Sunday, 29 July 2012

R-Wards 6

The sixth year in this blog has finished, and once again it is time to look back on the year that went by. Let’s have a look to see what has happened this past year other than us getting older.

Trends:
I can identify three trends in my consumption of contents, the main subject of this blog’s reviews.
The first took place in similar manner to the way ebooks have entered my life. Just as two years ago the Kindle entered my life and made me unable to look at books the same way, this year Spotify entered my life and totally revolutionized my music listening habits. It is important to mention that while Spotify has been available in Australia only this past couple of months or so, I have been listening to it through the better part of the year via VPN. Once again we see how the copyright conglomerate arrests our culture's development, and once again we see how useless their measures are.
Regardless of my never ending gripes with the those who want to preserve their old business models above all else, Spotify is/was a revolution: for a start, it meant that music made a big re-entrance to my life after years of disappointment. It also meant I can now listen to [almost] everything I want, whenever I want and wherever I want – and the quality is pretty decent. Isn’t technology marvellous?
The second trend is to do with my disappointment of Hollywood’s products. I have become so disillusioned with mainstream American cinema this year that I no longer care for Blu-rays as much. Sure, Blu-rays can offer wonderful presentations, but what is the point when everything’s the same and it’s all dull? In contrast, “foreign” and independent cinema provides content that may be poorer in production values but manages to consistently surprise me for the better. For now, I am done feeling I have to succumb to social pressure and watch whatever “hit” Hollywood’s marketing departments are telling me I should be watching.
The third trend is to do with video gaming. I have been playing video games for the bulk of my life, ever since my parents got me my Atari 2600 (and even before, playing Pong and the Atari at my friends’). My video gaming has known its ups and downs, but in general ever since the last game that truly managed to captivate my thoughts and my senses through the night and through the day – FIFA 99 – gaming has been a casual experience, a way to have fun here and there (I’m sure my wife would argue about the “here and there”). Over the past couple of years gaming has been infiltrating my life more and more, thanks mostly to ABC’s wonderful show Good Game – a program my son has been addicted to since he was two.
This year, however, gaming put a firm foothold in my life. It’s no longer a matter of “here and there”; it is something I think of all the time, something I look forward to doing all day long, something that overtakes other priorities – sleeping, reading and even blogging. And it’s all thanks to one game and my decision to buy it after reading The Guardian’s review and watching the one at Good Game…

Best Film:
By far the weakest contender in this year’s awards is the best film category. Simply put, there was no film out there that truly managed to captivate me. There was some good stuff, mostly from foreign sources (Headhunters is a fine example), but these lacked that spark that makes them truly great.
In this year of mediocrity, Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris stood above the rest. Midnight in Paris is not only a fine smart comedy and a good piece of cinematic art, it also packs a very meaningful satirical jab of a quality that is rarely missing these days. And it’s even science fiction!

Best Book:
Honestly, I am wondering whether I should just automatically hand this category over to the latest book published by Richard Dawkins, because that definitely seems to be the trend. I often go on how John Scalzi is my favorite author of fiction, but that distinction is made only so I have enough room to say Richard Dawkins is my favorite author overall. Let it be noted Dawkins manages to occupy that spot despite only writing about fairly narrow subject matters!
on my part I finally managed to meet him in person this year. I can only hope to meet him and his books many times more; his recent tweets indicate he is currently working on his autobiography (he asked whether it should focus on science or on the personal, to which I will contribute my my 2c and say: personal!).
This year’s R-Ward winner for the best Richard Dawkins book is The Magic of Reality. The beauty of The Magic of Reality is not only in its eye opening content and the learnings both child and adult can gain out of it (as beautifully demonstrated at our own house); this book takes the book format even further than before. It is as interactive as a paper based book can ever be, which works astonishingly well to enhance the experience. I have to admit I did not try the fully interactive experience the book offers on the iPad, but I am very curious.
The Magic of Reality is firmly aimed at kids, but The Magic of Reality will teach the vast majority of adults out there a whole lot about this world that we live in. Popular science for the people does not come in a shape better than Dawkins’.

