Fri, Dec 30, 2011

: Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

Director: Brad Bird

Impressive and fun, with a much simpler and more linear plot than previous films. It relies on set pieces for momentum and really isn’t much of a story, but for a big budget action flick like this, that works. I liked the settings (the stuff in the desert and tall building was cool). Not everything made sense, which is typical of this franchise, but Tom Cruise is still awesome and the series is an enjoyable blast.

Topic: [/movie]


Wed, Dec 21, 2011

: The Adventures of Tintin

Director: Steven Spielberg

Growing up in Europe, where Tintin is more popular than Superman and Batman put together, I have loved the books since I was a child. There have been attempts to make the books into movies before. A live action one was tried in the 1980s and flopped, and there was an HBO animated series in the early 1990s that was pretty good and very faithful to the books in both story and animation style. But this one with Spielberg at the helm promised more… and it delivered.

The motion-capture animation is, in a word, stunning. It doesn’t look creepy at all, but fabulous. I saw the 3D version which adds a little but isn’t essential. Everything about this world is done with wonderful attention to detail and though it’s a different and more photo-realistic style than Hergé’s art, it has a similar feel and tone. It’s breathtaking.

As far as the story goes, this film is really a version of The Secret of the Unicorn. It follows a very similar plot, but it’s been expanded a bit — made into more of a globe-trotting adventure. Amazingly, though some of the details have been switched around and there are new events — it still feels like aspects of the original book. The writers did an incredible job of creating new events that fit right in with Tintin (some parts are borrowed from other books). The sight gags, humor, the little dog Snowy, the Thompson Twins, all the wacky characters are included and they all feel just right. The voice performances are pitch-perfect, as is the animation.

I did hear one review that was critical of the plot as being a bit dated, and while I understand that, it is the plot of the original book so that strikes me as a strange criticism. One might as well criticize Emily Bronte’s work for being old! Personally, I prefer the original plot to something new: this has a classic feel to it and really is a wonderful, sweet, wholesome story of adventure and old-fashioned treasure-hunting. If you’ve read the books you’ll love the film, and if you’re discovering the character for the first time, the film’s a great introduction. Go see it and enjoy it and then read all the books. The whole series is timeless.

Topic: [/movie]


Tue, Dec 20, 2011

: Fruit Bouquet

This weekend I had an interesting adventure as I attempted to create my first fruit bouquet. These are like flower arrangements, but with cut fruit on skewers, ready to eat. I read a tiny bit about these on the web and just went for it without much preparation. I didn’t have all the right equipment, which caused some issues, but the end result wasn’t too bad:

I used floral foam blocks for the base, which wasn’t the best as it was too light and I discovered that the heavier fruit skewers tended to unbalance the thing. It was tricky getting and keeping it balanced and transporting it was a nightmare. (I ended up wrapping it with plastic wrap and placing the two baskets into a large cooler, which worked.) The whole thing was far too fragile for my liking, however. Fruit fell off the skewers or slid down them to the base, the whole thing kept wanting to tip, and I couldn’t fill in all the gaps properly because I couldn’t get in between the existing skewers without damaging the whole structure.

Another issue was I used some fake moss as a sort of stuffing. Theoretically you use that to fill in the cracks between the skewers and cover up the foam block. It really brings the whole thing together and makes it look more like a floral bouquet instead of just a collection of sticks of fruit. Unfortunately, the moss I got was very flaky, like grass clippings, and since it wasn’t edible, I worried about it sticking to the fruit and people eating (it was getting everywhere, like confetti). Therefore I only used a little bit and my bouquet doesn’t look as good as it should. I later saw something about using kale for this filler and that would have been a much better approach, but I found out too late to use it on this project.

Basically, I needed a better plan for the whole thing. But it still worked and everyone at the party seemed to like it and appreciate the effort. I haven’t done any kind of project like this in a long time, so it was good to push myself into trying something new. I definitely like the concept and I’ll try it again in the future, but with better planning and execution. With the right equipment and supplies, I think I could produce some interesting arrangements. It was fun and I recommend everyone try this: you really can’t go too wrong. Even if it ends up a mess, you just have fruit salad!

Topic: [/personal]


Sun, Dec 18, 2011

: Dorian Gray

I loved the book and though this is a well-done film, it left me a bit bereft. I’m not sure why. It could be because I didn’t find the actor who plays the lead compelling at all. He had no chemistry and seemed ill-cast. (The rest of the cast was excellent, especially Colin Firth as Lord Henry.)

The whole story feels awkward and empty. It’s been a while since I read the book so I’m not sure if this aspect is accurate or not, but in this film it felt like Dorian was portrayed as a sweet innocent who’s entirely corrupted by his mentor Lord Henry. It was as though it was trying to remove the blame off of Dorian, which I didn’t like. My vision of him is much more of an arrogant and spoiled man who is easily tempted and swayed, not a good guy who has to be dragged kicking and screaming into sin.

The film is also too on-the-nose too often. For instance, animating the portrait just felt weird and wrong. Yes, the portrait was sinfully ugly and vile and well-done in that regard, but it might have been much better if the audience had never been shown that and we only saw the reactions of people who saw the portrait instead. Making the portrait move and pulse with something like a heartbeat was a serious mistake. It again serves to remove blame from Dorian, as though the portrait is evil and has a mind of its own instead of this all being something he has done to himself.

Overall this is a beautifully shot and acted adaptation of the book, but it just didn’t quite work for me. The flaws are slight but critical. It’s still worth seeing, especially if you don’t plan on reading the book.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Dec 16, 2011

: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

I was not the biggest fan of the original, but I liked this one better. The plot’s still far too elaborate, crazy, and involved (basically Holmes’ nemesis, Professor Moriarty, is out to start a world war so he can profit on the chaos), and there are bizarre contradictions. (Particularly the ending, where Moriarty seems unfazed by his defeat as he claims war is inevitable anyway — his plot was just going to speed it up. If that’s the case, why bother with such a complex web of intrigue?)

But the key thing about this one is that it is fun. There’s the delightful Holmes-Watson relationship, a sort of odd couple (Felix and Oscar) thing, the introduction of Holmes’ quirky brother, and of course, the diabolical game with Moriarty. The latter two match wits throughout the film and it culminates in a literal game of chess — with higher ramifications — between them. Much of the time I had no idea what was happening, but in a film like this it hardly matters. It’s just fun. Light entertainment, but definitely amusing.

Oh, and the closing credits are some of the most interesting I’ve ever seen! A really neat blend of live action film and old-fashioned print.

Topic: [/movie]


Tue, Dec 06, 2011

: Neverland

This made-for-Scifi channel miniseries was an interesting take on Peter Pan. It takes place before he meets Wendy and her brothers in the original book and tells his origin story. It’s science-fictiony in the sense that it purports that Neverland is a distant planet and some teleportation widget gets people there. A bit silly at times, but what I liked was the way it integrated all the aspects of the original book into the film. For instance, different groups of people — pirates, American Indians, Hook, Peter and the Lost Boys, were each transported to Neverland from different points in history and they all end up there together. Since there is no aging in Neverland, they all coexist despite coming from different eras. This delightfully explains the origins of such disparate characters.

There’s much here that’s muddled and the plot (about Hook wanting the secret to Fairy flying) is a little forced and not that compelling, but these miniseries do have an interesting premise and I rather like them. This one is better than most, mainly because you’re always watching for little clues and hints at the original story (such as Hook’s watch being swallowed by a crocodile), and I liked that they used authentic British actors instead of miscasting big stars in the roles.

Topic: [/movie]


Sun, Dec 04, 2011

: The Disappearance of Alice Creed

This is a fascinating British film I’d never heard about, but it’s really pretty cool. The premise is deliciously simple. There are just three actors in the whole movie. It takes place almost entirely in a small fortified apartment. It feels a lot like a play (and perhaps could have been).

Basically two criminals kidnap a young woman intending to ransom her for $2 million from her rich father. Out of that simple conflict, all sorts of intriguing possibilities emerge. I don’t want to reveal them as it would spoil the drama, but let’s just say that not everything is as it seems. I loved the way the film kept doing the unexpected. By the end, I really felt I had no idea what was going to happen (that’s a rare thing for me as usually I can predict the ending a mile away).

One of the things I liked about this film is that it deals with the harsh reality of kidnapping a person. For instance, how to handle feeding a bowel movements while still keeping the prisoner secure. It reminded me of aspects of the The Debt in that regard (one of my favorite aspects of that film).

This does mean that this film is not exactly pleasant. There’s a lot of bad language, violence, screaming, and disturbing situations (thankfully the rape I was expecting doesn’t happen). I was originally just going to watch a few minutes just out of curiosity but I became mesmerized and even though it was hard to watch at times, I felt so emotionally connected with the characters (even the bad guys) I couldn’t stop and stayed up half the night watching it. If you’re at all interested in gritty crime drama, give this one a look. You might be as surprised me!

Topic: [/movie]


Tue, Nov 29, 2011

: The Muppets

I vaguely remember the Muppets’ TV show, but I’m sure I only watched it a few times. When I first heard about this film I was the opposite of excited, feeling like it was just more retro-retread from unoriginal Hollywood. But it really is fun, feel-good nostalgia.

The film’s humor is very fourth-wall, self-referential type, the kind you either get and love or hate. Characters wink at the camera and talk about being in a movie. Some of the classics include things like “travel by map” (where an animated line on a map shows where the characters go).

Some of this humor takes time to adjust to, so that the first few minutes of the movie are a little flat and odd as you aren’t sure exactly what’s going on. Characters are deliberately stereotypical, people break out into song just like in a musical, and the self-awareness of people can be a little confusing (such as the hilarious bad guy, oil tycoon “Tex Richman,” who just says “Maniacal laugh” instead of doing it). But once you relax and just go with it, everything starts to click.

The plot is absurdly simple: the Muppets old studio is in danger of being torn down for an oil well so they must regroup and put on one last show to raise the $10 million needed. We get to track down all the old Muppets and find out what they’ve been doing (such as Fuzzy being part of a crude Muppets clone act in Las Vegas). The plot’s a little thin at times and I worried they wouldn’t have enough material for a whole movie, but somehow they managed. Things pick up once the telethon starts and that’s definitely the film’s best part. (Once they play that Muppet theme song, you really get into it.)

Speaking of music, there are some new numbers that are pretty good. I liked the “Everything is Perfect” song and “Man or Muppet” was the best filmed. (While I liked Amy Adams’ “Party of One” concept, the whole segment felt too much like filler.)

Overall, this was surprisingly enjoyable. It reminds me a lot of the Brady Bunch movie where the shtick was that the family was still stuck in ’70s mode even though it was the ’90s. In this case, the film acknowledges that the Muppets aren’t popular any more and don’t fit into today’s world… and then proceeds to prove that wrong. Great fun even if you’re the biggest Muppets fan.

Topic: [/movie]


: You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

Director: Woody Allen Writer: Woody Allen

I was just going to explore a few minutes of this out of mild curiosity, as the meandering plot about psychic predictions didn’t interest me very much, but to my surprise I got hooked early on and watched the whole thing. The story follows the lives of several interconnected people: an elderly couple breaking up, with him off seeking vitality in a younger woman and her going to a psychic for advice; and their daughter, who is married to a failed writer, with both of them being tempted by affairs. Naturally the writer’s story intrigued me the most, with his first novel having modest success but never being able to duplicate that and that failure causing marital problems. There was a degree of angry arguing that I didn’t like, but mostly the film switched stories nicely and kept things at a quirky, intriguing level.

Unfortunately, the film ends abruptly, literally with the narrator saying something like, “Okay, we’ve spent enough time with these people now.” Most of the stories still seemed unfinished and while that was intentional, it left me severely unsatisfied and frustrated. Mostly the whole thing seemed utterly pointless in the end. I believe that was the whole point and that’s clever in a way (pointing out the pointlessness of predicting life), but it doesn’t make the film pleasant or fulfilling. I liked it quite a bit until the end, then it fell off a cliff and I actively disliked it.

Topic: [/movie]


Sun, Nov 27, 2011

: The Cleaner

A surprisingly decent little crime drama about a former cop who now runs a crime-cleaning service. He gets set up to clean up a crime scene for an unreported murder, not realizing he’s erasing key evidence, and then he’s trying to figure out who did the crime. The pace is slow and the plot too predictable, but what I really liked was the relationship between the cleaner father and his teenage daughter. A more subdued role for the usually action-oriented Samuel L. Jackson and a nice change of pace. Worth a look if you keep your expectations modest.

Topic: [/movie]


: Gnomeo and Juliet

I avoided this in the theaters because it sounded so bad and I was wise to do so. It’s a punny retelling of Romeo and Juliet with gnomes, and that one-joke premise is worn out in the first ten minutes. The whole movie is awkwardly set to Elton John songs, only one or two which actually fit the story. The rest feel bizarrely out-of-place and shoehorned into place. There are a handful of moments that genuinely work and it struck me that this would have been fine as a half-hour short or perhaps an hour-only TV special, but the much of the story is meaningless filler as the premise is stretched well past breaking. Best skipped.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Nov 25, 2011

: Just Go With It

Like many Adam Sandler movies this one is flawed but with a good heart. This is one of his better ones. Though the plot is obvious from a mile away — a lying plastic surgeon falls for a young woman and gets his assistant and her child to pretend to be his ex-wife and family to explain the fake wedding ring he uses to pick up women — the actual events are interesting and fun. The ending is telegraphed but still feels good. Pleasantly surprising and with an impressive cast.

Topic: [/movie]


Wed, Nov 23, 2011

: Hugo

I knew very little about this going into it as the trailers don’t reveal much. That’s fine, because it’s a hard story to explain without ruining it. All I knew was that it was about an orphan boy in a Paris train station in the 1930s and there something about a robot his father built. Well, it turned out his clockmaker father didn’t build the robot — only found it and repaired it — and it’s not a robot at all, but merely an automaton. Though the trailers made this feel like a story about magic, there is no magic here as everything is very grounded in reality. I liked that. The magic is in the story and the emotions of the characters, not in the events.

That story starts out as a troubled boy’s journey to discover a message from his late father and turns into a quest to help another human being. That, in turn, heals the boy. It is a wonderful, wonderful story.

That quest takes him and his friend back to the dawn of cinema, where we experience the wonder and magic of silent film. This is brilliantly done as we experience both wistful nostalgia and learn to appreciate the true miracle of the first moving pictures.

The ending is truly heartwarming, but the journey to get there is an amazing experience. This is a film and story all about the visuals, from intricate clockworks and the mechanical man to the grand Paris train station filled with dozens of fascinating characters.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of the film were all the tiny side stories, the little love story between the fat man whose advanced are continually foiled by his love’s little yappy dog, and the seemingly evil crippled inspector too shy to meet the attractive flower seller. These stories take just seconds here and there throughout the film but they add such heart and context to the story, grounding everything in humanity, and yet enveloping the entire setting in a cloak of magic.

My vote for must-see film of the holidays. If you can only see one film this season, make it this one. A magical film the whole family will enjoy.

Topic: [/movie]


Tue, Nov 22, 2011

: Drive Angry

I avoided this in the theaters because it seemed so bad, but it wasn’t as terrible as I expected. It’s certainly not a very good movie. It’s strange and poorly done in countless ways, from B-level acting and directing to a silly and incomprehensible plot (something about a guy escaping Hell to come and rescue his kidnapped baby granddaughter before she’ll be murdered by a cult leader), but if you’re in the mood for a “no thinking allowed” movie, this could be your ticket. It’s just fun dumb action with pretty people and there are a few cool scenes that are worth seeing.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Nov 18, 2011

: The Windup Girl

Author: Paolo Bacigalupi

This is a strange and fascinating book. While it’s beautifully written, it’s dark and depressing, with bad ends for just about every character. It’s science fiction set in a decrepit Thailand, in a future world devastated by food plagues that mean that calories are scarce. In this violent and unusual world, almost anything goes. There’s bribery and corruption everywhere, with everyone scheming on how to make a buck and get ahead.

Our characters include a Westerner, a “calorie man,” meaning that he works for a giant agrigen company that is seeking out disease-free seeds of fruits and plants that it can genetically modify and reproduce for world-wide distribution. There are also a couple of military people, an old Chinese man who is the foreman of the calorie man’s factory, and a genetically manufactured girl that is the source of the book’s title. She is “New People,” built and trained in Japan where her kind is accepted, but hated in Thailand where she lives in secret and where she’ll be destroyed on sight if anyone realizes she isn’t human.

The book has relatively little plot. While you’re reading it seems like much is happening — there’s political upheaval, a revolution being plotted, money-making and robbery scheme planned, escapes attempted and thwarted, and so on — but in the end nothing much has changed or happens.

I found much of the book confusing. Though I love science fiction and I thought the unusual Thailand setting interesting, the combination often left me baffled as to what was going on. There’s unfamiliar sci-fi technology as well as strange Thai customs and little of it is ever explained. (For instance, I never could figure out what the calorie man’s factory produced. They grew vats of algae but I have no idea what for.)

Some of the confusion happened because I listened to the audio book version: many times the narrator referred to “loading lamps with jewels” (apparently to charge them with power) which I thought was strange, and it was only much later I realized this meant “joules” as in units of energy.

The book is slow and ponderous, and while the writing is gorgeously descriptive, that sluggish pace, combined with baffling events, and the irredeemably depressing nature of the story, turned me off of the book. I did finish it, but man was I happy to be done!

Others may like it better than I did. It’s well-written and innovative, and the atmosphere and setting is certainly interesting. There were many individual scenes I thought were amazing. But endless descriptions of human filth, horrible violence and murders, vivid depictions of a ruthless world utterly without a conscience, and the hellish degradations forced on the titular character were just too depressing for me to enjoy much else about the book. It often left me feeling like I needed a shower or to go and look at something pretty just for the respite.

Topic: [/book]


Fri, Nov 11, 2011

: The Immortals

The trailer for this made it seem absolutely dreadful, but I was still slightly curious and it’s the type of film I’d see regardless of my expectations. To my shock, it’s actually quite good. I enjoyed it very much. The visuals are stylish and unusual and worth the price of admission. I wasn’t as enthralled with the story, which is overly convoluted and too predictable, but the writing and performances were done so well that it was entertaining to watch. Mickey Rourke was terrific as the bad guy King who’s waging war against our peasant hero. He utterly evil and cruel, yet mesmerizing. The rest of the cast was terrific, too, which surprised me because in the trailer the acting seemed very poor. But the trailer’s all lines of dialog taken out of context and that’s why it feels so awkward. In the film, the lines actually work.

There’s definitely a “style over substance” feel to this film, but there’s nothing wrong with that. A few times the style is too much. It’s usually over-the-top, but occasionally it outdoes itself. For instance, there was one transition from a face mask to a rowing boat — clearly digitally altered so that the mask morphed into the moving boat. Clever and interesting, but there was no point to the effect. The scene was not dramatic or critical, and a transition wasn’t important, so it seemed superfluous.

But I reserve my main criticism for the story, which has lots of interesting aspects, but doesn’t explain enough and doesn’t properly explore some of the philosophical questions it raises. For example, Zeus has a law forbidding interfering in the lives of humans — yet he seems to do it himself with impunity. The other gods seem very interested in helping out the humans, too, which seems to run counter to what we know of the Greek gods (who were passive and selfish). I didn’t at all understand how these “immortal” gods could die, either (since that would make them mortal and by definition they wouldn’t be gods).

This isn’t a classic film or great literature. It’s not even quite up to the heroics of 300, though it has a similar feel and a lovely, distinctive style. But it is enjoyable, unusual, and the rich visuals and wonderful sets more than make up for other lacks. Definitely surprising and much better than I expected.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Nov 04, 2011

: Tower Heist

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this. It’s not a laugh-a-minute kind of film as the topic is seriously handled, but it is funny and entertaining. The premise is right out of the headlines — a rich guy pulls a Ponzi scheme and rips off half of Manhattan, including the entire staff of the luxury high-rise where he is under house arrest. Our hero, the manager of the tower, decides the guy is hiding the money and decides to outwit him and steal it. He forms an inept motley crew of tower employees and the chaos proceeds from there. Over the top for sure, but in a fun way. It goes on a little long, there are a few awkward moments that don’t work, and the ending is too pat, but overall it’s well done and worth seeing.

Topic: [/movie]


Thu, Nov 03, 2011

: In Time

I really wanted to like this. The scifi premise is intriguing: people have been genetically engineered to stop aging at age 25, but since that leads to overpopulation, people are also built with a genetic clock that causes them to die one year later. Thus time becomes invaluable, and the new currency. People pay with time — a cup of coffee, for instance, is four minutes off your life. Thus the wealthy can live forever by buying time from the poor who run out of time and die.

The problem with the film is that this interesting idea is poorly implemented. There are aspects that are fairly well done, but much isn’t explained and makes no sense. For instance, the genetic clock glows and ticks down on the person’s arm just like a digital clock. And somehow the people can shake hands a certain way to transfer time from one clock to another — that’s how things are paid for. But the way this works is bizarre, for sometimes it takes seconds to transfer centuries and other times just transferring a few minutes of time takes longer. Characters even “time fight” and are able to steal time from another person, yet we’re given zero explanation of how time is transferred. (If a person has to will it, then how could you still from them?)

