed until it fills the entire frame and we see it rustling and moving and then we realize it’s not hair, but long grasses and we’re out in the forest!

The wrap-around ending is also excellent, as it completely changes the context of the scene we saw at the very beginning.

Unfortunately, all this brilliance is wasted, because no one is going to want to watch a film with this title and a boring description about a girl grieving for her dead father. Anyone just diving in is likely to be intrigued by the visuals, but put off by the bizarre and distasteful characters. Instead of intrigue and suspense, which we just have weirdness, and the whole film feels uncomfortable and odd and nothing seems to be happening. Most people will just turn the channel.

That’s sad, because there is a lot of genius at work here. If you’re the right market for this type of film — dark comedy without the element of humor — it’s a great movie. I suspect this is one of those divisive films: people will either rate it 10 stars or 1 star, with no in-between. You’ll love it or absolutely hate it.

Topic: [/movie]

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Wed, Jan 29, 2014

: Killing Them Softly

Odd film. I’m not sure of the point, though that could be the point.

It’s about the criminal underworld where a couple of idiots rob a gambling joint and then are hunted down by hit men sent by the mobster owners. The cast is steller (almost everyone is someone you’ve seen before and there are big names like Brad Pitt) and the feel of the film is one of gritty reality, albeit with some overly-stylish flourishes (such as slow-motion bullets) in a few dramatic scenes. The dialog is complex and obtuse, and the plot almost non-existent. This creates a sort of conflict: while realistic, it’s sluggish and tedious, with a lot of strange talky scenes that while revealing of character, are meaningless in terms of story.

The whole film acts like a film of substance, but there’s little there, and the abrupt ending reenforces the pointlessness of everything. Which could be the point, as I mentioned before, but it still left a poor taste in my mouth.

I definitely liked the performances and some scenes, but as a film it left me scratching my head. Why was this made?

Topic: [/movie]

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Fri, Jan 24, 2014

: My First Mac

I knew I wanted to be a writer back in 1980 when I was thirteen. I was a geeky bookworm back then, and vastly preferred the world of fiction to real life (I still do). Of course, my handwriting was illegible (it still is), so I began saving and dreaming of the day I could buy a typewriter. I knew exactly which one I wanted, too: the IBM Selectric. They cost $2,000, but were built like tanks. My mom had one for work and I dreamed of my own.

But in 1981 I visited my uncle in California and he showed me something fantastic: an Osborne I personal computer. Compared to computers today the thing is laughable: a “portable” 26-pound computer the size of a suitcase (and shaped like one) with a tiny green phosphor screen the size of two decks of playing cards side-by-side. It couldn’t even show 80 characters across — you had to scroll from side-to-side to see a full 80-character line of text!

I’d never seen anything like it, but the key revelation for me was that I could edit typos and rewrite without having to retype or use awful White Out. I was blown away and instantly all thoughts of a typewriter were gone. I wanted a computer.

As a young teen, saving up thousands of dollars wasn’t easy. I actually didn’t get my first computer until my junior year of high school in 1985. In the meantime I briefly had opportunities to play with other computers: Radio Shack TRS-80, Commodore 64, Texas Instruments TI-994A, an Apple II, and some video game systems. I went to stores and played with demos, and I wistfully dreamed of being able to afford a “real” computer like an IBM PC. But those cost three grand. Even the Compaq “clone” was over $2,000 and I barely had a $1,000 saved.

Then came along the first “under $1,000” PC. It was made by Sanyo and was innovative for its time. Technically, it was only semi-IBM compatible. That was mainly because it had pixel-based graphics while IBM’s had a character-based screen. That mean the Sanyo could mix text and graphics together while IBM’s had to switch to graphics mode to do graphics. The Sanyo could do eight colors at once, too, at a higher resolution than IBM. But the killer feature was that it was $999 — with a monochrome display.

I almost had that much money saved and my folks helped me with the rest. Soon I was the proud owner of a real computer! However, I’d forgotten about one important detail: a printer. What good was writing my school papers on a computer if I couldn’t print them out?

Fortunately, my mom was interested in using my computer for some of her work — mainly printing mail merge letters — but she insisted on a printer that did “letter-quality.” She absolutely abhorred dot-matrix printing that looked like it came from a computer. I remember shopping with her and looking at a lot of expensive printers: we settled on a 24-pin Toshiba that cost more than my whole computer!

But the Toshiba came with several built-in fonts and the print quality was really excellent (especially compared to the 9-pin dot matrix printers that were common). In high-quality mode, it looked typewritten, and I was able to help my mother send out thousands of mail-merged letters over the years.

There was an interesting aspect of both the Sanyo and the Toshiba, however. This was back in the mid-80s when “standards” were non-existent or flexible. Neither was really a standard device. The Toshiba could emulate a standard Epson printer for basic text printing and so while you could print from many programs, they couldn’t take advantage of the full 24-pins. I had no programs that supported its high resolution. The same was true of the Sanyo, where finding software was a challenge — most regular IBM PC programs wouldn’t run on it.

