Thursday, September 20, 2007

Book: "Who Wrote the Bible?" by Richard Elliott Friedman (5/5 stars)

Richard E. Friedman does so many things right in this book. His analysis is convincing, his translations are powerful and accurate, he keeps his postulations small and he gives all the details on the difficulties and possible problems in separating the various authors.

I'm not a religious person, but recognize the historical, social, cultural and religious impact of the bible.

The premise, and it has been known for more than 150 years, is that the first five books of the Bible, previously attributed to Moses, were actually written by several authors. Not only that, but by recognizing the stylistic differences and the different perspectives, it is possible to almost completely unravel the passages by different authors. With more analysis, it's possible to tell which were written first, and where and when these authors lives. In some cases, Richard Friedman actually names the author or editor of the piece. While nothing can be 100%, he gives good reasons for his conclusions.

I loved the book and enjoyed almost everything about it. Some of his passage translations were impacting and have become my new favorites.

My biggest criticism was with the footnote numberings. Really, I had almost nothing bad to say about the entire book.

I can highly recommend this to anyone who has even a passing interest in the history of the Bible. A reveal to be sure.

My favorite biblical quote from Friedman, a re-translation of Deuteronomy 31

"16 When you are lying with your fathers, this people will rise and will whore after alien gods of the land onto which they are coming, and they will leave me and break my covenant which I have made with them.

17 And my anger will burn against them in that day, and I shall leave them, and I shall hide my face from them, and they will be devoured, and many evils and troubles will find them.
And they will say in that day, 'It is not because our God is not among us that these evils have found us?'

18 But I shall hide my face on that day because of all the wrong that they have done, for they turned to other gods."

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Movie: Little Children (4/5 stars) 2006

We just got this out on DVD. I had no expectations at all with it.

I loved the movie and thought that it was an absolutely excellent film with strong characters with believable motives and actions.

Kate Winslet, Patrick Wilson and Jennifer Connelly star in an intense movie about what lonely and controlled people do when their life just isn't going the right way.

The movie built up so much, that I was actually nervous about how it might go, how these characters who I really cared about and had a vested interest in might be hurt or humiliated. It was torture in the last few minutes.

Any movie that can do that to me deserves my praise. A simply excellent movie.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

movie: "Pan's Labyrinth" (4.5/5 stars) 2006

A gorgeous movie, it is subtitled throughout in Spanish. I read the subtitles as quickly as possible so I could get back to the stunning visuals.

A fairy tale set in a horrific location at the end of WWII, we see a little girl, Ofelia (played by Ivana Baquero) struggling with two challenges. One is her new life; her mother has married a man (Sergi López) after her father's death, and she tries to understand her new life and this new man. The 2nd, is the magic world of faeries and the underworld. She meets a magical faun in the labyrinth near her new home who tells her she's a missing princess from the underworld and has to prove herself so she can return.

Ofilia's magical quests and the violent, war-time setting resonate making each all the more real.

Guillermo del Toro, the director, is a genius who achieves his vision with incredible clarity.

With recent movies adding to world mediocrity, this one stands out as a bright, shining star. I can't recommend it enough.

Friday, July 6, 2007

movie: "The Last King of Scotland" (4.5/5 stars) 2006

An amazing movie from beginning to end. I love, love, loved this movie.

The only SLIGHT detriment to the movie is that is felt real, but it ended up being fiction. In the end, I thought if they could make it feel that real, I could hardly fault the writers.

Forest Whitaker and James McAvoy pull off excellent performances and the movie kept my interest though every second.

Run to the rental store for this - it is awesome.

Movie: "The Fantastic Four - The Rise of the Silver Surfer" (1.5 stars) 2007

I love comics, and there have been a few good adaptation for the screen - this was NOT one of them.

I thought the first Fantastic Four movie was ok, and this had it's moments, but the ending was SO, SO, SO bad, that it completely ruined the rest of the movie.

And what is it with Jessica Alba in this movie? For one of the hottest women on the planet, she was just weird looking. Maybe it's the bad fake blond hair, or maybe it was the strange blue contact lenses, but when you have a beautiful girl in your movie, why make her up until she looks fake? It was off-putting.

Still - Jessica Alba's looks aside, the movie's climax was stupidity incarnate! The only stars that I have are for the rest of the movie - the funny bits and a few of the special effects. Still - nothing great.


Please read no further if you haven't seen this movie and want to watch it. I am about to give away the ending and it would be bad if you don't want to know!

In the end, the Silver Surfer stands up to his master Galactus and takes him out in some giant cosmic explosion (that doesn't destroy the earth that is right next to it!).

If the Silver Surfer is so noble and is willing to sacrifice himself to destroy his master, why didn't he do it before he destroyed so many other planets? I think they mentioned that 8 other planets had been destroyed before he got to earth. That's just dumb! Stupid!

That by itself if dumb, however, it gets even dumber when you know more about the original stories. Of course, the Silver Surfer is noble and pure, and he has tried to stand up to his master before. However, since Galactus has given the surfer his power, he can easily take it away. He can't lose to the surfer. This just doubled up the dumbness from the already dumb ending.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Movie: "The Squid and the Whale" (4/5 stars) 2005

Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Owen Kline, Jesse Eisenberg, Anna Paquin and William Baldwin star in "The Squid and the Whale" , a quirky story about a dysfunctional family and their love interests in the throws of an unfriendly divorce.

Hyper realistic with solid performances and fantastic dialog all the way around , we see Bernard Berkman (Jeff Daniels' character) as a washed up writer teaching at a local college who becomes jealous when his wife Joan (Laura Linney) sells a novel while he struggles.

While well meaning, these parents are so far from capable of insulating their kids from the divorce that the two children (Owen Kline and Jesse Eisenberg) are completely unable to cope. They act out in the most inappropriate, but still understandable ways.

I have to say, Bernard Berkman (Bernard is the perfect name, as it's repeated often and is almost a character of its own) is one of the superbly written characters in cinema history, as the pseudo-intellectual who is just not that smart. He so wants to be, but just can't reach the top shelf and judges everyone but himself. His son Walt (played by Jesse Eisenberg) is following in his footsteps, but barely even managing to mimic his father.

