Tue, Dec 31, 2013

: Seven Psychopaths

Strange movie. I wanted to love it. I love the quirky sense of humor and I don’t mind weird — but I never could quite get a handle on what the heck this film was. It reminded me of odd British comedy-dramas like Snatch and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, but it wasn’t quite as over-the-top and that made its identity more confusing.

This film mixes reality with a screenwriter’s new script, which is called Seven Psychopaths, and features characters in the film. The blend of reality and fiction is fun, but confusing, and by then end of the film I was expecting some big reveal that most of what we’d seen was just in the script and not real.

There are a lot of cool characters, and some fun psychopaths, and it’s got an amazing cast, but everything feels a little forced, like the writers are trying too hard to make stuff outrageous or funny.

The basic plot is… well, I guess it’s mainly about how the screenwriter’s friend, who’s a professional dog-napper, kidnaps a Bad Guy’s dog and he turns out to be a psychopath and wants revenge. The dog-napper gets his screenwriter buddy involved in the mess and they’re on the run while at the same time trying to finish the screenplay.

It’s not a terrible film at all — it’s got a ton going for it. It just didn’t completely work for me. I’d give it a solid B, though there are a few scenes that are A+. The cast, especially Christopher Walken, are worth the price alone.

Topic: [/movie]


Sat, Dec 21, 2013

: Identity Thief

The basic story is about an average guy stuck in a 9-to-5 and struggling to make ends meet for his family, when everything goes upside down after he’s the victim of identity theft. When he finds out the theft is in a distant state and the local cops can’t do anything and it will take a year to straighten out the bureaucrat mess (with his life in ruins in the meantime), he decides to track down the thief himself and convince her to come back to Colorado with him and tell his boss the truth so he won’t lose his job.

Yeah, pretty thin, but it gives us a bizarre road trip movie with two people who don’t like each other and slowly learn that each has something to offer the other.

It’s not as raunchy as I’d feared, but still has a few crude moments that feel out of place and odd. Several times it’s like the writers were painting by numbers and said, “Ah, it’s been five minutes since we’ve had a vulgar joke so we need one here.” Then they go ahead and insert it even if it doesn’t fit the characters or the scene.

Still, there’s a lot of fun here and some surprising heart. Definitely not for kids, but amusing. My favorite part by far was when the thief connects with the man’s children at the dinner table by smearing food on her face — just amazingly tender and hilarious. From a child’s perspective, you just know they’re going to adore her forever.

Topic: [/movie]


Tue, Dec 17, 2013

: A Game of Thrones: A Song of Ice and Fire: Book One

Author: George R.R. Martin

I’ve been curious about this since the series first launched on HBO and I got to see the first episode for free, but I wanted to read the book before watching the series. It’s taken a while. I’ve been listening to the audiobook for months! It just goes on and on and on and on. It’s not uninteresting at all, but it’s such a mammoth tale that it feels like there is no conclusion.

It’s a difficult book/series to describe. It’s a fantasy like Lord of the Rings but in a more Medieval setting, with knights and kings, battles and betrayals, and plenty of blood and sex. There’s magic and supernatural stuff, but in this first book that’s mostly only hinted at (I suspect that more is coming later in the series). It’s basically a sprawling epic with thousands of characters (and this is just the first book).

To give you a brief overview of the myriad characters we have three basic groups of people:

  • Queen Lanister, her son and twin brother, and her other relatives and friends, who are trying to take over the throne.
  • Lord Ned Stark and his many children (ranging in age from 9 to 15), who rule the wintery land of the North. He’s been asked by his old friend, the King, to become the King’s “Hand” (his right-hand man) after the previous Hand died (we later learn it was murder).
  • A brother and his thirteen-year-old sister who are distant exile, the last of their line, and apparently the original heirs to the throne who were defeated. As the novel starts the brother sells his sister to be the wife of a wealthy savage (he has 100,000 men on horses) in exchange for an army that he will lead to defeat the current king and regain his family’s throne.

What works is the awesome level of detail and vivid world history in the story. The characters are all three-dimensional and the verisimilitude of the setting is amazing. There’s eons of history to draw from, multiple cultures with their own traditions and languages, and very real conflicts. The writing is excellent, and the plots are as intricate and fascinating as spiderwebs.

The main flaw I note is the one that nagged me throughout this book, and sadly, even after I finally finished it: the question of why. Why was this written? What is the point? What am I supposed to get out of it? Is this mere entertainment or is there a higher purpose?

While it’s wonderful to have such well-rounded and non-black-and-white characters, this series does not really give us clearcut heroes. Pretty much everyone is somewhat evil or at least it seems that way. I suppose that’s more like real-life, but it makes for depressing reading. There’s no one really to cheer or root for, and I really have no idea where the series is going (and in a way, nor do I much care since I can’t cheer for any particular character). There are people in the stories that I like and admire, and there are some that are wonderfully bad, and most of the characters are very interesting — but there’s really nothing here for me to sink my teeth and say, “Ah ha! This is who the story is about.”

Now it’s very possible that the story is just so massive (we’re up to five huge books now, out of a planned seven) that such a core character will be revealed later in the series, but I’m sure I don’t have the patience for that. While I like complexity and realism, there is a limit. This book left me dead inside. While it is fascinating and entertaining, and I’m curious what will happen to the various people, I just don’t care enough about anything. The world the story is set in is distant and strange, and I’m honestly not even sure if these people are human. They’re violent, nasty, and cruel, and the world they live in is violent, nasty, and cruel. There are wars and beheadings and maimings and rapes and murders and very little in the way of anything nice. There are some innocent children in the story, but they don’t stay that way for long in such an environment.

Ultimately the questions I had when I started reading this are still unanswered. Why was this written? What am I supposed to get out of it? It is mere entertainment? At least with a traditional good-versus-evil story we know who to root for and why. This is just nasty people stabbing equally nasty people in the back.

Now I do like the way the book sets things up for the future: we’ve got a lord with a bunch of children that each are having their own adventures, and I’m fascinated to watch them grow up and see what becomes of them. But that’s the big picture. Judging this book by itself, it’s woefully incomplete despite being a zillion pages long.

That said, I have started watching the TV series and while I see some differences — plot points condensed, new scenes written to give us information in a different way, and typical arbitrary changes for unknown reasons — I am enjoying the TV version far more than the book. It moves at a faster pace and yet it’s more understandable. The book is so vast with so many characters that I have trouble keeping track of who is related to who and what the relationships are, especially when certain people go for hundreds of pages without a mention, while the TV series makes that much more clear.

I’m glad I read the book, but I don’t recommend it except for the most avid readers. For most people the TV show is far more accessible. I basically could have watched all 30+ hours of the three years of the TV show in the time to took me to listen to this one book! So watch the show — I really like it — and if you’re infatuated with this world you can always explore the books later.

Topic: [/book]


Sun, Dec 15, 2013

: Jack the Giant Slayer

This is a fascinating film. Not because of anything in it, but because it was a giant flop (ha ha) at the box office. I was going to see it but the early feedback was so negative I didn’t bother.

What’s wrong with it? That’s the interesting thing: not that much. It’s actually got a decent story that’s a retelling of the Jack and the Beanstalk tale, but with enough new twists and turns to make for something entirely new. The special effects are ridiculous — over-the-top and just so outrageous it’s unbelievable that any movie producer would even consider making a film this effects-driven. We’re talking hundreds of digital giants, castle destruction, skyscraper beanstalks, and much more. It’s almost too much.

The real problem is that this film doesn’t quite know what it is. Is it a comedy? Not really, though it feels absurd enough that it could be. But it doesn’t go far enough or have consistent jokes to be a comedy. Is it a drama? It takes itself surprisingly seriously considering the material, and there are moments that feel like they’re supposed to be dramatic… only considering the type of film is this they fall flat.

This problem what type of movie it is also spread into the marketing, which didn’t know how to promote it. My impressions of what the trailers claimed this was and to what it turned out to be are almost opposites. Sure, I got the basic Beanstalk story I expected, but I didn’t get any of the serious peril and death that are actually in the movie. Instead, the trailer made the action look cartoonish and silly, and there didn’t seem to be a plot.

That’s a shame, because the plot is what makes this work. It’s impressively clever, explaining away various differences and similarities of the original tale, and I liked that they made changes such as making Jack smart. (For example, he doesn’t just trade a horse for magic beans — the beans are collateral he’s supposed to take to the abbey the next day to exchange for cash.)

There are several clever twists in the plot I really liked: it starts going one direction that seems predictable and then veers off in another way. I also really liked the way the naive Jack is actually able to battle the giants: it was believable.

But all that said, there are notable flaws. The script’s schizophrenic and inconsistent. There’s some excellent dialog — and some of the worst I’ve ever heard (my nominee is the “barking up the wrong beanstalk” line). The tone of the film is all over the place, ultra-realistic at times and cartoonish at others; it’s confusing. There’s a dull lifelessness to things at the beginning and it takes too long for the story to get going: for me that didn’t happen until we get a glimpse of the villain and his plans for domination.

These mistakes are awkward but not deal-breakers: many films are similarly weak but still work. I was surprised at how much I actually enjoyed this. The special-effects are great and the story is clever. It’s just our expectations weren’t set correctly by the marketing and this thing was doomed from the start. It’s sad to see such wasted potential. I think you’d like this if you go in with lower expectations and prepare yourself for a slightly more serious movie than you’d think.

Topic: [/movie]


Sat, Dec 14, 2013

: Pitch Perfect

I was curious about this when it came out: it sounded fun, and some of the singing scenes looked impressive. But it seemed too predictable: an a capella group made up of misfit girls competing for a trophy… I wonder what’s going to happen?

It’s actually surprisingly decent. It could use more depth and there’s a little bit of gross-out humor that I found distracting (a singer barfing on stage, way overdone). But the music and singing numbers are the best parts — lots of great songs, cool performances, and who doesn’t like to see the underdogs rise up and triumph over the smug know-it-alls? Predictable, yes, but with moments of magic. I enjoyed it.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Dec 13, 2013

: Snitch

It took me a little while to figure out the key problem with this film: it’s the casting of Dwayne Johnson (a.k.a. The Rock) as the lead. It’s not that he’s bad — he’s actually very good — the problem is that when The Rock stars in a film we expect it to be a big action movie. This is not.

This is actually a thoughtful, serious film about what happens when an untrained regular guy goes undercover to catch drug dealers so that he can help his son get a reduced sentence. Instead of The Rock beating up guys, he gets beat up — he’s not the tough guy we’re used to seeing. I believe that turned a lot of people off of this film as it just isn’t why people go see his movies. If the lead had been played by a character actor such as Edward Norton, this would have engendered a very different (and much more positive) reaction.

As it is, I liked it. It’s got flaws — we don’t really care about the incarcerated son that’s the core motivation of the dad, the pacing is uneven, there are some awkward plot points and there’s not really enough action, and the ending’s mediocre — but it’s realistic and surprisingly thoughtfully done. That in itself is probably a flaw: the film takes itself and its topic too serious (the opening “Based on a true story” text and closing summary text are examples of that). Still, it’s interesting and not horrible at all. Just don’t expect an action movie.

Topic: [/movie]


: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

I enjoyed the first film and while I was looking forward to this one, I wasn’t sure what to expect, especially since they’re apparently splitting the book into three behemoth movies.

To my delight, this is an even better film. The story is somewhat slim as the bulk of the film’s running time is made up of action. Scenes that just take a page or two in the novel, are major action set pieces in the movie. Usually in those situations there’s a part of me just wants to get on with the plot, but to my surprise, the action is so well-done and compelling that I wasn’t the least bit bored. It’s really some of the best action I’ve ever seen.

As one example, we must see hundreds of grotesque Orcs killed throughout the film — but every death shown is different and interesting, and often with black humor.

As for the story, it’s mostly the second half of the book: going through Mirewood, meeting the wood Elves, escaping in the barrels, and eventually confronting Smaug the dragon. However, that basic story has been expanded with an Elf-Dwarf semi-romance, Gandalf confronting the Necromancer, and several other subplots. Much of this extraneous stuff isn’t strictly necessary, but it’s not boring, and it builds up suspense in the main storylines. It also sets up what happens in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and I’m guessing that it’s setting up the third film in this series. (More on that in a minute.)

The utter delight of the film — just like Gollem was in the previous series — is Smaug the dragon. Not only is he a visual treat, but he’s a real character, superbly voiced, and there’s extensive interaction between him and Bilbo and the dwarves. The action scenes with the dragon are so amazingly well done that I watched ten minutes of the action before it occurred me to that the actors were all performing with no dragon in sight — since he was added digitally later. Usually I’m keenly aware of such a technicality as the interaction does not feel true. Here you just get lost in the mesmerizing story and characters and completely forget — like with Gollem — that the dragon isn’t real.

Smaug is worth the price of admission alone, though I cannot neglect to mention the impressive performance of Evangeline Lily (from the Lost TV series) who is just awesome in every way as the elf Tauriel. I didn’t recognize her in the film and kept wondering who the fantastically beautiful and yet clearly talented actress was: not only was her Elvish convincing, but she was incredible in the action sequences as well.

Not to be outdone, all the dwarves are also splendid, particularly Richard Armitage as Thorin. The entire cast is flawless, really, a real rarity in movies (I usually always find at least one or two people that feel miscast to me).

In short, this is a must-see film. It’s breath-takingly beautiful, dramatic, thrilling, and emotional. About the only negative I have is that it literally ends in the middle of a sentence — we have to wait for part three to find out what happens.

That brings up the most interesting aspect of this trilogy: I am both excited and wary of the next film. On the one hand, I can’t wait, but on the other, this film exhausts almost all of the novel, so what will part three be about? Granted, Tolkien did write extensive histories and notes that the producers can rely upon for additional material, but I worry that the final movie, which is usually the strongest, could end up the weakest. But the other side of the coin is that part three could end up being the least predictable and the most surprising and interesting simply because I have no idea what it will be about!

Topic: [/movie]


Thu, Dec 05, 2013

: The Book Thief

This is a marvelous film. Being a bookworm, I was intrigued by title; finding out it is set in the horror WWII and deals with a young girl escaping her life through literature, I was sold and went without even watching a trailer.

It was different than I expected. My first surprise is that the girl in question is German, which gives us a different perspective of the war. She’s an orphan sent to live with foster parents, which is an adventure, and she’s just lost her beloved little brother. Most surprising of all, she’s illiterate — and it’s her quest to learn to read, combined with the Nazi regime’s policy of book burning, that prompts her to become a book thief.

My biggest worry was that this would be a depressing film. My second worry was that it might be schmaltzy. Neither was a problem at all. The film is wonderfully engaging, and though it deals with serious topics, it’s not a downer at all. It’s not overly sentimental, either. There’s humor, wonder, and adventure, in addition to tragedy.

The best thing about the film undoubtedly is the casting of the Book Thief herself, as she’s in almost every scene and carries the film. Young Sophie Nélisse is just marvelous, with a subtlety to her acting I found astonishing. When she first meets her foster parents, for instance (my favorite scene in the whole film), she’s sour and reluctant to emerge from the vehicle. Her strict foster mother yells at her to no avail, but it’s her tender-hearted foster father — awesomely portrayed by the inimitable Geoffrey Rush — who greets her with a bow and a “Your Majesty.” Her reaction is perfect. At first she stubbornly refuses to be won over by his charm, but a moment later, as she gets out of the car, there’s the faintest flash of a smile, a tiny upcurling of the edges of her mouth. It disappears almost instantly, but it’s enough for us to glimpse the human side of the traumatized girl. Just precious and perfect. She’s my vote for an Oscar, no question.

Almost everyone else is good, though I found a few of the German accents off-putting and fake. (I don’t know who made the decision to have everyone speak English with German accents — they should either speak normally or in German. Nothing else makes sense.) There are a few other minor complaints — the blond boy was a weak actor, though he looked the part; the closeup of a book’s text at one point clearly showed it was modern typesetting (with horrible straight quotes no less); the term “soccer” is used instead of “football,” which would never happen in Germany; and I didn’t understand why the girl, who beat up a boy earlier, stood and watched later when a boy was hurting her friend — but these are relatively minor things.

Overall, it’s a terrific, mesmerizing film that will haunt you for days. The story is simple and elegant, and not overly done. I can’t compare it to the novel as I haven’t read that (yet), but the film is definitely one I wouldn’t mind seeing multiple times.

Topic: [/movie]


Tue, Dec 03, 2013

: Warm Bodies

I was curious about this interesting take on a zombie movie (in this case a zombie falls in love with a human), but I missed it in theaters. It’s actually really good.

I’m not crazy about the way the zombies talk in the film — it sounds way too sophisticated and they use contractions and full sentences — but other than that they do a good job of making the love story plausible.

