Thursday, 30 June 2011

The Last King of Scotland

Lowdown: The story of Idi Amin’s rule of Uganda through the eyes of his Scottish physician.
Growing up in post Operation Jonathan’s Israel, Idi Amin’s was a household name. Upon asking adults about him I remember being told he used to be an ally of Israel but then did an unexpected hundred and eighty on “us”. Have no worry, though: Amin paid the price for his betrayal, or so I was told. All of which is funny to recollect when, as an adult, I read on how Amin killed 300,000 of his own people while in power; this sort of Israeli centric worldview that ignores the real issues can put most if not all of Israel’s actions and behaviors into perspective.
The Last King of Scotland attempts to shed more light on Amin’s character. Not from the Israeli point of view this time, and not even from the conventional point of view historians often take and documentaries adopt. For this 2006 release, the point of view is that of Amin’s personal doctor while in power, a character called Dr. Nicholas Garrigan. Do not ask me whether Garrigan’s character is real or fictional; even if history did have a Garrigan at Amin’s side, I doubt his story would have been accurately converted to the big screen.
We meet a young Dr Garrigan (James McAvoy) upon his graduation. Coming from a demanding family and having spent years under the pressure of demanding studies, our young doctor is in for something different. He volunteers to help in Uganda, where his womanizing almost allows him to avoid digesting the hardships around. When Amin (Forest Whitaker) comes to power and the two bump, a strange relationship develops. Garrigan falls for the seemingly charming ruler, and against the call of everyone else and despite Amin’s obvious eccentricities believes this figure really does intend to make the world better. Amin, on his side, likes a yes man fanboy by his side, especially if he’s Scottish and lacks local ties; he helps the doctor remain loyal by spoiling him. However, us viewers know our history, so the question turns into how long this relationship can survive.
The Last King of Scotland is very well made, directed as it is by Kevin Macdonald (he did the equally slick State of Play). The acting by the two leads in particular helps deliver the historical message as well as the human story, but as far as I was concerned I could not stop thinking of the Israeli centric worldview I grew up on. You have to hand it to the Palestinians, they sure know how to pick the right allies to promote their cause with the public.
Put it all together and one can justifiably argue The Last King of Scotland is one of the better history lessons around.
Best scene: The doctor gives the dictator some hell of a first impression when they first meet by using Amin’s own pistol to kill a suffering cow. Then again, could Amin really be so stupid as to leave his pistol lying around for anyone to use? Obviously, either he or the scriptwriter failed their soldiering 101 course.
Technical assessment: We watched The Last King of Scotland off the air on One HD. I have to hand it to Channel 10: theirs are the closest to Blu-ray quality transmissions in Australia, far surpassing DVD quality.
Overall: A solid 3.5 out of 5 stars film.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Girl with a Pearl Earring

Lowdown: A possible story behind the famous painting.
2003’s Girl with a Pearl Earring is a film with potential. It a film that tries to give its version of the story behind a famous painting, thus using art to make a statement on the artistic creation process. It also features Colin Firth, who is always an attraction (as a bonus we have a much younger looking Firth than what we got with the more recent The King’s Speech). At the time of its initial release, Pearl Earring also featured a young and good looking actress who recently burst into everyone’s attention through Lost in Translation. I’m talking about Scarlett Johansson, who – through the benefit of hindsight – managed to get on most of our nerves since.
Set in 16th century Holland, Girl with a Pearl Earring tells us of a young woman, Griet (Johansson), whose parents have to give away to work as a maid when the father goes blind. Her assignment is at the household of the real life artist Johannes Vermeer (Firth), who is mainly busy painting for a rich guy’s (Tom Wilkinson) commissions.
What follows is the story of how Griet gets along in the household, with its demanding work (life was hard back then) and demanding people. Between the household's other maids, the wife, the mother in law and the jealous children, Griet’s life is quite hard. A young butcher’s apprentice falls for Griet and provides a certain source of relief, but the main event is Griet’s developing relationship with Vermeer himself.
Firth comes into the picture through a series of scenes featuring him frowning and looking particularly engaged with his artistic work. Things don’t get much better, but between the period piece storytelling and the development of his relationship with Griet on the other hand, Girl with a Pearl Earring is definitely interesting. Music adds a lot to the quality of the presentation, but in general we’re talking here of a film about a forbidden love affair (Vermeer’s wife is never far) providing artistic muse – while all the participants know the tragic circumstances Vermeer’s previous muse ended up like.
We all know how the story ends: Vermeer will paint Griet, by hook or by crook; after all, we can watch that painting on the Internet or physically if we visit Hague. What we therefore have rolling in front of us is a fatalistic tale of forbidden love and the necessary compromises that go with it.
Best scene: Griet does the washing. She does it the way they really used to, sometimes when the temperature is freezing. It’s nice to be authentic when what usually passes for Masters & Servants drama is exaggerated euphemisms of servants’ life ala Downton Abbey that are meant to make you think of good old days that never were.
Overall: I don’t know how authentic the suggested story behind the scenes of the famous painting is, but I liked it mostly because of its authentic period piece story telling. 3 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 27 June 2011

