Wed, Dec 30, 2009

: Bickford Schmeckler’s Cool Ideas

This claims to be a few years old, but IMDB says it was released recently. I saw it on Showtime and found it interesting. It’s not a great film, though it wants to be more than it is, but the cast is very good (lots of not-so-famous people such as one of the geeks on The Big Bang Theory and Topher, from Dollhouse). Olivia Wilde steals the show as the love interest. She is amazing. The story is a good premise but poorly executed. It involves a “genius” college kid whose notebook of “cool ideas” (philosophical and metaphysical ramblings) is stolen (by said love interest). He freaks out and tries to track it down, somehow finding himself in the process. Unfortunately the “tracking the book down” part isn’t difficult, nor does the lost book take that great of a journey, so it’s not that interesting of a process. There are a handful of cool moments: my favorite was when Bickford, focused on finding his book, rejects some weirdo in the quad trying to give him a free copy of a “mind-opening” book… that of course is his book the guy found! Towards the end there’s revelation about Bickford and the book that seems to come out of nowhere and feels artificial and tacked on, but still helps everything make more sense. Overall, I liked the idea of the a genius kid whose thoughts are so potent that everyone who reads them has mind-orgasms and wants to steal his book, but like most stories that involve supposed genius, we’re never really privy to what’s in the notebook, so the whole thing feels mysterious and contrived. Ultimately, it’s just another lonely geek who gets the hot girl story, when it could have been something deeper. Worth watching if you’re a fan of the cast or “deep” philosophy.

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Fri, Dec 25, 2009

: Sherlock Holmes

Director: Guy Ritchie

I was intrigued by this, but cautious as the trailers gave no hint as to the story, and I came away from it with mixed feelings. It’s not a great film, but it’s good enough, I suppose. I liked many things about it. The casting is fine, though this “new” Sherlock Holmes is more modern and flawed (he’s a drunken slob much of the time, something I found distasteful). I loved the humor, and the stylish direction of Ritchie definitely added a fun quirky touch. For instance, the film would occasionally double back to reveal more information about a previous scene. Like in one sequence, we saw a bum accost someone and later there’s a speeded up sequence where we see Holmes changing into a disguise and we realize that he was that begger. That is very cool. Another technique was Holmes’ thinking about what he was going to do with clipped previews showing his intention, and then the “real life” view of what he actually did (exactly what he planned). Overall, I liked this style a lot: that surprised me as it’s a modern technique and not fitting with Victorian-era Holmes, but it worked. What didn’t work for me was the overly-convoluted — and boring — plot. Basically we begin with Holmes catching a bad guy just before he kills a woman, and that bad guy’s eventually hanging. But then the bad guy supposedly was into dark occult magic and rose from the dead and we learn he was part of some secret society out to rule to world. Yeah, really cutting edge stuff. A guess the trio of screenwriters were reading too much Dan Brown. What follows after that is a complicated mess of bizarre events, murders, and mayhem, with Holmes and Watson trying to figure out what’s going on. We throw into that a mysterious and beautiful woman, Holmes’ long-time love interest who’s an international jewelry thief and her questionable motivations and apparent control by a third party, and the strange dynamic between Holmes and Watson, where Sherlock is attempting to sabotage his friend’s impending nuptials. What all this means is non-stop action, either in physical battles, mysterious happenings, or hilarious dialogue, but it’s all so convoluted and fast-paced that there’s no time for genuine emotions or real character development. Nothing makes much sense until the end, and even then, it’s questionable. The film also ends on an obvious sequel-is-coming note, a practice I find annoying. The bottom line is that this film is fun, it’s entertaining, it’s somewhat intelligent in terms of dialogue, but there’s just not much of a mystery for Holmes to investigate. It’s more physical action than mental genius, and the plot is more suited for a James Bond film than a Sherlock Holmes story. There are also many aspects of character that are so loosely defined I found them confusing: the back story between Holmes and the female thief are only hinted at, and I was never quite comfortable with the whole Holmes-Watson relationship (I couldn’t tell if Watson hated Holmes or adored him, or both). I suppose the real bottom line is that I adored Morton Downy Jr. in the title role — genius as usual — but I didn’t really like the Sherlock Holmes character in this film. Combined with the crazy plot, I have to give a big shrug at the whole mess. Enjoy it for the fun and stylistic filmmaking, but don’t expect an intriguing mystery.

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Fri, Dec 18, 2009

: Avatar

Author: James Cameron

Director: James Cameron

Obviously this film has been getting a lot of buzz and hype. The trailer didn’t reveal much to me: it didn’t turn me off, but didn’t get me excited, either, mostly because it revealed nothing about the story. I think that’s a mistake because the story is fascinating. The beginning of the film that sets up the story is a little confusing, which is a bummer, because it’s a terrific idea. Basically we have the Avatar project on a distant planet: humans remotely controlling alien bodies so they can pass as natives. That’s interesting, but not intriguing. But then we have twin brothers: one is a scientist trained for this mission and scheduled to go to the planet. An avatar body genetically linked to his DNA has been grown and it will only work with him. But then he’s apparently killed (a random mugging or something) so his twin brother (with identical DNA) is recruited. He’s a marine and has no scientific training, and even more interesting, he’s a paraplegic stuck in a wheelchair (he can’t afford spinal surgery to get his legs back). The beauty of that setup is two-fold: first, being disabled, the avatar project gives him his abilities back: while controlling the alien body he can run again, which is obviously tremendously appealing to him. Second, since he has no training about the world or the alien culture, he’s a stranger in a strange land. That works both for the story, in that he has no preconceived notions and is open for indoctrination by the natives, and it works for the audience, who get to see this new world through his eyes (we are like him, seeing everything for the first time). The heart of the story is not unique: it’s basically an environmental conflict between invaders and natives. The human invaders want to mine a rare ore, but the natives don’t understand or care and won’t get out of the way (their lands are sacred). The plot is very similar to The Battle for Terra, a digitally animated film from a few years ago. But I found the feeling of this film was much more like the epic Dances With Wolves. Instead of white men and Indians, this is science fiction set on another planet with an alien race, but the principles are the same. The human must infiltrate the alien tribe and become one of them, learning their ways and living the way they do. The experience is profound and exciting, for the alien world is brilliantly realized. Storywise, though there isn’t much new, it is so well done that it is emotionally powerful. I actually found myself tearing up in a scene or two. Of course one of the main talking points about this film is how much of it was done digitally: the entire alien planet as well as all of the aliens themselves, were created inside a computer. It didn’t seem that extraordinary in the trailer, but in the film itself I found myself immersed. I totally forgot that I was seeing digital people and just fell into the story. It’s incredible I could be emotionally moved by animated pixels! Truly impressive technology.

I should also add that the alien world is also incredibly impressive. The amount of work to create the fauna and species of a foreign planet is amazing. All the creatures and plants look fully real, too. It’s clear why this film took so long and cost so much to make.

I should put in my one criticism: why are the aliens so human-like? Sure they are ten-feet tall and blue, but they have the same humanoid structure, the same facial expressions, and even cry like humans. In real life, aliens are likely to completely different from us. They might be a gas or a rock or something like a spider or fish or bird. They wouldn’t necessarily have the same senses as us (they could be blind or have abilities we don’t) and we’d certainly find communication difficult (if not impossible). This is something I hate about most science fiction films and TV shows, but there it’s usually because it’s hard to find an actor to fit into a non-humanoid costume, so all the aliens are humanoid. This film, since it’s a digital creation, could have done anything for the aliens. But for some reason, Cameron chose to make them extremely human-like. I find that frustrating. (While that’s not a deal-breaker, it does weaken the power of the film for me. This could just as easily be a film from today with Westerners trying to force a native tribe off their Pacific island. There’s no reason at all it needs to be on another planet if the aliens are so human-like.)

Another minor criticism is that the environmental message can be a touch preachy at times, but fortunately there’s a practical reason the aliens value their land and environment more than just being nature-worshipers (on their planet, all living beings are psychically connected).

Overall, I was tremendously impressed. This film is not just a technological achievement, but it’s a great story well-told. The acting is excellent, the visuals are spectacular, and the action and drama is top notch. I urge you to see this film. I won’t say it’s the greatest film ever or anything like that. It’s very good. It actually is quite similar in tone to Cameron’s previous film, Titanic: it’s an epic with dramatic scenes and spectacular visuals and a solid-but-basic story anchoring everything. It’s worth seeing just for the experience (just like Titanic). It’s definitely a fun ride, but there are real emotions here. Two thumbs up!

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Mon, Dec 14, 2009

: Dexter

Dexter is a wonderful TV show exclusive to Showtime, the pay channel. I watched the first season on DVD a few years ago, and caught the others when they aired on regular TV (CBS owns Showtime and aired part of the series). I think I’ve missed a few episodes, but I’ve seen most, and Dexter is one of my favorite series and characters. He’s a serial killer. But he’s a “good” serial killer, in the sense that he only kills bad guys (other serial killers, rapists, murderers, etc.). He’s really good at what he does. His adopted father was a cop and recognized early on that Dexter was a psychopath. He’s the one who taught Dexter a code: to only kill those who deserved killing and to do it in such a way that he wouldn’t be caught. Dexter actually works for the Miami police department as a lab geek: he’s a blood spatter analyst. Thus he has inside access to forensics and is involved in major investigations, but he’s also surrounded by cops, which is dramatic and fascinating. The entire series hinges on Dexter’s feelings of alienation and the potential of his dark secret being uncovered. We’re also never quite sure about Dexter: though he seems likeable and is intelligent and cunning, he’s also unemotional, distant, and slightly creepy. We see him do horrible things without an emotional waver and that makes us wonder just what he’ll do next. But there are glimmers of hope. In the previous season he finally married his long-time girlfriend, a woman with emotional problems of her own (her ex-husband abused her). In this most recent season, he’s trying to settle into domestic life: raise her kids, deal with their new baby, keep the wife happy and clueless, while still leading a double life as serial killer.

As usual, the series is terrific and every episode keeps you on the edge of your seat. I love the way they write this series. Each season is like a novel, with each episode a chapter. It’s one long story with shorter events in between. There are always terrific plot twists and unexpected turns, secrets and discoveries, and dramatic events and plenty of bloody killings. It’s wonderful. Though some episodes are naturally weaker than others, and some subplots distasteful or not that intriguing, overall this is one of the best series on TV. This particular season was incredible for a number of reasons. First, our bad guy was a serial killer played by the fantastic John Lithgow, who somehow pulled off the amazing feat of arousing our sympathy while being chillingly evil. Second, Dexter’s quest into becoming a real person seemed to be making a great deal of progress: domestic life, while causing lots of complications for his extra-curricular activities, seemed to be helping him. He’s the most human yet and that raises the stakes of the drama because as he becomes more human he’s more prone to emotion and mistakes, and his relationship with his wife becomes less of an act and he’s in greater danger of his secret being discovered. (That is one of the things that hooks us in: what would Dexter do if his family discovered his secret? Would he kill them in cold blood? Or is he human enough that would now be difficult?) The final thing that makes this season so incredible is the dramatic ending. I won’t spoil it, but let’s just say it’s unexpected, tragic, and completely changes where the series is going. It makes you rethink everything that happened so far this season. While I didn’t find it unbelievable (it fit with the characters and wasn’t arbitrarily done), it effected me emotionally in ways I can hardly explain. I had trouble sleeping after the final episode. I felt like I’d lost someone close to me. It was a profound experience. I haven’t felt that way since I first saw David Lynch’s Blue Velvet or his Eraserhead. It was disturbing, creepy, sad, and left me bereft and confused. But it also left me fascinated, exhilarated, admiring the daring and brilliant writers of the show, and wondering where the series is going. I cannot wait for next season. I want to watch it right now. (Unfortunately, it won’t presumably happen until next fall.) I should reveal my technique for watching this series. I had a free three-month subscription to Showtime, which was awesome, as Dexter was the only thing I really wanted on the channel. (I am now convinced it’s worth paying for Showtime just for this series.) Anyway, all this fall I recorded the show on my DVD. When I saw that Sunday night was the final episode, I started watching all the episodes I had cued up. Yes, I watched twelve episodes of Dexter in a row. I won’t say one sitting, since it took me a few days, but I knew that’s how I had to do it: every episode ends on a cliffhanger and I hate that. I can’t stand waiting in limbo for the next chapter. This was an excellent way to watch the show (as getting it on DVD is also). It also could be why the final episode effected me so dramatically: I was profoundly in the whole Dexter world and experience. Anyway, if you haven’t seen Dexter, you need to do so. It is amazing. It’s quirky, fun, creepy, bizarre, dramatic, and colorful. The characters are twisted, the violence is realistic and gory (yet not so bad it’s unwatchable), and the pacing of the show is excellent. Highly recommend (but do start with the first season if you haven’t seen it as you need to start at the beginning).

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Fri, Dec 11, 2009

: 361

Author: Donald E. Westlake

I’m not sure why I got this audio book. I don’t remember what the description was, but I guess something intrigued me. It turned out to be about the mob, which is a topic that doesn’t interest me (I don’t understand the fascination people have with gangsters). That said, though, this one turned out to be a little different and interesting. It starts of dramatically with the young son returning home after being discharged from the military, and on the way home with his father, his father is shot and killed and the son badly injured. That starts the son on a quest to find out who killed his father and why. The secrets uncovered lead to organized crime and the son’s surprisingly role in that gangster world. It’s a decent yarn, well-written, and I ultimately liked it. However, in the middle of it I was somewhat bored as I didn’t care for the topic, and secondly I was confused because the main character who seemed like a good guy was doing bad things and it seemed like he was going to do worse. Everything turned out appropriately in the end, but the journey was rocky for me. Interesting, but not a book I’d ever read again.

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Thu, Dec 10, 2009

: Brothers

Director: Jim Sheridan

I originally did not want to see this movie. The trailer intrigued me by the casting — Tobey, Jake, and Natalie — but the story seemed entirely elaborated in the trailer and entirely trite and predictable. Basically we have the two brothers, one of whom goes off to war and gets killed, while the other falls in the love with his brother’s wife. At least that’s what the trailer implied and I had little to no interest in such a film. Such an idea has been done a million times and I didn’t want to watch another film about an affair. But I heard a review of the film that warned me not to watch the trailer (too late) and said that the trailer ruins an excellent film. That intrigued me that perhaps the film was different from the trailer, so I went, and I’m glad I did. This film is nothing like the trailer. There are several key differences. The first is that we don’t learn in the trailer the interesting relationship between the two brothers. One is “good” and one is “bad.” The bad one has just gotten out of prison. The good one is the loyal soldier who’s going off to war. He’s always been the good son, the other the screw-up, and their ex-military father treats them accordingly. That sets us up with a familiar but still interesting conflict, especially when it’s the good son that gets killed overseas. I don’t want to spoil all the plot details, but let’s just say the implications of the “affair” in the film are overblown. The film is far more about family relationships: the daughter-in-law struggling to cope with her husband’s death, the “bad” brother trying to figure out how to form a new life after time prison, and both trying to help the dead brother’s young daughters. For me, the daughters are the film: the two little girls are so darling and quirky and wonderful, they break your heart in every scene they are in (scenes like the one where the girls attempt to make pancake breakfast for mom are incredibly precious and real). The relationships between them and their mother, their father, and their uncle are all fascinating. That is why you see this movie: to see the amazing family dynamics, adults trying to protect kids, kids who are simultaneously wiser and more innocent than the adults, etc. Forget the silly plot about a brother stealing his brother’s wife or whatever: that is not what this film is about. It’s about lost people attempting to be found. The film has some obvious plot twists that I won’t spoil here, but they are interesting and important, and the climax is dramatic and thought-provoking and doesn’t turn out quite the way you’d expect. This is a very good movie. It’s an amazing emotional journey. It’s less about the plot and more about various emotional states. Definitely one of the best films of 2009. My one criticism concerns a certain violent act in the middle of the film. This act is crucial in understanding one of the characters and the entire story, but the director shields us from the violence by cutting away so we don’t see it clearly. Honestly, that confused me. I wasn’t even sure the act had happened. I thought maybe something else had transpired and it wasn’t until later events that I realized it had happened. Even more important, the violence of the act is critical to establishing to true horror of the act and our understanding of the character’s later regret. Yet since the audience is shielded from the violence, it minimizes the act. Combined with my confusion over whether or not the act had actually happened, it softened the impact of the event tremendously, which weakened what should have been the film’s most profound aspect. I can only think about how much more powerful this film would have been had we been given at least a glimpse — one quick shot — of the raw, bloody violence. It would have been horrible and gut-wrenching, but that’s the whole point, of course. Everything that transpired after that would have been ten times more emotional. I don’t know if the director chose this approach or if he was pressured by the studio or others into toning down the act, but the sequence felt badly edited to me. Perhaps I need to see it again. Whatever the case, that was the only major flaw I noticed: I thought everything else about this film was fantastic. The daughters were amazing, the lead actors were terrific, all the scenes were wonderful with just the right mix of conflict and interesting dialog and tension. The dinner scene where the black sheep brother has his first family meal after being in prison was incredible, with each family member’s personality being evident and the drama and tension overwhelming. Just terrific. Ignore the trailer, don’t even bother to watch it, and just go see this film. Be prepared for an emotional journey that will affect you profoundly. It’s not necessarily a sad film — don’t think this is a Kleenex festival — it’s just emotional. There’s happy, sad, tragic, melancholy, touching, precious — all sorts of emotions. You’ll leave somewhat drained, and perhaps changed, and that’s the sign of truly powerful art.

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Fri, Dec 04, 2009

: Monk: Series Finale

Today was a sad day as what frequently was one of the best shows on TV for many years came to an end. I don’t know why it ended; if ratings were low or the creators were burned out, but I’m still pissed about it. When they announced last spring that this fall season would be the end I thought my heart would stop. Monk has consistently been one of the few shows I can watch any time, any where, in any mood. It is funny, heartwarming, intriguing, clever, and just all-around wonderful. Other shows sit on my DVR for months before I get around to watching them (I’ve got 15 episodes of House queued up right now and I love House, but I have to be in the right mood). Monk I often watched the same day (on special occasions I managed to save it for watching during Sunday dinner). It was not always perfect or consistent, and sometimes it got repetitive and predictable, but the thing about Monk is that I didn’t care: even a bad episode of Monk was better than most good episodes of other shows.

This final two-part episode resolves all the show’s mysteries. While I’m glad it ended that way instead of suddenly and without any resolution, I’m not that impressed with the conclusion. Yes, Monk finally solves his wife’s murder, and no, that doesn’t magically cure his OCD (though it helps), but the mystery itself didn’t seem too mysterious (it was extremely predictable) and Monk didn’t have to do much sleuthing or anything brilliant to capture the bad guy. The finale tries to hit so many notes and resolve so many things it feels scattered and weak. My preference would have been to have changed this around: had him solve the murder in a brilliant way in part 1, then deal with all the ramifications and resolutions in part 2. Instead they tried to spread the murder across both episodes and crammed the resolution into the last half hour and it felt forced and awkward for me. Not so poor that it ruins the series, but not going out with a bang as I would have wanted. Monk needed to do something brilliant in this episode, some thing only Monk could do, and instead he has the murderer handed to him on a silver platter. Lame. I still love this series, though. I hope it lives forever in reruns and I really hope the books continue and I would love for USA to do a Monk TV movie once a year like they did with Columbo and Perry Mason and other series.

Topic: [/television]

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Thu, Dec 03, 2009

: August

Strange movie that sounded interesting: it’s about the downfall of a high-tech startup by two brothers. There are some cool moments and the lead character is certainly a character, but he’s an arrogant jerk and isn’t likeable so we are ultimately glad to see him fail. A bigger problem for me was the lack of information provided about what, exactly, the company did. There were hints and tech words dropped, but everything was vague, as though even the writer didn’t really know what the company did. That gave a vague feel to everything, and though it was clear enough why the company was failing (the business model didn’t work and revenue wasn’t coming in as originally projected as new technology had changes the landscape). The relationship of the brothers was also vague and stereotypical. (One is the tech genius, the other the public face and business guy — sound like two Steves you’ve heard about?) Ultimately, the film goes nowhere, nothing happens, we learn too little about anyone, and we don’t really care.