The direction is clever and interesting, and the plot is simple but effective, as a cure is sought for the zombies’ situation. The ending is Hollywood but I liked it.

Topic: [/movie]


Sun, Dec 01, 2013

: Broken City

Usually this type of crime drama isn’t my cup of tea. This one is predictable (a corrupt Mayor and the ex-cop-now-PI trying to bring him down) and dreary, and the main guy (played by Mark Wahlberg) has zero personality (perfect casting).

Yet despite all that, I actually watched this. Maybe the predictability helps, as you want to see if what you thought really comes to pass. It’s got a hint of something that makes it slightly above average and it’s not terrible. It’s not great as there’s little remarkable here, but it’s mildly entertaining if you’re in the right mood.

Topic: [/movie]


Sat, Nov 23, 2013

: Solo: A Memoir of Hope

Author: Hope Solo (and Ann Killan)

I’m not usually much into biographies, so I was surprised at how much this one captivated me. I read it within a 24-hour period. I couldn’t put it down.

I’m a huge soccer fan and I love Hope Solo, the goalkeeper for the U.S. Women’s National Team. I’ve followed her career but didn’t know much about her past. This book is an incredibly intimate look at her trouble life.

Hope’s always been outspoken and frank, and this book is no different. She unflinchingly talks about her father’s criminal life and bizarre behavior, her dysfunctional family life, her own sometimes inappropriate lifestyle, the 2007 World Cup controversy where she was suddenly benched before the big semi-final with Brazil — a game the USA lost horribly — and where her critical post-match comments ostracized her from her teammates who felt betrayed, as well as the tremendous triumphs of winning Gold medals in the Olympics and World Cup.

The story of Hope’s childhood and family I found very moving. The love-hate relationship she had with her father is heart-breaking. On the one hand, he could be a great dad at times, but other times he betrayed Hope’s mother, was incredibly unreliable, and committed crimes. One of my favorite scenes is a tiny one: Hope writing about how ashamed she was when she saw her father stealing coins from Hope’s friend’s car when given a ride (he was homeless at the time). So sad and tragic.

Yet despite everything, Hope managed to keep her family somewhat together, and she and her father eventually had a good relationship — right before he suddenly died. I’d heard bits and pieces of that story in the media but hadn’t realized what a profound story it was: Hope had sought a relationship with her missing dad her whole life and just as she finally got it and he was getting his own life together, he’s taken away. Worse, that happened just before a major tournament where Hope needed to be focused.

Another part I really liked about this book was learning about all the behind-the-scenes of the women’s soccer team. I had known there was some bad blood, but hadn’t realized just how bad it was (or who was on which side). While Hope clearly presents her own views of the situations, she does so in a way that doesn’t feel phony as though she’s attempting to rewrite history to paint herself in a more favorable light. She seems willing to admit when she’s wrong and when she makes mistakes (goalkeepers have to be good at that) and her perspective feels genuine. That’s impressive.

It was also fun reliving the highs and lows of various tournaments. I had not realized just how badly Hope was injured prior to the 2011 World Cup and the amount of physical therapy and medical treatments she had to undergo just to play.

There are some negative things you learn about her in the book: it’s easy to put our athletes up on a pedestal (especially clean-cut female athletes) and think of them as angels, so it can be troubling having that view shattered. For example, most of the sounds bites we hear are censored (or at least carefully selected), so it can be a shock to see that Hope — and others - use a lot more profanity than is necessary.

Still, that’s a core theme of the book: Hope is basically giving a big middle finger to whoever wants to judge her. While she seems to accept the burden of being an idol, she doesn’t want the pressure of living up to that impossible standard to break or change her.

Ultimately, this is a fantastic book. It’s incredibly well-written and almost disturbingly honest. It’s definitely worth the read if you’re into soccer or the women’s national team. I came away with a much deeper understanding and a deeper appreciation of Solo as an athlete, and as a person.

Topic: [/book]


Fri, Nov 22, 2013

: Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Usually for movies based on books I prefer to read the book first. With the first movie I did that and I was glad I did as the book was far superior. With this movie, I ran out of time to read the book and I decided to do it in the reverse order. That can be dangerous, because first impressions count and if the film changed something I might feel that’s canonical and dislike the book’s version of events.

In the case of Catching Fire, it’s too early to tell if that will be a problem (I still haven’t read the book yet), but I’m hopeful that it won’t be an issue. That’s because I really liked the movie and it felt quite complete to me. I’m sure the book gets into more detail, but the basics that were there in the film felt very good (unlike the first film, where events felt rushed and abbreviated).

This film has some pacing issues — it’s very hard to know the actual timeline of the events. The film begins with our heroes going on a victory tour right after winning the Hunger Games, but suddenly it’s time for the next games — which I thought were held just once a year.

In the first film, a lot had to be done to establish the setting; here we know the main characters and the back story and can just right down to business. I suppose someone who hasn’t seen the first film will be puzzled — there’s not much of explanation of what previously happened (though the reminders are sufficient for those who saw it) — but I doubt too many will be seeing this that haven’t seen the first film.

The acting, sets, and drama in this one is excellent. My favorite way is how the author is pacing the plot and making it extremely believable: we know Catniss is a hero for a revolution, but she can’t just jump there overnight. In the first book it’s just about her survival. In this one she learns that others are in the fight as well. I assume that in the final book we’ll actually have war, with her being a leader. That’s exactly right. We’re seeing Catniss grow up and that’s awesome. (The Harry Potter books also do that very well.)

I really liked this film. It’s much better than the first one, it part because it has a simpler mission, but it’s also a more powerful emotional story. Here we see more of what life is like in this terrible regime, and the emotional stories of the victims aren’t rushed through like in the first film. It’s possible I’ll revise my opinion a little after I read the novel, but seeing the film without reading the book I’m surprised at how much I liked it. It’s also motivating me to read the book, which I shall do soon.

Topic: [/movie]


Tue, Nov 19, 2013

: Ender’s Game

What a beautiful novel.

It’s been a long time since I read it and I loved it even more this time around. It’s a novel that speaks to me as though it was written specifically to me. It’s a bit scary in that sense. I feel like I understand the character of Ender better than a brother — better than myself.

I was a lot like Ender as a kid. Older than my years, understanding things adults didn’t know I did, and that knowledge complicating my relationships with others and alienating me from my peers. Like Ender, I didn’t really fit in with anyone.

Of course, that’s only a fraction of what the novel is about. It’s also about war and xenocide, the nature of humanity, fate, religion, and much, much more. What I love is that despite such complex topics at its core, the novel approaches them via a simple story (in terms of plot). Ender’s just a little boy, bred to be a strategic genius, with the humble mission of saving all of humanity.

It’s brilliant. If he was an adult, our perspective of everything he does would be completely different, but since he’s so young, we’re forced to ask ourselves a million questions about his motivations — and ours. Is he evil? Is he innocent? Are his actions justified or is there blood on his hands?

Let’s cut to the chase: the book’s a must-read. Not just for those into science fiction, but everyone. If you’re a human being, you need to read the book. It’s that simple. It will change you, make you realize what being human means, and the world will be a better place with you in it after that.

(And if you’re not a human, then you still need to read it to help you understand us.)

Topic: [/book]


Sun, Nov 17, 2013

: The Call

I liked the premise of this movie — a teenage girl is abducted and calls 911 from the trunk of a moving car and the operator has to try and locate her so she can be rescued — but I wasn’t sure where it was going.

Sure enough, the first half of the movie, the part about the girl in the trunk, is really excellent. It’s dramatic, different, and interesting. After that, however, it descends into a typical crazy serial killer film, and it gets really absurd when the 911 operator actually goes detective and sets off on her own to search for clues. That second half doesn’t ruin the film, but it does weaken it, and the ending is a bit strange and left a weird taste in my mouth.

Still, overall I liked the movie. It moves at a fast pace and has some good performances and scenes. It’s unfortunately not as great as it could be, mostly because the end becomes stereotypical and predictable, but it’s still better than most films of this type. A good cast, decent direction, and some cool scenes make this recommended.

Topic: [/movie]


Sat, Nov 16, 2013

: Tomorrow, When the War Began

This is a fascinating little Australian film along the lines of Red Dawn. Some teens are out camping in the wilderness and when they return home, they discover that an invasion has taken place. All their homes are empty, their families either killed or taken to a prison camp inside the town. The teens finally take action to repel the invaders, and fight back even though it might mean their lives.

What I liked about this is the pacing: the teens don’t even start fighting back until past the halfway point in the film. The fighting’s realistic, too, unlike similar movies where untrained kids are somehow able to beat adult commandos with real weapons. This feels far more realistic and therefore scary and thought-provoking.

I also liked that the main character is a girl; that brings a different feel to the experience.

The film emphasizes the relationships between the teenage characters more than the plot; unfortunately, the characters aren’t all that interesting, so the film drags at times and meanders at others. (There isn’t much action until the final third, so this is definitely not an action movie or even a war movie. There’s a lot more of people running and hiding and talking about what should be done than shooting. I actually think that’s a good thing.)

But it’s still an interesting film and I liked it overall. The cast is remarkable, the visuals and direction are excellent, and the ending is definitely non-Hollywood. It’s worth seeing if the subject matter interests you.

Topic: [/movie]


Tue, Nov 12, 2013

: Ender’s Game

I wanted to wait to see this until I’d finished re-reading the book, but didn’t quite make it. As usual, the book is definitely different — and better — but the movie is good. If you haven’t read the book, you’ll probably think the movie’s excellent.

If you aren’t familiar with the story, it’s brilliantly simple: it’s set in the future about 100 years after mankind was devastated by an alien invasion and we only just survived. Since then, earth has been preparing for a return of the invaders, seeking a new brilliant battle commander who would be capable of defeating the aliens once and for all. Ender is a little boy genius who’s shipped off to military school to play wargames and learn strategy while high-minded adults basically manipulate everything around him to toughen him and turn his brilliance into a ruthless military leader. It’s an amazing story of psychology.

Some of that ends up in the film, but sadly not all. The acting is decent, though not as dramatic as it should be, and the visuals and special effects are excellent. The ending is particularly moving and makes the whole movie.

But frustrating for those who love the novel, the film essentially misses out on two of biggest features of the book. Both of these are puzzling omissions.

The first is that the book really gets inside Ender’s head: we see what he sees and feel what he feels. That’s completely gone in the movie and is a horrible miss. Ender isn’t the same character; we don’t really know or understand him. He’s not really drawn any more deeply than any other character, and the rest are just sketches. Ender’s the most fascinating thing about the book: a character of contradictions and confusion, a boy pretending to be a man, a boy asked to make adult decisions, a ruthless killer who doesn’t want to hurt anyone. We lose all that in the film, reducing Ender to a mere child prodigy.

The second thing is a change that I can understand why Hollywood did it, but I disagree vehemently with the decision. If I’d been involved, I wouldn’t have made the movie with this change since it is such a fundamental part of the story. In the novel, Ender is just six years old at the beginning. That’s a huge detail. Not only does it make all of his accomplishments and genius all the more impressive, but it makes the dangerous things he’s encouraged to do more dangerous. It’s one thing seeing a petite teen beating a bully to a pulp, but it’s quite another seeing a six-year-old do it.

Sadly, Hollywood chose to use the same actor as Ender for the entire movie, meaning that we almost completely lose out on the shock of his youth. This also has a side effect of compressing the timeframe of the entire story: instead of it taking place over half a decade of training, everything seems to happen within a few months. This is a small detail, but it has ramifications throughout and it diminishes one of the novel’s most powerful aspects. Seeing six-year-old Ender utterly humiliate 12-year-olds in simulated battle is just amazing, and it helps explain his isolation and loneliness. We don’t get that at all in the film.

There are other flaws in the film, but they are more scene-specific. Some are understandable — combining multiple characters into a single one in order to save time — but others are strange. For instance, while the bullying character of Bonzo looks great and fits the role perfectly, he’s a full head shorter than Ender, which is just absurd. Sure, the lead actor is slight of build, but when he’s looking down at a sneering Bonzo it feels like their roles are reversed and Ender’s the bully.

Another scene that annoyed me is the first fight scene. The way it’s done in the film is so rushed we never get any sense that Ender was actually threatened, we never feel Ender’s pain at having to hurt someone else just to protect himself, and we totally miss out on the ruthlessness and devastation he causes when he finally defends himself. It’s a baffling scene that I bet most people would barely understand (and if they did understand, they’d probably have gotten the point of it wrong since it was so mismanaged).

Yet somehow despite all these flaws, the film is still fairly decent. It’s different from the novel, but hints at the basic story’s greatness. The ending is powerful and moving, asking a lot of profound questions about the nature of war, and that helps make up for a lot of the shallowness of the earlier parts of film. Overall it’s definitely worth seeing, though I’d recommend that everyone read the novel, which is a classic and must-read.

Topic: [/movie]


Sun, Oct 20, 2013

: Lawless

I skipped this in the theaters as it didn’t seem my cup of tea, but it turned out to be pretty good. In the glimpses I’d gotten I’d thought it was a Western, but it’s about hillbilly bootleggers during Prohibition. There’s a lot of horrific violence, but everything’s stylized and dramatic, and the action is pretty entertaining.

There’s a lot I didn’t like: the overdone accents are almost intelligible (I had to frequently rewind and read the closed captions to figure out what characters were saying), and the music is absolutely atrocious. (I guess it’s supposed to be topical somehow, but I just found it annoying and off-putting, though I did like the one song during the closing credits that seemed to be a real hillbilly singing.) Some of the performances are just too over-the-top and weird (Guy Pearce as the bad lawman is just bizarre).

The story itself was more interesting than I expected, about a shy younger brother who is too frightened to kill and his deadly older brother whom everyone fears, and how the younger boy ends up taking the reins of the family business and prospers.

In short, I didn’t expect to like this much but I did. I found myself caring for the brothers despite their criminal enterprise, and I liked the ending. Worth seeing, though be warned it is pretty brutal.

Topic: [/movie]


Sat, Oct 19, 2013

: Zero Dark Thirty

I finally got around to seeing this. I’m glad I did; it’s interesting, and well-made, but there are few surprises. Even though I knew little of the real story, the story is basic: a female CIA operative spends her whole career trying to track down Osama Bin Laden, overcoming countless obstacles, and finally succeeds. There’s much in the specifics of how they track the terrorist, but it still feels too-by-the-numbers for me. Still, it’s worth seeing just for the historical aspects.

Topic: [/movie]


Sat, Oct 05, 2013

: Gravity

Director: Alfonso Cuarón

This is a fantastic film with a minimal story about a female scientist on the space shuttle who’s the only survivor of a terrible accident. She’s trapped, alone in space, with no way to get back to earth, and she’s not a professional astronaut.

That may sound depressing, but it’s utterly inspiring. What makes it work is the fantastic direction and acting. Sandra Bullock is outstanding in a pivotal role in which she’s in every single scene, most of the time alone, in cramped quarters or inside a space suit. She’s alternatively frail and incredibly strong, and makes both believable. Many actresses would have overdone the dramatic moments but hers are spot on. Definitely my vote for deserving an Oscar.

Equally key is Alfonso’s direction, which gives us astonishing realism. His choice to make much of the film without sound — just like space in real life — is amazing, as watching spaceship crashes in utter silence is creepy and disconcerting. It also magnifies every other sound in the film, making the tiniest things more important. Visually the film is stunning, with glorious views of earth from space.

I watched the 3D version because I heard that the director insisting on filming this in real 3D (not awful post-conversion) and it’s worth the extra fee. Floating objects drift toward you, and you get the feeling you’re in space yourself. My favorite effect was a scene where Sandra cries and a few tears trickle off her face and float toward the camera. Really, really cool, and yet subtly done so it doesn’t distract from a key emotional moment.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable and tension-filled film. It’s non-stop stress from the almost the first scene, and it makes the perfect 90-minute runtime just fly by. What impresses me the most is that so many things could have gone wrong: with such a simple story, the slightest flaws have nowhere to hide. Instead we’re treated with a survival story that’s surprisingly easy to understand (all the tech jargon is extremely well-explained), perfect moments of tension-relieving humor, and incredible realism. Two thumbs up and top recommendations.

Topic: [/movie]


Sun, Sep 22, 2013

: Hitchcock

Cool film. Not exactly what I expected, and not really a Hitch bio as it was more just about the making of Psycho. Nothing revelatory here, for Hitch fans who know his story, but still fun and interesting.

It was a little too “on the nose” in terms of mimicking Hitch and his contemporaries. In some ways, that made it feel more like a parody than an actual story. The performances were good — especially Anthony Hopkins as Hitch — but many seemed to be acting.