What annoyed me the most is that the value of time is also inconsistent. If we equate it to dollars and use a $4 cup of coffee as our exchange rate, that means one minute of life is equal to a dollar. Under that rate, a whole day would be $1,440, a week $10,080, a month $43,200, and a year $524,160. A century would be about $50 million. As you can see, the value accelerates. Yet our characters start throwing out months and decades of time as though it’s not worth that much. Like when our hero goes to the rich part of town he gives the waitress a week’s worth of time as a tip when his meal cost a month! That doesn’t make much sense.

The story is also cumbersome, an odd mixture of the predictable and the interesting. As so often happens with a gimmicky premise, the writer seems to think that just having ordinary characters in this gimmicky setting is all that’s needed. There are a few scenes that stand out — the poor boy-rich girl love story is not bad and the Robin Hood premise also works. But the obvious flaws outweigh the good.

For instance, the main couple become bank robbers, stealing time and donating to the poor. They somehow manage these robberies with remarkable ease, often just waving a gun and receiving time capsules. Yet outside death is all around with desperate people with just minutes left to live before their time runs out… and not one of them decides to rob a bank to gain more life? You’d think in a society like that the violence would be uncontrollable.

The film ultimately succumbs to heavy-handed preaching on the evils of the rich versus the poor. These obvious lessons are doled out as though precious treasures, overemphasized and exaggerated to make sure we don’t miss them. This is ham-handedly done with zero attempt at subtlety: the rich are all portrayed as evil and the poor are all heroic. There actually is some gold to mine in this topic — I would love a serious exploration of some of these ideas — but this film handles it so ineptly that it’s pretty much a joke.

With the writing and acting all over the map (some good, some terrible), some over-the-top dramatic moments that are so silly you have to work to not burst out laughing (you know the moment’s supposed to be somber), and too much of the science fiction world left vague and unexplained and inconsistent, I can’t recommend this film at all. It has some intriguing ideas, but sadly it’s just wasted potential.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Oct 28, 2011

: Puss in Boots

I liked the Shrek films and as this is spin-off of one of the characters, I expected more of the same. Unfortunately, I was a little disappointed. My favorite thing about the Shrek films are the puns and mix of the modern with classic fairy tales. There was very little of that in this film. (There are just a few fairly tale characters and they are given no context or reason for being in the film which is set amongst humans.) In fact, this is nearly a serious film instead of a comedy. The Shrek films are multiple laughs per minute while this is perhaps one laugh per ten minutes. A lot of the humor is subtle, the smile-at kind instead of the laugh-out-loud variety, and though I like that, there were parts where it felt like all the jokes were falling flat (especially the first twenty minutes).

Still, it’s not a bad film by any means. The story is surprisingly good — about the betrayed friendship between Puss and Humpty Dumpty who were orphan children together — but I didn’t find the resolution that satisfying.

The best parts of the film, for me, were the send-ups of various genre tropes, such as the Western motif at the beginning, and the cat jokes (like Puss suddenly becoming distracted by a moving spot of light on a wall). The “dance fight” between the cats is hilarious. In the end this is a good film, solidly done, with great visuals and casting, but it doesn’t break much new ground.

Topic: [/movie]


Sat, Oct 15, 2011

: MLS: Portland Timbers 0, Houston Dynamo 2

I went to the Timbers’ game last night and it was a frustrating night. Everything was on the line: the Dynamo were three points ahead and in the final playoff position. A home win would have put Portland right back in the mix, and with our final two games being on the road, a victory was essential.

Things started off with cool fireworks:

(Click here for the bigger version.)

But they went downhill from there. The Timbers were oddly disjointed. They were eager and showed some aggression, but they always wanted an extra touch on the ball and that allowed Houston to shut them down every time. I thought Houston had a poor first half, with only one good chance on goal that our keeper saved. But then the ref muddled things up. He failed to call a clear foul on our Sal Zizzo, who went down injured, and when Houston went to the other end, he called a much weaker foul against Portland. With Sal still injured, that meant Portland had to face that free kick a man down, and of course Houston somehow got the ball in through the box.

I hoped after the half things would get better, but they actually got much worse. Houston, filled with confidence with a leading goal, played much better and the Timbers’ struggles just got worse. Lots of pointless giveaways, sloppy passing, more strange delays before shooting or crossing, and a certain sluggishness that always allowed Houston to get on to any loose ball or close down any breakaways. Within minutes the Dynamo got their second, what appeared to be a cross that turned into a perfect shot from the wing, and after that there was no looking back. The Timbers did produce a couple of good moments, forcing two great saves out of Tally Hall, the Houston keeper, but overall their chances were too few and the away team fully deserved the win. A sad way for Portland to end their home season.

There are still two games left on the road so I suppose there’s mathematically a chance for the playoffs, but I find that absurdly unlikely, given the team’s road record and the way they are playing now. Even if they did somehow manage to get in, they’d be out in a heartbeat. It’s still been a remarkably good debut for an expansion team. I’m sure the club has learned a lot and I look forward to some needed improvements to the team next year (perhaps a real designated player).

Topic: [/soccer]


Sat, Oct 08, 2011

: iWatch

Product design is something that has fascinated me since I was a child. Though back then I didn’t know what it was or anything about the field, I knew what I liked. Watches and cameras and gadgets were my passion. I loved to take things apart and try and figure out how they worked.

I will never forget my first digital watch. I got it for my tenth birthday. We were in France. Compared to today’s watches, it was unbearably primitive. It had red glowing digits for the time. That was it. No date, stopwatch, or any other features. I don’t think it even had an alarm. You couldn’t even see the time in sunlight.

But it glowed.

I still remember going to school and crowding with my friends under some trees to create shade so I could touch the button to make the time light up. It was fantastic.

I suppose I’ve been searching for that feeling in every gadget I’ve bought since. But it’s a rare thing, that childish wonder, and it doesn’t last long. I’ve felt it only a few times since. My first computer. My Mac II. My first laptop. The original iPod. The first iPhone.

Back then when I dreamed of new gadgets, I did it with zero knowledge of the realities of engineering. I knew what I wanted, but not how to achieve it. (That’s still my problem today, now that I think about it.)

They didn’t have Transformers when I was a kid, but I probably would have been mad for them, because I love the concept. I remember wanting a watch that would let me change its appearance. (I wanted clothes and cars that could change colors and styles at the push of a button, too.)

In high school I discovered calculator watches and that’s all I’ve owned since. Yeah, really geeky, I know. Though I love mechanical watches, I favor the practical over the fashionable, and back then I used that calculator a lot. Today, not so much. In fact, with my iPhone capable of doing just about anything, I really don’t need a watch any more. But I still like the idea.

Recently two things happened to impact my thinking on this issue. The first was that last spring my watch suddenly got stuck in 24-hour time, which I hate. I tried and tried and couldn’t figure out how to switch it back. In desperation, I went on the web and eventually found a PDF version of the original manual on Casio’s website. The instructions were mind-numbingly insane. I’d barely used the watch for anything but the time in a decade and I’d forgotten just how complicated it was to use. This is a watch that stores phone numbers and has lots of gimmicky features, in addition to being a calculator. In other words, it’s useless and obsolete.

More recently the watch’s low-battery indicator went on and I lost some functionality (the light and some features are disabled to save power). I started thinking that maybe it was time I got a new watch and for the first time, I was thinking of not getting a calculator watch. But what would I get? I had no idea.

Then on Tuesday — my birthday — Apple lowers the price on their iPod nanos and shows off the nifty new watch faces.

I was never very impressed with the 1” square nano. It seemed too small to be usable and it was expensive for such a limited device. But using it as a watch is something that has always intrigued me. Apple, seeing that usage, and adding tons of new watch styles, caught my attention and suddenly that form factor seemed ideal.

In an instant you can transform your nano into any watch you’d like. I already knew that bands were sold to turn your nano into a watch, but those bands used to be expensive. They’re cheaper now, too. The whole thing isn’t cheap — in fact it’s the most expensive watch I’ve ever owned — but I got it for myself as a birthday present. A rare treat.

Let met tell you, this is the watch I dreamed of when I was a child. The touch screen interface is gorgeous. I didn’t think much could be done with a 1” square. I figured the nano was a pretty limited device, barely more than a shuffle with a tiny screen.

I was wrong. Look at everything this “iWatch” can do:

  • There are eighteen different watch faces — including a Mickey Mouse watch! Now a single watch can match your mood or style of the moment. The level of detail in these faces is amazing: one of them shows actual gears that rotate as the watch “ticks.” You can set it to display the clock on wake, so it acts like a real watch. Swipe left and the clock becomes a stopwatch. (A sophisticated one, too: the lap counter can remember a whole list of laps, not just one or two.) Swipe left again and it’s a countdown timer.

  • This thing has a fantastic FM radio in it. It gets great reception, I don’t know how. It can memorize favorite stations, shows you the names of songs and artists as they play, lets you tag songs for later checking out on iTunes, and can even buffer the station so you can rewind and pause live radio!

  • There’s a Nike+ fitness app on the thing for tracking your runs and walks. It’s a pedometer.

  • It can hold your photo library and display slideshows. They’re only one-inch in size and there’s only one level of zoom, but the quality of the display is excellent.

  • Oh yeah, it’s a real iPod, too. I got the 8GB model and I’ve put 1700 songs on it, which is plenty for me. (I’ll take some music off my iPhone, which will free up space on it.)

  • I’m also surprised by how customizable Apple has made this: you can pick from various backgrounds, control the order and placement of the “apps” on the home screen, and easily tweak many aspects of how the thing works (i.e. a double-tap on the wake/sleep button can be set to either pause music or skip to the next track). The coolest thing is that you can easily rotate the screen to any orientation you’d like. You just put two fingers on the display and spin! (Have you ever tried to show someone the time on your watch? With this just rotate the watch instead of your arm!)

The interface is actually very impressive. It’s iPhone-like, but different — it’s a slightly new style, tweaked for the size of the nano. It’s incredibly easy to use. Just a few seconds and you’ve mastered it. Most other companies would have tried to adapt or force an existing interface onto the smaller device, but Apple came up with the best interface for such a size. It’s really quite brilliant.

If you’re curious, you can watch a little movie I made of the iPod nano watch in action.

Now I’m not suggesting an “iWatch” is ideal for everyone. It’s a little larger than most watches (about the same as my old calculator watch). It’s not cheap (though cheaper than many luxury watches and way more powerful). But it fits my personality to a T. I love gadgets and the ability to change the watch face to suit my mood is unbelievably awesome. I’m feeling giddy like I did as a kid with my first digital watch!

Topic: [/technology]


Fri, Oct 07, 2011

: Real Steel

This movie is a fascinating blend of genres. On the one hand, its plot is the same as Rocky or Invictus, yet it has a sci-fi twist that makes it feel fresh and little different. It’s a robot movie with heart, if you will.

The story’s set in the future where robot boxing is the norm. It’s a realistically done future, raw and gritty, with just a few differences from today. I really liked it because it made robots seem normal. The robots are extremely well done, too: I couldn’t tell if they were animatronic or CGI.

The movie’s key flaw is that the mechanics of robots and robot boxing are never explained. We get hints and shadows of hints, but it’s very unclear exactly what the rules are, if there are rules, or how anything works. For instance, the robots are apparently not autonomous: they are controlled via remotes by humans on the sidelines. Yet the championship robot (“Zeus”) supposedly has an AI that can anticipate anything. Isn’t that a contradiction? The film also never makes it clear exactly what makes our hero robot so special. It’s hinted that he has special capabilities, but those are never revealed. His human operators are obviously special, but if it’s their specialness that helps him win then what does he offer? Wouldn’t any robot body work?

Despite these major flaws, though, the full is a rousing success. I mean that most literally. The young boy who finds the robot in a junkyard and encourages his former-boxer father to teach it to box is a triumph and rules the movie. He’s such a spunky kid you can’t help rooting for him. The kid’s such a wonderful blend of childish innocence and hard-luck toughness that you want him to succeed. It’s actually believable his dance moves with the robot before each boxing match create a world-wide phenomenon.

Is Real Steel a perfect film? Definitely not. But it’s surprisingly fun, warm, and a great family film. Though there’s violence, it’s mostly robot-oriented. It’s a film that doesn’t succumb to its own cheesiness, doesn’t talk down to ten-year-olds, and has a number of genuinely teary-eyed moments. Recommended.

Topic: [/movie]


Wed, Oct 05, 2011

: Rest in Peace, Steve Jobs

Today is suddenly a very sad day. If you go to right now, this is what you see:

It’s not like his passing was totally unexpected, but the timing is always a shock. It’s even more so considering that just yesterday Apple held their big “new phone” event. People were hoping Steve might make an appearance there and were sad he didn’t. Now the drama over whether or not the new phone is called “5” or “4S” seems really silly and petty.

The world has lost a unique man. I admire Steve mostly for his bluntness. He had a way with words and a way with getting to the true heart of the matter, bypassing the BS most of the world indulges in. That occasionally made him antagonistic, especially in his younger days, but the world needs people like that.

I am very sad.

Topic: [/personal]


Tue, Oct 04, 2011

: First Take on Apple’s Announcements Today

Today Apple had a big press conference — the first sans Steve Jobs — and unveiled their newest iPhone, the 4S:

For some reason, Apple right now is receiving a bit of a backlash. People are “disappointed” the new phone isn’t an iPhone 5 — whatever that would be. The stock is down (don’t worry, it will be right back up) and bloggers and idiot tech journalists writing hit pieces.

I really don’t get this sentiment. Today’s announcements were fantastic and typically Apple. Apple has traditionally done minor upgrades every other upgrade (this applies to everything from OS updates to hardware products like iPods and Macs). Just look at history:

Product Improvements
OS X Leopard Radical upgrade, many new features such as Spaces and Time Machine
OS X Snow Leopard Minor upgrade, with most improvements “under the hood”
OS X Lion Radical upgrade, with many features improved in ways people notice
iPad2 Same design, faster processor and a camera
iPhone 3G Same design, faster cellular connection
iPhone 3Gs Same design, faster processor, better camera
iPhone 4 New design, faster processor, better camera, Facetime
iPhone 4S Same design, faster processor, better camera, voice control

The new phone is what I expected. I love the current design of iPhone 4 and I don’t see a need to change it. There are some who talked about Apple making the screen larger; that’s insane. I never expected that. That’s not how Apple does things. Apple isn’t like other companies that ship every possible product variation in the hopes that someone will buy it. Apple ships the best version and that’s it. Apple has already spent years figuring out the optimal size for a phone: big enough to hold and use, but not so big it’s awkward and heavy. Apple isn’t going to change that now.

While the new phone has a lot of impressive tech inside (faster dual-core processor, better camera, etc.), the biggest improvement is on the software side where Apple is adding amazing voice control. This isn’t mere dictation (though that’s supported as well), but actual artificial intelligence so you can ask your phone for information and it will provide it. You can schedule meetings, looking up info on the Internet, and more, with just your voice.

I’ve been critical of the voice control concept for computers (imagine an office building with everyone talking to their computers) but for phones, it’s the ideal interface (we already talk into them). This is a huge revolution. (My only gripe is that it seems to be limited to the new iPhone: I can’t tell if that’s really a hardware issue or if Apple is just restricting the feature for marketing purposes.)

We also can’t forget everything else Apple announced: lower prices on iPods, the new Cards app (for snail mailing greeting cards from your phone), iOS 5 (huge improvements for those who aren’t buy a new iPhone), and the “I-can-hardly-wait-for-it” iCloud. The latter two are gigantic and the only reason people aren’t more excited is because Apple had to show that stuff off to developers last spring.

Ultimately, this is a fascinating game about expectations. People expect the revolutionary and fantastic from Apple. But so often in the real world, revolutions aren’t spotted as such at the time. People criticized the first telephone and even electricity. Apple itself was lauded as crazy with the first iPhone.

I predict all this will blow over and sales of the new phone will be insane. Me? I’m not in the market for upgrade since I’ve got a year left on my contract, but I am tempted. Meanwhile, I can’t wait until next week when I can start using iOS 5 and iCloud.

Topic: [/technology]


Wed, Sep 28, 2011

: Kindle Fire

Today Amazon unveiled their new $199 ereader, the Kindle Fire. Despite the lame name, this is an interesting addition to the tablet landscape that has been dominated by Apple’s iPad.

I have mixed feelings about Amazon — I partially love them, for they are great at what they do, but like Google that I once loved, they worry me as they get bigger and move into industries outside of their proper domain and the way they can abuse their monopoly power. But unlike Google, that sticks its fingers in everyone’s pie regardless of the consequences and legalities, Amazon is not directly attacking Apple. Amazon is smart enough to know their market and this new tablet is very focused on their core audience.

People have been criticizing the iPad as a mere “consumption” device since its launch. Despite tons of evidence of real people using iPads for real work, that’s still a meme that’s playing. Amazon, however, is embracing that. Look at Amazon’s web page for the Kindle Fire: it’s all about content. Movies, books, music, magazines, games. Not one mention of a spreadsheet, calculator, or Office suite. Contrast that with Apple’s iPad, where work and productivity are key features.

That’s the difference between these devices. Amazon’s tablet is a toy. That’s its function. It’s an entertainment and consumption device. The iPad, while not strictly a laptop replacement, can work as such for most folks. (The Kindle Fire doesn’t include a camera or even a microphone.)

Steve Jobs was very critical of the seven-inch form factor for tablets, saying that the screen was too small for real tablet apps. He’s right. While it’s good enough for mild work in a pinch, you can’t build something like Apple’s full-featured Pages word processor for a seven-inch device. (It doesn’t sound like much less than the iPad’s 9.7 inches, but the screen is a whopping 45% smaller. That means a lot less room for the buttons and controls you need for tablet apps that rival desktop ones in functionality.)

Note that I’m not dissing Amazon’s tablet. As an ereader, it looks to be excellent. My mom has a regular old Kindle and finds it more difficult to use than her iPhone. One of these would probably work great for her (except that she’s not much interested in video and other content: the new Kindle Touch would suit her just fine). Touch-screen devices are much simpler than cursor-based control devices.

I also admire what Amazon’s doing leveraging their content business. They already offer movie streaming, digital music, movie and TV show purchases and rentals, and of course, ebooks. They also are one of the biggest “cloud” services companies on the planet, so they are using that to make their tablet faster and better. And with Amazon’s One-Click buying system, they arguably have the only online payment system to rival Apple’s iTunes. (It’s frightfully easy to purchase apps and content with either system.)

Also, Amazon has finally gotten a design clue, as their new devices have gotten rid of the horrible Kindle keyboard and extra buttons and created tablets with clean lines and an uncluttered appearance.

I personally don’t need a Kindle Fire and won’t be getting one. (I’m happy with the combination of my iPad and e-ink Kindle.) But I don’t like the way some of the media tries to make the Kindle Fire look like an iPad competitor. They are completely different devices. One is a productivity device, the other strictly for media consumption. I also don’t like the way some are characterizing this as an Android tablet; this is Amazon’s custom version of Android, so twisted and changed it’s not “real” Android (which means it runs only apps Amazon allows and can’t be upgraded by Google or anyone else). By that definition, this tablet hurts Google more than helps it, as it will create a new version of Android incompatible with the rest of the Android world. And with Amazon’s clout — and possibly high sales — behind it, the Amazon version could become the standard developers support.

Topic: [/technology]


Tue, Sep 27, 2011

: Terra Nova

Of all the new fall series, this was one that really interested me. I love the premise — a future earth is polluted and ruined, so scientists send a few lucky people back in time 85 million years to start a new colony of the human race and start over. It’s a one-way journey as there’s no way back, so they’ll have to survive.

The premiere was last night and I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, it’s obviously got an impressive budget for some Jurassic Park-like special effects, and I liked the cast. But pilots are always tough to judge. There’s so much “world building” they have to convey to introduce us to the setting, the characters, etc., that there’s not much time for a real story.

This begins with an interesting story — in future earth our cop hero has apparently had a third child without the state’s permission and is being hunted down and thrown in jail (shades of Anne Frank hiding from the Nazis there) — but that story is given short shrift as the pilot rushes to get us back in time and to the “exciting” dinosaurs. This new world isn’t that special or unusual — it’s pretty much what you’d expect. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I’d hoped to find a more interesting place. Unfortunately, the script then goes into a chaotic dinosaur attack/rescue situation, which while not badly done, felt predictable and ordinary. It also makes me worry that the show might become a “dinosaur attack of the week” show. I’d be far more interested in learning more about the various dinosaur species, discovering things modern scientists didn’t know about them, etc. Perhaps have one of the young characters adopt a small creature as a pet. Something different and unusual.

Another direction the story takes is to introduce us to a group of human rebels, who have split off from Terra Nova and attack it. This hints at conspiracy theories and strange plots and hidden motivations. That could be interesting, but honestly I’m rather sick to death of conspiracy shows. I’d much rather have a show about the people struggling to survive, the internal politics of the colony as the new citizens clash with older citizens, etc.

Still, there was much I liked about the show. It’s definitely an interesting premise and I’ll keep watching. I’m curious where it will go as that’s unclear at this point. Exactly what type of show is this? Depending on that answer, I might have a new show to follow.

Topic: [/television]


Fri, Sep 23, 2011

: Killer Elite

Strange film. I still can’t tell if I liked it or not!

The main problem is the promotional trailer had me expecting a dumb action flick, which was what I wanted. Instead this is more of a serious historical spy drama. It’s based on a non-fiction book. (The trailer says “Based on a true story” but it didn’t feel at all like a serious movie.) There isn’t much action and there’s a lot of confusing spy mumbo-jumbo and mysteriousness. I’m finding it difficult to judge it as that kind of a film since I was expecting something else and that taints my judgement. I certainly would have liked it better if I known more what it was, yet I don’t think it really works as that kind of a movie either.

