Fri, Jul 31, 2015

: Gateway

Author: Frederick Pohl

Interesting book. Supposedly a classic, but left me a little flat.

I love the basic idea — our main character’s story is told via flashbacks during his ongoing sessions with an artificial intelligence psychoanalyst — and it’s a good story about exploring space via mysterious spaceships abandoned by unknown aliens eons earlier.

The ships are so advanced we don’t even know how they work or how to control where they go, but they’re able to jump through a wormhole across vast amounts of space; the problem is that they’ll often end up in a bad place, or the trip takes longer than estimated and the crew starves to death before they can get back. Either way, it’s risky, so the rewards for successful exploratory missions are huge.

That’s a wonderful idea and quite plausible. What I didn’t like was that the psychology explored in the analyst sessions is trivial. It acts like it’s deep, but it’s not. Yes, there are some deep emotions at stake as our hero is recovering from a terrible tragedy, but the way that’s explored comes across as ordinary. (My reaction could be tainted by the audiobook performance, as it was occasionally strident, especially when the hero got angry at the computer psychoanalyst, which felt over-the-top and phony.)

Still, it’s an interesting book with some great science fiction ideas, and an unusual presentation. Definitely worth reading.

Topic: [/book]


Mon, Jul 27, 2015

: Pixels

This seemed silly-but-cool, and that’s exactly what I got. The plot is ridiculous — aliens mistake footage of 1980s video games as our reality and attack us via technology that works just like games (except it’s deadly) — and it’s up to a ragtag team of video game nerds from the 80s who have to save the day.

It’s fun. The special effects of the attacking video games are totally awesome and impressive: Pac-Man eating the streets of New York, Centipede descending from the heavens in London, Galaga’s patterned spaceships, a life-sized Donkey Kong, and so on, are all terrific. The nostalgia of seeing the classic games of my youth is wonderful and brought back tons of memories. Seeing nerds become the heros over muscled jocks is immensely satisfying.

Yes, the whole idea is a joke stretched very thin, and this isn’t a classic film by any means, but it’s shameless in accepting that it’s silly (Kevin James as the president of the United States???) and it’s just mindless fun. I saw negative reviews where people were clearly trying to take this seriously. Get over yourselves. This is just supposed to be funny!

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Jul 10, 2015

: Selfless

The idea’s pretty standard — a billionaire is dying, and learns of a process where your consciousness can be moved into a younger body. He’s told it’s a genetically engineered body, but after he makes the transfer, he learns that’s not the case, of course. He ends up meeting the wife of man whose body he’s using, and complications ensue.

The whole film is competently done. There are few surprises, but it’s a pretty good paint-by-numbers canvas. It’s got intrigue, some action, and some good performances. But just nothing… remarkable. The creatives involved seem to think the basic idea of consciousness transfer is radical and interesting enough to hold the film. The real problem is the predictability of the bad guys, though the vagueness of the transfer process — exactly how the rich guy settles up his life and prepares for a new one — isn’t shown enough to be interesting. None of the characters are that interesting either: the rich guy would be utterly boring except that he’s portrayed by the awesome Ben Kingsley (who is excellent but underused), the husband is a generic soldier, the wife just a pretty woman, and their sick little girl is cute. Even the supposed dramatic moments are generic: the rich guy pines for the daughter he ignored while she was growing up, and now she spurns his help in running a tiny non-profit, the antithesis of his capitalistic ways.

Despite these flaws it’s still a fun movie: you get exactly what it says on the label (presuming you read the label). Don’t expect more and you’ll be fine with it.

Topic: [/movie]


Wed, Jul 08, 2015

: Snowpiercer

Strange film. Remarkable in some ways, and idiotic in others, this seems like a film that should have been more famous. But I’d never even heard of it. Seems like it was a terrible flop despite having known stars like Chris Evans, John Hurt, Ed Harris, Tilda Swinton, and Octavia Spencer.

The premise is weird: in a future ice age, everyone on earth is dead, except for a handful of survivors who managed to board a luxury supertrain. The train is on an elaborate track that takes it around the entire planet, through almost every continent, in one year. It’s supposedly completely self-sustaining and will never run out of power (no explanation of how that works), so it makes sense (I guess) that people onboard can survive the frigid cold.

On this train a strange class system has developed, with the tail passengers at the low-end, eating refuse, and struggling to survive, while the rich live in the front and live in luxury and eat steak (no idea where the steak comes from).

Thus the story of the film is about a rebellion, where the low-class try to fight their way to front of the train. There’s a lot of good here, in terms of heroic characters, dramatic scenes, terrible violence, and over-the-top villains. The film has echoes of Brazil and 1984 and other classics. Visually the film is amazing, with fantastic ice and snow exterior shots, and a wide variety of interesting indoor scenes (different parts of the train).

Unfortunately, the plot is so convoluted and there are so many obvious flaws of logic and important details unexplained, that the whole thing feels awkward and incomplete.

As one example, there’s a small dramatic moment (slight spoiler here) where our hero discovers the “protein bars” they live on are made from ground-up cockroaches. There’s a giant vat with millions of them being ground up into a gelatin-like paste. The first and obvious thought (besides being disgusted) is where the heck do the cockroaches come from? In a frozen world with almost no living thing, I can believe that cockroaches survived, but how are they harvested? Especially in enough numbers to sustain the lives of hundreds of people on a train?

