Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Homeland by Cory Doctorow

Lowdown: A young hacker is in trouble after being given a treasure trove of private/government corruption stories.
Review:
Homeland is the latest YA novel from Cory Doctorow, following very closely on the footsteps of its three predecessors: Little Brother, For the Win, and Pirate Cinema. All the trademarks are there, with the same plot structure, educational interludes and first person accounts that Doctorow's readers should be familiar with to one extent or another. Indeed, Homeland is a direct sequel to Little Brother; it could have been a direct sequel to Pirate Cinema just as well.
So yes, we are reunited with Little Brother's Marcus. Following a rather tedious start where Marcus takes part at a desert Burning Man event, we (through Marcus' eyes) stumble upon his old mate/nemesis Masha. Masha leaves Marcus with a USB stick containing a hell of a lot of secrets that would put the American government as well as lots of private companies to shame were they to be exposed Wikileaks style. She asks him to publish the secrets if he was to learn that something happens to her. Guess what happens next? Marcus witnesses Masha being led off, prisoner like, by the same woman that had him water-boarded in the name of homeland security back in Little Brother.
What follows next and for the rest of the book is the tale of the dilemma inflicting Marcus regarding the publication of the secrets as well as what happens to our Bradley Manning once the secrets filter out, one way or another. We learn of terrible abuses of the democratic and capitalistic system we know and cherish as the core of our Western civilization, all done with the aid of the best of current technology. We also learn, through Marcus' own mouth, about various ways to countermeasure whatever "they" throw at you: from 3D printing through open source operating systems to encryption tools openly available to everyone. Ultimately, we read of the struggle of the simple person against a system that is growing more and more twisted in its abuse of individuals' rights.
Like Doctorow's other YA novels, Homeland is a book that takes a lot of things that already happened (e.g., Wikileaks, the Occupy movement, police brutality, government tracking of individuals, banks' abuse of mortgages) and combines it into a single narrative that is so dreadfully scary by virtue of the fact it can happen tomorrow. Because, to one extent or another, it already happened. As such, Doctorow signs another compelling book with which to motivate the general public to take the initiative to act and sort the world around them.
Is that it, then? Am I as impressed with Doctorow the way I was with his previous efforts in this genre? The answer there is a definitive NO. Sure, if Homeland is going to be your first Doctorow, it's a hell of a book that I would highly recommend. However, if like me you arrived at Homeland having read the other books, you would probably suffer from fatigue. You may be annoyed, like me, at the way Doctorow takes the long way around the things he particularly likes. That is, expect to read a lot about the Burning Man and cold brewed coffee, even if these are not directly related to the plot at hand. You may be a trifle annoyed with the songs of praise Doctorow bestows on the EFF, too. Now, there is nothing wrong with the EFF (I'm a passionate member myself); it's just that the way Homeland plugs it is much less subtle than a half hour long commercial break in the middle of a less than an hour long episode of Downton Abbey. Then I was even more annoyed by repetitions from previous books, such as the girlfriend breakup or the friendly politician, both reeking of Pirate Cinema stench.
In other words, there is too much of Doctorow in Homeland rather than Homeland itself. While in general that is not a problem, I am arguing it is a problem when Doctorow does it the fourth time around. Come on, Doctorow, I know all about cold brewing from Boing Boing already; no need to press the point further.
Overall: I hope Doctorow could forgive me for this review. Again, I think Homeland is a really good book; but in the context of Doctorow's published work, it does not renew enough while it focuses too much on Doctorow's fetishes. I highly recommend Homeland, but personally I cannot give it more than 3 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Argo

