Fri, Dec 28, 2012

: Django Unchained

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Cool homage to the spaghetti western, totally Tarantino, and a lot of fun. The story is simple enough, about a slave that is taken on as an apprentice bounty hunter and finds his calling (Pay him to kill white people? He’s in!), and sets off to rescue his slave wife who’s been sold to an evil plantation owner.

But the real meat in this is all the wonderful characters, from delicious bad guys to cool good guys. All the performances are fantastic, as the all-star cast delivers. Christoph Waltz is amazing as always, but he’s strong supported by Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Samuel L. Jackson.

Of course since it’s Tarantino, everything’s over-the-top, with plenty of absurd shoot-em-ups and spurting blood, but that’s the joy in it. In any other movie scenes like the Klan members arguing about how they can’t see through their hoods would be out-of-place and fall flat, but here it’s just classic.

Long, but doesn’t feel like it at all. The pacing is just perfect, like savoring a delicious meal. Wonderful.

Topic: [/movie]


Wed, Dec 19, 2012

: The Secret World of Arrietty

I was curious about this as I usually love Hayao Miyazaki’s work, but the trailers made this seem much too much like The Borrowers novel it was based upon (there already was an animated movie based on that) and I skipped it in theaters.

But it turns out, it’s really good. It’s definite not very American — it has a glacial pace and a minimal plot — but it’s surprisingly emotional. The story is about a teenage Borrower (a miniature person who lives underneath a human’s house and lives on “borrowed” odds and ends) who meets a human boy. It turns out the boy is dying and there to convalesce, and though the Borrower is not supposed to allow herself to be seen, the two become friends.

There are a few oddities, like the weird housekeeper, but this is probably the most mainstream thing Miyazaki has ever done (though he only wrote and planned this and didn’t direct it). The story is simple and pure and wonderful. The hand-drawn animation is amazing, especially the level of detail. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. Definitely great for kids.

Topic: [/movie]


Sat, Dec 15, 2012

: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

It’s been a while since I’ve read the book (I’m rereading it now) and my memories of it are blended with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, so it’s a little difficult for me to compare this to the novel. In that regard, it seems they’ve taken liberties in rearranging the structure slightly, and adjusted several scenes to give various characters more weight. While these are somewhat galling to a purist like myself, I do understand why they made those changes (at least for the most part).

As an example — a slight spoiler warning here — instead of Gandalf mimicking voices to confuse the trolls, the movie has Bilbo provoking them. The conclusion is exactly the same, which is good, and it’s easy to see the filmmakers wanted Bilbo to be more heroic, but of course, that is not what happened in the novel.

That said, judging this strictly on its own merits, it’s a terrific film. The visuals are fantastic, the performances excellent, and the drama and action is non-stop. The near three-hour length flies by in about an hour. The film adds a darker tone by introducing the Necromancer (a wizard that can control the dead) and the threat he promises adds import to the quest so that it’s not just about reclaiming stolen gold from a dragon.

Of course the most disappointing and frustrating thing about the film is that it ends just as it’s getting good, and we have to wait an entire year for the next part. Arrggh! I knew that going in, and though it does end at a perfect pause point (thankfully not in the middle of a sentence), it’s still annoying. I wouldn’t be nearly so upset if part two was coming out in a few months, but a year? Still, this is definitely worth seeing sooner rather than later. (I saw the 3D version and it’s not bad, though I’m not sure the extra dimension is worth it. Other than a few arrows whizzing at you, it doesn’t make much of a difference.)

Topic: [/movie]


Sat, Dec 08, 2012

: Contraband

This film didn’t interest me at all when it was in theaters, but it’s actually quite good. I knew it was about smuggling, where a former smuggler is forced to go back into his old life for one last deal, and that didn’t seem very interesting. But it turns out it’s much more of a clever heist movie.

I had no idea that smuggling meant putting stuff on legitimate cargo ships — I always thought guys used their own private boats. The logistics of getting stuff on and off a cargo ship without anyone noticing is fascinating and exciting, and the film moves from one dramatic sequence to the next. The concept of drug dealers putting pressure on the guy’s family to force him to do one last smuggling job was actually pretty good, as our hero wants to go legit but must protect his wife and kids.

The ending is interesting. At one point it seems anticlimactic but there are some lovely twists at the end and I loved the way everything worked out. Perhaps not the most intellectual fare and there’s some nastiness that isn’t totally necessary (I much preferred the light-hearted humorous aspects), but it’s all in good fun in the end.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Dec 07, 2012

: Flypaper

Interesting little bank robber caper flick about a guy who’s sort of mildly autistic (he can solve math problems in his head and is very logical but has zero social skills) who tries to protect a pretty teller he has a crush on. He’s caught in the middle as two sets of bank robbers attempt to rob the same bank and the same time. One set of robbers are high-tech and sophisticated, while the other two are bumbling idiots.

The whole thing’s more than unrealistic, with explosions and gunshots going on all night in the closed bank and no cops show up, but it’s still sort of fun and interesting as the math guy tries to calculate what’s really going on. The ultimate explanation is pretty silly, but there are some fun twists. The ending was predictable to me but still enjoyable and I liked the way everything worked out. Fun.

Topic: [/movie]


Sat, Nov 24, 2012

: Deliver Us from Evil

Author: David Baldacci

This novel takes a fantastically interesting idea but doesn’t quite deliver on it properly. I found the setup fascinating: a woman is a member of a secret vigilante organization that seeks out evil people and kills them. For instance, she stalks and kills an ancient Nazi in his impenetrable bunker in South America. Another man is an agent for a U.S. covert agency (unnamed) that has carte blanche to find bad guys. So the two are similar, but different, each with a different view of “justice.”

Where the story gets interesting is when both the woman and the man go after the same target and get in each other’s way. They meet and pretend to be romantically interested in each other, but each is suspicious of the other and positive that there’s something else going on. It’s a neat game of cat and mouse, with neither a hundred percent sure if the other’s cover identity is real or phony.

Unfortunately, this game can’t last too long, and once it’s over and the truth about each is revealed, the story gets a lot less interesting. They cooperate to try and get the bad guy (who is really evil and awful), and then the bad guy finds out and goes after them. There’s a whole side tail about a female journalist who had a relationship with the man which I found very confusing. There seemed to be much unsaid about their story, which makes me think they are characters from a previous novel which I haven’t read. The ending is also poor and confusing, leaving more questions than answers, and the relationship between the man and the woman is very unclear. (I’m sure that’s intentional and supposed to be realistic or interesting, but I just found it annoying and bewildering.)

Overall, I’d love to recommend the book more, as it has some fascinating ideas, but the implementation isn’t great and the ending is a downer.

Topic: [/book]


Mon, Nov 12, 2012

: Another Earth

Interesting, though clearly low-budget, quirky movie about a woman haunted by a car accident that killed most of a family. After she gets out of prison (she was a drunk minor) she visit the lone survivor, the father, but is afraid to tell him who she is and pretends to be a cleaning service and ends up cleaning his house on a regular basis. Meanwhile, on the night of the accident, scientists discovered a duplicate earth in space. The woman had been very interested in space and follows the news of the other planet with interest. It turns out it’s identical to ours — even down to the same people having the same experiences — except that the moment the two planets became aware of each other (the night of the accident), they started to diverge. This leads the woman into thinking that maybe the family she killed is still alive on the other earth, and when she wins a ticket on a space flight to the other earth, she gives it to the man, hoping he’ll find his wife and son.

It’s a neat idea, but the film is extremely slow and thinks far too much of itself. It’s also a bit confusing and awkward, and I really hated the music which made me want to scream was so saccharin and slow. (Fortunately, the music isn’t playing throughout.) The performances are okay, but the low-budget of the film comes through in places and that’s not good. Ultimately it’s interesting and unusual, but not the breakthrough it wants to be.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Nov 09, 2012

: Skyfall

I’m not the biggest fan of the current generation of James Bond films — they are too serious and realistic and lack the fun and fantasy that I loved of other Bonds. This is right in line with the others: dark and grim and somber, it shows a hint of fun with the insane bad guy, but unfortunately he really isn’t much of a challenge for Bond. (I found their showdowns to be anticlimactic.)

The plot… well, it’s basically a rambling tale about how Bond and M are too old to do their jobs, followed by a crazy former agent who’s out to seek revenge on M and 007 has to stop him. There’s a lot of interesting stuff happening and some of the scenes are fantastic, but I’m not sure it’s that great of an actual story.

There’s also a fair amount of focus on characters like M and we even learn a bit about Bond’s past, but it’s all just hints and we really don’t know anything. For instance, we get the impression that M’s had to make tough decisions and is a wise old bird, but we really don’t know one thing about her personal life or history. That’s a bit odd considering the film is trying to get us to like her but won’t confide in us.

In the end, I get the feeling we’re in a transitional state with Bond: this film has a new younger Q and Moneypenny, and it sets up for more personnel changes in the sequel. Daniel Craig does seem to be feeling his age but I suspect he’ll be back for one more, but who knows where they are going with this. It’s a good movie: very watchable, with some good action, over-the-top scenery and villains, a little of the classic Bond repartee, but it just has a different feel from the Bond I know and love.

Topic: [/movie]


Tue, Nov 06, 2012

: Wreck-It Ralph

Now this is the movie Tron wanted to be!

Tron was about going inside the world of the video game, but Tron didn’t make any sense in terms of how computers actually work. That made me wary of this one as I worried it would make the same mistakes. I am delighted to report that it does nothing of the sort. Sure, there are liberties taken — game characters can’t cross over into other games in real life — but the world of Wreck-It Ralph is true to itself. There are rules to this world and the rules make sense within the film (unlike Tron).

The story is terrific — just top-notch — about being true to yourself and finding your place in this world. The plot, about a “bad guy” game character who wants to be a good guy, is pure genius. Ralph leaves his game seeking his fortune so to speak, and wanders into several other games, giving us a wonderful glimpse inside various game stereotypes and styles.

What really makes things work and takes everything to that top level is that these fictional games are actually terrific games. They feel believable. Fix-It Felix, Jr., where Ralph destroys things and the Felix, the good-natured hero, fixes things, actually could be an 1980’s arcade game. Hero’s Duty, is your typical modern, high-adrenaline, first-person shooter. Sugar Rush is a candy-coated racing game with enough sweet puns to make you dizzy (it’s hilarious), yet it’s a playable game (I loved the way gumballs drop from gumball machines and roll onto the raceway and wipe out racers who aren’t careful to dodge them, and even the “build your car bakery” mini-game seems like a fun game to actually play).

The characters we meet are just wonderful: variations of the familiar, but each with their own personality. Ralph discovers he’s not alone in his longing to expand his programming — many others don’t like their enforced roles, either. There’s the hard-assed soldier with a heart deep down, the quirky pixie who’s really a princess, the good-natured guy who’s tougher than he seems, and even minor side characters are given real roles with important lines.

While there are subtle jokes for video games gurus, even a passing familiarity with games will allow you to understand everything just fine. The climax and resolution of the film is just perfect — with a real threat quashed by Ralph in a way that’s uniquely his own. There’s genuine emotion, flawless dialog and performances throughout, and the film moves at a perfect pace. I really can’t think of anything wrong with this at all. It’s an instant classic, up there with The Incredibles for reinventing a genre and turning stereotypes on their head. Go see it!

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Nov 02, 2012

: Point Nine

Today I stopped by the local Apple Store to check out the new iPad mini. I played with it for about 15 minutes, and that really was all I needed to tell me everything I needed to know.

As I expected, the smaller form factor is amazing. The iPad mini really feels like a completely difference device. While still as solid and well-built as ever, it’s so thin and light I can imagine taking it places (I rarely take my full-size iPad anywhere, except on longer trips). Reading, playing games, surfing the web, checking email, etc., are all easier and better with a lighter device. I really believe that the mini is the iPad most people want and need. I can think of very few tasks that require the larger screen of the big iPad. (My mom’s need to see full-size sheet music for piano playing is one where the bigger pad is better.)

The only disappointing thing is the screen resolution, though that is only an issue for those who are accustomed to Retina displays and who read a great deal. For me, reading is pure joy on my big iPad — even after seven months I still marvel at the crispness of type on the thing. It’s better than most printed books. There’s no such joy on the mini, where type — especially small italicized text — is unbearably fuzzy and reminds me of grainy newspaper print. It’s the one thing that makes me hesitate getting one (especially knowing that Apple will introduce a Retina mini down the road and render the current generation obsolete). Yet I’ll probably get one (they were sold out or I might have picked one up) and just plan on replacing it with a Retina version when that comes out.

The size and weight of the mini is killer. The new form factor just rocks. It’s what a tablet was meant to be.

This got me thinking. I’ve been disparaging of the 7” tablet for years. While those tablets feel good in the hand, I never liked them. There was something that bothered me and it wasn’t until I actually used the mini that I figured it out.

It’s the point-nine inch difference.

Apple’s mini is 7.9” measured diagonally. All the other small tablets are just 7”. That doesn’t sound like much, but according to Apple, that .9” difference means 35% more screen real estate. That is the key difference. (Apple’s 4:3 aspect ratio is also a factor, as most other tablets go 16:9 widescreen, which feels horrible in portrait mode, the most common orientation for a tablet.)

At (basically) 8”, the mini is the perfect size. The tablet itself is small enough to be held with one hand and so light and thin that the device almost completely fades away. A full-size iPad isn’t bad or that heavy, but it’s mostly lead battery and so dense that you just can’t escape its solid feel. Its presence is always there and you’re aware of it, like a slightly-too-heavy watch weighing down your wrist.

The mini is physically almost the same as the competing 7” tablets; it’s actually thinner and lighter than all but the grayscale E-ink book readers. But the mini’s screen is just that little bit larger and that .9” makes all the difference.

You see, a touch screen tablet is all about the screen. That’s even more true of a smaller tablet where the light weight makes the device disappear and you’re only left with the screen. But 7” is just too small. It’s little more than a big phone. Full-size tablet software has to compromise to run at 7”. Buttons become too small to push with your stubby finger. Everything feels cramped and shrunk down.

But on the mini, I didn’t feel any of that. In fact, if I’d never seen a full-sized iPad, I would have thought everything was designed for the mini’s 8” screen! It’s shrunk a little from the 9.7” iPad screen, but you’d only know that if you were making the comparison. This is unlike the 7” screens where everything feels artificially reduced as though you’re looking at the tablet through the wrong end of a telescope.

This is what Apple does. On the surface, 7” and 7.9” seem so close as to not make any difference. I’m sure executives at other companies, when trying to come up with a tablet to rival Apple’s, settled on the 7” size based on LCD panel costs and other factors. Probably there was some efficiencies there that meant a significant cost savings to go with that size. So that’s why they picked it — to save money — not because it was the best size for a tablet.

Apple doesn’t work like that. They make the best device regardless of the cost. They took the time to do the research, probably trying out every variation of size possible, and concluded that 7.9” was the optimal size. Any bigger and it’s too close to the big iPad. Any smaller and it’s just a big iPhone, not a tablet. Genius.

There really isn’t any compromise with the size of the mini — it’s big enough for real tablet apps just like the big guy, but the whole device is so much smaller and thinner it’s a joy to carry and use.

I hereby predict that competitors will start producing 8” tablets now that Apple has shown them the way.

Why Now?

This got me thinking, if this new size is so much better, why didn’t Apple do it in the first place? The answer is cost. Remember when the iPad first came out, there was nothing like that on the market. Netbooks were the hot thing — tiny $300 notebook laptops with cramped mini-keyboards, small screens, and slow CPUs. If Apple had tried to produce an iPad mini back then, it would have been thicker and heavier with the tech of the day, and it would have still cost close to $500. (Back then it was difficult to produce any size tablet for less.) Would even Apple have been able to convince people that spending $500 on an unproven 8” handheld device was better than spending $300 on a tiny but familiar laptop?

Apple needed to produce the full-size iPad to demonstrate that there was a market. The bigger size meant more value to most people, and it established $500 as the starting price for a full-size tablet. It also killed off netbooks as people realized a tablet could do most of the things people were buying netbooks for — mainly email and web surfing — and the form factor was far superior.

Now is the right time to introduce the mini. Clearly it’s just before the holiday season, which is good, but it’s also the right time in terms of the tablet market as a whole. Tablets are real now. They’re not a fad. They’re established and people understand what they are and why they should buy one. By coming out with a mini that’s just as good as a full-size iPad, Apple is setting a new standard that is the future of tablet computing. Apple didn’t rush out the mini to compete with other tablets on price (and they aren’t even trying to compete on price with the sell-at-loss Kindle and Google tablets). Apple doesn’t work like that. They waited until it was the right time for a new kind of device and then released it.

Point-nine inches. That’s what makes the mini so different.

Topic: [/technology]


: Cloud Atlas

I bought the book a month ago, thinking I wanted to read it before I saw the film. But the book is huge and complicated, and apparently a difficult read, so I decided to see the film first and if I liked it, I’d check out the book.

The concept sounded fascinating: a overlapping stories spanning several centuries, with many of the same people in different roles, all told in a disjointed, constantly switching narrative. It’s basically like reading a few pages at a time from each of six different novels. That sounds confusing, but it’s really not.

I was a bit worried that this was promoting the concept of reincarnation or something like that, but that’s not what it’s about. Instead it’s more about patterns. In film, this works great because we can see the same actors in multiple roles and that links the various stories. These aren’t the same characters, but just similar beings (at least that’s how I interpreted it). Having the same actors in different roles helps point out similarities you probably wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. I have no idea how that’s implemented in the book.

The effect is very powerful. Each of the stories are relatively simple — that’s important because if each was as complex as a standalone novel it would be overwhelming — but there are nice surprises and twists and turns. A story might start off one way (such as the doctor character helping a sick young man) only to later morph into something completely different (we discover the doctor has nefarious intentions).

There are basically six main stories:

  • in the 1800s, a white man defies convention and befriends a black slave
  • in 1934 a troubled composer works on his “Cloud Atlas Sextet” symphony
  • in 1974 a black female journalist tries to uncover a conspiracy involving a nuclear power plant
  • in 2012 an elderly publisher tries to escape from a nursing home
  • 150 years in the future, a cloned woman tries to escape her dictated role in a totalitarian society
  • even further in the future, a civilized woman elicits the help of a primitive to help save the human race

All of these stories are revealed piecemeal, a few bites at a time. I thought that might become tedious or confusing, but it’s exactly the opposite. We’re dropped into each scene at a dramatic and interesting moment, and we leave it while we’re still hungry for more. Because the stories are simple and somewhat stereotypical (i.e. journalist rushes to unveil conspiracy and bad guys try to kill her before she can publish or a clone learns to think for herself), and because the scenes are memorable, there is no confusion. Going back into a storyline we were following before is a welcome return home.

The stories also blend genres. The clone story is science fiction and action, the composer one a tragedy, the publisher one is mostly farce, the clone story has romance, and so on, which makes things interesting. The climatic conclusion of the various stories is excellent, with satisfying a resolution to each, as well as subtle but fascinating patterns revealed. (For example, there’s an unusual birthmark that shows up on several of the characters throughout the film. In another parallel, two linked characters die decades apart but in eerily similar manners.)

The bottom line is that I went into this nearly three-hour epic worried I’d be bored or frustrated, but my experience was completely the opposite. I was mesmerized and intrigued. There are a handful of early scenes that don’t make much sense until the very end of the movie, but mostly you just enjoy the stories. The performances are all excellent (except for an absolutely terrible Susan Sarandon who seemed out of place in every single one of her roles, though thankfully she’s only in a few scenes). The visuals are outstanding, with an incredible variety from the future and the past all in the same film. (I’d say this film is the definition of the word epic.) From a technical perspective, the film is nearly flawless (my only complaint is that some of the actors’ makeup is a little funky and looks more creepy than natural).

The one questionable aspect I’d put out about the film is the ultimate meaning and point of the thing is a little weak. It’s as though the author came up with a great idea of exploring patterns throughout history, but didn’t really have a good reason for doing it. There is some depth in the theme of revolution (the white man rebelling against slavery, the clone starting a rebellion) and fighting against the tide (I love the line about droplets in the ocean), but that theme could have been just as efficiently explored with just a single tale. I didn’t see much purpose in the patterns; they seem like just a gimmick.

Of course, this could just be an aspect of the movie version. I shall have to read the book to see if it’s different. And it is a fairly minor gripe. I certainly wouldn’t let it discourage you from seeing the film. It’s truly a unique and fascinating experience and highly recommended.

Topic: [/movie]


Thu, Nov 01, 2012

: Frankenweenie

I didn’t like this nearly as much as I expected I would. I’m a huge Tim Burton fan, and I like quirky animation and bizarre characters, but this felt too tame. It felt like it was trying to hard to be weird and yet it simultaneously worked hard to be normal (probably to avoid scaring off potential ticket-buyers).

It’s certainly not a bad movie in any way. It’s just not that entertaining or different. It’s about a boy whose beloved dog dies and he reanimates the dog with lightning. There was a hint of something different as the dog suffers from the prejudices of the town who don’t want to accept a reanimated dog, but the movie doesn’t go far enough with that theme.

