Wed, Dec 29, 2010

: Mr. Monk in Trouble

Author: Lee Goldberg

A delightfully unusual Monk book in that in this one he goes back in time! Sort of. The story takes place in the fictional Old West town of Trouble, a town that during the gold rush had a man named Monk who was remarkably like today’s Monk. Part of the novel is a diary written by a woman who writes about Monk’s exploits in the 1800s, and part of the novel is the modern story of Monk visiting the tiny town of Trouble to solve a murder there. This was fun and a nice change from the regular Monk stories which tend to sound alike after a while, but I have two criticisms. The Old West detective stories all seem to revolve around the same theme of people faking gold discoveries and such, and I wasn’t all that intrigued by the modern murder which seemed very paint-by-numbers. That said, just the exotic setting makes this one worth reading. I wouldn’t be opposed to a whole novel of the original Old West Monk.

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Fri, Dec 24, 2010

: American Psycho

I just recently wrote about my rewatch of the film version, but I finally did finish the audiobook today. This is definitely an unusual book. It’s not pleasant (you may literally feel like puking), and it is way, way too long. It’s basically one long bit of rambling by a serial killer, talking about his day-to-day life and his really disgusting murders in the same no-nonsense tone. He feels nothing. He’s a psychopath. He’s a lonely, alienated creature trying to fit in by mimicking the behavior of real humans and not quite getting there. The “gimmick” of the book, if you will, is that because he’s wealthy and incredibly good looking, no one believes him capable of murder, even when he practically flaunts it. He walks down the street feeding stray dogs bits of brain of the prostitute he killed. He actually verbally tells girlfriends things like, “I’m feeling very homicidal today,” and they don’t even notice. He quotes serial killers to his friends and even points out women he’d like to rape and kill and they just think he’s being a morbid joker. In other words, this book is a bit of a black comedy. At least that’s how I looked at it and was able to get through it. (If I saw this as a documentary, I’d have to shoot myself and give up hope on the human race as a species.) The comedy is very dark and subtle, but that does lend a certain charm and fascination to the story. For instance, my favorite scene (slight spoiler here) is when he serves his fiance a used urinal cake dipped in chocolate. He watches her struggle to eat it, trying to pretend it tastes good. That scene epitomizes the entire book for me (it was missing in the film, much to my dismay). This is a guy with a sick sense of humor that no one else in his life gets. He’s wanting them to get it, but no one does. That’s his tragedy. In many respects, that’s why this novel is brilliant and it raises the story to literature. There’s also the satire of 1980s Wall Street, obsession with technology, the wealthy, and other aspects American life mocked, but for me the black humor was the key as it actually gets you to sympathize (ever so slightly) with the guy.

In terms of negatives, there are a few. The most significant is the length: the book is very long and much is repetative (endless restaurant meals, descriptions of music and TV shows, boring daily life, etc.). I be you could cut half the scenes out and it would still generate the same feeling. The length does help really hammer home the nails of how messed up this guy is and how utterly pointless his life is, but doesn’t need to be that long as we get the idea quickly. The 80s setting is interesting, but it really dates the novel, especially when the guy keeps bragging about his hot technology and it’s stuff like a six-CD changer or a casette Walkman and his main excuse to get away from people is to claim he has rented videotapes to return! Also, the endless lists of tech, clothing, and other details gets repetative and boring. I realize it does convey the personality of the psycho narrator, but that doesn’t make it any less tedious. Still, despite these issues, the novel succeeds. That’s surprising (and impressive) because on the surface this is a plotless story about a disgusting guy murdering people in brutal and horrible ways. Yet it rises above that low-brow shock value and gives us a convincing and sobering portrayal of an intelligent yet extremely flawed creature. Not pleasant, as I said, and not I book I would ever read again, I think, but definitely fascinating.

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Wed, Dec 22, 2010

: True Grit

What a fantastic film! There are so many things that make this amazing, but the best is the language: every line is poetry. I mean that most literally. What’s amazing, though, is that even when the most coarse and illiterate criminal low-life speaks poetry in this film it still feels utterly natural and normal, the way such a person would actually speak. I have no idea if they actually spoke so colorfully in the Old West, but I love listening to it. Just wonderful. (My favorite sequence was when the character LaBeef was arguing with the girl and tries to flatter her by saying how he’d originally considered kissing her, but now that she was being such a brat he was considering switching her instead; she responds with a haughty, “Either option would be equally unpleasant.”) The film itself is an incredible story about a tough fourteen-year-old girl out to hunt down the man who murdered her father. I never saw the first film or read the book (sadly the novel isn’t available on Kindle, which is profoundly stupid), so I can’t comment on the differences, but this version is magical. The casting is superb, with everyone utterly convincing in their roles (I barely recognized Matt Damon and Jeff Bridges, as “Rooster” Cogburn, is in the role he was born to play). The young girl is great (though I think it could be more the role than her acting). I really hope this wins a boatload of Oscars. It’s a film everyone, especially young women, need to see. Though it’s a Western, it isn’t that violent: there’s really only one scene of close-up violence and though that’s pretty intense, it gives the film much needed sobering reality. (It’s a critical scene where the girl realizes the true cost of her quest.)

The only bummer for me was the theatre I was at screwed up the airing of the film and so I missed the first few minutes (I did get a free movie ticket, but I’d give that up in a second to see the parts I missed). Just a joy from beginning to end.

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Sat, Dec 18, 2010

: Tron Legacy

The first film is so obviously flawed I was hoping and expecting that this one would fix those issues. For instance, back in 1982 few people understood what a computer was or had even used one, so some of the silly things they created for the film were excusable. But today’s audience is more sophisticated — everyone has a computer and even if you aren’t a geek and don’t know how it works, I think you’re pretty sure there aren’t little people inside your computer playing video games! Unfortunately, this new film is just as bad as the original. It makes all the same mistakes: lame non-story, nonsensical plot, promises of philosophical significance but no delivery, and odd scenes and events that don’t fit. It’s not a terrible movie; just a disappointment. The special effects are fine, though almost too polished (at least in the first film there was a distinct look to the “computer world” — here it’s so realistically rendered it seems as real as our world). The action is pretty good, especially the lightcycle and video game stuff (though the lightcycle strategies weren’t always clear the way things were shot and edited). I didn’t at all understand what the “audience” was doing watching the video game competitions: why would programs need entertainment? And why would watching others play games be entertaining to a computer program? Most of the characters are weak. I liked the beginning of the film, with the setup of the Bridge’s character’s from the first film disappearing 20 years earlier and his son setting out to find him, but the film really lost it for me when he finally reunites with his dad — a dad who supposedly loved him dearly — and this great reunion lasts a whopping 30 seconds before the dad wanders off without an explanation. Huh? If you were trapping in a hidden world and you finally meet up with the first non-computer person you’ve met in 20 years, your beloved son, aren’t you going to talk to him for more than 30 seconds???? I partially liked Bridges’ Zen character: his tendency toward patience made sense considering his predicament and clashed well with his son’s brashness, but the implementation of it was poorly done and used for no real purpose (we should have seen evidence of both tactics succeeding so we could know that both characters were partially right). The one good character thing I saw was one scene with Quorra, the girl the boy meets. It was my favorite scene in the film, where she’s showing the boy all the books she’s read and reveals her favorite is Jules Verne. “Do you know Jules Verne?” she asks. He says, “Sure.” She eagerly replies, practically dancing with joy, “Ohh! What’s he like?” That was brilliant, revealing her childlike innocence and showing her enthusiasm for the little things. Sadly, that was the only bright spot in the entire film. Otherwise, the characters are just stereotypes. Some have been critical of the digital “youthification” of Jeff Bridges — but I had no problem with it. He only looked weird to me for a second or two in a couple of scenes. I didn’t much get his character, however. He was the evil dictator who early on seemed to delight in destruction, but at the end somehow comes across as only slightly flawed. Huh? Basically, the whole things a muddled mess. The plot is artificial with the conflict forced. I genuinely liked certain scenes, and some of the acting is good. There’s still some good to get out of the film. It’s worth seeing if you’re a fan of the franchise just so you can form your own opinion, and the special effects are cool. But I didn’t notice the 3D at all, not even once — the whole movie was as flat as a pancake as far as I’m concerned. Not worth even an extra penny for the 3D. I didn’t hate the film. I wasn’t bored. It was interesting, if only to see what they’d done with the digital world. But mainly it’s a lot of wasted potential. Three years of labor to produce this? It feels like the script was written in a weekend and the whole thing rushed into production the next day!

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Fri, Dec 17, 2010

: The Tourist

The critics were savaging this so badly I almost didn’t go see it. I have no idea what they are talking about. I liked it. It’s definitely not a great film. It’s definitely flawed. Angelina Jolie is miscast and she and Depp don’t have the best chemistry. The plot is weird and the ending predictable, but here’s the thing: this is not a serious movie. There’s an air of fun to the proceedings, even in the serious scenes, that gives everything a hint of silliness as though the writers, actors, and director are all winking and sharing a joke with us. The Paris and Venice settings are beautiful, the people are beautiful, and the adventure is wild and silly. Take the “boat chase” for instance. I’d read a comment on some website mocking the “slow chase” but when I saw it, I didn’t see it as negative, but as a hilarious insider’s joke. Basically the boat is moving so slowly (it’s towing another boat and can’t go fast) that people on land are outrunning the boat on foot! Hilarious! It’s not meant to be a true high-adrenaline chase scene, but a spoof of a chase scene. The whole film is a caper. Johnny Depp is having a blast, hamming up his role like he does in the those Pirates movies, but in a far more subtle fashion (here he shows almost robotic expressions, reminding me of his performance in Edward Scissorhands, but there’s a hint of a smile as he does so). Jolie looks pretty, but doesn’t fit the role of the double agent she’s supposed to be, and I thought the suggestion that her million-dollar character “falls in love with any man she spends more than five minutes with” absurd as she comes across as exactly the opposite. Despite the flaws, I had fun, and enjoyed the repartee between the two main characters. The plot is somewhat clever, but succeeds mostly because it doesn’t take itself too seriously. The ending is predictable but so satisfying that you don’t care. Ignore the critics. Have a sense of humor and go see this film.

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Tue, Dec 14, 2010

: Tron

I wanted to rewatch this before the new one comes out on Friday and it confirmed what I thought I remembered: this is not a great movie. It’s slow, odd, doesn’t really go anywhere, and the story is so full of holes it makes no sense at all. Its reputation as a classic comes from its innovative concept (“man goes inside computer”) at the time of its release. I’m sure back when it first came out the special computer graphic effects and the concept were radical and that allowed people to overlook the flaws. But the story is hokey, and the science is a joke (the computer stuff was obviously written by people who didn’t understand computers at all). There are some positives: the computer graphics are passable, even today, and the video games they created — disc throwing and lightcycle — are really awesome game concepts. This is a fun movie to rewatch just for its historical aspects, but just don’t expect it to be a great film.

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Mon, Dec 13, 2010

: American Psycho

I’m almost finished with the audio book of this novel and though I’d seen the movie a long time ago, I couldn’t remember it very well. Let’s just say I like the movie much more now, after (almost) reading the book. The movie really does an impressive job of capturing the spirit of the novel. That’s great for fans of the book, though not so great those who haven’t. The problem is that the novel’s satire is subtle. Everything is presented with such seriousness that the satire isn’t obvious and that same tone comes across in the film. You really aren’t sure if you should laugh or be horrified. For instance, one of my very favorite things that happens in the novel is the way the main psycho killer constantly reveals his homicidal tendencies to his friends who are so clueless they don’t even notice. Like he’ll order a “decapitated coffee” or tell a bimbo he’s in “murders and executions” and no one notices. In the book this sort of humor comes across brilliantly. It’s there in the film, but I don’t think I even noticed it the first time I saw the movie. It’s too quick and we aren’t sure what it means. If you’ve read the book you’re prepared for it and it’s wonderful.

Christian Bale’s performance was a real positive I remembered from the first time I’d seen this and seeing it again, I am even more impressed. He really is fantastic. It’s worth seeing this film just for his acting. One funny aside: his character’s name is Bateman, just one letter removed from Batman. I found that eerie.

Even the first time I saw the film it seemed tame to me; I couldn’t figure out why there were people outraged. Well, after reading most of the book, I understand, because the book is far more daring and outrageous. Ultimately that’s my biggest disappointment of the film: it’s too timid, as though they don’t want us to not like Christian Bale. In the book his character is really repulsive and out there, eating his victims’ brains, leaving body parts all over his apartment, immobilizing a girl’s hands with a nail gun so he could rape her, and all sorts of really messed up stuff. In comparison, except for one scene where he chases a girl with a chainsaw, there’s really little evidence he’s that crazy. I don’t think they needed to go quite as far as the book, but at least show one scene of him doing something really morbid so we know this is a serious psycho.

Another issue I should point out is the whole 80’s setting. I was critical of that in my first viewing of the movie. After reading (most of) the book, I now see that’s a key aspect of the book. The setting is almost a character as the novel is, effectively, a satire of the 80s. That was not clear in the film, even in my re-watching. It feels weirdly dated and odd, as though the setting was an afterthought. The setting is there in clothing and few other details, but it doesn’t penetrate the atmosphere of the movie. When you do notice it, it just feels misplaced.

Overall, this is a fascinating film. It’s definitely better if you’ve read the book, though, which is unusual for a film adaptation. The book isn’t perfect (I’ll comment on that when I finish it) and the film improves on the book in a few ways but falls short in others. Ultimately it’s not quite great, but it does have some great aspects and a few classic scenes. Definitely worth seeing if you like Christian Bale and/or have read the book.

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Sat, Dec 11, 2010

: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

I meant to reread the book before seeing the film, but didn’t make it, which might be a good thing as otherwise I’d be more critical of changes from the source material. As it is, it felt pretty authentic. It’s one of the more visual of the Narnia stories, an exciting ship journey with encounters with unusual creatures and people. The trailer had me worried because it showed all the kids from the earlier films in this one, while in the book it’s just a couple of them, but that fear proved unfounded as the older kids are only there briefly. The actress who plays Lucy was frightfully young in the earlier films, but comes to her own here and is surprisingly good, showing a developing maturity which fits her character. Though there are some issues with the pacing and a few confusing editing problems, the movie does capture the spirit of the book pretty well. I’m not sure the film quite gets to greatness, but I did find the ending, with the loss of several characters, to be surprisingly emotional. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the film and recommend it. (Though we’ll see if I’m as happy after I’ve reread the novel.)

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Tue, Dec 07, 2010

: Faster

I was mildly interested in this until I heard the revenge plot, which sounded like stuff I’d already seen. But I went anyway and was surprised: it’s actually a decent film. Not great, with plenty of flaws, but it’s above average for an action movie. There’s not actually that much action — it’s more about the plot, which is a little heavy-handed, but it’s got some interesting (though predictable) twists.

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Wed, Nov 24, 2010

: Tangled

I am delighted to report that this is a terrific film. It’s not perfect, but it’s definitely one of Disney’s best in a long time. The best thing about it is the psychological behaviors of the characters are real, not cardboard mockups like in most Disney cartoons. For instance, Rapunzal’s character loves the woman she thinks is her mother (she doesn’t realize she was kidnapped as a child by the woman) and is in conflict with herself over obeying her mother and staying in the tower, or leaving and exploring the world she longs to experience. This conflict isn’t just stated, but shown multiple times throughout the film. For a cartoon, it’s amazingly realistically presented, and of course when Rapunzal finally figures things out at the end and stands up for herself, it’s a powerful and emotional moment because of all that buildup. In terms of plot, I had expected that this would be an “alternative” telling of the Rapunzal tale, but it seemed to follow a fairly traditional story. That’s a good thing, for why mess with a classic? (Last year’s The Princess and the Frog took a ton of liberties with the original story and it wasn’t always an improvement.) The animation and filmwork is awesome (the 3D is pretty good, too, though not a must). However, I have a beef with some of the physics. How can a horse and man fall of a cliff and just get up unhurt? Some of Rapunzal’s violence to the man should have caused brain injuries (she keeps hitting him with a frying pan) and yet he seems no worse for the wear. Odd, in a film that is otherwise well-done and grounded in genuine human behavior (it’s not like a regular cartoon where you’d expect such unreality). Another weak point is the music. From the trailers you wouldn’t know this was a musical, but it is, unfortunately. While the songs are okay and blend in fairly well with the story, they poke one of my pet peeves about musicals in that the lyrics to the songs are basically just people singing what they want to tell us. For instance, if I was in a musical right now I’d be singing, “I’m writing movie commentary for my blog, criticizing the way musicals sing what should be said.” I find that annoying and dumb: songs are poetry which are supposed to be metaphorical and give us insight into the characters and situation, not just tell us story. Fortunately, there aren’t that many songs, and some are quite fun. (I liked the “Mama Knows Best” one the witch sings, and the “Everybody Has Dreams” one sung by all the cutthroats in the pub, which also had the best choreography and humor.) Another really smart feature is the way the way the script handles the animal sidekicks. Instead of having our main characters do low-brow humor, which demeans and simplifies them, the humor is mostly the left to the animal sidekicks (a horse and a chameleon). These animals can’t speak, which is refreshing, as they must reveal their thoughts with exaggerated facial expressions and gestures. The result is hilarity and warmth. (Some of the best scenes are the conflict between the thief hero and the out-to-arrest-him police horse.) Overall, this is a wonderful story. It’s rich enough in character that adults can get a lot out of it, and yet there’s plenty of action and humor for kids. One thing I really liked is that the story isn’t dumbed down for children — there’s a stabbing with real blood and consequences, as well as another key death — but such delicate things are cleverly handled in a way that’s not going to be traumatic for kids. The bottom line is this is one of the best animated films I’ve seen in a long time. It’s perhaps not quite up to Pixar’s impossibly high standards, but it’s loads better than even above average fair such as Despicable Me and Megamind. Definitely put this on your must-see list.

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: The Associate

Author: John Grisham

I have to give a thumbs down on this one. It sounds interesting and exciting: a young law student is blackmailed into accepting a job at a huge NY law firm for the purpose of leaking secret info on a big lawsuit to his blackmailers. Unfortunately, this starts off weak and while it gets better in the middle, it falters at the end. The book opens with the young man being accosted by a lawman. This is strangely handled, as the man’s reaction doesn’t seem natural. He is alarmed but acts as though it’s normal for cops to be following him, yet we later find out this is about a rape accusation from five years earlier… an investigation that was halted for lack of evidence after just a few days. In other words, a non-event. So why would the man be a cop expert and all worried about his past indiscretion just because he sees a man in an overcoat hanging around? That didn’t make much sense to me. The next flaw is that the blackmail setup takes about 70 pages. This is way too long for something that’s nearly irrelevant. We all know what blackmail is — we don’t need to have the concept spoon-fed to us. Just have the bad guy say “We’ve got a video. Do what we want or we’ll release it.” Once the blackmail is established, the novel gets going and it’s pretty good. Our young lawyer has to learn spy-craft and figure out how to fight the bad guys. Everything’s good until the ending, which is a horrible disappointment. Basically, little is resolved. After reading the ending, I asked myself why I’d wasted so much time reading the book. Maybe a condensed version of this would be better, but it mostly felt like hundreds of pages of reading about what boring work lawyers do in their 100-hour work weeks, with hints of spy stuff in various places to keep you entertained. I also felt like Grisham cheated in several places. For instance, in one scene we’re taught that a particular computer system is impenetrable. All obvious methods of attack, such as a USB port, have been removed from this custom designed machine. Then later, a hidden USB port is discovered and used to crack the system. Huh? What kind of a moron designs an impenetrable system, specifically removing all ports, and then accidentally includes a hidden one? (Much of the computer tech in this novel left me scratching my head as it made little sense: Grisham obviously knows very little about computers.) Unless you’re such a Grisham fan that you read everything he writes, this is one to avoid.

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Mon, Nov 22, 2010

: The Next Three Days

My feelings are split on this film. It has some great moments and some aspects of the plot are clever and extremely well-crafted. But it’s badly constructed. The problem is the beginning. The premise is simple enough: a guy’s innocent wife is in jail for murder and he decides his only recourse is to break her out. But apparently that was too simple, so the director mucked it up by introducing that plot in a confusing manner. For instance, the film begins with an odd scene of our main character driving frantically in a car with someone unseen who is, we gather, dying. This is short and abrupt, and since we only see the driver, who don’t know who is dying. That may be designed to create suspense, but we need more information for suspense. Instead the scene falls flat, and out of context, we really don’t care who died. Undoubtedly this scene was added so we could start off with some action, but it’s too short and there’s no purpose. (Even when we later catch back up with this scene, it’s not that important of a scene.) Then we jump to three years earlier in a restaurant. The man character, our husband, is there with his wife, and they are with another couple. The two women are arguing. What’s strange here is the wife’s over-the-top reaction to the debate. She snarls at the other woman and accuses her of trying to flirt with her husband right in front of her. Since we’ve just met these people and have no idea who is who, this is a bizarre and uncomfortable scene. We aren’t sure who to root for, and we aren’t sure what the argument is about. We’re given little information and everything feels odd and disjointed. Next we jump to a brief scene at home, the couple putting their son to bed, and then it’s breakfast and suddenly the cops are there arresting the woman in an overly-dramatic fashion (lots of hysteria and the child crying). At this point I thought we’d have a trial or in some way explain about the murder. But no: we jump forward two years to where the husband is waiting for the results of the final appeal, and he is crushed when it is denied. His wife will now be in jail for the rest of her life. Of course the key question the viewer is asking is, “If she’s innocent, how did this happen?” The evidence against is revealed much too slowly throughout the film. I think the writer did this to keep the wife’s guilt or innocence ambiguous, but the problem with that is that her guilt or innocence is really irrelevant. If could have been made relevant, but other than one key scene, it’s not even an issue. The result is that the viewer is left confused and puzzled for far too long. Once we get past all these preliminaries and the husband begins to plot to break his wife out of jail, the film really begins, and from that point on, it’s actually a pretty good film. It’s fairly believable. Our hero is a teacher and not a spy, so he makes mistakes as he works to get all the parts of his plan together. (Okay, the shootout with the drug dealer was a bit absurd, but the rest was pretty good.) The last quarter of the movie when he actually makes the escape attempt is really excellent. The problem is still that kludgy beginning. It leaves a shadow over the rest of the film. I honestly think you’re far better off skipping first 20 minutes of this and starting mid-story: you’ll be far less confused and enjoy the rest of the film much better. Part of the problem is the first part is all exposition and setup, which has a very different pace from the action-heavy rest of the film. Yet ironically, that first part really doesn’t actually tell us anything so it fails as exposition! The director should have just started with the wife in prison: her pre-prison scenes don’t tell us anything relevant about her, and the murder — which we need to know about to sympathize with her “unjustly convicted” plight — isn’t explained until the very end of the film! In the end, this is a simple tale the director has tried to make complicated and ruined it in the process.

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Fri, Nov 19, 2010

: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1

I heard the hype surrounding this and yesterday afternoon saw the lines already forming for the midnight showing and I wondered why I wasn’t so enthusiastic. Then I remembered: this is just part one and we have to wait for summer for the rest of the story. How lame is that? It wouldn’t bother me as much if part two was in January, but waiting eight months is ridiculous. (The girls behind me in the theatre complained of the same thing at the end.) But despite my reservations and the fact that it does end in mid-sentence as I’d feared, it is still a fantastic film. It’s been too long since I read the book for me to remember if it got all the details right, but much seemed familiar and was extremely well done. (I especially liked the animated story in the middle, which had an interesting and unique style.) It’s a darker tale, and it’s long and slower than I expected. Probably too much of the film is the kids in isolation, hiding and hiking in remote locations while they try to unravel riddles. Yes, we are supposed to understand their bored nature and know that lots of time passes, but you don’t have to literally bore the audience to convey boredom. Still, that slowness does work to convey expectations of later drama — it’s just a shame that most of that resolution comes in part two. There also wasn’t as much humor as we normally expect in the Harry Potter universe (when it came in minor doses the audience laughed loudly with relief of tension), and it was depressing seeing the kids fighting amongst each other (though it’s a key part of the plot and is justified and necessary). Despite these issues, it’s just so wonderful to be back in that world that I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I didn’t want it to end! The drama and stakes have never been higher in the series and you can feel it building to a climax that will get even more intense in the final part. I can’t wait for part two!

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Thu, Nov 18, 2010

: Paperback versus Kindle

I have had a fascinating experience.

The last three novels I read on my Kindle. But this week I lent my Kindle to my mom so she can see how she’d like it, and if she would use it. I was going to start a new novel on my iPad, for comparison, but then I noticed a John Grisham paperback I’d bought recently at Costco. I’d forgotten about it, but since I just finished a Grisham book, I was in the mood for another, and I picked up the paperback and started reading.

To my surprise, I have found the paperback experience to be considerably worse than the Kindle!

Here are the negatives I discovered:

  • Paperback paper is thin, so there is show-through of the text on the back of the page. It makes all the text have a grayish dropshadow behind it.
  • Paperbacks tends to curve, especially toward the spine, so the reading surface is not flat. I have never noticed this as a reading detriment before (since there wasn’t an alternative), but after reading the always-flat Kindle page, I dislike the curved surface intensely.
  • [Click to enlarge]
  • Paperback is bulkier than Kindle (though a similar weight)
  • Paperback requires I fuss with a bookmark to remember my place. (When I fell asleep while reading, the paperback closed and lost my spot. That does not happen with Kindle, as after ten minutes of inactivity it merely joins me in my slumber.)
  • Paperback requires more physical effort to turn pages.
  • Often I accidentally turn multiple pages as the thin paper allows two or more pages to stick together.
  • The paperback’s margins are narrow, so on the outside my thumbs cover up the text, requiring me to shift my hands around constantly.
  • A paperback’s paper quality is poor (not a bright white) resulting in a similar lower-contrast off-white reading experience as the Kindle. I had assumed paper would have a better contrast ratio, but that is not necessarily the case.

Possibly some of these issues are unique to this particular book or to paperbacks in general (i.e. hardbacks usually have better paper and wider margins, though of course they are bigger and heavier). Still, the results are intriguing: if after such a short time I prefer the Kindle this much more, I would guess that within a few months or a year, I shall not want to read any book in print form.

With print publishers cutting costs and using cheaper paper and manufacturing, the advantages of paper drop. (For instance, part of the reason I stopped buying hardbacks is because so many of them have unevenly untrimmed pages, which I find repugnant. This is a cost cutting method adopted a number of years ago by publishers. You used to see it only in book club editions, but now it’s in hardbacks you buy at Costco and other places. I hate that and figure the hardback’s not worth the extra money and I’m better off just waiting for the paperback.)

[Click to enlarge]

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: Hereafter

Director: Clint Eastwood

Strange film. The marketing for this film is severely messed up. It comes across as a film about death, a depressing topic, and it doesn’t convey much about the plot at all. I also didn’t see how such a film could actually have any answers about death — what is it supposed to tell us that thousands of years of religion and philosophy haven’t explained? I had zero interest in seeing this from the trailer. The only thing that made me go see it was that it was directed by Clint Eastwood. It turns out to be a fun film with an interesting plot. It’s basically three separate stories that join together at the very end (too long for that join, but that’s a minor flaw). Often in such tales you’ll find yourself intrigued by one storyline and bored by others, but I actually enjoyed all three. The first is about a French journalist who has a near-death experience that haunts and troubles her and she leaves her TV anchor job and defies convention to write a book about death and the afterlife, a touchy subject. I loved that her scenes were actually in French with subtitles and I could relate to her “rebel with a cause” mentality. The second story was more troubling: a boy’s twin dies and he struggles with grief and the aftermath and seeks answers. The third story I though I would like the least, since it deals with a “real” psychic in San Francisco. That seemed cliche and lame, and I was skeptical. But he came across as a lonely man isolated from society because of his connection with death. His potential romance with the wonderful girl he meets in cooking class was the best part of the film for me. It was so bittersweet and tragic and magical. Matt Damon was surprisingly restrained in the role, which was good, and the girl was such an incredible actor I didn’t even realize until the closing credits it was Bryce Dallas Howard, who I adore. The ending was clever (the way the stories finally intersected) and I liked the final resolution, though a few aspects were almost too clever and didn’t feel natural. Overall the film’s good but doesn’t quite reach greatness. It is too slow at times and too inconsistent, part of the nature of a multi-story plot, but it’s biggest flaw is that it doesn’t really enlighten us in any way. I didn’t come out of the showing with a greater understanding of death or coping. Instead I came out thinking that it was a clever script and liking the way the disparate elements all came together to resolve all the storylines. Unfortunately, while this has several amazing moments (particularly the Damon-Howard scenes for me — she deserves an Oscar), the whole doesn’t achieve greatness. It’s still a good film and definitely worth seeing. It is surprisingly fun and even funny, with lots of nice human touches that make it compelling, and I didn’t find it depressing. It’s not really a “journey to the other side” the trailer seems to imply; it’s merely three stories about troubled people seeing resolution who happen to find each other in the end.

