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]