That’s what led me into programming. To really see what my Sanyo could do, I had to use the built-in BASIC programming language. I migrated from that to Turbo Pascal, a more advanced language. I typed in games and programs from magazines and tried writing my own stuff.

My crowning achievement was writing to Toshiba in Japan and waiting weeks for them to snail mail me a special programmer’s manual that explained how to talk to the 24-pins of the printer. With that in hand I was able to write my own Pascal app that could print graphics in full 360-dpi glory — incredible for those days!

(Remember, this was back when a laser printer cost as much as a car!)

Of course, to mix text and graphics together, I had to write my own program as the word processors I had only supported text. That’s when I ran into another obstacle — in graphics mode the Toshiba wouldn’t print its high-quality text. I had to print my text as graphics, which meant, crazy as it seems, making my own high-resolution font!

So I wrote my own font editor and created a font. Nothing fancy, just a plain typewriter-looking font. I made it pixel-by-pixel and I made my graphics program support it. Then my program could read in text and graphics from files and print them out together on the same page.

It was incredibly convoluted. It took me years to get it working right, and even then it was very limited. Merging text and graphics together on a page was awkward — keep in mind you couldn’t actually see anything on the screen. This was all just a bunch of code. To test the result, you had to print and if it was wrong, you tweaked the code and reprinted.

I write all this so that you know my mindset at the time, because that was important. This was 1988 and I had dropped out of college to spend a year writing and “finding myself” when I was offered a position at the college where my mom was working. I’d be in charge writing and producing the alumni newsletter for the school. The pay was minimum wage, just terrible, but the carrot was that I had a brand new Macintosh SE with a huge 19” black-and-white monitor attached. There was also a grayscale scanner and a laser printer. The software included Aldus PageMaker for layout and design, FreeHand for vector drawing, and Digital Darkroom for photo manipulation.

It’s probably good to point out that I had used a Mac once. Briefly, before I went off to college, I “worked” at a new computer store in my hometown. I didn’t get paid, but just hung out there and played with the equipment. In return, when customers had questions, I answered them. Even though I knew nothing, I apparently knew more than them. Computers were not the commodity they are now, that’s for sure.

I remember I got to play with a Macintosh. I drew pictures in MacPaint, typed and formatted text with MacWrite, and learned about Desk Accessories and the Mac OS. It was a blast. I’d never seen a computer so amazing. I wanted one, sure — but they were so expensive I didn’t even dare dream of such a thing. It’d be like me today lusting after a Lamborghini worth more than my house. It’s just not even worth the fantasy.

So nearly two years later, the opportunity to use a Mac was definitely the key selling point in getting me to take that low-paying job. The pay was barely enough for me to live on — I was amounting credit card debt just to get by each month — but as long as I could use a Macintosh, it was worth it.

I fell in love. That system was awesome. I threw myself in head over heels and spent every waking moment learning everything about it, about graphic design, about typography, and making lots of horrible design mistakes. For the first time, I had a system where I could see on the screen exactly what I’d have on the printout.

I remember the real kicker for me was Christmas that year when I wanted to do my own newsletter. Of course, I wanted it to be fancy, with graphics and text, so I worked hard on my computer at home. But that system was so kludgy — I only had the couple of fonts I’d designed, and making more was hideously awful (you had to draw them pixel-by-pixel with arrow keys, pressing the space bar each place where you wanted a dot to be). Merging pictures and graphics was a joke. And that fantastic Toshiba printer, as good as it was, was not a laser printer.

One day, after many, many hours of work at home struggling with my system, I was so frustrated I took the text of my letter to work. I stayed after work and retyped the letter on the Macintosh. In less than an hour, from scratch, I not only recreated the letter there, but it was a hundred times better. The graphics were better. The fonts were better. And the layout was infinitely better. I was converted.

Now I lusted after a Mac the way I had that original IBM typewriter almost a decade earlier. I began saving. Macs were horrendously expensive, especially a system as powerful as what I had at work. Even worse, I’d already begun to see limitations in that system. Apple had come out with new, even more powerful computers that were mind-blowing. I remember visiting a high-end computer store and seeing the brand new Mac II. It was a workstation-class machine that did full color and was incredibly fast. I wanted one so badly, but the price tag was an insane $10,000!

But after that newsletter incident, I knew there was no going back. I hated my PC. Even using that Sanyo for plain word processing seemed primitive and awful after the Mac at work. I used it less and less. If I needed to do anything, I’d stay after work and do it there.

I researched and by late 1989, I knew what I wanted. I found a place in Texas selling used Macs and they set me up with a used Mac II upgraded with a Marathon 68030 processor running at a blazing 33-Mhz (the original Mac II was a 20-Mhz 60820). The price included a RasterOps 24-bit color card — which was $999 — and an Apple 13” RGB monitor. For a while there it looked like I wasn’t going to be able to afford a hard drive — ridiculous in retrospect — but I finally came up with the funds to get the computer with a 40MB internal drive. (That seemed obscenely huge at the time, but I needed more disk space within a few months!)

