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]