Best on TV:
A well executed good idea needs no budget to deliver, a point well delivered by this year's R-Ward winner, Misfits. Misfits tells the story of a bunch of fine young British delinquents turned unwilling superheroes of sorts by a freak storm. The question it asks is who the real freaks/criminals are, a question that is re-asked every episode in a different manner and with totally different settings.
It's entirely un-PC: there is nudity, coarse language, the works. It's decidedly low budget, with limited sets and stars we haven't seen anywhere before. But it is so so good! Between episodes dealing with Nazi occupied England to the ever so brilliant rendition of a contemporary Nativity tale (that would surely upset the bleeding hearts out there), Misfits is a work of art in its genius. The fact it also happens to be very enteretaining is a wonderful bonus.
Going back to my point on Hollywood's deficiencies, a simple comparison between Misfits and its American equavalent in themes, Alphas, says all that there is to say about the vast distance between Hollywood, quality and originality. Where Alphas is pale, dull, formulaic and repetitive, yet bursting with production values, Misfits is sharp, edgy, breaking conventions at every episode, and always original. What it doesn't have in cash it covers up with a soundtrack that beats everything else around.
I sure do hope we will have a season 4!

Best Video Game:

If this year’s movie category presented the weakest playing field, the opposite has to be said for this year’s R-Ward winning video game. If one is to take a single winner out of this last year, this would be it.
I have never heard of the Mass Effect world till this March, probably the result of the franchise initially aiming towards the Xbox (and subsequently PC) markets. But when I heard about it, what I saw made me do a very uncharacteristic move: I went and purchased Mass Effect 3 immediately upon its release, paying the full price (or rather, the full price the cheap shop I buy at charges).
The rest is history. Mass Effect 3 started out as a half hour here and a half hour there after the rest of the family had gone to sleep. It proved so gripping that my wife, unavoidably listening to the action, started asking questions; we talked about it so much that our son got involved, and despite his age I let him watch (in my view, there is no difference between him watching Mass Effect and him watching Star Wars; actually playing the game is a whole different ballpark, though). Soon enough Mass Effect 3 started occupying ever expanding time slots of my day. The end of its single player campaign had the whole family watching a five hour marathon together.
Ever since Mass Effect 3 came along, my PlayStation has turned, in effect, into my MassEffectStation. The only exception is that only other game I can care for since ME3’s entrance into my life – a game called Mass Effect 2 (summarized in one sentence, ME2 is an excellent game, by far the second best I have played this year, but it feels like a dress rehearsal for the real thing that followed).
The question of what it is that made Mass Effect 3 the phenomenal game that it is is the most interesting one. From the perspective of someone who is now deeply into the addiction of ME3 multiplayer I can say that if I have to point at one factor then that factor is the game’s ability to make me care. Not only for the character[s] I play, not only for the characters around my player, but actually for the whole Mass Effect world.
Between the trilogy of games, the books, the art and the comics I suspect Mass Effect will be in my life a whole lot longer.

Lifetime Achievement R-Ward:

In the course of its six year lifespan, this blog has seen me reading plenty of material from prominent atheists. Some of it had to do directly with matters of religion/atheism, but the bulk of it had more to do with philosophy and science. The events of this year put a much stronger focus on these guys: the release of several works of particular interest, the death of a prominent atheist, and my personal attendance to this year's Global Atheist Convention where I met most of these people I look up to in person (as well as a eulogy to that one guy who couldn't make it).
Perhaps it was the amplification effect created by the crowd of similarly minded people, but at the convention I couldn't avoid feeling just how much I owe these people. In many ways their thinking is now part of me - in the sense that it is their cutting edge look at things that is directly shaping the way I think and behave. With that in mind, I would like to name these people I owe so much to, as well as the work of theirs that I got to review here during this past year. My R-Ward for lifetime acheivements goes to the following prominant atheists:
  1. Christopher Hitchens: Hitch-22, Letters to a Young Contrarian, The Monarchy.
  2. Sam Harris: Lying, Free Will.
  3. A. C. Grayling: The Good Book.
  4. Lawrence Krauss: A Universe from Nothing.
  5. Dan Dennett.
  6. And then there is the guy I look up to the most, Richard Dawkins: The Magic of Reality.
I'm looking forward to more stuff from all of the above. I am also looking forward to more people added to this list of prominent atheists whose words are worth listening to. There is so much to this universe they can talk and teach me about!