The dialog and writing is weak (lots of clich├ęs, lame and predictable comebacks, stale jokes such as “He’s lying because his lips are moving”), there’s lots of “fauxfound” (fake profound) scenes, the direction and editing is sometimes awkward and confusing (short flashbacks, jumping between scenes without transitions), and the ending, while it could have wrapped everything up and explained things, fell flat and didn’t resolve much.

There are good parts. When there was action it was often good, and I liked the performances of most of the actors. The plot, while far too convoluted, is interesting, and I actually really liked the realistic covert operations aspects of the film.

Unfortunately, the entire film isn’t sure what it is: sometimes it’s a high-adrenaline action flick, completely cheesy, and at other times it’s a serious docudrama about the consequences of war and secret societies. The result is a confusing and unsatisfying mishmash. Knowing more going in I’m sure I would have gotten more out of it, but it’s still not a great movie. It’s sad because it feels like wasted potential. It was very close to something good, but couldn’t deliver.

Topic: [/movie]


Thu, Sep 22, 2011

: MLS: Portland Timbers 1, Earthquakes 1

I went to the Timbers’ game last night and had a great time. It wasn’t a win — it was a draw that felt like a loss — but it was still an incredible atmosphere and a good game. Here’s a picture just prior to kickoff (click here for the full resolution version):

Portland started off rocky in the first few minutes, allowing San Jose time on the ball and chances, and that had me a little worried. But then the Timbers got a great goal with terrific work to get to the endline and cross the ball back to the penalty spot for Kenny Cooper to score (his second in two, which is awesome, because we really need him to get hot for the playoffs). Unfortunately, after the goal Portland continued to let the Quakes dictate the run of the play. We really escaped on several occasions, including one gift for Wondo that he should have put away but with only the keeper to beat he took an extra touch and a defender was able to clear it. The second half was more of the same, Portland doing too much defending and not attacking with the urgency they did against New England last Friday. Perkins was huge, keeping Portland alive. In the end, that cost them, as they gave up a late goal. They just didn’t close down San Jose and allowed Khari Stephenson to shoot from outside the box and while most of the Earthquakes’ previous shots had been right at Perkins, this one was low and to the corner giving him no chance to save it.

Everyone hoped the Timbers would rally back, but with only about ten minutes left, there just wasn’t enough time. Several late substitutes made little impact for Portland, though Perlaza did have one breakaway he should have done better with. Crosses and finishing were very poor and San Jose was definitely the better team overall. I will say the refereeing was particularly horrible in this one. It seemed every niggling call went against us, but whenever San Jose did the same thing, the ref ignored it. There was a foul on Nabe in the box that should have a penalty, and when two Timbers’ were fouled during the same play, the ref only gave out one yellow instead of two. Still, a point is a point and with New York’s loss, it’s enough to put Portland back in the playoff picture. We’re still on the bubble, though, and must beat NY this weekend to keep that position. That game now is our whole season.

Topic: [/soccer]


Mon, Sep 19, 2011

: Netflix Goes Downhill

I’m not very happy with Netflix today. They have apparently announced their decision to split the company into two businesses, one that does only streaming (Netflix) and one that only does DVDs-by-mail (Qwikster). This fits in line with their previously announced price changes that caused such an uproar earlier this summer.

While I didn’t like the price increase, it wasn’t that big a deal to me. After all, I could merely switch to a lower capacity plan and keep my price the same. A few less DVDs per month, but I can live with that. But now they are really messing things up.

On the one hand, I understand the rational for what they are doing. With postal rates constantly rising and DVDs becoming less attractive than streaming over time, it makes sense that that business will eventually decline. I also appreciate what CEO Reed Hastings says when he writes:

Most companies that are great at something — like AOL dialup or Borders bookstores — do not become great at new things people want (streaming for us) because they are afraid to hurt their initial business.

I’ve heard this argument given against newspapers, for instance. They are too reluctant to truly move to digital delivery because their business model is all about print. Yet print is also responsible for the bulk of their costs. In other words, they have to charge too much for digital to help pay for the declining print. I can foresee that happening with Netflix where streaming ends up funding the expensive DVD rental business, thereby prolonging its life unnaturally. By splitting into two companies, the DVD rental must stand on its own and if there aren’t enough customers for it continue, then it is time for it to die.

That said, I feel like Netflix has given us customers a big “bait-and-switch.” Instead of offering streaming as a separate product from the beginning, they lured us in by making it a free add-on to the DVD service. Now suddenly they want to separate the two.

For me the attraction of the whole business is having both. While I agree the two services are very different from a business operations viewpoint, from a customer perspective the two are complementary. Each has advantages and disadvantages.

Streaming DVD
Instant delivery 2-3 day delivery
Limited selection Unlimited selection
All-you-eat Select 1-2 items at a time
Inconsistent quality Consistent quality
Very poor playback controls Decent playback controls
Requires strong broadband connection Requires no Internet
Plays on multiple devices Requires DVD player

I like both services. I mainly like the choice I get with DVDs. But I also like having the option of hundreds of streaming titles available to me instantly.

I really hate the limited playback controls of streaming. Though it ostensibly offers fast-forward, rewind, pause, etc., they work so badly they are nearly useless. It’s very difficult to find your way back to a point in a movie where you stopped (yes, many times streaming has stopped streaming and made me start a movie over from scratch), not to mention the horrors of trying to rewind for five or ten seconds and catch some dialog you missed. Everything you do is God-awful slow and painful, and there are no features like slow motion or frame advance. Controlling a DVD is infinitely better (and I don’t even think DVD control is really that great compared to computer control).

The bottom line is that this decision by Netflix is premature. The reality is that right now, you really need to have both services. There’s just no way one service is sufficient. Instant alone does me little good because half the movies I want aren’t there. DVD alone is limited because I can’t stream the discs to my iPad or watch a film instantly on a whim. There are certain kinds of films I prefer to watch instantly (generally cheap stuff I don’t care about). There are certain kinds of film I vastly prefer on DVD (foreign films, in particular, where I can control the closed captioning and have better rewind capability if I miss something).

Unfortunately, with the services split into two companies, using both will require two separate websites, queues, accounts, and credit card charges. They claim this will make things “simpler” for the customer! Yeah, having to visit two websites to see which has the movie I want is brilliant.

I read someone who said this like going to Wal-Mart and having to go through two separate check-out lines, one for groceries and one for everything else. That nails it. The whole idea of convenience is to get everything done with one-stop shopping.

But the real worry for me is that Netflix clearly is positioning the DVD business as a separate entity to make it easier to sell. It may not be on the auction block yet, but within a few years I wouldn’t at all be surprised to see it put on the market. At worst that could mean the days of DVDs-by-mail are numbered, or at best, that the service will change yet again as some other corporation takes over the business.

Either way, I’m not happy.

Topic: [/technology]


Sun, Sep 18, 2011

: Cooking Windows 8

Last week Microsoft unveiled a preview of their next operating system (Windows 8) to developers at a conference and people are commenting. This means we now have a lot more details about how W8 will or won’t work. We can now see that Microsoft wants W8 to be an “everything” operating system. It will run on regular PCs as well as tablets, and those tablets will run both on Intel and ARM hardware (ARM is what iPad and other super-efficient tablets have been using for long battery life).

It’s still confusing about which will run what software, though: it sounds like ARM devices won’t run existing Windows applications which is puzzling, since I thought the whole point of Windows 8 was to give you access to legacy applications while allowing new touch apps. That sounds to me like a real mess brewing: consumers won’t have a clue which devices do what.

But Microsoft’s strategy is interesting. It’s the opposite of Apple’s approach, which is that tablet apps only run on the tablet and computer apps only run on full computers. Apple thinks that tablets need software optimized for the device. Microsoft thinks people don’t want “compromises” and want to run traditional computer applications on tablets.

I’m leaning toward Apple on this one. If you’ve every used an iPad to remotely control a regular computer, you know that the regular computer interface is really difficult to use with a finger. I’m also skeptical that Microsoft can get a “full” computer running on a tablet similar to an iPad: thin tablets have hardware compromises that even Microsoft can’t ignore. A thicker slab with a fan and a few hours of battery life seems to negate most of the advantage of tablets to me.

But hardware does improve remarkably fast. Windows 8 won’t be shipping for a year, and may not be mainstream on tablets for a year after that. By that time, perhaps tablet tech will be sufficient to run a desktop-like OS in a handheld device. Yet I still wonder if Apple’s simpler approach isn’t better even in the long-run.

Is Microsoft right? Do people want to run their traditional desktops on a lightweight tablet?

I was thinking about this while preparing dinner the other night. I was making an omelet. Now the thing about a lot of dishes — omelets, sitr-fries, even breakfast cereal — is that anything goes. You can pile as much stuff as you’d like on the food. Make an omelet with just cheese and ham, or throw in the kitchen sink and put in onions, mushrooms, bacon, broccoli, shrimp, salsa, cheese, olives, zucchini, and tomatoes. It’s a free-for-all. There are no right or wrong ways to make an omelet.

One of Marc's omelets

When I first started cooking I used to take advantage of that freedom and make some ungodly concoctions. Frankly, the food wasn’t that great. With so many ingredients, nothing stood out. All the individual tastes blurred into nothing. I’d make a shrimp omelet where I could’t taste the shrimp. It might as well not have had any! Another thing was that all my omelets tasted the same no matter what the ingredients.

Over time I have learned to control my “throw in everything” instinct. Now I make omelets that feature, at most, 3-4 ingredients. They are delicious. The flavors compliment each other instead of overwhelming one another. Everything is enhanced. It was a hard lessom for me to learn, but the bottom line is less is more.

Ask any chef and they’ll tell you this is true. It’s also Apple’s minimalist approach to computing. Apple is famous (or infamous) for not including (or even removing) features. But while some greedy people see this as delicious ingredients being taken away from them, the wise know that this just makes the whole meal taste far better.

Only time will prove if Apple or Microsoft’s approach is the right one. But my cooking instincts tell me that Microsoft is throwing everything into the pot and the result is going to be a tasteless mess.

Topic: [/technology]


Fri, Sep 16, 2011

: Drive

This is an odd film. It feels like it should be intellectual. There’s great drama and performances, some cool visceral action, and a fascinating romance. Yet that intellectualness feels forced like it was added on top of a mediocre script. Many times I was baffled as to what, exactly, what happening. The dialog would be ordinary and yet the characters were weighing every word as though it was profound. Maybe I am just dense, but I couldn’t see it. I don’t mind some ambiguity — it’s often awesome — but this had too much, too often.

There were a few times it worked. My favorite was the scene where the husband comes home from prison and finds his wife hanging out with our driver hero. Their chat is full of innuendo and mystery. The whole scene feels on edge. You’re half expecting one of them to do something violent at any moment. You don’t know if the ex-con knows something, suspects something, or if the whole thing is just ordinary innocent conversation. It’s terrific.

But in other scenes, like with the mobsters who are pulling all the strings, I just felt left out. Maybe it’s because I don’t understand mobster stuff (I’ve yet to see The Godfather, for instance), but I found following who was who and what was what difficult.

In the end, especially with the strange ending (which I didn’t like), the movie felt a touch flat to me. The odd thing is I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I was fascinated throughout, never bored, and there were a ton of absolutely terrific moments. But there were also moments that seemed great while they were happening but afterwards I felt let down, realizing that nothing profound had actually happened. Unusual.

There were also a couple of strange bits of plot that made no sense. For instance, there’s a key scene where our hero dons a head mask. He’s a stunt driver and borrows it from a movie set. I thought that was brilliant. He was obviously going to use it to hide his identity in a vital manner that would fool all the bad guys. But then… he does virtually nothing with it! I saw zero need for it. There was no point.

Ultimately, that’s the way the film felt for me. It’s an interesting ride, but we don’t go anywhere. Still a film worth seeing — the direction is fantastic and the acting excellent (Carey Mulligan as the love interest is breathtaking) — but it’s too much like real life in that there’s no clear resolution or understanding of why anything happened. And isn’t that what art is supposed to show us?

Topic: [/movie]


: Gardening

I haven’t yet mentioned much about my garden. I’m not sure why: it’s been a major new part of my life this summer. I started it last spring. Keep in mind I know zero about gardening, have never liked gardening, and in fact had somewhat of a negative view of it. I think that’s both because I have a black thumb (every plant I’ve ever had has died) and because my grandfather, who was an avid gardener, made it seem like a huge amount of work (he’d spend so many hours working in the garden it depressed me).

But last spring I visited an uncle of mine in Tennessee. He has a small farm and a huge garden he was just in the process of planting when I was there. Since I now eat a ton of vegetables under my new diet, I suddenly became interested in the process. He made it look easy and when I got home, I started investigating the process.

It turns out it’s not quite so easy, but I had my yard work guy do most of the grunt work (tilling and planting). I spent some money, too, buying soil and plants, and hoping it all wasn’t a waste. The big question was sunlight. Unless I put the garden in my front yard, the only place was the back, which is shaded between the house and tall trees behind. But we figured it would get five or six hours of light which we hoped was enough. The thought was that in the worse case, I might have to adjust what I grow next year, but it couldn’t hurt to try a variety of plants this year.

I’m not sure it’s enough light: one of the first problems I ran into was rolly-polly bugs eating my zucchini plants. It turns out they love cool shady spots and the tender leaves of young squash plants (once the plants are more mature, they leave them alone). I had to rebuy and replant a few of those zucchini, but despite everyone warning me that I’d have an overabundance of squash with eight plants, so far I’ve only harvested one medium zucchini and a small yellow squash. There are more out there now, but they aren’t growing much. I think something’s not right: not enough sunlight, not enough water, or too much water. Who knows? Apparently gardening is all trial and error and voodoo and superstition.

(I did learn that one of my mistakes was not cutting off the small dead squashes. You need to pick the zucchini to encourage the plant to make more. I left it too long thinking it would get bigger.)

My lettuces were awesome for a while, but they were done by mid-summer. I didn’t realize that’s how they worked. I thought I’d keep having lettuce all summer, but they don’t last long. I guess you’re supposed to keep planting new ones and plant them at different times so fresh ones are coming up right as the old ones die out. The broccoli is similar. It grew up huge and I got several harvests and then it was gone. (But well worth it: very delicious.)

I thought my melons were completely dead, but we finally got some hot weather and recently I’ve seen a few small melons forming (one’s a little smaller than an ostrich egg, the others are the size of chicken eggs). I’m worried it’s too late in the season but if I could get at least a melon or two before winter that would be awesome.

Here’s a picture of what I think is a butternut squash and a baby watermelon:

Aren’t they cute? And yes, they are actually on the sidewalk. It’s the weirdest thing: the squash and melon trails are growing out all over the sidewalk behind my house. It’s like they’re trying to get away from the dirt of the garden! My theory is that maybe the cement walk holds heat from the sun and that attracts them.

My baby carrots and onions did fine, and the celery is looking good. I had one green pepper plant that was doing awesome with two fruits growing while the others were tiny and not doing anything. I finally decided they weren’t getting enough sun, so I relocated them to a different part of the garden. Within a couple of weeks they had fruits and now there are a bunch growing. The original “great” plant had its biggest pepper go bad (it got all rotten) and today I just noticed its second one is having a similar problem (a large black hole in the bottom and it’s turning from green to yellow). The plant is still very tall (twice as big as the relocated ones) and there are two small peppers up top, so the plant seems okay. I’m not sure if bugs or something else happened to the peppers. I sure hope I get at least a few before winter!

But the biggest success so far has been my tomato plants. I love tomatoes and I eat a lot of them, so I put in eight plants. I figured half would die and I’d be lucky to get a handful of tomatoes. Instead, they all have been thriving! But it’s been hard all summer to see the yellow blossoms, then the tiny green tomatoes, and not have them ripen. But they are hitting their stride now!

Here’s a picture of tomatoes I got over the past few days and have ripening in my kitchen:

This is what I picked just this evening!

A few of these aren’t quite ripe yet, but I read that they actually ripen better inside. Out on the vine they are subject to insects, weather, and other issues, so the moment they start to redden, if you bring them inside they’ll ripen perfectly (and be just as delicious). A couple of those at the top that are the most green had small bad spots I didn’t want to grow any bigger so I thought I ripen them inside rather than let them get worse out in the weather.

I must also put in an aside here about how good these home-grown tomatoes are. I had people telling me I’d never buy store-bought again and I thought that was nuts, but now I know the truth. Store-bought look red and pretty, but they have zero flavor. They aren’t bad tasting; they just have no taste. They’re all water. These tomatoes I have grown are incredible. They are so juicy and flavorful they just burst in your mouth with deliciousness. I can cut up a small cherry tomato into quarters and each tiny quarter has more flavor than a whole store-bought tomato. Seriously. I used to use a whole large tomato on my salads just because I like the moisture and tomatoes are low-calorie. But I realize now it was also because the things had no flavor — I needed a lot of tomato on my salad just to taste it! Now I can use one of my small ones and it’s just unbelievable how good they are.

My other success has been my cucumber plants. I have two and I’d forgotten I even had them until they started producing fruit. The one in the above picture is my fifth one, I think. Just like the tomatoes, these cukes are scrumptious. My mom doesn’t even like cucumbers and she was eating several slices of mine! This one is huge! It’s my biggest yet. (The previous one I measured at 12” from tip to tip and this one’s even bigger.) It was getting so fat I decided to pick it as I’ve heard they taste better when they are skinnier (they get seedy if they get too big). I’ve still got that 12” one in the fridge (I had some of it on my salad for dinner tonight) so it’ll be a little while before I even get to this big one and find out how it tastes. I hope I didn’t leave it too long. I’ve been watching it but tonight it suddenly seemed twice as big overnight!

I haven’t mentioned my strawberries. When I bought my house it had two long rectangular planter boxes next to the garage. For years I’ve thought of doing something with them, but I wasn’t sure what. But after my interest in gardening this summer, I felt inspired. I figured up the boxes (they needed some support beams put in) and bought plastic trays, soil, and strawberry plants. It’s a nice system because the whole thing is waist-high, so tending the plants is much easier than on the ground. They seem to be flourishing and I have been getting strawberries, though not really enough to be significant. (My 20’ worth of plants produces a handful of berries every day or two.) But the berries are incredibly sweet, far sweeter than the berries I buy at the store. They are really good by themselves or on ice cream or frozen yogurt.

So that brings you current with where I am in my gardening adventures!

There’s hopefully at least another month before cold weather sets in here, so I still hope to get some more things from the garden. I’ve learned a lot and I’m already thinking about what I’ll do differently next year. (Chief on the list is cutting down a tree in my backyard that’s blocking the sun, and rethinking where I plant what in my garden. For instance, I won’t put the lettuce in the area of bright sunlight or hide the peppers behind the tall tomato plants.)

I’m certainly not planning on becoming a farmer or anything like that. But there is something amazingly satisfying about growing your own food. Not only is it healthier and more economical, but it’s far tastier. And you burn calories working in the garden!

Topic: [/gardening]


Thu, Sep 15, 2011

: A New Blogging System

I started blogging back in the dark ages before it was even known as blogging. Back then (in 1999) all I knew was that I had a website and wasn’t updating it. I wanted to have something regularly to write about, so I came up with the idea to write about movies I watch and books I read. Back then there really didn’t exist much in the way of “blogging” software (seeing as blogging didn’t really exist) and the web publishing systems that did exist were expensive and complicated.

So I did what I usually do in those situations: I wrote my program to do my blog. The program’s incredibly ugly see the picture, but it’s worked fairly well for me for over ten years. I have updated and changed it considerably over that time, but the basic premise stayed the same: the program simply keeps a list of entries and generates the appropriate .html files for the site.

There are a number of disadvantages to that type of system. The most obvious is that every time I add an entry, the entire site must be regenerated. Of course my program is smart about that — it only saves the changed pages. But internally it must generate the entire site: there’s no other way for it work. That means that the more entries I have, the slower the site generation process becomes. That’s not a huge deal with today’s computers — even with ten years worth of entries my entire site still only takes seconds to generate. But the process feels slow. (Just the fact that I have to use a special program to write in feels slow.)

While I like the full control my blogging software gives me, an even bigger disadvantage is that I’m limited in how I can publish. For instance, modern blogging solutions will let me blog with an app my phone or any web browser. I often delay blogging currently not because I haven’t written the post but because it’s a hassle to publish it.

Most modern blogging systems are all dynamic. That is, they create the site as people visit the blog. The advantage of this is that you can easily make site-wide changes instantly. But to do that, the blogging system must be software running on your web server. They usually use a database. This raises all sorts of complications, from installation and configuration hassles, security implications, speed and reliability, and more. While I wanted the benefits of a dynamic site, I wasn’t excited about the process of getting there.

I’ve been thinking about switching to a “real” blogging solution for many years now. I even tried to use a few years ago, but I found the process cumbersome. A bigger issue was that I couldn’t find a way to import my previous ten years of blogging. I didn’t want to start over: I wanted to migrate.

Recently I’ve been looking at various systems. Some, like Squarespace, seem impressive, but they are expensive ($8/month and up). I’m already paying for a web host: why do I need to pay another monthly fee for a blogging system? (And I’d have to pay it again for each blog I set up. Yikes!)

