Sat, Dec 06, 2014

: The Day

Usually I fast-forward through these kinds of movies and don’t bother to comment on them. This horror film about a small group in an apocalyptic world who fight off cannibals at a farmhouse had an interesting cast (one of the hobbits from Lord of the Rings is in it), so I recorded it. It’s not a great movie — but it’s got some unusual appeal and I ended up actually watching it.

It starts off really slow with a rag-tag group of survivors finding a deserted farmhouse and making camp there. Everyone is on edge and terrified, but we don’t know why. There are hints that the world ended ten years earlier, but there’s no explanation of exactly what happened. I liked that. There are a couple of flashbacks from some of the characters, but they’re brief and it’s not too heavy-handed.

One of their group is a strange woman who doesn’t talk. She’s an outsider and a loner. Then suddenly the men are attacked: the farmhouse is a trap by cannibal tribe who plan on eating them. The odd woman fights them off and kills them, but not before one of them talks to her and reveals that she’s a cannibal, too. That’s when things get interesting: suddenly her friends attack her and torture her and plan to kill her. One of the men had his wife and daughter killed by cannibals and he’s the most avid about making the odd woman’s death as painful as possible.

But this isn’t really the right time for that: reinforcements of the cannibals are coming, and if the group is caught on the open road, they’d be easily slaughtered. At least at the farmhouse they have a fighting chance. And they decide to keep the woman alive for the moment, as she knows the cannibal ways and can help them fight. She reveals that her baby sister got sick and was eaten by her tribe, and so she killed them and ran away. The others don’t think that she’s really changed and plan to kill her for her crimes anyway.

That whole “Is she a friend or not?” question was fascinating and well-done. The actual cannibal fighting was merely okay. Really annoying was the high-frequency sound-effects the director used — we’re the talking dog whistle variety that grates on your nerves and was clearly designed to freak out the viewer but just pissed me off and trite and far too obvious. The ending was unusual and pretty cool.

In the end, I have to recommend the film if you’re into gory horror of the dark variety. It’s got some intriguing ideas. It’s definitely not a film for everyone, and even fans will find it dry at times, but it’s got just enough depth to take it slightly above routine horror.

Topic: [/movie]


: The Amazing Spider-Man 2

I wasn’t a big fan of the “original”, and my feelings remained in this one. It has similarly non-sensical plot problems (particularly galling is how regular people turn into villains with little provocation and the way they master their superpowers with zero effort or practice), and though it has a few clever ideas (I liked the explanation for why the spider bite worked on Peter Parker), those good things are offset by other flaws. Combine that with a bizarre and sad ending and I’m still asking, “Why’d they bother?”

Topic: [/movie]


Thu, Dec 04, 2014

: Mr. Monk is Cleaned Out

I remember when I got this I wasn’t too excited: the premise sounded too depressing. Basically Monk loses everything in a Ponzi scheme, so 80% of the book is him and Natalie struggling for money. Yeah, lots of fun. They get low-end jobs and are promptly fired when Monk is Monk (i.e. telling pizza restaurant patrons they’re all going to die because they’re eating with their hands). Only mildly amusing.

Fortunately, there are a couple of “impossible” murders for Monk to solve, and though those aren’t impossible to figure out, they are clever and well-done.

Overall, this is a below-average Monk book: limited humor, only a handful of mysteries, and a rather depressing economic situation. But that still is better than most books and if you’re a Monk fan, it’s not a bad read.

Topic: [/book]


Wed, Dec 03, 2014

: Mr. Monk on the Couch

It’s been quite a while since I’ve read a Mr. Monk book. They’re usually great, but because they each have to be written as somewhat standalone books, they get rather repetitive when you read several in a row as the whole Monk premise (a severely obsessive-compulsive detective) and I got rather burned out on them.

This was a delightful way to get back into it. I loved that the book is full of tons of little mysteries he solves while the big murder mystery continues in the background. In this one the big mystery was predictable (several murders that turned out to be related), but it didn’t bother me as it was an entertaining read. As always, it’s full of terrific humor and Monk insanity. One of the better Monk books.

(I still can’t believe they canceled the TV show. I miss it so much! But at least there appears to be a slew of new Monk books for me to check out.)

Topic: [/book]


Sun, Nov 16, 2014

: The LEGO Movie

When this movie came out last spring, I boycotted it. I had numerous reasons to dislike it without seeing it. I thought the idea was too artificial, a movie forced into being by a toy company. I’m huge fan of Legos — they were my favorite toy as a kid — but I abhor the little Lego people. (Back in my day, we didn’t have those. If you wanted people in your Lego town, you had to build them up from blocks!)

