Sun, Dec 28, 2014

: Her

Director: Spike Jonze

I think I find my reactions to this movie more interesting than the movie itself. I was curious about this when it first came out. On the one hand, it sounded like something I would love: a quirky story about a lonely joe who falls in love with his computer. But on the other side, the promos insisted that this was a relationship with an operating system, which just made no sense at all.

(To anyone that knows anything about computers, operating systems are very low-level. Humans really don’t interact with them at all: we interact with programs which run above the operating system.)

This fundamental error of computer knowledge turned me off and made me skeptical about the film. Even though I respect the director and the reviews of the film were fantastic, I still hesitated to see the movie.

Now that I’ve seen it, I will say that it’s a fantastic film. It does, however, continue with the silly “operating system” error throughout, and there’s no reason for it — nothing about the film would change if they simply called it a “program” instead of an OS.

Beyond that error, almost everything else about this movie is flawless. The way the “OS” interacts with the human characters, the way the relationship slowly develops, and the existential crisis that’s at the heart of the everything is just wonderful and amazing. The plot is beautiful simple and elegant and tragically beautiful. It really makes you think about the nature of relationships and what it means to be human.

For instance, while the whole human-machine relationship sounds crazy, we see the human having “phone sex” with another human… and later he has a similar sexually-charged conversation with his computer. Both are just voices in his ear so we see how similar they are and suddenly a human-machine relationship — even a sexual one — doesn’t seem so unbelievable.

I also liked the world that this story is set within: just enough advanced from ours to be different, with more voice-controlled computers, which makes the human-machine interaction (via voice) seem like a natural evolution.

In terms of performances, everyone is just perfect. It’s my favorite Joaquin Phoenix role to date. He’s just amazing: funny, shy, confused, sweet, and dark all at once. Amy Adams is terrific as the sweet best friend. But most impressive of all is Scarlett Johansson as the voice of the computer — we never see her but she manages to express so much via her voice that it’s entirely believable that someone would fall in love with her, computer or not.

My only other complaint is that some of the swearing felt excessive and unneeded. At times it was entirely justified and appropriate, but many times it came out of left-field and was just awkward and weird, like hearing the F-word in a Disney film. I’m not sure why they did that. Sometimes it was for humor’s sake, but it didn’t always work.

But beyond those nitpicks, this really is an impressive and marvelous film. I really should have seen in the theatres.

Topic: [/movie]


Mon, Dec 22, 2014

: The Martian

Author: Andy Weir

This is one of the best books I’ve ever read. It tells the story of a NASA astronaut who gets stranded on Mars.

This is written with modern-day technology in mind, not magic or future science, so the problems the astronaut faces are truly insurmountable. He’s millions of miles from Earth and missions to Mars take years to plan and execute. He’s only got a limited amount of food, but will have to live for at least four years before he could possibly be rescued. It’s basically a cross between Apollo 13 and Gravity — except his odds of survival are even lower.

Though the novel is extremely realistic with details on math, chemistry, botany, engineering, and other sciences the astronaut has to master to survive, I was impressed both in the elegance of the explanations and how they aren’t boring in the least. That’s because they’re so crucial to the story — like when the guy has to extract hydrogen from jet fuel to make water. It’s just amazing.

The book sounds like it could be a depressing and overly dramatic novel, but what makes it work is that it’s written in first person from the astronaut’s viewpoint and he is absolutely hilarious. He writes with snark and self-effacing wit and makes the most awe-inspiring tragedies seem like ordinary obstacles.

For example, in one sequence after his supplies are running dangerously low, he writes: “Today I had Nothin’ tea. Nothin’ tea is easy to make. Just take hot water and add nothin’.” This upbeat attitude makes his circumstances bearable for us.

This is just a terrific tale of remarkable survival and the fact that it’s fiction does not lessen its drama in the least. It’s a fast, fun read, and I highly recommend it.

Topic: [/book]


Sun, Dec 21, 2014

: 300: Rise of an Empire

I really liked the first movie, but this one was very strange. It had a similar cool style, but the story was very weak. It was too convoluted and with most of the battles taking place in ships at sea, it was hard to follow what was going on. It also isn’t about the Spartans but the Greeks, and we just don’t get the same sense of overwhelming odds against a small group of people. This one features far too much about who the bad guys are, building them up and actually making them seem not quite as evil (since we understand them). In the end this is simply a lot of action. In that regard it’s okay, but it’s not a standout film like the first one.

Topic: [/movie]


Sat, Dec 20, 2014

: Divergent

The sounded like such a rip off of The Hunger Games — set in the future, postapocalyptic society divided into different groups with a female hero — that I avoided it in the theaters. But it’s actually pretty good. It’s still somewhat hampered by its gimmick, but it has a surprising amount of depth that I didn’t expect and actually works pretty well.

In this world, everyone belongs to one of five factions based on personality type. All except our heroine, Tris, who is “divergent” and doesn’t belong to any faction. This makes her dangerous because she can’t be controlled.

The actual story of this movie is her joining the Dauntless (warrior) faction and having to go through their rigorous initiation and training to become a member while hiding that she’s divergent. Eventually she stumbles upon a plot to overtake the government and manages to stop it because of her divergent personality.

Nothing too remarkable there, but it’s interesting enough to keep your attention. What really makes everything work is the performance of Shailene Woodley in the lead. She’s physically perfect as an underwhelming soldier, yet not so feeble that she can’t convincingly portray the later action scenes when required.

I like that this particular movie finished its storyline and didn’t end in the middle of a sentence like so many of these trilogies do, but the ending was a little confusing and left a lot of questions unanswered (presumably stuff that will be explained in the next movie). In the end, this isn’t a film without major flaws (there are many), but it’s fun enough that you can overlook them.

Topic: [/movie]


Wed, Dec 17, 2014

: Fahrenheit 451

Author: Ray Bradbury

I haven’t read this since high school. I thought I didn’t remember much beyond it’s about book-burning, but I was really surprised at how much I did remember. There were little futuristic touches — like billboards hundreds of feet long because cars zoom by so fast — that I hadn’t remembered came from this book.

But what really impressed me is the quality of the writing. It’s been a while since I’ve read Bradbury. I’m a big fan, certainly, but I mostly remember reading his stuff for the stories. With this book I was struck by how masterful a writer he is (was). The descriptions, pacing, and artful way he tells a simple story is just brilliant. It’s no wonder this is a classic.

Another thing that I noticed is how prescient the book is — the book-banning in the novel was not caused by a dictatorship or evil plot, but simply out of convenience to keep the mobs satiated. It developed gradually over a hundred years of publishing fluff and nonsense, where people read less and less and focused more on mindless entertainment via TV. That’s really the core of Fahrenheit 451: it’s an attack on stupidity. Reading it now, it sounds like a diatribe against reality TV and 200-word “articles” on Internet sites! So scary that a book written 60 years ago would describe today’s world so accurately.

Topic: [/book]


: Mr. Monk On the Road

This is one is weak on mysteries and focuses more on the relationship between Monk and his brother, Ambrose. It’s Ambrose’s birthday and as a present, Mr. Monk has the far-fetched idea of renting an RV and taking his brother out on the road (since Ambrose hasn’t left his house in 30 years).

It’s definitely well-done and I did enjoy reading about familiar places I’ve been (like Santa Cruz), but in the end it’s not a very satisfying Monk book. Sure, he finds some murders and solves them, but they’re minor, and the resolution isn’t that great. I like the Ambrose character, but this book just didn’t work as Monk book for me.

Topic: [/book]


Sat, Dec 06, 2014

: The Day

Usually I fast-forward through these kinds of movies and don’t bother to comment on them. This horror film about a small group in an apocalyptic world who fight off cannibals at a farmhouse had an interesting cast (one of the hobbits from Lord of the Rings is in it), so I recorded it. It’s not a great movie — but it’s got some unusual appeal and I ended up actually watching it.

It starts off really slow with a rag-tag group of survivors finding a deserted farmhouse and making camp there. Everyone is on edge and terrified, but we don’t know why. There are hints that the world ended ten years earlier, but there’s no explanation of exactly what happened. I liked that. There are a couple of flashbacks from some of the characters, but they’re brief and it’s not too heavy-handed.

One of their group is a strange woman who doesn’t talk. She’s an outsider and a loner. Then suddenly the men are attacked: the farmhouse is a trap by cannibal tribe who plan on eating them. The odd woman fights them off and kills them, but not before one of them talks to her and reveals that she’s a cannibal, too. That’s when things get interesting: suddenly her friends attack her and torture her and plan to kill her. One of the men had his wife and daughter killed by cannibals and he’s the most avid about making the odd woman’s death as painful as possible.

But this isn’t really the right time for that: reinforcements of the cannibals are coming, and if the group is caught on the open road, they’d be easily slaughtered. At least at the farmhouse they have a fighting chance. And they decide to keep the woman alive for the moment, as she knows the cannibal ways and can help them fight. She reveals that her baby sister got sick and was eaten by her tribe, and so she killed them and ran away. The others don’t think that she’s really changed and plan to kill her for her crimes anyway.

That whole “Is she a friend or not?” question was fascinating and well-done. The actual cannibal fighting was merely okay. Really annoying was the high-frequency sound-effects the director used — we’re the talking dog whistle variety that grates on your nerves and was clearly designed to freak out the viewer but just pissed me off and trite and far too obvious. The ending was unusual and pretty cool.