A real sleeper of a movie that I enjoyed tremendously.

movie: "Intimate Strangers" (3/5 stars) 2004

A good foreign film (Confidences trop intimes) about a woman with marital problems wandering into an accountant's office, assuming he's a psychologist and telling him her deepest, darkest secrets.

The movie is full of amusing bits, confrontations, awkward moments and real drama, especially when she realizes that he's an accountant and still continued the sessions.

I enjoyed it and realized part way through that I had no clue how it was going to unfold. This is far from the standard Hollywood pic I see and I'm grateful for that.

While the originality was abundant, the movie was quite slow paced and I wasn't really satisfied with the ending. Still, a lovely little quirky movie that was honest and believable.

Movie: "Enduring Love" (3/5 stars)

Our new Bond boy (Daniel Craig) plays a philosopher in this unusual drama about an intense experience and how personalized everyone's experience is as they walk away from it.

Four strangers are brought together when a hot air balloon goes awry, and while trying to save the occupant, one of them falls to his death.

The survivors wonder if they did the right thing, "who let go first" and lots of second guessing. At the same time, Daniel Craig's character has a new stalker, one of the other survivors believes that something has passed between them, but won't tell him what. "You know!", he says.

This movie is interesting, and completely unpredictable, but in the end, doesn't really know if it's a drama or a thriller. I liked it, but not much.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Book: "Ysabel" by Guy Gavriel Kay (4.5/5 stars)

The first urban fantasy by Guy Gavriel Kay. I'm a huge fan and this is his latest novel.

Usually, he writes historical fantasy novels set in fictional cultures. He will base them on Viking, Italian, Roman, Spanish, French etc. This time, however, it's set in modern Provence in the South of France with iPods and cell phones.

The main character is Ned, a precocious fifteen year old, who was superbly written and completely believable. He is a smart-assed, wise cracking, practical joke playing kid who wanders into an ancient story, a fight between two men, one Roman and one Celtic who died 2500 years ago.

This is brilliant fantasy. Guy Gavriel Kay is one of the best there is and you cannot miss this if you've liked anything he's done.

Book: "Odd John" by Olaf Stapledon (4.5/5 stars)

One of my very favorite science-fiction novels when I was in university, I decided to re-read it and see if it still held up.

I have to say, for being written in 1935, it does not feel old at all and language wise is modern. There were few hints that it was written over seventy years ago.

All the things that I remembered from way back were still there and as intriguing as ever. I loved it as much as I did the last time I read it.

The only thing I noticed, and I know I'll forget it like I did last time, were the two or three places where the author indulged and went into details of his own philosophy on politics, psychology, religion etc. The author used the main character, a more evolved human, as the speaker, going on about how wrong various sectors of society were about their position. I forgive him, Olaf Stapledon was a philosopher and had a position. It didn't hurt the novel much at all.

Simple, classic science-fiction executed to perfection. A great novel.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Movie: "A History of Violence" (1/5 stars) 2005

This is another David Cronenberg movie. I don't like Cronenberg and never have. I'm usually pretty patriotic, but his being Canadian just embarrasses me. He's done some of the worst movies ever and people bow to him as some kind of master director.

I had no idea that this was a Cronenberg movie while watching, so my negative reactions were unbiased, and I don't think this movie is overly Cronenbergish.

The biggest negative to me was how overly simple the scenes and dialog were. They go out of their way at the beginning to show how happy and well adjusted the family is. Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello play Tom and Edie Stall, the perfect normal American couple in the mid-west, living the normal life with two well adjusted kids.

I've seen all of the actors elsewhere and they've always been pretty good, but the quality of the writing (especially the dialog) and directing was so low that there was no way they could come off looking competent. It was painful to watch it, especially at the very beginning.

Small spoiler: There was a sex scene between Maria Bello and Viggo Mortensen where they get violent and then just have sex on the stairs. It made me laugh out loud and shake my head it was so bizarre. They are always so tender at the beginning that this comes out of left field. It was like the lesbian scene in Crash.

Oh! Another thing - there were a few scenes where two men are facing each other... the moment is tense and the actors just look like they are going to kiss - all the body language is there. Both myself and Una noticed it independently.

All in all, a poor quality, let down of a movie. One of the worst I've seen in a while.

This is made worse considering that it's so highly rated, both on imdb and elsewhere.

movie: "Blood Diamond" (3.5/5 stars) 2006

Finally rented this DVD after missing it at the theater.

Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Danny Archer, a diamond smuggler and mercenary in Sierra Leone during the civil war in the late 90's. The movie goes a long way towards educating the audience about conflict diamonds and how they are being used to fund both sides of the civil war.

The 2nd disk has some excellent documentaries as well and is worth watching.

Leo took a lot of criticism for his accent, which I thought was pretty good. I'm hardly an expert on accents, but certainly hear my fair share here in New Zealand. One thing I thought was exceptional was his action sequences. He handled a gun and was decisive in his scenes that made him believable as a talented ex-military man surviving in a harsh environment.

Something else I loved about the movie was how noble his actions were despite his selfish motivations. It was like he was forced into doing something good, and ended up transforming his character because of it.

He was also backed by solid performances by Djimon Hounsou playing a local fisherman fighting for his family and Jennifer Connelly playing an American reporter looking for a story that would actually make a difference.

Excellent movie that is well worth watching.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Review: "25 best sci-fi movies and TV" (3/5 stars)

This is the first review that I'm reviewing.

Sci-fi central lists what they consider the 25 best sci-fi movies and tv in the last 25 years.