The entire system cost $6,000 and I got a bank loan and borrowed from relatives to make it happen. I spent all my savings and was paying off the thing for years. But man, was that system awesome.

Just to show you how extraordinary it was, I remember after I got it looking for some “full color” pictures to display on it. Remember, it had that fabulous 24-bit video card. Almost all color displays at that time were limited to 256-colors at once — which meant pictures didn’t look like photographs. My system was capable of showing 16 million colors at once — but I had no such pictures! Just finding some 24-bit photos to display was a huge challenge (color scanners weren’t common — even at work my grayscale scanner cost $2,000).

But at a trade show in San Francisco, I got a fantastic giveaway: a floppy disk by RasterOps, the maker of my video card, that included a half dozen 640x480 high-resolution (for the time) full-color photos in the then-new JPEG format. These were incredible photos: a sunset, a lovely beach picture, etc. My favorite was one of a collection of fruit: kiwis and bananas and oranges and such, and everything was so jaw-droppingly realistic that your mouth watered to look at it.

Even on my super-fast Mac II displaying one of the pictures wasn’t fast: the picture would scan onto the screen an inch or two at a time. It took it 3-5 seconds to load the picture and show it! (Think about that the next time you’re swiping instantly between hundreds of 8-megapixel photos on your iPad.)

That Mac II served me for many years and I actually made a lot of money doing graphic design with it. It more than paid for itself, even factoring in all the upgrades I put in. (I still have a receipt for the $700 I spent upping the RAM from 4MB to 16MB. That seemed like an insane amount at the time. My Mac today has 16GB!)

I still have that Mac II. It’s in my garage and I haven’t booted it up in over a decade, but in theory it still works. (I suspect I’ll have to put in a new battery on the motherboard. The original computer had a non-replaceable coin battery that is required to power on the computer, but that ran out in the mid-90s and I replaced it with a third-party upgrade board that uses a standard battery I can replace. I’m sure it needs a new battery by now.)

I’ve bought a ton of Macs since then. I have a PowerMac 8500 in my closet. It’s another awesome machine. I’ve gone through several iMacs (I still have two, though I’m going to sell my oldest one). Mainly I’ve been buying laptops. I started with a PowerBook 160 and upgraded every two or three years. I guess I’ve gone through nearly a dozen in twenty years. The king was the $3,500 Titanium, which I amazingly sold for $500 well after the Intel transition was finished.

I still have that Sanyo, too. I doubt it will boot. Floppy disks supposedly demagnetize over time and 30 years is a long time. I’m not even sure I’d know how to use it. That machine was all DOS-based with cryptic text-based commands. In theory I still have some of my high-school writings on those floppies, but even if I could get them up on the machine, how would I get them over to my Mac? Via a serial port to USB-serial converter, I guess, presuming I could find the right cables and software. The nightmare of Z-Term haunts me and I haven’t dared try it.

I’ve gone through a lot of computers over the years, but there’s definitely something magical about that first Mac. That Mac II represented potential in the way that every computer since has not. Now I buy computers for practical business and professional reasons, not for dreams. That first Mac was much like the college student I was then — raw and unpolished, ready for whatever direction the future led. What an awesome ride it has been.

Happy birthday, Macintosh!

Topic: [/technology]

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Thu, Jan 23, 2014

: Innocent

Author: Scott Turow

This is a follow-up to Turow’s classic Presumed Innocent, about a lawyer having an affair being tried for murder when his mistress ends up dead. This story is set some twenty years later with the main character now an appellate judge about to be appointed to the state supreme court. He’s remarkably stayed married to his wife from the first book, but their marriage is very troubled: she’s got mental problems and he stays with her out of guilt for his first affair. Then he gets really stupid and has another affair. This time it’s his wife who dies in a questionable manner, and the same prosecutor that fought him in the first book, is back to nail him again.

Overall, it’s a good story: the plot isn’t exactly innovative, but the way the trial is handled is interesting and dramatic, with tiny details the key. The ending is too long and goes all over the place, but it does wrap up all the loose ends nicely.

I found it hard to get into the story at first because the book is all first-person, but each chapter is told by a different character, and the chapters jump throughout time. So the prologue is “present day” while other chapters flash back to before the trial and during the trial. That made it very confusing, particularly with the audiobook where I couldn’t look back to compare the dates. I couldn’t figure out which character was which and since the voices were all by the same reader, it was confusing. Eventually this problem settled down and went away, but it was a rough beginning.