In the end, I have to recommend the film if you’re into gory horror of the dark variety. It’s got some intriguing ideas. It’s definitely not a film for everyone, and even fans will find it dry at times, but it’s got just enough depth to take it slightly above routine horror.

Topic: [/movie]


: The Amazing Spider-Man 2

I wasn’t a big fan of the “original”, and my feelings remained in this one. It has similarly non-sensical plot problems (particularly galling is how regular people turn into villains with little provocation and the way they master their superpowers with zero effort or practice), and though it has a few clever ideas (I liked the explanation for why the spider bite worked on Peter Parker), those good things are offset by other flaws. Combine that with a bizarre and sad ending and I’m still asking, “Why’d they bother?”

Topic: [/movie]


Thu, Dec 04, 2014

: Mr. Monk is Cleaned Out

I remember when I got this I wasn’t too excited: the premise sounded too depressing. Basically Monk loses everything in a Ponzi scheme, so 80% of the book is him and Natalie struggling for money. Yeah, lots of fun. They get low-end jobs and are promptly fired when Monk is Monk (i.e. telling pizza restaurant patrons they’re all going to die because they’re eating with their hands). Only mildly amusing.

Fortunately, there are a couple of “impossible” murders for Monk to solve, and though those aren’t impossible to figure out, they are clever and well-done.

Overall, this is a below-average Monk book: limited humor, only a handful of mysteries, and a rather depressing economic situation. But that still is better than most books and if you’re a Monk fan, it’s not a bad read.

Topic: [/book]


Wed, Dec 03, 2014

: Mr. Monk on the Couch

It’s been quite a while since I’ve read a Mr. Monk book. They’re usually great, but because they each have to be written as somewhat standalone books, they get rather repetitive when you read several in a row as the whole Monk premise (a severely obsessive-compulsive detective) and I got rather burned out on them.

This was a delightful way to get back into it. I loved that the book is full of tons of little mysteries he solves while the big murder mystery continues in the background. In this one the big mystery was predictable (several murders that turned out to be related), but it didn’t bother me as it was an entertaining read. As always, it’s full of terrific humor and Monk insanity. One of the better Monk books.

(I still can’t believe they canceled the TV show. I miss it so much! But at least there appears to be a slew of new Monk books for me to check out.)

Topic: [/book]


Sun, Nov 16, 2014

: The LEGO Movie

When this movie came out last spring, I boycotted it. I had numerous reasons to dislike it without seeing it. I thought the idea was too artificial, a movie forced into being by a toy company. I’m huge fan of Legos — they were my favorite toy as a kid — but I abhor the little Lego people. (Back in my day, we didn’t have those. If you wanted people in your Lego town, you had to build them up from blocks!)

Despite those obstacles, I might have still seen the movie, but the trailer was awful: a bizarre mix of pop culture references and a plot about “the chosen one” seemingly ripped off from the Matrix and a few dozen other films. When the film became a huge hit, I stayed away out of spite. I didn’t want to encourage such cheapness.

Well, tonight the film debuted on HBO and out of curiosity, I watched it. It’s terrific. It opens with an ordinary Lego guy in a totalitarian society where everyone is supposed to follow the instructions. This is clearly a metaphor of those who build Legos via imagination and free will versus those who rigidly follow step-by-step instructions.

This society is pretty cool in some ways — the “rules” are often hilarious — but lame in others (the bad guy is the unimaginative and bizarrely named “President Business”). As the movie continued into a weird mishmash of popular culture — suddenly Batman and Superman and even Star Wars characters are in the movie — I was even more puzzled (and slightly revolted, if I must be honest).

At one point I had the wild idea that perhaps everything that seemed lame was actually part of a brilliant plan by the screenwriters and everything would actually make sense in the end. Of course, that was ridiculous and impossible.

Guess what? The ending of this is what did it for me. The bulk of the movie is a rather crazy high-speed adventure story of the ordinary guy being forced into the hero role… but while everything seems to be haphazard and crazy for the sake of craziness, everything is there for a reason. The ending actually does explain everything! It’s freaking genius. I’m in awe of this ending. All the nonsensical stuff in the middle is perfectly rational once you know what’s really going on. (And that reason really appealed to the child in me.)

And to top it off, there’s a great moral lesson in the story about being true to yourself, that everyone (even the most ordinary of us) is special, and there’s no wrong way to build — which is not only a great life lesson, but is particularly amazing when connected (Ha ha, see what I did there?) with Legos.

As a kid the thing I hated more than anything was when someone else tried to tell me the “right” way to build something with Legos. (I can remember dozens of times when adults would show me the “right” way to do something and I would pretend to listen and as soon as they left, I’d destroy what they did and redo it my way. That right there should tell you everything you need to know about me as a person.)

The whole point of Legos is that you can use your imagination and do whatever you want. Clearly these filmmakers understood that, and that I think that’s why they made this movie.

So the bottom line is that while the promotion of this film failed for me as it tried to look hip and cool and just came across as bizarre and confusing, it actually is an ingenious invention, and utterly worth your time. It’s a blast.

Topic: [/movie]


Thu, Nov 13, 2014

: The Scarecrow

Author: Michael Connelly

Apparently this is a sequel to a previous book, The Poet, that I hadn’t read. That’s not a big deal as this one happens ten years later. In that one our journalist hero tracked down a serial killer and it made his career. In this one he’s a victim of the fall of the newspaper industry and is being downsized. He’s got two weeks left and in those few days, he uncovers the biggest scoop of his career.

Random women are being murdered and left in the trucks of cars, but the murderer is a technical genius who is incredibly careful to not leave any clues and to vary his crimes so that no one even realizes it’s a serial killing. He always sets up a patsy to take the fall.

What I liked about this is that how our journalist uncovers this truth is believable and not forced. He’s soon on the trail of an unknown subject, while at the same time, the hacker already knows he’s being stalked and is hunting the hunter. The result is a cool cat-and-mouse game with some thrilling suspense.

The book’s a few years old (2009), so some of the tech is dated, but it’s surprisingly realistically done. The ending is a little anticlimactic, with Connelly trying too hard to be unpredictable, but it’s still a fun read and above average. Recommended.

Topic: [/book]


Wed, Nov 12, 2014

: Interstellar

This is a masterful film. While I went to see it mildly curious about the science fiction elements, what made me fall in love with it were the human relationships. The heart of the story is about the love of a daughter for her father. The ten-year-old is unconventional, a square peg in society’s round hole, and her father adores her for it and encourages her to think for herself.

The setting is a future where the earth is running out of food. Blight is gradually ruining all crops, turning the earth into a dust bowl, and the world is starving. The father’s a former astronaut, now a farmer, since the world needs food and not engineering.

The film begins with the daughter talking about ghosts in her room, as books have fallen off her shelves. The family humors her, but later the father decodes a hidden message written in the dust by the “ghost” which leads him to the location of a secret installation run by NASA.

There he learns that an expedition is underway to save the human race. As there’s a scarcity of experienced astronauts, he’s elected to lead the mission. A wormhole has been discovered near Saturn, and via it we can travel beyond our solar system. There’s hope for humanity, but the man must make the terrible decision to leave his family with the possibility of never seeing them again. Or, equally grim, returning home to find that while only a few years have passed for him, decades have passed for his daughter and everyone on earth, due to the effects of relativity.

Thus we’re set up with our key premise: the fate of our species versus the fate of our families. Which is more important? What sacrifice is too great? This same theme is beautifully echoed in smaller ways during the space mission as the crew of the ship must make similar decisions, due to lack of resources (fuel, oxygen, etc.).

It’s difficult to reveal much more without spoiling the story, but I’ll just say that everything resolves itself in a fascinating, and though wildly improbable, scientifically sound scenario. The film is gorgeous, dramatic, frightening, exciting, and thought-provoking, and yet because it’s so grounded in a “simple” father-daughter relationship, heart-breaking. The greatest testament I can say is that though the film is nearly three hours long, I didn’t look at my watch once. It didn’t even occur to me, as I was mesmerized, holding my breath about what was going to happen next. Definitely the must-see film of 2014.

Topic: [/movie]


Sat, Nov 08, 2014

: Non-Stop

This was not really what I was expecting. Obviously it was promoted as being similar to Taken, but there’s a lot less action — it’s more of a psychological thriller. That is more interesting, except that this is by-the-numbers and far too implausible.

The basic concept is a troubled air marshal is on a transatlantic flight and he starts receiving text messages from a passenger who says he’s going to kill somebody every 20 minutes if he doesn’t receive $150 million. As the air marshal investigates, it turns out everything is set up to frame him for a hijacking since with his past he’s a perfect patsy.

That part is intriguing, but then the whole thing becomes bogged down with texting technology (we have to read long conversations between the terrorist and hero) and turns into a “island” mystery where everyone is a suspect and no one can leave. The problem with that kind of thing is that we can’t trust the screenwriter: we soon don’t believe anything were told and we’re looking for secondary motivations for everything anybody does.

As always in such stories, the resolution is a letdown and not nearly as interesting as all the alternative scenarios we dreamed up while we were watching the movie.

