Monday, 29 July 2019

Top Crab #13

Yes, I know it is rather ironic to celebrate this blog’s thirteenth birthday given that the blog has been rather abandoned lately. Frankly, it is hard for me to envision a comeback for the blog any time soon, but who know (I definitely don’t). Regardless, I think there is extra benefit to be had in looking back over the year that was and analysing what it is that happened.
So - here we go - again. For the 13th time!


Best book:
I haven’t read many non technical books this past year. Certainly not half as many as I would like to. Under the assumption of general disinterest in my technical reading, I will proceed to point at the book I’d consider the most pivotal of the few select books that I have read. (Disclaimer: at the rate I am going, next year’s selection would have to be a technical book.)
21 Lessons for the 21st Century, the [currently] latest book from Yuval Noah Harari, is my winner for the year. While it does digress on many of the points already discussed in Sapiens and Homo Deus, 21 Lessons takes us further in the applicability department to discuss the challenges that apply to humanity in the near (and not that near) future. Call it an exercise in applied philosophy, if you will; the point is that here lies a book summing up much thinking, both by Harari as well as the general scientific community, to discuss the challenges ahead of humanity and recommend some approaches to tackle them with. It’s down to earth stuff, ranging from artificial intelligence to immigration policies.
The reason why 21 Lessons won me is simple: It is rare to find such evidence based, deep thinking, approach to the core political problems facing us. If only the people actually leading our societies would have been as deep as this book; instead, we are stuck with Facebook rigged elections (and I’m pointing this particular matter out because the book discusses it in depth).


Best movie:
It is hard for me to nominate a winner for this category this year. Not because we haven’t watched much; on the contrary, we watched tons. It is because we watched so much (too much?) that I couldn’t keep up with the reviews on this blog (lame excuse, I know).
However, while I can’t complain about the quantity delivered to our TV, I can complain - and I will complain - that too much of the stuff we get to see these days feels like it’s production line made. In this mass of content, it is hard to identify the truly unique; in a world that demands you watch the latest Marvel product, it is hard to pick the diamonds in the rough (and no, I am not a fan of Disney’s latest reanimations of its animations).
The movie that probably is the winner for this year is Green Book. It won the Academy Award and stirred controversy at that, but I will simply say that I picked it for the love of Viggo Mortensen, that ever so excellent actor who delivers an astonishing performance.


Best on TV:
The situation on “TV” has been found to be similar to that in the movies side. Perhaps because nowadays, when everything we watch is streamed anyway, it’s hard to tell the difference between TV and film anymore; if anything, I’d argue these differences are more related to business models (i.e., projecting films at cinemas vs. weekly airing vs. binging). What it comes down to, really, are relatively subtle differences in episode duration, episode frequency, and anticipation. [To clarify I will add that, despite Disney’s best efforts, most films are still a single episode affair.]
With this distinction in mind, I will now pick two winners.
The first is Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War documentary. As per the usual Burns’ standard, it is a long and thorough affair. Also per his standard, it is an eye opener: I grew up on the us vs. them, good vs. bad story of a war that “our side” was being held up from winning even though it easily could; instead, watching The Vietnam War made me realise that Apocalypse Now was probably the most accurate depiction of that war up to Burns’.
The second is the much lighter The Orville, a winking yet clever tribute to the Star Trek of yore (particularly The Next Generation) in an age where it seems as if “the real Star Trek”, in the shape of Discovery, has lost its way into that great big meh of over budgeted shows.



Best podcast:
With podcasts dominating my listening time more and more (and, probably more importantly, becoming a more and more commercialised affair rather than a back operation of one or two enthusiasts), I feel like I’m swamped with quality material.
My pick for this year is not a single podcast but rather a family of podcasts. Making History was/is an Israeli podcast dealing with history and science, produced by a single enthusiastic guy, Ran Levi. With success came other podcasts, and now the Ran Levi brand includes a whole raft of podcasts, from current affairs and technology through Bible analysis (probably my favourite of the lot). Yes, most of these podcasts would be irrelevant to you if you are not a Hebrew speaker, as they speak Hebrew in general, but there are exceptions: Ran Levi’s Malicious Life podcast, presented by Ran Levi himself, is a popular English speaking podcast dealing with cybersecurity.
Perhaps the main point of this pick of the year of mine is to demonstrate that quality podcasts are there to be found in the non English speaking world. I feel this is a point worth making in a world where American “contents” tends to smear time and focus on producing “shows”, while British podcasts tend to feel more like radio programs imported to the online world. Ran Levy runs figure eights around most of those by showing the whole world where the podcast medium can take us to.