In the end, it’s a capable sequel. It was fun seeing how characters had aged, and the implausibility of the same guy making the same mistake twice is handled about as well as it could be (he himself marvels at his own stupidity). I did find it weak in terms of those characters — even though they’re first person narratives and we’re supposedly in the heads of people, because of the nature of a suspense novel, some info had to be withheld which made it difficult to really understand who these people are. There was a lot of more telling rather than showing. Still, it’s an interesting book, though I suspect that people who haven’t read the first book (or seen the movie) won’t be nearly as entertained.

Topic: [/book]

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: The Wolf of Wall Street

Director: Martin Scorsese

I was leery about this because of its three hour running time and supposed graphic excesses, but it turned out to be a fantastic film. Yes, there are quite a few explicit scenes, and the language is horrible, but the scenes are very brief and important to set a tone and make a point. There’s little here that’s gratuitous.

The story, which I hadn’t realized is true (I thought the main character was a fictional compilation of real people), is about a sales guy in the 80s who hits it big on Wall Street. He plays fast and loose with the letter of the law and has no qualms about selling suckers crappy stocks in order to put more cash in his pocket. He spends lavishly (his bachelor party in Las Vegas cost $2 million) and is a serious drug addict.

On the one hand, the story’s a simple tale of the rise and fall of a bad guy, but the reality is more subtle and elaborate than that. It’s really a moral lesson about what one wants out of life. Is money really the ultimate goal? Should it be? Is money itself evil? How much are we morally responsibly for how we earn money? The film seems to be a scathing commentary on Wall Street, which makes money without making anything, but even there the film doesn’t shy away from making that seem appealing. In fact, that’s the film’s real power: despite all the awful behavior we see on the screen, we the viewer still want that lifestyle and power, and the film makes us feel ashamed for that desire.

I did think there were flaws. The ending is too long, though somewhat satisfying, and there’s way too much emphasis on drug use. Several elaborate scenes show drunken, stoned people stumbling around and acting like idiots and it got old after the first time. We really didn’t need to dwell on that (though that could be just me: I’ve never understood the appeal of getting “wasted” — it sounds like a nightmare to me). It’s possible Scorsese was just wanting to emphasize the disastrous consequences of drug use, but in a way it was also glorifying it.

I also found the movie a little confusing because it was never very clear exactly what laws the main character broke. He himself speaks of some of the things he was doing as being shady or technically illegal, and it’s clear he did a lot of tax evasion to keep more of his wealth away from the government, but he operated a huge stockbrokerage firm with the SEC checking in on him so surely the stuff he was doing wasn’t that blatant. Not knowing exactly what he did that was so wrong severely weakens the movie’s moral compass as we aren’t sure just how evil the main character is or isn’t. It’s not like he was murdering children or even stealing from people (it wasn’t a Ponzi scheme). He was simply using aggressive sales techniques to sell people crappy stocks that he got a hefty commission on. I guess he lied to people — but shouldn’t those people bear some of responsibility for buying stocks based on what some stranger on the phone told them?

In the end the story’s a fascinating character study of wealth and excess. The casting is perfect, the film’s direction is excellent (you don’t really notice all the subtle things Scorsese does with the camera which is the way it should be), and it’s definitely a film worth seeing. It’s not for the faint of heart as there are lots of disturbing scenes, and I’m not sure what conclusion to draw from the ending, where the main character isn’t punished very severely for his crimes, but the bottom line is that it’s entertaining and it will make you think.

Topic: [/movie]

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Wed, Jan 22, 2014

: Frozen

Though I’d seen the promos for this, it was nothing like what I expected. I thought it was about a land where a wicked witch had frozen everything, but it turns out it’s about a two princesses, the eldest who has a “gift” of being able to freeze things. She must hide the ability lest she hurt people, so she retreats even from her beloved sister, terrified of hurting her. Eventually the dam breaks and she accidentally freezes the whole world when she runs off to the top of a mountain to be by herself. Her sister must journey to her and convince her to unfreeze the world.

Another shock is that this is really a musical (similar to the excellent Tangled). That’s not really a good thing, though, for the songs here are much weaker and less fun (I only liked one song in the whole movie and even that one only the chorus was good). Most of the songs are tuneless half-hearted “sing-talking,” where the character is singing his or her thoughts. My biggest pet peeve about musicals is when the singing is fake with a reason for it and that’s done quite often here.

But the story itself is excellent: it is different and full of surprises, and there are many fun and unusual characters. It’s also heart-warming and charming, with great lessons about forgiveness and love. In the end, that overwhelmed the weak music for me, and I really enjoyed the movie. Definitely one you should see.

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Thu, Jan 02, 2014

: Saving Mr. Banks

Wow. I thought this looked good but it turned out to be amazing. So good.

It’s the story of how Walt Disney convinced Mrs. P. L. Travers, the author of the classic Mary Poppins books, to sell him the movie rights. She was extremely possessive of the characters and felt that Disney would turn them into an animated monstrosity. A great deal of the film is her being picky with the Disney writing staff.