I looked at other systems and they range from free to inexpensive, but most require a database running on your website and are complicated to learn, run, and maintain. I know zip about databases and I’ve heard horror stories of them becoming corrupted and people losing decades worth of blogging entries. I didn’t want that. Besides, every time I looked into those systems, it felt like I needed a year of school just to understand how to install the blasted thing, let alone configure it and use it. (The documentation for open source software is usually horrendous.) I mostly don’t like the way the systems make me feel like an idiot. They assume so much knowledge on my part it’s frustrating. (I really hate web development with a passion hotter than Chernobyl.) I end up not wanting to even learn the tech. The tech also changes so rapidly — if you’re out of it even for a few months it’s all new. Everyone’s switched to a new hot language or new standard and you have to start over!

Introducing Blosxom

A few days ago I discovered a mention on my webhost’s site about a blogging system called Blosxom. I started reading about it and immediately got interested. The key thing about Blosxom is that it doesn’t use a database: it uses ordinary text files. Each entry’s a separate file and you store them in folders by topic. The files themselves are awesomely simple: the first line’s the title of the post. Everything after that is the text of the entry. That’s it!

I love simplicity and Blosxom sounded like just the thing for me. I was still a bit baffled about how to install and use it — those IT support documents sure make everything sound complicated — but in the end it’s really fairly simple. (I did run into some more complex things later, but getting it up and running was just minutes.)

Blosxom is written in Perl. It’s just one long Perl script. I don’t know Perl and the code looks like gibberish, but it works great. You just install the file on your web server. (My host gave me instructions on how to use SSH and install the file using the command line. That took some figuring out and I got it to work, though I’m not sure that was strictly necessary as I’ve been able to edit the file via FTP since then so I don’t know why I couldn’t have used FTP to begin with.)

There are a handful of settings inside the script you need to modify to customize Blosxom for your site. It’s not difficult — they’re just variables like the name of your site, the URL to your site, etc. — but it probably would be easier if the settings file was a separate document. Right now you edit the actual blosxom.cgi script, which can be a little intimidating.

The most important setting — really the only critical one — is to tell the script where to find your blog files. You just specify the file path to your folder of your posts. (This is on your website, not your local machine.) Once you do that, you can make a simple test post file and go to your website to test it out. You just add blosxom.cgi to the URL of your site, like this:

After a few minutes of playing, I started to think Blosxom was pretty cool. There was still the big question of migrating all my old data, but since I wrote that program myself, that didn’t seem difficult. And I loved that my new blog format would be plain text files so it’s not like I’d be converting to some obtuse, proprietary format.

I think it took me an hour or so to get my conversion program perfect. Getting the basic conversion working wasn’t long, but there were tricky things, like making sure I converted any self-links referred to in my posts to the new system. There were also some unrelated delays and I had to figure out other aspects of the posting format. For instance, Blosxom gets the date-time of a blog post from the date-time stamp of the file. That meant my exporter had to modify the date-time stamp of each file (not difficult, but an extra step I had to realize was needed).

Since then I’ve been tweaking the site, installing Blosxom plugins, and learning. The saddest thing I’ve found is that Blosxom isn’t much supported any more. It seems like many of the developers have moved on to other things. A lot of the plugin sites have disappeared, too. But that’s also a sign of a mature product: basically Blosxom is a simple tool that works and there isn’t a big need for improvement.

Sweet Markdown

I was most pleased, however, to find that one of my favorite concepts — a plain text file format called Markdown — works with Blosxom! The idea behind Markdown is brilliant: it’s a plain text formatting system that doesn’t look like any kind of mark-up at all.

For example, in my most of work I use XML. I like XML because it’s plain text, but the tags aren’t exactly unobtrusive. Here’s an excerpt from an article I’m writing for RSD:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8" standalone="yes"?>
<MainHeadline>Fun With Comics</MainHeadline>
<SecondaryHeadline>How Marc solved a
comic problem</SecondaryHeadline>
<Byline>by Marc Zeedar</Byline>

<Article><ArticleFirstPara>My favorite
use for Real Studio is solving day-to-day
problems. With Real Studio I feel like I
myself can live up to Apple's iPhone
slogan, "There's an app for that" by
writing whatever I need!</ArticleFirstPara>

That looks complicated, right? It’s not — the tags are simple and fairly obvious — but it’s definitely not the easiest thing in the world to look at when you’d rather concentrate on writing. With Markdown, your text actually looks very similar to how it ends up on the web.

In Markdown, lists look like this:

- item 1
- item 2
- item 3

That prints out like this:

  • item 1
  • item 2
  • item 3

And italic and bold words are formatted in a way that’s easy to do and looks like the final rendering.

And _italic_ and **bold** words are formatted in a way
that's easy to do and looks like the final rendering.

Even ugly things like web references are elegantly handled:

Here's an excerpt from an article I'm writing for [RSD](

And I can quote text simply by prefacing each line with > just like quoted email:

> I never travel without my diary.
> One should always have something
> sensational to read in the train.
> -- Oscar Wilde

appears like this:

I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train. — Oscar Wilde

(By the way if you’re wondering how I created the above non-rendered versions, Markdown makes that super easy: just indent the lines and Markdown treats everything as code. That means HTML tags are converted to entities so they show up as text, not HTML. Pretty sweet!)

I haven’t used Markdown much though I love the concept (for years I’ve used a similar plain text approach for my fiction writing — it would be trivial for me to convert most of that to Markdown), mainly because I didn’t have a way to run the Markdown plugin. (Technically that’s not true: I could have run it, I just didn’t know that and didn’t have it as part of my workflow and I hadn’t added in support to my Z-Web Maker blogging tool.) Anyway, in learning about Blosxom I learned that Markdown is a Perl script, too, and it’s simple to drop it into the Blosxom plugins folder and bingo, every post you make is automatically converted from Markdown to HTML on-the-fly as Blosxom renders your site! (I also installed John Gruber’s Smartypants plugin as well. It converts all my posts’ punctuation to smart typography.)

So now I can format all my posts using Markdown. My old posts, which used HTML tags, don’t need to change because Markdown allows you to mix in HTML whenever you need it. (For instance, I could use regular HTML tags for <i>italic</i> if I wanted and Markdown wouldn’t care.) But Markdown makes so many things, like web references, quoting text, and more, so much easier, and it looks far more appealing on-screen, that I’ll use that more and more.

A New Workflow Now that I’ve got the new site up and running, the question is how do I work with the new site? That’s the beauty of this new system. Since posts are simply text files on my website, I can create/edit them with any editor and FTP them to my site and they instantly appear.

Right now I’m writing and editing this post live on the web. Well, nearly so. Basically I’m editing this post on my FTP site using BBEdit. Every time I hit “Save” the file is saved on the FTP site, so if you come visit while I’m doing that, you’ll see the change immediately. It’s awesome for me, because as I’m learning, I can preview it immediately on the site. (Which is why, if you’re reading this as I write it, you’ll see a lot of experimental garbage as I test things. That stuff won’t appear in the final version of this post.)

I bought a program called Textastic for my iPad and it really is fantastic. It lets me edit color-coded HTML, XML, Markdown, and other text formats and I can bring in my text from Dropbox or an FTP site. That means I can do similar editing to BBEdit right on my iPad!

Being able to blog on the fly like that is huge, but I also wanted the ability to blog by email. Blosxom doesn’t support anything like that, but that’s not a problem. I just wrote my own program to do it! It’s fairly simple: it simply runs in the background and checks a special email account I set up. When it finds a new email, it downloads it. Then it saves the whole thing as a text file in the correct folder and it posts it to my FTP site. It was a little tricky getting everything to work and it’s not flawless yet, but it works pretty well. Several of the recent posts I’ve made here I did via email — not that you’d notice any difference!

I even made my program support images, so if my email message contains pictures, those automatically get posted as well! Now, in theory, I can be somewhere, take a picture with my iPhone, and blog about it instantly. And I’m doing this for free, with standard lo-fi tech. I love it.

The bottom line is this will make my blogging much easier, faster, and better.

What does this mean for you?

Currently, not much. Hopefully the site will still work and there’ll be no immediate changes from a reader’s perspective. But in the long-term, this should make me more enthusiastic about blogging, so posts will be more frequent and reliable. I also see this as just the beginning. I’ve already made some enhancements to the site (for instance, I’ve hidden the links and archives on my sidebar by default which makes things look less cluttered) and I hope to do more. (I’d like to do a completely different design, but for now this one works.)

For me, since this is my low-traffic personal site, this is where I experiment and learn, so I’m hoping to leverage my new Blosxom knowledge and create several more blogs for my various websites. Some of them will be more complicated than Z-Web (though I won’t have to worry about them being backwards compatible with the old site).

Topic: [/zweb]


Fri, Sep 09, 2011

: Colombiana

I’m a sucker for these kind of action flicks, but the trailer made it look a little too sleazy showing the female lead running around in her underwear with a gun and stuff, so I was hesitant. The reviews were also not great. But I finally did see it and I liked it.

It was different from what I expected. I expected a brainless revenge-type story about a hit woman, but I was surprised at the serious approach the film took to the business of killing. We see, for instance, the elaborate steps the woman takes to keep her identity secret and avoid the police. That was realistically done. The woman’s hits were also creative and exciting. Where the film falls apart is in the human elements.

The little girl’s parents who were murdered at the beginning of the film are utter mysteries. We barely meet them before they are killed. I did like that we follow the little girl for longer than I expected, but the scenes with her were inconsistent. The girl’s uncle, who takes her in and raises her, is much more interesting (especially the scene where he convinces her that to be a good hit-woman she’ll need to go to school), but he’s barely in the film. The girl has a boyfriend, but that feels tacked on and meaningless, though supposedly it’s the heart of the movie as it provides her with a connection.

The bottom line is that this kind of film is meant to be enjoyed for the action and cool stunts. It succeeds somewhat in that regard. Some of the fighting was pretty average, but I liked most of the hits she had to pull off and how she did them. (And no, she’s not in her underwear the whole movie like the trailers implied.)

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Sep 02, 2011

: The Debt

I wanted to like this but was a little worried going in because it felt too much like Oscar-bait — overly dramatic war film with an All-Star cast — but it turned out to be excellent. It’s not an action-type story, but more cerebral, and I loved that.

For example, a key part of the film is when the three spies hold the war-criminal prisoner while they wait for their government to figure out a way to smuggle him out of East Germany. That seems like a simple enough of a solution — except when you’re actually faced with the delicate realities of keeping a person captive for days on end, in secret, it becomes complicated. The prisoner must be watched by someone every second, and someone has to feed him and help with his bodily needs. Combined with that you have the conflicts of Stockholm syndrome (relating to the criminal) versus the horrible things he has done (a Nazi doctor who murdered and did fiendish medical experiments), and the psychological stress on the spies is tremendous. That was my favorite part of the film; I loved the way those complexities were presented.

My main criticism is that the film is very obvious in how it hides information from the viewer — it practically taunts us. For instance, it begins present day when we meet the three main characters as they are today. There’s plenty of hints about what happened to them forty years earlier when they undertook their secret mission, but the film cruelly shifts away just before revealing anything. Sometimes when that kind of thing happens the revealed secret is disappointing. In this case, it’s not… but it’s not exactly earth-shattering, either. (I actually liked the secret very much. It was extremely realistic and logical and elegantly simple.) My point is that the teasing and over-emphasis on the secret distorts the film in a gimmick twist-ending piece, and that’s not really what this is about.

The ending, or unfortunately endings, since this has several, is weak because it doesn’t know when to stop. It’s also a little far-fetched, though not so much it ruins the rest of the film. Mostly it just doesn’t live up to its own high standards and is too contrived.

The bottom line is I liked this. The performances, pacing, setting, and plot were all terrific. It’s not quite a five-star movie, though, because of few of those flaws are glaring, but it’s definitely worth seeing. I really liked it.

Topic: [/movie]


Tue, Aug 30, 2011

: Five On A Treasure Island

Author: Enid Blyton

This is the second Famous Five book I ordered from England, though I did it backwards and this is the first in series. This one is about how the cousins meet and how they find treasure on George’s island. The treasure aspect is questionable (it was not particularly well hidden, so I can’t figure out how no one else found it), but I enjoyed the set up of the characters and how everything worked out well for everyone in the end.

Topic: [/book]


Fri, Aug 19, 2011

: Conan The Barbarian

What is the point of this film? It’s quite violent and brutal, but there’s no point to anything. The “plot” is a young kid watching his family slaughtered by a bad guy and then he grows up into a hulk warrior who’s on a quest to find the bad guy and kill him for revenge. That’s pretty much it. It’s ugly and pointless and the character of Conan is nothing more than an angry boy who strikes out blindly. Some of the sets are interesting and one or two of the deaths are creative, but the whole thing is so dreary and depressing. Even the action isn’t compelling. Very sad because I like this genre.

Topic: [/movie]


Thu, Aug 18, 2011

: *Batteries Not Included

I vaguely remember this 80s movie but somehow never got to see it, I’m not sure why since movies with aliens and flying saucers should have been on my radar. It’s pretty neat. It stars Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn as an elderly couple trying to stay in their little apartment building which a land developer wants to tear down for a new development. There’s an eclectic collection of oddballs living in the apartment who also don’t want to leave — a pregnant Mexican girl, an artist, a retired boxer, etc. A punk comes by and damages their diner that’s on the ground floor of the building and tells them they must sell. Then the old woman discovers some tiny flying saucers. I couldn’t really tell if they were robots, living creatures, or had tiny aliens inside (it was never made clear), but the bottom line is the saucers help the people (they repair the damage to the diner) and through their help the people rally to fight the developer. It’s a little uneven and the film definitely weakens toward the end, and the mystery of the aliens is never really explained, making them seem like a generic solution — it could just as easily have been magic or the supernatural that helped them. But it’s still a pleasant and unusual film, and I loved the relationship of Tandy and Cronyn.

Topic: [/movie]


Mon, Aug 15, 2011

: Thirty Items or Less

Aspects of this looked like it might be funny (i.e. the cast, the premise of being forced to rob a bank, etc.), but I dreaded some of the raunchiness. It’s definitely there (mostly foul language) and most of the time it’s pointless and doesn’t even do anything useful such as establishing character or being funny. But the core story is actually pretty neat, and I liked a lot about two main characters. I was really surprised by how much I liked this. I laughed and it was fun. Silly, but definitely entertaining, and there are enough surprises in the fairly basic story to make it interesting.

Topic: [/movie]


: The Famous Five Go Adventuring Again

Author: Enid Blyton

I read some of these “Famous Five” books as a child and I remembered them fondly, though I didn’t remember the author or titles — I only knew they were British and they were kids who solved mysteries. Recently I searched on Amazon and rediscovered the books. I ordered a few from England (about $4 each used, including shipping) and this was the first one I read. I somehow got mixed up — this is actually the second in the series — but that didn’t really hurt anything. I found the writing style to be remarkably well-written (though she uses too many exclamation marks) and it’s clear Enid understands what children like. The adventure involves the children finding a secret map that tells them of a secret passage that they use to stop a thief. Slightly far-fetched but just believable enough, but what I really liked was the way Enid blended the adventure with the children’s day-to-day life. For instance, there’s a whole side plot about a tutor the children are forced to have during the holidays and how George takes an instant disliking to the man because he doesn’t like her dog. The two have conflict throughout the story and it seems like it might just be a meaningless side story, but when George figures out he’s a thief no one believes her and her anguish at not being believed makes for compelling reading (and all children can relate to not being believed by friends or adults). Excellent, slightly dated, definitely British, and quite wonderful.

Topic: [/book]


Mon, Aug 08, 2011

: Snows of Kilimanjaro

Author: Ernest Hemmingway

I “read” the audio book version of this which may not have been the best idea. I didn’t realize it was short stories and those don’t always work quite as well as novels in the car (where I listen to audiobooks). If you miss hearing a sentence in a novel, you haven’t missed much, but in a short story, just one line can be critical. Because of that I found a few of these stories difficult to follow. Like the very first one, “Snows of Kilimanjaro,” I didn’t even realize was a story and thought it was the beginning of a novel (which seemed odd, since it’s about a guy on his deathbed, which is an unusual way to begin a novel). I wasn’t paying full attention, either, and suddenly the “novel” ended and I realized it was just a short story. Because of all that I’d like to go back and relisten to these at some point: I think I’d get more and more out of them over time. That said, I did enjoy the stories, and actor Stacy Keach did a surprisingly good job reading them. Some I liked more than others, though I can’t say that any are particularly memorable. I did enjoy the writing style even in stories I didn’t get (like in the boxing story, which I didn’t really follow or understand). Probably my favorite was the story about the lion hunter in Africa. I need to read more Hemmingway.

Topic: [/book]


Sat, Aug 06, 2011

: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

I was really hopeful of this one as I loved the concept (humans make apes smarter and apes take over), but after the disappointing Cowboys and Aliens and the CGI apes looking questionable in some of the trailers, I kept my expectations low. To my surprise, this was really good. I worried that it would be mostly an apes-versus-human battle, but instead the film is mostly about the development of the apes. Our scientist has a human side, as he’s searching for a cure for Alzheimer’s to help his ill father, and it’s that drug that he develops that spurs the apes rise to power. There are weak aspects, such as the girlfriend role which is just wasted, but I really appreciated the slow, realistic development of the apes. This isn’t the “ape gets injection and a week later apes have taken over” which I feared. Instead, the main ape is very human: we seem him slowly go from loving humans to being mistreated and misunderstood and learning to prefer his own kind. It’s actually quite extraordinary that a big-budget Hollywood scifi movie would take that sort of realistic character development. I also didn’t have any problems with the CGI monkeys — they looked amazingly good throughout. Some shots in the trailers looked fake, but maybe they were early cuts before the special effects were finalized. Ultimately I’m not sure if this is a classic — it’s certainly not as ground-breaking as the original — but it’s a terrific restart of the series and I’m looking forward to more.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Jul 29, 2011

: Cowboys and Aliens

I had really high expectations for this, considering the cast, director, and concept. Unfortunately, it doesn’t live up to them. The problem is that it falls just a little short in almost every aspect of the film. For instance, the gritty cowboy world is wonderfully done with some terrific character setup, but then that’s all abandoned as the film descends into a mere Us-versus-Them battle. The aliens are similar: kind of cool in some ways, but ultimately little more than random monsters (they are certainly not explained or personalized in any way). Even the action and special effects fall short. Throughout there are glimmers of greatness, but every time the film fails to deliver what it hints at or promises. It’s entertaining, but not much more than that. The bottom line is we end up with a ton of wonderful potential wasted.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Jul 22, 2011

: Captain America

I had high hopes for this as the previews looked fantastic. But the opening scene had me worried as it was completely out of context and didn’t make any sense. It turned out to make sense, but only once you knew what was going on. The filmmakers were being a bit too clever here. In my case, since there was no context or explanation, it put me in the wrong mood for the film. Thankfully, other things came along that were so good it almost eliminated that feeling, but every tiny mistake was exaggerated because of that awkward start. For instance, the worst thing about the film is the “magical” energy source the bad guy digs up in the Arctic: I found that ridiculous and silly and very comic booky. But my irritation with it came a lot from that rough beginning of the film which had me looking for flaws. All that said, once the film gets going (10-15 minutes in), it’s quite wonderful. I loved the appropriately slow pacing of the initial story of our weakling hero transformed into muscular super-guy. That’s my favorite part of the story and I had worried and expected the filmmakers would resolve that storyline in five short minutes. Instead, it’s a major part of the film, and not only does that mean we actually get to know our hero as a person, but when he does transform it’s far more believable and a bigger event. Though the film’s action begins with that transformation, the pacing is still slow enough to be realistic, which I appreciated. I loved the way they had him come up with his “Captain America” name and costume; it’s probably the most believable costume origin of any superhero ever. While the bulk of the film’s plot centers around Captain America’s origin, I liked that, for I found the Nazi super-villain storyline to stretch credibility so much that I wasn’t interested (though the bad guy is deliciously performed by Hugo Weaving). The ending’s slightly anti-climatic, but I also liked that, as it was appropriate. The very end of the film is really nice as it sets up everything for the inevitable sequel and does that brilliantly. I think they have a hit new series here.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Jul 15, 2011

: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

I was somewhat against this movie being split in two, but I am glad they did in the sense that the story needed the length. It would have been awful chopped down to three hours. This one has a nice leisurely pace that’s needed for some of the somber events that conclude the series and for sure that would have eliminated if they had tried to do the whole thing as a single film. (I still think this should have been released much closer to Part 1, though: by the time I saw this, I’d forgotten all about the first half.) As for commenting on this film, there are two ways to go: one can write about the film itself, or judge the story (which is judging the book). I’ll do both. In terms of a film, this is very good. I liked a lot of the decisions made, such as minimizing the “war” and “battle” scenes (implying them or showing them in the background). I find such scenes tedious and boring and I had been dreading having to sit through long minutes of hordes of people and creatures battling. Though the film doesn’t give you any sort of summary of the previous films and just continues right where the last one left off, you don’t need to know much. The trio simply has a series of missions and sets out to accomplish them, with the inevitable final confrontation between Harry Potter and Voldemort the dramatic conclusion. Of course, people who didn’t like the way the book ended will have similar problems with the film. But I still think it’s a good ending and it works well for me.