Instead, the film switches over to action as the boy’s school friends learn his secret and reanimate their own dead pets with disastrous results as the pets become huge monsters. (The best is the turtle, Shelly, who becomes a Tyrannosaurus Rex.) The ending is pretty good as the boy and his dog are required to save the day (which endears the townspeople to the resurrected dog), but for the most part things are predictable.

Overall, it’s a good film; fun, quirky, and well-done. From a technical perspective, it’s flawless and quite wonderful. It’s just that the story isn’t very new or different. It feels like it doesn’t live up to its awesome potential. That’s probably just fine for kids, but adults will find it lightweight fare.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Oct 19, 2012

: The Dogs of War

This was interesting timing: right after I saw Argo, I found that my DVR had recorded this film. I read the Frederick Forsyth book about a year ago but hadn’t seen the film which was made in 1980 (and stars the always-awesome Christopher Walken). To my surprise, I found many similarities between this film and Argo — in this film the main character’s plotting a political coup of a small African nation, but he has to get in and out of the country with forged papers and such, and there was a lot of the same political tension. Very interesting.

The film follows the book in many key ways, but there is more action, at least at the end during the battle. There was some new stuff (like new characters and a relationship) that was distracting and didn’t quite fit, though it wasn’t bad. (I’m sure those who never read the book wouldn’t notice.) Though I liked the book for the most part, it was a little dry, and I think the movie’s probably more interesting for most people. Fans of the book are probably peeved at the differences, and though I liked that much of the movie is about the same logistical aspects of buying weapons and hiring mercenaries, the movie’s less tedious. Though dated, it’s worth watching.

Topic: [/movie]


Thu, Oct 18, 2012

: Argo

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this. I’m not a big fan of political stuff so I hesitated going to see it, but I was living in Africa during the Iranian hostage crisis and even as a kid I remember how tense the situation was (we were advised by the U.S. Embassy to be prepared to leave the country on a moment’s notice if things got worse), so the historical aspect had me very curious.

I’m really glad I saw the film. It begins with a great summary of the political situation at the time (very helpful), and moves right into the riots in Iran that led to the U.S. Embassy being overtaken. I must say, that was very frightening. Not only did this film really captured the period, but I’ve been near such situations (riots) and the mob mentality is probably the scariest thing out there (there’s just no reasoning with a mob).

The rest of the film is very exciting, though in truth not that much happens. It’s all about what could happen (i.e. the six escapees of the embassy being discovered as they try to leave Iran while pretending to be Canadian filmmakers there scouting locations for their new movie). There’s a lot of fun historical stuff, glimpses of Hollywood and the 1970s CIA, but I was disappointed at the lack of actual movie-making in the escape plan. Other than one brief outing to a market, the supposed film group did nothing. I guess that didn’t hurt their escape chances, but it was an aspect of the story that interested me and there wasn’t much to it in the film.

Another minor gripe is that the ending feels over-done and drawn out. While yes, there’s tension as identification papers are checked, it goes on forever, and feels to Hollywood. (In reality, I suspect that other than a moment or two of pure terror and nervousness, it all went very smoothly and without incident, but of course that’s not dramatic enough for Hollywood.)

Still, the entire movie is well-acted, the casting is fantastic, and I loved the way the film credits have side-by-side pictures of both actors and scenes in the film with their real-life counterparts. It’s not a flawless movie, but it’s very good, and not at all boring or political as it might sound.

Topic: [/movie]


Sun, Oct 14, 2012

: Battle in Seattle

This is not the kind of film I usually like as I hate political films, but to my surprise I found the drama and multiple storyline approach intriguing and I ended up watching the whole thing. It’s about a huge political protest against the WTO (World Trade Organization) in 1999 that sparked riots and police brutality. I’d never even heard of the event (but I don’t pay much attention to such things).

I didn’t appreciate the film’s one-sidedness on the WTO (it clearly sides with the protesters with no voice on the other side), but I did like the way it tried to present multiple sides of the riots. We follow a cop with a pregnant wife, the mayor and the political pressure on him for the WTO summit to go well, several of the protestors, as well as people from third world countries involved with the WTO there to plead on their country’s behave for aid (and I liked that we were shown how the riots interfered with their agenda).

It was an interesting film, but other than a bit of brief background on a few of the protesters, we really don’t get much of an idea of what motivates them (and though presented sympathetically, they do seem a bit loony). There were a number of places I thought the drama could have been better handled, but the aspects of the rioting were well-handled and quite terrifying. (Having been near such rioting a couple of times in my life, I know what it feels like.) The all-start cast is excellent.

Ultimately the film is too preachy to move beyond its core audience of people who agree with the protestors, which is sad as it’s got some positive aspects. It’s not a great film but it’s worth seeing just for some of the key scenes, and I really liked that it got me thinking about the morality of responsibility. So much potential; I wish it had been handled more evenly as the message is important.

(An interesting aside: I watched this right after watching the season finale of Falling Skies, the summer TNT series about an alien invasion [yes, I’m way behind on my TV watching], and I found fascinating parallels. In that finale a key question was about responsibility: do we fight the aliens or sit back and hide and hope they’ll be merciful? The fight was compared to the American Revolution, where good men faced the same dilemma, and I found it intriguing that I was making comparisons to the protests in Seattle. If we don’t pay attention to what our government does or protest evil, perhaps we will lose the right to protest at all?)

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Oct 12, 2012

: Middle Men

I was interested in this film because of the business aspect: it’s the story of how the Internet was commercialized via online credit card payment systems. Of course, the first industry to do that was the porn industry (just like it sparked the home video revolution), which gives the film a sleazy gimmick to promote.

Worse than that, it turns out the movie’s really about mobsters and gangsters, and while there are some clever plots twists (and I loved the neat ending), that was not the film I anticipated or the kind of film I like. (I fail to understand the fascination with the mob. It’s a world I don’t understand at all and it bores me to death.) The financial aspect, which intrigued me, is a mere two minutes of the movie, and it’s never really explained at all. (Imagine that the Facebook movie never explained what Facebook was and you get the idea.)

I did like how the main character is a family man who gets involved with this industry to help two idiots who stumbled upon this online billing gold mine, and then as he builds up the business he loses himself in the glamorous Vegas lifestyle and runs into moral dilemmas about what he should do. (Because the mob’s funding things behind the scenes, he finds he can’t get out.)

But the rest of the characters are all irredeemable and so stupid that I couldn’t stand them in every scene they are in (which means about 80% of the movie is tedious). Their stupidity makes his moral quandaries seem even more out of place.

It’s thus a frustrating movie: it’s not really about what it’s about, the convoluted mob plot stuff is fun but feels out of place and unrealistic, and far too much of the film is just unbearably stupid. Throw in some sleazy porn stuff, drug use, and gratuitous foul language and you’ve wasted a great cast and a good premise for a film. Sad.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Sep 28, 2012

: Looper

I love time travel films and was nervously looking forward to this one. I hoped it would be good, but was expecting I might be disappointed — time travel stories can be a letdown if not handled correctly. I saw one negative review that indicated the second half was worse than the first so I went in anticipating that, but I found the opposite to be the case.

The first half sets up the time travel gimmick: mobsters in the future send people they want killed back in time where “loopers” are waiting to shoot them (apparently completely vanishing bodies in the future is “impossible”). While interesting, there are just too many unanswered questions (Why not kill the people and just send back the dead bodies?) and it had too much exposition.

The second half is where things get better. The tone does change radically from action to more cerebral activity, and I can see that some may not like that, but I felt that was the better story. In particular the plot about killing the children presented a fascinating dilemma: if you could go back in time and kill Hitler as a kid would that be morally okay? I really liked the way the film set that up and solved it.

Overall, it’s a two-thumbs up film for me, but it’s not perfect. It’s uneven and there are some confusing moments. I still have a few questions about some aspects of time travel that were never answered (or deliberately ignored). The entire premise is a bit weak (Something as powerful as time travel is used exclusively for murder?), but it’s probably one of those times when you need to suspend your disbelief and just go with the flow. The performances are terrific, especially Emily Blunt and the kid. Definitely a “go see it.”

Topic: [/movie]


Wed, Sep 26, 2012

: Thoughts on iPhone 5

What can I say about iPhone 5 that hasn’t already been said? It’s a gorgeous upgrade, doing typically “impossible” things that Apple is famous for doing. In this case, they’ve simultaneously made the phone bigger and smaller!

That is pure genius. While other companies make their phones wider and thicker, Apple keeps theirs the same handheld size and yet makes the screen noticeably larger. It’s not a huge difference, but it is significant. And that pretty much describes the entire phone: everything is just better. The phone is faster, the screen more vibrant and detailed, the camera higher quality, the software more polished.

The differences are subtle and that makes some think they aren’t that important, but I’m here to tell you that they add up to real significance. You might think thinner and lighter isn’t a big deal, but use the new phone for a weak and when you pick up the older model it feels like it’s made of lead. (That’s not to say that the new phone feels plasticky or cheaply made — just the opposite, as it feels very durable — it’s simply thinner and lighter.)

The new camera — especially for me coming for the iPhone 4 — is a big jump in quality (it’s only slightly better than the 4S camera). I’m actually amazed at how good it is. It’s still not a match for a DSLR, but considering the size of the lens and digitizer, it’s astonishing. It also takes pictures faster, and the new panorama feature is so easy to use and does such a good job for the hassle that I’d actually use it. (I’ve had apps that did panoramas but the process was so tedious I never did it out in the real world.)

Of course there’s a minor furor over the new Maps app, where Apple is using their own data instead of Google’s. In my own use it seems just fine (I haven’t noticed any glaring inaccuracies) and is actually much clearer and easier to read. While I’m sure that some areas have poor coverage, map errors are prevalent in all mapping products — they’re all a bit stupid in understanding what you want and you do have to use your brain and not take the directions too literally. And of course there’s nothing preventing you from using any of the dozens of third-party mapping apps available on the iPhone.

(Personally, if getting rid of Google was the cost to bring me voice guidance via Siri, it’s a price well-paid. I vastly prefer saying, “Siri, take me to Costco” instead of having to find the destination by hand. And I get tracked less by Big Brother, which is also good.)

Topic: [/technology]


Fri, Sep 21, 2012

: Tremors

This is a minor cult classic and I’d somehow never managed to see it. It’s is a lot of fun, though more B-movie than I expected (especially in terms of the primitive special effects though that could be because this is over 20 years old). The basic plot is a remote valley where a bunch of locals are attacked by four giant worms that live underground, but the characters are fun and interesting and the way they try to escape from the worms is well-done. It’s a bit light in the plot department (not a lot happens) and there are definitely a lot of holes in the story, but with the great cast it’s a blast.

Topic: [/movie]


Thu, Sep 13, 2012

: In Bruges

I thought I’d heard this was supposed to be good and having lived in Belgium I’d been interested in seeing it, but it disappeared from the theaters too quickly and I missed it. I see why, now. It’s nothing at all like I thought from the previews: it’s not a comedy, but a serious film about hitmen hiding out in Bruges. That sounds good, but it’s slow, ponderous, and very little happens. It’s also quite foul-mouthed and odd, with dislikable characters. In short, it’s nasty and depressing and I really hated it.

Topic: [/movie]


Wed, Sep 05, 2012

: Coma

This is the new A&E mini-series that was produced by Ridley Scott and his late brother, Tony. Unfortunately, I came away wondering why they bothered. It’s basically a remake of the first movie, except it’s four hours long and everything’s changed around for no clear reason.

For instance, instead of the main character being a doctor, she’s a medical student. I guess that gives her less power, but the obstacles, such as patient rights preventing her from looking into related cases, are exactly the same for both characters. The romantic relationship is still there, but this time the guy she’s involved with is her teacher — isn’t that unethical?

Overall it’s not bad: good cast and performances, interesting problems and a conspiracy to solve, but other than a few scenes of modern technology, I don’t see anything in this new version that improves upon the past. Everything’s the same but just a little different. If anything, this version is more convoluted and chaotic and not as streamlined as the first film, and that’s a big negative. I give it a firm “ho-hum” and recommend you just watch the original.

(If they’d done this as a TV series, which is what I initially thought it was, it would have been very interesting. Following the conspiracy over the years would have been fascinating and then it would have made a lot more sense to have the main character a student so we could watch her grow into a doctor.)

Topic: [/television]


Tue, Sep 04, 2012

: The Problem Child

Author: Michael Buckley

This is the third book in the Sisters Grimm series, and it’s the best so far. It’s got a more complete plot, doesn’t end in the middle of a sentence like the second book, and our children heroes actually do something to help save the day.

I also really liked the moral dilemma our main character (Sabrina) faces: she discovers the addicting power of magic and is lured down a dark road and has to make a key decision at the end as to which path she will take. That is excellent.

I’m still not crazy with some aspects of the story — the Little Red Riding Hood character is unpleasant and bizarre and didn’t make much sense, too much is happening (such as the Mayoral race, which felt superfluous), and too many things work out too conveniently (i.e. bad monster shows up when appropriate and not before) — but overall this is still the best of the three. I’m not sure I like the series enough to bother with subsequent books, however. They are getting better which gives me hope, but I feel like I’ve already wasted enough of my time on them. They’re a great idea, but the implementation is lacking.

Topic: [/book]


Sun, Sep 02, 2012

: Coma

This is one of those movies that I never got around to watching, though I wanted to see it. I’d caught parts of it and knew most of the plot, and I was worried that would make it disappointing, but it held up surprisingly well. The cast is terrific — lots of famous people (like Tom Selleck) in small roles before they were famous. The plot (about a doctor tracking down a conspiracy to put people into comas deliberately) still resonates well today in terms of the conflict between medical need and money, and there’s definite tension and excitement. There’s a little bit of out-of-date stuff and a few questionable moments, and the plot is very linear (which isn’t modern but I prefer), and mostly it’s excellent. I was impressed. Definitely a film worth watching, though probably not just before you go in for routine surgery!

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Aug 17, 2012

: The Expendables 2

The first one was fun and unique, but though this one tries to pump up the star power to even crazier levels, it falls a little flat. Many of the jokes are limp (such as Bruce Willis and Arnold Swartzegger swapping lines from their previous movies, where Bruce says “I’ll be back” and Arnold says, “Yippie kai-yay”). The plot is a mission gone wrong, where in an Eastern European country a bad guy is forcing the locals to work in his mining operation. Stalone and his men, of course, have to defeat the bad guy. Predictable, but still fun, though the opening action sequence is better than later set pieces. Basically if you liked the first one, you’ll probably have a good time with this one.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Aug 10, 2012

: The Bourne Legacy

I really liked the earlier films. I wasn’t sure about this one but came to it with an open mind. It’s not bad, but unfortunately it has more potential than anything realized. Worse, it doesn’t have the same feel as the others in the series, which is disappointing.

I knew nothing about the story going in and wasn’t sure how this was going to pick up from the previous films. It turns out we have a new Bourne-like character trapped in another conspiracy and (eventually) on the run. There are therefore hints of the previous storylines, but the action is weaker and the story less compelling as we don’t know the people. But the biggest mistake is that for the first hour you don’t have any idea what’s going on — it’s all oppressive atmosphere and mysterious people doing incomprehensible things. It does all become clear and it makes sense and all the storylines are tied together, but by that time you’re so distant you aren’t very vested in the characters. In the end it’s a very simple story of a spy being hunted down because shadowy government bureaucrats are shutting down his program, yet it’s made to be much more complicated than that which weakens and confuses the story.

Overall, not bad. There is much to like in small scenes and events, and the performances are well-done, but the whole thing feels like a shadow of the previous films. I’m not sure if this will be strong enough to act as a reboot for the series, which is disappointing as I would love to see it continue.

Topic: [/movie]


Thu, Aug 09, 2012

: The Unusual Suspects

Author: Michael Buckley

I wasn’t that big a fan of the first book in the Sisters Grimm series (about modern day descendants of the Brothers Grimm in a world where their stories were non-fiction), but I still like the concept and therefore I tried this second book. Unfortunately, it has similar flaws as the first one. For instance, the stories are very childish, clearly targeting a young audience, yet they’re filled with death and monsters and other gruesome imagery that I can’t imagine would be very appropriate for young children.

But I’ve narrowed down the chief flaw to the plots: they just don’t make much sense. Though supposedly the girls are fairy-tale “detectives” there can’t be much detecting, since the resolutions always involve strange magic requiring information we don’t have in advance (in other words, these aren’t like regular mystery books where the reader can solve the crime if clever enough). The first book had a weak plot and this one here has a strange one, one that’s really over-the-top and bizarre. (Without spoiling too much, it involves a character who can blow himself up like a nuclear bomb. Yeah, that makes sense.) Another frustrating aspect of these stories is that the main characters do very little to actual solve or resolve the situation. The girls stumble onto crimes (or the bad guy attacks them) and the ending involves another bad guy stopping the really bad guy — our heroines are pretty much useless.

Speaking of the ending, this particular book really gets on my nerves by not actually having an ending. It almost literally stops in the middle of a sentence with a “to be continued” encouraging you to buy the next book. Arghh! While we sort of get the idea that the bad guy has been stopped, even that isn’t completely clear, and the story ends with a setup for the sequel.

None of this means the book is horrible — there are some good moments, wonderful characters, and real quality writing in places. The setting is brilliant and the way fairy tale creatures are blended throughout is genius. But I just wish there were better stories underlying these books. Instead we have a one-gimmick premise with feeble attempts to wrap a “mystery” around it.

Topic: [/book]


Wed, Aug 08, 2012

: The Mote in God’s Eye

Authors: Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven

This is one of those classic science fiction stories I’d somehow never managed to read. I am now wondering why it is so famous. It’s not a bad book or anything, but it is slow-moving and not a lot happens. None of the characters are very interesting — they are all stereotypical stick figures — and the story seems like it should be more interesting than it is.

The plot involves first contact with an alien race. While it has a solid-sounding scientific base and some unusual (and cool) ideas, there are many aspects I found too convenient. For instance, one of my pet peeves is how every alien race we encounter in movies and TV shows is humanoid — and most of those races think too much like humans. This sort of does the same thing. Here the aliens are physically somewhat different, but they have arms and eyes and there’s much talk about DNA and other physiological aspects that makes them seem too much like us. I did like that the aliens have a very different culture from us — aspects of which play a key part in the plot — but that culture is not conveyed very well. We learn about it bits and pieces over a long period of time which dilutes a lot of what makes that interesting. And the “dramatic” conclusion, where we learn the real motivations of the aliens, comes out of left field, isn’t very well explained, and feels awkward.

The bottom line is that while I found much of this intriguing and inspiring, the book itself didn’t deliver on that inspiration. The whole idea of “first contact” is fascinating, but it could be done better than this.

Topic: [/book]


Fri, Aug 03, 2012

: Total Recall

When I first heard they were remaking this I thought it was nuts and I had little interest. But the trailers made it look somewhat intriguing and I liked the casting. I hoped that perhaps they would do something different with it. Unfortunately, this followed my worst fears: it’s a pointless rehash.

In terms of the plot, it’s almost identical to the first movie, except for some minor reshuffling of the environment: mainly, the original had a bulk of the story set on Mars and this one is entirely on earth, though a messed up earth compared to today. That adds something interesting and the visuals are well-done, and of course the original plot is excellent, and I enjoyed the fresh cast, but ultimately this is basically the same movie with a few differences. Why? If the original was really dated or flawed I could understand, but the original’s excellent and only twenty-two years old. (In fact, I saw it re-airing on cable and watched some part of it and it holds up really well.) In the end, this is a solid movie but you might as well watch the original.

Topic: [/movie]


Wed, Aug 01, 2012

: Contagion

I really wanted to dislike this — the plot, about a new killer virus that causes worldwide panic and death, seemed trite and overdone — but to my surprise it’s actually very interesting. It focuses less on the stereotypical race for a cure and more on the variety of side effects of a disease like this, such as rioting, paranoia, economic issues, political decisions, kidnappings, and more. (In tone and multiple narrative style it is very similar to Hereafter.) And while it’s still a sad and somber movie, it wasn’t as depressing as I expected. The film is realistic and low-key despite the presence of a raft of big stars in bit parts, and I liked that it didn’t come across as gimmicky and forced.

Ultimately, I’m still not sure of the point, however. We don’t gain much and I’m not sure we really learn anything practical about disease (especially considering the unlikeness of a “perfect storm” virus like this). It ends up being one of those films that thinks it’s deeper than it is, but at least it isn’t preachy and it moves at a nice clip that helps make the story enjoyable.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Jul 20, 2012

: Dark Knight Rises

I am a huge fan of The Dark Knight and I really hoped this one would live up to the previous one (though that seemed a big ask). Well, it’s not a bad film. It doesn’t have quite the philosophical impact of the previous one, though it is dark and brooding and wants to be intellectual. There are some profound moments. The production and acting are terrific. But — and this is a big but — the film isn’t much fun.

