Thursday, 29 November 2012

xkcd: volume 0 by Randall Munroe

Lowdown: A collection of cartoons from the famous geeky website.
Review:
Thus far, my following of xkcd cartoons has been limited to reading others’ blogs post cartoons from that website. Usually it would be along the lines of atheists quoting xkcd in matters of religion or liberals quoting xkcd on matters of, say, freedom of the Internet. I liked what I saw but never liked it as much as to make the effort to visit the source. Recently, though, I have acquired xkcd: volume 0 through the Humble Bundle, which drove me to conduct an experiment. I tested my perceived quality of this comic book, and I also tested the virtues of my iPad as an ebook reader (given that I already know my default ebook reader, the Amazon Kindle, sucks when it comes to comics).
As one might expect when conducting experiments, I learned a few things in the process. First, I learned that xkcd became famous after one of its cartoons was referenced in Boing Boing, thus firming my conviction that in these days when we witness the death of conventional media one can still find worthy, if not far superior, alternatives for keeping one aware. Second, I learned that at least for yours truly, the iPad sucks big time as an ebook reader: sure, I can use it at home under stable conditions where I can control lighting and such, but for reading on the train? Might as well sell the gadget as an iHeadache.
It’s about time I get to the point and discuss xkcd, right? Well, the point is that there isn’t that much to say. volume 0 is, according to author Randall Munroe, a collection of favorite cartoons from the site. I concur: this is exactly what you get. You get a collection of cartoons drawn in the crude style the website is famous for and dealing with subject matters such as math, science, technology, liberal culture, and occasionally relationships and sex. Some of the stuff is politically incorrect, which spices things up, but in general we are talking geek humor here of a type that often reaches outside conventional boxes. Take this one as a fine example of the species:

























 The above cartoon is embedded here under a Creative Commons license, which says a lot about Munroe and the type of humor and views you can expect to find at xkcd. Needless to say, I like it; but do I like it enough to religiously follow xkcd from now on? No; cartoons are nice, but I feel they cannot compete with a narrative driven comic (or book, for that matter).
Overall: As much as I’ve enjoyed xkcd: volume 0, I will continue to follow its adventures only through references from other blogs. 3 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Careless Love

Lowdown: The struggles of a Sydneysider student working as a call girl.
Review:
On the surface Linh (Nammi Le) seems like most other university students, but there is a catch: whenever she disappears, telling her friends she’s going to work at the library till late at night, she’s actually working. Working as a call girl, driven through Sydney from one job to another by a male driver and accompanied by a fellow girl from the agency specializing in oriental women.
Through snippets of Linh’s work, Linh’s studies, Linh’s social life and Linh’s family life we get to learn more and more about Linh’s situation as well as the message Careless Love is trying to convey. The work side is obviously of most interest, but it has to be said that the sex itself is never on center stage; it’s everything else around it that is. In other words, we get to see the before and the after, thus focusing more on the interpersonal aspects of Linh’s line of work and their effect on their personal. More specifically: this is not an erotic film.
From Linh’s student life we can gather Linh’s a pretty smart girl; we also get to think of religious issues her studies get her involved at. From all of her different lives combined we learn how hard the whole affair is on Linh, and when the different worlds collide we arrive at this movie’s climax.
I greatly enjoyed this low budget Australian made film. It is very well made, deals well with volatile subject matter, and leaves its viewer – or at least me – pondering. Watching Careless Love, I was wondering what the point of all the religious references were; however, by the movie’s conclusion things got obviously clear. Taken at face value, Careless Love is only a movie about a call girl's adventures; what it is really about is a discussion on society’s taken for granted family values. That is, Careless Love discusses the notion that a proper family is one of eternally loyal husband and wife with kids. The film challenges those perceptions on all front: we have a crook that is still a good father to his son and takes care of the mother despite being cheated by her and despite his love for Linh; we have Linh’s family, who won’t accept Linh's working as a model cover story due to promiscuity but will gladly use the money Linh ships home; we have social authorities, the police, chasing the working girls but letting them go in exchange for special favors; and so on and so on. Then, of course, there is the overarching religious frame to protect the traditional core family perception. Debunking that is the whole point of the religion references Careless Love chucks at us.
Best scene: There are many loaded scenes to pick from. I will go with the one where Linh arrives at a customer’s house only to find a bunch of young “kids” daring a rich friend whose girlfriend is away. The group’s various reactions to the concept of a girl not unlike them doing this type of work for a living reflects well on society’s approach to matters of sex.
Overall: A very smart film sitting in between 3.5 and 4 out of 5 stars. Highly recommended.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Life After People