Topic: [/movie]

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Mon, Nov 15, 2010

: Unstoppable

The trailer didn’t make me want to watch this much as it seemed to tell me the entire movie: runaway train with hazardous materials on board and two heroic engineers out to stop it. But I was curious about the implementation. The trailer didn’t make it clear how the train became a runaway, nor exactly how it would be stopped. I loved the way that was revealed in the film. It was a believable series of mistakes and bad timing that all led to every backup contingency failing. Then we watch as things get worse and attempt after attempt to stop the train fails, and the tension builds. There’s also a side drama of the train corporation attempting to cover their ass and minimize their liability. That sets things up for our two heroes to save the day, and though that’s stretched out too long, it is exciting and very well done. I thought the director did a decent job of explaining train mechanics and setting up the situation, and the action scenes of the train stuff are excellent, but there are several places where the train location and speed are confusing. For instance, in one sequence the train seems to travel 12 miles in a few seconds, and in another a 3-mile track at 70 mph takes 20 minutes of screen time. Some of that is necessary for storytelling, of course, but with a complicated train-rescue sequence to explain such inconsistencies should have been cleared up. Overall the film’s excellent: a lot of fun, full of exciting tension, with some decent character stuff behind the scenes, and though the story’s predictable, it is gripping and still worth watching.

Topic: [/movie]

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Sun, Nov 14, 2010

: The Partner

Author: John Grisham

Somehow I missed this older (1997) book. I saw it recently and thought it was new! (I was puzzled as I read it why the action was all set in the early 1990s.) It’s a fascinating read. We begin with the capture of a man on the run. We learn he’s a former lawyer who faked his own death and stole $90 million from his firm and escaped to Brazil. The book deals with his return to the States and the maze of legal trouble awaiting him. This is an odd premise, as it seems our protagonist is a vile criminal, but early on I predicted where things were going and sure enough, there’s a lot more to the story. Grisham takes his time unveiling the details, which is annoying at times, but it does keep you reading (I read about half the book in one day). Overall, a terrific read, but not without its flaws. There’s one major plot hole I didn’t understand (Why didn’t the guy just turn himself in?) but the biggest mistake is the lame tacked on “twist” in the last couple of pages. I won’t spoil it for you but basically it completely ruins the rest of the book and makes zero sense (a primary character acts completely out of character with no warning or hint). I basically just deleted those last couple of pages from my head and pretend the story ended the way I wanted and I would advise you to do the same!

Topic: [/book]

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Fri, Nov 12, 2010

: Skyline

This looked like an interesting sci-fi premise (alien invasion), but it is very slow moving at the beginning and shows little promise of going anywhere. There are a handful of neat special effects but those are mostly shown in the trailer and they frankly work better there than in the lame film. In the end, the film is depressing and pointless, with a strange twist at the end that really is where the movie should have started (perhaps it was designed as the setup for a sequel, but there’s no chance this dog will get a sequel). Bizarre that this pile of dog doo was ever greenlighted. There’s just no story: aliens invade. That’s it.

Topic: [/movie]

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Thu, Nov 11, 2010

: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

After reading the book, I wanted to watch the Swedish film. I’d heard good things about it but wasn’t really sure how well it would translate. It turns out to work just fine. It’s a terrific film, beautifully shot and written. They do change some things from the book. Some of the things are clearly for simplicities’ sake, but other aspects are baffling. One change which I didn’t like is the way the main journalist character discovers the hacker Salander. In the book it was a believable mistake she made, which made sense. In the film, she actually sends him an apparently traceable email, which is just ridiculous and destroys the credibility of her hacker character as being intelligent and competent. But other changes are actually better in the film. The biggest is the ending. While the book only hints at Salander’s sketchy past, the film shows us a flashback and links that with her actions at the end. At first I didn’t like what she was doing because it was so different from the book, but the link actually tied everything together and in the end, I liked the film version of that aspect better than the book. I was curious how the film would handle some of the book’s edgier aspects. Some parts they dropped (like the extramarital love affairs), but they did keep a lot of sex and violence and some of the scenes are more disturbing in the film than the book. (Just a warning if you’re squeamish. It’s one thing ton read about a brutal rape. It’s quite another to watch it.) Overall, this is a terrific adaptation and now have trouble imagining how the Hollywood remake can be any better.

Topic: [/movie]

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Wed, Nov 10, 2010

: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Author: Stieg Larsson

I’ve been hearing about these books and movies for a while, by Swedish author Larsson, but I hadn’t realized until recently he actually died before they were published and became a worldwide phenomena (they’ve sold like 30 or 60 million copies or something). Anyway, this is the first complete book I’ve read on my Kindle (I finish Mr. Monk and the Dirty Cop on it, but I’d read about half of it on my iPad first) and I dived in knowing absolutely zero about the story. It turns out to be a murder mystery. It’s slow going at first, establishing characters and the situation, but once the mysteries start, they are intriguing. Basically our main protagonist is a disgraced journalist who is hired to investigate a young girl’s disappearance from 40+ years earlier. He isn’t sure he can do anything for the case has been studied for decades and there are no new clues, but he has nothing else to do, so he takes on the task. Eventually, of course, he makes breakthroughs, and the book takes an extremely dark turn (it’s definitely not for kids). He has help from a fascinating character: the girl with the dragon tattoo. She’s a hacker and information researcher who is exotic-looking, anti-social, and has odd personality problems, but somehow the two get along. The book is slow-moving, for sure, but never dull. You always feel you’re on the brink of huge discoveries, though in truth most of the really big breakthroughs don’t happen until the book’s final third. (But I should point out that the progression is extremely realistic.) I would imagine some people would prefer a condensed version of the novel, but I really enjoyed the Swedish environment (I have Swedish ancestors), the complex world of corporate finance, hacking, psychology, and other detailed topics the author explores. It’s a long book, but from the halfway point I read through it very quickly as the story really became exciting. It’s a disturbing read, unpleasant at times, bizarre and confusing at others, but literary, intelligent, unique, and perhaps even profound. The interesting character of the hacker girl is one of the special aspects of the story. The final mystery, when revealed, makes sense and all the pieces fit together beautifully. I found it unusual that when the mystery’s solved the book keeps going — there’s still more than 10% of the book to go! (I’m not sure I like that. Most things felt wrapped up and it felt odd for the story to continue and the later stuff that happened was not as compelling as the odd mystery that’s at the core of the book.) Overall, I’m extremely impressed and can’t wait to read the other books in the series, as well as see the Swedish films.

Topic: [/book]

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Fri, Nov 05, 2010

: Megamind

Fun movie. On the surface the premise seems sadly derivative, cribbing our superhero storyline almost word-for-word from Superman and others. It’s so obvious and deliberate it’s apparently supposed to be part of the humor, but it comes across more as cheap and unimaginative than clever. But once the film gets going, it branches into more innovative territory by answering the question, “What would happen to a supervillain who actually kills his superhero nemesis?” The film also explores the “don’t judge a book by its cover” cliche. None of this is particularly well-done, but it gets better as the story goes on, and when the supervillain is faced with a new nemesis, he has to decide if he’s going to be good or evil.

I rarely laughed out loud at the feeble jokes that were obviously designed to be laugh points, but despite a mediocre script, the film is a lot of fun and quite entertaining. The voices are great, and the love story subplot is compelling. Megamind’s incompetent villain comes across as sympathetic. Overall, I liked it. It’s far from perfect, but a solid B- or C+. There are certainly much worse films out there.

Topic: [/movie]

Link

: Kindle Follow-up

Now that I’ve had a chance to use my Kindle a little more, I am more comfortable than ever with my original impressions:

  • size, weight, and readability is great
  • hardware user interface is poor

One of the most interesting things that happened to me recently was on two occasions, I got “lost” in the book I was reading. What happened was that I picked up the sleeping Kindle, turned it on, and started to read. But I couldn’t quite remember where I was in the book, so as I often do with a paper book, I flipped back a page to begin reading at an earlier point to refresh my memory and catch up to where I’d been. Only with the Kindle, I was suddenly in unfamiliar territory. None of the text was remotely familiar. I hit the Previous Page button again, and then again, and then several more times in a row. Bizarrely, the Kindle kept showing me text I had a never seen. From my perspective, the Kindle had mysteriously jumped some unknown number of pages forward in the book!

My first thought was that I was encountering some strange syncing bug. As you may know, the Kindle has a feature where it will remember what page you are on even between devices. This allows you to read a few pages on your iPhone while in line at the grocery store and then when you get back home and pick up your Kindle, it jumps forward to the new location where you stopped reading. Very convenient, but it seemed feasible that the software could become confused and think I’d read further ahead than I really had. Initially that was my conclusion to the strange problem.

When it happened a second time — and again it took me quite a while (several minutes) of paging around to find where I’d stopped reading — I was really frustrated. If this was going to happen all the time, it would really make the Kindle a useless gadget. I wondered why I hadn’t heard of this bug before.

But while I was trying to get back to my reading place, I suddenly noticed something. Occasionally, as I was trying to page through the book, I would hit the big lower button on the left side of the Kindle. If you’re familiar with the Kindle hardware, there are four page turn buttons, two on each side. The upper two are smaller and mean “Previous Page.” The lower two are bigger and mean “Next Page.” From the beginning I’d wondered why Amazon included four of these buttons. It seemed excessive and pointless. Why not just have Previous on the left and Next on the right? But it didn’t seem like a critical design flaw, only an annoyance.

I am changing my opinion of that now: the four buttons are a major design flaw. You see, I finally realized that the Kindle had never jumped to a future reading point without my control. There was no sync bug. What happened was simple: when I intended to go back to the previous page, I hit the button on the left — the big button. In my mind, that was the “Previous Page” button. After all, it’s on the left. Left is previous and right is Next. That’s just natural (at least with books that read left-to-right).

So I hit the wrong button. I told the Kindle to go to the next page when I intended it to go to the previous page. The result left me baffled and confused, and in a panic, I hit the button several more times, but again, I was going right in the book instead of left, but still thinking I was going left. It was the strangest feeling: like running toward your home and getting further away with each step but not being able to understand why!

The key is I wasn’t thinking. I was operating on instinct. I wasn’t conscious of what I was doing. I wasn’t sitting down at a computer, interacting with a machine. I wasn’t thinking, “How do I operate this machine?” Instead I was just trying to read a book. I was focused on my goal, on the content in front of me, and the machine was essentially invisible. That’s a good thing. It’s part of the purpose of the Kindle. But in this case, because of the confusing design of the buttons, the machine did not respond in the way my mind expected. That’s poor design.

Now that I know this, I don’t think I’ll have the same problem again. I am aware of the situation and can compensate. For instance, if I go to a book and it’s on an unfamiliar page, I won’t start hitting the button a bunch of times to turn back pages. Instead I will concentrate to make sure I’m hitting the correct button for what I need the device to do. But just because I can learn my way around the machine’s flaws, that doesn’t mean there is no flaw or the Kindle shouldn’t be corrected.

I find this situation a fascinating example in design. Apple, for instance, would never have designed a reading machine like this. Apple always goes for fewer buttons. At most Apple would have had a single page turn button on each side of the device. Such a design would be far simpler and clearer. Brains are good at left-right distinctions and once I learned which button was which, I would be able to operate the thing forever without once getting confused. The way Amazon designed the Kindle, however, dramatically increases the chances of problem operation:

  • I might press the wrong button subconsciously (like I did).
  • I might press the wrong button because my fingers happen to be in the wrong place.
  • I might press the wrong button simply because there are so many I’m not sure which is the right one.

Some may think this isn’t a big deal, or that Amazon’s approach is better because it gives the user more choices and it allows one-handed operation. But that is only true for a tiny subset of users. The vast majority of users want simple and transparent and could care less about choice.

That is the difference between Apple and Amazon.

Topic: [/technology]

Link

Thu, Nov 04, 2010

: Mt. Hood Trip

Today I went with a visiting friend up to Mt. Hood. I hadn’t been then since I was a kid. It turned out to be the perfect day to go: some snow, but not enough for skiing so the place was quiet and nearly deserted, and the weather was clear and almost balmly (we didn’t even need chains or snow tires to get up there). We took a tour of Timberline Lodge, one of my favorite places, and I learned a lot about its history I didn’t know. The most interesting fact for me was that since it was built out of the Great Depression, they recycled everything, so tons of the building is made from unusual parts. (My favorites are the water fountain made from a large ash tray and chains on the fireplace grate that were actual tire chains the construction crews used to get up the mountain!) We had a nice picnic lunch outside (where a naughty crow made off with our bag of grapes until he dropped it and we safely retrieved them) and we took a lot of terrific pictures. You can see some pictures I took here. Enjoy!

Topic: [/travel]

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Mon, Oct 25, 2010

: Mr. Monk and the Dirty Cop

Author: Lee Goldberg

Better than average Monk book. He solves a ton of little mysteries, which I like, but the one drawback is the main “dirty cop” story doesn’t really get going until halfway through, which made it a little easier to set the book down. Another negative of most Monk books is what I think of as the “Rockford Files Flaw,” which is where the main character always has bad things happening too him. It gets depressing reading about a character constantly suffering. But while this book starts out that way (he loses his job) it includes some too-good-to-be-true things that you just know are going to turn sour later on. Fortunately, it’s still an entertaining ride, though too much of the book is devoted to highlighting Monk’s idiosyncrasies. (By now, anyone who likes these books knows Monk and the TV show and doesn’t need explanation.)

Topic: [/book]

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Sun, Oct 24, 2010

: Kindle

Okay, we all know I’m a glutton for gadgets. I was first in line for the original iPhone, got the upgrade this summer, and I got an iPad last April. But I’ve been keeping my eye on Amazon’s Kindles since they were first released. The original versions intrigued me in terms of the concept, but the hardware was hideous. Later it got a little better, but it was still way too expensive at $260. Recently Amazon came out with a new version that tempted me, especially considering they dropped the price to a mere $139 (WiFi-only — the 3G version is an extra $50). For a long time I’ve said they need to get the price down to $99 for it to be a true hit and get me to bite. Well, they got close enough to make it tempting, but I was still resisting.

Until recently, that is, when I actually got to see one at my local Staples. I’ve seen other ebook readers (Sony) and I wasn’t impressed at all. The e-ink screens were black on gray and very hard to read (I have weak eyes that require high contrast, so that could be a factor). Two things stood out when I saw the new Kindle. First, the gray background is almost white with much more contrast. It is very readable. It really does look about as close to paper as you can get. Second, the thing is thin and tiny! That was the kicker for me: it is thinner than my iPhone, thinner than any magazine, and the size of a 6x9 paperback. Something that thin and light and yet still powerful (it can hold 3,500 books) gave it some real advantages over my iPad for pure e-reading.

Kindle and iPad showing the same page. [Click for larger image]

Don’t get me wrong: I love my iPad and I do read a lot on it. I just haven’t found myself reading too many novels. I’ve read some technical books, reference books, comic books, and cookbooks, but only a few novels. For the former, the iPad is ideal — it’s super fast for skimming through a book, examining diagrams (zooming in and out is instantaneous), or studying technical material. For just plain novel reading, however, I’ve found there are two problems.

One is the size of the device. An iPad is magazine size, nearly a letter-sized page, and while for actual magazines that’s great, it’s not so good for novels. I prefer the paperback size for casual reading and on the iPad, seeing so many words on a page is slightly intimidating. It makes reading feel more like work and it’s easier to lose your place. (I can increase the font size so there’s less info per page, but then it feels like I’m reading a large print edition which has its own weirdness.) The iPad is also dense and heavy, and while that’s not a big deal (many of my paper books weigh more) as it’s comfortable to rest the device against your chest or bed or table, it does add to the feeling of effort. Just like a four-inch thick novel is intimidating, a heavy iPad gives you the impression that there’s a lot of words left to read.

The second and greater problem with reading novels on the iPad is one of distraction. Here I’ve found there are two types of distraction. One is actual interruptions: fresh email chiming, alerts from various programs, a Words With Friends’ alert that it’s my turn to play, and so on. The other distraction is simply the knowledge that there’s so much I can do on my iPad: games, work, web pages to read, music, apps to check out, and so much more. This latter distraction is the worst because it saps my energy for novel reading. When it occurs to me I’d like to read and I reach for my iPad, it’s natural to first check my email to make sure there’s not an urgent message waiting, and then I see all my app icons and remember I need to do this or that, or maybe I’ll play a quick game of solitaire or Boggle and before I know it I’ve used my reading time doing other things.

The Kindle, on the other hand, only lets you read. That’s it. I hope they don’t change that. They’ve got some simple games available as they’re attempting to get developers to write apps for Kindles — but I don’t want apps and games on my Kindle. First off, apps on Kindle pale in comparison to the gorgeous color and touch-screen simplicity of the iPad. Second, because of the Kindles’ e-ink screen limitations (more on that in a minute), stuff can’t be very interactive. But most importantly, what I like most about Kindle is when I pick it up, it’s to read and that’s it. It’s much more like a paperback in that respect — you can’t play games, surf the web, or check stocks with a paperback!

Though I felt sort of silly buying a Kindle when I already had an iPad, the two devices seem to serve such utterly different purposes that it also felt like the correct thing to do. An iPad is great as a lightweight general purpose computer. It also lets you read books. I’d recommend it for the casual reader. For the hardcore reader, I recommend both.

After using both, I’ve also come to realize that they each are best for different types of books. Kindle is ideal for novels. Novels are read linearly, you don’t jump around in them, and they usually don’t require pictures or complex formatting. All you really need is a good black-and-white display and a page turn button and Kindle does that pretty well.

Moving around a book on a Kindle is not easy. It’s not terrible — it’s actually better than I expected — but it’s not as good as a real book and an iPad is actually better than a real book. For reference books or manuals where you flip through them a lot, I much prefer the iPad. Charts, diagrams, and pictures look far better on iPad as well. Of course, once you’ve established bookmarks you can jump around inside a book instantly, but that doesn’t work for new books and even then a lot of the slowness is due to the Kindle’s display and the cursor-based interface. For instance, if you have 10 bookmarks or a table of contents listing and you want the 8th one, you have to move the arrow down 8 times until that row is highlighted and then press the select button. On an iPad, you just touch that row with your finger. For novels this isn’t an issue at all as you read them straight through, and if you didn’t have an iPad for comparison, you probably wouldn’t think the Kindle too bad. But for me, I’ll just pick and choose which device I use for which kind of book.

That’s the real beauty of the Kindle system: I don’t feel locked into the Kindle because all my Kindle books are available on both my Kindle device and my iPad (and iPhone and Mac). Of course, on the iPad, I can also use other bookstores (iBooks, Barnes and Noble’s Nook app, Stanza, etc.) and my own content (PDFs, texts, etc.). Basically the iPad can read any digital format while the Kindle hardware is more limited. Having both is the ideal, but that somewhat depends on what you like to read (if you read only novels and have no interest in iPad’s other functions, a Kindle might be all you need).

First Impressions

Though I’d never used or even seen a Kindle, I had read a lot about them and thought there would be little to surprise me. Instead, I got a number of surprises, most of them pleasant.

The e-ink screen on the Kindle is one pleasant surprise. It really is paper-like. I’d been skeptical of e-ink from what I’d seen in the past, both in terms of poor contrast and because of sluggish updating. But this latest generation Kindle is surprisingly fast.

If you aren’t familiar with e-ink, the key difference between it and other kinds of display technologies, is that e-ink requires power only to change the display. Once pixels are set to “on,” they stay in that state with no power. For book material where things are static while you read the page, that’s ideal, as power is only used when you change the page. That’s why a Kindle gets weeks of battery life compared to an iPad’s one day. (iPads use color LCD screens which require constant power and backlight to be visible.)

The problem with e-ink is that it is slow to change state. Showing something like a movie isn’t too feasible because the pixels can’t be changed fast enough for animation (they’re working on this but I don’t think e-ink will ever be as good as LCD for movies). In earlier e-ink readers, the delay to change the entire screen was quite long — two seconds, I think. I’m not sure how fast this one is — maybe half a second — but it’s plenty fast enough for changing pages in a novel. I found I was able to read the line at the bottom of the screen, hit the next page button, and start reading at the top without missing a beat in the slightest (the screen refreshes in the time it takes your eye to move from the bottom to the top). It is actually smoother, easier, and faster than turning a page in a physical book! E-ink screens still have a brief flash when you change pages (the entire screen inverts for a fraction of a second) and I had worried that would bother me (or trigger an epileptic fit), but literally after minutes of use I forgot all about it and I don’t even notice it now. It’s quick enough it’s hardly noticeable.

I had also worried that the device would feel sluggish because the screen wasn’t updating very fast, but that wasn’t much of an issue. There are times when you do something faster than the device can display it — like move the cursor too fast or change several pages in a row — and it feels like the device can’t keep up, but it’s only annoying, not terrible. Typing, for instance, can’t be done too quickly. When I tried pushing buttons as fast I could, the display couldn’t keep up and I ended up with different results than I expected. But since you don’t need to type much on the Kindle and when you do it’s usually just a word or two, it’s not a problem.

I expected the display to work well out-of-doors and it does (it’s way better than iPad’s washed out display in bright light), but I hadn’t realized just how poor the lighting in my living room is for reading. I’ve read paper books there okay, but the Kindle was nigh unreadable until I turned on a lamp. It really requires plenty of light. That tells me that its contrast, while far better than in the past, still isn’t quite as good as paper. In dim light you’re reading dark letters on a dark gray background and it’s difficult. The solution of a reading lamp isn’t a big deal and is probably better for my eyes anyway (I have a bad habit of reading wherever I am even if the lighting isn’t ideal). This means you can’t read Kindle in the dark, like an iPad. (But I wouldn’t recommend reading an iPad in the dark as it’s not good to stare at bright screen in the dark.) I was glad to see that my small bedside lamp gives off plenty of light for Kindle use; I’d been worried it wouldn’t be bright enough.

One aspect of the display that’s disconcerting is that never seems to go off! Even when asleep, the Kindle screen still has stuff on it — since it doesn’t use any power it doesn’t hurt anything so this isn’t an issue at all, but it feels odd. Amazon did a very cool thing to take advantage of this feature. When the Kindle goes to sleep (or you put it to sleep), the screen changes to a picture of a famous author. The pictures are old-fashioned woodcut-style drawings. Really nice. I don’t know how many there are, but I haven’t seen a duplicate yet. So when your Kindle is lying around unused, it has a picture of an author on it instead of an empty screen (see the cool Mark Twain one in the photo I took below). It’s surprising to me how much pleasure this feature gives me!

Unfortunately, other surprises weren’t as nice. The biggest for me was right away when the first thing I needed to do was enter the password for my wireless network. That’s when I realized that the keyboard has no numbers! To type a number, you press the Symbol key to bring up an on-screen menu of special characters (punctuation, symbols, numbers, etc.) and you use the cursor keys to navigate to the character you want and press select to “type” it. It’s a bit like typing text on a TV with a remote control. Not fun. My password is a long mix of random numbers and letters so it took forever to type it on the Kindle. Fortunately, it’s a one-time thing as Kindle will remember it and automatically log in in the future, but it was still annoying.

On a similar note, when I noticed that Amazon had automatically named my Kindle “Marc’s Kindle” I saw that it had used a straight quote (foot mark) instead of a curved apostrophe. Being a perfectionist and graphic designer, this irked me so I went to change it and was shocked to discover that curved quotes (“smart” quotes) are not on the symbol chart! There’s just no way to type those on the Kindle. I ended up changing the name to “The Kindle of Marc” just to avoid looking at that awful foot mark. Later, I noticed that I can also set the name via Amazon’s website on my Mac, so I changed it to “Marc’s Kindle” with a curved quote and it worked wonderfully! At least there’s a workaround, but this example perfectly shows the kind of details that Apple sweats and Amazon does not.

Most everything else about the Kindle worked as I expected. It basically displays the text of books so you can read it. There are options for adjusting the font, text size, and some other visual aspects, but there’s really not a lot of variation. (Most of the ereaders on the iPad give you much more control over how text looks.) I found the default settings were fine — all I want to do is read.

One interesting thing is that the Kindle hardware allows you to create “collections” of books. These are sort of like named folders, except that books can appear in more than one collection. This is awesome. I’ve been dying for this on my iPad: none of the ereader apps support this and essentially show you a long scrolling list of books you have to wade through (which makes it really hard to find the right book). I like to organize my books by type, mood, and other characteristics. I sure hope Amazon updates the Kindle app for iPhone and iPad to support collections because they are awesome. For now, collections are only supported on Kindle devices. If I had known that, I might have been tempted to buy a Kindle earlier — it’s that important of a feature to me.

Putting your books into collections on the Kindle isn’t trivial, but it’s not too bad. On an iPad you would just touch and drag items around, but of course you can’t do that on the Kindle. Instead, you have to use the cursor to move through each book, item by item, until you reach the one you want. It’s tedious, but not complicated. Amazon has done some nice things to make it easier. For instance, when you go inside an empty collection there’s only one thing in it — a menu selection to add items to the collection. When you choose it, you’re right within your list of books and just can just hit the select button on each one you want to add to that collection.

Speaking of that list, while it’s a neat feature that Amazon lets you put items into multiple collections (each member of the family could have their old collection of books, for instance, with some overlap where reading tastes coincide), it is a bit annoying that Amazon has to show you the complete list of items on your Kindle when all you want is the last few that haven’t been put into collections yet (you have to scroll through the entire list of every item on your Kindle to find them). It’d be nicer if there was an option to only show unfiled books. Amazon does help in subtle ways, like showing your most recently added books first, but that doesn’t help when you’re setting up a brand new Kindle and all your books are recently added. Also, there are other ways to put books into collections, such as selecting the book and then assigning it to a collection.

Getting Content

Getting books into your Kindle is easy. Once you register your Kindle — a simple process of typing in your Kindle’s serial number on your “Manage My Kindle” page on Amazon’s website — all books associated with that account are immediately available for that device. Since I’d already bought a bunch of Kindle books on my iPad, those books were now available on my Kindle. I still had to download them — they’re archived on Amazon’s site until I request them — but that’s just a matter of selecting them from my archive list. You’re allowed to download most books onto multiple devices (six is the typical limit though some have different restrictions) so you can read the same book on multiple Kindles, iPhones, iPads, etc. Amazon will keep them all in sync, too, jumping to the most recent place read, as well as copying all the bookmarks, notes, and annotations you’ve made.

Once your Kindle is registered, it is tied to your Amazon account and able to make purchases. This is almost too easy: if you see a Buy button and select it, the book is immediately purchased and downloaded to your device. When Amazon says “books in sixty seconds,” they are exaggerating — it’s much faster than that. While this is convenient, there is no confirmation dialog, which made me wary. Apple makes you tap twice before you buy something, to ensure you didn’t hit the button by mistake the first time. Amazon just buys it. There does seem to be an “unbuy” procedure, but I’m not sure how that works and I didn’t test that. (Apple, on the other hand, famously has a “no refunds” policy for their bookstore and app store.)

You can also get subscriptions to magazines and newspapers on the Kindle and the new issues are wirelessly delivered as made available. I’m not a newspaper reader, but that’s partly because I hate getting the ink all over my fingers so this is somewhat tempting as Kindle obviously eliminates that problem. But I still don’t know that I’d pay for a paper (or have time to read one). Magazines don’t seem like a good fit for Kindle — at least not glossy, design-heavy publications. They’re awesome on iPad (I already have several subscriptions via Zinio). Some periodicals might work. I saw Reader’s Digest is available via Amazon for a reasonable $1.25/month and gave it a try (easy as I can cancel within 14 days and not be charged). Since that publication is mostly bare text, it works extremely well. All the sections are easily jumped to via navigation tools, making it better than the print edition. However, the vocabulary quiz “Word Power” is really easy since on Kindle you can just point at a word and have the definition pop up! (Just to be clear, I didn’t cheat: I just tested this on a word I knew to see if it would work and it did. I got a 14 out of 16 on the quiz, which isn’t too bad, though I obviously need practice as I usually do better.)