The Dark Knight was an amazingly perfect blend of action and thoughtfulness. It was intellectually stimulating while still a huge amount of fun. I’d watch it again in a minute. But Rises is somber from the opening screen until the final fade out. Except for a handful of semi-comical moments in Batman’s exchanges with Catwoman, there is nothing to even crack a smile about. That got old really fast for me. It meant I enjoyed very little of the ride. Everything was so grim and serious, with no contrast, that I found the experience tedious.

Don’t get me wrong: there’s a lot of great stuff. Some of the action is excellent. I loved Catwoman. The plot was outrageous with a predictable twist, but still somewhat compelling. The performances of everyone was excellent. But we begin with Batman depressed and isolated because of all the bad stuff The Dark Knight ended with, and everything just gets much, much worse from there. (I won’t give any specifics as I don’t want to spoil anything. But let’s just say Batman, and pretty much everyone in Gotham City, are having a very bad month.) Watching a depressed man sulk just isn’t any fun, regardless of how true that might be to situation and character.

I did like the very end of the film, which finally presents a little hope and optimism, but the middle two-thirds was just depressing. It’s definitely worth seeing; just note this isn’t at all a feel-good film.

Topic: [/movie]


Thu, Jul 19, 2012

: Amazing Spider-Man

I was strangely disinterested in this film, though I love Spider-Man, and it took me weeks to bother to see it. After all, the Sam Rami version was pretty good, so why remake it?

While the earlier version had flaws, so does this one — they are simply different flaws. I liked some parts of this one better — but the giant plot holes annoyed me, and overall I felt the whole thing was a wash. It’s not bad, it’s not great, but ultimately I still ask, “Why?”

Topic: [/movie]


Mon, Jul 09, 2012

: Alien Resurrection

After seeing Prometheus I was curious about this third movie in the franchise. I saw it long ago and didn’t think it was great, but like many I think I was comparing it too closely to the originals.

It is different, but seeing it now I was surprised and how well it holds up. It’s a little overdone — everything’s over-the-top, from the wacky characters to the zigzag plot, and it never quite delivers on anything — but it does have some great moments, plenty of dramatic tension, and some excellent action. I never knew the script was by Joss Wedon, of Buffy fame, which is fascinating. I was only going to watch a few minutes to check it out and got hooked and watched the whole thing, so that ought to be the bottom line.

Topic: [/movie]


Sun, Jul 08, 2012

: The Thing

I loved the original so I couldn’t figure out the point of this remake and didn’t bother with it in the theatre, but it turns out it’s really pretty good. The special effects are far more gruesome and over-the-top, and that’s not a compliment as they distract from the core story which is about paranoia. Still, the performances are good, and it seemed faithful to the original in the basic story. Not a necessary movie by any stretch, and the original’s still better, but not that bad.

Topic: [/movie]


Sun, Jul 01, 2012

: Final Destination 5

What is it about these movies that is so appealing? The plot is known — everyone’s going to die one-by-one — and you’d think they’d be tedious and boring. But there’s something about the gimmick that makes them watchable. They actually do a good job setting up the characters.

Granted, by this time the franchise is getting stretched very thin (and it was thin to begin with). But there’s still the fun of the grand set piece (in this case a bridge collapse) and a few of the deaths are interesting. But the toying with the audience by teasing us with potential mayhem (ooh, a loose screw!) and then delivering death from a different method is now tiresome (and draws out the deaths too much), and does every death have to involve short-circuiting electrical systems?

Still, this was more fun than I expected and I rather liked the previous ones.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Jun 22, 2012

: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

I’ve never read the novel and I didn’t see any previews so I had very little idea what to expect. I did accidentally see a Rotten Tomato splat, meaning that critics didn’t like this, but I don’t know why. I got just what I expected: Abraham Lincoln killing vampires.

I wasn’t sure if the ton of this would be cartoonish and jokey or if it would take the premise seriously, and I’m pleased to report it is the latter. There are of course many liberties taken with history, but the film isn’t a comic. The vampires are modern and rather scary in vampire form (more monstery than most vampire movies). There’s definitely a lot of blood as Lincoln’s weapon of choice is a sliver-bladed ax. We follow Lincoln’s grow from a child (where his mom is killed by a vamp) to his manhood where he learns his trade of killing vampires while studying law and working at shop and eventually gets into politics. Once he’s president, the war between vampires and humans is set up along the same lines as the Civil War (the vamps are the South).

I wouldn’t say there’s anything extraordinary or remarkable about this premise, the story, or the execution, though it is fun. I really liked the filmmaking style, which has some playful elements similar to the techniques of Zack Snyder. For instance, one of the flashbacks begins with a historical oil painting and then the painting comes to life with all the stuff happening in oil paintery style. In another sequence, items on a map animate and become part of the film. It’s surreal, and a bit over-the-top, but it adds to the fun of the movie.

The story is where the film is the weakest. Nothing much happens and what does is fairly predictable. There are hints that things could have been deeper, such as exploring the conflict between Lincoln and Douglas, and while the character of Mary Todd was charming and definitely had her moments, the romance between the two was oddly incomplete for being such an important part of the proceedings (it was never clear to me why she fell for Lincoln and what happened to her fiance, Douglas). There is some depth in the best friend black characters and the issue of slavery and the conflict with the South, but it doesn’t go very deep and is just the stereotypes of greedy slave owners and righteous Northerners we get with most Civil War portraits. (I would have much preferred if the film had explored the vampire-slave metaphor more and provided us with some important lessons about racial issues.)

Still, overall the film is enjoyable. Again, nothing earth-shattering, but well-done and it lives up to its title. Probably not for all tastes, but if the title appeals to you, you’ll probably get a kick out of the flick.

Topic: [/movie]


Tue, Jun 19, 2012

: Surface Error

Here’s an amusing picture. This morning, while researching material for my article on Microsoft’s new Surface tablets, I couldn’t remember the URL to their site about the tablet. Thinking that maybe Microsoft organizes their website in a logical manner (the way Apple does), I typed in into my browser. Here’s the page I got:

[Click for full view]

Hilarious! What a brilliant and 1978-style design. More genius from one of the largest companies in the world.

It turns out the real URL is: — now that’s intuitive!

[Update: This apparently has been fixed, because now takes you to the correct page. Glad I got the screenshot when I did!]

Topic: [/technology]


: Below the Surface

Yesterday Microsoft announced their new Surface tablet, an obvious attack on Apple’s iPad. As a technologist, many things about this fascinated me.

First, it is interesting to see the change over the years in how Microsoft copies Apple. In the old days, Microsoft would make deliberate changes — basically doing everything upside-down and backwards — just to be different. (See Windows things like the arrow cursor direction, the “recycle bin” versus “trash can,” the menubar on each window instead of fixed at the top of the screen, etc.) But more recently, particularly with Microsoft’s “stores” physically duplicating the Apple Store look and feel (but not the swarms of customers), Microsoft has grown more comfortable mimicking Apple exactly. (And probably the legal systems’ sluggishness in penalizing Samsung for its blatant copying of Apple products has emboldened Microsoft to do the same.)

Nowhere was this copying more evident than in the presentation, where Microsoft copied Apple in ways that were eerie they were so similar. Microsoft started things with a rundown of their “success” in hardware, unveiled two new tablets, and touted their innovative manufacturing process.

Unfortunately, that’s where the similarities ended. Like Microsoft’s new tablets, the presentation was all surface, and lacking in many critical details. My favorite bit was when Microsoft actually introduced a segment by saying, “And now for pricing and availability…” and revealed nothing at all. No availability beyond “about the time Windows 8 is ready” (which most presume to be next fall) and no pricing details except for “competitive.” Why even bring it up if you’re going to be so vague? Apple always includes full pricing and availability information. (Occasionally, such as with the original iPhone announcement, Apple will say “Summer” or “Fall” instead of a specific release date, but Apple always knows what their pricing will be.)

What this tells me is either the products are such vaporware that Microsoft still doesn’t know their pricing, or they know the pricing will be high and didn’t want to distract from their announcement by people grumbling about the cost. I believe it will be the latter; Microsoft’s tablets will be more expensive than Apple’s, and Microsoft’s going to hope that their “improvements” and “advantages” will still make people want to buy their stuff. (The sad truth that Microsoft will painfully learn is that people only buy Microsoft’s stuff because it is cheap.)

But let’s move to the actual products. Once again, we need to go below the surface of what Microsoft revealed. On the surface, they unveiled a tablet with an integrated keyboard (attached magnetically, an idea stolen from Apple, of course).

For many people, that’s all they will hear. Undoubtedly Microsoft will sell a few of these based on that premise alone. Many people are intimidated by Apple’s iPad because it doesn’t have a keyboard. The idea of typing on glass doesn’t sound practical (though it truth it works quite well for anything but long texts) and purchasing a separate keyboard sounds expensive and a hassle. These morons will be suckered in by Microsoft’s ploy and buy this thing simply because it “comes with a keyboard.” There will be no thought to if and how well the keyboard works, or if the person might be better off with a traditional netbook or ultrabook.

Interestingly, journalists were not allowed to use the keyboards after Microsoft’s unveiling, so either the keyboards don’t work yet or the experience is a negative one. I suspect it’s a combination of both. From the appearance of the keyboards, they are flat and extremely thin, meaning not much key travel and probably an awkward feel. I vastly prefer Apple’s approach, which lets me use a full-size external wireless keyboard. It’s also a solid keyboard instead of flexible rubber, meaning I actually can use it on my lap instead of requiring a hard surface like a desk.

(Note: there are two keyboards for Microsoft’s tablets. One is a “multitouch” keyboard, meaning no moving parts, and other than some indentations on the surface to help position your fingers, little different from typing on the iPad’s glass screen. The other keyboard is a physical one, but still very thin and presumably nothing like typing on a genuine keyboard.)

Other than the keyboards, Microsoft’s tablets are unremarkable. (I guess some think the integrated kickstand in helpful, but honestly I stand up my iPad so rarely it’s not a feature you’d use often.) Microsoft conveniently left out critical details such as battery life, performance info, availability of software, and glossed over the fact that they are making two different versions of the tablet that are completely incompatible with each other! (The “RT” version will only run new tablet apps, while the more expensive “Pro” one will run traditional Windows software — though without a touch screen interface.)

The bottom line is what Microsoft introduced are tablets that aren’t quite tablets and an ultrabook that isn’t really an ultrabook. While size-wise, the “pro” tablet competes well with ultrabooks, we don’t know the price or performance — it’s quite probable that ultrabooks would give you a much better experience if that’s what you’re really wanting. An Apple 11” Macbook Air, for instance, has a similar-sized screen and specs and sells for $999 — yet it’s got a real hardware keyboard, a rigid unibody chassis for durability, and it can run Mac OS or Windows. I bet it would run circles around the Surface Pro. If you’re really wanting a laptop, why not just get one?

As for the Surface RT, if it sells at the same price (or more) than an iPad, why would anyone buy one? Just because it has a floppy keyboard attached? Don’t forget, it will only run software from the Windows Store. That’s new software written exclusively for this tablet. It will not run traditional Windows software. There is very little of such software written, and without huge sales of the new tablets, why would developers neglect the giant iOS and Android markets to pursue a third platform?

But this will come with Office, won’t it? I’m not so sure: according to the fine print on Microsoft’s site it will include “Office Home & Student 2013 RT Preview” — that sounds like beta software to me. It was telling that there was no demonstration of Office running on a Surface RT at the event: Apple always shows their tablets running new versions of their desktop applications specifically rewritten to take advantage of the tablet format, such as iMovie and iPhoto and their iWork suite. Without information, we don’t know if the RT version of Office will be the full Office or some crippled variation. And since it’s a “preview” that could mean it expires and customers will have to fork out more dough to buy the real thing later when it’s finally released. So much for any advantage of it being “included.”

Some might look at the “better” compliment of ports — the Surface includes HDMI out and a USB port — but again look at the fine print. The HMDI port requires an adapter, and Apple’s wireless solution is a million times more convenient anyway. The USB port only “works exclusively with printers, mice, and keyboards certified for Windows RT.” That means all of your existing USB equipment probably won’t work (I would guess it draws too much power). So what good is that? (And those in the know are aware that you can add a USB port to an iPad via an adapter, though few accessories work because of the power draw problem.) The Surface RT has a Micro SD slot (not full size) which some might see as a plus (again, an SD slot is added to an iPad via a tiny adapter).

The biggest problem I see with Microsoft’s Surface tablets is that they aren’t really tablets. By saddling them with a keyboard, they are wimpy laptops. The entire point of a tablet is that it is a tablet. The tablet form factor is what makes it useful. It should be something you use instead of a laptop for when a laptop isn’t appropriate: sitting on the couch while watching TV, in a warehouse walking the aisle, a doctor checking on a patient while making rounds at a hospital, a sales guy making a presentation or demo, reading ebooks, students learning in school, cooking in the kitchen, etc. In those situations the keyboard is a liability.

Granted, some will say that you can just tear off Microsoft’s magnetic keyboard and you have a tablet, but if that’s the case, what “advantage” does the device have over Apple’s iPad? In every category it seems worse: screen resolution, thicker and heavier, with less battery life, more expensive (speculation), less software, buggier, a weaker ecosystem, etc. With Apple’s device you can have an external keyboard if you like: there are tons of third-party cases with built-in keyboards and you can use any Bluetooth external keyboard.

Microsoft’s idea that the magnetic keyboard somehow makes it more convenient is a joke. Software keyboards pop up instantly and are far more convenient than any physical keyboard. If you want to do some long typing, using a real keyboard is easier, but you have to weigh the hassle of finding the keyboard, connecting it, etc. In the case of the Surface, you also need to find a desk. I don’t see how it’s any advantage over an iPad with a keyboard. Either way, fussing with a keyboard is a hassle and trust me, you rarely bother. (My mom bought one for her iPad thinking she’d prefer it, but she’s found she uses the virtual keyboard 90% of the time. I predict that 90% of Surface RT buyers will hardly ever use their keyboard.)

Another point I should make is that Microsoft’s lame design means that the keyboards can only be used in landscape orientation. I use my external keyboard with my iPad in portrait (vertical) orientation almost exclusively. It looks like a letter-sized page in that view and that’s what I prefer. With Apple’s solution, it’s my choice — I can rotate the iPad and use the keyboard any way I’d like. With Microsoft I’m stuck using it widescreen, the way they designed it. Ugh. (And by the way, I hate the aspect ratio of the Surface. It might be fine for movie-watching, but for just about every other task, especially reading, which is the thing I do most on my iPad, it’s horrible. I noticed Microsoft never showed the tablet in portrait mode, always widescreen. That’s because in portrait mode the screen looks skinny and bizarre.)

So the bottom line is that Microsoft’s iPad-like device is still inferior to the iPad, and unless it sells for significantly less, will have an uphill battle against the leader. Microsoft’s ultrabook device faces a similar problem: unless it’s cheaper or more powerful than ultrabooks, why buy it? It’s an uncomfortable cross between a tablet and a laptop. I suppose if you’re the type of person who takes both devices on a trip getting a Surface Pro would be easier, but how many people do that? I see this is a very niche market device, odd for Microsoft.

But we’ll just have to see. I am glad Microsoft’s at least trying in this arena. It nothing else, it confuses the tablet landscape and gives Google something else to worry about. (I see Google and Microsoft competing more against each other than either hurting Apple.) It’s also going to be interesting to see how Microsoft’s former hardware “partners” react to their software source branching out into hardware. How many of them will divorce Microsoft and go to Google or elsewhere for an operating system? The next six months are going to be fascinating.

Topic: [/technology]


: Mr. Popper’s Penguins

Utterly silly and too predictable, but heart-warming and harmless. I haven’t read the book, so I can’t judge the faithfulness of the adaptation, but I had a surprising amount of fun. Jim Carrey mugs it up a little too much and the bad guys are just dumb, but his witty verbal streams are delightful, the family-united-by-penguin-pets story is sweet, and the penguins are fun. Worth the watch.

Topic: [/movie]


Sun, Jun 17, 2012

: The Goonies

Somehow I never saw this “classic” — I put that in quotes because I wasn’t that impressed. While the young cast is a terrific collection of future stars, the film surprised me with its hokey B-movie feel. It’s quite cheesy and some of the over-the-top scenarios and bad acting are just idiotic. There’s a wild collection of Rube Goldberg-type devices that, while interesting, are unbelievable and very silly.

Still, the film has heart, and some of the scenes are very good. The plot — about kids trying to find an ancient pirate’s treasure — gets overrun by some real bad guys (counterfeiters) that try to kill the kids. The criminals are so dumb the film feels too much like Home Alone. Fun, and I can see why people like it, but probably my expectations were too high as I didn’t really like it.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Jun 15, 2012

: Ramona and Beezus

Based on the books by Beverly Cleary

I like children’s books but their movie adaptations can leave a lot to be desired. While this one is rocky in a few places, they did a surprisingly good job overall. The tone fits the original classic books, with mischievous 9-year-old Ramona’s overactive imagination getting her into trouble, yet they modernized the language in such a way that it doesn’t feel out of date.

The core plot is about Ramona being worried that the bank’s going to take their house (in her mind the bank literally takes it on a flatbed truck) and so she’s trying to raise money and of course everything she does is a disaster. Usually in such a film the hijinks are slapstick absurd and just dumb, but here they are not that bad. For the most part they are believable and don’t feel forced.

The young lead actress is perfectly cast as Ramona, with just the right blend of mischief and heart-touching cuteness. Everyone else is fine, except the father felt miscast (too young and good-looking).

I really liked the ending and the way everything was wrapped up so perfectly, down to the perfect detail of Ramona getting to use her vocabulary word from earlier in the film and especially the way she and her teacher made up.

Overall this is a touching family tale. It may not be all edgy and hip like some modern stuff, but it’s a deeper, much more emotional experience. I’m surprised it didn’t do better at the box office. It’s definitely worth seeing and was much better than I expected.

Topic: [/movie]


Thu, Jun 14, 2012

: The Last Werewolf

Author: Glen Duncan

I really wanted to like this and it seems like the kind of book I would like. It’s not all action but a lot of existential angst, which should have made things deep and thought-provoking. Unfortunately the novel is sluggishly paced and tediously boring, and without context, the philosophizing is just random noise.

For example, our main character’s a 200-year-old werewolf, the last of his kind. He moans and groans about how he killed his wife (I guess we’re supposed to sympathize that he’s such a monster) but since we only know about that event via sketchy flashbacks, there’s zero emotional impact. Eventually I ceased caring about anything.

There is a bit of a plot, eventually, as our hero is being preserved for something by people he doesn’t know for reasons he doesn’t understand, but the payoff of that mystery isn’t that great and it’s not worth hundreds of pages getting there. The very end of the book is actually not bad, with a tiny twist or two and something interesting happening, but by that point my disillusionment with the novel was a foregone conclusion.

There are some interesting moments and a few intriguing ideas, but this is definitely not a book for all tastes. I imagine it’s a love-it-or-hate kind of thing and I didn’t love it.

Topic: [/book]


Mon, Jun 11, 2012

: Paul

I really wanted to like this — I’m a fan of Simon Pegg’s work — but from the very beginning it seemed like a cheap rip-off of the alien on American Dad. That one is just barely tolerable on the TV show and I figured a movie version would be even worse.

It turned out the alien really isn’t so bad (he’s perfectly voiced by Seth Rogan), but the people around him are irredeemably vulgar. Let’s put it this way: the film’s biggest source of “humor” is swear words. Now that’s genius.


Actually, there are aspects of this I liked and it wasn’t as bad as I expected, but even the film’s high points aren’t very high. The plot’s very slight and linear (British sci-fi geeks help a rude alien get back to his spaceship), and the supporting characters are just plain idiotic (in a bad way).

Just watch the trailer and you’ll get about as much out of this as you do from the entire film.

Topic: [/movie]


Sat, Jun 09, 2012

: Hatfields and McCoys

I just heard about this History Channel miniseries yesterday, reading that it got the highest ratings of any cable show ever (beating out all the main networks in prime time). I didn’t know anything about the Hatfields and the McCoys other than they had a famous bloody feud. Since it sounded interesting, I started watching it.

I couldn’t stop. It affected me deeply, which is fascinating. I don’t like war movies, and family squabbles annoy me, but this was done in such a way that it felt like regular everyday humans caught in a terrible web of their own making. I felt sympathy for almost every character; most were just woefully foolish, and even the villains had their good sides. The filmmakers brilliantly set things up so neither side is completely right or wrong, and there’s a sense of inevitability about the characters’ fates and situations.

I really liked that the film gave us insights into the characters to show that though they made stupid decisions and let their emotions rule their actions, they were not dumb. Often they were quite clever, in devious ways.

I was also fascinated by how much I learned: I never realized the feud involved so much legal wrangling (the families were bordering states, West Virginia and Kentucky, and that created all sort of legal complications in terms of extradition). Aspects of the feud went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to get it figured out.