Friday, 27 July 2012

The Infidel

Lowdown: A Londoner Muslim’s life is turned upside down upon the discovery he was born Jewish.
Review:
Trading Places, the religious version: that’s what The Infidel is.
We start off with an average London adult. He loves his family, loves his drink, loves his pop music, and loves his football (Tottenham, a suitable team for what follows next). The catch is in the guy’s name, Mahmud Nasir (Omid Djalili): he’s a Muslim, and the rest of society will always tend to see him in that light no matter how Britishly he acts.
Mahmud’s pleasant life takes a bit of a hit when his son asks a favor: our Mahmud needs to pass as a proper, devout, Muslim for an upcoming “interview” by the son fiancé’s stepfather. That guy just happens to be a vocal fundamentalist Muslim cleric who is so nasty a figure his very entry to the UK is put in doubt. However hard dealing with this weirdo is, nothing prepares Mahmud for his next discovery: by coincidence, he finds that he was born to a Jewish family and was put for adoption. A rabbi’s family, nonetheless!
A crisis of identity develops. What is Mahmud, exactly? Is he a Muslim or is he Jewish? All of a sudden, all the things Mahmud took for granted – friends, work, family – all look different. Don’t worry, though: Mahmud will resolve the conflict, but only after giving us a pleasant comedy to watch with some good laughs along the way.
There can be no doubt about The Infidel being a lesser member of the film archives; it is no masterpiece. However, to judge this movie this way would be way too cruel, because other than providing good entertainment – even when that entertainment doesn’t stand the loophole scrutiny committee and when the ending feels way too contrived – The Infidel makes some very valid points about the way we regard our peers. It is an important point for contemporary society to ponder about; not just the British one in the film, but also the Australian in the here and now. Boat people, anyone?
I would argue that by clearly showing us that a person is what he/she makes himself/herself to be, regardless of what faith his/her parents followed and regardless of what society expects him/her to do, The Infidel does more to benefit society than the bulk of high budget American cinema. As for Djalili, he’s a fine comedian who knows how to generate laughs; I would very much like to see more of him in leading roles (be it on the small or the large screen).
Best scene: Mahmud is caught wet handed wearing a Kippah (yarmulke) to a pro-Palestinian demonstration.
Overall: Low on production values, entertaining and offering more than something to think about. I would say The Infidel is worth at least 3 stars; regardless of score, I quite recommend it for its simple charm.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Twilight of the Elites by Christopher Hayes