Lowdown: The less told story on how a small group of American embassy staff escaped Iran during 1980’s revolution.
Review:
I have vivid memories of the lengthy American embassy hostages in 1980’s Iran. I remember the deflated mood, I remember people asking why those stupid Iranians got rid of their modern Shah and replaced him with a religious lunatic, and I remember the Israeli boasts along the lines of “we got our hostages out of Entebbe, but those useless Americans can’t equal our heroism”. It’s a pity people at the time couldn’t watch Argo, because it addresses all three arguments. In other words, after Gone Baby Gone and The Town, Ben Affleck proves he’s a mighty director to be reckoned with.
Argo’s story starts with an exposition that provides the historical context of Iran’s revolution. That is, it bluntly tells us, proud Western patriots, that it all came down to oil and greed: the USA installed this puppet of a monarch to ensure it gets Iran’s oil, regardless of what he does to his people. Are we then to complain when the people revolted? I am pretty sure most of this post’s readers will not be aware that this story repeated itself many a time in various locations across the globe, from South America to Europe. Say what you say about the USA, history clearly proves it is not a worldwide distributor of democracy.
Following that exposition we get to the thick of the film. The Iranian mob invades the American embassy at Tehran, capturing everyone and holding them hostage for many a month. The exception is a small group of staff that worked at the adjacent visa office and managed to escape by themselves and find shelter with the Canadian ambassador. The catch? How to get them out alive and without putting Canadians at risk.
Enter the CIA with all sorts of weird plans demonstrating their professionalism and skill, notably – giving the people bicycles with which to ride all the way to the border. Enter Tony Mendez (Affleck, once again acting in his own movie), who comes up with a much bolder plan: pretend the staff belong to a Canadian movie crew and politely pick them up to the nearest flight out of Iran. To achieve that he needs to establish movie credentials, thus joining forces with Hollywood personas (John Goodman, Alan Arkin) to create the credible production of the science fiction movie Argo, to be filmed at Iran. The rest is one long thrilling ride, told in a very loyal to the period and settings manner. This daring Great Escape tale is quite a pleasure to watch.
Oscar deserving? Best film of the year? I don’t know. It's clear that by giving this one the nod, Americans are patting themselves on the back (nothing wrong with that!). It is also clear that a film where the making of a fictitious film gets as far as rescuing people will win a lot of credit with movie industry professionals. I, however, have one major issue with Argo that prevents me from falling down on my knees and worshiping this otherwise marvelous thriller: the very evident way in which thrills are artificially heightened. Argo does its best with its multiple story threads so that one plot line creates extra tension for the next, until they all blow up together at the film’s climax. However, given that Argo’s story is a true one at its core, I find it hard to believe that everything to do with this rescue operation fell on the coin’s right side at exactly the right second. Real life is mighty thrilling, but the chances of such coincidences happening in real life are incredibly small.
Case in point is the climax scene at the end. [Blooper warning] The Iranians, in their cars, chase our heroes’ plane as it is about to take off. Mendez, by his window seat, watches them nonchalantly. Surely it never came down to that? And if it did, what's the point of chasing the plane with cars? Can't the control tower order it to stop, or can't the air force intercept it? [/ End blooper.]
Overall: A great film that suffers from an overdose of Hollywood artificiality. This could have been a hell of a film were it allowed to be authentic all the way through. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 25 March 2013

Hugo

Lowdown: An orphan child living in hiding tries to fix a broken robot left to him by his father.
Review:
There is definite pleasure in watching the final product of a world class director when that world class director decides to have a go at science fiction. The product in this case is the movie Hugo and the director is Martin Scorsese. Hugo, however, belongs to several other niches or genres, too: it is a kids’ film and it is also (and very notably) a film that has been designed to be viewed in 3D. Yes, definitely a source of potential interest.
Our story [mostly] takes place at Paris’ Montparnasse train station, shortly after the resolution of World War 1. We follow an orphan, Hugo (Asa Butterfield) who seems to be in charge of winding the station’s clocks up. However, he does so in hiding, maneuvering around the station’s hidden alleys of metalwork and avoiding anyone’s attention – particularly that of the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), who seems to specialize in locating orphans and sending them to the orphanage. If there is any purpose to Hugo’s life it is the fixing of a mysterious robot his late father (Jude Law) brought home from a museum. It is the only thing he has to remember his parents by, and he will stop at nothing to fix that robot – including theft from a station's toy shop owner with an apparent dark side (Ben Kingsley).
The plot thickens as that shop owner catches our Hugo. That capture puts Hugo in a tight spot but also leads him to some key finding concerning his robot. Eventually, these findings lead Hugo to make some significant revelations in the field of cinema. Which, to cut to the chase, is the whole point of Hugo: what seems to be a child’s story is, very obviously and blatantly so, a song of praise to the art of cinema. In particular, through being fairly loyal to the truth in the telling of the story of Georges Méliès, one of film’s greatest innovators and the first to bring special effects to the reel, Hugo draws conclusions on the effect movies have had on all of us since.
That is the point of Hugo and that is also its downfall, if you ask me. Because its true purpose is to make a statement on the charms of cinema, charms that trigger the child like wonder built in to all of us (adults included), Hugo fails in its primary target of being a children’s film. It is too elaborate, too slow and too contrived to act as good children’s entertainment. Our proof came in the shape of our own boy, who found the whole movie a rather boring affair. Except, of course, for the rare scene involving the robot in action, which he adored.
If you ask me what I took of this particular tribute to the art of cinema then my answer would be that Hugo helped me realize how important institutions such as The Pirate Bay are to our culture. Hugo rightly mourns the loss of most of Méliès’ work; today, however, with movies copied across the world between users who share their copies with the rest of the world, the chances of such losses are minimal. The Internet has the potential to solve many of the grievances Hugo raises. Only, that is, if the movie studios allow it to do so instead of wage their useless war against the rest of the world. The movie watchers’ world.
Overall: An extremely well executed yet compromised tribute film. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Arbitrage