Despite those obstacles, I might have still seen the movie, but the trailer was awful: a bizarre mix of pop culture references and a plot about “the chosen one” seemingly ripped off from the Matrix and a few dozen other films. When the film became a huge hit, I stayed away out of spite. I didn’t want to encourage such cheapness.

Well, tonight the film debuted on HBO and out of curiosity, I watched it. It’s terrific. It opens with an ordinary Lego guy in a totalitarian society where everyone is supposed to follow the instructions. This is clearly a metaphor of those who build Legos via imagination and free will versus those who rigidly follow step-by-step instructions.

This society is pretty cool in some ways — the “rules” are often hilarious — but lame in others (the bad guy is the unimaginative and bizarrely named “President Business”). As the movie continued into a weird mishmash of popular culture — suddenly Batman and Superman and even Star Wars characters are in the movie — I was even more puzzled (and slightly revolted, if I must be honest).

At one point I had the wild idea that perhaps everything that seemed lame was actually part of a brilliant plan by the screenwriters and everything would actually make sense in the end. Of course, that was ridiculous and impossible.

Guess what? The ending of this is what did it for me. The bulk of the movie is a rather crazy high-speed adventure story of the ordinary guy being forced into the hero role… but while everything seems to be haphazard and crazy for the sake of craziness, everything is there for a reason. The ending actually does explain everything! It’s freaking genius. I’m in awe of this ending. All the nonsensical stuff in the middle is perfectly rational once you know what’s really going on. (And that reason really appealed to the child in me.)

And to top it off, there’s a great moral lesson in the story about being true to yourself, that everyone (even the most ordinary of us) is special, and there’s no wrong way to build — which is not only a great life lesson, but is particularly amazing when connected (Ha ha, see what I did there?) with Legos.

As a kid the thing I hated more than anything was when someone else tried to tell me the “right” way to build something with Legos. (I can remember dozens of times when adults would show me the “right” way to do something and I would pretend to listen and as soon as they left, I’d destroy what they did and redo it my way. That right there should tell you everything you need to know about me as a person.)

The whole point of Legos is that you can use your imagination and do whatever you want. Clearly these filmmakers understood that, and that I think that’s why they made this movie.

So the bottom line is that while the promotion of this film failed for me as it tried to look hip and cool and just came across as bizarre and confusing, it actually is an ingenious invention, and utterly worth your time. It’s a blast.

Topic: [/movie]


Thu, Nov 13, 2014

: The Scarecrow

Author: Michael Connelly

Apparently this is a sequel to a previous book, The Poet, that I hadn’t read. That’s not a big deal as this one happens ten years later. In that one our journalist hero tracked down a serial killer and it made his career. In this one he’s a victim of the fall of the newspaper industry and is being downsized. He’s got two weeks left and in those few days, he uncovers the biggest scoop of his career.

Random women are being murdered and left in the trucks of cars, but the murderer is a technical genius who is incredibly careful to not leave any clues and to vary his crimes so that no one even realizes it’s a serial killing. He always sets up a patsy to take the fall.

What I liked about this is that how our journalist uncovers this truth is believable and not forced. He’s soon on the trail of an unknown subject, while at the same time, the hacker already knows he’s being stalked and is hunting the hunter. The result is a cool cat-and-mouse game with some thrilling suspense.

The book’s a few years old (2009), so some of the tech is dated, but it’s surprisingly realistically done. The ending is a little anticlimactic, with Connelly trying too hard to be unpredictable, but it’s still a fun read and above average. Recommended.

Topic: [/book]


Wed, Nov 12, 2014

: Interstellar

This is a masterful film. While I went to see it mildly curious about the science fiction elements, what made me fall in love with it were the human relationships. The heart of the story is about the love of a daughter for her father. The ten-year-old is unconventional, a square peg in society’s round hole, and her father adores her for it and encourages her to think for herself.

The setting is a future where the earth is running out of food. Blight is gradually ruining all crops, turning the earth into a dust bowl, and the world is starving. The father’s a former astronaut, now a farmer, since the world needs food and not engineering.

The film begins with the daughter talking about ghosts in her room, as books have fallen off her shelves. The family humors her, but later the father decodes a hidden message written in the dust by the “ghost” which leads him to the location of a secret installation run by NASA.

There he learns that an expedition is underway to save the human race. As there’s a scarcity of experienced astronauts, he’s elected to lead the mission. A wormhole has been discovered near Saturn, and via it we can travel beyond our solar system. There’s hope for humanity, but the man must make the terrible decision to leave his family with the possibility of never seeing them again. Or, equally grim, returning home to find that while only a few years have passed for him, decades have passed for his daughter and everyone on earth, due to the effects of relativity.