Another way to get content into your Kindle is to email it to a special email address Amazon assigns to your Kindle. I wasn’t too sure about this until I tried it — it really is cool. It will even convert documents into a Kindle-friendly format if you want, though the formats supported are limited and the results are not always good (I converted a PDF and though it was generally readable, a lot of the formatting had been lost making the text awkward). I knew that Amazon offered this feature but thought that it cost money. Since Amazon pays for the free 3G service that comes with Kindles, they usually do charge for this. But the new Kindle I have is Wifi-only, so there is no charge! Because of that, I think I will use this. It’s a great way to get stuff to the Kindle. From any computer, phone, or iPad, I can instantly email my Kindle one or more documents and within seconds they are on the device. You do have to register the email address you send from on Amazon’s website or this won’t work (it prevents unauthorized people from cluttering your Kindle), and there are some other limits, but generally this worked surprisingly well. I thought maybe it would take too long but it seemed really fast — by the time I’d finished hitting send on my computer and picked up the Kindle, the new file was there. (As a nice touch, Kindle displays the email address that sent the file next to the file name so you can remember who sent it.) I bet family members with multiple Kindles could send things to each other this way as a “You should read this” suggestion.

You can also hook your Kindle to the USB jack on your computer to mount it like a flash drive and copy files to it that. That’s how Amazon recommends you get big things like music and audiobooks onto the Kindle.

Other Features

Kindles can do more than just let you read digital books, but I question the need for some of these abilities. They add to the complexity and learning curve of the device, and yet I suspect that few use the features. But other things I hadn’t expected to like might be useful, so I guess it’s fine they offer these. I just don’t want the device getting so feature-heavy it tries to be something it’s not. What appeals to me about it its simplicity and as long as Amazon focuses on reading, it will sell, but if they try to make it more iPad-like, it’ll fail.

I’d heard that the Kindle has a built-in voice that can read books to you. It didn’t sound like such a good thing — a robot can’t read like a real person — and I didn’t think it would be that useful. I still don’t think I’d use it often, but I tested it on the Kindle User Manual and it was great for that. I’m not sure it would work for fiction, but I listened to the manual being read while I fixed my breakfast and it was rather cool — I could get the gist of what was being said without distracting me from my main task. It’s a nice feature and would be useful for reading news reports, blogs, cooking instructions, or other non-emotional material. I can also imagine using it on a airplane when I’m exhausted of reading but I still want to follow a story.

The Kindle can also play real audiobooks and music (even music in the background). While there’s nothing wrong with such features, they seem superfluous (but that could just be because I’ve got an iPhone for such tasks) and I expect they would severely damage battery life.

This new Kindle can read PDFs directly, which is really nice in principal. In practice, however, most PDFs aren’t formatted for the Kindle screen, so the text ends up microscopic. Kindle will let you zoom in, but it’s an extremely convoluted process, and once you’re zoomed in, moving around the zoomed area is slow and awkward (you use the arrow keys to pan).

One tip is to read to-small PDFs while holding the Kindle sideways. You can do this by going to a menu and telling Kindle to rotate the screen. This works fine, but after using iPhone for years, it feels bizarre that the device can’t tell which way I’m holding it and rotate automatically. It’s also weird that all the controls (keyboard, etc.) are sideways. When you’re working sideways you can’t see the full page of the PDF, only about half of it, but the page advance controls work well to let you move through the document in half-page chunks (except that now those buttons are on the top and bottom of the horizontal device instead of the sides). In short, the PDF ability is useful in a pinch, but not too practical. If I had both an iPad and a Kindle, I’d use the iPad to read PDFs hands down.

Kindle includes a Web Browser under the “experimental” section. It works, but pictures look pitiful in muddy grays and it’s rather painful navigating through web pages without a mouse (the arrow keys jump you between links and you can push select to open the link). Useful, but definitely not essential.

You can shop for books right from the Kindle, which is nice, but I wasn’t too impressed with the options and presentation. For instance, it’s easy to look at best-seller lists, Amazon’s recommendations, etc., and you can search for titles by name or author, but there’s no way to sort such lists by price or other characteristics. This makes finding a particular edition tedious as you have to go through each one (and you’re fighting with Kindle’s cursor-based navigation the whole way). This happened to me when I was looking for some free books — I kept finding paid versions and yet knew those were old out-of-copyright books that should be available for free (I did eventually find some).

The bottom line: while it’s handy to buy able to buy books right on the device and it works wonderfully if you know the exact book you’re looking for, it does not work so well for browsing the store. For instance, when the lists show thumbnails of book covers, the art is in shades of gray and the pictures are so tiny (way smaller than a postage stamp) that you can’t tell what it is. It’s far more practical to shop for books on a real computer or iPad than on the Kindle.

One of my favorite extra feature of Kindle is the ability to see the definition of any word as you read. It’s not quite as easy as on the iPad where you just touch the word — on Kindle you have to use the arrow keys to move to the word which is slow.

Kindle also makes it easy to highlight phrases, add notes and annotations, and bookmark places. That’s an obvious function, but what I didn’t know is that Kindle automatically saves such highlighted text into a “clippings” file. It’s a plain text file you can access on your computer when plug your Kindle in via USB, so it’s a terrific way to preserve quotes or copy short passages of text. This is interesting because you can’t copy text from Kindle books on the iPad, but this effectively gives you a way to do that on the Kindle device. The drawback is that the only way to access this file is via the physical cable connection — it would be nice if you could email this to yourself or access it wirelessly.

Interface

I had expected the Kindle interface to be horrible. First of all, it’s not made by Apple, who are famous for creating elegant interfaces, and second, the device’s hardware by its nature prevents certain kinds of interfaces (i.e. touch). To my surprise, the Kindle’s not that bad. There’s a Home button which takes you to the main screen which lists all your content (collections, books, PDFs, music, etc.). You move around with the arrow keys, highlighting lines (one item per line). If you press the right arrow, you’re given some options of what to do with the item (open it, delete it, etc.). If you press Select instead, the item opens up to the last page you read in it.

Amazon has placed two page turn buttons on either side of the Kindle. These are flush with the device and right in the middle. The bottom ones are taller than the shorter upper buttons. The bigger button is “next page,” the smaller one “previous page.” Presumably you flip to the next page a lot more often so it’s bigger, but aesthetically it looks unbalanced. (Why not just make them both nice and big?) I’m also not quite convinced about the placement of these buttons in the middle of the device. If I grip the Kindle with one hand, my fingers wrap around the edges where these buttons are and I squeeze them accidentally. I can hold it lower in my hand, which isn’t too bad, but then I have to use my other hand to press the “next page” button. It’s not terrible, but I’m still not used to it, and I haven’t quite figured out the ideal position for holding the Kindle and turning pages. It feels like more work than it should to turn a page, but that’s probably because I’m too used to iPad, where I can just give the screen the faintest tap with my wrapped around finger (the iPad’s wide bezel around the screen keeps me from tapping the next page area unintentionally).

The biggest frustration I’ve found with Kindle is that there is no counterpart to the “back” button. The Back button returns you to the previous screen — not the previous page within a book, but the previous screen where you had a choice (like the view inside a collection where you see the books in that collection). It also works if you follow a link in a book to jump to another section: pressing Back returns you to that original point. This is great and useful, but it’s somewhat unpredictable. I’m not always sure where Back is going to take me. If it takes me to wrong place or I hit it by accident (easy to do), I can’t figure out to to return to where I was as there’s no Forward button. (It could be I just haven’t explored Kindle deep enough and there is a way to do this, but I haven’t found it yet.)

Another interface quirk that I haven’t decided if I like or dislike yet, is the way the purpose of the Menu button changes depending on where you are. For instance, to get to Settings, where you can change some of the device’s settings, you must be on the Home screen when you press Menu. If you press Menu while on a different screen, the options on the menu are completely different.

This context-sensitive menu can be helpful by eliminating unavailable choices, but it’s often hard to remember where you saw an option. You remember that there was a way to move a book to collection, for instance, but when you press Menu, that option isn’t listed. So where is it? You eventually figure out that you have to be on a book’s nav page (right arrow) to find it. If you’re inside the book or elsewhere, that option isn’t available, which can be frustrating.

Keyboard

Earlier versions of the Kindle were hideously ugly. This new Kindle is far better, but unlike the clean and simple iPad, it does kludge the design by including the tiny keyboard across the bottom. It wastes a lot of real estate on the pad with something you won’t use that often (unless you’re really into typing notes on the books you read or do a lot of searches). If they can ever get a touch-screen Kindle with a virtual keyboard, I’d go for that option any day.

(For those who think a hard keyboard is so much better, it’s actually not: on a device this small, neither is optimal and a hard keyboard isn’t faster. Its disadvantages — no automatic rotation, no foreign language support, and real estate wasted when you aren’t typing — outweigh any benefits of a hardware keyboard.)

Since this Kindle’s not touch, the hard keyboard is far better than a virtual keyboard navigated by arrow keys, but it’s still not great. The layout is poor, with dangerous keys right next to each other. For instance, there’s a return key right below the same-sized Del (backspace) button, so when I was attempting to type the name of a Collection I’d created and needed to erase a typo, I accidentally hit return which accepted the incorrect name. In that case it wasn’t fatal, as there is a rename feature, but in other situations return accepts the current or default answer to a question which could be something important like, “Are you sure you want to delete this?”

The Kindle keyboard. [Click for larger image]

The all-important Home, Menu, and Back buttons are not placed in any particular order (you could rearrange them and they’d be just as effective — in other words, there’s no logical reason for them to be where they are). I found I kept confusing Home and Back. Home is the most important, but Back is the bottom rightmost key which is the easiest to find by feel. Personally, I’d have put Home in the bottom right, Back above the directional pad, and the less-used Menu to the left of Home (this assumes I’m keeping the layout the same and just rearranging the keys).

The five-way arrow pad (with select button in the middle) is tiny. It works, but though I have small hands and love small things, it’s really too small for me. It should be twice the size as it’s the main thing you use on the device (far more than the keyboard).

I do like the feel of the keys. They are solid without being too hard to press, and they aren’t so raised as to make the device feel thicker. But I don’t know why more thought wasn’t give to the layout. Why are so many keys the same size? Several control-type keys, such as Symbol and the “Aa” text resize button, seem stuck in random locations where there was some leftover space, and there’s not even color distinction to show that these keys are different from regular letter keys. Another oddity is the naming of the Alt key which is used for keyboard shortcuts (like Command on the Mac or Control on Windows) which seems needlessly different from the Alt key people are accustomed to on computers.

The Bottom Line

Though I’m critical of the design in several areas, overall I am delighted with my Kindle. I’ve only had it for a couple of days so it’s still too early for me to judge if it’s something I’ll use long-term or not. Right now it feels like I would, but my enthusiasm could wane. We shall see. (I have a 14-day return option, so if I actually use it, I’ll keep it.)

What I like about the Kindle (compared to iPad):

Size. Remarkably and delightfully small and light. Makes me want to read.

Single purpose. I pick it up when I want to read novels. No distractions of other functions.

What’s good about both iPad and Kindle:

Long battery life. With three weeks of reading time on the Kindle, it’s nice to not have to worry about the battery at all. But in truth I don’t worry much with iPad as its battery lasts more than a full day for me and it’s no chore to plug it at night before bed.

Clear screen. For reading a good screen is vital. The iPad and Kindle both excel in this area. Some prefer one over the other, but that’s a personality thing. Kindle definitely wins for outdoor reading, but how often do you do that? Kindle is definitely far worse in poor lighting which to me is a more often occurrence than the need to read outside (but then I live in Oregon where it rains all the time so we’re indoor creatures here). I like both of them.

Overall, the Kindle ecosystem — hardware, digital store, software readers on every platform — is very nice. Using the Kindle you really get the feeling that this is the future of books. As a science fiction fan, this Kindle is something I would have imagined and lusted over as a child when I could never find enough books. The idea of a thin pad that holds thousands of books and can get any book over the airwaves in seconds is a dream. The future is here. Within a couple of years when these are selling for $59, I bet people will have several all over the house, each with all their books on them. For instance, I could keep one in my room for reading before bed. Why carry one around when I can have several and just use Wifi to keep them all in sync? Shoot, if they get cheap enough, you could have one in every bathroom instead of a stack of old magazines!

While I worry a little of Amazon’s tactics to extort publishers, at this point the digital book market is still tiny and Amazon’s monopoly is a problem for another day. For now, I’m pretty happy with it and the Kindle store. I really have the best of both worlds owning both iPad and Kindle.

If you’re a reader, I encourage you to check one out in person (they’re being sold at Staples and Target stores, I believe). Like the iPad, it’s the type of device that is best experienced versus just reading about it.

Topic: [/technology]

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Fri, Oct 22, 2010

: Red

Apparently this bears little resemblance to the comic book upon which it is based, but since I haven’t red that, that didn’t bother me. I loved the idea of the premise — retired spies are being hunted down and must use their ancient skills to fight for survival — and especially the comedy. Unfortunately, while the trailer makes this seem humorous, the humor is sparse and inconsistent. At times it is wonderful and genius, with just the right funny touch to relieve the tension of a crazy situation. But far too much of the film is deadly serious, with no tongue in cheek. The plot is too serious as well, involving a corrupt vice-president abusing his authority. Unmasking that plot takes far too long and the ending after that takes even longer. The film’s 30 minutes too long for its light-hearted nature, and the violence both too grim and not consistently over-the-top. It’s like the film isn’t sure if it’s a comedy or an action flick and tries awkwardly to be both. It should have just embraced its humor and go all out for laughs with cool action in between. It’s still quite fun and entertaining, but not as good as you might expect or desire. It’s worth seeing just for the classic cast (Morgan Freeman, Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, Mary-Louise Parker, Richard Dreyfuss, Karl Urban, etc.) and some wonderful moments of dry humor from Helen Mirren. And wasn’t it wonderful to see an ancient Ernest Borgnine still going strong? Recommended if you’re a fan of any of these actors.

Topic: [/movie]

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Thu, Oct 21, 2010

: The Trial (audiobook)

Author: Franz Kafka

Let me preface my remarks by pointing out that my opinion may be severely hampered by the medium I chose for this novel. This particular 1998 edition audiobook is horrible: not only is the narrator poor, with no voice distinction between characters making dialog scenes confusing, but from a technical standpoint the recording is awful. I’ve never experienced this before, but there are many, many places where they obviously went back in and re-recorded a line or two of text and the sound quality of these edits is completely different, as though they recorded these with different equipment in a different location. It literally makes the narrator sound like a different person, and when you have one sentence out of a paragraph read in a different voice, it’s bewildering and off-putting.

Another flaw is that this particular version is a new translation, which is fine, but the audiobook includes an introduction by the translator explaining some of his choices. For someone who has read the book, this would have been fine and interesting, but I knew little of the story and this introduction actually gave away the ending! It would have been much more appropriate coming at the end, after I’d read the book. Besides, it was virtually useless to me anyway as it made reference to scenes and characters I knew nothing about, as well as to past translations I didn’t know. In a book I would have been able to skip this intro, but that’s much more difficult to do with an audiobook (especially while driving, which is when I listen to books).

I’m a big Kafka fan, but perhaps these flaws influenced my impression of this book, for I did not like it. It is entirely possible that a second reading (in print form) would change my opinion, or additional research into the novel, but I’m not sure. All I knew going in is that this is a famous novel about a guy put on trial for a crime he’s not told about. That premise fit in with Kafka’s absurdist tendencies and I’ve always wanted to read this novel but never gotten around to it.

Unfortunately, I found the novel too bizarre to be interesting. What confused me is the setting: I cannot tell if this is set in an alternate universe or if it’s supposed to be the real world Kafka lived in. Basically, the steps of this “trial” bear zero resemblance to any court proceeding I’ve ever encountered. Court sessions are held in apartment buildings in the living rooms of bailiffs with the wife doing laundry in the corner. Huh? Apparently in this world, being accused of something is enough to put you on trial, and the suspect is never even told the charges and no one finds that the slightest bit remarkable.

Perhaps all this is intentional and the whole point of the novel. That is an interesting idea, but the way this is presented does not make that clear. Part of the problem is that the novel is old so it’s essentially a period piece: it’s hard to tell from the story when the events take place, for while there are modern things like telephones, there’s also a lot of candles used for lighting, which sounds ancient. Because it’s old and in a foreign country (presumably Germany, Kafka’s country), one can assume some of the aspects of the trial are cultural or period specific. Someone of that era might immediately spot the absurdities but I could not. I had to take things at face value and I found the process annoying and tedious.

Not a lot happens in the actual story. It’s mostly about one man’s fight with absurd bureaucracy, but the situation is so off-putting I found in near unreadable. I was bored, distracted, and disinterested. Also, since I knew the ending (spoiled by the translator introduction), I really didn’t care because I knew what was going to happen anyway.

I am sad, because I’m sure this is a good novel. It has flaws — it is unfinished and there are fragments of the manuscript that weren’t included in its original publication (these fragments are read at the end of this audiobook, which was nice) — but I can sense some profound things happening. I would like to read it again, but in print form, where I have more control over pace and can reread passages I don’t understand. I won’t do it for a while, though, as I want to forget this memory. This audio edition is dreadful and really ruined the experience for me. I would also like to do more study and research before I read the novel, so I can make sure I understand the historical context, which I’m sure is important.

Topic: [/book]

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Tue, Oct 05, 2010

: The Social Network

When I first heard of this movie, I wasn’t interested. I am perhaps the only person on the planet who doesn’t use Facebook, has never used Facebook, and has zero interest in using Facebook. (In fact, the more I’ve learned about Facebook, the more I’m actually anti-Facebook instead of just being disinterested.) When I saw the trailers, my interest when from low to negative, as the trailers were just awful. Horrible music, weird, cheesy, and depressing. But then the critical buzz started. There’s Oscar talk, which I found bizarre. I finally decided I’d better see the film myself. It turns out, this is a really good movie. It’s hard to say if it’ll be a classic — a minor one, perhaps — because it’s so culturally and technologically relevant to this specific time period, but it’s incredibly well-written, dramatic, interesting, and thought-provoking. The biggest win for me was they didn’t dumb down the tech. Zuckerberg’s character actually talks tech like a real geek and though it was rapid, what he said seemed technically accurate to me. I had been dreading and expecting typical TV and movie tech fantasy (like on CSI when they zoom in a blurry security camera footage shot from across the street and magically enhance it to read a license plate in a window’s reflection). This was realistic. The film’s dialog is fantastic, with Zuckerberg spitting out lines like an ADD kid on speed. The third thing I liked is the way characters are portrayed with shades of gray: Zuckerberg is portrayed as flawed, socially impaired, brilliantly smart, naive, and a bit of a jerk, but he comes across as not that bad of a dude. (Mostly he seems young. Me saying that shows how old I’m getting!) It’s not just his character, either: all the characters in the film are real, with good and bad points, and they fight the stereotypes the media and our instincts likes to label these people with.

In terms of the story, while things are slightly convoluted by the jumping back and forth between “current” lawsuit depositions and the original events, it is an interesting story. I knew nothing about Facebook’s origins so this was fascinating. Who knows how much of it is true — but even the gist of the story, which I’m sure is mostly accurate — is worth knowing. What I learned is that it was Facebook’s original exclusivity that made so hot. (Ironically, that’s one of the things that makes me boycott the site. The fact that I have to join just to see my friends’ stuff is an anathema to me.) But I can see where that exclusivity — like a nightclub that only lets in the cool people — makes everyone crazy to join. In terms of innovation, that’s really all Facebook did differently than any other social networking site.

Another aspect of the film I liked, though I wish it had been elaborated more, is the theme of how fast money changes people. Facebook grew so big so fast and overnight had venture capitalists begging to give the company millions that it ruined lives and changed relationships. That’s fascinating stuff. While that theme is in this film, it’s really only hinted at, in part because Zuckerberg himself doesn’t seem to care much about money (he famously still lives like a college student, despite being the youngest billionaire in history).

I was really surprised at how much I liked this film. My brain still rebels at the idea of it being Oscar-worthy — but that’s mostly because the idea of a movie about Facebook seems so silly. (That could just be me, who thinks Facebook itself is trivial.) But certainly the writing, directing, and acting are all Oscar-caliber, so why not? Andrew Garfield is a standout in the acting category (as is just about everyone else) and I would love to see him win Best Supporting. Sorkin’s screenplay is also incredible. (I’m a huge fan of him as a writer, though I dislike his politics.) In the end, the only real flaw I can find in this is that it’s too timely. It’s relevant right now, while Facebook is new and relevant, but at the speed tech moves, will it feel quaint in just a few years? (Will Facebook even be in use in ten years?) In that regard, I urge you to see the film soon — before its relevancy expires.

Topic: [/movie]

Link

Fri, Oct 01, 2010

: Let Me In

This is a remake of the acclaimed Swedish film, Let the Right One In. I’ll confess that I “sort of” watched that one: I was doing other things while watching it (not a good idea as it was subtitled). Also, I watched it via Netflix streaming, which meant rewinding for a missed bit of dialog was a bitch, so that film left me confused. (That’s why I never “reviewed” it here as I don’t really consider that I’ve seen it.) That said, I saw enough of the original to see where this one differed and for the most part, I believe this version is superior. At least I preferred it. (But keep in mind that my main bias against the first one was that I was often confused — and that may have had much more to do with my lack of attention than the film itself.)

This version I found mesmerizing and clear. In the first, I was confused about who was who (for instance, for a long time I thought the caretaker was a vampire as well as the little girl). The car accident in this version was far superior, terrifically shot from inside the car as it crashed. But the main difference is the girl. When I saw the original, the girl didn’t fit for me: she wasn’t a bad actress, but just physically didn’t fit the role. Chloe Moritz in the new version is perfect: she somehow expresses both youth and ageless maturity. Most important, she has a sweetness and innocence that was key to the character for me. What makes her character creepy is precisely that dichotomy. That was missing in the original where the girl seemed too goth and weird.

Where the new film is weak, however, is in the excess of vampire effects. The girl looking demon-like when she becomes a vampire was totally the wrong approach. (Just the fact that I wrote “becomes a vampire” shows how wrong, for vampires don’t transform like a werewolf, but that’s how this felt.) Fortunately, that only happens in a few scenes, so it doesn’t ruin the film, but the film would have been far stronger — and Chloe’s character far creepier — if she’d stayed normal-looking while acting savagely.

The bottom line is these two films are a fascinating exploration of the difference between the European and American approaches cinema. Both are excellent but differ in tiny ways. The European version is more subtle, intellectual, and lacks flashy special effects. The American version is less subtle, which is not necessarily bad — I preferred the clearer story — but it does try to add more action. (It is interesting that those are the weakest aspects of this new version.) Fortunately the American version had the European one to build upon and much of it is almost a shot-for-shot remake, so in the end this isn’t truly American or European. It’s a nice compromise between the two and I liked it very much. A perfect example of the differences is in the two titles: “Let Me In” is simple and makes sense (vampires can’t come into your home unless you invite them), while I never understood the point of the extra words in “Let the Right One In.”

One other important thought. There was a moment in this film that chilled me. It was during one of the conversations between the boy and the girl where I sensed her profound longing to be normal. For a moment, she truly seemed like an alien being. For me, that was awesome. Most vampire stories don’t get that. Vampires are merely somewhat different from humans, are altered humans, or portrayed as humans with superpowers. I love the idea of vampires being completely alien from us. Looking like us but literally being unable to understand us. After all, we age and die, and they don’t, and though that sounds like a simple difference, it changes everything about one’s approach to life. That’s why the connection of the boy and girl in this film was so powerful: the boy was alienated by the bullies at school and the girl was alienated because she’s a vampire and together they formed a connection. Fascinating, amazing, and wonderful.

The debate over whether this version or the original is better is pointless: go see either or both. They are sides of the same coin. The main thing is you need to see the film. It is an incredible story, sad and creepy and wonderful and tragic, and well worth your time.

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Thu, Sep 30, 2010

: Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’hoole

The previews of this didn’t make me want to watch it. It looked feeble and reviews were negative. But I really wanted to like it. It’s about owls, which are cool; it’s based on a book series, which is good; and it’s directed by Zack Snyder (who did 300 and Watchmen) so the visuals and action would be good. Unfortunately the film makes so many elementary mistakes it ruins itself before it gets a chance.

The most critical mistake is one of confusion. The filmmakers were adapting dense books of a complex owl society so there’s a lot of information the audience needs to know about this unfamiliar world. They should have bent over backwards to make sure that we understood what was going on, who was who, and how this world worked. Instead, they seem to have gone out of their way to make things more difficult and challenging. For instance, all the owls of the same species look alike. Sure, their are minor differences, but they are too subtle, especially for audiences seeing the film for the first time. (After 90 minutes, I still had trouble identifying the main character!) Even worse, the choice to use all Australia actors for the voices was a fatal one, because they all sound alike (not true for Australians, I’m sure, but the rest of the world just hears the Australian accents and can’t hear anything else). So now we’ve got characters that look and sound alike, and they’re talking about owl-things we know nothing about and referring to silly-named places like Ga’hoole, and they’re not introducing any of this to us gradually but all at once, throwing us right into the deep end of the pool and expecting us to swim.

Another critical mistake is one of size. Size is all about proportion: we need to see owls next to something else to get a feel for the owl’s size, but here the owls live in nature, so all we have for comparison are trees and other owls. I didn’t even realize the main character was a child-owl until a good way through the film, and throughout I kept revising my estimation of his age: a baby, a child, a teenager, a young adult? I really have no idea! In one sequence he learns to fly, but I would think owls learn to fly at a pretty young age, so that would make much too young to do some of the other things he does. He’s referred to as young by older owls but he’s obviously older than the chicks they show, so I guess maybe he’s the equivalent of a tweenager, but I don’t know. That confused me, making the story more difficult to follow because I couldn’t tell if the kid was doing something impressive or normal.

The bottom line is that the story ends up being a convoluted mess. I found myself distanced and put off. I didn’t care much about any of the characters (okay, the comic relief owl was amusing) which meant I didn’t care about the story. The story itself was both too bizarre (weird magical aspects that didn’t seem to find the rest of the world) and too slight (young hero owl stops bad owls). I wanted more depth, more character. Instead the film spends much of its time attempting to present an interesting owl world, but it does it in such a convoluted manner that we just end up bewildered.

The film is beautiful, and some of the fighting action in the battle scenes is impressive. But I never once felt the least bit worried about any of the main characters, nor did I find anything about the film compelling. I feel sad because obviously tremendous effort went into this, but it was all in the wrong direction. The most interesting part for me were the closing credits, which had fantastic silhouette-style sketch animation. That was actually innovative and cool. All that said, I wouldn’t necessarily advise against seeing this. It’s probably worth it just for the visuals (though I wasn’t at all impressed by the 3D — it’s decent, but not worth an extra penny). However, it’s heartbreaking that so much potential was wasted as this could have been a classic.

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Wed, Sep 22, 2010

: The Town

Director: Ben Affleck

The first trailer of this I saw was a bewildering mess. I saw zero that interested me. There was no story, or action, or anything. But then I started hearing the critics raving and then that the public liked it as well (it was the number one movie last weekend). That surprised me, so I watched the trailer. I don’t know if it was different or I just noticed more, but this time I found something intriguing. It wasn’t much: the whole bank robbery aspect seemed to be played down in such a way as to not be intriguing at all. What caught my attention was the subplot of Affleck’s character falling in love with the bank manager he kidnaps during the robbery. He wore a mask so she doesn’t know Ben was one of the gang that robbed her. That sounded fascinating, so I went and saw it today. It turns out to be an excellent film. I had worried that a lot of the Boston stuff would be too alien to me but other than a couple of scenes where I couldn’t understand what heavily accented actors said, that wasn’t an issue at all. The story is really about how hard it is to escape the criminal lifestyle when all your friends and family are trapped in that world. It’s a repeating cycle, with our leading man’s father already in prison and his son following his path. The romance with the girl helps change the man who wants out, but his pals don’t want to let him. He owes them and feels obligated, but being a criminal is going to ruin his life. While the film feels a little long and is sluggish at times, there were some action and chase sequences that I hadn’t expected. I also really liked the way the FBI guy tracking down the gang was presented, showing how he was, in his own way, just as ruthless as them. I really liked the ending, which was realistic and yet did not end the way I anticipated. Overall, an excellent film with solid performances, writing, and directing. I don’t know if it’s a great film — it seems lacking some depth that would take it there — but it’s definitely above average and well worth seeing. A solid B+ in my book.