Lowdown: A thorough analysis of the fallacies of American meritocracy.
Review:
The first time I heard the word “meritocracy” it was in Alain de Botton’s Status Anxiety. While de Botton looked at the concept from the individual’s point of view, Christopher Hayes’ Twilight of the Elites goes a step further and expands the scope: it is on the shortcomings of the meritocratic dream that is at the core of American psych that he pins the woes suffered by our societies in the post 9/11 decade.
The core idea behind Twilight of the Elites is that the entire concept of a meritocracy stinks. For a start, the idea was dreamt up by a British author in an attempt to portray an ill fictional society; the fact it actually ended up inspiring American society is a cause for worry. Second, the very concept of meritocracy is undemocratic in the sense it advocates an agenda where certain people, those of merit, are superior to others; the only difference is that the superiority is determined by merit. Or is it? Hayes brings one example after the other to show, behind any reasonable doubt, that this is not the case. Perhaps the elites formed up on the basis of merit at the beginning, but as of that point the elites we put on top to rule us are mostly busy preserving and fortifying their position rather than acting as the true elite of merit we would sort of aspire to have. The results are there for all to see: the GFC brought the allegedly meritocratic elites to their knees, yet they managed to get away Scot free using our money; now they are back to doing exactly what they’ve done before. The rest of us, the majority, are starting to get the point: we lose trust in the institutions we are meant to rely on, no doubt helped by the likes of an Obama with his “yes we can” promises of change, yet an Obama that turned out to be more institutionalized than anyone could have imagined. We don’t like what we see, so we rebel: some of us don’t know what they’re doing so they rebel by preventing their children from receiving immunizations, others rebel through the Occupy movement.
The beauty of Twilight of the Elites is the clarity and the gripping way in which its vision is portrayed. It is actually entertaining to follow through the unravelling thread of our society in this journey that Hayes is taking us through. Sadly, I agree with almost everything Hayes is saying, particularly his gripe with the way the education system is used (or rather, abused) by the elites.
Perhaps the most compelling evidence in favor of Hayes’ vision is my own personal experience. Looking at my history, I never really questioned why I was at the privileged position where I could choose any high school and later any [Israeli] university to study at; I always thought it was because of my talents and the efforts I have made. Later on I tended to think the same way about my professional career: those who did not make it as well as I have were to blame for not making enough of an effort. It did not occurred to me that perhaps I was given certain opportunities that others were not as lucky to receive. Things changed when I hot a bout of unemployment, an experience that made me realize how close the abyss really is for each and every one of us. From that point and onwards I became an advocate for a society of equal outcomes, just as I became disgusted with seeing the way the elites are constantly making sure that ideal never materializes: you know we are all screwed when people justify public funding of Australian private schools by arguing that otherwise there won’t be enough places for everyone, to name but one example. And you can see the corruption of the elites ruling us everywhere you look: this weekend alone we were told the Premier of Victoria promised a local industrialist a whole new train line (see here). Can a normal, non elite member, even conceive the idea of a train line erected in their personal favour? Clearly, the meritocratic dream is sending not only the USA but the rest of the Western world as well on its downward spiral.
Where Hayes and I disagree is on his vision for solving our problem, because I think Hayes is far too optimistic. It is clear the solution to this social crisis of trust in the very foundations of society can only come from the USA, but it is also clear American society is far too disintegrated to unite and address the problem. Hayes is arguing we should strive for a society where there is not only equal opportunity but equal outcomes as well, and I fully agree; Hayes is arguing we should strive for a more equal society with significantly lesser margins between social classes, and I fully agree; Hayes is arguing the best and easiest way to solve the problem is by raising taxes, and I fully agree. However, is one really able to imagine all the members of American non-elites, say the Occupy movement and Tea Partiers, uniting to enforce such a solution? There are too many chasms between these two extremes stemming from the world views at their very core. And with American society so deeply fragmented, it seems clear to me we are all destined to suffer much more at the hands of the elites before we are actually able to unite and properly make our way towards a more equal society.
I do wholeheartedly agree with one of Hayes’ main points, though: this struggle to keep our society on track is an ongoing one to be forever fought; our disagreement is on how much further we need to go down our current deep before we start going up again. Then again, as Hayes doesn’t shy of pointing out, with global warming looming in the background, bidding our time may put us all in the brink of civilization’s worst disaster. No, I am no optimist when it comes to the future of mankind.
Overall: An illuminating experience that manages to clarify a lot of the issues of our time and put them in perspective. An achievement worth 4 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