The film also drummed up conflict between Hitch and his wife, Alma, which, though it might have had some historical accuracy, felt exaggerated and tedious. It’s just annoying watching a married couple bicker. I vastly would have preferred more insight into Hitch’s creative side, how and why he made the decisions he did in the movie. There was some of that, but I wanted much, much more. In the end we get a glimpse of what made Hitch tick, but not enough.

I suppose non-Hitchcock fans (or those who don’t know his story) might find the plot light and not that compelling, as most of the film’s conflicts simply evaporate by the end, but as someone who finds Hitch awesome (he’s my all-time favorite director by a huge margin), I enjoyed it. Definitely worth watching.

Topic: [/movie]


Thu, Sep 12, 2013

: Riddick

Though a dreaded sequel, I thought this might be fun, as I’d enjoyed some of the previous ones. It turned out to be excellent.

It starts off with Riddick fighting for his life against a hostile environment on a desert planet (sort of a sci-fi 127 Hours). He fights various creatures as he tries to survive. This seemingly could be boring and most directors would rush through it, but here the pacing is deliberate and thoroughly enjoyable.

Some of the best scenes of the entire movie are when Riddick rescues a wild dog-like pup and raises him to be his companion. Though the creature’s CGI, their interaction is excellent, and surprisingly emotional. The dog’s even good for a laugh or two.

When Riddick realizes it’s time to get off the planet, he pushes an emergency beacon at an empty mercenary station, bringing forth two competing groups of bounty hunters who want him caught and killed. His plan is to kill them and steal a ship. What follows is terrific cat-and-mouse action, with tons of wonderful performances. Not everything happens the way you’d expect, either, though we are treated to classic Riddick one-liners and ultra-violence.

It’s simple, elegant, and pure Riddick. Excellent.

Topic: [/movie]


Wed, Sep 11, 2013

: Red Herring

We’ve all heard the story of the Golden Goose, how the owners cut it open to find its source of gold and thereby destroyed its daily output. Apple, with its iPhone, has a veritable Golden Goose: its profit margins (around 50%) are unprecedented in the tech industry (where many products make their makers a mere 10%, if that).

Initially such a remarkable feat was explainable because Apple had tech that no one else had: an innovative new touchscreen device that was unique. As long as the iPhone is special, Apple is able to command high subsidies from carriers.

These days everyone has copied Apple, so the logic is that the iPhone is no longer unique and Apple’s subsidy Golden Goose must end.

But here’s the thing: the copies are selling, but Apple’s iPhone is also selling. In fact, Apple can barely keep up with demand! Thus Apple’s margins have remained high. Carriers are willing to pay a premium to carry the iPhone because the iPhone brings in customers that otherwise would flee to other networks.

So why would Apple kill the Golden Goose by releasing a cheaper iPhone of their own volition?

Making It Up in Volume

Analysts claim a cheaper phone is the thing to do because it will drive market share. Apple might make less profit on each phone, but they’ll lock millions more customers into the Apple ecosystem and over the long haul will make more money.

This is dubious, at best. How many extra phones would Apple sell for each ten percent price cut? If an iPhone sold for $500 instead of $600, would that mere $100 price difference really sell that many more phones? In order to sell enough phones for ecosystem sales (where Apple makes as much as 30% of each sale) to make a difference — let’s say double the number of phones — the price would have to be significantly lower. That means 50% less, or $300 instead of $600. If Apple were to do that, the phones would have to be of lesser quality and margins would be razor thin. Pretty much what everyone in the industry except for Apple is doing!

So go look at Android and see how that’s working out for them. Most of the manufacturers are losing money on the hardware (Samsung is only profitable because they also make many cell phone components), and Google makes very little post-sale. Basically, people who buy cheap phones don’t buy anything later!

Most Androids are used as a feature phones (dumbphones). Their owners never buy apps, barely use the web, and don’t buy media (they either don’t consume it or pirate). They don’t even tap on mobile ads (Google makes far more selling ads on iPhones than it does on Androids, even though there are more Androids out there).

Apple, therefore, has chosen to compete in the higher-end of the market. It will not make cheap phones. By owning the best customers, Apple makes money at both ends: at the initial sale and long afterward, when the customer buys apps, movies, books, and more. Apple is intentionally ceding the lower market, the cheap customers. Is that a mistake?

The argument against that strategy is that Apple is losing market share to a competitor. The idea is that Android will become the dominant platform and developers will stop making apps for Apple’s device and concentrate on the bigger market.

But this forgets two key points. One, that larger market isn’t making developers money. Developers want to make apps for iOS because that’s where they can actually profit.

Two, the smartphone market is not like the PC market of old. In PCs, Microsoft established an ecosystem — Windows — and locked customers into that platform. That lock-in is a key advantage of ecosystems. But where’s the lock-in when customers aren’t actually using apps or buying anything on that platform?

Even if customers do buy a few mobile apps, mobile apps don’t cost as much as traditional desktop apps. It’s quite a different thing to move from a Windows PC with possibly thousands of dollars of applications to a Mac where you have to buy all those programs again, versus mobile where you might have $50 of games and apps to buy on the new platform.

In other words, what makes a mobile platform “sticky” isn’t the same as on the desktop: it’s the user experience that keeps people on iPhone. That’s why vastly more people move from Android to iPhone than the other way around.

Another key difference with the PC market — where Microsoft ruled for two decades with an OS-based monopoly — is that desktops are long-term purchases. People don’t buy a new computer every few years any more. But in mobile, that’s not true. Mobile tech is changing so rapidly that everyone wants a new phone every year or two. That’s a huge opportunity for Apple, especially if customers aren’t happy with their cheap Androids.

In other words, Apple’s fine allowing Android to gain a little ground now. It’s temporary. In a couple of years, those frustrated and unhappy customers will be delighted to switch to Apple.

When Will the Golden Goose Die?

Clearly, no Golden Goose lasts forever. At some point, Apple will have to reduce their margins.

Or will they?

Look at what Apple did with iPods: over time, they introduced a variety of models with different capabilities and price points. They still made a nice profit on each one.

It doesn’t take a genius to see that Apple’s strategy with iPhone will be the same. However, until yesterday’s announcement of two new phones, the 5C and 5S, Apple had never produced multiple models of an iPhone. (In the past, Apple has just kept around older models to sell at discounted prices.) This is the beginning of Apple’s strategy, but many are impatient. They forget that Apple didn’t release all those iPods instantly: they evolved over time.

The iPhone is far trickier than an iPod. An iPod is relatively simple: it just plays music. It needs a way to sync music to it, to charge it, an interface to control song selection and playback, and perhaps a few other bells and whistles (such as Nike fitness tracking, a camera, or a radio). Within those requirements, Apple was able to produce a range from high-end iPods that featured large amounts of storage and bigger screens to the diminutive iPod Shuffle with no screen at all.

How in the world do you produce an iPhone without a screen? It is feasible: Apple already has voice control, so I can imagine a tiny device that you control with a voice interface. But the tech to do that in a way that meets Apple’s standards of quality isn’t here yet and probably won’t be for a few years.

Apple is in a precarious position regarding its Golden Goose: if it produces something cheaper that’s “good enough,” most people won’t buy the higher-end product. Finding just the right mix of features while still being an “iPhone” is extremely difficult. If Apple trims out too much for a cheaper product, it risks damaging its brand. With a pocket computer like an iPhone, removing hardware features can ruin the whole purpose of why someone would buy it in the first place.

That’s why Apple must move carefully in how it adds new products to the iPhone lineup. Too cheap hurts the brand and cannibalizes higher-profit sales. Too low-functioning and the product is no longer an “iPhone.”

What Apple has done with the 5C and 5S is fascinating. The 5C is not much different from the iPhone 5 in terms of internal hardware. It’s year-old tech in a new plastic case. But the colored phones are plenty functional and fun and slightly cheaper. That means big margins for Apple, but still plenty of appeal to buyers. I predict the 5C will be a huge seller.

The 5S is definitely aspirational. The fingerprint sensor is awesome: everyone will want it, but it’s not critical. The new camera features are desirable, but not critical. The unique M7 chip that tracks your motion without battery drain is cool, but not critical. If someone is pinching pennies, they’ll drool over the 5S and buy the 5C. Some will sell a kidney and buy the 5S just because it’s aspirational.

Apple has successfully separated the two models. The two are close enough it’s like deciding between a smaller, slightly cheaper iPod nano with less storage and a bigger iPod with room for all your songs. It’s genius.

Apple’s Sleight of Hand

Many are critical the 5C isn’t cheap enough, but they’re missing the point: the second model wasn’t about price. It’s about differentiation.

This is just the beginning of Apple’s long-term plans for having multiple iPhone models. I believe that eventually Apple will have a whole slew of different models at different price points, just like they did with iPods. It just will take more time with iPhones, both because of the nature of the device — it’s more complicated and mobile tech was progressing far too rapidly (that pace of change is slowing) — and because Apple has to be extremely careful it doesn’t kill the Golden Goose. Its products need to be perceived as high-end for it to command a high price. It would ruin the brand to suddenly introduce something cheap.

In fact, I believe that Apple has fooled everyone with the 5C. People are seeing it as the cheap phone and the 5S as the “real” iPhone. That’s the opposite of what Apple has done.

In reality, the 5C is the “real” iPhone. That’s the iPhone for the masses. The 5S is the red herring. Apple has made it to move the high-end upward. In effect, Apple has actually lowered the price of its main product. Yet it did this in a way that has fooled everyone. By making the case plastic and the manufacturing process simpler, and using year-old parts, Apple’s profits are the same even with the lower price. Yet now an iPhone costs $100 less!

This trick is brilliant because it keeps the perception that Apple is expensive. It doesn’t hurt the brand at all. Apple is still aspirational, and even the “low-end” 5C is so well-made and designed that people will desire it. Teens, especially, will love the 5C, while the 5S will appeal to well-heeled adults and security conscious IT people.

This trick also sets Apple up for the future: who doesn’t believe that next year’s iPhone 5C-equivalent won’t have a fingerprint sensor or other features that are standard today on the “high-end” 5S?

Apple has set the standard for the top, and it can, as needed, ease those features down the line, producing a slew of different iPhone models. Each would have the basic capability of being an “iPhone” — running apps, making calls, taking pictures — but some models will have more features for a little bit more money.

By doing this, Apple is preserving its Golden Goose. It may eventually even have a cheap phone — perhaps a $200 cellphone watch without a screen — but because the Apple brand will still be so coveted, carriers will essentially be forced into carrying Apple’s products and paying Apple a hefty premium.

At that point, Apple will have products all over the price spectrum, yet still be generating margins in the 50% range!

Topic: [/technology]


Sat, Aug 24, 2013

: Compliance

What a fascinating and incredible film! I knew next to nothing about this and started watching, figuring I’d quit if I didn’t like it. In the first few seconds I was annoyed by giant text taking over the enter screen reading “Based on true events.” That seemed overly emphasized. But then the story got going and I was mesmerized.

Now I just preface this by saying that I now see why the director made that “true event” thing so prominent. It really is important. Basically, you’re watching people being manipulated into doing outrageous stuff — so ridiculous that it could be unbelievable. But this stuff really happened. Not just once, either, but over 70 times in 30 states.

I will also add that I just recently watched a couple of episodes of an interesting TV show called “Would You Fall For That?” where the hosts use psychological tricks to fool people. It’s fascinating stuff and a lot of it is the same stuff I saw in this film, which helps me understand why this works.

The movie is about a busy Friday night at a fast food joint. The stressed female manager receives a phone call from a cop telling her that one of her employees — a pretty blond girl — has stolen money from a customer. The cop says he’s in the middle of a larger investigation and can’t come there right this minute, but hopes the manager can help him out by questioning the girl.

The manager, in a brilliant performance by Ann Dowd, thinks she’s helping. The cop tells her he has her boss on the other line and names the man, comforting her as she thinks corporate is involved. She goes along with what the cop says, taking the girl to a back room. The cop explains they need to find the money — time is pressing, and he doesn’t want the girl getting rid of the evidence — and the next thing you know he’s insisting the manager strip search the girl.

I won’t spoil the whole plot, but the psychology this is based upon is real. When someone is authority tells us to do something, most of us will comply, especially if the request is minor. Once we’ve agreed to the first tiny thing, each subsequent request — even if more extreme — is easier to obey. So it really is understandable that the manager (and others) would go too far. It’s easy to watch this film and think, “That’s crazy! I’d never do that. These people are idiots!” But the truth is that any of us could be susceptible to this kind of manipulation.

You’ve probably figured out that the cop isn’t a cop: just a practical joker (of sorts), but the consequences of this guy’s actions are grave, and the movie’s a sobering reminder of the power of mindless obedience to authority. (It reminds me of a fantastic book called The Wave, about a high school experiment that recreates a Nazi-like environment with disastrous consequences, as students put in positions of power follow the orders of their superiors without question and do terrible things to their classmates.)

Compliance is not an easy or comfortable film. Outrageous things happen and it’s frightening to think that the movie is based on this “prank” happening over 70 times in real life. I do like the way it’s carefully written and directed and acted, as with this kind of psychological manipulation the tiniest misstep can throw off the whole thing. A single false note and the whole performance is ruined. This does really well, with the “cop” always coming up with an excuse for any errors in his story, and using intimidation to help encourage compliance. It’s pretty damned cool.

I am a bit annoyed with the “delicate” nature of the direction. One of my pet peeves is direction that works too hard to be coy. For instance, you know how on TV they show you the bare feet of a person in the shower and then cut to the person’s head and bare shoulders? You’re supposed to assume the person is naked, but they can’t actually show nudity so they do all these elaborate camera angles and stuff to make it seem like they’re showing something though they’re not. That annoys the heck out of me. It’s just so artificial. I’d rather they cut the shower scene entirely (it’s usually not necessary anyway) than tease me with stuff that’s not real.

Unfortunately, this film does that a little too often, and it does it in ways that makes it confusing. In a few scenes I wasn’t even sure what happened, or what was supposed to have happened, because the filmmaker didn’t actually show anything. That’s bad storytelling. It’s one thing to be careful about a sensitive subject matter, but it’s another to be so subtle that the viewer isn’t sure what happened.

It’s also sad because a more direct approach to the topic would have been even more shocking. It’s like the director was afraid of controversy and shied away from showing anything real. (A good analogy would be a comic telling a dirty joke and cleaning it up so much that it loses its humor.) The result is a slightly watered down film.

That doesn’t ruin the film — it’s still a great movie and worth seeing — but it could have been even better. On the whole, though, the film is full of terrific performances, writing, and directing, and the story is chilling. See it.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Aug 23, 2013

: First Family

Author: David Baldacci

This is a strange book. I can’t say I really liked it. There are two problems with it. First, it’s basically split into two plots that have no relation at all. In the main plot, which is the interesting one, the First Lady’s niece has been kidnapped. In the second plot, our two heros, former Secret Service agents turned private detectives, Sean King and Michelle Maxwell, return to Michelle’s hometime because her mother has died and, of course, it turns out to be murder. I really didn’t care about the second storyline at all — it was too convenient having her mother murdered and she being a private eye, and the resolution of that story with all the family drama was terribly tedious and uninteresting and melodramatic.

The second big problem is that the reason for the kidnapping is saved as the big reveal until the very end of the book. Now that reason is actually interesting and quite dramatic, but it takes us 500 pages of boredom to get there. Instead, we must wallow through pages of inept mystery, tedium where shady people are doing mysterious things and every conversation is obtuse with all the key details carefully omitted so that the author can save the secret until the very end.

What’s really weird is that I didn’t realize this book was part of a series, nor that the new TV series King and Maxwell is based on these books, until I started in on this book and thought I was losing my mind! I’d just started watching the TV show and was freaking out a little at the similarities until I realized what was going on. The sad part is that I like the TV series much better: the characters have a repartee and distinct personalities. In this book, these two could have been anybody.

Worse, much of the “drama” of the detectives is based on their vague history and personal stories, which I didn’t know and didn’t really care about. To give you one example, the book opens with a dramatic burglary as Michelle breaks into her psychiatrist’s office and steals all her files. Then she throws them away without looking at them. As the reader, we’re left baffled. I don’t even realize that this woman is our main private detective hero, so I don’t know what’s going on. There’s mystery there, but it’s not interesting: just the author withholding information. And he does it badly: the files aren’t mentioned again until almost the last page of the novel!

The bottom line is that the whole novel is a mess of vague happenings, like watching people doing stuff from a mile away in the dark. You know something is going on, and it might be significant and interesting, but you can’t even see enough to know that. Sure, there are a few cool scenes, and I liked some aspects of the search for the kidnapped niece, and our head bad guy was also an unusual character, but because so much info is withheld we really can’t know anybody in the story: everyone is a mystery. The result is we don’t care about anyone or anything, and when you finally get to the end, the feeling is one of “Oh well, so that’s it.” A superior way to write this is to make the reader think they have all the info, and only reveal more at the end. Doing it this way is just cruel and unusual punishment.