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Mon, Nov 30, 2009

: Awake

This is an odd film. It came out a few years ago and the premise sounds so unpromising I had little interest in seeing it. It actually isn’t as bad as it sounds. The idea is a young man goes in for heart surgery but the anesthesia only paralyzes him: he can still hear and feel everything that happens to him. Such a premise seems tremendously limited: are we in for two hours of a patient screaming as his heart is transplanted? How can this idea be turned into an actual story? Well, it spoils things slightly to reveal some more plot, but it makes the film far more appealing: basically, during the surgery, the man learns he’s the victim of an elaborate murder plot. Unfortunately, he’s paralyzed and can’t do anything about it, but at least we’ve got a conspiracy to entertain us. What follows could be called clever or convoluted, depending on your perspective: it didn’t quite work for me and comes across as silly, but mostly that has to do with a poor script and even worse execution. This could have been made into a half-decent thriller; some of the ideas have real promise. Unfortunately, the set-up and execution is heavy-handed, the performances are weak, and the whole thing collapses under its own weight in the end. Still, it was not as bad as I expected, which surprised me greatly, though my expectations were dismally low.

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Sun, Nov 29, 2009

: Lonely Hearts

Strange film from a few years ago: it features a star cast of actors like John Travolta, James Gandolfini, Salma Hayek, and Jared Leto, and it tells the sensational true story of an infamous male-female couple who swindled and murdered dozens of widows in the 1940s. I wondered why I hadn’t heard of it. Unfortunately, that’s clear when you watch the film. It is extremely uneven, both in script and tone. There’s tons of modern swearing and dialogue, which feels out of place in a period piece. Some dramatic scenes are excellent, but others fall flat and obviously don’t work. The charming couple, who pose as brother and sister and romance their way into the lonely hearts of wealthy war widows before murdering them, are too weird for the audience to connect with them. We never really understand their motivations. Hayek seems miscast as her Hispanic accent comes and goes and doesn’t seem to fit her character. Her character is basically insane and she comes across as unlikable. The film’s better moments come from Travolta’s character, a widower struggling to connect with his troubled teenage son, but unfortunately that’s an underdeveloped subplot that feels ham-handed and perfunctory. Interesting, with a handful of intriguing scenes, but way to incoherent to be watchable.

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Fri, Nov 27, 2009

: An Education

I hadn’t heard much about this but it’s getting Oscar buzz and it’s a treasure you need to see. The story’s simple. Set in 1961 England, a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl who’s tired of studying for her exams to get into Oxford, meets a charming older man who seems to be wealthy and worldly, and he romances her off on adventures to concerts and Paris. Finally she’s free of her straight-laced parents and endless books and free to actually live. What’s fascinating is the way her parents go along with this: the man charms them as much as her, and since he’s well-off, they feel the match is okay despite the age difference and her youth. Thus the girl learns that her Oxford destiny wasn’t as much about her accomplishing anything in the world, but merely meeting a suitable match. She begins to question the purpose of education and wonders if a real-world education isn’t superior. I won’t spoil the ending, where she slowly learns that the man isn’t what he seems. The film is brilliantly crafted and the performances are fantastic (the girl is a star in the making). My only criticism is that storywise the film feels slightly lacking, with events leading linearly to a faintly gimmicky conclusion (the story needs a small subplot for additional richness), but there is meat on these bones as the film forces you to ponder the role of education in society. Seek this out.

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Wed, Nov 25, 2009

: Fantastic Mr. Fox

Author: Roald Dahl (book)

Director: Wes Anderson

Though Dahl’s one of my favorite authors, I somehow missed this book and never read it. That changes my perception of the film as I have no idea how they compare. Judging just this film, however, I thought it was fantastic. The stop-motion animation is retro hip, and I just loved the film’s miniature world. The characters and story are wonderful, about a fox being urged by his wife to go straight and stop poaching chickens, and the mean farmers who try and hunt down the fox, his family, and his friends. Toward the end things get convoluted plotwise and I’m not convinced all the hubbub was necessary: I would have been happier with a simpler plot. (Again, since I haven’t read the book, I’m not sure if some plot aspects were “enhanced” for the film or were part of the original book.) But the film is note perfect in terms of style and the way characters are portrayed: deadpan humor abounds and I thought all the performances were terrific. It’s a wonderful film, very different from anything you’ve seen, charming and fun, and heart-warming. Two thumbs up.

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Thu, Nov 19, 2009

: A Christmas Carol

I was not too excited about this film: I didn’t see much point as the Charles Dickens’ story seems to have been done to death (my favorite is the whacky modernization, Scrooged, with Bill Murray). This seemed like a faithful rendition, which could be good or bad, depending on your viewpoint (you could see it as unoriginal or loyal to a classic). It also is a frightfully early release for a Christmas story, though there’s a part of me that likes that. I went and saw the 3D edition which is probably not worth the extra money, though it’s relatively harmless. The 3D is good, but doesn’t add anything to the story. It’s just a fun gimmick. The animation is fantastic, as you’d expect, though I thought some of the minor characters looked slightly odd and unfinished in places. Compared to the incredible detail of the main characters, they looked flat and cartoon-like. The historical detail of Victorian England is well done, providing some fascinating detail about life back then. For instance, the poor family doesn’t have the facilities to cook their own Christmas goose: they use the bakery’s oven down the street (presumably for a fee). As to the story, this is an extremely faithful adaptation, almost to a fault. Much of the language is archaic and can be difficult to understand, especially for young kids. But the ghosts are done in such a modern way it felt like it clashed. There’s is much about the ghosts added in to pad the movie’s length, like several wild action sequences (Scrooge on a rocket into space, Scrooge shrunk down to mouse size and chased, etc.) that add little to the story and strain credibility (you’d think the poor old man would have a heart attack considering all the trauma he’s put through). Another problem is that some of the ghosts are extremely vivid and could be too scary for young children: for a family film, that’s a strange decision. Overall, this is well-done and excellent. However, my major criticism is that other than being digitally animated and in 3D, it breaks no new ground. It’s odd that I feel this way since usually my criticism of adaptations is that they change too much from the original, but in this case this is such a classic story and it’s been faithfully done so many times before, it would be nice to see something more creative.

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Fri, Nov 13, 2009

: 2012

Remarkable spectacle. That pretty much sums this up. It’s not a bad drama: there are a handful of compelling character moments and though they are not profound, they work well enough for this type of film. Story-wise this is well-structured, with a dad trying to save his family from the end of the world. The action is terrific and non-stop once the planet starts to break up, and the special effects are, frankly, astonishing. Most films have one or two scenes that are clearly the main spectacles, but here the effects just keep coming: out-driving an earthquake, skyscrapers falling, an entire city breaking up and falling into the ocean, volcanoes erupting, tidal waves wiping out mountains, just to name some of the bigger events. It’s worth watching just to see the remarkable graphics. But I was pleased to see that the story is decent: we care for the family in danger, there are some non-stereotype events and characters, the plot is actually followable and not too ridiculous, and the ending is classic Hollywood feel-good. Enjoyable. Though it’s over two-and-a-half hours long, I hardly noticed, which says a great deal.

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: MLS Playoffs 2009: Houston at LA

A disappointing game. Houston loses 2-0 to LA in overtime and not in a good way. This game is marked with controversy as twice the lights went out and caused 18-minute game delays. Each time Houston was playing well and the delay threw them off their rhythm and gave the Galaxy time to regroup and get organized. Houston also scored a goal that the ref disallowed for a weak call. Basically two players went down in the box in what looked like standard jostling and the ref blew his whistle late, after Houston put the ball in the goal. The players who went down were off the ball and had nothing to do with the play and many referees would have allowed the goal. Frustrating. Houston finally gave up a goal in overtime on a David Beckham set piece when the Dynamo could clear in a goal-mouth scramble and LA touched it over the line. Certainly not a pretty goal, but one that counts. Houston was still in it, though, as there was plenty of time left, but to give LA credit, they came to life after they scored. Before that they looked beaten and tired, constantly defending Houston’s attacks, but the goal revived them as they suddenly started playing much better. Substitute Alan Gordon broke away on the right wing and though he’s really not a good goal scorer and shouldn’t have worried the back line that much, Houston overreacted and clipped him in the box for a clear penalty which Landon Donovan converted. That pretty much ended it, though Houston did hit the crossbar in the final minute or so.

The bottom line in this one is that Houston, though a very good team, did not quite have that extra something of past years. Though I love Stuart Holden, the team still misses Dewayne DeRossario, who could bring that bit of magic. The team had too many close games this season, especially against teams they clearly outplayed (like this one). In those games the Dynamo were hard to beat but failed to score. One of those games was against LA during the regular season: that home draw was the tie-breaker that allowed this Western Conference Final to be played in LA, and ultimately, with the game going to overtime, that home field advantage was what helped LA win it. I think Houston could have turned it around if LA hadn’t revived after their goal: they didn’t settle into a shell but started playing better than they had all game, and forced Houston into making desperation mistakes as the away team tried to get back in it. I guarantee if this game had been in Houston, the result would have been different.

All that said, I’m strangely not that depressed. I’m frustrated and annoyed, and certainly disappointed, and I’ll definitely root against LA in the final, but Houston did their best and it wasn’t quite enough. Ching had a game-winning header that Ricketts pushed over the bar to keep the game scoreless and that was the game right there. The tough calls and awkward stoppages give the Dynamo something to gripe about, but in years past they had the quality to overcome such disadvantages and this year they did not. (Designated Player Ladin, who came on for Oduro, did little. He was slow and still not on the same page as his teammates. If he’s the replacement for DeRo, that’s not a good replacement.)

Topic: [/soccer]

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: The Survivors of the Chancellor

Author: Jules Verne

I’ve been listening to this audio book for a couple weeks and it was an interesting coincidence that on the way home from watching the end-of-the-world caper 2012 I finish this book which is also a survival story, though set 150 years earlier. This is about a ship that sinks while crossing the Atlantic and the survivors who build a raft and try to stay alive long enough to reach land or be rescued. It is a harrowing and grim tale, and halfway through you think surely they’ve suffered enough, but the bad stuff is only beginning. It is a quite remarkable story of survival and the ending has an unexpected aspect that I enjoyed. There are aspects of the book that are a challenge to understand because of differences in time and culture (many of the nautical terms were meaningless to me, for instance), but the human condition and will to survive is understandable to all. Excellent.

Topic: [/book]

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: The Killing Room

Interesting film about a strange — and deadly — psychological experiment conducted by mysterious black ops government types using volunteers from the classifieds. It’s a little bit like the Saw movies (in the sense that imprisoned people are faced with unanswerable dilemmas, but without the gore), and also reminiscent of one of my favorites, Cube. It doesn’t have the depth of Cube, unfortunately. It builds us up for a grand climax but the payoff isn’t there. The explanation regarding the experiment is interesting, but not that plausible (I don’t really buy it); it seems like there would be much easier ways to find out what they seek. Another flaw is that though the characters seem interesting and have potential, we really don’t get to know them beyond the surface. There are some nice moments, some of the dialogue is excellent, and the performance of a few of the actors are terrific; however there’s too little happening here. You’re interested for a while, but that’s mostly because of the mystery and your desire to find out what’s going on, and ultimately it feels like a film short stretched to feature length.

Topic: [/movie]

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Thu, Nov 12, 2009

: Show Business: The Road to Broadway

This is a fascinating documentary that follows the creation and production of four musicals on Broadway during the 2003-2004 season. What I especially liked is the broad treatment: we get to hear from actors, writers, musicians, directors, critics, and even fans. Each group has different insights into theatre. The second thing that makes this work is the variety: each of the four musicals (“Wicked,” “Taboo”, “Avenue Q,” and “Caroline, or Change”) are extremely different in subject matter, style, and tone, which helps give this documentary a broader appeal. There should be something of interest to everyone here.

But the thing that fascinated me the most — pertinent right now as I’m polishing my second novel — is the surprising knowledge at just how much these productions can change, even after opening night. Songs are rewritten, production numbers moved around, stories changed, scenes added or dropped, etc. I have worked in theatre and minor adjustments would be the norm, but I didn’t realize they would actually rewrite the entire thing. Of course, the theatre I did was mostly unoriginal work, so we wouldn’t have thought of rewriting a classic play, for instance. Broadway does a lot of brand new productions that are still in flux, so they change according to audience feedback. That’s why shows that open to mixed reviews may find their feet later, as they figure out the bugs, enhance the scenes that work, and drop the problem areas. Fascinating. Worth watching.

Topic: [/movie]

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Wed, Nov 11, 2009

: The Box

I was curious about this film because I made a similar movie short (“The Dilemma”) about ten years ago (in mine, it’s a website that offers the money for a mouse click instead of a button on a box). Unfortunately, this is a dreadful mess. It is truly one of the worst films I have ever seen. That said, there are aspects I liked very much: the problem is the whole package fails miserably. (Note: I will avoid spoilers in my comments, not that this movie could be spoiled any more than it does to itself, but I won’t reveal the “twists” upon which it depends just in case you want to see it.) The main problem is that the main premise of a moral dilemma is never really explored. It’s set up (“push the button and someone dies and you get a million dollars”) but never really debated. After the button is pushed (not much of a story without that happening), the film veers off into unknown territory. There seems to be a vast conspiracy happening, with mysterious people and events, strange effects, supernatural stuff, etc. You are basically bewildered and confused for the next hour. That’s not necessarily a problem if the final explanation is a good one. The problem I have with that explanation is two-fold. First, it’s a cheap cop-out, akin to a beginning writer ending a story with “and then he woke up.” Second, even if you ignore the flaws of the cop-out, the film could have gone further and explored the ramifications of that explanation which would have been a new and interesting exploration into ethics. But the film doesn’t do that and instead ends with a bizarre and meaningless and illogical new “dilemma” which makes no sense, is horribly grim and depressing, and leaves you wondering why you wasted two hours of your life watching this dreck. So basically this film is a decent set-up, a middle that is fascinating but convoluted, with an explanation that doesn’t justify any of the nonsense that precedes it, and a conclusion that as unsatisfying as any I’ve seen. There are parts of this that are brilliant: my favorite was the conversation with the babysitter and the husband, where she’s apparently possessed or something and her words have double-meanings that freak out the husband. Some of the weird stuff is very well done, extremely creepy and bizarre without elaborate special effects. But all this is piecemeal and none of it fits together in any rational way. Frustrating.

One final note. I discovered after I’d seen the film that this was done by the director of the cult classic Donnie Darko, something that might have lowered my expectations going in. I did not like Darko and yet it’s a much better film than this one, if that tells you anything. This has a lot of the same flaws, but at least Darko had a better plot.

Topic: [/movie]

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Tue, Nov 10, 2009

: Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant

The “Cirque du Freak” in the title confused and bothered me: it seemed unnecessary and awkward (“The Vampire’s Assistant” would be a great title on its own). But apparently this is based on a book series so that’s why it’s included. Of course I’ve never heard of the books and I doubt most people have and that’s symbolic of the problems with this movie. Book fans rarely want to see their cherished stories warped by a screen adaptation, so why cater to them? Adding that tag line to the title just alienates non-connoisseurs like me. Anyway, the film itself has many flaws. It’s extremely uneven. There are some brilliant concepts: I like the idea of a boy becoming a vampire’s assistant and the freak circus is visually interesting with the opportunity for fascinating characters. But the freaks are not used well. Everything is for display purposes only and we don’t really get to know anyone past the main characters and even they aren’t that interesting. The main boy is a do-gooder who becomes a half-vampire to save the life of his best friend. He’s rather bland but with a good heart, and represents humanity. Unfortunately, his reactions to the freaks are strange: he doesn’t abhor them or even show much surprise, yet he is initially anti-freak and prejudiced. I found myself confused and unsure of how I was supposed to react: are the freaks good, bad, strange, exotic, normal, humorous, or what? No idea. The story is too convoluted and doesn’t really go anywhere. There are mysterious bad guys, a whole vampire mythology that seems incredibly thin yet is trotted out in bits and pieces as though it’s epic, and a horrible ending that resolves little and doesn’t really end. (The ending is just a setup for sequels, which I doubt will ever happen. Apparently this movie is based on just the first book or two and there are something like eight books published in the series, so the producers were obviously hoping this was just the beginning. But instead of giving this one a conclusion, they end it in mid-sentence, so to speak.)

All these negatives aside, there is something above average in the film. It’s got a sort of charm. It feels unpolished, like it’s not sure what it is (Is it for children or adults?), but that doesn’t necessarily ruin it. Ultimately, it’s a weak film, a flawed film, but not a terrible film. It reminds me of a television pilot that sets things up wonderfully for the future but isn’t really that good on its own. I actually wouldn’t mind a sequel; just like TV series often find their rhythm after a few episodes, I could see this series becoming really excellent. But this first one is too confused. See it for the good performances, the exotic visuals, the vampire genre, and ignore the poor story and inconsistent tone. Overall I liked it, in a strange way, but I can’t really recommend it.

Topic: [/movie]

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Sun, Nov 08, 2009

: Houston Beat Seattle in 2009 Playoffs

What a terrific day. Not only did I get up early this morning and finish the last chapter of my novel, but my team (the Houston Dynamo) has advanced in the playoffs to the Western Conference Final! They beat the expansion team Seattle Sounders in overtime on a terrific Brian Ching volley. Fantastic! They thoroughly deserved it, too, out-playing the Sounders with tons of possession and good passing, but it was still an extremely tight game and could have gone either way. Seattle had a great first season and I give them props, but they I’m cheering for Houston to go all the way. They need to beat LA on Friday to advance to the final. Because of the league’s silly tie-breaking rules, that game is in LA so it’s not going to be easy, but if they play like they did today, they’ll do it.

Topic: [/soccer]

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: Finished Second Novel

Today I finished my second novel. That’s two this year, which is a huge accomplishment. I should write more about writing because I’m understanding things in a different way. Writing a novel isn’t about the words, but the story, and I’m learning more about how to master that. No idea if my novels are any good, but that’s not the point: the point is I’m learning to walk so I can learn to run. I’m sure my work will get better. This second one is very different from the first and I think it’s a deeper novel and I can’t wait to see what my writing will be like three or four novels from now. I feel like a novelist, which is amazing. (Next I want to feel like a paid, successful novelist, but that will come.)

Topic: [/writing]

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Fri, Nov 06, 2009

: The Men Who Stare at Goats

This one is pretty much what the trailer shows: a quirky tale of military psychic experiments told mostly in flashbacks while a reporter has adventures with an odd ex-army officer who supposedly has psychic powers. It’s funny and charming and well done, but in the end it all seems a bit silly (the wimpy ending re-enforces this). I liked it, but it’s not a must-see. At least it’s speedily paced, humorous, and not too long.

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Thu, Nov 05, 2009

: Remembrance

Author: Joel Pincosy

Director: Joel Pincosy

Really nice little film short by up-and-coming director Joel Pincosy. It’s about an elderly man reflecting on the changes in his life as he faces minor conflicts with his family and growing old. Nicely done with excellent performances. It’s simple and elegant. I loved the smooth transitions to the flashbacks and the way there’s not much dialogue but the story’s obvious from what you see. Worth checking out if you can find it.

Topic: [/movie]

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: Spiral

Interesting small film about a weird lonely painter who may or may not be a serial killer. Though he’s strange, he apparently attracts women via his art, paints a series of pictures of them (always the same sequence), and then — perhaps — kills them. He’s somewhat of a sympathetic character, but what intrigued me was the girl and her personality and relationship with the guy, which was interestingly done. There’s sort of a twist at the end that I liked, but this is a fairly quiet movie, a film about thinking, not action. It’s a tragedy, in a way. I rather liked it, but it’s not for everyone. It can be slow and inconsistent, but it has its very good moments. I also discovered at the end that it was filmed in Portland, which is terrific. I need to watch it again just to see if I can spot familiar places.