Because of the cast and certain other aspects of the film it is watchable, but not nearly as good as it should’ve been.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Nov 07, 2014

: Big Hero 6

I didn’t know anything about this going in except that it was about a boy who builds a robot that looks like a giant marshmallow. (It turns out the story is actually based on a graphic novel series.)

Right from the beginning I was intrigued because it was clear this was not a “little kid’s movie.” Our hero teen — a tech genius — is engaged in illegal gambling and gets arrested, and soon there’s the death of a major character, storylines you don’t usually find in lighthearted cartoons.

That death motivates our hero, who soon figures out that someone was trying to steal his invention and use it for evil. It is at this point that the film becomes a superhero movie as the boy enlists some friends and with his tech they all become superheroes and go try and stop the villain. It’s really fun, unusual, and totally cool, but it’s also grounded in real characters and a real story with heart. Two thumbs way up!

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Oct 03, 2014

: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest

Author: Steig Larsson

This is the third book in the Millennium trilogy. It picks up right where The Girl Who Played With Fire left off, dealing with the aftermath of Lisbeth being sought and caught for murders she didn’t commit. We also continue to explore the conspiracy that was revealed in the second book, and we learn a lot of Lisbeth’s history which helps make the entire series make more sense.

In this one, the main plot involves preparation for Lisbeth’s trial and her defense, with many friends coming to her aid, while enemies plot to convict her. I really enjoyed this, particularly with how Lisbeth, despite being confined to a hospital and under guard, is able to do her computer hacking and help stop bad people. I also like that this finally concludes all the storylines and is a satisfying finish to the series.

(I hear that Larsson left behind a half-finished fourth novel and plans for more, and those might be written by a ghost writer. I’m not sure I’m too excited about that, but that mainly depends on how complete his notes were.)

Topic: [/book]


Wed, Sep 10, 2014

: The Real iWatch

Yesterday’s Apple presentation provided much to ponder, but, as usual, I have some preliminary thoughts.

Most fascinating to me is what a machine Apple has become. Products like the iPhone — despite being Apple’s most important product by far — were barely mentioned, at least in comparison. That’s mostly because little needs to be said. Every year Apple improves the iPhone and this year is no different (though there isn’t something as ground-breaking as TouchID).

Apple Pay has the potential to revolutionize a whole new industry, and yet that’s the future, and everyone wants to talk about the watch.

No one was sure before the announcement if Apple was going to actually release a watch or some other wearable, but a watch makes more sense in so many ways: there’s a lot more information presentation available on a watch than a bracelet or clip-on device, and a watch is a much more socially acceptable type of jewelry than glasses.

That said, many will be “disappointed” that it’s “only” a watch. Or that the price is so high (keep in mind that the $350 is the starting price, and there’s no word if that includes a strap or which band that would be).

But it’s clear from several aspects of the Apple Watch announcement what Apple is doing.

The Apple Watch is high-end jewelry.

This is required to make the watch palatable by those who no longer wear watches. The price is high because of the craftsmanship involved more than the embedded technology. It’s not hard to predict that less expensive Apple Watches will be available down the road with less expensive bands.

Apple is going all-in on the watch.

The fact that Apple would launch a new product like this with not one model, but 18 is astonishing. Apple is famous for being a company that can fit their entire product line on a single table. This is just beginning of the watch variety, too — undoubtedly they’ll release more designs later (I predict new bands coming out all the time, part of why Apple has recently hired several famous designers).

Apple is not testing the market with the Apple Watch. Apple believes it will be hugely successful and is putting huge engineering, design, and marketing efforts behind the venture. That tells me they are more than confident that this kind of wearable is the future.

Since select Apple employees have been using the prototypes in daily life for a long time (perhaps years), I suspect they know something we don’t. With technology this personal, it’s very hard to understand it without actually experiencing it.

I just recently found an article I wrote back in 2007 where I talked about how, though I admired the upcoming iPhone, I wasn’t going to buy one. Why didn’t I want one? Oh, I wanted one, I just didn’t think I needed one. Back then it was enormously expensive — $600 up-front just for the phone, plus $75/month in a cellular contract. Back then I barely used a cell phone except for emergencies.

Flash forward today and you’ll have to pry my iPhone out of my cold, dead hands. I could not live without my iPhone. It’s essential to my everyday work and life. I cannot begin to detail all the things it does for me. The list is practically endless.

I think the Apple Watch will be similar. Right now most of us are going, “Neat. Great tech. But nothing I need.” Of course, just like the original iPhone, many of us will buy the thing. Though it’s a lot of money, I suspect I will.

Once I start using the watch, it will transform my life in subtle ways I can’t predict. Tiny hassles like a text message I can’t read today because my phone’s in my pocket and I’m driving will be a thing of the past (it’d be trivial to read a few words on my wrist without distracting me from the road).

The fitness monitoring would become standard (already I have such technology and it’s amazing how quickly it becomes the “norm”), as would many other features, such as being able to see weather forecasts just by raising my wrist or having walking directions without having to look at a map.

I bet I’d be able to keep my iPhone hidden away much more, using the watch for routine things, like seeing who is calling or emailing, or for quick responses or questions. The convenience of a computer on my wrist sounds extravagant, but I suspect it will soon feel essential.

Apple knows all this because they don’t release products without using them for a long time first. I bet even within Apple their were many skeptics about how “useful” a smartwatch would be, but after using the Apple Watch for the last year or two (in various prototype configurations, no doubt), they’ve realized that a watch really is more convenient than a phone. Even if the watch requires a phone nearby for certain activities, it’s still much easier to have the phone in a pocket and a screen on your wrist.

We shall soon see if Apple’s right, but I wouldn’t bet against them. They don’t release products just because it might be successful. They already know. (Remember how Steve Jobs changed the name of the company from Apple Computer to just Apple on the day of the iPhone launch? He knew it would utterly transform the company and he was absolutely right. Pundits weren’t sure if the iPhone would succeed — many predicted failure — but Steve knew.)

Heart of a nano

I can’t write about the new Apple Watch without mentioning the previous “iWatch,” the square iPod nano I’ve used as a watch since Steve Jobs died.

I was extremely puzzled by Apple’s decision to change the nano’s design and “kill” the tiny square that could be adapted into a watch. I thought the form factor was awesome.

As a watch, it has some key flaws: battery life isn’t great, you can’t see the time unless you press a button, it takes a few seconds to wake up from sleep if you haven’t used it in a while, the screen is invisible in bright sunlight, and it’s a tad bulky. Of course, it’s not really a watch — it’s an iPod with a few watch faces — so there’s a lot of missing functionality.

But it’s clear to me that the folks who worked on the nano quickly realized the potential of a computer on the wrist. I’m now convinced that Apple killed that nano design as a way to hide the fact that they were designing a real watch. This new watch has nano roots, but this time it’s not an iPod that happens to be small enough to put on your wrist, but a device designed from the ground up as a watch.

That’s really cool. The nano is my favorite watch in many ways, but its limitations are frustrating. Having a real watch that’s very similar is compelling. Though I’m not excited about having to spend $400 to get one, I do love the concept and I can’t wait to try out an Apple Watch in a store.

Topic: [/technology]


Tue, Aug 19, 2014

: Lucy

I’m a sucker for Luc Besson films, though it’s been a while since he’s reached his earlier genius. Lucy tries and has some interesting elements, but it’s a gimmicky film with a feeble gimmick (a drug that lets you access “all” of your brain power, based on the falsehood that we only use 10% of our brain), and it has a really strange, sort of existential ending (which feels out of place with the rest of the movie).

The bottom line is that it’s fun and entertaining fluff, and I liked the cast, but there’s nothing of depth here.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Aug 08, 2014

: The Girl Who Played With Fire

Author: Steig Larsson

I finally got around to reading the second in the trilogy that started with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. It was a bit of a slog — Larsson is ridiculously detailed — and it took me until halfway through to really figure out where it was going, but in the end it was fascinating with a pretty terrific plot.

The basic idea is that it picks up about a year after the first book, with Lisbeth off roaming the world with her new money. She and Mikael have broken contact (her choice, because she’s fallen for him), and while he gets involved in a new mystery involving the sex trade, she seems to have nothing to do with the story. When she returns to Sweden she finds herself in the middle of his mess, and ends up framed for murder and on the run. It all seems far-fetched and odd, too full of coincidence, but in the end, when everything is explained, it does make shockingly good sense.

Overall, two thumbs up. I finished this one and went right into the third book, which I’m reading now. That should tell you something.

Topic: [/book]


Mon, Jul 21, 2014

: Dawn of The Planet of the Apes

Quite clever and brilliant, in some ways. It takes up where the last film left off. The idea that mankind was wiped out by the “simian flu” was good, and it sets up a plausible future world where the apes can take over. (The idea that a handful of escaped apes could somehow overthrow six billion people seemed far fetched.)

This film is about how the conflict between humans and apes gets started. I loved the way we’re kept guessing throughout as to how peace or war will be achieved or stopped. There are parts that are predictable or too action-heavy, but overall this keeps moving and is mesmerizing. The ape acting and filming is superb — quite amazing. Definitely a worthy sequel. Can’t wait to see what comes next.