It's an ok list. To make it easy to read, I've condensed it down to this text:

25. V (1983)
24. Galaxy Quest (1999)
23. "Doctor Who original"/"new Doctor Who" (1963-Present)
22. "Quantum Leap" (1989-1993)
21. "Futurama" (1999-2003)
20. "Star Wars: Clone Wars" (2003-2005)
19. Starship Troopers (1997)
18. "Heroes" (2006-Present)
17. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
16. Total Recall (1990)
15. "Firefly"/
Serenity (2002/2005)
Children of Men (2006)
The Terminator / Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1984 /1991)
Back to the Future (1985)
11. "Lost" (2004-Present)
The Thing (1982)
Aliens (1986)
8. "Star Trek: The Next Generation" (1987-1994)
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Brazil (1985)
5. Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
4. "The X Files" (1993-2002)
Blade Runner (1982)
2. "Battlestar Galactica" (2003-Present)
The Matrix (1999)

I think they got it right with The Matrix at the top, and the new "Battlestar Galactica" at #2. Both very much the best. That's why I ended up with a 3 star rating on this review.

I find that I have strong reactions to this list. While it is OK, there are some significant lame inclusions. Items on the list I disagree with:


"Doctor Who" is only popular because there are millions of people in the UK who grew up with it and accept its many flaws, primarily in the lack of budget and production value. In the end, even the newest stuff is pretty silly. The reviewer at sci-fi central said, "special effects and budget don't matter" - sorry, I don't agree.

"Quantum Leap" was the opposite of subtle and is like killing insects with a sledge hammer. Remember when killing insects with a sledge hammer - it usually doesn't work very well and misses the mark almost all the time.

"Futurama" just has such stupid characters that I could never get into it. While I appreciate that stupidity still exists in the future, I can't believe that anyone is as stupid as Frye. This is the opposite of intelligent humour.

"Starship Troopers" is a poor representation of a fantastic book. It just wasn't good enough.

"Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" - was more about the druggie technicians partying at the victim/customer's house all night as they erase memories. I couldn't imagine such an important technology falling into the hands of such witless people. Completely unbelievable and silly.

"Total Recall" while mostly good, can't get away from the Hollywood cliche of the couple kissing at the end, even after they just got SHOT OUT INTO HARD VACUUM AND HAD THEIR EYES BOIL AWAY! Too damn stupid to make this list.

"Children of Men" The story lets down what was an awesome premise and set of actors. I also loved the directing and sets, backdrop etc... but the movie was boring. I don't get its inclusion here.

Why exclude "Star Trek The Next Generation"? Star Trek represents the worst of what is wrong with sci-fi on TV. Its anti-imagination theme is what you get when you have a committee deciding on all the major directions and taking no chances. There was no continuity from episode to episode and what worked in one was deliberately ignored in the next. I don't know why - probably because it's easier to write. I want it hard to write and still done well.

"Brazil" was just weird. There is a scene where the renegade plummer is caught up in flying paper (bureaucratic red-tape?) and eventually just disappears when the paper blows away. I don't get how that's sci-fi. I guess it's set in the future, but so was Immortel (ad vitam) but the doesn't make it science fiction.

Of course, I've removed 9 items from the list and have to put something in their place. How about:

1 "Samurai Jack"
2 "Babylon 5" (you have to forgive the first season, which is hard to watch)
The Incredibles
Twelve Monkeys
5 "Stargate SG-1"
6. "Earth 2" (lasted less than 1 season - don't know why)
7. Jurassic Park
8 Contact
9 Treasure Planet (based on Treasure Island - animated film)

All of these are better than the ones I would like to remove and all fit within the last 25 years. NOTE: since I used imdb as a source, like them, all TV shows are in quotes and all movies aren't.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Movie: Spiderman 3 (1.5/5 stars) 2007

The worst of the Spiderman movies for me.

They emphasized the nerdy nature of Peter Parker, when they didn't really before. They showed how little the relationship between Mary Jane and Peter had grown or changed. They emphasized the lame soppy speeches from Aunt May. The CG was SO overused, it was turned into a cartoon. The attempt at making the Sandman a sympathetic character was so weak as to be laughable... every time he had the opportunity to kill Spiderman, he took it without hesitating, yet he was so sorry he'd killed Uncle Ben. Please!

For a huge Spiderman fan, this is a disappointment. I would say that unless you are a big fan yourself, you can certainly wait until the DVD release.

Funny, this was THE most expensive movie of all time to make, on the order of $300 Million. While watching the movie, I kept seeing things that could have been removed, made the movie cheaper and not affected the story at all.

By far the best scenes in the movie were centered around J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons) who was at his humorous best!

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Book: "Solaris" by Stanislaw Lem (2/5 stars)

This 1961 novel is listed in "100 Must Read Science Fiction Novels".

Stansilaw Lem is the most read science-fiction writer outside of the English language. Previously, I've read "The Cyberiad", a brilliant collection of short stories translated from Polish by Michael Kandel.

"Solaris" doesn't really live up to the expectations I had on it after reading about it in "100 Must Read Science Fiction Novels", or from my experience with "The Cyberiad".

Maybe it's because it was translated by a different translator (from French no less, which means 2 translations), or maybe it's the nature of the novel itself, which is heavy and dark.

And yes, there is a movie based on this book with George Clooney in it!

The book follows Kelvin to the base on the planet Solaris. Kelvin is a scientist who dedicated his life to studying the planet and the possibly sentient living ocean that covers most of the surface. However, the novel is very much Lem's exploration of the alienness of alien life, and there are many questions that just remain unanswered. He goes on for pages and pages about previous expeditions and the complex shapes and structures created by the living ocean.

Much of the book is spent following Kelvin as he explores the base's vast library of books by other scientists and researchers who study Solaris as well. Lem puts on display the various fads and trends of his fictional universe. I think he's somehow intending to mirror the real world's tendency to do the same with science, but the parallel is lost on me.

I'm willing to accept that book is a classic and has some redeeming qualities, but it's mostly a curiosity for me, and not a particularly good one.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

movie: "Eragon" (2/5 stars) 2006

Eragon is a kid's fantasy movie based on the popular book by Christopher Paolini.

I thought that the movie was ok, but affected strongly by a large number of continuity errors. The person responsible for continuity was either fired, or incompetent. Is it day time or dark outside? Is it raining or sunny? Does that dragon armor have eye holes or not? Was it REALLY 4 days ride in the opposite direction?

All of your questions will be disappointingly answered in this weak fantasy movie that does nothing for the genre and will end up in the cheap bin shortly beside "Ladyhawke" and "Dungeons and Dragons", which is too bad, since it could have been really good.