Topic: [/movie]

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Mon, Nov 02, 2009

: Paranormal Activity

I’ve been hearing about this for a while and almost saw it a few weeks ago, but it didn’t work out. Now it’s everywhere and big hit. It cost about $11,000 to make and has grossed nearly $100 million, which is incredible. The story, if you’re not familiar with it, is exceedingly simple: a young couple are experiencing a haunting and set up a video camera to record any “paranormal activity” and we get to watch the footage. Fortunately, there’s not too much hand-held camera and it doesn’t feel awkward or nauseating or cheap. The scares are of a mostly subtle nature: creepy sounds in the dark, mysterious movements, and so on. It’s surprisingly effective. By showing so little, your mind imagines the worst, and that’s far more frightening than seeing fake blood or a wax monster. I didn’t find it particularly scary during the film (though the ending is creepy — and good) but I didn’t want to think about it later that night, alone in my house with the strange sounds outside. The main thing I enjoyed about this was the performances of the two stars. They are unknowns and they are perfectly cast and the acting feels real. They are sympathetic, too, so we feel bad that these things are happening to them, which keeps us involved. I also loved the choice of setting in a modern house in suburbia rather than in the traditional creepy falling down ancient mansion. The setting made this seem much more real and plausible and therefore scary. Storywise, the film feels light: it should have had a subplot that would tell us more about the characters and keep us engaged. The problem with the suspense nature of the paranormal activity is that it must be milked out carefully throughout the film, and thus there are places where activity lags and not much is happening and it’s a bit boring. (Note: this is not always, just sometimes. Many times the slow pace is just perfect and totally creepy as you watch an empty room for many long seconds waiting for something to happen.) A subplot would have kept things entertaining and given the characters more depth. Still, it works as it is, though it’s therefore not a profound movie: just a recorded event with not much else to go with it. Recommended, though I wouldn’t recommend it if you live alone in a creaky house!

Topic: [/movie]

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Mon, Oct 19, 2009

: Where the Wild Things Are

It’s been ages since I read the children’s book and I don’t remember it well. I will caution that I read the book as an adult, not as a child. For some reason this one escaped my notice as a kid. While I remember thinking it was good, I don’t remember it being great. I could name a dozen other children’s books I liked far, far better. So I come into this not being a huge fan, but more neutral. And that’s kind of how I felt about the film. It’s good. It’s got a handful of great moments, but mostly it’s just good. So don’t go into this with huge expectations or you’ll be disappointed. The acting is excellent (the little boy is fantastic). The monsters are wonderful: somehow simultaneously scary and friendly. The pacing is too slow, and I found several aspects of the story problematic. The biggest one for me was the kid and the monsters playing “war” by throwing dirt clods at each other. As you might expect, this was exceedingly violent, with serious injuries as a result. It felt wrong and off. While I understand youthful enthusiasm and the invincibility of youth, the tone felt wrong for this story and for this little boy. While it obviously echoed the snowball from the beginning of the film, that ended in tears and if anything should have taught the boy a lesson, but it didn’t, since he wanted to do it again this time with heavy dirt clods and monsters four times his size who could easily toss boulders if they wanted. The scene had an ominous, serious tone that while I understand the producers wanted such a feeling, it was too strong and too much for me. The way this story works for me is to hint at such things, not actually be them. In other words, threaten injury, but not actually have injury. This had the feeling of the “ha ha” practical joke that suddenly goes deadly and isn’t funny any more, except in this case, the producers keep laughing and carrying on, ignorant to the fact that the audience isn’t laughing with them any more. Of course this is just one scene and it’s not that horrible, just a little off tonally, so it’s not a disaster, it does not ruin the entire film. But tone is vital in a story like this and it does effect matters. There are a couple other areas where this happens and it works: it’s just off enough it unsettles you, makes you wonder if the monsters really are going to eat the boy or accidentally hurt him, and that’s good. That’s what the book did: it generated real (dangerous) emotions from children. But the book did it in a way that was somehow still “safe.” One way it did that is via time, the book being so short that the reader is not in a scary place for long. The film, unfortunately, is much too long, leaving us in limbo for such a long time that it’s actually disturbing, not merely uncomfortable. Ultimately, this is interesting. It’s well-done, but it feels drawn out with not much beyond the original premise happening. It would have been far better as a short. Do a thirty-minute version, or maybe an hour. Maybe an hour-ten, if it could be stretched that far. That would have condensed all the wonderful moments into a terrific sequence that would have been awesome. As it is now there are so many lulls and dry spells that they weaken the really good moments, and the conclusion is that the film is only okay, not great.

Topic: [/movie]

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Fri, Oct 16, 2009

: Law Abiding Citizen

Somewhat atypical revenge flick, with a genius out to hurt the legal system that made a deal with the man who killed his wife and daughter. It’s above average in some ways, as the clever man does most of this from inside prison, which is intriguing. However, the resolution is typical and the explanation unsatisfying. At first we are rooting for the guy but later he just seems crazy. I guess that’s the point, but it made his revenge seem unsavory and the audience can’t enjoy it then. It’s not a bad film, merely uneven and inconsistent, and too manipulative. It’s a fun premise and could have been done better. We certainly aren’t given much of an explanation as to why the guy is so obsessed (supposedly he’s been fighting the legal system legally for ten years and now is taking matters into his own hands, but it feels weak as he wasn’t screwed that badly). Even the murder at the beginning is vague and undefined. (It took me a while to realize the wife and daughter had been murdered, and I never could figure out why he wasn’t killed or why his family was attacked — I kept expecting some late twist in the tale that would reveal some unethical behavior on his part had provoked the attack, so in reality he was angry at himself for indirectly killing his family, but that never happened.) All-in-all: see this if you like this sort of film, otherwise wait for the DVD.

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Wed, Oct 14, 2009

: Prophet

Author: Frank Peretti

I’m not the biggest Peretti fan, but I find him and his work intriguing, and though I’d had this book sitting on my shelf for years, I’d never gotten around to reading it. It was not what I expected. The beginning sets itself up like the (sadly canceled) Eli Stone TV show where the main character has visions and sees the future. Unfortunately, unlike the TV show, where the visions play a key role, here it is almost a side story, as though Peretti didn’t want to scare off readers with too much supernatural stuff and focused more plodding detective work instead. Another sad choice is that the murder involves the controversial topic of abortion, and while Peretti does play it well and fairly and doesn’t preach, it’s just a heavy topic to read over five gazillion pages and many, many hours. Overall, it’s not bad, but just tedious and not interesting enough. It takes until halfway through the book to see where it’s going and though the ending is visible from a hundred miles away, it takes forever to get there. It’s well-done, but a condensed version would work just as well.

Topic: [/book]

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Mon, Oct 12, 2009

: Nobel Son

I saw something about this a while back and had wanted to see it, but it disappeared before I could. The plot sounded neat: the son of a horribly mean and arrogant Nobel laureate is kidnapped for ransom and he doesn’t care or even believe the boy’s been kidnapped (he’s suspicious the boy is behind the kidnapping and that it is fake). I caught the film on a movie channel and was excited. Unfortunately, it wasn’t as good as I hoped. I recommend it with reservations. The key problem is the film doesn’t know what it is: it’s really three films in one. The tone of the film is light-hearted humor like Get Shorty. We see hints of this in the quirky film-making style, the titles introducing the characters, and the outrageousness of the characters. But the kidnapping is grittily real, and the execution of the ransom pick-up is elaborate and intricate like an Ocean’s Eleven heist. So that’s a different feel than the humor we were expecting. Also, the humor is sparse and inconsistent. This makes the first half of the film uneven and confusing. As we get past the kidnapping and into the aftermath, suddenly the film takes a new twist (which I won’t reveal) leading to something that reminded me strongly of the classic Pacific Heights, where a seemingly harmless and charming person diabolically takes over and threatens our hero with disaster. While I loved the psychological games this produced, it had a completely different feel from the light-hearted spoof of earlier, and it was too brief, for the film too quickly went on to the third (or fourth, depending on how you count) feel, with the hero teaming up with his mom to stop the bad guy. It was done well: extremely clever and realistic, and the tables turning on the bad guy was satisfying. However, it was yet another tone in a film that had too many. So the bottom line is that this film has a remarkably clever, intricate plot, some terrific psychological manipulation, and a wonderful table-turning conclusion, but the whole thing feels awkward, haphazard, and confusing. You aren’t sure if this is comedy, dramedy, gritty crime drama, psychological thriller, or what, and that leads to confusion and unease. I found it awkward to sit through because of that. On the one that meant it kept surprising me, but on the other it really felt like three or four movies stuffed together into a mishmash. As I said, recommended but with reservations. Definitely see it to get what you can out of it, but don’t expect a pure experience.

Topic: [/movie]

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Fri, Oct 09, 2009

: Moon

This film sounded fascinating: a low-budget sci-fi adventure about a guy alone on a station on the moon who starts seeing things and going crazy from being solitary. It also sounded somewhat predictable, since the plot I just revealed doesn’t include room for a lot of surprises. However, the film turned out to be even better plotwise, as there is a rational explanation for what the guy sees (and it’s far more satisfying than the old insanity chestnut). That said, I did find some flaws and the film left me slightly disappointed. Perhaps that because my expectations were too high. I hadn’t expected a rocking shoot-em-up adventure, but I did find the film sluggish in places. Sometimes there was action but it wasn’t compelling. Bigger than that, however, is the strangeness of the people. When the main character sees another version of himself he doesn’t react the way we’d expect: there’s no shock or even curiosity. The two people basically ignore each other, which made no sense to me. Later they do talk and confront one another. Now perhaps the first guy assumed the other guy was an illusion and that’s why he ignored it, but that should have been made clear. I found that strangeness off-putting and it distanced me from the character, made me less involved, less intrigued. Like I mentioned earlier, the actual revelation in the plot is excellent and satisfying, but it would have been even better if I’d been more involved. There’s also a certain amount of meaningless business: action for the sake of doing something, but it doesn’t propel the plot much. Sometimes that can work, but in this film it felt forced and several times I was telling myself, “Come on, get on with it.” There were other strange flaws. I’m not sure I can reveal them without spoiling things, but I’ll do my best. One example is the main computer character that controls the moonbase. I was never quite sure what to make of him (it?). He seemed to know what was going on and have all the answers, but the human never directly asked him to explain. At minimum I would have expected him to ask and the computer refuse to answer or in some other way deflect the question. Strange. Another strange flaw was the whole business of the blocked communications system. Supposedly live communications with earth are down and — minor spoiler alert here — the human figures out that the signal is being jammed. But apparently this jamming is being controlled by the computer, who is lying to the human about the transmitter being damaged. It didn’t make much sense to me why the signal needed to be jammed if the computer controlled the transmission anyway! Why couldn’t the computer just say it was broken? How would the guy know? (There are some reasons for this in the film; they are just not clearly explained.) There’s one other minor flaw and that is the very end of the film where the film ends too abruptly while there was still story to be told. I wanted to find out what happened next and though there was a one-line hint, the film stopped. It felt odd, as though the producers originally had more but ran out of money and just ended it there. Awkward.

All this said, however, these flaws are fairly minor. It’s a good film. Perhaps not great, but definitely above average. The explanation for the weirdness is excellent. The story is mostly compelling, except that some of the weird stuff that happens can be off-putting and confusing. The performances are awesome. Sam Rockwell is amazing. The two versions of himself seem completely different even when dressed identically. I’d say the acting is one of the best reasons to see this. I just also add that this film doesn’t at all feel low-budget: the sets and setting are tremendously well-done and everything feels realistic. I definitely recommend this film. It’s not for all tastes, can be a little slow (very much like 2001: A Space Odyssey), and there are some minor technical and story flaws, but overall this is a unique experience that is worth your time.

Topic: [/movie]

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Tue, Oct 06, 2009

: Toy Story 1-2 (Double Feature in 3D)

Though I have these on DVD I haven’t watched them in years; it’s amazing how well they hold up. The additional of 3D isn’t a huge change, but it’s fun in several of the scenes (I especially liked it when Zurg was shooting the puff balls from his cannon). What most impressed me was how the visual quality of the original 15-year-old technology still amazes, and the graphics improvements in Toy Story 2 (mostly in the humans who look like cartoons in the first film). Still, with both of these movies, it’s the story that is key and is what makes these films classics. Now I’m excited about Toy Story 3 which is to come out next summer! As a three-hour double-feature, this is definitely worth the seeing as it’s a good value, even paying extra for the 3D. It’s only in theatres for a couple weeks so don’t miss it!

Topic: [/movie]

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Mon, Oct 05, 2009

: The Invention of Lying

This is a film with a gimmicky premise — only one guy in the whole world knows how to lie so everyone believes everything he says no matter how outrageous — but it’s done in such a heartfelt manner, with genuine emotions, that it doesn’t feel gimmicky. The film’s not a ha-ha laugh-track type comedy; it’s more just amusing. It’s very pleasant and mild and well-done. The only flaw is that I would have liked more social commentary: the film never judges whether lying is bad or total truth is good, even though some kind of moral seems like an obvious conclusion, but the romantic relationship in the film adds some depth and genuine emotion. Otherwise it’s just a pleasant and fun movie.

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Sun, Oct 04, 2009

: Portland Timbers vs. Vancouver Whitecaps

This was the second leg of the playoff match to see who gets to the championship game. I haven’t been to a Timbers game in a while (I’m not sure why, exactly) and I am definitely going to go to some next year. This was a lot of fun. There was a great crowd of nearly 15,000 and the atmosphere was exciting. The game was terrific, with six goals. Sadly it finished 3-3, a draw, which eliminated Portland as they lost their away match in Vancouver. They came very close to tying the aggregate and sending the game to overtime, but just didn’t quite make it. I can’t wait for the Timbers to be part of MLS!

Topic: [/soccer]

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Fri, Oct 02, 2009

: Zombieland

Fun, playful zombie film, not too scary, but with enough action to be interesting. It’s got a touch of social commentary in the lead character’s narration and could have used more, but there’s a bit of heart in the quirky relationships that come together. Nothing too original or unusual, but the characters are fun and the film’s sense of humor is entertaining.

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Mon, Sep 28, 2009

: Pandorum

For some reason I got the idea that this was based on a video game, perhaps because the promos reminded me of Resident Evil. But it seems to be an original story. The film takes place in the future on a space ship and it’s dark and spooky and there are mutant creatures wanting to kill you. While there are one or two actual scares, mostly this film seeks to gross you out, with characters finding themselves in claustrophobic situations face-to-face with gory corpses and swimming in putrid waste. It’s pretty yucky and combined with 95% of the film being in the dark with eerie glow sticks the only light and it’s not a pleasant film. It is interesting, and quite well done, though it’s also over-done. The plot’s too gimmicky, purposely holding back information to keep us in the dark, and there’s an attempt for a “twist” at the end that’s obvious a mile away. The basic plot is two guys way up from hypersleep with no memories, no idea how long they’ve been asleep, and a ship that’s on life support. They can’t even open the door to get out as there is no power. The quest to restore power is the story, as one of the men goes on a journey to do that, running into the strange creatures and a few crazy passengers. The title is apparently the name of a condition we’ll call “space madness” — not exactly original. That’s actually one of the key flaws of the film because while the film is supposedly about paranoia, 80% of the time is spent running from the creatures and trying to figure out the “mystery” of the ship (which is not much of a mystery at all). I would have by far preferred a story exclusively about paranoia: adding in the creatures makes this a monster movie, which is not nearly as interesting. Unfortunately, the paranoia stuff is give short shrift and that’s disappointing (for terrific paranoia films, see Bug or Roman Polanski’s Repulsion).

The bottom line is this is a decent thriller. It is much more limited in scope than it could have been, but people who like this kind of genre will like it. I did, but I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone as it is gory and violent and depressing and not everyone likes such things. It could have been better but is above average for this kind of film.

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Fri, Sep 25, 2009

: Surrogates

I love robots and this is sort of a robot story: “surrogates” are mechanical duplicates of people that can be remotely controlled, so people never have to leave their homes and can always be safe. They operate their surrogate to go to work, travel, take physical risks, etc. It’s a neat idea and the film actually hints at the sociological impact of such technology. Unfortunately, within minutes of the beginning the film shows us illogic by telling us that surrogates were invented a mere 14 years ago and that now 98% of the population uses surrogates. Huh? It took like 50 years for cars to be common and the whole world will switch to remote controlled robots in just 14 years? That sent up red flags for me and the rest of the film’s illogic made it painful to watch.

There are some neat ideas (i.e. humans = ugly, robots = pretty), and the special effects of a young Bruce Willis as a robot is pretty cool, but the story is far too convoluted with a murder conspiracy and technology that can kill the human operator remotely. The ending isn’t that bad and has a preachy moral message for us (“be human”), but the whole film feels like pieces that don’t fit together. The plot’s a mishmash of ideas and the film bounces around between talky/social commentary scenes and action as though it can’t decide what kind of film it wants to be. The action feels like it was thrown in to sell the film and the robot action looks like badly faked digital. Nothing makes much sense, but strangely, I still kind of liked this movie. It’s fun, proposes some unusual ideas, and some of the performances are interesting. There’s not much meat on this bone despite the heavy-handed approach to preaching, but if you can ignore that and the giant plot holes, there are worse ways to waste a couple hours.

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Thu, Sep 24, 2009

: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs

I’ve never read the children’s book this film is based upon so I can judge the adaptation, but my feeling is that I’d find the same flaws in both. It’s probably just me being too rational, but I have serious trouble with this kind of story with no link to reality. Everything is just too illogical. It’s not that I don’t love fantasy or magic, I do: but good stories are consistent and believable in their own world. This one actually throws out scientific mumbo-jumbo as though it’s being realistic, then has cooked chickens coming to life. Is this magic or science? I also had serious problems with the main character, which is at the heart of the film. The crazy scientistic/geek is someone we’re supposed to love because he has a heart of gold and “thinks different” and yet he’s a total moron and incompetent scientist. There was no explanation of why his inventions failed (most were jaw-droppingly stupid). Why not make him have some sort of block or reason why he fails and in the climax of the picture he overcomes that obstacle and invents something successful? I just couldn’t relate or like someone so dumb, as lovable as he seemed.

All that said, I still sort of liked this. I wanted to really like it, but it’s merely okay. It’s silly and dumb but harmless and fun, the computer artwork is excellent, and it has humor and moves at a good pace. Unfortunately, I am saddened by the waste of potential: the idea of it raining food is brilliant (as is the title), but it’s just an inept and nonsensical story.

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Mon, Sep 21, 2009

: Jennifer’s Body

Author: Diablo Cody

Surprisingly, I really liked this. My expectations were low after hearing the early reviews and box office, but I didn’t find that many flaws. It’s a nifty blend of genres, mixing horror, comedy, and teen angst in a hip and colorful fashion. However, it’s not a huge, big budget audience pleaser. This is a quirky cult film. People who like Heathers would like this.

The problem is the film’s positioning. Having Megan Fox as the lead means it has to be marketed as some big vehicle for her. I’m not sure when this was cast: if the film was cast back when she was a nobody, this would have made more sense. But now she’s popular and so the marketing tries to get on that and unfortunately they have marketed it as a sex vehicle for her and that’s not at all what it is. The marketing turned off many people who didn’t care to see her in her first “adult” role. Diablo Cody fans weren’t sure what to make of this either as this genre seems so different from Juno. But if this had been a low budget unpublicized film with an unknown in the lead, people would have been raving about it, telling all their friends to check out this cool new flick. It would have been a huge sleeper hit. As it is now, the expectations were so high it’s a giant flop, which is sad, as it shouldn’t be. It’s a terrific film for what it is: a quirky cult film. The dialogue is smart and sassy, the acting and directing appropriately over the top, and though the storyline isn’t unfamiliar, the perspective of best friends growing apart when one gets possessed by a demon is fresh. I really liked it and recommend it. Just don’t expect too much. I predict it will be a cult hit for years to come and be better appreciated by future generations. Some of the relationship material in the film is quite deep.

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Fri, Sep 18, 2009

: The Informant

I want to like this, but I don’t. It is good, but not great. The core problem is ingrained into the story: the main character is crazy. He’s a pathological liar and mixes truth and lies so convincingly that we aren’t sure which is which. Things that you think are lies turn out to be true and vice versa. That’s utterly confusing, which is the whole point, of course, but it makes for unpleasant viewing. It’s humorous and even touching, but the viewer is always at a distance. We cannot connect with the characters because we don’t understand. (I would have loved to have the faithful wife featured more: their relationship was a mystery and by the end you cannot figure out why she’s still with the guy.) The problem with all the lies is similar to the flaw of Duplicity: because we can’t trust the character we aren’t sure what’s real and what’s not. So I’m not even sure about the “facts” of the film because for all I know they were imaginary as well!