The Good Book by A. C. Grayling

Lowdown: A reference for living life according to humanist values.
Review:
With the exception of books I didn’t care to finish reading, the only book reviews I post here are of books I made through to the end. I am going to make an exception for A. C. Grayling’s The Good Book and post a review before getting to read it from start to finish. I am doing so for three reasons: first, this book is so long (~25,000 Kindle paragraphs, whatever they are) it will take me months to read it from start to finish, and there are too many good books out there I would like to read in the meantime. Second, by its very nature, The Good Book is a book that can be browsed and referenced rather than read from cover to cover. And third, The Good Book is an exceptional book that is well worth making exceptions for.
Want an exception to start with? The Good Book is a book I had bought twice. I bought the ebook first to read on my Kindle, and later – upon appreciating the treasure that it is – I bought the processed trees version so our household can nicely browse the book at our leisure.
With that introduction in mind, let us move on to discuss what The Good Book is all about. The Good Book assumes to provide a modern day version of the Bible that adheres to modern day values, in particular humanist and secular values. If the Bible formed some sort of a grotesque attempt to tell the people of the Bronze Age how to live their lives, filled with contradictions and pure nastiness all over, then The Good Book borrows the mission statement but does things right instead.
Different chapters deal with different subject matters, but as one can expect from A. C. Grayling the quality of discussion is both deep and thorough. For example, the chapter about friendship – its meaning and how to practice it – brought tears to my eyes through its detailed descriptions of how the give and take mechanisms of friendship should work (the tears, by the way, were the result of acknowledging just how lucky I am to have top notch friendships; in this age of shallow friendships via Facebook, this means something). Another relevance packed example is the chapter dealing with grief, which suggests ways of properly grieving those that are no longer with us but also instructs how to let go of them so that one can move on with one’s life. I was touched by this particular chapter because it confirmed my premonitions about certain family members of mine who simply fail to live their lives since the departure of a loved one more than a decade ago.
Discussions are often brought up through a story or a dialog, which brings into the picture another element The Good Book borrows from the Bible: style. Chapters are divided into verses, Bible style, and most notably the language tries to imitate that of the Bible (or, perhaps, that of old style manuscripts). This, by far, is my biggest problem with The Good Book: I understand and adore what it is trying to do, but why do we have to mimic the style of a book that may be said to be written by God but is definitely far off the standards of contemporary literature? Why does a book as good as The Good Book need to suffer so unnecessarily from readability problems? I would have much preferred it if A. C. Grayling was to deliver his message using contemporary language in a straight forward manner. True, if he were to do so then the resulting book would probably fail to stand out the way The Good Book does, but so what? I do not care for those marketing department type decisions; I want a good book to read, and sadly The Good Book, as good as it is, encumbers me heavily.
Still, let us not forget the beauty of The Good Book’s message. Or rather messages, because there are so many of them. Perhaps the best way for me to demonstrate the qualities of The Good Book are to quote directly from it. I will quote Grayling’s suggested Ten Commandments, as they appear at The Good Book’s conclusion:
  1. Love well
  2. Seek the good in all things
  3. Harm no others
  4. Think for yourself
  5. Take responsibility
  6. Respect nature
  7. Do your utmost
  8. Be informed
  9. Be kind
  10. Be courageous
A comparison with the original Ten Commandments makes me laugh bitterly. The original ones are full of shit (there is no point avoiding foul language; they are foul, and if you beg to differ then I urge you to actually read them here before condemning me). In comparison, The Good Book’s commandments are truly inspirational and clearly lead to better lived lives. Which is exactly what The Good Book is trying to help its readers achieve.
Overall:
The Good Book is one of those books I would love to give away to friends and relatives, yet on the other hand I stand a good chance of appearing conceited for appearing to know better than others how to live one’s life.
Life, it is clear, isn’t perfect. Neither is The Good Book: on one hand it is the ultimate “self help” reference book; on the other it is too long and too stylish for its own good. I will rate it at 4 out of 5 stars, but add there is a significant standard deviation associated with this score.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

