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]