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]