The Ides of March

Lowdown: Political backstabbing at the back of a political campaign.
Review:
Illustrious director (?) George Clooney (Good Night and Good Luck) is back with a movie that is similarly paced and deals with similar themes. Indeed, The Ides of March is a very Clooney film given what Clooney’s efforts as both director and actor have told us about the guy’s political standings.
Governor Morris (Clooney himself) is running for the USA’s Democratic candidacy. Morris is saying things every liberal (with a lowercase l) would like to hear, things like the need to prevent the extreme division of wealth between the rich and the poor by – amongst others – taxing the rich. Things like actually dealing with global warming through action. It all sounds great, it all sounds promising, but the reality is that everyone inside the political campaign - both Morris' as well as his competition - is quite cynical about it all. "That's what they all say to get elected", they say in one way or another. There is one exception, Stephen (Ryan Gosling): not only does he feel as if Morris may be the real thing, the honest politician, he's also considered the brightest talent in the field of political campaign runners. Thus he's at the helm of Morris' campaign, a helm he shares with Paul (Philip Seymour Hoffman). What may pass as an ideally driven campaign to get the ideal candidate in office deteriorates into a campaign of constant backstabbing between all players involved when rival campaign manager Tom (Paul Giamatti) contacts our Stephen and asks to meet him. There is the female interest, too, in the shape of Molly (Evan Rachel Wood).
By the time The Ides of March ends we don't only know why Clooney chose this specific title for his film, we also witness how everyone involved gets contaminated by the political game at hand. Is all fair in love and politics? That's the question The Ides of March is begging to ask.
As with his that other film of his I mentioned earlier, Good Night and Good Luck, The Ides of March is not short on fine actors doing their fine acting. It is also not short on food for thought. However, just as with Good Night, March suffers from severe pacing issues that render it a fairly boring film to watch. It's a pity, because it is nice to see a genuine attempt at quality cinema coming from the USA; yet it errs far too much. It forgets a film's main objective is to entertain.
Overall: The Ides of March tries too hard to draw the sophistication card. It misses the mark at 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Brave

Lowdown: A fairy tale version of teenage rebellion involving a princess and her mother.
Review:
Pixar may have a name that generates expectations whenever a film of theirs comes out, yet even they have the occasional lesser film (I know we can argue about my particular choice of an example, but I invoke WALL-E; others will pick on other Pixar films). Brave, however, is not one of those bit-of-a-lesser films; it is a different cupcake altogether. For the first time ever, Brave left me asking whether Pixar has gone institutionalized. Or rather: since its acquisition, has Pixar been Disney-sized?
Brave takes place in a fairy tale version of Scotland. Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) is the eldest daughter of the king (Billy Connolly) and queen (Emma Thompson). She’s not your typical princess; she prefers her bow & arrow to the typical girly stuff those lasses from Scotland of yonder used to go for. When the day comes for the rulers of three tribes reporting to her father to present their sons and have them compete for her hand, Merida rebels against the mother that tells her this is the way things are done. She runs away, meets a witch, and… has her mother turned into a bear. Just like the bear her father, the great warrior, lost a leg to. Can Merida rise to the occasion and sort out the teenage rebellion mess she got herself and her family into? Will the kingdom survive her rebellion without one tribe killing the other?
Brave is certainly to be congratulated for putting a female at its center and for portraying the joys of teenage life from the female side of things. However, I was less than impressed by the overall show: neither plot nor character gripped me. It took me a while to figure out, but I can now point my finger and say: I consider Brave to be the weakest Pixar film ever by virtue of it being a template film, a film of a type we’ve seen before. It is not a bad film, but it is not an original film either; element per element, we’ve seen it all before.
Mind you, the Brave’s performance in sound is something special, notable even at a cinema environment. Yet another gem from the hands of Gary Rydstrom.
Overall: It’s really hard for me to accept a Pixar film has left me so indifferent, but Brave did just that. The magical touch of Disney leaves it with 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Redshirts by John Scalzi