Notable guest appearances include Jeremy Irons as the mentor, Robert Carlyle as the very scary evil wizard (best character), the overacting John Malkovich as the unfortunately named Galbatorix (they said the name far too often - his dragon looks cool though) and the voice of Rachel Weisz as Saphira, the good dragon. None of these actors help the movie past a 2 star rating though.

I feel bad about it, since it is a rich genre with lots of potential, as Peter Jackson showed with Lord of the Rings.

Movie: "Pathfinder" (1.5/5) 2007

Saw this at the theater today.

Below average film that could have been so much better.

Premise: Viking ship crashes in North America 500 years before Columbus. A Viking boy is the only survivour and is taken in by the natives.

Jump ahead 15 years, and the boy has grown into Karl Urban, kiwi mega-hunk. Now, the Vikings have returned and they aren't there for tea and crumpets. Urban has no problem carrying the role. He's got loads of presence, and I see lots of leading roles for him in the future.

The main problem is that the direction is muddled and hard to follow. Not enough time was spent on the action sequences and choreography, so there are only quick flashes of sequences that are blurry and indistinct.

Of course, the direction is just one of the strange decisions from the film makers.

- The colour scheme is bordering on black and white, but with bright colour every once in a while; the scenes with colour weren't important or significant, and the choices seemed somewhat random (maybe trying to ride on the success of films like "Sin City"?).
- There were all kinds of strange anachronisms, like stairs in a native village (believe me - never happened - it's like finding a samurai sword there)
- Rituals were thrown in from lots of different Indian tribes that had nothing to do with the one they were dealing with in the movie, and even some Indian rituals and practices given to the Vikings - very odd.

While a film like Apocalypto put significant effort into being historically accurate, it felt very much like they didn't want to bother in Pathfinder. It comes through strongly in look and feel.

Movie: "Casino Royale" (4/5 Stars) 2006

Best Bond film ever. Nothing silly, no missles being launched from cars, ejection seats, evil genius hideouts and so on. High on action, well executed, fun to watch (often painful looking) - what other Bond films should be.

If you like Bond movies, I don't know if you'll like this, it's significantly different from the last 4 or 5, which were, in my opinion, Hollywood fluff and written by committee.

If you don't like Bond, but like other action movies, then give this a go - it's high octane spy action.

I'm still not crazy for Daniel Craig - he's a good Bond, but has this silly little pout he does - as far as Bond girls - Eva Green is exotic ou la la! I've been a fan since I saw "Kingdom of Heaven".

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Book: "The Pleasure of Finding Things Out" by Richard Feynman (5/5 stars)

This is a brilliant book, full of cool science and cool stories, some exceptionally funny.

Feynman looks at not only science and what science is, but at religion and the supernatural. He also looks at "cargo cult science" and how it goes through the motions of science but isn't science at all.

I was thoroughly entertained by each and every story, and recommend it to anyone who is curious at all about the natural world.

I recently read "Six Easy Pieces", another of Feynman's books, but it didn't capture Feynman's voice the way this one ones. I reviewed that book here.

If you are interested in this book, I highly recommend Feynman's 1979 lectures at Auckland University. They are well worth watching if you are even remotely interested. They are apparently one of the few freely available videos of his lectures.

Hi statement that "science is irrelevant" in the modern world held me for an entire chapter while he waited to explain it. It is too sad, but is true anyway. Today's modern world isn't a scientific one at all. It would be better if it was.

Feynman's attitude towards the world, one of accepting the unknown and having doubt about everything is one that deeply affects me and I strongly agree with. The NEED to know everything is just silly and we should be accepting of the unknown. Too many people feel the need to fill in the unknown with silly things that aren't necessary - that's where astrology comes from and who need that?

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Review of recent movies - April, 2007

I've gotten a little behind on my movie reviews - I've seen a few in the last 2 months and have not kept up:

Recent good movies (4+ stars):
300 (****1/2) - reviewed here.

Recent Ok movies (3-4 stars)
Monster House (***) - funny animated movie about the neighbour's animated house.
Ice Age II (***1/2) - better than the first - lots of funny bits
The Departed (***) - could have been better without 1 scene
The Illusionist (***) - good in many ways, but the ending was too easy, and was baby fed to the audience
Children of Men (***) - great concept, good actors and sets - pacing and story let it down
Rozencrantz & Gildenstern are Dead (***) - had some hilarious pieces (the question game), but is dependent on how well you know Hamlet - great if you do
Wedding Crashers (***1/2) - much funnier than expected. Liked it all the way through - a character in a suicidal mood was reading a book called "Don't Jump"
Naked State (***1/2) - ended up being an excellent documentary about an artist taking photos of large groups of naked people - the photos are amazing.
The Dark (***) - Had all the stereotypical creepy stuff - pretty well done
The Most Fertile Man in Ireland (***) - Some amusement - only ok though

Recent Bad movies (less than 3 stars):
Babel (**) - Acting, directing, production value, writing, all awesome, but the scenes don't belong all in the same movie. It was distracting. AND, there was a strobe scene that went on FOREVER!
Half Light (**) - dull Demi Moore comeback movie. Not worth it.
The Wicker Man (**) - Nicolas Cage in a somewhat unpredictable, but ultimately unsatisfying thriller
Beowulf & Grendle (*) - complete pants! Despite liking Gerard Butler, nothing saves this completely lame adaptation of the classic epic.
I Love Your Work (*1/2) - Weirdness. Giovanni Ribisi plays a superstar actor caught in a decadent life, however, you're never sure what is actually happening, as the flashbacks and side scenes blend together with a confused main character imagining his life differently and his past... I don't recommend it.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Book: "Stone" by Adam Roberts (2/5 stars)

I found a link to this novel on in someone's listmania as one of the great sci-fi books.

The concept is this - we start in a prison where the one murderer among the future's trillions of humans is kept. Someone breaks him out to carry out some terrible deed.

Sounds interesting doesn't it? It is - a little anyway. There are bits and pieces here and there that are pretty good, but mainly, the author takes us on tours of various planets, where you get to see wonderfully alien, but beautiful landscapes.