But the most interesting part of the film are the flashbacks to her childhood in Australia. There she grew up with a creative and wonderfully imaginative father who clearly inspired her to become a writer. (He’s played by Colin Ferrell who is shockingly good in the role.)

Sadly, we later get to see this wonderful man had a terrible dark side, and that’s really the core of the film: how children cope with the complex world of adults where a person can be both good and bad at the same time.

The film leaps between the two stories, and it’s mesmerizing. Some of Mrs. Travers’ demands and fussiness seem over-the-top, but I love that if you stay through the credits there’s actual audio recording from one of her sessions with the writers and it sounds just like the character in the film. (It’s a testament to the power of this film that despite its two-hour length, not a single person in the theatre I was in left until the credits finished.)

The ending is heart-breaking and heart-warming. I adored the father-daughter relationship portrayed in the flashbacks — it’s just incredible stuff, sweet and tragic and priceless. You’ll definitely want a tissue. But it’s not a sad movie — it’s a movie about hope and victory and overcoming our past.

Everyone in the film is excellent, and there are quite a few famous actors in small roles. Tom Hands as Walt is perfection, and Emma Thompson just nails Mrs. Travers. (I find it ironic that she starred in the Nanny McPhee movies playing a Mary Poppins-like character.)

Everything about the film is well-done — it hits every note just right. One thing that was annoying to me during the film was that it’s been so long since I’ve seen Mary Poppins that I wished I’d re-watched it before seeing this movie, but then at the end of this film when Mrs. Travers go to the premiere they show so many clips from the original movie that it explains everything and reminds me of how good a film Mary Poppins is (probably in large part due to Mrs. Travers’ crazy demands that the film be done just right). I’d really bene hoping they’d show her reaction to the film and they do and it’s not a token shot or two but an extensive scene — it’s a very satisfying ending.

As a writer myself, I was initially intrigued by this story about a writer and her creation — but this film gets so much deeper into why we write and how what haunts us as children infects everything we do as adults. It’s just an amazing film and one of my top picks for 2013. Go see it!

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Tue, Dec 31, 2013

: Seven Psychopaths

Strange movie. I wanted to love it. I love the quirky sense of humor and I don’t mind weird — but I never could quite get a handle on what the heck this film was. It reminded me of odd British comedy-dramas like Snatch and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, but it wasn’t quite as over-the-top and that made its identity more confusing.

This film mixes reality with a screenwriter’s new script, which is called Seven Psychopaths, and features characters in the film. The blend of reality and fiction is fun, but confusing, and by then end of the film I was expecting some big reveal that most of what we’d seen was just in the script and not real.

There are a lot of cool characters, and some fun psychopaths, and it’s got an amazing cast, but everything feels a little forced, like the writers are trying too hard to make stuff outrageous or funny.

The basic plot is… well, I guess it’s mainly about how the screenwriter’s friend, who’s a professional dog-napper, kidnaps a Bad Guy’s dog and he turns out to be a psychopath and wants revenge. The dog-napper gets his screenwriter buddy involved in the mess and they’re on the run while at the same time trying to finish the screenplay.

It’s not a terrible film at all — it’s got a ton going for it. It just didn’t completely work for me. I’d give it a solid B, though there are a few scenes that are A+. The cast, especially Christopher Walken, are worth the price alone.

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Sat, Dec 21, 2013

: Identity Thief

The basic story is about an average guy stuck in a 9-to-5 and struggling to make ends meet for his family, when everything goes upside down after he’s the victim of identity theft. When he finds out the theft is in a distant state and the local cops can’t do anything and it will take a year to straighten out the bureaucrat mess (with his life in ruins in the meantime), he decides to track down the thief himself and convince her to come back to Colorado with him and tell his boss the truth so he won’t lose his job.

Yeah, pretty thin, but it gives us a bizarre road trip movie with two people who don’t like each other and slowly learn that each has something to offer the other.

It’s not as raunchy as I’d feared, but still has a few crude moments that feel out of place and odd. Several times it’s like the writers were painting by numbers and said, “Ah, it’s been five minutes since we’ve had a vulgar joke so we need one here.” Then they go ahead and insert it even if it doesn’t fit the characters or the scene.

Still, there’s a lot of fun here and some surprising heart. Definitely not for kids, but amusing. My favorite part by far was when the thief connects with the man’s children at the dinner table by smearing food on her face — just amazingly tender and hilarious. From a child’s perspective, you just know they’re going to adore her forever.

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Tue, Dec 17, 2013

: A Game of Thrones: A Song of Ice and Fire: Book One

Author: George R.R. Martin

I’ve been curious about this since the series first launched on HBO and I got to see the first episode for free, but I wanted to read the book before watching the series. It’s taken a while. I’ve been listening to the audiobook for months! It just goes on and on and on and on. It’s not uninteresting at all, but it’s such a mammoth tale that it feels like there is no conclusion.