There are many great things about the film: the performances are excellent, above average, the script is well-done, the whistleblower story unusual, and the direction is playful and quirky. However, the pacing is slow, and the film has a strangeness that difficult to overcome (you’re never sure if you should laugh, if the main guy is a genius or an idiot). Recommended if you like this kind of film (I’d love to have seen what the Coen brothers would have done with this story), but I suspect most people will be disappointed.

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Thu, Sep 17, 2009

: Julie and Julia

Wow, what a terrific film. The chef in me wanted to see this and I love Myrle Streep and Amy Adams, but kept putting this off as it felt a little too chick flickery. But it is wonderful. For me, it hits all sorts of key notes: Paris, cooking, blogging, writing, the publishing business. I found it inspiring to learn about Julia Child, who I knew little about, and the struggles she had becoming a chef and getting her book published. Fascinating that the book no one wanted to publish would change the cooking world so much that her kitchen is now in the Smithsonian. The idea of combining two books — the period story of Julia Child and the modern story of a blogger attempting to cook all 500+ recipes in her book in one year — is pure genius. I had read a review that said the modern story wasn’t as compelling and I disagree: it’s merely that it’s not as heavy (significant). Alone it wouldn’t have worked and even Julia’s story wouldn’t have been as interesting: together they compliment each other beautifully. Highly recommended.

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Wed, Sep 16, 2009

: Sorority Row

Pretty much what you expect: sorority girls getting killed in horrible ways. Blech.

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Fri, Sep 11, 2009

: Whiteout

For some reason I had the impression that this was supposed to be good. I guess the marketing worked on me, though I hardly paid any attention. The premise didn’t interest me all that much — horror in Antarctica, big deal — but it was promoted as the film’s big feature, along with an all-star cast led by the lovely Kate Beckinsale, who, sadly, is the film’s only redeeming feature. Well, the exotic landscape is interesting, but then most of the film is indoors or in a blurry snowstorm. The story turns out to be a murder mystery, but it’s not much of a mystery, and the plot is so heavy-handed and ridiculous it loses all credibility. Nothing makes much sense and though the ending is predictable, you really don’t care since the producers could have picked any of a dozen endings and it wouldn’t make any difference. The whole thing is a sorry mess and I can’t believe Kate got suckered into it. She’s either desperate or needs a new agent. Stay away, far away.

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Thu, Sep 10, 2009

: 9

This film sounded intriguing, but proved disappointing. The computer graphics are fantastic: the level of intricate detail is amazing and the animation flawless. Unfortunately, the story, which starts out well, drifts into dreary action melodrama and the ending is too strange and makes no sense. The very premise of the piece is a contradiction: nine tiny burlap-sack beings are the only living creatures left on the planet after human-created machines take over the world. So these creatures aren’t organic but they aren’t robots either? Huh? Whatever. Enjoy it for the graphics — it’s worth seeing just for that — but don’t hold your breath that the story makes any sense or is anything but lame robots fighting for no reason.

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Fri, Sep 04, 2009

: Gamer

I wasn’t too excited about this as the premise of criminals competing in death games seemed tired, but it had a big cast and seemed like it might be fun. Unfortunately, it takes itself far too seriously which is even more laughable considering the illogical concept of regular people controlling real people as pawns in war games. (Why would anyone agree to participate in a game in which you might die when your fate lies in some unknown controller’s hands? And why is the public celebrating the pawn when he has nothing to do with the victory? Incomprehensible.) Another problem is the weird chop-editing and hand-held camera action. It reminded me a lot of Crank except without the fun, and in this film, that style clashed with the somber tone. Turns out, the film was made by the Crank guys, so that explains that. But while that one was fun, this one was dreary.

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Thu, Sep 03, 2009

: Ponyo

Author: Hayao Miyazaki

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Definitely a change-up from traditional Miyazaki animation as this one is skewed for a younger audience (think 5-10), has a simpler story, and isn’t quite as serious. I loved it. My favorite thing is that this is set in the real world instead of a magical realm (though magic is in the film), and Miyazaki is surprisingly good at handling that material. The story is simple: a boy in a Japanese fishing village befriends a goldfish and she loves him and wants to be human. It turns out she is magic and can make that happen. The boy is five and adorable, and very clever, and his mom is wonderful. The human characters are realistically done, with my favorite moment being how upset the mom was when the dad took an extra run on the fishing boat and couldn’t come home and it’s the little boy who comforts mom. The mom’s reactions were adult as she didn’t try to hide her anger from the boy, and the boy’s innocence and utter love for his dad no matter what he did was charming and wonderful. The story itself goes to strange places toward the end, with the goldfish girl’s magic threatening the whole planet by somehow drawing the moon near and raising the sea level and flooding the fishing islands. It’s a great little story, perhaps not up to Miyazaki’s normal standards in terms of literary seriousness, but entertaining, charming, and surprisingly appealing to older adults.

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Tue, Sep 01, 2009

: The Final Destination

These movies are basically death-porn. You watch merely to see people die in various bizarre accidents, which is pretty sick. (The film even alludes to that in the car race opening where a couple characters berate another for watching the race hoping for a crash.) That said, these films are oddly compelling. There’s an adventure and funness to the deaths — many well-deserved — that makes for intriguing viewing. It’s certainly not intellectually straining, and this entry in the series is way low on the logic quotient, but there’s a charm to the black humor and stereotypical characters that makes it watchable. The deaths are amusingly done, like the girl being caught in a car wash with her head trapped in the sunroof opening — a ridiculously hilarious gruesome image. The film is grim and bloody, yet there’s such delight in the brutality and awfulness of the deaths that they feel cartoon-like. It’s the overly elaborate Rube Goldberg setups for the deaths that make the film tick, especially since many turn out to be red herrings. When pens and paperclips can be deadly weapons, it feels like death can come from anywhere and anything. Everything on screen screams danger; there is nothing mundane left. (After leaving the theatre, you’ll start notice everything dangerous around you in real life, as well!) The actually dangerous stuff — cranes lifting giant air conditioning units, trucks on hydraulic lifts, welding torches, escalators, nail guns, knives — are usually too obvious and half the fun comes from trying to predict exactly how the next person will die. Much depends on the capriciousness of nature, like the wind. There are many amusing touches, such as the photograph of the main couple that blows off a table onto the floor, followed by a rolling X-Acto knife that follows it and happens to stab the girl perfectly in the eye.

The bottom line: these films are not for everyone. The plot is the same for every movie (premonition of disaster saves lives followed by the sequential deaths of the survivors), the characters are mere sketches, the actors pretty but unknown, so the only thing really going for this is the black humor and tongue-in-cheek tone. If that’s enough for you, enjoy it. If not, skip it. I found it fun and on par with the rest of the series.

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Fri, Aug 21, 2009

: Inglourious Basterds

Author: Quentin Tarantino

Director: Quentin Tarantino

This movie was not what I expected. That is a good thing as it is better than it would have been. The basic story is simple enough: two groups of people plot to kill Hitler during WWII. But Tarantino does two unusual things that give this film it’s unique voice and style. Both of these things seem in conflict with commercial success and other filmmakers wouldn’t have been allowed to do them, but he’s got clout. The first thing he does is that most of the film is not in English! About half the film is subtitled as the conversations are in French or German. This is not only realistic and historically more accurate, but gives the film an unusual air. The language barriers are even incorporated into the plot, as a British spy tries to pretend to be German and Jewish-Americans attempt to be Italian. In some scenes there’s even a translator involved, which theoretically slows down the action even more as we get to hear every line twice. That relates to the second thing Tarantino does, which is to write long, scenes of dialog in which nothing happens. Most action films today are all about non-stop explosions and violence, but Quentin keeps you on the edge of your seat by not showing any violence! The opening chapter is so brilliantly simple: a German SS commander arrives at the home of a French citizen and chats with him and drinks milk and is so charming he’s terrifying, and though this small-talk conversation goes on for a long time, every word is charged with explosives and you just know something awful is about to happen but you don’t know why or when or how. The climax, when it comes, is suitably outrageously violent. The film repeats this technique throughout: practically telling us something bad is about to happen and then teasing us and making us wait for it. The effect is brilliant — rather Hitchcockian — in that the slightest thing in every scene is magnified. A sip of a coffee or a close-up of a dessert dish has your mind racing: Is it poisoned? Is the cup going to be shot out of his hand? Will a smiling face suddenly dissolved into sadness as blood trickles from the mouth after being mysteriously and unexpectedly killed? You don’t know and the tension is marvelous. Tarantino makes this work via brilliant casting: Brad Pitt gets the headlines and he’s okay but really a minor character. It is the work of the amazing Christoph Waltz as the evil Nazi Colonel and French actress Melanie Laurent as a Jew pretending to be French that really stand out. Scenes with them crackle and spark with mystery with every eye-blink holding the potential of a nuclear explosion. Everyone is good, but those two are standouts, and the result is that even in slow, seemingly meaningless scenes, the tension is unparalleled. The greatest compliment I can make about this film — which is slow and long, with action only in a few quick, ultra-violent scenes — is that though it is 2.5 hours long I never looked at my watch or wanted it to end. The ending is also excellent, and extremely satisfying (I was worried there for a while), and the most I can say about it without giving away details is that it is the right ending for this movie. Overall the film does not have a great deal of depth or philosophical message — but Tarantino’s films rarely do and survive, like this one, on style and the delivery of just the right sort of outrageous fun we want. Excellent. I wouldn’t give it a perfect ten, but it’s definitely a solid eight or nine.

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Mon, Aug 17, 2009

: Wyrms

Author: Orson Scott Card

What a fantastic book! I thought this was a newer novel of Card’s because I hadn’t heard of it, but apparently it’s older, from the late 1980s, and got lost amongst his more popular works. However, this is one of his best. It is set thousands of years in the future on a planet colonized by humans 7,000 years earlier. The humans and local species have interbred and evolved into several new species, each of which are interesting. A key part of the novel is that the indigenous species can communicate through telepathy while humans cannot (though humans are susceptible to its influence). The main human character is a young girl, the seventh seventh seventh daughter (basically 300 generations down) who has been prophesied to be either the savior or destroyer of the world, so various groups want her dead or alive. Her mission is to kill the Unwyrm, the original indigenous creature of the planet, who is calling her telepathically to mate with her: he has waited 7,000 years for the human DNA to reach a point where perfect merging is possible. She does not want this and wants to kill him, for he seeks the end of humanity, but she is powerless to resist his telepathic call. That is the core conflict, and it sets up a fascinating world of humans, creatures, politics, and religion, and Card brilliantly allows amazing discussions on the nature of good and evil, why a good person who does bad things can still be good, and so on. The novel is action-adventure — the girl has been trained as an assassin by her father — and thus it’s a wonderful blend of philosophical discussion and action. I listened to the audiobook version but this is one I will probably buy in book form to reread and have on my shelf. It’s that good.

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Fri, Aug 14, 2009

: District 9

I wasn’t too excited about this based on what I’d heard — it sounded too much like a remake of Alien Nation. But in that one the aliens were quite human-like and they were incorporated into our society. Here they look like vertical crabs (they are called “Prawns”). They are still too humanoid in my opinion (Why does almost every scifi film or TV show feature aliens as humanoids?) but at least this is an attempt to show creatures that look different from us. Because in this one the aliens are kept in a concentration camp (aka refuge camp) I expected — and dreaded — heavy political content, but to my surprise there’s hardly any (a little bit about how ruthless corporations can be) and the film actually would have been better with more. That really is my main criticism — the last third of the film is little more than a meaningless action flick, which is sad since the first two thirds are an amazing setup for more depth. The lead actor is fantastic — he really carries the film, being flawless as a fawning bureaucrat who ends up as a fighter. I also really liked the special effects, especially the huge mother ship floating over Johanesburg in the background of many scenes (which is a wonderful, oppressive touch considering it has been there for over 20 years and become part of the city’s life). The handheld camera technique or pseudo-documentary style was kept to a minimum, which was good, but it still was a poorly used gimmick: it should have simply been used as the introduction and conclusion, leaving the middle for real filming. That’s almost what they did except they occasionally showed us grainy footage from a security camera or whatever to remind us this was still a documentary, which was in total contradiction with the film footage we were seeing. Despite some obvious flaws like these, though, the film’s worth seeing. It touches on some new things that we haven’t see before, and some of the action and alien stuff is quite good. Ultimately it doesn’t really go anywhere but the journey there is interesting.

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Mon, Aug 10, 2009

: The Perfect Getaway

Another film that surpassed my low expectations. This actually not a horror film as marketed, but a suspense film. No one even gets killed until very late in the movie. I had expected a slasher-type film with honeymooners and vacationers getting violently killed throughout, but instead it’s more of a psychological mystery of trying to identify which couple is the killer. (The plot is simply that honeymooners in a remote are of Hawaii know that one of the couples are murderers but aren’t sure which couple.) I will point out that the film has an intriguing twist ending. I will try not to give it away with my comments. While I liked the twist a lot, it unfortunately has a severe flaw. That flaw is that the film lies to the viewer to get you to believe something that isn’t true. Then later the truth comes as a surprise. Very poor idea as it weakens and cheapens the twist and turns it into a mere gimmick. There are other flaws with the story and film, but there’s also a lot of good: impressive acting, some nice directorial touches, some good story beats. Unfortunately, because of the flaw the gimmick seems cheap and stands out too much (the film desperately needs a subplot to keep things interesting early on), and the whole film is weaker as a result. With a little more work this could have been a terrific thriller. As it is it is above average, but it doesn’t extend to greatness.

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Fri, Aug 07, 2009

: GI Joe: The Rise of the Cobra

One of the most ridiculous films I have seen, and yet, you know what? I was not bored. The plot is ludicrous, especially the way so many of the main characters on both sides of the battle are interlinked. (A random soldier just happens to be the ex-fiance of the bad girl attacking his caravan? Come on.) The dialogue is pathetic, the special effects obviously digital and excessive, and the high tech battle equipment makes James Bond’s gadget lab seem 17th century. And yet… I had fun. I am loath to admit it, actually, but despite all the flaws, this was somehow still entertaining. I doubt I’d want to waste two hours on a rewatch, nor can I actually recommend something so blatantly awful, and yet, if you’re game, you might get some fun out of this. The film is so gleefully silly and slight, the actors all absurdly beautiful and buff, and some of the sights are definitely new and unique that it all somehow works (on a very limited level, yes, but it does work). Certainly not worth anything close to its reported $175 million budget, but surprisingly better than I expected.

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Fri, Jul 24, 2009

: G-Force

Arguably the silliest movie of the year, about guinea pigs that are FBI agents, but you know what? I still liked it. It’s fun and dumb and the plot is too ludicrous for words, but who cares? It’s a summer popcorn flick for kids and there’s nothing wrong with that. The special effects and talking guinea pigs are well-done, and there a number of unique and innovative moments. I’m still shocked the idiotic plot got approved (Coffee makers that come to life? Huh?) but just put your brain on hold and enjoy the goofy spectacle.

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Wed, Jul 22, 2009

: The Beckham Experiment

Author: Grant Wahl

This is the “controversial” book about David Beckham’s coming to Major League Soccer and his first couple of years with the L.A. Galaxy. It’s a decent book, told chronologically, about his arrival and experiences, but there are several flaws. First, the book really doesn’t give us much insight into Beckham. We learn far more about minor Galaxy players. David himself is hardly quoted at all. That’s disappointing because many aspects of the book are theories as to what David is thinking or wanting and there is no conclusion there because David hasn’t given his perspective (other than canned media presentations which aren’t illuminative). However, I did enjoy learning about those minor Galaxy players — a book about them would be more interesting than this one. But the book’s biggest flaw is that its structure makes it sound like a bio or documentary but the ending is more like an essay with the author clearly making his point that he thinks the David Beckham signing was a mistake and has been a disaster. That is poor writing on two levels, one in that it is switching genres in mid-book, and another in that the conclusion is seriously flawed because the “Beckham experiment” is not yet finished. This book is doing the equivalent of judging a race at the halfway point: there is still much to happen and we don’t yet know the final outcome. Really, in the case of Beckham, the final judgment will have to take place a decade or two from now when we can see the overall impact he has had on U.S. soccer. How he fares for a season or two with the Galaxy is minor in comparison to that lofty goal. Note that I don’t disagree that the Beckham signing has been mishandled in some ways and there have been problems; I just don’t agree with the conclusion that it was a mistake. It seems to me Wahl is wanting to make his book more controversial or dramatic by concluding that, possibly on advice from his editors (it feels like a tacked on conclusion). Unfortunately, the bottom line is that this book doesn’t get you much (if any) insight into Beckham, most of the material is soccer history you already know if you’ve been following MLS and the Galaxy, and the conclusions of the book are misguided and premature (for instance, the Galaxy is having a good season this year but that is not in the book). Still, it’s an interesting read for the soccer fan, but I would much rather see this book rewritten in twenty years to give us a more objective perspective.

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Sat, Jul 18, 2009

: Seattle versus Chelsea

Fun game! This was Seattle’s new MLS team facing off against one of the best teams from England (and the world) and the lopsided result was expected (pretty much any single player on Chelsea’s team makes as much as Seattle’s salary cap for the entire team). Chelsea convincingly and deservedly won 2-0, but Seattle had tons of chances and it was a blast to be there among the 65,000 in the stands. Every time Seattle came close to scoring 65,000 people would leap up and cheer (and then groan when the chance was missed). We were up near the top under the roof with a great view and it was actually chilly with a strong breeze and no hot sun. A fun day, though $40 for parking is obscene. You can see some of the pictures I took on my Flickr account.

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Fri, Jul 17, 2009

: Seattle Trip

Today I headed up to Seattle for the big soccer match tomorrow. Interesting trip: ran into horrible traffic outside of Tacoma which had me reconsidering taking the train instead of driving. A few miles from the hotel I heard my car making strange sounds but I thought maybe it was the pavement. When I got off at my exit, however, I knew something was wrong: my steering wheel was wobbling like mad and I could hear a regular thumping sound. It was only a mile to the hotel so once I got there I checked my tire and immediately saw the problem: a huge bubble the size of half a grapefruit was bulging my left front tire! The tire still had air so I thought I could make it to a nearby Costco, but on the way the tire went completely flat, so I had to change it. It’s been a long time since I’ve done that, and never on this car. Lots of fun. Long story short: made it to Costco, ended up replacing all four tires (it was time). Learned that Oregonians don’t have to pay Washington sales tax, which is really cool. I guess they do that so that we’ll go up there and buy stuff instead of waiting until we get home, which was what I’d planned to do. All told, not a bad result (except for the tire cost, but I’d have had that later this year anyway): the new tires were on by seven o’clock and the car drives much better now (it feels like I’ve got new brakes, which is scary in retrospect). It could certainly have been much, much worse, like if the tire had given way on the freeway while I was going 60 mph!

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: The Appeal

Author: John Grisham

Okay, I’ll be honest: this is a horrible book. There are several reasons for that, but to explain them, I will have to spoil the ending, so if you’d rather not know, skip these comments. The book, overall, has a simplistic plot: it’s set in Mississippi where a giant chemical corporation has poisoned the well water of a small town and given hundreds of people cancer. A sympathetic husband and wife team of lawyers has been fighting a wrongful death lawsuit against the company for four long years and when the verdict comes back in their favor it seems like good news. Unfortunately, it’s just the beginning of the battle, for the corporation will appeal and it may be a couple more years before justice is served. That starts the second half of the novel, where the corporation begins machinations to elect their own anti-litigation candidate onto the Mississippi supreme court so that when the case comes up for appeal, the court can rescind the verdict. The book is long and detailed, going over every filing in the case and nearly every speech and promotion in the campaign. It is tedious and boring, and in the end, nothing happens. The chemical company’s guy gets elected and votes against the lawsuit and none of the cancer-striken victims get any justice. Grisham write the novel this way in order to stir up the reader’s anger at the supreme court election process (which is obviously ridiculous), but while it might be realistic, it does not make for a satisfying novel. Part of the problem is that Grisham goes so far overboard to make his hero characters sympathetic and good and his villains truly evil that the reader is naturally expecting justice in the end. The whole time you are reading the book you are motivated by the justice you know is coming and you can’t wait to see the bad guy get his. In the end, he wins, which is outrageous. I’m sorry: I don’t like predictable endings but when you set up a stereotypical storyline you need to follow-through with a stereotypical Hollywood happy ending. The odd thing is that Grisham’s case against the election process and the evils of big corporations killing people was already made: a happy ending wouldn’t have made us less outraged, just more satisfied readers. As it is, this is another “message” novel by Grisham, horribly disappointing, and it’ll unfortunately make me think twice about buying any of his novels again. (It reminds me of his horrible The Chamber, an anti-death penalty rant with no story.)