Topic: [/movie]


Thu, Jul 14, 2011

: Horrible Bosses

I love black comedies so this one about three idiots wanting to kill their bosses appealed to me, but the marketing gave it a raunchy comedy feel that worried me. I was pleased that though there are moments of that in the film, overall it’s pretty tame in that regard (nothing as bad as The Hangover). It’s quite funny and entertaining, and I loved the way everything resolved in the end.

Topic: [/movie]


Thu, Jun 30, 2011

: Transformers: Dark of the Moon

I hated the first two, so I have no idea why I went to see this one. I guess I just want to like these. I love robots and tech and science fiction. These films have so much potential. But they waste it. Like the others, this one starts off well. I loved the way they mixed in historical President Kennedy and moon landing footage with new stuff. The conceit of a Transformer ship crashing on the moon in the 1960s setting off the space race is brilliant. But after that good start, the film just goes into typical Transformer nonsense where the laws of reality don’t apply. Parts of it look cool, but I just don’t care about anything or anyone since nothing’s real and there are no consequences. I’ve watched the previous films several times because I keep falling asleep during the action scenes and when I wake up, I have no idea what’s going on. (Of course, I was confused before I fell asleep.) I realized during this one that as I watch these I naturally try to make sense of things. But these films don’t make sense so I literally turn off my brain. If I didn’t, I’d go insane. So I turn it off and just try and enjoy the visuals. And that’s why I eventually fall asleep. It happened in this one, too, though only for a few minutes — which I guess means this is the best of the three (that’s not saying much). I just don’t understand why they can’t get some screenwriters with a few brain cells. I mean, the lack of logic is mind-blowing. Like in one scene our hero is on the phone with a spy who then switches to a complicated-looking “encrypted phone” so that their conversation is “secure.” Yet the original guy is still on his cell phone! I mean, that’s idiotic. It not only wouldn’t work (you can’t have one-way encryption as the phone on the other end would only hear gibberish) but it obviously wouldn’t be secure. In another scene, the boy and the girl apparently break up. While I was baffled by their relationship through-out the film (they did not seem like a couple, even an unlikely one), the break-up scene was incomprehensible. I have no idea why they broke up — or even if they broke up (it wasn’t really clear). Basically she walks in, sees him with spy stuff, and she’s like, “I’m leaving” and he’s like, “Don’t go.” Apparently she was mad at him for hanging out with the robots, but I have no idea why: it was like they’d had this fight fifty times before and this was the last straw, but since we didn’t see the previous fights, were don’t understand any of their shorthand fighting. Sadly, that’s actually one of the better scenes in the film, too, because at least there’s a vague pretense of acting. Speaking of the girl, what the hell was she doing there? Who is she? Apparently they met at the White House when he was there getting a medal for his heroics in the previous films, but I didn’t understand at all why she was there, who she was, how they ended up together, why she liked him, why she was British, or just about anything else about their relationship. And how the heck does she know about the robots? Did he tell her? When? In one scene she says something about how she thought his stories were just stories, not real — so did she not believe his stories about the robots? If so, then why isn’t she surprised to see them? And why do all the top secret government people just accept her along with him simply because she’s his girlfriend? I guess the good news is that they found a perfect replacement for Megan Fox: the new actress has a similar skinny-yet-over-sexed body type and the same deadpan acting range. Speaking of acting, there’s isn’t much for the actors to work with here, but I loved Patrick Dempsey’s performance which was terrific. But Frances McDormand’s character is too off-putting and I didn’t like her strange personality switcheroo mid-movie, and John Malkovich’s cameo is just bizarre. (Why would the CEO of a multi-billion dollar company be constantly checking up on a mail room kid? And what the heck was that bit about him basically worshiping the robot?) Maybe these characters were for comic relief but it wasn’t very well done. I do like the comedy in these films (it desperately needs the relief), but it’s so poorly done most of the time, with lines thrown around so quickly you can’t even get the joke. The “action” is similarly fluid: basically everything’s a metallic blur (especially the transform sequences which I want to love but they are too fast for me to understand and therefore they just annoy me to death). I can’t distinguish one robot from another and when two or eight of them are fighting, they look like a metal tumbleweed. There’s a vague attempt to give people critical missions so that all the characters are contributing to the big victory, but there’s so much going on and ninety percent of it is pointless (most of the time it seems the moment they accomplish a task they find out it didn’t help and there’s a new task they now have to do or the world will end). I’m also sick and tired of super-advanced alien races that are so dumb they build a massive planet-wide super-weapon that can be disabled by knocking over a special “control module” bowling pin. (It’s like blowing up the Death Star with an M80 dropped in just the right ventilation shaft.) As for plot, don’t get me started. There are half-moments of sanity, and then the plot just veers around like a drunk driver with half-assed assassinations, betrayals that make no sense (if the traitor’s got the super-weapon that can win the war, his reasoning that he defected to the other side because it was inevitable the bad guys would win is nonsense), and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of bad robots. The bottom line: this is about ten minutes of story stretched into two-and-half hours of silly action nonsense. There are a handful of special effect sequences that are mildly interesting, but even during those reality is so far from being included I found them impossible to enjoy. (Like how come giant robots that can squash a metal dumpster flat with one step can’t stop a weaponless teenage-boy-sized man? Or for that matter, why do giant alien robot lifeforms with missiles and special guns fight each other with giant X-Acto knives?) Okay, enough of this. The reality is this film has nothing to do with reality. If you can enjoy it despite that, good luck to you. All that said, of the three films, this one’s the best. By the slightest of margins.

Topic: [/movie]


Wed, Jun 29, 2011

: Cars 2

I don’t understand why the critics are giving this such a hard time. Or rather, I do: they feel this is their chance to pounce on Pixar and give them their first bad review. But this isn’t a bad movie. It’s just not a serious one. It’s a silly spy spoof. It’s fun. No, it doesn’t have the heart and depth of any of Pixar’s previous films (even the original Cars, which is probably the least literary of Pixar’s films), and because it’s a sequel, it doesn’t feel very innovative. But it’s still a good movie. It’s certainly better than most films, especially those aimed at kids. Pixar does make an attempt to have a serious spine in the story as best friends McQueen and Mater have a conflict that threatens their relationship, but of course it’s easily resolved, and with all the complex spy shenanigans going on, it feels like a minor aspect of the plot. The bottom line is this has a fun story with cool spy gadgets and intrigue, beloved characters, and it’s a great around-the-world adventure with wonderful views of Tokyo and London in a car-only universe. I enjoyed it. It’s ultimately silly as spy spoofs always are (think Get Smart), but there’s nothing wrong with that at all. Go have and enjoy it.

Topic: [/movie]


Sun, Jun 26, 2011

: A Kiss Before Dying

I’m surprised I never saw this 1991 thriller staring Sean Young and Matt Dillon. It’s definitely my genre. It opens with Dillon killing off his fiance in a shockingly calm way, and then killing more people to hide his crime. He later marries his dead fiance’s twin sister and we learn that this is all a ploy to get to her rich father. It’s a simple enough concept and we’ve seen similar stuff more recently, but I’m sure this was rather innovative twenty years ago. Seeing this now, though, it’s lacking in a lot of ways: a lot of the material is too “on the nose” and not very subtle; some of the editing and direction comes off as thriller-cliché (like the dropping the coffee cup in shock slow motion effect); the acting, particularly by Sean Young, is atrocious (I’d heard her described as wooden but I always thought she was decent, but she does a wonderful impression of a wooden doll doing an emotionless script read in this film); there are a couple awkward sex scenes which feel strangely artificial as though the director was mandated by some studio policy to include a certain about of sex; there’s no ambiguity or philosophical insight to anything — we just see a greedy killer doing bad things; and the ending is trite and not particularly satisfying. But despite all these flaws, the film is still interesting and above average. I rather liked it.

Topic: [/movie]


Tue, Jun 21, 2011

: The Devotion of Suspect X

Author: Keigo Higashino

Something about this novel caught my eye on Audible and so I bought the audiobook. I was nervous about reading a Japanese book: I have enough trouble keeping track of Western names in books (or in real life) and figured I’d end up hopelessly confused with who was who and aspects of the Japanese culture I don’t know about. While there’s a little of that — I still have no idea what sort of electrical appliance was used as the murder weapon (the Japanese name is given) and I couldn’t tell female names from males (and the male narrator of the audiobook didn’t do female voices in a female voice) — but overall I found it surprisingly easy to follow. The book itself is terrific. It starts with an amazingly simple premise and uncovers a boatload of complications. In the first chapter we meet three people: a lonely high school math teacher who leads a simple boring life and his next door neighbor, a woman with a daughter (I never could figure out how old the child was). We quickly realize the man has a secret crush on the woman. Every day he visits the lunch shop where she works but he never has the nerve to speak with her. Then her abusive ex-husband visits her and in self-defense she kills him. She’s terrified that she’ll be going to jail and leave her young daughter helpless and alone. (I guess they don’t have self-defense justification in Japan.) The neighbor man shows up and volunteers to help her hide the crime. It turns out, he’s a genius, a man of math and logic, and he proceeds to create an amazing coverup of the crime. We are then introduced to two new characters: a detective in charge of investigating the crime, and his friend from the University, a physicist who sometimes helps the detective when the crime is too puzzling. It turns out the mathematician and the physicist were in school together and knew each other. The physicist always wondered what happened to his old math buddy, so he goes to visit him. Through their connection, and the puzzling aspects of the murder, which has several elements that puzzle the physicist, he begins to investigate the crime. What follows is an amazing cat-and-mouse game between the detective, the physicist, and the mathematician. We layer onto that the woman and her story, as she begins to realize that by allowing her neighbor to help her, she is now at his mercy; with a word he could ruin her. What is he going to demand of her in recompense? That’s the first two thirds of the novel, which is incredible. I loved it. Unfortunately that final third has some severe weaknesses. Some of those are endemic to the plot, such as the book’s secondary ending, which is awesome. But the fact that the story has two endings is a problem, for it drags things out a bit too long. Then the book goes on with a third ending, which I found rather pointless and depressing. This last ending didn’t really advance the story (which was long finished) but was more like a long epilog, and while it was interesting following the lives of characters, it would have been far better to leave things ambiguous and let us imagine our own endings for them. (As usual when I have a book that ends poorly, I mentally delete that bad ending and think of my own and use that instead.) I still rate this book extremely highly, but it’s disappointing that such a great read runs of out steam in the end. A tighter ending would have made this a dynamite of a novel. Overall, though, this is a fantastic work. I love the simplicity of the story, the complexity of tiny things that become big, and the wonderful battle of wits between the physicist and the mathematician. And the twist ending is brilliant.

Topic: [/book]


Sun, Jun 19, 2011

: MLS Soccer: Portland Timbers 3, New York Red Bulls 3

One of the craziest games I’ve ever seen. Anyone who can watch soccer like this and not be entertained is dead. Once again the Timbers came out flat and coughed up a terrible goal just five minutes in, allowing NY to run rampant right through their defense. Though that was pretty much all NY did in the half, Portland gave the ball away constantly, didn’t pressure when NY had it, and defended frantically. It was men against boys with the Timbers only got one off-target shot the whole half — the most exciting thing was the contestant winning a thousand dollars during the halftime show. I held out little hope for a victory and prayed for a tie and feared what the second half would bring. I don’t know what happened in the locker room, but though they had on the same jerseys, a different team came back on the field. From the kickoff they swarmed over NY who staggered back unable to stop the assault and within minutes Captain Jack Jewsbury buried a grounder to the back post. Former New Yorker Kevin Goldthwaite had come on for Portland to start the second half and I’d joked to my friend that he would score against his former team. Well, the coach looks like a genius, because a moment later, he does, a nifty backheel right in front of the net started off by a Jewsbury free kick through the box. Five minutes and Portland lead! It was amazing. The stadium was in delirium. Portland continued to dominate though NY did occasionally look dangerous when they tried to break out. Then Perlaza gets to the endline on a great run. No Timbers were in the box for the cross so he just puts it across the face of the goal. I don’t know if he saw Keel sliding but if he did it was a brilliant play because former Timber Keel couldn’t stop his slide and his momentum just carried the ball into his own net! What made this even funnier was that I’d joked before the game that Keel would score an own goal as that would be fitting with the theme of scoring when playing against your former club. The whole stadium erupted with cheers and jeers when Keel’s picture was put on the big screen. Hilarious. But things go somber when with 20-something left Thierry Henry has a brilliant double give-n-go on the left side and breaks into the Portland box and professionally slips it past Perkins to bring one back for NY. Yikes. Nail-biting time. But Perlaza as another breakaway into the box and NY’s goalkeeper Greg Sutton brings him down. Perlaza was looking for it, but still a clear penalty. So, after Portland’s recent adventures in penalty taking, who would take it? Captain Jack steps up and I was worried: it felt like an extra-heavy burden to take on. Sutton’s a monster of a keeper, too, at over 6’5” and I think all that made Jack try too hard to put the shot in the corner and it came off the post. Arrgh! So the game is still 3-2 and tight. But the Timbers continue to play well and dominate and probably should have had another goal for their troubles. They hold out into the four minutes of stoppage and things are looking good. That’s when chaos erupts as Henry pushes one of our players to the turf in an off-the-ball scuffle. The ref consults with his linesman and then pulls out the red for Henry! The superstar is off! With only a few seconds left, Portland has this one wrapped up, right? Not so fast. A ball up the right wing into space is harmless enough as Goldthwaite is there to clear it… but instead of just blasting it into the stands he hesitates, perhaps wanting to control it, and then when he’s in serious danger of losing the ball he panics and rushes his clear, whiffing on it. New York’s DeRosario takes the gift up the right wing and manages to get in a hard cross from the endline. No one from NY was really in the box so it was a harmless situation, but the ball struck Wallace in the arm and the the assistant ref waves his flag frantically. I don’t think the main ref was going to give it, which seemed fair since it was more ball-to-hand instead of hand-to-ball (and the rulebook does say handballs must be deliberate), but with the assistant so adamant (my impression is that assistants seem to be more literal about calls than center refs who use their judgement on calls), the ref awards NY the last-second penalty and DeRo ties it up with the final kick of the game. Arrgh! Only a point when Portland should have had three. But still, this didn’t feel like a loss because they’d played so well (if you forget the first half). The team is struggling to put on a full 90-minute performance and if they get so they can do that, they could be a formidable team considering the way they played against Colorado last week and NY this week. But they’ve got to stop the foolish mistakes and allowing defeated teams back into matches. Fun game to watch, though.

Topic: [/soccer]


Fri, Jun 17, 2011

: The Green Lantern

Who comes up with this drek? The feeble trailers had me worried but I was still hoping that this might be better than it looked. Sadly, it’s much worse. I don’t know much about the Green Lantern superhero and this has some interesting aspects to it: Green Lanterns are part of an intergalactic peace-keeping force with one member selected to guard each of the 3,600 quadrants of the universe. That is different and cool, especially when we get shots of unusual-looking aliens and inter-species mingling. The basic origin story has our hero, an arrogant death-defying irresponsible win-at-all-costs fighter plane test pilot who is selected by the Green Lantern ring as the replacement Green Lantern when the old one dies. Parts of that story I really liked. But from there it falls apart. The biggest problem is the vague villain, which is a bizarre unseen force that feeds on fear and swallows entire planets with its black smoke-like being. He’s threatening the entire universe because even the Green Lanterns can’t stop him. I don’t know who came up with this villain, if he’s in the comics or what, but it was a lame choice for the film. It’s too abstract, and the intergalactic nature of the story is much too big for a first film. Aspects of the philosophical debate between “fear” and “will” were interesting, but only hinted at instead of properly delved into, and the action felt forced. Of course that’s not the only problem. The actress who plays the pretty girl in the film is pretty, but horrible at acting. In each scene she’s like a different person. The first time we see her she’s the Bitch. Then she’s the long-loved childhood Sweetheart. Then she’s the love interest. And so on. Every performance is one-note and bizarre. I cringed at every scene she was in for I didn’t know who she was. Part of that could be the mediocre writing, but she still should have known to give some variance to her character. (Her “anger” scene was really unconvincing — I kept thinking she was joking and going break out in a “just kidding” smile at any moment. It baffled me when I finally decided she was apparently supposed to be legitimately angry.) Ryan Reynolds as the lead is okay — certainly buff and he brings a bit of charm and even emotion to the role — but the character is still too one-dimensional. His test pilot character was much more interesting than once he put on the Green Lantern suit and became a superhero. Then he was just boring. That’s really the key problem: with such an abstract conflict (a fear creature) and a simple origin story (dying alien hands him magical ring), there isn’t anything special about the people or events. The conflict is vague and smoke monster special effects are underwhelming. Throw in weak writing and bad acting and a film that’s not sure what it wants to be and you’ve got a real mess. I think this safely goes down as the worst movie of the year so far. Lots of potential, but just wasted.

Topic: [/movie]


Sun, Jun 12, 2011

: Diary of the Dead

I love George Romero’s dead movies and I noticed this one, which I’d never heard of, got a high critical rating, so I checked it out. It’s not as good as his classics (like Dawn of the Dead, which is my favorite), but it does have its moments. When I read the description I thought it sounded fantastic: “a group of college kids making a horror film stumble upon real zombies.” I pictured something like Shaun of the Dead with confusion over who are actor zombies and who are real zombies. But that’s not what happens. Instead it’s simply a film set that gets interrupted by news of zombie attacks, so the troop decides to head home and the director films the apocalypse for posterity. The whole movie is really a “found footage” film. The zombie adventures aren’t that exciting, nor is the acting very good, but this does shine in its commentary on our video culture. When the director’s friend is being attacked by a zombie while he just films and does nothing to help her says a lot about our society’s values. I wish there was even more of that in the film, though. Still, this is much better than your typical slasher film. Worth checking out if you like this sort of thing.

Topic: [/movie]


Sat, Jun 11, 2011

: MLS Soccer: Portland Timbers 0, Colorado Rapids 1

A wild game full of chances. In the first half, Timbers created some chances but blew them, while Colorado looked extremely dangerous when they attacked, forcing several critical saves out of Timbers’ keeper Troy Perkins who was huge. The second half was much better for the home team, which kept possession and limited the Rapids to no real serious chances while created a ton of opportunities for themselves. But the Timbers’ finishing was woeful, as they just couldn’t score. They shot high, they shot wide, they even got a few on goal only to see the chance saved by Rapids’ keeper Pickens. It looked like for sure it was going to be a disappointing nil-nil at home for Portland, when in stoppage time, out of nothing, a FK was floated into the box and an open Rapids player put his header on goal. Troy made the save again, but the rebound fell right to a Rapids player who had an open corner of the net in front of him and I thought it was all over. But somehow Troy made another save on that try, though the ball wouldn’t stay for him and slipped out into the crowded box and no one could clear and then Drew Moor blasted in the dramatic late winner for Colorado. Portland had one more huge chance in the final minute after that, but again the shot was over the bar and that’s all she wrote. Disappointing, for sure, but strangely, this did not feel like a defeat at all, mostly because the Timbers clearly outplayed the defending champs who were on their heels all night. The crowd had a great time and the cheering was loud and strong and spirits were high even after another home loss. If Portland can keep playing like this, they will win games. It’s just frustrating that they can play that well and not score and lose.