Lowdown: A starship’s lesser characters become conscious of them being the fodder of another world’s ailing TV show.
Review:
As stated rather conclusively in this forum before, I can confidently proclaim that at this moment in time John Scalzi is my favorite author of fiction. As such, I would dig a hole behind the poster on the wall and crawl through a football field’s length of refuse to put my hands on his latest book. Being the good person that he is, Scalzi doesn’t want me to go that far; he therefore worked his latest book, Redshirts, to be the first non DRM ebook published by Thor, who happen to be the world’s largest science fiction publisher. To show my appreciation, I set my VPN to stun and got *my* copy of Redshirts upon its world premiere.
Premiere is a relevant word for dealing with Redshirts, as it happens to be yet another book where Scalzi throws his love for Hollywood into the mix (check Agent to the Stars for Scalzi’s past performances in the field of Hollywood science fiction). We start off on board the Intrepid, a very Star Trekish like Enterprise kind of a starship exploring the universe. Unlike the Star Trek we know of, Redshirts has us looking through the eyes of the lesser characters, the “red shirts” that accompany the Kirks and the Spocks on away missions only so someone could die and create a challenge for the series’ stars. Our red shirts realize something fishy’s going on; it is much too statistically improbable for the life expectancy of an Interpid red shirt to be as poor as it is and in such contrast to that of the Spock/Kirk.
In a very Stranger than Fiction kind of a way, the red shirts decide to take the initiative. They figure out what the “true” nature of their star trekking experience is, and in the true nature of science fiction / fantasy they set out on a quest to sort things out in our 2012 real world so that life can take its natural course in what passes for their real world. As one can expect, this mixing of the fictional and the seemingly real opens the door wide to various philosophical questions of the existential kind, to be cleverly exploited by Scalzi through his trademark humor.
Don’t misunderstand me, Redshirts is easy reading. It’s just that it lets its reader do the thinking for herself. There is plenty to think of; me, I was found thinking about the author’s view of the fictional worlds they created. Take god, for example: we’re supposed to be his creations, but why do most religions consider their god to care for them as much as they think he does? Do we care about the things we create half as much, or is our passion in the godly department the direct product of our wishful thinking instead? And on that matter of playing god: is there a Tron like world running on my computer now, as I am typing this post? Am I evil for deleting a mistyped word off this post, a word that may have some form of consciousness behind it, a word that might regard me as its god up to the point I go ahead and annihilate it without thinking twice?
The ideas invoked by Redshirts are so interesting it is a wonder how no one else picked up on the idea prior to Scalzi. On the negative side, I also found Redshirts to be significantly less of a page turner than the two previous science fiction reads preceding it (The Drowned Cities and Blackout), which is always a bit of a let down. Redshirts puts so much of its focus on dealing with the complex idea at its core, ideas that no one alive today can resolve and that are in the forefront of philosophy (check Sam Harris’ Free Will as an example) that I found it hard to relate to its relatively numerous characters. Scalzi himself seems to have an issue there, as evident by the rather clumsy way he concludes the book. As Bioware would have told him through their Mass Effect 3 experience, fans are very sensitive to the way things end.
Wait before you go and bury Redshirts, please, because Scalzi is yet to have his final word. In an atypical manner, Scalzi pads his book with three related short stories which he refers to as “codas”. Me, I am not a big fan of short stories, and generally speaking I am no big fan of Scalzi’s attempts thus far in the field of short stories. Redshirt’s short stories, or codas, are a different story altogether: they take the funny mess the main story left us with, and they tell us to forget all the way up there philosophy. They hold the reader by her shoulders and proclaim, Ecclesiastes style, that all is vanity; what matters is what we do with the life that is real for us here and now, the only life we have. This focusing act at the end of the book, done in such an unconventional yet so effective a manner, is exactly what I come to expect from Scalzi (and exactly what he achieved in his previous book, Fuzzy Nation). If one was looking for signs of a mature author at his peak then one need not look any further: it takes a special kind of confidence to pull the trick Scalzi does with his Redshirts.
Overall: Another book from a clever writer, Redshirts is vintage Scalzi. It's got Hollywood, it's got the humor, it's got the cleverness, and it's got the damn good big idea behind it. I give it 4 out of 5 stars, but I urge you to go – no, rush – to buy it now, DRM free!