Best of all, I’ve often heard that in these kinds of feuds that after a while, no one really knows who started it or why. Even with a film adaptation like this, that happens — by the end you can’t remember how it started either. It’s just a long series of minor inconveniences, insults and slights, and unfortunate accidents that devolves into violence, murder, and all-out war. While I’m sure this film version isn’t exactly what happened, it is brilliant in how it conveys a realistic way such a thing might have happened.

In terms of negatives, it’s a little hard to keep track of the many characters dying all over the place (though not as bad as I expected), and I also wasn’t always sure of the timeline (occasionally text came up mentioning the year, but not often enough). There’s an ill-fitting and unconvincing love story which feels like an obvious rip-off of Romeo and Juliet and that bothered me at first, but it is very interesting and creates some good drama.

Overall, this is an incredible and mesmerizing story, well-directed and performed, with an amazingly believable set. It’s tragic and shows the stupidity of feuding, but in a way that’s realistic and human, making you think this could happen to you or people you know. Heart-wrenching.

Topic: [/television]


Fri, Jun 08, 2012

: Prometheus

Director: Ridley Scott

I purposely tried not to learn much about this beforehand, avoiding reviews and the trailer, not that the brief TV commercial I saw gave much away, and so I went in cold. I’m glad I did. I think it works best that way. The little bit of plot you need to know is simple: it’s about a space exploration to seek the origins of humankind.

Of course you may have heard that it is a prequel to Alien, but the links are so tiny it’s pretty much a standalone film. It’s very different from Alien and not so much a monster movie. Instead there’s a lot more about who or what humans are and the nature of our existence. Nothing much comes of that, sadly, but at least the film toys with some interesting questions.

It’s very well directed and acted, with plenty of interesting tension. Once the alien creatures start getting involved it devolves too much into a monster movie, but it still has some actual story left. It’s also a beautiful film, with many photogenic and dramatic shots. The ending leaves open a door for sequel which I’d love to see. Definitely worth checking out. I saw the 3D version just because it was a more convenient time, but I don’t think the 3D, while not bad, adds anything.

Topic: [/movie]


Thu, May 31, 2012

: Men in Black III

I’m a fan of the original (not so much the sequel) and this one sounded awesome, with Agent J having to stop the murder of his partner K in 1969. It wasn’t quite as good as I’d hoped, but it is fun. The time travel plot is too linear and the resolution too simple, but the journey to get there is a lot of fun. There’s a decent amount of J and K interaction, though I would have enjoyed more. Meeting K in the past as a young agent is the real draw, and that was awesomely handled. My favorite thing was definitely the whole MIB organization in 1969 — just hilarious (like how the handheld Neurolyzer is a room-sized device). The villain’s too over the top for my liking, but it’s still fun to watch, and I had a great time. Definitely worth seeing if you’re a fan of the series.

Topic: [/movie]


Wed, May 23, 2012

: The Fairy Tale Detectives

Author: Michael Buckley

I’m a big fan of the TV shows Grimm and Once Upon a Time, which are reinventing fairly tales for a modern audience, and the premise of this series — two little girls who are descendants of the original Grimms and who solve fairy-oriented mysteries — interested me.

We begin with the girls moving in with the grandmother they thought was dead, after a year of wandering in the foster care system after their parents mysteriously vanished. It’s their grandmother who reveals that the Grimm fairly tales are all true and fairy creatures live all over the town. When their grandmother is kidnapped by a 200-foot tall giant, it’s up the girls — ages and seven and twelve — to get her back.

The book is a lot of fun and surprisingly well-written at times, though occasionally it’s clear its target audience is the elementary school kid. It’s not quite as much fun or as well-done as the Harry Potter series, but it is an intriguing idea. My biggest disappointment is that there isn’t much detecting going on. The girls stumble through adventures and while I liked the way they stopped the bad guy and got themselves out of jams, the ending felt anti-climactic. Still, the mix of ancient fairly tale creatures set in modern times is delightful, and I like how the author has created actual characters instead of caricatures of various famous fairy tale people.

Topic: [/book]


Fri, May 18, 2012

: Battleship

I had little hope for this movie to be any good — it’s based on a lame board game — and though it’s ultimately trite and nothing more than visual eye-candy, it’s actually surprisingly entertaining.

There’s little depth of character, but I liked that they started off slow with setting up the characters instead of diving right into the action. Once the action starts, it goes on non-stop until the very end. The action is mostly giant ships exploding, but it turns out that’s a lot of fun to watch. Each explosion is unique and interesting.

There is drama in exactly how the humans will stop the alien invasion. There’s a bit of humor, and our hero has to learn how to be a hero. The aliens aren’t anything special, but I did like the battleships and battles.

Overall, it’s simply a popcorn movie like you’d expect. It’s not quite as heroic as Independence Day, but then it doesn’t have that movie’s horrible logic flaws.

Topic: [/movie]


Sun, May 06, 2012

: Treasure Island

(Scifi Channel mini-series)

I had expected this to be another silly B-movie by the Scifi Channel (I refuse to spell it with a Y as that is insulting to a great form of literature), but to my shock this is a terrific movie. It’s authentic to the novel (as best I can remember), well-acted (with a great cast), extremely well written (wonderful dialog), and a surprising amount of fun.

It’s been ages since I read the book (I’m putting it on my list to reread now) but I don’t think I understood the story very well until this film (I was eleven or twelve). Here we get to see the wonderful plotting by Long John, who’s been cut out of his pirate treasure by his back-stabbing captain, as he gets himself and his men hired on as crew for a ship that’s off to seek the treasure. That ship is run by a wealthy man who’s financing the expedition, based on the map discovered by young Jim Hawkins, who found in the belongings of a dead man who stayed at his parents’ inn. Jim goes along and we see the story through his eyes, as his romantic idea of the pirate life is brought to a gory end.

Even the action parts, which usually I find tedious and predictable, are fun here, in part because it’s pirate action, but also because it’s done in such a way that you actually understand what is going on. (Too many battle scenes are nothing but a blur of chaos and I have no idea what’s happening.)

Amazing, impressive, and surprising production. Definitely worth your time.

Topic: [/television]


Sat, May 05, 2012

: Dexter in the Dark

Author: Jeff Lindsay

This is a very bizarre Dexter book. I did not like it very much at all. It is very long and tedious, mostly dealing with Dexter’s impending nuptials, which isn’t very interesting. Normally what makes the whole Dexter thing work is the fascinating blend of serial killer and normal life. But here the plot is about how Dexter loses his ability to be a serial killer so all we have is the normal life part which is boring.

How does Dexter lose his serial killing ability? Now that’s the real flaw of this book. I hope I’m not spoiling anything by revealing this, but it’s impossible to comment on this book without explaining this aspect of the story. We’ve known about Dexter’s “dark passenger” for a long time. Like most, I just assumed that was a metaphor, and if Dexter actually had an inner person directing him, it was a manifestation of his warped mind.

But this book supposes that the dark passenger is really some sort of immortal demon. We follow this demon throughout the ages as he, apparently, is responsible for human wars and other mass killings, including strange religions such as the ancient worship of Moloch, which practiced human sacrifice. When a head demon comes to town and notices Dexter, his dark passenger disappears for the bulk of the novel. Great. A Dexter story effectively without Dexter.

What I really didn’t like about this aspect of the plot is that it takes away all morality. If Dexter isn’t doing the killing but an inner demon is, then he’s not responsible for his actions. Since the whole key to the Dexter character is the conflict behind the possibility of a “moral serial killer,” that ruins the entire concept.

Another flaw (and perhaps spoiler) is that this novel has Rita’s kids also becoming serial killers with Dexter acting as their mentor and trying to pass on Harry’s code. While that’s an interesting idea, it stretches credulity — if every abused child became a serial killer the world would filled with them. A key trauma in the past makes sense, and Dexter’s history is particularly horrific, but I couldn’t believe that Rita’s sweet kids would go that route.

Perhaps these flaws could be overlooked if the story itself was interesting, but there really isn’t much of a plot, per se. Ritualized murders are happening but Dexter is clueless without his dark passenger to give him insight, so we plod along for hundreds of pages with no progress at all. In the end — and this is a spoiler — the bad guy simply reveals himself with no detective work by Dexter required. How lame is that?

Though I can definitely say I vastly prefer the TV series to the novels (I’m rewatching season one now and it’s fantastic), this novel here pretty much ruins the series for me. I had considered getting a few more of the novels, but I’ve lost that motivation now. If an author can get his core character so wrong, it makes me lose faith in him as a writer. I’ll stick with the TV show where the writers know what they are doing.

Topic: [/book]


Fri, May 04, 2012

: The Avengers

Director: Joss Whedon

I’m not sure I get the fanaticism about this franchise. Of course, I haven’t followed the comic books, but the whole idea of having a group of superheros doesn’t seem very interesting or unique to me (though I did love the Superfriends cartoon Saturday mornings when I was a kid). This particular collection of heros — Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Black Widow, Captain America — seems like a real oddball assortment.

I went into this with some real apprehension. I figured there’d be good action and special effects, but I didn’t expect much beyond flash. The story, centering around bad guy Loki opening a portal to invaders from another world, was also troubling. Though I liked Captain America and Thor overall, the aspects I didn’t — the hokey plots — are present here.

But after a rough beginning, the going gets good. The individual stories of the various characters are extremely well done. What’s especially good is that these heroes don’t get along, as fits their personalities — and the film does an amazing job of showing this in a believable fashion that’s true to their characters and in a way that isn’t too grating or annoying. It’s not quite a “we’re going to fight each other” animosity but more of an underlying friction behind the scenes that adds electricity to things. Getting that resolved is key to their success, of course, since they must work together to defeat the bad guy.

Putting together a group drama like this is incredibly difficult without giving one or more of the characters short shrift, but all of the main people here — and even a few of the key supporting characters — are each given their time in the limelight. I have no idea of the exact screen time given to each hero, but it felt amazingly balanced. I never felt that one dominated more than others: each had their heroic moments and each had moments where they battled personal demons and learned to overcome them in their quest for unification.

Another thing: though no doubt each of us viewers has a favorite character or two and a hero we don’t like as much, I never felt resentment when one of those lesser (for me) people was on screen. That’s impressive (and it bodes well for people, who, for instance, might not like Thor and bother with that movie, but love Iron Man — there’s something for everyone here).

The next thing I really liked is that the action is both small enough and big enough to work. By that I mean that the scale of the action is huge, ideal for a giant movie like this, but the grand war is broken down into smaller individual battles for each of the characters that we can relate to and actually comprehend (it’s not always a battle, either; sometimes it’s just a critical task).

The overall result is a treat. The special effects are excellent (though don’t bother with the 3D version, where the 3D is barely noticeable), there’s a perfect blend of action, wisecracks, and drama, and the ultimate story is pretty good. I’m still not wild about the plot, but it works well enough. Surprisingly, I really did like the way the previous films set up the world and the plot for this one. In some of those movies the fit was awkward — the presence of the Shield organization coming out of left field, for instance — but here everything comes together brilliantly.

In the end, though I wasn’t sure I’d like this, I left delighted. I was thoroughly entertained, and many of scenes are outright classics (my favorite was the Hulk punch on a certain someone). There’s great fun to be had and the seemingly awkward mishmash of disparate characters actually works wonderfully. Two thumbs up.

Topic: [/movie]


Tue, May 01, 2012

: Cold Weather

This was filmed here in Portland, Oregon, and the plot sounded a little bit like my own novel, Protecting Claudia, in the sense that it’s about a missing person in Portland, so I was really curious about it. It turned out to be nothing at all like my book, in tone or the mystery. The story is very simple: a young man who’s been going to school studying criminal forensics in Chicago drops out and returns home to Portland and moves in with his sister and gets a job loading bags of ice at an ice factory. When his ex-girlfriend disappears, he tries to find out what happened to her.

That sounds interesting, but there are two problems with the story. One is that very little happens and the pace of this movie makes glacial seem like the speed of light. It’s incredibly slow moving, with some scenes where people just sit and stare at the sunset for several minutes (it feels like hours). Watching seeds sprout would be more interesting. There are also many realistic but very dull conversations that seem to serve no purpose in moving the story forward. The girl doesn’t even disappear until halfway through the film — I’m not even sure why we needed any of the stuff that happened before that.

The other problem with the story is that there isn’t one. There are one or two clever bits of detective work, but the ultimate mystery isn’t really anything and the resolution is quick with an abrupt ending that’s practically in the middle of a sentence. It left me baffled about the entire point of the film.

Another thing that annoyed me was the main character, supposedly a Sherlock Holmes fan and forensic scientist, was strangely slow to investigate anything. He argues with his friend against searching for the missing girl, and he never seemed very proactive about anything. He eventually came up with one or two things that showed some intelligence, but like the whole film, he was slow about it, and that seemed odd if that’s his interest and potential career. (I love mysteries and if someone came and told me someone I knew was missing, I’d rush to look at their room for clues, and I’m not even studying criminology or anything.)

In this end this is a low-key, low-budget, quirky little story that has a few good moments. It’s well-shot and acted, and it’s interesting if you’re a local and recognize some of the places, but most people are going to be put off by the dull pace and slow story.

Topic: [/movie]


Sat, Apr 28, 2012

: The Raven

I love the concept of this film: involving the real Edgar Allen Poe in a murder mystery is genius. Unfortunately, this film doesn’t do anything with the concept.

The plot is trite: a madman, apparently a fan of Poe’s work, starts killing people in the same way that people die in his stories. That sounds somewhat intriguing and it would be, if the murders were interesting, but the movie seems to go out of its way to make them boring. Even the classic “pit and the pendulum” — where the entire purpose is the horror of seeing the pendulum coming closer and closer and knowing there’s nothing you can do to stop it from cutting you — is over in thirty seconds, literally no time to even build a modicum of suspense or tension.

Then the murderer, after getting Poe’s attention with murders from his stories, kidnaps the writer’s girlfriend and insists Poe write about it for the newspaper every day or he’ll kill again. This means we literally get to watch Poe write and editors read out loud what he writes. Very exciting.

Since we barely know Poe’s girlfriend (all we know is that she’s is pretty and her father opposes the union), we barely care about her. That might not matter if the quest to find her were interesting, but the murderer’s clues are so obtuse and dull that even the hunt is tedious.

The actual reveal of the murderer is anticlimactic, and though the ending is somewhat satisfying, the journey to get there feels like a slough. What is the point of the whole mess?

There are some nice elements, such as the look of the film, the period setting, and a few of the performances, but those are washed away by the insipid plot and some dreadful anachronisms (such as Poe calling a barfly a “mouth breather”). Best avoided. I am very disappointed as I was looking forward to this film.

Topic: [/movie]


Thu, Apr 26, 2012

: Gunless

Quirky little Canadian Western — yeah, that’s right, Canadian Western — about an American gunslinger who finds himself in a tiny town in Canada where no one will fight him.

That one-joke premise is stretched a bit thin over 90 minutes, but it’s terrific where it works: it’s hilarious to see the gunfighter furious with every slight and perceived insult and trying to “call people out” but the friendly Canadians don’t have weapons and he’s unable to do anything because his own code won’t allow him to shoot unarmed men!

Overall it’s a little slow and nothing too much happens (the grand finale shootout is a little on the tame side), so I doubt it’s for everyone’s taste, but if you like the premise, you might check it out and be entertained. I’d only planned to peek at it because I was curious, but I liked it enough to watch the whole thing, so that ought to tell you something. It’s not joke-a-second sitcom funny, but it is amusing, and there are a number of really excellent moments (like most comedies, consistency is the hard part). Fun.

Topic: [/movie]


Sat, Apr 21, 2012

: Moneyball

This is a tricky movie to comment on as by now it’s famous and that raises my expectations. Though I’m not a baseball fan or follower, I actually wanted to see this at the time of release because it seemed to focus less on the sport and more on the behind-the-scenes stuff. That interested me as I figured I wouldn’t understand the sport.

I didn’t get to see it until now and it turns out it was similar to what I anticipated, but unfortunately I still felt I didn’t really get everything I was supposed to because I don’t know baseball. Sure, I know the basic rules and I’ve played the game as a kid, but I don’t know the pro game or understand the terminology or get the subtleties of the sport. There were many scenes were I didn’t quite understand what was happening.

To give one example, a key plot point involved switching an injured player from catcher to first base. The player’s injury meant he couldn’t throw, which apparently ruled him out as catcher but not at first base. I don’t understand why. First basemen don’t need to throw? I understood the concept of shifting a player to a different position and how that was radical and clever — but the film never explained the differences between those positions so I could understand why that was so radical and significant.

I was also confused by the main character. I did not understand who he was or his history — at times he seemed like he was a former professional player who had success and at other times it seemed like he was a former player who was a failure.

Much of the movie felt like that to me: even when I thought I was getting it, there was still this undercurrent I knew I was missing. I found that disappointing and frustrating, because the whole point of a movie like this is to bring something niche like baseball to a wider audience. In that regard the movie failed. It got very close and is admirable in many ways, but it fell short. (Note that I felt like I understood the “moneyball” premise — buy undervalued players cheap — but that feels incredibly obvious and not revolutionary at all.)

By the same token I was disappointed by the ending, which felt like a downer to me, but that’s in part because I don’t know the real-life history and assumed a Hollywood ending. (It’d be like someone watching Titanic who didn’t know the ship was going to sink.)

Don’t get me wrong: this isn’t a bad movie by any stretch. I was entertained, I followed about 80-90% of what was going on, and I liked the performances, the dialog, and the story. But my expectations were so high that I came away disappointed. I was expecting something ground-breaking and remarkable and instead I got a merely solid story. Ultimately this is a baseball movie, made for people in the baseball club. Bummer.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Apr 20, 2012

: Lockout

I’m a big Luc Besson fan, but this is definitely one of his weaker efforts (I think he saves his better ideas for films he directs). The concept is cliche — a futuristic space prison — and the implementation forgets logic and even basic science. There were such huge inconsistencies and logic missteps that it sucked the life out of the film.

For instance, why have all the prisoners in stasis? If they’re all in hibernation, they could just as easily be housed on earth. It would make far more sense to use convicts as high-risk labor in space, not store them in sleeping pods for decades for what must be an obscene amount of money.

Even dumber, since the prisoners are all asleep, why does the station need to be so big and have so many guards and so many weapons? Why are there hundreds of military spaceships nearby ready to attack?

Oh, I’m sorry. I’m using logic in an action flick. I forgot. We’re supposed to suspend our disbelief and just enjoy the show. That’s tough to do here, as the action decidedly unremarkable. About the only thing that’s good is the interaction and dialog between our gruff rescuer and the president’s daughter held hostage. Even that’s inconsistent. I wasn’t even too enamored with the bad guys, who usually are a lot of fun, but in this case we have the nutty brother who’s just so insane he’s an idiot and the taciturn leader who we really never get to know. (I like crazy, but I like crazy with a plan.) And don’t get me started on the overdone plot, which is predictable with red herrings and conspiracies.

The bottom line is this is a film of moments. There are brief sequences that are quite good, but they don’t add up to a very good movie. I wouldn’t say the whole thing is terrible — it’s just nothing special. It’s a film that thinks it is clever when it is not. It’s fun if you don’t expect much (I didn’t). Just get what you can out of it.

Topic: [/movie]


Tue, Apr 17, 2012

: The Entitled

This is an overly pretentious film that could have been something neat. It’s about a group of disenfranchised college kids who kidnap three of their wealthier peers and hold them for $3 million ransom. It’s trying to make a statement about middle class versus the privileged, but it’s not very effective. The stuff with the poor kid is too on the nose, with him trying to pay his sick mother’s medical bills and their house being foreclosed. We don’t really get a good enough picture of any of the characters. The rich dads are similarly not well defined, so we end up not really caring much for anyone.

The plot has some interesting twists, however, and there are intense, claustrophobic scenes that remind me of a play. There are hints of ulterior motives and double-crosses and other twists, though unfortunately most of these prove to be red herrings. The final twist isn’t huge, but it’s interesting and I liked the ending. But this is 30 minutes of actual movie stretched to 90, and it’s so watered down and with nothing going on but the limited kidnapping plot, it feels weak and pointless.

Topic: [/movie]


Sat, Apr 14, 2012

: The Cabin in the Woods

What a fun flick! It’s a funny re-look at the horror genre, not quite a parody like the Scream series, but similar in the sense that it plays with traditional horror conventions. In this case the movie sets up like a stereotypical horror film with a gang of five college kids off to a remote cabin in the woods. Each of the five fits a type, from the jock to the slut to the virgin, but then things start to get interesting.

Actually, we know early on from views of the lab technicians that this is all part of some grand experiment — we just aren’t sure where it’s going. I won’t spoil it, except to say the resolution is over-the-top and utterly ridiculous — yet some how that makes it great. It works, and it’s a lot of fun. Don’t take it too seriously, just go and enjoy.