Topic: [/soccer]


: The Secret in Their Eyes

This is a fascinating and amazing murder mystery film from Argentina. It’s about a retired court worker who has been haunted by the brutal rape and murder of a young woman twenty-five years earlier, a case he was involved with, and he decides to investigate it again and clear up some of the mysteries about it. So the film jumps back and forth between the present and the past, as we follow the original investigation and the modern day follow-up. Mixed in with that are the stories of the interpersonal relationships of the various characters, such as the woman the man loved and how he could never tell her that. The film incredibly well-done, with fantastic acting. I don’t know how they did the aging/youthifying of the actors, but it’s subtle and realistic and extremely effective. The film deals with serious philosophical topics, such as the nature of time and the decisions we make. That fits, as the main character is old and retrospective and in the re-telling of the investigation, he’s reliving his old life. The story itself is unusual and different, and I loved the ending. I had expected a final twist of some sort, but not what I got. Fascinating film. Highly recommended.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Jun 10, 2011

: Super 8

I really dreaded this would be like Cloverfield, a gimmicky film whose “big secret” turns out to not be much of a secret at all. My biggest criticism of this is the marketing, which hints at a monster we never see, as though that’s the draw of the film. In truth, though, the monster is only 10% of what this film is about. What works is the excellent 1970s setting and the relationships between the kids. (The plot is about some kids making an 8mm horror film when they witness a terrible train derailment and after that, mysterious bad things start to happen all over town.) I loved the kids, realistically portrayed with all their awkwardness and innocence and childishness. There are characters you can relate to: the main kid’s mother has just died, there’s a girl who might be abused by her drunken father, a fat kid who’s forgotten in a crowded family, a firebug, and so on. All this is set in an atmosphere of the 1970s, with paranoia of a Russian invasion high and a government that does mysterious things seemingly without oversight. I loved that the casting is mostly unknowns: that helps sell this and makes it feel more real. Their performances are slightly uneven, but that just makes everything even better, and most of the time they are astonishingly good. And I really loved the movie within the movie (stay tuned during the credits to actually see the zombie movie the kids made — it’s hilarious and worth the price of a movie ticket on its own). Film-wise and thriller-wise, this doesn’t feel too innovative. It’s fairly paint-by-numbers, with a few nearly silly scenes of mysterious sounds, off-camera monster attacks, etc. I guess that’s supposed to build our anticipation of seeing the monster (a la Cloverfield), but I just found it tedious and insulting. It’s one thing if the characters in a scene don’t know what’s going on, but it’s quite another when they can see stuff and tricky camerawork hides the details from the audience. (At least Cloverfield had a “found footage” motif that meant the missing details were the result of amateur camerawork; here we know it’s deliberate and it feels like a cheesy slap in the face by the director as he yells “Ha ha!” at us.) But fortunately, this film has plenty of other juicy meat for us to chew on (unlike Cloverfield) so this technique doesn’t ruin the film. The plot, while it has a few puzzling holes (Security cameras at rural gas station in the 1970s?), generally works and I liked the ending and explanations very well. There’s nothing earth-shattering here, so don’t expect much, but trust that despite the gimmicky film techniques, things do make sense in the end. The bottom line is that this is a terrific film: it’s interesting and different, fun with a hint of camp, and has both tender and humorous moments. Two thumbs up.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Jun 03, 2011

: X-Men: First Class

This was excellent. It has a lot of the heart of the first film, with the whole “mutants as oppressed minority” thing, but this time overshadowed and enhanced by the recent events of WWII and Nazi Germany (the bulk of the film takes place in 1962). Here we learn the history of the X-Men and find out what shaped the characters and why they do what they do. It’s well done, with a terrific cast, and though there’s an awful lot going on, the director does a remarkable job keeping everything from being overwhelming. It’s not perfect — there are a few areas where the editing seemed rushed and an incomplete scene or two will leave you scratching your head a bit — but impressive considering the monumental task. Though I didn’t get every question answered (I’m still confused about a couple of things), for the most part this film did a great job of explaining everything (both for this plot and as a setup for the other films). Visually the film is quite good, though the 1960s era seemed to come and go. When it was obvious, I really liked it, but too much of the time it wasn’t clear we were in the past and when something like a black-and-white TV video came along it was jarring and felt odd. Much of the mutants’ tech felt much too modern (it could have still done the same thing but just looked 1960ish). In terms of the plot, I was really impressed. We follow the origin story of Magneto and his creator/nemesis, while eventually catching up with the other mutants and the forming of Professor X’s school and everyone teaming together to stop the bad guy. I loved the way the plot blended in real history (according to this film, the Cuba missile crisis was caused by the bad guy and it was the mutants who saved us all from nuclear war). The mutants we get to see are all pretty good, though, as usual, not being familiar with the comic series, I found sometimes found their powers confusing. (I’m still baffled by Emma Frost. I didn’t understand her character’s abilities at all. She seemed super-powerful in her first battle, but then she’s tamed remarkably easily later. I didn’t figure out that she can turn into a diamond suit until after I read something later. The special effects of that diamond form were really poor.) I also thought some of the mutant scenes seemed forced, as in, “We need another special effect here to make this look cool so have a mutant do something.” What I liked much better were the stories of the characters. Understanding their motivations was fascinating, especially knowing that in the future several of these mutants will become enemies. I thought Raven/Mystique’s character could have used a more elaboration — she’s in a lot of scenes but most of those don’t really help us understand her. But the bottom line is I was thoroughly entertained. I found the story thought-provoking, the performances above average, and the plot was compelling. Two thumbs up. The best X-Men so far by a wide margin (though I am saying that as someone who isn’t a reader of the comics so there could be flaws I didn’t notice).

Topic: [/movie]


: Kung Fu Panda 2

There’s nothing too wrong about this: if you liked the first one you’ll probably like it, but there isn’t anything new or different, just more of the same and not quite up to the original’s standard. It’s pleasant, but probably not worth the trip to the theatre. I did like some of the Chinese-style hand-drawn animation used in parts of the film.

Topic: [/movie]


Thu, May 26, 2011

: The Hangover: Part II

I was not a big fan of the original, which, while it had its moments, seemed to go out of its way to be crude and socially unacceptable (to the detriment of the film). Perhaps because I knew more what to expect this time, I was surprised by how much I liked this one. It’s basically the exact same plot — drunk guys black out and can’t remember their night and have to piece together what happened — though this time it’s set in Bangkok instead of Las Vegas. It’s a little slow to get going — the early workings aren’t too funny — but once the guys wake up with the hangover it starts to get good. Oh yes, it’s still full of the socially unacceptable, and there are a several cringe-worthy moments, but except for one or two they are mercifully quick. What I liked far better was the nice blend of characters who are each pushed out of their element by circumstance (and the liberating influence of alcohol and drugs) and the excellent plotting, which never felt contrived or forced and came across as an outrageous but believable series of unfortunate events. The deadpan reactions, the unexpected oddities (I loved the stick attack by the monks, for instance), the way the characters stayed true to their personalities, the solving of the “what the hell did we do last night?” mystery, and, of course, that hilarious (and cute) monkey are all highlights. While the ending (where everything works out fine, of course) was a little too smooth and convenient, the whole thing was a fun, wild ride. While I could do without some of the shock/crude humor, I guess that’s part of the whole point of this series (I mean, a hangover without shame and mystery isn’t worth the trouble, right?). Not for everyone’s taste (to understate it), but if you can handle this kind of thing, this is a quite funny and entertaining movie.

Topic: [/movie]


Mon, May 23, 2011

: D.A.R.Y.L.

I heard someone mention this the other day and I realized that thought I’d vaguely heard of this 80s film, I’d never actually seen it. It’s about a lost boy with amnesia who shows up in a small mountain town. He’s bit strange, really smart but doesn’t know obvious things like how to catch ball thrown at him. It turns out (eventually) that he’s a robot. The best parts of the film were him bonding with his foster family as they learn to love him, and the sadness when his “real” parents (government scientists) come to take him back. After that things get a little too actiony with the boy having to escape and things feel a little forced and Hollywoody, but it’s not a terrible movie. Some of the child acting is terrible, the video game sequence is hilariously dated, and I didn’t buy a lot of the boy’s absurd robot capabilities (like him somehow retrieving extra dough from an ATM machine without actually doing anything but typing on the numeric keypad), but this film still holds up surprisingly well. Rather neat and sweet. It made me think, “They don’t make movies like this any more.” Made today, this thing would focus far more on the special effects and kid escaping the government facility, and it would lose out on the best parts, which were the family scenes. Fascinating.

Topic: [/movie]


Sat, May 21, 2011

: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

I’ll be honest: I’m a bit of a sucker for these kinds of films. I love Johnny Depp and his Captain Sparrow and I could be entertained watching him read a phone book. That’s pretty much all he’s got to work with here, considering the lame script and feeble plot, but I still had fun. There are several good moments and some unusual ideas, such as the surprisingly vicious mermaids, but the plot — a tiresome quest after the Fountain of Youth — is much too direct (they basically get on a ship and go there) to be interesting. The whole thing is a mishmash. They introduce new characters, such a missionary prisoner of the pirates who falls in love with one of the mermaids — kind of neat, but it felt out of place and awkward, like it was from a different film. On the other hand, I had expected to not like Penelope Cruz’s character (I much prefer Keira Knightly), but she grew on me and there were times when I thought it worked (other times her chemistry with Depp fell flat and her strong Spanish accent made her difficult to understand). You’d think at least the swashbuckling action would be a positive in a film like this, but it’s predictable and boring. There are too many easy coincidences (like when one of the bad guys sees Depp and runs, conveniently leaving his rifle behind for Depp to use) and outright defiance of physics (such as when tied-up Depp somehow goes backward up a tree). All-in-all, it’s a real mess, and it’s clear the franchise is running out of steam, but I still liked it better than the last two sequels which were artificially divided into two films. If you don’t like Depp’s Captain Sparrow there’s nothing here for you, though.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, May 13, 2011

: Priest

This was both better and worse than I expected. The better parts were things I didn’t know coming into the film (I never read the graphic novel). For instance, the story takes place in an alternate earth history where vampires and humans have been battling for thousands of years. The humans eventually won the war with the aid of warrior priests, and now a totalitarian church rules everything. The priests are feared and shunned, and pretty much useless since the vampire threat has been eliminated. This world is divided into two parts — cities that look like something out of George Orwell’s 1984, and the desert outlands that are just like our Old West (complete with shyster potion salesmen). Unfortunately, little is done with either of these setups. The Big Brother world is in the background, largely ignored, and one or two scenes feel like a Western. I would have much preferred more of that as it was different and interesting. Instead, most of the vampire stuff takes place underground in bleak caves and there’s a climatic battle on the top of a moving train. The action was okay, with a few half-hearted attempts at 300-style slow-motion coolness. It’s not bad, but nothing extraordinary. In the end, this seems like a waste of potential.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, May 06, 2011

: Thor

Surprisingly good, but not great. There’s much to like. I loved the serious take of the film, which doesn’t go for camp at all, and I liked the story of rebellious Thor being stripped of his powers and exiled to earth as punishment. In terms of action, there really isn’t that much: a CGI battle scene in the first half, and an anti-climatic battle on earth against a strange robot creature at the end. I find such action tedious as there’s zero suspense since we know Thor will win. I did like some of the action of his compatriots, a team of his friends who battle with him, but I think Thor’s a difficult character to realize as a superhero since his powers are vague and undefined (he’s a god and pretty much invincible) and I never did understand the power of his hammer. (What does it do, exactly?) I did like the nice blend of magic and science (the film even quotes Arthur C. Clarke’s famous “advanced science appears as magic” line). Overall this is a well-acted, well-scripted piece. It’s solid and entertaining, but not ground-breaking in any way. I had fun, but I doubt I’d bother seeing it a second time.

Topic: [/movie]


Mon, May 02, 2011

: Orion

Though Bova’s one of my favorite SF authors, I somehow missed out on his Orion series. It’s a difficult story to describe, especially without spoiling it. It involves beings who are described as gods, and they can do supernatural things, which is my biggest problem with the novel. Since none of that is explained very well until the end, the story felt groundless and I just drifted along without any way to frame my opinions. If these really were gods, that felt odd because they have limitations and aren’t all-powerful. The actual plot seems to be full of holes as a result, since gods should be able to deal with the obstacles. By the time I understood what was going on I liked the novel a little better, but it still feels awkward and doesn’t sit well. I feel manipulated. The plot itself is redundant, but has its interesting moments. The basic story is a man named Orion who discovers he’s a creation of a god who has programmed him to hunt down and kill a rival god. The story begins in the modern world, and then moves back through time into different points in history. Each time, Orion’s task is the same: find his enemy and defeat him. Their battles are each different and the solutions interesting and not always what you’d expect, but it still felt too much like Sisyphus and his rock, an endless tale of death and rebirth, throughout which Orion must always defeat the same foe over and over and over. What’s the point of all that? Though I liked many aspects of the story (there’s a love-relationship that’s also key and that was intriguing), the very nature of the repetitive story turned me off and I was bored and found reading tedious. I just wanted it to end and it goes on and on and on. There are more in the series, but I’m not certain I want to explore them. It’s possible they’ll have a different feel to me now that I understand what’s going on, so I might give one a try, but right now I’m tired of the Orion universe and want to move on to something else.

Topic: [/book]


Sat, Apr 30, 2011

: Fast Five

Another movie I expected to be terrible and had little interest in seeing. I thought the original film was okay, but the first sequel was so bad I never watched any after that. I wasn’t into this one but the early reviews were highly positive (over 70% on Rotten Tomatoes) and since there was nothing else I wanted to see, I gave it a go. You know what? It’s pretty fun. It builds on the previous films so I was confused as to who was who (I barely remember the first except it had fast cars in it and Paul Walker’s unquestionably the worst actor on the planet), but you don’t really need to worry that much about the plot. Whether people are good guys or bad guys hardly matters — just enjoy the action and humor. The story ultimately is the gang are going to rob a drug dealer of his millions, so this really becomes a heist movie. It’s pretty fun and the climax is so absurdly ridiculous that it’s actually good. I won’t spoil it by revealing details, but I will say that I was pleased that the producers went whole hog on the premise. I can envision a film with this type of the plot element where they just hint at what’s going on and don’t actually show it. Here they really show what’s going on with nice long-range shots of what really appears to be main streets in Rio, and they must destroy — and I mean destroy — at least 500 cars in this film. Speaking of Rio, that was the other thing I really liked about this: the exotic location (almost the whole film is in Rio) really adds to the atmosphere. Ultimately this is a formula film, done very Hollywood, but if you aren’t too much of a curmudgeon, you can enjoy this carnival ride. I liked it better than the first one.

Topic: [/movie]


Thu, Apr 28, 2011

: Hop

This looked incredibly lame from the previews. I was very surprised at how popular it was. Critics didn’t like it but viewers seemed to think it was okay. Since I had a free movie ticket, I decided to give it a go. To my surprise, it’s actually quite well done. The trailer made it look terrible, with nothing but an animated bunny gimmick cracking wise with lame jokes. There’s some of that in the film, but it’s done in a more realistic way than I expected. For instance, the human is actually quite shocked to find a talking bunny and some of his reactions were even plausible. The plot’s light, and not all that interesting, but I found the pacing of the film good and the atmosphere fun. There are even some decent jokes. No, it’s not a great film by any stretch, but it’s wonderfully harmless and an interesting take on a holiday movie (and in this case that’s an unusual holiday in Easter).

Topic: [/movie]


Wed, Apr 20, 2011

: Portland Timbers versus Dallas FC

Portland 3, Dallas 2: After the high of Thursday’s historic home opener, you had to wonder how this game would go. Would Dallas spoil the party? I was at this game in person and wow, what at atmosphere! The Timbers Army chants and sings the entire match, non-stop. Fans everywhere couldn’t wipe the silly grins their our faces. Everyone was in a jolly mood and it wasn’t just the rare sunny day. You could feel the electricity in the air, a sense of history in the making and we were all a part of it. From the collection of TV news vans out front (every local station is covering the Timbers like mad), to the renovated stadium which, while it has the bones of an old soul (to mix metaphors), is beautifully redone. The old stadium always had a split personality as it also awkwardly housed a minor league baseball team. Now everything about the place is Timbers, with Timbers green everyone and the famous axe logo tattooed on everything. It is awesome. Our seats were up in the second balcony the stands, near center field, but it felt really close on the action. We did have “obstructed view” seats with a roof-support column a few seats in front of us, but it wasn’t that bad as you could lean to see around it. Actually worse were the trio of TV cameras right in front of us as they obscured any action along the sideline and leaning or standing didn’t help see around them. I don’t think I’d want my season tickets there, but for this game it was fine. Timber Joey, the lumberman who revs his chainsaw and cuts off slabs of a giant log every time the Timbers score, came by several times. On two occasions he brought by a slab for everyone to cheer and perhaps touch (I’m starting the rumor that “touching the slab” brings good luck, cures cancer, and promotes world peace). The game itself was fantastic. Portland played beyond their skill. You could just see the team improving with every pass. Confidence just grew and grew and lesser players began showing off their tricks. While it was obvious Dallas players are more seasoned and polished, the Timbers played them out of the park. Don’t let the scoreline fool you: this was a rout, plain and simple. Dallas could scarcely get the ball out of their own half and I counted dozens of occasions where when they tried, they were forced to play it backwards because there was nowhere to go forward. I was really impressed with the work-rate of our guys. We get our first goal 12 minutes in, via a ball fed back to an open Jewsbury just inside the box and he runs on to it and smashes it. It hits the post, comes off and hits GK Hartman in the back, and goes in! After going down a goal Dallas try to mount a comeback but the Timbers repel all chances and continue to attack. Off a corner kick in the 35th, Kenny Cooper skies to head home his first against his old team. Beautiful goal. Love the way he goes to lift up tiny John Spencer in his goal celebration. Dallas continue to get a lot of corner kicks, but don’t do much with them. Portland think they’ve scored a third just a minute or so into the second half, but the goal didn’t count as Perlaza was a hair offside. But Portland continue to press and when Dallas fail to clear Alhassan slips the ball through into space deep in the box and Wallace is there to stab home his second of the season. On the hour Cooper misses a near post crossed by inches. But Dallas have chances too, with Milton Rodriques nearly getting behind on a 1v1. They get a header chance after that, though it was going wide, it still showed danger. Around the 70th I thought Dallas looked dejected and beaten and they looked like they were just going through the motions. I figured it they got a goal it would have to be somewhat flukey. To their credit they keep trying and in the 83rd, David Ferierra runs onto a ball in the box and just gets there an inch before the defender and knocks it in at the near post. That goal inspires Dallas and rattles the Timbers, who start to struggle and panic a bit, and then Brek Shay makes a great play, running onto a high ball in the box. He gets there just before the keeper who had come out to close him down and his little pop-over shot gets over the keeper and suddenly the lead is only a single goal. Nail-biting time! Soccer can be an unfair game sometimes, but it is a 90-minute game and the Timbers have to play every minute. Twice now they’ve led by three goals and then allowed the opponent to creep back into the match. But like I told my friend, “Later in the season I’d be more concerned about giving up goals. Right now I just want to see them chalk up wins.” The Timbers defend a little frantically, especially in stoppage time as Gleeson slaps away a cross for a corner kick. Dallas nearly get an equalizer with a shot at the near post that Gleeson is forced to tip up off the crossbar. Whew! Crazy stuff, but Portland hold on for the three points and now are in fourth place in the West and tied with the highest scoring teams in the league. Amazing.

Topic: [/soccer]


Tue, Apr 19, 2011

: Rio

The trailers did not give me confidence as most of the jokes seemed lame they gave zero indication of a plot. To my surprise, this is really very good. It’s about a blue macaw that’s birdnapped from Brazil as a child and grows up in icy Minnesota. He never learned to fly but was adopted by a little girl who grows into a geeky woman and the two are best friends and run a little bookstore together. I loved the way the film took its time establishing their relationship, which was wonderful and is the heart of the film. When she and the bird go to Brazil, he gets lost in the jungle. Not being able to fly and out of his element (almost literally a fish out of water), we follow his adventures as he seeks to return to her. There are dual romances happening: the bird with a female blue macaw, and the girl with a local ornithological who is helping her track down Blu. Mixed in with all this are wacky characters, both animal and human, and the feel of Rio was definitely captured. It’s charming, fun, light-hearted, and it didn’t have any of the sleazy cheap jokes that seemed to fill the trailer (they go by so quickly in the film they’re scarcely noticeable). Definitely worth the look.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Apr 15, 2011

: Scream 4

Director: Wes Craven

The first movie was innovative. Since then, not so much, as the series has turned into a parody of itself. Still, there’s fun to be had in this one, with a clever opening sequence and a twisted ending. Other parts, especially the killings, are so self-referential they are almost silly. Characters are mere stick figures designed for plot purposes, and there’s so much dependent upon slasher movie knowledge and the previous films in the series that if you haven’t at least seen the original you’re likely to be baffled. There are glimpses of genius, but ultimately the film falls a little flat; I craved a bit more depth. Still, as pure entertainment, this is certainly better than much, and way better than most of what passes for horror.

Topic: [/movie]


Thu, Apr 14, 2011

: Portland Timbers Home Opener

Portland 4, Chicago 2: Wow, what a game! I knew the fans and atmosphere would be great, but I honestly wasn’t too hopeful that the team would back that up. But they were clearly the better team on the day and the scoreline actually flatters Chicago who showed very little. Portland seemed to score early via a Cooper header, but the goal was waved off by the ref, apparently because the ball curled out going in on the corner kick. Very questionable (and a call I’m not a fan of anyway). But justice came later in the match. Around the half hour mark Portland do get on the board, with terrific play in the midfield where a player was on the ground and leaped up to get the ball and play a beautiful through-ball into space for Perlaza who is in alone on the keeper. He cuts the ball back and I thought maybe the chance was gone, but the defender and keeper muck each other up and Perlaza feeds it into the goal and Portland lead in their home opener. Pandemonium in the Portland stadium. Portland use that energy to go forward and soon score another before the half, when a ball is poorly cleared out to the edge of the box where Wallace smashes it through the crowd and it deflects into the net. Timbers make it three-oh early in the second half when Chicago keeper Shaun Johnson can’t hold a wet ball and Perlaza is there to tap home the rebound. It’s looking like a dream match for Portland. Unfortunately things go a bit sour when a dangerous ball splits the defense and the Timbers’ Brunner slides in to clear and ends up knocking the ball past his own keeper. With the goal Chicago have hope and play better and finally get their best chance with a nifty chance inside the box. Marco Pappa creates space for himself and curls one. Portland GK Gleeson slaps at it and gets his fingers on it, but can’t quite get enough contact to push it over the bar. It strikes the underside and drops into the goal and suddenly the lead is just one. A tremendous victory starts to seem dicey. But Portland get the equalizer on a crazy play in the goal mouth when Cooper handles the ball during his leap and Chicago can’t clear and in the scramble it’s knocked in. Replay shows it’s an own goal by the Fire, but Perlaza claims it. It shouldn’t have counted, but Portland’s first goal was taken away so counting this one is justice. With the two-goal margin restored, the Timbers hold out for their first MLS win. Huge!