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Tue, Sep 21, 2010

: The American

The trailers actually turned me off of this one, but then I read about the conflicting opinions of critics (highly positive) and audiences (highly negative). Apparently normal people hated it because the trailers led them to expect a big action thriller while this is a thoughtful, slow-moving art film. Aspects of the latter tempted me to see it, and I’m glad I did as I like it a great deal. It’s not perfect, but it is a intriguing film. The best way to describe this film is to detail one scene: a woman approaches a staircase carrying a gun and as she climbs up, we see in the blurry background behind, almost as an afterthought, a body lying in a pool of red blood. There is no explanation of what happened to the man. What movie skips a chance to show the action of a kill? But this was far creepier, letting the mystery haunt us and raising our opinion of the woman’s killing skills. It was brilliant and subtle and embodies the entire movie, which often eschews action for thought-provoking drama. In terms of story, there isn’t much of one. Basically it’s about a hit-man having qualms of conscience while hiding out in rural Italy. I had worried I’d be bored, but the European environment is so beautiful and real (ancient stone buildings, cobblestone walks, garden-like landscapes, outdoor cafes, and street markets), and scenes are shot with grim tension of mystery and something about to happen (an homage to Sergio Leone’s amazing Westerns), that I was alert almost the entire time. A huge reason for that feeling is a shocking and unexpected event that happens minutes into the film that sets a tone for the unexpected. On top of great cinematography we have fantastic performances from the excellent cast: George Clooney in the lead does some of the best work I’ve seen from him, with huge stretches of him merely thinking and yet we can tell what’s going on in his inscrutable mind. Impressive. Yes, the film is languid-paced and artfully photographed and there is little explained directly (the audience is expected to think), but if you’re the type to see those as good things rather than negatives, you’ll like this film. If they turn you off, you’ll hate it. I will say I agree that the marketing of the film is completely wrong and the title is horrible as it implies a political thriller and this has nothing to do with that at all (in fact, we are never even told who the target of the assassin, or who is paying for it). I vastly prefer the book’s title of “A Very Private Gentleman.” I don’t know why they changed it as the current title sets up expectations it can’t deliver.

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Fri, Sep 17, 2010

: Devil

The trailer and premise didn’t interest me at all (nor did M. Night’s involvement), but then I read some positive reviews and heard that the script was written by Brian Nelson, the guy who did fantastic work on Hard Candy. The kicker was that the movie was only 80-minutes and I didn’t feel like a long movie today. So I gave it a go and came home happy. It’s nothing remarkable, but a solid B- or C+. The premise is gimmicky — a group of strangers are trapped in an elevator as one by one they are murdered by the devil who is one of the group — but it surprisingly works. It’s actually impressive they are able to pull it off. However, it is a strain to do it. One of the ways the film does it is by having a great deal of the story be set outside the elevator, detailing the rescue attempt and the police detective trying to solve he murders via the elevator’s video feed. Unfortunately, that external viewpoint takes away from the claustrophobic atmosphere that I expected: this could have been a much more intriguing film if it felt more like we, the audience, were also trapped in the elevator with the tiny group and a murderous devil among us. I didn’t feel it was scary at all. (As a side note, I thought the filming of the elevator sequences was poor as there was often little indication of the size of the room. Especially late on when there are few people left and the tiny room is full of dead bodies, it should have been incredibly confining and creepy, but from the camerawork it might as well have been a spacious hotel room.) Overall, this is a gimmick film, not particularly original and though some reviews thought the resolution clever, it was predictable and nothing more than a “Ten Little Indians” rehash for me. That doesn’t negate the whole experience as there are some interesting aspects I enjoyed (the themes of crime and forgiveness are neat), but just don’t expect awesomeness.

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Fri, Sep 10, 2010

: Resident Evil: Afterlife 3D

Typical of these kinds of films, this is less of a movie than a series of set pieces. They don’t always join together or make much sense (the beginning sequence is especially bewildering), but often they are quite fun and entertaining. The hyped 3D in this isn’t much: a few of the slow-motion action scenes include 3D bullets shooting toward you. I did like the 3D rain in a couple of scenes. But I wouldn’t recommend you pay extra for the 3D. The film itself is not bad. It’s not great, even among the others in this series, but it does have a few terrific moments, some nice action scenes, a few scares, and some interesting scenery. The plot is… well, nonsensical would be charitable. But then these movies don’t really need a plot more that “a group of people trapped by killer zombies.” That the film tries to be more than that is reaching and comes across as pretentious. I also wasn’t too impressed with the ending, which is one of those annoying “stop in the middle of a sentence and wait for the sequel” endings. But overall, a fun film if you like zombie movies. If you like the previous ones, you’ll probably like this one.

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: Talent is Overrated

Author: Geoff Colvin

Cool book with a simple premise: that what makes great performers — in any field — isn’t innate “talent” but hard work. Lots of evidence and research is cited to prove this point, showing how even child prodigies aren’t so prodigious when we really examine them. For instance, Tiger Woods’ father starting teaching his son golf when the boy was 18 months old! Is it any wonder he was a “prodigy” by age five? The reality is simply that by that age Tiger had already had more golf experience and training than most of us do in our entire life, and by the time he was an adult, he’d been working extremely hard at his craft his whole life. Of course Tiger had drive and a keen interest in golf. If he hadn’t, he wouldn’t have kept up with his training. But basically any of us could be a great performer in any field we want simply by working really hard at it.

I like this premise because it makes more sense to me than the idea that some people are just born with a genetic disposition to do something like write or make music or trade stocks. The truth is we’re born with no skills at all. We might have certain physical gifts that help us or family that lean us in a direction (i.e. literary parents are more likely to read to their young children who will grow up with stronger verbal skills), but it’s up to us to do the work.

The book’s well-written but takes a lot of pages to make its simple point. I suppose if you’re inclined to disagree with the point you may need the additional convincing, but I really like the idea that there is no such thing as talent, only skill, so I didn’t need much convincing. The good thing about the book is the way it has changed my thinking: I am literally deleting the word “talent” from my vocabulary. I will replace it with “skill.” Think how that changes your perspective. If I say to you, “You don’t have any talent for singing” versus “You don’t have any skill for singing.” With the first phrase, you’re likely to just give up and not try. But with the second, you might think, “Hey! I could learn that skill.” In other words, this book is inspiring and empowering. Well worth the read.

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Fri, Sep 03, 2010

: Machete

Director: Robert Rodriguez

Probably not for everyone’s taste, but I enjoyed this a lot. If you liked Grindhouse you’ll like this (you’ll remember this film came from one of the fake movie trailers within that film). It’s ultra-everything — violence, sex, acting — it’s just over-the-top fun. It’s like the coolest late night movie ever. The plot surprised me by being more complicated than I expected. I thought it was a simple revenge flick (Machete going after the people who killed his family), but the story involves a corrupt politician and the Texas border war. It’s really too convoluted at times and the film’s probably 20-30 minutes too long. There are also strange gaps in logic and some characters magically seem to know everything that happened to other characters even though they weren’t there. But you don’t see a film like this for the plot. This is all about crazy stunts, cool badass killers, and hot chicks. Some of the stuff that happens is so outrageous as to be absurd — like the film’s tongue-in-cheek homage to Die Hard — hilarious! Unfortunately the film isn’t quite up to the Grindhouse standard: some of the acting is downright horrible (e.g. Steven Segal), and after all the build-up, the ending is a letdown (nothing too dramatic or outrageous happens). I think the filmmakers got distracted by the complex plot and immigration politics and got too serious at the end. The bottom line is that his is a film of moments: tons of hilarious and terrific set pieces and scenes, mixed in with a few awkward ones that don’t work, and the sum total isn’t great art. It’s fun, stylish, and I’m sure it’ll be a cult classic (like Grindhouse), but it falls a little short of my high expectations. That said, it’s worth seeing if you’re into this type of film. Like Piranha 3D, it’s a blast.

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Sat, Aug 21, 2010

: Piranha 3D

In short: if you’re the type who finds the premise of this kind of film hilarious, you’ll love this movie. If you’re the type who wants to take this kind of film seriously, you’ll hate it. Me, I’m the former: I always think of these kinds of films as comedies, even if they aren’t, and this one fits the bill perfectly. It’s so ridiculously over-the-top it’s wonderful: corny, gratuitous, outrageous, scandalous, gruesome, and utterly hilarious. It’s not scary at all — the people feel like cartoons, and they’re treated as such: there are perhaps more half-eaten torsos and severed limbs than intact bodies in the movie! The “plot” of the film is perfectly minimal: spring break on a lake with prehistoric piranha released by a recent subterranean earthquake. That gives the producers full license for a literal bloodbath of scantily clad beauties being eaten by veracious piranha. There’s a slight story involving the rescue of the female sheriff’s two young children, which gives the film some needed tension, but I was impressed by the film’s pitch-perfect setup and build-up to the grand fishfood climax. The film’s definitely better done than most of these kind of low-budget made-for-cable flicks, with some big stars hamming it up (Christopher Lloyd was awesome and Elisabeth Shue was surprisingly terrific as the sheriff) and quite good special effects. The 3D is actually pretty cool. I hate the stupid glasses, but once you get into the film you soon forget about them, and in several of the scenes the 3D really added to the atmosphere. Overall, this is not a serious film by any measure. It’s mere popcorn silliness, but it’s a blast. Definitely rated R, this isn’t for kids, but if you aren’t offended by naked spring breakers being eaten by the dozen (or find it a positive thing ;-), then go for it!

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Fri, Aug 20, 2010

: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

I had never even heard of the comic book this was based upon so I came into this with any expectations. The plot sounded interesting: a guy must defeat his new girlfriend’s seven evil ex-boyfriends in order to date her. What surprised me was the film’s unusual style — perhaps that’s similar to the comic, but I wasn’t expecting that at all. It’s very much a live action video game, completely with game sounds and animations when players — I mean actors — punch each other. Other aspects are comic booky, such as animated text indicating sounds (i.e. a phone goes “RRRIINNNNGGG”) and text panes as transitions between scenes. This creates a certain surrealness to the proceedings, as well as a hip sense of humor. I like that a lot. At times, however, it seemed a bit much, and as the movie went on, it occasionally became irritating. Part of the problem is that the plot feels too slight, with the result that the film’s style soon becomes the film’s only depth, and that feels quite shallow and a bit silly. The plot is pretty much what I’d heard about the fighting the exes. It’s very well done: each of the ex-boyfriends has a different fighting style, personality, etc., and the way Scott Pilgrim defeats them is cool and interesting. There’s a hint of further depth — sort of a catharsis of saying goodbye to your ex-loves and moving on — but it’s not very well handled and there never really is an explanation about why Scott must battle the exes. Ultimately, this is a wonderful spectacle: fun, imaginative, and colorful, with excellent performances by the cast who go whole-heartedly into this world, but the film lacks purpose and heart and ends up feeling like an experiment in style. That’s too bad, because this could have been incredible. Instead it’s worth seeing for the interesting style, but not much else. The story’s just too weak to support the spectacle.

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Fri, Aug 13, 2010

: The Expendables

Decent actioner, a bit of a throw-back to 80s action movies, with tons of huge older stars though most aren’t much more than cameos. I liked the atmosphere of the film, the cast, and a lot of the shoot-em-up action was excellent, but the film’s 30 minutes too long and the plot is far too simple. (Basically, it’s mercenaries hired to kill an island nation’s dictator.) With such a simple plot, when you get to the end you say, “What was the point of all that?” and “That’s it?” Go for the cast and don’t expect much and you’ll be pleased.

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Fri, Aug 06, 2010

: The Other Guys

I wasn’t super-excited about this as the trailer was hit-and-miss, but I had a ball. It was hilarious. I really like this kind of absurd, over-the-top humor. I actually laughed out loud on several occasions, and that’s rare. Sure, it’s a silly film, but there’s nothing at all wrong with that. Some of the jokes are quite clever, and it’s a lot of a fun. I worried there would be a lot of childish potty humor, but there wasn’t too much. Mark Wahlberg’s angry character got annoying after a while (I wanted to punch him myself), but fortunately that toned down as the film went on. The second half of the film is definitely weaker than the first, as it strains for sustainable ideas, but the ending is satisfying enough. I loved concepts like the wooden gun given to Farrell’s cop character and how that was a running joke throughout the movie (same with the joke of Wahlberg’s character having shot the famous baseball player I’d never heard of). Overall, I thought this was awesome. Way better than something like The Hangover (which was funny, but in a nastier way). This had a sense of fun to it, as though everyone involved was having a great time.

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Sat, Jul 31, 2010

: The Sirens of Titan

Author: Kurt Vonnegut

This is a bizarre, ambitious, and genius bit of work from Vonnegut. It’s somewhat a science-fiction piece, with time-travel and interplanetary voyages, but it really is about the quest for the meaning of life. The joke is that the sum total of all human endeavor turns out to be for the sole purpose of assisting a stranded alien motorist. But Kurt presents all this in a wild tale of manipulation, fortune-telling, war, and religion that is fascinating. The plot is difficult to describe. Basically a man on Earth tries to fly to Mars and gets caught in a time-loop of some sort: he’s basically stuck in every moment time, past and future. He appears on earth and elsewhere as a projection, but he can communicate, so he starts manipulating people on Earth to start a war between Mars and Earth. You don’t find out his ultimate purpose until closer to the end of the book. It’s a wild story, interestingly told. I found Kurt’s science-fiction aspects to be very well done. He invents cool new places and creatures really well. Some of the technology he describes is quite old-school and dated (I’m not sure when this story was written, but I think vacuum tubes were still popular then), but in the end such things are minor parts of the novel. Ultimately, I’m not quite sure where this all leads. If his purpose is to say that there is no purpose, he’s defeated himself in the process. Either way, the ending is a letdown; much ado about nothing. That doesn’t take away from the many positives of the book, but it does keep it from being great. It’s a worthwhile read for everything else, however. I recommend it to Vonnegut fans.

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Fri, Jul 30, 2010

: Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore

I am embarrassed just to type the ridiculous title of this silly film, but even more shameful is that this was the best choice in new films this weekend. Still, talking animal movies can be fun. Unfortunately, this one isn’t. It’s sadly just not funny. (Tired jokes about dogs sniffing rear ends predominate.) The best jokes are the ones that are barely shown, almost afterthoughts. Such as my favorite: the labels on the gearshift in the jet car. High speed is K9 (ha ha) but stop is the classic, “Stay.” These kind of background jokes provide a few smiles, but the surrounding film moves at a pace too quick for you to really see or enjoy those things. The film’s worst flaw is that the creators seemed to think that animals talking exposition is not as bad as humans talking exposition. You know what? It’s worse. When animals do it not only is it dreadfully boring, but it ruins the magic of animals talking at all. There are a few bright spots: I loved the pigeon’s dim-witted and short-attention-span character, and I saw hope in the brief moments when talking animals and humans interacted: that, at least, was interesting, as the animals had to pretend to be dumb. But that happens too infrequently and doesn’t go far enough: I would have liked to have seen that be a major aspect of the film: dogs and cats as spies in the human world, saving us from ourselves. Visually, the film isn’t terrible, but it’s nothing special either. I’m not even sure I recommend this on DVD. Young kids may find it mildly amusing, but adults should stay far away. Sad.

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Fri, Jul 23, 2010

: Salt

The most interesting thing about this film is the pacing: non-stop. It’s a little slow to get going, but once the action starts, it doesn’t let up for a second. I’m not sure that’s a good thing, though, because non-stop punching and running becomes monotonous and uninteresting just like anything else. As for the plot… the less said the better. It’s one of those plots that is designed to sound impressive but has no meat on the bones. It’s absurd and makes little sense (I think I missed something important because I didn’t get it), but the movie moves so fast you don’t notice or much care. You don’t care much about anything or anyone in the film, really. It’s an okay thrill-ride, but it reminds me of one of those amusement park rides with the four mile line and six hour wait and then the ride is two minutes of blur and you get off, slightly dizzy, wondering, “Is that all there is?”

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Fri, Jul 16, 2010

: Inception

Author: Christopher Nolan

Director: Christopher Nolan

Wow. Greatest mind-trip ever. Makes a Charlie Kaufman movie seem normal. I went in with the highest expectations and I can comfortably say those were more than met. I was leery about the two-and-a-half hour run time but I never even noticed the passage of time. It felt like minutes. (Which is interesting, since that’s a key concept in the film.) The plot is too difficult to describe and it shouldn’t be anyway, both since the film does it so well and it’s a much more interesting journey not having it spoiled. Let’s just say it’s an incredibly convoluted story about dreams within dreams within dreams, where the difference between reality and dreams blend. But unlike so many films that introduce complications just to confuse the viewer and make the story seem deeper, here, though things are amazingly complex, it’s handled to deftly that everything makes remarkable sense. Only at the very beginning was I confused, but it wasn’t the kind of confusion that irritates. In many films information is deliberately withheld to keep the viewer in the dark and that’s frustrating and tedious. Here the things we don’t know are part of the plot. That beginning that seemed too convoluted, soon makes sense, and by the end of the film makes complete sense. This film feels like it should be more confusing than it is. I’ve seen many movies with much simpler stories that felt far more confusing. In fact, the plot seems almost simple the way it’s dished out! But it’s not at all simple: it’s a powerful and intricate story, a story about love and loss and longing. The film has everything: action, fantastic scenery, drama, heartbreak, tension, wonderful characters and acting, surprise twists, and powerful emotions. What’s amazing about the special effects is that despite being startling visuals, they feel like backdrop they are so seamless. In one sequence I realized I’d been watching for several minutes before I realized that everyone was floating (it was a world without gravity) and the technical difficulty of such visuals hit me. It had just seemed so natural and normal! The same with the excellent performances of the cast, who ground everything and keep our reality in check. I loved this movie. Highly recommend if you have a brain and like trippy rides. You won’t be disappointed.

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Thu, Jul 15, 2010

: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Surprisingly good. It’s very light, a total popcorn flick, but well done and pleasant. There’s nothing remarkable here — but there’s nothing horrible either. There’s humor, action, overdone special effects, and the plot is slight (bad wizard against good wizard), but it works. Above average in a genre of average.

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Tue, Jul 13, 2010

: Predators

I’ve seen the original Predator a few times. The first two times, I fell asleep watching it. The first time I had an excuse, since it was very late at night, but the second time I was just confused and bored. It wasn’t until the third when I actually figured out what the heck was going on. The film is dark and confusing, intercut with scenes from the alien’s point-of-view and blury shots of mindless action. But that third viewing showed me it’s not a bad movie and I sort of liked it. I’m not the biggest fan, though, and I wasn’t super-excited about this retread. I am surprised to express how much I liked this. It’s not a great film, and there are many flaws, but the ride was fun. The premise is old (a minor variation of the old “hunter becomes the hunted” chestnut and the whole “Most Dangerous Game” story). In this case, top criminals and killers from Earth are kidnapped and dropped onto a strange planet with several Predators hunting them. The very beginning is rocky and not too interesting as these strangers all wake up on the planet and want to kill each other. Most of the characters are little more than stereotypes and we aren’t given much in the way of backgrounds, only job titles. Once they figure out where they are and who the real enemy is, things get more interesting. (Part of the problem with a film with such a simple premise like this is that while we, the audience, understand the premise in ten seconds, it takes the characters on the screen a laborious 30 minutes to figure things out.) There are a few twists and turns, but overall this is little more than a “kill one character off a time” story. But there were aspects that kept me interested: dramatic tension, good performances (Topher Grace in particular), decent action and special effects, the seemingly overwhelming odds against the humans, occasional humor (very welcome), the pluckiness of some characters, and curiosity as to how the story would end. There was nothing truly surprising, but that was okay, as the conclusion was satisfying enough. Again, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this. Somehow the mediocre pieces assembled into something that was greater than their sum. It’s not a brain stretcher by any measure, but definitely entertaining.

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Fri, Jul 09, 2010

: Despicable Me

During this movie’s opening trailers, they showed the promo for the movie Megamind, which is so similar sounding — an animated story about an incompetent evil supervillain with a superarchrival — that I realized I had two movies mixed together. I remember being surprised this was out now as I had thought it wasn’t coming until later in the year (that’s Megamind). So I really wasn’t at all sure what to expect from this. It turned out to be an enjoyable film. Though there are numerous problems with pacing and the humor’s inconsistent (it’s not very funny very often), the heart of the film is genuinely touching. Basically our bad guy is Gru (The Office’s Steve Carrell in an annoying Eastern European accent) who wants to be the best bad guy on the planet and to prove it comes up with an outrageous plot to steal the moon. There’s zero sense of reality here — no explanation of what monetary value would be obtained by doing that, nor any disastrous consequences to the planet if the moon were suddenly gone — which I found unsettling. But what makes the film work is when Gru, as part of his nefarious plot, adopts three orphan girls who proceed, via their childish innocence and charm, to sabotage all of Gru’s plans and slowly change him from a bad bad guy to a good bad guy. This part of the film is well done and I loved the way Gru’s character reluctantly changed. It was both hilarious and touching. The ending is sweet and overall I was pleased. Though the first half of the movie is somewhat rough, the core story helps smooth things over and in the end, I really liked this.

Topic: [/movie]

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Wed, Jul 07, 2010

: The Last Airbender

Author: M. Night Shyamalan

Director: M. Night Shyamalan

I had never even heard of the TV cartoon series this was based on until I heard about this film about a year ago (back then I mostly thought it was weird making a live-action film of a cartoon when it’s usually the other way around). I guess that’s a good thing, because it sounds like fans are disappointed. Me, not so much. Contrary to most critics, who are blasting this thing, I didn’t have a problem with it. Now I had low expectations going in, so perhaps that helped, but the big thing was not knowing anything about the story and setting. Sure, the dialog was lame and hokey, the mostly no-name actors lived up to their billing, and there are serious problems with the script, but I found the fantasy story fascinating and interesting, and the unusual setting more than offset those negatives.

Basically in this fantasy world there are four groups of people, each corresponding to a different basic element (earth, wind, fire, and water). Some of these people can “bend” their element — i.e. use their mind to manipulate matter. One special guy — strangely called the Avatar — can manipulate all four. Because of that, he’s incredibly powerful and keeps the four nations in check. He’s continuously reincarnated so he’s always around in some form to keep the balance over the centuries. But 100 years ago he vanished and hasn’t been seen since. The fire nation took over and started to beat up the other nations, and now they’ve taken over most of the world. At the beginning of the film two children of the Southern Water nation discover a child hidden beneath the ice: he turns out to be the Avatar, who thinks only a few days have passed. Unfortunately, his training is incomplete: he only knows how to master air, not the other elements. So begins a grand quest to fight the Fire nation. The Avatar must be trained, and there are interesting elements going on within the Fire nation camp as well. The plot is dense and has the feeling of an epic adventure, a la Lord of the Rings. I worried about how they could cram that into a 105-minute movie. The answer: they didn’t. The film ends in the middle of a sentence, really, with everything set up for future films. In this one, there is resolution to a battle and there’s a terrific sacrifice made (I loved that plot point). I can see enough of this grand story to understand both why fans loved the original series and why they are upset with this condensed version. This is deep, epic material, and it does not translate well dumbed down to a single film. This shows throughout the film, which feels choppy and awkward in many places, as though things were missing. Many scenes feel rushed or cut short, and some events are implied, rather than shown or explained. Sometimes this was confusing, but most of the time it was just odd. For instance, in one scene the children are in a forest with other people with no explanation of how they got there and no introduction of the others. Since the children are on the run, I found it odd that they would be hanging around near civilization where the enemy soldiers are located, and that’s never explained. But while these flaws no doubt bother the purists and hard-core fans, I was intrigued by the wonderful scenery — fantastic venues of landscape and ice worlds — and compelled by the complex story. I never quite got the reward I wanted from the story, which felt incomplete, but the scenery at least made the ride pleasant.

I came out of the theatre satisfied. I got what I expected: a rousing adventure with an unusual setting and interesting (though not spectacular) special effects. I didn’t expect great dialog or acting and I didn’t get it (though one or two actors and scenes stood out). I was puzzled because I’d heard that critics thought this was awful, but it’s not any worse than other big Hollywood action flicks such as Iron Man 2. This is a popcorn movie. Go, relax, and have fun. Most of the critics seem to be judging Shyamalan, not the movie, and expecting too much from a once-great director, and most of the disappointed viewers seem to be fans of the TV show who are annoyed at all the changes and chopped up bits. That the film also has myriad small problems makes it ripe for picking, but this film is typical Hollywood in my book. I don’t get all the outrage. Sure, this premise had great potential that’s unrealized, but it’s not that bad. I wouldn’t exactly recommend it, but it’s watchable.

Topic: [/movie]

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Thu, Jun 24, 2010

: Sellavision

Author: Augusten Burroughs

This is a bizarre book. I’d heard of the author (he did Running with Scissors) but this wasn’t what I expected at all. I expected a biting satire about home shopping TV and while there’s some of that, it’s presented within interrelated tales of several “Sellavision” hosts. It’s depressing, as the network seems to have a knack for destroying the lives of all these hosts, as we watch one guy get fired for accidentally exposing his penis on TV and then eventually, becoming a gay porn star, while a woman ends up in the looney bin. While some of these stories are interesting, I didn’t really care about any of the characters, which made this for an endless read. It’s well-done in many ways, and I liked the way everything wrapped up at the end, but throughout the entire book I kept wondering, “Where the heck is this going?” and I never did get a satisfactory answer. It’s just a slice of life, I guess, like a stream of consciousness. There’s no real plot, just excerpts. Not terrible, but not what I expected or wanted, and I was disappointed. And some of the sex stuff was really unanticipated and offensive.

Topic: [/book]

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: Killers

I was mildly intrigued by these when I saw the trailers, and then it bombed at the box office and got such horrible reviews my interest evaporated. But I had a free movie ticket that was expiring, and this was the only film qualified (the ticket didn’t work for new releases and I’d seen everything else). To my surprise, this isn’t nearly as bad as people say. In fact, I rather liked it. The plot is incredibly, inanely dumb and makes no sense at all. Basically our hero’s a spy or assassin or something, meets the beautiful girl and retires and marries her. Years later there’s a hit out on our killer (someone’s posted an absurd $20 million bounty for his head) and she learns of his past life. The two then try to fight off a hoard of killers when it seems everyone they know is a sleeper agent watching them and waiting for the order to kill. The key “reveal” at the end is even more ridiculous. But the lame plot is only an excuse to see the couple squabble over guns and killing, and for some mindless action. There are definite problems with those aspects of the movie as well, but I still liked their relationship and found it interesting and fun, especially as the girl learns how to shoot guns and becomes a little bit of a badass (her character is the non-adventurous type). One annoyance was when the two squabbled over silly marital things in the middle of running for their lives — I guess it was supposed to be funny but it had a serious edge to it that I found distasteful and distracting. Overall, this is a weak film. It has many problems. It’s slow to get going, it can’t quite decide if it’s a comedy, an action film, a drama, or a love story, and in the end it’s just a mishmash of genres that doesn’t work. But the film does have some good moments. There are some good scenes, some good lines and decent acting, and the leads are fairly charming. I might be biased because I had a free ticket, but I was surprised at how much I didn’t hate this. It was amusing in a brain-dead way.

Topic: [/movie]

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: USA versus Algeria

What a fantastic game and result for the United States. What impressed me the most was their composure and lack of panic, even when we had another goal incorrectly called off, hit the post and it just wouldn’t go in, and time was running out. That goal was terrific team play well-executed, not a desperate Hail Mary. Best of all, the U.S. win the group — an amazing feat few would have predicted — and now we avoid the Germany side of the bracket and have the potential to go far in this tournament. It’s not going to be easy by any stretch, but I like the way the team has progressed and matured, and after the trials they’ve had so far to reach this stage, I believe they are ready. A huge day for American soccer.

Topic: [/soccer/world cup]

Link

: USA versus Algeria

What a fantastic game and result for the United States. What impressed me the most was their composure and lack of panic, even when we had another goal incorrectly called off, hit the post and it just wouldn’t go in, and time was running out. That goal was terrific team play well-executed, not a desperate Hail Mary. Best of all, the U.S. win the group — an amazing feat few would have predicted — and now we avoid the Germany side of the bracket and have the potential to go far in this tournament. It’s not going to be easy by any stretch, but I like the way the team has progressed and matured, and after the trials they’ve had so far to reach this stage, I believe they are ready. A huge day for American soccer.