Best music:
I loved me many new albums this year, particularly from the realms of alternative music and jazz and even mixes of alternative and jazz. If I have to pick one particular album of those, it would be Karen O’s (of Yeah Yeah Yeahs fame) Lux Prima.
However, my main musical event of the year has been Midnight Oil’s new live album, Armistice Day. It comes down to this excellent band, one of my top favourite bands, coming back to perform its decades old material but this time as mature, wise old men. And that wisdom shines through the performances, making the songs ever so relevant.


Best video game:
Trend wise, this year has been dominated by the Nintendo Switch. The PS4 has been mostly relegated to dust gathering and monthly downloads of the lastest PS+ offerings. My iPad, probably my favourite gaming platform by virtue of being there and being strong and capable, was relegated due to the death of the App Store through the cataclysm officially known as freemium games.
The Switch was a contrast to those two. While I still suffered from chronic leisure time shortages, this lowly console (and lowly it is, at least in my opinion) came up with a secret weapon: genuinely good games!
Who could have imagined that.
Of those, there was one game that absolutely dominated my video gaming world for months, pretty much from the time I got it till the time I finished it. I know I’m severely late to the show, but that game was The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
Why is this game so good? It’s not like we didn’t have good Zelda games before BotW, so what’s the big deal? I’ll tell you what the big deal is: the ability to save the game wherever you are. Doesn’t sound like much, but for this time deprived person it meant I could pick the game up whenever I had a few minutes here and there and put it down whenever freedom ended. Contrast that with levels that required some two hours or so between challenges to save on previous Zelda games - who’s got two straight spare hours these days? What person knows they’re going to have two free hours in advance? Certainly not me.
Of course, being able to save the game would have meant nothing if the game wasn’t good. Luckily, it is, and even better - it offers a huge realm to explore, all filled with nice puzzles. So much so the nightly Zelda show, featuring yours truly in the role of Link, became the nightly family gathering place. Few games manage to attract such demanding crowds.
There were things I didn’t like - for example, I think the game would have been way better if violence was removed (maybe leave the comical aspects?). I also think the game severely lacks in the story department, especially given its length.
Talking length, according to the Switch I had spent almost 200 hours playing BotW. It’s pretty much guaranteed this is the most time I had ever spend on a game in modern times (which exclude Atari 2600 like periods where I only had one game to play and what now feels like all the time in the world to play it).
Recently, Nintendo announced a new Zelda game that looks a lot like a sequel. As much as I liked BotW, I do not consider that to be good news. BotW was a very good game, yes, but it is time to move forward rather than delve on past success. Yet, as Midnight Oil put it, who can stand in the way when there’s a dollar to be made…


See you next year, if not earlier.

Thursday, 20 September 2018

Samba

A predictable yet charming 2014 French romantic comedy about an illegal immigrant from Africa, Samba (Omar Sy), getting caught by French authorities 10 years after his arrival, and - on the other side of the equation - a volunteer lawyer assigned to assist him in his plight (Charlotte Gainsbourg). What saves Samba from that mundane domain of “seen it a million times before” is its humanising element for the very real issue of refugees.
Overall: 3 out of 5 crabs.

Monday, 17 September 2018

Sideway (Itineraire bis)

I don’t get to watch as many non Hollywood movies as I would like to nowadays, so when I do I like to cherish the moment. Yet when I stumble upon mediocrity, as is the case with the 2011 French movie Sideway, I’m annoyed.
This shortish film (less than an hour and a half) follows a 35 year old guy still living with his mother and whose long term future is dictated by others’ choices. He never even left Corsica once in his life (to which I will add “why would he”, but I’ll shut up now). Our guy stumbles upon what can only be described as an annoying yet good looking woman who is annoyed as well for being dumped by her rich boyfriend. For reasons yet eluding me, the our hero falls for her and together they go on a road trip where they leave everything they came from behind / thrash it.
On one hand, we’ve seen that movie before in various languages. On the other, I’d sort of expect something to take place and take our romantic comedy to some newish realms, but - sadly - nothing to see here, move along. As is demonstrated through the case of the Porsche that makes its entrance at the very beginning, you just know that our renegades will thrash it by the end of the third act.
Overall: Nothing to see here (but in French), move along. 2 out of 5 crabs.