Lowdown: What will the world be like if all humans were to suddenly disappear?
Review:
A few years ago I read a book called The World Without Us that was trying to provide a detailed answer to a simple question: what would the earth be like if all humans were to suddenly disappear? I found the idea interesting even if the book’s execution was lacking, and therefore sprang into action when I learned of another attempt to deal with the same question. This time it was a 2008 documentary called Life After People.
In many respects, Life After People is similar to The World Without Us to the point of me wondering whether they are related in more than the core idea. For example, both bring at their very beginning the example of Manhattan flooding once the pumps keeping the subway tunnels dry stop working. Similarities continues as Life After People moves along, telling us how our world would turn out to be days, months, years and millennia after humans disappear.
The bottom line: in not that long a time it would become quite hard to figure out we were ever here through anything other than an archaeological dig. The nice thing about this documentary is that it puts its money where its mouth is and shows us how the world would look like, either through poor quality and repetitive digital effects (boo!) or through real life examples of places people have abandoned (hooray!). Chernobyl serves as a fine example for the latter. Through this depiction, Life After People shows us how fragile human existence is and how important it is for us to take care of our civilization.
Alas, all is not well with Life After People. The problem, in one word, is “Americanisation”. Allow me to explain.
Life After People adopts a rather annoying style that seems to be catering for the lowest common denominator American viewer. It treats this viewer as if she was dumb. The treatment manifests itself in various ways, starting with the narration that sounds like the voice of the movie teaser personality (“…and this time, it’s personal”) but stretching throughout. Moving on with exaggerated sound effects repeating themselves, as with the annoying demonstration of steel cable breaking under pressure to take our hanging bridges down. Most importantly, the documentary avoids making any statements that require an IQ higher than one’s shoe size to fathom. All the while, Life After People avoids making points I would deem important about matters Americans might find offensive, such as the environment: surely a documentary dealing with the legacy of humans to our planet should tackle our toxic heritage?
The narrowing of scope to fit the dumbest ever American ruins things for this doco.
Overall: Judging by both book and documentary, it seems as if this is a subject matter rife for abuse. I still consider the core question compellingly interesting, which explains my disappointment and my giving Life After People only 1.5 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

The Choice of Hercules by A. C. Grayling

Lowdown: [Another] Grayling guide to living the good life.
Review:
A.C. Grayling seems to be a man on a mission to teach us the good values of humanism. Of course, much worse quests can be imagined: not only do I agree with Grayling in principle, I also think he does a great job promoting these views with the public. However, with this being the third such guide that I’m reading from Grayling, I find myself a bit fed up with reading the same messages again and again.
In 2008’s The Choice of Hercules, Grayling starts off with the choice given to Hercules, as portrayed in many a classic drawing (see below). Hercules had to choose between two wives: a beautiful one that symbolizes duty, and in most generations has been interpreted as some form of Church piety, and an even more beautiful one with whom Hercules would have had much bodily pleasure. Hercules chose the former, but Grayling goes out to ask – how do we really know which of these choices is better? Could it be that we do not really have to choose between the two but rather have them both?