White Hunter Black Heart

Lowdown: A film director cares for nothing other than shooting an elephant.
As far as Clint Eastwood films are concerned, in particular films Eastwood directed himself, 1990’s White Hunter Black Heart (WHBH) qualified as a likely candidate to the title of “best Eastwood film I’ve never seen”. Channel 9’s ongoing airing of Eastwood films (there must have been a wholesale at Warner) remedied the situation this week.
As I sat to watch WHBH I could immediately register why I have never seen it before. The film is rather weird; not only weird, it’s eccentric. Essentially, we follow a film director (Eastwood) as he and his crew embark to Africa to shoot a safari adventure. Throughout the film the only thing that happens and the only thing that matters is the director’s detached behavior while he cares for absolutely nothing but shooting the biggest tusked elephant he can find (with the help of helpful locals). He doesn’t care for people and neither does he care about his career.
That is really all there is to the film’s plot.
There is more to the film. though. It is dead obvious that Eastwood’s character is based on that of real life director John Huston and that the film being shot in the WHBH is 1951’s The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn (whose look-alikes take minor part in WHBH).
As can almost be expected for a film dealing with the obsession of an eccentric character, WHBH suffers from eccentricities of its own. Most notable is Eastwood’s acting, which is quite different to what we’re used to seeing from him. It doesn’t work for quite a while; it’s even annoying. Only at the very end of the film could I feel things finally coming together and Eastwood truly shining.
There are also plenty of themes explored in WHBH, such as racism, cruelty to animals and conservation. None, however, gets to be treated in a particularly satisfying manner, and the feeling of neither here nor there dominates the shaky viewing experience. An experience made even more shaky by the supporting characters, none of which feel too real and almost all (with the exception of a Jeff Fahey playing the scriptwriter) coming out almost as caricatures.
Best scene: The final elephant showdown. As mentioned above, that was Eastwood only true moment of shining in the film, and he did it in a manner that very much reminded me of the way he did the same a few years later for A Perfect World.
Overall: Worth watching for the Eastwood factor, but still a semi detached piece of cinema. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

The Ghost Writer

Lowdown: A ghost writer for the former British PM learns there is a lot hidden in the guy’s past.
If you want The Ghost Writer summed up in one sentence, this would be it: “Roman Polanski does Alfred Hitchcock”. If you want more, keep reading.
The Ghost Writer follows a ghost writer (that’s the way people refer to Ewan McGregor character in the film) who gets the unlikely job of helping the former British PM write his autobiography. There are some catches, though: that former PM (Pierce Brosnan) is obviously modelled after Tony Blair, and like good old Tony he is being accused of unethical deeds while holding his top job (unlike Tony, though, he did not have a Catholic epiphany upon quitting). He’s actually residing in the USA, which fits the occasion given it is his pro American policies that gave him his bad reputation. Oh, and there’s another catch: our Ghost is there to finish a job started by another ghost writer; that original ghost writer was found dead at the beach and presumed to have committed suicide. Or so they say, you never know in these films.
Thus our Ghost arrives at the former PM’s lonesome island fort to find a dysfunctional household where the wife (Olivia Williams) and the secretary (Kim Cattrall) seem to be competing for more than the former PM’s attention in between the whole security and household maintenance charades. As the plot thickens, our Ghost of a hero learns more about this household that he’s in. He also learns about the person he’s meant to cover. This almost tragic process of revelations turns Ghost into your classic Hitchcock hero (ala those from Vertigo or The Man Who Knew Too Much).
Recollections of Hitchcock are no coincidence: Polanski directs this film with such exceptional skill half the fun of viewing it comes from the masterful presentation. On the other hand, The Ghost Writer does suffer from mild pacing issues that render it mildly boring in the middle, but overall this is a film that makes its statement out loud. It’s a film that protests the anti transparency culture dominating the world of politics, where the laymen do not stand a chance knowing what really drives their leaders to make the decisions they do. In particular, as per The Ghost Writer’s case, when these decisions have significant consequences – like going to war.
While at it I will note it is funny to watch a film that virtually takes America’s role in the world to be a villainous one for granted. I don’t know whether this is the result of Polanski trying to avenge his exile, and I don’t know whether this trait is only noticeable because the majority of film releases – being American – would not dare take such a stand. It's definitely noticeable, though.
Best scenes:
The film’s ending offers two scenes that are poetry in motion picture art. The first has a key paper note passed from person to person inside a crowded room: other than the starting point and the end point we do not see who is transferring the note to who, we just see the hands transferring the note from one person to the other. Given we do not know what is in the note, what better technique can the director utilize to inform us how important this note is and make us anxious in anticipation as we wait to learn what it says?
Second we have the very ending, where the action takes place off camera. We know what happens because of the sound and resulting events, but we cannot see what actually took place. Given The Ghost Writer is a film devoted to the things we do not see taking place and claims these have more importance than the things we do see, what better ending can such a film has?
Technical assessment:
First of all, it has to be said this is a quite poor Blu-ray presentation. The picture is not that bad, but it reveals many poorer production values such as over reliance on blue screen filming. Sound is not used as often as it should to enhance the viewing experience; you could have fooled me if you told me this was not a surround sound presentation.
It was also interesting to see how swear words were handled. You would hear the characters say one swear word but then see the subtitles report another instead. It seemed inconsistent, too, as there were still harsh words thrown about from time to time while on other occasions the harsher words were obviously dubbed over. In some parts of the film this was so frequent as to render the experience into a comedy. A pathetic attempt to reduce the film's rating in some countries?
Overall: This very well crafted Hitchcock replica makes it to the 3.5 out of 5 stars realm.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Feed by Mira Grant

