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]