Thus we’re set up with our key premise: the fate of our species versus the fate of our families. Which is more important? What sacrifice is too great? This same theme is beautifully echoed in smaller ways during the space mission as the crew of the ship must make similar decisions, due to lack of resources (fuel, oxygen, etc.).

It’s difficult to reveal much more without spoiling the story, but I’ll just say that everything resolves itself in a fascinating, and though wildly improbable, scientifically sound scenario. The film is gorgeous, dramatic, frightening, exciting, and thought-provoking, and yet because it’s so grounded in a “simple” father-daughter relationship, heart-breaking. The greatest testament I can say is that though the film is nearly three hours long, I didn’t look at my watch once. It didn’t even occur to me, as I was mesmerized, holding my breath about what was going to happen next. Definitely the must-see film of 2014.

Topic: [/movie]


Sat, Nov 08, 2014

: Non-Stop

This was not really what I was expecting. Obviously it was promoted as being similar to Taken, but there’s a lot less action — it’s more of a psychological thriller. That is more interesting, except that this is by-the-numbers and far too implausible.

The basic concept is a troubled air marshal is on a transatlantic flight and he starts receiving text messages from a passenger who says he’s going to kill somebody every 20 minutes if he doesn’t receive $150 million. As the air marshal investigates, it turns out everything is set up to frame him for a hijacking since with his past he’s a perfect patsy.

That part is intriguing, but then the whole thing becomes bogged down with texting technology (we have to read long conversations between the terrorist and hero) and turns into a “island” mystery where everyone is a suspect and no one can leave. The problem with that kind of thing is that we can’t trust the screenwriter: we soon don’t believe anything were told and we’re looking for secondary motivations for everything anybody does.

As always in such stories, the resolution is a letdown and not nearly as interesting as all the alternative scenarios we dreamed up while we were watching the movie.

Because of the cast and certain other aspects of the film it is watchable, but not nearly as good as it should’ve been.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Nov 07, 2014

: Big Hero 6

I didn’t know anything about this going in except that it was about a boy who builds a robot that looks like a giant marshmallow. (It turns out the story is actually based on a graphic novel series.)

Right from the beginning I was intrigued because it was clear this was not a “little kid’s movie.” Our hero teen — a tech genius — is engaged in illegal gambling and gets arrested, and soon there’s the death of a major character, storylines you don’t usually find in lighthearted cartoons.

That death motivates our hero, who soon figures out that someone was trying to steal his invention and use it for evil. It is at this point that the film becomes a superhero movie as the boy enlists some friends and with his tech they all become superheroes and go try and stop the villain. It’s really fun, unusual, and totally cool, but it’s also grounded in real characters and a real story with heart. Two thumbs way up!

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Oct 03, 2014

: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest

Author: Steig Larsson

This is the third book in the Millennium trilogy. It picks up right where The Girl Who Played With Fire left off, dealing with the aftermath of Lisbeth being sought and caught for murders she didn’t commit. We also continue to explore the conspiracy that was revealed in the second book, and we learn a lot of Lisbeth’s history which helps make the entire series make more sense.

In this one, the main plot involves preparation for Lisbeth’s trial and her defense, with many friends coming to her aid, while enemies plot to convict her. I really enjoyed this, particularly with how Lisbeth, despite being confined to a hospital and under guard, is able to do her computer hacking and help stop bad people. I also like that this finally concludes all the storylines and is a satisfying finish to the series.

(I hear that Larsson left behind a half-finished fourth novel and plans for more, and those might be written by a ghost writer. I’m not sure I’m too excited about that, but that mainly depends on how complete his notes were.)

Topic: [/book]


Wed, Sep 10, 2014

: The Real iWatch

Yesterday’s Apple presentation provided much to ponder, but, as usual, I have some preliminary thoughts.

Most fascinating to me is what a machine Apple has become. Products like the iPhone — despite being Apple’s most important product by far — were barely mentioned, at least in comparison. That’s mostly because little needs to be said. Every year Apple improves the iPhone and this year is no different (though there isn’t something as ground-breaking as TouchID).

Apple Pay has the potential to revolutionize a whole new industry, and yet that’s the future, and everyone wants to talk about the watch.

No one was sure before the announcement if Apple was going to actually release a watch or some other wearable, but a watch makes more sense in so many ways: there’s a lot more information presentation available on a watch than a bracelet or clip-on device, and a watch is a much more socially acceptable type of jewelry than glasses.

That said, many will be “disappointed” that it’s “only” a watch. Or that the price is so high (keep in mind that the $350 is the starting price, and there’s no word if that includes a strap or which band that would be).