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Lowdown: British spies try to identify the Russian mole in their cold war ranks.
Review:
I still have vivid teenage memories from John le Carré's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Critics kept on informing this was an excellent book, yet when I read the book - as well as other le Carré books - I could only find boredom. Mind you, it wasn't your usual type of boredom; it was mixed with the distinct feeling I was unable to truly claim to understand the books. The experience not only made me feel inferior, perhaps not unjustly so, it also drove me away from reading - and very unjustly so. It pushed me towards the cheaper, quicker satisfaction end of the reading scales. It took decades for me to recover my reading and look again at quality books.
Sadly, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy - a film based on le Carré's cold war espionage adventures and starring his hero, George Smiley, is directly related to the stuff of my youth experience. It's the early seventies, and Britain is deep in cold war games with the USSR. Gary Oldman stars as Smiley, a British master spy put in charge of identifying the Russian mole in British spying ranks. He follows previous efforts by Control (John Hurt), efforts that fell through and had one of the spies (Mark Strong) fall into Russian hands while on this quest. Everyone knows there is a Russain informer in the ranks, the question is just who - Ciarán Hinds? Colin Firth? Any of the others?
In order to take us on a journey towards the answer, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy weaves a complex web of encounters between various characters. The encounters are not presented linearly and are often hard to follow; harder still is the ability to connect one event to another. Hence this lingering ambiguity I remembered from the books, that inability to confidently state I understand what's going on.
Yet if vague nature is a problem, boredom is much worse. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a very slow film; with not much happening, it was almost torture to watch. I guess if one's a fan of this le Carré style then one would love the film, but me? I was annoyed at recalling the depths such prose drove me to.
Technical assessment: I know I promised to avoid technical reviews for a while, but I have to raise a flag with this one. It seems Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is deliberately made to look & feel seventies, with grain and excessive noise evident on the Blu-ray picture. It may be seventies like, but it distracted the hell out of me.
Overall:
A bore-fest with A list actors and fine acting is still a bore-fest. It took me years to confidently conclude I am fully capable of finding books that both challenge my intellect and are interesting to read, unlike Smiley's. Having learned from past mistakes, it took me much less than Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy's two hours or so to realize there are much better films for me to watch out there.
I'll be generous and give Tinker Tailor 2 out of 5 stars, but I will issue a severe warning for everyone not to be too tempted by the vast array of British stars appearing on this title.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

The Round Up

Lowdown: The story of how the French gave away most Parisian Jews to the Nazis.
Review:
The Round Up, or La rafle in its original French title, is a close relative of Sarah's Key. Both were made around the same time, both are there to tell the same story. Yet the two films tell their stories differently; one is intriguing while the other reverts to cliches. One is mature, the other feels like a relic of old cinema that managed to make it through the to 21st century. In too many ways, The Round Up feels like the forgotten brother of the much superior Sarah's Key.
The Round Up tells the generally neglected tale of the rounding up of Paris' Jews during 1942. Those Jews, mostly of French citizenship, were collected not by Nazi hands but rather by French hands. They were then held up in a facility lacking sports stadium for a few days without much in the way of supplies, until they were eventually transferred to special camps on French territory. If you don't know your history and are afraid of bloopers skip to the next paragraph before reading the rest of this sentence: At those camps the Jews were eventually handed over to Nazi hands and transferred to Poland. All of those transferred were gassed to death.
It is obvious The Round Up is aimed primarily at French audiences, trying to tell them the story of how some of them were wronged by others of them. The problem is the way the story is told: we have very basic characters, none too developed, none with much of a dark side. We are obviously meant to attach ourselves to them yet things feel too tacky for that to happen. The school like lesson in history is made mildly bizarre by cut off scenes featuring a less than convincing Hitler as he discusses French Jewry.
Don't get me wrong: the history lesson behind The Round Up is an important one. One only needs to look at Eastern Europe, where Jews made a significant part of the population yet are hardly mourned, with the locals regarding them separate to "real citizens", to appreciate what The Round Up is trying to do with French perceptions. The participation of A list French stars (Jean Reno, Mélanie Laurent), some of them favorites of mine (Gad Elmaleh) helps but fails to make this one a good film to watch.
Notable scenes: The various scenes depicting toilet situations are noteworthy. On one hand, they show the awful conditions involved; on the other, they are clearly way too sanitized to pass as authentic. This artificial, too clean to be true nature (particularly given the subject matter - the holocaust) represents the main problem with The Round Up.
Overall: Holocaust films have evolved over time, leaving The Round Up's breed far behind. 2.5 out of 5 stars.