Somewhere along the way, in the middle of a description of one of these strange planets, it hit me that it was all made up. Somehow the author failed to trap me in the story and I could picture him making up all of these planets, maybe even thinking how clever he'd made this or that, and I never got back to it.

At that point, it became like reading a Lonely Planet Guide to some made up place and I didn't really see the value of it. The reviews of the novel on Amazon go on and on about how it's original and a great read, but I just saw it as a travelogue. It did almost nothing for me.

Movie: "300" (4.5/5 stars) 2006

A !MANLY! romp of a movie with a wall of indestructible Spartans meeting an army of a million Persians bent on capturing all of Greece.

I thought that the initial trailer looked bloody awful and camp, but the campy scenes from the trailer actually fit nicely into the context of the movie. I ended up loving the movie - thought that it was a brilliant display of style and action with an excellent cast and some very exotic Persian excesses even as they march an army of a million people forward into Greece.

Things I loved:
cinematography, directing, cast, action sequences, comic book feel, the Persian army, tough lines from various Spartans

Things I didn't like:
The voice over at the beginning, the lame special effect of the oracle floating in mid-air (a total of 5 minutes of the movie)

I have to say, 20 or 30 Spartans turning around in sync with their shields and spears all ready was very cool.

I know there is probably a mile of critics who will pick on the inaccuracies of the historical content and the actual Battle of Thermopylae but I know it's based on a comic, and the comic took great liberties so I can ignore that problem and just sit back and enjoy.

It isn't for everyone, and I think that there will be many polarized critics either loving it or hating it. I am firmly in the "love it" camp and will certainly be seeing it again, probably in the theatre.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Book: "Six Easy Pieces" by Richard Feynman (2 of 5 stars)

I made the mistake of viewing a set of lectures from Auckland University when Feynman was there in 1979 at the same time I was reading this book.

The books is good, but the lectures are SO MUCH BETTER.

This book is based on The Feynman Lectures, classic books in the field of educating young physicists. Being much, much shorter, lots is left out, like equations and any mathematics. This is fine for a pop culture science book and I didn't mind, but found Feynman's voice doesn't shine through here. Also, the editor of this book decided to keep several pieces of text that say "I cover this in more detail in the next chapter" or "we continue with this in more detail", when there is obviously nothing more coming. This happened on the 2nd to last page and then the book just ended. It felt somewhat poorly put together.

Still, I consider it a gentle introduction to everything about science and how a few simple ideas can be used to derive all the rest. If you need to cover all of science in a book that is only 150 pages long, this is about as good as you can get, certainly content-wise.

If you read and like this book, I highly recommend listening to Feynman's 1979 lectures in Auckland as well as reading James Gleick excellent biography of him, "Genius".

Book: "The World Gates" by Holly Lisle (2 our of 5 stars)

I just read Holly Lisle's "The World Gates", 3 books called "Memory of Fire", "The Wreck of Heaven" and "Gods, Old and Dark" about two woman named Loren and Molly (sounds like Holly, is probably meant to be the author in some shape or form).

Molly and Loren are sisters and each independently discover that there are magical gates leading from earth going to other worlds, upworld, downworld and side worlds etc... In the downworld, humans have magical abilities and are considered gods there. Consequently, beings from our upworld have magical abilities on earth and are considered gods here (Zeus, Thor, Ra etc... were all originally from upworld somewhere).

The premise is good, lots of potential for interesting story lines, cool fantasy and so on. Lisle seems to write about interesting things and most of the books content is interesting to read. Having read many of the author's writing tips, and listened to her podcast "On Writing", I assumed that she'd be a cut above the rest, since she obviously cares about her writing, world building and characters a great deal.

Despite this, what I read was a completely average, pulp, fantasy novel with underdeveloped villains (to the point of ineffectiveness) and annoying, unsympathetic main characters whose troubles are bashed over the reader's head again and again. Writing was passable, but often awkward in places and in need of more editing.

Whenever it comes down to a battle between good and evil, somehow, the bad guys never know how to use magic as well as the good guys do... no reason, just the way that it works. Some of these bad guys are ancient gods, with ten thousand years of experience crushing pissants like the main characters, yet in the end, while it looks hard, it ends up being so damn easy that it's not worth reading. There was one scene in the middle novel where "A group of dark gods..." were "pinned down" by fire from good guys. The dumbness of the phrase completely pulled me from the story and left me shaking my head. There are many scenes like this.

I will only read more work by this author on recommendations from friends. I think I'll stop reading her writing tips and listening to the podcasts too.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Town, pesdestrian friendliness: Taupo/Rotorua, NZ (1/5 stars)

I haven't reviewed a town before, let alone two at once.

I'm a fan of Taupo and Rotorua, the thermal activity, the views, the lake front walks - all very lovely/scary/amazing.

Now, my review isn't actually of the towns, it's of the pedestrian friendliness. Both Rotorua and Taupo are certainly NOT! pedestrian friendly.

I don't know if you live in New Zealand, but the 2nd most amazing thing about Taupo, after the fact that it's built on the edge of a massive volcanic crater is that there isn't a single crosswalk all the way along the main drag. Not one! Who planned this?

Whoever planned the town must have done one of three things:
1) said - "There will never be enough people or traffic to warrant crosswalks!"
2) felt sure that they'd mentioned it to their assistant
3) doesn't walk, so doesn't need crosswalks

I don't spend as much time in Rotorua, but did this weekend - same thing. Crosswalks conspicuously absent.

Tell me if you've noticed this.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

movie: "An Inconvenient Truth" (5/5) 2006

I've been incredibly slow with this blog entry and have had it in "draft" for weeks. Time to finish it while I'm procrastinating on my Kiwiwriters Easter Writing Challenge.

Al Gore has been an environmental proponent for decades. This isn't a recent phenomenon for him. He's done what he calls his slideshow at least a thousand times.

During and after the movie I was both appalled and worried. I know many people who will avoid this movie simply because it is scary and who wants to watch a movie to be scared of the big bad outside world, after all, movies are about escape. Right?