Topic: [/book]


Fri, Aug 16, 2013

: Jobs

Being a huge fan and follower of Steve Jobs since the mid-80s, this is a difficult film for me judge objectively. I went in with the apprehension of a book-fan going to see the travesty of a movie made of a beloved novel, anticipating all sorts of factual and tonal errors and hating the performances of various actors, but I came away stunned at how much I enjoyed it. The question is: is it really that good or did I just like the subject matter?

Is it the best bio-movie ever made? Not by a long shot.

It’s clearly not a big-budget movie (though I was surprised at how many actors I recognized; there are few unknowns), and that shows in some awkwardness in pacing, acting, and directing. It feels more like an above average TV movie than a major motion picture. Everything is competent, but little is extraordinary. There’s not much imagination or vision.

For instance, the scene early on when Steve and his friends get high at Reed College is mostly shots of looking up at trees and the sky from ground view, and it’s very repetitive and goes on for much too long. (We get it. Steve did drugs, it inspired some of his thinking, move on.) This could have been handled in a much more interesting way.

Only occasionally is the writing striking, and that’s usually when they’re quoting the real Steve Jobs.

But all that doesn’t matter. What’s here is done well enough that I enjoyed it very much. Sure, there’s definitely stuff I would change and improve, but there’s a lot that’s very well-done. The casting is quite good. Ashton Kutcher gets the most controversy as the lead, but he was surprisingly good for most of the film. Only in a few places did he give off some sour notes (he especially overdid it in the anger scenes, where he went from zero to 60 in a split second and it wasn’t believable), and at other times he’s more of a caricature than a character, but most of the time he fades away and you just enjoy the movie. It is quite possible that in repeated viewings I’d find a lot more fault with his performance, but I’m not a Kutcher hater, so I found him to be okay in this.

The sets and period setting were also pretty good. I loved all the old Apple posters, old tech, and old cars. The only real oddity I noticed was Steve Jobs parking in a handicapped parking spot in 1980 — did they have those back then? It looked way too modern in design.

In terms of story, I wasn’t sure what this would cover — Steve’s initial Apple success or the triumph of his iPhone glory — but this focuses mostly on his early Apple days and getting kicked out of his own company. A fine choice, as the whole world knows about his eventual victory and this ends with him rebooting Apple and the future looking bright.

There’s lots of stuff left out — NeXT and Pixar, for instance — but there was a surprisingly amount of intricate detail included. I’m pretty familiar with the story and I don’t think I learned anything new, but fortunately nothing gravely inaccurate screamed out at me either, though I’m sure there are minor liberties.

Probably the weakest aspects of the movie are the pacing — it’s slow at times — and the whole board movement to fire Jobs was confusing and too abstract. It was hard to tell from this why Jobs was so bad for the company. The film needed more scenes of him doing crazy stuff. Also, the role of Arthur Rock as a clear villain was over-the-top, as though the writer thought he needed to tick the “antagonist” checkbox.

Along the same lines, while Steve was correctly portrayed as a visionary who could be a real jerk at times, there was little in the film that showed his actual genius. In particular, I wanted more of him forcing the best out of others, revealing his taste. There were scenes that set that up — such as the one to get an “impossible” design for a power supply in the Apple II built — but the film never followed up and showed us the success of that (it was just assumed, I guess).

In the end we have a decent film. It’s quite competent and not the disaster I feared. It may be a little dull for people who don’t know the story or who aren’t really interested in technology or history (or those who aren’t into boardroom fights), but I think it’s worth seeing if you’re an Apple fan or curious about Steve Jobs. I’m still more excited about the upcoming Aaron Sorkin version of the story (though wary of that as well), but this one is surprisingly entertaining. It’s also inspiring, as there are some great lectures by Jobs on the nature of being great, not letting anyone or anything stand in your way, and the importance of being honest to yourself. Jobs was a great man and this film gives us a glimpse of that.

Topic: [/movie]


Sat, Aug 10, 2013

: Elysium

Director: Neil Blomkamp

This is Neil Blomkamp’s big follow-up to District 9, and I was really looking forward to it. Sadly, it’s greatly flawed, and I’m sure much of my comments will make it sound like I didn’t like it, but I actually liked it very much.

Visually the film is awesome, and conceptually the story is good, but in execution it fails on several levels. The idea of an Earth where the poor live in squalor here while a handful of rich live in orbit is intriguing, but the film never actually explores this idea. None of the characters embody the idea either, which is strange. You’d think we’d have two polar opposite characters to show both classes, but that doesn’t really happen.

Matt Damon’s character, Max, hints at it a little, when a cop beats him up for no reason and his robot patrol officer degrades him, a brief glimpse of the life of the downtrodden on Earth, but it’s too little and not deep enough. We’re given no real look at the lives of the rich other than a few brief shots of them relaxing by the pool with robotic servants to do all their bidding. There’s one quick line where the rich owner of the company where Max works rebukes another for breathing on him, and we get a hint of the arrogance of the wealthy, but it’s really not enough to establish characters beyond loose stereotypes.

Even the President, who’s one of the Elysium rich, is confusing: in one scene he seems to be defending the earth-bound, while in others he’s dismissive of them. Without any character embodying the values of their class, it’s hard to know what they represent.

Thus, characterwise, everything we’re given in the film is generic and unremarkable. Even Max, who we’re told is “special,” never reveals why or what makes him unusual. He’s an orphan, he’s a bit of a smart-ass, and while he’s supposedly a resourceful criminal with a shady past, he’s been in prison several times so he can’t be that good if he keeps getting caught.

The awesome character actor Sharlto Copley gives a brilliant performance of a wild man named Kruger, a sort of mercenary for the rich people, but his accent is almost unintelligible and his babbling, while amusing, doesn’t explain anything about his character. We don’t even hate him, which says a lot about the emotions he doesn’t generate.

Another similar character is the very strange Delacourt, played by Jodie Foster. While her French is impressive, her English is in an odd accent I couldn’t place, and there seemed no reason for it. She’s runs the security of Elysium, and is seemingly ruthless, but we have no idea why. Is she simply interested in power? Or is she a true believer in the Elysium ideal? It’s hard to tell, and her storyline is never explored or explained.

That’s really the problem with the whole film: it feels like a first draft. The characters are interesting, but incomplete, and there’s very little that changes in the people. Characters die seemingly randomly, but it all feels empty and meaningless, as we care little about anyone since none seem real. Max and his childhood love, Frey, are the two we care most about, but even they are held at arms distance and we don’t really know who they are. Their backstory is shown in repetitive and overly sentimental flashbacks, and their modern day relationship is never completed. Frey’s daughter is supposedly sympathetic simply because she’s a sick little girl — that’s all we’re given.

There are also countless weird little flaws in plot throughout the film. For instance, why would Elysium, a space station, not have their own defensive system? Instead Delacourt resorts to having Kruger shoot missiles from a handheld rocket launcher on earth to knock out approaching ships in space. Huh? And in several scenes, illegal immigrants who arrive on Elysium, break into rich homes by smashing windows. Why would the rich bother to lock their homes in a paradise like Elysium? Surely such a place has no crime. There’d be no reason to lock doors. One gets the feeling that it simply looked more dramatic to break windows so that’s what happened.

The film just struggles with a very basic story, moving almost too quickly, and the ending has a “That’s it?” feeling. There was more action than I expected, and while that helped move things along, it also seemed superfluous and distracting, as though the action was inserted by studio demands instead of being a real part of the story.

Still, visually, the film is amazing, and it’s worth seeing for the visuals alone. The stark contrast between horrible earth and the paradise of Elysium is wonderful, and I loved the science fiction elements of the sets and costumes. There’s much to love here.

The film reminds me a lot of Oblivion, not in terms of looks, but in how the story itself is flawed and poorly executed. Similarly, Oblivion was visually interesting and entertaining, but just not great. In the same way Elysium was enjoyable to watch, but it’s not a great film. It’s worth seeing for certain aspects, but just be aware that they don’t add up to comprehensive whole. I still liked it, probably more than I should, but it’s also a shame because with some tweaks it could have been a really awesome film.

Topic: [/movie]


Tue, Aug 06, 2013

: Rise of the Guardians

I couldn’t believe how feeble this movie is, a vapid collection of weak ideas and stereotypes, congealed into a muddled mess of little story. Even the animation was poor, with a videogame quality to it that turned me off.

This is about trying to invent new legends of Jack Frost, Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny, but it feels forced and awkward. There are bizarre ideas idiotically implemented, such as the concept that the Tooth Fairy takes children’s teeth because they contain the precious memories of the child. That’s a major point of the film, because they use it to motivate Jack Frost’s character, who doesn’t remember his past, to help recover all the teeth the bad guy steals as Jack needs to find his own teeth and get his memories back. Of course, when he finally finds his own tooth he uses it to remember how he died. How would a tooth know that story? Wouldn’t he have lost the tooth prior to dying? How else would the Tooth Fairy have gotten it? Idiotic!

Ultimately, the film’s got a good heart and it’s relatively harmless, but it’s got an artificial feel. It is geared at extremely young kids (ones that still believe in Santa Claus, I suppose), yet the themes and violence seem more suited to older ones. Very strange and awkward film. I really hated it.

Topic: [/movie]


Sat, Jul 27, 2013

: Wolverine

Infinitely better than the previous film. While this has moments of pretentiousness and the plot is somewhat predictable (I saw the twist in the ending coming from miles away), it’s full of fascinating characters.

The story takes place mostly in Japan, where Wolverine has gone to say goodbye to a dying friend, led by a red-haired Japanese fortuneteller who is a fascinating puzzle. While there he meets the old man’s granddaughter, and when her life is threatened, he seeks to protect her. She, too, is intriguing. Then there are the bad guys, particular the snake woman. All the characters are fighters, with their own styles and weapons, which makes for interesting match ups.

A key part of what makes this movie interesting is that Wolverine loses his healing powers and becomes mortal. Unfortunately, he’s still so stupid/pigheaded/reckless that he doesn’t change his fighting style, repeatedly getting shot point blank as though he’s still immortal. I’m not sure what to make of that, but I did like that he’s forced to confront his inner demons and decide if he really wants to die.

There are a few confusing scenes (flashbacks aren’t ideal), some questions weren’t answered, and I kept mixing up a few of the characters, but the film’s vastly clearer than the previous nonsensical mud pit. The action here is subdued and less outrageous, but excellent, and far more interesting with Wolverine being vulnerable. The ending was a little anticlimactic and predictable, but overall this is a fun ride. If you’re a fan of the series or the characters, you’ll enjoy this. It’s a little different with it being almost entirely set in Japan, but I found that refreshing. Two thumbs up.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Jul 12, 2013

: Pacific Rim

Director: Guillermo del Toro

I’m a big del Toro fan and I love robots and monster movies, so I was looking forward to this. It really is a fun flick. Absolutely outrageous special effects.

Plot-wise, there’s not much here: giant dinosaur-like monsters 300-feet tall come out of a rift in the earth under the Pacific ocean, apparently from another dimension via a wormhole, and attack our cities. So the countries of the world unite to build 300-foot tall robots controlled by human pilots that basically beat up the beasts. It’s never explained why giant robots are more effective than say, fighter jets with missiles, but you suspend disbelief and go with the flow.

But over time the monsters keep getting bigger and eventually they start to win out over the robots. Eventually there are only a handful left as mankind makes one last desperate attempt to stop the threat of the creatures for good.

The cast of characters isn’t particularly creative — we have our tough military leader, our wounded hero and his love interest, a few top gun jocks, and some geeky scientists — but there are little details that keep things interesting and moments of depth that we don’t usually get in an action movie like this. That’s mostly because of the amazing cast that includes awesome actors like Idris Elba and Rinko Kikuchi.

Overall it’s just a fun, well-done smorgasbord of visuals and action. The opening’s a little soft, being mostly narration over flashbacks, but once the story gets going it’s a blast. The robots and mosters are mind-boggling. It’s Godzilla times 10,000. I can imagine imaging this; I cannot imagine actually thinking that this could ever be filmed. Going in I was worried that we wouldn’t really see that much of the robots and monsters — I figured they’d just be in a few key scenes — but probably 50% of the screen time is robot-monster action.

In the end this is little more than a robot-versus-monster movie, but that’s not a bad thing. This is just sugary fun all the way through. It’s a guilty pleasure that takes you back to childhood midnight monster movies, but without the cheesy special effects.

Topic: [/movie]


Tue, Jul 09, 2013

: The Lone Ranger

The promos for this looked hideous so I wasn’t going to bother, but a friend loved it, and I was in the right mood, so I went. It was definitely far better than I expected, but it is a little weird. It’s more of a comedy, with Depp playing Tonto over-the-top the way he did his pirate character in those pirate movies. (And I just realized they’re by the same director, so that explains that.)

On the one hand, I liked the way they came up with a new origin story for the Lone Ranger and fresh explanations for all the classic Lone Ranger details (like the meaning of Kemo Sabe, which was very clever).

But it also sort of ruined a lot of the good stuff about the Lone Ranger. It’s like Spiderman getting his spider powers via an ancient Mayan curse instead of being bitten by a radioactive spider: it could still work, but it’s not the same.

For example, in this movie Tonto and the Lone Ranger are not friends. They bicker and fight almost the entire movie, and when they do cooperate and help each other, it’s reluctantly. While there’s nothing really wrong with that, and it was well-done, I found it depressing and annoying, and not fun to watch.

Ultimately, while this had a lot of humor (mostly via Tonto), and it was overall a decent film, it didn’t feel very Lone Rangerish. It was something different. Maybe that’s to appeal to a new generation, but frankly, I’d have preferred to watch an episode from the TV show.

Production-wise, this is very impressive: the Old West setting is very authentic, the acting all over is excellent, and the special effects surprisingly subtle and effective (though a few of the fight scenes were clearly done with a green screen).

The plot is also decent: it’s about greedy white men and the construction of the transcontinental railroad and a silver mine. It’s not very complicated and that’s good, though I’d have preferred more depth in the Lone Ranger’s character (i.e. why he becomes the Long Ranger).

In the end, I’d give this one a B-. It’s well-done, interesting, and more fun than I expected, but it sadly isn’t enough “Lone Ranger” for me.

Topic: [/movie]


Wed, Jul 03, 2013

: In My Sleep

I liked the concept of this: a troubled sleepwalker worries he murdered someone while he was asleep (he wakes up covered in blood), but also wonders if someone isn’t trying to set him up by making him think that. The film does a good job of establishing several possibilities (he’s got a stalker, he was having an affair with his best friend’s wife, etc.) and at times is extremely well-done.

Ultimately the film struggles with pace. It’s slow to start, gets the mystery going well in the middle, and then goes down a strange path of investigating the man’s childhood. While that supposedly helped explain his sleepwalking and personality problems, I found it more of a distraction, and it was too convenient and predictable and not believable. I think the filmmaker worked too hard trying to make this a slightly unconventional mystery and it comes across as forced. The best parts are the scenes were the mystery just naturally unfolds.

In the end, though, this isn’t a bad movie at all. I liked many parts of it. The acting is surprisingly excellent, there are many quite impressive scenes, and the mystery (such as it is), is intriguing. Don’t expect too much — keep in mind it’s a small independent film — and you’ll find it enjoyable.

Topic: [/movie]


Tue, Jul 02, 2013

: Joyful Noise

The promos for this emphasized the whole “Dolly Parton versus Queen Latifah” motif, which, while it clearly was the cause for this film being greenlighted, didn’t appeal to me.

But it turns out to be a fairly mature film, sweet and surprisingly religious, but with a modern emphasis that’s not too cloying. The music’s quite good (Keke Palmer is amazing). The plot’s simple enough — conflict over which style of music a church choir should sing as they compete in a national competition. This is complicated with a romance and a few other side stories, not all of which work very well, but the whole isn’t too bad.

There are some surprisingly deep moments, particularly Keke’s character as she rebels against her conservative mother (Latifah). Unfortunately, there’s a lot of fluff, too, as overall the movie’s light-hearted and more comedy than drama.

It was definitely better than I expected. It’s not a classic or anything, but it’s fun, and if you like gospel music you’ll find it worth viewing.

Topic: [/movie]


: Ginger Snaps

I knew next to nothing about this film except that it was in the horror genre and I incorrectly assumed it was just another psycho killer slasher flick. It turns out to be quite different.

It’s a fascinating tale about growing up. Two outcast sisters, who are morbidly fascinated by death and ostracized by their teen peers, are attacked by a strange creature in the night. The eldest is bitten, but survives. Then she slowly begins to transform into a werewolf.