But it’s clear from several aspects of the Apple Watch announcement what Apple is doing.

The Apple Watch is high-end jewelry.

This is required to make the watch palatable by those who no longer wear watches. The price is high because of the craftsmanship involved more than the embedded technology. It’s not hard to predict that less expensive Apple Watches will be available down the road with less expensive bands.

Apple is going all-in on the watch.

The fact that Apple would launch a new product like this with not one model, but 18 is astonishing. Apple is famous for being a company that can fit their entire product line on a single table. This is just beginning of the watch variety, too — undoubtedly they’ll release more designs later (I predict new bands coming out all the time, part of why Apple has recently hired several famous designers).

Apple is not testing the market with the Apple Watch. Apple believes it will be hugely successful and is putting huge engineering, design, and marketing efforts behind the venture. That tells me they are more than confident that this kind of wearable is the future.

Since select Apple employees have been using the prototypes in daily life for a long time (perhaps years), I suspect they know something we don’t. With technology this personal, it’s very hard to understand it without actually experiencing it.

I just recently found an article I wrote back in 2007 where I talked about how, though I admired the upcoming iPhone, I wasn’t going to buy one. Why didn’t I want one? Oh, I wanted one, I just didn’t think I needed one. Back then it was enormously expensive — $600 up-front just for the phone, plus $75/month in a cellular contract. Back then I barely used a cell phone except for emergencies.

Flash forward today and you’ll have to pry my iPhone out of my cold, dead hands. I could not live without my iPhone. It’s essential to my everyday work and life. I cannot begin to detail all the things it does for me. The list is practically endless.

I think the Apple Watch will be similar. Right now most of us are going, “Neat. Great tech. But nothing I need.” Of course, just like the original iPhone, many of us will buy the thing. Though it’s a lot of money, I suspect I will.

Once I start using the watch, it will transform my life in subtle ways I can’t predict. Tiny hassles like a text message I can’t read today because my phone’s in my pocket and I’m driving will be a thing of the past (it’d be trivial to read a few words on my wrist without distracting me from the road).

The fitness monitoring would become standard (already I have such technology and it’s amazing how quickly it becomes the “norm”), as would many other features, such as being able to see weather forecasts just by raising my wrist or having walking directions without having to look at a map.

I bet I’d be able to keep my iPhone hidden away much more, using the watch for routine things, like seeing who is calling or emailing, or for quick responses or questions. The convenience of a computer on my wrist sounds extravagant, but I suspect it will soon feel essential.

Apple knows all this because they don’t release products without using them for a long time first. I bet even within Apple their were many skeptics about how “useful” a smartwatch would be, but after using the Apple Watch for the last year or two (in various prototype configurations, no doubt), they’ve realized that a watch really is more convenient than a phone. Even if the watch requires a phone nearby for certain activities, it’s still much easier to have the phone in a pocket and a screen on your wrist.

We shall soon see if Apple’s right, but I wouldn’t bet against them. They don’t release products just because it might be successful. They already know. (Remember how Steve Jobs changed the name of the company from Apple Computer to just Apple on the day of the iPhone launch? He knew it would utterly transform the company and he was absolutely right. Pundits weren’t sure if the iPhone would succeed — many predicted failure — but Steve knew.)

Heart of a nano

I can’t write about the new Apple Watch without mentioning the previous “iWatch,” the square iPod nano I’ve used as a watch since Steve Jobs died.

I was extremely puzzled by Apple’s decision to change the nano’s design and “kill” the tiny square that could be adapted into a watch. I thought the form factor was awesome.

As a watch, it has some key flaws: battery life isn’t great, you can’t see the time unless you press a button, it takes a few seconds to wake up from sleep if you haven’t used it in a while, the screen is invisible in bright sunlight, and it’s a tad bulky. Of course, it’s not really a watch — it’s an iPod with a few watch faces — so there’s a lot of missing functionality.

But it’s clear to me that the folks who worked on the nano quickly realized the potential of a computer on the wrist. I’m now convinced that Apple killed that nano design as a way to hide the fact that they were designing a real watch. This new watch has nano roots, but this time it’s not an iPod that happens to be small enough to put on your wrist, but a device designed from the ground up as a watch.

That’s really cool. The nano is my favorite watch in many ways, but its limitations are frustrating. Having a real watch that’s very similar is compelling. Though I’m not excited about having to spend $400 to get one, I do love the concept and I can’t wait to try out an Apple Watch in a store.