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Wed, Jul 15, 2009

: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Just as lukewarm as the book. It’s the weakest novel of the series, as nothing really happens (Harry does not do anything heroic or save the day, just gathers knowledge for the next book). The film’s better than the book in many ways, focusing on any hint of action, and it’s pleasant enough, but it can’t overcome the limitations of the original story.

Topic: [/movie]

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Tue, Jul 14, 2009

: The Hangover

Not quite as crude as I expected and surprisingly funny and entertaining, though it definitely has its low-brow moments. (The really crude stuff is saved the for closing credits, so just skip those if you’re squeamish. You won’t miss much.) Not my favorite genre, but the trailer looked funny and I wanted to see this but was worried it would be worse than the trailer. It’s a bit of a mixed bag: the trailer definitely captures the funniest scenes, but there’s still some good stuff in the film, along with stuff that could have been left out. Still, overall, not as a bad as I expected.

Topic: [/movie]

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Fri, Jul 03, 2009

: Public Enemies

I was disappointed, but I must preface my comments by stressing that I am not a gangster film fan. I find them boring, bewildering, and I don’t get the fascination with such low-life killers. This film has its moments, it’s certainly well done and acted, but I was surprised at the violence (the trailers didn’t indicate that): this film has more gunplay than most action flicks, much of it involving machine guns, and those things are loud. I mean really loud. My ears were ringing after every gun battle. Storywise, there isn’t much too this: John Dillinger is bad guy, good FBI agent is tracking him down, they fight, and — since this is based on reality — Dillinger loses. It’s well done in that regard, but I didn’t get much depth out of the character. I didn’t learn what made John tick. I also found the film’s editing to be choppy and awkward, which surprised me. There were many scenes that jumped without a transition, leaving me confused as I suddenly realized we were in a completely different scene with other characters. (This problem was exacerbated by the fact that 90% of the gangsters looked identify in their dark suits and hats.) The hand-held motion photography was also a problem, making me queasy in many scenes.

All that said, this isn’t a bad movie by any means. I’m sure many enjoyed it. It’s well done, well-written, and well-acted. Visually it’s interesting, being a period piece, and of course Jonny Depp is amazing as usual. But I found the gunplay boring and routine, the story endless (the film is nearly 2.5 hours long), and in the end, it did not live up to my high expectations.

Topic: [/movie]

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Wed, Jul 01, 2009

: Ice Age 3

Surprisingly unfunny, though not awful. There are just many scenes and jokes you feel are supposed to be funny, as though they left a beat in to allow for the laughing, except that no one is laughing. The best parts for me are the visual gags: the rock flying through the air that splits off chunks like booster rockets, or the two long-necked dinosaurs who entwine to make the shape of a heart. But oddly, though those are clever and cute, they feel out-of-place. The world of Ice Age has never made much sense to me: it’s too convoluted with modern sensibilities and talk, as though the creators just throw in everything without any rules (kind of like Airplane, where any out-of-context reference is permissible, except here it doesn’t work). So so.

Topic: [/movie]

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Fri, Jun 26, 2009

: Transformers 2

I hated the first one so my expectations were low. I will say this one is better, but that doesn’t mean much. You don’t watch a film like this for the story, but for little scenes of humor or drama, robots, explosions, and of course, Megan Fox. I would have been just as satisfied with 90 minutes of watching her chew gum, frankly, instead of pretending to act, but you know what your getting when you go to a film like this and I got it.

Topic: [/movie]

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Thu, Jun 25, 2009

: Epiphany

Today I finished my novel. Yes, the day Farrah and MJ died is historic for me.

Why is me finishing a novel significant? I have been trying to finish a novel for 20 years. It’s like I’ve been wandering in a desert and finally found civilization (I just hope it’s not a mirage).

A couple months ago I had an epiphany. Really a series of epiphanies (which is why there is no exact date). Like many epiphanies, my revelation seems blatantly obvious in retrospect. But when you’re blinded, it’s tough to see your flaws. In eighth grade I made the decision to be a writer. That was part of my problem. You see, I used the word “writer” and not “novelist.” Yet all I read back then were novels. Novels were what I adored. I loved being able to escape into another world. That was what I wanted to do: create worlds of real people. Yet because I had chosen “writer,” I got distracted. In high school I got into journalism and I wrote short stories, poems, short plays. Later I wrote magazine articles. I wrote lots of things, but no novels. I expected novels would just come. But here’s one of the things I’ve learned: novel writing is about the craft of constructing a story. Really a novel is many stories in one, but so interwoven in terms of plot and themes that it is one long story. Because of that, story crafting is essential. Short stories you can “wing.” Just start writing and see where it goes. If it takes a wrong turn, weave your way back, try something different, explore. Not a huge problem as you’re only dealing with a few thousand words. But with a novel, you end up wasting thousands of pages and years of journeying with that approach. It’s like trying to draw a map in pitch black darkness. You might end up with something, but it probably won’t be very good.

The bottom line? You cannot learn how to write novels by writing short stories.

I used to think that writing had to be done like that. All instinct and no plan. I approached writing the way I approached reading. In reading, a great deal of the pleasure comes from the unknown. Where is the story going? What is going to happen? Will the ogre save the princess? Will he eat the princess after rescuing her? You don’t know. You’re just the reader. But the author needs to know. I see that now. But always feared that if I knew too much about the plot the writing would be boring. I was writing as a reader, and that’s a grave mistake.

Writing a novel is all about story craft. It’s about structure. I used to read wonderful, amazing novels and just be astonished at how perfectly everything worked out. Even novels that had endings that surprised me — one of the major characters suddenly dies, the killer turns out to be the last one you’d expect — the ending seemed to fit in retrospect. Why was that? That’s because the author intended that ending all along. There were hints of that ending throughout the book, so that by the time I got to the end it subconsciously made sense. But how can an author put in those hints, frame the story in that direction, without knowing where he or she is going in the first place? It can be done, of course. The author can go back and insert those references via revision. But it’s a lot more work and I’m not convinced it’s as effective.

Here’s the other problem with “writing from the hip.” You’re doing two jobs at once. Worse, these jobs have opposite agendas and focus. I liken it to golf. What makes golf ridiculously challenging is that it’s made up of two games, long and short. In the long game, power and vision rule. In the short game, it’s all about reading the green and having a delicate touch. Writing a novel is just like that. Structuring your novel is the long game, all about the power of story and long-term vision. The “short game” is putting the actual words together to form sentences and scenes. Those are different skills. They require different parts of your brain, a different focus. It’s impossible to concentrate on two things at once. So how can you play the long and short games of novel writing simultaneously? You cannot. Yet that was exactly what I was trying to do. Now wonder all my novels stopped about 30,000 words in! I had no vision, no direction.

Keep in mind I thought I did. I had a destination in mind. But I didn’t have a path. It was like knowing I needed to go to New York and just starting to walk without a compass or map. What did it matter that I knew New York was my final destination if I was going to take a wild path to get there?

Thus every novel I wrote started off well. I had a basic vision. I had a vague idea of my ending. I knew my main characters. I knew my setting. I was able to write a few chapters and establish the beginning of the story. Then I got stuck. My story ran out of energy because I didn’t know, precisely, where it was going. Worse, I needed to make decisions about the story and I didn’t have the information or the thought process necessary to do that.

I used to make decisions on the fly. I’d get to a chapter and realize I needed another character. “Ah,” I’d think. “My Hero needs a best friend.” So I’d pull a best friend character out of the air and stick it in the scene. Then I’d have to go back and rewrite earlier chapters, to include the new character. Then I’d realize that the best friend character really messed things up plot-wise, as wouldn’t my hero ask his best friend for help in chapter 3? So I’d rewrite chapter 3. I’d end up throwing out 50 pages and starting over. Then I’d suddenly realize that the best friend character really messed with my overall theme of loneliness, that the hero is supposed to be alienated and alone. He wouldn’t be the kind to have a best friend in the first place! And I’d have to go back to my earlier version and of course everything would be in a huge mess by that point, as I’d made other corrections and changes I wanted to keep. The bottom line is that I was trying to make large-scale changes while focusing on the narrow, on just one scene.

Let me give you another example. It’s frightfully easy when you’re writing a scene to throw something in you don’t think much about. You’re describing your teenage hero’s bedroom and you stick a trophy on a bookshelf or a rock poster on the wall. It’s needed for verisimilitude: teens have that stuff in their rooms. But what have you done? By those tiny things that seem insignificant, you’re changing the character dramatically. What’s the trophy for? A sport? You’ve made the character an athlete. Or maybe he’s a spelling bee champion or a debate wizard. Or maybe the trophy’s one of those “everyone who participates gets one” kind of things. Any answer is valid — it’s your story — but my point is every answer changes your character. He’s a different person as a skateboarding winner than as a former chess champ. The same goes with that rock star poster: who is it? Is your hero a Motley Crue or Michael Jackson fan? Or maybe it’s one of those kids Disney promotes as the newest teen singing sensation. The choice of poster says all kinds of things about the era, your hero’s influences, values, dreams and desires, and tastes. You need to think about these things.

Even broader, small aspects of your characters like this have an impact on your plot and storyline. They seem insignificant, but can be crucial. If your hero shows no signs of physical dexterity but saves the day in the end by suddenly revealing that he’s a martial arts expert, your ending will come off as flawed and faked. But if you fill his room with martial arts trophies and Bruce Lee posters, suddenly that ending works.

Again, it is possible to realize this late in the process and fix things via revision, but is that the best way? Isn’t it better to plan?

My flaw was that I always thought of good writing as magic. I couldn’t imagine the world of Narnia being any different from the precise way C.S. Lewis described it. Yet who knows what ideas he originally had that he threw out because they didn’t fit his theme and plot? The reality is that writing isn’t magic. It isn’t all inspiration. It’s a lot of hard work, thinking, and planning. Trying to plan and write at the same time is like using your putting strategy on the fairway. You may get there, but it won’t be quick.

I was terrified that planning would make the actual writing of the chapters boring since I already knew what was going to happen. But do you know what I discovered? It was exactly the opposite. Knowing where the story was going enhanced my writing by a magnitude of ten. Suddenly I knew what I needed to accomplish in the scene. For instance, I might know that the following scene contained death, so I could foreshadow it in this one, with an ominous tone. Without having to worry about the plot, I could concentrate on vivid writing, interesting dialog, etc. Before I was always trying to do two jobs at once: write the words and formulate the story, and the result was that neither worked well.

There’s a lot more to my epiphanies, but this is the crux of it. Separating the planning from the writing freed me from the curse of “magic” writing. Suddenly I could see story creation as pure craft, not magic. I’m still learning, of course. I have a great deal to learn. That’s fine. But I’m no longer stuck. I know how to do it. It’s just a matter of perfecting the craft, now. Every novel I write will be better than the previous. But it’s frustrating to realize that all these years I’ve been struggling to write a novel, I wasn’t even trying to solve the correct problem!

The conclusion to all this is that once I figured this out I was able to set aside my writing and plan out my novel. I planned it out in intricate detail. This particular novel’s a form of murder mystery, so tight plotting is crucial. There were a million tiny details that needed to be figured out so that everything would lead to the conclusions I sought. Nothing could be forced: it had to come naturally from the situations. I thought about the psychology of my characters, how they would react. I thought about their motivations and desires. I worked out real world scenarios. I tested many and threw them out for various reasons. Sometimes they didn’t work. Sometimes they did but introduced other complexities I realized were distractions. Sometimes they just didn’t fit with the theme. In the end, it was difficult. It was frustrating. It was time-consuming and it felt like I was wasting time I should have been using to write. But it was infinitely easier than my old way of trying to figure out the story as I wrote the words. So I stuck with it. I didn’t stop until every detail of my story was figured out. I went over and over it, testing it to make sure I hadn’t missed anything, that the plot worked. When I was satisfied, then I returned to the writing. And an astonishing thing happen.

I wrote.

I mean, I wrote. I pretty much dropped everything else in my life and for nearly two months, I wrote. I hardly saw any films, watched TV, or anything. I was starving to write. I would wake up at 7 a.m. and write until 10, have breakfast, and at 10:30 write until 2-3 and force myself to stop for lunch. Then I’d write until evening. After dinner I would write until 2 a.m. Then I’d be up the next day before seven so eager to write I wouldn’t even shower or put in my contacts, but rush to my laptop and finish another chapter. In three years I’d written 20,000 words of my novel. In the past two months I ballooned that to 74,000 and finished it.

Why was I so inspired? It was because I had a path. I had a structure. I could clearly see where I was going. It gave me focus. The writing itself came easily. I’ve never had a problem forming sentences. My struggle was with the structure and my foolish belief that writing shouldn’t be planned, that it needed to be “magical” and inspired (otherwise it wouldn’t be fresh but stale and boring). Turns out, it’s the opposite of that.

Now I know my process isn’t going to work for everyone. An astonishing number of writers write from the cuff. (I doubt that many are published, though.) Writing from the seat of your pants is a strategy. If it works for you, fine. But it stalemated me for 20 years. Planning is a hard switch and I’m still learning, but I am firmly convinced that the success of your novel (and the ease of writing it) is directly related to the amount of planning you do. Less planning = more work and weaker novel. More planning = easier writing and better novel.

Also note that everyone’s definition of a “complete plan” will vary. I’m still learning mine. For this particular novel, since it involves a murder and police investigation, it was essential that every significant detail be planned. I couldn’t wing anything. I probably still didn’t do enough planning. There were a few mistakes I discovered (and corrected) during the writing and revision process. One of those was something that seemed to be a major hole in my plot — I was terrified it ruined everything. But I came up with a simple and elegant solution, and the novel’s the better for it.

My point about this last is remind you that no matter how much planning you do, there is still plenty of room for inspiration and creativity in the actual writing. I occasionally made changes to small aspects of my plot during the writing when inspiration made me realize things about my characters I hadn’t known. Most of these were significant from the reader’s perspective, but they actually didn’t impact the plot much. They mostly just changed the perspective a reader would have on the plot. That was why they were significant.

So what I am doing with my novel? Well, first I’m having some people read it so I can get feedback. Next, I’ll be looking for a literary agent. This is a highly commercial piece of a writing, a psychological thriller, so I’m confident I will be able to sell the novel. It’s just a question of finding the right agent and publisher, which can take years from what I hear. It also could be the novel has aspects that make it unpublishable. Who knows? I’m too close to the project right now to see it. I’m sure it has first novel flaws, but it still seems better than a lot of books I’ve read. In the meantime, I’m using my newfound knowledge on my next book.

I’m also considering self-publishing it. Not as a permanent solution, but just for fun and perhaps a little bit of profit. I don’t have too much of an interest in marketing it: I want to concentrate on my next novel. I may put up the first chapter on this website if there’s interest. Please post a comment if you’d like to see it.

I’ll keep you informed as to my progress. And I may use this blog to post more “writing on writing.”

Topic: [/writing]

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Fri, Jun 05, 2009

: Land of the Lost

I recently caught a replay of this series on the SciFi Channel and I’m glad I did. My recollection of the cheesy 1970s kids show was fuzzy and influenced by my adult standards of acting and special effects. Yes the original show was cheaply made with bad stop motion dinosaurs and horrible green screen effects, but the heart of the show was some quite brilliant science fiction, especially for a Saturday morning kids show. Extremely ambitious and innovative, and not actually that badly done considering the budget and the available technology. So I was looking forward to the film. I pretty much got what I expected. While I’d be interested in seeing a “serious” Land of the Lost film, this one was done as a comedy, and as such it works. It’s fun, entertaining, and utterly mindless. I like the way they changed things but kept them the same. For instance, instead of a dad and his two kids being lost, it’s a scientist, his colleague, and a stranger: the characters all have the same names as the original ones, giving it a familiar but different vibe. In another terrific move, the producers incorporated the cheesy TV show theme song in the film, but thankfully not as the main score, merely as a comic banjo scene. The film does that with a lot of familiar things from the show: what is old is new again. Of course the dinosaurs and special effects are terrific, and in the end you get what you expect: a silly romp with action set pieces and comic gags. My only real criticism is a minor one: there’s some surprisingly adult humor in the film, which I found odd considering the target audience. Many adults who saw the series as a very young children probably assume they could bring their kids and this has some sexual innuendo, a drug scene, gay jokes, and other inappropriate topics. I think the writers could have been more imaginative in their source for humor. But other than that (and the adult stuff is not that bad), I liked the film. It’s mindless and silly, but you’ll laugh and forget about it.

Topic: [/movie]

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Thu, Jun 04, 2009

: The Brother’s Bloom

I have a love-hate relationship with con artist movies. Much of the time they are too clever for their own good, becoming so convoluted they lose any thread of story. Often I’m so aware of being deceived that I give up caring. I feared that in this one, but I’m glad to say that this film, though it treads the line at times, succeeds. The key is what happens at the very beginning, when the younger Bloom brother can’t get up the courage to talk to a girl so his older brother invents an elaborate scam and gives him a role to play. With a script, so to speak, the younger Bloom blossoms, and that becomes their life. Unfortunately, by the time he’s 35, he feels he’s never actually lived, and longs for “an unscripted life.” The script is brilliant: for as the brothers go to pull off one last con we are reminded that the best cons are when everyone gets what they want, so how can Bloom get an unscripted life? The object of their con is, of course, a woman: a wonderfully quirky woman, and of course Bloom falls in love, against the script’s rules, and that sets up a marvelous adventure. I won’t spoil the story with any more details, but if you’re a fan of con films, I must conclude that this is the ultimate one. That’s because instead of just coning money or even coning bad people for good reasons, this film is all about con artists coning themselves. That’s the ultimate con: a con so good even they believe it. Terrific. Strongly recommended.

Topic: [/movie]

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Wed, Jun 03, 2009

: The Dead Girl

Interesting grouping of stories surrounding a murder victim. We follow the woman who discovers the dead girl’s body, a woman looking for her missing sister, the killer, and the dead girl herself. Nothing much is repeated during the stories, which I liked (the somewhat similar Vantage Point got really old as so much was repeated); instead we just learn about the impact of the dead girl on various lives. It’s surprisingly intriguing, though in the end, I’m not sure we’re left with much: it’s merely a tragedy with no explanation or resolution. Sad. But I guess I should have known that from the title. Impressive cast, though, and well-done. But not for all tastes.

Topic: [/movie]

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Tue, Jun 02, 2009

: Goya’s Ghosts

This is a period film about the controversial Spanish painter Goya, during the Inquisition, involving his muse, a young model who is Inquisitioned due to her connection with Goya. Not quite what I expected. There are the salacious aspects of torture you’d expect, but it’s both glorified and unrevealed, which is odd — if they are condemning it, why hide it? The main problem is one of focus: is the film about Goya, the girl, or the strange priest? The girl’s the most sympathetic and the one we understand the most, but much of the focus is on the others, and unfortunately those people remain mysteries. The spans a large number of years and by the end I found myself more confused than enlightened. Interesting, but in a limited way, like a historical documentary. I would like to have learned more about Goya, but we are only connected to him via the story of the girl, and he remains a question mark.

Topic: [/movie]

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Fri, May 29, 2009

: Up

I am breathless. This is an extraordinary film. The previews hadn’t told me much: an old guy attaches balloons to his house and floats away. But in retrospect I love that so much is left out of the previews. Too many films give away all their best material in the trailers. Much of what makes this film great isn’t in the individual scenes, but the cumulative story line. The opening five minutes, which is pretty much a montage of 70 years of a man’s life, is a complete film in itself. We see a little boy and his fascination for adventuring, his meeting a like-minded girl, their marriage and life together (through both good and bad), her death, and him becoming a grumpy old man. It’s beautiful, poignant, funny, heartfelt, and absolutely wonderful. It’s also almost entirely wordless, so the story is conveyed via the visuals. If the film had ended right there I could have gone home happy!