Topic: [/movie]


Wed, Jul 09, 2014

: The Treasure Hunt

For the past few summers, my aunt has organized “Grandkids Camp” at her sister’s farm near Salem, Oregon. The property is huge and old, so there’s room to camp out and the kids have lots of adventures. As the camp has grown (there are only three kids, but it’s the highlight of their year, so it’s gotten longer and more involved), my aunt’s gotten other family members to contribute in their areas of expertise.

Last year my cousin (who’s a movie director) and I created a short film with the kids. This year Joel couldn’t make it but suggested he contribute some video footage remotely. He suggested something along the lines of a National Treasure type hunt, with video clues.

Working with that concept, I came up with a storyline and organized an elaborate treasure hunt. Since the kids do a treasure hunt every camp, we had a fake hunt organized to fool them into thinking they’d already found their treasure (the fake hunt’s prize were chocolate “gold” coins). This helped them believe that the hunt I created was the real thing because they’d already done the hunt!

Since my goal was to make this believable, I had to come up with a plausible story as to why gold would be buried on the farm. I created a fake pirate who wasn’t from the Caribbean, but a river pirate on the Mississippi. I had him escaping to the Northwest with his gold where he died under mysterious circumstances. I had his body being found by an oddly-naked soldier, James Knickerbottom.

My aunt’s sister and her husband planted seeds early after the kids’ arrival that “Knickerbottom,” the guy they’d bought the farm from, kept calling wanting to dig more holes on the property looking for treasure. This was a key clue in making the treasure hunt believable. I purposely picked a funny name that the kids would remember and it worked to perfection!

Next, we had the kids start looking for clues. They weren’t too enthusiastic at first, thinking that the treasure hunt had been done and this wasn’t an official activity, but I pretended to be curious about this “real” treasure. The first clue we found was in the old barn: river pirate Mississippi Joe’s wanted poster:

Once we found that, I pretended to search for more information about this guy on the internet and discovered a website about Mississippi Joe. (This is a fake site I created just for this game!)

On the site was a short documentary video about Joe, which my cousin had created from my script:

It’s really awesome and makes the pirate seem like a genuine historical figure. It worked unbelievably well, particularly when the kids noticed a shot in the video of the same wanted poster they had in their hands! They were absolutely convinced that the ancient and damaged document in their hands was a priceless historical artifact.

I’d also created some fake newspaper clippings which were used in the video. These were included on the website and gave the kids something to read and explore:

To create these, I wrote the text, designed them as old-fashioned newspaper articles, and printed out low-resolution copies. Then soaked them in tea and baked them in an oven at 200 degrees. They really look old!

Next, the kids investigated the old milk house where they found James Knickerbottom’s diary. Supposedly Jame’s son Eli had found it in 1902 but his mom had burned it, worried her son would become as obsessed with hunting for the gold as her demented husband. I actually created an entire 48-page diary, printed it out, and sewed it into a little booklet (I had to learn how to operate my sewing machine). I then aged and burned it. It came out awesome:

There were lots of clues in the diary to keep the kids interested, but the real secret was the scrap of paper hidden in the pocket at the back of the diary:

Once the kids noticed and found that, they were on their way! This led them to the actual treasure map, hidden in the cellar of the original old farmhouse:

Finding the treasure itself was an adventure, for Mississippi Joe, who’d been dying, didn’t have time to did a big hole. He buried the treasure in a small hole at the base of a large tree. Of course, the kids couldn’t find this tree: that was 100 years ago and the tree had been cut down. All that was left now was a big stump. But the kids dug around the stump and discovered the gold coins hidden inside a moss-covered ceramic vase plugged with a cork. It looked amazingly real and was fully believable… until one of the boys noticed one of the coins had a 1964 date stamped on it!

The kids had a terrific time, though they were slightly disappointed that the whole thing wasn’t really real. They were fooled until the very end, however. I’m sure they’ll remember this experience for the rest of their lives!

Topic: [/personal]


Mon, Jul 07, 2014

: Monsters University

It’s been a while since I’ve seen Monsters, Inc., but I always liked it and felt it was underrated. I’d wanted to catch this sequel in the theater but it didn’t work out. It’s definitely not as original, since it’s set in the same world, but it’s still very good. I’m not so sure I’d say “great” but definitely excellent.

The story is a little forced, with our two main characters going to Monsters University and hating each other, but, of course, they eventually work things out, learn deep lessons, and become best friends. There are a ton of school puns and lots of other fun stuff, but the core lesson about not being judged based on what you look like is enduring. Definitely one you want to see.

Topic: [/movie]


Wed, Jul 02, 2014

: The Girl

As Hitchcock fan, I’d been wanting to see this film for a while. I knew it didn’t get the best reviews, but I wasn’t sure why. The cast of Toby Jones and Sienna Miller was top notch and the story of Hitch’s relationship with Tippi Hedren while filming The Birds sounded interesting.

Unfortunately, the film’s a disaster. To be fair, it is an interesting disaster, but it’s a terrible film.

The film postulates that Hitch was a monster. He was portrayed as such an evil snake I had a difficult time watching the movie (it took me several nights). He leers at Tippi, tells sexual jokes to make her uncomfortable, assaults her, tortures her in his movie, and threatens her to try and get her to sleep with him.

Now all that could be true. I don’t know. I wasn’t there. I’ve read books about him and seen his movies, but that doesn’t mean I know the real guy. He might have been a total jerk. But this film doesn’t give us any other picture of Hitch. We don’t even see any of his movie genius — he’s presented as a rich fat guy in a position of power who treats the women around him like crap. I’m sorry, but that’s just too narrow a definition, even if aspects of his behavior were true.

But there’s also a lot false about this portrayal. We know that Hitch had crushes on his leading ladies, and that filming The Birds was hell for Tipi, but I find it impossible to believe that Hitch could be so blatant. He was a subtle man. His sense of humor was so dry that many people wouldn’t get the joke. That’s a man who hides his true feelings and not someone who would crudely paw a woman. (If Hitch were to have an affair, it would be an affair of the mind and soul, not the body.)

I’d add that since Hitch worked with many of his leading women in multiple films, and none have come out and put forth claims that he acted this way, it’s highly unlikely he could have been so blatant. Perhaps he wanted to behave this way, but he didn’t actually do it.

What really disappointed me about this movie is that it had potential to be great. The idea of a genius director obsessed with his star is fascinating. There was room her for real psychological insight into a tortured personality. We could have learned more about Hitch and Tippi — instead we learn nothing about either. Tippi’s a pretty blond who is in over her head in dealing with a powerful figure like Hitch, while he’s just a monster. Alma — Hitch’s wife — is a near-silent figure lurking in the background watching, but there’s so little explanation there we have no idea what their relationship is all about.

So instead of learning why Hitch’s obsessions made his film’s great, all we got is a portrayal of a man who should have been put in jail for his treatment of women. Just disgusting.

Topic: [/movie]


Sat, Jun 14, 2014

: Percy Jackson: City of Monsters

Another mediocre sequel of a weak first film. This one tries hard and clearly has a bigger budget, but the effects seem like a waste and the modern day connections to the mythological feel forced and awkward. (Nothing feels humorous, even stuff that should have been comedy.)

The plot is ridiculous, about going on a quest that happens to be the same thing that the bad guy is seeking. Nothing makes any sense, but for this kind of movie you just enjoy the ride and forget logic. The action is okay and the ending, while over-the-top and silly, is at least satisfying. I do like some of the characters and there are a handful of good moments, but they are few and far between and the whole movie feels forced, a paint-by-numbers sequel where nobody — not the writer, director, or cast — feels compelled to do good work.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Jun 13, 2014

: Infamous

This is a movie about how Truman Capote wrote In Cold Blood, his revolutionary book about two killers who murdered a Kansas family. It came out about the same time as Capote, on the same topic, which I saw and loved. I wanted to see this one but never got around to it.

This one is also very good, but different than I expected. I wasn’t even that aware that Truman was homosexual, let alone in such a blatant way, nor that he supposedly had a relationship with one of the killers he interviewed. That feels like a fictional stretch to me, but presumably this is based on fact and it could be real, but I didn’t find that very interesting or compelling at all. (In fact, I found it distasteful. How anyone could love such a murderer, even if he is shown sympathetically with a difficult childhood, I don’t get. In Capote this relationship is just hinted at, but here it’s blatant.)

Overall, while I found the movie watchable and informative, it wasn’t particularly enjoyable. The best part for me was the very end when writer Lee Harper talks about the personal cost of a great book to a writer, how writers put part of themselves in their work, and it ruins them.

Topic: [/movie]


Mon, Jun 09, 2014

: R.I.P.D.

This looked somewhat intriguing in the previews — similar to the classic Men in Black. Unfortunately, it’s far too similar: a secret organization of cops, with a rookie pared with a veteran, in this case hunting undead supernatural creatures instead of aliens.

There are a handful of good ideas and funny moments, but most of those are shown in the trailers. The film has little beyond that, though the full plot wasn’t bad (just a little obvious). Still, it’s sort of fun and a film you can watch while doing something else.

Topic: [/movie]


Sun, Jun 08, 2014

: Thor: The Dark World

While the first one was okay, this one is terrible. I fell asleep. I had no idea what was going on — everything’s vague and assumes you understand a lot about Norse mythology and the Thor franchise. The evil in the film was bizarre and abstract and nothing made any sense: it all felt artificial, as though the producers put together a plot just to show off certain special effects.