Topic: [/soccer]


Tue, Apr 12, 2011

: Reality Check

Author: Guy Kawasaki

Pretty cool book of tips for entrepreneurs and startups. Nothing revolutionary, but lots of helpful advice on everything from wooing venture capitalists to hiring and firing staff. It’s all written in Guy’s entertaining and playful style with “top ten” lists and chapter titles like “Lies CEOs Tell.” There are stories and anecdotes, quizzes, and best of all, interviews with the authors of other books, so you get a glimpse into other topics (there’s even one chapter written by a lawyer who disagrees with some of Guy’s advice on patents). I thought at first the book would be slim and not that deep, but it’s actually quite extensive and broad, hitting on a wide variety of topics. I especially liked the ending, which featured several chapters on non-profits with some personal stories and interviews that were inspiring. And I loved Guy’s Baccalaureate speech on hindsights, a speech Guy has regularly given over the years. (If nothing else, just read that speech and you’ll get most of what you need from the book.) There were a few things I didn’t like: the main one was the use of a certain profane word for orifice that’s repeated like 100 times in one chapter on that topic, and the fact that some of the material is repetitive and feels stretched or padded to reach a certain book length. A condensed version of the book might be more appropriate for most people. But I still enjoyed this and appreciated Guy’s common sense approach to business and I learned a few things. I just hope I can remember them!

Topic: [/book]


Fri, Apr 08, 2011

: Hanna

Director: Joe Wright

I love the concept of the film as a thirteen-year-old girl is raised by a former spy to be the ultimate assassin, but the implementation had some issues for me. First of all, the story’s fairly simple and basic, without a lot of subplot and twists and turns that typically fill this genre. There’s nothing wrong with that and I rather liked it. However, the film is directed in a way that attempts to compensate for that, with certain “in your face” techniques (sharp cuts and edits, dramatic zooms, action camerawork, etc.) that sometimes feels overdone and occasionally actually make it confusing what is happening. This is especially true of the ending, which is supposed to be climatic, but left me scratching my head at what happened. (I didn’t get the business with the arrow and some of the action editing there was really poor.) Fortunately much of the middle of the film is more human moments as we follow the girl trying to get back to father while being hunted by bad guys she doesn’t know are on her tail, and that I enjoyed very much. Not a lot really happens, but it feels like a lot may happen, and that’s entertaining. The performances are great all around. Ultimately I was pleased and I recommend the film, but it falls short of greatness for me. Some of its potential didn’t get realized and I thought the ending needed something extra (it was too predictable and the confusing camerawork and editing didn’t mask the lack of creativity of the conclusion).

Topic: [/movie]


Sat, Apr 02, 2011

: Source Code

Director: Duncan Jones

A fan of Jones’ fascinating Moon, I was curious about this science fiction thriller with a Groundhog Day plot. It opens as a confused soldier wakes up on a train. The woman across from him calls him by a different name and when he looks in a mirror, a different face is looking out at him. Then a bomb explodes and destroys the train. The man wakes up imprisoned inside a small capsule with a military woman barking commands at him. She wants him to find the bomber. He’s sent back to the train and the process starts all over. Gradually we learn that he’s part of a scientific experiment known as “Source Code” where a person can be sent back into time via a parallel reality. He learns he can’t actually save the people on the train, for they are already dead, but his info could help catch the bomber who has apparently threatened to nuke Chicago with his next bomb. With each visit to the train, the soldier gets a little more information and gets closer to the bomber, but he’s also finding out more about himself and Source Code. This is an interesting, if repetitive, premise, but I was impressed the way Duncan keeps the action taut. Interesting things are constantly happening and the film felt too short instead of too long. In that regard, Duncan resisted the temptation to complicate the mission too much — the whole bomb plot really feels like one of Hitchcock’s MacGuffin — which allows us to focus on the soldier and his relationship with the girl (who doesn’t realize who he is) and the whole nature of the scientific experiment. In other words, the film has a gimmicky aspect but that’s not the reason to see the film or what gives the film it’s value. That’s good, because the “science” side of the film is very light and many questions aren’t answered. In other films such a lack of explanation could be fatal, but here it doesn’t really matter. Perhaps it doesn’t quite have the depth I crave, but it hints at it and gives you plenty to think and talk about, and most importantly, I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

Topic: [/movie]


Mon, Mar 28, 2011

: Lincoln Lawyer

Author: Michael Connelly (book)

This started out being just what I expected: a by-the-numbers story of a too-slick defense attorney making clever deals, getting his clients off on technicalities, and charging healthy sums for his efficient work. The main case he takes on is deceptively simple: a rich young playboy is accused of battering a prostitute and attempting to rape her and it seems like she’s just out for a payday. But then things get tangled as the lawyer discoverers there’s more to the case — and his client — than he expected. He eventually finds himself pinned in by his client, basically blackmailed, and unable to do anything about it. Suddenly the lawyer is facing a philosophical and moral quandary and we get some real depth about innocence and evil. I was very surprised to find such material in a glossy Hollywood production, and it really raised the quality of the film. Not only does this work as thrilling entertainment, but it has some interesting meat for you to chew on afterward. Impressive.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Mar 25, 2011

: Mischief (1996-2011)

Tonight I had to say good-bye to a close friend of nearly 15 years. A month or so ago I noticed Mischief was sleeping more than usual and he seemed to be a little depressed. He hadn’t been eating well for the past few months. I thought Mayhem was stealing his food, but separating the two didn’t seem to help. After I returned from my week away, I immediately knew something was wrong: he was dreadfully thin and he was so tired he could barely raise his head. He wouldn’t eat and he wasn’t responsive. He just sat and stared in a daze. I took him to the vet. Last time he was there he was over 11 pounds; this time he was 5.6. I don’t think he ate at all the whole time I was gone. Tonight the vet gave me the sad news: his kidneys had shut down and he was anemic, which pretty much means there’s no hope. She thought he had less a week (she was surprised he survived the night, though the fluid treatment she gave him helped). I spent a last few minutes with him. His eyes were alert and was he affectionate, but I noticed he didn’t purr. (He hadn’t purred at all since I returned, even when I rubbed his favorite spot under his chin.) He moved his head actively, but not his body. I think he was too weak to do more.

It’s very sad, but at least he didn’t suffer too much. I knew he was getting old but I hadn’t expected him to go so soon and so suddenly. I was shocked at how emotional I was — I’d mentally been preparing myself for the worst the last few days but it was very hard to let him go. At least I have Mayhem to comfort me (and me him, as I can already tell he’s wondering where Mischief went). Here’s a painting of Mischief I made on my iPad:

He was a wonderful and loyal friend.

Topic: [/cats]


: Sucker Punch

This movie is a fascinating concept: a girl is locked in a mental institution by her cruel stepfather who wants her inheritance and she plots escape within her imagination. The way this works is a cool sort of double-layer dream: she imagines the asylum is a brothel with the corrupt guard the pimp and the female psychiatrist as the madame. She and her fellow girl prisoners are to learn a dance to lure in the male clients and when she dances, she loses herself in an adventure fantasy where she fights warriors and dragons and goes on military missions with her girl friends (I enjoyed the odd mix of tech and eras, from medieval to WWII to science fiction). During the fantasy battle her friends are working in real life to gather the items needed for the escape. When she has all the pieces, they’ll be able to escape for real. The over-the-top “live videogame” visual style (by the director of 300 and Watchmen) is fantastic, but the plot seems too simplistic in the first half and the lack of story means the visuals feel like a shallow gimmick. Later on in the film when reality and fantasy finally collide the film really gets going and from that point on I loved it, especially the terrific conclusion which is thoughtful and surprisingly deep. I understand why it was done this way — as a writer if you know the deeper ending is coming it allows you to be more shallow at the start — but an audience doesn’t know that on first viewing and I found the first half of the film to be tedious and drawn out. I know I’ll enjoy it much more in repeat viewings, but it felt way too long the first time. For instance, the opening sequence is a familiar tale of the stepfather abusing his step-daughters. It’s told without dialog and done with style and panache and a rock-and-roll beat, but the story is so old it’s almost trite and instead of lasting a mere 60 seconds, it feels like it’s an eternal ten minutes. I just wanted it to hurry up and get the girl thrown in the asylum so the real story could begin. But despite this flaw, the rest of the film made up for it, and I have to give this one my recommendation. Though trimming 20-30 minutes off the running time might have made this a great film, it’s definitely worth seeing for the fun videogame visuals alone.

Topic: [/movie]


Wed, Mar 23, 2011

: Limitless

It’s a gimmicky premise — a pill that allows you to use the supposed “full capacity” of your brain (it’s not actually true that we only use a small percentage of our brain, so don’t promote that myth) — but it’s surprisingly well-done. I expected everything to be trite and predictable, but it’s spun out in an interesting and believable fashion as the guy uses his new brain power to take over the financial world. There’s tension, our hero makes mistakes and is flawed, and the ending is good, though it doesn’t exactly explain all the loose ends. I liked the cast and the direction was also good. I can’t think of anything that’s a huge standout — it’s simply a well-crafted thriller. It’s fun and interesting and fairly intelligent, and these days one can’t ask for much more than that.

Topic: [/movie]


: Back Home!

I’m back! Whew, that felt like a long trip! I drove over 1,000 miles, saw a bunch of cousins and aunts and uncles, had a long conference weekend, and got to sit on a tarmac in Minneapolis/St. Paul while my plane was de-iced so I didn’t arrive into Portland until 1 a.m. this morning. Exhuausting, and I ate way too much delicious Southern food, but worth it.

Topic: [/travel]


Tue, Mar 22, 2011

: The Dakota Cipher

Author: William Dietrich

I don’t know if this is part of a series, but it’s sort of like The Davinci Code set in the early 1800s, with a rogue American adventurer discovering ancient artifacts while mingling with historical figures like Napoleon and Thomas Jefferson. The plot is wild — the search is for Thor’s Hammer, which apparently has been hidden in the United States back when the Vikings first landed here and explored the new world — but I really liked the way the author balanced the outrageousness with facts and reality. It helps that our narrator and hero, Ethan Gage, is dubious along with us. But what makes the book worth reading is the hilarious writing style: Gage as the narrator writes in a quaint tongue with colorful terms of speech that are just wonderful. It would be over-the-top for a modern book, but works great for a book set in the old west. The historical aspects are also intriguing. However, I was disappointed with the ending which I found unsatisfying in two ways: first, it doesn’t really end as it sets up for a sequel (ugh), and second (slight spoiler), it is not a happy ending. I suppose it makes sense in some ways in terms of the personalities of the characters, but I still wasn’t too happy. It’s probably not enough to ruin the book, which I really liked until that point, but it’s not the ending I wanted. Still, it does make me curious about other books in this series. I shall have to check them out as I’d like to read more about the adventures of Ethan Gage!

Topic: [/book]


Mon, Mar 21, 2011

: Real Studio Conference 2011

I’m in Atlanta at the conference and everything is going well. It’s been a lot of fun, especially seeing all the people, though I was surprisingly nervous in my presentation yesterday. I geared it toward beginners, which worried me as the audience seemed very knowledgeable, but I did get a few compliments afterward (including one person who was new to Real Studio and said from his perspective it was the best presentation). It’s really great meeting users in person and finding out what they are doing with Real Studio. I’m glad I came and I sure hope the conference returns to an annual thing.

Topic: [/travel]


Wed, Mar 16, 2011

: The Dogs of War

Author: Frederick Forsyth

Very interesting book. It’s older (1970s, I think), so many aspects are dated. The plot deals with a quest to overthrow a small African nation in order to gain mineral rights and most of the story is the technical details about how to buy arms on the black market, plot a coup, etc. Some of that is hilariously quaint, with mercenaries waiting weeks for instructions via snail mail (today we get annoyed when our email isn’t responded to within minutes). The book’s slow to get started, and it rambles in places, and there are strange parts like the romance in the middle that doesn’t have anything to do with anything else, but it’s an interesting book simply because of the topics of war, mercenaries, and greed.

Topic: [/book]


Mon, Mar 14, 2011

: Off to the Midwest

To night I head off on my trip to Atlanta for a Real Studio conference. I’m flying in to Nashville (much cheaper) and renting a car and driving, which will allow me to see relatives in the area. I’m a bit nervous about the trip as it’s been a long time since I’ve traveled and flying these days is no longer fun (both because of security precautions and airline cutbacks). I’m also experimenting by not taking my laptop or GPS — instead I’ll use my iPhone as a GPS and my iPad with Bluetooth keyboard as my laptop.

Topic: [/travel]


Fri, Mar 11, 2011

: Battle Los Angeles

It’s getting a critical drubbing as you might expect, but I’m not sure why. I got exactly what I expected: a decent actioner about a small group of marines fighting off an alien invasion. It’s certainly way better than the awful Skyline that has a similar plot. I was disappointed at the lack of science fiction aspects — we never really get to see the aliens, exactly, nor their technology — but I was somewhat impressed by the group of characters making the last stand and the way they went about it. It’s fairly shallow and the ending is feel-good, but that’s what I expect for this kind of film. Just have fun and don’t take it seriously.

Topic: [/movie]


Wed, Mar 09, 2011

: The Adjustment Bureau

The basic concept of this film isn’t new — it’s man defies the gods who try to set his fate (in this case, a rising political candidate and the woman he’s not supposed to have) — but the methodology is somewhat different. In this case we have bureaucratic men in suits and hats who apparently “adjust” our lives when we “deviate from the plan.” They intervene in subtle ways, for instance, making sure we misplace our keys so that we miss a meeting that would have sent our life down a different path. The film is so vague on who sets the plan and even who the men are (Angels? Aliens?) that they might as well be magical fairies. But that really isn’t the point of the film. The real point is discussing whether or not we have control over our own destinies. Unfortunately, the film never reaches any deep point regarding that, staying on the surface and exploring the lighter side of such questions. The ending contributes to this because it feels too pat and our hero doesn’t really do anything to decide the outcome (which could be a subtle point, but it’s not well executed). So ultimately the film’s not particularly satisfying or intriguing. However, the ride to get there is enjoyable. I liked the leads and their relationship, and I found it fascinating the way the plot balanced out our hero’s ability to rebel against the gods with their seeming omnipotency. There are a few aspects of this that come across as silly (like the power of the hats), but there is good tension and drama throughout. One aspect that I found fascinating which wasn’t properly explored is the concept that the reason this couple felt such a deep bonding was that the original plan called for them to be together, but then the plan changed. Remnants of that original plan remained and still pushed the couple together. That raises the key question, “Was their love real to begin with? Or just part of the plan forced upon them?” Sadly, the film doesn’t ask this question or explore that path. There are also darker aspects, such as the possibility that the man’s family was killed to help the plan, that are just skimmed over and not explicit enough for real emotion or drama to emerge. This could have been a remarkable and powerful film if it had explored some of these deeper questions. Still, as a lightweight mix of romance and philosophy, it’s not bad, and I enjoyed it. Just go with the flow and enjoy it and try not to think too much about the obvious flaws.

Topic: [/movie]


Sat, Mar 05, 2011

: My Gun Has Bullets

Author: Lee Goldberg

This is the first non-Monk of Lee’s I’ve read and I wasn’t sure what to expect. My first surprise was that the wonderful witty humor I love from the Monk books is fully on display here, in this hilarious skewering of Hollywood television industry. My second surprise was the decidedly adult nature of the writing and plot: sex scenes, murder and gore, porn stars, and a lot of rather disgusting imagery abound. It’s done for appropriate reasons, for the most part, and it’s meant to be funny, but it’s sure a switch from the G-rated Monk series. It perhaps needs a warning label for Monk fans. Beyond that, it’s actually a pretty great read. It’s wild, perhaps too wild, as some of things were so over-the-top they pushed me into disbelief (such as the sitcom dog that bites a man’s hand clean off). But I love the core concept of a mobster simply killing off the competition in his time slot so the TV show he’s financing will get better ratings. The plot’s crazy, with blackmail, murder, and everyone in TV land out to destroy everyone else, but if you take it as parody, it’s works. My favorite was the fake networks and TV shows: they are hilariously ridiculous but enough like real shows to be fully plausible, and some actually sound cool enough to get on the air (like Frankencop, about a cop pieced together from dead body parts). Lee has been in TV for ages and it shows, as he nails everything Hollywood. (Some aspects are dated, as it’s obvious the book was written in the mid-1990s.) It’s a terrific education in the making of television as well as an entertaining spoof. There’s more action than mystery solving, though, but it’s still fun.

Topic: [/book]


Fri, Mar 04, 2011

: Rango

The previews of this animated film looked awesome and indeed the film is gorgeous with some of the most wonderful characterizations of creatures ever seen. The way the animals look like animals yet still look human is amazing. That feature alone is worth the price of admission. Johnny Depp as the voice of Rango gives a flawless performance of the wild title character, a domesticated chameleon who wants to be a thespian, as he’s thrust into an old desert Western town where he accidentally becomes the sheriff. Unfortunately, his shtick gets a little old after a while and it isn’t enough to hold up the weak story which meanders and takes forever to get us down its predictable path (it’s about a bad guy hogging all the water supply, a plot that feels straight out of an episode of Bonanza or The Big Valley). There are moments of terrific fun, some good action, and the story isn’t terrible (just routine), but the film’s inconsistent and occasionally awkward. Some things just don’t quite work. It’s still worlds above most animated fare, but falls short of Pixar standards (it lacks the emotional wallop Pixar repeatedly delivers). Another disturbing aspect was that the film is quite adult at times, which feels odd. For instance, early on “actor” Rango seduces the headless nude torso of a female mannequin and in a barrage of dialog throws out, “Are those real?” Funny, yes, but no adults laugh because it feels inappropriate in a kids’ film. That happens several times. Some of the violence seems too realistic for kids as well. Yet much of the film seems geared toward very young children, leaving me wondering if the creators even had a target audience in mind. The bottom line is that Rango is a good film. It’s fun, interesting, and breathtakingly beautiful. However, I was expecting great and it didn’t quite get there, so for me it’s a little disappointing. I’d like to watch it again on DVD and I suspect I’ll like it better the second time as I’m more prepared for what I get. But it’s worth seeing just for the fantastic artwork.

Topic: [/movie]


Sat, Feb 26, 2011

: The Taking of Pelham 123

Incredibly disappointing. I remember I liked the original, and while this one had good performances from Denzel and Travolta, the film itself is awkward and weak. There’s excessive bad language used for no real purpose, and the plot goes nowhere. The idea of taking hostages on a subway train seems odd, since you’d be trapped in a tunnel, so I kept expecting some brilliance out of the bad guys, a twist at the end revealing their clever plan. Nope. They all just get shot in the end. Lame. Most critical for me, I found myself completely baffled by Travolta’s bad guy character: he made no sense and I felt I understood him less at the end than at the beginning.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Feb 25, 2011

: Astro Boy

I like animated films and this one seemed interesting, but the trailer blew it for me with one scene that showed machine guns popping out of the robot boy’s butt. That was so ridiculous and inappropriate that it turned me off and I skipped it, assuming the whole film would be such cheap humor. It turns out, it’s actually a pretty good film. That single scene is really the only crass note in the thing. Though the plot’s a little forced and simplistic (evil is red, good is blue), it’s an interesting tale of a scientist who recreates his dead son in robot form. The boy doesn’t even realize he’s a robot but soon discovers he has rocket feet and can fly and he has super-strength. A big part of the story is the clash between classes, as the privileged live in a floating city above the ruined world with robots to do their bidding, while the people on the ground are poor and struggling. There’s also an interesting side plot dealing with robot rights. The film is clearly for kids as the moral lessons are see-through thin, but I did like the ending a lot, where the boy gets saved because he saved a life earlier in the film (his goodness comes back to reward him in the end). I also really liked how the father-scientist role was not completely stereotypical and didn’t just magically reform after his son died, but kept some of evilness and began struggling with his conscience. The film’s a bit dark at times — interesting for kid fare — with the death of the human boy and robots killing each other for sport and the amusement of humans. Above average. I just wish that butt-gun thing had been left out. It was lame and completely out-of-character with the rest of the film.

Topic: [/movie]


: Fly Me to the Moon

Uninspired animated film about young houseflies that stowaway on the original Apollo moon mission. While there are occasional — and rare — moments of decency, for the most part this is dull and witless, with really tired jokes and fly puns. It seems aimed at really young kids (i.e. five and under) but some of the jokes are tasteless and above such an audience. Very strange. It’s almost saved by the art, which is mostly well done (love the historical NASA footage), but I found the fly characters to be absurdly human-looking; they didn’t look like anything like flies (a warning I should have taken right from the first scene where one of the flies tells the audience that they are flies). While I liked the premise, it was so badly executed (complete with silly Russian spy flies), you definitely won’t be missing anything if you miss this one.

Topic: [/movie]


Sat, Feb 19, 2011

: Unknown

This film has a gimmicky concept: after an accident while in Europe a guy’s wife no longer recognizes him and another man claims to be him. The injured man is bewildered: is he losing his mind? But he has no ID or way to prove he is who he claims while the impostor has a password, family photos, and more. It’s a little bit Bourne Identity and with Liam Neeson in the starring role, a lot of Taken. The beginning is poorly written, with weak dialog and nonsensical events. Often the dialog will telegraph the reaction (for instance, a character might ask a leading question that sets up the answer, something not done in real life when one doesn’t know the answer). But the mystery is compelling enough to keep our interest, though sluggish at first, and later when the action starts, it’s quite good. It’s inconsistent, however, as though it isn’t sure if it’s an action film or psychological thriller. The “twist” at the end is surprisingly good, though I wasn’t that impressed by how well it was handled. It comes across as forced, heavy-handed. In the end I was slightly disappointed thinking “This could have been really good,” but then I was also thinking, “This isn’t as bad as some might think.” It’s therefore not a great film, but it rises slightly above the paint-by-numbers routine you might be expecting for such derivative material. Fun.