Lowdown: A high rolling financier tries to get away with illegal financing and responsibility for the death of his mistress.
Review:
Do you remember the last time you’ve seen Richard Gere in a meaningful role? Frankly, I don’t remember much of him since An Officer and a Gentleman and Pretty Woman. And even more frankly, it’s not like I’ve been holding my breath in anticipation for his next flick. Still, I have to admit, with his (?) silver hair, he does fit the role he’s been cast into with Arbitrage.
Miller (Gere) is a high flying financier, rolling millions this way and that for a living. He's well equipped for the task, armed with a prestigious New York address, a chauffeur and a token wife (Susan Sarandon). But while his family and at least some of the people working for him like him, we quickly learn the guy’s a sleazebag. He’s cheating the markets as well as cheating on his wife with a young artist whom he “sponsors” (Laetitia Casta).
Trouble magnifies for Miller when he falls asleep driving for his weekend getaway with the mistress. The latter, failing to strap her seatbelt, dies. And now Miller has the police (detective Tim Roth) on his track while totally relying on the testimony of a black youngster from Harlem to get away with murder. Can he pull it off?
What follows is a sort of a thriller/drama of a type that, frankly, we’ve seen too many times before. There are some reliability problems in the black young helper being so loyal to Miller; this whole aspect of the story is dodgy. There are also more mundane problems with the film being far too slow for its own good. Gere delivers a fine performance, but is it enough to make the grade? I did not think so.
To its credit, Arbitrage is very artistically directed. Shots where we follow Gere’s silver plume into a room full of people are the stuff that’s missing from too many other movies. Then there is the whole idea of immorality applying both to the personal as well as the big markets, thus pointing an accusing fingers at the guy running/ruining our economy and our lives: one cannot be good in one area and bad in another; once you're bad, you're bad all the way. Add to that the concept of us viewers identifying with Miller, the hero of the film, to the point of crossing a finger or two for him getting away with it despite knowing fully well he’s an asshole.
Overall: Some fine points in its favor, but when all is said and done Arbitrage is a thriller that simply doesn’t thrill as much as it should. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

The Expendables 2

Lowdown: All the action heroes of yonder unite to blow stuff up.
Review:
Two years ago we had The Expendables, a movie that united plenty of action heroes – most of them generally retired by now – and put them all in one silly film. Alas, that particular film tried to make too much of the Stallone character at its center. That is, it tried to make what passes for a Stallone style statement. That is, it failed.
Now we have ourselves a second crack at the same formula with The Expendables 2. Sure we were in for a disappointment, I did not rush to rent this one out. Eventually I gave up and did, asking myself whether The Expendables 2 is going to double the disappointment?
Plot wise, we have ourselves the same "gang of geezers" action heroes, led by a Sylvester Stallone coupled with a much younger Jason Statham. I’m talking about the likes of Jet Li and Dolph Lundgren (Refresh me memory: didn’t he die in the first movie? Oh, why do I bother.). They are joined by a much younger sniper, Liam Hemsworth (the brother of the guy who played Thor). By blasting half the planet to oblivion, our crew rescues a millionaire as well as another guy who happened to try and rescue that millionaire for the same good money that motivated our bunch. You might have heard about that guy, he’s called Arnold Schwarzenegger (I think, but I'm unsure, he went by a different name in the movie).
Back home, the troops find themselves blackmailed by a CIA agent, Bruce Willis. He forces the gang to visit East European lands to retrieve some mysterious artifact with the aid of the movie’s token female character. But things go wrong and our gang is taken by a villain with an original name, Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme). Now they seek revenge as well as salvation, but rest assured: with the aid of all the big names I have mentioned thus far, as well as Chuck Norris, the good will blast/incinerate/blow/thump the baddies to hell.
In essence, The Expendables 2 takes the formula of its predecessor and magnifies it. There are more big names from the history books, more blasts, more silliness. It’s the latter that counts the most: unlike its predecessor, The Expendables 2 never takes itself seriously; it is a very silly film whose entire agenda involves blowing stuff up in rather ridiculous fashion while blatantly trying to involve the familiar stars in a manner that would induce famous quotes of yonder (ala “I’ll be back” or “Yippee-ki-yay”). This one is a Planet Hollywood reunion.
And you know what? It works! I thoroughly enjoyed this Expendables 2. I know it’s all too silly and all, and I think characters like Chuck Norris are pathetic; but the package works. The Expendables 2 delivers on its promise, for a change, and offers fine entertainment in the process. Now, how smart was the dude that decided to take Stallone off the reigns and put Simon West (Con Air) in charge of direction?
Best scene: Arnold bursts into the scene to save the day driving a digger not unlike the one that almost killed him in Total Recall. Oh, Arnie, how I missed you!
Overall: Silly, stupid, but damn good. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