But the film continues, with the old man doing the balloon thing and going off on his adventures in South America — but what makes that significant is entirely due to his relationship with his late wife. Why do we care about an old man going ballooning? Because his wife dreamed of adventuring all her life but they never got around to doing it. This is his making up for a 70-year-old promise to the little girl he met, and your heart just goes out to this wonderful old man. But of course the folks at Pixar are absolute master storytellers (they don’t put a foot wrong in this movie) and we see how the old man changes and grows, due to a little boy he meets and the adventures they share. It’s magical. If you can watch this without tearing up at least once somewhere, you don’t have a heart. That’s not to say it’s a weepy film: it’s mostly comedy, but that lightheartedness just makes the tender scenes that much more powerful and emotional. The adventure itself is wild and wonderful, just the perfect mix of silly humor and real danger (the obstacles the old man faces are not for the faint of heart at all, as this film actually shows death and even blood in a couple places). The bottom line is that this is a story you will fall in love with and you’ll watch with bated breath rooting for the old man to succeed. Absolutely an instant classic, a film we’ll still be amazed with a hundred years from now.

Topic: [/movie]

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Thu, May 28, 2009

: Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos

This is a fascinating documentary about the New York Cosmos soccer team of NASL (North American Soccer League) back in the 1970s. I knew some of the history, but I did not realize how extraordinary it was even at the time. Today we compared soccer in the U.S. to American football here — but back then American football wasn’t nearly as big as it is today (the Superbowl and televised games were just becoming popular), and soccer wasn’t even played by kids in the U.S. (kids playing all started because of the Cosmos). The film shows how Warner Communications’ head Steve Ross got involved with the team which at that time was really only semi-professional (the players all had separate jobs to make a living) and turned it into one of the best teams in the world, regularly drawing crowds of over 70,000 to Giants Stadium (which was then newly built). Ross did this by luring Pele, the world’s greatest footballer (both at the time and all-time), for millions of dollars. I found hilarious the little montage of news reports and various people each throwing out wildly different amounts of how much Pele was supposedly paid, from as low as a million to seven million (the real amount is lost in history, no doubt). This was a multi-year deal, but what shocked me was the comparison to other sports figures at the time: the highest paid baseball player in the world was paid just $200,000 a year — so Pele getting millions really was extraordinary. Another thing I found telling was the comments that Pele came to play and didn’t complain about the conditions (horrible field, etc.) or the fact that the team initially sucked and Pele alone wasn’t enough to create a winning team (contrast that with David Beckham’s stint in L.A., where he seems unhappy to be on a losing team). To create a winning team Ross repeated the Pele formula bringing in numerous world class players so the Cosmos was essentially an all-star team with 14 nations represented. I was also surprised that this didn’t happen all at once — Pele’s Cosmos didn’t win the championship until his final year with the team, and when they won it several more times they did it with others. Since Pele is the main name you hear with the team, I had assumed he was part of all the championship teams, but he was not.

Of course the story has its downside, as the league collapsed. I wish the film had more about that (I’d love to see a documentary on the NASL itself), but of course this film is about the Cosmos. Still, some of the reasoning is explained: the league over-expanded (to a whopping 24 teams) too fast (there wasn’t enough talent for all the teams and play suffered), many of the team owners couldn’t afford losses, the Cosmos’ high spending ways created an imbalance compared to other teams with smaller coffers, TV coverage that failed, and ultimately, when Warner Communications started to struggle and the Cosmos faced cutbacks (and eventual dissolution), that signalled the end of the league. In retrospect, Major League Soccer has fixed most of the problems of NASL (MLS has a shared structure, so all owners share in the entire league’s profit/loss and no one team can outspend all the others). MLS has it’s own issues — mostly the fact that soccer here is still not as popular as other sports — but I do appreciate that MLS’ chief goal is to built a solid foundation for a league that will be around for hundreds of years, not an ill-conceived flash-in-the-pan like the NASL. Still, MLS — and American soccer — would not exist without the Cosmos, who certainly drew world attention and started a soccer foundation here in the United States. Very well done documentary.

Topic: [/movie]

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Wed, May 27, 2009

: Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith

Author: Shane Hipps

This is a remarkable book. The author is a former advertising executive who examines media at an unusual level, exploring how it shapes society and religious faith. As a technologist and a Christian (and amateur sociologist), I found this fascinating. The basic premise is the concept of “the medium is the message,” a phrase you’ve heard but probably not understood. Shane breaks it down to reveal things like how printing (and phonetic language) change the way people think. For example, printed material by its nature encourages linear thinking, and it creates a different culture than an oral society. Today we’re awash with new communication methods, from radio to TV to the Internet, email, blogs, podcasts, cell phones, instant messaging, Twitter, and who knows what to come. If the medium is the message, what is the message? And how does technology influence your faith? Great questions.

For answers, Shane shows how technology has influenced things in the past. For instance, the telegraph dramatically changed the speed of information, but that itself changed the value of it: instead of information’s value coming from its quality or depth, its timeliness became the most important thing. (You can see similar things happening today with blogs being valued over well-researched books.) There are profound lessons there.

I want to point out that while this is a book about the religious aspects of media, it’s not overly religious: I really appreciate that the author doesn’t come across as preachy. Instead he merely tells great stories and provides examples and information about his perspective. I would recommend this to anyone, even skeptics, because it’s all about how the medium influences your thinking and the lessons learned can be applied to anything in life.

My great-uncle sent this book to me and I started reading it the moment I got home from the post office this afternoon — I couldn’t put it down. I read it cover to cover in one sitting! I can’t remember the last time I’ve done that with a book (not since childhood, that’s for sure).

Topic: [/book]

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: Executive Privilege

Author: Philip Margolin

This is a breezy read, a thriller about a President who might have committed several murders. While there’s not much depth here, and nothing truly surprising happens, it’s still quite compelling and very pleasant. The author, while not a master, is competent and puts together characters and scenes and action in such a way that you speed from one chapter to the next, eager to confirm what you think is going to happen. There are some twists, but nothing that dramatic, and though the book deals with grave topics, it doesn’t feel at all series. Fun.

Topic: [/book]

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Sat, May 23, 2009

: Wall Street

Director: Oliver Stone

I haven’t seen this classic since the 1980s and I’d forgotten how good it is. Especially in light of the recent financial meltdown of Wall Street, this film takes on a new meaning (we haven’t yet learned our lesson). It’s somewhat predictable — young guy gets his big Wall Street break but must sacrifice his ethics to do so — but the setup and excecution is excellent, as is some of the dialog. The film has got too much of an anti-corporate message to be balanced, but some of the film’s most important lessons are even more relevant today (such as the bit about Gekko, the corporate raider villain of the film, not making anything but gaining incredible wealth through owning and selling). Worth a rewatch if you haven’t seen it in ages. Some of the stuff is very 80s, though, especially the hilariously primitive computers used by millionaire stockbrokers.

Topic: [/movie]

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Fri, May 22, 2009

: Doubting Thomas

This is a kids film about a kid who’s always telling stories (lies) when he uncovers a plot to kidnap the president’s daughter (who is scheduled to visit his school) but of course no one will believe him, so he has to stop the plot himself. It’s got some surprisingly good stuff — the main kid cast is excellent (it includes the girl from Bridge to Terabithia who is awesome) — and could have been terrific except that there are several adult characters overacted so badly that they come across as cheesy and childish. I’m not sure why aspects had to be dumbed down like that: I guess it’s adults who think that kids need to be talked down to, and it’s very odd in this since the main kid characters are quite adult-like (the boy is smarter than most of the adults). The bottom line is that the film is silly fun and very family friendly, but unfortunately to uneven to be great.

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: Night at the Museum: Battle at the Smithsonian

I was surprised at how much I liked this. The first one was fun but I wasn’t sure where they could go for a sequel, but this one succeeds by moving most of the action to a different museum so there are fresh characters brought to life and a bigger stage. It’s still absurd but has a pleasant heart. A few places are surprisingly slow with odd exchanges of dialog that doesn’t quite work, but for the most part this is quickly paced with non-stop fun. Amy Adams is delightful as Amelia Earhart who joins our hero in his quest to save his friends. There’s nothing brilliant here (though the special effects are effective and pervasive) — you certainly won’t strain your intellect, but it’s fun and harmless.

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Thu, May 21, 2009

: Traitor

Pretty good spy flick about an American Muslim who goes deep undercover to stop some terrorists, so deep his own government doesn’t know he’s a double and is trying to stop him. Unfortunately, that double agent aspect is clear from the title (I expected it) yet the film sets everything up as though that’s a surprise somehow. That weakens things, but it’s still a good film even though there aren’t many surprises. Excellently written and acted, and there are hints at the debate on faith though the film doesn’t get as deep as it could. It’s a little too serious overall, quite somber, but has a good ending.

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: Terminator Salvation

I wasn’t going in with the highest expectations, but I really enjoyed this film. It’s non-stop action from start to finish, with the rebel heroes continually getting out of the most incredible jams when it seems the odds are totally against them. The story isn’t too complicated, but complicated enough: it’s in the future during the war against the machines and John Connor is trying to find and save the man who will be his father (in the first movie). What I really liked is that the film tells the story of several groups of people and it does it in a non-rushed manner (most films give short shrift to secondary storylines). Another positive is the wide variety of machines we get to see: underwater snake-like machines, motorcycle-bots, giant multistory Transformer-like robots, and of course, a number of Terminator models. With such variety, the action sequences feel fresh and different, and the ways the humans escape death come out of the situation and tools at hand and don’t feel forced like in some flicks. There’s definitely a ton of explosions here: they must have spent half the budget on dynamite, though there are some other excellent special effects. All this is not to say the film’s perfect: in a couple places the acting/writing/editing felt off, just awkward, but that’s minor. For the most part the cast is great (though unknown) and the story fits in well within the Terminator lore. I wouldn’t describe this film as being innovative the way the original and sequel were, but that’s a tall order and this one is certainly better than the third film, maybe even better than the first. Definitely a great summer action movie. Go see it!

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Wed, May 20, 2009

: Mother Night

Author: Kurt Vonnegut

Fantastic novel, very different from Kurt’s humor stuff. This one is the story of a purported Nazi criminal from WWII told first person from his prison cell in Israel where he awaits trial and execution. As his story unfolds, we learn new pieces of information about the guy that make him sympathetic (i.e. he might have been a double agent working for U.S.). We learn about the good things he did as well as the bad, and he’s quite willing to accept the blame for his faults. There are a number of little twists in the story, which keeps it moving, but the main thing that makes it work is the personality of the narrator. It’s a remarkable story. It gets a little convoluted toward the end, but the ending itself is thought-provoking and makes you wonder question absolutism.

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Tue, May 19, 2009

: Chapter 27

This is a strangely claustrophobic film. A fat Jared Leto stars as Mark David Chapman in the days before he killed John Lennon, and the film is mostly him muttering insanely to himself and acting bizarre. I knew little of the story other than knowing that Chapman killed Lennon, so I was curious about the film, but I sadly did not come out knowing much more. The most enlightening aspect was Chapman’s apparent reluctance to kill Lennon: he was a fan and was arguing with himself over the killing, apparently unsure he wanted to do it but hearing voices and urges to do it. Of course I take that info with skepticism as I’m not sure how accurate this bio-film is, but if it’s true, it is something I didn’t know. We also get a glimmer of insight into Chapman’s reasoning: he felt betrayed by Lennon, someone he worshipped. Unfortunately, too much of the film feels overindulgent and self-important, with weighted words and dramatic pauses, as though we’re supposed to feel the profoundness of the thoughts and comments. Perhaps ironically that is the same mistake as Chapman himself, who mutters nonsense that is supposed to be profound; the film falls into the same trap. Ultimately, just read an article about the crime: you’ll save yourself 85 minutes and learn more.

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Mon, May 18, 2009

: The Broken Window

Author: Jeffery Deaver

This is another Lincoln Rhyme detective novel, with Rhyme up against perhaps his most formidable foe yet. This time he’s going against an information guru, a guy who knows everything. He’s an identity thief who uses computerized info about people to commit crimes and set up the perfect fall guys who are convicted of the crimes so he’s never caught. Since he knows everything about people, his frame-ups are amazingly air-tight, but in this book he makes the mistake of setting up Lincoln’s cousin, which brings Lincoln into the investigation and of course that sets up his downfall. The book is quite thick and long, as Deaver’s books usually are — this one moves pretty well but feels too long and it should have been about 75% of its length. For the most part I enjoyed the action, and the computer/tech stuff was, except for a few odd errors, pretty accurate and interesting. A large part of the novel centers around the debate over consumer privacy, and the book raises a lot of good concerns (not the least of which is the killer’s ability to know everything). Unfortunately I was not as big of a fan of the ending of the book, which has too much of Deaver’s typical manipulation (just tell us the story and stop trying to be clever and screw with our minds), and the climax is pretty much a big fight which is anticlimactic. I would have preferred a more tech-oriented ending, something more worthy of the intelligence of the opponent than a mere fight. But all that said, this is an above average Lincoln Rhyme novel, and worth the read if you’re a fan.

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Sun, May 17, 2009

: The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep

Basically this tells the mythical story of the Loch Ness monster’s origin, about a little boy in Scotland who finds an egg which hatches into a “water horse.” It’s a decent film, beautifully photographed and acted, and I loved that it’s set in the past (the events happen during World War II) as that adds unusual elements. The digital creature effects are also remarkable. Unfortunately, the story itself is nothing surprising — boy befriends creature, creature is threatened, boy tries to protect creature, boy’s life threatened, creature saves boy, etc. It’s the same plot as E.T. and dozens of other movies. Decent, fun, harmless, but nothing classic.

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Fri, May 15, 2009

: Angels and Demons

Director: Ron Howard

I will begin by saying that this film is not as bad as the book, and it’s much better than the first film. Of course, those were so bad that is not saying much. Still, this has some compelling action, and the science-versus-God debate is kept at a neutral-but-still-interesting level. It still has many of the flaws of the book, but they are not as noticeable in the film. It follows the book’s plot pretty well, as near as I can remember, with terrorists planning on blowing up Vatican City while a new pope is being elected. Robert Langdon, the professor character from other book, must decipher ancient clues to figure out where the bomb is located and stop it. The puzzles he solves go by at such a pace they are almost irrelevant, which is fine, but director Howard generates surprisingly decent action from such expository material. It does start to feel long toward the end, however, and just like in the book, the ending is one twist too many and unravels everything built up so far. Still, it’s fun, and too dumb to warrant any controversy.

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Thu, May 14, 2009

: Penelope

This is a modern fable about a rich girl cursed to look like a pig until she can find a blueblood like herself to love her unconditionally. It’s a fun premise and I remember fleetingly seeing something about this film when it came out, but it sure disappeared fast. I thought it must have been awful, but it’s not at all: it’s quite well-done and a lot of fun. The twist with the cure for the curse is brilliant, and there are other surprises. The problem is the make-up job is too good. Christina Ricci is one of my favorite actresses and she just looks breathtakingly adorable in this, even with a pig’s snout! That’s a problem because the main premise of the film is that she’s supposed to be so hideous that she can find no suitor. Basically the first half of the film doesn’t really work because it’s unbelievable that so many men can’t see that she’s gorgeous (the pig’s nose is so well-done and natural it’s hardly noticeable). Later, when the world finds out she exists (she’s lived in seclusion her whole life), the world loves her, which makes the first half even more of a puzzle. But beyond that little flaw, the film’s fun and quite delightful. It’s not quite a classic, and there are some odd scenes that don’t quite work, but it’s got a wonderful cast and the story is quite pleasant. Recommended.

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Wed, May 13, 2009

: CJ7

Director: Stephen Chow

Quirky little Stephen Chow action-comedy. Like all of his stuff, this is best described as a live-action cartoon. This is one is a bit more magical than some of his films, with much less martial arts (he, in fact, doesn’t do any). Instead the film focuses around a young boy (Chow plays his father). The boy’s dad is incredibly poor but sacrifices everything to send his kid to private school where he is mocked for not being wealthy. The boy and the dad don’t always get along, which is done in a surprisingly realistic fashion (considering other aspects of the film are a bit fantastic). One day the boy’s dad finds a strange rubber ball at a junkyard and brings it home for his son. It turns out this “ball” is really an alien creature left by a spaceship and it morphs into a sort of alien dog that is able to do magic. Or is it? The boy wants to use the “dog” (which he names CJ7) to help him out at school (cheat on a test, win at sports, etc.) but things don’t quite work the way he expected. I won’t spoil the ending but let’s just say it’s very good. The alien dog is CGI, of course, with clever and fun digital animation tricks as typical Chow. My favorite was in a school fight scene when a bully gets beat up a fat girl — she punches him and he goes flying like 100 yards and when he lands and screeches to a halt, his shoes leave rubber tire marks! Overall this is a fun and quite wonderful and touching film. It’s not E.T., as it’s got silly cartoony elements, but I liked it a lot. The most delightful thing was when the characters didn’t act stereotypical as you’d expect, but did surprising things instead. That’s very unusual for this kind of film. Fun!

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Tue, May 12, 2009

: Little Children

This is a fantastic film. They had a free HBO preview this past weekend and this was one of the films I recorded. Though neither the title or the plot summary sounded familiar, I saw it had Kate Winslet and Jennifer Connelly and that sounded interesting and I didn’t realize which film it was. This was actually a film I really wanted to see when it came out, mostly because I’d heard such rave reviews of actor Jackie Earle Haley’s performance (warranted). The description of the film about two married people having an affair with each other didn’t interest me much, but I must say, this is exactly the kind of film about that I’ve wanted my whole life to see. In most films when people have an affair it’s all about the sex or the illicitness of it — we never get a picture of how the affair started, the hows and whys, the doubts, the longings, the self-denial that you’re doing anything wrong. This film does it in an awesome way: the affair isn’t consummated until halfway through the film: prior to that we are learning about the characters. It’s a realistic look at the way an affair blossoms, by decent people who wouldn’t normally be tempted by such a thing.

The other great thing about this film — my favorite thing, in fact — is the narration and tone. The narration sets this up as though this were a “Wild Kingdom” episode and we’re studying the human species in its natural habitat (in this case, a modern suburban neighborhood). The narration is perfect: not overdone, but frequent enough to keep the tone, and always done to provide us with valid insight into what characters are thinking. The narration empowers every scene, it doesn’t distract or annoy or provide boring exposition: it’s more like analysis and commentary.

Of course with the affair not getting hot and heavy until halfway through the film, there needs to be some other stuff happening, and that’s where this film becomes fascinating: mixed in the middle of this affair we have the entire neighborhood on alert because a “sexual deviant” (Jackie Earle Haley) has just been let out of prison and is moving back into the neighborhood (he’s moving in with his mother). Like everything else in this film, even this is not cut and dry: the deviant’s character is sympathetic and tragic, as is his doting mother, and we’re kept at edge over whether or not the public’s outrage is justified or not. The deviant’s story weaves in and out of the couple having the affair, and two seemingly unrelated events actually have a lot in common: tragedy, accusation without proof, guilt, etc. It’s fascinating.

When I started watching this film I thought I would only watch a few minutes as it was long (2+ hours), but I was hooked from the first scene which was electric with tension and import and I just could not stop watching until the film was finished. Amazing. Highly recommended. Not always easy to watch, but definitely emotionally moving and intellectually riveting.

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Mon, May 11, 2009

: The Brave One

This is one of those unfortunate films that seems to give the entire plot away in the trailer: a woman’s fiance is brutally murdered and she becomes a vigilante killer, hunting down criminals and hiding from the police. It turns out there’s more to the story than that, as the detective hunting the vigilante befriends her, making for some interesting scenes with the two of them. Unfortunately, except for that aspect, everything else is pretty much by the book in this one, a paint-by-numbers piece. Not bad, not great, just routine. The ending wraps things up nicely with a bit of a nice twist, but it’s not enough to raise the film above average.

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Fri, May 08, 2009

: Star Trek

Director: J.J. Abrams

The good news: several times during this film I sat back in my chair thinking, “Now this is Hollywood at its best.” This is the spectacular thrill-ride you can only get from a big budget Hollywood picture, and every required element — action, sympathetic characters, subtle nods to the Trek fans, inside jokes, classic scenes redone, space battles — is included as though checking items off a list. It’s certainly not boring, it’s tons of fun even if you don’t know the Trek universe, and if you do, unless you’re a really anal purist with no sense of progress, you should be delighted with what they’ve done here. It’s simultaneously an homage to the original yet it breaks new ground, making old characters feel fresh and new. They really should have called this “Star Trek: Reboot” because it definitely feels that way, especially the ending which brilliantly reopens the Trek world for new adventures with these characters without them tromping on the existing Trek history. That’s quite a feat.