There are a handful of decent moments, interaction between certain characters, and there’s a plot twist or two that are mildly interesting, but overall thing has nothing of inspiration of the first movie (which wasn’t even that film’s strong suit). Skip it.

Topic: [/movie]


Sat, Jun 07, 2014

: Kick-Ass 2

I liked the first one and while this didn’t have the same edge, the plot actually made more sense. It picks up after the first one where Kick-Ass is now to decide between living the life of a superhero or a regular kid and not having much luck with either. There’s still a little too much pointless crudity (I don’t mind it if there’s a reason), and some of the big star cameos felt odd (like Jim Carey in a bizarre role), but overall it’s a fun film and a decent sequel that was better than I expected.

Topic: [/movie]


Thu, May 29, 2014

: The Heat

I’m not a huge fan of crude comedies so I was unsure about this, but it wasn’t as bad as I expected and actually pretty funny once you get past all the unfunny foul language. The by-the-book FBI agent who has to work with a down-to-earth beat cop felt too forced, and their initial dislike of each other was so intense it made no sense they’d actually work together, but these kinds of films aren’t exactly known for logic. It was basically fun and mostly a way to see Sandra Bullock act against type. I wouldn’t go so far as to recommend the film, but if you’re a fan of the genre it’s watchable.

Topic: [/movie]


Thu, Apr 24, 2014

: God’s Not Dead

Though I was intrigued by the concept of this film (supposedly based on a true story of a college freshman who rebels against his Philosophy teacher who requires all of his students to sign a pledge admitting that God is dead), I was wary. “Christian message” films are often heavy-handed, ineptly written, poorly acted and directed, and worst of all, boring.

This was none of those things.

First of all, let’s explore it from a story perspective. I was a little worried that the film might consist entirely of a debate between student and teacher. While that would have interested me, a former championship debater, it probably would be tedious for most movie-goers. The producers solved that problem by letting the film revolve around a number of stories. While initially this was a little confusing, as the stories coalesced together, it proved to be a great success.

Some of the stories include:

  • a woman shopping for wine
  • an intensely passionate, overly-dedicated, and successful blog writer
  • a pastor and his missionary visitor
  • a Muslim girl whose father insists on her adopting traditional values
  • an impersonal money-driven business executive
  • an old woman with dementia

While these all seem like separate stories, we gradually begin to see connections. I won’t spoil some of the big surprises, but a few of the smaller ones include: the blogger turns out to be the girlfriend of the businessman, and his mother is the old woman. The pastor is influential to several of the other people.

The result of all these storylines, with little surprises gradually revealed, is for a delightful and entertaining film (regardless of the “controversial” subject matter). There were probably a few too many of these stories, however; it was a little confusing at times and some of the stories didn’t seem very relevant to the core story about the debate. Still, the stories are brief interludes, and one or two too many don’t weaken the overall film by that much.

Story Rating: A

The actual debate between the freshman and the teacher was incredibly well-handled. I wasn’t sure how it would be dealt with from a logistical perspective, but it made complete sense: the professor gave the young man the last 20 minutes of three class periods to “make his case for God,” and the students in the class would be the judge of how well he did.

Obviously in a film like this everything is fabricated for whatever outcome the producers want, so my biggest fears were that the arguments would be simplistic and that the negative viewpoint (the atheist professor’s) would be given short shrift. But that was decidedly not what happened.

Instead, the professor is given a plum role: he’s actually intelligent and his arguments make sense (to an extent). Nothing is spared; he pulls no punches. For example, a key topic is “Why does evil exist? A God that would allow horrible things to happen to good people isn’t a God I want to follow.”

The freshman boy is articulate, but appropriately naive and nervous. He’s pre-law, so his logical structuring of his arguments fits his personality. The debate is handled in brief segments, each focusing on one key point. (While I personally might have preferred a more extensive debate sequences, I realize that this is a drama, not a documentary, and for most audiences having debate snippets like this is the the correct approach.)

Overall the debate, which I’d assumed would be the majority of the film, is probably only about 20 minutes of the entire thing. That’s a little disappointing, and the short length keeps the debate topics on the simpler side (we don’t get too in-depth), but overall it doesn’t shy away from hard topics and really does weigh both sides of the “God is dead” argument.

Debate Rating: A-

In general the writing throughout the film was impressive. Some of the scenes were incredibly well-done. For instance, the dinner party scene where the professor subtly belittles his submissive wife in public was pure genius. Every word was charged with electricity, and the dialog was amazingly believable.

There were a few places where things weren’t as good, however. I thought the scenes between the freshman and his girlfriend were weak; her character was underwritten and too stereotyped. She was supposedly a Christian, so her pressuring her boyfriend to give into his atheist teacher seemed odd to me. Supposedly she was upset because he was going to get a bad grade, which would derail his chances of getting into law school, but she reacted far too quickly as though the writers wanted to get her character out of the movie as quickly as possible. In real life she surely would have waited until she saw he was spending way too much time on the debate and hurting his other grades before she became so critical (and ultimately dump him).

In a couple other places, things got a little cheesy or too coincidental to be believable. A key salvation scene in the ending, for instance, was over-the-top for me.

On the other hand, I loved the way tricky parts of spiritual situations were handled in other places. The pastor, for instance, had real wisdom in his advice and you could clearly see him pausing to think before he answered. He wasn’t just being glib. But at the same time, the pastor was struggling with doubts of his own, feeling that running his little church wasn’t doing enough for God. It was amazing to me that the producers would put such a thing in a film like this — usually Christian role-model characters are too perfect and phony.

Writing Rating: B

In terms of acting, I was amazed. Almost everyone in this film is top notch. There are some famous faces here, too. The most shocking is Kevin Sorbo (TV’s Hercules), who plays the arrogant professor. I’ve rarely seen Kevin in a dramatic role and would have assumed his casting here was a misplay, but he was terrific. He was completely believable as a brilliant philosophy teacher, and he did the smug, God-hating, pompous prick role to perfection. Disney kid Shane Harper was ideally cast as the freshman student and did everything flawlessly, with just the right amount of confusion and hesitation balanced by an inner strength based on his faith in God. David A.R. White was wonderful as the pastor. Also top marks to the professor’s wife and the Muslim girl.

Acting Rating: A

Overall, I was really surprised by how much I enjoyed this film. The variety of stories and the way they interlaced was interesting. There were a handful of cheesy “Christian” scenes, but they were small and not too annoying. There was humor and drama, and some really brilliant dialog in a few scenes. There were powerful moments and the Newsboys concert at the end was pretty neat (I’ve been a Newsboys fan for ages, but never actually seen the group before). The debate was intelligent and well-done for both sides.

It’s not a flawless film, but I’d give it a high B or low A overall. I find that shocking as usually these kinds of movies get a C from me — even if I like or agree with the topic, the execution is so heavy-handed that I can’t overlook the flaws (a good example was The Bible TV miniseries). This one is very impressive and I highly recommend it. It will inspire you and make you think.

Topic: [/movie]


Thu, Apr 10, 2014

: The Damned United

I’ve been wanting to watch this soccer film for a while, but I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I thought it was a documentary but it’s not: it’s a dramatization of real-life events, with some liberties taken with the facts.

The title confuses me because it doesn’t seemed to have anything to do with the movie. It’s really a story about rival managers back in the early 1970s: Don Revie was the old dog, leading Leeds United to top success, while newcomer Brian Clough was brash and outspoken and took his no-name team Derby County from the bottom of the second division to the top of the first. He was assisted by his friend Peter Taylor until the two had a falling out when he reneged on a contract to take over at his old enemy’s club Leeds. He only lasted there 44 days, as the players resented him and his attitude. Humbled, Clough eventually reconciles with Taylor and they go on to have managerial success with Nottingham Forest in the 1980s.

In terms of drama, the film’s awesome, with a fantastic performance from Martin Sheen as Clough. He’s somehow both arrogant and likable, an almost impossible combination to pull off. The film also credits Taylor with a huge amount of Clough’s success — the pair were great together, and not so successful separately.

Ultimately, this isn’t a film about soccer as much as it’s about greed, ego, rivalry, and friendship. It’s quite fascinating regardless of the sports you’re into. Recommended.

Topic: [/movie]


: Winter’s Bone

I thought the book was fantastic and I’ve been meaning to watch the movie for ages and finally got around to it during some airplane travel. It’s definitely excellent, portraying a fascinating look at Ozark life, but not quite as easy to understand as the book. (It’s a little confusing which relatives and which.) The Oscar-winning performance of Jennifer Lawrence in the lead role wasn’t undeserved, though not as dramatic as I expected. I think she gained from the movie’s unexpected success. Still, it’s a good film and worth watching, though the book is better.

Topic: [/movie]


Thu, Apr 03, 2014

: Planes

I missed out on this in the theaters, even though I loved the original Cars, as it felt too formulaic. It definitely hits all the right notes, like a script-by-numbers, with a plucky crop duster who’s afraid of heights wanting to be a race plane. There are all your standard airplane puns, fun sidekicks, and evil villains, but nothing’s very inspired. The ending is excellent — the whole thing is excellent — but it still never feels original despite all the hard work put into it.