Topic: [/technology]


Tue, Aug 19, 2014

: Lucy

I’m a sucker for Luc Besson films, though it’s been a while since he’s reached his earlier genius. Lucy tries and has some interesting elements, but it’s a gimmicky film with a feeble gimmick (a drug that lets you access “all” of your brain power, based on the falsehood that we only use 10% of our brain), and it has a really strange, sort of existential ending (which feels out of place with the rest of the movie).

The bottom line is that it’s fun and entertaining fluff, and I liked the cast, but there’s nothing of depth here.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Aug 08, 2014

: The Girl Who Played With Fire

Author: Steig Larsson

I finally got around to reading the second in the trilogy that started with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. It was a bit of a slog — Larsson is ridiculously detailed — and it took me until halfway through to really figure out where it was going, but in the end it was fascinating with a pretty terrific plot.

The basic idea is that it picks up about a year after the first book, with Lisbeth off roaming the world with her new money. She and Mikael have broken contact (her choice, because she’s fallen for him), and while he gets involved in a new mystery involving the sex trade, she seems to have nothing to do with the story. When she returns to Sweden she finds herself in the middle of his mess, and ends up framed for murder and on the run. It all seems far-fetched and odd, too full of coincidence, but in the end, when everything is explained, it does make shockingly good sense.

Overall, two thumbs up. I finished this one and went right into the third book, which I’m reading now. That should tell you something.

Topic: [/book]


Mon, Jul 21, 2014

: Dawn of The Planet of the Apes

Quite clever and brilliant, in some ways. It takes up where the last film left off. The idea that mankind was wiped out by the “simian flu” was good, and it sets up a plausible future world where the apes can take over. (The idea that a handful of escaped apes could somehow overthrow six billion people seemed far fetched.)

This film is about how the conflict between humans and apes gets started. I loved the way we’re kept guessing throughout as to how peace or war will be achieved or stopped. There are parts that are predictable or too action-heavy, but overall this keeps moving and is mesmerizing. The ape acting and filming is superb — quite amazing. Definitely a worthy sequel. Can’t wait to see what comes next.

Topic: [/movie]


Wed, Jul 09, 2014

: The Treasure Hunt

For the past few summers, my aunt has organized “Grandkids Camp” at her sister’s farm near Salem, Oregon. The property is huge and old, so there’s room to camp out and the kids have lots of adventures. As the camp has grown (there are only three kids, but it’s the highlight of their year, so it’s gotten longer and more involved), my aunt’s gotten other family members to contribute in their areas of expertise.

Last year my cousin (who’s a movie director) and I created a short film with the kids. This year Joel couldn’t make it but suggested he contribute some video footage remotely. He suggested something along the lines of a National Treasure type hunt, with video clues.

Working with that concept, I came up with a storyline and organized an elaborate treasure hunt. Since the kids do a treasure hunt every camp, we had a fake hunt organized to fool them into thinking they’d already found their treasure (the fake hunt’s prize were chocolate “gold” coins). This helped them believe that the hunt I created was the real thing because they’d already done the hunt!

Since my goal was to make this believable, I had to come up with a plausible story as to why gold would be buried on the farm. I created a fake pirate who wasn’t from the Caribbean, but a river pirate on the Mississippi. I had him escaping to the Northwest with his gold where he died under mysterious circumstances. I had his body being found by an oddly-naked soldier, James Knickerbottom.

My aunt’s sister and her husband planted seeds early after the kids’ arrival that “Knickerbottom,” the guy they’d bought the farm from, kept calling wanting to dig more holes on the property looking for treasure. This was a key clue in making the treasure hunt believable. I purposely picked a funny name that the kids would remember and it worked to perfection!

Next, we had the kids start looking for clues. They weren’t too enthusiastic at first, thinking that the treasure hunt had been done and this wasn’t an official activity, but I pretended to be curious about this “real” treasure. The first clue we found was in the old barn: river pirate Mississippi Joe’s wanted poster:

Once we found that, I pretended to search for more information about this guy on the internet and discovered a website about Mississippi Joe. (This is a fake site I created just for this game!)

On the site was a short documentary video about Joe, which my cousin had created from my script:

It’s really awesome and makes the pirate seem like a genuine historical figure. It worked unbelievably well, particularly when the kids noticed a shot in the video of the same wanted poster they had in their hands! They were absolutely convinced that the ancient and damaged document in their hands was a priceless historical artifact.

I’d also created some fake newspaper clippings which were used in the video. These were included on the website and gave the kids something to read and explore:

To create these, I wrote the text, designed them as old-fashioned newspaper articles, and printed out low-resolution copies. Then soaked them in tea and baked them in an oven at 200 degrees. They really look old!