The bad news: well, the climatic battle ending is pretty muddled (I’m still not sure what happened), and unfortunately not a lot of plot happens in this: it feels a bit like a TV pilot where all the characters have to be introduced and the story gets short shrift. Still, that doesn’t make it bad: it only means that now I really want see the next one! Like, right away. Next week.

The other interesting thing about this film is that the audience at the matinee I saw included a much older crowd that I expected. Sure, there were a lot of young people, but I saw lots of couples in their sixties. That’s fascinating. It makes sense since the TV show is over 40 years old, but it’s neat those people are still such fans they’d come out to a matinee on opening day! I had wanted to see the IMAX version of this but it was sold out, so I saw it on the regular screen, which was fine. (I may rewatch it on IMAX — I did that with Watchmen and that was pretty cool. I’m also curious how this stands up to repeated viewings: meeting Kirk and Uhura and Chekov and Sulu and McCoy and Scott and Spock and the others for the “first” time was a wonderful experience, but would it feel boring on the second viewing?

Speaking of those characters, I must say the casting and performances are brilliant. They went very young, almost too young, with many of their choices, which had me worried prior to seeing the film, but it turns out it works. Because they are so young they are similar but appropriately different from the characters we know. For instance, “Bones” (Dr. McCoy) mimics a lot of actor Deforrest Kelly’s mannerisms and voice, but it’s not so much as to be annoying or distracting: it’s just a hint, and they perfectly captured the birth of his curmudgeonliness, which makes far more sense than having him be the same character as on the original TV show (he needs decades to grow into that old geezer). The same for Scotty and others. There may be the odd casting choice you disagree with — it is too much to hope that everyone loves the entire cast — but I am very impressed and pleased overall. There are very few wrong notes here. Chris Pine, the young actor who plays Captain Kirk and whom I’ve never heard of, is actually quite good. He reminds me a great deal of Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars films) — not the best actor, but his very newness and occasional awkwardness comes across as part of the character (James T. Kirk was not a hero overnight). I still need to see him in a real Trek film rather than a set-up vehicle like this one to see if he can really hold his own, but I think we just might have found a new William Shatner (and say what you like about Shatner, he is unique and special). Spock, of course, is arguably even more important than Kirk, and Zachary Quinto (the guy from Heroes) unbelievable. (In the scene where he and Leonard Nimoy are together it is astonishing how much they look alike.) I feel like I could have Star Trek without Kirk and just enjoy Spock, but this film actually reminds us how important a character Kirk is — Spock is emotionless and incomplete, too predictable, and Kirk provides the ideal foil.

Overall, it’s a terrific job: a fantastic reboot of the series and I sure hope they make a bunch more films with this cast.

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Thu, May 07, 2009

: The Battle for Terra

It is so sad this film is not getting the publicity and distribution it deserves. It’s terrific! It’s a computer animated movie that is terrific science fiction. It is set on a peaceful alien world where we meet a few sympathetic characters, including the equivalent of a teenage girl (our heroine). She’s a bit of a rebel, liking to invent things, and doesn’t always obey authority, but she’s got a loving heart. Suddenly the planet is attacked by alien invaders and her father is kidnapped. She manages to uncover one of the aliens and we see he is human (it turns out the humans destroyed Earth and need to take over Terra to save their species). She saves his life and befriends him — and I really liked that this was not easy, for even after saving his life he’s still distrustful and thinks of her as a monster. Eventually, of course, we come to the central conflict: betrayal of species. Is she a traitor for helping the invader? Should the man try to help the aliens and betray his people? These issues, while not debated in philosophical fashion, are not dumbed down to cartoon level, either: instead we have a simple, elegant story, told with action, humor, adventure, and surprisingly genuine emotion, and the resolution is excellent and satisfying. I left amazed and impressed. Unfortunately, this film is only being shown in a handful of theatres across the country (perhaps in part because it’s in 3D format) and though it’s getting great reviews, it’s not getting the audience. I know I never saw any ads or trailers for this and I probably wouldn’t have bothered except that I heard it was really good. It is: if you can find it, go see it! It’s a terrific family movie: fun for the kids but not too dumb for the adults. The 3D is okay (nothing extraordinary or particularly needed), but the overall animation quality is impressive. The humans and creatures are okay, but I was most impressed by all the technology: the human spaceship really looks like it was assembled from space junk (it’s in bad shape after centuries of drifting through space) and all the gadgets and tools are also really well drawn. Overall, this is a fantastic film and everyone should see it.

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: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Author: Robert Heinlein

Though I’m a huge Heinlein fan, this was not a book that ever caught my interest. I’m not sure why: it turns out the plot is fantastic. It’s about a moon colony launching a rebellion against their masters on earth and is filled with history, politics, technical information, psychology, and more. Sometimes it gets tedious and slow (it’s a long novel), but I loved the whole underdog story and it’s amazingly realistically presented. A few things are funny from the modern perspective: for instance, they have a lot of advanced technology, but still use wired phones and print newspapers. That’s a minor nitpick and doesn’t interfere with the story. Excellent.

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Tue, May 05, 2009

: The Tracey Fragments

Bizarre film about a troubled teen looking for her little brother. The story’s told in flashbacks with multiple video streams on the screen simultaneously, which is intriguing for five or ten minutes, but after an hour it just gives you a headache. It does help convey the idea that the girl’s memory (and mind) might be unreliable, and the way information is parcelled out is interesting, but it feels like a lot work for not much payout. Ultimately it’s an unusual experiment, but I didn’t really like it. Mostly compelling because it stars the awesome Ellen Page (of Juno and Hard Candy).

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Mon, May 04, 2009

: An American Crime

I saw this film show up on my movie channel and it had Ellen Page (Juno, Hard Candy) in it so I recorded it. It was about an abused teen, and as I watched I started getting the creepy feeling I’d seen this before yet I knew I hadn’t. In the film two sisters are left with a babysitter for a few months and it turns out the woman is mentally ill and locks the older girl in the basement and tortures her and allows the neighbor kids to participate. That’s just like Jack Ketchum’s book The Girl Next Door. Finally I connected the pieces and figured it out: this film is based on the same real-life murder case as Ketchum’s book — the difference is that this one is the real story, while Ketchum’s book used completely different characters. Personally, I prefer his book: I like the way he has the conflicted teenage narrator participate in the torture, so we feel his guilt and confusion. In this film, it’s just awful to watch, with no redemption for any. I did like the little twist at the end when the girl briefly escapes. It’s a very good film with excellent performances, but not pleasant, and I found it rather empty of meaning in the end.

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Fri, May 01, 2009

: X-Men Origins: Wolverine

In some ways this film delivers on what it promises: cool action and special effects. But the problem is that the film is so ineptly written and directed that the flaws outweigh the fun. The story is overly convoluted and the editing so choppy (especially in the first third) that nothing makes sense. Many storyline threads are dropped and never picked up again, leaving me unsure if that was even intentional. For instance, one key character might have died, but it was so unclear what happened that I’m not sure: perhaps the door was left opened for him to return in a sequel? Don’t we deserve an explanation as to what happened, even a hint?

Despite the problems, the movie does have a few fun scenes, and a couple tender moments that are genuinely emotive. Unfortunately, those moments are ruined by intrusive action or artificial plot twists. Even the action sequences and special effects aren’t particularly artful or interesting. I found myself bored even as Wolverine did “amazing” things like attack a flying helicopter. There’s just something dead and empty about the way the action was shot, and several sequences looked like they just didn’t turn out as good as the creators thought from the storyboard, but instead of fixing them, they ended up in the final cut. No, I’m not asking for my money back: I’m not upset at seeing this dreck, but I will say this is one of the worst movies I have ever seen. It is disappointing mostly because of its promise and potential. It purports to be about Wolverine’s “origin” but has little to say about that, with historically footage so badly put together I still don’t know what it’s about. And if anyone can explain the plot to me in a way that makes sense, please do. I’m still confused.

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Thu, Apr 30, 2009

: The Soloist

I was expecting a weepy melodrama and I’m pleased to say that I didn’t get it. Instead I got a realistic portrayal of a mentally ill homeless musician and his journalist friend who tries to help him. We don’t get a sappy Hollywood ending, which both pleased and disappointed me: it’s perhaps not as satisfying as it should be, but it is realistic and I admire it. But ultimately the film has no answers and does not really go anywhere. It’s a good tale and worth seeing, and there are some excellent performances, but it’s not a film I’ll ever need to see again.

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Fri, Apr 24, 2009

: Crank 2: High Voltage

Basically, if you’re a fan of the original, you’ll probably like this one: it tops everything in the first one even going further and more ridiculous. It’s so over-the-top it’s not quite as much fun (it gets distasteful and disturbing more than once), but there are some clever gags and it doesn’t pretend to be anything it’s not.

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Fri, Apr 17, 2009

: State of Play

At one time (before I was disillusioned) I considered becoming a journalist; this film revived some of those desires, making it seem exciting and a terrific public service. The plot is fairly standard “journalist uncovers conspiracy” stuff, but it’s well-done and extremely realistic. We don’t get ridiculous car chases and shootouts and leaping from skyscrapers — these are writers, not action heros. There’s unfortunately not a lot of depth, ultimately, as the consequences and ramifications of the events are never analyzed, but it’s such an exciting ride you don’t notice until later. Worth seeing, though I’m not convinced this will become a classic or anything; the nature of the plot is uncovering the mystery and once that’s revealed, why would you want to watch this again? The ending’s got a nice twist; not exactly surprising, but satisfying.

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: Mr. Monk is Miserable

Author: Lee Goldberg

Much better than Mr. Monk Goes to Germany, though peripherally similar. This one takes place in Paris but has a much more satisfying murder investigation, though there’s still much too much tedium about Monk in a foreign country and Natalie writing about visiting tourist landmarks. The plot is a bit novel in that Monk “witnesses” a murder in pitch black restaurant and figures out that everything’s linked to the “Freegans,” a group of hippies who live underneath Paris and live off trash that others throw away (a lot of gourmet food, considering it’s Paris). Clever and interesting, though the books are starting to feel too similar. (Of note: I read the Kindle edition of this on my iPhone!)

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Wed, Apr 15, 2009

: Maxed Out: Hard Times, Easy Credit, and the Era of Predatory Lenders

Fascinating documentary from 2006 about the whole predatory lending trend, with plenty of hints and warnings that seem prescient after the 2008 credit collapse. I was worried this would get political and while it hints at that (especially an unnecessary dig at Bush at the end), it’s generally even-handed and pokes at both political parties (they are all to blame). There are some sad moments as we see people whose lives have been devastated, like the mother telling about how the credit card companies lured her college freshman son into such massive debt that he committed suicide and today she still gets credit card offers in his name — that’s like getting get-well cards from your son’s murderer. Excellent film and worth watching, especially if you’re interested in the topic of financials and the economy.

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Mon, Apr 06, 2009

: Sunshine Cleaning

I knew little of this going in except that it was about a woman (the adorable Amy Adams) who starts a crime scene cleaning service. It turns out her character was a little deeper than that, as we learn she was the head cheerleader in high school with the quarterback boyfriend (who is now a cop, married to someone else) and she and he are having an affair. Essentially, she’s still stuck in high school, while her peers have moved on, and the cleaning business is her way out. Unfortunately, she’s dragged down by her screwball sister, her weird son, and loser dad. Not a huge amount happens in the film, storywise, but that’s okay: it’s a fun little quirky adventure. Not the greatest film, and certainly not to everyone’s taste, but there were scenes that I really, really liked. I wish her relationship with the one-armed guy was developed further, and I would have liked the weird-for-no-reason son be elaborated more, but overall it’s a fun little independent movie.

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Sun, Apr 05, 2009

: Arachnophobia

This is an old movie I wanted to see way back when but somehow never did. It seems rather dumb, a film about ooh, scary spiders, but actually is surprisingly intelligent and well done. The ending is silly and trite, however, as they worked way too hard to try to turn it into an action set piece. I much preferred it as a psychological thriller. Aren’t little tiny spiders who happen to be deadly poisonous much more terrifying than a giant web in your basement?

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Fri, Mar 27, 2009

: Aliens Versus Monsters

This is no Pixar film, but it is fun. The plot is rather childish (or perhaps I should say the evil alien antagonist is childish, which weakens the threat), and the humor is definitely uneven, but there are moments of brilliance and genuine hilarity that help make up for the weak spots. I liked the main character, an ordinary woman who on her wedding day is accidentally transformed into a 50-foot giant and must be spirited away by Men In Black, and how she learns to cope with her new life as a monster. Much of the humor is stereotypical (gee, a general who loves guns, a dumb, self-centered president — how original), but it’s still entertaining. Kids will probably like this better than adults, though if you’re a fan of old-fashioned monster flicks there’s a joke or two you’ll get that kids won’t. The animation and artwork are decent enough, with extraordinary detail in places but there’s nothing ground-breaking. Overall, you get what you expect. If you liked the trailer you’ll like the film.

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Thu, Mar 26, 2009

: Blood and Chocolate

This is a werewolf-romance film that intrigued me when it first came out, but I never got a chance to see it as it disappeared too quickly. It turns out there was a good reason for that: it is horrible! Everything is set in Romania but of course everyone speaks American English, the action is incredibly clunky, nothing about the werewolf mythology feels realistic, and worst of all the romance is idiotic with the two main characters disliking each other one minute and being so deeply in love the next they’d risk their lives and families. The whole thing feels awkward, a weird mix of low- and high-budget. The characters are weak, the dialog is feeble, and the story is boring. Basically, I can’t think of anything in this that works even remotely. Perhaps my expectations were too high as I was intrigued by the “werewolf-girl falling in love with a human” premise, but this was extremely disappointing.

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Mon, Mar 23, 2009

: Knowing

Let’s be up-front by saying this is obviously a gimmick movie: a series of numbers buried in a time capsule is unearthed and reveals a pattern of prediction of every major tragedy for the last 50 years and a few more to come. It’s an interesting idea, and there are some good characters in the skeptic widower and his son (and a single mother and her daughter), but unfortunately the resolution is lame, and there are far too many incongruities, plot holes, and illogic for this thing to work. It tries hard at times, but in other places it feels rushed and incomplete. That said, these are typical flaws of gimmick movies. In comparison with others, this is worse in some ways and far better in others, but ultimately, it cannot escape its genre. There were some really neat concepts wasted: I really liked the whole debate over whether there’s a plan governing the universe or whether things are just random. Unfortunately that aspect of the film peters out and is forgotten (or avoided) and the film never offers any answers, just teasing riddles.

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Fri, Mar 20, 2009

: Duplicity

What’s cool about this movie is also what’s yucky about this movie. Basically it’s a film about a spy couple who can’t trust each other (someone at the theatre said it reminded them of Mr. and Mrs. Smith and that’s a good comparison, though that one was more action-oriented and this one is more cerebral and more like a con or scam film). That lack of trust is humorous and fascinating, as we are never sure what’s really going on: who is conning who? But that lack of knowledge is also what makes the film frustrating, since nothing is revealed until the very end. While that ending is good, the film still feels aggravating and tedious at times, and the endless plotting and mysteries within riddles within enigmas gets tiresome at about the halfway point. To make matters worse, about half the film is flashbacks, so the director is purposely withholding information from us, making us believe (assume) something, and then pulling the rug from under us later with a flashback that reveals the truth. This means that we, the audience, is being conned as well, which is not a pleasant feeling (especially when it happens several times in a row). While the dialog and performances are excellent, and the plotting is clever at times, I did not enjoy this as well as say, the Ocean’s movies, where the unexpected happens but we can at least see where the story is going. Here we know some kind of scam is in the works, but we don’t know any details, and with everyone on screen lying, there’s is nothing in the story to ground us. In a way this is brilliant, as the film demonstrates empirically the lessons it shows visually, but in practice it’s not fun to endure. While I enjoyed this with my head at times, my heart was not in it.

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Fri, Mar 13, 2009

: Race to Witch Mountain

Wow, the original films were fun and pretty decent, even ground-breaking in their way. This pointless remake is surprisingly awful. While it’s not that boring and has a handful of fun moments (my favorite was the scene where the girl mind-talks with the dog and translates what the dog is thinking), it has a shockingly awful plot, the modern special effects, except for one dramatic scene, are surprisingly poor, and there’s a huge lack of anything logical or remotely resembling reality. There are so many stupid and illogical things that happen that it actually interferes with your enjoyment of the film. Like in one scene the government agents, 15 seconds after figuring out the aliens are headed to Las Vegas, actually scan through the footage of “every camera in Vegas” and have located the kids getting into a taxi, ran the taxi’s license plate, and helicopters are taking off to hunt them down. Wow, that is some efficient police work! But even if we accept that these guys are super-agents, why later in the film do our heroes drive from the desert into a downtown Vegas convention center undetected? Don’t get me started. The whole thing is nonsense. In terms of acting, the kids are great, considering what they are given to work with, and the only saving grace of the film. The Rock, as the taxi driver, seems miscast and doesn’t do much physically except get beat up and thrown around. He mugs for the camera unmercifully, with obvious one-liners and catchphrases. The film’s “action” sequences are unbelievably lame and run-of-the-mill, usually concluding in some absurdity. In short, this film is so bad it makes me love the original films that much more (and it’s been decades since I’ve seen them). They had Disney heart, a semi-sensical plot, and some tension. This only has the cute kids. Avoid.

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Thu, Mar 12, 2009

: Mr. Monk Goes to Germany

Author: Lee Goldberg

While I’m a huge fan of Goldberg’s Monk books, this one has too little mystery and too much exposition. The problem is that to get the paranoid Monk to Germany is no easy task — and we, the reader, have to sit through every tedious minute of him traveling, freaking out at foreign stuff, etc. It gets tiresome and old after just a few pages, and yet that’s most of the novel. Yes, he does solve a few murders, but they are few and far between. I don’t know if the series is running out of steam, but I’d like to see a lot more mystery solving and less “Monk is weird” stuff. While extremely well-written, it’s just not that interesting.

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: MacHeads

An interesting documentary on the “cult of Macintosh,” the crazy fans who love Apple’s computers. I’m not sure if this would appeal to non-fans; in a limited way it attempts to explain them, but doesn’t go far enough to make this a sociologically valuable piece of research. Instead, this is mostly going to appeal to Mac fans as a way to show that they are not alone in their insanity (it proves there are other, crazier people out there). The film basically interviews a wide variety of Mac fans, but the interviews aren’t too much more than “I love Macs” or journalists giving brief computing history lessons. In other words, there’s not much new here (unless you don’t know the history). It’s still a fun journey for Mac fans, and it is interesting (but probably only once). It might actually be more valuable many years from now as a really neat look back at 2007 (a lot was filmed at Macworld Expo 2007 when the iPhone was first announced). Already Apple’s position in the global market has increased dramatically from then and if the trend continues and in a decade Apple is bigger than Microsoft, this would be a fascinating look back at a time when Apple wasn’t so popular. Worth seeing if you’re a MacHead.

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Fri, Mar 06, 2009

: Watchmen

I split the audience for this film into three groups: fanantics, fans, and virgins. I’m in the middle camp as I’ve read the graphic novel a couple times, but I’m not a comic book geek and don’t worship the book. It is an excellent and amazing book, but a large part of that is the way it breaks the mold of traditional superhero novels. It makes sense that true comic books who are familiar with everything else out there would naturally think Watchmen is the greatest ever, and those people may or may not like this film. It’s an amazingly tough job making a comic book into a film, as you not only have all the normal limitations of filming a novel (abridgement, pacing, etc.) but you also have to get the look and style correct to match the existing visual work. As a fan of the graphic novel, I thought they did a fantastic job. I can’t speak for the fantatic or for someone who has never read the novel, but I thought this film was excellent. The look is awesome, the casting superb (I’d had some doubts going in but it worked), it struck me as amazingly faithful to the source material, and I was thoroughly entertained. I’d even go so far as to say that in some ways I liked it better than the book. The book is dense and complex, and while I love that, there isn’t always time to absorb so much material. Also, the way the book is written, almost like episodes of Lost, where time is flexible and we jump between the past and present and future, it’s so much to fit together that even though I’ve read the book a couple times, I have trouble remembering everything. I loved that the movie quickly brought back so many wonderful memories. Throughout the film I kept being surprised at scenes thinking, “I don’t remember… oh wait, yeah, I do — this part is awesome!” I love that now there’s a version of Watchmen I can enjoy in a three-hour period. Granted, film is different from the graphic novel, and they each provide a unique experience, but for people who don’t have the many hours needed to read the novel, the movie’s a great way to get a taste of novel.