(Part of that is probably because of the reliance of a racing story: those can only end one of two ways, and one of the ways is depressing. I’d love to see more stories in the Cars/Planes world showing what normal life is like in that place, away from all the drama of races.)

Despite all that it’s still an great movie, especially for kids. It’s fun, harmless, with a positive message.

Topic: [/movie]


Sun, Mar 30, 2014

: The Hunter

I assumed this was some silly dino-hunter film and it turned out to be a serious thriller about a loner sent into Tasmania by a shady corporation to find the last Tasmanian Tiger. They want its priceless DNA.

It’s very similar in tone to The American. He moves in under cover and pretends to be a scientist, but gradually befriends some locals and his heart is changed. There’s a bit of an ecology angle, but it’s not too heavy-handed. It’s mostly a slow-paced, thoughtful film, full of atmospheric silences and drama. Willem Defoe is just awesome as the hunter, and the supporting case is terrific, too. Worth your time.

Topic: [/movie]


Sat, Mar 29, 2014

: The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones

The concept of a child who inherits special abilities is a classic and though familiar, I was still curious about this film. I skipped it in the theaters and I’m glad I did. I don’t know anything about the books, but everything about the film is ham-handed and dull.

The central concept is the teen girl is a “shadowhunter,” half-human, half-angel, who has special abilities she can use to kill demons. There’s a bunch of other muddling mythology, but the real problem is much worse: it’s boring. All the technical details about this fictional world are read off of cue cards with all the enthusiasm of a half-asleep telemarketer. Important info and cool concepts are tossed off with barely a blink and no one seems to take even the most outrageous events with any surprise. I literally fell asleep during the film and was so bored I didn’t even care to go back and watched what I missed.

The whole thing devolves into utter silliness and cheesy digital special effects. Don’t waste your time.

Topic: [/movie]


Tue, Mar 25, 2014

: The Ice Limit

Author: Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

I really knew little of what to expect, but I really enjoyed this adventure tale. The story involves the quest to retrieve the largest meteorite every discovered, and is mostly about the massive engineering operation in a remote location at the bottom of the world, mixed in with mysteries surrounding the giant orb. Though some of the events are far-fetched, it still made for a great story.

But what I most enjoyed was the fascinating character of the leader of expedition, a man who predicts every possible outcome and always has a backup plan. He has never failed. When the meteorite proves unpredictable, it was awesome to see the two square off.

The ending has a nice twice that’s plausible and ominous. Good fun with a lot of intriguing science.

Topic: [/book]


Wed, Mar 12, 2014

: My Kid Could Paint That

Intriguing little documentary about a four-year-old girl whose abstract oil paintings sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. It becomes a controversial topic both because there’s disagreement over why abstract art is worth that much (Is her artwork only worth that because it’s known she’s so young?), and because 60 Minutes does an exposé questioning that the girl actually paints them.

When the family responds by creating a video recording of their daughter creating a painting from start to finish, it seems to diminish most of the doubts of her authenticity. Still, a few questions linger. While I was disappointed that the film doesn’t completely resolve everything, it was a surprisingly compelling story and very watchable. It’s not long and utterly fascinating.

Topic: [/movie]


Sat, Feb 01, 2014

: Epic

I remember when this hit the theaters — it baffled me. The title has absolutely nothing to do with the movie. It’s not memorable or relevant. Just bizarre.

I actually rather liked the film. It’s about tiny fairy people who live in the forest (they’re smaller than mice and hang out with talking slugs and snails). I wasn’t that impressed with them — they aren’t very original or even interesting — but I liked the story of the human girl is forced to live with her “weird” scientist father after her mother dies. He’s obsessed with finding the little people and ostracized by society who think he’s crazy and she’s embarrassed for him — until she’s shrunk down to little person size and realizes he was right.

The plot’s mostly about her having to help save the little people. It’s a little forced — the old queen is dead and a new queen will hatch from a pod but only if it’s the right place at the right time — but it does work. It’s all a bit frantic and wild, but the animation is good and the story has enough meat on it to be worth your time. A lot of the action is silly but fun, and as are many of the side characters.

But I still can’t get over the title. The story certainly isn’t “epic” in any way I can tell, and if you asked me tomorrow if I wanted to watch “Epic” I’d probably ask you what movie that was because I’d have already forgotten. At least similar movies about tiny people are well-named, like The Borrowers, where the title reminds you what the movie’s about. This one ends up being an okay film, but the title just about ruins it.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Jan 31, 2014

: Stoker

This is a very strange and fascinating movie. It’s eerily reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, but without that film’s good taste. Here, everyone is crazy.

It’s very tough to tell anything about this film without spoiling the plot, but it’s also important. The description I read about it was something along the lines of “After her father dies, a teenage girl becomes infatuated with her uncle though she suspects he’s up to something.” That provoked zero interest in me and explains why this film was a flop (despite big stars like Nicole Kidman in it, I’d never heard of it, which is a dangerous sign).

The film is actually about murder. The main girl’s uncle turns out to be a psycho murdering people… and then the girl joins him and starts murdering, too. That aspect is fascinating and full of dark humor and could have been brilliant — except the filmmakers hide that from the viewer as though it’s some major revelation, with the result that the bare story (a troubled girl dealing with her father’s death and a strange visiting uncle) seems utterly boring and all the characters too weird to be watchable. If this had been done as a black comedy, celebrating the girl’s weirdness and murderous instincts, it would have reached the intended audience.

The worst decision of all is the title. When I saw the title, I assumed this was some sort of horror film — after all, Bram Stoker is the creator of Dracula and his name is synonymous with horror. Perhaps that was the intent, but that’s not what this movie is at all, and naming it that is just deceiving and confusing. It’d be like naming a film “Hitchcock” and having zero to do with the famous director, horror/suspense, film-making, or anything else Hitchcock-related. I didn’t even realize until halfway through the film that the girl’s last name is Stoker and that’s where the title comes from. Nothing is even done with that, either (other than a bully’s transformation of the name into an insult), making the name pointless.

Beyond those two mistakes — poor description and a terrible title — this film is utterly brilliant. From the opening sequence where the girl shows off her hyper-sensitivity and the camera-work focuses in on incredibly microscopic details (tiny insects, hairs, etc.) we realize this is an unusual film. The opening credits are amazing — the action freezes briefly as names are displayed and I love the way the letters are both part of the scene and not part of the scene, such as when some of the text disappears behind a character when she moves.

Throughout the film the way the director blends scenes together is fantastic. A few don’t work, but many are jaw-droppingly good. My favorite is the hairbrush scene, where we zoom in on long golden hair being brushed until it fills the entire frame and we see it rustling and moving and then we realize it’s not hair, but long grasses and we’re out in the forest!

The wrap-around ending is also excellent, as it completely changes the context of the scene we saw at the very beginning.

Unfortunately, all this brilliance is wasted, because no one is going to want to watch a film with this title and a boring description about a girl grieving for her dead father. Anyone just diving in is likely to be intrigued by the visuals, but put off by the bizarre and distasteful characters. Instead of intrigue and suspense, which we just have weirdness, and the whole film feels uncomfortable and odd and nothing seems to be happening. Most people will just turn the channel.

That’s sad, because there is a lot of genius at work here. If you’re the right market for this type of film — dark comedy without the element of humor — it’s a great movie. I suspect this is one of those divisive films: people will either rate it 10 stars or 1 star, with no in-between. You’ll love it or absolutely hate it.

Topic: [/movie]


Wed, Jan 29, 2014

: Killing Them Softly

Odd film. I’m not sure of the point, though that could be the point.

It’s about the criminal underworld where a couple of idiots rob a gambling joint and then are hunted down by hit men sent by the mobster owners. The cast is steller (almost everyone is someone you’ve seen before and there are big names like Brad Pitt) and the feel of the film is one of gritty reality, albeit with some overly-stylish flourishes (such as slow-motion bullets) in a few dramatic scenes. The dialog is complex and obtuse, and the plot almost non-existent. This creates a sort of conflict: while realistic, it’s sluggish and tedious, with a lot of strange talky scenes that while revealing of character, are meaningless in terms of story.

The whole film acts like a film of substance, but there’s little there, and the abrupt ending reenforces the pointlessness of everything. Which could be the point, as I mentioned before, but it still left a poor taste in my mouth.

I definitely liked the performances and some scenes, but as a film it left me scratching my head. Why was this made?

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Jan 24, 2014

: My First Mac

I knew I wanted to be a writer back in 1980 when I was thirteen. I was a geeky bookworm back then, and vastly preferred the world of fiction to real life (I still do). Of course, my handwriting was illegible (it still is), so I began saving and dreaming of the day I could buy a typewriter. I knew exactly which one I wanted, too: the IBM Selectric. They cost $2,000, but were built like tanks. My mom had one for work and I dreamed of my own.

But in 1981 I visited my uncle in California and he showed me something fantastic: an Osborne I personal computer. Compared to computers today the thing is laughable: a “portable” 26-pound computer the size of a suitcase (and shaped like one) with a tiny green phosphor screen the size of two decks of playing cards side-by-side. It couldn’t even show 80 characters across — you had to scroll from side-to-side to see a full 80-character line of text!

I’d never seen anything like it, but the key revelation for me was that I could edit typos and rewrite without having to retype or use awful White Out. I was blown away and instantly all thoughts of a typewriter were gone. I wanted a computer.