(I will say this is probably best enjoyed by those who are familiar with horror tropes, as there are tons of gags that depend on you knowing how typical slasher films work. The film loves to point you in a direction and then suddenly creatively switch gears and give you something unexpected.)

Topic: [/movie]


Sat, Mar 31, 2012

: The Black Hole

When I was in junior high I had been living overseas most of my life and had seen very few movies. I even enjoyed the filmstrips and other educational material provided at school. Thus it was real treat for me one day when we were rewarded with an all-school assembly to watch an entertainment film. The film was Disney’s The Black Hole and I found it fascinating.

Unfortunately, my less mature peers did not, apparently, for many of them talked and were rowdy during the film, even after several reprimands by the principal. Finally he called it quits and canceled the film mid-way through and we were all sent back to our classrooms. I never understood why the film had to be canceled for everyone — why not just remove the distrupters? But for decades I have been left haunted by that half-viewed film.

I finally got to watch it today (I don’t know why I never caught it before now, but I hadn’t). It’s really a neat film. There are dorky aspects — the talking robots, especially the one with the southern accent, are silly — and I’m not sure about most of the “science” in the film, but somehow the story rises above most of that.

The plot involves a small crew on an exploratory vessel in deep space who come across a giant ship near a black hole. Somehow the ship is not being sucked in, and when the crew investigate, they discover there’s only one human on board. He lives with hundreds of robots that do his bidding and keep the ship going. But there’s a strangeness about the man and his story doesn’t quite add up. As the crew investigates, we slowly realize that the ship captain is insane and has murdered his crew and plans to go into the black hole to see what’s on the other side.

The mystery is well done. It’s creepy and interesting and suspenseful and I now see why I’ve been desperate to see the rest of this film all these years. To end it in mid-story like that is a travesty. Unfortunately, the film becomes a little action-heavy after a great beginning, and I didn’t find that aspect nearly as compelling. But it’s still a fascinating story with an unusual ending. Everything is well done, even the special effects — remarkable for a film from 1979. I especially liked the dramatic music (many scenes have no dialog and just feature rich music and gorgeous visuals). Definitely a classic and worth your time. It’s a little slow at times and may not appeal to everyone, but it’s so different and unexpected compared to most science fiction films that everyone should check it out.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Mar 30, 2012

: Wrath of the Titans

I was not a big fan of the first film, but this one seemed to have better, more interesting special effects and I thought I’d see it. I wasn’t too enthusiastic. In fact, I was far more tempted to see The Hunger Games a second time. I should have listened to that instinct.

Somehow the story for this one is even slimer and dumber than the first film! The idea is that humans aren’t believing in the gods any more so they are losing power and a creature called Kronos (I think Zeus’ father) who has been imprisoned in the bowels of the earth is potentially going to use their weakness to escape and wreak havoc on the earth.

That it itself wouldn’t be bad if this evil had a personality or story. Instead, he’s merely a 200-foot tall creature of glowing lava and fire. We are given zero history of who this bag guy is or why he wants to destroy the earth. He’s apparently just evil because we need a bad guy for this movie. I was bored to death.

The rest of the film is our heroes jumping through a series of elaborate (and pointless) hoops to retrieve three supernatural weapons that when combined will defeat Kronos. There’s some mumbo jumbo over the relationships of the various gods, how they betray each other, etc., but who really cares? The only thing we’re supposed to care about is our demigod lead and his desire to protect his young son — but even that relationship was so flimsy and half-hearted and the boy’s acting so bad that I hoped he’d get killed just so I wouldn’t have to endure the whinning.

There are a handful of moments that are interesting. I liked the inclusion of the character of Queen Andromeda, played by the lovely Rosamund Pike, and some of the special effects are damned impressive. But the action scenes are incredibly boring and I never felt anybody was in jeopardy or cared one way or the other. In the end, this is an utter waste of time.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Mar 23, 2012

: The Hunger Games

Director: Gary Ross

Having just read the book and been blown away by how good it was, I was really looking forward to the film. Of course I was somewhat apprehensive, too. Movie adaptations can be awful. I particularly feared that they would focus on the action and make short shrift of the earlier parts of the book that set up the story and are so critical to everything that follows.

To my relief, they did that early part very well. In fact, it’s the best part of the movie. It’s quite faithful — only a few niggling changes and omissions — and lasts over an hour of the film’s 2.5 hour length.

Unfortunately, to my surprise, the film fails on the easy stuff: the action. The actual Hunger Games themselves are far too tame. I suppose the producers were working hard to keep this PG-13 so they barely show any blood or death — but that also neuters the film of any tension, horror, and serious emotion.

The earlier parts of the film actually feel more like the kids are in jeopardy than during the combat. We see glimpses of the political powers manipulating the games and it is clear that everyone is just pawns and that is terrifying. But survival in the games is far too easy for our heroine Katniss, who never seems in much jeopardy, and that’s the opposite of what the book feels like. The events in the film are quite similar to those in the book, but way it is presented couldn’t be more different. In the book I could barely breathe I was in such fear for all the characters — it was just brilliantly written — and in the movie everyone had cartoon character deaths.

Now that’s not to say that the film doesn’t work or is terrible. It’s very good. Almost everything is excellent: a decent script, great sets, perfect casting, and the performances of almost all are fantastic. But the second half of the film just doesn’t live up to the book. Admittedly that’s a very high mark, but rabid fans of the book will be slightly disappointed that the film isn’t as profound.

Film adaptations always make changes to the story and this one is no exception. A few of them annoyed me, but were minor enough it didn’t bother me. (The only major plot thread completely omitted is the red-haired Avox girl.) Some of the changes were actual improvements, which surprised me as I didn’t think the book needed much improving. But the book is written first person, which can be a little claustrophobic, and the film shows us a few scenes of what’s going on outside of the main character and that was surprisingly enlightening. I particularly liked the ending for the gamemaster character (someone not mentioned in the book, but he fit right in and was important for conveying the game’s rules) and the way they had Haymitch instigate the critical rule change. Very clever.

On the other side, there are tons of little inconsistencies and oddities in the adaptation that I found annoying. Some are upset when every single scene in a book isn’t in the film, but that’s not me. What bothers me is when important details are omitted leaving other scenes not quite making sense. This film does that in several places and it’s disappointing. I’ll give you one tiny example of what I’m talking about. Note that this isn’t a spoiler since it’s such a minor scene.

In the scene where Katniss has to shoot an arrow in front of the judges to prove her skill, there are two critical flaws from the book version. The book makes it very clear that she has been hiding her skill at archery from the other contestants, which means she hasn’t practiced with the bow and arrows provided, which are very different from the inferior equipment she has used at home. Thus, when she first shoots, she’s poor. Unfortunately this isn’t explained well in the film. There’s a brief mention earlier about hiding skills, but it’s so quick I doubt most viewers caught it, and there’s no mention at all about the bow being different and her not having a chance to practice with it.

Now this is such a small thing as to be utterly trivial, yet that’s exactly why it annoys me. It would have been so easy for this detail to have been included in the film — a simple comment about the bow being different would have sufficed — and yet the film is weaker because the filmmakers omitted it. One of those errors in a film isn’t the end of the world, but there are at least a dozen in this adaptation, and while none are large enough to destroy it, they do weaken it.

One other thing I found very odd: the title of the story is about hunger, and Katniss’ character is supposed to be nearly starving, scraping out a living in her poor district. Yet when presented with all the gourmet food in the Capital, instead of scarfing it down and talking about it all the time like in the book, the characters barely react to it. Food is a critical part of the book, and in the film it’s treated almost as an afterthought. (Even hunting for food during the games is trivialized to a quick montage.)

In the end, while one can be nitpicky about countless details, this film gets so much right it’s still enjoyable and worth seeing. There are numerous scenes that are just spot on — I especially adored the look on Jennifer Lawrence’s face when she’s being “congratulated” for being selected to compete in the Hunger Games: it is just the perfect blend of confusion, dread, and polite smiling. I also loved the hilariously ridiculous costumes of the rich people in the Capital and the manipulation of the arena by the techs.

If you’ve read the book, you’ll probably be pleased overall, though a little disappointed by the tiny changes and weaker impact of the film, and if you’re new to the story you may wonder what all the fuss is about. If that’s the case, go read the book: it is far more powerful, emotional, and deep. The movie’s fun, but by reducing the horror of children as young as twelve forced to fight to the death to an actual game (instead of a horrific mockery of one), it is too sanitized to stimulate political reform the way the book does.

Topic: [/movie]


Thu, Mar 22, 2012

: The Hunger Games

Author: Suzanne Collins

I bought this book a year ago in anticipation of reading it before the movie came out, but of course I waited until the last minute to start it. I wasn’t the most enthusiastic, thinking of the comparisons I’d heard to the Twilight franchise. I figured this was going to be a silly teen book.

To my surprise, this is great literature. The premise is wonderfully simple: in a future North America, disrupted by wars and natural disasters, food is scarce and the government totalitarian. Every year each district must randomly select two tributes, a boy and a girl within the ages of 12 to 18, who are sent to a remote wilderness arena where they fight to the death and only one can emerge victorious. The entire process is televised so the whole world can watch, and the wealthy place wagers on the outcome. It’s a reality show like Survivor, only with real consequences and the contestants are children.

Our heroine is Katniss, a 16-year-old girl from the poorest district, who has grown up hungry and learned to survive by illegally hunting in the woods. She faces outlandish odds, considering the richer districts train their children in combat, and no one is likely to sponsor a long shot like her and give her gifts that might help her in the arena.

In a book like this the overall plot is predictable, so the trick is how well the author can convey the tenseness of the situation and make the story entertaining. Collins more than does this. I pretty much read the book in two days. I couldn’t put it down. She creates such wonderful characters and then puts them in such incredible peril with staggering odds that I just had to keep reading. The tension was unbearable.

Often in books like this the resolutions are questionable, and in this case, Katniss needs to defeat 23 other contestants, so I expected somewhat predictable and repetitive battles. Instead, the story surprised me over and over. The ways she conquers and survives are interesting and unexpected, yet always authentic and true to the world and the characters. There are no convenient rescues or easy outs: every win is paid for by great sacrifice or caused by Katniss’ instinctive abilities and naturally good heart. It’s flawless.

There’s also plenty of profound emotion: in places I read with tears streaming down, yet despite my sadness at the loss of wonderful people, I would not change a thing about the story (a sign a great story). The world of the Hunger Games is a harsh place and tragic deaths are necessary or it wouldn’t be realistic.

This is a truly amazing tale, nothing at all like I expected. It is deep, dramatic, and disturbing. It haunts you. You’ll fall in love with Katniss, and you’ll feel her helpless rage at the way her destiny is defined for her by faceless bureaucrats who treat her as nothing more than a worthless pawn.

I can’t wait to see the film. It may not be as good as the book, but I am anxious to see what they did. The book, though, is amazing and well-worth the read. I am so glad I read it before seeing the film. Just make sure you set aside enough time to finish it, as I guarantee you won’t be able to stop reading.

Topic: [/book]


Mon, Mar 19, 2012

: Old iPad Versus New iPad

Two years ago I stood in line to get the original iPad. I skipped the second generation and the addition of a feeble camera and a thinner design weren’t enough to sway me to upgrade. This time, however, I was definitely interested. I do a lot of reading on my iPad (emails, blogs, web pages, books) and the high resolution screen had a strong appeal.

I’ve also run into situations where my first-gen iPad just doesn’t quite have the memory and horsepower to keep up with demanding applications. Some apps just won’t run and others crash so regularly that they aren’t worth running. Because the original iPad doesn’t have much memory, there’s a lot of memory swapping going on when you switch apps, making that task slower and forcing web pages to reload constantly.

Because I already have perfectly usable iPad (I use it at least five hours per day), I wasn’t in a big rush for the new one. So I didn’t pre-order. I thought about it, but I was considering a white one and decided I’d like to see one in person before committing. I hadn’t intended to try and get one during the chaos of launch day, but as that day approached and I read about the glories of the new display, I found myself wondering if perhaps I shouldn’t try. I also had plans to help my uncle set up his — he’d pre-ordered one — so I knew that once I played with his I’d really be wanting one. Since I had errands near my local Apple Store anyway, I decided to swing by at noon on Friday… and lo and behold I was able to walk right in and get one. (They were out of some models, but I got my white 32GB Wifi model easily.)

The New iPad

This is the first new iPad since iCloud and in theory I could pop in my iCloud credentials and restore the new iPad from that. But I had concerns about how much that restored: would it be a true backup restoring everything identically as before? When I asked at the Apple Store, the response I got made that seem questionable. For instance, it sounded like I’d have to redownload my apps manually. (I have since read anecdotal evidence that says that is incorrect, but you do have to leave it connected to power overnight.) So I opted to restore my iPad from my computer instead of the cloud. That worked fine, though it wasn’t fast (iCloud is even slower over Wifi). The restore made my new iPad identical to my old one, except for my email passwords which didn’t transfer (presumably for security reasons).

As I was restoring and configuring Friday evening, it really wasn’t until Saturday that I got use the new iPad as an iPad. Wow! What a transformation! Compared to the original iPad, this machine is night and day better. iPad 2 users will see definite improvements, but they are more subtle. For me, however, this new iPad is slimmer and lighter, has a surpisingly good rear camera and a useful front one, the display is out-of-this-world good, and the machine as a whole is blazing fast.


While the screen is the most obvious improvement — it’s what you’re staring at for hours every day, after all — for me the most positive benefit is the increased memory and processor speed. I run a lot of apps and switch between them frequently. With the new iPad that is flawless and smooth. Jumping to Safari to copy something from a web page is almost instantaneous. The web page doesn’t reload each time I go to Safari like it did on iPad 1. Before the was a slight pause before I could use the new app. Now the new app is ready to go immediately. (For instance, I used to tap the “new message” button in Mail and nothing would happen because Mail was still loading.)

Don’t get me wrong — the original iPad is still marvelously quick and responsive. But the new iPad is even better and that translates into pure joy. There’s no lag and everything is instantaneous. A list of a thousand photos scrolls like butter and you can zoom in and out faster than your eye can see it. That is despite the fact that the new iPad can handle much larger photos (up to 19 megapixels, I believe).

I haven’t yet had much time to explore painting and drawing programs or 3D games, but in my limited tests, such apps — which used to put a strain on my original iPad — will work vastly better on the new iPad (they are probably fine on iPad 2 but I haven’t tried them there).


The new iPad’s screen is a fascinating thing. On the one hand it’s clearly better. But even the original iPad screen is fantastic and even with the two side-by-side you’re hard-pressed to say that one is worlds better than the other.

But that only happens because you quickly get used to whichever you’re using. This past weekend, while helping my uncle set up his new iPad, I had occasion to use his wife’s iPad 2. I found that after using the new iPad for a little while, switching to the old one — that didn’t seem very different — was jarring. I thought for a second I’d gotten my contact lenses in the wrong eyes. Text was fuzzy and graphics with curved edges had distinct stairstepping. But the interesting thing is that this effect only lasts for a few seconds. Once you start using the iPad 2, it seems fine. You quickly forget how good the new one looks. When you go back to the new one, it’s shocking how crisp and sharp text appears.

It’s clearly the contrast between the two resolutions that produces this effect. As long as everything is the same, you’re fine on either iPad, but when you mix resolutions (i.e. by switching between devices) you’re aware of it. After you’ve been using the new one for a little while, you start to notice elements that aren’t sharp. Apps that haven’t been updated for the retina display often have lower-resolution graphics that were fine on older iPads but look fuzzy on the new one. For instance, in Words With Friends, the letters on the tiles are sharp, but the tiles themselves have rounded corners that are very jaggy. I’m sure developers are working frantically to upgrade everything, but it may be a few months before your favorite apps are all updated.

This effect also happens frequently on websites. Because text is rendered at the full resolution of the new display, it always looks amazingly good. But then you see logos and graphics on the same page and they are fuzzy. Text in ads, for instance, is usually a graphic, not actually text, and it often looks very poor on the new iPad, especially when sitting right next to crisp article text. I am already wondering how many websites and advertising companies will be redoing their graphics at a high resolution just for iPad users with retina displays!

Another subtle effect of the higher resolution is you find yourself reading microscopic text without realizing it. I was just browsing a page and scrolled to the comments at the end of the article and was perhaps 50 comments deep when I realized the comment font was really tiny (much smaller than the article text). Yet I was reading it just fine: it was so crisp and clear that I didn’t even notice it was tiny!

This means you do a lot less zooming and panning with the new iPad — don’t need to zoom in to read the text. This especially handy on sites with a lot of headlines as you can scan the entire page with everything reduced small and still read everything you need.


I have never been much of a fan of cameras on tablets. Who wants to hold up a giant camera the size of a sheet of a paper? But two things are changing my mind.

First, a friend of mine used his iPad while traveling the country and he recorded a ton of fascinating interviews and videos of the people and places he visited. He discovered that because the iPad is so large and obvious, people opened up and didn’t mind being filmed. If he’d tried to do the same thing with an iPhone or small camera, people would have been suspicious and critical.

Second, using the iPad myself and comparing it to my iPhone as a camera, I have noticed that having the larger screen is remarkably helpful in noticing if elements are out of focus, poorly exposed, or simply framed correctly. On my iPhone (which I have been using as a camera for nearly two years), I often am disappointed when I later examine a “great” picture I took: zooming in shows that it is grainy and not that good. If I had noticed that at the time I took the picture, I could have tried some other settings, but only seeing the shrunk-down view on my small iPhone screen it seemed fine. On the iPad the screen is huge, so any flaws and instantly noticeable.

While I haven’t yet tried to use it as a camera much, I am growing intrigued by the possibilities. It wouldn’t be a common use — but at times it could be very useful. For instance, at a party or wedding where you want to quickly share what you’re doing with others. People love instant results and being able to show a whole group the photo you just took on a large screen versus a tiny camera screen is a boon.

Supposedly the camera’s similar in capability to the one on the iPhone 4S (which is better than my iPhone 4) and if that’s the case, the camera could be legitimately useful. The camera’s HD video qualities are similarly intriguing, though my first couple of tests were both shaky and grainy (too much movement and poor lighting).

The Bottom Line

In short, the new iPad is everything that made the earlier iPads great — but even better. It may not be worth upgrading from iPad 2 if you’re happy with that device and don’t need the improvements, but if you’ve got an original iPad justifying the upgrade is a no-brainer. Sell the old one on Craigslist or trade it in (Apple will give you a modest credit, depending on the model), or hand it down to someone in the family who could use it.

Topic: [/technology]


: Frozen

Interesting little horror/thriller. I love the simplicity of the concept — three college kids get trapped on a ski lift and are in danger of freezing to death (the plot reminds me of Open Water, though that one involved amateur divers getting left at sea).

The film does a lot well. It’s a small cast and most of the film is the three on the ski lift freezing and trying to figure out what to do. There are some excellent moments of thoughtful dialog. Unfortunately, that good stuff is tempered by really stupid things. Sorry if this is a spoiler, but wolves on a ski resort? Uh, wouldn’t they be eating skiers all the time? Or do wolves respect ski resort hours?

The film has a number of stupid things like that. For instance, I am really skeptical that three college kids didn’t have a single cell phone between them. I also didn’t find their escape attempts to be that realistic. While watching the film I came up with five or ten things they could have tried and didn’t (i.e. instead of jumping off the lift, why not build a rope out of their coats and drop from a lower height?). That’s common with horror films. The best ones include explanations as to why those ideas wouldn’t work. Here we’re just left thinking that these kids are really stupid.

All that said, I like the low-key horror of this film. This isn’t flashy and aggressively bloody horror (except for those ridiculous wolves), but a more thoughtful approach where you slowly begin to realize the seriousness of being stuck 50 feet in the air on a non-moving ski lift in the dark in sub-freezing temperatures with a ski resort closed for the next week.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Mar 16, 2012

: Dearly Devoted Dexter

Author: Jeff Lindsay

This is book two in the Dexter series. I didn’t like the first book quite as much as the TV series, in part because the story (about the ice truck killer) was familiar. Because this book involved a completely original plot (not something I’d seen on the TV show), I liked it better.

That said, it has a slow start, devoting too many pages to Dexter’s relationship with Rita (mostly involving Dexter whining about how awful this is). Once the plot gets going it gets better, but I still found the pacing a little odd. Dexter’s supposedly helping track down a deranged killer who cuts every body part off his victims and leaves them alive but a vegetable, but Dexter’s not very motivated and there’s little urgency in finding the killer. The ending is good, though a little anticlimactic. Ultimately there isn’t much that happens. Still, it’s interesting reading and Dexter’s style and personality make the book a worthy read if you’re a fan.

Topic: [/book]


Thu, Mar 15, 2012

: Trollhunter

Now this is the way monster movies should be done! I adored this. I wanted to see this Norwegian film a while back as I’d heard it was good, but it was only showing in a tiny theatre in Portland and I didn’t make it.