It’s a difficult book/series to describe. It’s a fantasy like Lord of the Rings but in a more Medieval setting, with knights and kings, battles and betrayals, and plenty of blood and sex. There’s magic and supernatural stuff, but in this first book that’s mostly only hinted at (I suspect that more is coming later in the series). It’s basically a sprawling epic with thousands of characters (and this is just the first book).

To give you a brief overview of the myriad characters we have three basic groups of people:

  • Queen Lanister, her son and twin brother, and her other relatives and friends, who are trying to take over the throne.
  • Lord Ned Stark and his many children (ranging in age from 9 to 15), who rule the wintery land of the North. He’s been asked by his old friend, the King, to become the King’s “Hand” (his right-hand man) after the previous Hand died (we later learn it was murder).
  • A brother and his thirteen-year-old sister who are distant exile, the last of their line, and apparently the original heirs to the throne who were defeated. As the novel starts the brother sells his sister to be the wife of a wealthy savage (he has 100,000 men on horses) in exchange for an army that he will lead to defeat the current king and regain his family’s throne.

What works is the awesome level of detail and vivid world history in the story. The characters are all three-dimensional and the verisimilitude of the setting is amazing. There’s eons of history to draw from, multiple cultures with their own traditions and languages, and very real conflicts. The writing is excellent, and the plots are as intricate and fascinating as spiderwebs.

The main flaw I note is the one that nagged me throughout this book, and sadly, even after I finally finished it: the question of why. Why was this written? What is the point? What am I supposed to get out of it? Is this mere entertainment or is there a higher purpose?

While it’s wonderful to have such well-rounded and non-black-and-white characters, this series does not really give us clearcut heroes. Pretty much everyone is somewhat evil or at least it seems that way. I suppose that’s more like real-life, but it makes for depressing reading. There’s no one really to cheer or root for, and I really have no idea where the series is going (and in a way, nor do I much care since I can’t cheer for any particular character). There are people in the stories that I like and admire, and there are some that are wonderfully bad, and most of the characters are very interesting — but there’s really nothing here for me to sink my teeth and say, “Ah ha! This is who the story is about.”

Now it’s very possible that the story is just so massive (we’re up to five huge books now, out of a planned seven) that such a core character will be revealed later in the series, but I’m sure I don’t have the patience for that. While I like complexity and realism, there is a limit. This book left me dead inside. While it is fascinating and entertaining, and I’m curious what will happen to the various people, I just don’t care enough about anything. The world the story is set in is distant and strange, and I’m honestly not even sure if these people are human. They’re violent, nasty, and cruel, and the world they live in is violent, nasty, and cruel. There are wars and beheadings and maimings and rapes and murders and very little in the way of anything nice. There are some innocent children in the story, but they don’t stay that way for long in such an environment.

Ultimately the questions I had when I started reading this are still unanswered. Why was this written? What am I supposed to get out of it? It is mere entertainment? At least with a traditional good-versus-evil story we know who to root for and why. This is just nasty people stabbing equally nasty people in the back.

Now I do like the way the book sets things up for the future: we’ve got a lord with a bunch of children that each are having their own adventures, and I’m fascinated to watch them grow up and see what becomes of them. But that’s the big picture. Judging this book by itself, it’s woefully incomplete despite being a zillion pages long.

That said, I have started watching the TV series and while I see some differences — plot points condensed, new scenes written to give us information in a different way, and typical arbitrary changes for unknown reasons — I am enjoying the TV version far more than the book. It moves at a faster pace and yet it’s more understandable. The book is so vast with so many characters that I have trouble keeping track of who is related to who and what the relationships are, especially when certain people go for hundreds of pages without a mention, while the TV series makes that much more clear.

I’m glad I read the book, but I don’t recommend it except for the most avid readers. For most people the TV show is far more accessible. I basically could have watched all 30+ hours of the three years of the TV show in the time to took me to listen to this one book! So watch the show — I really like it — and if you’re infatuated with this world you can always explore the books later.

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Sun, Dec 15, 2013

: Jack the Giant Slayer

This is a fascinating film. Not because of anything in it, but because it was a giant flop (ha ha) at the box office. I was going to see it but the early feedback was so negative I didn’t bother.

What’s wrong with it? That’s the interesting thing: not that much. It’s actually got a decent story that’s a retelling of the Jack and the Beanstalk tale, but with enough new twists and turns to make for something entirely new. The special effects are ridiculous — over-the-top and just so outrageous it’s unbelievable that any movie producer would even consider making a film this effects-driven. We’re talking hundreds of digital giants, castle destruction, skyscraper beanstalks, and much more. It’s almost too much.

The real problem is that this film doesn’t quite know what it is. Is it a comedy? Not really, though it feels absurd enough that it could be. But it doesn’t go far enough or have consistent jokes to be a comedy. Is it a drama? It takes itself surprisingly seriously considering the material, and there are moments that feel like they’re supposed to be dramatic… only considering the type of film is this they fall flat.