While I’m sure some fanatics will bemoan a missing scene or two, I was impressed at how much made it into the film, and at how clearly the story was told. The flashbacks weren’t confusing but came at a logical time and gave you quick insights into each of the main characters without delving too much on unimportant details. The conclusion is terrific, with one of the most morally ambiguous conclusions ever, and I was relieved they didn’t try to clean it up for the film by giving it a Hollywood ending. Hopefully it will provoke many to discuss things.

It’s hard to say now how the film will live up in time. I think it will weaken in some ways — there’s so much dense backstory and setup in this epic work that it’s tough to have a story that keeps moving ahead — but I honestly can’t think how they could have done this better.

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Fri, Feb 13, 2009

: The International

I was looking forward to this one: a great cast, an intriguing topical premise (a major international bank involved with shady dealings), and a good director. Unfortunately, I wasn’t that enthused after I saw it. It wasn’t bad. The cinematography is excellent, with gorgeous architecture from around the world show in exquisite detail. The acting is okay, but the actors weren’t given much to do. And while the premise of the story is good, the characters aren’t fleshed out so we don’t much care what happens to them. The film is also uneven in pacing and action, at times playing out like a top-notch thriller, then going into long stretches of talking, and then going into a crazy gun battle that goes on forever. It’s a bit bizarre. It even devolves into a strange philosophical discussion on the nature of evil and crime and how to stop people when our whole justice system is designed for their existence. Normally that might have been perceived as a positive to me, but in a different film. It just didn’t fit here, and the producers didn’t do anything with it. Ultimately this is just okay. I liked certain aspects but was disappointed by enough others that in the end, I just didn’t care for it. It’s too bad.

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: Empire

Author: Orson Scott Card

This is an unusual book by scifi author Card — it’s a modern political drama based on the premise of a new American civil war. Could that happen? How? Card answers those questions in a way that’s chillingly possible: as soon as any one group feels violence is the only tool they have left in their arsenal, they’ll use it, and the states will be divided. But the story’s extremely uneven, with scenes of crazy action (the President gets blown up) glossed over in a few pages followed by many pages of political dialog and analysis. While the history lessons are interesting, they feels like they belong in a textbook, not a novel. Still, the concept is unusual enough to be worth reading, and the political reality is sobering enough to make it worth your time.

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Thu, Feb 12, 2009

: The Wrestler

Director: Darren Aronofsky

I’m a big Aronofsky fan and was really curious about this film. It’s amazing in many ways, but ultimately I felt the story was a too mundane for this to be a great work of art. It’s the story of a wrestler struggling to hold on to a career that was at its peak 20 years earlier. Health problems force him to retire and face life as a non-wrestler for the first time, and we watch as he struggles with relationships and work. It’s an interesting environment, the whole wrestling scene, and Mickey Rourke’s performance (as well as Marisa Tomei’s) is fantastic. Both are completely believable as beautiful, broken people, scarred by life. Their relationship is unlike anything we’ve seen before and is fascinating. Unfortunately, the alienated daughter relationship is predictable and familiar, and while that doesn’t diminish its power, it does weaken the overall story which felt anticlimactic. The ending, however, was terrific: not what I expected. It was not satisfying, but it was appropriate, and the more I think about it the more I like it. Overall, this is a film to see for the performances and for the unusual environment (pro-wrestling) more than the fairly ordinary story. Recommended.

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: Coraline

Author: Neil Gaiman (novel)

If you haven’t read the book, you’ll probably think this film is okay or pretty good. If you’re a fan of the book, however, you’ll come away disappointed. That’s a shame, for the animation is fabulous. The 3D version is worth the trouble and it is well suited for this kind of stop-motion animation. The level of detail is astonishing. For instance, in one scene a character pours coffee and though the mugs are a tiny part of the overall screen, I could see a droplet of coffee splash out of the cup and trickle down the side. That was realistic and considering the difficulty of implementing something that subtle via stop-motion is impressive. Unfortunately, the writer changed much of what was good about the book. Why, I’m not sure. I thought it might have been to make the story long enough as the film feels padded over the first half, but then the last third feels rushed, which is weird. The two main problems I had with the story modifications — spoiler warning — are 1) a new character, a boy Coraline’s age, is added. This goes completely against the whole point of the book, which is that she is lonely and alone and bored. Inserting this superfluous boy changes the dynamic of Coraline’s character, and not in a good way. People who haven’t read the book wouldn’t notice this, but book fans will be horrified. 2) The terrific ending in the book, where Coraline outsmarts the witch, is changed to an accidental victory (with a little help from the idiot boy). Why? Why? Why? I find this change incredibly shocking as that aspect of the book’s plot was terrific and really showed that Coraline was an intelligent, above average girl. She’d gotten a bit lucky throughout the rest of the story and so for me, that ending was crucial to the novel. In the movie that “fate” aspect is made even worse, with Coraline receiving help and good fortune and hardly doing anything on her own. At least the book had foreshadowing and made events look plausible; here stuff happens without any logic behind it at all. Despite these writing flaws, the movie did improve on several problem areas of the book. For instance, one area that troubled me about the book was how quickly the “alternate world” Coraline discovers turns sour. I wanted to see her more tempted by that world and her “other mother,” not almost immediately want to go home to the real world. The movie does this superbly well, with Coraline visiting her Other Mother several times and the place initially being very pleasant and only gradually showing a darker side. There were a few other places were the film script fixed minor issues with the novel, but I still don’t understand why they made those two crucial changes which pretty much ruined the film for me. It’s very sad because there’s so much to like. Many of the “boring” parts of the book are some of the film’s best scenes: the bizarre theatre of the actresses, the circus mice performance, Other Father’s piano song, the whole garden scene (which is not in the book at all but wonderfully illustrated). These are areas where the film enhances what the book only sketched. One of my favorite things was the whole spider motif of Other Mother, with her parlor web and her hand becoming an artificial metal claw that by the end of the film is independent of her and looks extremely spider-like. Certain things like that are absolutely classic and put this among the best films of all time. But the destruction of the author’s writing is absolutely criminal and ruins what could have been a fantastic work. It’s such a shame. In short, if you’ve read the book, see this just for the animation and be prepared for disappointment and you’ll come away pleased. If you haven’t read the book, go to be entertained and you will be impressed. Don’t expect the greatest film of all time, as the weak areas do show through, but expect an average story and you’ll get it.

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Fri, Feb 06, 2009

: Push

I’ll admit I was not excited about seeing this; I really wanted to see Coraline, but I wanted to see it in 3D and that meant going to a theatre further away, so I saw this instead. Big disappointment. The trailers made me think it was derivative, reminding me of Jumper and TV shows like Heroes and though it turned out to have some interesting ideas, the way they were implemented was ultimately disappointing. It’s not really an action film; it’s not a special effects film; it’s not a comic book film; it’s not a film noir, though it has that kind of mysterious tone at times. In short, it’s a film that isn’t quite sure what it is and ends up being nothing. It’s not the worst film; it’s just decidedly average. There are some intriguing ideas: for example, the whole “how do we come up with a plan which the enemy prophets can’t predict?” presented a fascinating problem, but the solution was implemented in such a clunky and clumsy manner it was confusing at best and boring at worst. Basically, this is a movie with some really good scenes, some really poor scenes, and the whole thing averages out to the utterly mundane.

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Tue, Feb 03, 2009

: Coraline

Author: Neil Gaiman

Cool little book. I’d bought this years ago and it’s been on my to-read this forever, but with the film coming out, I had to read the original version first. It tells the tale of a little girl name Coraline (not a typo) who discovers a magical door that takes her in a mirror world. At first it seems cool and better than the real world, but then she discovers it has serious drawbacks and is actually an evil trap. She has to figure out how to escape and rescue others trapped there as well. Very well done, though in places the foreshadowing’s heavy-handed making things too predictable, and the story as a whole feels rather slight in the end. Still, it’s fun, and extremely well-written with terrific descriptions. (My favorite was this: “It wasn’t the kind of rain you could go out in—it was the other kind, the kind that threw itself down from the sky and splashed where it landed. It was rain that meant business, and currently its business was turning the garden into a muddy, wet soup.”) Delightful, though perhaps a bit ominous for younger kids. I can’t wait to see the movie.

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Fri, Jan 30, 2009

: Taken

I really liked this. What makes it work is Liam Neeson in the main role. He’s former government security expert, a “preventer,” and when his estranged daughter is kidnapped in Paris by white slavers, he hunts them down and kills them. In most such films they’d cast a bulky hunk like the Rock or Stalone and while the action would be fine, the dramatic scenes would be crap. But Neeson is terrific: we believe he’s a sensitive guy who adores his daughter, and yet we can believe him to be a ruthless action hero, too. That’s a rare feat and impressively done. Also, while the basic plot’s predictable, the way it plays out is creative and interesting: all he’s got to go on is a few seconds of cell phone conversation, but he manages to track down all the anonymous bad guys. Pretty cool. Great action (a la Bourne), but enough depth of character to make everything seem important.

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: The Reader

I knew zip about this other than Kate Winslet was nominated for an Oscar. (I’m not sure why; she was good, but I didn’t find her performance that remarkable.) The film surprised me. The sex is quite explicit, which I wasn’t expecting, but the story was compelling. The story is set in Germany over a number of years beginning with the main male character when he’s 15 and enters a love affair with an older woman. It’s a very interesting romance, mostly physical, but then she has him read books to her, which takes their relationship to a different level. He falls in love, but it cannot last, of course, and when she moves away he’s devastated. Years later he’s in law school and as part of a class goes to see a trial of six Nazi women for war crimes. (This is in the late sixties; I had not realized they were still prosecuting Nazis that long after the war.) One of the woman turns out to be Hannah, the woman he’d had the love affair with. The boy is torn between love and horror of Hannah’s crime. It seems that after she left him she joined the SS and committed horrible crimes. But then the boy realizes he has knowledge that can exonerate her. Should he tell? Ah, that is the dilemma. The film continues on with their interaction over many years and it’s a moving story. It’s powerfully told, though I found certain aspects of the manipulation of time confusing: at one point I had characters mixed up because I assumed the wrong thing, and other times jumped around without warning or connection. Another flaw is that the film is somewhat predictable, at least for me. At first there was a lot of mystery but as I put the pieces together I said, “Ah, this is going to happen, and this, and this,” and it happened exactly that way. Usually that annoys me, but in this case the film played out exactly the way it needed and it was all right. Despite those flaws, it’s an excellent film. I loved the emphasize on performance, for many of the scenes contain minimal dialog, with characters simply exchanging wordless looks. The boy is incredible, changing from a convincing naive kid of 15 to a more mature law student. Though somewhat explicit, I’m not sure it’s unnecessary — in retrospect it felt like it was needed to set the tone for the relationship of the two characters. We basically saw their physical love, but as they connect throughout their lives, we see there was much more to it than that. Well done. Not for all tastes, but if you enjoy thinking and good acting, this is worth seeing.

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Fri, Jan 23, 2009

: Defiance

Yet Another WWII movie, but this one I wanted to see because it tells a story we haven’t heard. This one is the true story of some Russian jews who set up camp in the forest to hide from the Nazi’s. It’s an incredible story, especially the stats at the end that reveal how many lives were saved by these men (the descendents of the survivors number in the tens of thousands). Much of the drama is predictable — cold weather, starvation, betrayal, tragedy — but it’s well done with excellent performances and compelling characters. Unfortunately, it still seems a tad dry and long, but it’s definitely worth seeing.

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Mon, Jan 19, 2009

: Slumdog Millionaire

I’d heard a review that game me a good understanding of this and I got just what I expected: a Hollywoodized feel-good film about a poor boy in India who wins on the “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” game show. The question is, how can an uneducated boy know the answers? So we see his life in flashbacks and each story contains the answer to the question. But it’s an interesting and amazing life, especially from a non-Indian perspective. One of the things I had heard about the film was a comment that if it had been set in America, it would be an ordinary film, and I agree: what makes this work is the setting in a foreign culture. It’s very well done, somewhat predictable but the kind of feel-good predictable you like, and there are several shocking and unusual scenes. Recommended.

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Fri, Jan 09, 2009

: Gran Torino

I had thought no film could compete with Doubt for best of the year, but if there is one, it’s this one. What a fabulous film! This is why movies are made. Incredible performances, writing, directing, just perfect. I loved it. It’s funny, unusual, interesting, and powerfully emotional. The ending is just right: I was weeping it was so beautifully sad. The story is elegant and simple: we have a grumpy old man, a Korean war vet, who is hard-core American and resents all the minorities moving into his neighborhood. The man is blatantly racist, doesn’t like people, and even his own family avoid him. He’s like the hermit grandfather in Heidi. But when a gang fight breaks out on his lawn and he scares them off with his rifle, the minorities think he saved them, and start bringing him gifts. Slowly, and I do mean slowly, the neighbor girl and boy next store change the man. The interaction between the intelligent girl and the old man is fabulous, him being grumpy and insulting, and her laughing it off and being cleverly self-effacing. I loved the clash of cultures as she tries to teach him the ways of her people (she is Mung), and the way food is a communication breakthrough (the old man pretty much lives on beer and jerky since his wife died so delicious Mung food is a way to his heart). The film is utterly realistic with the Mung people speaking in their own language (and it is not subtitled for us viewers) so we really get the feel of confusion and lack of communication. Yet at the same time, we are given glimpses of the true character of the people, from the way they treat each other as a family, to how they are helpful to a neighbor in need. The film pulls no punches and is blunt and direct; there is no sitcom-simple resolution. Instead, we’re presented with a complex tragedy and dilemma and an amazing conclusion. I really can’t say enough good things about this film. I just loved it. It’s remarkable in nearly every aspect. About the only thing I would change would be the scene where Clint Eastwood drops the shot glass — I would have had him crush it in his hand. It just seemed out of character for a strong man like him to drop it, no matter what the provocation (and crushing the glass in anger would have been perfect). Highly recommended: go see this film!

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Tue, Jan 06, 2009

: Doubt

There are some who might be put off by this film’s topic, which deals with a priest who may have done something inappropriate, but you shouldn’t worry: the topic-that-mustn’t-be-named never is, as everything is discussed in the vaguest of terms, and that is where the film gains its power. Instead of being blatant and obvious, everything here is subtle: once some doubt about someone creeps in, the slightest thing can increase that suspicion. The film keeps you on a knife edge throughout: did he or didn’t he, and who is wrong and who is right? Do we believe or not believe? Are having doubts a good thing or a bad thing? This is a wonderful film, with incredible acting (Meryl Streep is astonishingly convincing — she is truly the greatest actress of all time), powerful and clever dialog (the film is based on a play), and a subtle but dramatic plot. In one sense very little happens in this: there are some suspicions, some confrontations, some questions asked — but in another sense, earth-shattering things are happening, because underneath every polite smile, shake of the hand, pat on the back, etc., is lurking something ominous and heavy. Wow. What a film. The best film of year (2008). Amazing, amazing, amazing. This is a film you could watch over and over and still gain insight from, as there’s so much going on there’s plenty of meat left on the bone even after several meals. Highly recommended for people who have brains and aren’t afraid of thinking.

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Mon, Jan 05, 2009

: Blink

Author: Malcolm Gladwell

Another terrific Gladwell book. This was his second, which I read third, but I think it’s of more practical use than Outliers or The Tipping Point. This one deals with the topic of “thin-slicing,” or the human ability to make snap judgements. Malcolm argues that this is an instinct and innate skill we all have and use regularly, but because the process is hidden within our subconscious, we aren’t aware of what we are doing or how we do it. He demonstrates via entertaining stories, the benefits and dangers of thin-slicing, and shows that thin-slicing is a skill that can be taught and learned. The stories are for the most part, dramatic and interesting. For instance, we see how cops can use thin-slicing to instantly assess a situation and decide if a person is hostile or benign, and the bad things that happen when cops fail to thin-slice and over-react. There are also many prejudices that are exposed via thin-slicing, where stereotypes make us assume something that isn’t correct — that’s the danger of thin-slicing indiscriminately. When thin-slicing is used correctly, it can be terrifically useful, ranging from sales people who can instantly assess a potential customer to military decisions, and including activities like dating and interviewing job candidates. Well worth the read.

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Sun, Jan 04, 2009

: I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead

The description of this movie was something like “guy hunts down his brother’s killer” which sounded like a fun revenge thriller. It stars Clive Owen in an early role and so I checked this out. Unfortunately, there isn’t much action at all. It’s an odd film, very talky, and I guess we’re supposed to feel the existential angst of these killers and mobsters (I didn’t). All in all, I thought it quite disappointing, but that probably had more to do with my expectations which weren’t at all meant. There are also so distasteful scenes that come out of nowhere (the rape one being foremost). Lame.

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Sat, Jan 03, 2009

: Run Ronnie Run!

Rather distasteful but occasionally brilliantly funny story about a rural idiot who’s always getting arrested and ends up in Hollywood on his own reality TV series (where each week he gets arrested in a different city). It’s a mildly amusing idea, but the main character is such a doofus you really don’t care about it or the story. What saves the movie (though only marginally) are all the little in-between gags, like the very-well-done reality TV scenes, and things like — my favorite — an outrageously awful music video interlude. The whole thing is more like a series of gags than a cohesive film and thus it doesn’t really work, but it there are moments of hilarity that might make it good if you’re bored.

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Fri, Jan 02, 2009

: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

My original expectations were high, but they lowered when I heard some reviews and comments, and when I saw the nearly three hour running time. But you know what? I liked this. It is a little long, but it generally holds your interest and the characters are compelling enough you want to find out what is going to happen to them. I read the F. Scott Fitzgerald short story this is based on and the story’s completely different. In the story the baby can talk right out of the womb, which is farfetched (not that living life in reverse is that realistic either, but that’s a premise you buy for the sake of the story). In the film the baby is given away to a black nurse who raises Benjamin as her own, and I liked the way he’s raised in an old folks home, which fits him well, as he doesn’t even realize he’s different from all the old people around him. Overall the story’s somewhat tame and predictable in direction (not in specifics), but it still works. The special effects and acting are fabulous; the film’s worth seeing just for that. I was a little disappointed that more creativity didn’t go into more of a plot, per se; other than the “old-to-young” aging gimmick, there isn’t much here, but it’s still worth seeing just for the novelty. There was also a rather useless “framing” gimmick of a daughter visiting her dying mother in the hospital and reading Benjamin’s story, and that was set in New Orleans just before hurricane Katrina hit. I felt this storyline added little to the overall story and just interrupted the flow far too often. It was also boring and though there was supposed drama with Katrina coming, it didn’t have anything to do with anything, and just felt out of place and odd.

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Thu, Jan 01, 2009

: Bedtime Stories

I really enjoyed this. Yes, it’s formulaic and somewhat predictable, but in a good way. It’s a feel-good family film, safe for the kids, and will appeal to both adults and the young. The concept is terrific: good-loser-guy has to babysit his niece and nephew and discovers that the bedtime stories he tells them come true the next day, so he starts to try and manipulate the stories to help himself in real life, with comic results. Of course it all works out great in the end. The acting’s over-the-top, the bedtime stories childish (which fits with his kid-like character), but like most of Adam Sandler’s films, the movie has a gentle heart and a good soul that shines through in the happy ending. Fun.

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: The Stupids

Strange old Tom Arnold film that I suspect might have a cult following. It’s about a family of idiots who completely misinterpret reality and get into all sorts of crazy adventures involved in stopping an arms dealer plot. Many parts of this are pure genius, as Tom’s character is like Inspector Clouseaux in his ability to inadvertently stop the bad guys, but the film’s too uneven and strange for most people, I suspect. The best part for me was the hilarious song, “I’m My Own Grandpaw,” which Tom sings when he accidentally ends up as a guest on a daytime talk show. It’s a catchy tune with funny lyrics and he gets the entire stage audience to sing along with him! Worth catching if you’re in the right mood.

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