250 Speed Dating Questions by Connor Champion

Lowdown: A short collection of potential questions to ask at a speed date.
Review:
I will start by answering the inevitable question – why? As in, why should I spend my time reading a book[let] entitled 250 Speed Dating Questions? Well, here’s why:
  1. It was free (at the time).
  2. It is short, more like an essay. Not much time is wasted here.
  3. At the time I have made a career out of blind dating and I have my firm opinions on the matter.
  4. I have never tried speed dating, though, perhaps because it didn’t exist at my time. Knowing people that ended up marrying following speed dates, you can say I was curious.
  5. For the lolz, of course!
There isn’t much I can say about this “book”. It starts with an introduction to speed dating and the way the whole mechanism of the event works. What follows then is a list of 250 questions that one may ask in order to capture some quick insight about someone else. Those questions are classified under four categories and there is some overlap and repetition, but overall the questions are not exactly ground breaking in nature. It’s things like what books you like to read and what was the last book you read (hopefully not 250 Speed Dating Questions by Connor Champion!).
In my opinion, the benefit of this bool[let] is not with the questions themselves; any moron can come up with such questions as per their own style and preferences. The point is in arriving at the date prepared with a set of questions to ask. That is, coming in knowing what you are after. It may surprise people to know that knowing what you’re after helps a lot in getting what you’re after!
Now for the lolz. There are plenty to be had, if that’s what you’re after. Most of the time I spent with this book[let] was not spent reading it but rather thinking up my answers (how do I tell someone the last book I read was called “250 Speed Dating Questions”?). And if you already have that special someone you can role play and try to think what their answer would be. There’s good party game potential to be had here, even if – again – it doesn’t take much of a rocket scientist to come up with these questions.
Overall:
I can’t really recommend one spends money on this booklet. On the other hand, if it is relevant to you then this booklet might help you focus; but still, if you need a booklet like this to focus then perhaps you’re not ready for speed dating yet.
I’ll leave it for you to decide. Me, I’m giving this one a neutral 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Potiche

Lowdown: Chaos erupts when a housewife takes over factory management from her husband.
Review:
French director François Ozon is famous for creating films depicting powerful women (refer to 8 Women and Swimming Pool for reference). One can argue his films are all about the glorification of feminine power; if that is the case then 2010’s Potiche is no exception.
We follow a rich French family during the seventies. There is the wife (Catherine Deneuve), or rather the housewife, whose father created the umbrella company the family made its money of. Then there is the husband (Fabrice Luchini) that now runs the company and won’t take any shit from anyone, not even his wife. After all, she is there to serve him. They may be a family but they don’t really love one another, rather acting like some sort of a smooth corporation. Case in point: the husband’s mistress, which is – obviously – his secretary.
Then the husband gets embroiled in a work dispute at the factory that has him held by the employees. The company needs to continue running, so the unlikely figure of the wife takes over. Lo and behold! This housewife fares much better than her husband. With the aid of a union related representative (the famous Russian actor Gérard Depardieu) she satisfies the employees; she even brings her children on board. But then the husband wants his old place back, and the union guy has his own issues, and old family secrets pop up, and we have ourselves a movie!
I cannot say I was particularly thrilled by Potiche. I liked the statements it made on matters of feminism, but found the rest rather too boring. It is a case of a secrets & lies story told in order to point out the need for women to take the initiative they are so capable of taking. It could have also been a story better told, too. On the other hand, perhaps the lack of closure is a sign for superior, more realistic take on things? Perhaps Potiche is meant to depict the rise of contemporary feminism, whose story is still running in many a direction?
Best scene: The board directors meet in order to decide who will continue to manage the company, the husband or the wife. The secretary/mistress runs the vote counting like a Eurovision contest, which is rather funny, but the climax is when the daughter puts in her vote. Which reinforces my opinion that the most annoying kind of chauvinism is the one that comes from women themselves.
Overall: Potiche starts out well but turns too messy for me to be able to like. Despite the good intentions I can only give it 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Snow White and the Huntsman

Lowdown: The familiar story of Snow White receives the swords & sorcery treatment.
Review:
We’ve all heard, probably too many times, that there are many ways to skin a cat. The real question is why would anyone want to do so in the first place? That is the question that bothered me when I sat down to watch Snow White and the Huntsman. Or rather – why a reboot?
Answers are delivered relative quickly and effectively. Yes, we follow the familiar story of the evil stepmother witch (Charlize Theron) and pure hearted Snow White (Kristen Stewart); but we quickly realize this is no Disney animated feature. This is a rough world that the story is taking place it, a very Lord of the Rings like universe of swords & sorcery and heavily made up Scottish accents (Snow White even has her own Braveheart motivation speech for the troops). Even the dwarves, who make their appearance rather late in the game, are blatant copies of their LoTR mates.
If you insist on some finer plot details then here they are. The evil witch takes over the once fair kingdom, killing all royalty with the exception of Ms White whom she keeps imprisoned for the sake of us having a film. A decade or so later the kingdom is dying but the witch is still holding the reigns, keeping herself young by consuming the youngness out of teen girls. She then learns that she can win herself immortality by doing the same to Snow White, which queues in White’s escape. The escape is aided by one Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth of Thor fame), but there is also a former fellow Prince, now an adept warrior, that is seeking to save Snow White (Sam Claflin). Because we need some sort of a love triangle.
What follows is an interesting and often thrilling tale. Much of it is cliché stuff, in the sense that we’ve seen it all in other movies already; yet Snow White and the Huntsman does well in providing fine entertainment without stooping too low to provide sweeter than sweet endings. There is quite a fine cast here, too: in addition to the previously mentioned, we have the likes of Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone, Nick Frost and Eddie Marsan in the roles of rather English dwarves. These talents are rather underutilized; Theron is good, as she always is, but her made up accent tended to annoy me. No, it was Hemsworth that impressed me the most here, easily fitting into the role of an unlikely Han Solo.
Returning to the question I opened up with, why did we need to skin the cat that is the Snow White story yet again? The multiple choice answers include people wanting to make money, people wanting to generate fine entertainment, and an artistic need to give us a nice analogy on the ravages of old age. Snow White shows the old being cast away and rejected by the young as well as old age doing its best to make a hopeless stand. There is no going about it, according to this movie: for good or bad, we all wither away and leave the scene for the younger generation to take center stage. It is the natural way of a world that relies on constant renewal. I, for one, am starting to feel for that old witch.
Copycat scene: I mentioned the way Snow White and the Huntsman “borrow” from the likes of The Lord of the Rings already. There is, however, an evil magic forest scene early on, the scene where the Huntsman has to make his choice on whether to help Luke (Snow) fight the evil Empire (witch) or not. Setting and all, it is awfully reminiscent of The Princess Bride.
Overall: Never transcending yet fine entertainment and a worthy addition to a worthy genre. 3 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