Early into the film I realized this was a “found footage” film, which I’m not crazy about, and when we got to the first bit of wild action, I had a sinking feeling. With the crazy camera angles, blurry shots, and shaking, and I couldn’t make out anything (except my stomach churning). But fortunately that was only for that moment — the majority of the film doesn’t overemphasize the handheld aspect. In fact, what I really liked about this is that they actually do show the trolls — long, extended shots instead of quick, blurry flashes (like in Cloverfield). That’s much more realistic. After all, if you were filming Bigfoot or whatever wouldn’t you try to get more than two seconds of footage of him?

The plot of this film is brilliantly simple. There are bear attacks in rural Norway so a group of college students — wannabe filmmakers, I guess — decide to film a documentary about the hunt. Then they hear about a strange lone hunter who is mysterious and try and interview him. At first he won’t say a word, but after they follow him and get attacked by a troll, he opens up and reveals he’s a troll hunter. He then allows the crew to follow him as he hunts.

What I liked here is that there’s a bit of a mystery: why are the trolls showing up in populated areas? How did they get out of their territory? Most monster films don’t ask such questions — they just expect the audience to believe. Here we not only get the logical questions, but the answer is great, too.

Even better, this film continues that trend throughout the film: it asks all the questions I want to know about trolls. Through interviews with the hunter (and a doctor), we get to learn all sorts of interesting things about them. One of my pet peeves about most monster movies is the way the main characters just accept strange creatures without asking all the obvious questions. (Like how come nobody notices twenty-foot trolls roaming through the woods?)

This is a terrifically realistic look at the troll concept and halfway through the film I was a believer in them. (The troll special effects are pretty good, too. Not perfect, but much better than I expected for a non-Hollywood film.)

Another thing that I appreciated about this film is that it doesn’t try to be scary. There are no artificial scares or fake camera setups to artificially induce tension or suspense. Instead it’s more like watching footage from the Nature Channel. Fascinating, not frightening. Sure, there are some action moments and sometimes you are thrilled, but it comes from what’s happening, not gimmicky camerawork. This made the film far more enjoyable to me. Instead of being dark and depressing, it’s lighter, more scientific, and the occasionally grim moments are far more realistic and believable.

I’m shocked at how good this was. I loved it and would see it again. Just wonderful, fun, and fascinating. It’s very intelligent and doesn’t insult the audience. I hear Hollywood’s doing a remake: I bet they’ll ruin it and release a typical dumb monster movie.

Topic: [/movie]


Tue, Mar 13, 2012

: Portland Timbers 2012 Season Opener

Wow, what a showcase event! I hadn’t thought I’d be able to get tickets to the opener, but I did and it was fantastic. Typical Portland: Cold and rainy, fireworks, green smoke, crazy fans, and the right result on the field against a majorly reshuffled Philadelphia Union team.

The season were definitely “obstructed view” but that didn’t matter as the Timbers did most of their work in the second half at the goal near me and I got to see it all right up close.

That first half was hit-and-mostly-miss, as the Timbers dominated possession but couldn’t do much with it. I didn’t have an optimistic feeling with a FK went in at the other end (it turned out to be via deflected help from one of our players). But then we got our own good fortunate when the young Philly keeper Zac McGrath somehow let a weak header slip right through his fingers and into the goal. Just an incredible lapse and we were back in it.

(I’ve no idea why Union boss Peter Nowak keeps trying to go with young goalkeepers. It burned him in Philly’s first season and they righted the ship last season with experience at the back, but in the offseason he dumped Mondragon and he’s trying youth again this year. If any position requires experience, it’s the goalkeeper.)

That goal recharged the Timbers and we poured it on after that, scoring two more, both heavily influenced by MLS Player of the Week Alhassan, who placed a perfect ball into the box for our new Scottish striker Kris Boyd to head into the goal, and then Alhassan got one of his own with a shot-cross to the back post that went in. It could have been even better, but Freddy Adu cleared another Boyd header off the goalline.

The sellout crowd went mad and it was a blast. My favorite moment was when we were leaving — usually a crazy rush to the exits. On this night as I went down the stairs I tried to let a couple of people exit in front of me, but they bowed and waved me forward, insisting I go first. After the second time this happened I quipped to the person, “People are always so nice after a win!”

Topic: [/soccer]


Fri, Mar 09, 2012

: John Carter

Director: Andrew Staunton

Though I’m a giant Edgar Rice Burroughs fan, and I think Staunton’s a fantastic director, the weak trailers for this film had me very nervous. The casting seemed very poor, there was no hint of the plot (sometimes that’s a good thing, but in the case of a property based on a book, that worried me), and the CG graphics seemed ho-hum. I dreaded that this film woud end up being an action travesty like the horrible Transformers movies.

You know what? While this isn’t a literal, shot-for-shot adaptation of the first book in the series, it’s very faithful in terms of spirit. There are times it moves too fast and several complex concepts are glossed over, but in general it takes its time to establish the characters and the situations.

For example, the first twenty minutes of the film is set in the American Old West, just like the novel. (The specific events are different in the movie.) I figured that the film might give us a 30-second look at that world and then move the action to Mars. Instead we are treated with a better glimpse into the character of John Carter and how he ended up on Mars, and that made his experience on the red planet make more sense.

I was also blown away by the CG creatures in the film. They are a huge part of this movie. Entire species are all CG and there are several important characters who are CG. It rivals Avatar in that aspect. Halfway through the movie I forgot completely that the actors were CG I was so absorbed in their performances and the story. Very impressive.

There are many flaws in the film. Part of the plot involves strange, almost magical beings who interfere with the world on Mars, and some magical “9th ray” that’s never really explained. This creates a number of issues for me. For one, we end up with multiple bad guys instead of just one, which weakens the movie’s conflict. For another, I just don’t like science-fiction that mixes in supernatural stuff; it feels like a conflict of interest. It also adds to the film’s complexity without really being that much better of a story (though I did like the way that was worked into the ultimate conclusion).

John Carter’s jumping ability — explained in the book as a result of the lower gravity on Mars and his earth muscles — is absolutely ridiculous in the movie. In the books he can jump twenty feet, which sounds about right. In this film he’s leaping over skyscrapers! The jumping looks phony, too, especially the too-soft landings.

I also was not enamored with the casting. The actor (Taylor Kitsch) who plays John Carter is most forgettable. I was expecting him to be a bad actor, but he was surprisingly good (not great, but decent). The problem is that he just feels awkward in the part. Even by the very end of the film I was still struggling to accept him in the role and that’s not a good sign. I’d never heard of the woman who plays Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) and her brief appearances in the trailers had me thinking maybe she had a tiny part. Instead she’s in a ton of scenes and is a very good actress (much stronger than Kitsch). She’s more of a warrior than a princess (which is odd because in the film she’s supposed to be a scientist), but I liked that aggressive side of her. The one thing I found odd is that despite her attractive appearance and occasional skimpy clothing, she just does not come across as sexy. It must be something in the way they shot her or had her perform. Since in the book’s that a big aspect of her, it felt strange in the film. She and John Carter could have been brother and sister, not lovers.

But despite all these flaws, the film succeeded for me. It could be my expectations were so low that I came away more wowed than I should have been, but I think it’s more likely that the stronger aspects of the film were so strong that the overwhelmed the nigglingly issues I had. I loved the wonderful and exotic sets, the costumes, the fascinating airships, and the neat mix of high-tech and ancient (i.e. swords). My favorite things were the amazing CG “dog” (an alien creature that was hilarious and wonderful), and the way the culture of the Tharks (an alien race) was shown in amazing detail and completeness. The latter is one of the best things about ERB’s novels, as he spends many pages describing exotic cultures and their social structures, and I was so pleased to see that deeply represented in this film. It rushed over some aspects more than I liked, but so much more was there than I expected that I came away awed and pleased.

In the end, I had a great time, far better than I expected. While occasionally so action-heavy it’s silly, the film overall is certainly deeper than most films of its type. There’s a richness to the story and the world that rivals that of classics like Star Wars. I suspect that the film will be polarizing. Some will adore it, some will hate it, without a lot in between. For me it happens that my favorite aspects of the novel ended up in the film, so I was delighted, but I can see that others might prefer more of a pure adventure story. See it and judge for yourself.

Topic: [/movie]


: Attack the Block

I’d heard about this quirky British film a while back and it sounded fantastic: space aliens attack a neighborhood and the residences fight them off. Unfortunately, the neighborhood turns out to be the English equivalent of the hood and the main “heroes” are teenage thugs who mug people.

Granted, that’s interesting, but when your heroes are that unlikable, it doesn’t make for a compelling picture. Basically I didn’t care about most of the characters and was actually rooting for some to get eaten by the aliens. Sure, as I predicted, the bad guys reform by the end, but it’s a bit late. That also makes the second half of the film the better half.

Another problem with the choice of characters is that they talk in British gang slang, and combined with a variety of accents, I found the film difficult to understand. Many times I had no idea what they were talking about.

The aliens themselves are interesting. On the one hand I liked that they weren’t CG or humanoid — they were hairy black shapes like the Abominable Snowman with florescent teeth — but on the other hand they were so simple, nothing but hair and glowing teeth, that I didn’t find them that great. They felt like a low-budget compromise.

I did like the overall plot and the way the aliens were handled and the ending was also good. It’s not a great film, but definitely above average and a lot of fun and different. Worth the look.

Topic: [/movie]


Tue, Mar 06, 2012

: The Artist

Though this was the big Oscar winner this year, I wasn’t that excited about it. The silent movie aspect seemed like a gimmick and the plot about an aging silent star and an upcoming ingenue is as old as movies. But I was curious and though I right about much of the film, it is very well done.

The film’s biggest flaw is that the first third is too slow. The plot for that part of the film is obvious within seconds and yet each piece takes many minutes to tell. The silent aspect doesn’t help with the boredom. But once you get closer to the middle of the film, the action picks up with more happening and it all builds to an excellent conclusion. I enjoyed the last thirty minutes very much.

Overall the film is very well done. The performances are really excellent. But my gripe is that ultimately the film doesn’t reveal much about the silent film industry that is its topic. It is shallow. That means this film’s silentness is little more than a gimmick and there were several places where it was a terrible mistake. For instance, in the key scene — and this isn’t much of a spoiler — where a sound movie is played as a demonstration of the future, we don’t hear the sound. I was very confused and didn’t even realize until very late in the scene that the movie they were watching was supposed to have sound. That was a baffling decision to me and reeks of wanting to push the silent gimmick beyond all reason.

One of the things I find fascinating about silent versus sound films is the differences in storytelling. I had expected that to be demonstrated in this film. Unfortunately, other than one hint (where silent actors are said to be “mugging” for the camera — basically exaggerated acting to convey the story better) the film does little to express this key aspect. Since the film’s plot is about an older silent film star struggling to make the transition to sound, you’d have thought those differences would have been explored. That’s another area were the judicious use of sound would have made a huge difference: the director could have shown us silent scenes and sound scenes and the contrast would have been powerful and amazing. Instead everything is silent except for one key scene in the middle and the very last scene. Again, the silent gimmick is just carried too far.

It’s still a good film, and I liked it better than I expected, but it definitely has some core flaws. I don’t think it deserved a Best Picture Oscar by any stretch. It’s just a gimmicky film and in ten years we’ll look back at it and wonder why it won.

Topic: [/movie]


Sun, Mar 04, 2012

: The Fourth Angel

Interesting idea. I thought this was a typical revenge thriller — regular Joe goes after the terrorists who killed his family — but it’s much more intellectual and involves government coverups and such.

I liked many parts of it, especially the complex conspiracy stuff, but that also makes it convoluted and difficult to follow. Its biggest problem is that it comes across as flat and dull at times, and yet the action scenes, when the lead character turns to violence, feel out of character.

Another one of those stories with great potential that falls short.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Mar 02, 2012

: Pre-Season: Portland Timbers versus Chivas USA

I went to this game last night and my main impression was that it was cold. I thought I dressed warmly but it wasn’t enough, and even non-stop chanting and clapping and jumping up and down didn’t keep me warm (especially toward the end).

But it was still a lot of fun. I can’t believe that 15,000 people would show up for a meaningless pre-season friendly — essentially just a practice match without half of the team’s top players — but that’s the way we roll here in Portland. The Timbers Army was out in force and the atmosphere was terrific.

The game itself wasn’t anything awesome, a bit slow and not a huge number of chances for either team, but I’ve seen worse in league play at times. There were very few fouls and no hard ones, and I think the players didn’t want to get injured. The Timbers dominated possession and chances, but Chivas defended very well and looked dangerous on counters. They scored first on a cross that got redirected in, but Portland came back late in the game to secure the draw and remain unbeaten in preseason play. Our goal was also a redirect and the Chivas keeper blocked it but somehow allowed it trickle over the goalline. It was hard for me to see the goals as both were at the far end of the stadium.

It was still great to see some of the new guys for the first time and the team overall. The 2012 MLS season kicks off in a couple of weeks and I’m starting to get excited!

Topic: [/soccer]


: The Woman

Author: Jack Ketchum

Certainly not for all tastes, Ketchum’s horror novel is amazing to me in its brilliant simplicity. The plot is so bare as to almost be nonexistent, yet this is still a mesmerizing novel. I read it through in just a few hours.

Apparently the titular character is a creature from his novel Offspring (which I haven’t read and isn’t needed to understand this book). She’s basically a wild animal who lives in the woods, a savage cannibal who is a hunter and a killer. We constast her with a modern man, a seemingly respectable lawyer with a wife and three children. The question is, who is really the more savage?

The lawyer, while out hunting, sees the wild woman and decides she’d make a great pet, so he captures her and chains her up in his basement and tortures her. Yeah, he’s a really nice dude. Worse, he gets his son and wife to join in on the fun.

I really loved how the novel switches frequently to the wild woman’s point of view and we see the lawyer and his clan from her primitive perspective. While she’s a savage, she’s at least honest and genuine, and no different from say, a wild tiger that has no qualms about eating you (but it’s not personal).

This simple story doesn’t have a huge amount of depth (though there’s more than most throw-away novels), but it’s such an outrageous concept and executed in such a thrilling and entertaining manner that it’s defintely worth reading if you like this sort of thing. I’m impressed.

Topic: [/book]


Sun, Feb 26, 2012

: The Good Student

I wanted to really like this. The premise of a nerdy high school history teacher who becomes a suspect in a pretty student’s disappearance intrigued me. I assumed this was going to be a commentary on people’s perceptions or way the law can convict an innocent man.

Instead, this has the wrong tone right from the start. The music is terrible throughout. It just doesn’t fit. It should have either been serious and dramatic or quirky, and instead it’s halfway in-between. The whole film is that way: part drama, part comedy, and neither work. It’s very uneven. The jokes fall flat and some of the characters and scenes are so over-the-top that it just can’t be taken as serious drama. There’s a ton of awkwardness. For instance, it’s suggested the teacher might have had a sexual relationship with the student — the public thinks so — and obviously that’s rape and an extremely serious and sensitive subject. Yet there’s a fellow teacher who brags about sleeping with his students in exchange for better grades. The way the film presents the guy it’s almost like it’s condoning it.

The tone the film should have had is something like Jawbreaker or Fargo. That fact that it didn’t I found frustrating throughout.

The pacing is also flawed. It’s very slow. The plot is a little awkward, too, going four or five different directions, yet not doing much with any of those storylines. For instance, there are hints dropped of various people who could have done the kidnapping and I expected those to be explored further as the film progressed, but they are not. It’s very odd.

But the film’s biggest mistakes are the ones that strain credibility. For one, the lonely teacher has a gorgeous next door neighbor who keeps hitting on him and he ignores her. There was no explanation for that and it needed one as without it you start reading more into the situation than is there.

An even dumber mistake is that there’s no explanation of how the kidnapped girl manages to survive the many days she is missing. (I don’t remember the final count of her absence, but I think it was a few weeks.) We are periodically shown shots of the girl tied up on a cot in a storage room. She’s apparently there the whole time. Other than one brief scene where her masked kidnapper brings her some food, there’s no info on how she lives for all that time. How would she go to the bathroom all tied up and left alone like that? Wouldn’t she have injuries like bed sores? Wouldn’t she try to escape or scream for help? I’ve seen other films that deal with the logistical problems of kidnapping, such as The Disappearance of Alice Creed, and it’s a complex problem (i.e. you have to untie the prisoner to use the facilities and they can try to escape). If she’d been missing for a day or two, I could believe it the way this film handled it, but she basically looks the same on day 20 as on day 1 and that was just absurd.

There are some decent aspects of the film. I liked the portrait of the teacher and the way they made him be both sympathetic and weird. He’s a loner, still grieving from his wife’s death years earlier, and he develops a crush on his student. He’s the last one to see her before she vanishes and thus becomes a suspect. He rents a porn tape and one of his other students who works at the video store notices and therefore think he’s a pervert. Yet he’s also a nice guy, pretty intelligent, and he genuinely cares for his students. His performance is good, but limited by the material.

There’s a “twist” at the end that isn’t that surprising, though it’s decent, but it comes way too late in the film to really have much impact. It raises more questions than it answers. I guess it’s supposed to be a “thinker” but it comes across as more of an “Oh.”

In the end, this is another one of those ideas with great potential, but poorly realized. I’d love to have seen how great directors like the Coen brothers would have done this same story. I bet they could have shot the exact same script and it would have been ten times better (even more if they fixed the script’s flaws).

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Feb 24, 2012

: Gone

When I first heard about this film I wasn’t that interested because the concept sounded limited: a girl, previously a victim who escaped a serial killer, now thinks her sister has been abducted by the same guy, but the cops don’t believe her so she’s forced to find him on her own.

That seemed weak to me because as soon as she’s got any real evidence the cops would figure out the truth, right? Except the trailers leave out the key bit of info that the girl has psychological problems and had been institutionalized, and the cops never found any evidence that anyone had abducted her in the first place (which makes the police reaction more believable). Throw that into the mix and we’re into Interesting Land. We’re unsure — just like the main character herself — if she’s losing her mind or really onto something.

The film doesn’t play up that angle as much as I like — it’s more implied than confronted — but we still end up with a decent thriller. It’s quite exciting having her look for a killer everyone thinks is just her imagination while on the run from the cops herself, as they have heard she’s carrying an unregistered firearm and want her stopped. She’s got a deadline, too, as she knows the killer kills his victims at night so she’s only got the one day to rescue her sister.

It’s a far from perfect film: there are tons of niggling flaws throughout, little skips in logic that I found distracting. Sometimes the cops don’t seem to be responding quite realistically, or the investigative path the girl follows is a little too convenient. There are strange, I-don’t-believe-it moments, such as when a guy tells her rented his van to a complete stranger for $200 and he doesn’t know the guy’s name, phone number, address, or anything. Yeah, that’s gonna happen. I lend my vehicle all the time to strangers!

But most of these flaws are just tiny things that hardly matter. For example, when she borrows a friend’s car she takes the entire set of keys — meaning the friend loses her house keys?

The bad guy is also poorly handled. I don’t want to give anything away, but he’s an amazingly stupid serial killer (bringing into question how he could have gone so long without getting caught). And the girl — who’s quite clever and resourceful throughout, doesn’t do something in her escape from him that she does later in the film. It seemed like an obvious thing to me and it felt odd that she doesn’t do it.

But despite these flaws, we still have an intriguing film. The ending, while not perfect, is satisfying. This kind of a film really depends on the ending because it’s all build-up and I worried they would screw it up and leave me frustrated. It’s a slightly odd ending, mostly because of what a dummy the bad guy is, but it does just enough to work.

The bottom line is that I liked the movie. There’s tension (no real scares), it moves at a high pace, there are good performances, the story’s above average (no real depth, but better than most), and it’s set in Portland, Oregon, near where I live. Don’t expect too much and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Topic: [/movie]


: Malice in Wonderland

This is a fascinating idea — a quirky modern-day version of an Alice in Wonderland type drug trip — but sadly there’s not much to it beyond the gimmick.

The plot is simple enough: an American girl in London, a billionaire’s daughter, gets lost with amnesia and has adventures somewhat analogous to those of the original Alice. In this case she takes some pills that are supposed to help her memory but might just be scrambling her mind as everything gets a bit crazy after that. She meets up with villains and bizarre people and sees strange things.

I did like many aspects of this. There are wonderful gems: various characters resemble their Wonderland equivalents, a lot of the dialog is variations on dialog from the novel, there are tons of subtle (and clever) Alice references, and there’s a lot of fun humor.

Unfortunately, the settings are so weird and you really don’t have the faintest idea what’s going on for about 70% of this movie, and that it makes it difficult to follow and appreciate. Some of the dialog shoots at you so fast and crazily you can’t keep up. That, of course, is similar to Alice, where the conversations are certainly strange, but whereas in the book they are light and fun here the darker tone and modern setting makes far heavier and less entertaining.

I like dense material, but this is material that feels dense without a reason for being dense. There are many scenes that feel like they were written just to have an Alice link but don’t advance the story at all.

In the end, the plot is just too shallow and barely anything happens. The “revelation” at the end is too trivial and weak. It almost works, but for all of the mysterious build-up it needed to be about ten times more powerful. Instead it falls limp and is too predictable.