Please, please, please don't do that with this movie. This is information everyone must know. If this helps you change one thing about your life that means you are more of an activist, then we are one step closer to solving the problems.

All the technology we need to solve this issue is available now, but governments are slow to react and legislate its use now, things are changing faster than predicted and everyone can contribute to the solution.

I beg you to take a look at this movie and listen to what Al Gore has to say. It's worth listening to!

Friday, February 23, 2007

book: "Way of the Cheetah" by Lynn Viehl (4/5 stars)

This is a book about writing. It is about how to be a more productive writer. She compares each of her strategies to the life and hunting strategies of a cheetah, sometimes to comic effect (imagine a cheetah being patted on the head by its cheetah friends that think his hunting is a nice little 'hobby')

I loved the book and even though it's only 72 pages, I though it was well worth the $9.95 I spent on line for it. The shortness is part of the appeal, and I finished it in about an hour and got lots out of it. It's an e-book, so you get it right away in pdf format (zipped) from Holly Lisle's writing resource page.

Lynn Viehl is the author of 36 novels in 5 different genres and writes over a million words per year. She is well worth listening to if you are interested in success as a writer. She also finds the time to share information on her popular and almost daily Paperback writer blog - I'm not sure where she finds the time.

Highlights for me included:
1. Strategies for upping your word count
2. Her own change of habit and how it helped her become more productive
3. That is ok to write for money
4. Her editing strategies and that she edits daily (a no-no in [[Nanowrimo]])
5. The constant and consistent cheetah analogy (it just works)

If you are interested in writing and have no clue how you could ever finish a novel or short story, and wonder where you'd ever find the time - this book answers all of those questions. If you are a writer by profession and want to be more productive, this is a must read.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Movie: "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" (1/5 stars) 1964

This is one of those movies you always plan to see but never do.

I see why now. It just was not my thing, i.e. well made, well written cinema.

I don't quite see why it's the classic that is #19 on imdb's top 250 list. It's next to good movies, there are good movies before and after it, but I don't think it is a good movie.

I think everyone thinking back remembers the few good lines in the movie, specifically, "You can't fight in here, this is the war room!"... I can't remember any of the other ones, although I vaguely remember that there were more.

Peter Sellers and George C. Scott are good, but are sitting in the middle of something even they can't save. Sorry, but I have to give a thumbs down to a 'classic'. I think the pressure is always why this movie consistently ranks high on people's lists - they think they may have missed something and come out looking stupid. Fair enough... I suppose I could give it a 1.5/5 - nah!

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Movie: Apocalypto (4/5 stars) 2006

I almost always start with mentioning the actors who were in a movie. With this film, 99% of everyone in it only have Apocalypto as a credit, so mentioning actors isn't much use.

The film focuses on Jaguar's Paw, a Mayan native living in the jungles of Central America around 1500 or so. His tribe is attacked and mostly captured and brought to a city nearby.

I don't know how accurate this portrays Mayan civilization, but taken as an action movie, there is little to fault it.

This is a high adrenalin movie and as with most Mel Gibson movies, there is no shying away from the brutal life of the time.

I liked it and recommended it to lots of my friends. It is worth the price of the ticket and a real roller coaster ride of a movie.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Book: "Axiomatic" by Greg Egan (5/5 stars)

This is a book of short stories by Greg Egan, one of the most successful Australian sci-fi writers of all time.

I'm already a fan, having read "Luminous", another book of short stories, as well as "Permutation City" and "Quarantine". I also have "Diaspora" on my shelf, but I haven't read it yet. Shortly. Shortly.

I thought that "Luminous" was great - there were at least three or four really good short stories in there, including "Reasons to be Cheerful", probably my favorite ever short story, and "Mitochondrial Eve", a close second.

Because "Axiomatic" is older, I expected it to be less polished and less interesting. I was completely wrong. Almost every story was amazing in some way.

I highly recommend this for intellectual sci-fi fans. Don't miss Egan, we aren't going to see anything this good for a long, long time.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Movie: Thank You For Smoking (4/5 stars) 2005

I'm so much an anti-smoker that I'm almost prejudiced, and that made me really concerned when we rented this DVD.

Two things about the movie:

1. There is no smoking at all in the movie (except in the extra scenes, not in the main movie)
2. It is one of THE most clever movies I have ever seen

It is a comedy parody of the big tobacco industry and how they promote themselves. It follows Nick Naylor, a tobacco lobbyist going from interview to interview, from TV talk show to Hollywood to reporters promoting big tobacco and finding a way to sell more cigarettes. He's a smooth talker with interesting ways of looking at his morals and a more interesting way of "winning" arguments. He has to balance his flexible morals against raising his son Joey (played by Cameron Bright).

This movie taught me a lot about debating and not a lot about big tobacco (which is good). I thought it was intelligent and well written with the right mix of smart ass and ridiculous, with all the right people getting what is coming to them.

My favorite scene (excuse the approximate dialog):
Nick: say we're debating ice cream. Chocolate versus Vanilla. You're taking chocolate, what do you say?
Joey: Chocolate, it's the best, it's all I eat. What do you say?
Nick: I say, "It's not about the chocolate or the vanilla, it's about the right to choose, that's the most important thing!"
Joey: But you haven't answered which is better, Chocolate or vanilla.
Nick: People don't have to see that I'm right, but that you're wrong.
Joey: But you haven't convinced me.
Nick: I don't have to convince you, I have to convince them (pointing at the people around them)

They then flash to Nick and Joey on a ferris wheel eating vanilla ice cream.

Great movie.

Movie: The World's Fastest Indian (4.5/5 stars) 2005

Starring Sir Anthony Hopkins as Burt Munro, a speed freak forever tinkering with his 1920 Indian motorcycle seeing how much speed he can squeeze out of it. In the movie, he realizes his dream and takes the machine across the pacific to the Bonneville Salt Flats in the late 1960's to set a land speed record.

I loved this movie from start to finish, all of Burt's small quirks, his forever saying, "What?" because he was hard of hearing, his laid-back attitude and how easy it was for him to make friends (which he did absolutely everywhere), his encounters in LA, his naive nature... it's all golden.