5 Broken Cameras

Lowdown: The story of a Palestinian village divided by wall and settlements.
Review:
If you are after a depressing hour and a half, look no further than 5 Broken Cameras. This documentary is not depressing for the usual reason of seeing one major tragic event; it is depressing because through its depiction of a decade or so in the life of a Palestinian village it presents us with an ongoing tragedy that is clearly there to last for generations to come. It thus mirrors on the hopelessness of achieving a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; one can argue that by extension it mirrors on humanity’s inherent general inability to solve contentious situations. Or, when a simple village’s problem cannot be solved despite international interventions, what should we expect to happen through global warming?
I am getting ahead of myself. Let me go back to 5 Broken Cameras itself.
A mixed Israeli/Palestinian production, this documentary is made of shots taken by its own narrator - Emad Burnat – as he tells us the story of his five video cameras getting broken one by one. That is the background story; at the foreground we have the story of Burnat’s children growing up in a reality of broken cameras. Even more to the foreground is the story of Bil’in, Burnat’s West Bank village. The village, located near the Green Line (the border between Israel and Jordan up to the 1967 war, which now differentiates the West Bank from Israel), was a generally peaceful one up until its lands started getting taken away by Israel. Some were taken in order to build a separation wall, aimed at protecting Israel from suicide bombers and other terrorist attacks; others were taken in order to build new settlements. The problem is the land happens to be what Bil’in’s generally poor population relies on to make its living.
Against that setting we witness the weekly routine of Friday protests at Bil’in and the Israeli army’s reprisals. That picture is far from nice. Pro Israelis may argue Israel’s side of the equation does not get an equal standing, but it is made quite clear the Palestinians are the more severely wronged side here. How is that made clear? Well, if night time army raids into sleepy houses in order to arrest children are not enough for you then perhaps you would settle with the constant barrages of tear gas and rubber bullets. And if that is not enough for you then perhaps you would want to check the scene where Israeli soldiers are clearly holding a Palestinian protestor while another soldier shoots him in the leg from a very close range with a rifle. Or the scene where we see one of the lead protestors shot dead (we hear the shot, then the camera quickly turns to see the results). No one should wonder why the baby we saw born at the beginning of the film is asking his father why he doesn’t kill Israelis by the end of the film.
Yes, 5 Broken Cameras is a hard one to watch. I think it is also an important one to watch.
Personally moving scene:
Israeli army cars driving into Bil’in get bombarded with barrages of stones. As someone who had the pleasure of having the car he was in stoned in a similar fashion at similar West Bank locations I can tell you there is not much fun to be had inside such a vehicle; it is scary and it doesn’t take much for significant harm to take place, either through an agitated driver’s error, Windows breaking, or through getting out of the car at the wrong time. When you’re in such a car and you hold a gun, you want to come out and use that gun.
I never used my gun in anger, though, for many a good reason. I also do not blame those Arabs that threw the stones in my direction for what they did; frankly, life at the West Bank can be so miserable, I can easily see myself seeking refuge in similar ways. Who am I blaming instead? The politicians that put me there in the first place. You know, the kind that ends up winning Nobel Peace awards a few years later. They are putting the soldiers in tight situations, and as 5 Broken Cameras clearly demonstrates some of those soldiers lose their humanity in the process.
That is the real price the Israeli society is paying for its ongoing occupation.
Overall: An educational experience for all the wrong reasons. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Friday, 8 March 2013

