Sat, Jun 30, 2007

: iPhone First Impressions

Okay, I’ve had a chance to play with the iPhone a bit and let me tell you, this thing is astonishing. It feels like a third- or fourt-generation product. Apple has thought out so many tiny details it really does almost seem like magic. It blows away every existing product in ways to numerous to mention. People who argue it’s “just” a phone have no clue. Not only is this the best phone ever made, it’s the best handheld Internet device and best iPod. That is saying a lot. The thing is, Apple not only combined those three functions into a single device, they did in such a way as to make the thing easier to use, simpler instead of more complicated! That is revolutionary.

I had expected this thing to be a like diet food: it looks appetizing but is tasteless and leaves you feeling hungrier than when you started. That’s the way of most promising tech gadgets. Instead, the iPhone is even better than the demos would suggest. No, it’s not flawless. I can think of improvements. But the problems are minor and one of the best things about the device is that it really is a sort of miniature laptop, so it’s infinitely upgradeable. A new software update could be released tomorrow that would fix the flaws I noticed or add some new features. Who knows what the future will bring? This thing is the future. The real Internet in the palm of your hand, and so easy a caveman could use it. Jaw-dropping incredible.

Topic: [/technology]

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Fri, Jun 29, 2007

: iPhone Mania

Today was “iDay” — the launch of the iPhone. If you haven’t heard of the iPhone, you truly must have been living under a rock. The nifty handheld device uneveiled by Steve Jobs last January caught the imagination of the world. It literally seemed like some piece of future technology sent back through time. Today it was finally released. I took photos of the lines at my local Apple Store and AT&T outlet — quite entertaining, though I didn’t understand the point of waiting in the rain all day. I went back in the evening and there was no line and plenty in stock. I picked up two, one for myself and one for my mom. I figured out a loophole to save $20 on the AT&T monthly fees by signing up onto my mom’s account via a family plan. Less voice minutes, but I don’t need many minutes. I just want the Internet features. Some people had activation problems, but because I’d gone to the AT&T store earlier in the day and had them pre-transfer my old phone number to my mom’s account, I was already an AT&T customer and the activation process just took minutes and my iPhone was working.

Quickly: this thing is breathtaking. The user interface is so fluid you have to see it and try it to believe it. The high resolution is greatly responsible as photos and icons look stunning, but also all the animations and text are crystal clear and completely smooth.

Topic: [/technology]

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: Simple Genius

Author: David Baldacci

The strange thing about this book is that it takes a long time to get to the real plot. The first part of the book is about a woman struggling with some sort of psychological secrets; her boyfriend bails her out of trouble and gets her into a clinic. Then, to pay for her health care, the boyfriend has to get a freelance investigation job. Slowly I figured out that these two characters were supposed to be familiar to me from previous Balacci books. But since they weren’t, I found this part of the book confusing and pointless. The real plot is the investigation, which takes place at a government think tank where a scientist has been murdered. The murdered man’s daughter is the title character — a semi-autistic or “special” child who’s troubled but can do amazing math in her head. The investigator thinks she’s got a secret code in her head but can’t figure out how to access it. It’s all muddled and the action takes a long time to get going as nothing much happens until toward the end. The ending is even more convoluted and doesn’t really make much sense — stuff about rogue CIA agents running drugs, government conspiracies, and hidden treasure. Yeah, you read right: there’s hidden treasure through in the mix as well. Meanwhile the woman’s working through her psychological problems (and finds something to investigate at the psycho clinic while she’s there), and she ends up joining her partner for the final part of the book where things start to happen. Eventually we find out her psycological secrets, but the whole thing is bizarre and nothing really fits together: it’s like the plots of several books were put into a blender and this is what came out. There are some nice ideas and some aspects of the story were interesting, but the explanations are a letdown and the character development is too dependent upon you knowing them from previous books. Odd.