From this point onwards, Grayling goes out to propose his take on how to live a good life and thus be able to make our own herculean choices. The answer is divided into the three parts that make the book up: the first deals with the personal life, the second with the issues society faces in general, and the third makes the argument that a truly good life can only take place in a good society and therefore goes to discuss the makings of a good society in depth. You can argue the connection between where Grayling ends up and his starting point with Hercules is a bit loose, but regardless, The Choice of Hercules presents an inspiring and illuminating framework for living the good life. A framework that, by the way, does not require its practitioner to believe in imaginary friends and anything else out of this world.
My problem with The Choice of Hercules is that I recently came off a Grayling book that tried to pretty much do the same thing, The Good Book. Thus I felt quite frustrated when I happened to reread the same things I read in The Good Book, while on the other hand feeling totally fixated and served an excellent lesson when presented with ideas I haven’t got to read in The Good Book (either because that book doesn’t deal with them or because I never got to read The Good Book from start to finish). For example, reading on the need to live the examined life bored the hell out of me, while reading Grayling’s views on family values and sex had me totally transfixed.
You may argue the problem is entirely mine, for The Good Book was published after The Choice of Hercules, and therefore I was reading the books the wrong way around. True; on the other hand, I will not be the first to point out Grayling has been writing the same book again and again for quite a while. With that said, The Choice of Hercules stands over the Good Book in several important factors: page number wise, it is a very digestible as well as easy to consume quantity wise; and language wise, it utilizes Grayling superb mastery of the English language to express itself in plain language rather than the Good Book’s annoying bible copycat style. Since I did not read The Good Book in its entirety I cannot, however, comment on which of the two is winning the day on matters of scope and breadth.
Overall: I can only give The Choice of Hercules 3 out of 5 stars, and even that comes with an effort. However, if this was my first ever Grayling I would have probably given it something like 4 to 4.5 stars; to the right reader The Choice of Hercules can be a truly inspiring read.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Prometheus

Lowdown: A space crossing expedition to find mankind’s maker is rather surprised with its findings.
Review:
I cannot blame Ridley Scott for making Prometheus. Can I blame him for wanting to revisit the grounds of two of his most ground-breaking films, Blade Runner and Alien? Should I blame him for dealing again with ideas he dealt with in the past, notably what it is that makes us human, now that budget is no longer a restriction and computer graphics allow for anything to be portrayed on the screen, even in 3D?
I can’t blame Scott for going there. I will, however, blame him for the flawed creation he came up with after going there.
In around a hundred years from now, archaeologists discover several unlinked ancient pointers to a unique solar system in the sky, a system with only one habitable planet. There can be only one plausible explanation: those ancient artifacts are pointing humanity at its maker. With FTL drive already in the history books by the movie’s then, a private enterprise with its private agenda sends a spaceship – Prometheus – to the planet in order to see what the fuss is all about.
On board the spaceship we have captain and crew as well as a collection of scientists to investigate that mysterious planet. The latter include the the archaeologist couple that found the place in the first place (Noomi Rapace, aka The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Logan Marshall-Green). Oh, and as we had on Alien, there is a very human looking but much more capable robot around (Michael Fassbender).
Prometheus lands on the planet (I would have expected it to stay in orbit and send down shuttles, but never mind) after finding some obvious signs of intelligence. An expedition is sent to investigate, and guess what? In the process of meeting their maker they get to meet their maker. Indeed, what we have on our hands here is a mix of Blade Runner style ideas with an Alien style world. Very Alien style world: Scott is not hiding the fact Prometheus is meant to act as a prelude to Alien not just through its fixation on the female archaeologist as the main hero.
As Alien goes, Prometheus is a semi horror science fiction film. Alas, it is not half as good. Perhaps because we’ve been well trained since, I found proceedings to be terribly familiar. As in, the two scientists that separate from the main group and get lost, what do you think is going to happen to them? There is no possible way you would take a wrong guess with this one. The bells and the whistles are here, with Prometheus being a grand production that is a pleasure to watch and listen to. But the quality? Poor.
I argue it all comes down to the idea at the core of the movie. That idea is that humans are defined by the irrationality of their faith in their maker “despite three centuries of Darwinism” (to quote the film). Apparently, we are striving to meet our makers, we would do everything we can to meet them, and we would believe such makers exist no matter what evidence we have and what we learn about the nature of this maker. That's what gives us our soul, something the robot lacks. Want to hear what I think of this thesis, in one word? Bullshit. Starting from the idea that humanity is the epitome of creation, as expressed in the film’s beginning, to the idea we are driven by this need for intimacy with the maker – it’s all bullshit.
Sadly, the bullshit show that is this high profile mega budget movie served to demonstrate to me yet again why mainstream cinema is, but for a very few exceptions, a waste of my time. Terribly disappointing.
Best scene: Our suffering heroine cures herself from the alien inside using an operation theater machine that analyses and fixes from start to finish. I want one.
Overall: All sizzle with no sausage, Prometheus left me very disappointed. 2 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Blasto: Eternity Is Forever