Next, the kids investigated the old milk house where they found James Knickerbottom’s diary. Supposedly Jame’s son Eli had found it in 1902 but his mom had burned it, worried her son would become as obsessed with hunting for the gold as her demented husband. I actually created an entire 48-page diary, printed it out, and sewed it into a little booklet (I had to learn how to operate my sewing machine). I then aged and burned it. It came out awesome:

There were lots of clues in the diary to keep the kids interested, but the real secret was the scrap of paper hidden in the pocket at the back of the diary:

Once the kids noticed and found that, they were on their way! This led them to the actual treasure map, hidden in the cellar of the original old farmhouse:

Finding the treasure itself was an adventure, for Mississippi Joe, who’d been dying, didn’t have time to did a big hole. He buried the treasure in a small hole at the base of a large tree. Of course, the kids couldn’t find this tree: that was 100 years ago and the tree had been cut down. All that was left now was a big stump. But the kids dug around the stump and discovered the gold coins hidden inside a moss-covered ceramic vase plugged with a cork. It looked amazingly real and was fully believable… until one of the boys noticed one of the coins had a 1964 date stamped on it!

The kids had a terrific time, though they were slightly disappointed that the whole thing wasn’t really real. They were fooled until the very end, however. I’m sure they’ll remember this experience for the rest of their lives!

Topic: [/personal]


Mon, Jul 07, 2014

: Monsters University

It’s been a while since I’ve seen Monsters, Inc., but I always liked it and felt it was underrated. I’d wanted to catch this sequel in the theater but it didn’t work out. It’s definitely not as original, since it’s set in the same world, but it’s still very good. I’m not so sure I’d say “great” but definitely excellent.

The story is a little forced, with our two main characters going to Monsters University and hating each other, but, of course, they eventually work things out, learn deep lessons, and become best friends. There are a ton of school puns and lots of other fun stuff, but the core lesson about not being judged based on what you look like is enduring. Definitely one you want to see.

Topic: [/movie]


Wed, Jul 02, 2014

: The Girl

As Hitchcock fan, I’d been wanting to see this film for a while. I knew it didn’t get the best reviews, but I wasn’t sure why. The cast of Toby Jones and Sienna Miller was top notch and the story of Hitch’s relationship with Tippi Hedren while filming The Birds sounded interesting.

Unfortunately, the film’s a disaster. To be fair, it is an interesting disaster, but it’s a terrible film.

The film postulates that Hitch was a monster. He was portrayed as such an evil snake I had a difficult time watching the movie (it took me several nights). He leers at Tippi, tells sexual jokes to make her uncomfortable, assaults her, tortures her in his movie, and threatens her to try and get her to sleep with him.

Now all that could be true. I don’t know. I wasn’t there. I’ve read books about him and seen his movies, but that doesn’t mean I know the real guy. He might have been a total jerk. But this film doesn’t give us any other picture of Hitch. We don’t even see any of his movie genius — he’s presented as a rich fat guy in a position of power who treats the women around him like crap. I’m sorry, but that’s just too narrow a definition, even if aspects of his behavior were true.

But there’s also a lot false about this portrayal. We know that Hitch had crushes on his leading ladies, and that filming The Birds was hell for Tipi, but I find it impossible to believe that Hitch could be so blatant. He was a subtle man. His sense of humor was so dry that many people wouldn’t get the joke. That’s a man who hides his true feelings and not someone who would crudely paw a woman. (If Hitch were to have an affair, it would be an affair of the mind and soul, not the body.)

I’d add that since Hitch worked with many of his leading women in multiple films, and none have come out and put forth claims that he acted this way, it’s highly unlikely he could have been so blatant. Perhaps he wanted to behave this way, but he didn’t actually do it.

What really disappointed me about this movie is that it had potential to be great. The idea of a genius director obsessed with his star is fascinating. There was room her for real psychological insight into a tortured personality. We could have learned more about Hitch and Tippi — instead we learn nothing about either. Tippi’s a pretty blond who is in over her head in dealing with a powerful figure like Hitch, while he’s just a monster. Alma — Hitch’s wife — is a near-silent figure lurking in the background watching, but there’s so little explanation there we have no idea what their relationship is all about.

So instead of learning why Hitch’s obsessions made his film’s great, all we got is a portrayal of a man who should have been put in jail for his treatment of women. Just disgusting.

Topic: [/movie]


Sat, Jun 14, 2014

: Percy Jackson: City of Monsters

Another mediocre sequel of a weak first film. This one tries hard and clearly has a bigger budget, but the effects seem like a waste and the modern day connections to the mythological feel forced and awkward. (Nothing feels humorous, even stuff that should have been comedy.)