Topic: [/book]

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Wed, Jun 27, 2007

: Live Free or Die Hard

Decent, though not great. It cannot live up to the original or even the sequels. It captures some of the flare and there are some good moments, but there’s just no way this can have the originality of the first film. The first stood out for so many reasons: claustraphobic action, reluctant hero, brilliant criminal mastermind with diabolical plan, etc. This film has some of that but it comes across as forced and awkward. It goes big where it should have gone small. John McClain takes on the world when he should mano a mano with the bad guy. Still, it’s an excellent action film. There are some good stunts, the plot’s not as ridiculous as most action movies, and it’s got some familiar characters. But it’s not a breakthrough or very memorable.

Topic: [/movie]

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Sun, Jun 24, 2007

: Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit

This started out much better than I expected, with interesting characters and a story that seemed original, but the ending turned into a chaotic action piece that felt trite and out of place with the animation. Weak.

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Sat, Jun 23, 2007

: Flags of Our Fathers

Extremely well-done tale about the raising of the American flag at the battle of Iwo Jima and the politics and manipulations surrounding the event, but despite all the technical excellence, this came across flat for me. I wasn’t too interested in the story to begin with and it didn’t succeed in engaging me and lost me toward the end. There’s nothing wrong with it — the topic just didn’t appeal to me and there wasn’t a lot going on. From a historical perspective I’m sure it’s fascinating, but if you’re not a history or WWII buff, you’ll find it dry.

Topic: [/movie]

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: Evan Almighty

I loved Bruce Almighty and was really curious how they’d duplicate that in a sequel. They did a surprisingly good job: while this feels overblown (it depends way too much on mediocre special effects), too much humor comes from silly slapstick stuff like a dog biting Evan in the crotch, and the plot’s so thin it’s obvious from a mile away (new congressman Evan’s told by God to build an Ark during a drought and endures mockery of the public), it isn’t unpleasant and there are moments of genuine heart and profundity. Not much, granted, as the film takes everything with the lightness of cotton candy (which tends to degrade religion and God), but there were two key moments I really liked. One, when God talks to Evan’s troubled wife and tells her “When someone prays for patience does God just give them patience or provide an opportunity for them to be patient?” The other was when a fully converted Evan is confronted by a reporter asking him why God chose him and he pauses for just a fraction and then says, “God chose each of us.” Very cool. Overall, I liked this a lot. It’s harmless fun. Sure, it’s silly, and there are too many groanable Bible puns, but Morgan Freeman as God is great and Steve Carell fills in pretty well for Jim Carey. I have no idea where the rumored $200 million budget went: the special effects are horribly amateurish. The ark itself looks find, but the scenes it floating in the flood look the digital equivilent of filming models in a bathtub. Somebody deserves a refund. (The poor effects were worse than Poseidon, which is saying a lot.) Critics aren’t being kind to the film but I think it’s harmless and has some good moments. It’s certainly nothing that will work you brain, but there are much worse ways to spend 90 minutes.

Topic: [/movie]

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: Voyagers II

Author: Ben Bova

I liked this much better than the first book. In that one not much happened, but this one takes place 18 years later when the human astronaut hero of the first book is awakened from being frozen. He wakes to find a new world enhanced by the alien technology discovered in the first book and also learns that he’s got an alien presence in his mind. This presence guides him and reveals new abilities that make him superhuman. He uses these abilities to put an end to war and death, which sickens him (and the alien inside him). He eventually tracks down the real leader and cause of all the trouble and confronts him in the climax. Very cool story, with some interesting observations on human behavior, politics, and society. Recommended.

Topic: [/book]

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Fri, Jun 22, 2007

: 1408

Author: Stephen King (story)

While I liked this better than many of the newer ultra-gory horror films trendy right now, it unfortunately runs out of gas and doesn’t have anywhere to go. The premise is cool: a ghost hunter author finds real ghosts in room 1408 of a New York hotel. It’s a tour-de-force performance for John Cussack, who is practically the only actor in the thing, and the director does an excellent job keeping things interesting and surprisingly suspensive and alarming for much of the film. But a film like this only works when there’s a payoff at the end (think The Sixth Sense) and this one has nothing. Well, it tries a little, but it’s not satisfying and more than a little ambiguous. I liked Secret Window better, though this one is more of a horror film. In this end this is above average, but don’t go in with high expectations.