Saturday, 15 September 2018

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

My main point of contention with the Harry Potter movies has always been their need to satisfy viewers’ expectations to include key scenes from the books, even if these do not benefit the film. In other words, it is almost always impossible to generate a 1:1 copy of a book into a film and expect that film to be a good film, regardless of how good the book was as a book. Over-loyalty to the book is a guaranteed recipe for creating a husk of a movie.
As it happens, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a husk of a movie. It also happens to be a movie taking place in the Harry Potter universe, but at the same time it is the first of the Harry Potter movies that is not encumbered by a book because no such book was ever written. Yet, despite that fact, it still manages to come out as a husk of a film through its mimicry of its predecessors.
The emptiness is firmly tied to the fact it has no plot of any worth and very little in the way of character development. All it does is present us with the hero character we heard of in those other Harry Potter books/films (portrayed by an Eddie Redmayne whose talents are grossly wasted), put him in the USA (as opposed to the otherwise British dominated universe), and pit him against a virtually random set of events that has him present us with fantastic beasts and - eventually - a baddie character that needs to be put to rest.
In other words, just as with the rest of the Harry Potter films, events just seem to happen. Our movie is nothing more than a platform for introducing us to fantastic CGI creations, and a giant missed opportunity when it comes to exposing us more to the Potter universe.
Overall: 1.5 out of 5 empty crabs.

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

Molly's Game

I like Aaron Sorkin’s work. I don’t think I ever gave movies he had scripted (The Social Network, Steve Jobs) a high score, but his movies always left an impression. Long after I’d forget all about movies I have rated higher, I would still find myself occasionally pondering the meaning of, say, key events in Steve Jobs’ life. Molly’s Game is a Sorkin movie through and through: this time, he’s actually in the director’s seat.
Our movie is allegedly based on real life events, as per the book of the similar name written by the real life Molly. Molly (Jessica Chastain) was (is?) a tough character, shaped by a demanding father (Kevin Costner) and a couple of life experiences that would have left most folks in tatters, both physically and mentally.
Not our Molly, though; when opportunity presented itself to make money+status by organising high stakes poker games, she goes for it. There’s a catch there, though: there are illegalities involved, given anti gambling legislation; however, Molly takes care not to take part in the game itself or claim a stake, and thus manages to ride the wave.
Only that, eventually, she falls. We start our movie with her meeting her new attorney (Idris Alba) for the first time to discuss the Everest size of a case against her; the bulk of the movie that follows is a series of flashbacks to the events that led up to that point in time.
Molly’s Game is thus the tale of a person with strong character, strong ethics, and a solid sense of right vs. wrong who finds herself benefiting from a situation that highly challenges her morality. I found myself identifying with Molly’s character much more than I usually do with your typical film protagonists; it all eschewed of famous computer science deliberations on morality that have been brought forward to public attention through discussions on artificial intelligence and driverless cars (e.g., the famous trolley problem).
There is more to my sense of identification than computer science thought experimentation. Molly’s Game, more than the vast majority of movies I had seen, is very performance driven. Each famous actor gets their time under the limelight to show off their skills during key scenes: Kevin Costner, Idris Elba, and Jessica Chastain. Chastain's case, however, goes way further: in this fast paced drama that is constantly filled by Chastain’s own quick narration, she sails through the whole movie as if it was a one long tour de force. I will put it this way, it is impossible for me to recall a movie more dominated by the performance of a single actor than Molly’s Game. Chastain, in my view, is purified excellence throughout Molly’s Game (and, I will add, further proof to the fact the world needs more movies led by female characters).
Molly’s Game did leave me wondering a bit. Specifically, for a movie this detailed, I did question bits of the story that seem to have been left out. For example, despite our intimate journey into Molly’s life, her sex life isn’t mentioned at all; I would expect that did exist, to one extent or another, and was likely to have included folks familiar to Molly Bloom through her poker activities. Which would imply these aspects of Molly’s life would have likely tainted the moral superiority stance her character takes throughout the movie, which would have compromised the movie, hence these bits getting left out. As a firm believer in the qualities of objective truth, I am troubled by this; as an appreciator of fine art, I applaud Molly’s Game for [almost] pulling that one off.
Overall:
Through the questions it raises on ethics and morality, coupled with Chastain’s strong performance, Molly’s Game has certainly established itself in my mind as one of the strongest films I have seen in a while.
4.5 out of 5 crabs.