This can be worth watching if you’re in the right mood (perhaps smoking mushrooms, ha ha) and I certainly did really like certain moments and some of the interesting visuals, but it’s much too uneven and inscrutable for most people.

Topic: [/movie]


Sun, Feb 19, 2012

: Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus

I’m not sure what to make of this. I’d heard of it — Nicole Kidman plays the famous photographer lead — but it’s definitely not for many tastes. It’s not a straight biography. The opening title card says that and explains it’s an “imaginary portrait” but doesn’t explain what that is either, so I don’t know if what happened here was real or not.

I expected something on the surreal side, like a Salvador Dali painting come to life. I thought there’d be fantasy sequences and oddities that inspired this artist. Instead the film plays out like the old Beauty and the Beast television show.

The story’s really pretty linear and ordinary. Diane Arbus is a daughter of wealth who married a family photographer and she’s his assistant. She’s bored and weird, and when a mysterious masked man moves in upstairs she’s fascinated. Eventually she meets him on the premise of wanting to photograph him, and he turns out to be a former circus “wolfman” (covered with hair). She isn’t repulsed but finds him intriguing. He introduces her to the world of the bizarre: circus freaks and other oddities. She eventually neglects her family to have an affair with him, but apparently also launches the start of her photography career.

There’s much I really liked. The moody sets and photography and music and performances are all wonderfully done, but though there’s a profound sense of something about to happen, nothing ever does (at least that I could tell). And though I liked the characters, I never really learned much about Diane. It is compelling enough that I wanted to know more — but the film left me frustrated because it didn’t give me that.

The film’s most fatal flaw for me, as someone unfamiliar with Diane’s work, is that we never really get to see her photography. The story mostly happens before she became famous, so in a way that makes sense, and I gather that she apparently took pictures of weird stuff and helped “redefine the twentieth century’s perspective of beauty,” but throughout the film I kept thinking, “This would probably have more impact and make more sense if I knew her work or who the hell she is.” Most biography-type films try to give us insight into the artist and their work, but this only hints at it. We see she’s interested in the weird, but we never learn why. We never know what makes her tick.

In the end I was left disappointed and unsatisfied, confused, saddened by the tragic storyline, and uncertain what I was supposed to get out of this. What was the point? She was an unusual artist with a weird bent. Yeah? What else is new? Doesn’t that describe every artist to an extent? What made her special? I liked that they were trying to do something a little different than a straight biography here, but this needed more biographical elements to make sense and give it a foundation, and I also think it was very weak on the fantastical. It promoted itself as being strange and bizarre and yet there wasn’t that much of that. Probably this is a movie only for Diane Arbus fans.

Topic: [/movie]


: Lucky

I usually love black comedies like this and wanted to like this one. It has a terrific premise: a shy nobody who happens to be killing women who resemble his love interest who ignores him, accidentally wins a $36 million lottery when his mother redeems the ticket left behind by his latest victim, and the newfound wealth means his love is suddenly interested in him and they get married.

I figured a fun romp as he plays cat and mouse with the police and his new wife, but that’s not what happens at all.

The first half of the movie is pretty good. I liked the setup of the characters, the new money and wife helping the shy guy to blossom, and the way the guy’s gold-digger lover is an awkward fit and he just can’t see that.

Unfortunately, the film starts to wander after that, unsure of whether it’s a comedy or drama or thriller. The wife finds out about the murders and goes a bit crazy herself and the film’s just too weird. We aren’t sure what’s going on or why, and nothing makes much sense. There’s awkward editing that helps with this confusion. For instance, when he’s murdering a maid while on their honeymoon and the wife sees, she only sees the woman’s feet, not really enough to tell he’s killing the woman. I thought at first she thought he was having an affair — that would be the more natural assumption — and that explained her sudden change of attitude toward him. But later I realized that she knew he was a murderer but was staying with him anyway, apparently for the money. Very odd. (My rule would be: if a character does something of the norm, you need to make what they do crystal clear to the audience, since it’s already weird and unexpected. Don’t play coy editing games in that situation.)

We limp to an equally unsatisfying ending that doesn’t resolve much and leaves us more confused than ever about their relationship. In the end, this is uneven and awkward. There are some neat moments and good performances (the wife and killer are terrific), but it all acts like it’s profound when it’s really not. Bummer.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Feb 17, 2012

: Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

I wasn’t a big fan of the first film and this one is only marginally better. It’s a little more fun with a handful of humorous moments, but the story is just as lame. This time it’s about a boy who’s the Devil’s child — the Devil wants him and the Rider’s going to protect the boy.

None of it makes any sense and the plot is pretty much “Rider finds kidnapped boy and beats up bad guys” repeated three times. Some of the action and special effects are cool (my favorite was when Nicholas Cage is on the bike and his head keeps half-switching into Ghost Rider skull and back to human again), but those moments are spotty.

All-in-all, it’s pretty much what you expect from a franchise like this. But then again, maybe I just don’t get the whole Ghost Rider premise. Nothing about the concept makes any sense to me.

Topic: [/movie]


Wed, Feb 15, 2012

: Homeland

I don’t often write about TV series, but I believe if they are done properly, they can be better than films. That’s because shows have more time to develop the storyline and they can be more complicated, similar to a really thick novel. Showtime’s original series Homeland is vastly better than most films.

I knew nothing about it as I wasn’t a subscriber to the channel. I’d heard the name of the show last fall when it came out, but that was about it. I vaguely remember hearing that the critics were praising it and more recently — after watching the first episode — I heard it won a bunch of awards. I’m not surprised. It is a fantastic show. I caught the first episode during a Showtime “free weekend” and I loved it so much I bought a subscription to the channel. If you know miser me who hates monthly fees, that’s impressive.

The premise of the show is brilliantly simple. An American CIA analyst, Carrie Mathison (played by the perfectly cast Claire Danes in her best role ever), gets intelligence that an American POW has been “turned” (brainwashed into becoming a traitor). She doesn’t know what to do with this info until suddenly an American soldier, Nicholas Brody, is discovered in a hole in the ground in the Middle East. Carrie is convinced that Brody (awesomely played by Damian Lewis) is the turned POW and is going to carry out a terrorist attack in the U.S. Brody comes back to the States and is celebrated a hero, but his home life is chaotic. He’s a changed man: gone for eight years, tortured and kept in isolation, he’s not exactly stable, and after so much time away, his children don’t know him and he learns his wife has been sleeping with his best friend. But is his strangeness due to his traumatic experience or is he a spy? Even more intriguing, we learn that analyst Carrie has a history of mental problems (she needs drugs to stay stable), so we begin to wonder if she’s insane or brilliant. There’s plenty of setup here for amazing drama, tension, and spy games.

Now with a binary “is he or isn’t he” premise like that, this struck me as an intriguing but ultimately shortlived show. After all, how long can they milk the suspense of Brody’s guilt or innocence? But wow, does this show do it! No spoilers, but not only does the show manage to carry on the premise throughout this first season, but it sets itself up brilliantly for a second season (something I couldn’t figure out they were going to do). Most importantly, it does this in a way that’s utterly logical and believable: nothing is forced or artificial.

In fact, that’s a key thing about this entire show that I loved: it’s one of the truest portrays of politics and spy craft that I’ve ever seen. For example, in most spy movies, the spy is doing things like infiltrating the enemy or sneaking in to steal information or something. While there’s a little bit of that here — surveillance and trailing and snooping — this show is much more about doing things like blackmailing shifty characters into cooperating with the government, or interrogating suspects in clever ways to get information from them. It’s realistic, too: the information obtained isn’t obviously important, like the location of a bomb, but it is tiny and almost trivial — perhaps just the fact that two people know each other — and top analysts can extract clues from that to figure out the big picture.

Other than one scene (out of hundreds) that felt off to me, the entire first season was nearly flawless. Most TV shows, even great ones, have a few dud episodes or a few moments that don’t quite work. This one did not. I watched every minute of every episode with my hands clenched and my breath held. It’s just amazing drama. With every episode I kept thinking “they can’t do this again next time” and yet they did. What’s awesome, though, is that every episode feels incredibly satisfying. This is not like most shows — say Alcatraz — that tease you with information but don’t really pay out much of the story. In Homeland things actually happen and the show progresses by a large amount in every episode — and yet the next one has just as much drama and twists and turns. It’s just amazing.

You have to watch this show. It’s grim, gritty, messy like real-life, the performances are fantastic, and the the story is just stunning. Apparently the show’s based on an Israeli TV series, Prisoners of War, and while I have no idea how good that show is or how similar this one is, I can imagine how that would work (POW returning to Israel and not knowing if the soldier has been turned or not). I can’t wait for more of this show, though I suppose season two won’t out until next fall. I’m not sure I can wait that long. I’m still trembling from watching all these episodes (I watched the last five non-stop) and I feel like going back and watching the entire series again from the beginning. I can’t think of any TV show that’s ever made me want to do that (there are some I like to watch more than once, but not immediately after watching the whole series).

Topic: [/television]


Tue, Feb 14, 2012

: Darkly Dreaming Dexter

Author: Jeff Lindsay

I’m a huge fan of the Dexter television show — about a Miami blood spatter analyst who moonlights as a serial killer of serial killers — and decided I wanted to read the novel the show is based upon. I got the audiobook version and have been listening to it for the past couple of weeks.

At first I was surprised by how faithful the show is to the book as much was exactly the same as the first season of the show. But as the book progressed, the show goes a different direction. Usually I go for the book over the adaptation, but in this case I like the show better. The story’s more polished and seems to understand the title character better. Most of the differences are minor, some have to do with condensing the novel into a show, and some have to do with actors and how they portray various characters.

One interesting thing is that I so adore Michael C. Hall’s performance as Dexter and I love his narration that the audiobook felt awkward because it isn’t narrated by him (it was recorded before the show started). The reader just doesn’t capture Dexter’s fascinating quirkiness and dark humor properly. But of course that’s only a flaw of the audio version and it’s a very minor complaint.

Overall, I liked the book, though the ending veers severely away from where the show goes (no spoilers, but the book kills a character that the TV show does not). Very interesting. I prefer the show but I bought another book or two in the series and I’m going to read them and see if it’s worth reading all Dexter novels.

Topic: [/book]


Mon, Feb 13, 2012

: Journey 2: The Mysterious Island

I liked the first film and though this one has a different cast (same boy, but everyone else is new), it’s similarly silly fun. At times the plot is so absurd it’s idiotic (yeah, the air lock of a 140-year-old submarine would still be functioning after all that time), but with the cast mugging good-naturedly at the camera you just can’t help but smile and go along with it (stepdad The Rock is perfectly cast in that regard).

Everyone (Michael Caine, Luis Guzman, and Vanessa Hudgens) are having fun and the island scenery is spectacular. There are tons of digital but pretty decent special effects (my favorite was the minature elephant that The Rock was holding) and the 3D version wasn’t bad. There’s not much of a plot other than “get to island, get off the island” but it’s still enjoyable. Overall this is a fine family film, as harmless as the roller coaster ride it resembles.

Topic: [/movie]


Sat, Feb 11, 2012

: The Road

I wanted to see this theatres but missed out. Now I’m not so sure that was a bad thing. It’s a terribly depressing film. It’s set in a desolate future where the world has ended and people have resorted to canibalism to survive. The son and the dad are all alone and basically the dad’s just counting time until when he can use the two bullets he’s saved for them.

Supposedly the father-son moments were supposed to special and touching, but I didn’t find them so. The kid was just annoying — a whining crier scared of his own shadow, and I didn’t find his performance very believable. At the most critical emotional moments his poor acting shown through and ruined it. The father was too morose to be very likable so there really wasn’t anyone for me to care about.

There are some interesting moments and the story’s not bad — just grim and sad — but I thought the look of the film was so dark and gray (literally) and it was hard to even see anything. Except for the full-color flashbacks the whole picture looked like I was seeing it through a thin sheet of gray cloth.

Other sad movies didn’t effect me this way — even Schindler’s List is heroic and I loved The Grey — but I just couldn’t much out of this one.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Feb 10, 2012

: Safe House

The concept of this sounded great in the trailers — a lowly CIA nobody manning a safe house in Capetown is suddenly the center of everything when the world’s most dangerous criminal is brought in to him to guard. But safe house’s location is compromised and attacked, and only the CIA guy escapes with his prisoner and they’re on the run not knowing who they can trust.

The trailer talked about how the criminal is a master at psychological manipulation and promised all sorts of mind games where we’re not sure if our criminal is playing our hero or vice versa.

But unfortunately the film fails to deliver on all that promise. The “revelation” at the end was something I predicted three minutes into the film… and little surprised me after that. There are large logic gaps throughout the film where much isn’t explained. For instance, while on the run our hero suddenly has a vehicle, but we aren’t shown where he got it. Did he steal it? Is it a car he had hidden for emergencies?

We aren’t really sure how our hero or others figures things out, and sometimes when it is clear, it’s not that intelligent. The bad guys seem to have unlimited resources in terms of bullets, guns, SUVs, and men, while the good is stranded on his own.

The middle part of the film is a muddle and more confusing than anything, and the end, when everything’s ultimately explained, is too predictable.

All that being said, however, this is not a bad film; it’s just not great. It’s disappointing to me because my expectations were high and the idea had huge potential. I figured the “psychological manipulation” would be along the lines of the amazing Hannibal Lector in Silence of the Lambs but it was a faint shadow of that.

On the plus side, the film’s action scenes are good, though some of the fights go on much too long. Once the action gets going it doesn’t stop, either, so the whole movie’s a non-stop thrill-ride. The performances are terrific, with both Ryan Reynolds and Denzel Washington rising above the material. Ultimately it’s a film that the nitpicky will find annoying and the casual viewer will probably enjoy.

Topic: [/movie]


Tue, Feb 07, 2012

: The Switch

This was very different from what I expected. I thought it was a lame comedy about sperm donor switching, but it turned out to be a semi-sweet tale about a shy dork who “accidentally” helps his best friend get pregnant and later realizes he has to tell her the kid she got is his.

There are some really good moments, especially with the dad as he connects with the weird kid (who is like his father), but the whole film feels awkward, as though there isn’t a laugh track when there should be. It feels like stuff is trying to be funny but isn’t. I think it’s a case of a film that isn’t sure what it is — a serious drama or a comedy.

Another serious problem is that the central premise is just too absurd. When I first heard of the concept, I assumed it was something like a lab mixup that mislabled the sperm samples, but it’s nothing like that at all. They worked hard to make it believable and it almost gets there, but in the end it’s just too farfetched and that weakens the entire film. Such ridiculousness works for a silly comedy, but not for a drama, and this feels much more like the later, meaning that the flawed concept equals a flawed film.

Still, it’s better than I expected. The kid-dad stuff was really sweet and made the film worth watching for me.

Topic: [/movie]


: Hobo With A Shotgun

Wow, is this film violent! I kid you not: this is the most violent film I’ve ever seen. Hundreds of gruesome deaths and injuries. It makes Robocop seem mild. It’s not just the deaths of the bad guys (I’m all for that), but even our heros have horrible things happen to them. (Not to spoil things, but in one scene our hobo hero chews glass. Yeah, fun to watch. Not.)

Just the title had me intrigued and eager to check it out, but unfortunately the setting of this film is just too depressing for me to enjoy it. It’s set in some sort of lawless city where a Bad Dude and his sons run everything and literally kill people for sport. It’s really a sick place and there isn’t much hope shown. There were a few tender moments between our main characters, the hobo and the prostitute he rescued, and I liked that, but they were too brief and so much bad stuff happens to them that it’s really difficult to watch.

A lot of ultraviolent movies get away with it because the violence is cartoony or there’s a great sense of humor about things. This has that, to an extent, but the humor falls flat when it’s our heros getting their heads sawed off or arm chewed up. We can laugh when bad stuff happens to the bad guy, but we have to suffer along with our heros, and that made this film not very enjoyable to me.

I liked a lot of it — it’s stylishly shot, the plot is decent (standard revenge story), and the performances good (especially Rutger Hauer in the lead role) — but ultimately I didn’t enjoy it. Weird film in that regard, for I wanted to like it a lot. I’m still glad I saw it as it is interesting, but it’s definitely distasteful and caution should be exercised before viewing.

Topic: [/movie]


Sun, Feb 05, 2012

: Rubber

How in the world do I even begin to describe this hilariously bizarre film? It’s an odd film that to explain ruins it, so I’ll do my best to minimize any spoilers.

On the surface, it appears to be a classic B-movie horror concept: a sentient tire (yes, a tire) rolls through a desert town blowing up people’s heads with its mind.

If that description doesn’t make you want to see this, I don’t know what will!

But the film is much deeper than it sounds. It reminds me of a play where the audience is part of the show. In this case there is an audience in the film watching the film — which allows commentary on the film within the film. This takes everything to fantastic new levels. The film’s surreal, self-aware, and wonderfully inventive. Even when the film hits a boring spot the internal audience mocks that — automatically invalidating the criticism!

It’s a difficult film to explain further. I’ll just let you watch it. Note that it’s not perfect: there are aspects of the concept that don’t quite work and the film is limited by its genre, but it’s still remarkable and very entertaining. Highly recommended if absurdist horror-comedy appeals to you (it reminds me a lot of some of Peter Jackson’s early work).

Topic: [/movie]


Sat, Feb 04, 2012

: Zookeeper

Stupid and predictable in terms of the main storyline, but I’m a sucker for talking animal movies. Like most of those, this one is very uneven with only a few highlight jokes that are pretty good and a lot that fall flat or go on too long, but it’s still pleasant overall and not too obnoxious.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Feb 03, 2012

: Chronicle

I didn’t hold out much hope for this judging by the limp previews: the story seemed limited to some kids apparently obtaining powers of telekinesis. I also didn’t realize it was a “found footage” type of film or I would have been even more leery. But it turns out to be a very good film (for its type).

It’s sort of a cross between Cloverfield and Carrie. The plot is simple: a trio of boys find a mysterious thing underground and when they wake up later, they are all telekinetic. They discover that they get better at it with practice, but soon realize that their powers are dangerous and they need to be careful with them. The boys are not initially a group, but their powers allow them to unify. They help the social outcast become cool, but then everything backfires and bad things happen.

It’s this aspect of the film that makes it interesting: how would you or I react given superpowers? Would we use them for good or selfishly? The film realistically tackles this question, giving us several different answers, and it’s an entertaining ride.

The climax is over-the-top but interesting, and the found footage gimmick actually works well for this storyline. The cast of unknows is great (especially the nerdy kid, who strikes a perfect balance between unhinged and awkwardly cool) and the special effects are nicely subtle for the most part.

Still, the film is limited by its genre and filming technique. There are some rough moments and akward transitions and more than once the events strain credibility (both in terms of what happens and in the idea that such an event would just happen to be filmed). But it’s still a remarkable achievement for this kind of film. It’s definitely an interesting film worth seeing, a film that rises well above the norm for its genre.

Topic: [/movie]


Tue, Jan 31, 2012

: Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules

While I really liked the first film, this one isn’t nearly as good, though it gets better as it goes along.

The story is mostly about how the main character’s big brother is making his life hell and their constant bickering is grating and annoying and depressing to watch. Later, when they learn to live together, it’s better, but it feels like there needs to be more to the story. The plot elements are also too standard, with the kids throwing a party and trying not to get caught, and a talent show segment.

There are some funny moments, but a lot of what the big brother does is just too mean. Of course, I write this as someone who never had a brother growing up and it’s very possible I just don’t understand that sort of relationship, but I just can’t imagine being even remotely civil with someone who treated me that way.

Still, the movie is pleasant enough, definitely family-friendly, and it ends well, but it’s definitely a shadow of the first which seems even more classic in retrospect.

Topic: [/movie]


Mon, Jan 30, 2012

: The Grey

What a breathtakingly fantastic film!

I knew very little about this going in (I had not even watched a trailer) — all I knew was that it was a survival tale in Alaska, which didn’t sound that interesting as we’ve seen that sort of thing many times before.

I was a little confused at first, because it starts off awkwardly with flashbacks and such, and I thought that was a severe flaw in the film. But trust me — later on it makes total sense and there are important (and brilliant) reasons why it was done that way. Once the movie gets going and the plane crashes, it’s non-stop drama, terrifically done.

The story is elegantly simple: a group of oil workers on are on a flight to Anchorage when their plane crashes in the Alaskan wilderness in the middle of winter. Only a handful survive and as they struggle to cope with their situation, wolves show up and begin to pick off the men one by one.

This kind of story borrows a ton from Jack London’s stories — you really feel the desperation of the men and the wolves, and the pure fear and adrenaline rush when you see a black night and a pair of glowing eyes appear and then slowly, more and more and more and you realize there’s an entire pack of ravenous wolves just outside the light of your fire.

This is very realistically done, with a lot of variety in how the men die (it’s not just the same thing over and over). While there were a few places — common in films like this — where I wondered why the men didn’t do X or Y, for the most part the men do act rationally and do the right things to survive. (My primary question was: shouldn’t there have been an air marshall on the flight with a gun they could use?)