Topic: [/soccer]

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Wed, Jun 23, 2010

: Knight and Day

When I first saw the short trailers for this I thought it looked awful. The story made no sense and it looked incredibly lame, especially because of the big stars and budget. But then I saw the full trailer in a theatre where they explained the part about Tom Cruise’s character possibly being a rogue spy or mentally unstable. That sounded at least a little interesting and so I went to see it. I rather liked it. It’s not a hugely complicated movie, but it is fun, quick-paced, and not boring. The “plot” is basically Cruise running into Cameron Diaz in an airport, and eventually kidnapping her and taking her on all sorts of wild adventures as people try to kill them. She’s never sure if he’s sincere or lying through those perfect teeth of his. That aspect is quite delicious and fun and Cruise is perfectly cast. Cameron does her job really well, but she still felt out of place. I really liked her in places and at other times she seemed miscast. But that’s a niggling thing: most of the time the casting works great and the film’s a fun roller-coaster that doesn’t stop. The plot is gimmicky and doesn’t make much sense, but this isn’t an intellectual thing by any stretch. It’s a fun shoot-em-up and watch-the-pretty-people-fall-in-love film. By that yardstick, I had a great time.

Topic: [/movie]

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Tue, Jun 22, 2010

: Jonah Hex

The reviews of this film are dreadful and I expected the worst, but you know what? It’s not that bad. It’s mildly fun, the Civil War era setting is interesting, and the plot… well, there isn’t much of a plot. The plot’s definitely one of the key weaknesses, and there are many flaws. The biggest flaw is haphazard nature of the story structure. We’re told of Jonah’s past in awkward flashbacks and dramatic glimpses which are supposed to be profound but come of bewildering and lame. Apparently Jonah killed the main bad guy’s son (who, I guess, betrayed him), and it’s the bad guy who brands Jonah’s face. But instead of telling that in a coherent linear fashion, the film jumps all around crazily, with the result that we don’t really care about any of the characters, even Jonah. The story is about how the bad guy is out to steal a “nation-killer” weapon just so he can blow up the world (he’s an angry guy). Not especially interesting or original, and too far-fetched for reality. But despite these problems, the film’s sort of fun in a campy way. It’s silly and absurd, and not at all the way I would I done this film, but I don’t think it’s the worst movie ever made by a long shot. Disappointing, I suppose, if you were expecting more.

Topic: [/movie]

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Fri, Jun 18, 2010

: Toy Story 3

Would it be too much praise to say I liked this sequel better than the previous two? Yes, it’s that good. This one is by far the most emotional. It tells the tale of the toys when their owner Andy is getting ready to leave for college and must decide what to do with his toys. The ending had me in tears. So bittersweet! I loved all the adventures of the toys: ending up in a day care center, a wonderful toy-filled environment. I loved the classic characters we get to see again, the new characters (including a sweet-looking teddy bear that is incredibly vicious), the hilarious Barbi and Ken combo, and even the humans have more of a presence this time. I loved the cleverness of the visuals and the imaginative use of toys for non-intended purpose. But most of all I loved the story, with its wonderful themes of loss and discovery and the inevitability of change and aging. Powerful stuff, wonderfully told. Plenty of meat for adults and wonderful for children. Hilarious, fun, and brilliant. Best movie of the year so far. Fascinating pre-movie short, “Day and Night,” too. Very clever. A must see.

Topic: [/movie]

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: USA versus Slovenia

If you missed this game today, you missed something amazing. I’m not sure whether I should love this team or hate this team. They made elementary errors early on to put themselves in a huge 2-0 hole in the first half, but rallied back incredibly to secure a 2-2 draw. A draw that should have been a win if it wasn’t for the referee who canceled out the USA’s winning goal for an invisible foul that apparently only he saw. The draw keeps us alive in the group — actually, with England’s woeful 0-0 draw we’re in a good position where a win in our final match will send us through — but why must the USA always be playing from behind? We must get our act together and play better against Algeria on Wednesday. If we play like the second half in this one, we’ll be fine. I just hope that first half team doesn’t show up.

Topic: [/soccer]

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: USA versus Slovenia

If you missed this game today, you missed something amazing. I’m not sure whether I should love this team or hate this team. They made elementary errors early on to put themselves in a huge 2-0 hole in the first half, but rallied back incredibly to secure a 2-2 draw. A draw that should have been a win if it wasn’t for the referee who canceled out the USA’s winning goal for an invisible foul that apparently only he saw. The draw keeps us alive in the group — actually, with England’s woeful 0-0 draw we’re in a good position where a win in our final match will send us through — but why must the USA always be playing from behind? We must get our act together and play better against Algeria on Wednesday. If we play like the second half in this one, we’ll be fine. I just hope that first half team doesn’t show up.

Topic: [/soccer/world cup]

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Fri, Jun 11, 2010

: The A-Team

I went into this with trepidation and not much hope. I’m a fan of the cheesy-but-fun 80s TV series but I wasn’t sure what direction they would take. Would this be a satirical vision of the show like the Brady Bunch movie? A clumsy and flat redo like Bewitched? Often these remakes are too self-aware or try to recreate the original so exactly it fails to be anything new.

I am pleased to report that the A-Team, while certainly far from perfect, gets most things right. It strikes a nice balance between new and familiar, with actors similar to the originals, but bringing their own flair for the role. (All are pretty good, but the standouts are Liam Neeson as Hannibal and Bradley Cooper as Face.) The script is excellent, with a perfect blend of humor and action. It’s not so chock-full of one-liners it devolves into a parody or comedy, yet humor is a critical aspect of the original show. Plotwise, I was delighted. Yes, it’s over-the-top, over-complicated, and over-done, but the best decision was the way they combined an origin story with a new conflict. This is both new and familiar. From the TV show we know that the A-Team was “set up for a crime they didn’t commit” and now we get to see that, in addition to how the team members first met (and we find out why BA doesn’t like flying). But a lot of films like this go strictly for the origin story, which can feel wimpy because we know much of it already, or they try to crap two completely different stories into one script, and neither gets the screen time they need. Such results are unsatisfying. This script cleverly intertwines both into something we know something about but is also new and I enjoyed it. This is a fun film. It’s got a lot of what we love about the original show, but the remake modernizes some things, provides slightly more character development, and allows the new actors to provide their own stamp on things.

That said, there are lots of flaws. The plot’s overly complicated and the film goes on forever (it should have been 20 minutes shorter). Some of the events are beyond far-fetched and the green screen special effects are truly horrible — we’re talking video game animation quality for explosions and stuff. The climax at the shipyard is truly awful. However, in a way that fits right in with the TV series, which, while it didn’t have obviously digital effects, had pretty bad stunts. That’s one of the things that gave the show its lovable B-movie nature. And it works here, too, though I think they should have gone even cruder. The way it is it feels like a mistake; like they tried and failed. It should have felt either low-budget or intentionally fake, like a parody movie. But if you don’t take it seriously, it still feels fun.

Overall, that’s the key to take from this movie. Have Face’s reaction to everything — always good-natured, with that too-perfect grin no matter what awful thing is happening to you — and you’ll have a blast. Leave your critical brain at home and go have fun!

Topic: [/movie]

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Mon, Jun 07, 2010

: Lost (series finale)

The series is now concluded. Over the past weekend and several days, I watched the entire final season — all 18 hours or so (much less when you skip commercials). I’ve been saving them on my DVR so I could watch them in one sitting, because the show’s cliffhangers drive me nuts. I didn’t quite do it in one sitting, but found it surprisingly compelling and often stayed up well past midnight to watch one or two more episodes.

First, let me give the standard spoiler warning, because I cannot discuss this show without giving things away, so if you haven’t watched the finale yet, don’t read any further. (I’ll try to avoid spoilers as much as I can, but you are warned.)

Second, let me preface my comments by pointing out my history with the show since that influences my impressions. When Lost first debuted, I tuned in. After about two or three episodes, I dropped out. The show reminded me way too much of J.J. Abrams’ Alias, which I hated. Like that show, Lost seemed to throw out lots of weirdness or dramatic plot twists with no rhyme or reason. I had little faith that the show had any rational explanation behind the weirdness. While I was intrigued by many of the ideas and I liked the concept of the show, I just didn’t trust the producers (which I felt had betrayed me on Alias) and so I stopped watching.

Over the years, I tuned in occasionally, but I probably only saw an episode or two a year — just enough to remind me how much I didn’t know about the show. Some seasons I saw more episodes and had a slightly better idea of what was going on. More recently, Lost reruns started on cable and I recorded them and watched them on fast-forward. Basically I skipped through storylines I didn’t understand or care about, and mostly followed the main plot and the stories of the main characters. That may not sound like the best way to watch Lost, but the interesting thing is that it worked. Not only did I catch up with what was happening (for the most part) without it taking nearly as much time, but I started to see how the show was tying in stuff from the earlier seasons. Events in earlier episodes that had seemed random and just bizarre for weirdness sake suddenly had real explanations. I got hooked. Last season I recorded and watched most of the season all at once, and I did the same thing this season. (That is by far the best way to watch Lost, in my opinion. It is not a show that benefits from a weekly break.)

So, what do I think of the final season and the show in general? Here we go.

In many ways, Lost is an impressive show. It features terrific drama, amazing actors, unusual story arcs, wonderful music, and of course, fantastic island landscapes and cinematography. From a storytelling perspective, it is almost the perfect show: a fantastic world where pretty much anything can happen. The show is an incredible blend of science fiction and fantasy, and I love the way it pits faith and science against each other, with non-spiritual characters becoming spiritual and vice versa. I also love the way its characters are not black and white, but wonderful shades of gray. You aren’t sure if people are truly evil or just making mistakes. The way the show sets up a person as a bad guy one week, then switching it around the next, is truly astonishing.

Much of this season reminded me of the very best of Lost. Instead of backstory of the characters, we followed them into the “sideways” universe, where the plane hadn’t crashed and things were similar but different. The crisis of faith versus science was brought to a head. Some of my very favorite moments of the series happened in this season.

Unfortunately, all that was ruined by the final episode. Take away the final episode and you’re still left with mystery and wonder. The finale tries to pull back the curtain so we see the little man running the show and we’re naturally disappointed. What I feared from the very beginning on the show became true: the producers had no idea where they were going and wrapped everything up in a convenient dream sequence. (I saw a joke on a competing show which claimed “the whole thing was a dog’s dream” — and sadly, that’s not too far off.)

The problem that I have with the finale is that Lost, from its inception, was a show grounded in reality. People died. People suffered. There were injuries and recoveries, tragedies and triumphs. People sacrificed themselves for others. People were greedy and selfish and cruel and evil and loving and kind. We were shown this over and over. No matter what odd or weird thing happened, the consequences were real. The show gave us the impression that there was science behind the mysteries. The unusual things had rational explanations. That is what made the show interesting. We tuned in to discover those explanations.

Please note that I’m not against supernatural explanations. I am a spiritual person and I have no problem with such a resolution, if it is done correctly. This was not. The finale was ham-handled, promising a great explanation and delivering nothing at all. It was a thin excuse by the producers to flash back through all the show’s events and actors and bring everyone together for a final scene. It was a feeble attempt to give viewers a “happy” ending while still resolving the show. It was a cheat and a con, and I feel betrayed. The finale taints the entire series for me. I would recommend people watch the show, but I would advise skipping the last episode which will only disappoint.

How should Lost have ended?
The problem, like I said, is that since the show has always been reality-based, it cannot suddenly turn to mysterious supernatural stuff at the very end. The show is violating its own laws of physics. That isn’t to say there couldn’t be a spiritual component to the explanation. The original Locke character, for instance, is considered the spiritual heart of the show. He was the man of faith — a converted skeptic, the most dedicated of all. Why not end with a little mystery? Give us a rational explanation for 90% of what we’ve seen and leave us with a spiritual loophole that a character like Locke can point out. Have a scientist-type person accept the technical explanation with some doubts, wondering if there’s more to the spiritual side that he’s neglecting. The method the Lost writers took was a cop out.

Unfortunately, I don’t know if there was ever a good way to end this series. The whole premise of the show was the mystery: what is the island? Why do such odd things happen there? Pretty much any explanation is going to leave you unsatisfied, either too mundane or too supernatural. The producers did a great job milking that mystery for six seasons, but end in the end, they ran out of places to hide. Far better to just let it end on a mysterious note, leave us wondering. Instead of wondering why we wasted six years of our life on this pointless story.

Topic: [/television]

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Fri, Jun 04, 2010

: Splice

Director: Vincenzo Natali

Cube is one of my most favorite movies of all time, so when I heard the director of Cube was doing Splice, I was intrigued, though the trailer and premise did not seem to offer much in the way of innovation. The story seemed too basic and predictable: two scientists splice together the DNA of several species, including human, to create a new creature — which then turns on them. Ho hum. Haven’t we seen that hundreds of years ago with Frankenstein’s monster?

I am pleased to report that this film is much better and deeper than the trailer suggests. What I didn’t get from the trailer is that the creature is less a monster and is nearly human — a beautiful woman, no less. That sets up intriguing relationship issues, which are really the core of the film. The husband and wife scientist team have their own problems, there’s the whole moral dilemma of playing God with human DNA (an issue I would have liked to have been explored more), and there’s the nature of the creature itself: is she human? The film asks a lot of intriguing questions. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t quite fit into any genre. That’s a bad thing because this isn’t quite enough of a horror film for folks who like that sort of thing, and science fiction fans will feel short-changed because there’s too much emphasis on the horror. Another awkward aspect — slight spoiler alert — is the concept of inter-species sex. That caught me completely by surprise (the trailer doesn’t even hint at that), and though it’s essential to the plot and perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the story, it was so unexpected it felt like a clip from a different movie had been spliced in (ha ha). The result is an uneven film: not quite horror, not quite science fiction, not really a love story. There’s not much action and the plot is fairly minimal as well (it reminded me of a play). The most intriguing aspect are the performances by the actors, which are all excellent, but even there we’re cut off from the true impact of the situation, unlike in David Cronenberg’s The Fly, which is probably the closest similar film. In that film, we felt the horror in our gut. In this one, it is interesting, but from a distance. We don’t know the scientists well enough to care about them that much, we don’t understand their motivations in creating the chimera, and we’re not sure how we feel about the creature (Is she good? Is she evil? Is she human or animal?). The bottom line is that this is a fantastic premise with intriguing possibilities that aren’t exploited, but skirted, and in the end, we’re left a little short. That isn’t to say this isn’t a film worth seeing. It’s got a lot going for it: great acting, unusual ideas, fascinating visuals, and a decent (though predictable) ending. Fans of Natali will probably like most of what they see. Hard-core horror fans will likely be the most disappointed as this really isn’t a monster flick like the trailer makes it sound: it’s much smarter than that, though not as smart as The Fly. Still, I recommend this if you’re into the genre or curious about the premise. It is definitely above average; it just didn’t quite reach the level I hoped.

Topic: [/movie]

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Tue, Jun 01, 2010

: Prince of Persia

I went into this movie with very low expectations based on my disinterest in the trailers (which were really boring and colorless) and my lack of knowledge about the video game upon which this is based. I had played an ancient version of the game once or twice, but not enough to understand the mythology of the story. The trailers gave me no hint of the story so I went in blind, expecting lame action without a brain. To my surprise, the story was quite good. It’s about an orphan boy adopted by the King and raised as a prince. His character’s somewhat roguish (it needed more development) but I liked the way the film played with our expectations of brother versus step-brother hatred and delivered something else (still a predictable storyline, but slightly more compelling than the obvious).

Anyway, there are plots and machinations against the King, the orphan prince becomes a fugitive framed for murder, and he escapes with a mysterious princess and a magic dagger that can turn back time. Once you get to the midway point things start to get overly convoluted and silly, and the ending is predictable and boring. But overall the film turned out to be better than I had expected. It’s actually got a decent story and okay action. It’s not a great movie by any stretch, but it’s not that bad. Much better than lame fluff like the Transformers franchise. Quite fun and some of the visuals are very well done. (The desert landscape and ancient Persian scenery is excellent. Why didn’t they show that in the trailers?) There are certainly worst ways to waste your time.

Topic: [/movie]

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Fri, May 28, 2010

: The Time-Traveler’s Wife

I was curious about this mostly because it’s such an intriguing premise: a guy randomly flitters through time (due to a genetic condition), meeting his wife at different times in her life. Of course this more focused on romance than science fiction, which was disappointing, as little of the time travel aspect is explained or makes any sense. It’s just a gimmick for the story. Worse, this story is an incredibly difficult feat to pull off as a movie, since it’s incredibly confusing, and I don’t think the producers quite succeeded. It’s an okay film, but it’s in pieces — individual scenes stand on their own, but the whole is a bewildering mess and too choppy to build any cohesive emotional resonance. Possibly better for fans of the novel, but I wasn’t as impressed as I hoped I would be.

Topic: [/movie]

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Thu, May 27, 2010

: Player Piano

Author: Kurt Vonnegut

Interesting and unusual book. I’m not sure exactly when it was written (I listened to the audiobook so I couldn’t exactly flip to the copyright page), but it’s obviously quite dated based on the technological terminology used. It’s set in the future in a 1984-ish totalitarian state. It’s a world where machines are replacing humans at all their jobs, upsetting the working class. It’s an interesting idea of a society, though many of the machines are hiliariously primitive (reminding me of the tech on the Flintstones). For example, there’s nothing like the Internet and even computers are hardly mentioned — instead there’s focus on automated machines that print and deliver newspapers.

But I found myself frustrated at the glacial pacing of the story. Individual scenes are entertaining and funny and interesting, but I wanted more of the actual story. The story, per se, is about our our main character, an elite of society, waking up and realizing what’s wrong with the world and what’s missing in his life. It is interesting but it just takes so long for this to happen. Many of the extra characters, like his wife, are purposely sketchy and thin, which meant I didn’t care about them, but of course they are important to the main character, so many scenes involve those other characters — meaning I was disinterested in many scenes. The whole thing just got tedious after a while. I think this is the type of book I would like better on a second reading. Once I actually know where the story’s going I’m more apt to enjoy the scenes for their own sake. As it was, I kept itching for the scene to finish so I could get on with the plot, which never did get going. Not Vonnegut’s best best work. It’s not bad — some aspects are quite brilliant and hilarious — but as a novel the thing feels long and is hard to get through.

Topic: [/book]

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: Shrek Forever After

It is obvious the franchise is losing steam. In the first few films the jokes and visual puns came at a machine gun pace, almost too rapid for comprehension — but in this one there were many long moments without any jokes at all. But it was still enjoyable, if not quite so innovative and funny. The plot was interesting and compelling. The story is about Shrek feeling overwhelmed as a new dad and husband and longing for his old life, so he makes a deal with Rumpelstiltskin to have his old life back just for one day. Of course there’s a catch as he ends up in an alternate future where he never rescued and married Fiona. That, of course, makes him realize that his old life was great. Worse, at the end of his “day” he’ll disappear, because in this version of the world he was never born. Only true love can break his contract with Rumpelstiltskin, so he has only one day to find Fiona and convince her that she loves him, though she’s never met him. Interesting story, though perhaps too serious at times. It was amusing to see the various familiar characters in different roles (Donkey was way less annoying), but that running gag got old fairly quickly. Overall this is a decent entry in the franchise and though it won’t disappoint too much, it’s not remarkable like the first film.

Topic: [/movie]

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Mon, May 24, 2010

: Why I’m Beginning to Hate Android

Google had their developer conference last week and they did a shocking amount of Apple bashing. I keep up with tech news, so I have been following all the back and forth. I have been struggling with my feelings and it’s been bothering me. I have literally been depressed — like unheathy depressed — and I realize a lot of it has to do with this Google-Apple battle. It reminds of the political scene, which I avoid completely, as the whole mess makes me want to move to Mars to escape the disgusting bickering. The sides are diametrically opposed, won’t listen to each other at all, spew the same lies over and over until they sound like truth, and both claim to be correct.

The first thing to note is that I admit up front that I’m a fan of Apple products and I don’t apologize for that. Note that I don’t say I’m a fan of the company: that’s an important distinction. I love products that make my life better, but I don’t care who makes them. I could care less what logo is on the thing. If it works for me, then I support it. So far, Apple products have done that. I’ve been buying them since the late 1980s and they just keep getting better and better. I love my Macs, my iPhone, and now my iPad.

I used to be a big Google fan. I can still remember — a long, long time ago — when I switched my search engine from Alta Vista to Google. Google was a tiny company few had heard of back then. I loved the plain homepage that loaded up instantly and didn’t have the awful clutter of Yahoo and other search sites. I loved many things about the company: their homebrew nature, their embrace of open source software like the Linux operating system, and the way they emphasized simplicity over Microsoft’s embrace of complexity.

Today I have serious problems with Google. They have lost their way. The Google of today resembles Microsoft far more than early Apple. Like Microsoft, they are a huge company with an insanely profitable business and with a monopoly in their industry. (Remember, a monopoly in and of itself is not illegal — only the abuse of monopoly power is illegal.) Google’s monopoly on search is even more insidious than Microsoft’s OS: at least Microsoft’s is visible and you have to choose to buy it. Google probably has data on you if you’ve think you’ve never used the service!

But the business problem with a monopoly is that you’ve already conquered the market. There is no room to grow. Thus both companies have been on a voracious search for new revenue. They’ve bought their way in dozens of unrelated industries. Microsoft co-owns a television network and makes video game machines. Google’s now making operating systems, just announced plans on getting into televisions and set-top boxes, is coming to tablets and netbooks, and will start selling music and ebooks soon. Where will it end? None of these new ventures are profitable and both companies have neglected their core products, but both have plenty of money to lose on experiments and apparently feel it’s key to expand and get into these other markets in case they get lucky a second time.

Because I’m an Apple fan, perhaps it seems natural for me to resent Google’s move into Apple’s territory (I’m mostly talking about Google’s mobile phone operating system, Android, which attempts to compete with iPhone, though Google is also promising to compete with Apple in a slew of other areas, such as music downloads). But I don’t like to think so simplistically. I pride myself on being fair and open-minded. Am I such an Apple freak that my emotions are outweighing logical and rational thinking? Could it be that I’m overreacting because I’m afraid of Android? I don’t like to think so, but until recently I wasn’t sure.

Now I realize that my mixed feelings are the source of my dilemma. I have strong feelings and opinions about the Google-Apple battle, and I wondered why my emotions were so powerful. Some of the things I’ve heard recently have made me extremely angry. I don’t like feeling angry. This has frustrated me and bothered me but I couldn’t get a handle on it because I didn’t want to pick sides based on emotion. I wanted to pick the right side.

I feel like the child of divorcing parents. Suddenly two people I looked up to are fighting and I’m lost and confused and bitter. Who do I support? Why must I choose? (A lot of my anger, I see, comes from being forced to choose.)

But Google is forcing this decision. They are actively attacking Apple. Has Apple ever attacked Google? Apple puts Google on their phones and used to have Google’s CEO on their board of directors. They were friends. But Google is not just competing with Apple, they are bad-mouthing the company, spreading lies about Apple’s products, promoting their own technology, and expanding to compete with Apple on multiple fronts. This is vindictive and nasty, just like a couple who once loved each other and that love has turned to hatred and they know each other’s vulnerabilities and hot buttons. It is this nastiness that I am sensing and that has been depressing me. These are two great companies that I loved and supported. And I’m going to have to choose one. That pisses me off.

Topic: [/technology]

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Fri, May 21, 2010

: MacGruber

I’m a huge MacGyver fan and I thought a parody of the series would be a lot of fun, though I will admit the couple of sketches of this I’d seen on Saturday Night Live didn’t have me laughing. Unfortunately, most of the jokes in this fall dismally flat. There are basically three kinds of jokes: (1) horribly graphic sexuality, profanity, and nudity overplayed to mock the original series’ wholesomeness; (2) awkward and bizarre gags that fail (like MacGruber carrying around the removable stereo from his car, apparently worried someone would steal his 1980s casette deck); and (3) brilliant skewing barbs of parody that are quite good. Unfortunately, the first two predominate, and though those aren’t entirely without humor, they are never very funny and mostly make you feel repulsed. Those jokes in the latter category are so few and far between that there is little to recommend this film. I think I laughed out loud twice in the entire film. I cringed quite frequently, though. There’s nothing redeeming about this movie at all. It’s not funny and it’s mostly disgusting with vulgar humor that alienates the core audience for it (MacGyver and Saturday Night Live fans). Extremely disappointing and I would advise you approach with caution and ankle-level expectations (you’ll still be disappointed).

Topic: [/movie]

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Fri, May 07, 2010

: Iron Man 2

For the most part this is a by-the-numbers sequel, though there are a few character moments. The plot is somewhat convoluted: Mickey Rourke plays a Russian mad scientist whose father was ruined by Tony Stark’s father and he wants revenge so he forms his own Whiplash suit. He later joins up with Tony’s rival arms manufacturer to build evil robots to kill Ironman. Tony himself is typically sour and moody and outrageous, as he’s secretly dying (radiation from the suit is killing him). The film tries to eke drama from this but I found it dreary: we’re really expected to buy that Ironman would die? Please. The ending is typical action silliness, though not unpleasant. In fact, that’s how I’d describe he entire film. It’s eminently watchable, but not great. The only thing of real interest to me was Scarlet Johanson’s intriguing character, who was awesomely gorgeous and cool and seemed like a wonderful foil for Tony Stark. Every time she came on screen you didn’t know what was going to happen and I liked that. Unfortunately, she’s only in a handful of too-brief scenes. (There are rumors she’ll get her own spin-off movie and I’d love that.) Worth seeing if you’re a fan, but this isn’t going to bring new people to the franchise.

Topic: [/movie]

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Fri, Apr 23, 2010

: The Losers

I was very disappointed by this film. I knew little about it and had never read the comic book, but the trailer had some cool moments and it looked like a fun action-comedy. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t know what to be: it is deathly serious at times (starting off with the gruesome death of a bunch of children), and the so-called comedy is mostly wisecracks by certain characters that falls flat much of the time. The plot is very A-Team: a team of soldiers is ordered to blow up a town (with those children in it) and refuses to obey and go on the lam as renegades. The town’s blown up anyway with the team framed for the murder, so the now they are on the run. A mysterious woman shows up with money and promises of assistance to help get them back into the USA where they can hunt down the bad guy who framed them. Speaking of him, he’s probably the most interesting character in the film: a dandy in a suit who is gleefully ruthless. The team, along with the woman, are not so interesting. They bicker and betray each other, are stereotypes we don’t get to know, and we really don’t much care what happens to anyone. There’s a lot of effort expended into making these guys “cool,” in the way they talk and dress and pontificate, but even the somber, dramatic moments feel artificial and hollow, and we don’t or care about the people. Take for example, the leader: he’s gruff and tough and yet has a grumpy grin, and his supposedly serious moments with his love interest come across as melodrama, not characterization. We never do find out what makes him tick. All this wouldn’t be the end of the world if the story was good or the action compelling. But the plot is so full of obvious holes and nonsense as to be ludicrous, and the action is too disjointed and cheesy (it’s either too realistic or too comic booky). I also should criticize the directing and editing, which had severe flaws. There were several places in the film I found confusing simply because the film was so choppy, with scenes beginning right in the middle with you lost as to what was going on.

All that said, this is not a terrible movie. It’s just inconsistent. There are moments that are fun, scenes that work, and people or action that are cool, but the pieces add up to less than the whole. I enjoyed it at times, and was annoyed, bored, or confused at others. But I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re good at gleaning pleasure from slight events; a disappointment.

Topic: [/movie]

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Fri, Apr 16, 2010

: Kick-Ass

Unlike most movies, I had read some reviews about this one before seeing it. Thus I knew what I was getting into. Perhaps that tempered my reaction, but I don’t understand the controversy. Sure, it’s violent, but nothing more than Inglourious Basterds or Kill Bill. Yeah, much of that violence comes from a sweet-faced eleven-year-old girl who talks like a sailor, but is that so shocking these days? Besides, I enjoyed that character: I thought she was terrific. Bizarre and extreme, yes, but also entertaining. More important, her character made sense in her situation: her dad was a disgraced cop who’d been framed by the mob boss and sent to prison for years, so when he got out it was natural for him to train his daughter in his revenge-seeking footsteps. The bottom line is that this is a fun movie. It’s stylishly done, sort of a blend between 300 and Watchmen and Kill Bill, but the story’s realistic in the sense that nothing supernatural happens (there are no superheros, just regular people in costumes). The story’s not as deep as Watchmen, but this is a comedy, not drama. It’s fun. Don’t take it or life so seriously. If you like this sort of film, you should enjoy it. If you didn’t like the other films I mentioned, you probably should avoid this one. I liked it a lot, so I guess that tells you a lot about me!