The Android's Dream by John Scalzi

Lowdown: An intergalactic scam involving sheep and farts puts the future of humanity on the brink.
Review:
My affection for anything John Scalzi is world renowned. This is exactly why I deliberately kept a book of his, The Android's Dream unread: I needed something I could count on for the doldrums, those occasional seasonal winds that have me uninterested with the books currently at my disposal. In other words, if there is nothing good for me to read, I could count on John Scalzi to remedy the situation. Did my plan work this doldrums around?
As one can tell by the Blade Runner tribute of a title, The Android's Dream is a science fiction book. One cannot get more science fictiony than this book's beginning, telling us of a plot to derail human - Nadu (an alien race) relationship by planting a fart machine in the ass of the chief human negotiator. Yes, that is exactly how The Android's Dream starts us off with, and the rest is not that different (although some would say less silly). In other words, this is science fiction that's heavy on the humor, not shy of political incorrectness, and definitely not shy of introducing ideas common folk would dismiss as silly just because they didn't bother thinking about them before. That last point proved critical for me, because Scalzi or not I found myself putting this book to rest and venturing into what I thought were greener pastures, or less silly pastures; the book that was meant to save my reading seemed to have further deteriorated it instead.
Two weeks later I came back to it and after brief deliberations found myself cruising through The Android's Dream in that exact manner that made Scalzi such a favorite with me. You see, it's silly; but it is groundbreaking-ly silly in a world where silliness rules the day so badly we take it seriously. Allow me to explain.
Once the farts fade off with the wind and the intergalactic talks break, Washington stakeholders start fighting it out. Some see the crisis as an opportunity while others see it a danger; both sides pull into their sleeves to unleash some of their unethical arsenal just for the sake of being able to humiliate the other (or save humanity). In the book's particular case we have one side pulling off the first proper computer artificial intelligence ever while the other deploys a gang of killers featuring an alien assassin that eats its victims. What are they both fighting for? A sheep. A very special sheep, a sheep that holds the fate of humanity in its genes. Think about it: what is the difference between this book's politics and the politics of everyday life at a Western country, be it Scalzi's USA or my Australia? I would say the only difference is sheep. And even that is not always the case.
The Android's Dream does not spend its satiric criticism on politics alone. Joining the celebrations is religion, with some quintessential Judaism related question raised (like that of eating pigs in the age of genetically designed foods). Further words are directed at a religion created as a scam that sounds awfully like Scientology (albeit without ever mentioning the name of Scientology, the religion whose main expertise is filing lawsuits). Combine the thrills of the chase, of which there is much abound, to the almost film like three acts structure Scalzi is renowned for, and together with the previously discussed constructive criticism I found myself reading a hell of a book. Literally.
Overall: Look, this book is brilliant. Its only problem is that it is occasionally too crazy brilliant. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome

Lowdown: The adventure story of young Adama's first sortie on the Galactica.
Review:
While I generally refer to myself as a fan of science fiction, I cannot claim to have been totally pleased by the previous decade's reboot of Battlestar Galactica. I found it too occupied with wrapping itself up around cheap philosophies to be of much good, while on the other hand its core adventure story was not half as well developed as it should have been. Then came Caprica, an interesting failure that did provide some background as to the Cylons' beginnings. And now, filling up the gap between Caprica and the Battlestar Galactica series is Blood & Chrome.
This one's story is much simpler and generally devoid of philosophical deliberations. It's an adventure story, the way - in yours truly's opinion - the whole of Battlestar Galactica should have been in the first place. We start off with a young and arrogant Adama (Luke Pasqualino), fresh and arrogant out of flashingly graduating pilot school. Adama reports to this new ship, Battlestar Galactica, where he's assigned not to a Viper fighter but rather to a poorly armed and even more poorly maintained cargo ship duties. Only that the mysterious female passenger on board lives up to her mysteriousness, and a hell of an adventure beckons. Between ghost ships and hidden intel that could help the humans win their war with the robots once and for all, anything goes.
So yeah, high octane adventure lies here. But does the story make sense? No, not at all. I will try not to create bloopers here, but the whole "secret mission for the good of humanity" turned "secret mission for the good of the Cylons?" theme doesn't make sense. For a start, why would the humans bother with it? Then there are the mysterious human ghost ships, pretending to be dead in order to surprise the Cylons; however, why should the Cylons be surprised by their existence when they know they did not destroy them at all?
The only victims of this silliness is us viewers. We are being treated with contempt by the script writers, definitely not the Cylons.
Interesting scene: Battlestar Galactica's toilets seem to have taken a leaf out of the Starship Trooper page and mix naked males and females together. That scene has been virtually carbon copied.
P.S. Yes, they say "frak" a lot.
Overall: Dumb action can only be good action to a degree. Given that this is a TV movie I will be generous and give it 3 out of 5 stars.