That’s just one flaw; there are probably 50 such plot holes in the film. It’s as though the filmmakers just wanted certain things to happen so they did them that way, regardless of logic or the rules of reality.

That makes this film incredibly disappointing. While on the whole I liked it; the great visuals and interesting storyline are quite compelling. However, the film is so stupid in other ways, it’s absolutely baffling. Worth seeing, but with caution: turn off your brain and just enjoy the show.

Topic: [/movie]


Mon, Jul 06, 2015

: John Wick

This movie is so bad it’s hard to know where to begin. But I might as well start the with wimpy title. Supposedly “John Wick” is a hard-core hired killer for the Russian mob. They say the name in awe as though it’s supposed to induce shivers. Huh? Why wouldn’t he go by some cool killer name like the Barracuda or something?

John’s retired, and living a peaceful life with his wife, until she dies of a long illness. We only see her via idyllic flashbacks, making her seem perfect, yet why did she marry a soulless killer like Wick? We get to endure Keanu Reaves pretending (badly) to grieve. She’s made arrangements to have a dog sent to him after her death, a surprise to help keep him from being lonely, so we get to see tough Keanu fake-cry.

Then the film really starts to go downhill. While Wick is at a gas station, a dude comments on his classic car and wants to buy it, but Wick isn’t interested in selling. It turns out the kid is the Russian mobster’s idiot son. He apparently doesn’t know who Wick is (odd, since Wick’s supposed to be such a badass), and he and his buddies break into Wick’s house in the middle of the night, beat him up, kill his dog just for fun, and steal his car. Yeah, he’s sure a tough guy allowing that to happen.

This starts a bizarre revenge plot. Wick goes after the mobsters, just walking into their den and shooting people. He’s shot up himself in the process, I guess to show vulnerability. The mobster’s dad puts out a $2 million hit on Wick, so next we have contract killers out trying to kill him, too (and nearly succeeding, as once again, Wick doesn’t seem very skilled).

The whole movie is bizarre, with everyone speaking reverently of Wick and his nearly superhuman killing abilities, and yet Wick nearly dies like 10 times. He’s actually caught and captured by the bad guys, doesn’t even count his shots so he ends up running out of bullets multiple times and pulling the trigger on empty chambers, and several times requires the aid of friends to save his hide. Then the climax is him and the mobster dad duking it out in a gunless punch fight!

In the end, this is a Game of Thrones-like death feast, with pretty much everyone dying, and no point to anything. The film has a few interesting moments and concepts, like the strange “hit man” hotel, where hit men are promised security while they stay (and yet the windows aren’t even bullet-proof), but mostly is tedious with laughably implausible scenes and weak action. Shocking they got the quality cast (Keanu aside) to participate.

Topic: [/movie]


: The Dragon in the Sea

Author: Frank Herbert

This an interesting older Herbert book, set during some future war, about a submarine “tugs” that tow undersea barges of oil. The unnamed enemy has been intercepting and sabotaging every oil run, so the authorities think there’s a “sleeper” agent. Our hero’s a psych guy who can supposedly use his skills to ferret out the mole.

The story’s about one run, during which everyone is paranoid and suspicious of everyone else. There are multiple sabotage events, a murder, enemy subs tracking them, and all sorts of life-threatening mechanical problems they have to solve.

Unfortunately, it’s more technical than interesting, and the mole aspect is just confusing. It’s hard to keep the various characters straight. The conclusion is unusual, though the sleeper agent aspect is a letdown. All-in-all, it’s easy to see why this is a forgettable Herbert novel.

Topic: [/book]


Sat, Jul 04, 2015

: The Maze Runner

Not what I expected. It’s a strongly gimmicky film, with a bunch of kids in trapped in a glade with no memories of who they are, and seemingly the only way out a giant maze with walls that move each night and strange monsters that roam the paths. Clearly the kids have been placed here by some unknown people, and their situation is enforced, but we have no idea who or why.

That becomes the central mystery that doesn’t get explained until the very end, and even then it brings more questions than answers. I won’t spoil that twist, but just say it wasn’t very satisfactory. It does set up for the sequel (which I belief comes out this summer), and it promises a different sort of challenge, which is promising.

Despite the movie’s annoying flaws, it’s not terrible. There’s action, conflict among the boys, and some puzzles are solved. Still, the weak ending ruined a lot of the good of the rest of the film, and the middle part was tediously long. The whole thing is like a long joke with an unfunny punchline.

Topic: [/movie]


Thu, Jul 02, 2015

: Terminator Genisys

Not quite the reboot I was hoping for, but fun and not bad. Nothing like the classic original one and two, though. The new cast does a decent job, but it always feels a little awkward and weird, like watching a re-enactment of a scene from your favorite childhood sitcom with different actors.

The plot is convoluted and doesn’t make much sense, nor does the new “tech” that’s supposed to be hip, but I do like the way the old timelines have been obliterated and now we have an all new future for the Terminator series. The action is over-the-top and pretty good, as always. Don’t expect too much, but fans should have fun.

Topic: [/movie]