Topic: [/movie]

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Thu, Apr 08, 2010

: More iPad Thoughts

I’ve had a few days to use this thing and think about it a bit more. As with anything new, experiences are mixed, but am learning more how to use the iPad and how it can fit into my life. What is most interesting is the way my perspective is changing. Things I had assumed before I got it, I’m not so sure about any more.

For instance, I never really considered the iPad as a “real” computer. For me, it would be more of a consumption device, not a laptop. But already that perspective is changing. First, this thing is so light and yet still functional, that I am finding it a joy to use. It is blazingly fast — apps launch instantly and scrolling, zooming, and other functions feel so quick and responsive that I just love using this. There are still many areas where it cannot replace my laptop, but some of those are unique to my needs: for many people, an iPad is all the computer they need.

Another area is typing. Prior to trying the iPad, that was a minor concern. I am comfortable with my iPhone typing, so I wasn’t too worried, but I also wasn’t sure it would be that much better. My first tries at typing on iPad were a disaster: I struggled and made constant errors and the process felt painful. But today I decided to really try to type as though this was a real keyboard, with all hands on the home keys. To my shock and amazement, it works far better! It’s not perfect, and I still make some errors, but I just need practice. I downloaded a typing app and with 10 minutes of practice I found I could type “The quick brown fox jumped over a lazy dog” at a rate of 60 words per minute without a single error! (More significantly, it felt comfortable and effortless, as typing without physical keys requires only the faintest touch.) That is impressive, and convinces me that with a little work I could do just fine without a real keyboard and probably be almost as fast. In fact, because my main problem seems to be carelessness on my part of using the wrong fingers (especially for keys like Q, where I’m used to a hard keyboard where I can feel the right key) and the iPad keyboard works much better when you use the correct fingers, getting good on iPad will probably improve my regular keyboarding.

The biggest obstacle is punctuation, as those characters are oddly placed, but practice will help with that. The auto-correction works much better when you use your hands in the right position. It must be optimized for that: when I used two fingers, like I prefer on iPhone, auto-correct didn’t work most of the time. (And yes, in case you were wondering, this post was written entirely on my iPad. Compared to my previous post, which felt like I was running uphill with weights on my limbs, this time it feels like running on a level surface with no excess weight: far smoother. Ultimately still tiring, but not bad at all.) The biggest problem with iPad typing is that many won’t give the glass keyboard a chance — they’ll give it the 30 second try and when it doesn’t work they’ll give up and connect a Bluetooth keyboard.

Another change is my attitude toward the 3G version. Originally I wasn’t in the least bit interested in that model. I did not want another monthly fee, and I figured I already had mobile internet on my iPhone. Besides, I work from home and I’m usually there and so WiFi is all I need. That’s all my laptop has and it’s worked fine for me.

Now that I have an iPad, I’m am rethinking that. First, this thing is so light and useful, I can picture myself taking it with me everywhere. It really is like carrying a magazine. Where I only take a laptop when absolutely necessary, iPad I can take to the doctor’s office to read books on in the waiting room or when meeting someone at a restaurant. That means that with iPad, I’m more likely to be away from home with it. Second, because iPad is based on the iPhone OS, most of the apps expect you to have an internet connection. It is surprising how many rely on that feature and don’t work at all or  suffer from a major lack of functionality without internet. I had considered demoing it to someone and realized that the demo would be limited because so many of the coolest apps wouldn’t even work without an Internet connection.

I had been planning on purchasing a new iPhone this summer. After all, I’ve got the original version and it will be three years old. But doing so undoubtedly means upgrading my cheap data plan to the new 3G plan that costs $15 more per month. Suddenly I am thinking, if I’m going to pay that anyway, maybe I’d be better off to just get an iPad data connection and keep my old phone. It works fine. I’d have the best of both worlds. (The best option of all would be a new iPhone that would give my iPad a mobile hot spot, but tethering still isn’t available here thanks to ATT’s greed/incompetence.)

I won’t make a decision on this for a while: I’ll wait and see what features the new iPhone this summer has, and what my costs might be, but it is interesting that I’m considering the 3G iPad when just a few days ago I was dead-set against it!

Apps I’ve had more time to play with various iPad apps and I can report on them now. First, let me say that after using native apps, running iPhone apps in double-size mode is painful. Apps that you run only occasionally or for a brief tasks aren’t too bad, but you really want native apps on this thing. I have some apps that are merely displaying info from a website, and I find using those sites on Safari is easier than using the doubled iPhone app.

Fortunately many of my favorites have already been rewritten, and they are great. Words With Friends is excellent in full screen. One of my most important finds is a terrific PDF viewer called GoodReader that is only a dollar (I think that’s a limited time offer). It gives you several ways of wirelessly transmitting your files to it, which is far better than Apple’s approach which requires hooking your iPad to your computer via USB and using iTunes. I tested my magazine in the app and it worked great: all the links worked (it even displays web links right within the app so you don’t have go into Safari) and you can add your own bookmarks. Recommended.

The new IMDB app is incredible on iPad. The interface features a lot more photos, quite large thumbnails, in fact, and the presentation of the information is different and excellent for the most part. (My main complaint is that the full casting info is now a popover window, so when you scroll down a long list and click on an actor to read about that person, when you come back, the popover is collapsed and now you have to scroll through the list again to find where you were. On the iPhone, leaving a list and coming back to it puts you right where you were on the list. I don’t see the advantage of using a popover control for long lists like the cast. It’s great for quotes or trivia, though.)

I bought a racing game just to try the feature of “steering” the entire screen to turn and it really was fun. I’m not much of an “action” gamer and I’m usually horrible at driving games, but I came in second in my first race which felt like an accomplishment. I put it down to the more natural controls — I’ve never used a steering wheel controller and other controls have always felt awkward for driving. Though the iPad is light, it is solid, and I wonder how the weight feels after holding the thing up for hours while playing — but perhaps that’s good exercise!

I haven’t been much of a news reader in the past decade: I overdosed during the “hanging chad” election and have boycotted all news since. I find news websites to be ridiculously cluttered and distracting, but I have downloaded several news apps for iPad and I must say, I am impressed. Some, like the USA Today app, are simple, but work well, with a multicolumn newspaper-like layout. (That app is clever: it shows two columns in portrait orientation and three in landscape. It also has a nifty navigation feature: scrolling vertically goes through the current article, but swiping left-right moves you to the previous or next story.) The BBC app had some bugs (stuff wasn’t showing up), but showed promise and I think will always be free. With apps like these, I might start reading the news again! (Another interesting app I found is one called SkyGrid that is a sort of news aggregator. You put in a term, like “iPad” and it returns all sorts of web articles on that topic. It updates continuously, with trending topics toward the top. Tapping on a link brings it up within the built-in browser, so browsing through material is quick and convenient. Early days, but this could end up being one of my favorite apps.)

It is worth noting that many iPad apps are buggy. For instance, I downloaded a simple drawing app and it looks neat but I can’t get the eraser to work. That makes the app rather useless until that’s fixed. As an early adopter, I don’t mind these problems — most developers got their iPads on Saturday like me and are working frantically to fix bugs now that they can test their apps on a real machine.

Topic: [/technology]

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Wed, Apr 07, 2010

: Knee

A month ago I was playing soccer at a local indoor league and I twisted my knee. It was still bothering me last week, so I went to see an orthopedic surgeon who had me get an MRI on Monday. Today I got the results: my ACL is completely torn. The only way to fix that is reconstructive surgery. It will never heal on its own. That means getting a tendon from a cadaver and inserting it into my knee to replace my ligament (they screw it in with screws that dissolve over time). The recovery time for such an operation is long: at least six months before I can be physically active again, with a few weeks on crutches and physical rehab during that time. After that, I’d probably have to wear a brace during athletics for the first year. Not the most fun.

The other bit of news was slightly more encouraging. ACL tears normally don’t cause continuing pain, and are mainly an issue if you’re wanting to be athletically active. The reason I’ve been having pain is that I have a bone bruise between the two leg bones. Such bruises take a long time to heal: one to three months. Though there is no actual fracture, they heal like one. Thus the pain I am feeling that is causing me to limp will hopefully fade as the bruise heals (it has been getting better, so I am hopeful).

Fortunately, there is no huge rush to get the surgery done. It doesn’t sound like waiting a few months to see how my knee heals and feels will hurt anything. I could even choose to not repair the knee, though that would limit my mobility, increase my chances of problems later in life (arthritis, etc.), and set myself up to where I could accidentally turn wrong on my leg and re-injure myself (without an ACL my knee is less stable).

For now, I’m holding off making a decision. I will wait and see how I heal. There are many factors to consider, such as the cost (insurance won’t cover a significant amount), healing time, and so on. I have a feeling it’s something I’ll need or want to do, but I’ll see how feel as the bone bruise heals. Maybe if I wait long enough Ombamacare will kick in and pay for the surgery. Yeah, I’m dreaming. There ain’t no free lunch.

Topic: [/medical]

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Sat, Apr 03, 2010

: iPad Day

I pre-ordered my iPad weeks ago so I would be certain to have it today. At the time of ordering there was a warning about Saturday delivery not being available in all areas. I had been worried about that since I’m in a somewhat rural location, and I had been considering reserving an iPad at my local Apple store instead, but I didn’t see that option on the website. But my order claimed April 3 delivery, so I decided to do that. Surely Apple would know the importance of on-time delivery to early adopters like me!

Unfortunately, this week I received notification that my iPad had shipped from China but that it would not arrive until Monday. I called Apple, but of course it was too late to do anything. I kept watching the UPS tracking info as my package went to Alaska and then Kentucky and finally to Portland, Oregon this morning. By eight a.m. it had reached the distribution center in Tualatin, but when I called UPS they told me that I wouldn’t be receiving it and that the center was closed and I couldn’t pick it up there. I tried that, since it was on the way to the Apple Store, but no go. There was only a security guard and no one to find my package. So I went on to the Apple Store and waited in line. Someone said that the initial shipment of 200 iPads was sold out, but another had just come in. At about 10:30 (90 minutes of waiting), I got my iPad. I drove home and just outside my town, I spotted a UPS truck.

“If he’s this close to my house, why couldn’t he stop by with my iPad?” I thought. When we reached my street, he turned and I followed, my jaw dropping. “No way,” I’m thinking. Sure enough, he pulls into my driveway! I pull up beside him and hop out. It’s my iPad, of course. Now I have two!

First Impressions
Physically, this thing is gorgeous. There is nothing cheap or cut-rate about it. The screen is amazing. Everything just gleams. The size and weight is perfect: heavy enough to feel solid and yet not too heavy. It’s about the size and thickness of a magazine but with the weight of a hardback book. Not bad for holding even for long periods, though most likely you’ll rest it on your lap or other places.

Setup was somewhat of a problem in a few minor ways. First, it was slow to copy over all my iPhone apps, photos, music, and other data. I blame that on slow USB. another annoyance was that it did not copy over the password to my home WiFi network, so I had to enter that manually before I could connect to the Internet. Another issue was that my email accounts didn’t sync — but that’s because I don’t have them activated on the desktop Mac I use for syncing (emails are on my laptop). I had to put in the setup details on the iPad myself, which was a minor delay. Once I’d done that, my emails showed up just like on my iPhone.

Another problem was that my iPhone apps did not move to the same position on the iPad, but alphabetical or random order. It took me a good hour to arrange all my apps in their proper locations (I did this in iTunes while it was copying everything to the iPad, so it wasn’t too bad, but with 7 screens of apps this wasn’t fun).

The virtual keyboard on the iPad will take time to learn. I am proficient on the iPhone, but some of the keys have been moved on iPad. The worst is the second Shift key on the right side, where the backspace key is on the iPhone. ¬†I keep hitting that for delete, which doesn’t work at all. As of yet, I don’t use two hands in normal typing position on the iPad: the two-finger approach seems more comfortable at the moment, though I am making more mistakes than on iPhone and the auto-correction, which works well iPhone, doesn’t seem to be as effective on iPad. I am writing this entire article on iPad (I’m using Pages), so perhaps with practice I’ll get better.

My impression is that the virtual keyboard is great for small amounts of text and emails, but for a term paper or novel, get a physical keyboard. That doesn’t surprise me. What does, is that I had dismissed the idea of needing an external Bluetooth keyboard as unnecessary, since I already have a laptop to use for “real” work, but this iPad is such a joy to use I am now — just hours after my first use — seriously considering using it for more work tasks. It is so small and lightweight and convenient, I wonder if I’ll start resenting my beloved laptop!

Someone asked me if this feels like a bigger iPhone or a real computer, and it’s definitely the latter. This might be based on a phone OS, but the bigger screen makes all the difference. Apps are larger with more vivid pictures and controls, more information is displayed, and you can accomplish more with them.

What shocks me is that after using iPad for just a few minutes, returning to the iPhone feels bizarre. The iPhone now seems like something absurdly miniature. I used to think it was a great size, but suddenly it is tiny!

Apps
What makes the iPad great, of course, are the apps that transform the slab of glass into just about anything you can imagine, from a television to a musical instrument. Almost all iPhone apps work just fine, though they don’t fill the entire iPad screen without jagged edges on graphics. Apps rewritten for iPad really shine, however, and they show off the core difference between iPhone and iPad. ¬†iPad apps seem to be so much more powerful and easier to use. Stuff that takes several screens on iPhone are just one on iPad, so you can accomplish tasks in less steps.

I was pleasantly surprised at how many apps specific to iPad are already available. Several of my favorites, like Words With Friends and IMDB, are ready and work beautifully. They take advantage of the larger space and are not simply enlarged.

There are also some brand new apps. I have yet to try a full-screen action game, but I did get the new Netflix app which lets you stream your Netflix movies right to your iPad! It is amazing. The quality of the picture is excellent, and the interface for finding movies, checking your instant queue, and even controlling movies is extremely well done. I can imagine myself actually using this app.

A similar app is ABC’s video player which lets you browse through the video content on abc.com and watch it for free (there are commercials embedded). The video quality wasn’t great, but just being able to catch shows you missed makes this one valuable.

I am writing this within Apple’s $10 Pages app, which is remarkably powerful and similar to the Mac version. It’s a real word processor with page layout capabilities, stylesheets, templates, spelling checking, and more. It has nice features like the ability to look up the selected word in a dictionary and show you the full definition. The look of the page as you write is impressive: it’s fully WYSIWYG, and it’s fast and responsive. Color me impressed!

There are also the native apps, such as Mail, Safari, Calendar, Contacts, etc., which have all been rewritten to take advantage of the iPad’s bigger screen. In landscape view Mail shows you a list of emails in your inbox with the current message fully displayed on the right. Calendar looks like a traditional datebook and is gorgeous. But Safari is a killer app for this device: with its fast processor, web pages appear almost instantly, and zooming is magical it is so fast. It makes this the best web device in the world, better than any desktop. You actually touch the web and it’s so intuitive and natural, everything other computer and browser feels clunky and old-fashioned.

Another killer app is book reading. An avid reader, I have been dreaming of something like this all my life. Apple’s free iBooks app makes reading feel so close to a real book you can practically smell the paper. The pages turn with your finger, and they turn with real world lighting and physics. But that pretty stuff is useless if the books aren’t readable, and I must say books are a joy to read in this format. It’s too early for me to have read much, but considering I have read several books on my tiny iPhone screen, I feel safe in predicting that I will read a lot more on the iPad.

The Bottom Line
Despite the jokes, the supposed limitations (like not supporting Adobe’s horrible Flash content), the iPad is going to change everything. Apple has not just hit a home run, they’ve knocked the ball out of the park and into the next county! This is an extremely well-thoughtout device. Out of the box it does tons of useful stuff right away, and it does them better than any other device, but the future’s in fantastic apps that will be written that will turn this thing into just about anything. This thing will be used in kitchens and living rooms, by photographers and muscians, by executives, travelers, by doctors and hospitals, and so many fields. It’s a blank slate.

Topic: [/technology]

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Fri, Apr 02, 2010

: Clash of the Titans

First let me advise you to avoid the 3D version of this film. The 3D effect is so subtle as to not be noticeable. In fact, several times during the film I looked at the screen without my glasses and I couldn’t see much difference except that it was brighter without the glasses. Basically, it’s not worth even 50 cents more, let alone several dollars for 3D.

As for the movie itself, it was about what I expected: myth and action, with a slight story. The biggest problem I had was that the action scenes go so fast you can’t see anything or figure out what’s happening. I found them to be boring. The special effects in this film are impressive and the only reason to see it. The story’s about conflict between mankind and the gods and I found it troubling that somehow we’re supposed to see the arrogant humans who challenge their gods as the heroes. What’s heroic about insulting your gods? Is that a good thing to do? Basically the humans slap the gods and then are puzzled and terrified when the gods attack back, yet our demigod hero comes to save the day and he’s going to rescue the humans from getting what they should get for poking a hornets’ nest. I don’t get much of that. But that isn’t to see that film isn’t interesting. The scenery and effects are worth seeing, and there are a few good moments. Mostly the film comes across as somewhat pretentious, as though every dramatic scene is world-shaking. The bottom line: it’s just an average film with an average plot and some neat visuals. If that interests you, go for it!

Topic: [/movie]

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Sat, Mar 27, 2010

: Twilight

I missed this in theatres and never rented it, but a Showtime preview started this weekend and I finally got to see it. I’ve been trying to read the book (it’s incredibly dull) and thought I’d like movie better. It is pretty good, but it has some bizarre flaws. The vampire special effects are totally hokey — it’s like there’s no physics involved. People fly through the air or climb trees like magic. Incredibly lame. (Worse, these supernatural events are set up dramatically by the director so that the audience can sense them coming, and when they do, they are invariably weak. I much prefer more subtle effects, like seeing a vampire across the room and when you turn away, he’s somehow right beside you. That’s far more creepy than seeing him run in blurry high-speed.) There’s other weird stuff done direction-wise (odd camerawork, jarring music choices, confusingly shot fight scenes), but the Washingon landscape is gorgeously photographed. There are also occasional moments of movie magic, either excellent chemistry between the leads or a scene or two that worked really well. I’m still uncomfortable with the casting of Pattinson as the lead vampire: his accent is all over the place, he looks weird to me (I’m surprised he’s considered good-looking), and I totally fail to see his charm. (Admittedly, I did like him more by the end than at the beginning, but that’s not saying much.) But Kristen Stewart is really good as Bella, and the supporting cast is excellent (though they aren’t given much to do). Scriptwise, I can’t compare to the book since I haven’t finished it, but there were several choppy scenes that felt shortened or out of context. The relationship between the two main characters at the beginning, for instance, was weakly handled, and some of the action stuff toward the end seemed to all blur together without a lot of explanation (like they leave Washington state and end up in Phoenix like thirty seconds later). Most bizarre to me was that the core love story happened out of nothing. It starts off with the two as antagonists, then suddenly they are in love. And not just ordinary teen love, but give-up-life love. There was no point when Bella “fell in love” with Edward, or vice versa. They were just magically destined for each other, apparently. Very odd. I wanted to understand why they were attracted to each other but it wasn’t explained. Another problem was the shallow relationship of Bella with her parents. I believe it must be deeper in the book, but on film it’s so sketchy that when it becomes important later, it feels weird, as though we skipped a chapter. But I’m probably overanalyzing this film. It’s not meant to be this deep in the first place. It’s a silly teen romance with vampires, and as such, it’s not terrible. It didn’t live up to the hype for me. I’d give it a six out of ten.

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Fri, Mar 26, 2010

: How to Train Your Dragon

The title pretty much explains everything about the story. The only thing I didn’t know was that it was about “Vikings” (I put that in quotes since they are so modern they’re hardly Viking at all). So it’s a Viking sea village that’s always had problems with dragon attacks, and there’s the spindly chief’s son who wants to be a warrior but is more of a wimpy inventor instead, and after he accidentally captures a dragon, they become friends, and duh, save the village. Storywise, there’s little going on here. It’s competent and pleasant, but not a Pixar story. Animiation-wise, I wasn’t impressed: except for the landscapes, which are fantastic, the people and animals are much too cartoony. What makes this work are the three-dimensional flying sequences. I will say that this is the first 3D film I’ve seen where the 3D is actually worth it (yes, that includes Avatar). When the boy is learning to fly the dragon it really feels like a roller coaster ride, like you’re on the dragon with him, whizzing past rocky cliffs and swooping through the clouds. Fortunately, there’s quite of bit of this sort of action (perhaps as much as half the film), which makes up for the ordinary story and duller parts where the 3D is meaningless. Overall, that makes this film a win. It’s pleasant and harmless otherwise, but in 3D it’s extraordinary and worth seeing.

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Thu, Mar 25, 2010

: Diary of a Wimpy Kid

The best indicator of how good this movie was is that not a single person left the theatre when the animated closing credits began. Everyone was having too good a time, adults and children alike! I was surprised and delighted. It’s a terrific family film. The story is about a boy nervous about entering middle school. (I gather that’s sixth grade — they had junior high when I was growing up.) The boy thinks he’s smarter than everyone else and is positive he’s going to be king of the school. Instead, everything he does to become popular sinks him lower and lower on the popularity scale. It’s fun, funny, and charming. I had feared from the trailer that there would be too much childish gross-out humor, but it’s only occasional, and mild, and only in places where it makes sense for the kids’ ages and the story. The film-making is well-done as well, with a nice blend of animation sequences mixed into the live action. The cast is phenomenal: the children are classic stereotypes but full of personality so that even the weird ones are hilarious charming. The film has a few slow moments and would have been even better trimmed by ten minutes, but mostly it’s excellent. Nothing too earthshattering or remarkable, I suppose, as the theme of “weird kid struggles to be accepted” has been done to death, but pleasant and certainly entertaining. It’s very family friendly, too (almost retro), which is somewhat remarkable in this day and age. Highly recommended.

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Fri, Mar 19, 2010

: Repo Men

This is an unpleasant movie. I didn’t know much about it going in, but it looked science-fictiony and has some big stars (Jude Law, Forest Whitaker). Unfortunately, it has no story. Or rather, no focus. The story is little more than the gimmick of a future society where expensive artificial organs are commonplace and if you stop making payments on your heart or liver, some “repo” men will come and yank it out of you. If it so happens that you can’t live without the organ, well, that’s just too bad for you. The producers of this film seem to think this is the best idea ever and hammer home the whole concept incessantly. There is a slight plot, in that our lead repo guy ends up with an artificial heart himself and can’t pay and his former partner must hunt him down (gee, I never saw that coming), and I guess we’re supposed to be moved by this jerk’s sudden role reversal as he changes his view when he’s suddenly at the other end of the repossessing, but everything’s so ham-handled and pointless that we really don’t care. The film is far more violent and bloody than I expected, with gory surgeries on living people and graphic blood splatters and chaotic shootings. As far as science fiction, the sets and look of the film is mildly interesting, but the lack of story and the predictable characters makes it hardly worth it. The film also has lame multiple endings, and a lot of stuff toward the end doesn’t make sense until later. There are a few interesting ideas, but little is developed, the characters are nothing more than stereotypes, and the entire experience is unpleasant. Avoid.

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Sat, Mar 13, 2010

: The Lost Symbol

Author: Dan Brown

This is a strange book. I guess that should be expected, considering the author, but I still found it unusual. It doesn’t quite know what it is: a thriller with pseudo-science/religious overtones? Is it an agenda piece? What’s the point of it?

The pacing is as annoyingly Dan Brown as ever, with ultra-short chapters each ending on an overly dramatic suspense point (i.e. in the middle of a sentence). What I found most frustrating is the way he deliberately withholds information just to milk the suspense. Most writers do this to an extent, but only with one or two key secrets that are the core of the novel — like the identity of the killer. Brown does it with everything. It makes the novel grating to read. Every chapter ends with, “And then he uncovered the shocking text. He stared in disbelief, unable to fathom what he was seeing. Could this really say what he thought it said? This was going to change the world!”

It would be one thing if the deep dark secrets hidden were actually deep dark secrets, but most of the time they aren’t. Either the clues are fairly obvious, or we’re so manipulated as a reader by Brown’s information withholding that there’s no possible way we could figure anything out. It feels like a cheat. The most egregious of these is when Brown actually goes back to an earlier telephone conversation, which we thought we had listened to verbatim, and reveals that there was more conversation we hadn’t heard. WTF? That’s traitorous on the part of the author, as far as I’m concerned.

Speaking of going back in time, Brown makes heavy use of that technique, too, with perhaps 80 percent of the novel being flashbacks. He presumably does this to provide “insight” to his characters, doing things like having a character remember his first meeting with another character. This often happens when the reader first meets the characters, with the result that the reader is left confused about time. Is this fifteen years ago? Is this today? Even worse, sometimes Dan flashes back within a flashback or re-flashes back to reveal new and different information he withheld from us the first time! Arrgh!

All this said, Dan still manages to create a somewhat compelling novel. There are moments of brilliance, in terms of plot, and some of the action sequences are surprisingly well done. There are several surprising events that as I read them, I thought he’d blown it, as they seemed farfetched or over-the-top, but his explanations proved surprisingly logical. And I really liked the secret twist at the end — the identity of the bad guy — which wasn’t contrived and actually made sense.

The plot itself is fairly simple, though elaborately drawn out. It basically involves a bad guy kidnapping a friend of Robert Langdon, the symbologist from Brown’s other novels, with Langdon forced to solve ancient clues left by the Masons to reveal the location of the knowledge of the “ancient mysteries” which supposedly would give a person incredible power. There’s a time crunch involved with this task that’s nothing short of absurd, with weeks worth of events happening within a few hours (apparently no one gets tired or overwhelmed by circumstance in Dan Brown’s universe). The actual puzzles Langdon solves are not bad, though it’s highly questionable they would have survived so many years unrevealed and mechanical things still in working order.

Brown sort of tones down the anti-religious rhetoric in this one, though that gets heavier (and more absurd) toward the end. While the plot is wrapped up sufficiently, his non-plot conclusion is awful, especially considering the hyped build-up since page one. After hundreds of pages of emphasizing the power of the “ancient mysteries” and how this knowledge would revolutionize the planet, he reveals it’s nothing more than “humans are gods.” Lame.

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Fri, Mar 05, 2010

: Alice in Wonderland

Director: Tim Burton

I went into this knowing only that Tim Burton was at the helm (that was enough for me). I was a bit worried that it would be more style than substance, but I am delighted to report that it’s an excellent film. I loved the period setting, which establishes Alice as hampered by the restrictions of society at that time, and the visuals within Wonderland are excellent. (The 3D is well-done as well; not essential, but pleasing.) The story terrific: Alice is nearly twenty and doesn’t remember being in Wonderland before (she thought those were childish dreams), so she experiences things for the first time (again) making most of this film aspects of the original story. It’s definitely a character-driven piece, with Alice struggling to find her identity, both literally and figuratively, and that makes the story terrifically compelling. When she finally stands up for herself and pushes back, you want to stand up and cheer for her. The supporting characters are also wonderful, with Depp mesmerizing as the Mad Hatter, and Helena Bonham-Carter fantastic as the Red Queen. The animals are also incredible, especially the rabbit and the Chesire Cat. The story concludes with a little more action than was properly appropriate (I did not buy Alice as a sword-carrying action hero), but at that point I was so into the thing I didn’t much care. It’s fun, wacky, a faithful homage, and visually striking. Go see it!

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Mon, Mar 01, 2010

: The Stand

Author: Stephen King (book)

This is the old mini-series from 1994. I’d heard good things of it and even read part of the book, but had never seen it. It was on SciFi channel over the weekend and I thought I’d fast-forward through most of it, but I found it compelling and ended up watching it. The series has an odd 80s feel to it (music, clothing, language, etc.) for a film from the 90s, and there’s overuse of digital morphing (showing the chief bad guy as a demon). The story is familiar — a government-created biological weapon escapes a lab and kills most of the people on the planet — but Stephen King does something different than the mere fight for survival by introducing an interesting spiritual element. Basically the survivors are split into two groups (good and evil), each with their own leader who recruits via dreams. Ultimately, there’s a battle between these two forces that will determine the future of the human race. It sounds hokey and at times it is, but many times it comes across as sincere, and it ads depth and a metaphorical richness to the drama. Surprisingly good.