Having lived in New Zealand for over five years now, it's hard to think of a movie that has captured the unusual kiwi attitude the way this one has. it just feels kiwi, and that's a good thing to be making and showing the world.

The only reason that I docked 0.5 stars from this movie is because of Hopkin's kiwi accent, which was not very good. It IS a tough accent to get right though, and didn't affect my enjoyment of the movie much at all.

This isn't just a movie for New Zealanders though, it's as much a movie about one lone man against the world and the small town man going out and succeeding. It has such universal appeal that I can recommend it to anyone.

Movie: Lost in LaMancha (3/5 stars) 2002

For those who don't know, "Lost in LaMancha" is about Terry Gilliam's failed attempt at making a Don Quixote movie. We get to see behind the scenes as Gilliam attempts to produce and film (6 days total) his movie.

There are two main ideas that popped into my head when I watched this movie: 1) I would really, really like to see the movie that Terry Gilliam is trying to make, and 2) I've never seen anything like this before.

While I'm sure that there are many movies that fail to get made, I've never, ever seen the making of one. Especially one that is so likely to succeed. Terry Gilliam is a well know film maker and director with a string of successes behind him, he's got funding (a little tighter than he'd like), a huge stars in Johnny Depp and Jean Rochefort (a perfect Don Quixote) and so many other things that should make this an A list movie with hundreds of millions in earnings.

Still, little things go wrong at first, followed by big things. It's amazing to see as coincidence after coincidence, mishap after mishap hit the movie and ruin what looks so so good.

There are a few bits and pieces of finished material on the DVD. The production quality is fantastic and it feels good. I really hope that he finishes this movie some time - I'll line up for it.

I learned a lot about what goes on during the making of a movie, mainly that even on a well run movie, things are pretty chaotic and hard to rein in. The amount of management needed is tremendous, and there are a lot of ways any movie can fail. I learned a lot about Gilliam himself - since he was involved in Monty Python, I'd assumed that he was English, but no, he's an American living in England.

If you are interested in how movies are made and what all the obstacles are, then this is the movie for you. Enjoy.

movie: Intimacy (1 out of 5 stars) 2001

Starring Mark Rylance and Kerry Fox, two actors I've never even heard of before. I read the DVD cover and saw that it was a movie about two people who were having a strange sexual relationship where she just shows up and has sex every Wednesday. They don't know each other, but somehow are taking comfort in their surreal relationship. That is, until he follows her home one Wednesday and starts to learn who she is.

This sounds pretty unusual and interesting - it got rented after all.

But I was never ready for the strangeness. You never quite learn how they meet, or why they are having sex (he is uglier than any lead I've seen in a while), the side bits with his friends is completely random and does nothing to carry the story forward.

The sex itself is positively shocking and is practically pornography. It was explicit and hard to watch, and decidedly not sexy at all. I'm sure some of the scenes must have gotten this movie an X rating.

In the end, I didn't learn a thing from this movie, including much about the movie itself. Weird and not interesting. It's an easy recommendation from me that you just pass on this one.

movie: Attila the Hun (2 out of 5 stars) 2001

Starring Gerard Butler as Attila and Powers Boothe as the loyal Roman general trying to hold Rome together in the face of many barbarian groups on their borders.

We knew when we rented this that it was going to be B movie quality and we weren't surprised. Gerard Butler, a solid action star in several A list movies couldn't quite keeps his Scottish Accent in rein, and of course, Powers Boothe didn't even try to disguise his American one. This was just amusing more than damning, but the first thing that I noticed.

At times, an interesting, semi-historical view on one of the great barbarian leaders, and at others, a barely passable high-school production. No matter your take on the movie, you almost have to be interested in history and be willing to ignore the movie's many flaws. I have to say that it will be hard to do, since many of them are so obvious and amusing.

There was this one bit where Attila and his right hand man are running after being routed in a battle and they just run for maybe 100 metres and fall to the ground to rest on the side of a small hill. It looked so much like two guys coming off a game of touch football or rugby that I couldn't help but shake my head.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Movie: The Prestige (3/5 stars), 2006

This movie looked really cool in the previews. Up front, I will say: The movie isn't as good as the previews make it out to be.

That being said, the movie has Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Cane, Scarlett Johansson and more, so you know the acting is good - no issues. The problem, and my overall issue with the movie is one of sympathy. Both main characters have such large egos and become so twisted and unlikable that I don't care what happens to them in the end.

Other than the sympathy aspect, which counts for a lot, the rest of the movie is very cool. Set at the turn of the 20th century, it follows the lives of two illusionists with an intense rivalry based a woman (of course). The sets and costume, as well as "backstage at the magic show" material was excellent and believable.

I thought that the movie could have been better without the sci-fi bit. Still, I'm a huge fan of Nikola Tesla (the inventor of AC power - I'm an electrical engineer by the way :-) ) and seeing him suffering injustices at the hands of Thomas Edison tells people who he was, maybe enough enough to look him up. This is a good thing since his part in history is vastly underplayed. I thought David Bowie did him justice.

Unfortunately, the "secret" at the end is much too transparent and obvious as to make it ineffectual. As I said, it would have been better left out.

Movie: Little Fish (3/5 stars) 2005

This is an amazing movie in so many ways. About a recovering drug addict (Blanchett) trying to have a go at a successful life.

The biggest deal about this movie is how utterly believable the cast and acting are. They are so absolutely spot on that I was amazed all the way through.

It took the extra features on the DVD to convince me, as I didn't really enjoy the film, but after seeing the extra features, re-examined my thoughts on the movie and realized how convincing everything was.

The reason that I didn't like it certainly had nothing to do with the acting, directing and writing, which were beyond reproach, but that the movie has so much about drug culture in it. Drug movies always turn me off, since it's so far from my current life that I never understand it. I say "drug movie", but realize that it isn't about drugs, so much as about the people around drugs. Still, there is a fair share of dealing, doing and being strung out on drugs throughout to turn me off.

Movie: Ghost World (3/5 stars) 2001

This is a quirky, enjoyable film with lots of good in it.

Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson and Steve Buscemi are all fantastic in this - the acting is excellent and completely believable.

