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]