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Fri, Feb 26, 2010

: The Crazies

This is a surprisingly good film. I haven’t seen the original, so I can’t compare, but though it feels like a generic premise (mysterious virus makes townspeople crazy) and some aspects are familiar, it’s done in such a compelling manner it’s interesting. It reminded me a lot of the tongue-in-cheek Final Destination films in that it’s self-aware of its genre and plays on that. For instance, there’s a scene where the wife goes to the barn looking for her weird-acting husband and stands in front of a spinning combine and you’re positive he’s in the driver’s seat and is going to run her over in a gruesome death, but it’s just a tease. Another aspect that I liked is that the main story is not so much about surviving the crazy people, but doing that while outwitting the ruthless military types sent in to quarantine the area. That gives the story a different feel from the standard zombie flick. The ending is good, too. Not that there aren’t flaws in the film — it’s still a limited story and genre — but it’s good fun with a few thrills and characters you want to see succeed.

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Fri, Feb 19, 2010

: Shutter Island

Director: Martin Scorsese

An incredible film. I purposely knew next to nothing about this going in. I’d seen a glimpse or two of a trailer, but all I knew is that it starred Leonardo DiCaprio and was directed by Martin Scorsese. That was enough for me to go. Oddly, despite knowing zero about the story, it turned out to be just what I expected. The film is about a U.S. marshall going to a remote island that houses a hospital for the criminally insane and looking for an escaped patient. As soon as I saw that we were dealing with crazy people, I had ideas about where the film was going, and that’s what it did. Though I didn’t know the specifics, it still felt predictable to me, though I suspect most people will find the “twist” surprising. What made the film work for me was everything else: the wonderful 1953 period setting and island location, the excellent performances, the flawless use of special effects to convey story not spectacle, the terrific dialog and writing, and the masterful direction. Everything is just so well done. The plot’s gimmicky but it works because there’s depth at every level of the story. The film’s deeply emotional, disturbing, eerie, sad, and tragic. It’s got some tough emotional moments in it that may not be for all people (for instance, one of the crazy people killed her three children, and there are also disturbing scenes at a Nazi concentration camp), but in general this is a must see film. It’s not perfect — the story’s almost too clever for its own good — but so much of it is done so well that it’s worth seeing just for the experience. Go see it!

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Mon, Feb 15, 2010

: The Wolfman

Strange film. Visually, it is occasionally stunning: terrific foggy forests, English manors, 19th century London, and of course scary wolf-monsters. Some of the latter is truly excellent with fantastic (and agonizing) visuals of hands and feet transforming into claws and hind legs, the fingers bending the wrong way. However, those same special are a few times almost laughably bad — just the occasional glimse or two, but it’s enough to confuse. Storywise, the film is similarly disjointed. It’s a basic tale of a prodigal son returning home when his brother is murdered by a strange creature, and of course when he investigates, he ends up getting bitten and turning into a werewolf. But Benicio Del Toro is miscast as the lead, with his strange, carefully enunciated accent not matching up at all with his British father, played by Anthony Hopkins. It actually leads to confusion, as I times I found myself wondering if he was supposed to be a foreigner or if there was some subplot I didn’t know about yet (i.e. Hopkins really wasn’t his father, etc.). Such issues distract from the story. There’s also a problem with the pacing of the film: it races at 90 MPH throughout, with little time for reflection or characterization. There are many moments when it seems to hint or lean that direction, but nothing comes of it, so it’s more of a teasing promise that the film will be better than it is. The potential of a werewolf story is huge: themes of transformation, curses, good and evil, the beastliness of man, and so on, but this script takes little advantage of any of that. In the end this is nothing but an action/horror film with some wonderful visuals. I liked the visuals well enough to have liked the movie — it’s interesting viewing, especially the excellently bizarre nightmare sequence in the middle — but I can’t recommend it for most people as the story is too weak and the film too fractured.

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Fri, Feb 12, 2010

: Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief

From the opening scene, I knew I was going to have issues with this film. It begins with a giant Poseidon emerging from the sea and climbing onto a wharf and frightening an old fisherman speechless. After walking for 50 feet as a giant, he suddenly turns “waterish” and shrinks to normal human size. I’m saying to myself, “Huh? If he can appear as human, why start off as a giant? Wouldn’t that draw undo attention? This makes no sense!”

The film continues from there, piling on the convenient coincidences, logic leaps, bad dialog and acting, and idiotic plot. The plot… oh dear, I must mention the plot. It is so lame as to be laughable. The premise of the film has potential: basically the ancient Greek gods and goddesses still exist and still occasionally, hem, “hook up” with mortals and produce demigod offspring. Our titular Percy Jackson is one of these, the son of Poseidon, one of the top three gods, but he has never known his dad (there’s a rule forbidding gods to have contact with their half-human children). Percy has no idea he’s a demigod and struggles with feelings of being different all his life. Our poor story consists of Zeus, the head god, being angry that someone has stolen his lightning bolt. (How that could happen to such a powerful god isn’t explained and is one of the film’s key skips of logic.) Only a demigod could have taken it and he assumes it must be Poseidon’s son (presumably because only a child of the big three would be powerful enough). Zeus is so pissed he gives an ultimatum: there will be war among the gods if his bolt isn’t returned in a fortnight. Apparently this war would accidentally destroy earth as a side effect, so it’s important to us this war be stopped. Thus starts a crazy quest by Percy where he: is attacked by monsters and learns he’s a demigod, goes to a secret training camp for demigods to learn to fight (with a mere ten days until the deadline, despite that many of the other demigod children have been training their entire lives), leaves the camp to rescue his kidnapped mother, and finds the lightning bolt and returns it to Zeus before the deadline. There are so many problems here I hardly know where to begin. For instance, Percy’s life has always been in such danger that his mother was forced to stay with an abusive man because his repulsive odor masked the smell of Percy’s blood from the bad creatures. But the camp is supernaturally protected: why couldn’t he have stayed there like the others? Another issue is that Percy’s goal isn’t to find the lightning bolt and stop the war: he only wants to rescue his mother. But he’s so dumb he’s ready to leave camp on his own without even knowing how to find and get into Hades! (That’s another thing: you would think that learning you’re a demigod and have special powers and that creatures like furies and minotaurs exist would give you at least a little pause, but Percy takes everything in such uncritical stride it’s a joke.)

But here’s the strange thing. Despite a rocky start and a nonsensical plot, the film started to work for me. Oh, it’s dumb. Really dumb. But it’s sort of fun. It doesn’t take itself too seriously. It throws out bits of pieces of random Greek mythology at the viewer with a tongue-in-cheek glee, and sometimes it’s quite clever. For instance, I liked the way it would pair modern things with the ancient, such as making the new Mount Olympus the Empire State Building or setting Hades (Hell) in Hollywood. My favorite was having the “island of the Lotus eaters” myth set in a Las Vegas casino where our heros eat the free food and fall into a drugged stupor, not unlike the effect of real casinos!

The characters are also fun: our heroic trio consists of Percy, the beautiful Annabel (daughter of Athena and our requisite love interest), and Grover, a satyr (goat man), who’s the much-appreciated comic relief. Grover really makes things tick because he’s not so dumbed down as to be useless and annoying, but he’s just off enough to be interesting. My favorite Grover moment was the one where he just nonchalantly starts tearing bites off an aluminum can and casually eats it. This was perfectly done, without undo emphasis (not even a raised eyebrow by the others). Hilarious!

Next we get cameos of famous actors slumming it up small but fun roles as various monsters and villains, such as Uma Thurman playing a terrific snake-headed Medusa. This adds to the film’s charm and humor.

But what really makes things work are the well-done puzzles and challenges the team faces. Okay, we’re not talking ingenious plot here, but it’s deftly handled in ways that are believable and that push our hero into gradually learning about his powers. (He doesn’t just automatically know how to do god-like things: he has to be clever, and each member of the trio contributes.) I also like that though the film repeats Greek mythology it doesn’t just copy the solutions from the original stories (though there are echoes, like using the shiny back of an iPod touch as a mirror to face the can’t-look-at-her Medusa). As you get into this part of the story, you’re enjoying yourself and the plot silliness hardly matters. (It also moves at a fast pace, which helps.)

The ending has some issues but is decent enough, and certainly satisfying. I liked the way all the storylines were wrapped up. Overall, though filled with flaws, the film still works: it’s silly fun, great for kids (though young ones might be frightened by some of the Hades imagery), and the special effects — though shockingly fake-looking at times — are occasionally superb. It’s actually a pleasant film, which is more than I can say for many. I would liken it to the similarly flawed-but-fun Journey to the Center of the Earth from a few years ago. If you can turn off your brain enough to enjoy it, go for it!

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Fri, Feb 05, 2010

: From Paris with Love

Director: Pierre Morrel

This is an action buddy movie with a strong French influence with the story being written by one of my favorite directors Luc Besson (“The Professional”) and directed by the guy who did last year’s fun Taken. It’s set in Paris, though other than the occasional snippet of French language and a brief scene at the Eiffel tower, the location’s really irrelevant. Even the key car chase scenes could be on any freeway. Like most buddy films this pairs up two opposites: in this case, a wannabe spy who’s an intellectual and an older pro who’s more action-oriented. But one aspect of this pairing I found refreshing is that these two sort of like each other. Usually in films like this there’s genuine animosity and anger, and sitting through two hours of such negative emotion is depressing. This was much more pleasant. There’s still conflict, but it’s more about the different ways these two think about a problem and they don’t fight much. I liked that a lot. John Travolta’s character as the veteran is hilarious and outrageous and he gives a fantastic performance. He keeps doing insane things, shooting people seemingly at random, but then reveals it’s all part of his clever plan. Excellent. His partner’s character in comparison is rather dull (which is the point, as he’s a bureaucrat that wants to be a spy) and I didn’t find him too engaging. Travolta’s what makes the film work. In terms of story, there isn’t much of one. Sure, the two are awkwardly paired together to stop a terrorist threat, but the “big twist” toward the end is so obvious I saw it in the first five minutes. Fortunately, though, the predictability of the plot doesn’t ruin the film. It’s still a fun action film (pretty much entirely due to Travolta’s character). It’s also only 90 minutes and like Taken, goes non-stop once things get going. It’s not a deep film by any means, or even a great one, but it’s definitely fun, silly, and outrageous, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

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Wed, Feb 03, 2010

: The Lovely Bones

Author: Alice Sebold (novel)

Director: Peter Jackson

This film’s fatal flaw is also it’s most compelling aspect. The story’s a grim one about a 14-year-old girl murdered by a serial killer in 1973. This happens at the beginning of the film and she ends up stuck between heaven and earth and watches her family struggle to deal with her loss. That the subject matter is so somber is the heart of the film’s problems, because it’s not a pleasant subject to watch for over two hours. The film feels dreadfully long, probably double its runtime. It would have been far better if 30 minutes was cut. The storyline is so simple it holds no surprises: obviously the girl is already dead and she’ll go to heaven once her family’s properly healed. We’re itching for that healing from the beginning, but of course it doesn’t come until the very end, which makes all the stuff in between somewhat tedious. The writers and producers were somewhat aware of this problem; unfortunately their solution was to tame down the material. For instance, though I haven’t read the novel, I heard that in that the girl’s body is chopped up and the killer accidentally loses her elbow which the cops find and the family knows she’s dead. That’s grim. In the film, the cops only find her knit hat soaked in blood. Also in the film we’re not shown the murder itself. I realize the producers wanted a more mainstream film, but all this weakens the effect of the murder. In fact, I wasn’t even sure the girl was murdered (she wasn’t either as she didn’t realize she was dead). While the bad guy was definitely portrayed as creepy, we don’t realize just how evil he is until much later in the film. The story could have been so much more powerful if we’d seen up front how this seemingly nice guy was really the most hideous monster. It wouldn’t have been pleasant, but it would have been an emotional sock to the gut. Instead, we get this vague watered down thing with no violence shown and it’s bewildering and too tame. Another weakness that annoyed me is there are many “spooky” scenes in the film: odd little glances and exchanges between characters, scenes of tension when the sister sneaks into the killer’s house looking for evidence, etc. Unfortunately most of the time there’s nothing concrete behind these moments. Or at least we aren’t shown what triggers them. For example, the camera will pan by the killer’s house with ominous music and he’ll do something innocuous like close his curtains. The sister’s watching as she jogs back and she’s creeped out. Why? Do you get creeped out when your neighbor closes his curtains? I need some sort of a reason why she’s bothered. Does she suspect he’s the killer? (She doesn’t until later in the film.) Is it just some weird sixth sense or instinct? If so, then show us something that tells us that. This happens in other ways as well, like when the killer returns home while the sister’s in his house, he immediately starts looking around like he’s suspicious. Why? Does he hear or see something? That is not shown and I found his action bizarre. If this had only happened once or twice it wouldn’t be such a problem, but it happens dozens of times in this film, and the result — at least for me — was that by the end of the film wolf had been cried so many times that I didn’t buy the tension and the dramatic music came across as cheesy melodrama. Tension is great: but do like Hitchcock and show us why we should be scared, why the characters are suspicious, etc.

Despite all these flaws, however, I still like this movie. I liked it far more than I expected. The heavenish fantasy scenes the murdered girl lives in are wonderful, both in beauty, imagination, and special effects. Peter Jackson’s vision is terrific. I loved the way the girl’s heavenly dream world mixed with elements of real life. My favorite was when her father, whose hobby was building model ships inside bottles, began smashing his collection in his grief. For the daughter, who was on a beach, this showed up as giant glass bottles with huge ships inside washing up on shore and shattering against the rocks. Jackson intercuts between the two scenes and it’s tremendously powerful, as the giant glass bottle ships breaking up really feels like the world is ending, the girl crying and pleading to her dad to stop, and him basically losing it. Just wonderful and amazing. The film is full of great moments like that. There are many astonishing scenes of tenderness and beauty. There’s sadness, but there’s happiness as well. The film does of great job of portraying the healing that takes place over time. There are some weird things, like at the end when the dead girl temporarily exchanges bodies with a living character (I didn’t get that at all and it didn’t seem to fit within the story’s reality), but overall this is an impressive film. It’s far from perfect, however. It’s long, focuses on a grim subject matter that the producers seemed afraid to mention (this story could have been so much more powerful), and much of the tension felt artificial to me, stirred by the score without anything in the shot to justify the alarm. The performances are excellent for the most part (though the father character felt dreadfully miscast and Mark Walberg needs to stay away from emotional scenes as he just makes me want to laugh when he pretends to cry). I thought the killer was fantastic, definitely awesome, and surprisingly the younger sister (who ages during the story which takes place over several years) was better than the murdered lead (not that the lead actress was poor, she just had the one-note role of being dead).

Overall, this is one of those odd films where the many flaws are clear, but I liked it anyway. In fact, I am shocked at how much I liked it. I think I would at least consider owning this on disc: the fantasy sequences alone are worth it to me to study, as are many individual scenes and shots. As a whole it doesn’t quite work as a film and I don’t think I would watch it entirely through again, but I would love to explore certain parts. It is mesmerizing at times. Recommended, but with caution: be aware going in that this isn’t a great film. It has great moments, however, and if you can enjoy those, I think you’d find this entertaining and emotionally moving.

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Sun, Jan 31, 2010

: Amazon Drops the Bomb

You may have heard the news about the fight between etailer Amazon and publisher MacMillan. If you’re not an author or publisher, this may not seem important, but I am telling you right now, the outcome of this battle will define the future of the publishing industry.

Basically, the two disagree on the pricing of ebooks, and Amazon used their nuclear weapon: on Friday they pulled all MacMillan products from their store. We’re talking paper books, not just ebooks. (You can still buy some MacMillan products via third parties, i.e. used books, but not from Amazon itself.)

I find this decision by Amazon shocking and I believe it will backfire and cost them dearly.

Amazon sees the writing on the wall and is terrified. They know that the future is all about the distribution of electronic content. Within the next decade, we are going to see a trend where physical media goes away. It’s already pretty much happened with music, and is starting to happen with video and text. It’s inevitable. People who are most opposed to electronic media are old and are literally dying off. The new generation is actually more comfortable with emedia than paper and that trend is accelerating. Many kids today have never even heard of an audio CD, let alone cassette tapes, 8-track, or records. It’s a digital world for them.

For Amazon, this presents a problem. With physical products, they have a competitive edge: huge warehouses and a distribution system that can’t be easily duplicated and they gain huge efficiencies in scale. But digital is easy: anyone can whip up a web store and beam electrons to customers and there is little difference from the customer’s perspective between an outfit in a garage and Fortune 500 behemoth. Amazon’s worry is that they’ll become nothing more than a dumb pipe. They want to be more valuable than that, because dumb pipes are easily replaced.

Amazon’s solution was to create the Kindle ereader hardware device and software platform in the hopes of building up a monopoly. That has been modestly successful. But Apple’s upcoming iPad threatens to dwarf and obsolete Amazon’s efforts. Apple’s device is very different from a Kindle: for some hardcore readers it’s a different category of product, but most people, who only read a few books a year, the more multi-functional iPad is all the ereader they need. In truth, far more people already read Kindle books on Apple devices than anything Amazon makes. Amazon has never stated Kindle sales numbers, because by their own admission the product doesn’t make enough money to bother, but estimates are that Amazon has sold as many as 2.5 million Kindles after years on the market. Contrast that with Apple which has sold 75 million iPhones and iPod touches. With estimates of the iPad selling between 4 and 10 million in its first year on the market, the Kindle hardware is pretty much extinct and Amazon knows it. (If they were smart, they’d ship a $99 Kindle next week. Take out the cellular modem and ugly keyboard and sell it paperback cheap.)

That means Amazon can only make money off of content. With its iTunes and App Stores, Apple has set a pricing precedent: Apple keeps 30% and the publisher/author keeps 70%. It was logical Apple would do the same with their ebook store (which they did when it was announced last week). I recently put one of my novels up for sale in Kindle format and I was dismayed to see the paltry percentage Amazon would pay me: for simply selling my digital book they would pretty much give me the 30% and keep the rest! (This is, unfortunately, quite similar to the revenue of physical books, where the bookstore often makes more on the sale than the publisher and author.) Obviously Apple’s store is a lot more attractive to me as a publisher/author.

To compete with Apple, Amazon must change its ebook terms to match. Yet if Amazon does that, Amazon becomes nothing but a dumb pipe. That’s where it gets hairy, for Apple is delighted being a dumb pipe. All of Apple’s digital stores are dumb pipes: they don’t exist to make Apple a profit (Apple has stated their goal is just to “break even”) but as a method of selling hardware. People are attracted to Apple devices because of the digital stores: iTunes makes it easy to buy songs for your iPod and Apps for your iPhone or iPod touch.

But Amazon doesn’t have Apple’s hardware sales to fall back on (Kindles probably don’t make money already and if sales drop off because of the iPad, that’s even less revenue). If Amazon competes with Apple’s “break even” business as a dumb pipe, how will they make any money?

The solution is dangerously clear. There’s a fixed amount of money on the table. Amazon can either raise prices to the customer, which would probably result in customers choosing to keep their money in their wallets, or Amazon can rape the publisher/author.

Amazon has chosen to do the latter.

They have announced new royalty terms that on the surface sound like they match Apple’s 70/30 split. However, the fine print reveals that publishers must agree to Amazon’s new terms to get that rate, and those new terms are insane. To get the higher royalty, the publisher basically hands over the reins of their business to Amazon, allowing Amazon to set the price of the product (even giving it away for free or dirt cheap if they want). The publisher cannot set a minimum price, and Amazon states that the maximum price will be $9.99. (So my niche-market technical books, which sell for $50 in print form, must sell for an absurdly low $10 in ebook form!) Even more outrageous, publishers agreeing to the terms are forbidden from selling their ebook elsewhere for more than Amazon charges!

That means that Amazon, effectively, would be setting the price of books on Apple’s store. That’s because Amazon sets the price on their store, not the publisher. So if Amazon decides my novel should sell for $2, I guess I have to lower the price to match on the Apple store or else I’m in violation of the agreement!

I do not foresee many publishers taking Amazon up on their offer. I know I won’t. Those are ridiculous terms. Unfortunately for Amazon, their Kindle market is not strong enough for them to dictate them (Kindle ebook sales are still paltry). I’d rather miss out of the Kindle market completely and go with Apple’s new and unknown market than be stuck in such a contract. (Kindle may have the edge today, but I’d be willing to be that by the end of 2010 Apple’s iPad market will be larger.)

I feel sympathy for Amazon. They are caught in a bad position and don’t see a way out. The future is digital and they want to be a part of that, but digital may not be profitable enough for them, at least at the terms Apple has defined. Amazon adds some value over Apple, but as anyone in retail knows, price reigns supreme and no matter how good Amazon’s customer service and website is, they must compete with Apple on price (both on the royalty terms to publishers/authors and to customers). The danger is that Apple can afford to lose money on digital sales if they want. Amazon cannot.

If I was Amazon, I’d just accept that being a dumb pipe is the future and try to be more efficient at selling physical products. I would purchase UPS or FedEx and offer free shipping for all orders. That would give Amazon tremendous clout in the retail market of physical goods. But digital goods, by nature, don’t care what pipe they travel down. Amazon is attempting to control that market by inventing weird contract terms and other artificial controls. (We’re seeing this same battle for control developing in cellular networks and cable/satellite providers.)

Most alarmingly, and a clear sign of Amazon’s panic and the high stakes in this game, Amazon has gone nuclear, dropping the biggest bomb it can on MacMillan by removing all their products. That is huge. I said earlier that it is going to backfire and it will: content makers are terrified of the clout of large sellers like Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Walmart. They are already wary of Amazon. Instead of Amazon trying to lure them in with more attractive terms than Apple, Amazon is attempting to bully them. The result, I predict, will be droves of publishers lining up to support Apple’s book platform. They fear Amazon and don’t want to be blackmailed. Amazon, by showing that they are willing to go nuclear, has made a horrible mistake. Publishers aren’t going to commit financial suicide by abandoning Amazon in protest, but you can bet that every single one of them is exploring other options, such as Apple’s new store. If Apple’s iPad is even moderately successful as an ereader, you can bet that publishers will flock to it as a way to escape Amazon’s grip.

This is an exciting time. Dangerous, thrilling, and unpredictable. Giant industries such as publishing, TV/film, and cable/satellite, are going to have to change the way they do business. Digital content and distribution is upsetting the old ways of doing business. It’s not going to be an easy transition, but it will happen. It’s inevitable. But in the meantime, there’s going to be pain and adjustment on both sides. The Amazon-MacMillan battle is just the first skirmish of a long war.

[Update: Since I posted this, Amazon has capitulated and given in to MacMillan so this particular battle is done. It’s also of note that Amazon has apparently used this nuclear option before, against UK publisher Hatchette, forcing them to capitulate to Amazon’s terms. However, I don’t think either of those things changes what I’ve said here: Amazon realized their mistake and they have spooked publishers just before a new option for those publishers opens (Apple’s bookstore), and Amazon will regret their decision to go nuclear.]

Topic: [/technology]

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Fri, Jan 29, 2010

: Edge of Darkness

Once again, my opinion is heavily influenced by the promotion. I saw the trailer for this film many times and its heavy-handedness did not give me much optimism. But it’s much better than the trailer. For example, the trailer begins with a memory of the father shaving and putting shaving cream on his little girl, supposedly a fond, tender moment, and cutting to her death as an adult come home to visit and leaving the door open for the main story, the father searching for his daughter’s killer. But the flashback comes across as schmaltzy in the trailer. In the film, I loved it: that shaving cream scene happens toward the very end and we already know all the characters and what they have gone through and the scene is longer with more details, and it’s excellent. The rest of the movie is similar: what seems trite in the trailer, is actually pretty good in context. The film isn’t that much action: it’s a lot more about a grieving father, a complicated political cover-up, mysterious men, and a time bomb father who we worry might go off at any moment. I didn’t much care for the story: the “mystery” isn’t much of a mystery, and even when it’s explained, it’s nothing remarkable, but I did like the way the film worked overall. It’s not a film I’d want to see again, but it’s above average and worth seeing the first time. There are many nice moments. It’s boring in places, and the cover-up and political intrigue is overdone and too complicated, but even within that there are some interesting scenes and ideas. (I really liked the way the bad guys sat around talking about various scenarios and how to handle with the situation. That showed that this wasn’t an elaborate, well-planned scheme but people on the edge trying to stay one step ahead of getting caught.) The bottom line: a decent thriller. Not unbelievably awesome, but I don’t think you’d be disappointed if you saw it. It’s got some good action in places, and some of the human moments are very good. The overall ending is good and I really liked the very end.

Topic: [/movie]

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Thu, Jan 28, 2010

: iPad: Second Thoughts

I’ve been reading nothing but iPad comments and news for the last two days and I see one clear trend: people into technology, the geeks and computer people, aren’t too excited.

Why? Because they don’t see a need for this product. They already have laptops, netbooks, cell phones, and other gadgets. They aren’t intimidated by complex technology. Some even like it. Plus, all of them have been thinking about the “Apple Tablet” for months, dreaming of what they would want in a tablet. Instead, Apple has gone and produced something unique that doesn’t fit in any existing category, and these tech people are bewildered and underwhelmed. They see all the “missing features” and think that’s a mistake.

But that’s the whole point: Apple is about reducing complexity. The key is that these idiots are not the target market! That’s right: Apple did not create the iPad for them! The iPad was created for the non-tech person. It really is the ultimate “computer for the rest of us.”

My grandfather, for instance, would have loved an iPad. He knew nothing of computers and always struggled with them. But he knew how to touch things. Babies know how to touch things. He knew how to read. He would have loved to do email and keep in touch with people, but a computer was far too complicated for him. An iPad would have been ideal. It has the form factor of a magazine, which he knew and understood. Email would have been dreadfully simple for him. No, he wouldn’t use it to write a novel or do real work: he’d use it to read articles, books, emails, watch TV. Sure he could that with an iPod touch: but a touch is too small. That’s why many people haven’t gotten one. It’s not the price. They look at the iPod touch and think, “Why would I want that? I’ve got a big screen Mac in the other room to read email on!”

But an iPad should appeal to everyone. Imagine being on the sofa watching TV. The iPad is lying on the coffee table. A commercial comes on TV or you’re not really into the show. You pick it up and it turns on. You casually flick through emails, perhaps fire off a quick response or two. You check the CNN website, maybe browse a few other sites. The interface for web surfing is amazing, so natural: you hold the thing like a magazine and flip through content the way you flip through magazine pages. Maybe you open an ebook and read. Maybe your show is on and you hand the thing to your spouse who works on the latest NYT crossword puzzle on it or plays a game. Maybe it’s so easy and convenient and handy that everyone in the family starts to use it for the occasional email. Most don’t want to bother with the big, complicated, fixed-location computer in the other room, but this handy tablet can be read anywhere in the house. Read the news while eating breakfast. The thing is a gorgeous calendar for scheduling all those doctor appointments and church commitments. The thing makes a beautiful animated picture frame, wonderful for showing a slideshow of the great-grandkids. It’ll even act as a weather station, showing you the weather coming for the next week!

Do you know how many people in the world are in that situation? Millions! Everyone complains about their computers being a hassle. I know many who respond slowly to emails (i.e. days). Why? Because it’s a hassle. You do it when you have to, not when it’s convenient. How many times a day do you think of a website you should visit (i.e. while you’re watching TV and you see an ad or mention of an interesting site on the news) but you never do because it’s too much of a pain to go to your office and fire up the computer and web browser and find the site. With an iPad, you’ve got the Internet right there in your hand, anywhere in your house!

Just like with iPhone before it was released, all the anti-Apple and supposed tech experts are predicting doom and gloom. iPhone doesn’t have a real keyboard, limited battery, the screen will get fingerprints on it, it doesn’t support Flash, won’t “multitask,” bla bla bla. Forget about them. Those people are either biased (i.e. employed by Apple competitors) or they aren’t the target market for this. I fully agree it’s not for everyone. Someone already with a netbook, or a tech guy who wants a fully customizable experience, won’t go for this. That’s fine. This isn’t for them.