Lowdown: Bloggers embedded in a presidential candidate campaign are up for a fight to uncover the truth in a zombie infested world.
Feed is the first of the five 2011 Hugo nominated books I got to read ahead of placing my vote. It won this honor by virtue of the RSS feed symbol on its cover: a book about bloggers has some distinct appeal with a guy who likes blogging himself. Feed happens to be another personal first, with it being the first proper zombie book I ever got to read (and I say “proper” because I regard Pride and Prejudice and Zombies as a practical joke). There are good reasons why I never delved into zombie infested lands thus far, so the question was – can a zombie book be a good enough for me to read? And, if it is, can it be a worthy Hugo candidate?
To its credit, Feed creates a very detailed zombie world. Set in 2040, it tells of a virus outbreak that occurred in our near future where the viral solutions for the common cold and the viral solution for cancer combined to create a new virus. This new virus is everywhere, but when people die it amplifies and turns them into zombies, zombies with a mission to spread the virus further. Thus Feed’s world is a world where death always lurks behind the corner.
In this world we follow a group of three bloggers led by Georgia, who tells us the story in first person. She tells us how the world reorganized itself to cope with the disease, and she does all that while telling us what goes on in her life at the moment – namely, how her group of bloggers are following a Republican presidential candidate as he campaigns across the country to get his party’s nomination to the White House. A lot happens during this campaign, most notably – zombies! Our three bloggers, there to report the news to the world, embedded style, find themselves the subject of news headlines.
The true story behind Feed is not the tale of our heros’ adventures with the undead, but rather what the story of a society living in constant fear of what is lurking just behind the corner can imply on our present real life society. The message there is quite similar to what George Romero has been trying to tell us in films like Land of the Dead; indeed, Feed does not shy away from its sources of inspiration, mentioning Romero several times and also crediting him for the name of the book’s hero. That message is all about societies living in constant fear, be it zombies in the case of the book or terrorists in our case. Through carefully detailed descriptions of security measures in the land of Feed we can detect what author Mira Grant wants us to think of things like TSA porno scanners at airports and other “security measures” that are there for the show only, aimed at creating the illusion of safety. She goes forth to demonstrate the potential dangers of societies driven by fear in a very convincing and relevant manner, true to how all well made science fiction is there to say something about the real world.
I guess my main problem with Feed lies with its detail level. Feed is so detailed it often feels tedious – great, another viral blood test! Extra layers of detail add depth to the book, but I will go out and say I think Feed would have been much better if it were half as thick on pages. I admit writing such a book, a book that toggles between the challenges of maintaining depth while keeping voltage levels constantly high, would be very hard. Nevertheless, as a critic I’m allowed to point at the book’s shortcomings; tedious descriptions that hurt the flow of reading are at the top of my list.
Feed is made ever more relevant through references to contemporary culture, including the gadget/Internet culture. Apple still dominates the technology world of Grant’s futuristic vision, only that instead of the iPhone 40 they’re making viral detection kits that never go wrong. More importantly, Feed delves deeply into questions of extreme social importance to our world today: news coverage and its role in maintaining a viable democracy. In particular, Feed looks at the clash between blogs and traditional media. That war is over by Feed’s time, with bloggers becoming the creators of news rather than mere reporters. The point, though, is that Feed explores this avenue and suggests detailed and well explained mechanisms for the way new age media could work, including the all important struggle for ratings.
Religion is also on the discussion board. Feed’s USA society is divided in two, those that lost their faith because of the zombie uprising and those who see the uprising as some sort of a trial or punishment from their deity of choice (in many respects, this is similar to Jews' crisis of faith as a result of the Holocaust). Again, this representation is only slightly more extreme than what is taking place in contemporary America’s culture wars. Throughout most of the book, Grant (through Georgia's character) seems to side on the side of the former. She does so at her peril, because it renders some of the main events in Feed quite predictable, but she also does so inconsistently: at the very end of the book we are back to politically correct statements of the type we hear from American directions all too often, a statement along the lines of “we can’t prove god doesn’t exist so it’s a 50-50 question and I just don't know”. No it’s not; I cannot prove there is no invisible dragon in my garage (to quote the detailed example Carl Sagan provided in Demon Haunted World), but that does not make that dragon’s existence is a 50-50 question. There is this thing called “probability”; we cannot disprove the dragon, but we can assume the probability of its existence is so close to zero we can safely ignore the possibility of its existence.
Last but not least: despite issues with predictability, Feed can still throw interesting plot twists here and there.
Alright: Having established Feed to be a book worth reading, I will now turn to the second question posed at the beginning of this post: Is Feed good enough to win a Hugo award? Now, if you were to wake me up in the middle of the night and ask me which books deserve a Hugo, I would mention the likes of Gateway and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. That is, books that really shook the foundation of science fiction literature; book with immense depth; books that any fan of literature should read regardless of whether they’re into sci-fi or not.
I cannot say that Feed is in the same league as these two. Nor is it in the same league of many other science fiction books that I cherish. However, upon waking up I have to admit the majority of Hugo winners are not Gateway or Harsh Mistress good; take last year’s The Windup Girl is an example there. The majority of winners are fine books, but not books that would shake literature foundations. Once I accept the reality that not every Hugo winner can be as great as I would have liked it to be, I have to acknowledge that Feed is a viable candidate. I would not be surprised if it ends up getting my top vote for best science fiction book of 2010.
Overall: I enjoyed this first step of mine into the [detailed] world of the living dead. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Added on 21/6/2011:
Another thing I forgot to mention with regards to Feed is the way the Internet is used to deal with one another in a society where personal contact is feared. Feed's Georgia has some online friends she trusts more than her parents even though she never met.
I liked this insight. It was easy to identify with: through blogging I have established friendships I regard very highly with people I am never likely to meet in person due to physical distance. I would say that's a very nice touch by Feed given contemporary proliferation of social media.