The plot is ridiculous, about going on a quest that happens to be the same thing that the bad guy is seeking. Nothing makes any sense, but for this kind of movie you just enjoy the ride and forget logic. The action is okay and the ending, while over-the-top and silly, is at least satisfying. I do like some of the characters and there are a handful of good moments, but they are few and far between and the whole movie feels forced, a paint-by-numbers sequel where nobody — not the writer, director, or cast — feels compelled to do good work.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Jun 13, 2014

: Infamous

This is a movie about how Truman Capote wrote In Cold Blood, his revolutionary book about two killers who murdered a Kansas family. It came out about the same time as Capote, on the same topic, which I saw and loved. I wanted to see this one but never got around to it.

This one is also very good, but different than I expected. I wasn’t even that aware that Truman was homosexual, let alone in such a blatant way, nor that he supposedly had a relationship with one of the killers he interviewed. That feels like a fictional stretch to me, but presumably this is based on fact and it could be real, but I didn’t find that very interesting or compelling at all. (In fact, I found it distasteful. How anyone could love such a murderer, even if he is shown sympathetically with a difficult childhood, I don’t get. In Capote this relationship is just hinted at, but here it’s blatant.)

Overall, while I found the movie watchable and informative, it wasn’t particularly enjoyable. The best part for me was the very end when writer Lee Harper talks about the personal cost of a great book to a writer, how writers put part of themselves in their work, and it ruins them.

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Mon, Jun 09, 2014

: R.I.P.D.

This looked somewhat intriguing in the previews — similar to the classic Men in Black. Unfortunately, it’s far too similar: a secret organization of cops, with a rookie pared with a veteran, in this case hunting undead supernatural creatures instead of aliens.

There are a handful of good ideas and funny moments, but most of those are shown in the trailers. The film has little beyond that, though the full plot wasn’t bad (just a little obvious). Still, it’s sort of fun and a film you can watch while doing something else.

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Sun, Jun 08, 2014

: Thor: The Dark World

While the first one was okay, this one is terrible. I fell asleep. I had no idea what was going on — everything’s vague and assumes you understand a lot about Norse mythology and the Thor franchise. The evil in the film was bizarre and abstract and nothing made any sense: it all felt artificial, as though the producers put together a plot just to show off certain special effects.

There are a handful of decent moments, interaction between certain characters, and there’s a plot twist or two that are mildly interesting, but overall thing has nothing of inspiration of the first movie (which wasn’t even that film’s strong suit). Skip it.

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Sat, Jun 07, 2014

: Kick-Ass 2

I liked the first one and while this didn’t have the same edge, the plot actually made more sense. It picks up after the first one where Kick-Ass is now to decide between living the life of a superhero or a regular kid and not having much luck with either. There’s still a little too much pointless crudity (I don’t mind it if there’s a reason), and some of the big star cameos felt odd (like Jim Carey in a bizarre role), but overall it’s a fun film and a decent sequel that was better than I expected.

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Thu, May 29, 2014

: The Heat

I’m not a huge fan of crude comedies so I was unsure about this, but it wasn’t as bad as I expected and actually pretty funny once you get past all the unfunny foul language. The by-the-book FBI agent who has to work with a down-to-earth beat cop felt too forced, and their initial dislike of each other was so intense it made no sense they’d actually work together, but these kinds of films aren’t exactly known for logic. It was basically fun and mostly a way to see Sandra Bullock act against type. I wouldn’t go so far as to recommend the film, but if you’re a fan of the genre it’s watchable.

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Thu, Apr 24, 2014

: God’s Not Dead

Though I was intrigued by the concept of this film (supposedly based on a true story of a college freshman who rebels against his Philosophy teacher who requires all of his students to sign a pledge admitting that God is dead), I was wary. “Christian message” films are often heavy-handed, ineptly written, poorly acted and directed, and worst of all, boring.

This was none of those things.

First of all, let’s explore it from a story perspective. I was a little worried that the film might consist entirely of a debate between student and teacher. While that would have interested me, a former championship debater, it probably would be tedious for most movie-goers. The producers solved that problem by letting the film revolve around a number of stories. While initially this was a little confusing, as the stories coalesced together, it proved to be a great success.

Some of the stories include:

  • a woman shopping for wine
  • an intensely passionate, overly-dedicated, and successful blog writer
  • a pastor and his missionary visitor
  • a Muslim girl whose father insists on her adopting traditional values
  • an impersonal money-driven business executive
  • an old woman with dementia

While these all seem like separate stories, we gradually begin to see connections. I won’t spoil some of the big surprises, but a few of the smaller ones include: the blogger turns out to be the girlfriend of the businessman, and his mother is the old woman. The pastor is influential to several of the other people.