Yeah, we’ve heard the werewolf tale many times, but this one is definitely above average. The combination the girl’s transformation with her struggles to be accepted into her high school society create a wonderful parallel, and is ripe for fascinating social commentary. (It’s similar to the way Romero’s classic Dawn of the Dead creates a link between mindless zombies and mall shoppers. I’d also liken it to Stephen King’s Carrie.)

Ultimately the movie doesn’t quite live up to its lofty expectations: it’s limited by its genre and devolves into a traditionally violent conclusion, but it’s still a worthwhile journey.

Topic: [/movie]


Mon, Jul 01, 2013

: Amanda Knox: Murder on Trail in Italy

I recorded this Lifetime TV movie over two years ago, but hadn’t watched it. Recently I watched the real Amanda Knox interviewed on a news show and it revived my interest in the case and this movie. It was fascinating seeing some of the tiny details she talked about in her interview show up in the film — stuff I hadn’t remembered, such as her performing “gymnastics” while at the police station (she claimed she was growing stiff from sitting still for so long and just needed to stretch and exercise, while the prosecution tried to use that against her, saying she was callous and unfeeling over the death of her roommate).

Overall, while this film isn’t exactly going to set the world on fire in terms of acting and writing, it’s surprisingly good. There were a few odd moments that seemed poorly done and I would have done those differently, but mostly it seemed faithful to the events we know about from the trials. I was particularly impressed by how this showed some scenes from the prosecution’s perspective, allowing us to see how they perceived the crime and how they came to the conclusions they did. I feared this might be an all-out “Amanda’s Innocent!” or “Amanda’s Guilty!” preachy sort of film, but it’s well-balanced and critical of both Amanda and the prosecution.

A good example of this is that my impression of the case was that Amanda was a suspect almost immediately — which always seemed odd to me. But this movie had the prosecution only turning to Amanda after finding some inconsistencies in her story and some other people pointing the finger at her, which seems more reasonable.

The film does lean toward Amanda’s innocence — a view I share after seeing her conviction eventually overturned (remember, this movie was made years before those recent developments). It also makes Amanda seem more composed and intelligent than makes sense considering what happened (she definitely made several poor decisions both before and after the murder) — she was just a naive 20-year-old at the time and assumed the police were on her side.

In the end, I came away with a better understanding of how all this mess happened. I find the case fascinating, both from having lived overseas and knowing how easy miscommunication can be involving other cultures and languages, and from a general societal perspective. Definitely a film worth checking out if you’re interested in the story.

Topic: [/movie]


Tue, Jun 25, 2013

: Brave

In a way I admire the promotional material for this film that didn’t give away the plot, but it also didn’t give me enough to really want to see the film. The basic idea conveyed was that this was about a little Scottish princess who was unconventional and rebelling against the dictates of tradition — but the trailers were mum on exactly how she did that.

The film seemed to ordinary so I wasn’t in a hurry to see it and somehow missed it in theaters. It turns out that how is exactly what makes this film cool. So — spoiler alert — don’t read any further if you don’t want to know that “secret.”

The girl gets a witch to give her a spell to change her mother, as she’s pressuring the girl to act like a lady and get married. But as magic often does, it doesn’t turn out the way she expects. In this case, it turns her mother into a bear! This is bad news because her father was mauled by a bear and hates bears, so now he wants to kill the little girl’s mother (he doesn’t believe his daughter when she tells him the bear is really his wife). Now that’s an intriguing plot: I want to see that!

Anyway, the movie is awesome. The girl turning her mother into a bear makes her realize how much she loves her mother, and yet through the experience the mother learns from the daughter as well. Just terrific storytelling from Pixar as usual.

Topic: [/movie]


Sun, Jun 23, 2013

: The Fifth Witness

Author: Michael Connelly

This is another in Connelly’s Lincoln Lawyer series. I haven’t read any of the books, but I did see and liked the movie.

I also liked this book. It involves the same lawyer character, this time branching out into the foreclosure business because of the tanking economy (no one has money for lawyers). When one of his clients is arrested for murdering the banker foreclosing on her home, he takes on her legal defense.

It’s an interesting case, with mostly circumstantial evidence, but the lawyer’s got a stiff task trying to prove reasonable doubt. There’s a lot of mystery as too might have really done the murder and why. I was hooked throughout and loved the step-by-step detail of the courtroom process.

Unfortunately, the ending tries to be a little too clever. It’s not bad; it’s just too convenient and not especially believable (some aspects aren’t explained and I had more questions than answers). But the earlier parts of the book were so good that this weak ending doesn’t ruin the book at all. It takes the book from an A to a B+, but it’s a good read. I’m thinking I’ll have to get the rest of the books in this series.

Topic: [/book]


Fri, Jun 21, 2013

: World War Z

This is a somewhat innovative zombie movie: the special effects of mass zombies (literally a mountain of them) is pretty cool (and creepy) and is the main reason to see this. Beyond that, the story’s pretty thin.

I did like the ending in the sense that not everything’s resolved perfectly, which is realistic, and it leaves the door open for sequels, I suppose. But it also makes the story feel slightly incomplete, like stopping a book midway through.

What troubled me the most, however, is the awkward, choppy pace. This is mostly an issue in the first half an hour, where the director’s trying to establish a ton of stuff quickly: introducing our main characters, zombie takeover, and the perilous escape of our main characters.

While this is handled, just barely, it feels like so much is being left out. The action is lightening fast and hard to follow, and everything, especially the characters, is paper thin. Much isn’t explained and logic isn’t exactly prevalent.

Every zombie movie has its own “rules” and at the beginning, the audience is trying to figure out this world, so things are confusing. I’m also a little skeptical of this particular world — where a single bite turns you into a zombie in ten seconds — but you suspend disbelief and accept it. (That speedy conversion process is also key to why zombies overtake the world so quickly. Just one zombie getting into a city can start a mass infection that turns every resident into a zombie within hours.)

Once the real story gets going, the film’s pretty good. It feels like the first part was just the introduction and exposition the director just wanted to get through as quickly as possible so he could get to the good stuff — but why bother with that earlier part if you’re not going to do it well?

The main story is excellent: the idea is our hero is traveling around the world, trying to find the original source of the zombie outbreak so that a vaccine can be created. This gives an unusual global scope that most zombie films don’t have, and it’s a little bit of a detective story, as the hero searches for clues while risking his life.

Some of these scenes are amazing: huge overhead shots of tens of thousands of zombies flooding over a city wall, climbing buildings, helicopters and planes crashing, and more. It’s really well done.

But it’s interesting that the most exciting parts of the film are the ones with minimal action and people. The tension of one person going down a deserted corridor with zombies around the corner is far more dramatic than mass zombie carnage.

The bottom line is this is an above average zombie film, but it unfortunately doesn’t raise itself above that. Any single episode of The Walking Dead has far more existential implications and depth than this film. Still, it is fun and the special effects are worth seeing.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Jun 14, 2013

: Man of Steel

Director: Zack Snyder

Boy, am I befuddled by this movie. I’m a Snyder fan and hoped he’d finally give me the Superman I’ve wanted. Unfortunately, I really hated this film. I’ve been wrestling with why I not only didn’t like it, but actually despised it. That’s the puzzle, because there is a lot of good.

The cast is great. Henry Cavill is wonderful as Superman, and Amy Adams, despite seemingly being miscast, was a great Lois Lane. Everyone is good. The special effects are fantastic. A lot of the action is well-done. Many aspects of the reboot are wonderful. I liked learning more about Krypton and getting to see more of it than just it blowing up. The serious tone of the movie is good. The flashbacks to key points in Clark’s childhood is good. There’s a lot of good writing. Even Snyder’s direction is good, and much restrained from his stylistic excesses of 300 and Sucker Punch.

But none of it worked for me.

A good metaphor is imagine that you go away for a few weeks and when you return home, all your furniture has been rearranged. A few pieces have disappeared and others replaced with different versions. It would be frustrating, right? That’s the way this movie felt to me.

It’s basically the classic Superman origin story… but different. It’s choppily presented. Details are changed. New stuff is added for no reason. Throughout the first half of the film I kept getting more and more annoyed and depressed. It seemed at every turn the writers wanted to change things just a little bit, but for no clear reason. Tons of details are left unexplained. A few are presented later, which was good, but far too late, because by that time my sour mood’s already been set.

Let me give one example of this. It’s a minor spoiler, so don’t read if you hate any kind of spoiler, but trust that this is a tiny point in the whole film. The film opens with Kal-El being born. We’re later told that this is the first “natural” birth on Krypton in hundreds of years. Apparently babies are normally genetically engineered with nothing left to chance. Now I liked this detail. That’s a terrific concept and an excellent example of Krypton’s self-corruption that contributes to their civilization’s downfall. But the way this concept is presented is ham-handed. We’re first shown the birth with no context. We aren’t aware that it’s anything special. We later are told it’s the first natural birth, and it’s hinted that this is in brave defiance of the laws of Krypton. That’s a wonderful conflict with great drama. But nothing is done with that. It’s just verbal exposition.

While I was watching the film my instinct is screaming at me, “Why not use that drama? Why not show this conflict? Show us Jor-El and his wife sneaking off to have a baby in secret. Show her terror that someone will find out and take her baby away. Show them as rebels, taking a stand against their government though it may cost them dearly. Why not make them heroic and brave?”

Instead, this film just verbally tells us about the event after it happened. There’s no drama, no suspense, no rebellion, no nothing.

That’s the way this entire film is handled. There are hints of greatness: Clark Kent working as an ordinary laborer, hiding his super powers, and refusing to fight bullies and reveal his powers. That’s wonderful stuff, but it’s treated as an afterthought, scarcely worthy of our attention. (All totaled, his migrant worker scenes are probably no more than one minute of screen time.)

So many other things are similarly dealt with: the childhood flashbacks often feel rushed and incomplete, mere tokens of melodrama rather than heartful emotional memories; the entirety of the alien spaceship discovery, from the military presence to Lois Lane wandering off on her own to follow Clark, is full of odd, missing elements and skips of logic; the aliens threats to earth and greeted as fact with no evidence to back them up — wouldn’t the nations’ governments demand proof of the aliens’ superior weaponry before capitulating so easily?

Then we get to plot holes and illogic. Those are my pet peeves in films, and here there are too many to count. Here are just a few (and they might contain spoilers):

  • Despite Krypton about to explode, the bad guys are not killed, and the planet uses a space ship to send them into fantom space (sort of a black hole). Should the space ship be used to, uh, evacuate people? Seems an odd use of precious resources. Why not keep them on the planet so they can die with everyone else? Why save a handful of murders when millions of innocent citizens are left on Krypton to die?

  • We’re told that Superman’s “S” logo is a symbol that means “hope” in Krypton. So why is the bad guy wearing the same symbol?

  • How do both Clark Kent and Lois Lane just happen to know how to use the “Superman key” to activate the Kryptonian computer? It didn’t look anything like an earth key, yet both seemed to know just how to use it.

  • Superman’s outfit — tights and cape — are apparently left by his father. Huh? He planned on Clark being a super hero? And how did he know what size outfit to leave? Kal-El was a tiny baby when he last saw him. How did he happen to know the exact height and weight Clark would be when he found the spaceship?

  • There’s no explanation given for Jor-El’s re-appearance after he’s dead — we’re not even told if he’s a hologram — and both Clark and Lois show little surprise at his presence or even seem to question his being there or wonder how he can answer questions and interact with them.

  • If the bad guys have the tech to display their own broadcast and override our entire planet’s TV signals, then why is their video so staticy with a crappy picture? (Bonus idiocy: the woman who explains that the aliens did their global interruption via RSS feeds. Huh?)

  • How do Jor-El and General Zod and the other Kryptonians all speak English?

  • How did Clark shave? He starts out the film heavily bearded and ends clean-shaven. Did he have a special Kryptonian razor? Wouldn’t an earth razor just break when he tried to use it?

  • Why does Superman’s cape flutter in the “wind” when he’s in outer space?

That’s just the beginning, of course. There are hundreds more, but you get the idea. The film is swiss cheese with plot holes and filled with utter nonsense.

I really hate it when the writers have to resort to making the superhero’s opposition being super-powerful just like him. It feels forced and artificial. Granted, it’s hard to make an action film without a powerful antagonist, but a much stronger story could involve Clark trying to protect his friends, save the human race, or wrestling with moral dilemmas. The true agony of a super-being is that despite all his might, he cannot save everybody.

Instead we have two equally indestructible forces battling which is just boring, since we know the eventual outcome. I dozed off during the grand battle, it was so tedious.

Yet despite my distaste for the film, it’s far better than Superman Returns which was really bad. I liked many things that were attempted with this film, but the whole just didn’t fit together for me. It felt disjointed, a patchwork of a story. Very disappointing and a tragic waste of potential.

Topic: [/movie]


Wed, Jun 12, 2013

: Hotel Transylvania

Interesting little animated movie. I wasn’t really into the concept — about Dracula running a “no humans allowed” hotel and keeping his daughter away from awful humans — but the film is so unashamedly fun that after a while it grows on you.

There are a few too many silly fart jokes and humor that falls flat, but at its core the film’s about not judging people (or monsters), and that comes across rather well. I also really liked the music, which was a surprise.

Topic: [/movie]


Tue, Jun 11, 2013

: iOS 7 and More

Yesterday Apple kicked off their Worldwide Developer’s Conference (WWDC) with a preview of the next Mac OS X (“Mavericks”) and iOS 7, along with two new Macs (Pro and Air), and tons of new software and services (iTunes Radio, iWork for the cloud, iBooks and Maps for the desktop, etc.).

I watched the entire two-hour keynote streamed via my Apple TV and it was awesome. It’s a fantastic way to watch the keynote (far better than on a smaller screen). I had zero issues with picture quality or performance (though note that I didn’t view it live, but later in the afternoon).

The first thing that needs pointing out for the “normal” Apple consumer is that this conference is for programmers. Most of the tech world forgets that, and criticizes Apple for omissions or is upset that all this great new stuff won’t be available for months.

But that’s how it has to be for developers. Apple has to reveal the new operating systems for developers early so that they can get their apps updated by the time the new OSes are ready to download. If they didn’t, we’d get the new OSes and be upset when our apps didn’t work right or weren’t updated to include the new features of the OS.

This preview aspect of this event also shades what Apple announces. There wasn’t a huge amount here geared toward consumers, and of course there was no mention of any new iPhone hardware. Apple will save that stuff for the fall, when new hardware is ready.

Apple did reveal two pieces of hardware: a new Macbook Air, which uses a newer Intel processor and has a longer battery life (but it’s still not a Retina display — no doubt such an intense display would suck battery life and is too much of a compromise right now), and the radically new Mac Pro.

The Airs are $100 cheaper for more (128GB is the minimum drive size now), with faster SSD and graphics and improved wifi. Sounds like a no-brainer to me, especially considering they’re shipping right now.

The Mac Pro used to be a massive tower with gobs of room for internal hard drives and expansion. The new Pro is tiny, with futuristic design that looks more like a high-tech trash can. There’s no internal expansion of any kind. Instead, the computer has six Thunderbolt 2 ports, each capable of supporting six high-speed devices.

That’s a fascinating design choice. I can see why Apple likes their computer itself to be so nice-looking and compact, but what’s a pro’s desk going to look like with 36 peripherals connected to it? I’ve got a ton of external drives connected to my iMac and it looks hideous, with wires everywhere (each hard drive needs its own power cord and brick, too).

This really isn’t an issue for me as the Pro isn’t anything I want or need, but it does point to a different future. Hopefully some third party right now is designing a Thunderbolt case that will house drives, PCI cards, and more in an elegant Pro-matching design. There will be time to make such accessories as the Mac Pro won’t ship until “later this year.”

More interesting to me are the OS previews. The Mac’s new operating system is going to be called Mavericks, after the California surf spot. (Having lived in Santa Cruz, I recognized the name immediately.) I know many don’t like the name (I find it awkward), but it’s important to remember that even Apple’s traditional “big cat” names were always code names, and not necessarily supposed to be the official name. But since it’s easier to remember “Snow Leopard” or “Mountain Lion” over cryptic number sequences like 10.8, the cat names took off. Mavericks is just a name and it’s utterly unimportant in the long-term scheme of things.

(The one criticism I have of the name is that with the cats, each cat got bigger and faster — Cheetah > Puma > Jaguar > Panther > Tiger > Leopard > Snow Leopard > Lion > Mountain Lion — or corresponded with the update in some way, like the way Snow Leopard was a minor improvement to Leopard. This made it easier to tell that Lion was “bigger” than Leopard, for instance. One of the things I don’t like about Google’s silly dessert names for Android is that it’s impossible to tell from the name alone whether “Gingerbread” is more recent than “Froyo”. How is Apple going to handle that with California-themed names? Will “Long Beach” or “Yosemite” be perceived as better than “Mavericks”?)