Enid (Birch) and Rebecca (Johansson) get to the end of highschool and slowly grow apart as Rebecca wants to start her life, and Enid still feels the need to rebel against the norm and does things because they are different. This slowly grates on their friendship and makes their time together more and more of Rebecca rolling her eyes at Enid's antics and becoming embarrassed to be her.

Enid meets Seymore (Buscemi) through a cruel practical joke, but gradually realizes that he's a little off and represents off-beat and off-norm, so gradually gets closer until real life and age differences intrude on their unusual friendship.

This is an unusual movie, but has enough solid laughs for me to like it quite a lot. Still, there were significant weaknesses, mostly with the writing that made me resist a higher rating.

Movie: Johnny Mnemonic (1/5 stars) 1995

I watched this years ago, and my wife was really asking me not to get it again at the video store. I remembered it as good, so got it anyway.

She was so, SO right!

I can't tell you all the things wrong with this. Firstly, Johnny, the courier who carries data in his head, in 2020 has 80 Gigs of storage capacity, and gets a memory double which brings him to 160 Gigs. Considering how easy it is to figure out the data storage in the future (it's following a simple curve), you'd think a courier who gave up his childhood memories would have something bigger than what we can get for $100 at the computer store in 2007 - it's silly. I heard that the short story was even sillier, and the movie "improved" it somewhat.

Still, I knew all of that before I saw the movie. It's such a large target that I had to mention it. If I were the film maker, I would have invented a new word for storage size and just made it sounds REALLY big and impressive, and not dated the film so badly.

This is the least of the film transgressions. The acting, directing, storyline etc... are all sub-standard. It's really, really hard to watch Keanu Reeves at this point in his career. He was truly flat and cardboard actor. AND the man can't look at the camera, he's looking everywhere else. I know he still has that problem, but it's even worse here and his eyes wander everywhere. As bad as people make him out to be now, this was much worse - hard to watch.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not just a Keanu basher, I like lots of his stuff, "Speed", "The Matrix" (even #2), "Constantine" and several more. If you are thinking of taking a trip down memory lane and getting a 90's movie, steer clear of this one - it tells you how bad some of the mainstream films were in that time.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Book: "Freakanomics" by Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner (3/5 stars)

In many ways, a brilliant book. If the 2nd half was as good as the first half, I'd have given it a 5 star rating.

Steven Levitt knows how to look at data, and better than that, he knows how to find interesting results in the data that anyone can access. He asks the right questions, he finds the best way to get the answers that he wants, and fortunately for the rest of us, the facts he finds interesting are interesting for the rest of us.

His big revelation was the effect abortion was having on the crime rate, but there are lots of other things that he looked at that were immensely cool and interesting. How do you know if sumo wrestlers are cheating? We've got all this data to look at, what would a sumo wrestler cheating look like? How about teachers cheating on standardized exams? How about real estate agents selling their own houses? How are crack organizations like McDonald's franchises?

Levitt knows exactly how to look at his data sideways, and how to eliminate irrelevant factors that might confuse anyone else. It really is a remarkable display of setting up an experiment, even if it is with events that have already happened.

Unfortunately, by the middle of the book, it felt like Levitt had hit a limit and didn't have anything quite so interesting to say. Sure it was pretty cool - but not nearly as mind blowing as the first half. After the 1/2 way point, he simply took lots of data and did correlation analysis of the results and how one variable was related to another (do the names people get affect their success in life for example). Still - the ultimate causes to the effects remained unknown, and we're left with Levitt's speculation. As insightful as his speculation is, it's still just speculation.

Still - well worth your time, especially for the first half. A truly original book.

Book: "Coraline" by Neil Gaiman (3.5/5 stars)

A creepy children's fantasy novel about a precocious girl who finds a door that opens into an alternate bizarro world, where all the people she knows exist in parody, including her mother, father and neighbors.

Fresh and enjoyable, the novel/novelette is paced well, has a great main character and cast of quirky, fun, side characters and their strange and disturbing other-selves that made this an easy, quick read that I can recommend to almost anyone.

Despite being a children's story, it's worth a read for any fan of fantasy, or even just interesting fiction.

If you've read "Neverwhere" or "American Gods" and want more of Gaiman's work, you won't go wrong with this. Unfortunately, you'll be done in no time and probably wanting more.

The reason that I don't give it more stars is that it is so short, and I'd love it to be a full novel, rather than just a side project for Gaiman. I didn't think he gave it the attention it deserved. Still, it's well worth your time.

Book: "A Talent For War" by Jack McDevitt (2/5 stars)

"A Talent for War" is a science fiction novel, almost, but not quite a space opera.

200 years before the events of this novel, there was a great war with an alien race colloquially known as "the mutes", and the hero, the human hero, is Christopher Sim. He's the household name, the subject of novelizations, of operas, of plays, and speculative histories. Everyone in this world knows him and the basic roll he played in the war.

McDevitt mentions more than one of these novels and operas. He goes into great detail about stories done about each and every character in the war, the lieutenants, the Benedict Arnold, the love interest, the side stories and so on. While I realize that it's necessary to show just how ingrained the roll of Christopher Sim is in this fictional society, it just isn't that interesting. The main story is, but the many, many sidelines in a novel just 300 pages long don't hold my interest. I found myself counting the pages and struggling to get back to the novel when I'd put it down. I almost gave it up a couple of times, but managed to finish.

I won't be reading any more McDevitt without a solid recommendation from someone I trust.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Book: "The Code Book" by Simon Singh (5/5 stars)

This is a history of code making and code breaking from its inception (Caesar shift cypher) to modern public key encryption and beyond (he has a section on quantum cryptography at the end).

The stories are amazing, more than interesting, and Singh has an exceptional talent in making complex concepts simple to understand.

Not only does Singh tell interesting stories, but exactly when you want it, there is a photo of the machine he's talking about, or the person making the amazing discovery or cracking a difficult code.

My absolute favorite stories in this book of exceptions stories are the story of Rejewski breaking enigma, and of Clifford Cocks inventing public key encryption.

I highly recommend this book to anyone even remotely interested in code making and code breaking.