Sunday, 9 September 2018

89

I’m sure many important things happened in the world during the year 1989. If you are an Arsenal Football Club supporter, though, it’s highly likely one of the things you’d remember most out of that year was Arsenal winning the English title (note it wasn’t called The English Premier League back then). Not necessarily it winning the title, but rather how it won the title.
It is all historical facts so I see no reason to avoid bloopers here. That year, Liverpool were the main candidates for winning the title; they were still that peak Liverpool team, that won so many English and European titles. As it happened, things narrowed down to the very last match of the season, a game that featured a top spot Liverpool hosting second place and unlikely hero Arsenal at home (as in, at Liverpool). If the game ends up with a win for the local team, or a draw for that matter, Liverpool wins the championship; for Arsenal to win it, it had to beat Liverpool. What are the chances of that happening?
As it turned out, in that year, 89, things had to wait till the 89th minute. The winner of the title was determined by virtually the last pass of the match. In other words, a climax could not be more climatic than that. In other other words, not many real life events can boast to having such a climax; when they do happen, they tend to happen in sports. Which is probably a good explanation as to why sports are so popular.
89, the film/documentary we are discussing here, tries to tell the Arsenal story of that year and specifically that deciding match. It tries to milk that climatic moment for all its worth. The question is, does it do a good enough job? Will spectators get their sports orgasm watching 89, that once in a lifetime (and probably even less) event that Arsenal fans lived through in 1989?
The approach taken by 89 is to use stock footage coupled and effectively have it narrated by the Arsenal players of the time, whose interviews make up the bulk of the film. Structure wise, 89 tells the story of how Arsenal got to that year, how Arsenal did through the year, and - eventually - how Arsenal traversed that decisive match. It’s all Arsenal from start to finish, no other view point is represented.
When the credits rolled it the end, I wasn’t surprised to see that the producers of 89 are ex Arsenal people (89 team members, to be specific). It is thus no wonder the end result ended up the way it did. Which brings us to the question of who, on the side of film viewers, would find 89 appealing?
It can be argued that this is a documentary that should appeal to football fans at large. It does shed some light on the history of the game during what, to modern eyes, seems like a completely different era (despite the fact not that much time passed): just note how Arsenal’s manager at the time discusses the way he would identify potential candidates to the squad compared to the scouting operations available today, when everyone seems to know everyone intimately through social media. Or simply the fact that most, if not all, of Arsenal’s players at the time were English (or at least UK citizens). It’s like a totally different planet.
On the other hand, it is also clear 89 was designed by Arsenal folk for Arsenal folk. The tension it builds up would probably fail to trigger the emotional response it seeks to create in the hearts of non Arsenal supporters. I guess what I’m trying to say is, with a product (and I emphasise the word “product”) that is so biased and one sided, it is hard to refer to 89 as a proper documentary as opposed to a pro Arsenal propaganda tool (something I have no objection to whatsoever when it comes to football and sports in general).
Overall: 3 out of 5 crabs, but do beware of its limited appeal aspects.
Note: If you are after another take on that great moment from 1989, consider watching the romantic comedy Fever Pitch (starring a then not as yet familiar Colin Firth).