Beyond the name, the new OS looks like it’s got some solid behind-the-scenes improvements to CPU and memory usage that will make things faster for users. I’m especially excited about the changes to Safari, which right now uses far too many resources on my computer. (These days, a browser is something you pretty much keep open 24/7, and mine uses about 2GB of memory no matter how I trim it.)

Another feature I’m interested in is the ability to use my Apple TV with Airplay to turn my TV into a second monitor for my laptop. Now that sounds useful!

Also useful is a new iCloud password-management feature that will work across iOS devices (running iOS 7). You’ll be able to generate random passwords on your Mac or iOS device and it will sync them to iCloud and they’ll be available on any device when needed. (It will presumably auto-fill login forms for you, though I didn’t see anything about how this is secured. Is there a master password you have to type to access these shared passwords? Or are these available to anyone once your phone is unlocked?)

I already use a third-party app to do password management, so this isn’t hugely radical (and it may not even work as well in some aspects), but having it built-in will be far more convenient.

Other features, such as iBooks and Maps for the desktop, make sense but aren’t exactly life-changing.

Now iOS 7 is the real story of the show. Apple has taken a lot of risks and is radically changing the look-and-feel of iOS. I’m not sure how I feel about this. While on the one hand, change is inevitable, and it does bring a freshness to the operating system that some people find invigorating, it’s also different and I don’t think there’s that much wrong with the current OS (I’m more concerned about missing features than how it looks).

Of course, iOS 7’s interface overhaul isn’t just about appearance. It’s about functionality. The way that layering works — the keyboard, for instance, has a tiny bit of transparency so you can tell it’s an overlay — can be helpful to users.

The real key for me is that I’m just seeing a few snapshots and some short video clips of the thing in action: I haven’t been able to actually use it yet. So I’m reserving judgement.

My initial reaction is a mixed bag. While I love the Helvetica font and like a lot of the trends — buttons less “buttony” and a clean, less interface-heavy design — there are worries. I don’t like the similarities to Microsoft’s new OS. I have never been a fan of that style and I liked the Microsoft had gone a different direction from iOS and Android.

But what I really don’t like about Windows Phone is that it uses text as buttons. Instead of a list of icons, for instance, it uses lists of giant text. That just turns me off. It looks lazy and too simple. I love beautiful graphics and the intricacies of icons and the way they make each app stand out. With text, everything looks the same.

Fortunately, Apple has not chosen to follow Microsoft in that regard. It appears that iOS 7, while bearing some superficial similarities to Windows Phone, is still its own animal. That’s good, because Apple needs to differentiate. I do worry that app developers — who are free to do whatever they want — will make their apps more like Microsoft’s, following that model. Hopefully Apple has info and details at the conference (everything’s under NDA, of course) that will help developers follow Apple’s model.

It’s important to note that any radical change like this is going to take time to settle down. Possibly the screen shots we’ve seen of the new OS will look different by the time it actually ships. Apple could change icons and tweak the look of some screens before final release, and who knows what developers will do with this.

For consumers, this change is going to be radical. It’ll take getting used to and some may not like it, at least at first. But when you compare screens — say the old weather app to the new one — after looking at the new one for a few minutes, the old one looks really primitive and dated.

I’m also wondering how older apps will fare on the new OS. I’m not just talking about compatibility — though that also could be an issue — but how will an older app look and work under the new paradigm? Will it feel so awkward and old you’ll stop using it? Will it be confusing? I have several old apps that the developers seem to have abandoned, but I still use. I’m a little worried about losing those.

In terms of features, iOS 7 impresses. The new Control Center, to quickly access settings, is much needed. Better multitasking sounds like for a lot of apps. My mom is thrilled with not taking to manually update apps all the time (I’ll often find her phone with several dozen updates waiting and then it takes a long time to update them all). The new photo organizing features and better Siri seem solid, though the app switching is borrowed straight from WebOS which seems hypocritical of Apple. The better organization of the Notification Center is also a step up.

Like always, there’s plenty of stuff missing, but Apple tackles quite a lot whenever they do an update like this. They can’t possibly please everyone, but it’s amazing how much they accomplish, especially on a yearly update schedule. I still think there are probably a few features they haven’t revealed yet, and will unveil those in the fall when everything ships.

Topic: [/technology]


Sun, Jun 09, 2013

: Premium Rush

I had wanted to see this in theaters but missed it. The plot seems slim for a full movie — a Manhattan bike messenger risks his life to complete a delivery as a bad guy tries to stop him — but the director does a great job in keeping the pace going and gradually revealing details about the why behind everything.

There’s not a huge amount of character development; this is mostly a frenetic, non-stop action film. But there’s enough to make the story work. For instance, we learn our bike messenger hero actually has a law degree but so hates the idea of working in an office all day he pedals his ass off through Manhattan traffic instead.

I really liked the simplicity of the plot. I won’t get into the details here as I don’t want to spoil anything, but my dread going in was that the reasons for the bike messenger being attacked was a giant government conspiracy or something equally improbable. Instead, we get something more down-to-earth and realistic. It’s the equivalent of a heist movie where we’re stealing fifty grand instead of fifty million: the amount is irrelevant if the significance to the characters is the same. So many films make the mistake of raising the amount to something absurd just to make it seem more exciting to the audience. Here the overall stakes are smaller but that doesn’t reduce the excitement level at all.

I also really liked the visuals of the film. Making bike riding exciting and not repetitive, even with crazy New York traffic and a threatening bad guy, is no mean feat. Here we’ve got 3D overhead maps of Manhattan we’re swooping through, showing us the bike messenger’s potential route, as well as cool “what if” sequences the rider makes while he tries to figure out the best solution out of a traffic jam. Both of these techniques could get old if done too much, but the film only employs them a few times, so they stay visually fresh.

In the end, though the film isn’t particularly deep and doesn’t really have much of a message, it’s a lot of a fun and terrific action ride. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Jun 07, 2013

: Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony

Fascinating documentary exploring the role of music in the downfall of apartheid in South Africa. It goes back through 40 years of revolutionary music, and explains a lot of the sad history of apartheid in the process.

It’s not quite as good as the genius idea: I would have liked more details about the music itself, and more complete versions of the songs. The film shows snippets of people singing, interspersed with interviews freedom fighters and song writers and artists, but probably half the film is just details about apartheid and what happened. That was interesting and informative, but it was also depressing and not my key interest in the film. I wanted this to be more about African music: what makes it special, unusual, interesting, unique, and so on.

Granted, the history and purpose of the music is caught up with apartheid so you need some background to understand the context, but if I hadn’t see the title of this and been told it was about music, I probably would have just thought this was an apartheid documentary with a greater preponderance of musicians interviewed.

Still, this is quite a wonderful look at an important topic and I’m glad it was made and that I got to see it. (It’s not new: it’s over 10 years old and was made by HBO.) It’s definitely worth seeing if you’re interested in Africa, apartheid, revolutions, or music.

Topic: [/movie]


Thu, Jun 06, 2013

: Now You See Me

Gimmick films like this always make me wary and I was right to go into this with muted expectations. Surprisingly, the first half of the film exceeded those, but as is so often the case it’s the final third that disappoints.

The film’s trailers set up the premise well: a group of four magicians apparently pull of a Paris bank heist in the middle of their Vegas performance. The FBI and Interpol are on the case, trying to figure out how these magicians did the trick. This sets up a wonderful battle of wits between the magicians and the crusty FBI agent.

Unfortunately, that’s where it starts to disappoint, because the FBI agent is so inferior there’s really not much of a battle.

The film did do several things I didn’t expect that pleased me. First, the they reveal how the Paris trick was done; I had worried they’d leave it a mystery. Second, I had assumed from the previews that the magicians do a series of robberies, so after the first one the subsequent ones could have seemed repetitive, but each of the additional performances is unique.

Unfortunately, the climatic one isn’t as good as the first two, and that’s when the plot unravels and all you have left are holes and confusion.

I can’t get into the specifics of the flaws in the plot without spoiling everything, so I won’t. But I will say that the big “reveal” at the end was obvious to me about 30 minutes into the movie (though I wasn’t certain as the film does create a lot of red herrings that were also possibilities). It’s a forced plot twist that feels artificial and too complicated, and it doesn’t make sense.

There’s tons more wrong with the film — great actors wasted in odd small roles, a weird romance that never flares but is supposed to be hot, and severely underdeveloped magician characters — but for all the film’s flaws, it’s still quite entertaining. The magic shows are done extremely well, and there’s enough happening with the plot that the story moves along at a good pace. The acting and directing are all good, so it’s really only the plot that’s weak. But even that is forgivable if you go into this with the right expectations. Don’t expect brilliance or an amazing twist and you’ll have a good time.

Topic: [/movie]


Mon, Jun 03, 2013

: Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted

I missed the earlier films in this series. I’m not sure why, as I wanted to see them. Now I’m not so sure. I just didn’t get this. Maybe I’m getting too old. I have no problem with suspending reality for the sake of a fictional world, but the world of this movie just turned me off. Zebras walking around upright like humans? Swimming from Madagascar to Monte Carlo? Huh? Nothing made any sense.

But the worst part was that this wasn’t very funny. It was 15 minutes into the movie before I even cracked a smile. I only laughed out out twice. To be fair, it did get better, once the film had a plot (such as it was). Basically the animals join a European circus to escape from a maniacal animal catcher. They lie to the other circus animals to do this, and there’s a nice wrap-up at the end when they regret that, but not that much really happens. There’s wild action (absurd chase scenes) and tons of silliness, but the characterizations are slim and phony. Basically this thing just hints at a real story. Disappointing.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, May 24, 2013

: Fast and Furious 6

This is a strange film. My expectations were too high after the surprisingly decent (and first good film in the series) previous entry, but this one takes all the good stuff from that one and ruins it.

The basic plot seems fine — Dwayne Johnson’s policeman character offers the group full pardons to help catch a bad guy — except that the bad guy’s so over-the-top, a super-criminal James Bond type billionaire, that it’s absurd to think a crew of street racers could take him down. The whole car aspect is pretty much forgotten by this point, meaning the franchise has gone a billion miles from the original concept. (These are closer to the Ocean’s movies by now, elaborate cons and capers, and this one is more Bond.)

But the script can’t just stop there; instead we’ve got to convolute things with we-thought-she-was-dead Letty being part of the bad guy’s crew. And get this: she has amnesia! How’s that for a twist! Yeah, you didn’t see that coming. So original.

This storyline allows our heroes a chance to look soulful and act dramatic — and fail hilariously (believe it or not, Vin Diesel’s the best of the bunch, which should tell you something) — as well as include a bunch of action set pieces that are each more absurd than the previous one.

Nothing makes any sense and the ridiculous finale (which isn’t really the finale as the film just keeps on going and going and going) involves the crew trying to stop an airplane from taking off. They spend 20 minutes chasing it on what has to the be the world’s longest runway.

The whole thing is tiresome and cheesy, ludicrous to the extreme. There a few fun moments, some of the action is impressive from a “how-did-they-do-that” perspective, and a few oneliners are funny, but overall this just a loosely strung-together series of stunts with no rhyme or reason. I suppose if you’re a hardcore fan of the series you’ll find it fun, but if you thought other entries were poor, don’t get your hopes up for this one. A severe disappointment, so bad I doubt I’ll bother with Fast 7, which this film blatantly sets up.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, May 17, 2013

: Star Trek: Into Darkness

This is a very hard movie to write about. On the one hand, I enjoyed it. It’s great going back into the Star Trek universe and I love the casting of the rebooted series. There are also many good and fun scenes.

But the plot… oh dear. I both loved and hated it! I hated it because it’s a retread. It reminded me a lot of back during the writer’s strike when the second version of Mission: Impossible was on TV and they just reused old scripts because they couldn’t hire writers for new ones. The new scripts were modernized for the time period, tech, and new characters, but the whole thing felt like déjà vu.

I can’t say more than without spoiling it, but it’s basically the same plot as a previous Star Trek film… except a little different. And some of those differences are really pretty cool and clever and made me sort of love it.

In the end, it’s a mixed bag. Cool in some ways, great action and special effects, and a lot of fun… but sadly not very original. And these days, with all the remakes Hollywood is doing, can’t they even do an original Star Trek movie?

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, May 03, 2013

: Ironman 3

Surprisingly decent sequel. I wasn’t impressed with the second movie, but I liked this one.

The plot is odd — a strange terrorist is setting off random explosions all over the world that turn out to be caused by human bombs — and Tony Stark pits himself against the man. Once he’s a target, Tony has his house blown up and a threat to Pepper Potts, so he retaliates. It’s all very silly and the “science” is ridiculous (and never really explained: I never did understand how human bodies that can heat up to 3000 degrees Celsius somehow never the burn the clothes off the actors). Tony’s suits have new gadgets and have been improved so that he can control each suit part (which all fly on their own) with his thoughts… yeah, right.

But the plots in this kind of action fare are always absurd; what makes this work is the human element, and here the movie shines. Tony’s his snarky self, and the supporting cast is terrific (particularly Ben Kingsley in a fabulous over-the-top role).

But my favorite moment and what made the movie for me was Tony’s interaction with a little boy he meets. The two are great foils, very similar in personality despite a 40-year age difference. The dialog was superb, with Tony all smarmy and the boy sneaky. A perfect example is one scene where Tony’s going to drive off and leave the boy and the boy gets all teary-eyed and sympathetic. Tony glares at him and says, “You’re trying to guilt trip me.” The boy shivers and hugs himself and says, “I’m cold,” in a perfect lost-orphan way. Tony drives off anyway and the boy, after a heartbeat, shrugs and says, “It was worth a try.”

There’s tons of humor and the action’s decent (though pretty silly). The climax is over-the-top, as you’d expect (the bad guy dies at least three times), but there’s enough other stuff going on that it’s at least interesting.

Overall, it’s a big-budget action sequel, but in those terms, it’s not bad, and much better than I expected.

Topic: [/movie]


Sat, Apr 27, 2013

: Citizen of the Galaxy

Author: Robert Heinlein

Fascinating low-key science fiction book from the 1950s. It takes place in the distance future when mankind has spread out among the stars, but it has its roots in the Roman Empire from thousands of years ago. That’s because the story is about slavery.

Yes, that’s right. We begin with a slave auction on a distant world, where a scrawny boy of unknown origin is so worthless that no one wants him, and just to speed up the auction and get to the good merchandise, the boy is sold for pennies to a one-legged beggar.

But it’s soon revealed that the beggar is more than he seems. He raises the boy as his own son, teaching him math, science, and languages, and operating in mysterious ways, spying on space ships that visit the planet for reasons unknown.

Eventually the boy makes it off the planet, adopted into a new family, and later discovers his origins and learns he’s the most valuable man in the universe.

I was slightly disappointed with the ending of the book, which doesn’t really end as much as grind to a halt, but the process of getting there was infinitely enjoyable and fascinating. The romantic idea of a low person being made high is as classic as it gets, full of irony and magic. I also loved the way Heinlein delves deep into foreign cultures and other worlds. The book’s slightly dated today, more than 50 years after it was written, but not much, which is remarkable in itself. Definitely worth the read.

Topic: [/book]


Fri, Apr 19, 2013

: Oblivion

The chief problem with this film is also its key feature: it’s a scifi mystery where the main characters aren’t aware of what’s going on any more than the viewer. While that makes for an intriguing story as we seek out answers, it also can be slow-moving and frustrating, as we don’t understand what we’re seeing.

Another problem common with this kind of story is that the big reveal, when unveiled, must match our expectations. The explanation is weak or predictable, the movie fails.

Fortunately, on this latter point, the film worked for me. Few explicit details are given for either storyline, which is actually a good thing, leaving some ambiguity for us to process.

The surface story is simple enough: aliens destroyed the moon, which wreaked havoc on earth, causing earthquakes and massive destruction, effectively ending the human race. Humans fought back using nuclear weapons, winning the war, but further harming the planet. The few survivors have fled to Titan (Jupiter’s largest moon). Energy and water is harnessed from the earth’s oceans by giant automated machines guarded by automated drone weapons, which protect the equipment from sabotage by “Scavs,” the handful of remaining aliens on earth. Our main characters, Jack and Victoria, live in a floating cloud-house and maintain the drones and keep everything in working order. The two have had their memories wiped (for security reasons) and are nearing the end of their five-year shift.

We sense something different is going on when Jack has strange dreams of being on the Empire State Building with a woman — memories he couldn’t possibly have as New York City was destroyed sixty years earlier, long before he was born.