Topic: [/movie]

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Wed, Jun 20, 2007

: New York Minute

I was surprised that I didn’t hate this. It felt silly and contrived from the previews, but it actually isn’t that bad. The problem is that it was marketed (or perceived) as the Olsen Twins First Feature Film, which takes away from the actual story and movie. That said, this isn’t exactly strain-your-brain material. The plot’s wispy thin. Basically you’ve got twin sisters who are opposites who annoy each other. The neat freak’s set to give a speech that will earn her a scholarship to Oxford while the other wants to skip school to play in her band. Through a lot of silly slapstick scenes and ridiculous side plots about a piracy ring and a moron truant officer out to track the slacker, the two end up getting stranded in New York city, have wild adventures, and meet their new boyfriends. But the Olsen twins do have charisma and it shows, faintly, through the dim-bulb plot. In the end the film’s as harmless as it is mindless. Kinda fun if you’re in the right mood (which I was).

Topic: [/movie]

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Sun, Jun 17, 2007

: The Family Stone

This film seemed like a natural family hit and I was surprised it didn’t do better at the box office. After all, it’s got a great cast and a heart-warming premise (the oldest son coming home for Christmas with his new fiance) — what could go wrong? Unfortunately, the script has to force every family cliche upon us (a gay son with his partner, a mom with terminal cancer, and a few others) and there’s a mean-spiritedness to family’s resistance to the fiance that’s not pleasant to watch — even if you assume things will work out in the end. To top things off there’s a bizarre switch in the plot that’s almost incomprehensible [Spoiler alert!] when the son falls for his fiance’s sister and realizes he and the fiance are incompatible. Huh? Why were they together in the first place if they were so wrong for each other? We never see them, ever, have much of a relationship, so we can’t figure out why they were together at all, which, while it makes the ending more plausible, pretty much makes 80% of the film pointless. The final nail in the film’s coffin is the fact that most of the conflict in the film feels forced. Why is the daughter so angry and mean to the fiance? That is never explained and feels dirty and wrong. Why is the mother so set against the fiance? Again, never explained, and makes us dislike the mom. And of course the fiance herself isn’t exactly tarnish free, setting herself up as a target and making bizarre decisions — like coming out anti-gay at dinner with the family. (It’s believable she might have those opinions, but she’s supposed to be a brilliant businesswoman who would be intelligent enough to know not to say such things in front of others, especially potential family you’re trying to impress and who already don’t like you.) Very odd characterization and in the end, nothing quite works. There’s some real potential here, some of the basic concepts are fine, and the casting is terrific, but as a whole the thing flops miserably. Really disappointing.

Topic: [/movie]

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Fri, Jun 15, 2007

: Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

This is a very strange film. I think you can only enjoy it if you have inside knowledge. Apparently the “Silver Surfer” character is famous from the comics but the way the film is written and promoted assumes you know about this character and eagerly want to see it. I found the character absurd to the point of silliness and utterly uncompelling. The film gives us minimal information about the Surfer’s story and treats the whole thing like it’s an inside joke only the “in” people will understand. For someone like me, who has never heard of the Silver Surfer, the whole movie is confusing and pointless. There a giant logic holes in the plot that Surfer fans probably overlook or miss because they already understand the back story, but I found it impossible to get into the movie because of the way it was presented. It was being a stranger at a party where everyone is laughing at something and no one will explain the joke to you. When the “mystery” of the Silver Surfer is finally revealed in the film my reaction was like, “Huh? Is that it? All the fuss was over that???” Keep in mind I love superhero films and I didn’t hate the first Fantastic Four, though the series is decidedly low-brow entertainment, so my not liking this was a surprise to me. This movie takes “slight” to new levels and has such abrupt shifts between scenes and characters and quick resolutions to deep conflicts that it makes a sitcom feel profound. It feels as trite as a Saturday morning cartoon — except with a worse script. Other than a handful of mildly entertaining relationship humor between the Four, there’s just not enough depth here to sustain a movie, let alone a 30 minute cartoon. Sad. Very sad.