Further addition on 22/6/2011:
I also forgot to mention how the part where the zombie virus got spread through childcare facilities and schools touched a soft nerve here. Every winter we get the best of the viruses delivered to our home in the fastest way possible via childcare, so I can definitely identify with Feed's world.
In fact, by virtue of the fact I keep on thinking about the book, it has become clear to me that Feed deserves its rating boosted to 4 out of 5 stars. It is definitely going to receive my top vote for this year's best book in the Hugo awards.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Tron Legacy

Lowdown: A dude goes inside “computer world” to rescue his company/father/computer.
Back in 1982 there was a revolutionary yet bland film called Tron. It had people fantastically transported into the inside of a computer where the operating system and hardware worked in a very human civilization like way, putting the people in danger and creating a nice plot.
The trick with Tron was its use of state of the art computer graphics in order to create the inner computer world. I remember how Byte magazine, which I was reading at the time, celebrated the integration of computer graphics to this feature film with much bravado. Needless to say, by today’s standard those advanced graphics look pretty miserable.
Which is where Tron Legacy steps into the picture: it is an attempt to bridge the gap between 1982 and 2010 by filling in the story since, showing what happened to the characters while updating the technology. It certainly manages in the technology department by creating a very impressive looking film; it also very much fails in the story department, where we have ourselves yet another bland and totally forgettable Hollywood blockbuster.
Tron Legacy takes place in modern times, thirty years after the events of the former film took place. Jeff Bridges’ character from that old film has gone missing, leaving other characters – not as devoted to his ideals but rather money worshipers – to run the company for him. Indeed, they run a company that we’re obviously meant to hate and which is modelled half way between Apple and Microsoft.
Bridges’ son is the company’s biggest shareholder, but he’s not into business. All he does is break the company’s yearly release celebrations with some sort of a prank (you think they’d expect it by now, but they don’t). Interestingly, as a Linux user, I have to add the these pranks call for sharing software for free as means to make the world a better place – hooray!
The Linux story is not the main event, though. The main event is how the latest prank gets our childish hero to visit the insides of a computer the way his father did, learn what happened to his father, and on the way free computer world from a tyranny. Nothing is unlike the previous film, it’s all just enhanced for looks (including the token female characters, where the word “enhanced” is more than suitable when describing them).
As impressive as it may look, Tron Legacy fails to engage. Things start from the way the film fails to explain anything, totally relying on us being familiar with the previous Tron. Even the philosophical conflicts at its core, the struggle for perfection at all costs and the conflict between a creator and their creation, are conveyed in a manner rendering them irrelevant. Throw in some blatant and unashamed product placements (really, does Nokia still make mobile phones?) and Tron Legacy turns out to be the definition of an uninspiring sequel – “more of the same only bigger”.
Yet Tron Legacy's biggest failure is character development. Or perhaps, as a way to imitate the binary world of computing, we are meant to settle for binary style characters?
Worst scenes:
One of the key characters in Tron Legacy is computer made, meant to look the way Jeff Bridges did back in the eighties. It has been generated through computer graphics, in a manner not unlike Gollum was (that is, computer animation was applied over live footage of a person wearing a suit with sensors).
The problem is that this character looks awful. Viewers can appreciate an artificial character when it is clearly not human (e.g., Gollum); but when the character is meant to pass for human but clearly doesn't – it’s just not good enough – the effect is very creepy and distracting. Sadly, that is exactly what Tron Legacy delivers, especially when the character I’m talking about is at the center of the film.
Technical assessment: Presentation wise, this Blu-ray is second only to Avatar.
Overall: Lovely to the eyes and the ears, yet totally deflated as far as film art is concerned. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