Fortunately, the explanation, when it comes, does make sense. It’s a little gimmicky as all such “twist” stories are, but it does work and is satisfying. However, the first half of the film is frustrating, because you keep seeing flaws that you aren’t sure are flaws because you realize you don’t know what’s really going on. So much doesn’t make sense and seems off, but you let it go, hoping that the eventual explanation will make everything work.

There still are a few flaws that are never properly explained. Some you can figure out on your own, but others are genuine mistakes. But oddly, even the stuff that does get explained well, still leaves a nagging sensation behind. Things make sense when you think about it, but emotionally you feel uncomfortable.

(A perfect example is the Mission Control woman on the space station that Victoria regularly communicates with: she’s very odd, somehow simultaneously overly friendly and intimidating, and when we understand the reality of the situation her character does make sense, but it still feels wrong.)

All that said, I liked the film. It’s gimmicky and manipulative, but done in a way that’s entertaining. Even stuff happens that there are regular reveals as the mystery is uncovered. The scenery is awesome, with fun visuals of a ravaged earth and broken moon. All the performances are excellent, with real heart and emotion, and you actually care about the characters. It’s not a perfect film, but definitely fun and worth seeing if you’re into scifi. (I liken it last year’s flawed-but-interesting Prometheus.

Topic: [/movie]


Tue, Apr 16, 2013

: Hysteria

When I first heard of this movie, it sounded like pure gimmick. The subject matter is so salacious — it’s about the invention of the vibrator — what else could it be? But it turns out, it’s a terrific little movie.

The thing I hadn’t realized was when this story happened and the nature of the invention. It was in Victorian days, when electricity was new and rare, and medical knowledge was so limited that the concept of germs was considered radical. The film takes advantage of both of these details to create a subtle comedy. The invention is a medical device, designed for the treating of “hysteria,” a female malady with a multitude of symptoms, and the serious doctors involved fail to see the reality of what they’re doing. Their busy practice has lines of women out the door, all eager for their “treatment.”

The film is witty and clever, rarely saying anything directly, but implying and hinting, and though the topic of the film is of a sexual nature, you can barely tell because everything is couched in medical terms and Victorian modesty. (The most blatant thing that happens is two ducks in a pond going at it, and that is hilarious because of the stiff-necked blushing reactions of the watching human couple.)

Unfortunately, the film does resort to some stereotypical characters and Hollywood storyline. We have a ultra-modern liberal woman (brilliantly played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) who oh-so-gallantly rejects her posh lifestyle to run a shelter for the poor and a young idealistic doctor who believes in science and just wants to help people. Granted, the characters are very well done (except for one or two moments when Maggie’s character is year 2000 modern instead of 1900 modern), but the story still felt too predictable. Of course, in most comedies the plot is barely necessary, so this still works despite a few limitions. Ultimately, it’s a clever, fun movie, and surprisingly interesting.

Topic: [/movie]


Sun, Apr 07, 2013

: Dark Shadows

Director: Tim Burton

This is a very strange movie. It’s based on a TV show I’ve never even heard of, let alone watched, so I can’t judge how it compares. It’s about a vampire that returns to his family mansion 200 years later and finds what’s left of his legacy in ruins, and he sets about restoring his family fortunes using his vampire skills while trying to adjust to a different era.

I really wanted to like this and there’s much that’s inspired, brilliant even, but it’s apparently supposed to be a comedy and all the jokes come out flat. The problem is that it’s too realistic. The tone is deadly serious, with real bloodshed, violence, cruelty, and death. That’s not funny. The special effects are also too realistic, lending to the idea that this is all really happening, which, again, is not funny. (This should have had a tone more like Ghostbusters instead of Aliens.)

There are some great one-liners, but they fall awkwardly, as mixed in with the realism, we aren’t sure if we’re supposed to laugh or not. There also aren’t enough jokes, with long passages that could play as straight drama. If it’s a comedy, it should be consistently funny throughout (or at least try). As a drama, this still fails. The opening back story really doesn’t tell us enough about the characters, and that later stuff depends too much on the former.

I also thought the 1970s setting was awkward. It should have been a key feature of the film, but other than the music and a handful of references, the story could have been modern day. They just didn’t really do anything with the period, and what they did was stereotypical and not very interesting or funny.

There are lots of good things: a great cast, a few scenes that are awesome, some great concepts, and Depp is just brilliant throughout. But unfortunately that’s not enough to make a movie. The thing is an interesting experiment, but it just doesn’t work.

Topic: [/movie]


Sun, Mar 31, 2013

: Snow White and the Huntsman

My feelings are so divided about this film I’m not sure what to think. On the one hand, the visuals are terrific and the film has a unique feel, but the lifeless story is pretty much the regular Snow White story and isn’t innovative at all. I want to like it, and I did like much of it, but in the end it feels like a whole lot of fuss about nothing.

Yet I’m also split because I like that it sticks true to the original story. If it hadn’t, I probably would have bashed it for being different. I suppose part of my trouble is that my impression from the promos was that this was a different story and it wasn’t. If I’d known going in that it was the same story, I would have been better prepared for that. Instead I was disappointed.

There’s also too much action in the film; I never thought of Snow White as a warrior, and seeing her in battle armor and sword fighting is just ludicrous. Most of the fighting isn’t very interesting, either, and it feels superfluous as though added in to spice up a dull story.

Visually, the film is outstanding, however. I love the way magic is used in the film: very subtle and really cool. For instance, when the Wicked Witch turns into a flock of ravens and escapes, she returns to her castle and the ravens morph back into her human form and she’s wearing a black suit covered in oozing black oil and black feathers. She’s ill and crawling along the ground like a dying bird stuck in oil; it’s really creepy and perfectly done. Similarly, much of the aging/youthifying magic is so subtle and well-done you barely notice it.

(That said, I thought the magic mirror was horrible — some sort of featureless silvery blob that forms from the mirror. With five minutes thought I can think of ten ways to do that in a more interesting manner.)

The casting of Charlize Theron as the Wicked Witch is amazing; unfortunately Kristen Stewart as Snow White is just as bad in the other direction.

Ultimately this is one of those uncomfortable films: great in some ways and worth seeing for those, but full of odd flaws and an uninspiring storyline that just isn’t compelling. I fell asleep watching it, but I’m still glad I saw what I saw as I did enjoy the spectacle.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Mar 29, 2013

: G.I. Joe: Retaliation

You don’t expect much with a movie like this, but even I was disappointed with the way the characters and story were presented. Everything happens in a mishmash way, with tons of character backstory we’re not given (sometimes we are, and sometimes we’re apparently just supposed to know who is who). The feel is an odd one, as though half the movie got left on the cutting room floor or we’re only reading every other chapter in a novel.

That said, the plot is fairly simple. A bad guy makes himself look like the U.S. President and takes over the government, kills all the G.I. Joes (except for our heroic handful), and attempts to take over the world with a superweapon. And guess what? The Joes stop him! Quell surprise.

Pretty much what we have left is a series of action set pieces and a few joke or “emotional” scenes for balance. The action is quite good. Some parts, like the wild fights dangling from lines on the side of a mountain, are just ridiculously over-the-top and a lot of fun. The humorous bits are also good, and really help make the movie. (The dramatic moments are Transformers quality, which means they’re pathetic.)

Still, the whole thing is entertaining and pleasant enough. Visually it’s striking, and there are plenty of cool gadgets and guns. It’s meaningless fluff, but you already knew that.

Topic: [/movie]


: Dream Park

Authors: Larry Niven and Steven Barnes

This is a fairly old book — originally published in 1981 — and it some ways it’s remarkable and holds up quite well, while other parts feel oddly dated. Set in the future in a high-tech amusement park called “Dream Park,” which is a little bit like Star Trek’s holodeck except more mechanical, players play games that are very similar to today’s RPGs (role-playing games).

The game concept is actually very neat. For example, the cast is partially made up of actors who play various roles defined by the gamemaster, and swords have holographic blades so that players are not injured for real (the computer indicates injuries via a player’s colored “aura”). There are rules so that the game itself must be winnable (the gamemaster can’t put players into impossible situations), and players (and the gamemaster) win gaming points for the successful completion of tasks. Note that this isn’t a video game: players actually hike and camp out and fight monsters and whatnot, and after several days in such an immersive environment, it’s difficult to not believe the game is real.

Layered onto this story about a game in progress, we have a murder mystery. Unfortunately, our authors are not good mystery writers and it shows. The murder is strange (and not very interesting — one of the park’s security guards shows up dead), and Dream Park’s reaction is even weirder: instead of calling the police, they send their head of security into the game as a player to figure out which one of the players sneaked away from the game and killed the guard and stole some top secret Dream Park tech. Apparently stopping the game would be incredibly expensive, as well as a publicity problem, so sending in a spy seems to be better approach.

However, once our hero gets into the game, there’s very little about the murder investigation. The story is mostly about the game (which is important, since if the security guy gets “killed” in the game, the jig would be up and the game would have to be halted), but what intrigued me about the story (the double agent aspect) isn’t very significant for too much of the novel. Worse, the resolution of the murder is weak and not very satisfying. If this was strictly murder mystery and not sci-fi, it would be terrible.

Still, the main aspect of the story is the game, and that’s very well done and quite entertaining. It actually sounds like a fun game I’d be tempted to play. (Far more interesting than today’s video games.) If you read the novel for the game rather than the mystery, you’ll enjoy it a lot more.

Another flaw is that because the game has so many players (and most are suspects in the murder), the novel introduces us to a gazillion characters — the Dream Park personnel, all the gamers, the various people in the adventure game the players play, etc. It’s quite a chore remembering who is who and for large portions of the novel I was very confused and couldn’t figure out what was going on. (The authors exacerbate this problem by frequently referring to characters by their last name for long periods, so that you forget their first name and when that’s used you don’t know who it is, or using character’s nicknames or game names.)

Overall, this is interesting for socio-technological reasons, and not so much as a great novel.

Topic: [/book]


Fri, Mar 22, 2013

: Olympus Has Fallen

This film is pretty much Die Hard in the White House. Despite the A-list cast, I hadn’t seen much about it, but it’s pretty good. Not quite Die Hard good, but decent enough.

The plot’s implausible, where a terrorist organization manages to take over the White House and hold the President hostage, but they do their best to make it seem realistic. The special effects are impressive — how they got permission to blow up the White House, I’ll never know.

Our hero is a Secret Service agent who is the lone inside man and he has to take out all the bad guys one by one. Predictable, but there are enough little surprises and twists to keep things interesting. Well-acted and directed, with some decent action, it’s a lot of fun. Recommended if you’re a fan of the genre.

Topic: [/movie]


Tue, Mar 12, 2013

: Oz The Great And Powerful

I was cautious about this, as I’m not really a Wizard of Oz fan. It’s supposedly a classic (both the movie and the books), but I never found them very compelling. (They’re not bad; just not my cup of tea.)

This version is a prequel, telling how the Wizard of Oz ends up in Oz. It opens in black-and-white square format in Kansas at a carnival. Oz is a con man and struggling magician there. Once he gets whisked off to the land of Oz, we go to widescreen color.

I loved that. In fact, I loved just about everything about this movie: the direction, the sets, the characters, the story, the cast. Almost everything is wonderful. I wasn’t too crazy about the casting of James Franco as the wizard; he seems too tall and too good looking, though he is good as the charming con artist, and he grew on me after a while. Everyone else is flawless, except Mila’s character’s transformation is a bit abrupt (it’s clumsily done, though there is magic involved, but I don’t like thinking that magic can transform a person so completely).

My favorite thing is what some people don’t like: the story. I was afraid this would end up being like most Hollywood fair, overly complicated and exaggerated, with subplots of subplots, but they were smart and kept the story simple and elegant. That means it’s a little predictable, but I didn’t mind that a bit. The wonder comes from the exotic setting, the magic and special effects, fun characters, and the excellent direction. The story itself is bare bones and simple, a tale of a con artist who redeems himself. I’m sure kids will love it.

My favorite character is the little china girl with the broken legs who blatantly tugs the heartstrings throughout the film. (There’s wonderful echoes of her character with a girl in a wheelchair in Kansas at the carnival; both are performed by the same actress, though the doll is digital.) It might be obvious, but it’s well-done, and heart-warming, and helps make the film.

It’s hard to say how this ranks compared to the original. My feelings on that are very complicated. Part of that’s because I’m not sure if I’ve ever really seen it from start to finish. I know I have, but my memories are so mixed up with all the clips and excerpts I’ve seen on TV at various times that it’s hard to me to have a full and complete picture of the movie. I know I didn’t like various aspects of it (i.e. the musical aspects, some of the cheesy scenes, some of the actors, etc.), and I’d much rather see Oz again than see Wizard. But it’s hard to say if I’d still feel that way ten or twenty years from now. This could end up dated quickly.

But history aside, right now this is a thoroughly enjoyable and wonderful film. It’s fun, interesting, and utterly wholesome (except for a hint of sleazy innuendo by the con artist). I really enjoyed it.

Topic: [/movie]


Mon, Feb 18, 2013

: A Good Day To Die Hard

This is an odd “review” to write, since I didn’t see the end of the movie. The theatre I was at had technical problems with about twenty minutes to go and basically said they’d be too long fixing it for us to see the rest of the film. They comped us replacement tickets and said we could wait around for the next showing, but I didn’t want to wait 45 minutes for that… and have to endure the hour of the movie I’d already seen over again.

The sad thing is that I wasn’t upset. I was bored silly and I think I fell asleep. I loved the concept of a new Die Hard movie (the original’s one of my all-time favorites), but this one barely even attempts to be anything Die Hard-like.

It begins terribly, with Bruce Willis’ character rushing off to Russia to save his arrested son. They’re estranged, but we have zero back story on why or what’s happening, and basically the two just yell and scowl at each other and we’re not in on the history. They don’t even get to communicate much, as immediately the action starts and doesn’t stop — but without any meaning behind anything, there’s nothing to care about. I found it excruciating, despite the fact that some of the scenery is interesting and the opening car chase is jaw-dropping in terms of outrageous stunts.

I’ll probably catch the end of this movie someday on cable — but in the meantime, I’d suggest you don’t bother.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Feb 15, 2013

: Hard Drive

Author: David Pogue

This is a technothriller I got way back in the 1993. Back then Pogue was an editor for Macworld magazine (he’s now world famous as the New York Times’ tech editor) and I read it out of curiosity. It seemed a little like he was just taking advantage of his reputation to make a buck selling a novel, but it’s actually a decent book. (I got mine for free with the purchase of a hard drive from APS — a brilliant marketing gimmick.)

Rereading the book now, two decades later, is quite thrilling. It’s extremely dated — hilariously so. For instance, at one point there’s talk of this thing called the “InterNet” which then was limited to big institutions and government agencies. David also is very focused on Apple computers, detailing them in almost every scene (and since this was back when Apple made about five million different models, there’s plenty of variety). It’s also delightfully refreshing to go back in time and remember what was considered state-of-the-art in 1993. Back then it was bulletin-board systems accessed via modems, everyone exchanged data with floppy disks, 8MB was a massive amount of RAM, and a 250MB (megabyte, not gigabyte) external hard drive was considered monstrous.

I especially liked remembering how much of society has changed since then. There were so many things I forgot about: ordering boxed software via mail order companies that charged $3 for overnight shipping, programmers having to be sure their applications were small enough to fit onto a 770KB floppy disk, user groups, printed software manuals, the power and importance of computer magazines (the fictional PowerMac magazine in the book has a circulation of half a million), etc.

The plot of the novel is so tied with tech that it’s unfortunate, as it really dates the story. It’s about a computer virus. It’s rather ironic, as the Mac is famous today for not having viruses, yet the whole novel’s about a Mac virus that’s going to destroy the world. Also, the spread of the virus back then was much more difficult, and the numbers are hilariously small compared to today. Today a virus can spread via an email and infect millions of computers within hours. Back then, it took weeks for it to spread to thousands of computers and yet the novel makes that seem like it’s potentially the end of the world.

There are also some questionable technical flaws. For instance, a significant part of the novel has the virus spreading from Macs to UNIX systems (thereby harming satellite and air traffic control systems). The way this is done is via some sort of Mac-to-UNIX virtualization software, but that makes no sense at all in spreading a virus as it would require all those other systems to also have the virtualization software. (There’s one sentence where it says something about “converting” the code for UNIX, which could allow a virus to be translated and spread, but elsewhere it’s very specific about it being an “interpreter” which means it’s live, on-the-fly translation, not converting the a Mac app to a UNIX standalone app.)

Even stranger is some basic math errors. A key part of the plot is the software company’s potential takeover by a Japanese conglomerate (this was back in the days when Japan had money and was buying up everything in the U.S.). There’s talk that if they don’t repay the $1.2 million investment by Tuesday, the Japanese company will take ownership of the U.S. software company. Yet the company has just sold 40,000 pre-orders of their exciting new software product… at $799 each! With my math, that’s nearly $32 million in income… more than enough to pay back the Japanese investors. Of course that limits the drama, but still seems like an obvious mistake that isn’t explained in the novel.