Lowdown: Parody comic set in the Mass Effect universe.
Review:
I usually refrain from reviewing single comic issues, but exceptions have to be made in exceptional cases. Blasto: Eternity is Forever is such a case.
Those of us who played the Mass Effect video games will know who Blasto is. Your Commander Shepard would have been exposed to various ads relating to Blasto’s latest movie adventures in the games, and Mass Effect 3 even features a longish teaser for the “latest Blasto film”. So who is this Blasto?
Blasto is a Mass Effect universe Spectre, which means he’s something along the lines of a James Bond – an agent of the law who is allowed to be bad in the name of all that is good. Only that Blaso is a member of the jellyfish like Hanar race, which – as any Mass Effect veteran would tell you – are pretty useless when it comes to warfare. That’s the exact point the comic at hand is trying to stretch to the best of its abilities.
Our favourite Hanar gets his Bond girl (an Asari, of course) and together they venture to deal with a threat to the universe as we know it. On their way to save the world they kill hordes of Krogan (the toughest creatures in the Mass Effect universe), drop sexual innuendos left and right, and utter pop culture references (“do you feel fortunate, scum?”). Do not expect the ending to be anything other than Bond like, too; remember, the Hanar have 8 hands at their disposal.
Sadly short, I do not recall a comic I’ve enjoyed better than this one. It really does use all the elements at its disposal, be it from our universe or the Mass Effect one, to make a good joke.
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars. I certainly hope more of Blasto’s adventures will head down our way shortly.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted

Lowdown: Our animal heroes join a European circus in order to go back to New York.
Review:
I’ll be honest with you: I did not see myself writing this review. Years ago, when I first watched Madagascar, I thought it was a rather pathetic affair; I couldn’t see how anyone could laugh at the jokes. My young son disagreed, of course, but even though I probably seen Madagascar 2 many a time I never sat it from start to finish. Given the universal law of deteriorating sequels, what could I expect of Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted? Well, as it turns out, I could have expected some fine entertainment.
The premises are of the “who cares” type. We start off from where the previous Madagascar finished. The penguins leave Madagascar with their friends the monkeys flying their plane for a gambling bonanza at Monaco. In the meantime, our heroes – notably Alex – feel homesick and decide they want to use the same plane to go back to their Central Park home. So they go in some mysterious way to Monaco, too (don’t ask me why they couldn’t just go directly to New York using the exact same elusive way of theirs). There they retrieve the penguins, alright, in a high octane caper scene. However, they also incur the wrath of a French police captain (Frances McDormand) in charge of animals. The captain seeks to add Alex the lion to her collection of stuffed animals, thus triggering a chase that lasts through the rest of the movie. Our heroes’ only escape is joining a circus under, faking their CVs as it is to get their way in. As it happens, the circus is vying to attract an American tour that will see the series’ four heroes back at their New York home; to get there, though, they must pull a hell of a show in Europe first.
They key factor about Madagascar 3, a factor I generally found missing in the franchise’s previous episodes, is its entertainment factor. It’s not just animals saying silly things to one another anymore: there are some genuinely thrilling and creative action scenes here, of a caliber that wouldn’t shame a good Pixar flick (from the days before Disney took over). There is more adult appeal, too, in the shape of pop culture references that would go way over the heads of the series’ typical viewers but hit home with the likes of yours truly: finally, DreamWorks managed to copy some of the better ideas from its Shrek world into its Madagascar one.
While the whole thing is less than serious or particularly meaningful, there are some surprising deviations. [Skip to the next paragraph to avoid a blooper that should not surprise any viewer able to read this sentence] I found it very mature for our animals to arrive back at their Central Park origins only to see the place through their now changed eyes and realize their memories and their yearnings tell a different story to reality. Hey, one can claim Madagascar 3 is thus throwing us an anti-conservatism message.
Best scene: That Monaco caper, of course. Because the casino scene is so like a sophisticated heist movie (say, an Oceans’ flick), followed by an A-Team like escape with a van, followed by a Transporter like chase through the French streets, and culminating in a narrow escape. Who can ask for anything more?
Overall: Nothing here but fine entertainment for the whole family. 3.5 out of 5 stars. Or, in another words, it's amazing how far low expectations can take me.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Molokh

Lowdown: Hitler spends a few days at the Eagles Nest with his cronies and Eva Braun.
Review:
In the middle of World War 2, Hitler and a few of his linchpins, notably Josef Goebbels, arrive at the Eagle’s Nest fortress to spend a few days without talking politics. While Hitler is treated like some sort of a deity by most people around him, like the scriber who writes down every word coming out of his mouth, the otherwise bored Eva Braun teases him left and right. Between their moments in the bedroom and between taking a dump in the woods, Hitler is exposed under a different light to the one we are used to. In the meantime, the insanity of the whole Nazi idea is exposed.
That’s the gist of the message pushed forward by Russian director Aleksandr Sokurov (famous for his Russian Ark). The catch, though, is not in what Molokh is trying to say but rather in the way it chooses to say what it does. The best single word to describe that way is “arty”.
I’ll start with what I seem to be able to tell by the credits: the film features Russian actors dubbed into German speech. Beyond that, the film is incredibly slow and often seems to intentionally avoid getting to the point; it is as if the director is actively trying to defy the rules of conventional cinema as we know it.
Add element to the other, and the feeling I got was that distinct “why am I watching this” feeling. Molokh may be an orgy for some cinema buff, but to me it was plain boring; I don’t like that fuzzy feeling of vagueness, sorry.
Distinct scene: The film starts with a long scene featuring the woman that turns out to be Eva Braun dancing and prancing through the Eagle’s Nest naked. This rather long scene raises the question of “what is it trying to say”, a question I found myself asking several times during Molokh (although, once the answer became clearer, I started asking myself “why is the director saying what he wants to say in this weird kind of a way”).
Overall: Molokh is a movie that forgot movies also need to entertain. 1 out of 5 stars.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Pirate Cinema by Cory Doctorow

