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.