City Heat

Lowdown: A private detective and his ex police partner battle crime and one another during prohibition days.
The main and probably only thought that passed through my head as I watched 1984’s City Heat is just how low I can go in order to watch a film with Clint Eastwood. This is the case because other than Eastwood’s taking part in it there is not much to be said on behalf of said film.
We follow a slick private detective (Burt Reynolds) and his past police partner (still with the police), Eastwood. Both are living and loving during American prohibition times. Character development is not on the agenda, though: all we know about them is that they currently hate one another yet both still stick up to a good cause when one shows up.
One does show up when a business partner of Reynolds’ gets involved with criminals, gets himself killed, and leaves the heritage for Reynolds to take care of. Eastwood joins the cause when a woman he cares for finds herself in danger as a direct result, and together our two heroes find themselves in the middle of a quarrel for supremacy between two criminal gangs.
The result makes City Heat one of those silly action comedies, only that it doesn’t work in the comedy department because you get the joke about Reynolds and Eastwood’s relationship very quickly. It doesn’t work in the action department either: things are just too silly to be tense.
It's kind of amazing to think a film like City Heat was made during the post Star Wars era, a film with nothing to offer other than star power. Well, at least the film's short. And it’s got Clint Eastwood.
Best scene:
The film starts at this small diner. Reynolds gets himself into a fist fight with some criminals, while Eastwood – who just happened to be there – won’t move a joint to help despite all the chaos around. That is, until one of the crooks spills his drink.
City Heat tries to repeat the joke several times later. It only works the first time around, though.
Overall: Put a tick next to another Eastwood film, but otherwise – totally redundant. 2 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Kogan Agora 7" Android Tablet

Lowdown: An Android tablet with impressive cost to features specs and many catches to boot.
Since the iPad first hit the streets a year and a bit ago tablets have prospered and multiplied. My main problem with them has been my inability to sincerely justify their existence: there is nothing they can do that I cannot do with other facilities at my disposal, and with all due respect to the iPad it's just too expensive for an impulse buy (not to mention the issues I have with Apple's closed garden approach, which I will leave aside for now). The cost concern has been recently subdued by Kogan, who now sell a tablet of their own (here). For $160, delivery included, I was able to put my hands on a tablet running Android 2.3.3 with specs more than resembling the Samsung Galaxy Tab P1000 7" tablet. That Samsung unit was selling in Australia for $1000 back when it was released, October 2010 (now you can get it for $400 if you know where to look); the Kogan, therefore, seemed like terrific value for money. The question was whether catches existed and how much. The purpose of this review is to try and answer that question.

The first catch revealed itself even before I put my hands on the unit. Kogan delivers its products through courier services, in our case Toll. We received email notification of the upcoming delivery, and because these couriers require someone to be home I coordinated a specific delivery date with them. However, I wasn't at all surprised to see the tablet left at my door step a day before the coordinated date, raising some questions about Toll's quality of service and liability in case something did happen to the unit.
Not a confidence inspiring start for Kogan when trying to satisfy customers approaching its products by looking for the catch.

Next it was time to unpack the unit and survey it. The first thing I noticed is that the Kogan tablet only accepts a non standard charger input: you cannot charge it via USB, which is a shame. It means you have to take an extra charger with you while travelling, and it also means you cannot charge it from a PC or a laptop. I asked Kogan whether anything can be done about this and received the following prompt reply via their email support:
There is no way to charge the tablet via USB. You will need to check with your local electronics store if they have a USB adapter with the charging plug.
The Kogan tablet does feature a mini HDMI output, and it can accommodate for a micro SD memory card (it accepted a 32GB card very willingly). In contrast to modern trends the unit has a mini USB input instead of the now more common micro USB, but it is a mighty USB connection indeed: it's a master USB connection, which means you can plug it to your external hard drives or flash drive. There aren't many other tablets that can do this, and Kogan even goes further by providing an adopter plug converting from mini USB to normal USB (thus allowing you to easily connect your flash drive).
Kogan does not supply a printed manual with its tablet. Instead you can download a two page quick start guide from their website here. They will also point you to Google's own Android 2.3 guide, but that guide is too generic to apply to all the specific settings implemented by Kogan on their tablet (read below for some examples).