As a young teen, saving up thousands of dollars wasn’t easy. I actually didn’t get my first computer until my junior year of high school in 1985. In the meantime I briefly had opportunities to play with other computers: Radio Shack TRS-80, Commodore 64, Texas Instruments TI-994A, an Apple II, and some video game systems. I went to stores and played with demos, and I wistfully dreamed of being able to afford a “real” computer like an IBM PC. But those cost three grand. Even the Compaq “clone” was over $2,000 and I barely had a $1,000 saved.

Then came along the first “under $1,000” PC. It was made by Sanyo and was innovative for its time. Technically, it was only semi-IBM compatible. That was mainly because it had pixel-based graphics while IBM’s had a character-based screen. That mean the Sanyo could mix text and graphics together while IBM’s had to switch to graphics mode to do graphics. The Sanyo could do eight colors at once, too, at a higher resolution than IBM. But the killer feature was that it was $999 — with a monochrome display.

I almost had that much money saved and my folks helped me with the rest. Soon I was the proud owner of a real computer! However, I’d forgotten about one important detail: a printer. What good was writing my school papers on a computer if I couldn’t print them out?

Fortunately, my mom was interested in using my computer for some of her work — mainly printing mail merge letters — but she insisted on a printer that did “letter-quality.” She absolutely abhorred dot-matrix printing that looked like it came from a computer. I remember shopping with her and looking at a lot of expensive printers: we settled on a 24-pin Toshiba that cost more than my whole computer!

But the Toshiba came with several built-in fonts and the print quality was really excellent (especially compared to the 9-pin dot matrix printers that were common). In high-quality mode, it looked typewritten, and I was able to help my mother send out thousands of mail-merged letters over the years.

There was an interesting aspect of both the Sanyo and the Toshiba, however. This was back in the mid-80s when “standards” were non-existent or flexible. Neither was really a standard device. The Toshiba could emulate a standard Epson printer for basic text printing and so while you could print from many programs, they couldn’t take advantage of the full 24-pins. I had no programs that supported its high resolution. The same was true of the Sanyo, where finding software was a challenge — most regular IBM PC programs wouldn’t run on it.

That’s what led me into programming. To really see what my Sanyo could do, I had to use the built-in BASIC programming language. I migrated from that to Turbo Pascal, a more advanced language. I typed in games and programs from magazines and tried writing my own stuff.

My crowning achievement was writing to Toshiba in Japan and waiting weeks for them to snail mail me a special programmer’s manual that explained how to talk to the 24-pins of the printer. With that in hand I was able to write my own Pascal app that could print graphics in full 360-dpi glory — incredible for those days!

(Remember, this was back when a laser printer cost as much as a car!)

Of course, to mix text and graphics together, I had to write my own program as the word processors I had only supported text. That’s when I ran into another obstacle — in graphics mode the Toshiba wouldn’t print its high-quality text. I had to print my text as graphics, which meant, crazy as it seems, making my own high-resolution font!

So I wrote my own font editor and created a font. Nothing fancy, just a plain typewriter-looking font. I made it pixel-by-pixel and I made my graphics program support it. Then my program could read in text and graphics from files and print them out together on the same page.

It was incredibly convoluted. It took me years to get it working right, and even then it was very limited. Merging text and graphics together on a page was awkward — keep in mind you couldn’t actually see anything on the screen. This was all just a bunch of code. To test the result, you had to print and if it was wrong, you tweaked the code and reprinted.

I write all this so that you know my mindset at the time, because that was important. This was 1988 and I had dropped out of college to spend a year writing and “finding myself” when I was offered a position at the college where my mom was working. I’d be in charge writing and producing the alumni newsletter for the school. The pay was minimum wage, just terrible, but the carrot was that I had a brand new Macintosh SE with a huge 19” black-and-white monitor attached. There was also a grayscale scanner and a laser printer. The software included Aldus PageMaker for layout and design, FreeHand for vector drawing, and Digital Darkroom for photo manipulation.

It’s probably good to point out that I had used a Mac once. Briefly, before I went off to college, I “worked” at a new computer store in my hometown. I didn’t get paid, but just hung out there and played with the equipment. In return, when customers had questions, I answered them. Even though I knew nothing, I apparently knew more than them. Computers were not the commodity they are now, that’s for sure.

I remember I got to play with a Macintosh. I drew pictures in MacPaint, typed and formatted text with MacWrite, and learned about Desk Accessories and the Mac OS. It was a blast. I’d never seen a computer so amazing. I wanted one, sure — but they were so expensive I didn’t even dare dream of such a thing. It’d be like me today lusting after a Lamborghini worth more than my house. It’s just not even worth the fantasy.

So nearly two years later, the opportunity to use a Mac was definitely the key selling point in getting me to take that low-paying job. The pay was barely enough for me to live on — I was amounting credit card debt just to get by each month — but as long as I could use a Macintosh, it was worth it.

I fell in love. That system was awesome. I threw myself in head over heels and spent every waking moment learning everything about it, about graphic design, about typography, and making lots of horrible design mistakes. For the first time, I had a system where I could see on the screen exactly what I’d have on the printout.

I remember the real kicker for me was Christmas that year when I wanted to do my own newsletter. Of course, I wanted it to be fancy, with graphics and text, so I worked hard on my computer at home. But that system was so kludgy — I only had the couple of fonts I’d designed, and making more was hideously awful (you had to draw them pixel-by-pixel with arrow keys, pressing the space bar each place where you wanted a dot to be). Merging pictures and graphics was a joke. And that fantastic Toshiba printer, as good as it was, was not a laser printer.

One day, after many, many hours of work at home struggling with my system, I was so frustrated I took the text of my letter to work. I stayed after work and retyped the letter on the Macintosh. In less than an hour, from scratch, I not only recreated the letter there, but it was a hundred times better. The graphics were better. The fonts were better. And the layout was infinitely better. I was converted.

Now I lusted after a Mac the way I had that original IBM typewriter almost a decade earlier. I began saving. Macs were horrendously expensive, especially a system as powerful as what I had at work. Even worse, I’d already begun to see limitations in that system. Apple had come out with new, even more powerful computers that were mind-blowing. I remember visiting a high-end computer store and seeing the brand new Mac II. It was a workstation-class machine that did full color and was incredibly fast. I wanted one so badly, but the price tag was an insane $10,000!

But after that newsletter incident, I knew there was no going back. I hated my PC. Even using that Sanyo for plain word processing seemed primitive and awful after the Mac at work. I used it less and less. If I needed to do anything, I’d stay after work and do it there.

I researched and by late 1989, I knew what I wanted. I found a place in Texas selling used Macs and they set me up with a used Mac II upgraded with a Marathon 68030 processor running at a blazing 33-Mhz (the original Mac II was a 20-Mhz 60820). The price included a RasterOps 24-bit color card — which was $999 — and an Apple 13” RGB monitor. For a while there it looked like I wasn’t going to be able to afford a hard drive — ridiculous in retrospect — but I finally came up with the funds to get the computer with a 40MB internal drive. (That seemed obscenely huge at the time, but I needed more disk space within a few months!)

The entire system cost $6,000 and I got a bank loan and borrowed from relatives to make it happen. I spent all my savings and was paying off the thing for years. But man, was that system awesome.

Just to show you how extraordinary it was, I remember after I got it looking for some “full color” pictures to display on it. Remember, it had that fabulous 24-bit video card. Almost all color displays at that time were limited to 256-colors at once — which meant pictures didn’t look like photographs. My system was capable of showing 16 million colors at once — but I had no such pictures! Just finding some 24-bit photos to display was a huge challenge (color scanners weren’t common — even at work my grayscale scanner cost $2,000).

But at a trade show in San Francisco, I got a fantastic giveaway: a floppy disk by RasterOps, the maker of my video card, that included a half dozen 640x480 high-resolution (for the time) full-color photos in the then-new JPEG format. These were incredible photos: a sunset, a lovely beach picture, etc. My favorite was one of a collection of fruit: kiwis and bananas and oranges and such, and everything was so jaw-droppingly realistic that your mouth watered to look at it.

Even on my super-fast Mac II displaying one of the pictures wasn’t fast: the picture would scan onto the screen an inch or two at a time. It took it 3-5 seconds to load the picture and show it! (Think about that the next time you’re swiping instantly between hundreds of 8-megapixel photos on your iPad.)

That Mac II served me for many years and I actually made a lot of money doing graphic design with it. It more than paid for itself, even factoring in all the upgrades I put in. (I still have a receipt for the $700 I spent upping the RAM from 4MB to 16MB. That seemed like an insane amount at the time. My Mac today has 16GB!)

I still have that Mac II. It’s in my garage and I haven’t booted it up in over a decade, but in theory it still works. (I suspect I’ll have to put in a new battery on the motherboard. The original computer had a non-replaceable coin battery that is required to power on the computer, but that ran out in the mid-90s and I replaced it with a third-party upgrade board that uses a standard battery I can replace. I’m sure it needs a new battery by now.)