Topic: [/movie]

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Thu, Jun 14, 2007

: The Holiday

This is a predictable but really well-done romantic film about two single women on the rebound, one in L.A. and one in England, who swap houses over Christmas to get away from their lives. Predictably, they each find someone new and fall in love, but the story’s pitch perfect, with just the right lines and gestures, that we’re swept along anyway. I did appreciate the side-story of the old Hollywood writer getting his life revived by the English girl visiting L.A. — that was extremely cool. Overall, nothing revolutionary here, a paint-by-numbers romantic comedy, but so well done it’s pleasing. Above average.

Topic: [/movie]

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: Waitress

Author: Adrienne Shelly

Director: Adrienne Shelly

Impressive film — so sad this is the final one writer/director Shelly’s career (she was murdered in late 2006). She’s created some fascinating characters, so simple and elegant we see them with all their flaws and fall in love with them anyway. Warning: don’t see this film when you’re hungry. The title is puzzling since it’s more about pie-making than waitressing. The main character, played by a wonderfully adorable Keri Russell, is a waitress at a little pie diner, who almost creates unusual pie concoctions which serve as the film’s core. She’s married to an abusive, controlling husband and when she discovers she’s pregnant, she’s depressed because she now feels really trapped because with a baby she’ll never be able to leave her husband. Then she foolishly falls into an affair with her new male doctor, and though we’re shaking our head, knowing this is wrong (she would agree with us), we still sympathize with her and understand and are actually pleased she’s found at least a glimmer of happiness. The film tells a simple story beautifully and wraps everything nicely in a somewhat predictable but agreeable ending. Surprisingly profound at times, this is a film that doesn’t try to be more than it is, completely unlike most films today. Highly recommended.

Topic: [/movie]

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: Oregon Hike

I forgot to mention, last week I uploaded some pictures from my recent hike on the Oregon coast. Check them out here.

Topic: [/photography]

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Mon, Jun 11, 2007

: Surf’s Up

Weak. I didn’t even crack a smile until about 15 minutes in, and only laughed maybe twice in the whole movie. It’s too predictable — an arrogant surfer penguin kid faces the reality of real competition and has to learn humility and the meaning of competition and surfing for fun — and there just isn’t much of a story here. Worse, the premise of the film is fundamentally flawed. Almost all the characters are penguins… why? There is no reason. They are merely humans in penguin suits. The physics are ridiculous: penguin stubby arms are somehow able to hold on to things and climb and do tons of human stuff. It makes no sense and feels incorrect and weird. Most of the jokes are obvious and tired; to put them in perspective, realize that penguin puns are among the better jokes, as are feeble attempts to mock penguin pysiology (like that male penguins sit on the eggs). The bottom line: while essentially harmless, this is definitely a movie for very young kids. There’s nothing here for adults. Avoid at all costs.

Topic: [/movie]

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Sun, Jun 10, 2007

: Hustle and Flow

Really interesting and unusual film. It takes assumptions you have and turns them on their ear. We’ve got a dispicable character, a pimp and drug dealer, who’s suddenly reached mid-life and realized his life has not turned out the way he dreamed. As a kid he wanted to be a rapper but that never happened. When he hears a former neighborhood kid who’s now a big rap star is returning for a visit, he decides to create a record and get the guy to listen to it and help him with his big break. What follows is a series of struggles to write songs, figure out his style, come up with money, and record them. In the middle of all this we see a close-up of this guy’s tragic life and the life of his whores. I’m not a fan of rap but the way the music was done in this film I could appreciate it and see the genius in it. The ending is wild — realistic but unusual, and just a perfect way to wrap up this unique experience. Not always a pleasant film, but certainly one you’ll remember and learn from. Recommended.

Topic: [/movie]

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Sat, Jun 09, 2007

: Flicka

I don’t usually like horse stories, especially one as predictable as this (rebellious girl finds wild horse and wants to keep it against her father’s wishes), but this was extremely well done (except for occasional wooden acting by the dad) and I liked it. Go figure.