Think of the iPad as an elaborate digital photo frame. It’s beautiful, handy, and narrowly functioned. It’s not meant to replace a full computer. It doesn’t do that much more than an iPhone. But it’s a bigger screen than an iPhone, which means it’s more convenient for reading, interacting with, and using. In some ways, it’s expensive: $500 for a device that “doesn’t do much.” But it’s a game-changer, a new paradigm. Your life will never be the same after you have one. Just like the iPhone revolutionized the mobile phone industry — every new phone now can do Internet, let you look up things on Google from anywhere, etc. (though few let you do it as easily and conveniently as an iPhone) — the iPad will change everything. The iPad will change the way we live our lives. In a few years, many homes will have several of these lying around. You’ll use them for reading, news and weather, checking email and social networking accounts (Twitter, Facebook, etc.), showing off family photos to visitors, etc. No more having to remember cryptic commands, worry about viruses or crashes, or even having to “save a file.” (Like iPhone, all data is saved automatically, transparently, as you create it. You’ll never lose anything again.) You’ll integrate iPads into your life in such a simple, natural, elegant way that if your iPad was suddenly taken away, you’d be lost and confused, wondering how you’ll get along without it!

And once that happens, $500 starts to seem like the bargain of the century. Which it is.

Topic: [/technology]

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Wed, Jan 27, 2010

: iPad: First Thoughts

Unless you’re dead, you know that Apple announced their perspective on tablet computing today with their iPad. This was much anticipated with rumors swirling for months, and the result has been greeted with either awe, disappointment, or disdain, depending on what the person was expecting.

Here’s the thing about Apple. They do not do what people want or expect. While some might see that as a bad thing, it seems to work for them. People wanted something revolutionary. They wanted a $2,000 laptop in a touch tablet for $299 with a magical interface. Instead, Apple gave them a giant iPod touch for $500. Many yawned and said, “What’s that good for?” Those people are still stuck in traditional thinking. They are thinking in traditional product categories (i.e. cell phone, media player, netbook, laptop, desktop). What Apple has done is create a whole new category of device.

You could see the iPad as a media player or ebook, but that’s limiting its purpose. It’s more of a computer than that, allowing you to work on spreadsheets, presentations, word processing, and other computing tasks. But it’s not quite the same kind of a computer as a netbook or laptop. Traditional computers are complicated devices. What Apple has done with iPad is create the first real computing appliance. Think of it like a toaster or fridge or multi-functional kitchen tool. Like those, it just needs to work without fuss or maintenance. No cryptic commands or software to install or viruses to worry about. It needs to be simple and clean, super easy to use, and fun. Traditional laptops and netbooks are such heavy maintenance they are only fun for geeks. It’s like the difference between being a car mechanic and a driver.

The real dilemma for a tablet like this is defining the market. Who is this for? Tablets have been done, but done poorly. Most take a desktop OS (like Windows) and add touch or stylus capability. The result is a kludge. It’s not any easier to use, it’s still expensive, and the awkward form factor means it’s not good as a traditional laptop either. It’s the old “jack of all trades, master of none” problem.

Apple has chosen to address this in a few key ways. First, they focused on price. Price is critical for a product like this. Too low and it’s not economically worth making. Too high and it competes with laptops and no one will buy it. I believe Apple could have released this a year ago, but held off until they could get the price point just right. $500 is an excellent price. They aren’t giving it away, and certainly not everyone can afford this, but it fits in well in between the $200 touch and the $999 MacBook.

Second, they focused on what a tablet-form computer does well. It’s light, portable, and handy. It’s quick on and off, and the large screen is ideal for things like browsing the web, reading books, and watching video. It makes an incredible calendar and digital photo frame. They did not try and hamper this with a physical keyboard. They did not kludge on a traditional laptop operating system. They did not try to make this do everything. They kept it simple, so that the functions it does, it does extraordinarily well, even better than a laptop. (Reading a web page with this is an order of magnitude better than any laptop and even a desktop with a large screen simply because of the elegant touch interface.) It’s full of nice touches: hand an iPad to a colleague and the display reorients itself to be right-side-up for that person. There’s no wrong way to hold the thing: use it in whatever way feels right to you. It’s visually designed so everything looks gorgeous. (That may not seem important, but it’s part of what makes a device like this a joy to use.)

Third, they have leveraged the existing iPhone/touch platform, by making this run all those 140,000+ apps, plus new ones written for the larger iPad screen. That’s a huge existing infrastructure. No one else who has tried a tablet has had a platform like that to build upon. This is already Internet-savy with all the social media apps it needs. (Imagine checking Twitter or Facebook on this thing while watching TV: similar to doing it on an iPhone, but the bigger screen makes it even easier.) And don’t forget the games: iPhone games — and eventually iPad games — will rock on the larger display.

Finally, Apple hasn’t forgotten productivity. If this tablet was merely a media consumption device (i.e. a media player), it wouldn’t be nearly as significant. It would be nice, though perhaps expensive. But Apple has completely rewritten their iWork suite for the iPad. That means full word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation software. This not only signifies that this is a “real” laptop capable of getting work done, but Apple has set an example of how such software can function on the device. All those thousands of iPhone app developers are now working frantically on rewriting their apps to take advantage of the iPad’s larger screen and faster processor.

The result is a simple and elegant device. It feels like it’s no more complicated than a magazine. But the full color touch screen means you can interact with what you see. You move pictures around with your fingertip. You tap an email to open it. Touch a video to play it or pause it. It’s natural, intuitive, and effortless. That makes it fun.

This isn’t a traditional laptop. It really is just a big iPhone, but the larger screen size changes the paradigm far more than you’d think. Being able to see more at once gives you more power. Applications can be more complicated. Ebooks can be read at full size. Magazines can contain audio and video. This is the future we saw on Star Trek decades ago made real.

How useful will an iPad be? That depends on your lifestyle. If you don’t have a computer at all, it’s useless. (Apple products require a computer as a base to sync information.) If you have an iPhone or iPod touch, you’ll want this, but you may not need it. If, on the other hand, you have neither, or have been considering a touch, an iPad might just be the ticket. It can do many of the functions of a traditional laptop (not everything, but many). It can do just about everything you can do on an iPhone or iPod touch, but easier, since the bigger screen makes you more productive and efficient.

In my case, I had been considering a touch even though I have an iPhone. I use my iPhone constantly. A touch would give me additional storage, allow me a second device to read in bed, play games with without running down my iPhone’s battery, etc. It didn’t make a lot sense since the form factors are the same, but I was still tempted. Now I’m seriously thinking that an iPad makes more sense. It’s that thing in-between a laptop and a phone. It’s perfect for a guest computer (visitors could easily check their email, flight schedule, etc.) or for surfing the web while you watch TV. I can imagine using the case to prop it up in the kitchen while I follow the directions to a recipe on the screen (and even watch an embedded video demonstrating the cooking technique I’m trying to do). With something like Slingbox running on it, it’s a portable TV! Or how about this: instead of buying those expensive DVD systems for your car, why not get a couple of these for the kids? You can store movies and TV shows and music and games on them, good for infinite hours of entertainment. They’d cost less than an in-car system and can be used anywhere, not just while driving. (Kids could do homework on them, too.)

In short, no one knows what this is for. The apps haven’t been written yet. No, it’s probably not essential (everything really essential in our lives has already been invented — if it hasn’t, we’d be dead). But I think the way the iPad works will be so wonderful, so natural and beautiful, that everyone will want one. And the reasonable price means that many people can afford one. (Why buy one $1500 laptop when you could get three iPads for the whole family?)

I picture these as being awesome for schools (goodbye physical textbooks), terrific for executives who don’t need a “full” laptop, elderly people befuddled by technology or with poor eyesight (just make the book font larger), frequent travelers who find traditional laptops too heavy and overkill most of the time, presentation makers, doctors or consultants or salespeople (pretty much any person who needs lots of info at their fingertips and doesn’t want to fuss with a clumsy laptop), and probably a few dozen other categories of people I’ve left out. The iPad isn’t for everyone and that’s fine. It doesn’t need to be. But many will adopt it, I am sure. The iPad’s going to be huge. It could even be bigger than the iPhone: more people want a cell phone than a pad, but there’s a lot more competition in the cell phone area. Nothing really competes with the iPad (netbooks are the closest thing, but far inferior on specs and usability). Apple can own this market since they created it.

Sure, there are things Apple has left out. There’s no camera, an odd omission, but no doubt due to cost cutting to reach the magical $500 price point. Apple will probably add that in a future model as manufacturing prices come down. Some are critical that it doesn’t support Flash, but I never expected it do so (Apple does not like to support other company’s proprietary standards and really would like Flash banned from the Internet and I full support them as I abhor Flash). Apple also does not support add-on memory cards, a removable battery, or apps not installed via the App Store. Those things were a given, and people who expected something else were deceiving themselves. Some are critical of the virtual keyboard, but people were worried about that before the iPhone and now many prefer it. (I personally feel that a software keyboard is fine for limited use, which is all most people would use this device for. If you really want to type, you’ll use an external keyboard.) There are some dumb jokes about the name, iPad, but it really does make sense when Apple has the iPod. It’s not my favorite name, but it’s growing on me. (I wasn’t a giant fan of the name “iPod” in the beginning, either.) As for most other criticisms, don’t forget that this is just the 1.0 version of the device. In a few years this will be even better and sell for $200!

My only criticism is that I had hoped Apple would create an ecosystem for digital magazines. I had hoped there would be a new digital magazine format and a store for selling them, so that I could sell my magazine that way. Unfortunately, while Apple announced a book store, it appears that magazines aren’t a part that (it’s looking like only the big publishers can put their stuff on the store, though hopefully that’s just temporary). Magazines can still be created as individual applications and sold via the App Store, but that’s a lot more work than just distributing content. Because Apple hasn’t created their own system, the magazine market will end up fractured, with everyone doing their own thing: not as good as the more unified book market. Still, this is a minor quibble, and just because nothing was announced today doesn’t mean it will never happen. If this tablet takes off and magazine publishers find it lucrative, it could spark a whole new industry. I can’t wait!

But I must. The iPad doesn’t ship for 60 days!

Topic: [/technology]

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Tue, Jan 26, 2010

: Quarantine

This started of really well: a cute female TV reporter is shooting footage at a fire station. It’s really well done with realistic dialogue, scenes, etc. My hopes went up. But then they go on a call where mysterious things are happening in a building, end up locked inside by men with guns outside, and it turns out there’s a virus contaminating the place and the building is now under quarantine. The virus turns people into blood-hungry cannibals, and from that point on the movie deteriorates into non-stop screaming, darkness, shaky “real” camera movements, and gore. Depressing, annoying as anything, and pointless. Just watch the first 20 minutes and forget the rest.

Topic: [/movie]

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Fri, Jan 22, 2010

: Legion

I did not expect this to be good, but I didn’t expect it to be this bad. The premise of angels as the antagonists had me intrigued, but I expected at least a token bit of theology to explain it. Instead I got nothing: this could just has easily have been zombies, monsters, or alien creatures destroying humankind. There was the faintest hint of moral conflict in the final confrontation between archangels Gabriel and Michael, but it was so lamely done it meant nothing. All the film has going for it is some routine action and one dramatic (and fun) scene of a nice old lady suddenly turning vicious. That scene is in the trailer and is by far the best — and only — thing in the entire film worth watching. The plot itself was non-existent as nothing made any sense at all: it’s basically a small group of humans and one angel holed up in a diner fighting off humans possessed by angels with the angels wanting to kill the pregnant girl’s baby which is somehow supposed to save mankind. Come on: if God wants a baby dead, it’s dead. That a million angels can’t do it is absurd. The purpose of the baby is never explained, nor is why God is so angry with humanity. Pretty much nothing is explained. A handful of the characters are mildly interesting (most are so annoying you’re rooting for them to be killed off), but it’s not like we care about anyone here. Just terrible.

Topic: [/movie]

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Thu, Jan 21, 2010

: What the Dog Saw

Author: Malcolm Gladwell

This book is a collection of Gladwell’s terrific essays for the New Yorker. They’re available for free on the New Yorker website, but I got the book anyway and found it an excellent read. There’s an amazing variety of topics here, with essays spanning 15+ years, and always with Gladwell’s unique story-based presentation and fascinating linking of the seemingly unrelated. There are far too many topics for me to cover them all, but I don’t think there was even one article I didn’t enjoy. The title one is about Cesar Millan, the Dog Whisperer, trying to explain how he can communicate so well with dogs. There are many others on talent, teaching, and even dog biting. Excellent.

Topic: [/book]

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Sun, Jan 17, 2010

: Underword: Rise of the Lycans

This is a prequel to the Underworld series, detailing how the war between vampires and Lycan began. It’s basically the tragic love story between a female vampire (daughter of the head vamp) and Lucian, the first Lycan (werewolf). It’s stylish and violent and interesting, with terrific acting by the leads, but though I cared about the fate of the couple, I didn’t much care about the vampires themselves. This is set back at a time when they ruled over humans and the vampires are arrogant monsters. That dislike took me out of the story. I wanted the couple to just elope and follow their story, but of course, that’s not what happens. The key story elements were already revealed in the earlier films, so if you remember the backstory in those you know this plot already, but it’s still a good story. For me the big draw of these films has always been actress Kate Beckinsale, so I expected this one to be lacking, but it’s actually quite good. It definitely fits in well with the series, being a little better than the second one but not as good as the first. If you’re a fan of the others, you’ll like this one.

Topic: [/movie]

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Sat, Jan 16, 2010

: Lakeview Terrace

Strange film. I wanted to see this when it came out, but somehow missed it, and the impression I had was that it wasn’t that good. It’s not that bad, though, just weird. Basically an interracial couple moves into a new house with a black cop as their neighbor. From the beginning he’s a mix of politeness and meanness, and we’re not quite sure what his deal is. That’s both what makes the film interesting, and its biggest flaw. His true nature isn’t fully revealed until late, which means the bulk of the film we aren’t sure what’s going on, making the experience awkward and tedious, as we’re unsure how to think. It keeps you on edge, which is interesting, but you’re uncomfortable, which isn’t pleasant. The film would have been far better if there had been some indication right at the beginning that this cop was a really bad dude. We get that idea, but it’s not clear enough, and he’s so nice at times that it’s confusing. Ultimately the film doesn’t quite work. It’s got some fascinating psychological elements, but either we’re never privileged to get inside the heads of characters or its treated too lightly. Either way, the film feels slightly unpolished, a coarse rough draft. It’s got some terrific scenes and excellent performances (Samuel L. Jackson is amazing as the cop neighbor), but the story’s too disjointed and odd to be successful. Interesting idea, though. Reminded me a lot of the far better Pacific Heights.

Topic: [/movie]

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: Sugar and Spice

Silly film about a pregnant cheerleader desperate for money who gets her fellow cheergirls to help her rob a bank. Stylishly done with quirky narration by a resentful “B-squad” cheerleader, it has many nice elements, but it’s way too light. I read online that this was originally conceived as a black comedy but the script rewritten to make it lighter and I think that was a mistake. This would have been far better dark; instead it feels funny but meaningless.

Topic: [/movie]

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Fri, Jan 15, 2010

: The Book of Eli

I wasn’t sure if I would like this or not, but I did. The story is slight: a mysterious man wanders a post-appocolyptic world hiding a book while a ruthless villain wants the book. The “mystery” of the book is extremely slight (and obvious), but what’s initially unclear is why the villain wants the book. There’s a twist at the end that’s gimmicky and too much on the nose for true brilliance, but it is interesting. Overall, the film’s more about atmosphere than story, and that’s fine. This is a film about visual style, and in that role it succeeds. I loved the style: from the terrific action sequences to the look of the future world, it worked for me. The opening sequence was amazing: a snowy wood, panning across the ground, we come across an open revolver. As we slowly pan across that we come to an open hand, and eventually a dead body. Then a hairless cat approaches the body, obviously starving, and begins to gnaw on the leg. We continue to pan to the right, eventually seeing a strange astronaut-like figure in some sort of radiation garb. As we slowly zoom closer, we realize the figure is prone and there is a deadly metal-tipped arrow pointing right at the camera. It is our hero, and he has set a trap to catch himself some cat meat. Wow: obviously not our world, and sets up much of the story without a word. Late in the film it at times is little more than an action flick, and I wish it had more story depth, but overall it’s a fun, stylish “what if” film, and worth seeing if you like the genre. I liked the revelation about the book, though it was slightly cliche and predictable.

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Wed, Jan 13, 2010

: The Princess and the Frog

Let me begin by saying that the trailers for this film were horrible. Normally I love the whole “reinvention” of a legend or fairy tale, and on paper this sounded great: changing the setting to New Orleans, having the main “princess” be a black girl, having her change into a frog instead of the frog changing into a prince, etc., but the trailer was so poorly done and revealed so little of the key story that it turned me off and I had little desire to see this film. For instance, the black girl isn’t really a princess: she’s a waitress working two jobs to save up to buy her own restaurant. That is far more interesting, but that was not revealed in any of the trailers I saw. In the full film she and the frog prince hate each other: she’s a workaholic and he’s a lazy playboy, but of course, during their adventures in the Bayou as frogs, they grow to complement each other and fall in love. This is pretty fun and well-done. The animation is excellent, with many clever touches (such as the frog prince playing a “guitar” of a forked branch with spider webs as strings). Some of the characters were terrific, too. My only criticisms are that there was too much emphasis on the dark Voodoo magic (some of the imagery might frighten young children) and that the story gets stretched out too long toward the end. But the ultimate ending is sweet and fulfilling and overall, I liked the film. It’s not the greatest ever (not up to Pixar standards), and some of the jokes aren’t particularly inventive (and are too modern), but it’s a decent return for Disney. At least they’re finally returning to having a good core story.

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Sat, Jan 09, 2010

: The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

Director: Terry Gilliam

Gilliam’s one of my favorite directors but his stuff can be bizarrely incomprehensible so my chief worry about this movie involving fantastic imagination was that it would be impossible to follow. To my surprise, the story’s fairly linear, though presented in pieces so that the full puzzle isn’t complete until the end. The story involves an ancient man who made a deal with the devil for immortality. That’s the Dr. Parnassus of the title. He runs a tiny traveling show with his daughter and two assistants. I never did quite get the purpose of the traveling show: they apparently sold tickets but it was unclear what the customers got for their money. The troupe is very poor, living like gypsies in their delightfully ramshackle two-decker caravan, and show is artfully old-fashioned. The group come across a hanging man, played by the late Heath Ledger in his final role. He survives the hanging but has no memory and informally joins their troupe, where he uses his considerable persuasive skills to bring people to their shows. Meanwhile, Dr. Parnassus is depressed because his bargain with the devil means his daughter will become the devil’s property on her sixteenth birthday in a few days time and he hasn’t told her. This storyline is the bulk of the film, and it is intersected with aspects of fantasy: the Imaginarium. This is a fantasy land entered through a magical mirror that’s part of the show’s set. Inside the mirror the world becomes whatever you imagine it to be. This is where the film’s style shines so brightly: while the outside world is grimy and delightfully disgusting, these fantasy worlds are absurdly colorful or ominously dark. The person who enters is invited to make a decision: dark or light. Basically they are choosing between Dr. Parnassas and the Devil, which fits in with a new wager the two make: the first to secure five souls wins the daughter.

A few words here about the role of Ledger, who died before the film was finished. In many movies, that might have ended all hope of the film being completed, or given us an awkward film with missing scenes. Here the solution is brilliant and so thoroughly handled that you’d never know there was a crisis. Early on in the film we’re shown that people’s faces sometimes change when they enter the Imaginarium, and fortunately it seems that most (if not all) of Ledger’s “real world” scenes were completed, so only the fantasy scenes remained. Thus it works brilliantly to use other actors in Ledger’s role inside the Imaginarium. The others are made up to look similar to Ledger (but not so similar as to be trying to pass as him) and with similar mannerisms, it works and actually adds a better touch than if Heath had done all those scenes himself.

My favorite things about this film are the striking visuals and the performances. Gilliam is unsurpassed in visuals and he’s at his best here, with amazing contrasts between filth and fantasy perfection. The performances by the cast are astonishing. Every one is brilliant. Because of the chaotic nature of the story, all essentially have multiple roles, or at least play their character at different times of their life, and the variety is mesmerizing. I was truly impressed with everyone. (Heath’s role is sadly smaller than it should have been, and he’s probably the weakest of them all simply because he wasn’t in that much of the film, though there are hints of more dramatic moments later in the film.) In terms of story, I am unsure how I felt. On the one hand, it was fractured and typical Gilliam, and I departed thinking I need to see the film several more times to truly understand it. On the other hand, I couldn’t tell if it really was deep or just felt deep: ultimately the story feels too slight to be profound. But you don’t see a film like this for the compelling story. This is all about fantasy and adventure and wonder. See it for the fun, the wild, the crazy, and just go along with the story. It eventually makes some sense, though you’ll probably be scratching your head at a few things that didn’t seem to fit. Gilliam is not a man who explains things! But it’s a journey well worth the ride simply for the beauty of the experience. This is an amazing film. I’m not convinced it’s great, and I didn’t like it quite as well as my favorite film of all time, Gilliam’s Brazil , but it’s definitely one of his best and I am delighted that Gilliam is back doing what he does best: a delicious blending of fantasy and warped reality. I shall definitely watch this again and again on Blu-Ray. It is fascinating.

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Fri, Jan 08, 2010

: Daybreakers

Definitely an above-average vampire movie with a terrifically ironic conclusion that I loved, but it was much gorier than I expected (we’re talking horror-movie blood splatter here) and the story itself is somewhat shallow. Things just happen too quickly without enough set-up or explanation of the whys and wherefores. The premise is interesting: it’s a future world where 95% of the population has become vampires and now there’s a severe shortage of human blood. The few remaining humans are hunted down to be stored in blood farms, milked for their blood. The main character’s a blood scientist working on an artificial blood that would sustain the vampires. His money-hungry boss is head of the corporation and is the bad guy in the film. For some reason the scientist is human-sympathetic and ends up joining the humans in their battle against the vampires. The story’s pacing is sometimes awkward, jumping around and leaping forward without warning, but mostly this is to give us pure action, and in that sense, the film delivers, but I found some parts that to be tedious and boring. Far more interesting to me were the detail moments, learning about this future world (i.e. cars equipped with blockout shields and cameras with internal screens to allow vampires to drive in sunlight). The most flawed character for me was the scientist’s soldier brother, who appears out of nowhere with a “deep” backstory (it’s implied that it’s deep but it turns out to be trite) and though he’s important by the end, I found his presence in the first half to be a distracting puzzle. I didn’t buy the chemistry or bond between him and the scientist — they were so different they felt like strangers and because I couldn’t care less about the brother, I found the scientist’s love of his brother not to be credible. The other characters were excellent: the CEO’s spunky and beautiful daughter, Wilem Defoe’s crusty former vampire, and of course the independent female soldier who was an obvious love interest of our hero. The film is somewhat inconsistent: at times it’s visually striking and brilliant, but occasionally there’s a shot or effect that seems mundane. That could be due to budget restrictions (this is an Australian film, not a huge Hollywood production). The filmmakers show great promise and I’d love to see more of their work. This is definitely better than most vampire films, and I enjoyed it a great deal. The story’s choppy but does enough to keep you involved, and the performances are good. Recommended if you’re into this genre.

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Thu, Jan 07, 2010

: Invictus

Director: Clint Eastwood

For weeks I’ve been trying to decide if I should see this film. A part of me was interested: it’s set in Africa and the historical aspects sounded intriguing. But it’s also a sports film about rugby, which didn’t interest me much, and the whole “uniting the country through sport” aspect sounded trite and predictable. While the reviews were positive, I didn’t read anything that inspired me to go see the film. But today was the last day the film was showing at my local theatre, so I forced myself to go. Am I glad I did! It is an amazing film. Yes, like most sports films it is predictable. But that doesn’t matter because that’s only a small part of the movie. The first remarkable thing I found was not explained in the trailer and should have been. It’s shown in the first few seconds of the film: rich white boys playing rugby on grass on one side of a road with the camera panning to the other side to see poor black kids playing soccer in the dirt. That is clearly the divide in the country. The whites play rugby, the blacks soccer. Thus “uniting the country” through sport is not the trivial task it seems. It is utterly remarkable, an astonishing achievement.

Thus the first two-thirds of the film is all about the politics of Nelson Mandela being released from prison, being elected president of the country, and his unusual ways of governing that transform and unite the country. He early on spots the importance of sport: for the whites, rugby is pride in their country. For the blacks, rugby represents everything they hate about white oppression. Their instinct, upon gaining power, is to repress it and forbid it, but Mandela uses his considerable charm and persuades the blacks to support their country. The result is the whites coming to respect him, while the blacks learn to grudgingly support the whites and even love the sport of rugby. The final third of the film is the actual rugby tournament which is shot as a traditional sports film: the South African team is painted as the lowly underdog which must somehow defeat the undefeatable. We have slow-motion rugby scrums and tackles, dramatic field goals, and whatever else happens in rugby. (The rules are not explained and could have been clarified but you get the gist of what’s going on.) While this portion of the film is definitely the weakest of the story (especially if you’re not a rugby fan), the drama is heightened because the film has built the fate of an entire country upon the results of the matches, and I found myself enthralled. What makes this film work so well is Eastwood’s brilliant direction where he brings us wonderful human moments. The scene with the white and black presidential bodyguards who initially disliked each other, playing rugby on the grass during a break, was wonderful. The scene where the rugby captain brings home tickets to the big match to his family, was so precious because he brought an extra ticket for the family’s black maid, and her surprised and grateful smile that she should be included in this historic moment makes you want to stand up and cheer. Best of all is the way Eastwood intercuts scenes of the critical rugby matches with human moments. One of my favorites is a terrific sequence, probably only thirty seconds long in total, but shown in eight-second increments and spread over five minutes of rugby footage. There’s no dialogue, but we totally see what’s happening. There’s a parked taxi with a white driver and a white friend listening to the match on the radio. A small black boy nearby with wash rags is hanging out, his head tilted to hear the game. He inches closer and his longing to hear better is clear. In the first scene, one of the white guys scolds the boy rudely as though he’s an undesirable insect and sends him away. In the next cut, he’s closer, and as the rugby match is in a dramatic moment, the white guys are too excited to pay attention to the boy. Then the boy’s on the bumper of the taxi, his face alight with joy at the game. In the next scene, he’s cheering and dancing with the men, all animosity forgotten. It’s beautiful, the entire movie told in a few seconds.

Go see this movie.

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Wed, Jan 06, 2010

: Welcome to Macintosh

The key word to describe this documentary of Apple’s history would be “competent.” It is not ground-breaking, and the simple visual style, while adequate, is not ground-breaking or Apple-like (it’s too plain). I learned little I hadn’t already known (though some of the interviews were interesting), but then I’ve read numerous books and articles about Apple and have studied the company’s history. One frustrating aspect for me, being knowledgeable on the subject, was information left out or giving short shrift, but for average viewers, this is a good way to learn about this fascinating company. Another problem is an unfortunate one of timing: the film was made in 2006, just before Apple unveiled the iPhone and leaped forward to dominate a brand new product category and revolutionized another industry. The documentary feels strangely lacking with no mention of Apple’s most iconic product! Overall, this is well done and, like I said, feels competent. But Apple is not a competent company. They are a revolutionary one and deserve a revolutionary documentary. I’d love to see one from a truly innovative director with a big budget.

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Fri, Jan 01, 2010

: The Darkroom

This felt like a low-budget slasher film, but turned out to be a surprisingly clever thriller. It opens with a young boy coming from the woods with hands dripping blood. He has no memory of who he is and ends up in an asylum for many years. Then a doctor arrives with an experimental drug that may help him recover his memories. What follows is a fascinating journey as the man escapes the institution and ends up homeless. He befriends a lonely boy getting beat up by some older boys and the two start hanging out. The boy’s problem is his stepfather (brilliantly portrayed by Heroes’ Greg Grunberg) who is acting strange. The dad is alternately sweet and angry, and switches instantly without warning, attacking the boy’s mom (an excellent Lucy Lawless in a heartbreakingly submissive role a world apart from Xena). He is obsessed with his photography hobby and spends his nights going out to take pictures no one is allowed to see. The boy convinces the amnesiac to help him trail his stepdad and find out what he is doing, and their discovers are not pleasant. All this makes you wonder how this connects with the amnesiac’s memories and I feared the connection would be lame, but it turns out to be terrifically logical in a way you don’t see coming until late. Unfortunately, the film has far too many horror elements, with a Swamp Thing like monster seen in flashbacks murdering women and other slasher aspects that don’t fit well with the cerebral and emotional story. That knocks a few stars off its rating for me as the gore is misplaced. Plenty of flaws, but surprisingly good with a terrific twist conclusion.

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