Unit switching itself on and off:
Charging the unit for the first time, I couldn't avoid noticing the unit turning itself on every minute or two and then turning itself back off a few seconds later. I contacted Kogan's support again to receive the following reply:
The android platform is designed with 3G use in mind. Every now and then, the device may turn on briefly to check if there is 3g connectivity.
Indeed, it does seem as if the problem disappears when you switch the unit into airplane mode to make it stop looking for the 3G signal that is never there (the unit is wifi only). The problem is, though, that there is no way to disable 3G without disabling wifi, too (in contrast to our Nexus S Android phone, running the same Android version, where this is easily achieved).
The problem might sound minute but it is actually quite severe and, to my mind, indicates that a half baked product was released to market here. Think of the implications: you can let the unit turn itself on and off all the time at the price of waking you up in the middle of the night with constant flashes and at the price of severely draining the battery (my tests indicate these on/off sessions alone drain the battery that otherwise lasts about 5-6 hours of action over a day and a half of doing nothing).
You can also try doing something about the problem. You can switch the unit off altogether when you don't use it, but then you'd have to wait a minute or so every time you turn it on, losing the main advantage tablets have over PCs - instant turn on and instant Internet readiness. Or you can switch the unit into airplane mode when you stop using it and then switch it off airplane mode when you do: that's the compromise I chose to use by clicking the on/off button for two second, which brings up the airplane mode menu.
The fact this is a problem in the first place indicates how pathetic the tablet really is. Having to turn the wifi on and off manually all the time on a tablet is like having to empty the petrol tank on your car whenever you stop driving. As I said, the Agora tablet was clearly half baked.
Added on 20/6/11:
Further experiments make it clear that switching the unit to airplane mode does not solve the problem, and the Agora still continues to turn itself on and off. This phenomenon has huge impact on battery life: when I leave my Agora tablet on standby mode, the battery doesn't even last me a single day (regardless of how much I actually use it otherwise!).
It seems like the only viable solution is to fully switch the tablet off in between uses. The price is having to wait a long while for it to turn on later.
What poor design! Isn't it great to have Kogan treat its paying customers as if we are beta testers?

The screen:
Component wise, the key question about the Kogan Agora was always to do with the quality of its screen. How good a screen could Kogan source given the price tag on their unit? The answer, it seems, is "not that good". Although the unit sports a capacitive screen, it has a visible crisscross pattern of small squares all over it - nothing like the smooth and uniform screens of an iPad or an iPhone. The screen's reaction can be incredibly poor, especially when using virtual keyboards to type information in. The Agora's experience is a far cry from the quick typing I am used to on my iPhone and Nexus S: it's slow, it's error prone, and for some reason that eludes me the items at the bottom row of the virtual keyboard don't react too well. The result is that you wouldn't want to type much using the Kogan Agora, not even Twitter length text; the experience resembles medieval torture. It drove me crazy.
Still, the screen is not totally unusable. It displays videos fine (albeit in relatively low resolution) even if Kogan did not bother to supply a video playback app on the unit, and Angry Birds plays just fine.
Typing insensitivities are not the screen's only problem. The unit's orientation accelerometers are clearly of inferior quality to the ones in my iPhone: tilt the unit back slightly but quickly, say 30 degrees away from an upright start, and for a few seconds the Kogan Agora will think you tilted it by 180 degrees and turn the picture upside down. Occasionally it would go into a frenzy of switching the picture again and again until it relaxes a good few seconds later. To me this reads like poor quality components are in use.

Although running plain Android, the Kogan Agora comes with numerous applications pre-installed. These include Twitter and Facebook, to name but two examples. My problem with these pre-installed applications is that I cannot get rid of them even if I want to: as I personally don't see eye to eye with Facebook's approach to user privacy, I see no reason why their app should occupy space on my tablet.
I encountered some pretty inconsistent app behavior. I started by installing browsers to complement the default Android web browser. Firefox worked at first but later wouldn't even start, while Dolphin does start and will get me comfortably to my first page of choice but would not take me to any of the links I click on that first page. Given a tablet like this is supposed to act primarily as an easy gateway to the Internet, this is another severe issue with the Kogan Agora. Worse, it indicates towards a problem I thought I left behind when I stopped using Windows Mobile PDAs: the problem where doing the same thing again and again gives you different results every time for no apparent reason. I have never encountered such issues with my iPhone, nor have I encountered them on the Nexus S.
Flash does work on the Agora, but only to a limited extent. ABC's iView, for example, doesn't work; but the TinyShark app for playing Grooveshark contents, an app that relies on Flash being installed, works well. So does basic Flash functionality on the browser, such as some stuff on Flickr.
Skype was another catastrophic app experience. The Skype app would install but will earn me a lovely error message while trying to sign in, effectively meaning Skype is unusable on the Kogan. When I asked Kogan for help I got the following reply:
The Skype application is currently not supported. You will need to check with Skype to see when a new version is released that will be compatible.