This problem what type of movie it is also spread into the marketing, which didn’t know how to promote it. My impressions of what the trailers claimed this was and to what it turned out to be are almost opposites. Sure, I got the basic Beanstalk story I expected, but I didn’t get any of the serious peril and death that are actually in the movie. Instead, the trailer made the action look cartoonish and silly, and there didn’t seem to be a plot.

That’s a shame, because the plot is what makes this work. It’s impressively clever, explaining away various differences and similarities of the original tale, and I liked that they made changes such as making Jack smart. (For example, he doesn’t just trade a horse for magic beans — the beans are collateral he’s supposed to take to the abbey the next day to exchange for cash.)

There are several clever twists in the plot I really liked: it starts going one direction that seems predictable and then veers off in another way. I also really liked the way the naive Jack is actually able to battle the giants: it was believable.

But all that said, there are notable flaws. The script’s schizophrenic and inconsistent. There’s some excellent dialog — and some of the worst I’ve ever heard (my nominee is the “barking up the wrong beanstalk” line). The tone of the film is all over the place, ultra-realistic at times and cartoonish at others; it’s confusing. There’s a dull lifelessness to things at the beginning and it takes too long for the story to get going: for me that didn’t happen until we get a glimpse of the villain and his plans for domination.

These mistakes are awkward but not deal-breakers: many films are similarly weak but still work. I was surprised at how much I actually enjoyed this. The special-effects are great and the story is clever. It’s just our expectations weren’t set correctly by the marketing and this thing was doomed from the start. It’s sad to see such wasted potential. I think you’d like this if you go in with lower expectations and prepare yourself for a slightly more serious movie than you’d think.

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Sat, Dec 14, 2013

: Pitch Perfect

I was curious about this when it came out: it sounded fun, and some of the singing scenes looked impressive. But it seemed too predictable: an a capella group made up of misfit girls competing for a trophy… I wonder what’s going to happen?

It’s actually surprisingly decent. It could use more depth and there’s a little bit of gross-out humor that I found distracting (a singer barfing on stage, way overdone). But the music and singing numbers are the best parts — lots of great songs, cool performances, and who doesn’t like to see the underdogs rise up and triumph over the smug know-it-alls? Predictable, yes, but with moments of magic. I enjoyed it.

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Fri, Dec 13, 2013

: Snitch

It took me a little while to figure out the key problem with this film: it’s the casting of Dwayne Johnson (a.k.a. The Rock) as the lead. It’s not that he’s bad — he’s actually very good — the problem is that when The Rock stars in a film we expect it to be a big action movie. This is not.

This is actually a thoughtful, serious film about what happens when an untrained regular guy goes undercover to catch drug dealers so that he can help his son get a reduced sentence. Instead of The Rock beating up guys, he gets beat up — he’s not the tough guy we’re used to seeing. I believe that turned a lot of people off of this film as it just isn’t why people go see his movies. If the lead had been played by a character actor such as Edward Norton, this would have engendered a very different (and much more positive) reaction.

As it is, I liked it. It’s got flaws — we don’t really care about the incarcerated son that’s the core motivation of the dad, the pacing is uneven, there are some awkward plot points and there’s not really enough action, and the ending’s mediocre — but it’s realistic and surprisingly thoughtfully done. That in itself is probably a flaw: the film takes itself and its topic too serious (the opening “Based on a true story” text and closing summary text are examples of that). Still, it’s interesting and not horrible at all. Just don’t expect an action movie.

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: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

I enjoyed the first film and while I was looking forward to this one, I wasn’t sure what to expect, especially since they’re apparently splitting the book into three behemoth movies.

To my delight, this is an even better film. The story is somewhat slim as the bulk of the film’s running time is made up of action. Scenes that just take a page or two in the novel, are major action set pieces in the movie. Usually in those situations there’s a part of me just wants to get on with the plot, but to my surprise, the action is so well-done and compelling that I wasn’t the least bit bored. It’s really some of the best action I’ve ever seen.

As one example, we must see hundreds of grotesque Orcs killed throughout the film — but every death shown is different and interesting, and often with black humor.

As for the story, it’s mostly the second half of the book: going through Mirewood, meeting the wood Elves, escaping in the barrels, and eventually confronting Smaug the dragon. However, that basic story has been expanded with an Elf-Dwarf semi-romance, Gandalf confronting the Necromancer, and several other subplots. Much of this extraneous stuff isn’t strictly necessary, but it’s not boring, and it builds up suspense in the main storylines. It also sets up what happens in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and I’m guessing that it’s setting up the third film in this series. (More on that in a minute.)

The utter delight of the film — just like Gollem was in the previous series — is Smaug the dragon. Not only is he a visual treat, but he’s a real character, superbly voiced, and there’s extensive interaction between him and Bilbo and the dwarves. The action scenes with the dragon are so amazingly well done that I watched ten minutes of the action before it occurred me to that the actors were all performing with no dragon in sight — since he was added digitally later. Usually I’m keenly aware of such a technicality as the interaction does not feel true. Here you just get lost in the mesmerizing story and characters and completely forget — like with Gollem — that the dragon isn’t real.