The result of all these storylines, with little surprises gradually revealed, is for a delightful and entertaining film (regardless of the “controversial” subject matter). There were probably a few too many of these stories, however; it was a little confusing at times and some of the stories didn’t seem very relevant to the core story about the debate. Still, the stories are brief interludes, and one or two too many don’t weaken the overall film by that much.

Story Rating: A

The actual debate between the freshman and the teacher was incredibly well-handled. I wasn’t sure how it would be dealt with from a logistical perspective, but it made complete sense: the professor gave the young man the last 20 minutes of three class periods to “make his case for God,” and the students in the class would be the judge of how well he did.

Obviously in a film like this everything is fabricated for whatever outcome the producers want, so my biggest fears were that the arguments would be simplistic and that the negative viewpoint (the atheist professor’s) would be given short shrift. But that was decidedly not what happened.

Instead, the professor is given a plum role: he’s actually intelligent and his arguments make sense (to an extent). Nothing is spared; he pulls no punches. For example, a key topic is “Why does evil exist? A God that would allow horrible things to happen to good people isn’t a God I want to follow.”

The freshman boy is articulate, but appropriately naive and nervous. He’s pre-law, so his logical structuring of his arguments fits his personality. The debate is handled in brief segments, each focusing on one key point. (While I personally might have preferred a more extensive debate sequences, I realize that this is a drama, not a documentary, and for most audiences having debate snippets like this is the the correct approach.)

Overall the debate, which I’d assumed would be the majority of the film, is probably only about 20 minutes of the entire thing. That’s a little disappointing, and the short length keeps the debate topics on the simpler side (we don’t get too in-depth), but overall it doesn’t shy away from hard topics and really does weigh both sides of the “God is dead” argument.

Debate Rating: A-

In general the writing throughout the film was impressive. Some of the scenes were incredibly well-done. For instance, the dinner party scene where the professor subtly belittles his submissive wife in public was pure genius. Every word was charged with electricity, and the dialog was amazingly believable.

There were a few places where things weren’t as good, however. I thought the scenes between the freshman and his girlfriend were weak; her character was underwritten and too stereotyped. She was supposedly a Christian, so her pressuring her boyfriend to give into his atheist teacher seemed odd to me. Supposedly she was upset because he was going to get a bad grade, which would derail his chances of getting into law school, but she reacted far too quickly as though the writers wanted to get her character out of the movie as quickly as possible. In real life she surely would have waited until she saw he was spending way too much time on the debate and hurting his other grades before she became so critical (and ultimately dump him).

In a couple other places, things got a little cheesy or too coincidental to be believable. A key salvation scene in the ending, for instance, was over-the-top for me.

On the other hand, I loved the way tricky parts of spiritual situations were handled in other places. The pastor, for instance, had real wisdom in his advice and you could clearly see him pausing to think before he answered. He wasn’t just being glib. But at the same time, the pastor was struggling with doubts of his own, feeling that running his little church wasn’t doing enough for God. It was amazing to me that the producers would put such a thing in a film like this — usually Christian role-model characters are too perfect and phony.

Writing Rating: B

In terms of acting, I was amazed. Almost everyone in this film is top notch. There are some famous faces here, too. The most shocking is Kevin Sorbo (TV’s Hercules), who plays the arrogant professor. I’ve rarely seen Kevin in a dramatic role and would have assumed his casting here was a misplay, but he was terrific. He was completely believable as a brilliant philosophy teacher, and he did the smug, God-hating, pompous prick role to perfection. Disney kid Shane Harper was ideally cast as the freshman student and did everything flawlessly, with just the right amount of confusion and hesitation balanced by an inner strength based on his faith in God. David A.R. White was wonderful as the pastor. Also top marks to the professor’s wife and the Muslim girl.

Acting Rating: A

Overall, I was really surprised by how much I enjoyed this film. The variety of stories and the way they interlaced was interesting. There were a handful of cheesy “Christian” scenes, but they were small and not too annoying. There was humor and drama, and some really brilliant dialog in a few scenes. There were powerful moments and the Newsboys concert at the end was pretty neat (I’ve been a Newsboys fan for ages, but never actually seen the group before). The debate was intelligent and well-done for both sides.

It’s not a flawless film, but I’d give it a high B or low A overall. I find that shocking as usually these kinds of movies get a C from me — even if I like or agree with the topic, the execution is so heavy-handed that I can’t overlook the flaws (a good example was The Bible TV miniseries). This one is very impressive and I highly recommend it. It will inspire you and make you think.

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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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