The Hunger Games

Lowdown: Selected teens are forced to fight one another to the death in a televised tournament.
Review:
A YA oriented story where teens are having to fend for themselves while the adults are not around to help (or are actually the cause of the problem) has been reviewed on these pages before through the movie Tomorrow, When the War Began. I had a lot against that film, but does The Hunger Games – this time an American attempt to take a successful YA book franchise to the big screen – fare any better?
Our heroine for the duration of this two hour plus movie is Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), a teenager living in some sort of a futuristic, perhaps post apocalyptic, world. People around her are living off poorly and have to make significant effort in order to acquire basic foods. Lucky for her, she is good with her bow and arrow, so she is able to acquire some game. Unlucky for her, her little sister is picked to represent their ward in the annual Hunger Games. The Hunger Games are a yearly tournament featuring two teen representatives from each of the twelve wards. All are convened at one enclosed and heavily televised area where only one contestant can come out – and only after all the rest are dead. Katniss wouldn’t let her sister be led like sheep to the slaughter; she volunteers to take her place instead.
Our heroine is then taken to the luxury of the (capital?) city, where people fashioned to look like grotesque images of Marie Antoinette and her royal compatriots live a life of abundance. An abundance made possible through the suffering of the wards but enforced through the Hunger Games tournament.
At this point I had to ask myself whether I find the whole setup to make sense. The quick answer is a no! I get the whole 1% living off the 99% thing; I also get the abuse of the younger people pitted into the death matches so that the adults can enjoy the spoils – that’s what pretty much every army in the world does. I even get the whole reality TV as an exceptional case of voyeurism. I do not, however, get how making representatives of the wards kill one another is going to hold the wards back from rebelling; I think it is pretty obvious the exact opposite would be achieved.
Thus you would get zero points for guessing what happens next in our film. Armed with the advisory services of an ex Hunger Games winner (Woody Harrelson) and a fashion stylist (Lenny Kravitz), Katniss lights the world on fire, literally. Then the games start, and she finds herself romantically involved with her ward partner, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). Will she be able to kill him and rub humus off her plate with his dead body? Better yet, will Katniss survive and emerge the winner?
As stated already, there is a lot to be said in favor of The Hunger Games, starting with its choice of a female hero for a change. The problem lies with where the film ends up taking its potential to, and those whereabouts are pretty much the usual Hollywood neighborhood of undeveloped single dimension characters (everyone lives up to their stereotype, nothing more and nothing less), irrational decision making and very artificially flavored endings. There isn’t the stench of xenophobia that came out of Tomorrow, When the War Began, but as an artistic statement The Hunger Games is no better.
Overall: Promising potential turned into yet another one to fit the mold. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

The Bourne Legacy

Lowdown: A new Bourne, a similar story.
Review:
Episode 4 of the Bourne movie franchise takes us into new territory. We have a new director, Tony Gilroy, who doesn’t seem as attached to shaky camera work as his predecessor (hooray!). We also have a new hero, a new Bourne for argument’s sake, in the shape of a Jeremy Renner stepping into the shoes previously filled by Matt Damon. Other than that, it’s more of the same, really.
We start off with an introduction to our new Bourne as our commando ventures across desolate snowy landscape filled with wolves (between this and The Grey, wolves seem to be in season) and popping colorful pills. In parallel, we hear the news that commotion caused by the original Bourne from the first three films is causing the CIA to cut off the entire program. They put a special agent in charge (Edward Norton), and when he’s cutting things off he’s doing it all the way.
Thus we realize Damon’s Bourne was only one of an outfit of several chemically enhanced warriors, designed to have certain superhuman qualities through their colored pills and viruses. These include magic like healing, enhanced intelligence and controlled empathy. In other words, these are machine like killers that the CIA is now trying to kill off.
The CIA gets its way with two notable exceptions: Renner gets away with it as well as a doctor working at the lab running the chemical interventions (Rachel Weisz). Thus we have ourselves a romantic couple with an urge to live against all the odds thrown their way by American authorities. And if you think the Bourne program was the only one to use chemically enhanced soldiers then you’ll be in for a surprise when you see this movie’s Terminator like nemesis.
The Bourne Legacy is fairly long, significantly longer than two hours. It does not utilize its resources well: the snowy beginning of the movie stretches out for way too long, and it’s only till the second act that things stabilize on a hectic rate of the intense action scenes set against an international background (most notably the Philippines) that the Bourne series won its claim to fame with. Indeed, once the ball is rolling The Bourne Legacy can boast at being the best Bourne thus far, if only by virtue of the fact it is comprehensible as well as intense.
The international settings are smartly used. The snow scenes are portrayed for their expansive nature while the dense Far East urban settings can be claustrophobic. With strong anti-authoritarian elements befitting this age of the Wikileaks and the Prisoner X, The Bourne Legacy proves the series can continue strongly despite the seemingly forced rejuvenation. In other words, well done reboots have a place under the sun.
Best scene: Motorcycle chases across the congested streets of Manilla.
Worst scene: The end, which is obviously set up for the sequel to come.
Overall: Cut off the beginning, throw in a proper ending, and you'll have yourself a hell of an action movie. 3 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 4 March 2013