VPN and rooting:
I use VPN services for various reasons, including - amongst others - to prevent others from eaves dropping on me when I use public wifi networks. The Kogan Agora, however, seems quite VPN unfriendly: whereas Android offers the facilities to set VPN up (as cited in Google's Android guide that Kogan refers to in its support facilities), the relevant menus seemed to have been removed from the Kogan. Kogan's had the following to say about VPN setup:
You will need to download an application to allow you to access this.
I figured that perhaps I will gain more control over the unit, including the retrieval of 3G suppression and VPN menus, by rooting it. The problem with the Kogan is that due to its nature - Kogan is not a big time manufacturer - I don't expect a community to form around the unit and provide rooting instructions to the public. I asked Kogan if they intend to do so themselves and received the following feedback:
We do not support rooting of the tablet and cannot provide any instructions on how to do so.

Sound and vision:
The Agora has a built in speaker that sounds the way I would expect a built in speaker to sound on such a unit. I tried connecting the Agora to my hi-fi via the Agora's headphone output only to find the unit's sound abysmal, by far the worst quality I got out of an MP3 player (and that includes my iPhone as well as cheap $20 players from Dick Smith).
Results from the unit's forward facing camera are pretty similar: the picture quality is quite bad. I can now start seeing how Kogan was able to supply a tablet for the price it did.

There can be no doubt the Kogan Agora tablet is cheap and nasty through and through. The question is whether it would be useful for whatever you had in mind for it.
If you wanted an Internet tool then you should forget about the Agora; it's pretty bad there.
If you wanted high quality entertainment then the Agora is probably not the device for you either. Nothing it delivers is delivered particularly well; everything is dominated by that cheap and nasty feel. Further, it is running an operating system intended for phones (as opposed to the newly released Honeycomb Android tablets that run an operating system designed for tablets). You feel that you're dealing with a twisted phone all the time.
Indeed, I will argue the Kogan Agora demonstrates the weakness of Google's strategy with Android: In my opinion, the only thing Google guarantees with the sale of units such as the Kogan Agora is that the next tablet its consumers will buy will be an iPad. Granted, they will pay more for the pleasure, but they will get a quality product.
However, there are niches where the Kogan Agora will do. I bought my unit primarily for my three year old, and he loves it: he likes using it for his games and videos while I like not having to care too much about him breaking a unit that did not cost me much and for which I cannot truly care otherwise. Between buying him a portable DVD player or the Kogan Agora, the tablet will always win.
Given the Kogan Agora can still deliver to a respectable niche, I can still give it 2 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Runaway Jury

Lowdown: Unconventional competition for the jury’s vote at a key trial.
Court dramas come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, but the common element with the majority is their focus on the main issue debated in the trial. Runway Jury tries to throw some new light at the genre by focusing its attention on how juror’s vote are won regardless of the trial’s subject matter.
Courtesy of author John Grisham, we witness an unconventional trial: a weapons company is sued for selling the guns that enables a murder to take place. Given this could set an unwelcome precedent for the gun industry, they open their coffers wide for the defence and hire a specialist (Gene Hackman) to “sort things out”. He starts by using high tech measures to survey potential jurors in order to map those he wants to sit the trial by following them in their daily lives with cameras and such. Yep, not the most credible start ever to a film.
The defense is not too far behind in its efforts, although it uses conventional measures to screen jurors. The trick comes when one of the jury members (John Cusack) offers to sell the jury’s vote to both sides and provides several examples of his ability to influence the rest of the jury to do things they wouldn’t normally do; he even manages that without them noticing his influence. Between the three sides of the debate, Hackman, Cusack (and his aid Rachel Weisz) and the state attorney set out to fix the world (Dustin Hoffman), us viewers need to decide who is crooker. Or rather, where is the justice in a modern day trial?
Runaway Jury is set at New Orleans. Released in 2003, those were the days before Katrina came for a visit, which gives the film a bit of a historical flare. Couple that with the large number of A list stars at hand and you would think that Runaway Jury should be a very good film; sadly, it is another case of high potential but poor delivery due to the American way of making films for the accounting department.
I lay the blame squarely at director Gary Fleder. Back in 1995 I quite liked his Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, but his work with Runaway Jury is the opposite of his earlier work’s cool pacing. Granted, he has to deal with a script of poor reliability that stretches things too far to be plausible, even for New Orleans. Still, there is no justification for treating your crowd like they’re dumb and making every scene flashy and bombastic to the point of making me think this was a Tony Scott film. It just feels like a concentration of cheap and nasty thrills instead of a film dealing with potent issues of morality that questions the very foundations of our justice system.
Worst scenes: For a film that prides itself on some high tech stuff, Runway Jury is grossly outdated. The mobile phones people use, or the "MP3 player" that plays and doesn't play a role in the film, are all museum pieces yet they were meant to impress.
Overall: Not the best scripted film ever, but definitely not as well made as it could have been. 2 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