The film strikes a perfect balance between introspection and humor. My favorite example of this was where one man tells a tender-hearted story about his daughter and another craps on the story with a crude telling of an encounter with a fat prostitute and the first whines, “Here I was telling this heart-warming story about my daughter and you go and ruin it!” Just brilliant.

Toward the end the film tackles question of God — apropos considering the situation of the men — and I liked the way it was handled with no easy answers.

The performances all around are superb, but I must mention something I rarely discuss: sound design. Whoever did the sound on this film deserves an Oscar, because it is fantastic. Most of the time you really don’t see the wolves — they are just shadows lurking in the trees and you aren’t sure if they are even really there. But you hear them. The variety of sounds is fantastic: crackling of snow and ice, tree branches, growls, grunts, whines, classic howls, snarls, and countless other sounds that will send chills down your spine. Just amazing and a key reason this film will make your palms sweat.

Finally, a spoiler here — don’t read any further if you don’t want an idea of how this film ends. But I cannot discuss this film without comparing it to a film I absolute hated with a passion, The Perfect Storm. That film is a similar tragedy but it was pure depression. There was no point to it. There was no hope, nothing positive, nothing good. This film, while sad, leaves you invigorated. There’s a great line in the film where the main character talks about a life so pure that after living one minute you’re just desperate to live the next minute equally well. That describes the feeling of this film in a nutshell, for I didn’t leave the theatre sad, but wondering how I can live my life to the fullest. That is great filmmaking.

Topic: [/movie]


: Red Riding Hood

The trailers of this had me intrigued for the visual style looked impressive. But the reviews where terrible and it was gone from the theatres before I got a chance to see it. It’s pretty bad.

It’s not the worst and there are some good things. The ending is actually decent. Unlike many films which start off well and end weakly, this one is slow and meandering throughout and then has a nice twist at the end.

The concept is great: a wolf is terrorizing the village of Red Riding Hood but it’s not just any wolf — it’s a werewolf, and one of the villagers is the killer. The girl starts to wonder if it’s her boyfriend, or perhaps the man her parents have pledged her to marry.

Unfortunately, this “mystery” isn’t all that mysterious, and the love story is terribly unconvincing. (We’re given no background of the characters, just told they love each other, and we really don’t care.) The psychological “is he or isn’t he” aspect of the story, which should be fascinating, is so ineptly handled and so many suspects are presented that it’s just confusing (basically everyone is a suspect). Everything is tedious and boring, and the moments of drama are overdone.

That said, I did like the ending which actually made sense (that shocked me) and brought all the weird happenings together. But it was way too little too late. Also, the stylish visuals I liked from the trailer only happen in one or two places in the film; the rest of the time the film is surprisingly ordinary. Skip it.

Topic: [/movie]


Sat, Jan 28, 2012

: Bad Teacher

I wasn’t very interested in this when it came out, but caught it on a free HBO preview and was surprised by how much I liked it. The impression I’d had was that it was just dumb, full of rude potty jokes with a “bad” teacher who was an idiot. But she’s not stupid: she’s just scheming and lazy and self-centered. She was actually quite intelligent, going to some impressive extremes to get her way.

Basically she’s a pretty girl looking for a rich man to snag. The teaching job is just temporary so she doesn’t take it seriously. When her fiancé realizes she’s just there for his money and dumps her, suddenly her job is all she has. She ends up with a quirky rival who’s trying to out her as a bad teacher, while she’s trying to cheat and skate by showing her students movies every day and sleeping and doing drugs and booze.

She’s really a horrible person who’s only nice when she needs something from another, yet as the film goes on she slowly changes into a better person. I was impressed by how this character change was handled. It’s not an easy to think to pull off realistically, and when the key to the movie’s humor is her badness, you can’t have her be an angel or change overnight.

Usually dark comedies like this are uneven (think bad santa), but this one was consistent and worked pretty well. It’s a little slow on occasion and some of the humor misses (some of the supporting characters are too weird and don’t completely work), but the movie’s far better than I expected. Yeah, it’s definitely raunchy and crude, sometimes unnecessarily, but there is humor in the concept, and I liked that not all of the comedy comes from a teacher using the f-word or smoking pot. It’s actually a surprisingly smart film with a clever plot and a satisfying ending.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Jan 27, 2012

: Man on a Ledge

This is an odd movie to describe, since a key aspect to it is that you’re not supposed to know what else is happening beyond just a man threatening to jump off a building. The jump threat is just a distraction for the real story and that is actually the bulk of the film — but of course that can’t be talked about in reviews or the trailer leaving us with a movie we can’t discuss.

In a way this is two movies: in one the jumper and negotiator chat, while in another, a complex plan is being put to work. The awkward thing is that the story I can’t talk about without spoiling the film is the better of the two. I had thought the jumper/negotiator psychology would be fascinating, but unfortunately it’s so clear early on that it’s just a pretense, even by the people involved, that there’s not much going on at all. I found their scenes boring and pointless, and the negotiator does so little and leaves the man on a ledge alone for long periods of time that I wondered why she was even there. (The movie would have been better served to keep us in the dark longer, to show us the secondardy storyline but not reveal how the two were connected until later, thus investing more drama in the potential suicide. As it was, the suicide was treated as a joke.)

The ending is even more preposterous, with several different coincidences helping out our heroes and a couple of fake “the plan’s all ruined” moments that are somehow all work out in the end. I could have done without a lot of that and would have preferred a simpler, more linear ending. All that complexity just opens up major plot holes that take away from the realism. I also wasn’t impressed with the way all the people who’d been opposing our hero instantly change their tune at the end without even a murmur.

But all that said, I still liked this movie. It was fun and the dual story-line kept things moving. That secondary story was interesting and well-done (fairly realistic) and I found those other characters engaging (especially the spicy girlfriend who did not allow her character to just be eye candy). The performances are good and the direction and editing did well to make things exciting. It’s not a great movie, but it is enjoyable and there is tension and a little mystery. Worth a look if you’re curious and don’t expect too much.

Topic: [/movie]


: Miss Nobody

Fun little underated black comedy with the lovely Leslie Bibb somehow convincing as a wallflower secretary who discovers her way up the corporate ladder is by murdering her bosses and competitors. It’s delightfully done with her so innocent and naive and dumb luck helping her from getting caught as she learns to scheme. Not for all tastes and a touch predictable and inconsistent (as such movies tend to be), but I’m a sucker for this sort of humor and enjoyed this one a lot.

Topic: [/movie]


Thu, Jan 26, 2012

: Chloe

Director: Atom Egoyan

Strange film. It’s the type of film I want to like and it’s got a film noir vibe I did like, but it loses momentum throughout and the conclusion is terrible, abrupt and pointless and unsatisfying and feels like a Creative Writing 101 student cop out.

The basic concept is neat: an older wife becomes suspicious of her teacher husband and assumes he’s having affairs with his students. She hires a prostitute to test him, and to her horror, the woman tells her in explicit detail all the things her husband does with her. They keep meeting, the wife strangely fascinated, and soon those two are having an affair. There’s a little twist you see coming from page 1 of the script and when it does come, it’s barely dealt with, though it’s very important to the story. After that, things really go downhill and nothing makes much sense. It’s unfortunate, because there were some interesting moments and it’s an impressive cast.

In the end, it’s an interesting thriller, but one with more potential than success. It builds a lot of anticipation but doesn’t deliver. It’s not terrible and I did like much of it, but it’s a shame that the script wasn’t better. It’s apparently based on a French film, Natalie, which I think must be better and I’ll have to see some day.

Topic: [/movie]


Wed, Jan 25, 2012

: Freakonomics

Interesting documentary based on the popular book (which I have not read). I think I might have to check out the book. I didn’t know what it was about at all, but it’s basically using numbers and economic research to prove how the things we think we know we don’t. Some of the topics include a study on paying ninth graders for better grades, research on if your ordinary or unusual name has any effect on success in life, how seemingly moral sumo wrestlers cheat, why crime is down, and much more.

It’s a surprisingly entertaining and well-paced film, though I found the variety of animation and film-making styles to be a little jarring. Having different directors and animators do different parts is interesting, but is less coherent and some parts I didn’t like as well as others (i.e. the sumo wrestling bit was about four times as long as it needed to be for its point). Other segments — like the bribing of ninth graders — didn’t really seem to have a conclusion.

Ultimately it’s a little light on facts and heavy on frivolous entertainment and graphics, but it still very enjoyable and serves as a good introduction to the book.

Topic: [/movie]


Mon, Jan 23, 2012

: Underworld: Awakening

A surprisingly good return to the Underworld universe, this time set after humans have discovered the existence of vampires and lycan and have purged them into near extinction. The film’s never-really-explained-or-used McGuffin is a hybrid child sought for by the authorities and lycan, which our heroine (the eternally lovely Kate Beckinsale) tries to protect. The plot is really just an excuse for lots of acrobatic stunts, cheesy CGI effects, and very bloody killing (in 3D the blood splatters come right at you in a make-you-duck and look-at-your-shirt-for-stains kind of manner). Not much brainpower at work here, but who cares — it’s all in fun. I had a great time (though I prefer the more down-to-earth fighting style of Haywire).

Topic: [/movie]


Sat, Jan 21, 2012

: Haywire

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Interesting high-octane actioner with the standout being newcomer Gina Carano who’s apparently a real MMA fighter in her first movie role. She’s not only gorgeous, but does her own fight scenes in a way that is utterly believable. That’s an important aspect, because the plot involves her as a sort of contract spy being blackballed by her own organization and framed for murder. She’s on the lam and must outrun all the bad guys and cops searching for her.

Unfortunately, that plot, while it sounds terrific on paper, comes across as muddled and confusing in the film. The first part of the movie involves a lot of flashbacks and you really have no idea what’s going on for the first half hour or so. Once she’s on the run things pick up and get much better, but the unraveling of the “mystery” at the end is worse than anticlimactic: the earlier parts are so dramatic and mysterious that we’re really expecting an awesome twist and there’s nothing unexpected at all. (We already know who the bad guys is, we just don’t know why, and the reasoning, while perfectly plausible and fine, just isn’t interesting or worth all the conspiracy drama.)

But despite the weak plot, this is still an above average action film and well-worth seeing. If nothing else, it’s wonderful to see Gina who is a real star and impressive even in her non-action scenes. The direction is also terrific. I loved how several long scenes with seemingly nothing happening — just the girl walking along a city street, for instance — were shot with few to no cuts, which subtly increase our agitation and expectations that something bad is about to happen. Another thing I liked was that while this girl is obviously a bad-ass, everything is very realistically done: she’s not superhuman and takes hits as well as gives them and the whole story feels plausible.

Definitely a blast to watch. I could watch it again and enjoy it even more, I think. Just ignore the meaningless plot and watch it for the fun stunts and action.

Topic: [/movie]


Tue, Jan 17, 2012

: The Oxford Murders

Fascinating premise as an American student goes to Oxford in the hopes of meeting his idol, a famous professor who lectures on how nothing — except for mathematics — can actually be proven. When the two stumble upon a murder, they follow the leads and debate philosophy and math, as the killer seems to be sending them clues that form a mathematical pattern.

I really liked a lot of this, but unfortunately the twist ending — simply by its nature — undoes a lot of the work of the film. It’s really sort of a clever ending, but it’s cumbersome and not satisfying (similar to the conclusion of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, it is realistic but disappointing). There are also a lot of dry points throughout the film, and the murders and clues are not very entertaining (again, a consequence of the chosen plot).

Still, the performances are good (Elijah Wood and John Hurt) and several great moments are worth the price of admission alone. Good if you like your murder mystery mixed with math and philosophical debate.

Topic: [/movie]


Mon, Jan 16, 2012

: Tucker and Dale Versus Evil

Hilarious horror movie spoof as the two titular idiots are mistaken as hillbilly serial killers by a bunch of moron college students vacationing in the woods. The movie works this brilliantly, having a series of coincidences and bad timing contributing to the idea that the two are murderers, with several of students accidentally dying and the others thinking they were killed. The students go out for revenge and things really get crazy.

Totally awesome, with a pretty good serial killer plot to boot. Fun on multiple levels, a lot like the original Scream, which broke new ground in simultaneously being a parody and a horror film. A blast from start to finish.

Topic: [/movie]


Sun, Jan 15, 2012

: In Her Skin

I wasn’t too interested in this as it sounded eerily similar to The Lovely Bones as it’s about a vanished girl who’s already been murdered as her parents struggle to find out what happened to her. I thought I would just watch a few minutes of it to get a feel of it, but I ended up watching the whole thing.

There’s something compelling about this Australian film. It’s based on a true story and it seems more cold-blooded and grim than fiction. The murder is the most vile I have ever seen — and that includes horror and serial killer films. It’s just so bizarre and pointless and subtly weird.

The victim is a sweet, naive 15-year-old dancer. She’s killed by her former babysitter, a 19-year-old girl who thinks she is fat and ugly and is envious of the young dancer’s beauty. She really is crazy and her performance is what makes the film work. The scene where she looks in the mirror after the murder and is horrified to see it’s still her own face staring back at her is chilling. The murder itself is hard to watch: she strangles the unsuspecting and trusting girl and it takes considerable time. It’s really heartless.

I liked that the babysitter isn’t portrayed as sympathetic. She’s somewhat sympathetic, but it’s clear she’s a monster. It’s a performance full of grays and is quite mesmerizing.

Another aspect of the film I liked was the way the police treated the frantic family with such indifference. Because there was no evidence of assault, they assumed the girl simply ran away and wouldn’t do anything. It wasn’t until weeks later, after desperate efforts from the parents brought forth a witness who had seen something, that the cops finally took the matter seriously. For me that was the worst torture of all for the poor parents, who couldn’t even get anyone to believe that their daughter had been abducted and possibly harmed. It’s bad enough to have a child disappear; worse is having no one care!

All that said, the film is not without flaws. The structure of the film is a little like The Lovely Bones with the dead girl narrating and us watching the events from different points of views, but at times this switching feels heavy-handed and awkward.

There were also several scenes where the emotions of the actors felt odd. It isn’t that they were wrong — they could have been correct — but there was something about the way they were presented that made them feel wrong. A classic example is when the parents finally learn that their daughter is dead. They show no reaction at all and seem calm and strangely detached. It is only later than we get the heart-breaking sobs and wild emotion we expected. That probably is an accurate portrayal of emotion. I’ve often thought that the reactions of relatives on crime shows is poorly done as they seem to immediately go into grief when a more accurate reaction would be shock and disbelief. But the problem with this scene of the parents is that even if it is true, it feels false, and we the audience feel puzzled and baffled and distracted instead of emotional. We needed at least some indication that the family felt something: a single tear, a split-second of distressful horror, something. We got that emotional reaction a moment later and it was good, but it was late.

(Another scene that does this is when the father of the babysitter finds her unconscious on the floor. He shows no emotion or concern, calmly telling the police that she has epileptic fits and this is the way she ends up. The scene felt incredibly odd.)

Still, despite a few strange decisions and errors, the film overall holds up and is surprisingly good. Not pleasant, but definitely interesting and emotional.

Topic: [/movie]


Sat, Jan 14, 2012

: Twilight: Eclipse

I’m not a huge fan of the Twilight series and expected this one to be terrible, but it surprised me. It’s actually pretty good and my favorite of the bunch.

The story is very simple, which I liked. Basically someone (the bad vampire girl from a previous film) is out to kill Bella with an army of fresh vampires, so both the vampire and werewolf clans have to cooperate to protect her. This sets up Bella right in the middle of the conflict between the two who love her, giving her an agonizing decision. She wants to marry Edward and become a vampire, but she loves the wolf boy, too, and doesn’t want to hurt him.

Most of the time when I see such “I’m in love with two men” dilemmas they come across as phony and forced, with one man clearly the obvious choice. But here the dilemma is real. With Edward she can have immortality at the cost of living, but with the wolf she would stay human. This choice is combined with her pending high school graduation, which is perfect as everyone is thinking about their wide-open futures and if she becomes a vampire it is permanent, freezing her in time at that age and ending any chance of a normal life.

The solution to this dilemma is also excellent and I really liked the way it was handled. It revealed that Bella is actually growing up and is intelligent, something I hadn’t seen much of before.

Of course the film still has many flaws, including lame special effects and action, overdone vampire drama, lots of “mystery” mood that isn’t very mysterious, and distracting irrelevant plot stuff that should have been cut. The worst was the nitpicking and irritating fighting between the two male leads. Yeah, we get that vampires and wolves don’t like each other. But they are so annoying we don’t want to be in the same room as their bickering!

But despite some problems, the core of the film is quite good and I actually liked it.

Topic: [/movie]


: Foundation

Author: Isaac Azimov

This is a classic bit of science fiction that I’d somehow managed to avoid reading until now. A while back I read part of this book but never finished it. This time I bought the audio version and finished it. It’s very good and holds up surprisingly well even after 60 years.

Its major flaw is also its key gimmick, which is that the book takes place over hundreds of years and covers a lot of fictional history quickly. The premise is that a radical scientist has predicted the fall of the galactic empire thousands of years into the future and set plans in motion to prevent catastrophe. He can’t prevent the fall itself — that is inevitable — but he can minimize the darkness that follows, reducing the chaos to a thousand years instead of 30,000. His predictions are eerily accurate, as he re-appears from the dead in video form right on schedule during crises, having recorded speeches prior to his death.

While this is fascinating, the nature of such a spread-out novel can be tedious. We are offered deeper glimpses into various points of history, but this makes the book feel more like a collection of related stories instead of a novel. We don’t get the richness of characterization and plot of novel: everyone feels like mere sketches. Unfortunately, that is simply a drawback of this particular kind of story. To tell the entire galatic history in full novel form would be an encyclopedic venture and would take a lifetime to read!

So I basically get out of this what I can: I enjoy the little stories of conflict and resolution, and I marvel that Hari Seldon’s science can predict human behavior so many centuries in advance.

Topic: [/book]


Fri, Jan 13, 2012

: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Director: David Fincher

I liked the book and the Swedish film and I wasn’t sure how I felt about an American remake. I worried it might just be a competent version without adding anything new, but in the end it does enough I think it’s just a little better than than original film.

It’s definitely easier to understand what’s going on (and that nothing to do with the fact that original is subtitled). The book is incredibly complicated and this film does a great job making all that plot understandable. It is loyal to the source material for the most part, though they changed a few things for the better. I’ll spoil things slightly by mentioning two examples I liked.

One was having the girl’s original guardian not die, but have a stroke, so there are a couple of extra scenes with two of them later in the film. I thought the actor who played her guardian, despite not having a single line in the film, had one of the best performances. All we saw was his stiff, stroke-paralyzed body, unable to convey emotion, yet somehow he did. Amazing. Another change for the better was inclusion of a follow-up scene with the scummy lawyer in an elevator where Lisbeth reminds him of his promises and leaves him shuddering in terror. I felt like both the book and the first film dropped the lawyer story a little too easily so this quick follow-up was perfect (especially her final line to “stop looking at tattoo-removal websites”).

The film makes a few other changes that are not so good. I didn’t like that Lisbeth didn’t set fire to the car (it just blows up on its own). It’s a minor detail but key to her character and I don’t know why they changed it. Even more baffling is her asking Mikael for permission to kill the bad guy. That struck me as utterly out of character and I don’t know why that was in there.

Other “improvements” are more murky. I liked that they included some of the ending elements from the book that weren’t in the first movie (the stealing of the money, tracking down what happened to Harriet, etc.), but some aspects of how they accomplished all of that felt awkward and forced. They don’t ruin the movie but are simply different.

One sort of strange decision is that though the film is still set in Sweden (I had thought they were going to change to the U.S.), everyone in the film speaks English but with Swedish accents. This seems unnatural but worse than that, it makes some of the characters difficult to understand. With such an elaborate and complicated plot, understanding dialog is critical, and this works against that. It’s not a problem all the time, but on occasion it’s troublesome.

But overall I was very impressed by the whole production: the direction, sets, and script were all first-rate, and the performances were fantastic (especially Daniel Craig who was a perfect Mikael) and I thought Rooney Mara was great in a tough role (even more so considering how great Noomi Rapace was in the Swedish version). They fixed a few flaws in the original film but added a few others, so in some ways this is a wash (and I’d have no issues with someone preferring the Swedish movie), but overall I enjoyed this one more. It was just clearer and easier to understand. I thought I might be bored having both read the book and seen the other movie, but I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this. They came very close to making it perfect.

(There still are flaws from the book that made it into the film, in particular the whole mess with the numbers and Bible verses, which still makes no sense. I was especially frustrated by how close they came to fixing the awkward link between the verses and the murders. They set it up perfectly with the cop mentioning the Rebecca murder, but since he didn’t actually reveal the unusual way she was killed, there was no way Mikael could connect the verses with Rebecca’s murder, yet he does so anyway in a skip of logic.)

Topic: [/movie]