Smaug is worth the price of admission alone, though I cannot neglect to mention the impressive performance of Evangeline Lily (from the Lost TV series) who is just awesome in every way as the elf Tauriel. I didn’t recognize her in the film and kept wondering who the fantastically beautiful and yet clearly talented actress was: not only was her Elvish convincing, but she was incredible in the action sequences as well.

Not to be outdone, all the dwarves are also splendid, particularly Richard Armitage as Thorin. The entire cast is flawless, really, a real rarity in movies (I usually always find at least one or two people that feel miscast to me).

In short, this is a must-see film. It’s breath-takingly beautiful, dramatic, thrilling, and emotional. About the only negative I have is that it literally ends in the middle of a sentence — we have to wait for part three to find out what happens.

That brings up the most interesting aspect of this trilogy: I am both excited and wary of the next film. On the one hand, I can’t wait, but on the other, this film exhausts almost all of the novel, so what will part three be about? Granted, Tolkien did write extensive histories and notes that the producers can rely upon for additional material, but I worry that the final movie, which is usually the strongest, could end up the weakest. But the other side of the coin is that part three could end up being the least predictable and the most surprising and interesting simply because I have no idea what it will be about!

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Thu, Dec 05, 2013

: The Book Thief

This is a marvelous film. Being a bookworm, I was intrigued by title; finding out it is set in the horror WWII and deals with a young girl escaping her life through literature, I was sold and went without even watching a trailer.

It was different than I expected. My first surprise is that the girl in question is German, which gives us a different perspective of the war. She’s an orphan sent to live with foster parents, which is an adventure, and she’s just lost her beloved little brother. Most surprising of all, she’s illiterate — and it’s her quest to learn to read, combined with the Nazi regime’s policy of book burning, that prompts her to become a book thief.

My biggest worry was that this would be a depressing film. My second worry was that it might be schmaltzy. Neither was a problem at all. The film is wonderfully engaging, and though it deals with serious topics, it’s not a downer at all. It’s not overly sentimental, either. There’s humor, wonder, and adventure, in addition to tragedy.

The best thing about the film undoubtedly is the casting of the Book Thief herself, as she’s in almost every scene and carries the film. Young Sophie Nélisse is just marvelous, with a subtlety to her acting I found astonishing. When she first meets her foster parents, for instance (my favorite scene in the whole film), she’s sour and reluctant to emerge from the vehicle. Her strict foster mother yells at her to no avail, but it’s her tender-hearted foster father — awesomely portrayed by the inimitable Geoffrey Rush — who greets her with a bow and a “Your Majesty.” Her reaction is perfect. At first she stubbornly refuses to be won over by his charm, but a moment later, as she gets out of the car, there’s the faintest flash of a smile, a tiny upcurling of the edges of her mouth. It disappears almost instantly, but it’s enough for us to glimpse the human side of the traumatized girl. Just precious and perfect. She’s my vote for an Oscar, no question.

Almost everyone else is good, though I found a few of the German accents off-putting and fake. (I don’t know who made the decision to have everyone speak English with German accents — they should either speak normally or in German. Nothing else makes sense.) There are a few other minor complaints — the blond boy was a weak actor, though he looked the part; the closeup of a book’s text at one point clearly showed it was modern typesetting (with horrible straight quotes no less); the term “soccer” is used instead of “football,” which would never happen in Germany; and I didn’t understand why the girl, who beat up a boy earlier, stood and watched later when a boy was hurting her friend — but these are relatively minor things.

Overall, it’s a terrific, mesmerizing film that will haunt you for days. The story is simple and elegant, and not overly done. I can’t compare it to the novel as I haven’t read that (yet), but the film is definitely one I wouldn’t mind seeing multiple times.

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Tue, Dec 03, 2013

: Warm Bodies

I was curious about this interesting take on a zombie movie (in this case a zombie falls in love with a human), but I missed it in theaters. It’s actually really good.

I’m not crazy about the way the zombies talk in the film — it sounds way too sophisticated and they use contractions and full sentences — but other than that they do a good job of making the love story plausible.

The direction is clever and interesting, and the plot is simple but effective, as a cure is sought for the zombies’ situation. The ending is Hollywood but I liked it.

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Sun, Dec 01, 2013

: Broken City

Usually this type of crime drama isn’t my cup of tea. This one is predictable (a corrupt Mayor and the ex-cop-now-PI trying to bring him down) and dreary, and the main guy (played by Mark Wahlberg) has zero personality (perfect casting).

Yet despite all that, I actually watched this. Maybe the predictability helps, as you want to see if what you thought really comes to pass. It’s got a hint of something that makes it slightly above average and it’s not terrible. It’s not great as there’s little remarkable here, but it’s mildly entertaining if you’re in the right mood.

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