Lowdown: A teenager producing pirate films fights to set the Internet free through his creations.
Review:
Cory Doctorow is an author whose books I like even before I read them. There are reasons for that: the guy stands by his principles, and publishes his books online, free for all to download. Those books happen to be very well targeted at me, with examples such as Little Brother discussing the way in which our personal freedoms have been happily sacrificed on the altar of an elusive war on terrorism. Or For the Win, which has a lot to say about the illnesses of our world's economy through the prism of the world of online gaming. Pirate Cinema loyally follows this formula: a young adult science fiction book, of the type that could happen tomorrow and is already happening to one extent or another, this time dealing with the concepts of piracy and the freedom of the Internet.
The story starts at northern England’s Bradford, a kind of town no tourist has any reason to visit. Our first person hero for the duration of the book: 16 year old Trent. Trent is a mad fan of a now deceased cinema star, and the manifestation of his fandom lies in his creation of mashup films that use the star’s original footage to tell completely different stories. Being the son of a poor family, with a disabled mother and a father for whom paid work is not easy to acquire, Trent does not ask the movie studios to send him their material; he acquires his raw material through piracy. Problem is, this piracy causes the disconnection of his house off the Internet, bringing catastrophic outcomes to the family: the mother cannot get her disability allowance, the father cannot work from home, and the sister cannot do her homework anymore. As in, they all can do their tasks still, but everything becomes so much harder it is, in effect, unfeasible.
Trent takes his blame hard, hard enough to disappear with only his laptop and a change of clothing and head for London. There harsh reality strikes: he has no place to stay, no money, and his bag and laptop are stolen. In desperation he looks at beggars for inspiration, and an enterprising member of that community – Jem – takes our Trent as an apprentice. Jem shows Trent how to get luxury food off skips, how to squat, and how to share the spoils with their less capable fellows. Together with a few more allies they develop an ideal anarchistic society at the pub they’re squatting, and Trent finally has the time and the means to be on the Internet again. The community he is now part of airs his films at cemeteries and sewers across London, and Trent becomes famous. He gets himself a girlfriend, he is the head figure of a fight against Internet suppressing legislation, and as a direct result he is now enemy #1 of the copyright industry.
If I have any criticism towards Pirate Cinema it is to do with the obvious similarities in style and story with Doctorow’s Little Brother. The two are essentially the same tale told the same way but with different baddies. Other than that, though, Pirate Cinema won me through and through.
If you are familiar with Doctorow (and this reader of BoingBoing is), you will see Doctorow in person at every corner of this book. From the things Trent packs when going away through jibes at Dominos Pizza and references to home brew coffee, all the elements that make a Doctorow book are firmly here. Including, of course, that pro Internet freedom stand this hero of mine takes on a daily basis on his blog and as an activist. Being that Doctorow and I pretty much agree on almost everything, Pirate Cinema certainly hit home with this armchair pirate.
Although unequivocally set in our future (probably two to three decades away), the relevancy of Pirate Cinema’s message is unmistakable. The UK already has its legislation for cutting households off the Internet in cases of piracy, and the USA is just in the process of commencing its own program. In the meantime, between taking down Megaupload for all the wrong reasons and coming up with legislation proposals such as SOPA, it is clear the copyright industry owns our legislative bodies in its pockets. And through secretly coming up with international agreements such as ACTA, they work their way around our Internet and our culture. These are exactly the things Doctorow talks about in his book, showing us the light and clearly demonstrating which side is in the right.
I agree with Doctorow that the copyright industries are fighting a losing battle and that the only questions are how long it would take them to lose and how many of us they will take down with them. However, as with The Case for Copyright Reform, Doctorow goes further to demonstrate why the revolutionary idea of piracy is so important by showing piracy is essential for the development of our culture. By Doctorow’s logic, with which I concur, pirates are doing society a favor! Think about it this way: without the pirates, there would have never been an iTunes shop, not to mention Spotify. If more people realize this through Doctorow’s entertaining book then the world would be a better place. Me, I was happy to spend several days with this highly entertaining, thought provoking, easy to read yet educational book.
Overall: Doctorow excels at bringing his personal views to the level of a young adult and doing it ever so entertainingly. I love the guy and am very proud to have met him in person. For now, Pirate Cinema gets 4.5 out of 5 stars from me – highly recommended to any pirate or would be pirate!
Closing comments: Even though I downloaded Pirate Cinema from Doctorow’s website here, I bought it “again” through the Humble Bundle a few days later. Clearly, I have such a massive dick. Either that or I appreciate everything Doctorow is trying to do in his book as well as in the Humble Bundle (in whose coordination he was involved).