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Fri, Jun 08, 2007

: Ocean’s 13

While it has a completely ridiculous and unbelievable premise — Ocean’s team of con artists and thieves attempt to bankrupt a Las Vegas casino owner who’s cheated a friend of theirs by rigging every game in the casino and engineering a simultaneous diamond robbery and fake earthquake — the film’s still entertaining, a guilty pleasure. It’s so obvious but we still want to see the bad guy lose. Not nearly as clever as the first film, the series has definitely descended, but amusing and has its moments.

Topic: [/movie]

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Wed, Jun 06, 2007

: Mr. Brooks

This is an odd film. The main character is a cold-blooded serial killer — yet we like him. He’s struggling with his “addiction” to murder, which makes him sympathetic. There isn’t much of a plot, really, just a few lose tangles about his daughter who might have his same disease, an admirer who’s blackmailing him into taking him in as an apprentice killer, and a lady cop who’s tracking him but is distracted by her own divorce chaos. Still, the story works, and the visual gimmick of having the killer’s dark thoughts show up as a separate actor is intriguing. However, the ending’s a struggle and too convoluted for true satisfaction. I really liked parts of this but other aspects were poor, so overall I give it a slight thumbs up. Don’t expect genius, though at times it’s clever and interesting. And I suppose it doesn’t hurt that the film is set in Portland, Oregon, near where I live.

Topic: [/movie]

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: Knocked Up

Author: Judd Apatow

Director: Judd Apatow

The premise felt totally predictable and a retread of countless other “oh I’m pregnant” movies, but it’s surprisingly tender and well done, with a realistic and light-hearted approach to a complex and awkward situation. It does have the author’s taste for crudity which occasionally goes too far, but most of the time it serves as dramatic contrast for the film’s drama, enhancing the serious moments of the film. Nothing too profound, and not even that original, but decently handled with an appealing cast.

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Tue, Jun 05, 2007

: Voyagers

Author: Ben Bova

The premise of this trilogy is what happens to humankind when intelligent alien life is discovered? That’s a great premise but unfortunately the book is very dated: it was written nearly thirty years ago and a huge part of the plot is about conflict between the Soviet Communists and the USA, stuff that feels archaic today. A lot of the spy stuff is rather cheesy and overly dramatic and there isn’t nearly as much philosophical content about how alien life would impact humanity as I expected: but hopefully that stuff will come in future books. Still, I enjoyed the story, and there are some good characters.

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Mon, Jun 04, 2007

: The Chairman

Author: Stephen Frey

This book comes before The Protege, but I read it second. In this one the main character has just been elected chairman of the company and is struggling against conspiracies designed to destroy him and the company. The plot’s overdone (there are several plots going on) and there’s not enough interesting money stuff, but it’s still rather amusing and harmless entertainment.

Topic: [/book]

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Sat, Jun 02, 2007

: International Friendly: USA vs China

Fun trip south to see the USA take on China. A bit disappointed that more U.S. star players weren’t on hand, but the game itself was a nice 4-1 victory and there was a great raccuous atmosphere. I got to meet a listener of my soccer podcast, which was cool, and after the game we went to a SSV party and got the news that it sounds like the Earthquakes will be back in the Bay Area as early as next year! An official announcement should be made within the month.

Topic: [/soccer]

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Fri, Jun 01, 2007

: Stardust

Author: Neil Gaiman

Wow, what an excellent book! I listened to the unabridged audio book during my drive to California as the movie’s coming out this summer and I wanted to read the book first. It’s the story about a boy who, to impress the girl he thinks he loves, promises to bring her a star they watch fall. But the star has fallen into fairyland, where magical things happen, and the boy eventually discovers the star is a young lady. Their relationship is antagonistic at first, but eventually, as he protects her from harm and discovers his own special abilities, they (of course) fall in love. The magic and adventures are wonderfully done, very clever and interesting and charming, right in line with traditional fairy tales. Highly recommended! I sure hope the movie’s good.

Topic: [/book]

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