Thursday, 6 September 2018

Double Feature: Suburbicon + Jasper Jones

Suburbicon and Jasper Jones are two very different movies, yet there is significant overlap between them. With both powered by the racism in our society, I thought it would be an interesting thought experiment to review them in tandem.
Subrubicon is a Hollywood production with some big Hollywood names to match. It is directed by George Clooney and it stars Matt Damon and Julianne Moore. In contrast, Jasper Jones appears to be a small Australian production that I never heard of until it was featured on iTunes; it does feature Toni Collette in a supporting role and one Hugo Weaving in a more of a cameo role. Both deliver the goods, performance wise.
Both movies take place in an era when racism was out in the open and commonly accepted. Suburbicon takes place at a fictional all American suburb during what appears to be the fifties; Jasper Jones takes place at a middle of nowhere, WA (that’s Western Australia for you) town during the sixties. Suburbicon tells the story of what happens to our fictional all American suburb when a black family dares to settle in; Jasper Jones tells the story of the marginalisation of those at the edge of society, including the aboriginal Jasper Jones (who is actually only a minor character in the scheme of things) when a teenager disappears. Us viewers are told right from the start that she died; it's how the people in the movie react that builds this movie.
The story is pretty much the same in both movies: the whole of the dominant white society focuses on the members of the other races as the cause of all evil, while it is actually the prominent members of that white society that are the cause of all that is bad. In both movies we see things [mostly] through the perspective of a child.
Clearly, both movies were designed as retaliation to social trends affecting both contemporary USA and Australia. I am referring to that loss of inhibition around the way we deal with race, and I’d say both films do a good job in the message delivery department.
Differences wise, it is the style of the two movies that sets them apart. On one side,Jasper Jones is a pretty conventional, albeit quite well made, piece of story telling. On the other, Suburbicon tries to make a name for itself with almost caricature like characters, and gimmicks such as Moore playing two characters at the same time + Damon pedalling a kids’ trike in a scene that would normally feature a getaway car in any other film.
Best scene:
The Vietnamese friend of Jasper Jones’ hero character steps up as the last batter in a cricket game. None of his teammates want that Vietnamese scum there, and he only managed to get into the lineup as a result of others’ mischief. The dominantly white crowd leaves in disgust.
That is, until the hero of the moment bats his way to a team win. The crowd comes back and cheers him passionately [for the duration of the win] as he brings them victory.
That scene is so quintessential Australia it is hard for me to think of a better representation of the country.
Overall:
Both are good movies, but while Suburbicon errs on the gimmicky side - style over substance - Jasper Jones oozes with genuine quality.
3 crabs for the former, 4 for the Aussie out of the standard 5.

Tuesday, 28 August 2018

Chaining the Lady by Piers Anthony

Revisiting Chaining the Lady means, to me, going back to a book that gave me lots of fond memories back when I read it as a teenager that just made it into the two digit age realm. I didn’t remember much, but I did remember a fascinating tale of science fiction and sex. Mostly, I remembered sex.
Which goes to show how times have changed, because - reading the same book today - I could not avoid noting how little in the way of explicitly depicted sex there is in the book and how most of the sexual connotations come through the author’s extensive use of the word “mammaries” throughout the book.
Anyway. Personal background aside, 1978’s Chaining the Lady is a sequel of Cluster, although it can be read independently with little harm. What probably sets it apart from numerous other aspirants is the very well detailed universe its story takes place in: a universe in which the Andromeda galaxy is trying to take over the Milky Way’s resources, but in which interstellar travel is way too expensive for conventional occupation to take place. Instead, Andromeda tries to achieve its nasty goal by transferring the ‘spirits’ of its people to key positions in our galaxy, a feat that is possible for entities with very strong ‘spirits’. Their plan’s weak spot, however, lies in the fact the strongest ‘spirited’ entity in either galaxy is a Milky Way barren, non human, old female named Melody. She has the potential to use her might to thwart the Andromedean threat, the question is whether she is up to it.
The bulk of the story takes place inside a fleet of Milky Way spaceships fighting amongst itself as Andromeda takes control of the ships. Author Piers Anthony depicts a very complicated set of different ships, each depicting the attributes of the species that created them, as they fight one another. The level of imaginative detail is quite impressive.
Science fiction themes aside, the main themes of Chaining the Lady revolve more closely to what the title might suggest. Our female hero finds herself repeatedly chained by males, both figuratively and explicitly; similarly, Andromeda’s Greek mythology character is also chained. Thus the book deconstructs, if you will, the war between the sexes as seen through the eyes of our female protagonist.
Slightly dampening everything else that’s going for it is a mystic affection to Tarot cards, but us intelligent readers can easily dismiss it as mere fantasy in an otherwise fantastic tale.
Overall:
Sure, Chaining the Lady feels a tad outdated when it comes to its depiction of the feminine in our age of #MeToo. But it still tells a nice and very detailed tale, and I am a sucker for it due to pure nostalgia.
3.5 out of 5 crab nebulas.