Ruby Sparks

Lowdown: An author’s dream girl materializes to life from the written page.
Review:
I don’t think there will be much dispute on whether Jillian Murray provides a fine example for feminine beauty. The face of Mass Effect’s Liara and an actress/model, she occasionally posts photos of herself online; photos like this one, which triggered a response asking “Wish you were mine”. On first reaction that response is creepy and scary. On second thought, however, one has to admit that most of us have entertained the fantasy of owning, for lack of a better word, our fantasy image of a member of our favorite sex. Ruby Sparks steps right into this discussion by raising the following question: well, let’s say you actually do get your fantasy woman (as per the film’s example). What happens then?
Thus we follow Calvin (Paul Dano), a young yet renowned author. He wrote the book that made him famous a decade ago and since then enjoyed the fruits of success while generally finding himself unable to reproduce the quality that brought him his fame. Neither is he able to reproduce success in his personal life: other than his brother he doesn’t have anyone special.
In response to a challenge from his shrink (Elliot Gould), Calvin starts to write a new book dealing with the girl he’s dreaming about, Ruby Sparks. Weird things start to happen – bras appear at his house, to name one example. Then the weirdest thing happens: Ruby (Zoe Kazan) appears at his house. Calvin thinks he’s mad, but after a brief struggle realizes she’s really there. Not only is she really there, she does everything he types into his typewriter. One cannot get a better dream girl than that!
Calvin vows to stop writing Ruby and let things roll. What he encounters then is real life with real people, a life lived under constantly changing circumstances. Cracks appear in that dream he’s had.
On the face of it, Ruby Sparks is a fantasy tale about the impact the written word might have in the physical world. However, the movie clearly directs things into the control realm and our need to be in control of our lives and partners, even if we know better than to expect to have full control. Thus Ruby Sparks’ lesson is clear – go with the flow, live and let live.
I liked both ideas at the core of this movie. I also liked the fact that our fantasy girl for the duration of the film was not some unimaginably beautiful specimen, the Mass Effect stuff of Yvonne Strahovski or Jillian Murray, but rather a more earthly looking woman. A woman that does not even sport the artificially whitened teeth that all other Hollywood people carry with them! The point there is that it is much easier to relate to an authentic character than to some Olympian goddess; other productions have much to learn from Ruby Sparks.
On the other hand, with all due respect to the artistic intentions behind the movie, I cannot claim to have not been bored by Ruby Sparks. Quite bored, actually, with some significant yawns along the way. Maybe it's my hectic lifestyle that leaves me too tired for movie watching during the week, but I am strongly of the opinion this an hour forty long film could have been made much better by being much shorter.
Best scene: The climax, where Calvin shows Ruby who really is the boss, is one of those cringe creating scenes that make one want to go inside the movie and shake the hero till they wake up in the real world. Such an asshole!
Overall: High potential delivered in a relatively boring package. 3 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

The Avengers

Lowdown: Earth’s superheroes unite to defend New York from an outwardly army’s invasion.
Review:
More money for special effects than the yearly budget of your average African nation. A long list of A list stars. An unprecedented plot that pits in a whole lot of famous superheroes to fight together on the same screen. What can one expect to get out of such rich raw ingredients? One can expect a great film that leads the revenue charts of its release year. But is that what yours truly saw?
As plots go, the excuse for spending hundreds of millions and for combining the whole Marvel parking lot of superheroes and whatevers on one reel is the arrival of one Loki, the evil step brother of Thor, from that godly universe of theirs and unto earth. Loki comes with a plot to rule the earth with the assistance of an army he will bring from an alternate universe of sorts. To get to that point he immediately embarks on an effort to open a portal between the worlds; in parallel, he strives to disable the only earthly force that can stand in his way – the Marvel superheroes. The latter won’t take things lying down. They unite to form The Avengers, and they will show Loki a thing or two on how to kick ass. Most of their demonstration comes over the destruction of an island called Manhattan, though.
So, what did I see in this film? Well, I saw a 1.85:1 aspect ratio presentation (abnormal for the genre) of much longer than two hours. It was filled with special effects. It was filled with characters I could not bring myself to care for (with one notable exception). It was filled with things that simply did not make sense. In other words, it was a film I felt totally indifferent for. It passed by me.
Allow me to elaborate. We are exposed to various superheroes, most of which we’ve seen in previous films. If, however, you expect to see anything along the lines of character development, look elsewhere. Of all the stars, only one – Robert Downey Jr. – seems to actually have fun with the role. Then again, he’s the only one that gets fun lines; the rest are just dull, acting by the motions. Bear in mind, we are talking here of the likes of Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Samuel L. Jackson, and  Gwyneth Paltrow. Being able to get nothing out of such resources is an achievement by its own right. A negative one.
Moving on to the things that don’t make sense. I will start by asking why our Avengers bother congregating over a flying aircraft carrier? What is wrong with an aircraft carrier that’s, lo and behold, sails the seas? The question is worth asking because much of the trouble our goodie heroes stumble upon has to do with said aircraft seeking to reunite with the earth at an unexpected rate.
Then there is the matter of The Hulk (Ruffalo). Initially we are told, quite explicitly, that his rage cannot be controlled; anything in his way will be trounced. We even receive a live demo. However, at the end, when dealing with baddies, our angry green hero is suddenly proving himself quite capable of directing his anger to its right target. To hell with consistency.
Sure, the special effects are nice. I would like to note, though, that I have seen New York digitally destroyed some twenty years ago. Been there, done that.
Best scene: It comes at the end of the credits. Our exhausted superheroes sit at a diner table to enjoy the food of the gods: shawarma.
Technical assessment: As far as picture and sound quality are concerned, The Avengers is right up there with the best of Blu-rays. Yes, it is of Avatar and Tron Legacy grade.
Overall: Much ado about nothing. I’m probably over harsh, but if this is what American cinema at its most powerful has to offer then nothing it is. 2 out of 5 stars.