I’ve bought a ton of Macs since then. I have a PowerMac 8500 in my closet. It’s another awesome machine. I’ve gone through several iMacs (I still have two, though I’m going to sell my oldest one). Mainly I’ve been buying laptops. I started with a PowerBook 160 and upgraded every two or three years. I guess I’ve gone through nearly a dozen in twenty years. The king was the $3,500 Titanium, which I amazingly sold for $500 well after the Intel transition was finished.

I still have that Sanyo, too. I doubt it will boot. Floppy disks supposedly demagnetize over time and 30 years is a long time. I’m not even sure I’d know how to use it. That machine was all DOS-based with cryptic text-based commands. In theory I still have some of my high-school writings on those floppies, but even if I could get them up on the machine, how would I get them over to my Mac? Via a serial port to USB-serial converter, I guess, presuming I could find the right cables and software. The nightmare of Z-Term haunts me and I haven’t dared try it.

I’ve gone through a lot of computers over the years, but there’s definitely something magical about that first Mac. That Mac II represented potential in the way that every computer since has not. Now I buy computers for practical business and professional reasons, not for dreams. That first Mac was much like the college student I was then — raw and unpolished, ready for whatever direction the future led. What an awesome ride it has been.

Happy birthday, Macintosh!

Topic: [/technology]


Thu, Jan 23, 2014

: Innocent

Author: Scott Turow

This is a follow-up to Turow’s classic Presumed Innocent, about a lawyer having an affair being tried for murder when his mistress ends up dead. This story is set some twenty years later with the main character now an appellate judge about to be appointed to the state supreme court. He’s remarkably stayed married to his wife from the first book, but their marriage is very troubled: she’s got mental problems and he stays with her out of guilt for his first affair. Then he gets really stupid and has another affair. This time it’s his wife who dies in a questionable manner, and the same prosecutor that fought him in the first book, is back to nail him again.

Overall, it’s a good story: the plot isn’t exactly innovative, but the way the trial is handled is interesting and dramatic, with tiny details the key. The ending is too long and goes all over the place, but it does wrap up all the loose ends nicely.

I found it hard to get into the story at first because the book is all first-person, but each chapter is told by a different character, and the chapters jump throughout time. So the prologue is “present day” while other chapters flash back to before the trial and during the trial. That made it very confusing, particularly with the audiobook where I couldn’t look back to compare the dates. I couldn’t figure out which character was which and since the voices were all by the same reader, it was confusing. Eventually this problem settled down and went away, but it was a rough beginning.

In the end, it’s a capable sequel. It was fun seeing how characters had aged, and the implausibility of the same guy making the same mistake twice is handled about as well as it could be (he himself marvels at his own stupidity). I did find it weak in terms of those characters — even though they’re first person narratives and we’re supposedly in the heads of people, because of the nature of a suspense novel, some info had to be withheld which made it difficult to really understand who these people are. There was a lot of more telling rather than showing. Still, it’s an interesting book, though I suspect that people who haven’t read the first book (or seen the movie) won’t be nearly as entertained.

Topic: [/book]


: The Wolf of Wall Street

Director: Martin Scorsese

I was leery about this because of its three hour running time and supposed graphic excesses, but it turned out to be a fantastic film. Yes, there are quite a few explicit scenes, and the language is horrible, but the scenes are very brief and important to set a tone and make a point. There’s little here that’s gratuitous.

The story, which I hadn’t realized is true (I thought the main character was a fictional compilation of real people), is about a sales guy in the 80s who hits it big on Wall Street. He plays fast and loose with the letter of the law and has no qualms about selling suckers crappy stocks in order to put more cash in his pocket. He spends lavishly (his bachelor party in Las Vegas cost $2 million) and is a serious drug addict.

On the one hand, the story’s a simple tale of the rise and fall of a bad guy, but the reality is more subtle and elaborate than that. It’s really a moral lesson about what one wants out of life. Is money really the ultimate goal? Should it be? Is money itself evil? How much are we morally responsibly for how we earn money? The film seems to be a scathing commentary on Wall Street, which makes money without making anything, but even there the film doesn’t shy away from making that seem appealing. In fact, that’s the film’s real power: despite all the awful behavior we see on the screen, we the viewer still want that lifestyle and power, and the film makes us feel ashamed for that desire.

I did think there were flaws. The ending is too long, though somewhat satisfying, and there’s way too much emphasis on drug use. Several elaborate scenes show drunken, stoned people stumbling around and acting like idiots and it got old after the first time. We really didn’t need to dwell on that (though that could be just me: I’ve never understood the appeal of getting “wasted” — it sounds like a nightmare to me). It’s possible Scorsese was just wanting to emphasize the disastrous consequences of drug use, but in a way it was also glorifying it.

I also found the movie a little confusing because it was never very clear exactly what laws the main character broke. He himself speaks of some of the things he was doing as being shady or technically illegal, and it’s clear he did a lot of tax evasion to keep more of his wealth away from the government, but he operated a huge stockbrokerage firm with the SEC checking in on him so surely the stuff he was doing wasn’t that blatant. Not knowing exactly what he did that was so wrong severely weakens the movie’s moral compass as we aren’t sure just how evil the main character is or isn’t. It’s not like he was murdering children or even stealing from people (it wasn’t a Ponzi scheme). He was simply using aggressive sales techniques to sell people crappy stocks that he got a hefty commission on. I guess he lied to people — but shouldn’t those people bear some of responsibility for buying stocks based on what some stranger on the phone told them?

In the end the story’s a fascinating character study of wealth and excess. The casting is perfect, the film’s direction is excellent (you don’t really notice all the subtle things Scorsese does with the camera which is the way it should be), and it’s definitely a film worth seeing. It’s not for the faint of heart as there are lots of disturbing scenes, and I’m not sure what conclusion to draw from the ending, where the main character isn’t punished very severely for his crimes, but the bottom line is that it’s entertaining and it will make you think.

Topic: [/movie]


Wed, Jan 22, 2014

: Frozen

Though I’d seen the promos for this, it was nothing like what I expected. I thought it was about a land where a wicked witch had frozen everything, but it turns out it’s about a two princesses, the eldest who has a “gift” of being able to freeze things. She must hide the ability lest she hurt people, so she retreats even from her beloved sister, terrified of hurting her. Eventually the dam breaks and she accidentally freezes the whole world when she runs off to the top of a mountain to be by herself. Her sister must journey to her and convince her to unfreeze the world.

Another shock is that this is really a musical (similar to the excellent Tangled). That’s not really a good thing, though, for the songs here are much weaker and less fun (I only liked one song in the whole movie and even that one only the chorus was good). Most of the songs are tuneless half-hearted “sing-talking,” where the character is singing his or her thoughts. My biggest pet peeve about musicals is when the singing is fake with a reason for it and that’s done quite often here.

But the story itself is excellent: it is different and full of surprises, and there are many fun and unusual characters. It’s also heart-warming and charming, with great lessons about forgiveness and love. In the end, that overwhelmed the weak music for me, and I really enjoyed the movie. Definitely one you should see.

Topic: [/movie]


Thu, Jan 02, 2014

: Saving Mr. Banks

Wow. I thought this looked good but it turned out to be amazing. So good.

It’s the story of how Walt Disney convinced Mrs. P. L. Travers, the author of the classic Mary Poppins books, to sell him the movie rights. She was extremely possessive of the characters and felt that Disney would turn them into an animated monstrosity. A great deal of the film is her being picky with the Disney writing staff.

But the most interesting part of the film are the flashbacks to her childhood in Australia. There she grew up with a creative and wonderfully imaginative father who clearly inspired her to become a writer. (He’s played by Colin Ferrell who is shockingly good in the role.)

Sadly, we later get to see this wonderful man had a terrible dark side, and that’s really the core of the film: how children cope with the complex world of adults where a person can be both good and bad at the same time.

The film leaps between the two stories, and it’s mesmerizing. Some of Mrs. Travers’ demands and fussiness seem over-the-top, but I love that if you stay through the credits there’s actual audio recording from one of her sessions with the writers and it sounds just like the character in the film. (It’s a testament to the power of this film that despite its two-hour length, not a single person in the theatre I was in left until the credits finished.)

The ending is heart-breaking and heart-warming. I adored the father-daughter relationship portrayed in the flashbacks — it’s just incredible stuff, sweet and tragic and priceless. You’ll definitely want a tissue. But it’s not a sad movie — it’s a movie about hope and victory and overcoming our past.

Everyone in the film is excellent, and there are quite a few famous actors in small roles. Tom Hands as Walt is perfection, and Emma Thompson just nails Mrs. Travers. (I find it ironic that she starred in the Nanny McPhee movies playing a Mary Poppins-like character.)

Everything about the film is well-done — it hits every note just right. One thing that was annoying to me during the film was that it’s been so long since I’ve seen Mary Poppins that I wished I’d re-watched it before seeing this movie, but then at the end of this film when Mrs. Travers go to the premiere they show so many clips from the original movie that it explains everything and reminds me of how good a film Mary Poppins is (probably in large part due to Mrs. Travers’ crazy demands that the film be done just right). I’d really bene hoping they’d show her reaction to the film and they do and it’s not a token shot or two but an extensive scene — it’s a very satisfying ending.

As a writer myself, I was initially intrigued by this story about a writer and her creation — but this film gets so much deeper into why we write and how what haunts us as children infects everything we do as adults. It’s just an amazing film and one of my top picks for 2013. Go see it!

Topic: [/movie]