Topic: [/movie]


Tue, Feb 15, 2011

: Galapagos

Author: Kurt Vonnegut

This is a fascinating book on several levels. The main one is how it is written: the narrator is writing from a million years in the future as he has watched mankind’s evolution from “big brained” creatures into simple-minded otters. The joke is that this is a huge improvement, because instead of using our big brains to steal and cheat and invent atom bombs, we evolve into simple creatures with simple needs and everyone’s the better for it. Kurt does a number of unusual things from a writing perspective, including foreshadowing which characters will soon die by putting an asterix next to their names. These techniques make the first half of the book amazing, as we follow a motley crew of people and catch glimmers of how they are the future of the human race without knowing exactly how that will happen. Unfortunately, this technique fails in the later part of the book where we already know what’s going to happen and the denouement is boring and feels like it goes on forever. The early parts of the novel are brilliant, however, and more than make up for the weaker conclusion. I love Kurt’s wit and sarcasm, especially the way he mocks how our “big brains” get us into trouble. The plot is also terrific, as we learn the remarkable way an unusual set of people end up stranded on the Galapagos Islands and become the future of the human race. It’s fun and fascinating, and highly recommended.

Topic: [/book]


Mon, Feb 07, 2011

: Micmacs

Author: Jean-Pierre Jeunet

Jeunet is one of my favorite directors of all time and he doesn’t miss a beat in this film, which is an ingenious delight from start to finish. The entire story is basically an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine, as tiny, seemingly insignificant things, lead to major events. Our hero’s father is killed by war when he’s a child and years later the orphaned man is accidentally shot in the head by a stray bullet. The doctors have to leave the bullet in his head as it’s too dangerous to remove it, and he ends up jobless and homeless. He falls in with a quirky band of fellow homeless folk who live in a wonderful junk yard where one of them fashions marvelous machines and automatons from the wreckage. Other crazy characters include a former world record holder as a the human cannonball, “Calculator,” a girl who can at a glance tell you the size, weight, measurements, and distance of anything (her father was a surveyor and her mother a seamstress), a woman contortionist, and more. One day our hero comes across the two rival arms dealers who built the weapons that killed his father and injured himself and he decides to embark and complex plot to pit them against each other so they destroy themselves. All his friends help in marvelous ways, from the contortionist who is delivered past security inside a box to Calculator, who assists them calculating trajectories. As usual with Jeunet, the film is basically a series of sight gags — illusions and tricks and clever camera angles. He tops himself in this one, with hilarious bits such as background advertising billboards that match the scene we’re watching (winking self-promotion) and an explosion that’s so powerful it blows the clothing off a swimsuit model on a calendar. One of my favorite scenes involves a minor fantasy when our hero’s stuck in traffic outside a soccer game: he imagines the game’s commentators mentioning the “new rule” adopted whereby there’s a land mine hidden on the field somewhere, a ploy to add spice to the match. Sure enough, one of the players suddenly blows up! Priceless. Another terrific moment is when our hero has an “ah ha” moment and we hear the swelling orchestral music and as the camera pans we suddenly see a real-life orchestra playing behind him! Wonderfully meta! Though the story gets a little overly complicated and involved, it concludes the way we want, with justice served on the evil arms dealers, but the point of this film isn’t the destination but the journey. Every scene is a visual treat, and the performances are fantastic. Quirky, odd, and utterly endearing, this is a film I could watch over and over. Don’t miss this French masterpiece.

Topic: [/movie]


Sun, Feb 06, 2011

: The Order

Author: Brian Helgeland

Director: Brian Helgeland

I remember when this came out I had thought about seeing it until I heard the horrible reviews and it disappeared from theaters quickly. Now that star Heath Ledger is dead and getting acting accolades it seemed a good time to check it out. It’s a strange film. It feels incomplete, as though this was a rough draft. It’s got a shockingly talented cast and crew (it was written and directed by Brian Helgeland, the Oscar-winning writer of LA Confidental), but it’s haphazardly put together with inconsistent performances and structure. It’s actually not that bad of a concept: a “sin eater” absorbs the sins of another, giving them redemption, but lives an immortal life of purgatory filled with the guilt of others’ crimes. Such a person is very much opposed by the Church, who regard his actions as sacrilegious. Heath’s character is a priest following up the death of his mentor and is offered the chance to become the next sin eater. He’d have power and immortality. He chooses love instead, and then is cruelly tricked into accepting the role. The moral questions surrounding this issue are interesting, but they aren’t explored. The film is filled with so much mumbo-jumbo and cheesy special effects, and the simple plot is presented in such a confusing backwards manner — apparently meant to be more of a mystery — that it is utterly disinteresting. Worse, we never really meet or understand the main characters, so we care nothing about what happens to them. The misleading title doesn’t help either (I was expecting more of a religious conspiracy theory along the lines of The Davinci Code). Ultimately, this is an idea that had potential, but it was ineptly handled in every manner, from script to directing to performing, and it’s a disappointment throughout.

Topic: [/movie]


: Bad Lieutenant

This was not what I expected. I’d heard it was brutal and outrageous, and the corrupt cop who gambles, sniffs cocaine and shoots heroin, steals from crooks, and abuses his authority didn’t surprise me. But I hadn’t expected this to be about such an awful man having a pang of conscience over his crimes. When a nun is brutally raped, she claims to have forgiven the rapists. He even overhears that she knew who they were (kids from the Catholic school) but she refuses to tell on them. Our “bad lieutenant” can’t fathom this as it goes against his every corrupt instinct and it torments him. Harvey Keitel is flawless in the awful role, utterly believable and disgusting, and to see him moaning and screaming in a spiritual quandary is amazing. The ending is surprising and makes you think. It’s a surprisingly cerebral film, though it depends too heavily on the shock value of a ultra-corrupt cop. It’s not a pleasant film at all, and the story, such as it is, is convoluted and rambling and confusing (the baseball betting left me baffled, as I don’t follow the sport and I never did figure out which team he was betting on and if they ultimately won or lost), but it’s worth seeing just for Keitel’s performance.

Topic: [/movie]


Thu, Feb 03, 2011

: Cashback

Strange title, but a neat quirky British film about a young artist who’s so devastated when his girlfriend breaks up with him that he goes weeks without sleeping. To occupy his time, he takes a job on the night shift at a supermarket. There he meets a bunch of strange fellow losers who each have ways to make the time go by while doing as little work as possible. He discovers his method is to stop time. He puts the world on pause and while everyone is frozen, he can use the time to draw pictures of any pretty female shoppers. I liked the way the film toys with the line of whether he’s really freezing time or if it’s just in his imagination (a question never really answered and truly, it doesn’t really matter since the effects are the same either way). As an artist, his privilege is to see beauty everywhere, and he falls for a homely clerk who gradually becomes beautiful to us as well. There’s not a huge amount of plot — the love story of the two is simple enough — and the main appeal is the young man’s genuine personality and the fantasy of being able to stop time. I liked it.

Topic: [/movie]


: King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

I’d been wanting to see this documentary since I first heard about it, but by the time it was actually available, it had dropped off my radar. I discovered it on Netflix streaming and watched it. It’s a fascinating story about setting the all-time scoring record in the Donkey Kong videogame, but the structure’s awkward as it doesn’t follow a traditional storyline. (That’s because it’s real life, but it seems like something that could be fixed in editing.) I don’t want to spoil the story, but let’s just say that it’s difficult to see who the heros and villains are, making for uncomfortable viewing as we aren’t sure who to root for and against, and the story’s ups and downs often left me frustrated because I couldn’t see where we were going (there’s no important foreshadowing like in a fictional tale that prepares us for bad news). It also ultimately felt a little empty, without any moral or conclusion. It could be that is the point — that people who spent zillions of hours mastering an ancient videogame are engaged in a pointless endeavor — but I wanted at least a hint of something more. All that said, I’m a huge fan of Donkey Kong and that alone makes me love this film. Donkey Kong was the first videogame I ever played (I’m showing my age). I still have vivid memories of my eighth grade year when I walked to school every morning and stopped by the 7-11 on the way and spent my lunch money on Donkey Kong (yes, DK was more important than food). When I first started playing I could go through my $1.25 in quarters in fifteen minutes, but eventually I risked being late to school because one quarter would last me thirty minutes or more. (I’d play again on the way home from school, too, and then I didn’t have quite such a deadline.) While I never achieved anything close to the scores of the phenoms in this film, Donkey Kong is still the one videogame I did the best at (I never had enough time for videogames after those halcyon days): I used to get groups of admirers watching me play as I was way better than most. (I once made it to the third pie factory, if that tells you anything.) This film resurrected a lot of memories. The endings is a little unsatisfying, but that’s mostly because it takes textual explanation at the closing credits to really conclude things (I would have much preferred that to be filmed as part of the story). But it’s definitely worth seeing, and if you’re a fan of classic videogames like Donkey Kong, it’s a must-see.

Topic: [/movie]


Wed, Feb 02, 2011

: The Mechanic

This is the 1972 original film (watched via Netflix streaming — yeah!) and it is astonishing how much better it is than the remake. I don’t get the point of redoing a film if you’re not going to make it better in at least one perspective. I was surprised at how closely the new film follows this one in many regards: some of the best parts of the new one are straight from the old one (e.g. cassette/phonograph playing classical music while studying hidden wall of assassination details). But the real problem is that every time they change something, they change it for the worse. For example, in this film the training of the apprentice hit man is more involved and feels more realistic and natural. The new one has the apprentice going out for his first solo within minutes. The whole “agree to train” aspect of the relationship is far better in the old one as well. In the new one, the hit man knew his old friend’s kid. In this one, they were strangers who met shortly before the father’s death. The funeral scene is almost identical, but I really liked the way the hit man sees the potential in the young man, when the kid’s girlfriend threatens to kill herself and he watches passively as she slits her wrist and waits to die. That shows the kid’s heartlessness. In the new film, the kid wants to go after the carjackers who supposedly killed his dad, but since he hated his dad, that motivation feels misplaced and artificial. The actual killings in this film are also much better, more realistic and interesting, and I liked the exoticness of a trip to Italy for a big job, though I wasn’t crazy about the gangland-style shootout — it didn’t feel like the intellectual hit man’s style. This film had more philosophical musings, which I liked, and the new one should have had even more of that, instead of less. Here we see more of a glimpse of the hit man’s guilt (sadly missing from the remake), and I liked the way they handled the ending far better in this one (the young man’s greedy motivation is far more believable than revenge). After seeing this one, I recommend it over the remake wholeheartedly.

Topic: [/movie]


Mon, Jan 31, 2011

: Extract

This is one of those low-key independent films that appeared on the edge of my radar and I wanted to see it but never did. It’s also one of those films that I thought I knew what it was about without knowing anything about it. I’m not sure why that is — if I saw some vague promotion or just read a paragraph and put my own interpretation on it. Part of the problem is the title. It’s a comedy about an extract bottling plant owner and I guess I assumed that the extract was key to the plot: I figured he discovered some new extract that gave superpowers or some funny side effect. Boy was I wrong! This film is nothing like that. It’s extremely subtle humor, almost bland. (It desperately needs a laugh track, though that would cheapen it.) Jason Bateman plays almost the same character he did on Arrested Development: a good guy trying hard and baffled by all the craziness around him. There isn’t much of a plot. He’s frustrated by his distant wife, thinking of selling the plant, being sued by an injured employee, and lusting after a female con artist who is just trying to get money from the suing employee. All these events converge into a decent, though low-key ending. While I really like the dry humor, it’s probably not everyone’s taste. It’s important to realize this isn’t a “laugh out loud” kind of comedy. It’s the kind that brings a wry smile to your lips. It’s easy to see how this could become a cult classic. There are some really wonderful moments and scenes, and on repeat viewings some of the subtle humor is really hilarious. Don’t get your comedy expectations too high and it’s definitely worth checking out if you like this kind of humor.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Jan 28, 2011

: The Mechanic

I haven’t seen the original film, though I’ve heard good things about it, and I can’t compare the two. But being a remake, I was leery of this, and that proved justified as this feels like a by-the-numbers remake with little originality brought to the new version. Other than a new cast and a modern setting, there’s not much too this movie. The premise is interesting: a hit man is hired to kill his old friend and then takes on his friend’s angry son as an apprentice. That opens all sorts of moral quandaries, but they aren’t really explored as the hit man character is little more than a robot. The feeling I got is this tries to be Unforgiven but without the intelligence and depth. The beginning is slow, without much action, and the latter half of the film is too much action. The film thus has inconsistent pacing. It has an inconsistent feel, too, sometimes gritty and at times too slick and cool. We’re also not given much in the way of character development. The old mentor is killed off so early we don’t really understand his relationship with the killer, and the young new guy, while interestingly morose, hated his father so his revenge motivation feels ill-fitting. It’s not a terrible film by any stretch. It’s well-done and pretty good, but it’s just not great. I am skeptical it could be an improvement over the original (I plan to see that soon and find out). A fun rental.

Topic: [/movie]


Thu, Jan 27, 2011

: Princess of Mars

Author: Edgar Rice Burroughs

It’s been a long time since I’ve read Burroughs’ Mars series — I first discovered them in high school (25 years ago, wow!) — but with the new film coming out I thought I’d give them a reread. (And they’re free on Kindle, so yeah!) This is an enjoyable book. Burroughs doesn’t much limit himself to science so these are more fantasy than science fiction (remarkablely imaginative considering when these were written), but he does an excellent job at creating interesting and unusual cultures (that’s my favorite thing about his books). Here he’s got warring populations and species of Martians, a lone human (John Carter) thrust in the middle and trying to survive, and a terrific adventure tale of daring and brawn. Things are a little tedious at times as Burroughs has to spend a great deal of time explaining the world — it’s our narrator hero’s first time there, too — and while some of that exposition is interesting, more action would have been preferable. (I’m really curious about how the subsequent books handle this as they should have more story.) A few of the details are almost too pat (you can see solutions to future problems as things happen to him earlier on), and I found the descriptions of battles boring (war isn’t interesting to me). The love story is the most fascinating part of the book, as he’s falling in love with an alien with a different thought process and culture. Overall, it’s a book that holds up remarkably well. I’m not sure if this is the book they’re making into a movie — it’s the first novel but there is a book called “John Carter of Mars” which I heard was the movie title — but I’m very curious to see what they produce. Considering the nature of the novels — a foreign planet, strange beasts and creatures, epic battles, airships, alien cities — these are not books that were filmable (at least realistically) without today’s special effects abilities. We shall see!

Topic: [/book]


Fri, Jan 14, 2011

: The Green Hornet

Author: Michael Gondry

I was fully prepared to hate this movie. The trailers gave me little hope: it seemed like a feeble attempt at comedy, and the whole concept of this particular superhero was missing. I also kept confusing this with The Green Lantern, another superhero movie coming out this summer. To my surprise, I really liked this film! It’s wonderful. The director shoots it in an interesting manner, with fun little quirky touches that don’t overwhelm but do make things more interesting. The plot is simple and slight, but I actually liked that. It’s really just an origin story and I like my origin stories pure. Too may of these kinds of movies try to do both an origin and a regular adventure plot at the same time and the result is that neither storyline is satisfactory. The origin of the Green Hornet is interesting. I’d actually forgotten until I read recently that this character started out as a radio play way back when (along with the Lone Ranger and The Shadow). This character is not actually a superhero: he’s more like Batman in that he’s just a regular guy. He’s also unusual in that he’s not that super: his sidekick, Kato, is the actual hero. The main guy’s just the motivator and image. (The concept reminds me (a little) of the team of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, where one guy’s the actual electronics genius and the other provides the marketing and charisma. Neither would have succeeded without the skills of the other.) The other thing I really like about the concept of this character is how he’s actually perceived by the police and criminals as a bad guy. Everyone thinks the Green Hornet is a criminal. The logic behind this is that as a criminal he can get closer to the bad guys and stop their plans. If the crooks know he’s a hero, they’ll try and stop him or take advantage of his good nature to hurt innocent people. But since the criminals think he’s a bad guy, they assume that he doesn’t care about innocent people and thus can’t use that as a weapon against him. Genius! The drawback, of course, is that he’s hunted by both revengeful crooks and the police, but that’s a minor price to pay.

Now this particular version of the story changes things a little bit and does make it more comical. Seth Rogan plays the Green Hornet and he fits his role as a useless playboy to a T. I love the way Kato was slowly brought into the story, the way Seth’s character slowly gets into the superhero business, and the way the two bicker and fight but ultimately become best friends. Seth’s character isn’t much a hero, but he has a good heart, and it’s his idealism that that motivates Kato who would never have thought of dressing up in costume and stopping bad guys. That’s just the kind of thing a soft, spoiled, and bored rich kid would dream up. While I can see how some people wouldn’t like this story — not a lot happens — I really liked it. I admire the restraint and subtlety and I like the careful pacing so that characters don’t suddenly change overnight but gradually become superheroes. It helps that there’s plenty of humor to keep us entertained, and some decent (though over-the-top) action late on. The villain is marvelously played by Christoph Waltz (from Inglourious Basterds) in a wonderful role as a bad guy who is overly concerned with what people think of him. The plot simply consists of him, as the town’s leading bad dude, becoming jealous of the publicity the Green Hornet’s getting and trying to kill him. It gets a little muddled with a whole corrupt politician angle, but overall is a simple plot that gets out of the way so we can focus on the Seth becoming the Green Hornet. I’m sure future movies in this series (assuming they are bad) would have a more conventional action plot and that will be fine.

Overall, this is not up to the level of the amazing The Dark Knight, but it’s solid and surprisingly watchable. The comedy is light and appropriate. A few things don’t work or fall awkwardly (some of the adult language felt really out of place in what feels like a movie appropriate for youngsters), and some of the fighting between the two main characters went too far as we want them to be friends, but the bottom line is that I thoroughly enjoyed myself. That surprised me as I was really expecting to write a scathing commentary. Recommended!

Topic: [/movie]


Thu, Jan 13, 2011

: Twilight: New Moon

I’m not really into the Twilight series and this one started off horrible: it was incredibly boring, tedious, and I didn’t have a clue what was going on. Basically the girl’s vampire love splits on her, apparently because he loved her so much he didn’t want to see her hurt, so she goes into a deep depression and discovers that when her life is in jeopardy she can sense him. So to get closer to him and see him again, she starts risking her life with crazy stunts. The drama gets better when he mistakenly thinks she’s dead and decides to kill himself and she has to race to stop him. This whole mess is complicated by a second romance with another boy who turns out to be a werewolf. Werewolves hate vampires and thus she’s torn between two species. The special effects are extremely weak (the human-to-werewolf transformation is especially cheesy), the action is minimal, the conflict artificial and forced, and other than the love story, there isn’t much to this story. The real problem is that the love story doesn’t really come into play until the end: prior to that it’s just 90 minutes of walloping in a girl’s depression and self-pity, which makes me feel like shooting myself just to stop the pain. All that said, the later part, toward the end, did get more interesting, and I did like some of the vampire ideas and dilemmas presented, especially the concept that the girl is actually special as some of the vampire’s powers won’t work on her (no one knows why). This says to be the series is going somewhere, but I am still in awe of how this series manages to make exciting stuff like vampires so boring! It’s a real gift, that is.

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Fri, Jan 07, 2011

: Black Swan

Where do I begin? I loved this film. It’s authentic, mysterious, magical, wonderful. It catches you off guard, puts you on edge, and makes you think. It’s full of so many powerful themes: young replacing old; the old living vicariously through the young; repressed emotional and sexuality; and the quest for immortality, greatness, and perfection. The film is supremely sexual without being titillating. It’s horrific without violence or gore. I think that’s what I loved best. My favorite scene was when the domineering mother catches her adult daughter scratching (an old bad habit) and furiously clips her fingernails with a pair of scissors as though she were a helpless little girl. It was so vicious, every snip so angry, you couldn’t help but cringe in terror. Movies today show lopped heads and limbs ripped off and we don’t bat an eye, but this scene (which is utterly harmless, for what serious damage could the tiny scissors do?) — will have you on the edge of your seat wincing and chills shooting down your spine.

The story is simple and clean and beautiful. A young ballet star has the chance to get her dream role as the swan queen where in Swan Lake she’ll play both the innocent white swan and the seductive black swan. It’s a challenge that will force her out of her comfort zone, make her have to feel rather than think. It takes her to a dark place, so dark she has a mental breakdown. As someone who’s been involved with theatre, I understand that completely. Such roles are heady and life-changing, forcing you to rethink everything you know about yourself. For a repressed person, they allow you to slip out of your skin and into a persona and behave in ways you normally couldn’t. I understand the mother, a former ballet star herself, whose career was cut short by her pregnancy, and now she unintentionally puts incredible pressure on her loving daughter. The mother is both awful and tragic, the perfect example of how genuine love can be cruel.

Everything about this film — the powerful story, the incredible performances by the leads (it’s Natalie Portman’s strongest role by far and it will be criminal if she doesn’t win an Oscar), the subtle and fascinating direction, the music — is amazing. It’s reminiscent of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, but less claustrophobic. It’s a subtle film, delicate, with much depth beneath the surface. It’s the kind of film I could watch again and again and learn more from each time. The only flaw I can find, if it has any, is that main character’s repression keeps the audience slightly at a distance. That, combined with the strange and mysterious happenings, some of which might be the girl’s imagination, can be off-putting. But to me this is a minor issue, though I can see how some might be more disconnected from the story. I loved this. I can’t recommend it more highly. It’s not always easy to watch, but that’s what makes it so powerful.

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