The Book of Rachael by Leslie Cannold

Lowdown: The story of Jesus’ forgotten sister, Rachael.
A quick look at the books I normally read reveals my forte is with popular science, philosophy and science fiction. However, from time to time I like to stray into foreign fields to see what things are like outside my realm/comfort zone. The Book of Rachael is one such case, chosen specifically because it’s author – Leslie Cannold – easily wins my vote for best person on Twitter (as discussed at length here).
Cannold has won a lot of her fame with the public as a result of her feminist agenda, and The Book of Rachael mirrors the opinions she holds with much vigour. The story is told in first person from the mouth of Rachael, who happens to be the sister of Joshua (that guy who most of the world recognizes today as Jesus). Life in Israel at around the year 0 was tough, but it was even tougher for the females of our species given that at the time (and up until not that long ago) they were regarded more as their males’ property than as independent human beings.
We meet our Rachael as a girl still na├»ve in the ways of this world. Being exceptionally smart, our Rachael starts bumping into the walls of a society that wouldn’t recognize her for the talented person she is. Indeed, it doesn’t take long before her mother subdues her little child to a life of mopping floors. Yet things happen in Rachael's life; history happens. Her older sister is raped and then forced to marry the offender; Rachael has an appetite for learning despite the ban on women studying; she falls in love with a man (Judah, aka Judas); and then there’s the whole story with her brother Joshua. Carefully woven in between are all the narratives we read about from Cannold in her previous incarnation as a non fiction opinion article writer, like rape, abortion, and the right for women to have equal opportunities.
It’s hard for me to say it because of all the appreciation I hold for Cannold, but I had some hard times with The Book of Rachael. For the first half of the book I was not able to find myself identifying with the hero character to a level that would allow me to enjoy my reading; I felt like I’m reading as a favour to a person I greatly respect. Then there's the fact we know the story's end: we know how Joshua ended up, and we know that women did not win recognition of their humanity till way later than biblical times.
This impression of mine is in contrast to all of the book reviews I read elsewhere and to that of my wife’s, with whom I generally share fairly similar tastes: I can therefore only conclude the problem has to do with me being a male and thus less responsive to the issues affecting women. It is perfectly natural for me not to be able to identify to issues I never face, yet I will maintain that the perfect book should have been better at subduing this visitor into its world.
It is in the latter half of the book, where most of the “action” is packed, that I started properly enjoying myself. The Book of Rachael did grow on me, eventually. It felt like a war of attrition I was happy to lose: through its detailed and accurate descriptions of life at ancient Israel, in particular female life, this complex model of a world was created in my head. The Windup Girl, the 2010 Hugo and Nebula winner, achieved the same feat: it wasn’t the greatest story ever told, but it created such a strong impression of Bangkok in my head that it left more of a mark there than most other books, including books I had enjoyed much more. It is an undeniable pleasure to have such a detailed world created for me by any author, and in Rachael's particular case testimony to the long hours of research Cannold must have invested in writing this book. I can only hope she gets her return on investment for the effort, yet ours is a world that tends not to sympathize with depth.
While authenticity is great, it is interesting to note the fine lines where authenticity was broken in favour of popularity. Character names are a good indicator: Cannold opted not to refer to Jesus as Jesus, the name that is currently popular not because of its authenticity but due to the way the New Testament was translated to Greek before it was translated to other languages. Instead, she called the character Joshua. Yet Joshua is not the authentic name either: it is very likely that if he existed in the first place, Jesus would have been known to his mother as Yehoshua or Yeshua. Joshua is just the common direct English translation of these Hebrew names.
The story of Joshua/Jesus does come into focus in the further parts of The Book of Rachael. Cannold provides her own take on this story, which unlike the more popular one does not involve the supernatural and is perfectly plausible. Its characters are much better defined and explored: for example, you can clearly understand the entire Judah/Judas subplot and its tragedy. If anything, Cannold’s take will probably offend those who hold their faiths dearly with its depictions of the very mortal nature of Joshua and, more to the center of the book’s heart, his mother.
I would not call Cannold’s version disrespectful, though. I think it vastly superior, stronger, and offering much more to learn from. Instead of the thirst for blood that is at the core of the common explanation for Jesus dying for our sins, Cannold’s Jesus dies to honor the weaker of humans, most notably women. As reasons for self sacrifice are concerned, I would prefer Cannold’s every time.
Cannold uses the Jesus story to clearly demonstrate how a society that marginalizes its weaker participants suffers for this marginalization as a whole. That's a classic Cannold theme. I, however, reserve the right to regard The Life of Brian to still be the most accurate depiction of those ancient time’s events.
Overall: Rich, and ultimately quite rewarding. 3.5 out of 5 stars.