All that said, the story’s actually pretty good. It’s surprisingly well-written, and it reads quickly, despite being tech heavy — Pogue is excellent at simplifying the tech and explaining it in ways that non-technical people can understand. I also really liked the graphics: there are lots of Mac screenshots, demonstrating various dialog boxes and error messages, as well as BBS transcriptions, emails, computer magazine advertisements, computer source code, etc.

Too much of the drama is forced (the idea that a virus interferes with a military testing of a missile is just ludicrous), some scenes are cliché, and none of the characters are especially memorable, but Pogue does a great job of establishing the Silicon Valley setting and making the 1993 computing world come alive.

Ultimately, this is a minor novel, sadly so tech-specific it’s too dated to be very good as a story, but fascinating as a glimpse into a world most of us have forgotten. I really liked rereading it. I have no idea how easy it is to get a copy of the book these days, but it’s an enjoyable trip down memory lane and worth the read.

Topic: [/book]


Wed, Feb 06, 2013

: Lincoln

Fascinating story about how Lincoln was a master politician in getting the 13th Amendment passed in the House of Representatives in the waning weeks of the Civil War. I expected to be long and talky, and it was, but it wasn’t boring at all.

It was a little difficult to follow everything — there were so many characters (many tiny roles played by familiar actors), the language and speaking style was of the period and occasionally difficult to understand, and I’m not at all familiar with that time in history so some of the events lost me — but the key plot moments are fairly clear.

I am critical in that the movie expects us to know some of this history in order to understand things. For instance, I’m still confused about the relationship between Mary and Abraham. It was very dramatic and she’s a fantastic character, a worthy rival to Lincoln, but they argued about a dead son I knew nothing about, and at times they seemed to despise each other. That was not the impression I had about them from my history classes in school and while it was interesting, it left me bewildered.

Another confusing thing was that the whole movie is about the opposition to the Amendment, and since so much time is focused on that, we rarely get to see those that supported it. In truth, since passing a Constitutional Amendment requires a two-thirds majority, more people were for it than against it, but the film feels like it’s the entire world against a handful. I was shocked at the end when the whole Capital is throwing hats and cheering — making it seem like there was huge support for the Amendment.

I also was slightly disappointed in Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance as Lincoln. Not that he did anything wrong at all — he was fabulous and flawless, as usual — but simply that the role was somewhat understated and not as dramatic as I expected. That was my own fault for bringing that into the theatre with me; in truth I love that they didn’t try to exaggerate Lincoln and I really appreciate Daniel’s low-key portrayal. He didn’t try to do too much but did just enough that we got a rare glimpse into the mind of a special man.

Other than that, there’s not much to be said. The film is in some ways predictable and typical Hollywood, but that doesn’t mean it’s not powerful and emotional. It’s a good story and if you don’t know much about that time period, you’ll learn a lot. I found it fascinating throughout and really enjoyed it, despite my minor quibbles. Highly recommended, but don’t go in thinking it’s revolutionary or earth-shattering. It’s simply a really well done film.

Topic: [/movie]


: Redshirts

Author: John Scalzi

I saw this on Audible and snagged it. All I knew was the title, which is from a joke about the Star Trek franchise where minor crewmen wearing red shirts are always killed off on away missions, and that the book was read by Wil Wheaton, a ST:TNG actor who has something of a cult following.

That gimmicky idea forms the basis of the story, which is about a ship in a Star Trek-like universe in which a disproportionally high number of low-ranking crew members are killed off in bizarre ways on away missions. A new member of the ship finds this trend disturbing, to say the least, since he’s exactly the kind of extra that’s likely to get killed off. He investigates and discovers the absurd truth — that their world is somehow warped in with a twenty-first century TV show. Whatever happens on the show happens to them in real life. So he and his friends go back in time to stop the TV show and save themselves.

This outlandish plot would be silly in any other book, but here it’s brilliant: the conceit is that this is a bad science fiction show, so any bad writing here (e.g. science that violates the laws of physics) is caused by the TV show and therefore makes sense.

The whole novel is hilariously snarky and perfectly delivered by the awesome Wil Wheaton (who does snark better than anyone — I highly recommend the audiobook). It’s just terrific.

But then the novel ends and we have three codas. These are extra stories, sort of a follow-up, if you will, on what happens to certain characters in the aftermath of the events of the novel. For instance, one is an amazing saga about a writer on that crappy scifi show who starts an anonymous blog on the Internet asking for help with his writer’s block because he’s just discovered that everything he writes gets people in the 25th century killed and now he’s too scared to write. This is just awesome; I can’t tell you how well it’s done. It feels like a real blog with real reader comments and this poor writer struggling to figure out his life. (It helps that the writer is snarky and funny, too.)

But what’s amazing about these codas is that they take what’s a very light-hearted and ultimately sort of silly gimmick novel into a place that’s very serious and cerebral. These codas are written as though everything that happened in the novel really happened and suddenly we’re looking at the entire novel in a new light. Instead of silliness, we’re feeling real emotion and genuinely thinking about the ramifications of what happens if a writer’s characters are real people in another space and time and everything the writer writes comes true. Totally awesome, and it makes the gimmick seem much less like a gimmick.

So basically the novel itself gets a solid B — it’s funny, wild, and well-written — but the codas turn the entire thing on its head and bring it up to A+ level. It’s just mind-blowingly good. Recommended.

Topic: [/book]


Sun, Jan 27, 2013

: The Shining

Director: Stanley Kubrick

This is one of those classic movies that I somehow managed to avoid watching all these years. I’d heard a lot about it, but knew little of the story, except that it involved a writer holed up in a remote hotel for the winter and going crazy.

It turns out it’s not just him — his wife and son are there, too. The son’s psychic and can see the future, though that did little for me since it made no difference in the story except to spook the little kid since he was having bad visions of what was going to happen. Really, there isn’t much story here at all. Just a lot of creepy goings-on without much explanation until the very end (and even then, nothing’s really explained).

What makes the movie work, though, is Kubrick’s direction and the fantastic performances by Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall, who plays his wife. (I thought the kid was a terrible actor.) What impressed me the most was how Kubrick knew enough to get out of the way and just allow Nicholson’s acting to provide the scares instead of fancy special effects or fake scares (such as a frightening movement turned out to be a passing cat). Several of the scenes focus on nothing but a close-up of Jack’s face as he leers evilly and it’s just about the scariest thing I’ve ever seen. Really awesome.

Overall, this is a terrific film. I was slightly disappointed by it simply because my expectations were so high, but I don’t know that there’s really anything wrong with the film except that I expected too much. The story, as I mentioned, is almost non-existent and I guess I was expecting more there. You really watch this for the acting and the direction, which are both top notch. Recommended.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Jan 25, 2013

: Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters

I’ve rarely seen a more formulaic film than this one. Based on a fairy tale? Check. Anachronistic modern hip language, guns, and gadgets? Check. Scary, over-the-top witches, digital effects, and blurry, mindless action? Check. Hot gal and guy fighters? Check. Requisite (brief and pointless) nude scene? Check! A simple, by-the-numbers plot? Check and done.

Don’t get me wrong — this isn’t terrible. I was mildly amused and there were a handful of interesting innovations. For instance, I like the whole idea of Hansel and Gretel becoming witch hunters in adulthood, and Hansel being diabetic from eating so much sugar at the witch’s candy house as a kid was hilarious. The concept of witches’ evil gradually deteriorating their skin and bodies to explain their hideous appearance is actually quite clever and has a nice feel of poetic justice.

But the film’s fighting was terrible. First of all, H&G just don’t seem very good at what they do. Yes, they always win in the end, but 90% of the fights are them getting beaten up. That just doesn’t seem like a fun way to make a living.

The action’s so fast you really can’t make any sense of any of it, and worst of all, there’s no rhyme or reason to what the witches can do. They seem to be superstrong like superhero villains, which is weird, and they can take a punch like nothing, which is even weirder. Their magic is never explained — there are a few mentions of spells, but mostly they just shoot laser bolts from their wands and fly on broomsticks. The fights last just as long as needed for the next plot point, then miraculously our heroes save the day though logic would have suggested that the witch could have killed them any moment prior.

The film plays tongue-in-cheek with modern language in a period setting, but while that could have been hip or funny, most of the time it just feels awkward.

There are some fun moments, and the plot, while so simple it’s pretty much A-to-B, is serviceable. (The “shocking” reveal toward the end is very predictable.) The cast do what they can with the lightweight script and it’s actually impressive acting to make such dreck come across as semi-sensical, but in the end, this film isn’t worth your time. It’s fine for a few minutes of mindless entertainment, but don’t expect much. It’s a bit of a shame because the main idea had some merit and this could have been a really good movie.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Jan 18, 2013

: The Last Stand

Leisurely paced and unusually low-key for what’s billed as an action movie, this had enough atmosphere and characters to keep me interested despite a weak villain and a predictable and anticlimactic finish.

Shwartzenegger’s good as an old Sheriff who’s seen it all, coming across as tough and gristly and tired; the supporting cast is also excellent. Unfortunately the entire premise of the film is questionable — an escaped con is planning on driving his way to Mexico through the Sheriff’s tiny border town — and the bad guy’s moves are just too convenient.

Still, it was enjoyable and I prefer this kind of slow build-up to movies that just show a lot of meaningless fighting.

Topic: [/movie]


Tue, Jan 15, 2013

: Black Friday

Author: Alex Kava

I just recent read Exposed, which didn’t impress me much, and this is the next in the series. Like the last one it deals with a terrorist threat — this time a bombing at the Great Mall of America.

Overall it was much more enjoyable as stuff actually happened in the story, but the ending was disappointing as — spoiler alert — the chief bad guy gets away. I’m not sure if Alex is just leaving the door open for a sequel or if the entire point is that such terrorist plots are always built with cutaways and pawns so that the head guy can’t be traced, but as a novel it was unsatisfying. An enjoyable read, but rather light, and the emotional stuff comes across as forced. I still like the author and will continue to read her books as she’s had some really good ones in the past; but these last two feel too much like paint-by-numbers.

Topic: [/book]


Mon, Jan 07, 2013

: Jack Reacher

I’ve never read any of Lee Child’s “Jack Reacher” series and really didn’t know anything about this film except that it was an action film with Tom Cruise. The opening scene of a sniper shooting random people was hard to watch, considering the events of late, but then the story became an investigation into a conspiracy surrounding that shooting and the film got interesting.

I really liked the way Reacher’s character did his investigating, taking the slightest of clues but very plausibly producing real evidence and leads from them. In a lot of crime stories the leads come too easily and are unrealistic. The uncovering of the conspiracy was extremely interesting and well-done.

Unfortunately, the final third of the film devolves into a straight shoot-em-up with a surprisingly anticlimactic and wimpy fight between the two main enemies. That’s doesn’t ruin the movie, but the weak explanation of the conspiracy almost does. I still liked it overall, but it would have been so much better with a real villain and something beyond mere money at stake. The main bad guy looks as poor as a church mouse — yet supposedly he’s rich from extorting millions from other cities? It made little sense and was tossed off poorly, as though the entire plot of the movie was nothing but a MacGuffin designed just to show Jack Reacher doing his stuff. I have to think the book explains things better, but I don’t know.

I did like the Jack Reacher character, though he’s purposely so enigmatic and mysterious that we don’t get to know much of his motivations or background, which makes him a difficult hero to cheer on. He seems to operate above the law in major ways, and yet the law hassles him constantly over petty things like bar fights. I wouldn’t mind seeing more of him, though I don’t think this was particularly successful so they make not make more, but it does have a lot of potential as a movie series.

Topic: [/movie]


Sat, Jan 05, 2013

: Exposed

Author: Alex Kava

This is the sixth “Maggie O’Dell” book. I’ve read some in the series but missed a few, and I think that confused me, as this came across as rather odd. Many of the characters felt like they were existing ones in the series, so I wasn’t given much of a back story, and thus I couldn’t really them from the more minor characters. That’s a problem in a mystery, as I was trying to figure out who the bad guy was as I read, and in this particular book it felt like a cheat since the twist at the end is all about someone’s identity and I was completely confused as to who was who already.

The story itself is also painfully simple. Very little happens, really, but it’s stretched out over a whole novel. The plot is basically some guy is mailing the Ebola virus to seemingly random targets all over the country and going to start an epidemic. But our heroine, FBI agent Maggie O’Dell, is potentially invected right away, so she spends the whole novel in quarantine — which is tedious and boring.

It’s still well-written, there are interesting moments, and the identity of the killer isn’t too terrible (though it still felt like it was never properly explained as I was left with a lot of questions), but all-in-all this felt hollow to me. I never really felt like O’Dell was actually in jeopardy, so all her character’s worries about being exposed were meaningless. The bad guy mailing the virus was the most interesting part of the book, except those scenes were carefully written so that they revealed nothing about his identity, which is, of course, saved for the big reveal at the end. Ultimately, not a terrible book, but definitely the weakest Kava I’ve read (and I’m usually a fan).

Topic: [/book]


Wed, Jan 02, 2013

: The Pirates! Band of Misfits

For reasons I don’t understand, I’m not a fan of this Wallace and Gromit style of animation. (I normally like stop-motion, but this stuff makes me a little nauseous.) It gets better after I watch it a while, but it’s definitely not my favorite.

The humor in this one is also questionable, doing things like including modern references in a period piece. Sometimes that’s funny, but most of the time it just produces a “Huh?” response. For instance, in one scene the pirate captain backs his ship into the harbor and we hear a beeping sound, like trucks make when backing up. Sort of funny, but sort of not.

The plot’s strange, too: it involves an inept pirate and his misfit crew trying to win a “pirate of the year” contest (I liken that to anarchists organizing an “anarchists of the year” award show), with Charles Darwin and Queen Victoria trying to steal the pirate’s pet Dodo bird for their own nefarious ends. Yup. That’s right. Queen V is the villain in this one and it’s really weird. Maybe you have to be British to get that, I don’t know.

Not as bad as it sounds, and there are some really clever gags and scenes, but it’s very uneven. I did like that the main pirate isn’t an idiot — he’s actually pretty intelligent — just down on his luck. Still, this seems targeted at very young kids who will enjoy the cartoon violence and silliness. Disappointing.

Topic: [/movie]


Tue, Jan 01, 2013

: 11-22-63

Author: Stephen King

I bought this just because I saw it was a new Stephen King book, and I didn’t pay attention to what it was about. It turns out the numbers on the cover were a date I should have recognized if I’d thought about it: the JFK assassination. Of course, if I’d noticed that, I probably wouldn’t have bothered with the book, as I’m not a fan of politics or history. That would have been a shame, because I loved this book.

This a very different Stephen King: it’s historical fiction and there’s very little of his traditional horror. While ostensibly the book is about time travel to save Kennedy’s life, that aspect of the book is, in a way, a minor part of the story. The way time travel works in this novel is that the main character finds a “rabbit hole” that takes him back to September 1958 — always the same day. So he can always “reset” everything back to the way it was simply by going back through the hole, but he has no control over time itself. This means that to save Kennedy, he has to wait in 1958 until 1963 rolls around.

Thus the book is mostly about what he does in the meantime. It probably sounds boring, because he gets a job as an English teacher and falls in love — ordinary life stuff. But this works brilliantly for several reasons. One, King’s a terrific writer and his work shines here as he brings the 50s and 60s to life, painting wonderful pictures of a bygone era, and making mundane details seem extraordinary. Second, the man’s mission weighs heavily on every decision he makes, lending an import to the ordinary that makes the reader care about everything that happens. Finally, the story involves shadowing Lee Harvey Oswald and getting a glimpse into history, and while I’m not normally a fan of historical fiction, this was mesmerizing. It felt like I was there and like Oswald was a real person.

One aspect of this book that I must point out — if you’re a teacher or know teachers, this is a must-read. It has some of the best stuff I’ve ever read about what a teacher’s life is life and how that teacher, with small gestures, can effect a student’s life. (As a time traveler, our main character is particularly sensitive to the long-term consequences of his actions.) There are several scenes that will have you tearing up and are just jaw-droppingly beautiful.

Though the book is very long at around 30 hours (I’ve been listening to it for months in my car), it’s so compelling you can’t put it down. Several of the smaller “side plots” would make killer short stories or novels themselves. For someone like me who doesn’t like this genre to recommend this should tell you something: I just adored this (and I bought a text copy for re-reading even though I own the audiobook). It’s just wonderful: simple, elegant, and not flashy or gimmicky at all despite the time travel angle.

Topic: [/book]